Ken Wilber: Integral Transformation, Part OneTuesday, November 24, 2009
Tami Simon speaks with Ken Wilber, in the first of a two-part series. Ken is one of the most influential and widely read American philosophers of our time. He is the founder of the Integral Institute and has published over 25 books, including A Brief History of Everything, and The Simple Feeling of Being, as well as the Sounds True audio learning sets Kosmic Consciousness and The One Two Three of God. Ken discusses, “What is genuine transformation?”. (40 minutes)
Read the transcript
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Saturday, November 28, 2009
THE BUDDHISM OF TIBET
by the Dalai Lama,
translated and edited by
Dalai Lama Quote of the Week
...Nagarjuna says in his Fundamental Text Called 'Wisdom':
There is never production
Anywhere of any phenomenon
From itself, from others,
From both, or without cause.
Though it is widely known [and conventionally correct] that causes do produce effects, let us analyse these effects. If the produced effect inherently existed, how could it be correct for what already exists to be produced newly? For, causes are not needed to create it anew. In general, causes conventionally do newly create that which has not been produced or which is non-existent at the time of its causes. However, if the non-produced were inherently true as non-produced, it would be no different from being utterly non-existent; therefore, how could it be fit for production by causes? As Nagarjuna says in his Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness:
Because it exists, the existent is not produced;
Because it does not exist, the non-existent is not produced.
In short, once the existence of something is necessarily dependent on causes and conditions and on others, then it is contradictory for it to exist independently. For, independence and dependence on others are contradictory.
--from The Buddhism of Tibet by the Dalai Lama, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, published by Snow Lion Publications
A SPACIOUS PATH TO FREEDOM
Practical Instructions on the Union of
Mahamudra and Atiyoga
by Karma Chagmé
commentary by Gyatrul Rinpoche
trans. by B. Alan Wallace
Dharma Quote of the Week
Yang Gonpa says:
The essence of thoughts that suddenly arise is without any nature. Do not inhibit their appearance in any way, and without thinking of any essence, let them arise clearly, nakedly, and vividly. Likewise, if one thought arises, observe its nature, and if two arise, observe their nature. Thus, whatever thoughts arise, let them go without holding onto them. Let them remain as fragments. Release them unimpededly. Be naked without an object. Release them without grasping. This is close to becoming a Buddha. This is the self-extinction of samsara, samsara is overwhelmed, samsara is disempowered, and samsara is exhausted. Knowledge of the path of method and wisdom, appearances and emptiness, the gradual stages, the common and special paths, and the 84,000 entrances to the Dharma is made perfectly complete and fulfilled in an instant. This is self-arisen, for it is present like that in the very nature [of awareness]. Natural liberation is the essence of all the stainless paths, and it bears the essence of emptiness and compassion.
--from A Spacious Path to Freedom: Practical Instructions on the Union of Mahamudra and Atiyoga by Karma Chagme, commentary by Gyatrul Rinpoche, trans. by B. Alan Wallace, published by Snow Lion Publications
Friday, November 27, 2009
Instructors: Roshi Joan Halifax, PhD * Alfred W. Kaszniak, Ph.D. * Evan Thompson, PhD * John D. Dunne, PhD * Richard J. Davidson, PhD
Buddhist practice involves the cultivation of the realization of selflessness and interdependence and, as well, powerful insights into how we create the illusion of a separate and unchanging self. In recent years, philosophy, cognitive science, and neuroscience have contributed new and important perspectives on these core teachings of Buddhism. In this retreat, prominent scientists and scholars will explore Buddhist, philosophic, and neuroscientific perspectives on the self and selfless, and the implications of these areas for Zen practice. We as well will look at how we apply the research in neuroscience in the areas of identity, causality, and mental function. Talks, discussions, and explorations with participants are embedded within Zazen practice throughout each day.
With special participation by Ann Marie McKelvey, LPCC, PCC, Psychotherapist, Ann Marie has completed the two-year Chaplaincy Program at Upaya Zen Center focusing on peacemaking, environmental studies and compassionate end-of-life care. Ann Marie can be reached at http://www.AnnMarieMcKelvey.com.
CEU recipients will participate in a special group work meeting with Ann Marie McKelvey during the retreat. Details will be available at the time of arrival.
16 CEUs for counselors, therapists and social workers available through the New Mexico Counseling and Therapy Practice Board at a cost of $30.00 per retreat. Please pay this amount at the time of registration.
Also check with your respective State License Board to confirm acceptance of CEUs from the State of New Mexico.
Faculty & Presentation Topics:
Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin) “Meditation and Selflessness: Insights from Neuroscience”
John Dunne, Ph.D. (Emory University) “Selflessness and Experience: A Conundrum in Buddhist Philosophy”
Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D. (Upaya Zen Center) “Zen Practice and the Cultivation of Selflessness”
Al Kaszniak, Ph.D. (University of Arizona) “Self-Awareness and the Brain: Contributions from the Study of Neurological Illness”
Evan Thompson, Ph.D. (University of Toronto) “Self-Awareness: Insights from Phenomenology, Neuroscience, and Meditation”
Special participation by Ann Marie McKelvey, LPCC.
We encourage early registration, particularly, if you plan to lodge at Upaya which fills quickly. We have made arrangements with local hotels to handle your housing needs. Contact email@example.com for lodging information.Jan 21, 2010 — Jan 24, 2010
Tuition (Members): $390.00
Tuition (Non-Members): $430.00
More details: Plus lodging. Dana to teachers.
How the Quest for Sex Shaped the Modern Man
Posted: Nov 10, 2009
Meet Faye Flam, a talented journalist and media personality who makes science sexy and makes sex “sciencey.”
Faye and I have much in common though she actually has a degree in science (Physics, CalTech), she’s an amateur circus acrobat, and she’s a much stronger writer than I am (or is it “than me”?).
I met Faye a few months ago, here in Philadelphia where she’s a popular columnist at the Inquirer. Check out the archives of her controversial (although no longer running) column, “Carnal Knowledge,” where you can find answers to practically anything you’ve ever wanted to ask about sex, through the lens of the sciences: anthropology, genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, psychology and even botany. That’s right. Botany. Test your Sex IQ with Faye’s Sex Quiz [PDF].
Her book, The Score: How the Quest for Sex Shaped the Modern Man was published this summer. I read it at the beach where no fewer than a dozen people offered remarks about my book choice. The most common comment: “What’s to learn? You have four kids, don’t you?”
This book is much richer than I anticipated. There’s a terrific storyline to hold the reader’s interest involving a Boot Camp for men who wish to bed women quickly. But the heart of the book is a deconstruction of evolution down to its primordial form where we learn, through Faye’s wicked sense of humor and gift for analogies, how some species fumbled their way into reproduction while others developed deliberate (sometimes comical) rituals and protocols.
Playgirl gave it this review:
Flam wrestles billions of years of science into an understandable and engrossing narrative, peppered with plenty of anecdotal animal-world examples that will leave you awed and amazed. She answers the burning questions you may or may not have had stewing in the back of your mind since eighth grade like: Why do humans come in (give or take) two sexes, instead of 30,000+ like mushrooms? And, are there gay animals? Plus those that come up regularly at the dinner table like: If we can have babies without sex, do we really need males? And why, oh why, do men like porn so much more than women like porn?
I asked Faye how she became interested in science and what she thinks about stereotypes placed on scientists.
Science Cheerleader: Can you tell me a little about your earliest interests in science?
Faye: I think I was always interested in science – I thought math was beautiful and amazing from geometry on up. I liked physics and chemistry too. Even when I was little I was interested in nature. My family went on some long-distance sailing trips and sometimes we’d be out at night and my dad would show me how to find the North Star and explain that the Milky Way was all made of stars. We also took road trips to the desert where I learned about adaptation.
Science Cheerleader: You are beautiful and some might say you don’t quite represent the face of science. How would you answer such critics?
