Links for Keyword: Consciousness
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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
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.
By Gary Stix Unraveling the mystery of consciousness remains perhaps the biggest challenge in all neuroscience, so big and amorphous that most brain scientists won’t go near the topic, leaving philosophers to speculate about the a prioris. Even defining what consciousness is quickly devolves into lengthy and often ponderous treatises. The World Science Festival assembled a panel of luminaries who will attempt to make sense of this sprawling theme in the allotted 90 minutes. They included Mélanie Boly, a researcher and physician who has performed studies on minimally conscious patients; Christof Koch, a leading researcher on the neural basis of consciousness; Colin McGinn, known for his work on the philosophy of mind, and Nicholas Schiff, a physician-scientist who specializes in disorders of consciousness. Click below here to see these leading lights gathered at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on May 30 to take on whether Homo sapiens is the only conscious species, the question of whether consciousness transcends the physical boundaries of the brain, and an exploration of the biochemical processes that underlie the life of the mind. The session, entitled “The Whispering Mind: The Enduring Conundrum of Consciousness,” is moderated by ABC Nightline co-anchor Terry Moran. © 2013 Scientific American
Posted by Gary Marcus A few weeks ago, while staying with my in-laws, my four-month-old son woke up at two-thirty in the morning. He was hungry, and, knowing that he would not be coaxed back to sleep without a bottle, I brought him downstairs to the kitchen, where his crying stopped abruptly. He clearly recognized that he had arrived in an unfamiliar place, and he became fully absorbed in understanding where he was and how he’d gotten there. He was searingly alert; he craned his head and his eyes darted around. The eight minutes or so that it took it to warm the bottle, usually a time of intense complaint, passed with hardly a peep. I became convinced that, for the first time, my son was fully, consciously aware of his surroundings. As a scientist, I realize that my experience was subjective. But the leading scientific journal, Science, just published the results of an experiment that endeavored to look objectively at the rudiments of consciousness in infants. This work, conducted by the cognitive psychologists Sid Kouider, Stanislas Dehaene, and Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz, is an examination of brain waves in babies between five and fifteen months old, aimed at constructing what the scientists refer to as a “biological signature of consciousness.” The background of this experiment is a theory called the “global workspace” model of consciousness, according to which perceptual awareness involves two stages of neural activity. The first is a purely sensory activation, typically in the back of the brain. The second stage reflects a kind of “ignition,” and is achieved only for stimuli that are consciously perceived. © 2013 Condé Nast.
Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 7: Life-Span Development of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 13: Memory, Learning, and Development
Link ID: 18209 - Posted: 05.30.2013
By Ferris Jabr On any given day, millions of conversations reverberate through New York City. Poke your head out a window overlooking a busy street and you will hear them: all those overlapping sentences, only half-intelligible, forming a dense acoustic mesh through which escapes an exclamation, a buoyant laugh, a child’s shrill cry now and then. Every spoken consonant and vowel begins as an internal impulse. Electrical signals crackle along branching neurons in brain regions specialized for language and movement; further pulses spread across facial nerves, surge toward the throat and chest and zip down the spine. The diaphragm contracts—pulling air into the lungs—and relaxes, pushing air into that birdcage of calcium and cartilage—the larynx—within which wings of tissue draw near one another and hum. As this vibrating air enters the mouth, the tongue guides its flow and the lips give each breath a final shape and sound. Liberated syllables travel between one person and another in waves of colliding air molecules. All these conversations are matched in number and complexity by much more elusive discourses. The human brain loves soliloquy. Even when speaking with others—and especially when alone—we continually talk to ourselves in our heads. Such speech does not require the bellows in the chest, quivering flaps of tissue in the throat or a nimble tongue; it does not need to disturb even one hair cell in our ears, nor a single particle of air. We can speak to ourselves without making a sound. Stick your head out that same window above the crowded street and you will hear nothing of what people are saying to themselves privately. All that inner dialogue remains submerged beneath the ocean of human speech, like a novel written in invisible ink behind the text of another book. © 2013 Scientific American,
