Robert Sapolsky can tell stories about the biological effects of stress as well as anyone. In this short video, he reveals that a chair upholsterer discovered the dangers of having a Type A personality.
It may surprise people who know me that I am not completely anti-gun. It seems like something I might be. I don’t like loud noises and I don’t like violence, and killing hurts me. I have to avert my eyes form a lot of TV and movies. But the gun thing is no longer simple for me. The last time I was stridently anti-gun was while lecturing my father about the dangers of guns. He happened to be holding off a midnight intruder with a hammer and wanted me to go get his gun. I was a senior in high school and I knew everything and I refused . . .
At Edge.org, Neuroscientist David Eagleman points out some of the many ways human animals are conflicted. According to Eagleman, “The elegance of the brain lies in its inelegance.” This conflictedness is one of the main ways that the brain is not like a desktop computer, which is programmed to follow the code given to it, without internal conflict. Computers don’t struggle over whether to eat cake:
The deep and beautiful trick of the brain is more interesting: it possesses multiple, overlapping ways of dealing with the world. It is a machine built of conflicting parts. It is a representative democracy that functions by competition among parties who all believe they know the right way to solve the problem. As a result, we can get mad at ourselves, argue with ourselves, curse at ourselves and contract with ourselves. We can feel conflicted. These sorts of neural battles lie behind marital infidelity, relapses into addiction, cheating on diets, breaking of New Year’s resolutions—all situations in which some parts of a person want one thing and other parts another.
Eagleman then takes a look under the hood. Memory, for instance, comes in two flavors. Most everyday memories are consolidated by the hippocampus. Emotion-laden memory, though, is stored “along an independent, secondary memory track” that have a unique quality to them; the amygdala is in charge of those. These two types of memory are so different that Eagleman declares that “unity of memory is an illusion.”
There are also two versions of decision-making.
[S]ome are fast, automatic and below the surface of conscious awareness; others are slow, cognitive, and conscious. And there’s no reason to assume there are only two systems; there may well be a spectrum.
This division of decision-making into two basic types comports with Daniel Kahneman’s bifurcation in his most recent book, Thinking: Fast and Slow.
What other conflicts are there in the brain? Eagleman notes that even “basic sensory functions” like the detection of motion are determined in the brain by “neural democracy,” thanks to the existence of several distinct neural mechanisms. The two hemispheres of the brain, left and right, compete. We know this from the famous split brain experiments.
There are other internal conflicts I could add. We are all subject to massive conflicts of interest. Who wins when we are conflicted? Me or society? Present me or future me? My appetite or my intellect? The part of me that wants to take chances or the me that prefers to stay the course? Somehow, despite all of our inner conflicts many of us get along well enough . . .
Note: Eagleman’s short article was his response to the 2012 Annual Question of Edge.org: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?
Bad news from Scientific American: We all produce marijuana-like chemicals in our brains. Therefore, all of us need to turn ourselves in and spend time in prison.
[Marijuana] is also something everyone is familiar with, whether they know it or not. Everyone grows a form of the drug, regardless of their political leanings or recreational proclivities. That is because the brain makes its own marijuana, natural compounds called endocannabinoids (after the plant’s formal name, Cannabis sativa).
For some serious criticism of the alleged “war on drugs,” see this recent post.
In the December, 2010 edition of Discover Magazine, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio sets forth his understanding of human consciousness. Damasio has recently published a new book on this topic, Self Comes to Mind. Here’s a short excerpt from page 66 of his deeply thought-provoking article at Discover (not available yet online):
Conscious minds result from the smoothly articulated operation of several, often many, brain sites. The ultimate consciousness product occurs from those numerous brain sites at the same time and not in one site in particular, much as the performance of a symphonic piece does not come from the work of a single musician or even a whole section of an orchestra. The oddest thing about the upper reaches of a consciousness performance is the conspicuous absence of a conductor before the performance begins, although as the performance unfolds, a conductor comes into being. For all intents and purposes, a conductor is now leading the orchestra, although the performance has created the conductor–the self–not the other way around. Building a mind capable of encompassing one’s lived past and anticipated future, along with the lives of others added to the fabric and the capacity for reflection to boot, resembles the execution of a symphony of Mahlerian proportions. But the true marvel is that the score and the conductor become reality only as life unfolds. The grand symphonic piece that is consciousness encompasses the foundational contributions of the brainstem, forever hitched to the body, and the wider-than-the-sky imagery created in the cooperation of cerebral cortex and sub cortical structures, all harmoniously stitched together, is ceaseless forward motion, interruptible only by sleep, anesthesia, brain dysfunction, or death.
