Blog Archives

The purpose of a blog and the basic emotions paradigm

I started this blog for various reasons but the top one was

#1 to create a daily writing habit

So, in a sense I have to continue with the enterprise because if I don’t I will have, by default, lost my daily habit. Of course the longer term plan was to shift from blog writing to writing other things on a daily basis and although I have achieved partial success in this department it is not the 365 day a year that I was after by any means.

The problem at the moment is that I am deep into research on a writing project which means reading rather than writing. Sometimes I think, ah phooey, that’s just an excuse for not getting on with the main business at hand. However, if you are researching a big project and you draft too much whilst still researching you are likely to change your mind about what it is you want to write anyway. I say ‘you’ – I mean ‘I’ but it is a question in my head. How much research do you need for a non-fiction book. It’s been a year now. I am going to have to put a limit on it for my own sanity. I want to get the first draft done by the end of this year.

In the meantime, so as not to lose the habit, this is a holding post to my myself to think about and discuss further what is called the basic emotions paradigm. A lot of my work is currently rooted in this paradigm, but I consider there are some questions to be answered. What is currently puzzling me is the attribution, through brain scans, of the left and right amygdalae being involved in triggering different ‘basic emotions’. I don’t have a scientific background but it interests that me that we don’t ask the same questions of the left hand and or the right hand, or the left nostril and the right nostril. For example, we don’t say, it seems that the left nostril is much more involved in the olfactory experience of a sweet smell; we just accept that we are designed along symmetrical lines. Here’s the latest research and it’s all about the schnoz singular, not nostrils plural. And yet there are studies that examine any apparent differences in amygdalae function from left to right

It’s almost as if the initial activator of the amygdalae, which is too fast for our conscious mind, is then followed up by a further activator, or dampener, provided by the conscious mind. I suppose we do that with smell too, if we can’t place it. We smell something, but we then sniff again, actively trying to place it – say a perfume.

I also wonder if there is a sort of cascade of chemicals released which are initially triggered subconsciously but then further influenced by the conscious mind. For example, some of the chemicals thats release are triggered by fear also form a part of the cocktail of chemicals that are released when we are in love. In fact, if you think about the subjective experience of being ‘in love’ don’t you recognise some of the fear feelings too in tandem – say the knot in your stomach. In love and in fear at the same time at a neurological level.

There are no pictures for this post.

And if you want answers, this is the wrong blog for you today.

Move along please there’s nothing to see here.

Exploring the concept of survival circuitry

*This post carries a thinking through writing warning*

To explore the survival circuit concept we are better to start from the inside out, or bottom up, literally. To make full sense of that you will have to read the full link to Professor Joseph LeDoux’s article ‘Hubris and The Tree of Life’, in which he informs us that inverterbrates tend to develop, embryologically, mouth first and that verterbrates (including those reading this) develop anus first.

The next extract from the article is the bit that relates to yesterday’s reblogged post concerning LeDoux’s proposed term of ‘survival circuits’ from the Why We Reason blog. LeDoux suggested in an essay last month that rather than try to map our emotional lives onto animals, we map the neurological responses we share with animals. Seems sensible to me.

Body parts change during evolution to help organisms cope with their environment in new ways. There are certain things that have to be accomplished in order to survive. For example, you have to be able to meet nutritional demands, keep your fluids up to date, and defend against danger. And for your species to survive you have to reproduce. This list probably applies to all organisms, and, to some extent, even to simple single cell creatures like bacteria.

We need to eat, drink, have an innate survival response and reproduce to meet the basic requirements of our animal selves. That’s it.

For a while now I have wondered if, rather than dividing emotions into positive and negatives, whilst mapping five (or more) ‘universal emotions’, there is only one basic innate default setting – fear of these survival needs not being met, or the flipside, which is the compulsion to meet them when they are offered. You are either switched on in terms of survival, or your immediate needs are met and you are off.

Everything else we might attribute to the human experience and label as a mood, an emotion, or a feeling is a cognitive, sociological and cultural construction that starts with a threat to survival or the opportunity to ensure survival.

Of course we know it is far more complicated as a subjective experience because our lives have evolved way beyond only getting the needs of the organism met, but it seems perfectly reasonable that on some level, every day, we are subject to the table thumping requirements of our basic organismic self.

This appears, at first glance to reinforce the annoying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but actually it does the opposite and means I can continue to deconstruct that wrong-minded theory later.

However I still need some lunch.

Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt, 1909

Science as a belief system or a method of enquiry?

This is the central question posed by Rupert Sheldrake’s book The Science Delusion, and I think it is an extremely pertinent one.

