I will Decide . . . at some Point in Time

The debate around free will ebbs and flows with each new study.  We certainly like to think that we have the ability to freely make and follow the decisions that we make.  Most of the time anyway.  We also seem to like blaming anything or anybody other than oursleves when situations start “heading south” as the old saying goes.

When do we make decisions?  At what point do we become aware that we’ve made a decision?  And at the point at which we realize that we’ve made a decision, have we perhaps made it earlier than we realize.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, have demonstrated that portions of the brain iinvolved in our decision-making processes are activated up to seven seconds before we are consciously aware that we have made a decision.

As they are quick to point out – “Our study shows that decisions are unconsciously prepared much longer ahead than previously thought.   But we do not know yet where the final decision is made.  We need to investigate whether a decision prepared by these brain areas can still be reversed.”

So the jury remains out for the moment, at least in terms of this study.  When do I decide? At some point in time.

Link:  Decision-making may be Surprisingly Unconscious Activity

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

Dreams and other Stuff

Jonah Lehrer, Seed Magazine, posts a cogent reminder on the limits of reductionism in answering many fundamental questions about who we are and how we live.  And it is worth reiterating here that understanding the physical workings of the brain only gives us certain types of information. 

To quote him – “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, but we are also just stuff. What we need is a science that can encompass both sides of our being.”  Indeed.  And somehow through the messiness of sociology, philosophy, religion and other softer sciences we do indeed try to grapple with this messiness of subjective experience.  And there, of course, is the rub.  We are the ghost in the machine.  Understanding the machine is becoming easier.  Understanding ourselves remains, so far, as complex as it ever was.  But we increasingly have tools that make it at least a little easier.  What we do with them has been an evolving process.  Where we go with them remains yet to be seen.

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.

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

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

A Biological Clue to Paying Attention

Acetylcholine (ACh) increases the activity of neurons to detect stimuli that would be typically below an attention threshold. As such it enhances visual processing through signal amplification and may represent the biological basis underlying the process that our minds undergo in focusing attention upon something.

“That’s what attention does–it strengthens the signal you’re interested in and that strengthening helps you filter out other things” said Anita Disney of NYU, “Our findings show that acetylcholine has the ability to turn up the volume on visual activity, just like attention does.”

See also here.

Link: ScienceDaily