The Conscious Brain.
The Conscious Brain by Jesse J Prinz is a tour-de-force.
Where Prinz rather masterfully makes sense of recent empirical (cognitive neuroscience) findings,
and gives us an up-to-date picture of what consciousness and attention might
really be all about.
Read more in my review of his book ''The Conscious Brain''.
Richard J. Davidsons book about the Emotional Life of the Brain
is an eye-opener about the plasticity of the brain,
the connections between mind states and brain states.
Read more in my review of his book ''The Emotional Life of the Brain''.
David Brooks asks us to remember that we
are Social Animals.
And that the social perspective
is important to have in mind, when we are talking about conscious minds.
Read more in my review of his book ''The Social Animal''.
In the end consciousness has to be about real people.
About the varied and wondrous possibilities in the human experience.
In historian Jon Meacham Thomas Jefferson biography
it all comes together.
Here is a life that has it
all: A thirst for knowledge, a capacity to create, hunger for accomplishment,
love of family, a legacy of leadership of thought and
Plus some deep contradictions. Maybe, that is what a human life is all about?
Maybe, that is what consciousness in the human form is all about?
Read more in my review of his book ''Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power''.
The Conscious Brain.
Amazon review (5 stars out of 5)
of Jesse J Prinz's book The Conscious Brain.
Wow, this is a great book, where we finally gets a comprehensive up-to-date,
informed account of what consciousness might be all about!
Sure, many of the details are contentious, but Prinz argues
well for his views.
And even when there is a difference of opinion, there is still a lot to be learned by carefully going through his arguments.
Theories of Consciousness.
Interest in consciousness has grown steadily over the last
quarter century. And getting an overview is pretty difficult, as there are probably almost as many theories as there are authors.
Sure, The Conscious Brain is primarily about Prinz's Attended Intermediate-level Representation Theory of Consciousness. But, the book also thoroughly compares with other consciousness theories. Thereby giving readers a better overview of what might be going on in the field of consciousness studies.
One of the first theories dealt with in the book is Global Workspace Theory, originally by Bernard Baars.
In Global Workspace Theory consciousness arises when mental states (perceptions, images, thoughts, memories) are made available to Global Workspace. Here, understood as short term memory that makes its content available to other systems like behavioural contral, memory etc.
The items that win in the competition for attention becomes conscious.
There are also many theories on what consciousness might be for. Michael Gazzaniga
has put forward the view that consciousness is primarily in the business
of interpreting what we do (making sense).
A view that Prinz is sceptical of,
as we could just as well arrive as such explanations unconsciously.
When consciousness is disrupted, sure, we can't interpret our actions, but worse, we can't act.
I.e. consciousness seems to be a precondition for internally motivated and freely chosen acts.
So, even if consciousness is necessary for interpretation, this can't be the whole story.
The unity of consciousness is another puzzling aspect of consciousness.
Puzzling, because different components of our conscious states are processed in different
parts of the brain. And, it is not obvious how we get a single stream of consciousness from these distributed bits.
According to one popular theory, Gamma Waves might be implicated in creating the unity of conscious perception.
The idea being that waves of neural oscillation should sweep through the brain, synchronizing and unifying neuronal circuits, and putting them into the attentional foreground.
The idea is controversial. Nevertheless, Prinz thinks there is a lot of evidence for the theory: Gamma synchrony is associated with the overall level of consciousness in an organism. It is disrupted when people undergo anesthesia, and it decreases during deep sleep. In binocular rivalry studies it has been found that gamma tracks stimulus selection.
Synchrony facilitates communication. It allows a population of neurons in one part of the
brain to produce a signal strong enough to be picked up by other parts of the brain, rising above neural noise. Synchrony becomes availability, and availability becomes attention.
Antonio Damasio thinks that consciousness is equated with activity in certain neuronal second order maps.
The hypothesis is described in his book, The Feeling of What Happens: Here, the self is experienced as a pattern of activity in the body. And consciousness arises when these bodily experiences are joined with perceptual experiences of external objects.
External objects are represented in maps that register features from sense modalities, and the bodily self is represented in maps that register activities in different somatic systems. The two maps continuously alter each other, as body and world interact. Damasio thinks there are second order maps that register these ongoing interactions, and it is these second order maps that makes us conscious.