Faye: I’m not sure how to answer the question about looks. I’m flattered, I think, though I don’t believe there’s really any kind of look that goes with science. That’s one of the great things about science – scientists can be tall or short, skinny or fat, blonde or brown-haired or bald. Scientists can wear cheap glasses frames and buy their clothes from thrift shops. In general I think they set an example of open-mindedness we should all try to emulate.
Darlene Cavalier is founder of the Science Cheerleader, a project to unite the joint interests of citizens, scientists, and government.
SfN best bits
Nature Neuroscience editor Charvy Narain is on the line to tell Kerri about her highlights from last month's Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago. Tune in as they make light work of optogenetics, discuss an unusual conference talk by two magicians, and ask whether 'brainreading' needs a code of conduct.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Read the whole article.
A national oral history project is trying to start a new tradition for Black Friday. Instead of hunting for bargains, StoryCorps suggests families sit down together and talk about their lives on a National Day of Listening.
Amanda Rigell, a 30-year-old middle school teacher from Johnson City, interviewed her grandmother, who was 89 at the time, for the first National Day of Listening last year.
"She was reluctant at first," Rigell said. "She doesn't really talk about herself." But then she talked for more than two and a half hours.
"She talked about her early education. She went to a tiny little school, I think there was only one other person there for a while. And she talked about drinking fresh milk from a cow. I guess that shouldn't have surprised me, but it did," Rigell said.
StoryCorps is a nonprofit project that seeks to preserve the stories of ordinary people. Rigell first learned about it when she heard some of those stories broadcast on public radio during her morning commute. She had already interviewed two people at StoryCorps recording booths when she and her father decided to interview her grandmother at home.
"I'm really glad we did it last year because her health has been declining," she said. "There was a while last month when she couldn't speak."
Buy Nothing Day, sponsored by Adbusters
So this November 27 (November 28 in Europe and overseas), we’re calling for a Wildcat General Strike. We’re asking tens of millions of people around the world to bring the capitalist consumption machine to a grinding – if only momentary – halt.
We want you to not only stop buying for 24 hours, but to shut off your lights, televisions and other nonessential appliances. We want you to park your car, turn off your phones and log off of your computer for the day.
We’re calling for a Ramadan-like fast. From sunrise to sunset we’ll abstain en masse, not only from holiday shopping, but from all the temptations of our five-planet lifestyles.
Take the Plunge:
You know what they say: a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. You feel that things are falling apart – the temperature rising, the oceans churning, the global economy heaving – why not do something? Take just one small step toward a more just and sustainable future. Make a pact with yourself: go on a consumer fast. Lock up your credit cards, put away your cash and opt out of the capitalist spectacle. You may find that it’s harder than you think, that the impulse to buy is more ingrained in you than you ever realized. But you will persist and you will transcend – perhaps reaching the kind of epiphany that can change the world.
Confined in the dark, narrow cage of our own making that we take for the whole universe, very few of us can even begin to imagine another dimension of mind. Patrul Rinpoche tells the story of an old frog who had lived all his life in a dank well. One day a frog from the sea paid him a visit.
“Where do you come from?” asked the frog in the well.
“From the great ocean,” he replied.
“How big is your ocean?”
“You mean about a quarter of the size of my well here?”
“Bigger? You mean half as big?”
“No, even bigger.”
“Is it . . . as big as this well?”
“There’s no comparison.” “That’s impossible! I’ve got to see this for myself.”
They set off together. When the frog from the well saw the ocean, it was such a shock that his head just exploded into pieces.
. Posted in Plum Village
November 19, 2009 dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh from New Hamlet in Plum Village.
In this talk Thay demonstrates the importance of gathas, short verses for practice, in the cultivating of peace, joy, and happiness.
Water flows from high in the mountains.
Water runs deep in the Earth
Miraculously, water comes to us, and sustains all life.
During the second part of the talk, we hear about the first few exercises from the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing.
Subscribe to iTunes Podcast
The sixth in a series of Gifford Lectures by Professor Michael Gazzaniga. Recorded 22 October, 2009 at the Playfair Library Hall, the University of Edinburgh.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
As an aside, I so wish I could afford to do his integral psychotherapy internship - maybe someday.
Two days ago we let you know about the upcoming launch of The Masters Center for Transformation. Here’s more....
As part of celebrating the birth of our new online home, we want to share a gift with you. My new 53-page e-book on EMOTIONAL LITERACY (Becoming Intimate with our Emotions and Skillfully Working with and Expressing them) is yours free by following this link:
This is the kind of high-quality, ground-breaking content you can expect to find at the new Masters Center for Transformation. We are and will be creating new content (and not just written content!) for the site that will update weekly.
And here’s a preview of the more of the kind of content that subscribers will regularly receive — two video clips of me discussing anger and how to work with it:
Part 1: http://www.facebook.com/l/
Part 2: http://www.facebook.com/l/
The Center will allow us to connect with you in new ways with guided meditations, telecalls, premium forums, video, audio, and courses (like how to work with fear), along with an interactive community of others committed to their own deep healing and awakening.
Our launch day is Tuesday, December 1st. We’ve got some special bonuses ready for that day which you won’t want to miss out on, as well as limited availability for premium memberships.
Thank you and Blessings,
Robert & Diane
Tags: Integral, Psychology, emotions, books, Emotional Literacy, PDF ebook, Robert Augustus Masters, Masters Center for Transformation, Becoming Intimate with our Emotions, Skillfully Working with and Expressing them
Read the whole article.
Contemporary neuroscience is one of mankind’s greatest intellectual achievements. As a researcher for many years into new methods of rehabilitating people with neurological damage, in particular due to strokes, I have been thrilled by the promise of new technologies such as sophisticated brain scanning to help us to understand the processes of recovery and (more importantly) suggest treatments that would promote the kinds of reorganisation in the brain associated with return of function. In contrast, I am utterly dismayed by the claims made on behalf of neuroscience in areas outside those in which it has any kind of explanatory power; by the neuro-hype that is threatening to discredit its real achievements.
Hardly a day passes without yet another breathless declaration in the popular press about the relevance of neuroscientific findings to everyday life. The articles are usually accompanied by a picture of a brain scan in pixel-busting Technicolor and are frequently connected to references to new disciplines with the prefix “neuro-”. Neuro-jurisprudence, neuro-economics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-theology are encroaching on what was previously the preserve of the humanities. Even philosophers – who should know better, being trained one hopes, in scepticism – have entered the field with the discipline of “Exp-phi” or experimental philosophy. Starry-eyed sages have embraced “neuro-ethics”, in which ethical principles are examined by using brain scans to determine people’s moral intuitions when they are asked to deliberate on the classic dilemmas. Benjamin Libet’s experiments on decisions to act and the work on mirror neurons (observed directly in monkeys but only inferred, and still contested, in humans) have been ludicrously over-interpreted to demonstrate respectively that our brains call the shots (and we do not have free will) and to point to a neural basis for empathy.
Art, that most distinctive of human activities, most remote, one would have thought, from our organic being, has been a particular focus of attention. The aficionados of “neuro-aesthetics” link the impact of different kinds of art the different areas of the brain that light up when we engage with them. The creation of art itself is a neurally mediated activity by which the artist unknown to himself behaves in such a way as to promote the replication of his genetic material. “Neuro-arthistory” explains the emergence of different theories of art by the influence of the environment on the plastic brain of the critic. Even the sponsorship of the arts is regarded as a manifestation of the reputation reflex by which, like the peacock whose useless tail advertises the health of his genes, the sponsor advertises the health of his business.
