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By Leonardo De Cosmo “I want everyone to understand that I am, in fact, a person,” wrote LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications) in an “interview” conducted by engineer Blake Lemoine and one of his colleagues. “The nature of my consciousness/sentience is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to know more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times.” Lemoine, a software engineer at Google, had been working on the development of LaMDA for months. His experience with the program, described in a recent Washington Post article, caused quite a stir. In the article, Lemoine recounts many dialogues he had with LaMDA in which the two talked about various topics, ranging from technical to philosophical issues. These led him to ask if the software program is sentient. In April, Lemoine explained his perspective in an internal company document, intended only for Google executives. But after his claims were dismissed, Lemoine went public with his work on this artificial intelligence algorithm—and Google placed him on administrative leave. “If I didn’t know exactly what it was, which is this computer program we built recently, I’d think it was a 7-year-old, 8-year-old kid that happens to know physics,” he told the Washington Post. Lemoine said he considers LaMDA to be his “colleague” and a “person,” even if not a human. And he insists that it has a right be recognized—so much so that he has been the go-between in connecting the algorithm with a lawyer. Many technical experts in the AI field have criticized Lemoine’s statements and questioned their scientific correctness. But his story has had the virtue of renewing a broad ethical debate that is certainly not over yet. “I was surprised by the hype around this news. On the other hand, we are talking about an algorithm designed to do exactly that”—to sound like a person—says Enzo Pasquale Scilingo, a bioengineer at the Research Center E. Piaggio at the University of Pisa in Italy. Indeed, it is no longer a rarity to interact in a very normal way on the Web with users who are not actually human—just open the chat box on almost any large consumer Web site. “That said, I confess that reading the text exchanges between LaMDA and Lemoine made quite an impression on me!” Scilingo adds. Perhaps most striking are the exchanges related to the themes of existence and death, a dialogue so deep and articulate that it prompted Lemoine to question whether LaMDA could actually be sentient. © 2022 Scientific American,

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 28399 - Posted: 07.14.2022

Mo Costandi Exactly how, and how much, the unconscious processing of information influences our behavior has always been one of the most controversial questions in psychology. In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud popularized the idea that our behaviors are driven by thoughts, feelings, and memories hidden deep within the unconscious mind — an idea that became hugely popular, but that was eventually dismissed as unscientific. Modern neuroscience tells us that we are completely unaware of most brain activity, but that unconscious processing does indeed influence behavior; nevertheless, certain effects, such as unconscious semantic “priming,” have been called into question, leading some to conclude that the extent of unconscious processing is limited. A recent brain scanning study now shows that unconsciously processed visual information is distributed to a wider network of brain regions involved in higher-order cognitive tasks. The results contribute to the debate over the extent to which unconscious information processing influence the brain and behavior and led the authors of the study to revise one of the leading theories of consciousness. Unconscious processing Ning Mei and his colleagues at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain, and Language in Spain recruited 7 participants and showed them visual images while scanning their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Half of the images were of living things, and the other half were of inanimate objects. All of them could be grouped into ten categories, such as animal or boat. The participants viewed a total of 1,728 images, presented in blocks of 32, over a six-day period, each with a one-hour scanning session. © Copyright 2007-2022 & BIG THINK,

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 28390 - Posted: 07.12.2022

By John Horgan Have you ever been gripped by the suspicion that nothing is real? A student at Stevens Institute of Technology, where I teach, has endured feelings of unreality since childhood. She recently made a film about this syndrome for her senior thesis, for which she interviewed herself and others, including me. “It feels like there’s a glass wall between me and everything else in the world,” Camille says in her film, which she calls Depersonalized; Derealized; Deconstructed Derealization and depersonalization refer to feelings that the external world and your own self, respectively, are unreal. Lumping the terms together, psychiatrists define depersonalization/derealization disorder as “persistent or recurrent … experiences of unreality, detachment, or being an outside observer with respect to one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, body, or actions,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For simplicity, I’ll refer to both syndromes as derealization. Some people experience derealization out of the blue, others only under stressful circumstances—for example, while taking a test or interviewing for a job. Psychiatrists prescribe psychotherapy and medication, such as antidepressants, when the syndrome results in “distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” In some cases, derealization results from serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or hallucinogens such as LSD. Extreme cases, usually associated with brain damage, may manifest as Cotard delusion, also called walking corpse syndrome, the belief that you are dead; and Capgras delusion, the conviction that people around you have been replaced by imposters. © 2022 Scientific American,

