What matters

Owen Flanagan writes:

In “The Strange Order of Things” Antonio Damasio promises to explore “one interest and one idea … why and how we emote, feel, use feelings to construct our selves; how feelings assist or undermine our best intentions; why and how our brains interact with the body to support such functions.”

Damasio thinks that the cognitive revolution of the last 40 years, which has yielded cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence, has been, in fact, too cognitive, too rationalist, and not concerned enough with the role that affect plays in the natural history of mind and culture. Standard stories of the evolution of human culture are framed in terms of rational problem solving, creative intelligence, invention, foresight and linguistically mediated planning — the inventions of fire, shelters from the storms, agriculture, the domestication of animals, transportation systems, systems of political organization, weapons, books, libraries, medicine and computers.

Damasio rightly insists that a system with reason, intelligence and language does nothing unless it cares about something, unless things matter to it or, in the case of the emerging world of A.I., things matter to its makers. Feelings motivate reason and intelligence, then “stay on to check the results, and help negotiate the necessary adjustments.”

In an earlier book, “Looking for Spinoza,” Damasio developed the concept of conatus — drive, will, motive, urge — as the taken-for-granted force or catalyst that puts reason, creative intelligence and language to work. If there were no feelings, he adds now, there would be no art, no music, no philosophy, no science, no friendship, no love, no culture and complex life would not aim to sustain itself. “The complete absence of feeling would spell a suspension of being.” [Continue reading…]

The spiritual part of our brains — religion not required

Ephrat Livni writes:

Scientists seek to quantify everything—even the ineffable. And so the human search for meaning recently took a physical turn as Columbia and Yale University researchers isolated the place in our brains that processes spiritual experiences.

In a new study, published in Cerebral Cortex (paywall) on May 29, neuroscientists explain how they generated “personally relevant” spiritual experiences in a diverse group of subjects and scanned their brains while these experiences were happening. The results indicate that there is a “neurobiological home” for spirituality. When we feel a sense of connection with something greater than the self—whether transcendence involves communion with God, nature, or humanity—a certain part of the brain appears to activate.

The study suggests that there is universal, cognitive basis for spirituality, as opposed to a cultural grounding for such states. This new discovery, researchers say, could help improve mental health treatment down the line.

Previous studies have examined the brain activity of Buddhist monks or Catholic nuns, say—people who are already spiritually inclined and familiar with the practice of cultivating transcendent states. But this research analyzed subjects from different backgrounds with varying degrees of religiosity, and totally different individual notions of what constitutes a spiritual experience. [Continue reading…]

Theory of predictive brain as important as evolution — an interview with Lars Muckli

Our brains make sense of the world by predicting what we will see and then updating these predictions as the situation demands, according to Lars Muckli, professor of neuroscience at the Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging in Glasgow, Scotland. He says that this predictive processing framework theory is as important to brain science as evolution is to biology.

Horizon magazine: You have used advanced brain imaging techniques to come up with a model of how the brain processes vision – and it says that instead of just sorting through what we see, our brains actually anticipate what we will see next. Could you tell us a bit more?

Lars Muckli: ‘We are interested to understand how the brain supports vision. A classical view had been that the brain is responding to visual information in a cascade of hierarchical visual areas with increasing complexity, but a more modern way is to realise that, actually, the brain is not meeting every situation with a clean sheet, but with lots of predictions.’

How does that work?

‘The main purpose of the brain, as we understand it today, is it is basically a prediction machine that is optimising its own predictions of the environment it is navigating through. So, vision starts with an expectation of what is around the corner. Once you turn around the corner, you are then negotiating potential inputs to your predictions – and then responding differently to surprise and to fulfilment of expectations.

‘So that’s what’s called the predictive processing framework, and it’s a proposed unifying theory of the brain. It’s basically creating an internal model of what’s going to happen next.’

Why does this happen?

‘First of all, the outside world is not in our brain so somehow we need to get something into our brain that is a useful description of what’s happening – and that’s a challenge.

