Saturday, August 18, 2012

George Atwood - The Abyss of Madness

I am reading George Atwood's The Abyss of Madness (Psychoanalytic Inquiry Book Series) (2011) as part of an intersubjective, relational psychoanalytic study group I have been a part of for the last two and a half years. Aside from a few essays, this is is the first work I have read that is specifically Atwood's own thinking (most of the other books he had co-authored with Robert Stolorow).

Here is the description of the book from Amazon:
Despite the many ways in which the so-called psychoses can become manifest, they are ultimately human events arising out of human contexts. As such, they can be understood in an intersubjective manner, removing the stigmatizing boundary between madness and sanity. Utilizing the post-Cartesian psychoanalytic approach of phenomenological contextualism, as well as almost 50 years of clinical experience, George Atwood presents detailed case studies depicting individuals in crisis and the successes and failures that occurred in their treatment. Topics range from depression to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder to dreams, dissociative states to suicidality. Throughout is an emphasis on the underlying essence of humanity demonstrated in even the most extreme cases of psychological and emotional disturbance, and both the surprising highs and tragic lows of the search for the inner truth of a life – that of the analyst as well as the patient.

I very much like the way he conceptualizes these issues, even when I do not agree with his perspective on the mind. The way he talks about mental illness feels right in terms of how the client experiences it, and in the relational/intersubjective model, meeting the client in his or her own reality is essential.

When he speaks of madness in these passages, he is referring to psychosis and schizophrenia, or even bipolar disorder in its manic stage. These are not cases of simple depression, although there is certainly some similarity at a much lower intensity. And all these terms are things that he rejects as scientific defense mechanisms against our own fears of the abyss and what that means for our shared sense of being human.

It's worth bearing in mind that the psychoanalytic school refused to treat the "psychotics" for decades following Freud based on his assumption that they were not amenable to treatment. Harry Stack Sullivan, in the late 1920s, was one of the first psychoanalytically trained therapists to work with schizophrenics, and he did so based on his "problems with living" definition of mental illness. Sullivan was also one of the first psychoanalysts to focus on the "self system" as the outcome of relational patterns in the child's life (eventually giving rise to attachment theory). Atwood is definitely a lineage holder in the tradition Sullivan created that has been expanded upon by Stolorow, Donna Orange, and others.

Here a few quotes that I have highlighted in the text that I think are illustrative of his thinking.
Phenomenologically, going mad is a matter of the fragmentation of the soul, of a fall into nonbeing, of becoming subject to a sense of erasure and annihilation. The fall into the abyss of madness, when it occurs, is felt as something infinite and eternal. One falls away, limitlessly, from being itself,  into utter nonbeing.  (p. 40)

* * * *

Madness is not an illness, and it is not a disorder. Madness is the abyss. It is the experience of utter annihilation. Calling it a disease and distinguishing its forms, arranging its manifestations in carefully assembled lists and charts, creating scientific-sounding pseudo-explanations for it--all of these are intellectually indefensible, and I think they occur because of the terror. What is the terror I am speaking of? It is the terror of madness itself, which is the anxiety that one may fall into nonbeing.

The abyss lies on or just beyond the horizon of every person's world, and there is nothing more frightening. Even death does not hold a terror for us comparable to the one associated with the abyss. (p. 41)
He suggests that death offers a potential reunion with loved ones, or conversely, a release or relief from the sorrows and pains of our lives. We can rage against the dying of the light, or marvel at our capacity to contemplate our own demise, or even imagine the world without us.

But the descent into madness, into the abyss, offers no such relief.  
It is the end of all possible responses and meanings, the erasure of a world in which there is anything coherent to respond to, the melting away of anyone to engage in a response. It is much more scary than death, and this proven by the fact that people in fear of annihilation--the terror of madness--so often commit suicide rather than continue with it. (p. 42)

* * * *

People often fall not because the bad happens, but rather because the good stops happening. Sanity is sustained by a network of validating, affirming connections that exist in a person's life: connections to other beings. If those connections fail, one falls. The beings on whom one relies include, obviously, other people, sometimes animals, often beings known only through memory and creative imagination. It some instances it is the connection to God that protects a person against madness. Strip any person of his or her sustaining links to others, and that person falls. No one is immune, because madness is a possibility of every human life. (p. 43)

* * * *

What a person in the grip of annihilation needs, above all else, is someone's understanding of the horror, which will include a human response assisting in the journey back to some sort of psychological survival. A person undergoing an experience of the total meltdown of the universe, when told that his or her suffering stems from a mental illness, will generally feel confused, invalidated, and undermined. Because there are no resources to fight against such a view, its power will have a petrifying effect on subjectivity and deepen the fall into the abyss. (p. 45)
Atwood contends that an objectified psychiatric diagnosis is the antithesis of what is needed - essentially mirroring and validation. He offers a thought experiment: Imagine a young man, maybe in his early 20s, who is in the midst of a fall into the abyss. This young man finds himself committed to an in-patient psych ward where he is given the diagnosis of a brain disease called schizophrenia.
The annihilating impact of such a view then becomes symbolized in the patient's unfolding experience that vicious, destructive voices are speaking to him over invisible wires and saying repeatedly that he should die. In this way a spiraling effect occurs, wherein the operation of the medical model further injures the already devastated patient, whose reactions to the new injuries in turn reconfirm the correctness of the diagnosis. (p. 45-46)
He prefers to be with the client in whatever space they inhabit, to show them that he is listening and trying to comprehend their experiences as much as he is able - and, above all else, that he is prepared to do whatever is necessary to help.

I have had clients in the past who I felt unable to help, because I was unable to be with them in their abyss, to extend my empathy into what I experiences as their delusional states. I failed them. Even as I sat with them and tried to understand what they were telling me, I did not understand that their delusions were their psychic organizing principles, were their symbolic truth of how the world has betrayed them.