by Caroline Williams When it comes to making decisions, it seems that the conscious mind is the last to know. We already had evidence that it is possible to detect brain activity associated with movement before someone is aware of making a decision to move. Work presented this week at the British Neuroscience Association (BNA) conference in London not only extends it to abstract decisions, but suggests that it might even be possible to pre-emptively reverse a decision before a person realises they've made it. In 2011, Gabriel Kreiman of Harvard University measured the activity of individual neurons in 12 people with epilepsy, using electrodes already implanted into their brain to help identify the source of their seizures. The volunteers took part in the "Libet" experiment, in which they press a button whenever they like and remember the position of a second hand on a clock at the moment of decision. Kreiman discovered that electrical activity in the supplementary motor area, involved in initiating movement, and in the anterior cingulate cortex, which controls attention and motivation, appeared up to 5 seconds before a volunteer was aware of deciding to press the button (Neuron, doi.org/btkcpz). This backed up earlier fMRI studies by John-Dylan Haynes of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, Germany, that had traced the origins of decisions to the prefrontal cortex a whopping 10 seconds before awareness (Nature Neuroscience, doi.org/cs3rzv). "It's always nice when two lines of research converge and to know that what we see with fMRI is actually there in the neurons," says Haynes. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Kerri Smith The experiment helped to change John-Dylan Haynes's outlook on life. In 2007, Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, put people into a brain scanner in which a display screen flashed a succession of random letters1. He told them to press a button with either their right or left index fingers whenever they felt the urge, and to remember the letter that was showing on the screen when they made the decision. The experiment used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal brain activity in real time as the volunteers chose to use their right or left hands. The results were quite a surprise. "The first thought we had was 'we have to check if this is real'," says Haynes. "We came up with more sanity checks than I've ever seen in any other study before." The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided. As humans, we like to think that our decisions are under our conscious control — that we have free will. Philosophers have debated that concept for centuries, and now Haynes and other experimental neuroscientists are raising a new challenge. They argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on a person's actions. According to this logic, they say, free will is an illusion. "We feel we choose, but we don't," says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
by Julia Sklar IT IS a nightmare situation. A person diagnosed as being in a vegetative state has an operation without anaesthetic because they cannot feel pain. Except, maybe they can. Alexandra Markl at the Schön clinic in Bad Aibling, Germany, and colleagues studied people with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome (UWS) – also known as vegetative state – and identified activity in brain areas involved in the emotional aspects of pain. People with UWS can make reflex movements but can't show subjective awareness. There are two distinct neural networks that work together to create the sensation of pain. The more basic of the two – the sensory-discriminative network – identifies the presence of an unpleasant stimulus. It is the affective network that attaches emotions and subjective feelings to the experience. Crucially, without the activity of the emotional network, your brain detects pain but won't interpret it as unpleasant. Using PET scans, previous studies have detected activation in the sensory-discriminative network in people with UWS but their findings were consistent with a lack of subjective awareness, the hallmark of the condition. Now Markl and her colleagues have found evidence of activation in the affective or emotional network too (Brain and Behavior, doi.org/kfs). © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 8: General Principles of Sensory Processing, Touch, and Pain
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 5: The Sensorimotor System
Link ID: 17839 - Posted: 02.23.2013
By Mark Fischetti Various scholars have tried to explain consciousness in long articles and books, but one neuroscience pioneer has just released an unusual video blog to get the point across. In the sharply filmed and edited production, Joseph LeDoux, a renowned expert on the emotional brain at New York University, interrogates his NYU colleague Ned Block on the nature of consciousness. Block is a professor of philosophy, psychology and neural science and is considered a leading thinker on the subject. The interview ends with a transition into a music video performed by LeDoux’s longstanding band, the Amygdaloids. The whole exercise is a bit quirky, yet it succeeds in explaining consciousness in simple, even entertaining terms. LeDoux intends to produce a series of these video blogs to explore other intriguing aspects of the mind and brain, and he is giving Scientific American the chance to post them first on our Web site. LeDoux has already interviewed Michael Gazzaniga at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on free will and Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel at Columbia University on mapping the mind. The video is not a quick hit, like most on the Net these days. The interview runs about 10 minutes, followed by the four-minute music video. The idea is for viewers to sit back and actually think along with the expert as his or her explanation unfolds. Yet video producer Alexis Gambis has generated some compelling imagery to keep our visual attention as Block unwraps his subject. Gambis directs the Imagine Science Film Festival, is about to complete his graduate degree in film and has a doctorate in molecular biology. © 2013 Scientific American
