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Posts Tagged ‘Consciousness’

Synaptic Gasp
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Am really enjoying Antonio Damasio‘s latest book, “Self Comes to Mind” covering underlying brain/body mechanisms of consciousness.  Here’s a quote from Chapter 1 that I thought resonates with this blog:

Placing the construction of conscious minds in the history of biology and culture opens the way to reconciling traditional humanism and modern science, so that when neuroscience explores human experience into the strange worlds of brain physiology and genetics, human dignity is not only retained but reaffirmed.

The main gist of this blog (I hope) is to understand how our genomes may provide each of us with assistance in our inward-looking self-explorations.  Hopefully this inward-looking journey ends not with a list of “risk-for-this”, “risk-for-that” but a greater sense of connection to other human beings, the environment and human evolutionary history.

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In his new movie, former Harvard psychology professor turned spiritual teacher Ram Dass (Dr. Richard Alpert), hails us to, “love everybody and tell the truth”.

Tell the truth.  Not only a great rule to live by, but one of the things that I’ve always loved about science … its a way to discover and face the objective “truth” as separate from our subjective wants and wishes.

Take the latest scientific data on happiness.  I mean, from a – scientific point of view – what really makes us happy? Daniel Gilbert (another) Harvard psychology professor has published a research article entitled, “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind” [doi:10.1126/science.1192439].  The researchers used a cool mobile web application trackyourhappiness.org to collect:

an unusually large database of real-time reports of thoughts, feelings, and actions of a broad range of people as they went about their daily activities. …  The database currently contains nearly a quarter of a million samples from about 5000 people from 83 different countries who range in age from 18 to 88 and who collectively represent every one of 86 major occupational categories. … what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing. …  The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost. (the figure from the paper shows the happiness scores of mind wandering vs. not wandering)

As covered very nicely in the NY Times, it turns out that when folks’ minds were engaged in focused activities, they were happier as compared to when their minds were wandering.  So, it seems that scientific data support the ancient teachings (and Dass’ 1971 book) to Be Here Now!

Here’s the new movie clip found on RamDass.org:

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signaling (animated)
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One thing I’ve learned doing yoga is that introspection – like the postures – takes a lot of practice.

Here’s a pointer to a great new science article on the basic brain biology of introspection, or “thinking about thinking”.  The article, Relating Introspective Accuracy to Individual Differences in Brain Structure by Fleming et al., describes experiments where participants had to (a) make a rather difficult perceptual observation and then (b) self-report how confident they were in that judgment.  From the introduction …

Our moment-to-moment judgments of the outside world are often subject to introspective interrogation. In this context, introspective or “metacognitive” sensitivity refers to the ability to discriminate correct from incorrect perceptual decisions, and its accuracy is essential for the appropriate guidance of decision-making and action.

… sounds a lot like the way people describe meditation as being an active or “aware” state where (a) very basic perceptual information (sounds, feelings, vibrations) are (b) seamlessly coupled, labeled or processed with more abstract and/or deeper thoughts.  As Thomas Metzinger suggests in his book, The Ego Tunnel, the ability to become “aware” of early sensory perceptions is an important aspect of understanding the so-called “real world” as opposed to the world that our ego, or conscious mind normally builds for us.  Metzinger points to Paul Churchland‘s ideas on “eliminative materialsm” as emphasizing the importance of (a) early sensory experience and its (b) coupling with introspective abilities.  Churchland’s ideas (from p53 in Metzinger’s book):

“I suggest then, that those of us who prize the flux and content of our subjective phenomenological experience need not view the advance of materialist neuroscience with fear and foreboding.” … “Quite the contrary.  The genuine arrival of a materialist kinematics and dynamics for psychological states and cognitive processes will constitute not a gloom in which our inner life is suppressed or eclipsed, but rather a dawning, in which its marvelous intricacies are finally revealed – most notably, if we apply [it] ourselves, in direct self-conscious introspection.”

Churchland’s notion of a revelation of our true inner lives (via an understanding of sensory processes) – loosely – reminds me of some of the ancient yogic notions of a gap between the “real” world and our everyday “mental” world.  These notions are a core of yoga spirituality.  As covered in-depth by Mircea Eliade in Yoga: Immortality and Freedom:

For Samkhya and Yoga the problem is clearly defined.  Since suffering has its origins in ignorance of “Spirit” – that is,  in confusing “Spirit” with psychomental states – emancipation can be obtained only if the confusion is abolished. (p14)   …   Yoga accepts God, but we shall see that Patanjali does not accord him very much importance.  The revelation is based on knowledge of the ultimate reality – that is, on an “awakening” in which object completely identifies itself with subject.  (The “Self” “”contemplates” itself;  it does not “think” itself, for thought is itself an experience and, as such, belongs to praktri.)(p29)

So it seems that both the ancient yogis and some modern scientists suggest that there is indeed a gap between the way the world really “is” and the way we “think” about it.  To close this gap, it may help to train ourselves to the difference between “contemplating” – which emphasizes basic sensory information (listening, feeling, etc.) – rather than just “thinking” about stuff.  I think this aspect of our mental life may be, in part, what Churchland is emphasizing and also is one of the most basic tenets of vipassana meditation.