Not so fast, according to Prinz, who is sceptical of this account of consciousness.
In his mind, Damasio places too much emphasis on the body. If there is a phenomenal I, it would be surprising that it could only manifest itself through the body. To Prinz we are subjects
of thought, just as much as we are subjects of physical actions. Indeed, we can imagine a self,
even when all bodily sensations are lost (E.g. in a sensory deprivation tank)?
Intellectual activities might engage the body, but they need not. One could actually lose conscious experience of the body while being involved in such a task.
But when this happens the task seems no less agentic, no less self-involving.
Repeated: Back with Damasio, the nervous system monitors how the world is affecting the body.
Second-order maps follow these first-order body representations, as they undergo changes. Damasio thinks these second order maps are
conscious. Names it core-self, and thinks
this is essential for having an experience of one's self as a subject.
- Prinz does not agree, and writes succinctly that the experience of our bodily feelings is neither necessary nor suffficient for experiencing a phenomenal self (as oneself).
And it doesn't stop here. There are many other theories of consciousness.
E.g. there is Daniel Dennetts influential ''Multiple Drafts Theory'',
Hameroffs 2006 theory about quantum consciousness, enactivism by O'Regan and Noë etc.
Locating Consciousness, The Intermediate Level.
Perhaps, it is not that surprising that there are many theories about consciousness. Afterall, consciousness is a rather complicated thing.
So, moving forward, where in the brain should we look for consciousness?
Thinking of the mind as a computer might help. I.e. it is a device that processes information
by transforming representations in accordance with rules.
And, using this metaphor, it is natural to decompose a big system into various interconnected
subsystems, each of which performs some aspect of a complex task.
Given this analysis, Prinz thinks the answer can be found in Ray Jackendoffs 1987 book ''Consciousness and
the Computational Mind''.
Jackendoffs answer is actually rather simple. He noticed that many
of our mental capacities are organized hierarchially. And that it makes sense
to talk about low-, intermediate-, and high-level processing systems.
Tasks in the brain are broken down into stages.
Basing his analysis on David Marr's model for visual object recognition, Jackendoff conjectured that consciousness seems to arise in the intermediate level, and not elsewhere.
According to Marr, visual object recognition takes place in three stages. First there is a primal sketch of a visual scene, in the next stage pixels are unified into a coherent representation, where objects are
seen from a specific vantage point. Finally, the visual system makes a 3D model, abstracting away surface textures, and information about specific metric sizes, making these 3D models suited for object recognition.
(Obviously) Marr's theory of vision is now out-of-date, we now know that there
are many more anatomically separate parts that contribute to vision.
But this is not what matters here. The interesting part is that intermediate
level visual systems generate viewpoint specific representations that are
more coherent than low-level representations, and less abstract than
Humans do not have conscious visual experiences corresponding to the
primal sketch. Nor do we have visual experiences corresponding to the
high-level 3D model stage, which is invariant across viewing positions and
have abstracted away textures and other surface features.
In consciousness, objects are presented to us from a specific view point.
As early visual areas are the input to later visual areas, it follows
that damage to early visual areas will eliminate visual experience.
But such damage (to early visual levels) might not stop visual hallucinations.
As hallucinations are probably generated by top-down signals into intermediate-level visual areas.
Jackendoff has identified the contents of consciousness, but he has not
identified the process by which these contents become conscious.
He tells us what we are conscious of, but not how we become conscious.
Indeed, what comes into consciousness is still somewhat of a mystery.
Where the brain plays a number of tricks on us. E.g. our inability to peceive our own eys blinks is explained by the fact that the brain suppresses the visual disruptions causes by blinking.
Nevertheless, Prinz is able to move forward anyway, and
introduce us to his theory Attended Intermediate-level Representation of
The AIR Theory of consciousness:
I.e we become conscious of the representations we attend. Attention is necessary and sufficient for making intermediate-level representations
conscious, according to Prinz's AIR theory. And, attention in Prinz's model can be equated with the process by which perceptual
information becomes available to Working Memory. This gives:
Consciousness arises when and only when intermediate-representations
are modulated by attention.
The AIR Theory of consciousness (unpacked):
Which btw. explains why conscious states are reportable and available for
deliberation and other conscious executive processes.
