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Posts Tagged ‘amygdala’

3rd 'I' v5

My current sequence of posts on subliminal influences makes it seem timely to republish this sequence that last saw the light two years ago.  I have changed the numbering from before. The posts are interwoven with the current sequence.

The title of this post suggests we are in for a painful operation. Don’t worry though. We can manage this one without anaesthetic.  For some, the technical terms and psycho-jargon in this post will be an anaesthetic in themselves in any case.

Though I find the model that Tart explains, based on his understanding of Georges Gurdjieff, has considerable appeal, I feel that it needs tweaking significantly in terms of the material aspects of body, emotional and intellectual brains and even more significant modification in terms of the spiritual dimension. This post is focusing on the brain aspect of things.

To tackle this I am unashamedly drawing upon the insights of  experts in the field of neuropsychology. What they say goes a long way to confirm Gurdjieff’s sense of how things are but modifies it significantly in my view.

The Biological Foundations of Emotion

ledoux

Joseph Ledoux – for source of image see link

When you start to examine the neurophysiology of feelings it gets quite hard to separate body from emotion as Gurdjieff seems to do, at least in Tart’s explanation of his ideas.  Most of what we term ’emotion’ is generated by brain centres that go back to our evolutionary origins and cannot really be separated from our body. It is easier to see them as ‘gut feelings’ rather than anything higher.

Take a classic text on this subject – Ledoux’s The Emotional Brain. He writes (pages 112-13):

. . . . modern researchers have gone into remote areas of the world to firmly establish with scientific methods that at least some emotions have fairly universal modes of expression, especially in the face. On the basis of this kind of evidence, the late Sylvan Tomkins proposed the existence of eight basic emotions: surprise, interest, joy, rage, fear, disgust, shame, and anguish. These are said to represent innate, patterned responses that are controlled by “hardwired” brain systems. . . . Paul Ekman has a shorter list, consisting of six basic emotions with universal and facial expression: surprise, happiness, anger, fear, disgust and sadness.

People such as Plutchik, he explains, have built on these basic emotions by suggesting they blend to make more complex emotions. It would complicate the picture unnecessarily to go into that in detail here. In any case the idea of more complex emotions being merely blends of more basic ones does nothing to weaken the case I am seeking to make.

The full picture of how sub-cortical brain structures trigger feelings that relate to our physical survival is too complex to go into here. The link that follows will give you a very brief overview if you are interested (The Emotional Centres of the Brain). What I want to do is provide enough information to support my contention that such structures exclusively generate our ‘gut’ feelings which are aimed largely at enabling us to survive long enough to reproduce and protect our offspring until they can do the same. Even if these are blended at higher levels of our brain it would be a mistake to see them as a likely source for impulses that would lead us to transcend our physical nature and tune into a more spiritual dimension.  For that we need to look elsewhere.

Very often if not always the amygdala is involved in all that is going on. Ledoux writes (page 168-69):

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning. It is where trigger stimuli do their triggering.

It is worth while taking a little time to see where some key survival emotions are triggered, even if we have to simplify a little for the sake of brevity. For us, as social beings, survival is not simply a question of reading our physical environment well: we need to be able to interpret our social world effectively also.

I quote at some length from my sources here with little modification, except abbreviating them. The brain structures referred to are all sub-cortical and ancient in evolutionary terms unless otherwise stated.

a. of Anger

Goleman

Daniel Goleman – for source of image see link

Daniel Goleman’s popular book Emotional Intelligence explains what goes on inside our brain and body when anger occurs, causing us to have a flood of angry emotions.  Goleman outlines research undertaken by Psychologist Dolf Zillman who has undertaken much research relating to anger and rage.  Zillman has found that the universal trigger for anger begins with a sense of endangerment to our lives or the lives of those close to us.  This does not necessarily mean physical endangerment, but also includes symbolic threats to self-esteem and dignity such as being verbally insulted, being patronised or put down, and the frustration that comes when we can’t complete a task or goal.