Damasio, well known for his groundbreaking work in his early book, Descartes’s Error, takes special care to describe the complexity of the mind, the marvel of this emergence of consciousness, and he specifically points out the importance of the emotions for a thorough understanding of consciousness:
Emotions are complex, largely automated programs of actions concocted by evolution. The actions are carried out in our bodies, from facial expressions and postures to changes in viscera and internal millieu. Feelings of emotion, on the other hand, are composite perceptions of what happens in our body and mind when we are emoting. As far as the body is concerned, feelings are images of actions rather than actions themselves. While emotions are actions accompanied by ideas and certain modes of thinking, emotional feelings are mostly perceptions of what our bodies do during the emoting, along with perceptions of our state of mind during that same period of time.
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Brains are so incredibly complex that scientists struggle to express the complexity in words. But this visual reconstruction of the synapses in a mouse somatosensory cortex (sensitive to the stimulation of a whisker) is worth at least a thousand words. Enjoy the journey downward, thanks to the work of the Stanford Medical School.
Meet the new effort to map the wiring of the human brain. The brain connectome “offers a unique opportunity to understand the complete details of neural connectivity. The Human Connectome Project (HCP) is a project to construct a map of the complete structural and functional neural connections in vivo within and across individuals.” Do check out the images at the link location.
How is it that some of us are so highly creative? Doctor (and musician) Charles Lamb is a scientist who studies musical improvisation using fMRI scans, and he has developed theories that apply to all forms of creativity. The subjects were asked to play written music and then to improvise using a mini-keyboard while they were jammed into an fMRI scanners. The brain works very differently when it improvises. It appears that an area of the brain involved in self-monitoring turning off and an area that is autobiographical/expressive turning on. His hypothesis is that the latter area needs to shut off so that we are not inhibited and we are not afraid to make mistakes.
Lamb found that when jazz musicians were “trading fours” taking turns improvising four-bar sections, their language areas of the brain lit up (11:30).
He also did an experiment regarding free-style hip hop rap music by putting a rapper into an fMRI machine, performing a pre-written tune and a free-style session. When free-style is being done, visual and motor coordination areas light up.
PZ Myers has offered eight fairly solid reasons for not believing in god. Here is number 8:
There are always better explanations for unexplained phenomena than god: fraud and faulty sensory perception cover most of the bases, but mostly, if I see a Madonna appear in a field to bless me, the first thing I’d suspect is brain damage. We have clumsy, sputtering, inefficient brains that are better designed for spotting rutabagas and triggering rutting behavior at the sight of a curvy buttock than they are for doing math or interpreting the abstract nature of the universe. It is a struggle to be rational and objective, and failures are not evidence for an alternative reality. Heck, we can be fooled rather easily by mere stage magicians; we don’t need to invent something as elaborate as a god to explain apparent anomalies.
I would tweak this eighth response. I don’t think most believers have a generally malfunctioning ability to perceive, and I wouldn’t attribute their willingness to believe to fraud, at least not fraud in any traditional use of that word (where intent to deceive is key).
Rather, I suspect that the elaborate hyper-sensitive cognitive machinery that allows us to detect potential allies and facilitates the formation of social bonds with them is rigged to dim the perceptual abilities of 90% of us, based on perceived threats to social relationships we value. Thus, as I see it, the perceptual machinery isn’t completely broken. Rather, it dims only when competing social cravings slap the “toxic” label on evidence that seems to be inconvenient to the formation or maintenance of a social group. This cognitive function dims our abilities to see and hear based on whether the things we might see or hear could damage treasured social relationships. It seems as though some sort of rough and ready mini-brain screens the world for our bigger better brain (at least in 90% of us). That mini rough and ready brain functions as a paranoid secretary who won’t let calls come through to the boss because the secretary is over-protective.
I discuss the connections between social cravings and inability to appreciate evidence, as well as some of the science that guides me in my views, in a series of posts I titled “Mending Fences.”