Consciousness arises when and only when intermediate-representations
undergo changes that allow them to become available to working memory.
Prinz also makes it clear that consciousness involves availability to working memory,
not actual encoding to working memory.
Change blindness is a demonstration of this. Here a central object in a visual scene
might change color or disappear without subjects noticing what is going on.
Indeed, subjects routinely fail to notice that they experience change from one moment to the next.
I.e. people do not store what they are seeing. Thus, change blindness
is a deficit of memory, not of experience.
Somewhat similar to attention we have orientation. Where orientation (of head, eye movement, saccades) can alter the information that gets in. Whereas, attention alters where it flows.
Still, there is a lot going on that flies below the radar of consciousness:
Somewhat scary, as it indicates a lack of control. Indeed, when we proces something consciously, with attention, we seem to be in control.
Still, we take in information without being conscious about it.
Prinz gives us the famous 1957 story, where James Vicary instigated a consumer panic when he reported
increased soft-drink and popcorn sales at a New Jersey movie theater
by inserting subliminal messages.
That turned out to be false, but later experiments have found evidence for
unconscious perception across all modalities.
Neurons and Attention.
Much about the function of the brain is still unknown.
Prinz takes neurons as an example. It is a central
tenet of neuroscience that they impart meaning by the way they fire.
So, Prinz is certainly right to say
that it is a humbling to discover that we do not know
much about how neurons encode information around in the brain:
Do neurons encode encode information in their firing rate,
in the amplitude of their axons potentials, in the precise
timing of their onset, in the temporal pattern over time, or
in all of these?
We do seem to know that synchrony is key for communication.
When neurons works in synchrony it facilitates communication. As stated earlier, it allows a population of neurons in one part of the brain to produce a signal strong enough to be picked up by other parts of the brain, rising above neural noise. Synchrony becomes availability, and availability becomes attention.
We might also have an idea about what attending to an object means at the neuronal level.
I.e. when an organism attends to an object, the cells corresponding to that object
fire in synchrony with gamma oscillations.
Information about each microfeature in a stimulus - its colors for example -
would be carried by different neurons by means of their
distinctive spiking patterns. And then thesse patterned neurons would be
coordinated, into phased synchrony.
The spiking patterns gives us the quality of the experience,
and the oscillations makes those qualities conscious.
Mentality is perceptually based.
Imageless thoughts was once a major topic of debate in psychology.
Some claimed that all thoughts were imagistic, while others claimed
that thoughts could be imageless. Prinz thinks that the idea of imageless thoughts is rather dubious, and can be explained as references to verbal imagery, or as appeals
to introspection that doesn't hold up under scrutiny.
I take it that Prinz is saying that mentality is about something real.
Along the same lines, Prinz finds that classical empiricism is a plausible theory of mind.
Prinz notes that classical empiricist, such as Locke and Hume, claimed that all of mentality is perceptually based. Concepts are stored copies of concepts, and thoughts are combinations of concepts.
Consciousness is for Action.
Consciousness is also for something real in Prinz's view.
I.e. he thinks that ''Consciousness is for acting in the world''.
But first he wants to make it very clear that action is not for bringing forth objects
I.e. Prinz doesn't jump into the Enaction camp, arguing that action and
perception are inextricably bound.
In the ''classical sandwich'' model of the mind, thought lies between
perception and action, and each layer is presumed to be rather independent of
the others. Enaction, see my notes from Reading Enaction Conference, stresses that vision involves activity, action, by bringing forth objects.
In radical versions of Enaction consciousness cannot be mapped to neural correlates alone. Here, consciousness supervenes on both mind and world.
Prinz will have none of it, and is quick to note that mapping experience into brain states
has been very successful.
Furthermore, Prinz notes that the time course of consciousness differs from
the external events that we perceive, occuring with a slight delay. Confirming in Prinz's mind that
brain states, not world states, ground experience.
Continuing his dismantling of Enaction, Prinz states that there are no
evidence that distinct motor responses can alter vision, or that
visual experience is accompanied by a motor response. Prinz argues that in Enaction, damage to motor systems should impair vision - but evidence suggest the opposite. When basal ganglia degenerate in Parkinsons disease, saccadic eye movements
are impaired, but blindness does not follow. Etc.
