30 August 2012

On-line, voluntary control of human temporal lobe neurons

'On-line, voluntary control of human temporal lobe neurons' is the title of a paper published in Nature back in October 2010 on a study led by CalTech's Moran Cerf, but it came to my attention via this recent BoingBoing post (about how the paper results were wildly misinterpreted).

What I found interesting about these findings is that it seems to give experimental evidence that mental concentration can in some way influence neuron behavior.  Or as the paper puts it, "At least in the MTL, thought can override the reality of the sensory input." [MTL is Medial Temporal Lobe].  The experiment involved epilepsy patients with electrodes in their brains, who then did a test in viewing pictures online.

It's not a big surprise to me that this is possible, but it's great to see some scientific verification.  And still no one really understands what exactly happens when one 'concentrates' or 'pays attention' but clearly it can result in changes to the way the brain behaves.  I continue to be most interested in just what can be achieved via methods of concentration.

But I do think this closing line is important: "Our method offers a substrate for a high-level brain–machine interface using conscious thought processes."

Here's some coverage that the paper got at the time in Time: Controlling Your World With a Single Neuron by Jeffrey Kluger.  I'm not quite sure why the focus is always on what these findings might enable for disabled people...  isn't it even more interesting what it implies for 'normal' folks?

28 August 2012

A User's Guide to Thought and Meaning - Ray Jackendorff (2012)

I picked up A User's Guide to Thought and Meaning while in Boston at the MIT Press bookstore this spring, and it has a tangential stream that was of interest to me in relation to this blog. The book attempts to examine language, meaning and thought from a cognitive perspective.

The concept I most struggle with is the "Unconscious Meaning Hypothesis" (UMH): this says that of the three structures that make up a linguistic expression (phonology/pronunciation, syntax/grammar and semantics/meaning), "the one that most resembles the experience of thought is phonology." (p. 103). In other words, there's an emphasis on the interior pronunciation of words as the key to awareness of thinking ("we can only be aware of the content of our thoughts if they're linked with pronunciation" p. 90). Here's more on the idea, in comparison with other primates:
One difference is that we have language - the ability to convert our thoughts into communicable form by linking them to pronunciation. According to the UMH, this linking bestows on us a second difference: language enables us to be conscious of our thoughts in a way that animals can't be. But it's not through awareness of the thoughts themselves. Rather, it's through awareness of the phonological "handles" linked to the thoughts, which other animals lack. 
In short, beings without language can have thoughts, and our consciousness derives its form from the pronunciation of the inner voice, not directly from our thoughts themselves. So thought and consciousness aren't the same thing at all. (p. 109)
Jackendorff separates meaning from a "feeling of meaningfulness" - he writes "Meaning is unconscious." (p. 111).

This all feels pretty jumbled to me!  While it does seem true that a fair amount of what arises in our conscious mind is in the form of thought as language (i.e. internal chatter), I don't think that's all that's there, nor do I think there's such a disconnect from meaning, nor that all meaning is unconscious.  There is certainly the struggle to put a thought into words, but if we can detect that the linguistic expression is not conveying the meaning properly, then it seems to me that the meaning is in some way conscious.

In an earlier chapter, Jackendorff references Wittgenstein, with this quote:  "One is tempted to use the following picture: what he really 'wanted to say', what he 'meant' was already present somewhere in his mind even before we gave it expression." (p. 83, from W's Philosophical Investigations).  Whether this indicates W thought that the meaning was truly conscious or not is unclear.

However in a happenstance I came across an article on Wittgenstein today by Ray Monk, called "Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking" which I liked.  Here's one bit:
Like Freud, Wittgenstein took very seriously indeed the idea that our dreams present us with a series of images, the interpretation of which would reveal the thoughts we have relegated to the unconscious parts of our minds. "If Freud’s theory on the interpretation of dreams has anything in it," Wittgenstein once wrote, "it shows how complicated is the way the human mind represents the facts in pictures. So complicated, so irregular is the way they are represented that we can barely call it representation any longer."
This book surely deserves a more well-thought out response, but my bottom line is that I don't really buy into the UMH.  It seems to me that we need even more clarity in our language to express meanings - and I am most intrigued by the interactions of the conscious and the unconscious.  In my view the mind includes at least portions of what we might term unconscious - for instance those things that we have learned so well that we don't have to pay conscious attention to them, like riding a bicycle.  Yet if we encounter a dangerous or confusing situation on a bicycle, suddenly we can "shift gears" and become hyper aware of minute decision-making steps to attempt to avoid catastrophe.

13 August 2012

Subliminal - Leonard Mlodinow (2012)

Subliminal is subtitled 'How Your Subconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior' and the dustjacket features some subtle text (distinguished from the background by being a bit shinier) that says 'Pssst... Hey There Yes: You, Sexy. Buy This Book Now. You Know You Want It.' This marketing ploy is a bit of a giveaway that this book is basically reviewing old tricks, not exploring new ground. The subtitle harkens back to books of the 1970s like 'Subliminal Seduction', a supposed investigation of such advertising techniques.

However - the notion of the subconscious is indeed interesting. The book mostly explores existing research on all sorts of brain/mind processing that is going on that we are not consciously aware of, yet seems to greatly influence our decision-making. Such as the finding that IPOs of companies with complicated names seem to perform worse than those of companies with easy-to-say names. Such as the subtle cues of social dominance that pervade human interactions. And so on...

Overall I'd compare this book to 'Brain Wars' - it's again a nice overview for those new to the subject, but probably not worth the time of folks who've read in the field already. The good news is that after a long period where science essentially ignored the idea of the subconscious, it is now a pretty hot area of research.

The area where I'd like to see more research on is about the process of learning which proceeds from conscious study and concentration to eventual near-unconscious mastery. How does this work? How does one feed more processing into the subconscious? Can subconscious processing be 'overridden' by conscious effort over time?

03 August 2012

Did your brain make you do it?

Recent story from the NYT by John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz, July 27, 2012: "Did your brain make you do it?" about the concept of responsiblity. Basic stance is here:
it’s worth stressing an important point: as a general matter, it is always true that our brains "made us do it." Each of our behaviors is always associated with a brain state. If we view every new scientific finding about brain involvement in human behavior as a sign that the behavior was not under the individual’s control, the very notion of responsibility will be threatened. So it is imperative that we think clearly about when brain science frees someone from blame — and when it doesn’t.
The authors describe an experiment they carried out to gauge people's sense of causality under different scenarios.
In our experiment, we asked participants to consider various situations involving an individual who behaved in ways that caused harm, including committing acts of violence. We included information about the protagonist that might help make sense of the action in question: in some cases, that information was about a history of psychologically horrific events that the individual had experienced (e.g., suffering abuse as a child), and in some cases it was about biological characteristics or anomalies in the individual's brain (e.g., an imbalance in neurotransmitters). In the different situations, we also varied how strong the connection was between those factors and the behavior (e.g., whether most people who are abused as a child act violently, or only a few).
They found that people seemed to either blame biological causes (i.e. brain injury) or psychological causes (i.e. intentions), a way of thinking they term "naive dualism". Rather than either/or, they point toward a more probabilistic model.
A better question is "how strong was the relation between the cause (whatever it happened to be) and the effect?" If, hypothetically, only 1 percent of people with a brain malfunction (or a history of being abused) commit violence, ordinary considerations about blame would still seem relevant. But if 99 percent of them do, you might start to wonder how responsible they really are.