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What is consciousness?
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rynner2Offline
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PostPosted: 23-07-2012 19:00    Post subject: Reply with quote

Are these the brain cells that give us consciousness?
Updated 16:33 23 July 2012 by Caroline Williams

The brainiest creatures share a secret – an odd kind of brain cell involved in emotions and empathy that may have accidentally made us conscious

THE origin of consciousness has to be one of the biggest mysteries of all time, occupying philosophers and scientists for generations. So it is strange to think that a little-known neuroscientist called Constantin von Economo might have unearthed an important clue nearly 90 years ago.

When he peered down the lens of his microscope in 1926, von Economo saw a handful of brain cells that were long, spindly and much larger than those around them. In fact, they looked so out of place that at first he thought they were a sign of some kind of disease. But the more brains he looked at, the more of these peculiar cells he found - and always in the same two small areas that evolved to process smells and flavours.

Von Economo briefly pondered what these "rod and corkscrew cells", as he called them, might be doing, but without the technology to delve much deeper he soon moved on to more promising lines of enquiry.

Little more was said about these neurons until nearly 80 years later when, Esther Nimchinsky and Patrick Hof at Mount Sinai University in New York also stumbled across clusters of these strange-looking neurons. Now, after more than a decade of functional imaging and post-mortem studies, we are beginning to piece together their story. Certain lines of evidence hint that they may help build the rich inner life we call consciousness, including emotions, our sense of self, empathy and our ability to navigate social relationships.

Many other big-brained, social animals also seem to share these cells, in the same spots as the human brain. A greater understanding of the way these paths converged could therefore tell us much about the evolution of the mind.

Admittedly, to the untrained eye these giant brain cells, now known as von Economo neurons (VENs), don't look particularly exciting. But to a neuroscientist they stand out like a sore thumb. For one thing, VENs are at least 50 per cent, and sometimes up to 200 per cent, larger than typical human neurons. And while most neurons have a pyramid-shaped body with a finely branched tree of connections called dendrites at each end of the cell, VENs have a longer, spindly cell body with a single projection at each end with very few branches (see diagram). Perhaps they escaped attention for so long because they are so rare, making up just 1 per cent of the neurons in the two small areas of the human brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the fronto-insular (FI) cortex.

Their location in those regions suggests that VENs may be a central part of our mental machinery, since the ACC and FI are heavily involved in many of the more advanced aspects of our inner lives. Both areas kick into action when we see socially relevant cues, be it a frowning face, a grimace of pain or simply the voice of someone we love. When a mother hears a baby crying, both regions respond strongly. They also light up when we experience emotions such as love, lust, anger and grief. For John Allman, a neuroanatomist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, this adds up to a kind of "social monitoring network" that keeps track of social cues and allows us to alter our behaviour accordingly (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol 1225, p 59).

The two brain areas also seem to play a key role in the "salience" network, which keeps a subconscious tally of what is going on around us and directs our attention to the most pressing events, as well as monitoring sensations from the body to detect any changes (Brain Structure and Function, DOI: 10.1007/s00429-012-0382-9).

What's more, both regions are active when a person recognises their reflection in the mirror, suggesting that these parts of the brain underlie our sense of self - a key component of consciousness. "It is the sense of self at every possible level - so the sense of identity, this is me, and the sense of identity of others and how you understand others. That goes to the concept of empathy and theory of mind," says Hof.

To Bud Craig, a neuroanatomist at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, it all amounts to a continually updated sense of "how I feel now": the ACC and FI take inputs from the body and tie them together with social cues, thoughts and emotions to quickly and efficiently alter our behaviour (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol 10, p 59).

This constantly shifting picture of how we feel may contribute to the way we perceive the passage of time. When something emotionally important is happening, Craig proposes, there is more to process, and because of this time seems to speed up. Conversely, when less is going on we update our view of the world less frequently, so time seems to pass more slowly.

VENs are probably important in all this, though we can only infer their role through circumstantial evidence. That's because locating these cells, and then measuring their activity in a living brain hasn't yet been possible. But their unusual appearance is a signal that they probably aren't just sitting there doing nothing. "They stand out anatomically," says Allman, "And a general proposition is that anything that's so distinctive looking must have a distinct function."