Visual experience of space doesn't even depend on bodily senses, Prinz continues:
''A person who has lost all feeling in the body would not suffer
corresponding bouts of spatial blindness. This is confirmed in the case of Ian Waterman,
who lacks proprioception, kinesthesia, and somatosensory responses, but navigates
his environment successfully using vision''.
Prinz concludes: There is no evidence that motor responses make a contribution to visual phenomenology.
We cant even consciously experience motor commands, as they are generated unconsciously.
According to Prinz's argumentation, consciousness requires attention, and attention
makes information available to working memory.
Furthermore, consciousness seems to arise in the intermediate level of the brains processing. Where the perceptual states represent the world from a particular point of view. Good, as placing
the external objects in relation to the viewer is something we need in order to
coordinate our actions with the objects.
At any time there can be enormous amount of objects around us. Simpler creatures will
cope with this complexity by having sensors that only perceive a limited range of inputs.
We have attention that serve as a filter that greatly reduces the choice space.
According to Prinz: Consciousness makes information available for decisions about what to do,
and it exists for that purpose. It provides the range of things that can be selected
for practical decision making.
Prinz thinks he has answered the question ''What is the functional advantage of conscious states''. I.e. consciousness makes information available for decisions about what to do (see the section above).
But what about the question ''Why have consciousness at all''. This second question can be read as a question about zombies: Does consciousness per se give us abilities that couldn't be had without it?
Prinz thinks the problem here is that Zombies are impossible.
If his account in the book is true, consciousness is identical with a physical process,
and there cannot be duplicates of us (just) without consciousness.
You have do believe in dualism, and disregard much of Prinz's argumentation,
if you want to believe in Zombies.
The Phenomenal Self.
Descartes famously wrote Cogito Ergo Sum (I am thinking, therefore I exist).
The sentence has be somewhat controversial since Lichtenberg, who accused Descartes of smuggling in the I. The existence of thoughts does not logically entails a thinker.
But what is the self then?
Prinz starts by saying that the self is not depicted within consciousness, but it is implicit in the fact that we experience things from a certain place in space. Consciousness cannot present what lies beyond our senses. The sensory field has boundaries, and those boundaries presuppose a sensing self.
Furthermore, the contents of our experience is not a transparant window onto the world, but is filtered by our goals, interests etc. and is therefore a construction, filtered through the self.
Prinz quotes Wittgenstein, who echoes Schopenhauer: The self is the limit. Seeing is constrained by
sensory systems, and is thus bounded by a me. The self is absent, but already there in the act of looking.
The Construction of Consciousness and the question of Qualia.
Putting it all together, Prinz asks us to smell a glass of wine. Here, Olfactory information is processed in frontal cortex, the feel of the glass is processed in parietal areas, whereas visual
informaion is processed in occipital areas.
As stated earlier, Gamma Waves might be implicated in creating the unity of conscious perception. The idea being that waves of neural oscillation should sweep through the brain, synchronizing and unifying neuronal circuits, and putting them into the attentional foreground.
Experiments demonstrate that even more trickery is needed to generate our experience of consciousness though.
In one experiment, Vroomen and De Gelder played a clicking sound either just
before or just after a flash. When offsets were small, but significant,
the two stimuli were experienced as simultaneous. Proving that the
brain realign discrepant sensory information.
In another experiment, a single flash is seen as two, if accompanied by two
beeps (Shams, Kamitani and Shimojo, Illusions: What you see is what you hear).
According to Prinz these experiments are not anomalies. Actually, the senses are in constant dialogue. What we experience in one sense depends on what is going on in another.
Experience takes a lot of clever engineering.
Still, there is the problem with Qualia.
Why does a particular neural pattern get experienced as red rather than
blue? Prinz quotes Levine for saying that there is an explanatory gap here.
In Prinz's own theory of consciousness, at the neural level, color qualia are vectorwaves,
and at the psychological level, color qualia is attended intermediate-level representations.
But is this explanation enough?
Up comes one of these rather silly thought experiments, along the lines of Searle's Chinese Room experiment:
The population of China decides to enact a functional description of the human mind. Each person carries out some minute input-output function, and they communicate with one another through walkie-talkies.
Some of the outputs are then sent to a robot, causing changes to its movement and verbal outputs.
