Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

Feb 06 2017

Why Are We Conscious?

Published by under Neuroscience

Dennet-Book 2017In Daniel Dennett’s latest book,From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, Dennett explores a number of issues surrounding consciousness. I have not yet completed the book and so may come back to it again, but wanted to discuss one topic that Dennett covers – why are we conscious in the first place?

Dennett makes a distinction between competence and comprehension. Competence is the ability to perform some task, while comprehension is understanding the task and the process. The former is unconscious, while the latter is conscious.

This touches on Chalmers’ “P-zombie” problem – if we can imagine an organism that can do everything a human does without experiencing its own existence (a philosophical zombie), then why did consciousness evolve at all? There are several possible solutions to this problem. The first is that humans were “designed” to be conscious by whatever agent made us. This introduces unnecessary elements and contradicts established science, so I think we can set that aside.

The second solution is that consciousness is an epiphenomenon. We don’t need to be conscious, but we evolved consciousness as an evolutionary accident. This may be true, but is unsatisfying as it just side-steps the question of what use is consciousness.

The third solution, which I find compatible with the evidence and compelling, is that consciousness is inherent to the functioning of our brains and brings with it specific advantages.

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230 responses so far

Feb 02 2017

What Is Normal?

normal-spider-flyOne of the main themes of this blog is metacognition – thinking about thinking. This is a critically important topic because much of our thinking is subconscious, or it is not explicit. This means we are not aware of exactly how our brains process information and come to certain conclusions or decisions. In fact, we may have false beliefs about how we arrive at our decisions.

Cognitive psychologists study how people think, and knowledge of this field can help us become more aware of the otherwise unrecognized assumptions or processes in our decision-making.

Take an apparently simple concept such as “normal.” What does it actually mean and how do we use this concept to think about the world? (“Normal” has a specific mathematical definition, as in “normal distribution,” but I am not talking about that here.) A dictionary definition might be, “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” This doesn’t quite tell us how we decide what is “normal.”

In medicine use of the term “normal” has fallen out of favor, because it is imprecise, and also because it may contain a moral judgment. We still use it when referring to numbers, such as normal blood pressure, but even then it is not conceptually precise. Normal may be different for different people in different situations. When we are making an effort to be clear in our language we will use terms such as “healthy” or “physiological” (which is distinguished from pathological).

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Dec 23 2016

Man Living with 10% of His Brain?

Published by under Neuroscience

hydrocephalus2Here is the title of a science new story from July 2016: A man who lives without 90% of his brain is challenging our concept of ‘consciousness’. This is an excellent example of horrible science news reporting. It is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a reporter does not adequately vet their story with actual experts.

These are the images from the original paper, which was published in 2007. They are quite impressive and I can see how a lay person might misinterpret them. I can see how a journalist might make assumptions about what they are seeing, and not even know enough to question those assumptions and therefore never asked the experts they interviewed the right questions.

In fact the journalist, Fiona MacDonald, got off on an irrelevant tangent about consciousness, even though this case reports has not implications for our understanding of the neurological basis of consciousness.

I was recently reminded of this case, and the bad reporting surrounding it, by a comment left on a previous blog of mine in which the commenter notes:

Furthermore the author noted, rightly that if a model of externalized consciousness was to be tested, we would have to look for anomalies, cases where the brain does not explain the mind. There has been a case recently where a man who retained only 10% of his brain by mass was found to function semi normally with an IQ of 75, a job, a wife and two kids.

So he was offering this case report as an anomaly which calls into question our model of consciousness.

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274 responses so far

Dec 22 2016

Mental Illness and Demonic Possession

A recent article by Emily Korstanje details the story of Nadia, an 18 year old girl from Saudi Arabia who suffered from depression. Her religious parents took her to a faith healer who, through dubious methods involving choking her until she passed out, concluded that her symptoms were the result of demonic possession.

Fortunately Nadia was able to break away from that healer and defy her parents, but she still faces a more difficult challenge – her society.

“They need to separate religion from psychology, especially for us women, who suffer from depression because of our shitty circumstances, or we cannot—and will not—get help,” Nadia sad. “Society also needs to be rid of this of shame toward mental illness and stop saying that people are weak or not perfect believers, or possessed! Spirituality is important but it doesn’t mean that you deny what is really going on because it will only get worse.”

In the past, before science helped us understand things like psychology and neuroscience, it is understandable that prescientific cultures would reach for superstition to explain mental illness and neurological disorders. They had no way of understanding what a seizure was, let alone schizophrenia. So they used what explanations they had at hand and decided that such individuals were possessed by evil spirits, or cursed, or were being punished by god or the gods.

It amazes me, however, that in the 21st century this still occurs. Now, with all the knowledge of modern neuroscience, there is no excuse for confusing a brain disorder with spiritual possession. Further, we do not need to look to third world countries to find example – this is still happening in modern industrialized nations.

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78 responses so far

Dec 05 2016

Westworld and Consciousness

westworld1The season finale of Westworld aired last night, a series based on a Michael Crichton book which was made into a 1973 film. I won’t give much away, so only very mild spoilers for those who haven’t seen it. I will say the last episode was probably the best of the season.

The basic premise of the book/film/series is that it takes place in a futuristic theme park in which guests can visit the old west populated by robots that are there solely for their pleasure.  They exist to lose gunfights, for sexual pleasure, to be victims or fill whatever role the guests want, and then be recycled to run through their plot loop all over again.

The HBO series uses the story line as an opportunity to explore the basic question of sentience. The robots are hyperrealistic. Unless you cut them open, you cannot tell them from a living human. They are extremely realistic in their behavior as well.