‘We become painfully aware of this challenge if we try to simulate this in a computer model – how do we get information about the outside world into a computer model? The brain does that in an unsupervised way. It segments the visual input into object, background, foreground, context, people and so on, and no one ever gives the brain any kind of supervision to do so.

‘To have meaningful models of the world, you need to have something like a supervisor in your brain that says: “This is Object A. This is another object, and you need to find a name for this.” We don’t have a supervisor, but we have something – and that’s the currency of surprise. (The need) to minimise surprise is used as a supervisor.’

[Read more…]

Psychedelic medicine may become available sooner than you expect

Michael Pollan writes:

Just how soon might psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy be available aboveground, to the many people who stand to benefit from it? Before the F.D.A. approves a new medicine, the drug must survive testing for safety and efficacy in a three-stage sequence of trials, each of them involving a larger sample and more rigorous methods. When researchers recently brought to the F.D.A. the results of Phase 2 clinical trials of cancer patients who were given psilocybin and MDMA, they were stunned by the positive response of the regulators. Regulators told them they could move forward to Phase 3 with MDMA, the last step before F.D.A. approval. The F.D.A. is still considering when psilocybin trials can move into Phase 3. The agency wouldn’t comment on drugs in the approval process, but a researcher who attended one of these meetings told me the regulators seemed untroubled by the illicit status of the drugs in question or by the unique challenges of controlling studies of psychedelics. These meetings took place before a Trump-appointed F.D.A. commissioner was sworn in; it remains to be seen how the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions would respond to F.D.A. approval of psychedelics. The researchers felt heartened by the F.D.A.’s response. The message the scientists took away from the meeting was that they should raise their sights and not limit themselves to treating cancer patients, but rather test the drugs on the much larger population of patients suffering from major depression.

Thus encouraged, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit that has been working for federal approval of psychedelics since 1986, will begin Phase 3 trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy this summer for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, involving more than 200 volunteers at 16 sites in the United States, Canada and Israel. Later this year, pending F.D.A. approval, two Phase 3 trials of psilocybin — one for the treatment of major depression and the other for “psychospiritual distress” in cancer patients — are expected to get underway at Hopkins, N.Y.U. and a half-dozen other sites around the country.

Phase 3 trials, which typically involve hundreds of subjects at dozens of sites, can cost tens of millions of dollars — a cost ordinarily borne by the big pharmaceutical companies that stand to profit from approval. But Big Pharma has not demonstrated significant interest in psychedelics, and it’s not hard to see why: Psychedelic therapy is a rather square peg to fit into the round hole of psychopharmacology as we now know it. Patents on the molecules in question — LSD, psilocybin and MDMA — have long since expired (psilocybin comes from a common mushroom); the drugs, if approved, don’t need to be taken more than a few times; and as the C.I.I.S. program recognizes, psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is a novel hybrid of pharmacology and talk therapy, making it uncharted territory for a pharmaceutical industry organized around the selling of pills.

But the obstacle of funding Phase 3 trials appears to have been recently surmounted. The Psychedelic Science Funders Collaborative (P.S.F.C.), a new Bay Area-based consortium of philanthropists including the hippie-soap entrepreneur David Bronner, the author and tech investor Timothy Ferriss and other donors both in and out of the tech community, has helped raise more than $63 million in charitable contributions, an amount that could be sufficient to complete the trials. The two main beneficiaries of these funds will be MAPS and Usona Institute, a nonprofit medical-research organization that is sponsoring forthcoming psilocybin trials. Rebekah Mercer, the Trump funder behind Cambridge Analytica and Breitbart, is also a donor to MAPS.

There is at least one corporation betting that psychedelic therapy will soon become a business. Founded in London by George Goldsmith, a health care industry consultant, and Ekaterina Malievskaia, a physician, Compass Pathways aims to become the world’s first psychedelic pharmaceutical company. (The couple, who are married, were inspired to expand access to psilocybin after Malievskaia’s college-age son was successfully treated by an underground guide with the drug for a debilitating case of depression.) Compass aims to be much more than a drug company, however. The company is developing a complete treatment package — consisting of a training program for therapists; protocols for orchestrating the entire experience; and the medicine itself — that it hopes to sell to health care institutions and national health services, first in Europe and then in the United States.