Atwood, in the many case studies he presents, is revealed as someone who can feel into the annihilation his clients present him with, but he also acknowledges how challenging it is:
Working in the territory of annihilated souls is never easy. To really listen to someone, anyone, to hear the depth of what he or she may have felt, to work one's way into realms of experience never before perceived by anyone and therefore never articulated--all of this is as hard a task as one may undertake. (p. 51)
It is indeed. And it is also rewarding when the therapist can do so successfully and allow the client to feel heard and validated - maybe for the first tine in their lives.

I want to wrap up this post with a few more passages that deal with etiology. I posted some thoughts recently on a more relationally based diagnostic manual for counselors and therapists - Atwood conceptualizes cases in a way that fits with what I would like to see.
Those who feel they are not present, and who affirm the existence of machine that controls their minds and bodies, are often the products of profound enmeshment with their caregivers in childhood. An accommodation has taken place at a very young age in which the agenda of the caregiver--it can be the mother, the father, or both--becomes the supreme principle defining the child's developing sense of personal identity. The experience of the child as an independent person in his or her own right is nullified, so that they child the parents wish for can be brought into being. Very often thee are no outward signs of anything amiss, as family life unfolds in a seeming harmony. Somewhere along the way, however , the false self begins to crumble, and a sense of the degree to which the child has been absent from life arises. This emerging sense of never having been there, of having been controlled and regulated by outside forces, is so unstable and fragmentary that it is given concrete form. What is seen from the viewpoint of others as a delusion then begins to crystallize, for example in the image of an influencing machine (Tausk, 1917; Orange et al., 1997, chap. 4). Within the world of the child, now perhaps chronologically an adult, the so-called delusion is a carrier of truth that has up until then been entirely hidden and erased. What looks like a breakdown into psychosis and delusion thus may represent an attempted breakthrough, but the inchoate "I" does require an understanding and responsive "Thou" in order to have a chance to consolidate itself. (p. 60-61)
 That last sentence is the essence of the relational model - we are relational beings, the damage to our sense of self that we experience is nearly always relational, and if there is to be healing of that damage, that too much be relational - it requires mirroring, validation, and the sense of human connection that is vital to sanity for all of us.

Geoffrey Hinton - Brains, Sex, and Machine Learning

This Google Tech Talk features University of Toronto psychologist and AI expert Geoffrey Hinton speaking on Brains, Sex, and Machine Learning. He highlights the use of computer modeling to help us understands why the brain functions as it does (why cortical neurons send single, randomly timed spikes for signal processing rather than sending precise, rhythmic spikes). This talk demonstrates some of the ways the brain operates as a complex adaptive system - and, for me at least, how difficult it is to create AI systems that can even approximate the function of the brain.

Brains, Sex, and Machine Learning
Geoffrey Hinton, University of Toronto

Recent advances in machine learning cast new light on two puzzling biological phenomena. Neurons can use the precise time of a spike to communicate a real value very accurately, but it appears that cortical neurons do not do this. Instead they send single, randomly timed spikes. This seems like a clumsy way to perform signal processing, but a recent advance in machine learning shows that sending stochastic spikes actually works better than sending precise real numbers for the kind of signal processing that the brain needs to do. A closely related advance in machine learning provides strong support for a recently proposed theory of the function of sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction breaks up large sets of co-adapted genes and this seems like a bad way to improve fitness. However, it is a very good way to make organisms robust to changes in their environment because it forces important functions to be achieved redundantly by multiple small sets of genes and some of these sets may still work when the environment changes. For artificial neural networks, complex co-adaptations between learned feature detectors give good performance on training data but not on new test data. Complex co-adaptations can be reduced by randomly omitting each feature detector with a probability of a half for each training case. This random "dropout" makes the network perform worse on the training data but the number of errors on the test data is typically decreased by about 10%. Nitish Srivastava, Alex Krizhevsky, Ilya Sutskever and Ruslan Salakhutdinov have shown that this leads to large improvements in speech recognition and object recognition.

Geoffrey Hinton received his BA in experimental psychology from Cambridge in 1970 and his PhD in Artificial Intelligence from Edinburgh in 1978. He spent five years as a faculty member in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie-Mellon University then moved to the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto where he is the director of the program on Neural Computation and Adaptive Perception which is funded by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. He has been awarded the David E. Rumelhart prize, the IJCAI award for research excellence, the Killam prize for Engineering and the NSERC Herzberg Gold Medal which is Canada's top award in Science and Engineering.

Geoffrey Hinton designs machine learning algorithms. His aim is to discover a learning procedure that is efficient at finding complex structure in large, high-dimensional datasets and to show that this is how the brain learns to see. He was one of the researchers who introduced the back-propagation algorithm that has been widely used for practical applications. His other contributions to neural network research include Boltzmann machines, distributed representations, time-delay neural nets, mixtures of experts, variational learning, products of experts, deep belief nets and dropout.

Michael Graziano - Consciousness and the Attention Schema

This is Michael Graziano's talk at the Evolution and Function of Consciousness Summer School ("Turing Consciousness 2012") held at the University of Montreal as part of Alan Turing Year. More info below.

