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The conscious Id

Posted on January 12, 2014 at 7:50 PM Comments comments (94)
The conscious Id - lecture delivered at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute

1. How the body is represented in the brain. 

The 'external' body 

There are two aspects of the body that are present in the brain and they are represented differently. The first is the 'external body' - the somato-topic body image, a map of the body represented on the surface of the brain in a point-to-point fashion. It is derived from the classical sensory receptors distributed over the surface of the body and projected on the surface of the brain. The body image is constructed out of a convergence, a hetero-modal conjoining of different exteroceptive sensory projections zones. The part of the brain which represents our external body also represents in the same manner all external objects. The external body is in other words an object, perceived in the same way that we perceive the external world. The motor projection zone, the motor-homunculus is also part of the map of body, in this case the muscular and  skeletal body which gives effect to our voluntary movements. All voluntary movements give rise to sensations - there is kinesthetic and proproceptive change as we make a movement. 

The 'internal' body 

The internal milieu is represented deeper in the brain. These brain structures monitor the vegetative or autonomic states of the body. The brain representations of this part of the body function largely automatically but they also arouse the representation of the external body to serve the vital needs of the internal body in the outside world. There is a hierarchical interdependence between the two different aspects of the body as they are represented in the brain. These two different aspects of the body each generate very different types of consciousness. The interoceptive aspect of the brain gives rise to states of consciousness, the sort of background awareness, the 'page' on which the words of consciousness are written. 

States of the body as 'subject' involve not only levels of consciousness like 'sleep' versus 'wakefulness' but also qualities of consciousness. Interoceptive consciousness is intrinsically affective - emotional. Affect is the modality of interoceptive perception, by which we qualify our interoceptive states of awareness. The key note  is registered in the pleasure/unpleasure series (associated with the periaqueductal gray). These affective states tell us what is 'good' and what is 'bad', biologically speaking. Consciousness evolved to enable us to attribute 'good' and 'bad' valences to our experience. External experience does not need to be conscious - this is evident in 'blind sight', where visual awareness is transmitted to lower brain structures, and the patients are able to navigate spacially on the basis of this unconscious sense of vision. Consciousness 'colours' external perception and attributes value to it. 

The motor aspect of the pleasure/unpleasure series is approach/avoidance behaviour. Arising from the periaqueductal gray  (PAG) and ascending to the lymbic system there are different motivational circuits. These are also known as the circuits for the basic emotions. Each one of these has a motor stereotype attached to it, which is necessary for survival and reproductive success. Examples: foraging behaviour, copulating behaviour, aggressive attack, nurture and grooming, attaching to a maternal object, freezing and fleeing. Each of these basic aspects or instincts, has a particular feeling state attached to it, this is a higher elaboration of affect than what happens at the basic level of the PAG. Feelings like fear, anger, separation distress (panic), are basic instinctive emotions which are hard-wired (unconditioned responses) into particular circuits of the brain. They are not things that we learn, they are things that we inherit - ways of feeling and ways of acting that are our phylogenetic inheritance. There is a great chemical specificity to these basic instinctual/emotional circuits. They give rise to associative learning in the process of early experience. 

3. Exteroceptive Ego, Interoceptive Id

It is easy to recognise these two aspects of the body in the Freudian metapsychology. The external body is represented in the Ego, the internal body in the Id. "The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface. If we wish to find an anatomical analogy for it we can best identify it with the 'cortical homunculus' of the anatomists (...) (Freud, The Ego and the Id). 
"the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly those springing from the surface of the body. It may be this be regarded as a mental projection of the surface of the body (...)" (Freud, Footnote to the Ego and the Id)

About the bodily origin of the Id, Freud wrote this: "The id, cut off from the external world, has a world of perception of its own. It detects with extraordinary acuteness certain changes in its interior, especially oscillations in the tensions of its instinctual needs, and these changes become conscious as feelings in the pleasure-unpleasure series. It is hard to say, to be sure, by what means and with the help of what sensory terminal organs these perceptions come about. But it is an established fact that self-perceptions-coenaesthetic feelings and feelings of pleasure-unpleasure- govern the passage of events in the id with despotic force. The id obeys the inexorable pleasure principle". (Freud, 1939)

