Links for Keyword: Consciousness

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by Tom Siegfried If freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, then “free will” is just another phrase for ability to choose. Bad, wasn’t it? But if free will is an illusion, as many scientists and philosophers have argued, then you shouldn’t blame me. On the other hand, I do blame myself. Because like most bloggers, and possibly even the several dozen humans who don’t blog, I think I decided for myself what to write. Besides, as many investigators of this issue have pointed out, it’s not so obvious that free will is illusory now that quantum mechanics has inserted some randomness into nature. Sadly, though, that reasoning doesn’t get you very far. There’s randomness in the quantum world, all right, just like the unpredictable sequence of winning numbers on a roulette wheel. But in the long run all the numbers turn up about equally often. Free will isn’t worth much if you can’t use it to beat a casino. And as MIT physicist Scott Aaronson points out, quantum math is similar: It gives the odds about what various possible things will happen, and those odds are always predicted precisely. The probability distribution of results is always just what the quantum math says it will be. Aaronson doesn’t see any free will there. Still, the free will question has elicited some sophisticated musing from quantum physicists who like to contemplate the interface of mentality and physical reality. It seems reasonable enough to reexamine such an old question in the light of the latest understanding of the universe. It may be that modern physics can offer a perspective giving hope for those who like to make up their own mind. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013.

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19299 - Posted: 02.27.2014

By Partha Mitra Leonardo Da Vinci, in his Treatise on Painting (Trattato della Pittura), advises painters to pay particular attention to the motions of the mind, moti mentali. “The movement which is depicted must be appropriate to the mental state of the figure,” he advises; otherwise the figure will be considered twice dead: “dead because it is a depiction, and dead yet again in not exhibiting motion either of the mind or of the body.” Francesco Melzi, student and friend to Da Vinci, compiled the Treatise posthumously from fragmented notes left to him. The vivid portrayal of emotions in the paintings from Leonardo’s school shows that his students learned to read the moti mentali of their subjects in exquisite detail. Associating an emotional expression of the face with a “motion of the mind” was an astonishing insight by Da Vinci and a surprisingly modern metaphor. Today we correlate specific patterns of electrochemical dynamics (i.e. “motions”) of the central nervous system, with emotional feelings. Consciousness, the substrate for any emotional feeling, is itself a “motion of the mind,” an ephemeral state characterized by certain dynamical patterns of electrical activity. Even if all the neurons, their constituent parts and neuronal circuitry remained structurally the same, a change in the dynamics can mean the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness. But what kind of motion is it? What are the patterns of electrical activity that correspond to our subjective state of being conscious, and why? Can they be measured and quantified? This is not only a theoretical or philosophical question but also one that is of vital interest to the anesthesiologist trying to regulate the level of consciousness during surgery, or for the neurologist trying to differentiate between different states of consciousness following brain trauma. © 2014 Scientific American

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19112 - Posted: 01.08.2014

By JAMES GORMAN St. Louis — I knew I wouldn’t find my “self” in a brain scan. I also knew as I headed into the noisy torpedo tube of a souped-up M.R.I. machine at Washington University in St. Louis that unless there was something terribly wrong (“Igor, look! His head is filled with Bitcoins!”), I would receive no news of the particulars of how my brain was arranged. Even if I had been one of the 1,200 volunteers in the part of the Human Connectome Project being conducted there, I wouldn’t have gotten a report of my own personal connectome and what it meant. Once the 10 hours of scans and tests are finished, and 10 hours more of processing and analysis done, the data for each of the volunteers — all anonymous — becomes part of a database to help scientists develop tools so that one day such an individual report might be possible. Besides, I was just going through a portion of the process, to see what it was like. Even so, I do have this sense of myself as an individual, different from others in ways good, bad and inconsequential, and the pretty reasonable feeling that whatever a “self” is, it lies behind my eyes and between my ears. That’s where I feel that “I” live. So I couldn’t shake the sense that there would be something special in seeing my brain, even if I couldn’t actually spot where all the song lyrics I’ve memorized are stored, or locate my fondness for cooking and singing and my deep disappointment that I can’t carry a tune (though I can follow a recipe). So I climbed into the M.R.I. machine. I tried to hold my head perfectly still as I stared at a spot marked by a cross, tried to corral my fading memory to perform well on tests, curled my toes and moved my fingers so that muscle motion could be mapped, and wondered at the extraordinary noises M.R.I. machines make. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 2: Functional Neuroanatomy: The Nervous System and Behavior; Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 2: Cells and Structures: The Anatomy of the Nervous System; Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19104 - Posted: 01.07.2014

