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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] 









Transforming the mind changes the brain

Posted on February 7, 2013 at 7:45 PM Comments comments (102)
Richard Davidson lecture on the impact of mental training on the neural circuits of emotion and attention. Watch here. (min. 5.08)

Circuits of emotion
Sensory information travels from the sensory organs, through relay centres (sensory thalamus) to the cortex. Once the relevance of this information is processed (is it safe or dangerous), this is transmitted to the the visceral organs (heart and the lungs) and to the muscles in our face and body. If we perceive a threatening stimulus (i.e) a predator, our heart beats faster and hour lungs work harder, etc. The information about the state of the viscera and the body then travels back to the brain. It is only when the brain detects the changes in our body that the experience of emotion arises. This is an influential view espoused by William James in the "Principles of psychology". The fact that our perception of emotion is reliant of information from the body was proven through an experiment in which people who had botox injected in their forehead (in muscles associated with the expression of sadness) were tested before and after. The test showed that the lack of signal feedback from these muscles to the brain changed the emotional response of the person (they experienced less sadness).

James Papez was the first to describe a model of the circuit in the brain associated with emotion. His model included the hippocampus, the hypothalamus, the anterior thalamus and the cingulate gyrus.This was the first time that it was suggested that emotion is processed in parts of the brain that lie below the cortex. Later on, studies on patients with lesions to the prefrontal cortex showed that the cortex (the medial prefrontal part) is actually involved in emotional processing.

In the modern understanding, the capacity to regulate our emotions is associated with the prefrontal cortex. No other species can voluntarily regulate their emotions in the way humans do. 

Emotion as a process is distributed throughout a circuit and different areas of the brain interact to create emotion (i.e. the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. However there is no single site in the brain about which we can say: that is where emotion resides. There are circuits in the brain for positive emotions and circuits that process negative emotion.

Stress changes the structure of the brain, particularly the hippocampus, amygdala and orbito-frontal cortex. When an animal is chronically stressed the nervous cells in the hippocampus shrink shrink (fewer dendrites), whereas cells in the amygdala apear to have more ramifications. (Davidson & McEwan, Nature neuroscience, 2012) 

Networks in the brain important for attention 
Attention has different atributes and some can be distinguished in terms of circuits in the brain. There are three types of attention: alerting, orienting and executive control. Alerting occurs for instance when there is a big loud noise. Something happens in the environment and our attention is pulled towards it. Orienting is the capacity to direct your attention mentally to different senses. Executive control is about resisting distractions and directing our mind to focus on one thing and inhibit the distractive influences that come from somewhere else. There are parts of the brain involved with these attention functions that overlap with emotion. This is not surprising because it is emotionally relevant information in our environment that captures our attention. We do not become alerted to neutral stimuli.

The impact of contemplative training on networks important in attention
Children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are very variable in how they pay attention. In a study in which participants practiced Vipassana meditation for three months, it was shown that this practice greatly helped reduce this variability of attention (Lutz et al. 2009, Neuroscience). 

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.




The Mind and Life conference

Posted on January 28, 2013 at 5:57 PM Comments comments (91)

The Mind and Life XXVI conference from Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, Karnataka, India, held on January 17-22, 2013. All videos are uploaded on the Official YouTube channel of the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Twenty of the world's foremost scientists and philosophers with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other senior Tibetan scholars address topics that include the historical sweep of science and the revolutions in our understanding of our physical universe and the nature of the mind. 

Scientific and the classical Buddhist philosophical methods of inquiry were studied, as well as selected topics in quantum physics, neuroscience, and Buddhist and contemporary Western views of consciousness.

 In addition, the applications of contemplative practices in clinical and educational settings will be explored.

Day 1 - Introduction
Morning: Exploring the Nature of Reality: Buddhist and Scientific Perspectives
Afternoon: Session: The Sweep of Science: Knowledge and the Nature of Reality

Day 2 - Physics
Morning: Quantum Physics, Relativity, and Cosmology
Afternoon: The Nature of Reality

Day 3 - Neuroscience
Morning: Changing the Brain
Afternoon: Exploring Neuroplasticity

Day 4 - Consciousness
Morning: Consciousness in Western Science and Philosophy
Afternoon: Approaches to Consciousness

Day 5 - Applications of Contemplative Practice
Morning: Clinical and Educational Applications of Contemplative Practice
Afternoon: Promoting Human Development

Day 6-  Future Directions
Morning: The Future of Monastic Science Education & Buddhism, Science and Modernity

PARTICIPANTS
Tenzin Gyatso
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Michel Bitbol, PhD
Directeur de Recherche
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

Khen Rinpoche Jangchup Choeden
Abbott
Gaden Shartse Monastery

Richard Davidson, PhD
Founder and Chair
Center for Investigating Healthy Minds University of Wisconsin-Madison