Michael Graziano - Consciousness and the Attention Schema


One possible explanation of awareness is that it is a construct of the social perceptual machinery. Humans have specialized neuronal machinery that allows us to be socially intelligent. The primary role for this machinery is to construct models of other people--minds thereby gaining some ability to predict the behavior of other individuals. In the present hypothesis, specific cortical machinery, notably in the superior temporal sulcus and the temporo-parietal junction, is used to build the construct of awareness and attribute it to other people. The same cortical machinery, in this hypothesis, is also used to attribute awareness to oneself. Damage to this cortical machinery can lead to disruptions in consciousness such as hemispatial neglect. In this theory, the value of the construct of awareness, and the value of attributing it to a person, is to gain a useful predictive model of that person--attentional processing. Attention is a style of information processing in the brain in which neuronal signals compete. One interrelated set of signals rises in strength at the expense of others, and thereby dominates the control of behavior. Awareness, in the present hypothesis, is a construct, a useful schema, that models the dynamics and essential properties of attention. To be aware of X is to construct a model of one--attentional focus on X. A brain concludes it is aware of X, and assigns a high degree of certainty to that conclusion, and reports that conclusion, because of an informational model that depicts awareness of X.
Reference Article:
Graziano, MSA, and Kastner, S. (2011) Human consciousness and its relationship to social neuroscience: A novel hypothesis. Cognitive Neuroscience, 2: 98-113.

Here is the abstract and introduction to the paper - they raise the possibility that "awareness is a construct of the social machinery in the brain."

Human consciousness and its relationship to social neuroscience: A novel hypothesis

Michael S. A. Graziano and Sabine Kastner
Princeton University, Department of Psychology, Green Hall, Princeton NJ 08544


A common modern view of consciousness is that it is an emergent property of the brain, perhaps caused by neuronal complexity, and perhaps with no adaptive value. Exactly what emerges, how it emerges, and from what specific neuronal process, is in debate. One possible explanation of consciousness, proposed here, is that it is a construct of the social perceptual machinery. Humans have specialized neuronal machinery that allows us to be socially intelligent. The primary role for this machinery is to construct models of other people’s minds thereby gaining some ability to predict the behavior of other individuals. In the present hypothesis, awareness is a perceptual reconstruction of attentional state; and the machinery that computes information about other people’s awareness is the same machinery that computes information about our own awareness. The present article brings together a variety of lines of evidence including experiments on the neural basis of social perception, on hemispatial neglect, on the out-of-body experience, on mirror neurons, and on the mechanisms of decision-making, to explore the possibility that awareness is a construct of the social machinery in the brain.

“Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our
pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears.
Through it, in particular, we think, see, hear, and distinguish the ugly from the
beautiful, the bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant…”
~ Hippocrates, Fifth Century, BC.


A common neuroscientific assumption about human consciousness is that it is an emergent property of information processing in the brain. Information is passed through neuronal networks, and by an unknown process consciousness of that information ensues. In such a view, a distinction is drawn between the information represented in the brain, that can be studied physiologically, and the as-yet unexplained property of being conscious of that information. In the present article a novel hypothesis is proposed that differs from these common intuitive notions. The hypothesis is summarized in the following five points.

First, when a person asserts “I am conscious of X,” whatever X may be, whether a color, a tactile sensation, a thought, or an emotion, the assertion depends on some system in the brain that must have computed the information, otherwise the information would be unavailable for report. Not only the information represented by X, visual information or auditory information for example, but also the essence of consciousness itself, the inner feeling attached to X, must be information or we would be unable to say that we have it. In this hypothesis, consciousness is not an emergent property, or a metaphysical emanation, but is itself information computed by an expert system. This first point raises the question of why the brain would contain an expert system that computes consciousness. The question is addressed in the following points.

Second, people routinely compute the state of awareness of other people. A fundamental part of social intelligence is the ability to compute information of the type, “Bill is aware of X.” In the present proposal, the awareness we attribute to another person is our reconstruction of that person’s attention. This social capability to reconstruct other people’s attentional state is probably dependent on a specific network of brain areas that evolved to process social information, though the exact neural instantiation of social intelligence is still in debate.

Third, in the present hypothesis, the same machinery that computes socially relevant information of the type, “Bill is aware of X,” also computes information of the type, “I am aware of X.” When we introspect about our own awareness, or make decisions about the presence or absence of our own awareness of this or that item, we rely on the same circuitry whose expertise is to compute information about other people’s awareness.

Fourth, awareness is best described as a perceptual model. It is not merely a cognitive or semantic proposition about ourselves that we can verbalize. Instead it is a rich informational model that includes, among other computed properties, a spatial structure. A commonly overlooked or entirely ignored component of social perception is spatial localization. Social perception is not merely about constructing a model of the thoughts and emotions of another person, but also about binding those mental attributes to a location. We do not merely reconstruct that Bill believes this, feels that, and is aware of the other, but we perceive those mental attributes as localized within and emanating from Bill. In the present hypothesis, through the use of the social perceptual machinery, we assign the property of awareness to a location within ourselves.

Fifth, because we have more complete and more continuous data on ourselves, the perceptual model of our own awareness is more detailed and closer to detection threshold than our perceptual models of other people’s awareness.

The purpose of the present article is to elaborate on the hypothesis summarized above and to review some existing evidence that is consistent with the hypothesis. None of the evidence discussed in this article is conclusive. Arguably, little conclusive evidence yet exists in the study of consciousness. Yet the evidence suggests some plausibility to the present hypothesis that consciousness is a perception and that the perceptual model is constructed by social circuitry.

The article is organized in the following manner. First the hypothesis is outlined in greater detail (Awareness as a product of social perception). Second, a summary of recent work on the neuronal basis of social perception is provided (Machinery for social perception and cognition). A series of sections then describes results from a variety of areas of study, including hemispatial neglect, cortical attentional processing, aspects of self perception including the out-of-body illusion, mirror neurons as a possible mechanism of social perception, and decision-making as a means of answering questions about one’s own awareness. In each case the evidence is interpreted in light of the present hypothesis. One possible advantage of the present hypothesis is that it may provide a general theoretical basis on which to understand and fit together a great range of otherwise disparate and incompatible data sets.
Read the whole interesting paper.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Paul Ryan: The Flesh-and-Blood Embodiment of Political Deception and Media Obfuscation

David Sirota and In These Times looks at Paul Ryan, the man versus the myth created by the GOP and the media. The image perpetrated by the media and political establishments have very little to do with the reality of Ryan and his agenda.