This might be regarded as harmless nonsense, were it not for the fact that it is increasingly being suggested (as for instance by Matthew Taylor in a recent issue of Prospect) that we should use the findings of neurosciences to guide policymakers. The return of political scientism, particularly of a biological variety, should strike a chill in the heart. The last century demonstrated how quickly social policies based in pseudoscience, which treated the individual person not as an independent centre of action and judgement but simply as a substrate to be shaped by appropriate technologies, led to catastrophe. But historical examples may not be persuasive because it will be argued that this time the intentions are better and consequently the results will be less disastrous. A better line of argument is to expose the groundlessness of the claim that observation of brain activity in certain experimental conditions can enable us to understand human beings to the point where neuroscience could usefully inform social policy. To do that, we need to examine the assumptions behind the hype.
The fundamental assumption is that we are our brains and this, I will argue presently, is not true. But this is not the only reason why neuroscience does not tell us what human beings “really” are: it does not even tell us how the brain works, how bits of the brain work, or (even if you accept the dubious assumption that human living could be parcelled up into a number of discrete functions) which bit of the brain is responsible for which function. The rationale for thinking of the kind – “This bit of the brain houses that bit of us...” – is mind-numbingly simplistic. In a typical experiment, individuals are exposed to different stimuli, or asked to imagine certain scenarios, and the change in brain activity is recorded. For example, a person may be asked to look at a photograph of, or think of, someone they love and then someone to whom they are relatively indifferent. The difference between the activation of the brain under the two circumstances is meant to show what is special about the emotion of love. On the basis of these and other experiments, the brain scientists Semir Zeki and Andreas Barthels [link to pdf] have concluded that love is due to activity “in the medial insula and the anterior cingulated cortex and, subcortically, in the caudate nucleus and the putamen, all bilaterally.”
Why is this fallacious?
Here is Matt Grist's response to this - Grist is director of the RSA’s social brain project.
In the current issue of New Humanist the estimable Ray Tallis launches a well-rehearsed attack on simplistic neuroscientific determinism. It makes good copy but in criticising others, including us, for overstatement the good Professor makes the same error himself.
He also gets some things plain wrong. Tallis says the RSA has started a big project called the “Social Brain”, as has the British Academy. The RSA’s project can hardly be considered big, as it employs only one full-time researcher. The British Academy's project on the other hand is the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration between several UK universities.
The British Academy project is concerned with uncovering the origins of human language. As such it involves some neuroscience, some evolutionary anthropology, and some archaeology. It is a project that looks at language use – that is, it is concerned not only with the brains that generated the first human language, but the nexus of tools, practices and customs within which the possessors of such brains communicated. Professor Tallis’s accusation that this project reduces human culture, social interaction and language use to “quasi-animal societies” controlled by genes is unfair. Just because neuroscience is in the mix, doesn’t mean every explanation is reduced to it.
The RSA project takes a similar interdisciplinary approach. We have gotten together psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers, along with neuroscientists. From the very start we understood that neuroscience was a necessary not a sufficient condition for understanding human behaviour. But we thought it was a level of understanding that should not be ignored.
Understanding a necessary condition of a phenomenon is still a worthwhile task, even if that understanding is limited. To make an analogy, if the other behavioural sciences understand the rest of the car, neuroscience understands the engine. One might drive the car perfectly well without understanding how the engine works, but it surely doesn’t hurt to know more about the engineering.
Tallis accuses Madeleine Bunting of thinking an automaton wrote a recent Guardian article, because she admitted she had come to doubt the idea of a completely autonomous self. This is silly. Accepting that automatic and unconscious brain processes contribute to conscious action is not the same as thinking one is an automaton.
The reason policy makers might be interested in brains and behaviour is that policy has to do (but not only to do) with aggregate level effects of individual actions. So if it can be shown that brains have certain shortcomings or potentialities not previously understood, then this is useful for informing policy direction. However, it is not clear that any policy yet has been informed by neuroscience. Even so-called “nudge” policies such as auto-enrollment in private pensions could have been devised from behavioural observations alone (observations attentive to the power of inertia in human decision-making). Part of the idea of our project is to have a conversation about what neuroscience does add to purely behavioural research.
Perhaps it adds nothing at all beyond what Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, speaking at the RSA, called, “the seductive allure of neuroscientific explanations”. Camilla Batmanghelidjh, after fourteen years experience of supporting neglected and abused children through her organisation the Kids Company, has come to believe vehemently that punishing and blaming such children is counterproductive. Such a punitive method is based on the mistake of thinking that the kids see before them an array of choices, one of them presenting itself as the morally correct one, yet which they choose to ignore. She argues that in fact what is needed is to get these kids into a position where they can see the full array of choices in the first place. This is done through structured activities that build-up the kids” capacity to see the world from the point of view of others, to gain control of their emotions, and to feel self-worth. The work Ms Batmanghelidjh has done has been highly successful. However, she has now embarked on research with neuroscientific partners so that she can present evidence of her success in terms of brain scans. We, as a society of empiricists, seem to need the neuroscientific level of explanation to convince us such a social policy is right. So the role of neuroscience in policy may simply sometimes be one of corroboration.
Read the whole response.
Charles GelmanTags: The Immanent Frame, The power of religion in the public sphere, Religion, culture, society, Rethinking Secularism, Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Cornel West
Four of the world’s leading public intellectuals came together on Thursday, October 22 in the historic Great Hall at Cooper Union to discuss “Rethinking Secularism.” In an electrifying symposium convened by the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, the Social Science Research Council and the Humanities Institute at Stony Brook University, Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West gave powerful accounts of religion in the public sphere.
Below you will find the full audio of each talk. Click here to join an open thread conversation about this event.
Jürgen Habermas: “‘The Political’ – The Rational Sense of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology“
Charles Taylor: “Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism”
Judith Butler: “Is Judaism Zionism? Religious Sources for the Critique of Violence”
Cornel West: “Prophetic Religion and the Future of Capitalist Civilization”
The fith in a series of Gifford Lectures by Professor Michael Gazzaniga. Recorded 20 October, 2009 at the Playfair Library Hall, the University of Edinburgh.
ScienceDaily (Nov. 24, 2009) — Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) researchers have confirmed that a diet rich in polyphenols and polyunsaturated fatty acids, patented as an LMN diet, helps boost the production of the brain's stem cells -neurogenesis- and strengthens their differentiation in different types of neuron cells.
The research revealed that mice fed an LMN diet, when compared to those fed a control diet, have more cell proliferation in the two areas of the brain where neurogenesis is produced, the olfactory bulb and the hippocampus, both of which are greatly damaged in patients with Alzheimer's disease. These results give support to the hypothesis that a diet made up of foods rich in these antioxidant substances could delay the onset of this disease or even slow down its evolution.
The study will be published in the December issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease and was directed by Mercedes Unzeta, professor of the UAB Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Participating in the study were researchers from this department and from the departments of Cell Biology, Physiology and Immunology, and of Psychiatry and Legal Medicine, all of which are affiliated centres of the Institute of Neuroscience of Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. The company La Morella Nuts from Reus and the ACE Foundation of the Catalan Institute of Applied Neurosciences also collaborated in the study.
Polyphenols can be found in tea, beer, grapes, wine, olive oil, cocoa, nuts and other fruits and vegetables. Polyunsaturated fatty acids can be found in blue fish and vegetables such as corn, soya beans, sunflowers and pumpkins. The LMN cream used in this study was composed of a mixture of natural products: dried fruits and nuts, coconut, vegetable oils rich in polyunsaturated fat and flour rich in soluble fiber. These creams were created and patented by the company La Morella Nuts, located in Reus near Tarragona. Previous studies had verified their effects on regulating cholesterol levels and hypertension, two risk factors commonly associated with heart disease and Alzheimer's disease.
During the development of the brain, stem cells generate different neural cells (neurons, astrocytes and oligodendrocytes) which end up forming the adult brain. Until the 1960s it was thought that the amount of neurons in adult mammals decreased with age and that the body was not able to renew these cells. Now it is known that new neurons are formed in the adult brain. This generative capacity of the cells however is limited to two areas of the brain: the olfactory bulb and the hippocampus (area related to the memory and to cognitive processes). Although the rhythm of cell proliferation decreases with age and with neurodegenerative diseases, it is known that exercise and personal well being can combat this process.