In the brain, big usually means fast, so Allman suggests that VENs could be acting as a fast relay system - a kind of social superhighway - which allows the gist of the situation to move quickly through the brain, enabling us to react intuitively on the hop, a crucial survival skill in a social species like ours. "That's what all of civilisation is based on: our ability to communicate socially, efficiently," adds Craig.

A particularly distressing form of dementia that can strike people as early as their 30s supports this idea. People who develop fronto-temporal dementia lose large numbers of VENs in the ACC and FI early in the disease, when the main symptom is a complete loss of social awareness, empathy and self-control. "They don't have normal empathic responses to situations that would normally make you disgusted or sad," says Hof. "You can show them horrible pictures of an accident and they just don't blink. They will say 'oh, yes, it's an accident'."

Post-mortem examinations of the brains of people with autism also bolster the idea that VENs lie at the heart of our emotions and empathy. According to one recent study, people with autism may fall into two groups: some have too few VENs, perhaps meaning that they don't have the necessary wiring to process social cues, while others have far too many (Acta Neuropathologica, vol 118, p 673). The latter group would seem to fit with one recent theory of autism, which proposes that the symptoms may arise from an over-wiring of the brain. Perhaps having too many VENs makes emotional systems fire too intensely, causing people with autism to feel overwhelmed, as many say they do.

Another recent study found that people with schizophrenia who committed suicide had significantly more VENs in their ACC than schizophrenics who died of other causes. The researchers suggest that the over-abundance of VENs might create an overactive emotional system that leaves them prone to negative self-assessment and feelings of guilt and hopelessness (PLoS One, vol 6, p e20936).

VENs in other animals provide some clues, too. When these neurons were first identified, there was the glimmer of hope that we might have found one of the key evolutionary changes, unique to humankind, that could explain our social intelligence. But the earliest studies put paid to that kind of thinking, when VENs turned up in chimpanzees and gorillas. In recent years, they have also been found in elephants and some whales and dolphins.

Like us, many of these species live in big social groups and show signs of the same kind of advanced behaviour associated with VENs in people. Elephants, for instance, display something that looks a lot like empathy: they work together to help injured, lost or trapped elephants, for example. They even seem to show signs of grief at elephant "graveyards" (Biology Letters, vol 2, p 26). What's more, many of these species can recognise themselves in the mirror, which is usually taken as a rudimentary measure of consciousness. When researchers daub paint on an elephant's face, for instance, it will notice the mark in the mirror and try to feel the spot with its trunk. This has led Allman and others to speculate that von Economo neurons might be a vital adaptation in large brains for keeping track of social situations - and that the sense of self may be a consequence of this ability.

etc...

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21528741.600-are-these-the-brain-cells-that-give-us-consciousness.html?full=true
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PostPosted: 24-07-2012 21:01    Post subject: Reply with quote

sirwiggum wrote:
This is what makes me sceptical about OOBEs - usually they don't come back and say that they have seen unknown colours / radiance that they can't describe.


Well, actually they often do, I think. e.g.:
"described by various experiencers using such adjectives as: golden, beautiful, unearthly, fairy tale-like, indescribable, beyond anything that can be described, so superior to anything on Earth, colorful, brilliant, heavenly, endless, crystalline, grand, paradise, and galaxy-like"
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PostPosted: 07-03-2013 20:21    Post subject: Reply with quote

I give this article in full, purely because the subject fascinates me (whoever 'me' may be! Wink )

Consciousness explained (sort of), using a cocktail party
By Tom Chivers Science Last updated: March 7th, 2013
[video - 56 min]

There’s a lovely story by our science correspondent Nick Collins today in our paper about how our brain can filter out background noise, rather like those noise-reducing headphones, in order to concentrate on the person speaking; the cognitive scientist Colin Cherry called it the "cocktail party effect". The jumble of sound waves enters our ear, and passes through the auditory cortex in that same jumble – clinking glasses and coughs all mixed in together with the words of the speaker – but as it goes through the parts of the brain that manage language and attention, the sounds that make up that speech are singled out and "amplified" while the unimportant stuff is relegated to the background.