Who Is Paul Ryan?

The media’s image of Romney’s running mate doesn’t mesh with reality

The GOP's presumptive vice presidential nominee is the 21st century's flesh-and-blood embodiment of political deception and media obfuscation.

Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan admires Ayn Rand, and if you believe Republican Party mythology, Ryan is a messianic John Galt who will save America from a secret socialist conspiracy. Thus, in Rand fashion, it's worth asking: Who Is Paul Ryan?

The answer is simple: the GOP's presumptive vice presidential nominee is the 21st century's flesh-and-blood embodiment of political deception and media obfuscation.

Purporting to be a small-government budget hawk, Ryan publicly decries corporate welfare and says he wants “to get Washington out of the business of picking winners and losers.” This has generated press coverage promoting Ryan as a great fiscal conservative. Yet, written out of the story is the fact that Ryan is a Huge Government Republican who voted for–and in some cases, still defends–the biggest examples of corporate welfare in American history.

Ryan, you see, was the Huge Government Republican who backed this era's massive corporate bailouts–the one that picked politically connected companies as winners and taxpayers as losers. He was the Huge Government Republican who regularly voted for profligate war spending bills–the ones that blew a gaping hole in the federal budget. And he is the Huge Government Republican now using his committee chairmanship to oppose serious cuts to the deficit-exploding corporate welfare still embedded in the bloated Pentagon budget.

Similarly, Ryan claims to be, and is billed in the press as, a libertarian-inspired acolyte of Rand–a man who supposedly values freedom and limited government. But as a Huge Government Republican, he has consistently voted to expand the surveillance state, endorse warrantless wiretapping and permit indefinite detention. Oh, and in contradiction to Rand's writings, he has also pushed to use the power of Huge Government to end a woman's right to choose an abortion.

Like so many Republicans, Ryan genuflects to the private sector and insinuates that the government is not a job creator. It's funny coming from a guy who has spent most of his adult life as a federal employee and whose family's construction company brags of building its fortune off government highway contracts.

Ryan labels himself an opponent of “crony capitalism” and is often promoted by reporters as someone who can help Mitt Romney thwart the Washington insiders who corrupt our politics. Somehow, we are expected to ignore the fact that Ryan has spent the vast majority of his adult life in Washington; that his wife served as a top pharmaceutical and oil lobbyist in Washington; and that, as Newsweek reported in 2011, he tried to insert special provisions into federal law that would boost his personal oil investment portfolio.

Then there are Ryan's budget proposals, whose central premises are that Medicare must be gutted and Social Security must be turned over to Wall Street because we allegedly don't have enough revenue to fund them. In response, the press often credits Ryan's blueprint for being courageous and honest. Yet, in the very same plans, Ryan proposes to severely deplete public revenues by eliminating all taxes on capital gains, interest and dividends, meaning that, according to The Atlantic magazine, Mitt Romney would pay a 0.82 percent tax rate on his $21 million annual earnings.

Republican powerbrokers, of course, hope you never learn any of this. They hope you and an obsequious press don't bother to review Ryan's congressional votes or his legislative history. They are hoping, in other words, that when you see Ryan's boyish Midwestern visage, you won't see the real Ryan–and you won't see what his ascent to vice president might mean for the future of America.
David Sirota, an In These Times senior editor and syndicated columnist, is a bestselling author whose book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything was released in 2011. Sirota, whose previous books include The Uprising and Hostile Takeover, co-hosts "The Rundown" on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

Distinct Neural Activity Associated with Focused-Attention Meditation and Loving-Kindness Meditation

It's interesting to see the emerging research on differences between various approached to meditation. We may soon reach a point when we can "prescribe" meditation form A for increasing cognitive function or meditation form B for increasing compassion and empathy.

This study makes progress in that general direction.

The researchers demonstrate that focused-attention meditation (FAM) can increase performance on tasks associated with attention, while loving-kindness meditation (LKM) does not confer the same increase in performance.

On the other hand, both the FAM and LKM meditation practices seem to alter the way the brain responds to emotional (affective) pictures. When viewing sad face, FAM practitioners activated the same brain regions that were active in the attention tasks. However, the LKM practitioners responded to sad face with brain regions associated with "differentiating emotional contagion from compassion/emotional regulation processes."

The results in this study support the premise of neuroplasticity that specific practices are associated with specific changes in brain function.
Meditation does influence emotion processing, regardless of whether the practice focuses on cognition (ānāpānasati) or emotion (mettā). Finally, the neural pathways underlying emotion processing associated with LKM are likely to be different from those associated with FAM.
The article was published in PLOS ONE and is freely available online at the link below.

Distinct Neural Activity Associated with Focused-Attention Meditation and Loving-Kindness Meditation

Tatia M. C. Lee1,2,3,4*, Mei-Kei Leung1,2, Wai-Kai Hou1,2,4, Joey C. Y. Tang1,5, Jing Yin4,6, Kwok-Fai So3,4,7, Chack-Fan Lee4,6, Chetwyn C. H. Chan4,8*

1 Laboratory of Neuropsychology, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 2 Laboratory of Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 3 The State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 4 Social Neuroscience Research Network, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 5 Number Laboratory, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 6 Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 7 Department of Anatomy, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 8 Applied Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China


This study examined the dissociable neural effects of ānāpānasati (focused-attention meditation, FAM) and mettā (loving-kindness meditation, LKM) on BOLD signals during cognitive (continuous performance test, CPT) and affective (emotion-processing task, EPT, in which participants viewed affective pictures) processing. Twenty-two male Chinese expert meditators (11 FAM experts, 11 LKM experts) and 22 male Chinese novice meditators (11 FAM novices, 11 LKM novices) had their brain activity monitored by a 3T MRI scanner while performing the cognitive and affective tasks in both meditation and baseline states. We examined the interaction between state (meditation vs. baseline) and expertise (expert vs. novice) separately during LKM and FAM, using a conjunction approach to reveal common regions sensitive to the expert meditative state. Additionally, exclusive masking techniques revealed distinct interactions between state and group during LKM and FAM. Specifically, we demonstrated that the practice of FAM was associated with expertise-related behavioral improvements and neural activation differences in attention task performance. However, the effect of state LKM meditation did not carry over to attention task performance. On the other hand, both FAM and LKM practice appeared to affect the neural responses to affective pictures. For viewing sad faces, the regions activated for FAM practitioners were consistent with attention-related processing; whereas responses of LKM experts to sad pictures were more in line with differentiating emotional contagion from compassion/emotional regulation processes. Our findings provide the first report of distinct neural activity associated with forms of meditation during sustained attention and emotion processing.

