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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). 

ADHD rethought as executive functioning deficit disorder

Posted on May 19, 2013 at 5:43 PM Comments comments (107)
Russel A. Barkley is an expert in ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder]. In His 2o12 Burnett Lecture Prof Barkley describes ADHD as Executive Function Deficit Disorder. He says that this new reconceptualisation has profound implications over how ADHD should be tested in the USA. 

His theory is extremely interesting; I question his conclusions as he seems to over-emphasise medication [he is a consultant for pharmaceutical companies who produce the drugs that are used to treat ADHD in children]. The over-use of drugs is a problem as many children out-grow this developmental gap. 

The lecture is available on Youtube: Part 1 and Part 2

Summary of the theory of ADHD as EFDD

There are five brain structures involved in executive functioning: the medial prefrontal cortex, the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, the basal ganglia [striatum], the amygdala and the cerebellum. Together they create three distinct neural circuits, which are dopamine based [Javier Castellanos]

The frontal-striatal circuit: associated with deficits in response suppression, freedom from distraction, working memory, organisation and planning, known as the "cool" EF network

The frontal-limbic circuit: associated with symptoms of emotional discontrol, motivation deficits, hyperactivity-impulsivity and proneness to aggression, known as the "hot" EF network

The frontal-cerebellar circuit: associated with motor coordination deficits, and problems with timing and timeliness of behaviour, known as the "when" EF network

[For a longitudinal study of the development of the ADHD brain see the research of Philip Shaw.]

These three circuits are associated with the following functions: timing of actions and behaviour [as well awareness of self in time], goal orientated behaviour, coordination and gracefulness of our movements [and thoughts], working memory [a memory of what I am here to do], emotional inhibition and meta-cognition [self-awareness, planning, problem solving, self-regulation. 

What is executive functioning?

Dimen [198o] describes EF as the seat of social intelligence without which cooperation, reciprocity and group living would not be possible. 
EF is self-regulation [self-control]. Self-control is anything we do to ourselves to change our behaviour. Through EF in the present we are trying to change a distant outcome. [exercising now to get fit and toned in the future], or changing behaviour to change the future that comes towards us. 

There are seven different executive abilities. These abilities develop in a sequence and they are observable [externalised] in young children. In adults they become symbolic/private, unless we are alone and we are less inhibited and give ourselves commands out loud. 

Private self-speech 
o-3 years - no self talk
3-5 years - audible self-speech [no voice in the head]
5-7 years-  the child gives himself commands out-loud but starts suppressing the vocal cords and later the face movements
after 7 years - the voice in the head/the voice governs our behaviour privately

Emotional and motivational self-regulation
Self-talk helps us create and manage emotions and if we can manage our emotions we can manage our motivations. Anticipating pleasure in the future can motivate us to tolerate the time delay in getting the reward. 

Starts at around three months of age and takes ten years to mature. Involves turning attention and sensing to self; self-monitoring; self-watching 

Self-restraint or executive inhibition [stopping self from performing an action, resisting distraction]

Non-verbal working memory: 
is the visual imagery system [theatre in the mind] that guides us to our goals. We resurrect images of our past to guide us towards the future. 

Planning and problem solving 
Children's play solves as a template for problem solving because it involves analysis/synthesis, the source of all human imagination and invention [Daniel Coleman- Thinking fast and slow]

Acting at a distance: interacting towards the future and preferring delayed rewards to immediate ones. 

The pre-frontal cortex only fully matures in our early thirties. The older we get the more we expand our window to the future [anticipation of future events, thinking months and years ahead]. EF helps us create a scaffolding with the group and culture requires: being methodical, self-reliant, self-determined, resisting being manipulated by others to their advantage, being able to put a 'wall or filter' between yourself and others so you cannot be manipulated, self-defensive, reaching out and interacting with others, building friendships, reciprocity, sharing, turn-taking, initiating cooperative enterprise which is the basis of communities and government. 