It's fascinating, but it's very much part of the wider picture of our brains as a series of interlinked subroutines and modules, each with highly specific tasks. For example, an equivalent is our ability to recognise faces: they leap out of the surroundings, a little automatic routine in our brain constantly on the search for the shape of eye-eye-nose-mouth; it's why we see faces in clouds, JFK's profile in rocks. This highly specific skill, which includes the ability to mentally age faces so that we can recognise an old man from a photo of him as a teenager, is managed by an equivalently specific area: the fusiform gyrus, at the bottom of each hemisphere of the brain. People with damage to this area are just as visually capable as everyone else in every other aspect – they can recognise, say, objects – but can't recognise people's faces: the condition is known as "prosopagnosia".

The idea that we have a specific module for recognising faces might not be all that surprising. But how about the mooted idea that there is something in our brains which is designed to recognise “tools”, as opposed to just objects? Another one that has the job of recognising fruits and vegetables? Different kinds of brain damage can knock out, or at least impair, these different skills. Dr P, a sufferer of object-blindness described in Oliver Sacks’s wonderful book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, could recognise cubes, spheres, dodecahedrons with ease; could recognise jacks, kings and queens in cards; but when asked what the object in front of him was, said hesitatingly “A continuous surface, infolded on itself. It appears to have five outpouchings, if this is the word.” The object was a glove.

It goes on. Language and reading isn’t just one part, it’s several; people who suffer from expressive aphasia, caused by damage to a part of the brain called Broca’s area, leaves them capable of understanding speech, of reading and writing – but unable [to] speak in complete sentences themselves, rarely able to put more than four words together in a row. There are dozens of these sort of things, often very strange indeed.

The implication is that the brain – consciousness – is made of hundreds, or thousands, of smaller parts. Which of course it is. As Daniel Dennett says in Consciousness Explained, we are made of around 100 trillion tiny robots, cells. Not one of them is conscious; not one of them “knows who you are, or cares”, as he puts it in a lecture on the subject (see video above). Yet somehow, out of those unconscious parts, consciousness is made. Or so materialists like me believe, anyway.

But, of course, “the ability to recognise tools” isn’t “consciousness”; the ability to speak, the ability to see and divide the universe into objects and people and animals, to recognise patterns – all these things that we can isolate and perhaps one day explain – are not “consciousness”. Some people, including the philosopher David Chalmers, call this is the “hard problem” of consciousness: you can explain all the subroutines, you can explain all the bits and bobs and tools and functions, but you can’t explain “me”, why I, this unified self, this feeling subject, experiences the world as I do.

This is one of the great arguments of philosophy and neuroscience, and I don’t pretend to be able to tell David Chalmers that he’s wrong and that Daniel Dennett is right. But I prefer Dennett’s argument, which approaches the problem of consciousness with practicality rather than mysticism. He compares consciousness to a magic trick, called The Tuned Deck. It’s a pretty ordinary pick-a-card-any-card routine, but Ralph Hull, the 1930s magician who invented it, puzzled all of his contemporaries for years with it, who simply could not explain it. Dennett says:

Like much great magic, the trick is over before you even realize the trick has begun. The trick, in its entirety, is in the name of the trick, “The Tuned Deck”, and more specifically, in one word, “The”. As soon as Hull had announced his new trick and given its name to his eager audience, the trick was over… Hull would do a relatively simple and familiar card presentation trick of type A.

His audience, savvy magicians, would see that he might possibly be performing a type A trick, a hypothesis they could test by being stubborn and uncooperative spectators in a way that would thwart any attempt at a type A trick. When they then adopted the appropriate recalcitrance to test the hypothesis, Hull would ‘repeat’ the trick, this time executing a type B card presentation trick. The spectators would then huddle and compare notes: might he be doing a type B trick? They test that hypothesis by adopting the recalcitrance appropriate to preventing a type B trick and still he does “the” trick – using method C, of course. When they test the hypothesis that he’s pulling a type C trick on them, he switches to method D – or perhaps he goes back to method A or B, since his audience has ‘refuted’ the hypothesis that he’s using method A or B.

