Sunday, April 30, 2006

A new brain module for understanding whole words

While it has been known that rapidly comprehending whole words activates an area called the visual word form area (VWFA), the same area is also activated by faces and objects. Gaillard et al have now shown that this area is indispensable for reading whole words, but not faces and objects. In an operation for severe epilespy, they removed a small area near the VWFA. The patient now required 900 milliseconds rather than 600 milliseconds to recognize a three letter word, suggesting a transition from reading the whole word to reading letter by letter.

What is curious is that a task invented only about 6,000 years ago, understanding whole words as entities instead of letter by letter, apparently requires a dedicated brain area. Since this is a very short time for genetic changes that might enable such an area, it seems more likely that this specialzed area forms during language development in each individual as a solution to the problem of rapidly processing written text.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Paomnnehal Pweor Of The Hmuan Mnid

I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdgnieg.

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.


Inhibiting Negative Emotions - Opps!, A simple story evaporates

Numerous studies from Davidson's laboratory and others have shown that deliberately suppressing negative affect correlates with increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (and vice versa). The idea has been that the more modern thinking and interpreting prefrontal cortex feeds down to inhibit the amygdala, the center of emotional reactivity in our more primitive mammalian brain. Most of this work was done on college students or younger people. Urry et al now find that older subjects, 62-64 years of age, can suppress negative affect without a corresponding increase in prefrontal activation. In a supplement they offer reasons for the discrepancy. It is very hard to walk away with any kind of clean message now, a situation not helped by the fact that this is one of the most poorly written jargon laden papers I have ever tried to wade through. The senior authors should have paid more attention to what they were putting their name on.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Brain's Reward Pathway Involved in Mood Disorders

A recent Science article by Berton et. al. shows that long lasting fearful and withdrawal behaviors that are induced in mice by bullying and intimidation are enabled by a nerve growth factor (BDNF, brain derived neurotrophic factor) acting in the mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway in the brain. When a genetic trick is used to knock out DBNT production in just this area, mice are no longer intimidated by bullies. Elsewhere in the brain BDNF is associated with an opposite effect, antidepressant actions. The authors point out that the brain's reward system has been slighted in research on emotional disorders, even though the inability to experience rewarding feelings is a hallmark of depression and emotional withdrawal.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Self-Help Scam

In the May 2006 issue of The Scientific American, Michael Shermer (publisher of Skeptic magazine) argues that the Self-Help and Actualization Movement (SHAM), an $8.5 billion-a-year business, is a scam. He notes the recent book by Steve Salerno, "SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless (Crown Publishing Group, 2005). There is an eighteen week rule: the most likely customer for a self help book is someone who bought a similar book with the preceeding eighteen months. If the books worked, why would one need further help? A bulletproof shield surrounds SHAM: if your life does not get better, it is your fault, your thoughts were not positive enough. The solution? More of the same self-help. SHAM books market a clever mix of victimization and empowerment. We are all victims of our demonic "inner children" replaying negative tapes. Redemption comes from empowering yourself with the new "life script" offered by the self-help book or by the masters themselves at prices ranging from $500 to $6,000. Unfortunately there is no evidence that any of the SHAM techniques is better than doing something else or even doing nothing (the same problem is faced by virtually all therapies).

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Our inability to cope with what empirical data show us to be true about how our minds work...

I get frustrated when I try to reconcile what I know from empirical data to be true about my self (see the "I-Illusion" essay on this website) with the common sense feeling of agency and responsibility that we are share.

Our commonsense conceptions of ourselves have co-evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, along with their physiological, homeostatic, neuroendocrine, and limbic emotional correlates. This whole complex (us, that is) can be upset by facing what it can come to know to be true about the impersonal physical processes that actually run our show, finding it impossible to integrate its 'illusory' self image.

Here is a clip, and then its more extended context from the piece by Metzinger on response to the question "What is your dangerous idea." He frames it much better than I can. First the clip:

"I think that the irritation and deep sense of resentment surrounding public debates on the freedom of the will actually has nothing much to do with the actual options on the table. It has to do with the perfectly sensible intuition that our presently obvious answer will not only be emotionally disturbing, but ultimately impossible to integrate into our conscious self-models."

Then the more extended quotation:

"For middle-sized objects at 37° like the human brain and the human body, determinism is obviously true. The next state of the physical universe is always determined by the previous state. And given a certain brain-state plus an environment you could never have acted otherwise. A surprisingly large majority of experts in the free-will debate today accept this obvious fact...."