Just focus on the basic sensory perceptions … live in this moment!

The brain scientists who performed the research on the relation of (a) basic sensory perceptual processes to (b) judgments of its accuracy used brain imaging to examine correlations in brain structure (gray matter volume and white-matter integrity) with performance on the (a) and (b) tasks and found a number of brain regions in the very front of the brain that were correlated with “introspective ability” (more on the science here).  I wonder if they were thinking of mediation when they wrote:

This raises the tantalizing possibility of being able to “train” metacognitive ability by harnessing underlying neural plasticity in the regions that we identify here.

I suppose a few old ascetic yogis out there might have chuckle at the thought of a western “training program” (just 10 minutes a day, no batteries required etc.) … methinks it takes practice – A LOT of practice!

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animated Young experiment demonstration, animo...
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A few weeks ago my guru passed along a video entitled, “What the BLEEP Do We Know” / “Down the Rabbit Hole” which explores the so-called Double-slit experiments.  In these experiments, it was found that single photons were able to travel through 2 separate slits simultaneously – thus violating all manner of physical laws (how the heck can an object be in two places at the same time?).  Furthermore, it was found that whenever the experimenters (reviewed here) were able to observe, detect, or deduce, which slit a photon travelled through, the typical “dual slit” interference pattern (shown here) instantly disappeared.

Strangely, it seems that interference patterns seem to appear only when a photon’s path is unknown.  Even weirder is that when 2 photons are sent to separate detectors, they seem to “know” whether one-another will generate a specific interference pattern.  This so-called phenomena of “quantum entanglement” and other such examples of spooky action-at-a-distance where 2 separate “widely separated objects share the same existence”  have spawned all manner of new-agey and spiritual endeavors to link these quantum-level phenomena with human spirituality.  Here’s just one example.

A recently published research article entitled, “How much free will is needed to demonstrate nonlocality?” explores the relationship between quantum entanglement and human thought.  According to Technology Review,

“if an experimenter lacks even a single bit of free will then quantum mechanics can be explained in terms of hidden variables. Conversely, if we accept the veracity of quantum mechanics, then we are able to place a bound on the nature of free will.”

Bounds on free will?  Apparently so – if you follow the quantum physics.  Is this a way to think about, or perhaps scientifically validate, the notion of karma?  Perhaps only in a general way – that our thoughts and actions are somehow bounded by the consequences of our choices and experiences as well as the choices and experiences of others in the present and past.

I’m not  free, but happily inter-connected.

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left parietal lobe(red) and corpus callosum, d...
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The brain and mind changes that come with extensive yoga practice seem to increase inner awareness and – as many practitioners report – towards a more “spiritual” awareness.  What is this? … in terms of specific brain systems? One recent research article,  “The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence” has much to say on the types of brain systems that are engaged when we are experiencing connections to each other, our inner selves and other deeper, broader perspectives.

The researchers measured the self-transcendence scores of individuals before and after the removal of brain tissue (gliomas) in various parts of the brain – specifically the posterior parietal cortex.  It was interesting that the – removal – of certain areas of the brain resulted in – higher – scores for self-transcendence.  Perhaps this suggests that the effort made in yoga – to silence and still our mental processes – might have a roughly analogous effect of taking certain brain areas “offline”?  Could this be what is happening in yoga and meditation? – a quieting of the posterior parietal cortex?  Much to ponder and explore.

Combining pre- and post-neurosurgery personality assessment with advanced brain-lesion mapping techniques, we found that selective damage to left and right inferior posterior parietal regions induced a specific increase of self-transcendence. Therefore, modifications of neural activity in temporoparietal areas may induce unusually fast modulations of a stable personality trait related to transcendental self-referential awareness.

It is relevant that the posterior parietal cortex is involved in the representation of different aspects of bodily knowledge.  Lesions of the left posterior parietal cortex induce selective deficits in the representation of the spatial relationships between body segments and delusions regarding body parts occur after lesions centered on the right temporoparietal cortex. Furthermore, illusory localization of the self into the extrapersonal space has been reported in patients with left (heautoscopic phenomena) and right temporoparietal damage (out-of-body experiences). Thus, we posit that the reduction of neural activity in the temporoparietal cortex during spiritual experiences may reflect an altered sense of one’s own body in space.