The same thing is going on with consciousness, he says. If you explain a “trick” – whether it’s pattern recognition or language or self-consciousness or proprioception or any of hundreds of other parts of the mind that we can take some steps to explaining – then you’ve just explained a trick, you haven’t explained consciousness. So you explain another one. But you haven’t explained consciousness, you’ve just explained another trick the brain can do.

But “consciousness” isn’t one big magic thing, it’s thousands of little parts, says Dennett. By giving it this one big name, we trick ourselves, like we do with “The Tuned Deck”, into thinking there is only one big thing to explain, the subject, the I, the ego. But there isn’t. There are hundreds, or thousands, or millions, depending on how big a bit you’re looking at: our cleverness, our consciousness, is made of thousands of stupid robots. Explaining consciousness involves explaining the smaller bits, and then explaining how those bits are made of still smaller bits, and still smaller bits, until you’re down to the cells.

Of course, some people want consciousness, the self, the soul, to be mysterious, and that’s fine. But if, like me, you prefer the idea that we can take it apart and see how it fits together, then things like the “cocktail party problem” show us how it could be done.

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tomchiversscience/100205890/consciousness-explained-sort-of-using-a-cocktail-party/
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PostPosted: 07-03-2013 21:18    Post subject: Reply with quote

Or, another sign of symptoms of classic sociopathology. We're just zombies made up of lots of little robots. For their next trick the mind scientists will disappear up their own fundaments. Did they take route a., or route b.?
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PostPosted: 07-03-2013 21:53    Post subject: Reply with quote

You really do have to admire a phenomenon capable of arguing in favour of its own non-existence.
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PostPosted: 07-03-2013 22:00    Post subject: Reply with quote

garrick92 wrote:
You really do have to admire a phenomenon capable of arguing in favour of its own non-existence.

Yes. According to the experts, we're not really conscious, we only think we are. Really, we're tricking ourselves by standing in a hall of mirrors, continuously turning round to catch a glimpse of the back of our necks. Ultimately, we're not really there, at all. The hall of mirrors is empty, repeating reflections, reflecting an infinity of nothing.

Materialist reductionism to the point of absurdity.
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PostPosted: 07-03-2013 22:25    Post subject: Reply with quote

It's nice to bump into someone who shares my contempt for these spurious 'theories' about consciousness (they aren't even that, really).
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PostPosted: 07-03-2013 22:36    Post subject: Reply with quote

Pietro_Mercurios wrote:
Yes. According to the experts, we're not really conscious, we only think we are. Really, we're tricking ourselves by standing in a hall of mirrors, continuously turning round to catch a glimpse of the back of our necks. Ultimately, we're not really there, at all. The hall of mirrors is empty, repeating reflections, reflecting an infinity of nothing.

Ah yes, you express it so well! Wink

But can you dig up any experts that support the opposing 'numinous' viewpoint? Because supernatural arguments rely just as much, if not more, on 'hand-waving' arguments.

I prefer to stick with the natural - at least that way, we start from well-understood bedrock science..
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PostPosted: 12-04-2013 06:30    Post subject: Reply with quote

An interesting study on how brain activity alone influences our feelings, apparently without involving hormones or other body chemistry.

New music 'rewarding for the brain'
By Rebecca Morelle, Science reporter, BBC World Service

Listening to new music is rewarding for the brain, a study suggests.
Using MRI scans, a Canadian team of scientists found that areas in the reward centre of the brain became active when people heard a song for the first time.
The more the listener enjoyed what they were hearing, the stronger the connections were in the region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.
The study is published in the journal Science.

Dr Valorie Salimpoor, from the Rotman Research Institute, in Toronto, told the BBC's Science in Action programme: "We know that the nucleus accumbens is involved with reward.
"But music is abstract: It's not like you are really hungry and you are about to get a piece of food and you are really excited about it because you are going to eat it - or the same thing applies to sex or money - that's when you would normally see activity in the nucleus accumbens.
"But what's cool is that you're anticipating and getting excited over something entirely abstract - and that's the next sound that is coming up."

To carry out the study, which took place at the Montreal Neurological Centre at McGill University, the scientists played 19 volunteers 60 excerpts of new music, based on their musical preferences.
As they were listening to the 30-second-long tracks, they had to the opportunity to buy the ones they liked in a mocked up online music store.