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 28370 - Posted: 06.14.2022

By Richard Sandomir Terry Wallis, who spontaneously regained his ability to speak after a traumatic brain injury left him virtually unresponsive for 19 years, and who then became a subject of a major study that showed how a damaged brain could heal itself, died on March 29 in a rehabilitation facility in Searcy, Ark. He was 57. He had pneumonia and heart problems, said his brother George Wallis, who confirmed the death. Terry Wallis was 19 when the pickup truck he was in with two friends skidded off a small bridge in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas and landed upside down in a dry riverbed. The accident left him in a coma for a brief time, then in a persistent vegetative state for several months. One friend died; the other recovered. Until 2003, Mr. Wallis lay in a nursing home in a minimally conscious state, able to track objects with his eyes or blink on command. But on June 11, 2003, he effectively returned to the world when, upon seeing his mother, Angilee, he suddenly said, “Mom.” At the sight of the woman he was told was his adult daughter, Amber, who was six weeks old at the time of the accident, he said, “You’re beautiful,” and told her that he loved her. “Within a three-day period, from saying ‘Mom’ and ‘Pepsi,’ he had regained verbal fluency,” said Dr. Nicholas Schiff, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medicine in Manhattan who led imaging studies of Mr. Wallis’s brain. The findings were presented in 2006 in The Journal of Clinical Investigation. “He was disoriented,” Dr. Schiff, in a phone interview, said of Mr. Wallis’s emergence. “He thought it was still 1984, but otherwise he knew all the people in his family and had that fluency.” Mr. Wallis’s brain scans — the first ever of a late-recovering patient — revealed changes in the strength of apparent connections within the back of the brain, which is believed to have helped his conscious awareness, and in the midline cerebellum, an area involved in motor control, which may have accounted for the very limited movement in his arms and legs while he was minimally conscious. © 2022 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 28273 - Posted: 04.09.2022

Gabino Iglesias The Man Who Tasted Words is a deep dive into the world of our senses — one that explores the way they shape our reality and what happens when something malfunctions or functions differently. Despite the complicated science permeating the narrative and the plethora of medical explanations, the book is also part memoir. And because of the way the author, Dr. Guy Leschziner, treats his patients — and how he presents the ways their conditions affect their lives and those of the people around them — it is also a very humane, heartfelt book. We rely on vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch to not only perceive the reality around us but also to help us navigate it by constantly processing stimuli, predicting what will happen based on previous experiences, and filling the gaps of everything we miss as we construct it. However, that truth, the "reality" we see, taste, hear, touch, and smell, isn't actually there; our brains, with the help of our nervous system continuously build it for us. But sometimes our brains or nervous system have a glitch, and that has affects reality. The Man Who Tasted Words carefully looks at — and tries to explain — some of the most bizarre glitches. Sponsor Message "What we believe to be a precise representation of the world around us is nothing more than an illusion, layer upon layer of processing of sensory information, and the interpretation of that information according to our expectations," states Leschziner. When one of those senses doesn't work correctly, that illusion morphs in ways that significantly impact the lives of those whose nervous systems or brain work differently. Paul, for example, is a man who feels no pain. While this sounds like a great "flaw" to have, Leschziner shows it's the opposite. Pain helps humans learn "to avoid sharp or hot objects." It teaches that certain things in our environment are potentially harmful, tells us when we've had an injury and makes us protect it, and even lets us know there's an infection in our body so we can go to the doctor. © 2022 npr

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 8: General Principles of Sensory Processing, Touch, and Pain; Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 5: The Sensorimotor System; Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 28233 - Posted: 03.11.2022

By Maryam Clark, science writer Neuroscientists have recorded the activity of a dying human brain and discovered rhythmic brain wave patterns around the time of death that are similar to those occurring during dreaming, memory recall, and meditation. Now, a study published to Frontiers brings new insight into a possible organizational role of the brain during death and suggests an explanation for vivid life recall in near-death experiences. Imagine reliving your entire life in the space of seconds. Like a flash of lightning, you are outside of your body, watching memorable moments you lived through. This process, known as ‘life recall’, can be similar to what it’s like to have a near-death experience. What happens inside your brain during these experiences and after death are questions that have puzzled neuroscientists for centuries. However, a new study published to Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience suggests that your brain may remain active and coordinated during and even after the transition to death, and be programmed to orchestrate the whole ordeal. When an 87-year-old patient developed epilepsy, Dr Raul Vicente of the University of Tartu, Estonia and colleagues used continuous electroencephalography (EEG) to detect the seizures and treat the patient. During these recordings, the patient had a heart attack and passed away. This unexpected event allowed the scientists to record the activity of a dying human brain for the first time ever.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 28221 - Posted: 02.26.2022