"An instinct (in the original "Trieb", meaning drive) appears to us as a concept on the frontier between mental and the somatic, as the psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching the mind, as a measure of the demand made upon the mind for work in consequence of its connection with the body" (Freud, 1915) 

"And what is an affect in the dynamic sense? It is in any case something highly composite. An affect includes in the first place particular motor innervations or discharges and secondly certain feelings; the latter are of two kinds - perceptions of the motor actions that have occurred and the direct feelings of pleasure and unpleasure, which, as we say, give the affect its keynote. But I do not think that with this enumeration we have arrived at the essence of an affect. We seem to see deeper in the case of some affects and to recognize that the core which holds the combination we have described together in the repetition of some particular significant experience. This experience could only be a very early impression of a very general nature, placed in the prehistory not of the individual but the species. (Freud, 1916-1917)

3. The exteroceptive fallacy

This parallelism between exteroceptive and interoceptive brain mechanisms on the one hand and Ego and Id on the other, gives rise to a radical revision of Freud's metapsychology. Freud never questioned the classical neuro-behavioural assumption that consciousness was a cortical function. "It will be seen that there is nothing daringly new in these assumptions; we have merely adopted the views on localization held by cerebral anatomy, which locates the 'seat' of consciousness in the cerebral cortex- the outermost, enveloping layer of the central organ." (Freud, 1923) 

Freud understood that consciousness also entailed an interoceptive affective dimension. "I believe we can say that Freud's insights on the nature of affect are consonant with the most advanced contemporary neuroscience views." (Damasio, 1999) 

In making the assumption that consciousness is cortical, Freud was following a long tradition, which continues today. "When electrical stimuli applied to the amygdala of humans elicit feelings of fear, it is not because the amygdala 'feels' fear, but instead because the various networks that the amygdala activates ultimately provide working memory with inputs that are labeled as fear. This is all compatible with the Freudian notion that conscious emotion is the awareness of something that is basically unconscious." (LeDeux, 1999) (This is the read-out theory of emotions) 

The latest incarnation of this tradition is the theory of Bud Craig. He believes that there is a primary cortical projection zone for the internal body, and this projection zone is in the cortex, in the posterior aspect of the insula. This posterior insula Bud Craig describes as the basis for self-consciousness (awareness of the self). 

4. Consciousness without cortex
Recent research demonstrates unequivocally that the cortical-centric view of consciousness and the self are wrong. According to the theory above, a patient with a completely obliterated insula should, lack subjective selfhood, he should lack the page upon which consciousness is 'written', but this is not the case. Damasio (2011) interviewed such a patient, who retained a sense of self.

High-brain encephaly, condition in which the child is born with no cortex whatsoever, usually due to a cerebro-vascular event in utero. As result of this stroke in the womb the higher part of the brain fails to develop at all. Bjorn Merker (2007) has a lot of experience working with many such patients. "These children are not only awake and alert, but show responsiveness to their surroundings in the form of emotional or oriental reactions to environmental events, most readily to sounds, but also to salient visual stimuli. They express pleasure by smiling and laughter and aversion by fussing, arching of the back and crying in many gradations their faces being animated by these emotional states. The familiar adult can employ this responsiveness to build play sequences (...)." 

5. Consciousness is endogenous

There is in the cases of high-brain encephaly severe degradation in the type of consciousness that are associated or derived from the external body. By contrast, the background 'page' of consciousness, the raw phenomenal self onto which object experience is written is fully present. The body as subject is fundamentally intact, as is instinctual affect and motivation. The only intact ego function in these cases seems to be a rudimentary form of associative, implicit learning derived from unconscious perception impacting on their instincts. It seems that all cortico-centric views of consciousness are wrong, Freud's included. 

If consciousness is not cortical, where is it generated? Basic states of consciousness like wakefulness versus sleep are regulated in sub-cortical structures (brain-stem), as are states of vigilance and arousal. Cases of lesions to these structures have demonstrated the veracity of this view. When damage occurs in the periaqueductal gray (PAG) consciousness is obliterated entirely. PAG is the smallest area of brain that needs to be lesioned in order to totally obliterate consciousness. We also know from epilepsy studies that consciousness is generated in the upper brain-stem regions. Penfield (1954) observed that seisures occurring cortically only impair one aspect of consciousness. It is only when they reach central-cephalic structures in the upper brain-stem that consciousness is lost. 