All of this was carried out while the participants were lying in an MRI machine.
By analysing the scans, the scientists found that the nucleus accumbens was "lighting up" and depending on the level of activity, the researchers could predict whether the participant was likely to buy a song.
Dr Salimpoor said: "As they are listening to this music, we can look at their brain activity and figure out how they are appreciating or enjoying this music before they even tell us anything.

"And that's part of this new direction that neuroscience is going in - trying to understand what people are thinking, and inferring their thoughts and motivations and eventually their behaviour through their brain activity."

The researchers found that the nucleus accumbens was also interacting with another region of the brain called the auditory cortical stores.
This is an area that stores sound information based on music that people have been exposed to before.
"This part of the brain will be unique for each individual, because we've all heard different music in the past," explained Dr Salimpoor.

The researchers now want to find out how this drives our music tastes, and whether our brain activity can explain why people are drawn to different styles of music.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22096764
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PostPosted: 12-04-2013 08:21    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quote:
According to the experts, we're not really conscious, we only think we are.


Reminds me of the old saying about artificial intelligence, it doesn't really think, it just thinks it thinks.

I'm undecided on these type of arguments. On one hand, the idea that we don;t actually exist does seem quite absurd, on the other hand, there are things about our perception of the world that seem equally compelling but that we know don't actually exist, like colour.
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PostPosted: 13-04-2013 07:58    Post subject: Reply with quote

This article amplifies and comments upon the Rotman Research findings:

Why your brain loves music
New neuroscience study sets out to explain why in some respects music offers the same sort of pleasure as a really good thriller.
By Ivan Hewett, Music Critic
11:33AM BST 12 Apr 2013

The love affair between music and neuroscience just keeps going and going. And this isn’t surprising because music’s power over us is so huge, and so odd. It’s not like those other great providers of pleasure, food and sex. It doesn’t help to propagate our genes. Nor does it tell us anything about the world. Curiosity is a useful survival tool, but only when applied to the world at large. And yet music seems to satisfy our craving for mental stimulation. We follow its patterns, keen to see where they might lead.

The latest research, reported on the Today programme, comes from a team at the Rotman Research Institute in Canada. It was led by Valorie Salimpoor, who was once so overwhelmed by hearing a Brahms Hungarian Dance in the car she had to pull off the road. Ever since she’s being trying to figure out why. This latest project helps to explain why in some respects music offers the same sort of pleasure as a really good thriller. A group of listeners was asked to listen to short samples of 60 songs they’d never heard before, within a style they were familiar with. The 19 volunteers (10 men and nine women aged 18 to 37) then bid for each track, up to a maximum of two dollars.
To make it more realistic, participants actually paid their own money, and were given a CD of their chosen tracks at the end of the study.

While they listened, the participants brains were scanned using MRI. Many different brain regions were stimulated in the participants’ brains, when they liked a particular song. But only when they were willing to pay was there a strong correlation with one brain region in particular, called the nucleus accumbens.
This is the area responsible for the sensation of "pleasant surprise". "We’re constantly making predictions, even if we don’t know the music," said the team leader Valorie Salimpoor in an interview in Sciencemag. "We’re still predicting how it should unfold."

It might seem surprising that people should enjoy having their expectations contradicted. But these results only reveal the physical basis for something we’ve known about for centuries. In the ancient world, teachers of rhetoric knew that one way to hold people’s attention was to set up expectations and then deny them.
As the great 17th-century philosopher Francis Bacon put it in an essay on rhetoric, "there is pleasure even in being deceived".

But the implication is this only works provided the ‘deceiving’ doesn’t go on too long. Thwarting expectations is good, as long as it’s temporary. Anyone who’s studied music theory will have come across the "interrupted cadence", which does actually what its name suggests. It seems to be leading to a close, but at the last minute swerves to an unexpected destination. We enjoy this, partly because it’s a pleasurable shock, but also because we know it will all come out right in the end.

More closely relevant to this new research is a book published more than 50 years ago by the music theorist Leonard Meyer. Entitled Emotion and Meaning in Music, it offers an entire theory of musical meaning based on a close examination of things like the interrupted cadence. Meyer showed how this mechanism of "thwarted expectation" only works when we know the style. Faced with a piece of Korean pansori music, most of us can’t predict how it will unfold, so our pleasure in the music is drastically reduced.