When the robot is kicked, it will say ''ouch'', but it will not experience pain. Nor will any of the chinese men and women operating the robot experience pain. The pain experience is nowhere.
In one of the few weak-points of the book, Prinz simply dismisses this thought experiment,
and say that our intuitions about what kind of implementations can or cannot be conscious
are irrelevant. According to Prinz: Humans will deny that human collectives can be conscious, and
that robots can be conscious.
As a reader you sit there feeling, that once again we have hit a brick wall with this question of consciousness and qualia?
The Knowledge Argument - Levels of Explanations.
The Knowledge Argument begins with the premise that a person can know
all of the physical and functional facts correlated with a particular
phenomenal experience. But, without knowing what it is like to have this experience.
E.g. Mary might know all about the physical properties of lightwaves, and
what makes red different from blue.
But if she is blind, she doesn't know
what it is like to see red.
Humans might know all about bats, but none of us knows what it is like to be a bat,
and use echolocation to navigate.
Even though we know all of the physical facts, we do not what it is like.
What it is like is not derivable from physical facts. So,
what it is like is NOT physical?
The knowledge argument ends with the conclusion: When what it is like is
not physical, physicalism
(''everything is physical'', that there is ''nothing over and above'' the physical, or that everything supervenes on the physical) is false.
Prinz seems to be saying that we should walk around this argument
by saying that What it is like is grasped using modes
of presentation that differs from those used in physical science.
Phenomenal knowledge cannot be expressed in physical terms
simply because the concepts differ!
Different levels of explanation might not be all bad though:
Prinz acknowledges that there is something breathtaking about the descent from psychology to neural mechanisms. Finding lower-level realizers to psychological phenomena gives a sense of explanation.
Still, Prinz warns us that lower levels are not more real that higher levels. Sometimes the higher levels can help us understand what might be the purpose of lower levels, and sometimes lower levels helps us understand higher levels.
Sure, it would be nice if phenomenal states told us how they were made from
neuronal states, but they don't,
which was what got us into the mind-body
problem in the first place...
AIR - Attended Intermediate-level Representations.
In the end, Prinz gives us his final version of his
AIR - Theory for consciousness:
The AIR Theory of consciousness (Fully unpacked):
Wow, what a great ride this book is. Thorough and Exciting at the same time.
Attention is a neuro-functional kind that allows information to get
from perceptual areas to working memory by means of gamma-band neural
The intermediate level is a neurofunctional kind that can be
defined as a perceptual processing stage that uses view-point specific
representations of micro-features implemented by populations of
All consciousness is perceptual; There is no distinctive
cognitive phenomenology or any phenomenal self.
The teleological (final cause) and causal function of consciousness is
to serve as a menu for action.
Simon Laub (Let me Google that for you).
The Emotional Life of the Brain.
Amazon review (5 stars out of 5)
of Richard J. Davidsons book The Emotional Life of Your Brain.
In psychology, there are many ways to describe a person.
E.g. the Big Five personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, i.e. emotional instability) are useful classifications, when we are asked to give an initial description of a stranger (See more about the ''The Big Five'' here).
Our need for achievement, need for power and need for affiliation/intimacy would be some other dimensions to describe different personality types.
Richard J. Davidsons book is all about our Emotional Style:
- Resilience, how slowly or quickly we recover from adversity.
- Outlook, how long we are able to sustain positive emotions.
- Social Intuition, how good we are at picking up signals from the people around us.
- Self Awareness, how well we perceive bodily emotions that reflect emotions.
- Sensitivity to Context, how good we are at regulating emotions to the context you find yourself in.
- Attention, how sharp and clear our focus is.
The interesting thing here is that the 6 dimensions reflect properties in the brain that can
be measured. And, very interesting, that these properties can change, depending on how
Indeed, the book is all about Davidsons research on how mental activity alone can change our brains. I.e. how cognitive-behaviour therapy, meditation etc. can alter brain functions in specific brain circuits, increasing or decreasing the level of activity in a brain circuit, strenghten or weaken the connections between brain regions.
The mind lives in a physical brain.
It is well known that Wilder Penfield reported that stimulation of an exposed brain could trigger recall of memories or cause bodily sensations.
His method was rather crude, as he first removed part of the skull, and then applied tiny jolts of electricity to different spots of the exposed brain to see what the patient would feel or do.
