Category Archives: Science & Worldview

The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love

An interesting link on the nature, expression and fostering of altruism and related is Per its mission statement –

The unique mission of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love is:

(1) to study the benefits of benevolent love for those who give it and for those who receive it
(2) to bring the results of research to the wider public in understandable and practical format
(3) to sustain an international dialogue around the possibility of global human enhancement through the application of a new science of love
(4) to encourage discussion within spiritual traditions about love for a shared humanity, rather than for some small fragment of humanity
(5) to develop an ongoing dialogue between spirituality, theology, and science around the idea of unlimited love as the ultimate ground of reality

It minimally provides a complementary venue to the more traditional philosophical, theological and scientific approaches without apparently marginalizing any of them.

See also:  The Influence of Others, Empathy and Learning to do Good, Practice Giving for your Health and Peace of Mind, Paying Taxes Makes me Feel Good?

I will Decide . . . at some Point in Time

The debate around free will ebbs and flows with each new study.  We certainly like to think that we have the ability to freely make and follow the decisions that we make.  Most of the time anyway.  We also seem to like blaming anything or anybody other than oursleves when situations start “heading south” as the old saying goes.

When do we make decisions?  At what point do we become aware that we’ve made a decision?  And at the point at which we realize that we’ve made a decision, have we perhaps made it earlier than we realize.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, have demonstrated that portions of the brain iinvolved in our decision-making processes are activated up to seven seconds before we are consciously aware that we have made a decision.

As they are quick to point out – “Our study shows that decisions are unconsciously prepared much longer ahead than previously thought.   But we do not know yet where the final decision is made.  We need to investigate whether a decision prepared by these brain areas can still be reversed.”

So the jury remains out for the moment, at least in terms of this study.  When do I decide? At some point in time.

Link:  Decision-making may be Surprisingly Unconscious Activity

Culture Influences Brain Function

Been out for the holidays among other things but of interest on my return is a news release indicating that cultural bias can influence physiological brain function.  ScienceDaily, in this post, states that people from different cultures use their brains differently to solve the same visual perception tasks.  Using the binary cultural differentiation broadly characteristic of Eastern and Western cultures (emphasis upon the individual as opposed to emphasis upon the group), the study found that –

. . . the two groups showed different patterns of brain activation when performing these tasks. Americans, when making relative judgments that are typically harder for them, activated brain regions involved in attention-demanding mental tasks. They showed much less activation of these regions when making the more culturally familiar absolute judgments. East Asians showed the opposite tendency, engaging the brain’s attention system more for absolute judgments than for relative judgments.

Making judgments outside of one’s cultural comfort zone involves more brain processing activity.  As one of the study authors suggests –

“Everyone uses the same attention machinery for more difficult cognitive tasks, but they are trained to use it in different ways, and it’s the culture that does the training,” Gabrieli says. “It’s fascinating that the way in which the brain responds to these simple drawings reflects, in a predictable way, how the individual thinks about independent or interdependent social relationships.”

Of related interest is the impact of culture on the brain’s mirror neuron system, the system that operates both when we do something as well as when we merely observe someone doing something.  It is this observation aspect that is significant as neuroscientists presently think that this “mirroring” is the neural mechanism by which people are able to empathize with others.

A recent study indicates that mirror neuron activation increases when one is observing someone from one’s own cultural background as opposed to someone from a different cultural background, even when both are making the same culturally understood gestures.  “All in all, our research suggests that with mirror neurons our brain mirrors people, not simply actions,” this study’s author states.

And that has interesting implications for empathy, group dynamics, communication, and other issues.

This idea that culture not only trains and influences how we behave, but actually impacts the physiological ways in which we use our brains is an interesting springboard for further exploring how we relate to one another, and more importantly, how we can develop better communication and coaching tools for the building of community.

Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty

Three distinct responses to new information. Do I accept it or throw it out? Or am I unsure? Our cumulative responses together build our mental models – our worldviews of everything around us.

A study conducted by Mark Cohen, Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Sam Harris, a graduate student in his lab, and Sameer Sheth of the Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests that physiological differences in processing belief and disbelief are independent of content or emotional associations. It appears that different physiological portions of the brain process belief and disbelief as well as uncertainty.