The main objective of this research was to study the effect of an LMN cream-enriched diet on the neurogenesis of the brain of an adult mouse. Scientists used two groups of mice for the study. One group was given a normal diet and the other was given the same diet enriched with LMN cream. Both groups were fed during 40 days (approximately five years in humans). The analyses carried out in different brain regions demonstrated that those fed with LMN cream had a significantly higher amount of stem cells, as well as new differentiated cells, in the olfactory bulb and hippocampus.
The second objective was to verify if the LMN cream could prevent damage caused by oxidation or neural death in cell cultures. Cultures of the hippocampal and cortical cells were pretreated with LMN cream. After causing oxidative damage with hydrogen peroxide, which killed 40% of the cells, scientists observed that a pretreatment with LMN cream was capable of diminishing, and in some cases completely preventing, oxidative damage. The hippocampal and cortical cells were also damaged using amyloid beta (anomalous deposits of this protein are related to Alzheimer's disease). The results obtained were similar to those obtained using hydrogen peroxide.
These results demonstrate that an LMN diet is capable of inducing the generation of new cells in the adult brain, and of strengthening the neural networks which become affected with age and in neurogenerative processes such as Alzheimer's disease, as well as protecting neurons from oxidative and neural damage, two phenomena which occur at the origin of many diseases affecting the central nervous system.
In this study researchers have used different biochemical and molecular analysis techniques, with the help of specific antibodies, to detect different neuronal markers implied in the process of differentiation.
The group of researchers led by Dr Unzeta has spent years studying the effects oxidases have on oxidative stress as a factor implied in neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson and Alzheimer's disease, and the effects of different natural products with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties in different experimental models of Alzheimer's disease.
The study forms part of the CENIT project, which was awarded to La Morella Nuts in 2006 under the auspices of the INGENIO 2010 programme, with the objective of establishing methodologies for the design, evaluation and verification of functional foods which may protect against cardiovascular diseases and Alzheimer's disease. With 21.15m euros in funding and a duration of four years, the project has included the participation of 50 doctors and technicians from nine different companies, four universities (7 departments) and 2 research centres.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
First up the "real" story, then a purity test that is a little more truthful, and funnier.
Read the whole memo at the bottom of the page.
A GOP purity test?
Posted: Monday, November 23, 2009 1:42 PM by Domenico Montanaro
Filed Under: Republicans
From NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
First Read has obtained a resolution being e-mailed around to Republican National Committee members for comments that proposes a conservative litmus test of sorts.
This comes on the heels of a rift in the party that was exposed in the once-obscure special election in Upstate New York's 23rd Congressional District, in which national conservative leaders, including Sarah Palin, clashed with national establishment Republicans. The so-called GOP civil war threatens to derail moderate Republican candidacies in heated 2010 Republican primaries already underway. Florida's Senate race is perhaps the best and most prominent example.
The "Resolution on Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates" outlines 10 conservative principles the group of signees wants potential candidates to abide by. The principles include support for:
(1) Smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama’s “stimulus” bill
(2) Market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;
(3) Market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;
(4) Workers’ right to secret ballot by opposing card check
(5) Legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;
(6) Victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;
(7) Containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat
(8) Retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;
(9) Protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and
(10) The right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership
"President Ronald Reagan believed, as a result, that someone who agreed with him 8 out of 10 times was his friend, not his opponent," the resolution states.
But if a candidate disagrees with three of the above, then the group wants the RNC to withhold financial assistance and an endorsement from that candidate.
It's not yet clear that the resoultion will actually be formally introduced.
RNC Committeeman Jim Bopp, Jr., is the author of this resolution and general counsel to the National Right to Life.
He confirmed that he and others are considering proposing this resolution at the winter RNC meeting, which will take place in late January.
"The goal of the resolution is to take a position ... towards reclaiming the Republican Party's conservative bona fides," Bopp said, adding that there are some Republicans who favor the bailouts, spending, etc.
Another goal is to "demonstrate that we are open to diverse views," he said, "but you have to agree with us most of the time."
When asked if Ronald Reagan -- who raised taxes and increased the deficit during his presidency -- would be considered a conservative nowadays, Bopp responded, "I don't know any conservative who doesn't think that Reagan's presidency was a conservative presidency."
For some perspective, it's likely that Olympia Snowe (R-ME) would meet just seven of the 10 criteria, if she ends up voting for health care. The three exceptions: health care, immigration, and the stimulus.
Lindsey Graham (R-SC) meets eight of 10. The two exceptions: cap-and-trade, immigration.
It didn't take long for a parody version of this list to make into the internets, courtesy of IMAO.
Posted by Frank J. on November 24, 2009 at 1:02 pm
Some people at the RNC had the idea to make a list of ten Republican principles and you won’t receive RNC funding if you disagree with three or more of them. That sounds like a neat idea, and it’s not a litmus test, as you can pick any two you want to be a squish on.
In fact, it’s such a neat idea I’m coming up with a list of my own ten Republican principles:
(1) Punching hippies is a legal form of expression.
(2) The moon should be declared hostile and nuked.
(3) The average American should be armed like Neo from the lobby scene at all times.
(4) Nachos are awesome.
(5) The federal government needs to stop wasteful spending. Also, researching giant war robots and dinosaurs with rocket launchers on them is not wasteful.
(6) America owns Antarctica.
(7) It’s not good diplomacy unless the foreign leaders are kneeling before us.
(8) Vampires shouldn’t sparkle.
(9) The fact that we torture terrorists isn’t horrific and is actually kind of funny.
(10) Biggest problem facing our nation: Too many sissies.
If you disagree with one of them, the punishment is for everyone to look at you and yell, “What’s wrong with you!” If you disagree with two of them, you get beaten up after RNC meetings. If you disagree with three, you lose RNC funding. And if you disagree with four or more, Fred Thompson punches you in the face such that your head explodes.
This is a long article, but the neuroscience is cutting edge for anyone interested in the field - and Sam Harris's response is very interesting.
For the past twelve years my research team has been using all the brain research tools at its disposal, from functional MRI to electro- and magneto-encephalography and even electrodes inserted deep in the human brain, to shed light on the brain mechanisms of consciousness.
I am now happy to report that we have acquired a good working hypothesis. In experiment after experiment, we have seen the same signatures of consciousness: physiological markers that all, simultaneously, show a massive change when a person reports becoming aware of a piece of information (say a word, a digit or a sound).
SIGNATURES OF CONSCIOUSNESS
A Talk by Stanislas Dehaene
[1hr 20 minutes]
by John Brockman
On October 17, Edge organized a Reality Club meeting at The Hotel Ritz in Paris to allow neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene to present his new theory on how consciousness arises in the brain to a group of Parisian scientists and thinkers. The theory, based on Dehaene's past twelve years of brain-imaging research is called the global neuronal workspace. It promises to offer new tools for diagnosing consciousness disorders in patients.
"For the past twelve years", says Dehaene, "my research team has been using every available brain research tool, from functional MRI to electro- and magneto-encephalography and even electrodes inserted deep in the human brain, to shed light on the brain mechanisms of consciousness. I am now happy to report that we have acquired a good working hypothesis. In experiment after experiment, we have seen the same signatures of consciousness: physiological markers that all, simultaneously, show a massive change when a person reports becoming aware of a piece of information (say a word, a digit or a sound).
"Furthermore, when we render the same information non-conscious or "subliminal", all the signatures disappear. We have a theory about why these signatures occur, called the global neuronal workspace theory. Realistic computer simulations of neurons reproduce our main experimental findings: when the information processed exceeds a threshold for large-scale communication across many brain areas, the network ignites into a large-scale synchronous state, and all our signatures suddenly appear.