The robots clearly have a very advanced form of artificial intelligence, but are they self-aware? That is a central theme of the series. They have complex behavioral algorithms, they can reason, they express the full range of human emotions, and they have memory. They are kept under control largely by wiping their memory each time they are repaired, so that they don’t remember the horrible things that were done to them.

Some of the robots, however, start to break out of their confines. They “feel” as if they are trapped in a recurring nightmare, and have flashes of memory from their previous loops.

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60 responses so far

Oct 18 2016

The Hawthorne Effect Revisited

Published by under Neuroscience

It’s always more complicated than you think. If there is one overall lesson I learned after 20 years as a science communicator, that is it. There is a general bias toward oversimplification, which to some extent is an adaptive behavior. The universe is massive and complicated, and it would be a fool’s errand to try to understand every aspect of it down to the tiniest level of detail. We tend to understand the world through distilled narratives, simple stories that approximate reality (whether we know it or not or whether we intend to or not).

Those distilled narratives can be very useful, as long as you understand they are simplified approximations and don’t confuse them with a full and complete description of reality. Different levels of expertise can partly be defined as the complexity of the models of reality that you use. It is also interesting to think about what is the optimal level of complexity for your own purposes. I try to take a deliberate practical approach – how much complexity do I need to know?

The Hawthorne Effect

The distilled narrative of what is the Hawthorne Effect is this – the act of observing people’s behavior changes that behavior. The name derives from experiments conducted between 1924 and 1933 in Western Electric’s factory at Hawthorne, a suburb of Chicago. The experimenters made various changes to the working environment, like changing light levels, and noticed that regardless of the change, performance increased. If they increased light levels, performance increased. If they decreased light levels, performance increased. They eventually concluded that observing the workers was leading to the performance increase, and the actual change in working conditions was irrelevant. This is now referred to as an observer effect, but also the term Hawthorn Effect was coined in 1953 by psychologist J.R.P. French.

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Oct 04 2016

Review – Brain Training Games Don’t Work

brain-gamesYesterday I wrote about the literature on so-called “power poses” – the notion that adopting certain poses make you feel more confident and powerful, and therefore change your behavior in certain ways that may be advantageous. Over the last decade psychologists have built up a literature which they claim supports the conclusion that power poses work.

However, a reanalysis of the data suggests that the evidence is flimsy, and in fact may be entirely an illusion created by p-hacking (essentially, loose research methodology).

The primary proponent of power poses, Amy Cuddy, has already built a career on the idea, topped off with a popular TED talk, and so far is sticking by her conclusion. Meanwhile, one of her coauthors, Dana Carney, has already jumped ship and stated publicly she does not think the power pose effect is real.

Brain Training

Today I am going to tell a very similar story, this time about brain training games. Over the last decade psychologists have built up a literature which they claim supports the conclusion that playing certain “brain games” will make you smarter in general, and may even stave off dementia.

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20 responses so far

Oct 03 2016

Doubt About Power Poses

powerpose1underwoodIn 2012 psychologist Amy Cuddy gave a TED talk about “power poses.” This was the result of her recent research, which found that adopting “expansive” postures, such as standing with your hands on your hips, makes you feel more powerful, and this feeling translates into action, such as taking more risks.

Cuddy and her coauthors are serious psychological researchers, but the result was pop-psychology and self-help gold. The self-help industry in particular loves tricks that they can argue will help people succeed at some goal. This is because the public wants the tricks – the easy shortcut that can reach a goal without all the hard work or that can give you an edge over others.

But of course we have to ask the hard question: is the effect real?

Power Poses and P-Hacking

Recently one of Cuddy’s coauthors, Dana Carney, published a statement in which she details why she no longer believes that the power pose effect is real. (There are a number of individual effects here, including internal psychological changes, behavioral changes, and outcome changes, but for brevity I will simply refer to power poses, also called expansive postures, and the power pose effect.)

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8 responses so far

Aug 18 2016

Diagnosing Mental Illness in Presidential Candidates

Published by under Neuroscience

trump-duh-e1453305835771CBS News Sunday Morning contributor Nancy Giles says that, in her opinion, Donald Trump is “clinically insane.” I have to wonder how “clinically insane” is different from regular “insane.”

I think the implication here is that this is a real psychiatric diagnosis of insanity, and not just a colloquial use of the word, like “that’s crazy.” Giles is implying that Trump has a mental illness, not just that she vehemently disagrees with his attitudes and temperament.

Meanwhile, there are conspiracy theories on the right about Clinton’s health and her “bizarre behavior,” with wild speculations about seizures and Parkinson’s disease.

A recent editorial on Medscape Psychiatry by Nassir Ghaemi asks a very interesting question, Is Psychoanalyzing Our Politicians Fair Game?

Armchair vs Professional

There is a range of behaviors going on here, and to some extent they need to be considered separately. Ghaemi was writing exclusively about psychiatrists (and to some extent psychologists) and their duties to patients, the profession, and as citizens.

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18 responses so far

Aug 12 2016

Augmented Reality and Mental Workload

fNIIRSVirtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications are already here, but they still have not hit the steep part of the curve. We appear to be right at the beginning. We are about to experience the rapid adoption and experimentation with this new technology, and it will be interesting to see what applications become popular, and how people end up using these technologies. This is like predicting prior to the iPhone what smart phone apps will be popular.

For background, VR involves wearing goggles that fill your entire field of vision, so that you appear to occupy an entirely virtual world. When you physically move your head, your virtual perspective changes accordingly, so you can actually look around your virtual world.  Wearable devices like gloves are used to manipulate the virtual world.

Augmented reality is similar, but instead of immersive goggles you wear transparent glasses (like Google Glass) or use a handheld device with a camera (like Pokemon Go) which overlays virtual information onto the real world.

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