15 November 2012

My Stroke of Insight - J.B. Taylor (2008)

My Stroke of Insight is the personal story of Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who suffered a left-hemisphere stroke and eventually recovered over eight years.  The book starts with some background on the brain, and then tells of her experience during and immediately after the stroke, which basically damaged areas of the brain that manage math and language.  Her experience of this situation was a kind of immersion in the right hemisphere consciousness, where wholeness and intuition and 'vibe' became foremost, and it was a long struggle (at times not even desired) to regain a more analytical/rational view of the world.  Today Taylor believes that the right-brain consciousness gives a feeling of oneness with the world that is easily torn down by the brain-chatter of the left-brain, and she attempts to consciously control that process.

From a NY Times story on Taylor, "A Superhighway to Bliss" by Leslie Kaufman, goes into this topic:

Dr. Taylor makes no excuses or apologies, or even explanations. She says instead that she continues to battle her left brain for the better. She gently offers tips on how it might be done. 
“As the child of divorced parents and a mentally ill brother, I was angry,” she said. Now when she feels anger rising, she trumps it with a thought of a person or activity that brings her pleasure. No meditation necessary, she says, just the belief that the left brain can be tamed. 
Her newfound connection to other living beings means that she is no longer interested in performing experiments on live rat brains, which she did as a researcher.
She is committed to making time for passions — physical and visual — that she believes exercise her right brain, including water-skiing, guitar playing and stained-glass making. A picture of one of her intricate stained-glass pieces — of a brain — graces the cover of her book.
I found this story interesting as a way of thinking about how babies begin to develop analytical skills - writing, reading and arithmetic take plenty of brain work to master, but we rarely have any sense of what that actually feels like.  This book tells that story, of an adult working through that effort a second time.

Some have been disappointed by this book because they feel it veers off into pseudo-science, and that's fair - this is a subjective account of one person's experience.  I note that no one in the neuroscience community appears to have provided a blurb for the book.  I think it's critical though to build up more knowledge of the subjective experience of mind, and how conscious thought may be used to guide/control one's own experience, informed by some knowledge of the underlying workings of the brain.

Early take on Kurzweil's 'How to Create a Mind'

Came across 'Ray Kurzweil's Dubious Theory of Mind' posted today by Gary Marcus at the New Yorker site today.  Marcus, a professor of psychology at NYU, does a pretty thorough job of tearing down Kurzweil's book, and from all I know about Kurzweil I have to agree.  As is pointed out in the posting, Kurzweil's done some amazing things in his life, but at the same time he frequently glosses over or simplifies things that deserve a lot more thought and effort.  Here's an excerpt:
At the beginning of the book, Kurzweil promises to reverse engineer the human brain in hopes of using the brain’s secrets to advance artificial intelligence, but what he’s really done is the opposite: reverse engineer his own companies’ computer systems in order to propose a theory about how the mind works.

Ultimately Kurzweil is humbled by a challenge that has beset many a great thinker extending far beyond his field—Kurzweil doesn’t know neuroscience as well as he knows artificial intelligence, and doesn’t understand psychology as well as either. (And for that matter he doesn’t know contemporary A.I. as well as the A.I. of his heyday, when he was running his companies thirty years ago.)
I'll still take a look at the book (from the library! doesn't sound like a keeper), but I'm not sure Kurzweil is adding much this time around.

I've written about Kurzweil before: see here and here.

06 November 2012

Bacteria in the brain?

Just a quick post on an intriguing tidbit in Michael Specter's Oct 22, 2012 New Yorker story, "Germs are Us" on the role of bacteria in our health (the so-called 'microbiome').  On the second page:
The passengers in our microbiome contain at least four million genes, and they work constantly on our behalf: they manufacture vitamins and patrol our guts to prevent infections, they help to form and bolster our immune systems, and digest food. Recent research suggests that bacteria may even alter our brain chemistry, thus affecting our moods and behavior.
Will have to see what more I can find out about that!

01 November 2012

Consciousness as 'display only' UI?

This post is not a review, but was triggered as a looked through the recent book "The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking" by Matthew Hutson (2012).  On page 2, in the Introduction, Hutson reviews some types of 'magical thinking':  "Do you believe that certain events were meant to happen?  Magical thinking.  Or that you can lift your arm through the power of your conscious thoughts?  Magical thinking, even that."

As many popular books do, Hutson uses the 1983 study by Benjamin Libet which compared the timing of a readiness potential in the brain to the subject's report of a conscious decision to move their arm.  His finding was that there was a readiness potential prior to the report of a conscious decision (about a third of a second).  There have been followups that report further findings along these lines.  Hutson writes:
Libet refused to interpret his own findings as conclusive evidence against free will.  He held on to the possibility of some kind of conscious veto power that could halt or redirect an act in progress - so called free won't.  But no available evidence supports such a magical intervention.
So this led me to a few thoughts on the subject.  If one accepts the notion that consciousness is produced by the brain, then surely it must be the case that any conscious 'activity' is either preceded by or accompanied by activity in the brain.  It's not as if one's brain is an independent actor - the brain and the conscious activity is all bundled into a person, and the person makes decisions.  The decision path must involve the brain.

And we know that there is plenty going on in a person's body which is not actively controlled via consciousness - like breathing and digesting and keeping the heart beating and so forth.  Likewise we don't really consciously control ourselves when making simple movements - what muscles will be involved if I move my arm?

Is it possible that consciousness is simply like a software user interface that does not allow any action or update?  Consciousness in this model would simply register activity (thoughts) in the brain, and perhaps like moving a mouse around we can shift the focus but in fact not actually alter anything via conscious decision.  And thus any notion that consciousness can 'do something' is an illusion or 'magical intervention'?  That is certainly not my personal experience, though I recognize that plenty of consciousness can be consumed by simply going around in circles, worrying about something, or churning over possibilities.  Note also that I've never seen a brain (on its own) do much of anything.  The brain is a key organ in a person!

My personal take is that this view of consciousness as 'inactive' cannot be correct, but it's hard to really get a handle on the mechanism that conscious activity can use.  I think the area of attention and learning is the most promising place to look - since to learn something we typically have to focus attention, and we go through a period where we don't fully grasp a concept or action.  In this period we have to think carefully about each step or movement, and if we are successful at learning then finally there is a breakthrough, and we 'internalize' the learning - which makes it largely unconscious.  As an example, once we know how to serve a tennis ball, we don't have to think consciously about how to move our arms and body to do it.  But while we are learning we need all sorts of mental attention to try to get it right.  If you have no mental focus, it seems unlikely that you'll ever learn much of anything.  So what is happening when we apply mental focus - it must involve some sort of shifting of brain resources away from mechanisms that support our own churning thoughts to the area of interest.

Is the idea that we have conscious control and decision-making power somehow magical?  I would say no - a person uses consciousness to direct focus and attention, and behind the scenes all sorts of things are happening in the brain, some of which we are aware in some sense, and other things we have no awareness of.

I decided the book was not worth reading in full, but my quick skim did provoke some thinking!