an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘mind

bumping into Budapest

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view from the hotel window, Mercure-Korona, Pest

view from the hotel window, Mercure-Korona, Pest

Dubai aiport is, of course, multicultural, and you can see that’s very good for business there. It was busy when we disembarked, and busy busy when we embarked for Budapest. My TC, so much more patient than me, queued longtemps to secure a table and brekky at a patisserie française while I mooched around in a Dubai-promoting bookshop and took pics of random distant buildings. So then we spent a pleasant hour or so watching the colourful crowd – Africans, Asians, Europeans, Unidentifiables. The United Arab Emirates is just what you mitght guess it to be, a union of absolute monarchies – seven in all. The Emirati citizenry make up not much more than 10% of the pooulation, the rest are expatriates, with Indians and Pakistanis predominating. Its wealth is based pretty much entirely on oil, and I picture a thoroughgoing stratification of the population. It’s described as more diversified than other Arab states, but that’s not saying much, it’s mostly the same old shite; no elections, no press freedom, abysmal treatment of half the citizenry, not to mention the non-native semi-slaves. I was as happy to remain in the airport as they would’ve been happy to keep me there, all nuances aside.

The flight to Budapest was easier, at least most of it; I definitely fell asleep as I don’t recall much of it. The pilot spoke of turbulence, and the weather at Budapest would be storm-cloudy and cold, but I was feeling blasé and I had more leg-room in this slightly differently configured craft, and again no window seat to distract me, so all was floaty until we started in on the landing, and I noticed the viewing screen was all grey with what looked like slabs of slush hitting and slip-sliding off it. Hoping this wasn’t the view from the cock-pit, I couldn’t help but peek around a bit desperately, but couldn’t spot anything to reassure or concern me. This situation pertained for quite a while, maybe they were hovering about for conditions to clear. The aircraft was being distinctly buffeted. Finally I could feel us descend, and a lonely-looking airstrip came into view. Nothing like the bright criss-crossing lines of light in midnight Dubai, this was midday dark, divided by a solitary road. It looked more like a road than a runway; too narrow, too rough and uneven, too meagre. As the plane approached it, the noise, presumably of air brakes but imagination played it into a drum roll or mad piano music, got pretty intense and the plane was shaking. My eyes were absolutely glued to the screen and I felt completely alone in there. The touch-down wasn’t good, I could feel it. The plane veered sharply left, off, then corrected, finding and sticking to the centre line, rushing over every hump and bump, and when it had sufficiently slowed and quietened there was a smattering of clapping from the passengers. So it wasn’t just me.

So, Budapest airport, foggy, drizzly, outside temp 7 degrees. My first impression: the bleakness wasn’t just a weather thing. Sure once we got inside the ambience was that of universal airportland – big off-white tiles, discreet neon with blue signs in native and English – but when we lined up to leave that land for Hungary, the atmosphere got chillier…

Written by stewart henderson

May 6, 2016 at 1:00 am

Posted in blogging, Europe, stress, travel

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what is autism and what causes it?

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Brain_Autism

The term ‘autism’ was coined in the 1940s by two physicians working independently of each other, Hans Asperger in Austria and Leo Kanner in the USA, to describe a syndrome the key feature of which was a problem with interacting with others in ‘normal’ ways. Sounds vague, but the problem was anything but wishy-washy to these individuals’ parents and families, and over time a more detailed profile has built up.

The term itself is from the Greek autos, or ‘self’, because those with the syndrome had clear difficulties in interpreting others’ moods and responses, resulting in a withdrawn, often antisocial state. Autistic kids often avoid eye contact and are all at sea over the simplest communication.

Already though, I feel I’m saying too much. When describing autism, it’s common to use words like ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ or ‘some’, because the symptoms are seemingly so disparate. Much of what follows relies on the neurologist V S Ramachandran’s book The tell-tale brain, especially chapter 5, ‘Where is Steven? The riddle of autism’.

Autistic symptoms can be categorised in two major groups, social-cognitive and sensorimotor. The social-cognitive symptoms include mental aloneness and a lack of contact with the world of other humans, an inability to engage in conversation and a lack of emotional empathy. Also a lack of any overt ‘playfulness’ or sense of make-believe in childhood. These symptoms can be ‘countered’ by heightened, sometimes obsessive interest in the inanimate world – e.g. the memorising of ostensibly useless data, such as lists of phone numbers.