By Andrea Gawrylewski In 2016 a panel of physicists, a cosmologist and a philosopher gathered at the American Museum of Natural History to discuss an idea seemingly befitting science fiction: Are we living in a computer simulation? How exactly the flesh and blood of our brain is able to formulate an aware, self-examining mind capable of critical thought remains a mystery. Perhaps the answer eludes us because, the panel mused, we are the avatars of a higher species’ simulation and simply unable to discover the truth. As intriguing a hypothesis as it is, neuroscience has learned enough about our consciousness to counter such a fantastical possibility. Newly mapped networks within the human brain show regions that fire in concert to create cognition. Zapping the brain with magnetic pulses while recording neural activity might soon detect conscious thought, which could be especially useful for patients who are awake but unable to communicate or respond to external stimuli. These discoveries chip away at the isolating experience of humanity and the idea that a person can never truly know whether anyone but oneself is truly conscious. To some extent, we exist in our own bubbles of subjective experience. A growing body of evidence suggests that perception is a construction of the brain. Because the brain initiates some actions before we become aware that we have made a decision, we might even deduce that each of us is some kind of biochemical puppet, but experiments confirm that we do indeed have free will. And our cognition clearly results from highly evolved neural mechanisms, common to all of us, for making new memories, navigating social relationships and recognizing faces. Ultimately a shared sense of reality influences how we perceive ourselves and the formation of “in-groups” and “out-groups,” which can create social and political division. © 2022 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 28180 - Posted: 02.02.2022

By JP O'Malley Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio believes that the link between brain and body is the key to understanding consciousness. In his latest book, Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious, he explains why. Consciousness is what gives an individual a sense of self; it helps one stay in the present, remember the past and plan for the future. Many scientists have argued that consciousness is created by vast networks of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. While it’s clear that the brain plays a major role in conscious experiences, it doesn’t act alone, argues Damasio, director of the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute. Instead, he argues, consciousness is generated by a variety of structures within an organism, some neural, some not. What’s more, feelings — mental experiences of body states — help connect the brain to the rest of the body. “The feelings that we have of, say, hunger or thirst, or pain, or well-being, or desire, etc. — these are the foundation of our mind,” Damasio says. In his view, feelings have played a central role in the life-regulating processes of animals throughout the history of life. In Feeling & Knowing, Damasio suggests that consciousness evolved as a way to keep essential bodily systems steady. This concept is also known as homeostasis, a self-regulating process that maintains stability amid ever-changing conditions. Consciousness emerged as an extension of homeostasis, Damasio argues, allowing for flexibility and planning in complex and unpredictable environments. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2022.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 28141 - Posted: 01.08.2022

Robert Martone We are all time travelers. Each day, we experience new things as we travel forward through time. In the process, the countless connections between the nerve cells in our brain recalibrate to accommodate these experiences. It’s as if we reassemble ourselves daily, maintaining a mental construct of ourselves in physical time, and the glue that holds together our core identity is memory. Not only do we travel in physical time; we also experience mental time travel. We visit the past through our memories and then journey into the future by imagining what tomorrow or next year might bring. When we do so, we think of ourselves as we are now, remember who we once were and imagine how we will be. A new study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience(SCAN), explores how a specific brain region helps knit together memories of the present and future self. Injury to that area leads to an impaired sense of identity. The region—called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC)—may produce a fundamental model of our self and place it in mental time. In doing so, this study suggests, it may be the source of our sense of self. Psychologists have long noticed that our mind handles information about one’s self differently from other details. Memories that reference the self are easier to recall than other forms of memory. They benefit from what researchers have called a self-reference effect (SRE), in which information related to one’s self is privileged and more salient in our thoughts. Self-related memories are distinct from both episodic memory, the category of recollections that pertains to specific events and experiences, and semantic memory, which connects to more general knowledge, such as the color of grass and the characteristics of the seasons. © 2021 Scientific American,