All that is new is the realisation by people like Panksepp and Damasio that conscious states generated by these upper brain-stem functions are intrinsically affective or emotional. Consciousness is generated in the part of the mind that is driven by our internal bodily needs that activates instinctual motivational behaviours that are innate, hard wired (Id). Ego consciousness is derived from the Id, not the other way around. This is important, because it turns the talking cure on its head. For Freud, the value of words is their exteroceptive origin, their capacity to extend consciousness downwards. All the evidence points in the opposite direction. 

6. Mental solids (object representations). 

Representations of the actual world, that are stored in the cortex. They can be activated both externally and internally. They serve both perception and cognition (recognition). Such processes are unconscious in themselves. It's only when they are engaged by upper brain-stem consciousness that they come to mind. What renders objects conscious is their incentive salience to us - their biological relevance in the pleasure-unpleasure series. 

Inhibitory constraints are required. Inhibition of actions entails toleration of frustration - that is an overriding the pleasure principle but more efficient and secure satisfaction of biological imperatives is achieved this way. Thinking is interposed between drives and action (working memory - trial action).

7. The reflexive ego

The external body representation represents 'me' as an object, experienced like other objects. It is a re-presentation of the subject, not the subject itself. We experience the illusion that the body is the locus of our consciousness. The body 'owns' the self the same way the child projects itself in the animated avatars in a computer games. These self-representations rapidly come to be treated by the child as if they really were the child itself. Kover and Ersen (2008) - performed body-swap experiments, in which a camera on the forehead of a mannequin (a false body) being projected into the goggles worn by an experimental body rapidly creates the illusion in the subject that the mannequin is their body. They come to feel it as being 'my body'. They are projected into being this mannequin robotic body. The objectivity of the illusion is demonstrated by the fact that fear responses can be elicited in the subject by threatening the false body with a knife.

This illusion is the same as the 'rubber hand illusion' in which the real hand is screened from view and the rubber hand is placed at the elbow. Both the real hand and the rubber hand are stroked simultaneously but only the rubber hand is seen. The subject rapidly comes to feel that the rubber hand is the real hand. (Also see 'phantom-limb phenomena). These phenomena demonstrate that the bodily self of everyday experience is an acquired representation - a memory image. fMRI studies show that 'bits' can be added or extracted from the cortical homunculi easily (the locus of Freud's bodily ego).The ephemary nature of the sensory motor homunculi is also demonstrated by the motor neuron phenomena. They are neurons which fire in the pre-motor cortex when we perform a certain movement. They also fire when we watch someone else perform the same movement. From the point of view of these neurons exactly the same thing is happening, it makes no difference which one is making the movement. How do we come to know which movement is ours (belongs to this object called 'my body') as opposed to that object called 'her body'. How do we tell the difference? 

Vittorio Galesi suggests that in the prefrontal cortex additional inhibitory activity occurs which makes the distinction, when it is not 'me' performing the movement. Interestingly this does not happen in schizophrenic subjects. So in this respect the differentiation between 'self' and 'other' is controlled by the prefrontal lobe. In the primary process mode there is no distinction between self and object representations. Second order re-representation enables the subject to differentiate between 'self' and 'other objects'. It can re-represent itself as "me seeing something separate from myself". This "me doing things" is felt to be the agent of everyday experience. The gap between the primary phenomenal consciousness emanating from the Id and the secondary re-representation is illustrated in the experiments of Benjamin Libet, which show that there is a lag half a second between the subjects making a movement and  thinking I am going to make the move now. (Subjects start making the movement before they are consciously 'deciding' to execute it). He interpreted this to mean "we unconsciously decide to make the movement before we consciously decide to make the movement". 

This declarative self generated by higher-order re-representations is also felt to be the agent of episodic memory. The whole trend of the secondary process is to reduce surprise, to increase predictability and automaticity and thereby to decrease consciousness, to transform declarative, explicit cognitions into non-declarative, implicit cognitions, to minimise the need for the affective presence of the Id. 