On the sensorimotor side, symptoms include over-sensitivity and intolerance to noise, a fear of change or novelty, and an intense devotion to routine. There’s also a physical repetitiveness of actions and performances, and regular rocking motions.

These two types of symptoms raise an obvious question – how are the two types connected to each other? We’ll return to that.

Another motor symptom, which Ramachandran thinks is key, is a difficulty in physically imitating the actions of others. This has led him to pursue the hypothesis that autism is essentially the result of a deficiency in the mirror neuron system.

In recent years there’s been a lot of excitement about mirror neurons – possibly too much, according to some neurologists. A mirror neuron is one that fires not only when we perform an action but also when we observe it being performed by others. They’ve been found to act in mammals and also, it seems, in birds, and in humans they’ve been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex. It’s easier, however, to locate them than it is to determine their function. Clearly, to describe them as ‘responsible’ for empathy, or intention, is to go too far. As Patricia Churchland points out, ‘a neuron is just a neuron’, and what we describe as empathy or intention will likely involve a plethora of high-order processes and connections, in which mirror neurons will play their part.

With that caveat in mind, let’s continue with Ramachandran’s speculations on autism and mirror neurons. First, we’ll need to be reminded of the term ‘theory of mind’, used regularly in psychology. It’s basically the idea that we attribute to others the same sorts of intentions and desires that we have because of the assumption that they, like us, have that internal feeling and processing and regulating system we call a ‘mind’. A sophisticated theory of mind is one of the most distinctive features of the human species, one which gives us a unique kind of social intelligence. That autism would be related to theory-of-mind deficiencies seems a reasonable assumption, so what is the brain circuitry behind theory of mind, and how do mirror neurons fit into this picture?

Although neuro-imaging has revealed that autistic children have larger brains with larger ventricles (brain cavities) and notably different activity within the cerebellum, this hasn’t helped researchers much, because autism sufferers don’t present any of the usual symptoms of cerebellum damage. It could be that these changes are simply the side effects of genes which produce autism. Some researchers felt it was better to focus on mirror neurons straight-off, as obvious suspects, and to see how they fired and where they connected in particular situations. They used EEG (electroencephalography) as a non-invasive way to observe mirror neuron activity. They focused on the suppression of mu waves, a type of brain wave. It has long been known that mu waves are suppressed when a person makes any volitional movement, and more recently it has been discovered that the same suppression occurs when we watch others performing such movements.

So researchers used EEG (involving electrodes placed on the scalp) to monitor neuronal activity in a medium-functioning autistic child, Justin. Justin exhibited a suppressed mu wave, as expected, when asked to make voluntary movements. However, he didn’t show the same suppression when watching others perform those movements, as ‘neurotypical’ children do. It seemed that his motor-command system was functioning more or less normally, but his mirror-neuron system was deficient. This finding has been replicated many times, using a variety of techniques, including MEG (magnetoencephalography). fMRI, and TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation). Reading about all these techniques would be a mind-altering experience in itself.

According to Ramachandran, all these confirmations ‘provide conclusive evidence that the [mirror neuron] hypothesis is correct.’ It certainly helps to explain why a subset of autistic children have trouble with metaphors and literality. They have difficulty separating the physical and the referential, a separation that mirror neurons appear to mediate somehow.

A well-developed theory of mind which can anticipate the behaviour of others is clearly a feature of understanding our own minds better. In Ramachandran’s words:

If the mirror-neuron system underlies theory of mind and if theory of mind in normal humans is supercharged by being applied inward, towards the self, this would explain why autistic individuals find social interaction and strong self-identification so difficult, and why so many autistic children have a hard time correctly using the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ in conversation. They may lack a mature-enough self-representation to understand the distinction.

Of course, tons more can be said about the ‘mirror network’ and tons more research remains to be done, but there are many promising signs. For example, the findings about lack of mu wave suppression could be used as a diagnostic tool for the early detection of autism, and some interesting work is being done on the use of biofeedback to treat the disorder. Biofeedback is a process whereby physiological signals picked up by a machine from the brain or body of a subject are represented to the subject in such a way that he or she might be able to affect or manipulate that signal by a conscious change of behaviour or thinking. Experiments have been done to show that subjects can alter their own brain waves through this process. Some experimental work is also being done with drugs such as MDMA (otherwise known as the party drug ‘ecstacy’) which appear to enhance empathy through their action on neurotransmitter release.