Sona Dimidjian, PhD
Associate Professor
Department of Psychology and Neuroscience University of Colorado at Boulder

James R. Doty, MD
Director
Center for the Study of Compassion and Altruism Research and Education
Stanford University

John Durant, PhD
Adjunct Professor Science,Technology & Society Program Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Anne Harrington, PhD
Professor
Department of the History of Science Harvard University

Wendy Hasenkamp, PhD
Program and Research Director Mind & Life Institute

Thupten Jinpa, PhD
Adjunct Professor McGill University Chairman Mind & Life Institute

Bryce Johnson, PhD
Director Science for Monks Staff Scientist Exploratorium

Geshe Lhakdor
Director
Library of Tibetan Works and Archives

Rajesh Kasturirangan, PhD
Associate Professor
National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore

Christof Koch, PhD
Chief Scientific Officer Allen Institute for Brain Science

Geshe Dadul Namgyal
Member and Translator/Interpreter Emory-Tibet Science Initiative Emory University

Lobsang Tenzin Negi, PhD
Senior Lecturer Emory University

Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath, PhD
Professor and Chair Centre for Neuroscience
at the Indian Institute of Science

Matthieu Ricard, PhD
Buddhist Monk Shechen Monastery

Geshe Ngawang Samten
Vice Chancellor
Central University of Tibetan Studies

Tania Singer, PhD
Director
Department of Social Neuroscience Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

Aaron Stern
Founder and President
The Academy for the Love of Learning

Diana Chapman Walsh, PhD
President Emerita
Wellesley College Governing Board Member
The Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard

Carol Worthman, PhD
Professor Department of Anthropology Emory-Tibet Science Initiative Emory University

Arthur Zajonc, PhD
President Mind & Life Institute

There are no things, only relationships

Posted on January 15, 2013 at 2:37 PM Comments comments (89)
Ian McGilchrist gives a lecture at Schumacher. Watch here. 

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."

Defining the mind

Posted on January 13, 2013 at 4:45 PM Comments comments (5)
In this talk at the Royal Society of Arts Daniel J. Siegel argues that a definition of the mind is possible. 

Watch the RSA talk here.

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 Buddha’s Brain

Posted on December 11, 2012 at 10:56 AM Comments comments (103)
What Modern Science Is Revealing About the Ancient Practice of Meditation

"The Buddha’s Brain: What Modern Science Is Revealing About the Ancient Practice of Meditationwas the theme of an enlightening evening with Dr. Richard Davidson and Matthieu Ricard, moderated by Krista Tippett. 

The event was held at the Ted Mann Concert Hall at the University of Minnesota on Friday, October 12, 2012 where it played to a packed house of over eleven hundred people.For thousands of years, contemplatives and mystics the world over, have experienced the power of meditation first hand. In the present day, a remarkable collaboration between some of the world’s leading neuroscientists and advanced meditators is beginning to shed new light on this ancient practice.


Two of the world’s leading experts on the science of meditation discuss how mental training can help us recondition the mind and rewire the brain to experience wellbeing, compassion, and insight. Longtime friends and collaborators Dr. Richard Davidson and Matthieu Ricard discuss their groundbreaking work, which illuminates how reconditioning the mind through meditation brings lasting changes in the structure and functioning of the brain.

Dr. Richard Davidson is one of the world’s foremost brain scientists. Director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Davidson specializes in research on brain function, especially regarding positive emotions and meditation. In addition to being listed as one of Time Magazine’s one hundred most influential people in the world, he has also received the most prestigious award given by the American Psychological Association for lifetime achievement. He has published more than 150 articles, twelve books, and many chapters and reviews. He is a member of the board of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization dedicated to collaborative research between scientists and Buddhist scholars and meditators.

Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk, author, translator, and photographer. In 1972, Matthieu earned a Ph.D. in cell genetics at the renowned Institute Pasteur under the French Nobel Laureate Francois Jacob. After traveling to India to study Tibetan Buddhism, he left his life as a scientist and ordained as Buddhist monk. Matthieu has published many books and served as the interpreter for the Dalai Lama. He is actively engaged, as a research subject and advisor, in the studies at various universities around the world on the effects mind training and meditation have on the brain. He is also an active member of the Mind and Life Institute."


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, http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/122/5/994.full

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

This Column will Change your Life: The Mind Body Connection http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/apr/27/mind-body-connection-oliver-burkeman

Documentaries 

The Human Mind – Part 3 Making friends (48 minutes) (http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-human-mind/)   

The Brain: A Secret History by Michael Moseley (http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/brain-secret-history/)    

Psychiatry: An Industry of Death (100 mins) (http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/psychiatry-industry-death/)   
 
In Our Time – Neuroscience (41 mins) (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b00fbd26)   

I am fish head: Are corporate leaders psychopaths? (1h, 18 min) http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/i-am-fishead-are-corporate-leaders-psychopaths/