8. If the Id is conscious... 
All this has massive implications for freudian metapsychology, including the metapsychology of the talking cure. "Where id was, there ego shall be" (Freud, 1933, New Introductory Lectures). 

The nature of communication in the talking cure.

Posted on January 12, 2014 at 6:36 PM Comments comments (106)

Mark Solms is the director of the Arnold Pfeffer Center for Neuro-Psychoanalysis at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute; a lecturer at the University College Londons Department of Psychology; a consultant in neuropsychology at the Anna Freud Center in London; and an honorary lecturer in the Academic Department of Neurosurgery at St. Bartholomews and the Royal London School of Medicine. Over the last 15 years, Dr. Solms has been the driving force in establishing the new field of neuro-psychoanalysis, which brings together the fields of neuroscience and psychoanalysis.

What is the nature of communication between the analyst and the patient 

Defining psychoanalysis as "the talking cure" is somewhat misleading, a misnomer. We have the mystical-sounding phrase from Freud about the communication from the unconscious of the patient to the unconscious of the analyst. We speak of empathic attunement and projective identification as a form of communication between patient and analyst, which is reflected in the countertransference. The nature of communication in the analytic room somehow fails to be conveyed in the words that are transcribed down from a recording of the analytic session. Something goes on inside of the patient and the analyst in parallel with the talking which cannot be readily captured. 

The building blocks of the meaning-making process. 

The most rudimentary form of a conscious thing that stands for something occurs within ourselves about ourselves, to ourselves. Communication is communication of meaning. The best theory that we are working with revolves around the notion that consciousness originates in structures within the very deep core of our brain stems. These structures which project very widely to the forebrain, are representing aspects of the state of ones self, the subjective state, the visceral bodily state. This state of self is meaningfully being represented as a feeling of consciousness which either feels good or bad. Action tendencies are intrinsically interwoven to these feeling states. Pleasurable feelings are associated with approach behaviours, they motivate approach behaviours. 

Negative/painful feelings are associated with avoidance behaviours. These raw feeling states originate in the periaqueductal gray (PAG). Even in such elementary forms of consciousness, something is conveyed but not necessarily intentionally. We see that in herd-contagion behaviour. 

The approach mechanism is essentially a seeking mechanism. It has to do with detecting needs that can only be met in the outside world. It is almost an implicit predictive mechanism: "Unless I go looking for food, I am not going to survive". The feeling that comes with it is mildly optimistic, mildly curious - "something good is going to happen and I want to be there kind of feeling". Freud defined emotions as "mnemic residues of biological situations of universal significance". The universality of significance makes us all know what it means when we see it. Basic emotion systems link our core consciousness to the outside world and those around us. Emotions are a perceptual modality, they are a medium of consciousness just as vision, smell, hearing are a medium of consciousness.  

When another animal (human) feels something and another sees it, hears it, smell it (there are all sorts of ways in which the state of an animal is conveyed) then one knows what the other animal is feeling. These are things which we can't afford to learn, they are "mnemic residues" - we just know what it means, although we may not be able to demonstrate. Empathic knowing When I see that experience it activates the same system in me. I know what it is because it is activated in me. Mirror-neurons allow a higher level elaboration of this basic system. Mirror-neurons were accidentally discovered in a research lab in Italy. When a monkey with a brain activity recording device on its brain observes another monkey eating a banana, the same areas in the brain of the observing monkey are activated. There is a mirroring of the motor-neuron activity in the acting monkey, which is activated in the brain of the perceiving monkey. 

The prefrontal cortex allows for a suppression of the basic emotional systems, inhibiting the action tendencies associated with them. They enable us to not have to act on the feeling, to create virtual scenarios, to represent the relation between things. A 'non-doing' kind of thinking evolves - a highly abstracted, symbolic thinking removed from the emotional core. It is our 'pride and joy' but the price is that it alienates us from our feelings. We develop this curious inability to know what is driving our own actions. 