By ISABEL KERSHNER JERUSALEM — A brain scan performed on Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister who had a devastating stroke seven years ago and is presumed to be in a vegetative state, revealed significant brain activity in response to external stimuli, raising the chances that he is able to hear and understand, a scientist involved in the test said Sunday. Scientists showed Mr. Sharon, 84, pictures of his family, had him listen to a recording of the voice of one of his sons and used tactile stimulation to assess the extent of his brain’s response. “We were surprised that there was activity in the proper parts of the brain,” said Prof. Alon Friedman, a neuroscientist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a member of the team that carried out the test. “It raises the chances that he hears and understands, but we cannot be sure. The test did not prove that.” The activity in specific regions of the brain indicated appropriate processing of the stimulations, according to a statement from Ben-Gurion University, but additional tests to assess Mr. Sharon’s level of consciousness were less conclusive. “While there were some encouraging signs, these were subtle and not as strong,” the statement added. The test was carried out last week at the Soroka University Medical Center in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba using a state-of-the-art M.R.I. machine and methods recently developed by Prof. Martin M. Monti of the University of California, Los Angeles. Professor Monti took part in the test, which lasted approximately two hours. © 2013 The New York Times Company
Doctors should resist the temptation to use an inexpensive tool that probes the brain's electrical activity when evaluating vegetative patients who can't communicate. Drs. Adrian Owen and Damian Cruse of the Centre for Brain and Mind in London, Ont., promoted the use of electroencephalography or EEG that can be used at a patient's bedside to determine if there's neurological activity in people in a vegetative state — those who are unresponsive in traditional tests of awareness. In a letter published in Thursday's issue of the medical journal The Lancet, Dr. Jonathan Victor of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and his co-authors reanalyzed data shared from Owen's 2011 paper in the same journal. "I think we'd be very, very cautious about using this technology as it stands now," said Victor. Both groups agree the use of EEG technology remains promising to evaluate patients. The challenge, Victor said, is researchers can't be certain about their interpretations when faced with families trying to communicate with their loved ones, including for end-of-life discussions. The critique casts doubt on the original statistical approach and assumptions, which didn't hold when analyzed with a different model. In a rebuttal, Owen's team defended its approach as the only way to draw valid conclusions from vegetative patients and account for their variations. "There are few 'known truths' when attempting to detect covert awareness," Owen's team wrote. "Some are likely to be truly vegetative, while others may appear to be vegetative behaviorally, but are in fact, covertly aware." © CBC 2013
By John Horgan We’re approaching the end of one year and the beginning of another, when people resolve to quit smoking, swill less booze, gobble less ice cream, jog every day, or every other day, work harder, or less hard, be nicer to kids, spouses, ex-spouses, co-workers, read more books, watch less TV, except Homeland, which is awesome. In other words, it’s a time when people seek to alter their life trajectories by exercising their free will. Some mean-spirited materialists deny that free will exists, and this specious claim—not mere physiological processes in my brain–motivates me to reprint a defense of free will that I wrote for The New York Times 10 years ago: When I woke this morning, I stared at the ceiling above my bed and wondered: To what extent will my rising really be an exercise of my free will? Let’s say I got up right . . . now. Would my subjective decision be the cause? Or would computations unfolding in a subconscious neural netherworld actually set off the muscular twitches that slide me out of the bed, quietly, so as not to wake my wife (not a morning person), and propel me toward the door? One of the risks of science journalism is that occasionally you encounter research that threatens something you cherish. Free will is something I cherish. I can live with the idea of science killing off God. But free will? That’s going too far. And yet a couple of books I’ve been reading lately have left me brooding over the possibility that free will is as much a myth as divine justice. © 2012 Scientific American
By Ferris Jabr The computer, smartphone or other electronic device on which you may be reading this article, tracking the weather or checking your e-mail has a kind of rudimentary brain. It has highly organized electrical circuits that store information and behave in specific, predictable ways, just like the interconnected cells in your brain. On the most fundamental level, electrical circuits and neurons are made of the same stuff—atoms and their constituent elementary particles—but whereas the human brain is conscious of itself, man-made gadgets do not know they exist. Consciousness, most scientists would argue, is not a shared property of all matter in the universe. Rather consciousness is restricted to a subset of animals with relatively complex brains. The more scientists study animal behavior and brain anatomy, however, the more universal consciousness seems to be. A brain as complex as a human's is definitely not necessary for consciousness. On July 7 of this year, a group of neuroscientists convening at the University of Cambridge signed a document entitled “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals,” officially declaring that nonhuman animals, “including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses,” are conscious. Humans are more than just conscious; they are also self-aware. Scientists differ on how they distinguish between consciousness and self-awareness, but here is one common distinction: consciousness is awareness of your body and your environment; self-awareness is recognition of that consciousness—not only understanding that you exist but further comprehending that you are aware of your existence. Another way of considering it: to be conscious is to think; to be self-aware is to realize that you are a thinking being and to think about your thoughts. Presumably human infants are conscious—they perceive and respond to people and things around them—but they are not yet self-aware. In their first years of life, children develop a sense of self, learning to recognize themselves in the mirror and to distinguish between their own point of view and the perspectives of other people. © 2012 Scientific American,