Upon the initial trigger, catecholamines are released by the limbic system (amygdala) which immediately put the body into a “fight or flight” mode – that is, preparing the body for some form of action.  Additionally, the trigger also makes the amygdala alert the nervous system to be ready for possible action. This effect lasts much longer than the initial surge of catecholamines, keeping the emotional brain on stand-by for potential arousal, should we need it, further down the line.  This is why people are often more easily annoyed or quick to anger if they have experienced an angry situation recently.

I recognise that Baumeister’s concept of the depletion of will power is also relevant here but I am seeking not to complicate the picture anymore than is necessary to make my basic point,

b. of Disgust

Wicker et al (Neuron, Vol. 40, 655–664, October 30, 2003) performed an fMRI study in which participants inhaled smells producing a strong feeling of disgust. The same participants watched video clips showing the facial expression of disgust. Observing such faces and feeling disgust activated the same sites in the anterior insula and to a lesser extent in the anterior cingulate cortex (see The Emotional Centres of the Brain for an explanation of some of these brain areas). Thus, just as observing hand actions activates the observer’s motor representation of that action, observing an emotion activates the neural representation of that emotion. This finding provides a unifying mechanism for understanding the behaviors of others.

As other important work indicates (follow the links from this post to the work of Chua and Hauser), disgust is an emotion at work in pogroms against out-groups where labelling them as cockroaches, as happened in Rwanda, makes killing them far easier. They are not only no longer human: they are also a disgusting pest that justifies extermination.

rwanda genocide tutsi skulls

Rwanda Genocide – Tutsi Skulls (for source of image see link)

c. of Shame

Petra Michl et al (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access published November 19, 2012: Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study) used a functional magnetic resonance imaging paradigm to look for emotion-specific differences in functional brain activity within a healthy German sample, using shame- and guilt-related stimuli and neutral stimuli. Activations were found for both of these emotions in the temporal lobe. Specific activations were found for shame in the frontal lobe (medial and inferior frontal gyrus), and for guilt in the amygdala and insula. These results, as well as those I haven’t quoted to avoid jargon shock, suggest that shame and guilt share some neural networks, as well as having individual areas of activation. It can be concluded that frontal, temporal and limbic areas play a prominent role in the generation of moral feelings.

This will prove an important consideration when we are looking at possible sources of spiritual understanding. The Bahá’í Writings suggest, in line with these findings, that conscience is not innate but conditioned.

See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 105, pp. 132–33)

d. of Fear

Building on the role of the amygdala, Ledoux explains further (page 174)

the remarkable fact is that at the level of behavior, defence against danger is achieved in many different ways in different species, yet the amygdala’s role is constant. It is this correspondence across species that no doubt allows diverse behaviours to achieve the same evolutionary function in different animals. This functional equivalence in neural correspondence applies to many vertebrate brains, including human brains. When it comes to detecting and responding to danger, the brain just hasn’t changed much. In some ways we are emotional lizards. I’m quite confident in telling you that studies of fear reactions in rats tell us a great deal about how fear mechanisms work in our brains as well.

350px-Spiny_Lizard_-_Houston_Zoo

Spiny Lizard (for source of image see link)

So what?

I may have loaded the dice of my argument rather by placing this quote at the end of the sequence, but I do think there is a case for saying that most of what we regard as our key emotions are reptilian in origin, not even mammalian.

This has all been a necessary but rather long-winded way of preparing the ground for my next post, which attempts to contend that the love spoken of in spiritual texts in not reducible to such feelings as we have looked at so far, anymore than the wisdom found there is the same as intellectual understanding.

So, in my view, even at this basic empirical level, Gurdjieff has separated what should be seen as essentially the same, i.e. the emotional and the body brains. Even more crucially, as we will see, he has possibly separated love from wisdom in hypothesising that there is both a higher emotional and a higher intellectual centre in the spiritual realm. Until next time, then, for those who are still awake!

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3rd 'I' v5

My recent sequence on the Three Brain Issue triggered an important question from someone who commented on the third post in that sequence: she asked “Could you add something here about what you feel that intuition actually is?” I hadn’t addressed that because a much earlier sequence had gone into the matter in some depth. I felt it was worth republishing it now in the hope it would be helpful.