So that’s a very brief introduction to autism. Hopefully I’ll come back to it in the future to explore the progress being made in understanding and treating the syndrome.

Written by stewart henderson

October 23, 2013 at 10:25 am

What do we currently know about the differences between male and female brains in humans?

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Picture+3

Having had an interesting conversation-cum-dispute recently over the question of male-female differences, and having then listened to a podcast, from Stuff You Should Know, on the neurological differences between the human male and the human female, which contained some claims which astonished me (and for that matter they astonished the show’s presenters), I’ve decided to try and satisfy my own curiosity about this pretty central question. Should be fun.

The above link is to How Stuff Works, which I think is the written version of the Stuff You Should Know podcast, that’s to say with more content and less humour (and less ads), but I do recommend the podcast, because the guys have lots of fun with it while still delivering plenty of useful and thought-provoking info. Anyway, the conversation I was talking about was one of those kitchen table, wine-soaked bullshit sessions in which one of the participants, a woman, was adamant that nurture was pretty well entirely the basis for male-female differences. I naturally felt sympathetic to this view, having spent much of my life trying to blur the distinctions between masculinity and femininity, having generally been turned off by ultra-masculine and ultra-feminine traits and wanting to push for blended behaviour, which obviously suggests we can control these things through nurturing such a blending. However, I had just enough knowledge of what research has revealed about the matter to say, ‘well no, there are distinct neurological differences between males and females’, but I didn’t have enough knowledge to give more than a vague idea of what these differences were. The podcast further whetted my appetite, but writing about it here should pin things down in my mind a bit more, here’s hoping.

I’ve chosen the title of this post reasonably carefully, with apologies for its clunkiness. For the fact is, we still know little enough about our brains. I’ve mentioned humans, but I expect there are gender differences in the brains of all mammals, so I’m particularly interested in that part of the brain that distinguishes us, though not completely, from other mammals, namely the prefrontal cortex.

Here’s an interesting summary, from a blurb on a New Scientist article by Hannah Hoag from 2008;

Research is revealing that male and female brains are built from markedly different genetic blueprints, which create numerous anatomical differences. There are also differences in the circuitry that wires them up and the chemicals that transmit messages between neurons. All this is pointing towards the conclusion that there is not just one kind of human brain, but two. …

Men have bigger brains on average than women, even accounting for sexual dimorphism, but the two sexes are bigger in different areas. A 2001 Harvard study found that some frontal lobe regions involved in problem-solving and decision-making were larger in women, as well as regions of the limbic cortex, responsible for regulating emotions. On the other hand, areas of the parietal cortex and the amygdala were larger in men. These areas regulate social and sexual behaviour.

The really incredible piece of data, though, is that men have about 6.5 times more grey matter (neurons) than women, while women have about ten times more white matter (axons and dendrites, that’s to say connections) than men. These are white because they’re sheathed in myelin, which allows current to flow much faster. On the face of it, I find this really hard, if not impossible, to believe. I mean, that’s one effing huge difference. It comes from a study led by Richard Haier of the University of California, Irvine and colleagues from the University of New Mexico, but this extraordinary fact appears to be of little consequence for male performance in intellectual tasks as compared to female. What appears to have happened is that two different ‘brain types ‘ have evolved alongside and in conjunction with each other to perform much the same tasks. Other research appears to confirm this amazing fact, finding that males and females access different parts of the brain for performing the same tasks. In an experiment where men and women were asked to sound out different words, Gina Kolata reported on this back in early 1995 in the New York Times:

The investigators, who were seeking the basis of reading disorders, asked what areas of the brain were used by normal readers in the first step in the process of sounding out words. To their astonishment, they discovered that men use a minute area in the left side of the brain while women use areas in both sides of the brain.

After lesions to the left hemisphere, men more often develop aphasia (problems with understanding and formulating speech) than women.