Its initial therapeutic target is treatment-resistant depression (patients who have failed to respond to at least two previous treatments); after an advisory process with the European Medicines Agency (the E.U.’s drug-regulating body), it has decided to conduct trials in eight to 10 sites across Europe. It is also in discussions with the F.D.A. to organize trials here. According to Goldsmith, Compass has already raised $13 million from investors in the United States and Europe, many of them from the tech community (Peter Thiel is an investor) but also institutional investors in the health care sector.

Phase 3 trials will take at least three years, but access to psychedelic therapy could come sooner than that. Under “expanded access” or “compassionate use” programs, patients who stand to benefit from therapies still deemed experimental can gain access to them before trials are complete. In the case of MDMA, this could happen as soon as 2020. [Continue reading…]

Why we need to figure out a theory of consciousness

File 20180509 34021 1t9q8r0.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
All in the mind.
Shutterstock

By Adam Barrett, University of Sussex

Understanding the biology behind consciousness (or self-awareness) is considered by some to be the final frontier of science. And over the last decade, a fledgling community of “consciousness scientists” have gathered some interesting information about the differences between conscious and unconscious brain activity.

But there remains disagreement about whether or not we have a theory that actually explains what is special about the brain activity which produces our miraculous inner worlds.

Recently, “Integrated Information Theory” has been gaining attention – and the backing of some eminent neuroscientists. It says that absolutely every physical object has some (even if extremely low) level of consciousness. Some backers of the theory claim to have a mathematical formula that can measure the consciousness of anything – even your iPhone.

These big claims are controversial and are (unfortunately) undermining the great potential for progress that could come from following some of the ideas behind the theory.

Integrated Information Theory starts from two basic observations about the nature of our conscious experiences as humans. First, that each experience we have is just one of a vast number of possible experiences we could have. Second, that multiple different components (colours, textures, foreground, background) are all experienced together, simultaneously.

Given these two observations, the theory says that brain activity associated with consciousness must therefore be ever-changing, consist of lots of different patterns, and involve a great deal of communication between different brain regions.

This is a really solid starting point for a theory, and to some extent, we have been able to test it. In one experiment, for example, researchers looked at brain responses to a short pulse of “transcranial magnetic stimulation”, in which a magnetic coil is placed on top of the scalp, and a very brief pulse of magnetic field emitted.

The response was recorded from electrodes at locations all over the rest of the scalp. When fully awake, the response to the little burst of magnetic field would spread far and wide, in complex patterns of ripples.

But when participants were in deep sleep, or under general anaesthesia, the response did not spread very far from the magnet, and the shapes of the ripples were much more simple. These results support the theory. They demonstrate that when we’re conscious, each region of the brain is doing something different, but are all managing to communicate.

So far so good. But it would be great to go further than this. Hence the attempt to find a formula that can give us a precise “level of consciousness” from detailed data. It is here that the serious controversy begins.

The theory claims that the ultimate formula will somehow quantify the information something contains. In this context, “information” means how much you can find out about the past and future of the object in question by looking in detail at the present.

For example, you record voltages from a bunch of neurons in the brain, and see how well you can use one result to predict earlier and later results. If you can make good predictions from using the readings from all neurons, but only poor predictions if you use just some neurons, then you score high.

[Read more…]

The spirit molecule


Graham St John writes:

Identified in 300 BCE by the Greek physician Herophilos as the brain’s only unpaired organ, the pineal gland has long been a source of mystery and speculation. Galen, another Greek physician and philosopher, discussed its role as a valve regulating the flow of ‘psychic pneuma’. This view informed René Descartes, who in the 17th century situated the soul (for him, the mind) precisely in this tiny mid-brain structure, which he imagined to be something of a thought valve; he called it ‘the seat of the soul’.