The title of this post suggests we are in for a painful operation. Don’t worry though. We can manage this one without anaesthetic.  For some, the technical terms and psycho-jargon in this post will be an anaesthetic in themselves in any case.

Though I find the model that Tart explains, based on his understanding of Georges Gurdjieff, has considerable appeal, I feel that it needs tweaking significantly in terms of the material aspects of body, emotional and intellectual brains and even more significant modification in terms of the spiritual dimension. This post is focusing on the brain aspect of things.

To tackle this I am unashamedly drawing upon the insights of  experts in the field of neuropsychology. What they say goes a long way to confirm Gurdjieff’s sense of how things are but modifies it significantly in my view.

The Biological Foundations of Emotion

ledoux

Joseph Ledoux – for source of image see link

When you start to examine the neurophysiology of feelings it gets quite hard to separate body from emotion as Gurdjieff seems to do, at least in Tart’s explanation of his ideas.  Most of what we term ’emotion’ is generated by brain centres that go back to our evolutionary origins and cannot really be separated from our body. It is easier to see them as ‘gut feelings’ rather than anything higher.

Take a classic text on this subject – Ledoux’s The Emotional Brain. He writes (pages 112-13):

. . . . modern researchers have gone into remote areas of the world to firmly establish with scientific methods that at least some emotions have fairly universal modes of expression, especially in the face. On the basis of this kind of evidence, the late Sylvan Tomkins proposed the existence of eight basic emotions: surprise, interest, joy, rage, fear, disgust, shame, and anguish. These are said to represent innate, patterned responses that are controlled by “hardwired” brain systems. . . . Paul Ekman has a shorter list, consisting of six basic emotions with universal and facial expression: surprise, happiness, anger, fear, disgust and sadness.

People such as Plutchik, he explains, have built on these basic emotions by suggesting they blend to make more complex emotions. It would complicate the picture unnecessarily to go into that in detail here. In any case the idea of more complex emotions being merely blends of more basic ones does nothing to weaken the case I am seeking to make.

The full picture of how sub-cortical brain structures trigger feelings that relate to our physical survival is too complex to go into here. The link that follows will give you a very brief overview if you are interested (The Emotional Centres of the Brain). What I want to do is provide enough information to support my contention that such structures exclusively generate our ‘gut’ feelings which are aimed largely at enabling us to survive long enough to reproduce and protect our offspring until they can do the same. Even if these are blended at higher levels of our brain it would be a mistake to see them as a likely source for impulses that would lead us to transcend our physical nature and tune into a more spiritual dimension.  For that we need to look elsewhere.

Very often if not always the amygdala is involved in all that is going on. Ledoux writes (page 168-69):

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning. It is where trigger stimuli do their triggering.

It is worth while taking a little time to see where some key survival emotions are triggered, even if we have to simplify a little for the sake of brevity. For us, as social beings, survival is not simply a question of reading our physical environment well: we need to be able to interpret our social world effectively also.

I quote at some length from my sources here with little modification, except abbreviating them. The brain structures referred to are all sub-cortical and ancient in evolutionary terms unless otherwise stated.

a. of Anger

Goleman

Daniel Goleman – for source of image see link

Daniel Goleman’s popular book Emotional Intelligence explains what goes on inside our brain and body when anger occurs, causing us to have a flood of angry emotions.  Goleman outlines research undertaken by Psychologist Dolf Zillman who has undertaken much research relating to anger and rage.  Zillman has found that the universal trigger for anger begins with a sense of endangerment to our lives or the lives of those close to us.  This does not necessarily mean physical endangerment, but also includes symbolic threats to self-esteem and dignity such as being verbally insulted, being patronised or put down, and the frustration that comes when we can’t complete a task or goal.

Upon the initial trigger, catecholamines are released by the limbic system (amygdala) which immediately put the body into a “fight or flight” mode – that is, preparing the body for some form of action.  Additionally, the trigger also makes the amygdala alert the nervous system to be ready for possible action. This effect lasts much longer than the initial surge of catecholamines, keeping the emotional brain on stand-by for potential arousal, should we need it, further down the line.  This is why people are often more easily annoyed or quick to anger if they have experienced an angry situation recently.