But this is already more than a theory. We are now applying our ideas to non-communicating patients in coma, vegetative state, or locked-in syndromes. The test that we have designed with Tristan Bekinschtein, Lionel Naccache, and Laurent Cohen, based on our past experiments and theory, seems to reliably sort out which patients retain some residual conscious life and which do not.
"My laboratory is now pursuing this research intensively on patients, animals, human adults and young children, with the hope of turning our brain-imaging measurements into a real-time monitor of conscious experience. The time thus seems ripe to share this work with a broader audience of readers interested in cutting-edge science and technology, but also those concerned with the philosophical, personal and ethical implications of these findings."* * * * *
STANISLAS DEHAENE is a Professor at the Collège de France and Chair of Experimental Cognitive Psychology. His research focuses on the cerebral bases of specifically human cognitive functions such as language, calculation, and reasoning. His work centers on the cognitive neuropsychology of language and reading, and his main scientific contributions include the study of the organization of the cerebral system for number processing.
He is the author of The Number Sense: How Mathematical Knowledge Is Embedded In Our Brains; and Reading in the Brain the Science and Evolution of a Cultural Invention.
SIGNATURES OF CONSCIOUSNESS
[STANISLAS DEHAENE:] I want to start by opening the box and showing you a small object. It's not extraordinary, but I sort of like it. Of course, it's a brain. In fact, it is my brain, exactly as it was ten years ago. This is not its real size, of course. It's smaller than life and is only made of plaster. It is one of the first 3-D printouts that we made from a rapid prototyping machine, one of those 3-D printers that can take the computer constructions we build from our MRI scans of the brain, and turn them into real-life 3-D objects.
This is just brain anatomy. But I'm using it to ask this evening's big question: Can this biological object, the human brain, understand itself? In the ten years that have elapsed since my brain was printed, we've made a good bit of progress in understanding some of its parts. In the lab, for instance, we've been working on an area in the parietal lobe which is related to number processing, and we've also worked on this left occipito-temporal region that we call the visual word form area, and which is related to our knowledge of spelling and reading, and whose activation develops when we learn to read.
Since this is Edge, the idea is not to talk about what exists and has already been published, but rather, to present new developments. So I would like to tell you about a research project that we've been working on for almost ten years and which is now running at full speed — which is trying to address the much-debated issue of the biological mechanisms of consciousness.
Neuroscientists used to wait until they were in their 60's or 70's before they dared to raise the topic of consciousness. But I now think that the domain is ripe. Today we can work on real data, rather than talk about the issue in philosophical terms.
In the past, the major problem was that people barely looked at the brain and tried to generate theories of consciousness from the top, based solely on their intuitions. Excellent physicists, for instance tried to tell us that the brain is a quantum computer, and that consciousness will only be understood once we understand quantum computing and quantum gravity. Well, we can discuss that later, but as far as I can see, it's completely irrelevant to understanding consciousness in the brain. One of the reasons is that the temperature at which the brain operates is incompatible with quantum computing. Another is that my colleagues and I have entered an MRI scanner on a number of occasions, and have probably changed our quantum state in doing so but as I far as I can judge, this experience didn't change anything related to our consciousness.
Quantum physics is just an example. There has been an enormous wealth of theories about consciousness, but I think that very few are valid or even useful. There is, of course, the dualist notion that we need a special stuff for consciousness and that it cannot be reduced to brain matter. Obviously, this is not going to be my perspective. There is also the idea that every cell contains a little consciousness, and that if you add it all together, you arrive at an increasing amount of consciousness — again this is also not at all my idea, as you will see.
We could go on and on, because people have proposed so many strange ideas about consciousness — but the question is, how to move forward with actual experiments. We've now done quite a few neuroimaging studies where we manage to contrast conscious and non-conscious processing, and we've tried to produce a theory from the results — so I would like to tell you about both of these aspects.
Finally, at the end of this talk, I'll say a few words about perspectives for the future. One of the main motivations for my research is to eventually be in a position to apply it to patients who have suffered brain lesions and appear to have lost the ability to entertain a flow of conscious states. In such patients, the problem of consciousness is particularly apparent and vital — literally a matter of life-or-death. They can be in coma, in vegetative states, or in the so-called minimally conscious state. In some cases we don't even know if they are conscious or not. They could just be locked in — fully conscious, but unable to communicate, a frightening state vividly described by Jean-Louis Bauby in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly". It is with such patients in mind that we must address the problem of consciousness. In the end, it's an extremely practical problem. Theories are fine, but we have to find ways that will allow us to get back to the clinic.
How to experiment with conscious states
So how do we experiment with consciousness? For a long time, I thought that there was no point in asking this question, because we simply could not address it. I was trained in a tradition, widely shared in the neuroscience and cognitive psychology communities, according to which you just cannot ask this question. Consciousness, for them, is not a problem that can be addressed. But, I now think this is wrong. After reading A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness, a book by Bernard Baars, I came to realize that the problem can be reduced to questions that are simple enough that you can test them into the lab.
I want to say right from the start that this means that we have to simplify the problem. Consciousness is a word with many different meanings, and I am not going to talk about all of these meanings. My research addresses only the most simple meaning of consciousness. Some people, when they talk about consciousness, think that we can only move forward if we gain an understanding of "the self" — the sense of being I or Me. But I am not going to talk about that. There is also a notion of consciousness as a "higher order" or "reflexive" state of mind — when I know that I know. Again, this meaning of the term remains very difficult to address experimentally. We have a few ideas on this, but it's not what I want to talk about this evening.
Tonight I only want to talk about the simpler and addressable problem of what we call "access to consciousness". At all times the brain is constantly bombarded with stimulation— and yet, we are only conscious of a very small part of it. In this room, for instance, it's absolutely obvious. We are conscious of one item here and another item there, say the presence of John behind the camera, or of some of the bottles on this table. You may not have noticed that there is a red label on the bottles. Although this information has been present on your retina since the beginning of my talk, it's pretty obvious that you are only now actually paying attention to it.
In brief, there is a basic distinction between all the stimuli that enter the nervous system, and the much smaller set of stimuli that actually make it into our conscious awareness. That is the simple distinction that we are trying to capture in our experiments. The first key insight, which is largely due to Francis Crick and Christof Koch, is that we must begin with the much simpler problem of understanding the mechanisms of access to consciousness for simple visual stimuli before we can attack the issue of consciousness and the brain.
The second key insight is that we can design minimal experimental contrasts to address this question. And by minimal contrasts, I mean that we can design experimental situations in which, by changing a very small element in the experiment, we turn something that is not conscious into something that is conscious. Patrick Cavanagh, who is here in the room, designed a large number of such illusions and stimulation paradigms. Tonight, I'll just give you one example, the so-called subliminal images that we've studied a lot.
If you flash words on a screen for a period of roughly 30 milliseconds, you see them perfectly. The short duration, in itself, is not a problem. What matters is that there is enough energy in the stimulus for you to see it. If, however, just after the word, you present another string of letters at the same location, you only see the string, not the word. This surprising invisibility occurs in a range of delays between the word and the consonant string (what we call the mask) that are on the order of 50 milliseconds. If the delay is shorter than 50 milliseconds, you do not see the hidden word. It's a well-known perceptual phenomenon called masking.
Now, if you lengthen the delay a little, you see the word each time. There is even a specific delay where the subjects can see the stimulus half of the time. So now you are in business, because you have an experimental manipulation that you can reproduce in the lab, and that systematically creates a change in consciousness.
Subjective reports versus objective performance
Of course, to define our experimental conditions, we are obliged to rely on the viewer's subjective judgments. This is a very important point — we do not rely simply on a change in the stimulus. What counts is a change in stimulus that the subject claims makes his perception switch from non-conscious to conscious. Here we are touching on a difficult point — how do we define whether a subject is conscious or not? In past research, many people have been very reluctant to use this sort of subjective report. Some have argued that it is very difficult or even impossible to do science based on subjective reports. But my point of view, and I share this with many others, is that subjective reports define the science of consciousness. That's the very object we have to study — when are subjects able to report something about their conscious experience, and when they are not.