It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that scientists recognised the pineal as an endocrine organ – an important hub at night for converting the neurotransmitter serotonin, essential for higher cognitive processes, into the hormone melatonin, which plays a crucial role in activating sleep cycles. Finally, in the late 1980s, the neurochemist James Callaway proposed that pineal melatonin is converted into DMT (along with pinoline and 5-MeO-DMT) just before the onset of REM (rapid eye-movement) sleep, when we dream. Were such endogenous, psychoactive molecules literally fuelling our dreams?

Such questions tantalised [the psychiatrist Rick] Strassman, prompting him to pursue the phantom of the ‘psychedelic pineal gland’. He speculated that the pineal might excrete large quantities of DMT during extremely stressful life episodes, notably in the events of birth and death. He speculated that the gland’s central position in the brain, within the epithalamus, could allow for DMT secretion directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, impacting visual and auditory pathways. Absorbing the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, he wondered whether, when we die (or indeed, have near-death experiences), the life force could be leaving the body through the pineal gland. Was DMT like the floodwaters carrying the soul into the liminal phase (or bardo) between life and life, as depicted in The Tibetan Book of the Dead? He proposed that, functioning like a spirit antenna, ‘pineal DMT release at forty-nine days after conception marks the entrance of the spirit into the fetus’. The impact of these speculations were felt in popular esoteric (spiritualist) circles and within Strassman’s Zen Buddhist community in Northern California, where he was ordained as a lay member until he was censured and subsequently exited in the late 1990s. [Continue reading…]

A revolution in our sense of self


Nick Chater writes:

At the climax of Anna Karenina, the heroine throws herself under a train as it moves out of a station on the edge of Moscow. But did she really want to die? Had the ennui of Russian aristocratic life and the fear of losing her lover, Vronsky, become so intolerable that death seemed the only escape? Or was her final act mere capriciousness, a theatrical gesture of despair, not seriously imagined even moments before the opportunity arose?

We ask such questions, but can they possibly have answers? If Tolstoy says that Anna has dark hair, then Anna has dark hair. But if Tolstoy doesn’t tell us why Anna jumped to her death, then Anna’s motives are surely a void. We can attempt to fill this void with our own interpretations and debate their plausibility. But there is no hidden truth about what Anna really wanted, because, of course, Anna is a fictional character.

Suppose instead that Anna were a historical figure and Tolstoy’s masterpiece a journalistic reconstruction. Now Anna’s motivation becomes a matter of history, rather than a literary interpretation. Yet our method of inquiry remains the same: the very same text would now be viewed as providing (perhaps unreliable) clues about the mental state of a real person, not a fictional character. Historians, rather than literary scholars, might debate competing interpretations.

Now imagine that we could ask Anna herself. Suppose the great train slammed on its brakes just in time. Anna, apparently mortally injured, is conveyed in anonymity to a Moscow hospital and, against the odds, pulls through. We catch up with Anna convalescing in a Swiss sanatorium. But, as likely as not, Anna will be as unsure as anyone else about her true motivations. After all, she too has to engage in a process of interpretation as she attempts to account for her behaviour. To be sure, she may have “data” unavailable to an outsider – she may, for example, remember the despairing words “Vronsky has left me forever” running through her mind as she approached the edge of the platform. However, any such advantage may be more than outweighed by the distorting lens of self-perception. In truth, autobiography always deserves a measure of scepticism.

There are two opposing conclusions that one might draw from this vignette. One is that our minds have dark and unfathomable “hidden depths”. From this viewpoint, we cannot expect people to look reliably within themselves and compile a complete and true account of their beliefs and motives. Psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists have long debated how best to plumb the deep waters of human motivation. Word associations, the interpretation of dreams, hours of intensive psychotherapy, behavioural experiments, physiological recordings and brain imaging have been popular options.