I recognise that Baumeister’s concept of the depletion of will power is also relevant here but I am seeking not to complicate the picture anymore than is necessary to make my basic point,

b. of Disgust

Wicker et al (Neuron, Vol. 40, 655–664, October 30, 2003) performed an fMRI study in which participants inhaled smells producing a strong feeling of disgust. The same participants watched video clips showing the facial expression of disgust. Observing such faces and feeling disgust activated the same sites in the anterior insula and to a lesser extent in the anterior cingulate cortex (see The Emotional Centres of the Brain for an explanation of some of these brain areas). Thus, just as observing hand actions activates the observer’s motor representation of that action, observing an emotion activates the neural representation of that emotion. This finding provides a unifying mechanism for understanding the behaviors of others.

As other important work indicates (follow the links from this post to the work of Chua and Hauser), disgust is an emotion at work in pogroms against out-groups where labelling them as cockroaches, as happened in Rwanda, makes killing them far easier. They are not only no longer human: they are also a disgusting pest that justifies extermination.

rwanda genocide tutsi skulls

Rwanda Genocide – Tutsi Skulls (for source of image see link)

c. of Shame

Petra Michl et al (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access published November 19, 2012: Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study) used a functional magnetic resonance imaging paradigm to look for emotion-specific differences in functional brain activity within a healthy German sample, using shame- and guilt-related stimuli and neutral stimuli. Activations were found for both of these emotions in the temporal lobe. Specific activations were found for shame in the frontal lobe (medial and inferior frontal gyrus), and for guilt in the amygdala and insula. These results, as well as those I haven’t quoted to avoid jargon shock, suggest that shame and guilt share some neural networks, as well as having individual areas of activation. It can be concluded that frontal, temporal and limbic areas play a prominent role in the generation of moral feelings.

This will prove an important consideration when we are looking at possible sources of spiritual understanding. The Bahá’í Writings suggest, in line with these findings, that conscience is not innate but conditioned.

See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 105, pp. 132–33)

d. of Fear

Building on the role of the amygdala, Ledoux explains further (page 174)

the remarkable fact is that at the level of behavior, defence against danger is achieved in many different ways in different species, yet the amygdala’s role is constant. It is this correspondence across species that no doubt allows diverse behaviours to achieve the same evolutionary function in different animals. This functional equivalence in neural correspondence applies to many vertebrate brains, including human brains. When it comes to detecting and responding to danger, the brain just hasn’t changed much. In some ways we are emotional lizards. I’m quite confident in telling you that studies of fear reactions in rats tell us a great deal about how fear mechanisms work in our brains as well.

350px-Spiny_Lizard_-_Houston_Zoo

Spiny Lizard (for source of image see link)

So what?

I may have loaded the dice of my argument rather by placing this quote at the end of the sequence, but I do think there is a case for saying that most of what we regard as our key emotions are reptilian in origin, not even mammalian.

This has all been a necessary but rather long-winded way of preparing the ground for my next post, which attempts to contend that the love spoken of in spiritual texts in not reducible to such feelings as we have looked at so far, anymore than the wisdom found there is the same as intellectual understanding.

So, in my view, even at this basic empirical level, Gurdjieff has separated what should be seen as essentially the same, i.e. the emotional and the body brains. Even more crucially, as we will see, he has possibly separated love from wisdom in hypothesising that there is both a higher emotional and a higher intellectual centre in the spiritual realm. Until next time, then, for those who are still awake!

Read Full Post »

mind diagram material

See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 105, pp. 132–33)

Stumbling across Jon Ronson’s book – The Psychopath Test  triggered Monday’s post about psychopaths. To provide more background it seemed a good idea to share a handful of my previous posts on other aspects of this problem. The first was a single post yesterday reviewing Baron-Cohen’s excellent short book on the absence of empathy.  This is my post on Adrian Raine’s perspective. I will also reblog a review of a memoir of someone who endured the attentions of a psychopath at first hand.  

