Category Archives: brain

The Brain and Surprise

Hate surprises or love them?  Our brains handle surprises and attraction and aversion (valence in techno speak) in different ways.  The amygdala processes emotional responses and a new study indicates that two distinctly differing sets of neurons within it respond to either reward or aversion.  And not only that, but that the expectation of reward or aversion also triggers these networks of neurons.  The speculation is that the intensity of reward and aversion effect is intensified by surprise and that neural circuitry is required to process both surprise and the degree of attraction or aversion that an individual feels towards specific events.

Link:  ScienceDaily

Consciousness and the Brain Stem

Suppose consciousness exists at a more fundamental level than the brain’s cortex. Swedish neuroscientist Bjorn Merker suggests that “primary consciousness,” which he regards as an ability to integrate sensations from the environment with one’s immediate goals and feelings in order to guide behavior, springs from the brain stem. “To be conscious is not necessarily to be self-conscious,” Merker says. “The tacit consensus concerning the cerebral cortex as the ‘organ of consciousness’ … may in fact be seriously in error.”

Merker bases his proposals on observations of cortically-deprived children with a condition known as hydranencephaly, the absence of most of the brain’s cortex. The children that he observed “recognized familiar adults, liked familiar settings, and preferred specific toys, tunes, or video programs. Although saddled with limited mobility, some kids took behavioral initiatives, such as learning to activate a toy by throwing a switch.”

He also built his theory on earlier work conducted by Canadian neurosurgeons Wilder Penfield and Herbert Jasper. Their work in removing large portions of cortex in the treatment of severe epilepsy helped isolate physiological bases for “absence epilepsy,” a sudden loss of consciousness, that indicated brain stem involvement in primary consciousness. Merket adds that animal research activity since that time confirms the brain stem’s involvement in primary consciousness.

He proposes that such a consciousness yields a two-dimensional view of the world with moving shapes. It also is able to respond emotionally in ways that are recognizably human, suggesting that the brain stem is more than a mere reptilian vestige. “The human brain stem is specifically human,” Merker says. “These children smile and laugh in the specifically human manner, which is different from that of our closest relatives among the apes.”

Link: Consciousness in the Raw

For more information: NINDS Hydranencephaly Information Page

One support group’s experiences and observations: Rays of Sunshine

The Liberal and Conservative Brain

The brain neurons of liberals and conservatives fire differently when confronted with tough choices, suggesting that some political differences may, at least in part, be hard-wired.

David Amodio, Assistant Professor of Psychology, New York University, is a self-described social neuroscientist. Using methodologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging in combination with behavioral measures he examines the interactions of the brain with its social environment.

Intrigued by previous studies showing strong links between political persuasion and certain personality traits as well as the fact that such affinities between political views and “cognitive style” can be heritable, Dr. Amodio brought together 43 test subjects.

Using electroencephalographs, which measure neuronal impulses, the researchers examined activity in a part of the brain — the anterior cingulate cortex — that is strongly linked with the self-regulatory process of conflict monitoring.

The match-up was unmistakable: respondents who had described themselves as liberals showed “significantly greater conflict-related neural activity” when the hypothetical situation called for an unscheduled break in routine.

Conservatives, however, were less flexible, refusing to deviate from old habits “despite signals that this … should be changed.”

As to implications, Dr. Amodio stated, “The neural mechanisms for conflict monitoring are formed early in childhood,” and are probably rooted in part in our genetic heritage. But even if genes may provide a blueprint for more liberal or conservative orientations, they are shaped substantially by one’s environment over the course of development.”

Which leaves the question of “nature or nurture” still unanswered – at least for the moment.

But it does provide interesting thought for coaching. As we consider our political views and actions we do well to remember that our first and most powerful responses tend to be emotion-based. And so we learn to factor in emotional bias. This study suggests that we factor in as well the idea that political leaning and cognitive style may have some degree of hard-wiring involved.

So what?

Since perceived threat, one of the fundamentals behind conflict-monitoring, drives certain predictable behavioral responses, we know in advance that to have any sort of constructive dialog across such divides we need to alleviate the threat. Issues aside, the threats for conservatives and liberals are processed differently according to this study.  Recognition of that fact can let us make allowances for differences in thinking styles rather than attributing differences to intent.  And that at least adds another tool for building an agreed-upon arena for dialog if nothing else.

Link: Homo politicus: brain function of liberals, conservatives differs

2 Brain Networks Control our Goal-Oriented Behaviors

Recent work by Bradley L. Schlaggar and Steven Peterson of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis suggests that two independent control centers manage our voluntary, goal-oriented behavior. One is flexible and rapidly adapts to changing feedback. The other can focus in on something and tune out distractions until the task is finished.

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Scientists exploring the upper reaches of the brain’s command hierarchy were astonished to find not one but two brain networks in charge, represented by the differently-colored spheres on the brain image above. Starting with a group of several brain regions implicated in top-down control (the spheres on the brain), they used a new brain-scanning technique to identify which of those regions work with each other. When they graphed their results (bottom half), using shapes to represent different brain regions and connecting brain regions that work with each other with lines, they found the regions grouped together into two networks. The regions in each network talked to each other often but never talked to brain regions in the other network.

This is seen as an example of a class of systems known as complex adaptive systems, common both in nature and even other bodily systems such as temperature control.

Subsequent research now indicates that these two systems begin as one system in children and only differentiate into two independent systems as we mature. This suggests, among other things, why children are unable to resist impulse behaviors that hurt their long-term goals. The longer term network is “clamped” inside the network that rapidly adapts and is only able to fully express itself once it effectively separates out.