In therapy the analyst is taught to listen with his "third ear", with an evenly suspended attention. The analyst does not listen to the words, because they only convey part of the story - she picks something up, she feel something, which is akin to a biological situation with universal significance. This way we recognise the patient's emotional configuration, and we use the words to convey our understanding. The talking cure is not about the talking - the talking is about feelings. 

Compassion Based CBT workshop with Prof Paul Gilbert

Posted on January 9, 2014 at 12:09 PM Comments comments (0)
This is a workshop delivered by Prof Paul Gilbert at Palo Alto University in 2013 about the scientific premise and technique of Compassion Focused Therapy. 

Overview of Compassion Focused Therapy and the process of change with compassion. 

CFT is a psychological model, although it uses elements of CBT, humanistic and psychodynamic therapies. CFT started with Prof Gilbert's interest in patients who were struggling with standard therapies (diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder). These patients were focused on shame and self-criticism, which is linked to poor outcomes. He wanted to understand evolutionary mechanisms which maintained emotional problems. 

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy traditionally focuses on replacing on unhelpful thoughts and behaviour with helpful thoughts and behaviour. However some clients say they see the logic of the alternative thoughts but do not feel reassured or helped at the emotional level. They also say: "I know I am not to blame but I still feel to blame"

We need to feel congruent emotion in order for our thoughts to be meaningful to us. Emotions "tag" meaning onto experiences. In order to be reassured by the thought "I am loveable", this needs to be linked with the experience of 'being loveable'. Many patients who come from traumatic backgrounds have few memories of being loveable or soothed and thus may struggle to feel reassured and safe by alternative thoughts. 

Compassion focused therapy targets the activation of the soothing system so that it can be more readily accessed and used to help regulate threat-based emotions of anger, fear, disgust and shame. 

Evolutionary model of psychopathology 

We are an emergent species in the 'flow of life' so our brains, with their mechanisms for motives, emotions and competencies are products of evolution, designed to function in certain ways. 

Anxiety disorders are related to how cognitions trigger innate defences - fight, flight, demobilisation (Marks, 1987) or danger modes (Beck, 1996)

Depressions are related to evolved mechanisms for coping with defeats and loss (Beck, 1987; Gilbert, 1992)

Personality disorders are related to the under or over development of innate strategies (e.g. cooperation vs. competition) (Beck, Freeman et al. 1990; Gilbert, 1987)

The social circumstances of our lives, over which we have no control, have major implications for the kinds of minds we have, the way our genes become expressed, the kids of brains we end up with, the kind of person we become, the values we endorsed and the lives we live. 

How new psychologies emerged in the world
500 mil years ago - Reptilian psychology (territory, fear, aggression, sex, hunting)
120 mil years ago - Mammalian psychology (capacity for caring, group, alliance building, play, status)
2 mil years ago - Human psychology emerged (capacity for symbolic thought and self-identity, theory of mind, meta-cognition)
1 mil years ago - Human capacity for extended caring (looking after the old or the sick) 

Why we have complex brains and minds that are difficult to understand and regulate

The Old Brain: Emotions (anger, anxiety, sadness, joy, lust); Behaviours (fight, flight, withdraw, engage) Relationships (sex, status, attachment, tribalism)
New Brain: Imagination, fantasise, look back and forward, collating and integrating vast amounts of information from different modalities- sensory emotional, plan, ruminate. 
Social Brain: Need for affection and care 

The brain has a number of built-in biases. Biased learning (fear of snakes, heights). Biases can be implicit or explicit. We tend to be self-focused, kin-focused and exhibit in-group preferences. 

We have a capacity to become aware of being awareness. Mindfulness is the capacity to observe one's mind and it naturally calms us down. Compassion comes is a motivating system rooted in the caring system. Compassion has to be understood as an interaction - it depends also on the other being responsive to being cared for. 

The mind is primarily a social signalling system (See Tronick's 'still face' experiment, Joseph Campos experiment on the role of non-verbal communication guiding behaviour in babies) 

Humans have fundamentally have a desire to be helpful( Warneken and Tomasello experiments in compassion in babies). 

Evolutionary functional analysis 

There are three types of emotions, which act as motivators: 
-those that focus on threat and self-preservation
-those that focus on doing and achieving 
-those that focus on contentment and feeling safe. 