As time goes on my idea of what I think is happening in consciousness moves gradually more within the reach of speech. In my view, as modern humans in thrall to a materialistic ideology, we believe we live in a bubble largely mediated by the brain and to a considerable extent that is true. I’ve tried to model this idea in the diagram above: it’s not meant to replace the threshold model I’ve discussed elsewhere but rather to complement it. The threshold model represents an idea which was once more widely accepted in the West and needs to be again. The two ways of describing the situation are not incompatible. The threshold model allows for the fact that if you damage the brain as a receiver of transcendent wavelengths you end up locked into a very narrow range of signals, in some cases exclusively from the basest part of the spectrum.

Most brains most of the time for most of us have reasonably accurate access to our social and material environment. Transcendent reality is a no-brainer most of the time these days in the West, and I don’t mean that in the usual sense of the term.

Where’s the harm in that?

If my understanding of people and things keeps me safe and does no harm to anyone else, what’s the problem?

Well, for a start, it’s very rare for anyone’s brain to work that well all the time.  Our brains are far from perfect. The messages our brains convey to our minds are mucked up one way or another far too often for our comfort. Many of the ways this happens are relatively harmless and are dealt with in books such as those by Chris Frith – Making Up the Mind –  and Kahneman – Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow I have touched on the latter in an earlier post.

Sometimes though, as a result of these distortions, we harm ourselves and others all too frequently.

A good place to start examining some of the ways the brain can be shaped to warp our understanding in dangerous ways is Adrian Raine‘s overview of the roots of crime in his book The Anatomy of Violence. He’s no believer in transcendence: he dismisses Descartes, for example, saying with confident incredulity, that he thought the brain ‘was an antenna for the spirit to communicate with the body’ (page 65). He’s also radically sceptical about the idea of free will, and regards it as an illusion (page 315): ‘You did not choose to read this book. Your brain made you do it.’

Nonetheless, you’d have to go a long way to find a better analysis of the ways that the physical and the social can interact to create a dangerous brain. And he bravely goes out a long way onto a tapering branch in a thoroughly justified effort to bring the taboo topic of biology back into the frame of reference for any discussion of the origins of crime and violence.

It will be impossible for me to do full justice to his position in such a short space as this, so I do not propose to dwell on what are for me some of the weaker sections of the book but they have to be mentioned. The book has the structure of a sandwich.

The first part advocates an unqualified evolutionary perspective on the reasons why men are the main perpetrators of violence in our society. The data he uses certainly support this gender bias unequivocally. Evolution has clearly played its part. Most of what he adduces by way of a supposedly complete explanation is a plausible myth for which, by definition, there can be little if any evidence.

The last part explores, depending on your perspective, either a utopian or a dystopian view of our future ability to reduce crime, for example, by only allowing those with a licence to have children and by placing in secure but reasonably pleasant environments those whom our much improved testing methods have defined as almost certain to commit serious harm in the future. It’s a brave presentation of possibilities, but not to everyone’s taste perhaps – we’re in the land of the Minority Report almost.

There is more to his thesis than that though. There is the wholesome protein of well-supported analysis between these two slices of white bread.

Dennis Rader

Dennis Rader

My interest in this aspect of the mind-brain relationship has always been there, hence for example my post on Baron-Cohen’s book – Zero Degrees of Empathy. This interest was recently reactivated by the above-average crime drama on BBC – The Fall. There we see the activities of a serial killer whose identity we know right from the start. The story line was based on the murders of Dennis Rader so it was well-grounded in the real world and a fascinating depiction of how a man can execute a series of murders while at the same time appearing to be an ordinary family man.

This motivated me to get past the off-putting opening section of Raine’s book and reach the fascinating core of his analysis. Raine acknowledges from the outset that social and biological influences interact (page 9):

I want to stress that social factors are critical both in interacting with biological forces in causing crime, and in directly producing the biological changes that predispose a person to violence.

His Core Position

To summarise his strongest thesis brutally, he illustrates in compelling detail how impairments in various parts of the brain, which would usually result either from genetic imperfections and/or from pre-, peri- or post-natal insult or deprivation, though later injuries play a definite part, are compounded when attachment problems occur in infancy and early childhood. The damage that can occur to the developing brain is often preventable as in the case of the harm which is caused by alcohol, tobacco and drug usage. Sometimes, tragically, it is not preventable even though it should be, as in the case of post-war starvation conditions during pregnancy. It’s effects can be passed down the generations by means of the epigenetic effects – ie when our environment works to switch genes on or off.