Understanding ADHD in adults
Time blindness - are nearsighted to time, adrift in time, are "getting pulled along by the 'now'". 

Performance disorder: doing what you know and not knowing what to do; having a lot of knowledge but not being able to use it. It's a problem with knowing when to do and where to do rather than what to do and how

Using the past at your point of performance - the place and time where you should have used your skill but didn't

It is an intention deficit disorder.

Treatment recommendations: Working at the point of performance. Neuro-genetic therapy [using drugs to work at the level of molecular mechanisms, a form of genetic treatment]. Make rewards positive and concrete; visualising and imagining rewards; time-management training - make time concrete through the use of clocks and timers; breaking down long tasks into small chunks; breaking tasks and taking breaks every ten minutes to allow for refuelling [EF depletes our resources]; keep the sugar levels in the bloodstream up; routine aerobic exercise to oxygenate the brain; make problem-solving physical [manipulating objects]; positive self-statements; biofeedback.

How psychotherapy changes the brain

Posted on April 22, 2013 at 7:45 AM Comments comments (93)
Here is an article published in the journal "Molecular Psychiatry" - How Psychotherapy changes the brain: the contribution of functional neuro-imaging. The author is DEJ Linden from the School of Psychology, University of Wales Bangor, Bangor, UK and 
North West Wales NHS Trust, Bangor, UK. 

Article abstract:
"This paper reviews functionalneuroimaging studies on psychotherapy effects and their methodological background,including the development of symptom provocation techniques. Studies of cognitivebehavioural therapy (CBT) effects in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) were consistentin showing decreased metabolism in the right caudate nucleus. Cognitive behavioural therapy in phobia resulted in decreased activity in limbic and paralimbic areas. Interestingly, similareffects were observed after successful intervention with selective serotonin reuptakeinhibitors (SSRI) in both diseases, indicating commonalities in the biological mechanisms ofpsycho- and pharmacotherapy. These findings are discussed in the context of currentneurobiological models of anxiety disorders. Findings in depression, where both decreasesand increases in prefrontal metabolism after treatment and considerable differences betweenpharmacological and psychological interventions were reported, seem still too heterogeneousto allow for an integrative account, but point to important differences between the mechanismsthrough which these interventions attain their clinical effects."

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] 

The brain is both a source of delusion and insight

Posted on January 28, 2013 at 7:06 PM Comments comments (102)
Presentation by Richard Davidson on the first day of the Mind and Life conference (Day 1, starting min 1.46)

The human brain is the most complicated piece of matter in the Universe. There are more 20.000 genes that are expressed in the brain. There are approximately 85,000,000,000 neurons with 1,000,000,000,000,000 connections between them.The truth is that scientists have very little idea of how the brain actually works. We don't know how many episodes of mental states there are - there could be an unlimited number. 

There are 20,000 - 30,000 in a mm3 (the approx size of a head of a pin). In that same amount of space there are approx. 4 km of axons (the connections between the brain cells). There are 10,000,000,000 synapses (physical connections) that exist among cells in a mm2. The different brain regions are extraordinarily interconnected. 

The brain constructs our experience of reality. It does not faithfully represent the outside or the inside world. It transforms information and represents it in this transformed way.What we experience is not a faithful representation of what is outside.  For examples some animals can hear frequencies we cannot hear. "Attentional blink" is an experience that people have very often in which something that appears in the environment is not noticed because the mind is fixated on something else. We may be able to enhance our attention to enable us to see things that others miss. Another example is "Change blindness". Another area is in detecting facial expressions.

The brain is both a source of delusion and insight. Constructivist design suggests that the brain never faithfully represents our internal and external world. Delusion (distorted perception) results from distortions caused by: emotions, our beliefs and expectations and mental time travel.

