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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).