Once the damage is done it is hard if not impossible to remedy when the person whose brain is impaired is unwilling to invest any effort in the process. Willingness to invest effort suggests that there are ways of repairing the brain even of a possible psychopath. I think the will to do so comes from the mind which is independent of the brain but requires an intact brain to operate: Raine, of course, would feel the drive to mend your brain comes from the brain itself.

deficits

To simplify somewhat, the focus of much of what he writes concerns defects in conscience, emotional conditioning and the organisation of one’s behaviour.

Conscience

In terms of conscience and conditioning the limbic system plays a key role (page 90):

Josh Greene, an amazing philosopher and neuroscientist at Harvard, published the first study to describe what happens at a neural level during personal moral dilemmas. . . . Compared to more “impersonal” moral dilemmas that do not bring you face-to-face with someone else, your brain shows increased activation in a circuit that comprises the medial prefrontal cortex, the angular gyrus, the posterior cingulate, and the amygdala. . . . . This is where that amygdala and other limbic activation comes in, contributing to the emotional “conscience” component of moral decision-making alongside some subregions of the prefrontal cortex.

It appears to account for the lack of conscience in a psychopath (page 115):

We can think of a conscience as essentially a set of classically conditioned emotional responses. . . . Because of this lack of fear conditioning, psychopaths lack a fully developed conscience. And it is that lack of conscience—a sense of what is right and what is wrong—that makes them who they are.

Two Types of Psychopath

The kind of thing that makes this book such an invaluable read is that Raine does not stop there. He looks at evidence that draws a distinction between two types of psychopath (page 124):

The unsuccessful psychopaths also show what we would expect based on prior research with institutionalized psychopaths, a blunted autonomic stress response—only small increases in sweat rate and heart rate from the resting baseline. The successful psychopaths, in sharp contrast to their unsuccessful counterparts, show significant increases in heart rate and skin conductance relative to their resting state. Essentially there is no difference between the successful psychopaths and the normal controls.

He is all too aware that this then raises another crucial question (page 128):

But if the successful psychopath does not have the autonomic impairments that haunt failed psychopaths, what made him psychopathic in the first place?

And as you would expect from such a thorough study, he has an answer (page 128):

The successful [psychopaths’ pulse rate is] six beats per minute slower than the control group, and slightly below the level of the unsuccessful psychopaths. So, successful psychopaths have the low resting cardiovascular arousal that we argued earlier may result in stimulation-seeking, a cardinal feature of the psychopath.

As if that was not complicated enough, he throws another ingredient into the mix (ibid.):

. . . . .the successful psychopaths evidenced a psychosocial impairment not shown by the other two groups—being raised by people other than their natural parents or being brought up in a foster home or other institution. Parental absence and a lack of bonding may have helped shape the lack of close social connectedness and the superficiality that typifies psychopathic relationships.

Clearly then, brain abnormalities interact with environmental influences so we are not looking at a simplistically biological model here.

Learning from Mistakes

A different area of the brain comes into play when we look at impulse control and the organisation of behaviour (page 138):

Those with a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder—lifelong persistent antisocial behavior—had an 11 percent reduction in the volume of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. . .

He goes on to explain why this matters (page 141):

 The ventral prefrontal cortex . . . .  connects to the limbic system and other brain areas to generate appropriate emotional responses within a social context, measured here by a sweat response. . . . Second, at a cognitive level, such neurological patients make bad decisions.

What is even more interesting is that such deficits impair the linkage with emotional learning in such a way that people do not get warning bells ringing in their heads when they enter situations which past experience has demonstrated to them are potentially dangerous. They never made the connection so they repeat the mistake. In a card choice experiment which required the participants to learn to discriminate between a high-reward high-risk deck with low longterm returns from a low-risk low-reward deck with high longterm returns, guess what? There were no alarm bells ringing in the lesion patients’ heads (page 142) ‘so they continue to pick cards from the bad decks.’

