The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, December 3, 2017
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

I haven’t said much lately on one of my favorite topics, i.e. the nature of human consciousness. That’s because lately, there hasn’t been much new to say. I try to keep up with new developments in thinking about consciousness (thinking on the academic level, not the “woo-woo” stuff), but to be honest, most of what I see in the science press these days is just a rehash of arguments and positions that were available 10 years ago. It seems to me as though the understanding of consciousness by scientists and philosophers is in a holding pattern, like airplanes circling around above a fogged-in airport.

The neuroscientists keep trying to chip away at the problem with their experiments and empirical findings. I recently saw an article about a recent empirical study that seemed to support the theory that consciousness is “epi-phenomenal”, i.e. it doesn’t affect human behavior. It’s sort of a side-show, because the sub-conscious is where the real decisions are made, outside the light of awareness, in a computer-like fashion. The article is called What If Consciousness Doesn’t Drive the Mind?, by UCL Psychology Professor David A Oakley and Cardiff Neuropsychology Professor Peter Halligan. The study in question involves detailed brain activity scans comparing volitional movements of the arm with non-volitional and hypnotically induced movements.

What I found most interesting about the article was the following section title and paragraph:

What’s the point?

If the experience of consciousness does not confer any particular advantage, it’s not clear what its purpose is. But as a passive accompaniment to non-conscious processes, we don’t think that the phenomena of personal awareness has a purpose, in much the same way that rainbows do not. Rainbows simply result from the reflection, refraction and dispersion of sunlight through water droplets – none of which serves any particular purpose.

I found this to be an ironic example of where scientific reductionism can lead us. I.e., both consciousness and rainbows don’t have any purpose. But wait – most anyone with feelings who has viewed a rainbow can tell you  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:15 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, August 12, 2017
Brain / Mind ... Health / Nutrition ... Personal Reflections ...

Every now and then I like to post some thoughts on how I’m adapting to old age (or sometimes not adapting too well). Perhaps something I say might be of help to someone else, just as I sometimes pick up a good tip or two from another blog or column on the web. (Unfortunately, there is so much junk to sift thru on the web these days before you find something valuable). So today I’m going to talk about sleep, or lack thereof.

Ah yes, sleep, a seemingly simple topic that is really very complex. Or at least when you start getting old like me. When I was young, sleep wasn’t much of an issue. It was once pretty easy to fall asleep whenever I chose to, and stay asleep as long as I needed to (usually 7 hours or so). When I was in college, I had a summer job on a railroad, which required me to occasionally work a night shift (or “3rd trick” as they called it). I had no trouble adjusting my sleep pattern as to fall asleep in the morning after getting home and getting up around what would be my usual supper time, feeling fully refreshed and ready for another night shift (or an adjustment back to normal daytime living).

Today I have a regular 7:30 to 4:30 job, but over the past 6 or 7 years, getting enough sleep every night has become harder and harder. I myself am a morning person, so I generally like to get up early (and thus I should get to bed early). As I got into my later 50s and now into the mid-60s, it has become harder and harder for me to sleep straight thru to the alarm clock — I started getting up too early. My problem is not on the evening side; I usually fall asleep pretty easily when I hit the pillow around 11 pm (but it should be 1030). The problems start sometime after 3 (and sometimes as early as 2:30 am), when I get up and then have trouble getting back to sleep. Basically, my problem is called  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:13 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, July 29, 2017
Brain / Mind ... Health / Nutrition ... Personal Reflections ...

Unlike many people who live in my vicinity, I’ve never been through professional psychotherapy. This is not to say that I wouldn’t possibly benefit from it (and some people say that I probably need it!). But I’ve managed to get by and keep on progressing through most of my life without needing to sit down and hash things out over and over again with a shrink. I have my moods and my fears and anxieties, and I’m sure that I’ve missed some opportunities in life because of an unnecessarily negative attitude on my part. But overall, I’m just not all that unhappy (not yet, anyway).

Furthermore, therapy is rather expensive. Yes, I know that many people manage to use their health insurance to pay for at least some part of their shrink-fees, but I don’t want to get involved with all of the paperwork and bureaucracy involved with such a ploy unless I’m really in bad shape. Another turn off — just how to you find a shrink that you can relate to and who can relate to you? I’ve known a handful of therapists in my life, and there are perhaps one or two I could imagine working with. But as to the others, ughhhh.