Full Citation:  
Lee TMC, Leung M-K, Hou W-K, Tang JCY, Yin J, et al. (2012) Distinct Neural Activity Associated with Focused-Attention Meditation and Loving-Kindness Meditation. PLoS ONE 7(8): e40054. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040054

Eddy Nahmias - Does Contemporary Neuroscience Support or Challenge the Reality of Free Will?

One of the foundational pieces of research in support of a neuroscientific argument against free will has been questioned, and the new interpretation opens up the debate once again. The original research goes back to the early 1980s - here is a brief explanation of the study and the findings, from New Scientist:
In the early 1980s, Benjamin Libet at the University of California in San Francisco, used electroencephalography (EEG) to record the brain activity of volunteers who had been told to make a spontaneous movement. With the help of a precise timer that the volunteers were asked to read at the moment they became aware of the urge to act, Libet found there was a 200 millisecond delay, on average, between this urge and the movement itself.

But the EEG recordings also revealed a signal that appeared in the brain even earlier – 550 milliseconds, on average – before the action. Called the readiness potential, this has been interpreted as a blow to free will, as it suggests that the brain prepares to act well before we are conscious of the urge to move.

This conclusion assumes that the readiness potential is the signature of the brain planning and preparing to move. "Even people who have been critical of Libet's work, by and large, haven't challenged that assumption," says Aaron Schurger of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Saclay, France.
In 2009, Judy Trevena and Jeff Miller of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, ran an experiment to challenge the findings. They showed that the brain begins to assemble neurons for possible responses and that once one hits a specific threshold, a decision has been made to act. In their experiment, those subjects who reacted quickest to the prompt had the largest neuron buildup. 

It seemed that their findings supported the Libet findings. However, Aaron Schurger of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Saclay, France, challenges that conclusion, largely based on the fact that subjects showed readiness potential (RP) before making a decision to move but, importantly, the RP was the same whether or not they chose to move.

Miller concluded that the RP may simply show that the brain is paying attention and not be indicative that the brain has made a decision to act. Likewise, Shurger said of the results: "...what looks like a pre-conscious decision process may not in fact reflect a decision at all. It only looks that way because of the nature of spontaneous brain activity."

Again, from New Scientist:
So what does this say about free will? "If we are correct, then the Libet experiment does not count as evidence against the possibility of conscious will," says Schurger.

Cognitive neuroscientist Anil Seth of the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, is impressed by the work, but also circumspect about what it says about free will. "It's a more satisfying mechanistic explanation of the readiness potential. But it doesn't bounce conscious free will suddenly back into the picture," he says. "Showing that one aspect of the Libet experiment can be open to interpretation does not mean that all arguments against conscious free will need to be ejected."

According to Seth, when the volunteers in Libet's experiment said they felt an urge to act, that urge is an experience, similar to an experience of smell or taste. The new model is "opening the door towards a richer understanding of the neural basis of the conscious experience of volition", he says.
That is some current background for this article from Big Questions Online - a look at neuroscience and free from Eddy Nahmias. He makes reference to the Libet study and the fact that the outcomes were only slightly above chance in the first place, but this newer research came out (I think) after the article was written.

Does Contemporary Neuroscience Support or Challenge the Reality of Free Will?

Does Contemporary Neuroscience Support or Challenge the Reality of Free Will?

August 13, 2012 
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.— Shakespeare

 Humans love stories.  We tell each other the stories of our lives, in which we are not merely players reading a script but also the authors.  As authors we make choices that influence the plot and the other players on the stage.  Free will can be understood as our capacities both to make choices—to write our own stories—and to carry them out on the world’s stage—to control our actions in light of our choices.

What would it mean to lack free will?  It might mean we are merely puppets, our strings pulled by forces beyond our awareness and beyond our control.  It might mean we are players who merely act out a script we do not author.  Or perhaps we think we make up our stories, but in fact we do so only after we’ve already acted them out.  The central image in each case is that we merely observe what happens, rather than making a difference to what happens.

How might neuroscience fit into the story I am telling?  Most scientists who discuss free will say the story has an unhappy ending—that neuroscience shows free will to be an illusion.  I call these scientists “willusionists.” (Willusionists include Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, Jonathan Bargh, Daniel Wegner, John Dylan Haynes, and as suggested briefly in some of their work, Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins.) Willusionists say that neuroscience demonstrates that we are not the authors of our own stories but more like puppets whose actions are determined by brain events beyond our control.  In his new book Free Will, Sam Harris says, “This [neuroscientific] understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet.” Jerry Coyne asserts in a USAToday column: “The ineluctable scientific conclusion is that although we feel that we’re characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we’re puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics.”

There are several ways willusionists reach their conclusion that we lack free will.  The first begins by defining free will in a dubious way.  Most willusionists’ assume that, by definition, free will requires a supernatural power of non-physical minds or souls:  it’s only possible if we are somehow offstage, beyond the causal interactions of the natural world, yet also somehow able to pull the strings of our bodies nonetheless.(For example, Read Montague.)  It’s a mysterious picture, and one that willusionists simply assert is the ordinary understanding of free will.  Based on this definition of free will, they then conclude that neuroscience challenges free will, since it replaces a non-physical mind or soul with a physical brain. 

