Category Archives: Worldviews and Ethics

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

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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Attention is Biased towards Emotion

Events filled with emotion are more likely to capture our attention. The media has known this for a long time of course. And we know that we pay more attention when spouses finally become angry and yell after we’ve found ourselves only half listening to what they say.

We are not passive observers of the world. To some degree we choose what we see (or our brains do it for us), and then we give it significance according to the well-known “ladder of perception” model. We’ve all experienced the heightened awareness that we have of an event when we feel truly emotional about it.

Neuroscientists can now suggest that emotional significance does indeed influence our perceptions – and that the amygdala is the portion of the brain that is responsible. Researchers at Yale and New York University have shown that the amygdala “alters the ease by which events with increased emotional value reach awareness.”

These findings suggest that our perceptual systems are exquisitely tuned to the occurrence of emotionally significant stimulus events, requiring much less attention or effort to reach conscious awareness compared to events of neutral value.

In other words, out attention is biased to pay more attention when emotion is involved. Motivational speakers know it. Preachers know it. Good teachers know it. Coaches need to know it as well. A little bit of passion can go a long way.

I have long remembered something that was said to me some years ago in the midst of an emotional turmoil at the time – “People will forget what you say to them. They will never forget how you make them feel.” I’ve found that to be true over the years.

Link: EurekAlert

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Paying Taxes Makes me Feel Good?

Under certain circumstances . . . yes. At least according to a recent study by three University of Oregon researchers. In situations where taxes went to help a charitable cause the same pleasure centers in the brain were activated as when eating chocolate or some other favored pleasure.

“The surprising element for us was that in a situation in which your money is simply given to others – where you do not have a free choice – you still get reward-center activity,” said Ulrich Mayr, a professor of psychology. “I don’t think that most economists would have suspected that. It reinforces the idea that there is true altruism – where it’s all about how well the common good is doing. I’ve heard people claim that they don’t mind paying taxes, if it’s for a good cause – and here we showed that you can actually see this going on inside the brain, and even measure it.”

What might this mean for our old friend Ted? His threat level is down because he’s not afraid of being penalized for failure to pay his taxes. And emotionally he’s feeling pretty good as his reward-centers give him good feelings. As to his thoughts, well the idea of giving to a charity, even involuntarily, resonates with his personal ideas about what it means to do “good.” All three of his systems are pretty congruent and Ted’s at peace with the world for the moment . . . whatever his personal feelings on the how, what or when of it all.

There are of course other factors besides reward that play into altruism. A recent Duke University study suggests that worldview might be more significant than individual action in fostering altruistic behavior. (Activation of Brain Region Predicts Altruism). And there are many other points in the continuing research and discussion.

Interesting implications for coaching situations would seem to revolve around motivation and self-interest. To highly altruistic individuals, appeal to the common good could prove a sufficiently motivating force. To the less altruistic, the University of Oregon study suggests that encouragement in terms of personal reward might be a pragmatic motivational tool.

In any case, it seems that an appeal to altruistic behavior through the “it will make you feel good” rationale may have some actual physiological validity.

Link: http://Paying Taxes, According to the Brain, can bring Satisfaction

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The Brain, Trust and Free Markets

Paul Zak, Director of Claremont Graduate University’s Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, has been awarded a $1.5 million grant to study what happens in the brain when people experience feelings of generosity and compassion. The purpose of the research is to explain the mechanisms of the brain at work during normal economic behavior. Zak will be testing the hypothesis that the actual engine driving the free-market economy is good behavior and trust rather than self-interest alone.

He will be building on earlier work in which he determined that an accurate barometer of the economic health of a nation is the level of trust in the country between people, especially strangers. Countries with higher levels of trust do better economically than countries with low levels.

Link:

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