Probably, Penfields results have been oversimplified. But basicly,
before a brain operation, Penfield would first stimulate the surrounding tissues and so begin to understand, from the patient's responses, what their function might be. One zap would would make the patient recall a childhood event. Zapping another region would cause the patient to feel as an arm had been touched. While a zap to a third region would cause an arm to move, as if the patient was
a marionette (See: Wiki and Neural Cartographer).
However primitive, experiments such as these, and an endless list of brain lesions with real consequences for mental functions, makes the case for a connection between the physical brain and mental states.
Emotions in the Physical Brain.
Using more modern methods, Davidson also investigates connections between physical and metal states. And reports that there is a connection between activity in the prefrontal cortex and positive- and negative- emotions.
I.e. when healthy adults experience positive or negative emotions, the left or the right side,
respectively, of their prefrontal cortex becomes active.
The emotions correspond to ''approach'' and ''avoid'' behaviour.
Davidson, logically, assumes that evolution have segregated approach and avoidance behaviour
to different hemispheres to minimize confusion between the two behaviours.
It all becomes terribly exciting as Davidson continues and explains the neural basis for
the various emotional styles.
Resilience. For resilience, Davidson finds that people with a greater activation
on the left side of the prefrontal cortex recovered much more quickly from feelings like
anger, fear etc.
Davidson infers that the left prefrontal sends inhibitory signals to the amygdala,
telling it to quiet down.
MRI also tells us that the more white matter (axons)
between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdale, the more resilient you are.
The less white matter, the less resilient.
By damping down the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex is able to quiet down
negative emotions, enabling the brain to plan and act without being distracted.
Outlook. The prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum
form the reward circuit. Signals from the prefrontal cortex can
maintain high levels of activity in the ventral striatum, which gives a sense of reward and
a positive outlook. People with depression are deficient not in inducing, but in sustaining
activity in the reward circuitry.
Social Intuition. The puzzled end of this emotion type has low levels
of activity in the fusiform, and high levels of activity in the amygdala. For socially intuitive brains its the opposite.
Self Awareness. The insula receives signals from the visceral organs (heart, liver, colon, sexual organs, lungs, stomach, kidneys) and is the brains monitoring station for everything
below the neck, and within the body. High levels of activity here gives a
high level of self awareness and lower levels of activity marks low levels of self awareness.
Sensitivity to Context. Davidson reports that findings suggest that the hippocampus
is important for context learning. And that it makes sense to conclude that
activity in the hippocampus underlies the perception of context. A diminished hippocampus will have trouble forming memories of
the context in which something traumatic occured, conflating the dangers to
other (similar) scenarios.
Attention. At the focussed extreme end of the attention dimension the
prefrontal cortex exhibits strong ''phase-locking'', and attention becomes
highly focused and stable.
Emotions and Health.
Emotional style is important for how we live on a day to day basis.
How susceptible we are to stress, vulnerability to psychiatric disorders etc.
But it is probably also important for how our long term health develops. Certainly, Davidson thinks
that the most powerful influence on our physical health is our emotional life.
And that it will eventually be achievable for science to find a connection between emotional styles and
how that travels outside the skull and into the body to produce changes that
affect health. And vice versa, how events in the body might feed back and influence the functioning of the
According to Davidson, further research will probably reveal much more about these mechanisms.
Some psychological disorders might have relatively straight forward physical explanations (That we already know a lot about).
Take depression, here Davidson thinks that the more sustained activation of the nucleus accumbens there is, the more positive emotions people felt.
And vice versa, in depressed patients, the connection from the prefrontal cortex to the nucleus accumbens
Obviously, a precise understanding of what is going on in the various (psychological) health problems, will make it more likely that
some behavioural therapy will eventually be found to deal with the problems.
Plasticity of the Brain. Brain Reorganization.
If something is wrong, the happy news of all this is the amazing plasticity of the human brain.
(That) The brain has the ability to change the structure and the patterns of activation, not only in childhood,
but also in adulthood and throughout life.
Davidson gives us some remarkable stories.
In people deaf from birth objects in the peripheral vision are
perceived not only in the visual cortex, but also in the auditory cortex.
So, the auditory cortex sees! (As if) With no incoming auditory signals to process,
it has switched to processing visual signals, with the result that
deaf people are faster and more accurate in detecting movement
in their peripheral vision than are hearing people.