But there is no reason to define free will as requiring this dualist picture.  Among philosophers, very few develop theories of free will that conflict with a naturalistic understanding of the mind—free will requires choice and control, and for some philosophers, indeterminism, but it does not require dualism.  Furthermore, studies on ordinary people’s understanding of free will show that, while many people believe we have souls, most do not believe that free will requires a non-physical soul.  And when presented scenarios about persons whose decisions are fully caused by earlier events, or even fully predictable by brain events, most people respond that they still have free will and are morally responsible.   These studies strongly suggest that what people primarily associate with free will and moral responsibility is the capacity to make conscious decisions and to control one’s actions in light of such decisions.

But willusionists also argue that neuroscience challenges free will by challenging this role for consciousness in decision-making and action.  Research by Benjamin Libet, and more recently by neuroscientists such as John Dylan Haynes, suggests that activity in the brain regularly precedes behavior—no surprise there!—but also precedes our conscious awareness of making a decision to move.  For instance, in one study neural activity measured by fMRI provided information about which of two buttons people would push up to 7-10 seconds before they were aware of deciding which to push.

If such early brain activity always completely determines what we do before our conscious thinking ever comes into the picture, then this would suggest we lack free will, because our conscious thinking would happen too late to influence what we did—an audience rather than author.  But the data does not show that brain activity occurring prior to awareness completely causes all of our decisions.  In the study just described, the early brain activity correlates with behavior at only 10% above chance.  It is not surprising that our brains prepare for action ahead of time and that this provides some information about what people will do. 

Of course, improved brain imaging technology will likely provide increasingly precise predictions of future behavior.  But here’s my prediction:  the more complex the decisions and behavior, the more likely such predictions will be based on information about the very neural processes that are the basis of conscious deliberation and decision-making.

Related Questions 
Once we assume that all mental processes have neural correlates, then whether consciousness plays a role in our complex behavior turns on whether the neural correlates of conscious processes occur at the right time and place to influence behavior.  It’s unlikely that the neural processes involved in complex deliberations, planning, and self-control play no role in behavior.  Instead, there is evidence that conscious and rational thinking can play an important causal role in complex behavior.  If we give up the mysterious picture of our conscious selves being offstage, then we can give up the threatening image of our brains pulling the strings while we helplessly watch.    

One reason it is easy to move from the assumption that neural processes cause behavior to the presumption that consciousness does nothing is that neuroscience still lacks a theory to explain how certain types of brain processes are the basis of conscious or rational mental processes.  Without such a story in place, it is easy to assume that neuroscientific explanations supersede and bypass explanations in terms of conscious and rational processes.  But that conclusion is unwarranted.  Explanations in organic chemistry do not explain away life; they explain life.  A more complete scientific theory of the mind will have to explain how consciousness and rationality work, rather than explaining them away.  As it does, we will come to understand how and when we have the capacities for conscious and rational choice, and for self-control, that people ordinarily associate with free will.  These are the capacities to reflect on our desires and reasons, to consider which of them we want to motivate us, and to make efforts to act accordingly—or as Roy Baumeister explained in his recent post, to habituate ourselves to make choices that accord with our reflectively endorsed goals.

By understanding how the most complex thing in the universe—the human brain—works, we can better understand our capacities to make choices and to control our actions accordingly.  On this telling of the tale, neuroscience can help to explain how free will works rather than explaining it away.

Now, if one insists that free will requires that we have an impossible ability to make choices beyond the influence of anything, including our own brains—or to make choices for no reason at all—then you will be disappointed by the story I am telling.  Here, willusionists like Sam Harris and I agree that we cannot have what is impossible.  Our choices do not arise from nothing any more than an author’s stories arise from nothing, but our choices do influence the way our stories unfold.

Nonetheless, fascinating research suggests that our conscious reasoning and planning is not pulling the strings as much as we tend to believe.  We are subject to biases and influences beyond our awareness, and we sometimes confabulate or rationalize our behavior. But our stories are not always fiction.  Other research suggests that our deliberations and decisions can have significant causal influences on what we decide and do, especially when we have difficult decisions to make and when we make complex plans for future action.

Free will is not all-or-nothing.  It involves capacities that we develop as we mature, but that have limitations.  Recognizing that people have differing degrees of free will can help us better determine when, and to what extent, people are responsible for their actions, and are deserving of praise or blame.  Indeed, where it really matters—legal responsibility—it is most useful to understand free will as a set of capacities for reasoning and self-control which people possess to varying degrees and have varying opportunities to exercise.

In this respect, neuroscience and other sciences of the mind can play an important role by providing new insights into our capacities for rationality and self-control, as well as their limitations.  We do not write our stories from scratch, but within the context of a complicated world of influences and interactions, our tales are not “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Questions for the discussion:
  • What do you think free will is?
  • Do you think free will is all-or-nothing or that we possess and exercise free will to varying degrees?  How much free will do we have?
  • Is free will necessary to deserve praise and blame for one’s actions?  If so, how much are people responsible for their actions and their situations?
  • Is free will inconsistent with a naturalistic worldview—with an understanding of our conscious minds as physically instantiated in our brains?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why Living in the Moment Is Impossible

I'm sure there a whole lot of Buddhists who would disagree with this headline - and I am not sure I agree with it, either. An overview summary of the article is below the press release, with a link to Neuron where you can read the whole article.

