Where is a History of Feeling?

An interesting book review highlights the relationship between experience and brain chemistry among its other items.  On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail suggests that one common theme through history is our desire as human beings to alter our moods and feelings.  And what I find interesting is that the emphasis is on mood and feelings rather than a more cerebral cognition.

This binary disconnect between cognitive thinking and emotion can sometimes be summed up like this, I suspect.  I think, therefore I am.  I feel, there fore I am ALIVE.  Emotion trumps cognitive thinking over and over again in terms of strength in our overall sense of awareness.  We exist to feel in profound ways and the great religions of the world have gone into sometimes exquisite detail on the “heart” and its management.

There have been many intellectual histories written that trace the development of ideas.  Ideas grow, change, and evolve as mental models frame and reframe around core concepts.  Emotions, moods and feelings remain much more constant over time.  Anger, love, hatred, and so forth remain from generation to generation, culture to culture.  What changes is how we allow ourselves to express them.  As Star says:

“Our very synapses are shaped by experience and education from before birth to the time of death. The brain of a monk does not resemble the brain of a soldier or a taxicab driver. An impulse to swoon in distress or erupt in anger may be innate, but Victorian women were quicker to faint at the sight of blood and Southern men are faster to react to slights than women or men in many other places. These predispositions can be passed on from generation to generation without any alteration in anyone’s genes, and yet they are readily seen as aspects of our nature. In a way, they are. “Culture is wired in the brain,” Smail writes, and “cultural practices can have profound neurophysiological consequences.”

It would be interesting, I think, to see a written emotional history comparable in scope to the great intellectual histories.  They may exist (and if anyone knows of a good recommendation please post).  Smail’s book would to a subset of that category as he focuses upon the more narrow subject of our pursuit of mood altering technologies.  But he brings up important questions relative to our continuing efforts to come to grips with both our thinking and feeling selves. 

Link: I Feel Good

The Brain’s Clustered Plasticity

Tough title.  All it means is that neurons assist one another in processing information.  Traditional research has heretofor concluded that neurons communicate with one another simply by sending chemical bursts from one axonal ending to the next.  New research at Maryland’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute indicates that neighboring synapses also become more sensitized to assist.

“The traditional view was that each synapse functioned independently, and the strength of individual connections modulated memory storage,” said Mr. Harvey, a graduate student at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. “What we’ve shown is that neighboring synapses may function together, which leads to the idea that information is stored in a clustered manner, with related things concentrated in the same neighborhood.”

This period of sensitivity appears to be on the order of ten minutes or so, which squares with the pragmatic need for keeping information just long enough to accomplish a task without overwhelming the system with too much information.

 Link:  New York Times

Culture Influences Brain Function

Been out for the holidays among other things but of interest on my return is a news release indicating that cultural bias can influence physiological brain function.  ScienceDaily, in this post, states that people from different cultures use their brains differently to solve the same visual perception tasks.  Using the binary cultural differentiation broadly characteristic of Eastern and Western cultures (emphasis upon the individual as opposed to emphasis upon the group), the study found that –

. . . the two groups showed different patterns of brain activation when performing these tasks. Americans, when making relative judgments that are typically harder for them, activated brain regions involved in attention-demanding mental tasks. They showed much less activation of these regions when making the more culturally familiar absolute judgments. East Asians showed the opposite tendency, engaging the brain’s attention system more for absolute judgments than for relative judgments. 

Making judgments outside of one’s cultural comfort zone involves more brain processing activity.  As one of the study authors suggests –

“Everyone uses the same attention machinery for more difficult cognitive tasks, but they are trained to use it in different ways, and it’s the culture that does the training,” Gabrieli says. “It’s fascinating that the way in which the brain responds to these simple drawings reflects, in a predictable way, how the individual thinks about independent or interdependent social relationships.”

Of related interest is the impact of culture on the brain’s mirror neuron system, the system that operates both when we do something as well as when we merely observe someone doing something.  It is this observation aspect that is significant as neuroscientists presently think that this “mirroring” is the neural mechanism by which people are able to empathize with others.

 A recent study indicates that mirror neuron activation increases when one is observing someone from one’s own cultural background as opposed to someone from a different cultural background, even when both are making the same culturally understood gestures.  “All in all, our research suggests that with mirror neurons our brain mirrors people, not simply actions,” this study’s author states. 

And that has interesting implications for empathy, group dynamics, communication, and other issues.

This idea that culture not only trains and influences how we behave, but actually impacts the physiological ways in which we use our brains is an interesting springboard for further exploring how we relate to one another, and more importantly, how we can develop better communication and coaching tools for the building of community.