By NORIMITSU ONISHI SAN FRANCISCO — It started out as an operation to treat an increasingly common medical problem in America, childhood sleep apnea. It has become an anguished fight over the fate of a 13-year-old girl who, though pronounced legally dead by doctors, remains alive in the opinion of her religious parents. Sam Singer, a spokesman for Children’s Hospital, called the deal a victory for the hospital, which will release the girl to the Alameda County coroner. The girl, Jahi McMath, was declared brain-dead after complications from surgery on Dec. 9 at Children’s Hospital Oakland, which wanted to remove her from a ventilator. But her heart continues to beat, and her family protested the removal in court, so she has remained connected to the machine. On Friday, amid acrimonious battles in three courts, an Alameda County Superior Court judge mediated an agreement that could allow the child to be moved to another facility willing to take her, even though the hospital has declared her dead. As arguments in the courts continue, the girl will remain connected to the ventilator at least until Tuesday, under the judge’s order. In the meantime, family members are scrambling to identify a facility that will accept the girl and doctors willing to carry out procedures that will keep her heart beating during the transfer. Nailah Winkfield, the girl’s mother, said she was hopeful that Friday’s agreement would facilitate her daughter’s move. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19096 - Posted: 01.04.2014

By Christof Koch I grew up in a devout and practicing Roman Catholic family with Purzel, a fearless and high-energy dachshund. He, as with all the other, much larger dogs that subsequently accompanied me through life, showed plenty of affection, curiosity, playfulness, aggression, anger, shame and fear. Yet my church teaches that whereas animals, as God's creatures, ought to be treated well, they do not possess an immortal soul. Only humans do. Even as a child, to me this belief felt intuitively wrong. These gorgeous creatures had feelings, just like I did. Why deny them? Why would God resurrect people but not dogs? This core Christian belief in human exceptionalism did not make any sense to me. Whatever consciousness and mind are and no matter how they relate to the brain and the rest of the body, I felt that the same principle must hold for people and dogs and, by extension, for other animals as well. It was only later, at university, that I became acquainted with Buddhism and its emphasis on the universal nature of mind. Indeed, when I spent a week with His Holiness the Dalai Lama earlier in 2013 [see “The Brain of Buddha,” Consciousness Redux; Scientific American Mind, July/August 2013], I noted how often he talked about the need to reduce the suffering of “all living beings” and not just “all people.” My readings in philosophy brought me to panpsychism, the view that mind (psyche) is found everywhere (pan). Panpsychism is one of the oldest of all philosophical doctrines extant and was put forth by the ancient Greeks, in particular Thales of Miletus and Plato. Philosopher Baruch Spinoza and mathematician and universal genius Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who laid down the intellectual foundations for the Age of Enlightenment, argued for panpsychism, as did philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, father of American psychology William James, and Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. It declined in popularity with the rise of positivism in the 20th century. © 2014 Scientific American,

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19087 - Posted: 01.02.2014

By John Horgan New Year’s Day is approaching, a time when we—by which I mean I–brood over past failures and vow to improve ourselves: I will be less judgmental with my kids and more romantic with my girlfriend. I will stop binging on cookies and bad TV. (Why, oh why, do I keep watching Blacklist?) I will not assume that people who disagree with me are stupid or evil. Every time you choose one path over another, you are exercising your free will. Humanity has more freedom of choice now--and hence more free will--than in any previous era. At this time of year, I like to hearten my fellow Resolutionaries by defending the concept of free will, which has been attacked by various scientific pundits (who are just misguided, not stupid or evil). After all, how can you believe in resolutions unless you believe in free will? Below is an edited version of an essay that I originally wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education. I never really thought about free will—or rather, I just took it for granted—until 1991, when I interviewed the late, great Francis Crick, who had switched from cracking the genetic code to solving the riddle of consciousness. With unnerving cheerfulness, Crick informed me that brain research is contradicting the notion of free will. Picking up a pen from his desk, he noted that even this simple act is underpinned and preceded by complex biochemical processes taking place below the level of consciousness. “What you’re aware of is a decision, but you’re not aware of what makes you do the decision,” Crick said. “It seems free to you, but it’s the result of things you’re not aware of.” I frowned, and Crick chuckled at my distress. © 2013 Scientific American,

