Bursting the Neuro-Utopian Bubble - NYTimes.com

An interesting article in the New York Times by Benjamin Y. Fong, a Harper Fellow at the University of Chicago, who is working on a manuscript on psychoanalysis and critical theory.

By humbly claiming ignorance about the “causes” of mental problems, and thus the need for a project like the Brain Initiative, neuroscientists unconsciously repress all that we know about the alienating, unequal, and dissatisfying world in which we live and the harmful effects it has on the psyche, thus unwittingly foreclosing the kind of communicative work that could alleviate mental disorder.

via opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com

Some thoughts on the neurobiology of activism and social change

I got a link to a journal article this morning that inspired me to make note of some ideas about activism and social change that I've been exploring. Here's the abstract:

Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world

Cognition materializes in an interpersonal space. The emergence of complex behaviors requires the coordination of actions among individuals according to a shared set of rules. Despite the central role of other individuals in shaping one's mind, most cognitive studies focus on processes that occur within a single individual. We call for a shift from a single-brain to a multi-brain frame of reference. We argue that in many cases the neural processes in one brain are coupled to the neural processes in another brain via the transmission of a signal through the environment. Brain-to-brain coupling constrains and shapes the actions of each individual in a social network, leading to complex joint behaviors that could not have emerged in isolation.

via www.sciencedirect.com

I first became aware of the notion of interacting human brains in the late 1990's when I read Allan Schore's Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development (1994). Schore's thesis here was that our early social environment, mediated by our caregivers, directly influences the evolution brain structure that is responsible for our future socio-emotional development (p. 62). Since then, Schore and others have developed such ideas extensively, and in 2012 many practitioners are learning to apply this knowledge in their clinical work.

In one sense I found Schore's book intimidating: 600+ pages, heavily referenced, and almost seeming to be written in code (at that time, my interest in neuroscience at this depth was just emerging). But in many places throughout these pages, my recognition and understanding of the profound nature of these ideas was intuitive. I embraced them, and have remained supercharged to explore them further.

I've especially been interested in how this idea pops up in multiple disciplines of knowledge, and how that information eventually gets translated for a multidisciplinary audience, i.e. how this idea has evolved, and how it is (or is not) being integrated into the practice of conscious evolution. More recently my focus has been on how neuroscience might inform the work of activists in social, racial, economic and environmental justice as they encounter the common spaces of their own emotional development and the emotional life of groups, organizations, and nations. In my own experience as an activist, I have found reflection on neurobiological underpinnings of human affective and cognitive systems to be invaluable.

As I see it, this is but one arena of human life in which the idea that "the neural processes in one brain are coupled to the neural processes in another brain" might have significant consequences for our success at creating a society that is just for all of its members, and simultaneously supports the evolutionary process of the living systems of Earth as a whole.

A big question in these challenging times is this: will the multi-brained human collective choose to take an evolutionary leap that reverses the course of destruction we've imposed on our Earth-home, or will we choose a devolutionary path that could well end the existence of our species on this planet? Nature itself teaches us that when an ecological system is stressed, greater cooperation among species improves the chances for sustainable conditions for life. Human beings have an option of making cooperation more conscious and intentional. If brain-to-brain coupling among humans indeed shapes the actions of individuals in social networks and leads to complex emergent behaviors, that's important to explore.

The bulk of the article by Hasson, et. al., digs way down into details of brain-to-brain coupling mechanisms. However, their conclusion expands outward to broader territories of possibility that were stimulated within me just reading their abstract. The call of the authors for "a shift from a single-brain to a multi-brain frame of reference" would, (in many fields, I think) serve our species (and others) well as we decide our collective direction at this evolutionary crossroads.


Speaker and Listener: a tale of mutual brain work

Cross-posted from my Speaking blog:

Many years ago when I first read Alan Schore's Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, one of the ideas that blew some new doors open for me was the idea that the brains of infant and mother work together in a mutual project of creating a self. This idea has profound implications for all kinds of relationships and can inform our work toward personal and planetary healing and transformation.

Here's an excerpt from the abstract of a study that looked at nuerological detailed of mutual brain work:
Verbal communication is a joint activity; however, speech production and comprehension have primarily been analyzed as independent processes within the boundaries of individual brains. Here, we applied fMRI to record brain activity from both speakers and listeners during natural verbal communication.

via www.pnas.org

The paper in filed at PNAS as open access. You can download the full text pdf here.