Given that I don’t suffer from chronic depression and that I’m not harmfully bi-polar (hey, I have my moods, but . . .); and given that I’ve managed to hold a professional job with the same employer for the past 16 years; and further still, that I’m not abusing anything intoxicating or mind-blowing . . . given that I pay my taxes and stay out of trouble . . . well OK, all of that still doesn’t mean that I’m a totally sane and healthy individual. But as to whether any particular therapist could improve things for me . . . well,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:08 pm       Read Comments (4) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, February 20, 2016
Brain / Mind ... Religion ...

I recently finished watching a Teaching Company “Great Course” series about neuroscience — specifically, an 18-hour / 36 lecture course entitled “Neuroscience of Everyday Life“, by Princeton University Professor Sam Wang. As the title says, the focus is on everyday life, on relating what neuroscience has learned about the structure and dynamics of the human brain to our everyday lives. A big part of the everyday life of many people is religion and spiritual belief, and thus Professor Wang spends an hour (two lectures) discussing religion, along with theistic belief, spiritual presences, near-death and outer-body experiences, meditation and other varieties of “transcendent awareness”.

The good professor points out that many of the experiences upon which people have based their faith in an omnipotent yet unseeable creator / sustainer / redeemer do not hold up well in the light of modern research. A fairly easy-to-understand circumstance such as inadequate oxygen in the brain or excessive physical stress can adequately explain many seemingly transcendent phenomenon, including ghosts, outer-body experiences, and visions (especially on mountaintops, where the air is thin — recall Moses and the bush, and the transfiguration of Jesus). Obviously, the theological skeptic and atheist will find something of interest here.

Despite this, Professor Wang does not seem set on declaring God to be dead. When getting down to the notion of a conscious yet transcendent master force in the universe, Wang focuses on the brain capacities that facilitated such a notion, and the ultimate social effects of those capabilities. In his guidebook for the course, Wang states that “religion is a highly sophisticated cultural phenomenon . . . brain capacities important for forming and transmitting religious beliefs include the search for  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:30 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, December 5, 2015
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

Our brains are obviously very important to all of us, and society is thus making a lot of effort to get to know it better. Human brains do a whole lot of things, but one of the more interesting things that they do is to retain and make available a mental replay of certain thoughts, feelings, perceptions and experiences from the past. I.e., our brains give us our memories. Human memory is a wide-ranging thing. In addition to giving us a “video replay” of sorts for past experiences, it stores facts, skills, emotional impressions and various other things on both a conscious and sub-conscious basis (e.g., we pick up a lot of fears, attractions and various other tendencies without being aware of them, even though they will influence our behavior nonetheless). So, the human memory has been the subject of a lot of research effort on the part of science and psychology.

Since the brain and its interactions with our bodies and our lives is such a complicated subject, our species has found many ways of studying it. On one level, we address our memories from the perspective of familiar conscious impressions and experiences, along with the behaviors that result from them; this is generally the realm of the psychologist. Even before Freud, the notion that our memories are key to determining our current behaviors and our feelings of contentment or discontent with our lives has been a key principle in the practice of psychoanalysis.

Freud expanded the concept of memory with the realization that a lot of our memories lie beneath the surface of conscious awareness, and yet they play a critical role in directing our behavior. Psychology has come a long way since Freud, and today uses better, more scientific methods to record and analyze human behavior patterns relative to our current environments, along with  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:30 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, November 5, 2015
Brain / Mind ... Society ...

“Let me let you in on a little secret,” said [former Secretary of State Condoleeza] Rice, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor. “There is no such thing as an international community. There are self-maximizing, self-interested states that will push their interests as far as possible.”

This quote comes from a recent article about Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Bloomberg site. The article says some interesting things about Putin, but the grander implications of Rice’s quote have attracted my attention. That is, for the human race as a whole, tribalism trumps one-world mentality.

The question of whether humans are hopelessly tribal or are moving (however slowly) towards a “one humanity / one planet” mentality is an important one; it ultimately forms the foundation on which every nation, especially the most powerful ones, build their foreign policies. It sets the tone on how we act in getting along with other peoples from other nations. Can we proceed with ultimate trust, or do we need to forever stay on the defensive? The question applies not only at the international scale, but in our own lives today, as we increasingly interact with peoples and groups who have different customs and cultures than our own (whether they currently live within or without our national boarders).

Obviously then, the tribalism question has become a political one. Liberals say that tribalism is not destiny. Here’s a good quote from Rosabeth Moss Kanter in the Huffington Post:

Some social scientists say that in-group/out-group biases are hard-wired into the human brain. Even without overt prejudice, it is cognitively convenient for people  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:06 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Brain / Mind ... Religion ... Zen ...