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19077 - Posted: 12.28.2013

By Elijah Wolfson Of the many ills that can befall the human body, brain damage is one of the most devastating – and confusing. When a person suffers from a traumatic brain injury that leaves him or her in an uncommunicative state, doctors and loved ones face one of medical science’s most confounding questions: How do we know when a person is still there? When is a body just a body? Those question only get more complicated with the startling news that the brains of some patients in a vegetative state appear to recognize familiar faces. The implications are mind-boggling. Brain death – when there is zero brain function – is both a medical and legal term, and it is, quite literally, death. But when there is some brain function left, the lines blur rather quickly. A brain-damaged patient may live for months and even years, in limbo: her eyes may open and she may sleep and wake up in what appears to be a normal cycle, but she has no meaningful interactions and shows no awareness of her surroundings – or herself. She is in what the medical community calls a “persistent vegetative state,” awake but unaware. It’s unlikely that she will ever recover, and if she does, she will probably face severe physical and neurological impairments. Not what most of us call living. Someone in a vegetative state raises an essential moral and ethical question and an often bitter debate: How much should we do to keep a body on autopilot going? The debate has intensified in recent years, as a few studies have found striking examples of vegetative patients who seem to be able, on some level, to communicate. “With changing paradigms of imaging and other techniques,” Dr. Karen Hirsch, a neurologist and neurosurgeon at the Stanford University Medical Center, told Newsweek, “we are learning that maybe some of these people do have some awareness.” © 2013 IBT MEDIA INC

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19063 - Posted: 12.23.2013

By Deborah Kotz / Globe Staff Anyone who hears about the tragic death of a 13-year-old California girl after a routine tonsil-removal surgery has to feel for the grieving parents who don’t want her removed from life support. The McMaths refuse to believe that their daughter Jahi, who was declared brain dead more than a week ago, is truly dead because machines are keeping her other organs alive. “How could you not let me have my kid for Christmas?” said Nailah Winkfield, McMath’s mother, in an interview with local reporters. “And this is Children’s Hospital, supposed to be so compassionate, so loving, and I asked, can my daughter just live a few more days? Because she is living.” McMath was declared brain dead more than a week ago, and her family has been fighting with hospital staff at Children’s Hospital & Research Center in Oakland to keep her body in a viable state and have her provided with nutrition via a feeding tube. “To me, it just looks like she’s at peace and she’s resting,” said Jahi’s uncle Omari Sealey, “and when she’s done going through the traumatic stuff that her body’s going through right now, and she feels well enough, she’ll wake up.” But McMath is dead—as horrible as that is for her family to fathom—and leaving her body attached to machines is akin to allowing a corpse remain in a hospital bed without a proper burial. Perhaps hospitals should stop calling such care “life support” since it’s not actually supporting any living person, just a body. “This case is so sad it is almost beyond description,” wrote Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center in a blog he posted Thursday on the NBC News website. “But that fact should not be a reason to take the view that we don’t know what to do when someone is pronounced brain dead. Brain dead is dead.” © 2013 Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 3: Neurophysiology: The Generation, Transmission, and Integration of Neural Signals
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 3: Neurophysiology: The Generation, Transmission, and Integration of Neural Signals
Link ID: 19057 - Posted: 12.21.2013

By MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER More than a decade ago, a 43-year-old woman went to a surgeon for a hysterectomy. She was put under, and everything seemed to be going according to plan, until, for a horrible interval, her anesthesia stopped working. She couldn’t open her eyes or move her fingers. She tried to breathe, but even that most basic reflex didn’t seem to work; a tube was lodged in her throat. She was awake and aware on the operating table, but frozen and unable to tell anyone what was happening. Studies of anesthesia awareness are full of such horror stories, because administering anesthesia is a tightrope walk. Too much can kill. But too little can leave a patient aware of the procedure and unable to communicate that awareness. For every 1,000 people who undergo general anesthesia, there will be one or two who are not as unconscious as they seem — people who remember their doctors talking, and who are aware of the surgeon’s knife, even while their bodies remain catatonic and passive. For the unlucky 0.13 percent for whom anesthesia goes awry, there’s not really a good preventive. That’s because successful anesthetization requires complete unconsciousness, and consciousness isn’t something we can measure. There are tools that anesthesiologists use to get a pretty good idea of how well their drugs are working, but these systems are imperfect. For most patients receiving inhaled anesthesia, they’re no better at spotting awareness than dosing metrics developed half a century ago, says George Mashour, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Michigan Medical School. There are two intertwined mysteries at work, Mashour told me: First, we don’t totally understand how anesthetics work, at least not on a neurological basis. Second, we really don’t understand consciousness — how the brain creates it, or even what, exactly, it is. © 2013 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 14: Biological Rhythms, Sleep, and Dreaming
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 10: Biological Rhythms and Sleep
Link ID: 19025 - Posted: 12.11.2013

By Graham Lawton Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher at the University of California at San Diego, says our hopes, loves and very existence are just elaborate functions of a complicated mass of grey tissue. Accepting that can be hard, but what we know should inspire us, not scare us. Her most recent book is Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain. Graham Lawton: You compare revelations in neuroscience with the discoveries that the Earth goes around the sun and that the heart is a pump. What do you think these ideas have in common? Patricia Churchland: They challenge a whole framework of assumptions about the way things are. For Christians, it was very important that the Earth was at the center of the universe. Similarly, many people believed that the heart was somehow what made us human. And it turned out it was just a pump made of meat. I think the same is true about realizing that when we're conscious, when we make decisions, when we go to sleep, when we get angry, when we're fearful, these are just functions of the physical brain. Coming to terms with the neural basis of who we are can be very unnerving. It has been called "neuroexistentialism," which really captures the essence of it. We're not in the habit of thinking about ourselves that way. GL: Why is it so difficult for us to see the reality of what we actually are? PC: Part of the answer has to do with the evolution of nervous systems. Is there any reason for a brain to know about itself? We can get along without knowing, just as we can get along without knowing that the liver is in there filtering out toxins. The wonderful thing, of course, is that science allows us to know. © 2013 The Slate Group, LLC.

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19024 - Posted: 12.11.2013

by Bob Holmes Perseverance in the face of adversity is an admirable character trait – now it turns out you can conjure it up with a quick zap to a tiny spot in the brain. The discovery in two people with epilepsy was accidental but it is the first to show that simple brain stimulation can create rich, complex alterations of consciousness. Josef Parvizi, a neurologist at Stanford University in California, and his colleagues had implanted electrodes in the brains of two people with epilepsy to help identify the source of their seizures. In the course of their work, they noticed that an odd thing happened when they stimulated a region in the anterior midcingulate cortex – a part of the limbic system involved in emotion, processing, learning and memory. Both patients reported feeling a sense of foreboding, coupled with a determination to overcome whatever challenge they were about to face. During the stimulation, one patient reported feeling "worried that something bad is going to happen" but also noted that "it made me stronger". The other said he felt as if he were figuring out how to get through something. He likened it to driving your car when one of the tires bursts. You're only halfway to your destination and you have no option but to keep going forward. "You're like… am I gonna get through this?" he said (see video). He also reported a sense of urgency: "It was more of a positive thing like… push harder, push harder, push harder to try and get through this." One singular sensation In contrast, when the researchers applied a sham stimulation – going through exactly the same procedure, but with the current set to zero – neither volunteer reported feeling any specific sensations. Stimulation of other nearby regions of the brain less than 5 millimetres away also failed to produce the feelings of either foreboding or perseverance. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 19006 - Posted: 12.06.2013