I believe, though, that our reflections should lead us to a different conclusion: that the interpretation of real people is no different from the interpretation of fictional characters. If Tolstoy’s novel had been reportage, and Anna a living, breathing member of the 19th-century Russian aristocracy, then, of course, there would be a truth about whether Anna was born on a Tuesday. But, I argue, there would still be no truths about the real Anna’s motives. No amount of therapy, dream analysis, word association, experiment or brain scanning can recover a person’s “true motives”, not because they are difficult to find, but because there is nothing to find. [Continue reading…]

How new data is transforming our understanding of place cells — the brain’s GPS


Adithya Rajagopalan writes:

The first pieces of the brain’s “inner GPS” started coming to light in 1970. In the laboratories of University College London, John O’Keefe and his student Jonathan Dostrovsky recorded the electrical activity of neurons in the hippocampus of freely moving rats. They found a group of neurons that increased their activity only when a rat found itself in a particular location. They called them “place cells.”

Building on these early findings, O’Keefe and his colleague Lynn Nadel proposed that the hippocampus contains an invariant representation of space that does not depend on mood or desire. They called this representation the “cognitive map.” In their view, all of the brain’s place cells together represent the entirety of an animal’s environment, and whichever place cell is active indicates its current location. In other words, the hippocampus is like a GPS. It tells you where you are on a map and that map remains the same whether you are hungry and looking for food or sleepy and looking for a bed. O’Keefe and Nadel suggested that the absolute position represented in the hippocampal place cells provides a mental framework that can be used by an animal to find its way in any situation—be that to find food or a bed.

Over the next 40 years, other researchers—including the husband and wife duo of Edvard and May-Britt Moser—produced support for the idea that the brain’s hippocampal circuitry acts like an inner GPS. In recognition of their pioneering work, O’Keefe and the Mosers were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. You’d think that this would mean that the role of the hippocampus in guiding an animal through space was solved.

But studying the brain is never that straightforward. Like a match lighting a fuse, the 2014 Nobel Prize set off an explosion of experiments and ideas, some of which have pushed back against O’Keefe and Nadel’s early interpretation. This new work has suggested that when it comes to spatial navigation, the hippocampal circuit represents location information that is relative and malleable by experience rather than absolute. The study of the hippocampus seems to have stumbled into an age-old philosophical argument. [Continue reading…]

How to die with equanimity, without fear

 

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Plants, people, and decision-making


Laura Ruggles writes:

Plants are not simply organic, passive automata. We now know that they can sense and integrate information about dozens of different environmental variables, and that they use this knowledge to guide flexible, adaptive behaviour.

For example, plants can recognise whether nearby plants are kin or unrelated, and adjust their foraging strategies accordingly. The flower Impatiens pallida, also known as pale jewelweed, is one of several species that tends to devote a greater share of resources to growing leaves rather than roots when put with strangers – a tactic apparently geared towards competing for sunlight, an imperative that is diminished when you are growing next to your siblings. Plants also mount complex, targeted defences in response to recognising specific predators. The small, flowering Arabidopsis thaliana, also known as thale or mouse-ear cress, can detect the vibrations caused by caterpillars munching on it and so release oils and chemicals to repel the insects.

Plants also communicate with one another and other organisms, such as parasites and microbes, using a variety of channels – including ‘mycorrhizal networks’ of fungus that link up the root systems of multiple plants, like some kind of subterranean internet. Perhaps it’s not really so surprising, then, that plants learn and use memories for prediction and decision-making.

Can plants make decisions?

A lot of people will balk at such a notion for obvious reasons. For instance, the idea of plants as decision-makers suggests the possibility of some plants making good decisions, others bad, and some suffering from indecisiveness.

Isn’t what is being presented as a decision, simply the outcome of a particular constellation of factors that result in a particular outcome? In which case the outcome is determined and involves no decision.

Maybe, but let’s flip this around and instead of questioning a posited decision-making process inside plants, consider what happens inside humans.

My favorite way of doing this is by attempting to zero in on the moment an action is initiated — the moment, for instance, when one decides to stand up from sitting.

Within the general field of awareness, there will probably be a phase of rumination and some physical precursors of action, but the exact moment in which the action starts — that seems to come out of nowhere. We function more like puppets animated by an invisible puppeteer and then mask our lack of agency with a narrative of purpose, after the fact.

Not sure about the agentless nature of physical action? Then consider this: what’s the next thought that will pop into your head?

Of course, we never actually know what’s going to arrive before it gets delivered. The brain offers no tracking service like Amazon.