While I’m a bit sceptical about the extent of the differences between grey and white matter in terms of gender, it’s clear that these and many other differences exist, but they’re difficult to summarise. We can refer to different regions, such as the amygdala, but there are also differences in hormone activity throughout the brain, and so many other factors, such as ‘the number of dopaminergic cells in the mesencephalon’, to quote one abstract (it apparently means the number of cells containing the neurotransmitter dopamine in the midbrain). But let me dwell a bit on the amygdala, which appears to be central to neurophysiological sex differences.

Actually, there are 2 amygdalae, located within the left and right temporal lobes. They play a vital role in the formation of emotional memories, and their storage in the adjacent hippocampus, and in fear conditioning. They’re seen as part of the limbic system, but their connections with and influences on other regions of the brain are too complex for me to dare to elaborate here.  The amygdalae are larger in human males, and this sex difference appears also in children from age 7. But get this:

In addition to size, other differences between men and women exist with regards to the amygdala. Subjects’ amygdala activation was observed when watching a horror film. The results of the study showed a different lateralization of the amygdala in men and women. Enhanced memory for the film was related to enhanced activity of the left, but not the right, amygdala in women, whereas it was related to enhanced activity of the right, but not the left, amygdala in men.

This right-left difference is significant because the right amygdala connects differently with other brain regions than the left. For example, the left amygdala has more connections with the hypothalamus, which directs stress and other emotional responses, whereas the right amygdala connects more with motor and visual neural regions, which interact more with the external world. Researchers are of course reluctant to speculate beyond the evidence, but as a non-scientist, but as a pure dilettante I don’t give a flock about that – just don’t pay attention to my ravings. It seems to me that most female mammals, who have to tend offspring, would be more connected to the flight than the fight response to danger than the unencumbered males would be??? OMG, is that evolutionary psychology?

It’s interesting but hardly surprising to note that studies have shown this right-left amygdala difference is also correlated to sexual orientation. Presumably – speculating again – it would also relate to those individuals who sense from early on that they’re born into ‘the wrong gender’.

Neuroimaging studies have found that the amygdala develops structurally at different rates in males and females, and this seems to be due to the concentration of sex hormone receptors in the different genders. Where there’s a size difference there appears to be a big difference in number of sex hormones circulating in the area. Again this is difficult to interpret, and it’s early days for this research. One brain structure, the stria terminalis, a bundle of fibres that constitute the major output pathway for the amygdala, has become a focus of controversy in the determination of our sense of gender and sexual orientation. As a dilettante I’m reluctant to comment much on this, but the central subdivision of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis is on average twice as large in men as in women, and contains twice the number of somatostatin neurons in males. Somatostatin is a peptide hormone which helps regulate the endocrine system, which maintains homeostasis.

What all this means for the detail of sex differences is obviously very far from being worked out, but it seems that the more we examine the brain, the more we find structural and process differences between the male and female brain in humans. And it’s likely that we’ll find similar differences in other mammals.

It’s important to note, though, that these differences, as in other mammals, exist in the same species, in which the genders have evolved to be codependent and to work in tandem towards their survival and success. Just as it would seem silly to say that female kangaroos are smarter/dumber than males, the same should be said of humans. The terms smart/dumb are not very useful here. The two genders, in all mammals, perform complementary roles, but they’re also also both able to survive independently of one another. The amazing thing is that such different brain designs can be so similar in output and achievement. It’s more impressive evidence of the enormous diversity of evolutionary development.

Written by stewart henderson

October 6, 2013 at 9:30 am

the latest on dolphin language

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dolphins

I wrote, or semi-podcasted, on the brain of the dolphin a while back, and much of my focus was on language, often described as the sine qua non of cerebral complexity and intelligence. In that piece, posted about eight months ago, I reported that there there was little clear evidence of any complex language in dolphins, but there had been some interesting research. Allow me to quote myself:

Dolphins do sometimes mimic the whistles of other dolphins too, particularly those of their closest relatives, but signature whistles as a form of recognition and differentiation, are a long way from anything like language. After all, many species can recognise their own mates or kin from the distinctive sounds they make, or from their specific odour, or from visual cues. However, a clever experiment carried out more recently, which synthesised these whistles through a computer, so that the whistle pattern was divorced from its distinctive sound, found that the dolphins responded to these patterns even when produced via a different sound. It seemed that they were recognising names. It’s undoubtedly intriguing, but clearly a lot more research is required.