Full Citation:
Paul G. Middlebrooks, Marc A. Sommer. (2012, Aug 9).  Neuronal Correlates of Metacognition in Primate Frontal Cortex. Neuron; 75 (3): 517 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.05.028

Here is the press release as posted at Science Daily and several other sites:

Why Living in the Moment Is Impossible: Decision-Making Memories Stored in Mysterious Brain Area Known to Be Involved With Vision

ScienceDaily (Aug. 9, 2012) — The sought-after equanimity of "living in the moment" may be impossible, according to neuroscientists who've pinpointed a brain area responsible for using past decisions and outcomes to guide future behavior. The study, based on research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh and published August 9 in the professional journal Neuron, is the first of its kind to analyze signals associated with metacognition -- a person's ability to monitor and control cognition (a term cleverly described by researchers as "thinking about thinking.")

"The brain has to keep track of decisions and the outcomes they produce," said Marc Sommer, who did his research for the study as a University of Pittsburgh neuroscience faculty member and is now on the faculty at Duke University. "You need that continuity of thought," Sommer continued. "We are constantly keeping decisions in mind as we move through life, thinking about other things. We guessed it was analogous to working memory, which would point toward the prefrontal cortex."

Sommer predicted that neuronal correlates of metacognition resided in the same brain areas responsible for cognition, including the frontal cortex -- a part of the brain linked with personality expression, decision making, and social behavior. Sommer worked with Paul G. Middlebrooks, who did his research for the study at Pitt before he received his Pitt PhD in neuroscience in 2011; Middlebrooks is now a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University. The research team studied single neurons in vivo in three frontal cortical regions of the brain: the frontal eye field (associated with visual attention and eye movements), the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (responsible for motor planning, organization, and regulation), and the supplementary eye field (SEF) involved in the planning and control of saccadic eye movements, which are the extremely fast movements of the eye that allow it to continually refocus on an object.

To learn where metacognition occurs in the brain, subjects performed a visual decision-making task that involved random flashing lights and a dominant light on a cardboard square. Participants were asked to remember and pinpoint where the dominant light appeared, guessing whether they were correct. The researchers found that while neural activity correlated with decisions and guesses in all three brain areas, the putative metacognitive activity that linked decisions to bets resided exclusively in the SEF.

"The SEF is a complex area [of the brain] linked with motivational aspects of behavior," said Sommer. "If we think we're going to receive something good, neuronal activity tends to be high in SEF. People want good things in life, and to keep getting those good things, they have to compare what's going on now versus the decisions made in the past."

Sommer noted that defining such concepts related to metacognition, like consciousness, has been difficult for decades. He sees his research and future work related to studying metacognition as one step in a systematic process of working toward a better understanding of consciousness. By studying metacognition, he says, he reduces the big problem of studying a "train of thought" into a simpler component: examining how one cognitive process influences another.

"Why aren't our thoughts independent of each other? Why don't we just live in the moment? For a healthy person, it's impossible to live in the moment. It's a nice thing to say in terms of seizing the day and enjoying life, but our inner lives and experiences are much richer than that."

So far, patients with mental disorders have not been tested on these tasks, but Sommer is interested to see how SEF and other brain areas might be disrupted in these disorders.

"With schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease, there is a fracturing of the thought process. It is constantly disrupted, and despite trying to keep a thought going, one is distracted very easily," Sommers said. "Patients with these disorders have trouble sustaining a memory of past decisions to guide later behavior, suggesting a problem with metacognition."

Funding for this research was provided by the University of Pittsburgh, the joint University of Pittsburgh-Carnegie Mellon University Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Neuronal Correlates of Metacognition in Primate Frontal Cortex

  • Highlights
  • Monkeys made decisions and wagered on their performance in a metacognitive task
  • Single neurons were recorded in three frontal cortical regions
  • Only supplementary eye field (SEF) neuronal activity correlated with metacognition
  • The SEF metacognitive signal provided a temporal bridge between decision and bet


Humans are metacognitive: they monitor and control their cognition. Our hypothesis was that neuronal correlates of metacognition reside in the same brain areas responsible for cognition, including frontal cortex. Recent work demonstrated that nonhuman primates are capable of metacognition, so we recorded from single neurons in the frontal eye field, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and supplementary eye field of monkeys (Macaca mulatta) that performed a metacognitive visual-oculomotor task. The animals made a decision and reported it with a saccade, but received no immediate reward or feedback. Instead, they had to monitor their decision and bet whether it was correct. Activity was correlated with decisions and bets in all three brain areas, but putative metacognitive activity that linked decisions to appropriate bets occurred exclusively in the SEF. Our results offer a survey of neuronal correlates of metacognition and implicate the SEF in linking cognitive functions over short periods of time.

Ben Sessa - Shaping the renaissance of psychedelic research

MDMA Molecule (ecstasy)

This commentary by Ben Sessa was published in The Lancet, one of the most widely read medical journals in the world. It's a hopeful message for those of us who believe in the medical and psychotherapeutic benefits of psychedelics and entheogens.

This link was published in the MAPS Newsletter.

Shaping the renaissance of psychedelic research 

Psychedelic drugs have a rich and vibrant history as clinical aids for psychiatry. For two decades after the discovery of lysergide (LSD) in the 1940s, psychedelics were extensively studied and clinical progress was good.(1) But research collapsed rapidly in 1966 when LSD was made illegal, and there was a subsequent hiatus of psychedelic research. After 40 years, this pause is now coming to an end, with many new studies and a refreshing approach to the research of psychedelic drugs.(2)

Since the late 1980s, several new organisations have emerged: the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the Heffter Research Institute, and the Beckley Foundation are all revisiting psychedelic research, undertaking preclinical studies with LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, ibogaine, and methylenedioxymetamfetamine (MDMA). Several phase 2 clinical studies have been published and more are underway, with an emphasis on anxiety disorders and addictions. By undertaking methodologically sound studies, contemporary researchers are describing how psychedelics—when carefully managed in a super vised clinical environment—can safely harness the transformative power of the peak experience to improve the engagement and depth of psychotherapy. With information from functional neuroimaging and reassessment of the harm and safety profiles of psychedelic drugs,(3) there is a strong commitment to get research into psychedelics right this time around, by undertaking meticulously planned randomised, controlled, double-blind studies, in contrast to the anecdotal studies of the 1960s. A noticeable shift in attitudes from the mainstream medical community has seen increasing publications in high impact journals in recent years and a major UK conference in 2011, Breaking Convention.