Speaking as Misunderstanding

Of all the many ways that we can misunderstand one another, how about the McGurk effect?  This is what happens when a person’s voice says one thing but the mouth says another.  As Uri Hassan of the University of Chicago’s Human Neuroscience Laboratory says –

“As an example, what would happen if a person’s voice says ‘pa,’ but the person’s lips mouth the word ‘ka”‘ One would think you might hear ‘pa’ because that is what was said. But in fact, with the conflicting verbal and visual signals, the brain is far more likely to hear ‘ta,’ an entirely new sound.”

So while we recognize words from the sounds that we hear, there is a more abstract process occurring in which the brain interprets speech using both sight and sounds.

Hassan’s study demonstrates that the Broca’s area of the brain is the region that is responsible for this type of abstract speech processing.  This speech production center of the ventroposterior region of the frontal lobe has long been known but this study adds a new dimension to that understanding.

From another perspective, it offers additional insight into why we so commonly misunderstand one another in our casual everyday conversations, evidencing yet again the complexity underlying our communications.

Link:  New Brain Mechanism Identified For Interpreting Speech

Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty

Three distinct responses to new information. Do I accept it or throw it out? Or am I unsure? Our cumulative responses together build our mental models – our worldviews of everything around us.

A study conducted by Mark Cohen, Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Sam Harris, a graduate student in his lab, and Sameer Sheth of the Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests that physiological differences in processing belief and disbelief are independent of content or emotional associations. It appears that different physiological portions of the brain process belief and disbelief as well as uncertainty.

Taken together, these data offer insight into the way in which our brains work to form beliefs about the world. “What I find most interesting about our results,” said Harris, “is the suggestion that our view of the world must pass through a bottle-neck in regions of the brain generally understood to govern emotion, reward, and primal feelings like pain and disgust. While evaluating mathematical, ethical, or factual statements requires very different kinds of processing, accepting or rejecting these statements seems to rely upon a more primitive process that may be content-neutral. I think that it has long been assumed that believing that “two plus two equals four” and believing that “George Bush is President of the United States” have almost nothing in common as cognitive operations. But what they clearly have in common is that both representations of the world satisfy some process of truth-testing that we continually perform. I think this is yet another result, in a long line of results, that calls the popular opposition between reason and emotion into question.”

Of many items of interest in this study is the association of emotion with our truth-discerning processes and our personal convictions.

Link: Study Shows Brain Responds Differently to Belief and Disbelief

Stress as Pain Relief

Stress can alleviate pain – perhaps the only good thing about it most would suppose. This “stress-induced analgesia” shields the body from pain after a serious injury and acts as a protective mechanism. Long known to operate through a mechanism in which the body releases its own naturally occurring cannabinoids, recent research indicates the action of the stress hormone noradrenaline as an additional mechanism.

Processes that mediate the emotional and stress-related aspects of pain originate in the amygdala and are controlled by neurons that originate in the brainstem and are regulated by noradrenaline. Noradrenaline appears to modulate pain inputs in the amygdala by limiting neuro transmissions (the mechanism by which one neuron triggers a nerve impulse in another) from the brainstem.

This protective response is akin to other amygdala and brainstem-mediated survival responses – sleep deprivation and increase in emotional response, handling surprise, and the focus of attention on emotion among many. It is useful.

To reiterate a point – understanding of our brain’s physiological processes allows us to manage behaviours without reducing their protective effectiveness. For example, anger has survival benefits. Yet anger also flairs at inappropriate times and in inappropriate ways. A mistaken run up the ladder of inference produces a threat response where none is warranted. It is times like these when the brain’s physiological responses are appropriate but the situation that prompted them is not. And it is this cognitive management without the loss of emotional richness and survival protection that is one ongoing aspect of coaching TED.

Link: How Stress Alleviates Pain

Where is Visual Beauty?


In the brain of the beholder? 

A study in which art criticism-challenged subjects (most of us) were asked to view sculptures in which the classic Golden Ratio parameters were tweaked suggests that our perception of visual beauty is partly instinctive and partly learned.  Test subjects showed more activity in the brain’s limbic insular cortex, part of our emotion mediation system, when viewing sculpture that has been deemed classically beautiful over the ages.

As summed up nicely in Wired – “Thankfully, the researchers did not reach too far in their conclusions. The results, they said, merely suggest that beauty is mediated by separate but overlapping processes. One is learned, the other instinctive — and therein lies the power of art to speak across ages, long after its makers and their world have disappeared.”

Perhaps, as people, we share more in common across cultures than we sometimes admit.

Link: Wired