Thursday, May 22, 2008

Brain and Mind News - Meditation, Suffering, Dissociation, Books, and More

Another link dump of mind and brain articles from all over the web. As always, follow the links to see the whole article.

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First up, a pdf article (in-press) from Trends in Cognitive Sciences: Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation:
Meditation can be conceptualized as a family of complex emotional and attentional regulatory training regimes developed for various ends, including the cultivation of well-being and emotional balance. Among these various practices, there are two styles that are commonly studied. One style, focused attention meditation, entails the voluntary focusing of attention on a chosen object. The other style, open monitoring meditation, involves nonreactive monitoring of the content of experience from moment to moment. The potential regulatory functions of these practices on attention and emotion processes could have a long-term impact on the brain and
For those who don't speak abstractese, they are saying that meditation practice changes the brain over time. And this is a good thing. This is a science-based article, so the terminology might be a little dense.

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From Live Science: Human Suffering: Why We Care (or Don't):

We are hard-wired to help others, to drop everything in crisis situations, scientists say.

"People do really respond in these crisis situations where it's really a short-term matter of life or death," said Daniel Kruger at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. The motivation to give dates back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, he said. Some non-human primates also have been shown to step in during a crisis to help their kin or even humans.

This article focuses on recent disasters in Burma and China, so it is relevant to worldly affairs. But they use good science, and also look at why we don't help others in need (hint: looking out for number one, as in the Burmese hunta).

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Deric Bownds took a recent look at The MRI of morality?
Greg Miller reviews research on the nature of human morality which continues to probe the debate between the views of of David Hume - that emotions drive moral judgments - and Immanuel Kant - who argued that reason should be the driving force. He includes reference to a recent study by Hsu, Anen, and Quartz on equity and efficiency.
Mostly, Bownds is quoting these two articles, which is interesting.

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Scientific American looks at The Science of Irrationality: Why We Humans Behave So Strangely, in an interview with Dan Ariely.
Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist at the Massachusetts Intitute of Technology and author of the best-selling book, Predictably Irrational (HarperCollins, 2008). In recent years, he has demonstrated that random digits can influence bids in an auction, that sexual arousal leads to reckless decisions (at least in college males) and that brand-name aspirin is more effective at treating headaches than generic aspirin, even when the pills are identical. Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer chats with Ariely about his research.

LEHRER: You are a cognitive psychologist by training. What led you to become interested in behavioral economics?

ARIELY: What motivates me the most is trying to take what we’ve learned from cognitive psychology and apply it to real world problems in an attempt to improve the way we live. The interesting thing about economics is that it has become the main guiding principle for policymakers, lawmakers and businesses. My hope for the kind of work I do, and for behavioral economics in general, is that by augmenting standard economics it could help design better policies that actually work with what people can compute and the ways they reason. In particular, I think that this approach in behavioral economics can have a substantial impact on savings, health care and a tendency to engage in risky behaviors.

LEHRER: Many of your experiments have direct connections to everyday decision-making. Do you get the ideas for these experiments from your own life?

ARIELY: Yes. Most of my experiments begin as a way for me to investigate and gain a better understanding of my own behavior or the behavior that I observe around me. I also get many ideas from talking to people and from current events. For example my fascination with cheating began with Enron and my current research on mortgages started with the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
Read the rest of this interview, it's quite fascinating. We humans are a lot less rational than we like to tell ourselves.

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Nest up is a paper on Dissociative Disorders by John F. Kihlstrom at the University of California, Berkeley. This is more geek material, but highly interesting. Here is the abstract:
The dissociative disorders, including "psychogenic" or "functional" amnesia, fugue, dissociative identity disorder (DID, also known as multiple personality disorder), and depersonalization disorder, were once classified, along with conversion disorder, as forms of hysteria. The 1970s witnessed an "epidemic" of dissociative disorder, particularly DID, which may have reflected enthusiasm for the diagnosis more than its actual prevalence. Traditionally, the dissociative disorders have been attributed to trauma and other psychological stress, but the existing evidence favoring this hypothesis is plagued by poor methodology. Prospective studies of traumatized individuals reveals no convincing cases of amnesia not attributable to brain insult, injury, or disease. Treatment generally involves recovering and working through ostensibly repressed or dissociated memories of trauma; at present there are few quantitative or controlled outcome studies. Experimental studies have focused largely on state-dependent and implicit memory, are few in number. Depersonalization disorder may be in line for the next "epidemic".
It's worth noting that dissociation covers a whole spectrum from day-dreaming to full-fledged amnesia. Most of us dissociate a few times every day (or more), though it appears that meditation, as shown above, can fix that.

Mind Hacks provided the link to this article, and they focused on the epidemic of DID in the 60s and 70s (remember Eve and Sybil?).

Here is some of that article:
Below is an excerpt from psychologist John Kihlstrom's ­2005 review article on dissociative disorders where he talks about the sudden 'epidemic' of multiple personality disorder, now know as DID, in the 1960s and 70s.

Dissociative Identity Disorder or DID is a diagnosis that describes where someone manifests various personalities, often of a diverse range of people - from children to adults of either sex.

It is controversial partly because diagnoses seemed to massively increase when two famous films on the disorder were popular.

Kihlstrom makes the interesting point that the increase in the number of people diagnosed with the disorder was also matched by an increase in the number of personalities each person seemed to have.