Meyer had a subtle mind, but was writing in a different age, when intellectual fashions were different. I wonder how many of these neuroscientists have even heard of him? What bothers me about these research projects is the disparity between their musical and scientific aspects. The technology of brain-scanning and the clever experimental set-ups are so awe-inspiring we tend not to notice that musically speaking, these projects are pretty crude.

What we need is a proper dialogue between musicians and scientists; then we might learn something really profound. Cool

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/9989446/Why-your-brain-loves-music.html
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PostPosted: 14-04-2013 22:05    Post subject: Reply with quote

And this iPlayer piece is along the same lines:

6 Degrees of...
- 2. Calculation


Dr Marcus de Sautoy explains how songwriting cannot exist without maths and Blur's Dave Rowntree explains how radio waves are actually magic in action.

Miranda Sawyer presents a new four part series on BBC 6Music on the gloriously inextricable links between music and emotion. Each show in Six Degrees Of. is built around a connecting musical sentiment or theme - Separation, Calculation, Trepidation, Jubilation - and features an eclectic variety of songs as well as revealing discussions around the emotional refrain.

The well-informed 6Music listeners have sent in their suggestions of suitable tracks for each show: from Beck to Bach, from Lee Dorsey to Laura Marling. And Sawyer unpicks the theme through interviews with fascinating song-writers and cultural figures.

In Calculation, mathematician Marcus de Sautoy explains how song-writing cannot exist without maths, and Blur's Dave Rowntree talks about how radio waves are actually magic in action. Other contributors include Raspberry Pi creator Eben Upton and composer Mira Calix. Sawyer, a recent recipient of the Record of the Day award for Outstanding Contribution to Music Journalism, weaves her own observations in and around the connecting theme. And with the final track, she connects into the next show!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01rxzln/6_Degrees_of..._Calculation/

Available until
12:00AM Thu, 1 Jan 2099 Shocked
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PostPosted: 22-04-2013 07:19    Post subject: Reply with quote

This long article gets to the nitty-gritty of the topics discussed on this thread:

The Serpent's Promise by Steve Jones: exlusive extract
In his new book, Steve Jones puts the Bible under the scientific microscope. Here he asks whether religious transcendence might have a biological cause.
By Steve Jones
7:00AM BST 22 Apr 2013

In 1962, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School tried to find the roots of religious mystical experience. In the Marsh Chapel, just before the Good Friday service, he divided a group of students into two. Half drank a shot of vitamin B3 and the rest swallowed psilocybin – the drug found in magic mushrooms. The Marsh Chapel event changed lives. Many of those who had taken the drug said their moral insights had been transformed. Almost all felt a new sense of unity, transcendence and sacredness – each an attribute associated with the deepest consolations of prayer.

Devotees insist that when they put their trust in a higher power they ascend into a universe of thought denied to sceptics. They may be right; but similar sensations can emerge from physical changes in body and brain.

The philosopher William James, a committed Christian, dismissed all attempts to understand mystical insights with an appeal to pathology. “Medical materialism”, as he called it, was trivial: it “finishes up St Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out St Teresa as an hysteric, St Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate.” Biology was not the right tool with which to explore devotion.

Despite James’s dismissal of a physical basis for spiritual experience, he had himself experimented with the effects of chemistry on the mental universe. James sampled nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas”, and found it had a dramatic effect: “The keynote of the experience is the tremendously exciting sense of an intense metaphysical illumination. Truth lies open to the view in depth beneath depth of almost blinding evidence.” Like the students in the March Chapel, he wrote of the event as the strongest emotion he had ever had.

Science, in its banal fashion, makes it possible to study the mind in ways impossible in the days of James. The visions of saints, sinners, dreamers, drug users or anyone else can now be explored with technology. To do so may not give much insight into piety itself, but hints that at least some of its symptoms are side effects of the machinery of the nervous system. People are free to follow the voices in their heads, but they should realise that (as far as biology can tell) they have a material origin.