By Tanya Lewis A coma patient’s chances of surviving and waking up could be predicted by changes in the brain’s ability to discriminate sounds, new research suggests. Recovery from coma has been linked to auditory function before, but it wasn’t clear whether function depended on the time of assessment. Whereas previous studies tested patients several days or weeks after comas set in, a new study looks at the critical phase during the first 48 hours. At early stages, comatose brains can still distinguish between different sound patterns,. How this ability progresses over time can predict whether a coma patient will survive and ultimately awaken, researchers report. “It’s a very promising tool for prognosis,” says neurologist Mélanie Boly of the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research, who was not involved with the study. “For the family, it’s very important to know if someone will recover or not.” A team led by neuroscientist Marzia De Lucia of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland studied 30 coma patients who had experienced heart attacks that deprived their brains of oxygen. All the patients underwent therapeutic hypothermia, a standard treatment to minimize brain damage, in which their bodies were cooled to 33° Celsius for 24 hours. De Lucia and colleagues played sounds for the patients and recorded their brain activity using scalp electrodes — once in hypothermic conditions during the first 24 hours of coma, and again a day later at normal body temperature. The sounds were a series of pure tones interspersed with sounds of different pitch, duration or location. The brain signals revealed how well patients could discriminate the sounds, compared with five healthy subjects. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2012
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: 17546 - Posted: 11.27.2012
By Courtney Humphries A. Fainting, also called syncope, is a sudden and brief loss of consciousness followed by a spontaneous return to wakefulness — people who “black out” and then “come to” on their own without outside intervention. During the faint, they’re in danger of falls and injuries if they lose muscle control. There are several possible causes of fainting, but they all stem from a temporary decrease in blood flow to the brain. The typical Victorian-era swoon is one of the most common forms, called vasovagal syncope. Lewis Lipsitz, a geriatrician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Hebrew SeniorLife, explains that it’s caused by a reflexive response to a stimulus, such as stress, a sudden shock, or the sight of blood. Fainting without an obvious trigger can be a sign of an underlying health problem, such as an irregular heart rhythm, heart disease, or severe dehydration. “The elderly have syncope more commonly than any other group,” Lipsitz says, which can put them at risk of falls and fractures. Often the spells are caused by actions as simple as changing position or eating a meal. When we stand up, Lipsitz says, “about half a liter of blood immediately goes to the legs and the lower abdomen,” and eating also pulls blood from the brain to the gut. Our bodies compensate by raising the heart rate to get blood to the brain. But elderly people can’t always restore their blood flow, and dehydration or certain medications can exacerbate the problem. © Copyright 2012 Globe Newspaper Company.
by Douglas Heaven Where does the mind reside? It's a question that's occupied the best brains for thousands of years. Now, a patient who is self-aware – despite lacking three regions of the brain thought to be essential for self-awareness – demonstrates that the mind remains as elusive as ever. The finding suggests that mental functions might not be tied to fixed brain regions. Instead, the mind might be more like a virtual machine running on distributed computers, with brain resources allocated in a flexible manner, says David Rudrauf at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who led the study of the patient. Recent advances in functional neuroimaging – a technique that measures brain activity in the hope of finding correlations between mental functions and specific regions of the brain – have led to a wealth of studies that map particular functions onto regions. Previous neuroimaging studies had suggested that three regions – the insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex – are critical for self-awareness. But for Rudrauf the question wasn't settled. So when his team heard about patient R, who had lost brain tissue including the chunks of the three 'self-awareness' regions following a viral infection, they immediately thought he could help set the record straight. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