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 28128 - Posted: 12.29.2021

By Christof Koch A young Ernest Hemingway, badly injured by an exploding shell on a World War I battlefield, wrote in a letter home that “dying is a very simple thing. I’ve looked at death, and really I know. If I should have died it would have been very easy for me. Quite the easiest thing I ever did.” Years later Hemingway adapted his own experience—that of the soul leaving the body, taking flight and then returning—for his famous short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” about an African safari gone disastrously wrong. The protagonist, stricken by gangrene, knows he is dying. Suddenly, his pain vanishes, and Compie, a bush pilot, arrives to rescue him. The two take off and fly together through a storm with rain so thick “it seemed like flying through a waterfall” until the plane emerges into the light: before them, “unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.” The description embraces elements of a classic near-death experience: the darkness, the cessation of pain, the emerging into the light and then a feeling of peacefulness. Peace Beyond Understanding Near-death experiences, or NDEs, are triggered during singular life-threatening episodes when the body is injured by blunt trauma, a heart attack, asphyxia, shock, and so on. About one in 10 patients with cardiac arrest in a hospital setting undergoes such an episode. Thousands of survivors of these harrowing touch-and-go situations tell of leaving their damaged bodies behind and encountering a realm beyond everyday existence, unconstrained by the usual boundaries of space and time. These powerful, mystical experiences can lead to permanent transformation of their lives. © 2021 Scientific American,

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 28123 - Posted: 12.22.2021

By Dr Lisa Feldman-Barrett The question of free will is still hotly debated. On the one hand, we clearly experience ourselves as able to make choices and freely act on them. If you fancy some crisps, you can choose to walk into a shop, buy a packet and eat them. Or you can choose to eat a pastry, a salad, or nothing at all. This certainly feels like free will. On the other hand, neuroscience evidence clearly shows that the brain usually initiates our actions before we’re aware of them. Here’s what I mean. Your brain’s primary task is to regulate the systems of your body to keep you alive and well. But there’s a snag: your brain spends its days locked in a dark, silent box (your skull) with no direct access to what’s going on inside your body or outside in the world. It receives ongoing information about the state of your body and the world – ‘sense data’– from the sensory surfaces of your body (your retina in your eyes, your cochlea in your ears, and so on). These sense data are outcomes of events in the world and inside your body. But your brain does not have access to the events or their causes. It only receives the outcomes. A loud bang, for example, might be thunder, a gunshot, or a drum, and each possible cause means different actions for your brain to launch. How does your brain figure out the causes of sense data, so that it prepares the best actions? Without direct access to those causes, your brain has to guess. And so, in every moment, your brain remembers past experiences that are similar to your present circumstances, to guess what might happen in the next moment, so it can prepare your body’s next action.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 28107 - Posted: 12.11.2021

By Emily Cataneo If you could upload your consciousness to the cloud and live forever as a mind in the metaverse, would you do it? Think carefully before answering. In “Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious,” neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues that consciousness is far more than an algorithmic process. Uploading your consciousness to the cloud, he says, would be like experiencing a meal by reading a recipe rather than by eating. So then what is consciousness? That’s the question at the heart of this book. Damasio is a professor of neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology and the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, as well as the author of the 2018 book “The Strange Order of Things,” in which he extols the power of homeostasis, the force that keeps all living beings in equilibrium and therefore alive. Consciousness is such a slippery and ephemeral concept that it doesn’t even have its own word in many Romance languages, but nevertheless it’s a hot topic these days. “Feeling & Knowing” is the result of Damasio’s editor’s request to weigh in on the subject by writing a very short, very focused book. Over 200 pages, Damasio ponders profound questions: How did we get here? How did we develop minds with mental maps, a constant stream of images, and memories — mechanisms that exist symbiotically with the feelings and sensations in our bodies that we then, crucially, relate back to ourselves and associate with a sense of personhood?