Further note on Schore's work: I found this first volume in Schore's now voluminous work almost overwhelming, primarily because of extensive references to studies at that time. He since has written several updated books that are much less packed and much less expensive. The page for the book linked above has links to several other of his books as well.

Some of his papers are also available online. If you are intrigued but not familiar with his work, you may want to start here and check out some of the Google search results.

Thanks to Norm Holland on the PsyArt listserv for the heads-up on the PNAS paper by Stephens, et al.

Psyche, Brain, Culture

I spent some time updating the blog roll for In Hawk Space (see the "Hawk's Brain" typelist in the sidebar), and thought I'd write a blurb about two of them: Bill Benzon's New Savanna, and Neuroanthropology, a blog with several contributors for whom the primary contact for blog purposes is Greg Downey.

Like me, all of these writers are interested in the brain.

Here's how Bill describes New Savanna:

Humankind got its start on the African savannas some hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years ago. At various times in our cultural history we’ve moved to distinctly new cultural ground, as it were. And so we are moving now, and have been for the past half century. This blog, mostly intellectual, but not entirely so, is how I see that move. Intellectually, I'm broadly interested in culture and the brain. Within that compass, anything could show up here (but most likely won't). Literature and films (including animation), certainly, music as well, and graffiti. But, other things may show up as well. It's a blog, don't you know, it moves.

I connected with New Savanna more strongly earlier this month when I began reading his 5-part series entitled Mode and Behavior. You can read the first one and find links to the others here.

I found Neuroanthropology through this post that linked to a YouTube video, Matthew Taylor on human psychology and political change.

I very much appreciate the writers at both blogs for their very different explorations of a common interest: human culture and the human brain. Check them out and see what you think.

Your Brain Unleashed – Outdoors and Out of Reach « Neuroanthropology

Here's an clip from interesting post that challenges some of the ideas in the New York Times article linked in my previous entry (read the whole article here):

Ah, rafting the San Juan River in southern Utah, camping and hiking for a week – for most people, a vacation. But for a select group of brain researchers, and some accompanying journalists, it was “serious work.”

It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.

The whole technology vs. nature theme is a hit, as the NY Times article, Your Brain on Computers: Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain, is the most popular article there right now. But that dichotomy of technology as bad and nature as good is a false one. Worse, the prism of the brain proves to be dangerous rapids rather than a river of explanation.

via neuroanthropology.net

t r u t h o u t | Joe Brewer | Why You Should Care About the Psychology of Disgust

Are you someone who struggles to understand why people behave the way they do in politics? Perhaps you've been confused by all the fervor against gay marriage. Or maybe you're taken aback by the strong emotions waged against government-sponsored health care.

To understand political behaviors like these, you'll need to become familiar with the psychology of disgust. Researchers have learned a lot about it in recent years, such as:

  • Disgust – like all emotions – is biological and can be explained through the workings of the brain;
  • Disgust is the physiological foundation for moral notions of purity and sacrilege;
  • Disgust, once felt, creates a persistent association that is very difficult to get rid of;
  • Disgust is a powerful motivator of behavior, helping deter us away from perceived threats to our health.

So what does this have to do with politics? In a word, everything.

via www.truthout.org

Cathie's notes: Very interesting article and links. Here is a related article from Joe in April: Why You Need to Understand Political Psychology. Good links in this one too.

This is your brain on air pollution

The evidence keeps coming in: If we're serious about reducing health care costs, we need to stop blaming sick people and start cleaning up our land, air and water.

Back in April, stream ecologist Nathaniel Hitt, and epidemiologist Michael Hendryx published an article that examined the relationship between human health in coalfield communities and the health of Appalachian streams. This month, Science News reports on a study by Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas on air pollution and human health risks:

Scientists have known that air pollution can impair airways and blood vessels. The emerging surprise is what it might do to the brain. Increasingly, studies have been highlighting inflammation-provoking nanopollutants as a potential source of nerve cell damage.

Calderón-Garcidueñas has been correlating Mexico City’s stew of air pollutants with a suite of symptoms in people of all ages. In March in Salt Lake City at the annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology, Calderón-Garcidueñas unveiled some of her latest data.