By Neuroskeptic I am sitting reading a book. After a while, I get up and make a cup of coffee. I’ve been thinking about this scenario lately as I’ve pondered ‘what remains to be discovered’ in our understanding the brain. By this I mean, what (if anything) prevents neuroscience from at least sketching out an explanation for all of human behaviour? A complete explanation of any given behaviour – such as my reading a particular book – would be impossible, as it would require detailed knowledge of all my brain activity. But neuroscience could sketch an account of some stages of the reading. We have models for how my motor cortex and cerebellum might coordinate my fingers to turn the pages of my book. Other models try to make sense of the recognition of the letters by my visual cortex. This is what I mean by ‘beginning to account for’. We have theories that are not wholly speculative. While we don’t yet have the whole story of motor control or visual perception, we have made a start. Yet I’m not sure that we can even begin to explain: why did I stop what I was doing, get up, and make coffee at that particular time? The puzzle, it seems, does not lie in my actual choice to make some coffee (as opposed to not making it.) We could sketch an explanation for how, once the mental image (memory) of coffee ‘crossed my mind’, that image set off dopamine firing (i.e. I like coffee), and this dopamine, acting on corticostriatal circuits, selected the action of making coffee over the less promising alternatives. But why did that mental image of coffee cross my mind in the first place? And why did it do so just then, not thirty seconds before or afterwards?

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 18957 - Posted: 11.23.2013

By Gary Stix The emerging academic discipline of neuroethics has been driven, in part, by the recognition that introducing brain scans as legal evidence is fraught with peril. Most neuroscientists think that a brain scan is unable to provide an accurate representation of the state of mind of a defendant or determine whether his frontal lobes predispose to some wanton action. The consensus view holds that studying spots on the wrinkled cerebral cortex that are bigger or smaller in some criminal offenders may hint at overarching insights into the roots of violence, but lack the requisite specificity to be used as evidence in any individual case. “I believe that our behavior is a production of activity in our brain circuits,” Steven E. Hyman of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT told a session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting earlier this year. “But I would never tell a parole board to decide whether to release somebody or hold on to somebody, based on their brain scan as an individual, because I can’t tell what are the causal factors in that individual.” It doesn’t seem to really matter, though, what academic experts believe about the advisability of brain scans as Exhibit One at trial. The entry of neuroscience in the courtroom has already begun, big time. The introduction of a brain scan in a legal case was once enough to generate local headlines. No more. Hundreds of legal opinions each year have begun to invoke the science of mind and brain to bolster legal arguments—references not only to brain scans, but a range of studies that show that the amygdala is implicated in this or the anterior cingulate cortex is at fault for that. The legal establishment, in short, has begun a love affair with all things brain. © 2013 Scientific American

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 18955 - Posted: 11.21.2013

by Linda Geddes Anaesthetics usually knock you out like a light. But by slowing the process down so that it takes 45 minutes to become totally unresponsive, researchers have discovered a new signature for unconsciousness. The discovery could lead to more personalised methods for administering anaesthetics and cut the risks associated with being given too high or too low a dose. It also sheds new light on what happens to our brain when we go under the knife. Hundreds of thousands of people are anaesthetised every day, yet researchers still don't fully understand what's going on in the anaesthetised brain. Nor is there a direct way of measuring when someone is truly unresponsive. Instead, anaesthetists rely on indirect measures such as heart and breathing rate, and monitoring reflexes. To investigate further, Irene Tracey and her colleagues at Oxford University slowed the anaesthesia process down. Instead of injecting the anaesthetic propofol in one go, which triggers unconsciousness in seconds, the drug was administered gradually so that it took 45 minutes for 16 volunteers to become fully anaesthetised. Their brain activity was monitored throughout using electroencephalography (EEG). The study was then repeated on 12 of these volunteers using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). EEG recordings revealed that before the volunteers became completely unresponsive to external stimuli they progressed through a sleep-like state characterised by slow-wave oscillations – a hallmark of normal sleep, in which neurons cycle between activity and inactivity. As the dose of anaesthetic built up, more and more neurons fell into this pattern, until a plateau was reached when no more neurons were recruited, regardless of the dose administered. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 14: Biological Rhythms, Sleep, and Dreaming
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 10: Biological Rhythms and Sleep
Link ID: 18836 - Posted: 10.26.2013