A great review of this article and the psychological assessments used to quantify “self-transcendence” can be found at NeuroWhoa! and also at Neurophilosophy.

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Yoke
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As I’ve mentioned, I’m a new yoga student – very new – very, very far away from the archetypal, experienced yoga practitioners one often sees in books and videos (ok, maybe not these guys).   I’m inspired, and do realize the journey will be a long one.   However, is the journey a straight path?   Does it have twists and turns?  What IS the endpoint anyway? and how do I know I’m there?

According to Patanjali‘s yoga sutras:

“Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness”  (I.2  yogah cittavritti nirodhah).

This is echoed in David Gordon White’s The Alchemical Body (Chapter 9):

Reduced to its simplest terms, yoga (“yoking”) is concerned with impeding movement, with the immobilization with all that is mobile within the body.

Ultimate stillness.  The kind demonstrated by the elderly yogi who was able to voluntarily slow his heart for 8 days (covered here).   So this is where the practice ends – in physical and mental stillness – awareness with stillness. 

More compassionate?  More patient?  Healthier? Perhaps this comes with the stillness?  My gut and experience so far says yes, this is where I want to go.  Not to withdraw from life, my family and friends like a lone yogi on a mountaintop, but to acquire a more peaceful and patient disposition that helps myself and others to better cope with life’s twists and turns.

However, David Gordon White’s The Alchemical Body suggests that the pathway is anything but a straight downhill ride to samadhi.   There are myriad natural bodily desires and mental tendencies that push against this pathway, making it an arduous journey where the student can be bucked sideways while fighting against the tide.  As DGW interprets the ancient texts in Chapter 9:

One first immobilizes the body through the postures; next one immobilizes the breaths through diaphragmatic retention; one then immobilizes the seed through the “seals” [bhandas]; and finally one immobilizes the mind through concentration on the subtle inner reverberations of the phonemes.

What a difficult, even heroic undertaking the immobilization of the body constitutes, yet what fantastic results it yields!  For immobilization leads to reversal, reversal to transformation, and transformation is tantamount to bodily immortality and, precisely, to the [supposed] supernatural ability to transform, reverse, or immobilize whatever one desires in the physical world (siddhi).

Reversal?  Transformation?  Much to explore here in the years to come.

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Shakti
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Some of the most epic and beautiful of the yoga sutras are found in the final book IV.  One of them popped into mind when I came across a recent neuroscience report entitled, “Predicting Persuasion-Induced Behavior Change from the Brain” by Emily Falk and colleagues at the Department of Psychology at the  University of California, Los Angeles.  [DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0063-10.2010].  Here, a research team asks if there are places in the brain that encode future – yes, future actions.  More specifically, they asked 20 volunteers to lay in an MRI scanner and listen/view a series of messages on the benefits and importance of sunscreen.  Then, 1-week later, they inquired about the frequency of sunscreen use.  It turns out that sunscreen use did increase (suggesting the subjects read the messages), but more interestingly, that there were correlations in brain activity (in several regions of the brain) with the degree of increased sunscreen use.  That is, some individuals recorded a bit of brain activity that predicted their future use of sunscreen.

Very neat indeed!  although, there are likely many reasons to remain skeptical.  This is because the brain is a very complex system and, with so much going on inside, its likely anyone could find correlations in activity with any-old “something” and “some area of the brain” if they looked hard enough.  In this article however, the authors had preselected their brain regions of interest – the medial frontal cortex and the precuneus – since another group had shown that activity in these regions were able to predict future actions (on the order of a few seconds).  Thus, the research team was not looking for any willy-nilly correlation, but for a specific type of interaction between the brain and future action (this time on the order of weeks).

The particular ancient sutra that may have some poetic tie-ins here is IV.12 atita anagatam svarupatah asti adhvabhedat dharmanam “the existence of the past and future is as real as that of the present.  As moments roll into movements which have yet to appear as the future, the quality of knowledge in one’s intellect and consciousness is affected.”

Might there be neural traces predicting one future actions?  This research makes it seem possible.  Are these traces accessible to ordinary folks or advanced meditators?  Who knows.  As always, the joy lies in trying to find out and trying to reach ever deeper states of harmony and unity.  One thing I found intriguing was that the research team picked the medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus because these brain regions,

“are reliably co-activated across a host of “self” processes and the extent to which people perceive persuasive messages to be self-relevant has long been thought to play a part in attitude and behavioral change”.

Certainly, when something feels relevant to “me” and reinforces my own “self” image, I’m more prone to remember and act upon it.  Yoga, for example! I hope I’m encoding signals now that will predict my attendance in class this week!

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