Some scientists suggest that the entire structure of conviction – from the visitations of spirits to the hope of the afterlife, and from the architecture of the Vatican to the music of Bach – emerges from artefacts of perception. The divine mysteries are no more than a sort of phosphorescence of the brain: an incidental of its normal (or abnormal) function. That organ – like all others – cannot always cope with what existence throws at it. Its mistakes and failures manifest themselves in many ways. Some are interpreted as illusions, others as psychiatric disorders, but yet others as messages from a higher plane.

Many people – atheists and believers alike – are indignant at the claim that their convictions are quirks of the nervous system. It is almost impossible to prove or disprove that idea. Even so, hallucination and even mental disorder do play a part in the histories of all creeds and to understand them might hint at what some of the varieties of religious experience may actually be.

As conjurors know, the brain is always ready to fool itself, often in remarkable ways. Someone who has lost a hand may be tormented by a “phantom limb”. Their nervous system refuses to accept that the structure has gone and interprets it as present, but stuck in a cramped position. Non-existent fingers dig into an imagined palm and patients face intense discomfort as they try, and fail, to unclench their fictional fist. Their distress is genuine. It shows that pain, like many other messages from the external world, is not always a true statement of reality. A simple optical trick works miracles. The patient hides his stump (which might be on the left) behind a mirror set at right angles in front of him. He looks into it and shifts the image of his clenched right hand until it appears to replace its absent partner. Then he commands both fists to open. His real hand obeys at once. The image in the mirror appears to do the same and the pain from the absent hand goes away. Cool

Sceptics often use such observations to mock what they see as the delusion that human actions are subject to the influence of a higher power. They boast that they at least act in a manner determined by their own free will. Their decisions – be they to make a cup of tea or to blaspheme against the Holy Ghost – are proudly made of their own volition. Such people deny the existence of an unconscious world. But brain science should give them, as much as their opponents, pause for thought.

Nobody chooses to breathe in and out, and nobody, sovereign as they might feel, can hold their breath for 15 minutes. The nervous system overrules their wishes and they are forced to gasp for breath. In fact, all actions, apparently voluntary or not, are preceded by brain activity outside the perception of those who make them. It then becomes almost impossible to separate the conscious from the unconscious mind, or to disconnect the inner senses from the apparent intervention of an external agent.

Students wired up to a scanner were asked to sit in front of a clock and, whenever they felt like it, flick up their hands and note the exact time they decided to do so. Easy enough, but about a second before they recorded each decision, a section of their grey matter had already burst into activity; the resolution to act had been made before the actor was aware of it.

etc...

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10003754/The-Serpents-Promise-by-Steve-Jones-exlusive-extract.html
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IamSundogOffline
The FTMB member previously known as Sundog
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PostPosted: 22-04-2013 17:16    Post subject: Reply with quote

Sometimes I have a hard time even understanding what this argument is about.

“Does consciousness really exist or is it an illusion?” What the hell does that question even mean?

A rainbow is an “illusion” in that it isn’t a physical object, but rainbows exist – we can see them , they can be photographed, we can measure their brightness and angular extent. A rainbow is a visual effect created by the properties of light and water and air.

The sky is blue even though we know it’s just refraction of sunlight in the atmosphere, and that there is no physical surface overhead that can be blue.

The U.S. Government exists, and has real effects in the real world, even though it consists of thousands of discreet agencies, offices, individuals, processes, policies, ideas, and even though I can’t point at any one person or thing and say “A-ha! This right here is the U.S. Government.”

Consciousness is an effect created by the aggregate action of lower level biological processes and sub-systems. So what? How does that mean it doesn’t exist?

Do I love my children, or is this nothing more than a built-in glandular reward system to ensure that I act to ensure the proliferation of my DNA?

Rationality and reductionism are great tools until they are taken to imbecilic extremes and misinterpreted as ultimate truth.
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rynner2Offline
What a Cad!
Joined: 13 Dec 2008
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PostPosted: 22-04-2013 18:42    Post subject: Reply with quote

IamSundog wrote:
Consciousness is an effect created by the aggregate action of lower level biological processes and sub-systems. So what? How does that mean it doesn’t exist?

I agree with most of what you say, but I don't follow the last part.

Who says consciousness doesn't exist?

I thought most people agree that consciousness exists, but there's debate about the actual nature (or maybe supernature..) of it!
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