by Nora Schultz A SIMPLE bedside scan could reveal an active mind hidden inside an unresponsive body. The method provides another tool for recognising consciousness in people who have been wrongly diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. Tests are also under way to use it to monitor people under general anaesthetic, to make sure they do not regain consciousness during an operation. The technique builds on recent research into the nature of consciousness. "Information that is processed consciously typically recruits several brain regions at once," says Jean-Rémi King at the Brain and Spine Institute (ICM) in Paris, France. Other information that enters the brain triggers unconscious activity – for instance, the righting reflex that helps us retain balance when we are pushed – and it only tends to activate one brain area. King and his colleague Jacobo Sitt, also at the ICM, reasoned that they could spot consciousness in people simply by playing them a series of beeps and then searching electroencephalogram (EEG) brain scan data for evidence that signals from different brain regions fluctuated in the same way as each other, suggesting that they were sharing information. They performed their tests on 75 people in a vegetative state, 67 minimally conscious people, 24 people who had recently regained consciousness after a coma, and 14 healthy controls. By running the EEG data through statistics software, the researchers found differences between the patterns from people who were fully conscious, those in a vegetative state, and those who were minimally conscious (Current Biology, doi.org/n42). © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 18772 - Posted: 10.10.2013

By Roy F. Baumeister It has become fashionable to say that people have no free will. Many scientists cannot imagine how the idea of free will could be reconciled with the laws of physics and chemistry. Brain researchers say that the brain is just a bunch of nerve cells that fire as a direct result of chemical and electrical events, with no room for free will. Others note that people are unaware of some causes of their behavior, such as unconscious cues or genetic predispositions, and extrapolate to suggest that all behavior may be caused that way, so that conscious choosing is an illusion. Scientists take delight in (and advance their careers by) claiming to have disproved conventional wisdom, and so bashing free will is appealing. But their statements against free will can be misleading and are sometimes downright mistaken, as several thoughtful critics have pointed out. Arguments about free will are mostly semantic arguments about definitions. Most experts who deny free will are arguing against peculiar, unscientific versions of the idea, such as that “free will” means that causality is not involved. As my longtime friend and colleague John Bargh put it once in a debate, “Free will means freedom from causation.” Other scientists who argue against free will say that it means that a soul or other supernatural entity causes behavior, and not surprisingly they consider such explanations unscientific. These arguments leave untouched the meaning of free will that most people understand, which is consciously making choices about what to do in the absence of external coercion, and accepting responsibility for one’s actions. Hardly anyone denies that people engage in logical reasoning and self-control to make choices. There is a genuine psychological reality behind the idea of free will. The debate is merely about whether this reality deserves to be called free will. Setting aside the semantic debate, let’s try to understand what that underlying reality is. © 2013 The Slate Group, LLC.

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 18713 - Posted: 09.28.2013

Joseph Brean U.S. President Barack Obama’s much-hyped BRAIN initiative to crack the mysteries of consciousness via a finely detailed map of the brain in action took its first big step this week, with the release of a strategy report that foresees “revolutionary advances” in the $100-million effort to “crack the brain’s code,” perhaps in as little as “a few years.” “We stand on the verge of a great journey into the unknown,” the report says, explicitly comparing BRAIN to the Apollo moon shot, and predicting it will “change human society forever.” As a grand challenge, Apollo was an unambiguous success, despite the vast expense and human costs, but there is a growing sense among scientists, if not legacy-minded politicians, that the road ahead for modern neuroscience will be pocked with disappointment, with more impenetrable mysteries than solvable problems. As the world approaches what some are calling “peak neuro,” after three decades of over-hyped “brain porn,” the optimistic hope is that Mr. Obama’s BRAIN project will lead to a detailed and dynamic map of the brain, and thus reveal both how it works and how it fails in such diseases as Alzheimer’s or autism. The pessimistic fear, however, is that the “speed of thought,” as Mr. Obama described it, is just too quick for our current brain imaging technologies, primarily functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). As the anonymous blogger Neuroskeptic, a British brain scientist who tracks the misinterpretation of brain scan studies by both scientists and media, put it in an email, “there’s just as much hype and misrepresentation as ever.” The more we learn about the brain, the less we seem to know. With its potential overstated and its aspirations presented as foregone conclusions, the relatively new field of neuroscience is in a period of self-reflection, said Jackie Sullivan, a philosopher of neuroscience at Western University in London Ont. “The vast majority of neuroscientists are well aware that the goals going forward need to be more modest,” she said. © 2013 National Post