So it was with some interest that I heard, on a recent SGU podcast, an account of what seemed an elaboration of the experiments conducted above, further confirming that dolphins recognised names. Or were they just reporting the same experiments? Having re-listened to the SGU segment, I find that they didn’t give any details of who did the study they were talking about, the only mention was to a news article. So I’ll just report on anything I can find, because it’s such a cool subject.

There’s a nice TED talk, from February 2013, on dolphin language and intelligence here, which is about researches over many years in the Bahamas with Atlantic spotted dolphins. As always, I suggest you listen to the talk and do the ‘research on the research’ yourself, as I’m not a scientist and I’m only doing this to educate myself, but hopefully I can also engage your interest.

Dolphins have a brain- to-body ratio (a rough but not entirely reliable guide to intelligence) second only to humans, they pass the mirror self-awareness test (another standard for intelligence that’s been questioned recently), they can be made to understand very basic artificial human language tests, and they’re at least rudimentary tool users. But the real interest lies in their own, obviously complex, vocal communication systems.

I probably misrepresented the information on signature whistles before: they’re only what we humans have been able to isolate from all the ‘noise’ dolphins make, because they’re recognisable and interpretable to us. Denise Herzing, in her TED talk, refers to ‘cracking the code’ of dolphins’ communication systems. She and her team have been working with the dolphins over the summer months for 28 years. They work with underwater cameras and hydrophones to correlate the sounds and behaviours of their subjects. This particular species is born without spots, but is fully black-and-white spotted by age 15. They go through distinct developmental phases making them easy to track over the years (dolphins live into their early 50s). The distinctive spotted patterns make them easy to track individually. Females are sexually mature by about age 9, males at around 15. Dolphins are very sexually active with multiple partners, so paternity is not always easy to determine, so this is worked out by collecting fecal matter and analysing its DNA. So, over 28 years, three generations have been tracked.

What really interests me about the dolphin communication question is their relation to sound and their use of sound compared to ours. Herzing describes them as ‘natural acousticians’ who make and hear sounds ten times as high as humans do. They also have highly developed vision, so they communicate via bodily signals, and they have taste and touch. Sound is of course a wave or vibration which can be felt in water, the acoustic impedance of tissue in water being much the same as on land. Tickling, of a kind, does occur.

Signature whistles are the most studied dolphin sounds, as the most easily measured. They’re used as names, in connecting mothers and calves for example.  But there are many other vocalisations, such as echo-location clicks (sonar), used in hunting and feeding, and also socially, in tightly-packed sound formations – buzzes, which can be felt in the water. They’re used regularly by males courting females. Burst-pulse sounds are used in times of conflict, and they are the least studied, most hard to measure of dolphin sounds.

Interestingly, Herzing notes that there’s a lot of interaction and co-operation in the Bahamas between spotted and bottle-nose dolphins, including baby-sitting each others’ calves, and combining to chase away sharks, but little mention is made, in this talk at least, of any vocal communication between the two species. When she goes on to talk about synchrony, I think she’s only talking about within-species rather than between species. Synchrony is a mechanism whereby the dolphins co-ordinate sounds and body postures to create a larger, stronger social unit.

As I’ve mentioned, dolphins make plenty of sounds beyond the range of human hearing. Underwater equipment is used to collect these ultrasonic sounds, but we’ve barely begun to analyse them. Whistle complexity has been analysed through information theory, and is highly rated even in relation to human languages, but virtually nothing is known about burst-pulse sounds, which, on a spectrogram, bear a remarkable similarity to human phonemes. Still, we have no Rosetta Stone for interpreting them, so researchers have developed a two-way interface, with underwater keyboards, with both visual and audible components. In developing communication, they’ve exploited the dolphins’ natural curiosity and playfulness. Dolphins, for example, are fond of mimicking the postures and vocalisations of humans, and invite the researchers into their play. Researchers have developed artificial whistles to refer to dolphins’ favourite toys, including sargassum, a kind of seaweed, and ropes and scarves, so that they can request them via the keyboard interface. These whistles were outside the dolphins’ normal repertoire, but easily mimicked by them. The experiment has been successful, but of course it isn’t known how much they understand, or what’s going through their minds with all this. What is clear, however, is that the dolphins are extremely interested in and focused on this type of activity, which sometimes goes on for hours.