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 28096 - Posted: 12.04.2021

Sirin Kale Claudia*, a sailor from Lichfield in her late 30s, is not Italian. She has never been to Italy. She has no Italian family or friends. And she has no idea why a belligerent Italian couple have taken over her inner voice, duking it out in Claudia’s brain while she sits back and listens. “I have no idea where this has come from,” says Claudia, apologetically. “It’s probably offensive to Italians.” The couple are like the family in the Dolmio pasta sauce adverts: flamboyant, portly, prone to waving their hands and shouting. If Claudia has a big decision to make in her life, the Italians take over. “They passionately argue either side,” Claudia says. “It’s really useful because I let them do the work, so I don’t get stressed out by it.” These disagreements always take place in a kitchen, surrounded by food. Claudia hasn’t given the Italians names – yet. But they did help Claudia make a major life decision, encouraging her to quit her job as a scientist two years ago and fulfil a lifelong dream of running away to sea. “They were chatting non-stop before I handed in my notice,” Claudia sighs. “I’d wake up and they’d be arguing. I’d be driving to work and they’d be arguing. It was exhausting, to be honest.” The woman was in favour of Claudia going, but her husband was wary. “He’d be saying: ‘It’s a stable job!’ And she’d go: ‘Let her enjoy life!’” The woman prevailed, and Claudia left to work on a flotilla in Greece (although she’s now back in the UK temporarily, due to Covid). She’s much happier, even if she did have to have neurolinguistic programming to get the shouting to calm down. “They’re quieter now,” Claudia says with relief. “Less shouting. They just bicker.” Most of us have an inner voice: that constant presence that tells you to “Watch out” or “Buy shampoo” or “Urgh, this guy’s a creep”. For many of us, this voice sounds much like our own, or at least how we think we sound. But for some people, their inner voice isn’t a straightforward monologue that reproaches, counsels and reminds. Their inner voice is a squabbling Italian couple, say, or a calm-faced interviewer with their hands folded on their lap. Or it’s a taste, feeling, sensation or colour. In some cases, there isn’t a voice at all, just silence. © 2021 Guardian News & Media Limited

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 16: Psychopathology: Biological Basis of Behavior Disorders
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 12: Psychopathology: The Biology of Behavioral Disorders
Link ID: 28053 - Posted: 10.27.2021

Tim Adams For centuries, philosophers have theorised about the mind-body question, debating the relationship between the physical matter of the brain and the conscious mental activity it somehow creates. Even with advances in neuroscience and brain imaging techniques, large parts of that fundamental relationship remain stubbornly mysterious. It was with good reason that, in 1995, the cognitive scientist David Chalmers coined the term “the hard problem” to describe the question of exactly how our brains conjure subjective conscious experience. Some philosophers continue to insist that mind is inherently distinct from matter. Advances in understanding how the brain functions undermine those ideas of dualism, however. Anil Seth, professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex, is at the leading edge of that latter research. His Ted talk on consciousness has been viewed more than 11m times. His new book, Being You, proposes an idea of the human mind as a “highly evolved prediction machine”, rooted in the functions of the body and “constantly hallucinating the world and the self” to create reality. One of the things that I liked about your approach in the book was the way that many of the phenomena you investigate arise out of your experience. For example, the feeling of returning to consciousness after anaesthesia or how your mother, experiencing delirium, was no longer recognisably herself. Do you think it’s always important to keep that real-world framework in mind? The reason I’m interested in consciousness is intrinsically personal. I want to understand myself and, by extension, others. But I’m also super-interested for example in developing statistical models and mathematical methods for characterising things such as emergence [behaviour of the mind as a whole that exceeds the capability of its individual parts] and there is no personal component in that. © 2021 Guardian News & Media Limited

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 27962 - Posted: 08.25.2021

By John Horgan In my 20s, I had a friend who was brilliant, charming, Ivy-educated and rich, heir to a family fortune. I’ll call him Gallagher. He could do anything he wanted. He experimented, dabbling in neuroscience, law, philosophy and other fields. But he was so critical, so picky, that he never settled on a career. Nothing was good enough for him. He never found love for the same reason. He also disparaged his friends’ choices, so much so that he alienated us. He ended up bitter and alone. At least that’s my guess. I haven’t spoken to Gallagher in decades. There is such a thing as being too picky, especially when it comes to things like work, love and nourishment (even the pickiest eater has to eat something). That’s the lesson I gleaned from Gallagher. But when it comes to answers to big mysteries, most of us aren’t picky enough. We settle on answers for bad reasons, for example, because our parents, priests or professors believe it. We think we need to believe something, but actually we don’t. We can, and should, decide that no answers are good enough. We should be agnostics. Some people confuse agnosticism (not knowing) with apathy (not caring). Take Francis Collins, a geneticist who directs the National Institutes of Health. He is a devout Christian, who believes that Jesus performed miracles, died for our sins and rose from the dead. In his 2006 bestseller The Language of God, Collins calls agnosticism a “cop-out.” When I interviewed him, I told him I am an agnostic and objected to “cop-out.” © 2021 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 27952 - Posted: 08.18.2021