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 2: Functional Neuroanatomy: The Nervous System and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 2: Cells and Structures: The Anatomy of the Nervous System
Link ID: 18686 - Posted: 09.23.2013

by Andy Coghlan Parts of the brain may still be alive after a person's brain activity is said to have flatlined. When someone is in a deep coma, their brain activity can go silent. An electroencephalogram measuring this activity may eventually show a flatline, usually taken as a sign of brain death. However, while monitoring a patient who had been placed in a deep coma to prevent seizures following a cardiac arrest, Bogdan Florea, a physician at the Regina Maria Medical Centre in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, noticed a strange thing – some tiny intermittent bursts of activity were interrupting an otherwise flatline signal, each lasting a few seconds. He asked Florin Amzica of the University of Montreal in Canada and his colleagues to investigate what might be happening. To imitate what happened in the patient, Amzica's team put cats into a deep coma using a high dose of anaesthesia. While EEG recordings taken from the surface of the brain – the cortex – showed a flatline, recordings from deep-brain electrodes revealed tiny bursts of activity originating in the hippocampus, responsible for memory and learning, which spread within minutes to the cortex. "These ripples build up a synchrony that rises in a crescendo to reach a threshold where they can spread beyond the hippocampus and trigger activity in the cortex," says Amzica. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 3: Neurophysiology: The Generation, Transmission, and Integration of Neural Signals
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 3: Neurophysiology: The Generation, Transmission, and Integration of Neural Signals
Link ID: 18683 - Posted: 09.21.2013

by Sara Reardon It can be nearly impossible to know what is happening in the mind of someone who has experienced a severe brain injury, but two new methods could offer some clues. Together, they provide not only a better indication of consciousness but also a more effective way to communicate with some vegetative people. The way that a seemingly unconscious person behaves does not always reflect their mental state. Someone in a completely vegetative state may still be able to smile simply through reflex, while a perfectly alert person may be left unable to do so if a brain injury has affected their ability to move. So a different way to assess mental state is needed. Marcello Massimini at the University of Milan in Italy and his colleagues have developed a possible solution by stimulating brains with an electromagnetic pulse and then measuring the response. The pulse acts like striking a bell, they say, and neurons across the entire brain continue to "ring" in a specific wave pattern, depending on how active the connections between individual brain cells are. The team used this method to assess 20 people with brain injuries who were either in a vegetative state, in a minimally conscious state, or in the process of emerging from a coma. The team compared the patterns from these people with the patterns recorded from 32 healthy people who were awake, asleep or under anaesthesia. In each of the distinct states of consciousness, the researchers found, the neurons "shook" in a distinctive pattern in response to the electromagnetic pulse. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 18517 - Posted: 08.17.2013

Kelly Servick Consciousness isn’t easy to define, but we know it when we experience it. It’s not so simple to decide when someone else is conscious, however, as doctors must sometimes do with patients who have suffered traumatic brain injury. Now, researchers have come up with an approach that uses the brain’s response to magnetic stimulation to judge a person’s awareness, reducing it to a numerical score they call an index of consciousness. “You’re kind of banging on the brain and listening to the echo,” says Anil Seth, a neuroscientist at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom who was not involved in the work. Faced with an unresponsive patient, clinicians do their best to determine whether the person is conscious. Through sound, touch, and other stimuli, they try to provoke verbal responses, slight finger movements, or just a shifting gaze. Yet some conscious patients simply can’t move or speak; an estimated 40% of those initially judged to be completely unaware are later found to have some level of consciousness. Recently, physicians seeking to resolve a patient’s conscious state have gone right to the source, searching for signs of awareness using brain imaging or recording electrical activity of neurons. Most of these approaches define a conscious brain as an integrated brain, where groups of cells in many different regions activate to form a cohesive pattern, explains Marcello Massimini, a neurophysiologist at the University of Milan in Italy. “But that’s not enough,” he says. Sometimes even an unconscious brain looks highly integrated. For example, stimulating the brain of a sleeping person can create a huge wave of activity that “propagates like a ripple in water.” It’s a highly synchronized, widespread pattern, but it’s not consciousness, he says, and so this measure is often unreliable for diagnosis. © 2012 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 18515 - Posted: 08.15.2013