Links:

Brain’s voluntary chain-of-command ruled by not one but two captains

Brain’s control network splits in two as children approach adulthood

The Eyes have it

A bad pun indeed, but how do I know where I am? I wake up every morning and look around. I look down and see my arm – I see “me.” I have yet to wake up and find myself somewhere else in the room looking at my body lying on the bed. This fundamental question about the relationship between human consciousness and the physical body has long been the topic of discussion in philosophy, theology, psychology and the popular press, but has been rarely seen within controlled clinical settings with healthy subjects.

Dr. Henrik Ehrsson, University College London Institute of Neurology, devised a recent experimental method that allowed him to induce an out-of-body experience in healthy people under controlled conditions. By setting up separate video displays that feed live images of participants’ backs into each eye he provided the subjects a viewpoint in which they perceived that they were sitting behind their own bodies. Using two plastic rods to simultaneously touch points on both their real bodies and where the perceived bodies were located he was able to induce the test subjects to feel that they were indeed sitting behind their bodies and watching the action.

“This experiment suggests that the first-person visual perspective is critically important for the in-body experience. In other words, we feel that our self is located where the eyes are,” Ehrsson said.

The eyes’ perception “trumped” the actual feel of the plastic rod on the participant’s skin.

To try a simpler version of this yourself:

For a quicker, less powerful jaunt outside your bodily confines, try the double-mirror trick: Position two mirrors facing each other and then lean toward one so that two thirds of your face is reflected in it. Scratch your cheek and stare deep into the hall of mirrors you have created, past your original reflection, past the image of your back, and settle on the third reflection—your own face but slightly obscured. Within seconds, you won’t recognize that reflection as you, says neuroscientist Eric Altschuler of the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, who reported the phenomenon in the April issue of Perception.

Links: Scientific American

Storage Network in the Brain

Researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center have demonstrated a brain network within our frontal lobes that is associated with “cognitive reserve,” that ability of the brain to maintain a reserve of processing power despite brain attrition through aging and disease.

“With the identification of this brain network – located within the frontal lobe – that is active during the performance both of these verbal and spatial tasks and probably other types of tasks as well, we believe we have accomplished an important first step towards improving our understanding of how cognitive reserve is expressed within the brain,” said Dr. Stern, who is a professor of clinical neuropsychology in the Departments of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Psychology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Furtherance of such understanding offers promise for new methodologies aimed at fighting age and disease-related neurodegenerative processes.

Link: ScienceDaily

The Political Brain

One current discussion involving the brain’s emotional bias is to be found in and circulating around Drew Westen’s recent book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. Whatever one’s political persuasion, the book suggests among other things that emotion trumps reason when it comes to choosing political candidates.

Westen’s book is based upon studies done at Emory University.

The study has potentially wide implications, from politics to business, and demonstrates that emotional bias can play a strong role in decision-making, Westen says. “Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally biased judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret ‘the facts,’ ” Westen says.

The mechanism can be seen as an illustration of confirmation bias, the seeking of information that supports existing beliefs while ignoring or discounting contradictory evidence.

What can be done? Factoring in awareness of emotional bias is a start. A process of positive skepticism, as suggested by Michael Shermer (publisher of The Skeptic, no less), might be a useful methodology. And there are many others.

What remains foundational, whatever our arena of decision-making, is the strength of emotional bias within our mental processes and the need to manage it well.

Music on our Minds

We like music. It provides enjoyment. It also apparently offers insight into how our brains dynamically process incoming information per a recent Stanford study.

The research team showed that music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory. Peak brain activity occurred during a short period of silence between musical movements—when seemingly nothing was happening.

It is this predictive process that is one of the items of interest. With music the when of something is typically known because of underlying beat patterns, but the what aspect remains unknown. Surprises in what is expected trigger partitioning processes within the brain that may offer further insight into processes involved in focusing our attentions.

For thought – how might this information play into coaching situations?

Link: Music moves brain to pay attention, Stanford study finds

Practice Giving for your Health and Peace of Mind

“Giving is the most potent force on the planet … and will protect you your whole life,” says Steven Post, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and head of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL). Far from being a metaphysical think tank, the Institute sponsors multidisciplinary research studies that are part of a growing paradigm-shift among scientists beginning to contextualize health within a broader framework.

IRUL research is part of a significant shift under way within key scientific disciplines from focusing just on the deficit or disease model of human nature to studying the positive, virtuous, and thriving aspects. In the process, the research is broadening the understanding of what contributes to health and longevity.

“For a long time, medicine was boxed into a biomedical model … but there’s a need for a broader view,” says Doug Oman, of the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “There’s an ongoing, probably long process of trying to conceptualize … influences on health that take into account classical virtues and spirituality…. Compassion and altruism are key topics for expanding that understanding.”

So says a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor.

Over 50 multidisciplinary studies of altruism have been sponsored by the Institute. And their work builds upon at least a decade of over 500 such studies by other organizations.

Post emphasizes that the empirical evidence demonstrates that it is the feelings behind the acts rather than the mere activities themselves that benefit participants. (See also Paying Taxes makes me Feel Good?) Giving promotes beneficial neurological processes that are a natural part of healthy brain activity. And apparently, it may also play a natural part in our overall health and well-being.

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Seeing a Memory Form

What memories are made of, at least at the cellular level, has been visualized for the first time by a team of scientists at the University of California at Irvine. Changes in the size and shape of synapses, the connections between neurons, store our memories. This both verifies recent thinking and opens the way to map the storage of memory across the entire brain.  The research has important implications for the management of memory-related disease and other disorders.

Link: University of California, Irvine