The threat system is the dominant system in your brain. It is designed to over-rule and switch off everything else. Attention becomes narrow-focused, scans for threats, moves towards thinking about what could go wrong. In anger and anxiety the body feelings overlap. Borderline patients are not able to distinguish between tension and anxiety. 

The Interface Between Neurobiology and Psychotherapy

Posted on May 23, 2013 at 7:34 AM Comments comments (107)
This is an interview available online, through Online Events [you will need to set up an account].

Mind and Life conference 2o13

Posted on March 27, 2013 at 9:08 AM Comments comments (105)
Michel Bitpol asks "Does consciousness have a material basis"? 
Michel Bitpol is research director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

A summary:
There are many western thinkers that are opposed to the idea that consciousness has a material basis. This idea is asymmetrical. Matter is a basic given and consciousness is a derivative. How is it that material processes give rise to consciousness. This asymmetrical view may not be supported by the facts we have. 

Is the view that conscious experience derives from a material basis imposed by science? 
The very method of science tends to this idea because scientists are focused on objects and their objects are material objects that can be seen from the third person point of view. 

There seems to be an apparent consensus:
The entire brain is sufficient for consciousness" [Christoph Koch, 2oo4]
"Consciousness is a physical, biological phenomenon, like reproduction [Dan Dennett, 25]
Arguments for this position
There are strong correlations between conscious events, mental events and the workings of the brain. Using these correlations we could even perform "thought reading". Placing detectors on the brain we could identify what the person is thinking based on which areas in the brain become active. We can stimulate certain parts of the brain and very specific experiences and contents of consciousness occur. [Penfield]

Yet in spite of these arguments there is widespread doubt:
"Describing a neural process is not living it." [G.Edelman, 21oo1] There is always a gap between the description and the experience. 
"Subjectivity is too radically different from anything physical for it to be an emergent phenomenon" [Christoph Koch, 2o12]

Corelation does NOT automatically mean causation! 

The fact that there is correlation between brain and mental events does not necessarily mean that brain events cause mental events. 
There are other possibilities besides causation [A ->B]. 
Thesee are: reverse causation [B->A]
Bidirectional causation [A <--> B]
Common cause: Both A and B are caused by C
No cause: A and B are like the two sides of a spoon 

Does trans-cranial stimulation prove that the brain causes consciousness? We now know that reverse causation is possible as well. Conscious events cause brain events [eg. Mental training changes the brain]

Consciousness is the starting point of any inquiry
According to the materialistic view what is 'given' is the matter. Yet what is more glaring and more obvious than material objects is the experience that we have of them. 

Francisco Varela [1996] "Lived experience is where we start from and where all must link back to, like a guiding thread." 
Christoph Koch [2o12] "Without consciousness there is nothing"
Edmund Husserl [1913] Consciousness is what is certain; any object of consciousness can be a delusion. 

The blindspot of science
"Nothing in the visual field allows you to infer that it is seen by an eye" [Wittgenstein] The seer doesn't see itself. [The Upanishad] The eye of science does not see itself. 
"As soon as one has adopted the standpoint of objective knowledge, the knower does not enter into the visual field." Nishida Kitaro 
"The world of science is not the world of the true reality" Nishida Kitaro There most fundamental aspect of reality, which is experience, is lost to science in favour of objects. 

The strange loop
There is a mutual relationship between the brain and consciousness and this mutual relationship is itself understood in experience. 
"Men will urge that the mind is dependent upon the brain, or, with equal plausability that the brain is dependent upon the mind." Bertrand Russell

An experiment: 
We see an image of a brain which is seen by an eye of somebody who has a brain. The picture of the brain is projected on the visual cortex and the person sees the brain. We, on the outside of the picture are seeing a brain which is seeing a brain? Who is seeing us seeing this image? We are not thinker, we are experiencers. 

If I don't have a brain I don't have consciousness but also if I don't have consciousness I don't have a brain. We need consciousness to see that we have a brain. 