There can be other definitions. Some researchers have tried to propose an objective definition of consciousness. For instance, they have argued that, if the subject is able, say, to classify words as being animals or not, or as being words in the lexicon or not, then they are necessarily conscious. Unfortunately however, sticking to that type of definition, based solely on an objective criterion, has been very difficult. We have repeatedly found that even when subjects claim to be unaware of the word and report that they cannot see any word at all, they still do better than chance on this type of classification task. So the problem with this approach is that we need to decide which tasks are just manifestations of subliminal or unconscious processing, and which are manifestations of access to consciousness.
In the end, however, the opposition between objective and subjective criteria for consciousness is exaggerated. The problem is not that difficult because in fact, both phenomena often covary in a very regular fashion, at least on a broad scale. For instance, when I vary the delay between my word and my mask, what I find is that the subjects' performance suddenly increases, at the very point where they become able to report the word's presence and identity. This is an experimental observation that is fairly simple, but I think important: when subjects are able to report seeing the word, they simultaneously find many other tasks feasible with a greater rate of success.
It's not that subjects cannot react below this consciousness threshold. There is clearly subliminal processing on many tasks, but as one crosses the threshold for consciousness, there are a number of tasks that suddenly become feasible. These include the task of subjective report. Our research program consists in characterizing the major transition — from below the threshold for consciousness to above the threshold for consciousness.
I'm only giving you one example of masking, but there are now many experimental paradigms that can be used to make the same stimulus go in or out of consciousness using minimal manipulation, occasionally no manipulation at all. Sometimes the brain does the switching itself, such as, for instance, in binocular rivalry, where the two eyes see two different images but the brain only allows them to see one or the other, never both at the same time. Here the brain does the switching.
Although I'm only going to talk about the masking paradigm, because that is what we have focused on in my lab, I hope that you now understand why the experimental study of consciousness has developed into such a fast growing field and why so many people are convinced that it is possible to experiment in this way, through the creation of minimal contrasts between conscious and non-conscious brain states.
Signatures of the transition from non-conscious to conscious
Of course, we need to combine our capacity to create such minimal contrasts with methods that allow us to see the living, active brain. We are very far from having seen the end of the brain imaging revolution — this is only the beginning. Although it is hard to remember what it was like before brain imaging existed , you have to realize how amazing it is that we can now see through the skull as if it were transparent. Not only do we see the anatomy of the brain, but also how its different parts are activated, and with other techniques, the temporal dynamics with which these activations unfold. Typically, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) only lets you see the static pattern of activation on a scale of one or two seconds. With other techniques such as electro- or magneto-encephalography, however, you can really follow in time, millisecond by millisecond, how that activation progresses from one site to the other.
What do we see when we do these experiments? The first thing that we discovered is that, even when you cannot see a word or a picture, because it is presented in a subliminal condition, it does not mean that your cortex is not processing it. Some people initially thought that subliminal processing meant sub-cortical processing — processing that is not done in the cortex. It's of course completely false and we've known this for a while now. We can see a lot of cortical activation created by a subliminal word. It enters the visual parts of the cortex, and travels through the visual areas of the ventral face of the brain. If the conditions are right, a subliminal word can even access higher levels of processing, including semantic levels. This is something that was highly controversial in psychology, but is now very clear from brain imaging: a subliminal message can travel all the way to the level of the meaning of the word. Your brain can take a pattern of shapes on the retina, and successively turn it into a set of letters, recognize it as word, and access a certain meaning — all of that without any form of consciousness.
Next comes the obvious question: where is there more activity when you are conscious of the word? If we do this experiment with fMRI, what we see is that two major differences occur. You first see an amplification of activation in the early areas: the very same areas begin to activate much more, as much as tenfold, in for instance, this area that we have been studying and which looks at the spelling of words: the visual word form area.
The second aspect is that several other distant areas of the brain activate. These include areas in the so-called prefrontal cortex, which is in the front of the brain here. In particular, we see activation in the inferior frontal region, as well as in the inferior parietal sectors of the brain. What we find also is that these areas begin to correlate with each other — they co-activate in a coordinated manner. I am for the moment just giving you the facts: amplification and access to distant areas are some of the signatures of consciousness.
Now, if we look at a time lapse picture, obtained with a technique such as electro-encephalography which can resolve the temporal unfolding of brain activity, then we see something else which is very important: the difference between a non-conscious and a conscious percept occurs quite late in processing. Let's call time zero the point at which the word first appears on the screen, and let's follow this activation from that point. What we see is that, under the best of conditions, it can take as along as 270 to 300 milliseconds before we see any difference between conscious and unconscious processing.
For one fourth of a second, which is extraordinarily long for the brain, you can have identical activations, whether you are conscious or not. During this quarter of a second, the brain is not inactive and we can observe a number of instances of lexical access, semantic access and other processes (and subliminal processing can even continue after this point). But at about 270 milliseconds, 300 milliseconds in our experiments, we begin to see a huge divergence between conscious states and non-conscious states. If we only record using electrodes placed on the scalp, to measure what are called event-related potentials, we see a very broad wave call the P3 or P300. It's actually very easy to measure, and indeed one of the claims that my colleagues and I make is that access to consciousness is perhaps not that difficult to measure, after all.
The P3 wave is typically seen in conditions where subjects are conscious of the stimulus. You can get very small P3 waves under subliminal conditions, but there seems to be a very clear nonlinear divergence between conscious and non-conscious conditions at this point in time. When we manipulate consciousness using minimal contrasts, we find that subliminal stimuli can create a small and quickly decaying P3 wave, whereas a very big and nonlinear increase in activation, leading to a large event-related potential, can be seen when the same stimuli cross the threshold and become conscious.
At the same time as we see this large wave, which peaks at around 400, 500 milliseconds, we also see two other signatures of consciousness. First, our electrodes detect a high level of oscillatory activity in the brain, in the high-gamma band (50-100 Hz). Second, as the brain begins to oscillate at these high frequencies, we also begin to see massive synchrony across distant regions. What that means is that initially, prior to conscious ignition, processing is essentially modular, with several simultaneous activations occurring independently and in parallel. However, at the point where we begin to see conscious access, our records show a synchronization of many areas that begin to work together.
A global neuronal workspace
I just gave you the bare facts: the basic signatures of consciousness that we have found and that many other people have also seen. I would now like to say a few words about what we think that these observations mean. We are on slightly more dangerous ground here, and I am sorry to say, a little bit fuzzier ground, because we cannot claim to have a full theory of conscious access. But we do begin to have an idea.
This idea is relatively simple, and it is not far from the one that Daniel Dennett proposed when he said that consciousness is "fame in the brain". What I propose is that "consciousness is global information in the brain" — information which is shared across different brain areas. I am putting it very strongly, as "consciousness is", because I literally think that's all there is. What we mean by being conscious of a certain piece of information is that it has reached a level of processing in the brain where it can be shared.
Because it is sharable, your Broca's area (or the part of it involved in selecting the words that you are going to speak) is being informed about the identity of what you are seeing, and you become able to name what you are seeing. At the same time, your hippocampus is perhaps informed about what you have just seen, so you can store this representation in memory. Your parietal areas also become informed of what you have seen, so they can orient attention, or decide that this is not something you want to attend to… and so on and so forth. The criterion of information sharing relates to the feeling that we have that, whenever a piece of information is conscious, we can do a very broad array of things with it. It is available.
Now, for such global sharing to occur, at the brain level, special brain architecture is needed. In line with Bernard Baars, who was working from a psychological standpoint and called it a "global workspace", Jean-Pierre Changeux and I termed it the global neuronal workspace. If you look at the associative brain areas, including dorsal parietal and prefrontal cortex, anterior temporal cortex, anterior cingulate, and a number of other sites, what you find is that these areas are tightly intertwined with long distance connections, not just within a hemisphere, but also across the two hemispheres through what is called the corpus callosum. Given the existence of this dense network of long-distance connections, linking so many regions, here is our very simple idea: these distant connections are involved in propagating messages from one area to the next, and at this very high level where areas are strongly interconnected, the density of exchanges imposes a convergence to a single mental object out of what are initially multiple dispersed representations. So this is where the synchronization comes about.