This is going to be one of those schizophrenic essays, where it is time to speak of many things: ships, shoes and sealing wax, walruses, etc. But actually, I want to start out with something about brain activity during meditation, and then talk about why I finally understand atheists (a little better, anyway). Just in time for the holidays! (Well, a little late for Hanukkah, admittedly . . . )

So, first off – meditation. There was an interesting article in the November 2014 issue of Scientific American about “The Mind of the Meditator”. The article was something of a puff-job about the many psycho-physical benefits of meditation. It cites all sorts of positive effects in the brain and with behavior; but despite the alleged focus of SciAm on hard science, the authors forgot to ponder which way the lines of causation were running here.

I.e., were these benefits the RESULT of the meditation practice, or did they help allow the meditator to meditate? The unsaid presumption behind the article seems to be that anyone can practice meditation and everyone should. But life is usually more complicated than  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:27 pm       Read Comments (5) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Brain / Mind ... Web Site/Blog ...

I’m going to toot my own horn just a bit and put in a plug for my new, improved “Short Course on Consciousness“, found on my web site. I’ve spent the last 3 months doing some pretty intense reading to catch up on what’s been happening in the academic world and research community with regard to consciousness; i.e., the attempts to finally define the nature and functioning of our conscious awareness, i.e. the stuff that happens when we aren’t dead, asleep, under anesthesia, or otherwise out of it.

In some ways, consciousness seems pretty simple; and yet, when you really try to think about it and put it into context, it suddenly gets VERY complex. Around 1995, I got quite interested in the topic, given that a lot of new books and research papers were coming out on the subject. I read lots of stuff by philosophers, neuroscientists, computer experts, and psychologists about consciousness (none of that New Age “woo-woo” stuff for me, thank you), hoping to find a trenchant and powerfully incisive concept that would make it all fall in place.

Well, that concept never came along — or at least I didn’t stumble across it. So, after 2007, I moved on to other intellectual interests, mainly modern physics and cosmology. Not long ago, I looked at the web site pages on consciousness that I had put up back in 2006. They were very well  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:15 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, October 9, 2014
Brain / Mind ... Psychology ...

There was an article on Slate the other day about Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” for success (i.e., Practice Does Not Make Perfect, by David Z. Hambrick, Fernanda Ferreira, and John M. Henderson). Well, actually the article started off about Gladwell and his notion that personal success is mostly an issue of drive and a willingness to put the energy into mastering something — anything, really. But after that, the three authors took an interesting look at recent research about the relationships between genetics, human abilities and ultimate achievements in life. They basically concluded that Gladwell was wrong in that success is much more dependent upon inborn abilities than upon desire and discipline. While practice and drive certainly are a necessary part of any achievement, the bottom line is that people who don’t have the right bodies and brains (and history and environment) just aren’t going to become concert pianists or NFL quarterbacks or theoretical physicists or jet fighter pilots.

It’s starting to look like “we either have it or we don’t” in terms of being able to get somewhere in life. The classic arguments on what drives our lives and who we are often come down to nature versus nurture. In regards to what we can or can’t accomplish in life, modern research seems to be putting more and more stock in “nature”, i.e. genetics.

So, someday (probably soon), you might take a swab test and have a lab determine what you would be good at; i.e. what fields or endeavors that you would be a “natural” for. Hmmm . . . is this really a good thing? In some ways yes — sure, it makes sense that  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:22 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

Given that I’ve done a fair bit of study and thinking about human consciousness (from both the scientific and philosophic viewpoint, intentionally excluding most of the popular mystical and metaphysical approaches to the topic), I took note of the report that a research team at George Washington University managed to switch on and off the consciousness of an epilepsy patient by using stimulatory electrode implants aimed at a structure in the brain called the claustrum.

A few years ago, noted consciousness researchers and theorists Francis Crick and Christof Koch posited that the claustrum was the place where the brain more or less weaved all of the various sensory input responses and stored information (such as memories and learned biases, fears and attractions) into a unified brain state representing the overall experience of being conscious. Their most significant empirical verification prior to the recent GWU study involved a certain type of mind-altering plant from Mexico called Salvia divinorum. The psychoactive chemical in the leaves of this plant were found to stick to a certain type of neuron receptor that is found in high concentrations in the claustrum. This distinguished it from other mind-bending hallucinogens like LSD, peyote and psilocybin, and even the basic feel-good stuff like coke and heroin.

According to unscientific reports submitted by “trippers” who used salvia, they experience  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:20 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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