A neuroscientific approach to consciousness does not need to be reductionistic and materialist. 
Francisco Varela [1946-2oo1] did not want to have an objective science of subjectivity. Instead he wanted a science that would cultivate both the objective and the subjective points and connect them. He said that in any theoretical approach of consciousness "what is missing is not the coherent nature of the explanation but its alienation from human life" [1996] 

Neuroscience and its methodological limits

Posted on January 13, 2013 at 5:02 PM Comments comments (0)
What neuroscience can teach us and what it can't. A critique by Gary Marcus, professor of psychology, published in The New Yorker

The emergence of contemplative neuroscience

Posted on December 11, 2012 at 11:02 AM Comments comments (94)
"Understanding the immense potential of the brain provides insight into our ability to change, underpinned by neuroplasticity. Meditation is one way of achieving greater potential and along with the concept of mindfulness, frequently plays a part in tackling the problem of pain." 

The science of compassion. Cultivating compassion.

Posted on December 10, 2012 at 5:58 PM Comments comments (101)

Richard J. Davidson is one of the pioneer researchers in the neuroscience of emotion.

He has studied "experts in compassion", Budhist monks who have over 10.000 hours of formal practise in compassion meditation. They monitored areas of the brain that were going to be "recruited" during mediation.   

When practitioners begin to meditate they show a dramatic increase in gamma oscillations. There is no specific circuit in the brain dedicated to compassion but compassion training affects parts of the brain that are involved in many other kinds of function.

Circuits that are known to be involved in emotion and empathy - the Anterior Insula (AI), Temporal Parietal Junction (TPJ) and the Amygdala are being modulated during meditation.

They also looked at changes in the functioning of the autonomic nervous system. Compassion induces changes in heart rate. When the experts practice compassion there is a higher coupling between the activity in the brain (insula and the dorsal anterior cingulate) and heart rate. 

Even two weeks' daily 30 minute practice of compassion meditation changes the activity in the brain and stimulates altruistic behaviour. In an experiments practitioners were asked to contemplate and visualize the suffering and then wish the freedom from suffering for: a person they love, for themselves, for a stranger, for a person whom they find difficult and all beings. The phrase most used was: "May you be free from suffering. May you experience joy and ease. They were instructed to notice visceral sensations (especially in the area of the heart) and were instructed to feel compassion emotionally not simply repeat phrases cognitively. 

The researchers collected brain data and behavioural data before and after the training and noticed that compassion training changed brain function and also resulted in people being more likely to act altruistically.

Infinite Monkey Cage BBC 4

Posted on December 10, 2012 at 5:07 PM Comments comments (117)
The BBC4 chat/comedy/science show Infinite Monkey Cage tackles brain science. Listen here.

Neuroscience resources

Posted on November 30, 2012 at 4:46 PM Comments comments (97)
Here are some excellent free online lectures on neuroscience

Stamford University Human Biology Course (2010) run by Dr. Robert Sapolsky (25 lectures x 1.40 hours) 

Howard Hughes Medical Institute 2008 Holiday Lectures on Science 
Making your Mind. Molecules and Memory. Lectures 1 and 4 "Memories are Made of This” and “Mapping Memory in the Brain” Lecturer: Erik R. Kandel. M.D (2 hours) 

Google Lecture Series "Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation" Lecturer: Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. (1 hour) 

Stress and Memory - Forget it! (Webcast) Lecture delivered by Dr. R. Sapolsky (1h 38min) 

Stamford University "Depression in US" Lecture delivered by Dr. Sapolsky (52min)

And some online articles 

Variation in the human cannabinoid receptor CNR1 gene modulates gaze duration for happy faces by Chakrabarti B and Baron-Cohen S, Molecular Autism 2011, 2:10 (29 June 2011)

The Prefrontal Cortex: Executive and Cognitive Functions by Simon Gerhand,

Reduced Prefrontal Gray Matter Volume and Reduced Autonomic Activity in Antisocial Personality Disorder by Adrian Raine, DPhil; Todd Lencz, Phd; Susan Bihrle, Phd; Lori LaCasse, BA; Patrick Colletti, MD, Arch Gen Psychoatry/Vol 57, Feb 2000

Antisocial Personality Disorder, J. Reid Melory, Ph.D.

An Integrative Theory of Prefrontal Cortex Function, Earl K. Miller and Jonathan D. Cohen Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 2001. 24:167–202

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