"Yes, you are a physically determined system. But this is not a big problem, because, under certain conditions, we may still continue to say that you are "free": all that matters is that your actions are caused by the right kinds of brain processes and that they originate in you. A physically determined system can well be sensitive to reasons and to rational arguments, to moral considerations, to questions of value and ethics, as long as all of this is appropriately wired into its brain. You can be rational, and you can be moral, as long as your brain is physically determined in the right way. You like this basic idea: physical determinism is compatible with being a free agent. You endorse a materialist philosophy of freedom as well. An intellectually honest person open to empirical data, you simply believe that something along these lines must be true.

Now you try to feel that it is true. You try to consciously experience the fact that at any given moment of your life, you could not have acted otherwise. You try to experience the fact that even your thoughts, however rational and moral, are predetermined — by something unconscious, by something you can not see. And in doing so, you start fooling around with the conscious self-model Mother Nature evolved for you with so much care and precision over millions of years: You are scratching at the user-surface of your own brain, tweaking the mouse-pointer, introspectively trying to penetrate into the operating system, attempting to make the invisible visible. You are challenging the integrity of your phenomenal self by trying to integrate your new beliefs, the neuroscientific image of man, with your most intimate, inner way of experiencing yourself. How does it feel?

I think that the irritation and deep sense of resentment surrounding public debates on the freedom of the will actually has nothing much to do with the actual options on the table. It has to do with the perfectly sensible intuition that our presently obvious answer will not only be emotionally disturbing, but ultimately impossible to integrate into our conscious self-models.

Or our societies: The robust conscious experience of free will also is a social institution, because the attribution of accountability, responsibility, etc. are the decisive building blocks for modern, open societies. And the currently obvious answer might be interpreted by many as having clearly anti-democratic implications: Making a complex society work implies controlling the behavior of millions of people; if individual human beings can control their own behavior to a much lesser degree than we have thought in the past, if bottom-up doesn't work, then it becomes tempting to control it top-down, by the state. And this is the second way in which enlightenment could devour its own children. Yes, free will truly is a dangerous question, but for different reasons than most people think. "

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Why do I feel an urge to write about how the mind works?

Here are some sentences trying to put together one motivation for doing this website and this mindblog....and for working up a new web essay titled "The Merging of Minds" .. about how our behavior is unconsciously regulated by our social brains and their mirroring systems. If you are reading this (I don't know whether the counter on this web page is monitoring real people or web-bots) I would appreciate any expression of interest or disinterest. (Feedback on this site is very close to zero).

Some sentences of rationale:

Understanding the biological processes that generate our sense of self, our feelings, and our connections to each other reveals engines of our behavior previously hidden from our awareness. Using our awareness to get partial glimpses of those engines in action can loosen their iron grip and let our behaviors be more spontaneous and competent.

I want to cast this material in the form of the lived body understanding it as it plays out in our self observed moment-to-moment behavior, in addition to the more conventional expository writing. This was the point of the self exercises in my "Biology of Mind" book.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Intellectual Ability and Brain Cortex Development in Children

Shaw et. al. have recently published a fascinating study in Nature Magazine that shows that the trajectory of change in the thickness of the cerebral cortex during its development, rather than cortical thickness itself, is most closely related to level of intelligence. Previous studies attempting to correlate thickness or size of frontal cortical regions with intelligence had provided mixed results. Compared to children with average scores, cortex starts out thinner
in children with IQ scores above 120 but later grows thicker. A review of this work by Miller quotes Shaw: "The cortex gets thicker during childhood and reaches a peak and then gets thinner." But the timing of these events was dramatically different in the "superior" group. "the cortex in these children started out thinner, on average, than in the other groups. Then it grew rapidly, starting around age 7, and peaked in thickness around 11 before falling off. Cortical thickness peaked between 7 and 8 years of age in the average-IQ group, and a year or two later in the high-IQ group. By early adulthood, the cortex in all three groups was roughly the same thickness."

Power of Prayer? - apparently not.....

Herbert Benson, author of "The Relaxation Response" and researcher into medical effects of relaxation and prayer has just published, along his coworkers, some long awaited results: "Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer." (American Heart Journal Volume 151, Issue 4 , April 2006, Pages 934-942). There have been several claims that prayer by strangers could ameliorate the condition of patients at another location (by unknown or supernatural forces...). Over ten studies have been carried out over the past six years with mixed results, but none approached the scientific rigor and number of patients involved in Benson's study.

Not only were there no effects of prayer, but the third of the subjects who were informed that they were being prayed for did slightly worse (performance anxiety?)