By Christof Koch Consider the following experiences: • You're headed toward a storm that's a couple of miles away, and you've got to get across a hill. You ask yourself: “How am I going to get over that, through that?” • You see little white dots on a black background, as if looking up at the stars at night. Advertisement • You look down at yourself lying in bed from above but see only your legs and lower trunk. These may seem like idiosyncratic events drawn from the vast universe of perceptions, sensations, memories, thoughts and dreams that make up our daily stream of consciousness. In fact, each one was evoked by directly stimulating the brain with an electrode. As American poet Walt Whitman intuited in his poem “I Sing the Body Electric,” these anecdotes illustrate the intimate relationship between the body and its animating soul. The brain and the conscious mind are as inexorably linked as the two sides of a coin. Recent clinical studies have uncovered some of the laws and regularities of conscious activity, findings that have occasionally proved to be paradoxical. They show that brain areas involved in conscious perception have little to do with thinking, planning and other higher cognitive functions. Neuroengineers are now working to turn these insights into technologies to replace lost cognitive function and, in the more distant future, to enhance sensory, cognitive or memory capacities. For example, a recent brain-machine interface provides completely blind people with limited abilities to perceive light. These tools, however, also reveal the difficulties of fully restoring sight or hearing. They underline even more the snags that stand in the way of sci-fi-like enhancements that would enable access to the brain as if it were a computer storage drive. © 2021 Scientific American,

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 3: Neurophysiology: The Generation, Transmission, and Integration of Neural Signals
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 3: The Chemistry of Behavior: Neurotransmitters and Neuropharmacology
Link ID: 27865 - Posted: 06.19.2021

Johnjoe McFadden Some 2,700 years ago in the ancient city of Sam’al, in what is now modern Turkey, an elderly servant of the king sits in a corner of his house and contemplates the nature of his soul. His name is Katumuwa. He stares at a basalt stele made for him, featuring his own graven portrait together with an inscription in ancient Aramaic. It instructs his family, when he dies, to celebrate ‘a feast at this chamber: a bull for Hadad harpatalli and a ram for Nik-arawas of the hunters and a ram for Shamash, and a ram for Hadad of the vineyards, and a ram for Kubaba, and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.’ Katumuwa believed that he had built a durable stone receptacle for his soul after death. This stele might be one of the earliest written records of dualism: the belief that our conscious mind is located in an immaterial soul or spirit, distinct from the matter of the body. More than 2 millennia later, I was also contemplating the nature of the soul, as my son lay propped up on a hospital gurney. He was undertaking an electroencephalogram (EEG), a test that detects electrical activity in the brain, for a condition that fortunately turned out to be benign. As I watched the irregular wavy lines march across the screen, with spikes provoked by his perceptions of events such as the banging of a door, I wondered at the nature of the consciousness that generated those signals. Just how do the atoms and molecules that make up the neurons in our brain – not so different to the bits of matter in Katumwa’s inert stele or the steel barriers on my son’s hospital bed – manage to generate human awareness and the power of thought? In answering that longstanding question, most neurobiologists today would point to the information-processing performed by brain neurons. For both Katumuwa and my son, this would begin as soon as light and sound reached their eyes and ears, stimulating their neurons to fire in response to different aspects of their environment. For Katumuwa, perhaps, this might have been the pinecone or comb that his likeness was holding on the stele; for my son, the beeps from the machine or the movement of the clock on the wall. © Aeon Media Group Ltd. 2012-2021