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From Wired, Brain Scans as Mind Readers? Don't Believe the Hype.
A typical brain contains 100 billion neurons, each of which makes electrical connections, or synapses, with up to 10,000 other neurons. That means a quadrillion synapses to keep track of at any given time — about the number of people on 150,000 Earths. Somehow, in the midst of this frenetic electrical activity, something called "mind" emerges.

If you had your brain scanned after, say, suffering a concussion in a football game, you would have either a CT scan or an MRI. These are both examples of structural imaging, meaning that they can take pictures of your brain's anatomy but not its activity.

Functional neuroimaging is different. It takes pictures of the brain in action. Using the analogy of a house, structural imaging can show you the basic layout of your rooms, but functional imaging can show you where people are congregating during a party. Spect scans and PET scans accomplish this through radioactive tracers injected into the patient that concentrate where the brain is active. Functional MRIs (known as fMRIs) look at blood flow by sending out magnetic pulses to measure the location of hydrogen atoms.

In recent years, functional neuroimaging research has yielded a wealth of intriguing fodder for journalists but few scientific breakthroughs. We've learned, for example, which brain regions light up when we fall in love (the nucleus accumbens), why we may be impressed by expensive wines (our reward centers light up more as the price increases, even if the wine stays the same), and what happens in the brains of meditating monks (not very much, since they have so much control over their frontal lobes). Nevertheless, when it comes to psychiatry, most insurance companies will cover a PET scan only if it's used to distinguish Alzheimer's disease from a rare form of dementia. And while psychiatrists have used neuroimaging to work out the neurocircuitry of other conditions, like obsessive-compulsive disorder, few believe the technique is ready for use in daily clinical care.

We all know that fMRI is a great tool, but it really can't tell us too much about individual brains, only give us general ideas of the brain functions. Businesses that pretend to take these images and proscribe a brain health regimen, like the one mentioned in this article, are full of shit.

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One last article, a philosophy article from Eric Schwitzgebel, who blogs at The Splintered Mind, The Unreliability of Naive Introspection.
Current conscious experience is generally the last refuge of the skeptic against uncertainty. Though we might doubt the existence of other minds, that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the earth existed five minutes ago, that there’s any “external world” at all, even whether two and three make five, still we can know, it’s said, the basic features of our ongoing stream of experience. Descartes espouses this view in his first two Meditations. So does Hume, in the first book of the Treatise, and—as I read him—Sextus Empiricus.1 Other radical skeptics like Zhuangzi and Montaigne, though they appear to aim at very general skeptical goals, don’t grapple specifically and directly with the possibility of radical mistakes about current conscious experience. Is this an unmentioned exception to their skepticism? Unintentional oversight? Do they dodge the issue for fear that it is too poor a field on which to fight their battles? Where is the skeptic who says: We have no reliable means of learning about our own ongoing conscious experience, our current imagery, our inward sensations—we are as in the dark about that as about anything else, perhaps even more in the dark?

Is introspection (if that's what's going on here) just that good? If so, that would be great news for the blossoming -- or should I say recently resurrected? -- field of consciousness studies. Or does contemporary discord about consciousness -- not just about the physical bases of consciousness but seemingly about the basic features of experience itself -- point to some deeper, maybe fundamental, elusiveness that somehow escaped the notice of the skeptics, that perhaps partly explains the first, ignoble death of consciousness studies a century ago?
This is a prestigious publication for Eric, so that's cool.

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A couple of book reviews from Metapsychology.

Review - Mind in Life
Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind
by Evan Thompson
Belknap, 2007
Review by Taede A. Smedes, Ph.D.
May 20th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 21)
The central message of the book is that there is a deep continuity between life and mind via embodied existence and it is the goal of this book to show the fruitfulness of such a view for the sciences of life and mind. Thompson first explains in the four chapters of part one the historical relationship between the cognitive sciences and phenomenology. The descriptions are fairly elementary, leaving many of the complexities of phenomenological thinking aside, but to someone unfamiliar to phenomenological philosophy they are nonetheless challenging. Even more challenging is the second part of the book, where Thompson tries to come to a new "philosophy of the organism" not unlike that of Hans Jonas. He argues that the concept of autopoiesis (a kind of self-organization) is the characteristic aspect of living systems: living systems and their environment comprise an irreducible interactive process where the one is constantly being defined by and itself defining the other. The concept of autopoiesis, or self-production and self-maintenance, is notoriously difficult, and by discussing the complexities involved in defining the concept, Thompson does not exactly reduce the conceptual vagueness of the concept.
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Review - Consciousness and Mental Life
by Daniel N. Robinson
Columbia University Press, 2007
Review by Lars Marstaller
May 20th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 21)
In Consciousness and Mental Life, Daniel Robinson argues for the foundational primacy of folk psychology over cognitive neuroscience. Robinson answers the question whether consciousness can fully be explained by the sciences of the brain with a clear no, for it lacks the very conception that urges humans to ask such questions -- mental life. In a very readable and highly witty way, Robinson manages to discuss most of the major positions and key players in the current debates surrounding consciousness. From identity theory to Davidson's anomalous monism, from Putnam's externalism to Dennettian functionalism, from higher order theories to personal identity, Robinson weaves his argument around the relevant questions all the while reflecting on their historic predecessors like Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Aristotle etc. The presentation of his position is thus a good example of how the history of philosophy can inform contemporary works on the subject. Although this book counts little more than 200 pages Robinson's is a point well made - timely, engaging and thoughtful.

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