I have, for a while, been losing patience with the attitude of media scientists (most particularly the irritating Brian Cox) who talk and write about their subject as if it were some kind of dogma rather than a body of knowledge and theory that rightly evolves with time. It is not so much that Cox and his ilk deny the evolution of knowledge. The fact is, I heard his honestly pointing out, when the neutrinos in the OPERA experiment at CERN appeared to travel faster than the speed of light, that science is a discipline wherein you merely remain at any given point in time less wrong than before. No, my petty irritation arises from the arrogant and haughty dismissal of any experience or possibility that sits outside the current scientific orthodoxy.

Sheldrake writes most interestingly on the subject of the mind, something that many scientists will insist exists entirely as a set of experiences formed in the brain through the activity of chemicals, electricity and neural pathways. In fact, there are some who will say that because they can measure activity in the brain before we make a conscious decision that any free will we may think we have is a delusion, our brain has already decided for us. Thankfully, there are scientists that understand, from their own experience and that of others, that there is a lot more to us, our minds, our conciousness than that. I heard a psychiatrist on the radio the other week likening the use of brain scanning techniques to understand mental illness with the idea that you would better understand the plot of Eastenders if you dismantled your telly to observe its wiring. Comparing apples and oranges? Well I suppose so, but they are both fruit and it’s an analogy with some mileage in it to my mind.

When I write ‘my mind’, I don’t mean only my brain – I am sure of it because I have observed my own experience. I might mean a combination of my brain, epigenetics, embodied cognition, collective conciousness and quantum mechanics. If I were to agree with Richard Sheldrake I might mean the field of my mind and morphic resonance too.

You see there is a lot more knowledge out there, up in the air, or wherever, but not just in our skulls than the orthdox scientific community feel compelled to enquire into. What’s worse, those that do enquire are given short shrift by the establishment. Richard Dawkins refused even to look at the evidence contained within Richard Sheldrake’s Science Delusion, let alone discuss what it might mean. Yes, the orthodox scientific community’s methods are superb for describing what goes on in the human brain but these descriptions should never be conflated with our understanding of why, or perhaps how.

Many scientific leaps have been made through close observation of experience and that includes the observation of trial and error. Many trials and a few errors or accidents have created the breakthroughs in medicine and technology that we so rely on in our lives today; hence the sworn fealty to the scientific way. Not all of that effecting of positive outcomes has given us the lowdown on the Why of it though. For example, we regularly make people lose consciousness through administering general anaesthesia in hospitals. The person has a painfree surgical procedure that improves their life. Then the anaesthetist brings them round. We can do all this, but we still don’t know where consciousness comes from. We go to sleep daily and we have a different sort of conciousness, we can describe what it might feel like if we dream, but still we don’t know where conciousness comes from. After all the brain is still there, doing its thing. It doesn’t entirely nod off too, does it?

That is why Sheldrake’s central question is a valid one. I do not necessarily agree with all his various hypotheses, but his insistence about the necessity for the scientific community to get its collective head out of its arse and enquire methodically into all aspects of the human experience (not just those that fit with its current preoccupation with the materialist model) is a valid one. After all, metaphysics is not just for poets, philosophers and religion.

A song I like, when I remember

I am interested in the unfixed teeth (having them in a state of un-fix-ed-ness (say it like a sonnet) is retro if you ask me, having them myself) and the guy’s voice reminds me of another singer. I think it might be Peter Gabriel. I am not sure; someone from the 1980s anyway.

Not being able to place a certain tonal quality in a vocal drives me more crazy than when I can’t remember the right word, or the name of a song.

Neuroscientists say that the human memory can crash and reboot when you leave a room and enter another one. That’s why we often forget what we came in here for. It doesn’t even have to be a room to trigger this response – just a threshold, perhaps even a metaphysical one. Taken across the piece, this post sounds like it’s a good argument for living alone in a one-room garret.

STOP! Rewiring the brain in progress

Just in case anyone thinks I’m totally loco now: I’m not.

Here’s the neuroscience bit.

Mindfulness Meditation Changes Brain Structure
For this current study, MR images were take of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.

A set of MR brain images were also taken of a control group of non-meditators over a similar time interval.

Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses.

The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.

Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. Although no change was seen in a self-awareness-associated structure called the insula, which had been identified in earlier studies, the authors suggest that longer-term meditation practice might be needed to produce changes in that area. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.” says Britta Hölzel, PhD, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany.

“Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”

Reference: Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, Sara W. Lazar. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011

Quizás, Quizás, Quizás

Every day, lately, it feels rather like I am scraping the remains of my mind up off the floor and stuffing them back into my head, in any old order, wherein the rabble will form a simulacrum of a brain and, if I am lucky, attempt some rational thought.

Perhaps I could be rewired.