The active component in so-called magic mushrooms, psilocybin, has been investigated for the treatment of the anxiety, pain, and existential crises associated with end-stage cancer(4) and also as a potential new treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder.(5) Ketamine has been studied as a treatment for alcohol and opiate addictions(6) and for management of depression.(7) Psychedelic research can also teach us about the nature of consciousness. In a study at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD, USA), psilocybin was used to explore how an induced peak experience can improve negative personality traits,(8) and at Imperial College London (London, UK), functional MRI was used to show how psilocybin can improve psychotherapy by allowing for an increased recall of repressed emotional memories.(9)

Further work investigating psilocybin as a potential new treatment for nicotine addiction and depression is underway, and the psychedelic drug ibogaine is increasingly being applied in the treatment of opiate, alcohol, and methamphetamine addictions. Additionally, LSD and psilocybin are being explored as treatments for unremitting cluster headaches(10) and for anxiety (Gasser P, Private Practice, Solothurn, Switzerland, personal communication).

However, perhaps the area where psychedelics show the greatest promise is in enhancement of trauma-focused psychotherapy; in particular MDMA, which can reduce the overwhelming fear response to memories of trauma and improves engagement with therapy.(11) In 2010 came the first published randomised controlled trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),(12) which has now been replicated. Given the growing clinical burden of post-combat PTSD, a viable and innovative approach is sought. Together with Jon Bisson (Cardiff University, Cardiff , UK) and David Nutt (Imperial College London, UK), I am currently seeking funding for a controlled study to investigate MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treatment-resistant PTSD, for which we will then seek ethical approval. We propose a design with 20 randomised patients who will receive a standard 16-week course of cognitive-behavioural therapy versus 20 patients who will receive a 16-week course of therapy in which three sessions are MDMA assisted, with the other nondrug sessions used to integrate their drug experiences. Patients will be monitored by functional MRI scans before and after treatment to assess neurophysiological changes associated with MDMA therapy. Our study puts an emphasis on delivering this treatment at a standard National Health Service (NHS) clinic so that the immediate clinical relevance can be realised.

Doctors in the specialty of psychiatry recognise that research with psychedelic compounds is controversial. These drugs are powerful substances and have a negative image in society. Certain patient groups are appropriately contraindicated from using them clinically, such as people with a personal or family history of psychosis. These drugs do have capacity to cause harm, and many such examples of misuse have occurred when they are used recreationally.(13) However, if careful attention is paid to the mindset of the users and the clinical setting in which psychedelics are prescribed, such harms can be minimised to adequately satisfy a risk:benefit analysis.
We must learn from both the successes and mistakes of the 1960s. We have gained some useful information from those early studies, and disregarding entirely the unique transpersonal approach of psychedelic therapy is not the answer. But new treatments must be framed in a modern context, be relevant to today’s therapeutic culture, and must avoid the pitfalls of the past by separating the therapeutic uses of these drugs from their historical recreational misuse. We need focused, practical, and deliverable clinical advances. If we can achieve this, we may find these fascinating substances have a fresh role in modern psychiatry.
Ben Sessa
CAMHS Team, Foundation House, Wellsprings Road,
Taunton TA2 7PQ, UK

I declare that I have no conflicts of interest.

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2 Sessa B. Can psychedelics have a role in psychiatry again? Br J Psychiatry 2005; 186: 457–58. 
3 Nutt DJ, King LA, Saulsbury W, Blakemore C. Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse. Lancet 2007; 369: 1047–53.
4 Grob CS, Danforth AL, Chopra GS, et al. Pilot study of psilocybin treatment for anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2011; 68: 71–78.
5 Moreno FA, Wiegand CB, Taitano EK, Delgado PL. Safety, tolerability, and efficacy of psilocybin in 9 patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. J Clin Psychiatry 2006; 67: 1735–40.
6 Krupitsky EM, Burakov AM, Dunaevsky IV, Romanova TN, Slavina TY, Grinenko AY. Single versus repeated sessions of ketamine-assisted psychotherapy for people with heroin dependence. J Psychoactive Drugs 2007; 39: 13–19.
7 Zarate CA, Singh JB, Carlson PJ, et al. A randomized trial of an N-methyl-D-aspartate antagonist in treatment-resistant major depression. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2006; 63: 856–64.
8 Griffi ths RR, Richards WA, McCann U, Jesse R. Psilocybin can occasion mystical experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology (Berl) 2006; 187: 268–83.
9 Carhart-Harris R, Leech R, Williams TM, et al. Implications for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: functional magnetic resonance imaging study with psilocybin. Br J Psychiatry 2012; 200: 238–44.
10 Sewell RA, Halpern JH, Pope HG Jr. Response of cluster headache to psilocybin and LSD. Neurology 2006; 66: 1920–22.
11 Sessa B. Could MDMA be useful in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder? Prog Neurol Psychiatry 2011; 6: 4–7.
12 Mithoefer MC, Wagner MT, Mithoefer AT, Jerome L, Doblin R. The safety and efficacy of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy in subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder: the first randomized controlled pilot study. J Psychopharmacol 2010; 25: 439–52.
13 Wade D, Harrigan S, Edwards J, Burgess PM, Whelan G, McGorry PD. Substance misuse in first-episode psychosis: 15-month prospective follow-up study. Br J Psychiatry 2006; 189: 229–34.
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