This research group has lately been using an underwater wearable computer, known as CHAT (cetacean hearing and telemetry), which focuses on acoustic communication. Sounds are created via a forearm keyboard and an underwater speaker for real-time Q and A. This is still at the prototype stage, but it uses the same game-playing activity, seeking to empower dolphins to request toys, as well as human game-players, through signature whistles. It’s hoped that the technology will be utilisable for other species too in the future.

All of this is kind of by way of background to the research reported on recently. This was really about dolphin memory rather than language – or perhaps more accurately, memory triggered by language. Dolphins recognise the sounds of each others’ signature whistles, but would they recognise the whistle of a dolphin they’d not been in contact with for years. And for how many years? Researcher Jason Bruck tested this by collecting whistles of dolphins in captive facilities throughout the US. Dolphins are moved around a lot, and lose contact with friends and family. Sounds a bit like the foster-care system. Bruck found that when dolphins heard the signature whistles of old companions played to them through an underwater speaker, they responded with great attention and interest. One dolphin was able to recognise the whistle of a friend from whom he was separated at age two, after twenty years’ separation. As biologist Janet Mann put it, this is a big breakthrough but not so surprising, as dolphins are highly social animals whose lives, like ours, are criss-crossed by profound connections with others, with effects positive, negative and equivocal.  It’s important, too, for what it suggests – the capacity to remember so much more, in the  same coded way. in other words, a complex language, perhaps on a level with ours. Will we ever get to crack this code? Why not. Hopefully we won’t stop trying.

Written by stewart henderson

August 24, 2013 at 3:55 pm

some thoughts on hypnotism

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hmm, are those waves or particles, or both, or neither?

hmm, are those waves or particles, or both, or neither?

Today I want to write about a subject I know bugger all about but which has always fascinated me – hypnotism. The first encounter with it that made an impression on me was as a schoolkid coming home for lunch, as we did every day – our parents were both at work – and catching some of the midday variety show, which regularly featured a bearded and mildly exotic hypnotist who, with nothing more, apparently, than snappings of fingers, intense gazes and a voice of calm command, got ordinary people to crawl on all fours and bark like dogs, or some other form of mild humiliation, to the incredibly complacent amusement of the studio audience – or so it seemed to me.

This was all very flummoxing to my nascent scepticality. Could this really be real? If so, the consequences, it seemed to me, were enormous for a person’s autonomy, or sense of self-ownership. More important, could this ever be done to me? My impulse would be to fight such an outrageous invasion of, indeed takeover of, what I held to be more dear to me than anything else – my independence of thought and action.

So I drew two conclusions from these observations. First, that it couldn’t be real – that there must be at least some fakery involved. Second, that if it was real, I, if not the entire human population, needed to be protected from such outrages, by law. If we could be made to bark like dogs, why couldn’t we be made, by an evil genius, to rip out each others’ throats, to murder our loved ones, to fly planes into buildings or to press nuclear buttons? In fact, if this power to control minds was real, no human law could prevent it from being abused. It followed, according to the Law of Wishful Thinking, that this power couldn’t be real.

But as life went on, the urgency of this issue receded, though the questions raised were never resolved. A lot of nasty things happened, people ripped each other apart, either physically or psychologically, and people murdered those they loved, and flew planes into buildings and declared wars that slaughtered thousands, but the motives seemed all too clear and basic and perennially human. No evil geniuses needed to be posited.  Manipulation might be suspected at times, but of the common and garden type. Hypnosis appeared surplus to requirements, so much that I never really considered it.

The old questions resurfaced on listening to Brian Dunning, of skeptoid.com, presenting a podcast on hypnosis, which provided some interesting historical background, for example that the term ‘hypnosis’ was coined by an English surgeon, James Braid, in the 1840s. Braid became obsessed with the practice after seeing a stage performance, and worked on utilising it for medical purposes. He even wrote a book about hypnotism which, according to Dunning, still stands up well today.

Dunning also addresses an issue that has always vexed me – that of susceptibility to hypnosis. In the 50s, Stanford University developed a rough measure of susceptibility which they named the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales. Here’s Dunning’s description:

It’s a series of twelve short tests to gauge just how hypnotized you really are, scored on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 12 (completely). They are responses to simple suggestions like immobilization, simple hallucinations, and amnesia. Most people score somewhere in the middle, and nearly everyone passes at least one of the tests. There’s even a script you can follow to hypnotize anyone and put them through the scales, with a little bit of practice.