Perhaps I could not.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

75% of input to our visual cortex

does not come from our eyes but from the rest of our brain…

So only 25% of the information that comes through our eyes from the outside world is part of our total visual experience. Perhaps, then, seeing is not necessarily believing.

That’s might be why the language of colour is so important in our perception of it.

And why we experience some colours differently *from others, and the same colour differently *from other people.

Study in Blue by Patrick Heron (Basildon Arts Trust)

*Perhaps this should be differently to, too tired to investigate.

…it performs quick and dirty sketches of the world…

What does you may wonder. It’s description of the mind – mine & yours.

from The Evolution of Consciousness: The Origins of the Way We Think by Robert Ornstein

Like the rest of biological evolution, the human mind is a collage of adaptations (the propensity to do the right thing) to different situations. Our thought is a pack of fixed routines—simpletons. We need them. It is vital to find the right food at the right time, to mate well, to generate children, to avoid marauders, to respond to emergency quickly….

The mind evolved great breadth, but it is shallow, for it performs quick and dirty sketches of the world. This rough-and-ready perception of reality enabled our ancestors to survive better. The mind did not evolve to know the world or to know ourselves. Simply speaking, there has never been, nor will there ever be, enough time to be truly rational. “

Personally, I find that notion somewhat depressing.

This is much more like it. A 3D brain scan published in National Geographic this summer showing the neural pathways in the brain. Truly, a thing of beauty.

The Cost of Spin for Parents, Business & Kings

I’ve blogged about this before: my angle was that whilst some promote a false reality through advertising or social media, many more people measure themselves against it. Whether the impact on individuals’ wellbeing causes a smattering of depression or a street riot is perhaps food for thought. When I came across this article Making a Case for More Candor… from PE Hub the part about parenting was especially pertinent.

After I had my children I understood why some people are so solicitous to pregnant women. In my innocence I had thought it was because they were overwhelmed by the miracle of life (I also thought this was rather odd). I have long since found out it was mere sympathy for the lifetime of trials ahead.

It has become evident, very few people tell the truth about parenthood; least of the many of the parents who admitted as such to mumsnet in a survey last year.
‘Oh no, little Lavinia only has 15 minutes of tv/computer/gaming a day…’

Anyway, the article is based on a conversation with a neuroscientist called Sam Harris whose essay ‘Lying’ is available on Kindle. Here’s an extract

Q: In Silicon Valley, many companies depend on spin to get from one financing round to the next, or one customer win to another. Is that so terrible?

A: There are so many costs to a culture of spin. It’s kind of a situation of mutually assured destruction, where you have this arms race of good news, and the price you pay for being candid about your missteps or problems on the horizon is that everyone will turn to your competitor — who will be busy lying about what’s happening on their side.

So the price is high. Yet the fact that we know everyone is spinning builds cynicism to the point where people are pricing in the possibility of people’s deception.

Q: What’s the case for people to change their behavior?

A: There’s a real power to simply being honest in a context where many people are so often dancing around the truth. There’s an integrity that comes with that, even if the reward for having integrity isn’t always immediate.

Steve Jobs came out and told people how sick he was [and Apple shares never nosedived]. Meanwhile, people can lose a tremendous amount of money when CEOs are deceptive where they can be.

Another aspect to spin to keep in mind: When people don’t have good information about reality, they think their difficulties are theirs alone. Take the culture of spin around parenthood and motherhood. We had our first child 2.5 years ago, and while obviously, people complain about being parents, most people tend to conceal a lot of the details about just how hard the experience is, beginning with the delivery. So you can think: Why is this happening to me? You’re isolated in your stress when people aren’t giving you good information

It’s nothing new though. People have been spinning the yarn for perhaps as long as people have been around. Take this example in art (self-promotion for Charles I) by Van Dyck.

e.g. From this subtle study of a horse

To this: The Divine Right of Kings

A double dose of deaf as a gatepost

I am quite pleased today as I now have not one but two types of deafness. The first is fairly boring and probably age-related (in the genes). I come from a family of fairly deaf people and there is nothing that can be done about it.

The second type that has recently been scientifically proven is called Inattentional Deafness; this is the type that occurs when you are preoccupied and just don’t hear people talking to you…

Professor Nilli Lavie, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, says that Inattentional Deafness is a common everyday experience and proves why people can get lost in a book or a crossword. It occurs as a result of visual and hearing senses trying to share limited brain processing capacity. As well as being a source of irritation to those trying to be heard (my kids hate it) it could be the cause of road accidents.

Now that last bit, which I have taken directly from the newspaper, is very badly written. All road accidents? Surely not. And who does the crossword when they are driving?

So to avoid a visual/auditory overload the blog is bringing you a nice, calm scene to replace the usual It’s A Friday Let’s Get On A Chair And Dance banging music video.

Can you hear the raindrops?