25 October 2014

What can the mind-set do to the body?

 That's the question at issue in the recent NYT article by Bruce Grierson "What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?" covering the work of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer.  Langer has done various researches where people are "primed" with positive information about their situation - that they have control, are responsible, etc. and seen frequent improvements.

The title study done in 1981 involved bringing a group of men in their 70s into a controlled environment simulating 1959 for 5 days, and then evaluated them on various measures.  In various ways they appeared to be "younger" afterwards - in manual dexterity, in sitting taller.  Other previous studies had led her to this way of thinking about priming:
To Langer, this was evidence that the biomedical model of the day — that the mind and the body are on separate tracks — was wrongheaded. The belief was that “the only way to get sick is through the introduction of a pathogen, and the only way to get well is to get rid of it,” she said, when we met at her office in Cambridge in December. She came to think that what people needed to heal themselves was a psychological “prime” — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself.
If we believe the mind to be the result of a physical process, then I don't see it as too far-fetched to believe that different mind-sets can manifest in different physical outcomes.  This is of course related to placebos generally:
Langer came to believe that one way to enhance well-being was to use all sorts of placebos. Placebos aren’t just sugar pills disguised as medicine, though that’s the literal definition; they are any intervention, benign but believed by the recipient to be potent, that produces measurable physiological changes. Placebo effects are a striking phenomenon and still not all that well understood. Entire fields like psychoneuroimmunology and psychoendocrinology have emerged to investigate the relationship between psychological and physiological processes. Neuroscientists are charting what’s going on in the brain when expectations alone reduce pain or relieve Parkinson’s symptoms. More traditionally minded health researchers acknowledge the role of placebo effects and account for them in their experiments. But Langer goes well beyond that. She thinks they’re huge — so huge that in many cases they may actually be the main factor producing the results.
Now Langer is taking the research to an extreme - setting up a positive situation for women with stage 4 breast cancer, which the medical establishment essentially has no answers for. While it's hard to believe that this will work, it still seems to me to be an avenue worth pursuing.

12 October 2014

Poor title edition: "Are We Really Conscious?" in NYT

Article is by Michael Graziano from Princeton, "Are We Really Conscious?" posted Oct. 10, 2014.  I think the better headline would be "What Are We Really Conscious Of?" (I recognize that the authors usually don't pen the headlines).  In any case, Graziano has a theory about our awareness being a distortion of the reality, and that basic point is not a new one.  But there is one line which I object to, and it seems like Graziano himself contradicts it in the article.

Midway through, he writes: "But the argument here is that there is no subjective impression; there is only information in a data-processing device." ('Device' here referring to a brain). This is the classic reductionist move - it's only data processing. There's a non-recognition of the potential for levels of complexity and organization that give rise to interesting phenomena in their own right.  The reduction of a brain, which is a really interesting thing, not yet well understood, to a "device".

Further in the paragraph:  "The brain’s cognitive machinery accesses that interlinked information and derives several conclusions: There is a self, a me; there is a red thing nearby; there is such a thing as subjective experience; and I have an experience of that red thing."  Now this is at least a little more open to interesting investigation - what might we mean by self? what is a subjective experience?

My conclusion these days is that a coherent view of 'self' is at the very least the entire organism (i.e. my whole body), and probably it needs to go beyond that, to extend some way into the environment.  So does my self have experiences - yes, I think it certainly does.  My body (which obviously includes my brain) reacts to experiences.  Experiences appear to have an information processing aspect or basis, and that's very interesting, but to end there is missing at least half the story (IMHO).

By the end, Graziano writes: "In this theory, awareness is not an illusion. It’s a caricature. Something — attention — really does exist, and awareness is a distorted accounting of it."

Ok, so which is it - do we have subjective experience or not?