Not only do people score very differently, there’s been little progress made in predicting what types of people are most susceptible. Subjects’ suppositions about their own susceptibility don’t correlate at all with test scores. Supposed predictors like intelligence, creativity, desire to become hypnotized, and imaginativeness also have no correlation. Most likely, you yourself are a decent candidate who will score near the middle of the scale, regardless of whether you think you will or not.

These findings are not reassuring. Maybe it’s a male thing (and one of the reasons males are less willing to visit the doctor), but I’ve always wanted to be, and so felt myself to be, ‘in control’ of my physical and mental health. For example, I didn’t need a doctor to tell me I was creeping up in weight towards obesity, with all the attendant health issues. I realised it myself, took control, reduced my general food intake, introduced an exercise regime, and brought my weight back to normal. Similarly, with issues of getting older, such as the possibility of dementia, I reckon that keeping mentally active, learning new things, firing up new pathways, is the self-help solution, and with hypnotism, the defence is a strong mind and a profound unwillingness to be hoodwinked by any evil geniuses out there. But I’m not silly, and I’ve always known that I’m at least partially kidding myself, and that I can’t fully bullet-proof myself against cancer, dementia, or even mind control. So maybe I should subject myself to the above-mentioned susceptibility scales, and face the facts.

For the susceptible ones, there are certainly medical benefits in the application of hypnosis, in relieving stress, in pain management, and in preparing patients for, and managing them through, surgery. Attempts have made to use hypnotherapy, and to analyse its success, in weight loss programs and in treating addictive behaviour, with mixed results.

But what of that worst-case scenario, where the susceptible are manipulated into performing dastardly deeds? Dunning’s conclusions on this seemed reassuring. The susceptible clients certainly reported losing their memory of actions performed under hypnosis, and they certainly did perform those actions, or ‘see’ things they were commanded to see, but, according to Dunning ‘only so long as they were consciously willing to go along.’ He ends with a recommendation to try hypnotism, saying ‘you can’t lose control’ and that ‘you might just have a really wild ride’, two statements that might seem to contradict each other.

But these reassurances were all blown away by Derren Brown’s program on hypnotism, one of a series he presented on how the human mind can be made to believe things and do things that aren’t always in its best interest. Brown is a thorough-going sceptic and an atheist, and so on the side of the angels. I was primed for a dose of debunking, but, frankly, was left with far more questions than answers. I have to rely on my memory here, but the program began with some references to Sirhan Sirhan, the killer of Robert Kennedy in the sixties. Sirhan’s lack of remorse over the years has told against him at parole board hearings and the like, but since he bizarrely claims to have no recollection of the act, his lack of remorse would in that sense be consistent. Without going into too much detail about the assassination (conspiracy theories abound), Brown plants in our minds the germ of an idea that this could’ve been a mind-control event. The rest of the program involves an elaborate set-up in which Brown hypnotises a susceptible subject into ‘killing’ Stephen Fry, with a gun, while Fry is performing onstage, and the hypnotised subject is in the audience. Fry, who’s in on the act, plays dead, and the audience – well, here’s where my memory fails me. I seem to remember shock and confusion, but I don’t recall any heroes grappling with the gunman, or reacting as the gunman stood up and took aim at Fry. Maybe that’s just the behaviour of well-primed security guards. After all, shooting someone when they’re onstage, though theatrical, is hardly a real-life scenario. In fact I don’t recall it ever having happened.

More importantly – in fact far more importantly – the scenario, if we’re to believe it, completely disproves Dunning’s claim that you can’t be persuaded to do something entirely uncharacteristic when under hypnosis. The young man who ‘shoots’ Fry seems to be a pleasant, gentle soul. In an after-event interview with Brown, at which Fry is also present, he has no recollection of firing the gun, though he does remember attending the show (if my memory serves me correctly).