Humans engage in mental time travel. The prefrontal cortex, which is larger in humans than in any other species, allows us to anticipate the future. This is a skill that is beneficial but can cause trouble. We have the capacity to worry about the future and ruminate about the past in a way that no other species can. We have the capacity to remember the past and think about the future. A study found that 47% of our awaking time we are either ruminating about the past or anticipating the future and not focused on what we are doing in the present. This might be a significant contributor to the problems in education. 

The contemplative traditions may have some useful exercises that can help us to maintain our focus, and this question is currently being investigated by contemplative neuroscience.

How the left brain bias impacts our world

Posted on January 15, 2013 at 11:34 AM Comments comments (0)

Here's an extract in which McGilchrist deplores the impact of left-brain bias on research. 

"We have fallen pray to a narrow-focused left-hemisphere dominated vision of the world. What the two is they give us two different versions of the world, they constrain the ways in which we can see the world. We are free from moment to moment to listen to one or the other but a culture can preferentially emphasise one rather than the other, make us feel that the other one is invalid. I believe we live in such a time. 

Now in faculties I am concerned that there is no longer a context of the humanities in which we should see all our studies, including what science means, where science goes, what science does. I think scientist can't evade the fact that they have forms of knowledge that are de-contextualized by the way in which they are talked about, but nonetheless have meaning within a context. We need to re-insert this into a humane vision of what we are and where we are going. 

There is none of that standing back anymore. We are right up against the detail of what we see. There's a belief in certain facts that can be put together and are definitely immutably true and they build up a picture of the Real world. There's a loss of the sense of how things are done. Now it's all a matter of quantity. Quality is ceded to quantity. 

I believe this fragmentization in academe, over-specialization, technicalizing of information - numbers have replaced human speech and procedures and algoritms have taken over from embodied skills that are learned with a lifetime of experience and really were the things that were transmitted by teachers to their students. I think this has had a damaging effect on the way we research and the way we teach and there is little emphasis on embodied knowledge, on tentativeness, on contextualization, on openness to other paradigms and that is not good for ourselves or our future."

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 divided brain

Posted on January 13, 2013 at 4:48 PM Comments comments (102)
In this RSAnimate, renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist explains how our 'divided brain' has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society.

Affective neuroscience: Pro-social behaviour

Posted on January 11, 2013 at 5:07 PM Comments comments (106)
Stephen W. Porges is one of the world's leading experts in the autonomic nervous system, and author of a book titled "Polyvagal Theory - Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication and self-regulation". The book is basically a collection of articles published during a career spanning 40 years. 

Telluride conference on compassion 
I first learned about his work a couple of months ago when I watched the YouTube posted footage of the Compassion science conference organised by CCARE Stanford in Telluride, Colorado, in July 2012. Watching him deliver his presentation, Mr. Porges impressed me as an anxious, vulnerable man who self-admitted to feeling a bit lost as he couldn't see the faces of his audience and said he found it difficult without being able to gauge the feedback from facial expressions. The organisars duly turned on the lights and offered him a glass of water and he saluted this act of "pro-social behaviour". 

Porges' theory combines observations on comparative anatomy about the development of the nervous system from fish to reptiles to mammals, with the study of the nervous system of newborns, insights from psychiatric conditions in which pro-social behaviour is impaired (autism, depression). Porges states that his scope is both scientific and humanistic - in that he wants to promote better, more humane care practices amongst clinicians, that honour the healing power of human relationships. 

Autonomic nervous system
Porges focuses on a part of the Autonomic Nervous System - the para-sympathetic nervous system (PNS), which traditionally was believed has an antagonistic relationship with the sympathetic system (SNS). The PNS consists of cranial nerves that have efferent (taking information to the body and internal organs) and afferent branches (that bring information from the body and the internal organs). 