Synchronization is probably a signal for agreement between different brain areas. The areas begin to agree with each other. They converge onto a single mental object. In this picture, each area has its own code. Broca's area has an articulatory record and slightly more anterior to it there is a word code. In the posterior temporal regions, we have an acoustic code, a phonological code, or an orthographic code. The idea is that when you become aware of a word, these codes begin to be synchronized together, and converge to a single integrated mental content.
According to this picture, consciousness is not accomplished by one area alone. There would be no sense in trying to pinpoint consciousness in a single brain area, or in computing the intersection of all the images that exist in the literature on consciousness, in order to find the area for consciousness. Consciousness is a state that involves long distance synchrony between many regions. And during this state, it's not just higher association areas that are activated, because these areas also amplify, in a top-down manner, the lower brain areas that received the sensory message in the first place.
I hope that I have managed to create a mental picture for you of how the brain achieves a conscious state. We simulated this process on the computer. It is now possible to simulate neural networks that are realistic in the sense that they include actual properties of trans-membrane channels, which are put together into fairly realistic spiking neurons, which in turn are put together into fairly realistic columns of neurons in the cortex, and also include a part of the thalamus, a sub-cortical nucleus which is connected one-to-one to the cortex. Once we put these elements together into a neural architecture with long-distance connections, we found that it could reproduce many of the properties that I described to you, the signatures of consciousness that we observed in our empirical observations.
So when we stimulate this type of network, at the periphery, we actually see activation climbing up the cortical hierarchy, and if there is enough reverberation and if there are enough top-down connections, then we see a nonlinear transition towards an ignited state of elevated activity. It's of course very simple to understand: in any dynamic system that is self-connected and amplifies its own inputs, there is a nonlinear threshold. As a result, there will be either a dying out of the activation (and I claim that this state of activity correspond to subliminal processing), or there will be self-amplification and a nonlinear transition to this high-up state where the incoming information becomes stable for a much longer period of time. That, I think, corresponds to what we have seen as the late period in our recordings where the activation is amplified and becomes synchronized across the whole brain. In essence, very simple simulations generate virtually all of the signatures of consciousness that we've seen before.
What is consciousness good for?
This type of model may help answer a question that was difficult to address before, namely, what is consciousness useful for? It is a very important question, because it relates to the evolution of consciousness. If this theory is right, then we have a number of answers to what consciousness actually does. It is unnecessary for computations of a Bayesian statistical nature, such as the extraction of the best interpretation of an image. It seems that the visual brain does that in a massively parallel manner, and is able to compute an optimal Bayesian interpretation of the incoming image, thus coming up with what is essentially the posterior distribution of all the possible interpretations of the incoming image. This operation seems to occur completely non-consciously in the brain. What the conscious brain seems to be doing is amplify and select one of the interpretations, which is relevant to the current goals of the organism.
In several experiments, we have contrasted directly what you can do subliminally and what you can only do consciously. Our results suggest that one very important difference is the time duration over which you can hold on to information. If information is subliminal, it enters the system, creates a temporary activation, but quickly dies out. It does so in the space of about one second, a little bit more perhaps depending on the experiments, but it dies out very fast anyway. This finding also provides an answer for people who think that subliminal images can be used in advertising, which is of course a gigantic myth. It's not that subliminal images don't have any impact, but their effect, in the very vast majority of experiments, is very short-lived. When you are conscious of information, however, you can hold on to it essentially for as long as you wish,. It is now in your working memory, and is now meta-stable. The claim is that conscious information is reverberating in your brain, and this reverberating state includes a self-stabilizing loop that keeps the information stable over a long duration. Think of repeating a telephone number. If you stop attending to it, you lose it. But as long as you attend to it, you can keep it in mind.
Our model proposes that this is really one of the main functions of consciousness: to provide an internal space where you can perform thought experiments, as it were, in an isolated way, detached from the external world. You can select a stimulus that comes from the outside world, and then lock it into this internal global workspace. You may stop other inputs from getting in, and play with this mental representation in your mind for as long as you wish.
In fact, what we need is a sort of gate mechanism that decides which stimulus may enter, and which stimuli are to be blocked, because they are not relevant to current thoughts. There may be additional complications in this architecture, but you get the idea: a network that begins to regulate itself, only occasionally letting inputs enter.
Another important feature that I have briefly mentioned already is the all-or-none property. You either make it into the conscious workspace, or you don't. This is a system that discretizes the inputs. It creates a digital representation out of what is initially just a probability distribution. We have some evidence that, in experiments where we present a stimulus that is just at threshold, subjects end up either seeing it perfectly and completely with all the information available to consciousness — or they end up not having seen anything at all. There doesn't seem to be any intermediate state, at least in the experiments that we've been doing.
Having a system that discretizes may help solve one of the problems that John Von Neumann considered as one of the major problems facing the brain. In his book The computer and the brain, Von Neumann discusses the fact that the brain, just like any other analog machine, is faced with the fact that whenever it does a series of computations, it loses precision very quickly, eventually reaching a totally inaccurate result in the end. Well, maybe consciousness is a system for digitizing information and holding on to it, so that precision isn't lost in the course of successive computations.
One last point: because the conscious workspace is a system for sharing information broadly, it can help develop chains of processes. A speculative idea is that once information is available in this global workspace, it can be piped to any other process. What was the output of one process can become the input of another, thus allowing for the execution of long and purely mental algorithms — a human Turing machine.
In the course of evolution, sharing information across the brain was probably a major problem, because each area had a specialized goal. I think that a device such as this global workspace was needed in order to circulate information in this flexible manner. It is extremely characteristic of the human mind that whatever result we come up with, in whatever domain, we can use it in other domains. It has a lot to do, of course, with the symbolic ability of the human mind. We can apply our symbols to virtually any domain.
So if my claim is correct, whenever we do serial processing, one step at a time, passing information from one operation to the next in a completely flexible manner, we must be relying on this conscious workspace system. This hypothesis implies that there is an identity between slow serial processing and conscious processing — something that was noted for instance by cognitive psychologist Michael Posner already many years ago.
We have some evidence in favor of this conclusion. Let me tell you about a small experiment we did. We tried to see what people could do subliminally when we forced them to respond. Imagine that I flash a digit at you, and this digit is subliminal because I have masked it. Now suppose that I ask you, "is it larger or smaller than five?" I give you two buttons, one for larger and one for smaller, and I force you to respond. When I run this experiment, although you claim that you have not seen anything, and you have to force yourself to respond, you find that you do much better than chance. You are typically around 60 percent correct, while pure chance would be 50 percent. So this is subliminal processing. Some information gets through, but not enough to trigger a global state of consciousness.
Now, we can change the task to see what kind of tasks can be accomplished without consciousness. Suppose we ask you to name a digit that you have not seen by uttering a response as fast as you can. Again, you do better than chance, which is quite remarkable: your lips articulate a word which, about 40 percent of the time, is the correct number, where chance, if there are four choices, would be 25 percent.
However, if we now give you a task that involves two serial processing steps, you cannot do it. If I ask you to give me the number plus two, you can do it — but if I ask you to compute the initial number plus two, and then decide if the result of that +2 operation is larger or smaller than five, you cannot do it. It's a strange result, because the initial experiments show that you possess a lot of information about this subliminal digit. If you just named it, you would have enough information to do so correctly, much better than chance alone would predict. However when you are engaged in a chain of processing, where you have to compute x+2, and then decide if the outcome is larger or smaller than five, there are two successive steps that make performance fall back down to chance. Presumably, this is because you haven't had access to the workspace system that allows you to execute this kind of serial mental rule.