Equally amazing. In blind people, who are proficient at reading Braille,
the visual cortex can switch jobs to process tactile signals from Braille
And, even more crazy, Davidson tells us about a study, where blind people can use the visual cortex to remember words.
In yet another study, we are given further evidence of dramatic brain reorganizing.
Here, patients, who has suffered a stroke that disabled the right motor cortex, uses
the left motor cortex for both sides. With no apparent effect on the left sides
ability to do its original job.
Apparently, the brain has the ability to recruite healthy neurons
to do the functions of damaged neurons.
Mindfulness and Brain Plasticity.
The plot thickens as we get to Mindfulness.
Davidson first explains what mindfulness is all about (See here). And then we get to see that practising mindfulness can actually
change the physical brain.
Basicly, Mindfulness lets our thoughts travel along paths of less
anxiety, which gives greater resilience, and a more positive outlook. Which again makes
it easier for thoughts and feelings to take this (new) route.
In Davidsons studies, just three months of meditation training can
affect mental functions as basic as attentional blink and selective attention.
Extremely interestingly, Davidson then tells us what he has learned from studying buddhist monks,
who has been meditating for thousands of hours.
The results for gamma waves are especially interesting.
In the monks, Davidson measures an extremely large increase in gamma activity during meditation (Where gamma waves
are high frequency brain waves that underlie higher mental activities such as consciousness).
The Buddhist monks themselves report that during meditation they experience a change in the quality of awareness,
bringing with it more perceptual clarity. The mental fog lifts, one
that you did not even realize had been there.
So, strikingly, Davidsons results tell us that mindfulness can
enhance left prefrontal activation, making us more resilient.
A more intense period of mindfulness meditation can
strengthen brain networks involved in attention.
And, compassion meditation, can nudge us towards the
positive end of the outlook dimension, and can probably also improve
Simon Laub (Let me Google that for you).
Amazon review (5 stars out of 5)
of David Brooks's book The Social Animal.
Humans are social animals. And according to Brooks,
we really miss a lot in our understanding of people,
if we don't see the social side clearly.
The fact that we have language should (in itself) help us understand that we are deeply social.
Words are excellent tools for guiding thought and communication.
Words can give us a lot of information. We can know a lot from the words
a person sends out.
Indeed, words are the visible tip of the iceberg (of intelligence)
they are coming from.
As a matter of fact, the easiest way to measure someone else's intelligence
is through their vocabulary.
That is, people who are
getting to know each other probably subconsciously measure
each others vocabularies to see if they are on the same
In the final analysis, words and the social worlds they help create, are about the most important
things in the human world.
The best way we have of communicating complex stories and meanings to each other.
All deeply social activities.
Cognition is a huge subject. And not all is said just talking about language. Covering all
areas is an enormous undertaking.
Nevertheless, Brooks tries to give justice to a lot
of the sources that form us as humans.
From our deep evolutionary past we get Genetics.
Culture and Religion goes back thousands
of years and shapes us and out thoughts more
than we are ever aware of.
Families goes back decades, if not centuries, and determines where we start
in life, and what ideas we are brought up with.
Education goes back a couple of years and
helps us with the here and now we
are situated in.
In other books we might only get one viewpoint,
but the real strenght here is that we are seeing human cognition
from many viewpoints.
It broadens our understanding
and gives us a good perspective on the individual
pieces of the puzzle (of human cognition).
Still, a complete description of our minds is not easy.
Minds are enormously complicated
things with an endless series of processes going on in parallel.
An eco system consisting of patterns, reactions and sensations
all competing for control over an organism.
And with no captain sitting somewhere high
above everything else calling the shots.
Brooks tells us that leadership is about showing us the
right way to see things.
By making the enormously complex
so simple that everyone understands.
And in that sense he is a leader.
E.g. concerning human motivation, we are often told that
humans are motivated by money.
Not so fast, we are told.
That is only way of looking at it. Have you thought about
thumos? The greek word used to express the human desire for recognition.
The desire to have other humans recognize your existence.
Where problems emerge when people do not recognize one anothers thumos and therefore do not provide the justice that it requires.
- That perspective might not be the whole truth either, but looking from different perspectives helps us better understand what makes humans tick.