Taken together, these data offer insight into the way in which our brains work to form beliefs about the world. “What I find most interesting about our results,” said Harris, “is the suggestion that our view of the world must pass through a bottle-neck in regions of the brain generally understood to govern emotion, reward, and primal feelings like pain and disgust. While evaluating mathematical, ethical, or factual statements requires very different kinds of processing, accepting or rejecting these statements seems to rely upon a more primitive process that may be content-neutral. I think that it has long been assumed that believing that “two plus two equals four” and believing that “George Bush is President of the United States” have almost nothing in common as cognitive operations. But what they clearly have in common is that both representations of the world satisfy some process of truth-testing that we continually perform. I think this is yet another result, in a long line of results, that calls the popular opposition between reason and emotion into question.”

Of many items of interest in this study is the association of emotion with our truth-discerning processes and our personal convictions.

Link: Study Shows Brain Responds Differently to Belief and Disbelief

Tagore, Delight, my Brain – and Memory

On a personal note, Tagore’s early letters have been a delight of late. Something moves me in his early, reflective writing – the discovery by youth of something of the mystery of self, perception and the world around it. On an extended, lazy river trip he writes –

There must have been some sudden excitement in the night which sent the current racing away. I rose and sat by the window. A hazy kind of light made the turbulent river look madder than ever. The sky was spotted with clouds. The reflection of a great big star quivered on the waters in a long streak, like a burning gash of pain. Both banks were vague with the dimness of slumber, and between them was this wild, sleepless unrest, running and running regardless of consequences.

To watch a scene like this in the middle of the night makes one feel altogether a different person, and the daylight life an illusion. Then again, this morning that midnight world faded away into some dreamland, and vanished into thin air. The two are so different, yet both are true for man. Shelidah, 10th August 1894.

Many other things move me as well of course. And of many things that they have in common, a piquant poignancy is one important thread among many – a poignancy that not only occurs “in the moment” of the actual event, but is brought forth again and heightened by the simple act of remembering.

Memory is a tricky thing – that which we remember is but one approximation of the actuality – colored by who we are and what we’ve experienced. Events often becomes more pleasant in memory than the actual event itself. Our brains are pretty good storage instruments in many regards – not so much of data perhaps, but of information (data interpreted) and experience (data acted upon). But they act more effectively as interpreters than storage instruments. (Check here and here for the drier explanation if you like.)

And that is significant. For us as individuals data alone is fairly irrelevant. But data that is interpreted, experienced and colored by the complex emotional components that spring from our brains is the stuff of which our memories are made.

I think that’s why experiments such as Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits, while important, and even useful as tools, ultimately remain only that – tools of recall for our brains and minds. The data is just data. Its significance lies in the act of recollection.

And so Tagore’s words move me in my memory some 100 years after they were written. It isn’t merely the data that he left behind – but what those words cause to resonate within me. And it is that resonance that causes me delight – even as it reminds me of the limitations of my mind.

Wired for Optimism?

Future seem gloomy – or full of promise?  A new study suggests that specific parts of our brain may be hard-wired for optimism.  It found that portions of the brain (the rostral anterior cingulate cortex) are consistently activated in response to thinking “positive thoughts.”  Which might give a bit more credence to the anecdotal evidence we’ve heard for years from various self-help groups.  You can read the abstract here, or this brief mention in the Boston Globe here

This is your Brain on Advertising

An article in BusinessWeek highlights the emerging field of “neuromarketing” – using brain imaging technologies to test, and ultimately help clients control, consumer response.  To quote:

Do you ever get the creepy feeling that advertisers know how to put a lump in your throat, inspire subconscious brand loyalty, or make your mouth water? Just wait: It could get worse. An emerging technique called neuromarketing that uses brain scans to measure human response to promotional messages is starting to catch on in Europe—and soon ads may become even more effective at prompting you to pull out your wallet.

Which begs the question, of course – how much control can I maintain over my own brain?  With increasing refinement of brain imaging technologies and continually deepening understanding of how our brains actually function we face the recurring and inevitable question of how to use this knowledge.

This is the world of mental models, of philosophy, ethics, theology and other disciplines.  It is also the place of coaching.  How do we coach?  What do we coach?  How do we answer those difficult questions revolving around making our individual and collective lives better?

Link:  This is your Brain on Advertising

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