by Anil Ananthaswamy Advocates of free will can rest easy, for now. A 30-year-old classic experiment that is often used to argue against free will might have been misinterpreted. In the early 1980s, Benjamin Libet, a neuroscientist at the University of California in San Francisco, used electroencephalography (EEG) to record the brain activity of volunteers who had been told to make a spontaneous movement. With the help of a precise timer that the volunteers were asked to read at the moment they became aware of the urge to act, Libet found there was a 200 millisecond delay, on average, between this urge and the movement itself. But the EEG recordings also revealed a signal that appeared in the brain even earlier, 550 milliseconds, on average, before the action. Called the readiness potential, this has been interpreted as a blow to free will, as it suggests that the brain prepares to act well before we are conscious of the urge to move. This conclusion assumes that the readiness potential is the signature of the brain planning and preparing to move. "Even people who have been critical of Libet's work, by and large, haven't challenged that assumption," says Aaron Schurger of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Saclay, France. One attempt to do so came in 2009. Judy Trevena and Jeff Miller of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, asked volunteers to decide, after hearing a tone, whether or not to tap on a keyboard. The readiness potential was present regardless of their decision, suggesting that it did not represent the brain preparing to move. Exactly what it did mean, though, still wasn't clear. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 11: Motor Control and Plasticity
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 5: The Sensorimotor System
Link ID: 17131 - Posted: 08.07.2012
By Giulio Tononi When is an entity one entity? How can multiple elements be a single thing? A question simple enough— but one, thought Galileo, that had not yet been answered. Or perhaps, it had not been asked. The sensor of the digital camera certainly had a large repertoire of states— it could take any possible picture. But was it a single entity? You use the camera as a single entity, you grasp it with your hands as one. You watch the photograph as a single entity. But that is within your own consciousness. If it were not for you, the observer, would it still be a single entity? And what exactly would that mean? While musing such matters, Galileo was startled by a voice. J., a man with the forehead of an ancient god, addressed him in a polished tone: “Take a sentence of a dozen words, and take twelve men, and tell to each one word. Then stand the men in a row or jam them in a bunch, and let each think of his word as intently as he will; nowhere will there be a consciousness of the whole sentence. Or take a word of a dozen letters, and let each man think of his letter as intently as he will; nowhere will there be a consciousness of the whole word,” J. said. Or take a picture of one million dots, and take one million photodiodes, and show each photodiode its own dot. Then stand the photodiodes well ordered on a square array, and let each tell light from dark for its own dot, as precisely as it will; nowhere will there be a consciousness of the whole picture, said Galileo. “So you see that, Galileo,” J. continued. “There is no such thing as the spirit of the age, the sentiment of the people, or public opinion. The private minds do not agglomerate into a higher compound mind. They say the whole is more than the sum of its parts; they say, but how can it be so?” © 2012 Scientific American, Copyright © 2012 by Giulio Tononi
by Michael S. Gazzaniga We humans think we make all our decisions to act consciously and willfully. We all feel we are wonderfully unified, coherent mental machines and that our underlying brain structure must reflect this overpowering sense. It doesn’t. No command center keeps all other brain systems hopping to the instructions of a five-star general. The brain has millions of local processors making important decisions. There is no one boss in the brain. You are certainly not the boss of your brain. Have you ever succeeded in telling your brain to shut up already and go to sleep? Even though we know that the organization of the brain is made up of a gazillion decision centers, that neural activities going on at one level of organization are inexplicable at another level, and that there seems to be no boss, our conviction that we have a “self” making all the decisions is not dampened. It is a powerful illusion that is almost impossible to shake. In fact, there is little or no reason to shake it, for it has served us well as a species. There is, however, a reason to try to understand how it all comes about. If we understand why we feel in charge, we will understand why and how we make errors of thought and perception. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in the desert of Southern California—out in the desert scrub and dry bunchgrass, surrounded by purple mountains, creosote bush, coyotes, and rattlesnakes. The reason I am still here today is because I have nonconscious processes that were honed by evolution. © 2012, Kalmbach Publishing Co.
By JOHN MONTEROSSO and BARRY SCHWARTZ ARE you responsible for your behavior if your brain “made you do it”? Often we think not. For example, research now suggests that the brain’s frontal lobes, which are crucial for self-control, are not yet mature in adolescents. This finding has helped shape attitudes about whether young people are fully responsible for their actions. In 2005, when the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for juveniles was unconstitutional, its decision explicitly took into consideration that “parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to mature through late adolescence.” Similar reasoning is often applied to behavior arising from chemical imbalances in the brain. It is possible, when the facts emerge, that the case of James E. Holmes, the suspect in the Colorado shootings, will spark debate about neurotransmitters and culpability. Whatever the merit of such cases, it’s worth stressing an important point: as a general matter, it is always true that our brains “made us do it.” Each of our behaviors is always associated with a brain state. If we view every new scientific finding about brain involvement in human behavior as a sign that the behavior was not under the individual’s control, the very notion of responsibility will be threatened. So it is imperative that we think clearly about when brain science frees someone from blame — and when it doesn’t. © 2012 The New York Times Company