I was really shaken by all this. I tried to wriggle out of the conclusions. Obviously the shooter was using a toy gun – or maybe a real gun with blank bullets. Could it be that he wouldn’t have gone through with it had it been a real gun? That didn’t make sense, really – the gun was in its own case, and looked real enough to me, inexpert though I am (I truly loathe guns). It was no water-pistol or cap-gun. But maybe the whole set-up was a sham? In this and in other Brown shows I found it incredible that subjects could be so easily put into a hypnotised state. In fact ‘ludicrous’ is the word that springs to mind. There’s a part of me – quite a big part in fact – that just wants to dismiss the whole thing as arrant bullshit, a kind of sick joke. How can the human brain, the most complex 1300g entity on the planet, be so easily hijacked?

Well, apparently it can. One has to accept the evidence, however reluctantly. And of course it’s not accurate to say that the entire brain is hijacked. Or rather, just as you don’t have to have complete control of every aspect of a plane in order to hijack it, you just have to control the pilot, so hypnotism must involve control of some kind of consciousness-controller in the brain. Something like what we describe as ‘the self’, no less. A big problem, especially when some psychologists, neurologists and philosophers deny the very existence of the self.

But I’ll leave an exploration of how hypnotism works from a neurophysiological perspective for another post. I suspect, though, that not much progress has been made in that area. Meanwhile, I’m left with a much greater concern about hypnotism than ever before. As if there wasn’t enough to worry about!

Written by stewart henderson

April 20, 2013 at 9:32 am

how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part 6, intentional states

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mind of god, exclusive pic

mind of god, exclusive pic

Dr Craig’s next argument is that his god is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness in the world. This is a weird one, and I can only assume that he’s put his best forces in the vanguard in the hope of blowing the opposition out of the water, and that these rather piddling forces in the rear weren’t really meant to be exposed to the light of reason, and were just added to give a scarey sense of bulk or weight to the Doctor’s position. Never mind the quality, feel the width, as they say.

Dr Craig starts by ‘informing’ us that ‘philosophers are puzzled’ by states of intentionality. He doesn’t tell us which philosophers, but the clear intimation is that all philosophers are puzzled in this way – and by the way, this is a very typical piece of deceptiveness from Dr Craig, and your sceptical antennae should be stretched to their outermost limits by offhand remarks such as these. Dr Craig’s presentation here is very thin, but he’s trying, I think to convince you that philosophers are baffled by the non-materiality of intentionality or consciousness generally, and this is a massive misrepresentation of a complex area in the philosophy of mind. It’s true that there’s a lot of interesting debate, and has been for some decades, on the explanation of consciousness in material terms, but there are virtually no philosophers who consider that intentional states are without material cause. That’s to say, that you could have an intentional state without a brain – or something like it, such as a super-computer of some sort. Dr Craig makes the absurd claim that he can think about things, or of things, but a physical object cannot. But I see Dr Craig as a physical object, albeit one with intentions and consciousness. Dr Craig seems to want to make a distinction between objects and conscious subjects, but he doesn’t make this explicit in his rather clumsy argument. I have no difficulty with this distinction, seeing him, as I see myself, and my cat, as both object and conscious subject. In other words I see consciousness as necessarily embodied. Now, what the term ’embodied’ means is really too complex to be gone into here, but I would strongly argue that, while philosophers debate the connection between consciousness and embodiment, and are perhaps especially interested in what embodiment entails, I don’t know of any who are interested in considering consciousness as entirely non-material.

Dr Craig claims that Dr Rosenberg, an atheist, takes the view that ‘there really are no intentional states’, and that ‘we never really think about anything’. I’m not familiar with Dr Rosenberg’s views, but to say that I suspect they’ve been vastly over-simplified and misrepresented by Dr Craig’s characterization of them would be too weak a statement by far. Furthermore Craig claims that Rosenberg’s views, whatever they are, represent atheism. This is nonsense. Philosophers hold vastly different views on the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, including the view that there is no hard problem. The vast majority of philosophers who debate these issues are, in fact, atheists.

Dr Craig ends this fifth point with another formal argument, which, for the readers’ convenience, I’ll put here.

1. If God did not exist, intentional states of consciousness would not exist.

2. But intentional states of consciousness do exist.

3 Therefore God exists.

However, this argument is so paltry and pathetic that it isn’t worth commenting on further, except perhaps to say that it doesn’t deserve to be called an argument.

Written by stewart henderson

March 19, 2013 at 11:46 pm