The vagus nerve
The thenth cranial nerve (X), also called the vagus nerve is of particular interest. This nerve has two pathways - an unmyelinated one, which originates in the dorsal motor nucleux (DMNX) and a myelinated one, which originates in the nucleus ambiguus (NA). Myelinated nerves transmit information much faster. The myelinated vagus is a mammal "invention". Reptiles do not have it. What reptiles do have, is an unmyelinated vagus. The role of this nerve is to massively slow the heart's pacemaker - an important part of death-feigning. For mammals it is extremely dangerous to resort to death-feigning as a strategy to escape danger. A massive slow-down in breathing and heart-beat can cause cause serious damage to the mammalian oxygen-hungry brain and body. So mammals also have a myelinated vagus nerve, which makes sure that the unmyelinated nerve does not stop the heart.

Myelinated vagus, a mammal invention
What is interesting about the vagus nerve is that it's branches do not only innervate the heart, but also the facial muscles, the larynx, the pharynx and the inner ear muscles. This means in effect that engaging in pro-social behaviour - communicating with our face and voice, listening also has the effect of maintaining our heart beat within the normal range and preventing us from going into a state of mobilization (sympathetic activation characterized by flight, fight or freeze behaviour) or immobilization - death feigning). Basically it's like a neural brake that stops us  from "literally bouncing off the walls" (Porges, p.31) 

Hierarchy of behavioural responses
Vagal tone is highest when we are in a non-threatening situation. If we detect danger in the environment, then vagal tone withdraws and the body is now under the influence of the sympathetic nervous system, which gears it through hormones such as norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and cortizol to send all available energy into the muscles in order to fight or freeze, or run away. A state of mobilization is incompatible with pro-social behaviour. Traumatized clients which are easily triggered to feel angry or scared may not be available to be contacted through conversation and reasoning. 

Misreading the environment
What is interesting is that not only does the environment affect our internal state, our internal state also "colours" the way we interpret our environment. Traumatized individuals who are constantly in a state of agitation, are also more likely to "misread" cues from the environment and interpret them as dangerous. This is why working with clients diagnosed with borderline personality disorder is so difficult. No matter how benign and benevolent the therapist believes she is, the client easily mis-reads and mis-interprets her actions. The transactional analysis cathexis school calls this phenomenon "re-framing" (Schiff). Reframing, far from being a conscious process seems more likely that is "wired" into bodily responses which were geared to deal with harmful, dangerous environments. 

If the situation is interpreted to be imminently life-threatening and the emotional response triggered is one of terror, then the unmyelinated vagus takes over and slows the heart right down. The result is immobilization (fainting, dissociative state). In transactional analysis language, client becoming immobilized is an indication that they are cathecting a severely traumatic Child ego-state. 

Porges basically says that in any given situation we will employ the evolutionarily newest neural systems - those involved in pro-social behaviours. If this strategy fails then the sympathetic system will activate to promote flight, fight or freezing and if that fails as well, we will go into immobilization (fainting, dissociation). 

Other important researchers
If I had a criticism of Porges is that like any researcher absorbed by his area of focus he tends to downplay the importance of other neural areas involved in the process. He barely mentions the work of Damasio, LeDeux, Richardson and Sapolsky. Damasio talks about the importance of the medial-prefrontal cortex in self-control. LeDeux talks about the way in which "news" of possible danger hit the amygdala before the prefrontal cortex through a "fast and dirty way", which means that we react before we've had time to assess what it is that we are reacting to. Richardson focuses amongst other things on the insula, involved in representing bodily states and Sapolsky is an expert in stress and the sympathetic activation and its effects on the hippocampus. 

Implications for practice
I think Porges' theory supports humanistic practices such as person centred and body-based psychotherapy as facial expressiveness, a positive warm presence and caring attitude which are valued in these types of therapies are also proven to promote states of calm and healing. I think that this theory challenges traditional psychoanalytic approaches such as neutral stance and non-disclosure which I think can trigger mobilization in already traumatized individuals. It also challenges health professionals in general - doctors and nurses, who traditionally are more concerned with performing the tasks and operations needed to maintain and promote bodily function and are less concerned with how they relate to their patients and the potentially harmful impact of their distant stance.  

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."