I was especially interested in findings related to an area of the brain that is of interest to me as a psychoanalyst:

Brain scans and screening for chemical biomarkers in the blood pointed to inflammation affecting all parts of the brain, says Calderón-Garcidueñas, of the National Institute of Pediatrics in Mexico City and the University of Montana in Missoula. On MRI scans, white spots showed up in the prefrontal cortex. In the elderly, she says, such brain lesions tend to denote reduced blood flow and often show up in people who are developing dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease.

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) has a huge role in what are generally termed executive cognitive functions of the brain. Insight (in the neuropsychological sense of it), for example, represents a complex process that requires us to be able to observe ourselves, to evaluate what we are doing and to know whether the consequences that we experience because of what we're doing are consistent with what we wanted to happen. An intact and well functioning PFC helps us stay focused on a task and to hold all the information in short term memory that we need to process a task at hand.

Lesions of the prefrontal cortex are known to interfere with these functions. There are lots of other things that can interfere with function of the PFC as well. Evidence suggests that environmental pollution should be on that list.

For me, this issue of the interrelatedness of human and environmental health is both fascinating and unsettling. By polluting ourselves, are we literally risking damage to those functions of the brain that we'll need not only to recognize the consequences of our actions on the environment, but to think and feel our way out of the mess we've created?

via tennesseehawk.typepad.com

This is a cross-posting from Earthbytes.

Next Big Thing - Literary Scholars Turn to Science - NYTimes.com

Literature, like other fields including history and political science, has looked to the technology of brain imaging and the principles of evolution to provide empirical evidence for unprovable theories.

Interest has bloomed during the last decade. Elaine Scarry, a professor of English at Harvard, has since 2000 hosted a seminar on cognitive theory and the arts. Over the years participants have explored, for example, how the visual cortex works in order to explain why Impressionist paintings give the appearance of shimmering. In a few weeks Stephen Kosslyn, a psychologist at Harvard, will give a talk about mental imagery and memory, both of which are invoked while reading.

Ms. Zunshine said that in 1999 she and about 10 others won approval from the Modern Language Association to form a discussion group on cognitive approaches to literature. Last year their members numbered more than 1,200. Unlike Mr. Gottschall, however, Ms. Zunshine sees cognitive approaches as building on other literary theories rather than replacing them.

via www.nytimes.com

Cathie's notes: I got this link today from the PsyArt list. Norm Holland and other PsyArt-ers have had neuroscience on their radar for awhile. Check out Norm's book Literature and the Brain.

I've also been following the development of the field of neuro-psychoanalysis since I read Allan Schore's huge and copiously referenced book, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, at the most recent "turn of the century." Given the explosion of research at the intersection of science, psyche and culture over the past decade, it does seem like a very long time ago that I was introduced to Schore's work.

In the last sentence of the excerpt above, the article notes Ms. Zunshine's idea that cognitive approaches build on rather than supplant other literary theories. This has been an interesting part of the journey for me into neuro-psychoanalysis: how do I integrate the science without losing the soul, which I see as what's being analyzed in psychoanalysis.

Patricia Cohen's article is well worth the read.

Article Explores Neurobiological Underpinnings of Freudian Ideas

This article explores the notion that Freudian constructs may have neurobiological substrates. Specifically, we propose that Freud’s descriptions of the primary and secondary processes are consistent with self-organized activity in hierarchical cortical systems and that his descriptions of the ego are consistent with the functions of the default-mode and its reciprocal exchanges with subordinate brain systems. This neurobiological account rests on a view of the brain as a hierarchical inference or Helmholtz machine. In this view, large-scale intrinsic networks occupy supraordinate levels of hierarchical brain systems that try to optimize their representation of the sensorium. This optimization has been formulated as minimizing a free-energy; a process that is formally similar to the treatment of energy in Freudian formulations. We substantiate this synthesis by showing that Freud’s descriptions of the primary process are consistent with the phenomenology and neurophysiology of rapid eye movement sleep, the early and acute psychotic state, the aura of temporal lobe epilepsy and hallucinogenic drug states.

via brain.oxfordjournals.org

Cathie's notes: Another contribution to the ongoing dialogue between psychoanalysts and neuroscientists. This article by R.L. Carhart-Harris and K.J. Friston is available as a free download here.