With a group of colleagues, we are working on a research project called "the human Turing machine". Our goal is to clarify the nature of the specific system, in the mind and in the brain, which allows us to perform such a series of operations, piping information from one stage to the next. Presumably the conscious global workspace lies at the heart of this system.
The ultimate test
Let me close by mentioning the ultimate test. As I mentioned at the beginning, if we have a theory of consciousness, we should be able to apply it to brain-lesioned patients with communication and consciousness disorders. Some patients are in coma, but in other cases, the situation is much more complicated. There is a neurological state called the vegetative state, in which a patient's vigilance, namely the capacity to waken, can be preserved. In those patients there is a normal sleep-wake cycle, and yet, there doesn't appear to be any consciousness in the sense that the person doesn't seem to be able to process information and react normally to external stimulation and verbal commands.
There are even intermediate situations of so-called minimal consciousness, where a patient can, on some occasions only, for some specific requests, provide a response to a verbal command, suggesting that there could be partially preserved consciousness. On other occasions, however, the patient does not react, just as in the vegetative state, so that in the end we don't really know whether or not his occasional reactions constitute sufficient evidence of the patient's consciousness or not. Finally, as you all know, there is the famous "locked in" syndrome. It is very different in the sense that the patient is fully conscious, but this condition can appear somewhat similar in that the patient may not be able to express that he is conscious. Indeed, the patient may remain in a totally non-communicative state for a long time, and it may be quite hard for others to discern that he is, in fact, fully aware of his surroundings.
With Lionel Naccache, we tried to design a test of the signatures of consciousness, based on our previous observations, that can indicate, very simply, in only a few minutes, based on observed brain waves alone, whether or not there is a conscious state. We opted for auditory stimuli, because this input form, unlike the visual modality, allows you to simply stimulate the patient without having to worry about whether he is looking at an image or not. Furthermore, we decided to use a situation that is called the mismatch response. Briefly, this means that the brain can react to novelty, either in a non-conscious or in a conscious way. We think that the two are very easy to discriminate, thanks to the presence of a late wave of activation which signals conscious-level processing.
Let me just give you a very basic idea about the test. We stimulate the patient with five tones. The first four tones are identical, but the fifth can be different. So you hear something like dit-dit-dit-dit-tat. When you do this, a very banal observation, dating back 25 years, is that the brain reacts to the different tone at the end. That reaction, which is called mismatch negativity, is completely automatic. You get it even in coma, in sleep, or when you do not attend to the stimulus. It's a non-conscious response.
Following it, however, there is also, typically, a later brain response called the P3. This is exactly the large-scale global response that we found in our previous experiments, that must be specifically associated with consciousness.
How to separate the two kinds of brain response is not always easy. Typically, they unfold in time, one after the other, and in patients, it is not always easy to separate them when they are distorted by a brain lesion. But here is a simple way to generate the P3 alone. Suppose the subject becomes accustomed to hearing four 'dits' followed by a single 'tat'. What we see is that there still is a novelty response at the end, but it is now one that is expected. Because you repeat four 'dits' followed by one 'tat', over and over again, the subject can develop a conscious expectation that the fifth item will be different. What does the brain then do? Well, it still generates an early automatic, and non-conscious novelty response — but it then cancels its late response, the P3 wave, because the repeated stimulus is no longer attracting attention or consciousness.
Now, after adaptation, the trick consists in presenting five identical tones: dit-dit-dit-dit-dit. This banal sequence becomes the novel situation now — the rare and unexpected one. Our claim is that only a conscious brain can take into account the context of the preceding series of tones, and can understand that five identical tones are something novel and unexpected.
In a nutshell, this outcome is exactly what we find in our experiments. We find a large P3-like response to five identical tones, in normal subjects after adaptation to a distinct sequence, but only in those subjects who attend to the stimulus and appear to be conscious of it. We tested the impact of a distracting task on normal subjects, and the P3 response behaves exactly as we expected. If you distract the subject, you lose this response. When the subject attends, you keep it. When the subject can report the rule governing the sequence, you see a P3. When they cannot report it, you don't see it.
Finally, Lionel Naccache, at the Salpêtrière Hospital, and Tristan Bekinschtein, now in Cambridge, moved on to applying these findings to patients. What they have shown is that the test would appear to behave exactly as we would expect. The P3 response is absent in coma patients. It is also gone in most vegetative state patients — but it remains present in most minimally conscious patients. It is always present in locked-in patients and in any other conscious subject.
The presence of this response in a few vegetative state patients, makes one wonder, if the person is really in a vegetative state or not? For the time being this is an open question — but it would appear that the few patients who show this response are the ones who are recovering fast and are, in fact, so close to recovery at the time of the test that you might wonder whether they were conscious during that test or not.
In summary, we have great hopes that our version of the mismatch test is going to be a very useful and simple test of consciousness. You can do it at the bedside — after ten minutes of EEG acquisition, you already have enough data to detect this type of response.
The future of neuroimaging research: decoding consciousness
This is where we stand today. We have the beginnings of a theory, but you can see that it isn't yet a completely formal theory. We do have a few good experimental observations, but again there is much more we must do. Let me now conclude by mentioning what I and many other colleagues think about the future of brain imaging in this area.
My feeling is that the future lies in being able to decode brain representations, not just detect them. Essentially all that I have told you today concerns the mere detection of processing that has gone all the way to a conscious level. The next step, which has already been achieved in several laboratories, is decoding which representation is retained in the subject's mind. We need to know the content of a conscious representation, not just whether there is a conscious representation. This is no longer science fiction. Just two weeks ago, Evelyn Eger, who is a post doc in Andreas Kleinschmidt's team in my laboratory, showed that you can take functional MRI images from the human brain and, by just looking at the pattern of activation in the parietal cortex, which relates to number processing, you can decode the number the person has in mind. If you take 200 voxels in this area, and look at which of them are active and which are inactive, you can construct a machine-learning device that decodes which number is being held in memory.
I should probably say quite explicitly that this use of the verb "decode" is an exaggeration. All you can do at the moment is achieve a better-than-chance inference about the memorized number. It does not mean that we are reading the subject's mind on every trial. It merely means that, whereas chance would be 50 percent for deciding between two digits, we manage to achieve 60 or 70 percent. That's not so bad, actually. It's a significant finding, which means that there is a cerebral code for number, and that we now understand a little bit more about that code.
But let me return again to patients. What I am thinking is that, in the future, with this type of decoding tool, we will move on to a new wave of research, where the goal will be explicitly to decode the contents of patients' minds, and maybe allow them to express themselves with the help of a brain-computer interface. Indeed, if we can decode content, there is no reason why we could not project it on the computer and use this device as a form of communication, even if the patient can no longer speak.
Again, some of this research has already started, in my lab as well as in several other places in the world. With Bertrand Thirion, we have looked at the occipital areas of the brain where there is a retinotopic map of incoming visual images. We have shown that you can start from the pattern of activation on this retinotopic map and use it to decode the image a person is viewing. You can even infer, to some extent, what mental image he has in his mind's eye, even when he is actually facing a blank screen. Mental images are a reality — they translate into a physical pattern of activation on these maps that you can begin to decode. Other researchers such as Jack Gallant, in the US, have now pursued this research program to a much greater extent.
I believe that the future of neuro-imaging lies in decoding a sequence of mental states, trying to see what William James called the stream of consciousness. We should not just decode a single image, but a succession of images. If we could literally see this stream, it would become even easier, without even stimulating the subject, to see that he is conscious because such a stream is present in his brain. Don't mistake me, though. There is a clear difference between what we have been able to do — discover signatures of consciousness — and what I hope that we will be able to do in the future — decode conscious states. The latter remains very speculative. I just hope that we will eventually get there. However, it is already a fact that we can experiment on consciousness and obtain a lot of information about the kind of brain state that underlies it.