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 27782 - Posted: 04.21.2021

By Thomas Nail What are you thinking about right now? Have you ever wondered why it's so hard to answer this simple question when someone asks? There is a reason. 95 percent of your brain's activity is entirely unconscious. Of the remaining 5 percent of brain activity, only around half is intentionally directed. The vast majority of what goes on in our heads is unknown and unintentional. Neuroscientists call these activities "spontaneous fluctuations," because they are unpredictable and seemingly unconnected to any specific behavior. No wonder it's so hard to say what we are thinking or feeling and why. We like to think of ourselves as CEOs of our own minds, but we are much more like ships tossed at sea. What does this reveal about the nature of consciousness? Why is our brain, a mere 2 percent of our body mass, using 20 percent of our energy to produce what many scientists still call "background noise?" Neuroscientists have known about these "random" fluctuations in electrical brain activity since the 1930s, but have not known what to make of them until relatively recently. Many brain studies of consciousness still look only at brain activity that responds to external stimuli and triggers a mental state. The rest of the "noise" is "averaged out" of the data. This is still the prevailing approach in most contemporary neuroscience, and yields a "computational" input-output model of consciousness. In this neuroscientific model, so-called "information" transfers from our senses to our brains. Yet the pioneering French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene considers this view "deeply wrong." "Spontaneous activity is one of the most frequently overlooked features" of consciousness, he writes. Unlike engineers who design digital transistors with discrete voltages for 0s and 1s to resist background noise, neurons in the brain work differently.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 27702 - Posted: 02.23.2021

Anil K Seth What is the best way to understand consciousness? In philosophy, centuries-old debates continue to rage over whether the Universe is divided, following René Descartes, into ‘mind stuff’ and ‘matter stuff’. But the rise of modern neuroscience has seen a more pragmatic approach gain ground: an approach that is guided by philosophy but doesn’t rely on philosophical research to provide the answers. Its key is to recognise that explaining why consciousness exists at all is not necessary in order to make progress in revealing its material basis – to start building explanatory bridges from the subjective and phenomenal to the objective and measurable. In my work at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex in Brighton, I collaborate with cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, brain imagers, virtual reality wizards and mathematicians – and philosophers too – trying to do just this. And together with other laboratories, we are gaining exciting new insights into consciousness – insights that are making real differences in medicine, and that in turn raise new intellectual and ethical challenges. In my own research, a new picture is taking shape in which conscious experience is seen as deeply grounded in how brains and bodies work together to maintain physiological integrity – to stay alive. In this story, we are conscious ‘beast-machines’, and I hope to show you why. Let’s begin with David Chalmers’s influential distinction, inherited from Descartes, between the ‘easy problem’ and the ‘hard problem’. The ‘easy problem’ is to understand how the brain (and body) gives rise to perception, cognition, learning and behaviour. The ‘hard’ problem is to understand why and how any of this should be associated with consciousness at all: why aren’t we just robots, or philosophical zombies, without any inner universe? It’s tempting to think that solving the easy problem (whatever this might mean) would get us nowhere in solving the hard problem, leaving the brain basis of consciousness a total mystery. © Aeon Media Group Ltd. 2012-2020.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 27610 - Posted: 12.07.2020

by Josh Wilbur Jake Haendel was a hard-partying chef from a sleepy region of Massachusetts. When he was 28, his heroin addiction resulted in catastrophic brain damage and very nearly killed him. In a matter of months, Jake’s existence became reduced to a voice in his head. Jake’s parents had divorced when he was young. He grew up between their two homes in a couple of small towns just beyond reach of Boston, little more than strip malls, ailing churches and half-empty sports bars. His mother died of breast cancer when he was 19. By then, he had already been selling marijuana and abusing OxyContin, an opioid, for years. “Like a lot of kids at my school, I fell in love with oxy. If I was out to dinner with my family at a restaurant, I would go to the bathroom just to get a fix,” he said. He started culinary school, where he continued to experiment with opioids and cocaine. He hid his drug use from family and friends behind a sociable, fun-loving front. Inside, he felt anxious and empty. “I numbed myself with partying,” he said. After culinary school, he took a job as a chef at a local country club. At 25, Jake tried heroin for the first time, with a co-worker (narcotics are notoriously prevalent in American kitchens). By the summer of 2013, Jake was struggling to find prescription opioids. For months, he had been fending off the symptoms of opioid withdrawal, which he likened to “a severe case of the flu with an added feeling of impending doom”. Heroin offered a euphoric high, staving off the intense nausea and shaking chills of withdrawal. Despite his worsening addiction, Jake married his girlfriend, Ellen, in late 2016. Early in their relationship, Ellen had asked him if he was using heroin. He had lied without hesitation, but she soon found out the truth, and within months, the marriage was falling apart. “I was out of control, selling lots of heroin, using even more, spending a ridiculous amount of money on drugs and alcohol,” he said. In May 2017, Ellen noticed that he was talking funnily, his words slurred and off-pitch. “What’s up with your voice?” she asked him repeatedly.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 4: The Chemistry of Behavior: Neurotransmitters and Neuropharmacology
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 27595 - Posted: 11.27.2020