And, that is what The Social Animal is all about.
various different perspectives, supported by science,
that will give us a better understanding of what social humans are all about.
Simon Laub (Let me Google that for you).
Order Out of Chaos. The Life of Thomas Jefferson.
Amazon review (4 stars out of 5)
of Jon Meachams book Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power.
Philosophers think, politicians maneuver.
Jefferson was both, and could do both.
Such is the art of power, writes
historian John Meacham in his Jefferson biography ''The Art of Power''.
Jefferson delighted in archaelogy, paleontology, astronomy,
botany and meteorology. He edited the New Testament,
removed the passages he found supernatural or
implausible, and arranged the remaining in the order he thought
they should be read.
That is, when he was not busy gardening, or being president, or a slaveowner.
To his foes, Jefferson was an atheist and a fanatic,
a francophile who could not be trusted.
He was indeed many things. But he was also the man who formulated
the idea of American progress, that the future could be better
than the present or the past, and that the finest hours
He lived in a time when nothing was certain.
Indeed, in his own mind he lived and governed in the middle of a ''Fifty Year's
war''. I.e. he lived not just through the American Revolutionary War
(from April 19, 1775 to September 3, 1783)
or the War of 1812
(from June 18, 1812 to February 18, 1815),
again against the british - No, his age was also troubled
by terrors about monarchical tendencies
within America, possible slave uprisings,
indian troubles, commercial strikes and counterstrikes.
And much more. It was a time when nothing was certain.
For a philosopher this sounds like way too much reality. But
luckily, Jefferson was also a man of the enlightenment.
Reasoning could point to a better future.
At university he had been reading books,
enjoying the company of likeminded, and been taught by great teachers,
ambassadors from richer, brighter worlds.
So, he could still think that his age was indeed a new intellectual age.
An age of reason, over revelation or unquestioned tradition or
While in England (as en envoy of America) he would spend a few days
surveying English gardens together with John Adams.
Imagine that, the second and third president of the United States
spending hours discussing how landscapes could be cultivated.
But perhaps, to them politics was just another form of gardening.
Liberty too requires patience and fortitude.
Jefferson was also a man of huge contradictions.
His personal slave, Jupitor, would follow him as
his personal servant and traveling attendant during the years of Jefferson's law study and practice.
From 1774 to 1826 Jefferson had about 200 slaves at any
one time. Over the years he would own more than 600 slaves.
And yet he was the author of the
Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
When his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, died on September 6, 1782, after 10 years of marriage at the age 33, Weakened by childbirth,
Jefferson was inconsolable and was led from the room almost in a state of insensibility by his sister, who, with great difficulty, got him into his library where he fainted, and remained so long insensible that they feared he would never revive.
--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
--That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
On her deathbed Martha made Jefferson, then 39, promise, that he would never remarry.
Which he never did.
But there is a twist.
Among the witnesses to the pledge was the slave Sally Hemmings,
who, by the way, was Marthas half sister.
You couldn't make this up, but it gets worse.
Sally Hemmings would
later go with Jefferson's youngest daughter Mary (Polly) to London and then to Paris, where the widowed Jefferson, 44 years old at the time, was serving as the United States Ambassador to France.
And it was in this period that Hemings and Jefferson are believed to have begun a sexual relationship. In the end Sally Hemmings would give birth to 6 children,
all with Jefferson as the father.
There are varied and wondrous possibilities in the human experience.
And perhaps that is why Jefferson is still with
us after all of these years.
According to historian Jon Meacham: In his life there is this thirst for
knowledge, the capacity to create, the hunger for accomplishment,
the love of family. A legacy of leadership of thought and
And then there are these huge contradictions, flaws, sins.
And there is this need for power and control, so carefully masked, that
many had troubles detecting it.
Jefferson believed in the existence of a God and in an afterlife.
But making sense of existence must have been difficult
to him. In historian Jon Meacham words, he had a gift for living with
the contradictions of life.
Thats putting it mildly, others
The world can be a very disorderly place.
And he was the leader of a rebellion, against the order, for disorder
almost. But not quite. Behind it all there was
the gift of enligthenment. The gift of reason and the gift of
extracting order out of chaos.
Giving life meaning, truth.
What a job. What a life.
Simon Laub (Let me Google that for you).