Only Simulations to go on

This is a very small sample of evidence from a book which is 453 pages long. While the incidence of extreme consequences such as murder and rape as a result of brain impairment is relatively low, the prevalence of distorted perceptions of personal and practical reality as a result of milder deficits in the brain are far more widespread. What is even more unsettling is that even the normal brain cannot be relied on to deliver completely accurate estimates of what is really going on outside our heads. I’ve explored that elsewhere so I won’t bang on about it again here. I simply wanted to do a bit more to dispel the complacency with which we all assume we know what’s real and what’s not, what’s good and what’s bad.

Unfortunately, all we have is a relatively useful approximation of reality to go on, and we have to be prepared for it to sometimes let us down quite badly.

So, is there anything we can rely on more securely? Is there anyway our consciousness can reliably access a trustworthy simulation of a more viable reality? That’s something I hope to return to in due course when I might be able to speak to the possibility, even probability, of a model more like the one below.

mind diagram with transcend

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3rd 'I' v5

The title of this post suggests we are in for a painful operation. Don’t worry though. We can manage this one without anaesthetic.  For some, the technical terms and psycho-jargon in this post will be an anaesthetic in themselves in any case.

Though I find the model that Tart explains, based on his understanding of Georges Gurdjieff, has considerable appeal, I feel that it needs tweaking significantly in terms of the material aspects of body, emotional and intellectual brains and even more significant modification in terms of the spiritual dimension. This post is focusing on the brain aspect of things.

To tackle this I am unashamedly drawing upon the insights of  experts in the field of neuropsychology. What they say goes a long way to confirm Gurdjieff’s sense of how things are but modifies it significantly in my view.

The Biological Foundations of Emotion

ledoux

Joseph Ledoux – for source of image see link

When you start to examine the neurophysiology of feelings it gets quite hard to separate body from emotion as Gurdjieff seems to do, at least in Tart’s explanation of his ideas.  Most of what we term ’emotion’ is generated by brain centres that go back to our evolutionary origins and cannot really be separated from our body. It is easier to see them as ‘gut feelings’ rather than anything higher.

Take a classic text on this subject – Ledoux’s The Emotional Brain. He writes (pages 112-13):

. . . . modern researchers have gone into remote areas of the world to firmly establish with scientific methods that at least some emotions have fairly universal modes of expression, especially in the face. On the basis of this kind of evidence, the late Sylvan Tomkins proposed the existence of eight basic emotions: surprise, interest, joy, rage, fear, disgust, shame, and anguish. These are said to represent innate, patterned responses that are controlled by “hardwired” brain systems. . . . Paul Ekman has a shorter list, consisting of six basic emotions with universal and facial expression: surprise, happiness, anger, fear, disgust and sadness.

People such as Plutchik, he explains, have built on these basic emotions by suggesting they blend to make more complex emotions. It would complicate the picture unnecessarily to go into that in detail here. In any case the idea of more complex emotions being merely blends of more basic ones does nothing to weaken the case I am seeking to make.

The full picture of how sub-cortical brain structures trigger feelings that relate to our physical survival is too complex to go into here. The link that follows will give you a very brief overview if you are interested (The Emotional Centres of the Brain). What I want to do is provide enough information to support my contention that such structures exclusively generate our ‘gut’ feelings which are aimed largely at enabling us to survive long enough to reproduce and protect our offspring until they can do the same. Even if these are blended at higher levels of our brain it would be a mistake to see them as a likely source for impulses that would lead us to transcend our physical nature and tune into a more spiritual dimension.  For that we need to look elsewhere.

Very often if not always the amygdala is involved in all that is going on. Ledoux writes (page 168-69):

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning. It is where trigger stimuli do their triggering.

It is worth while taking a little time to see where some key survival emotions are triggered, even if we have to simplify a little for the sake of brevity. For us, as social beings, survival is not simply a question of reading our physical environment well: we need to be able to interpret our social world effectively also.

I quote at some length from my sources here with little modification, except abbreviating them. The brain structures referred to are all sub-cortical and ancient in evolutionary terms unless otherwise stated.

a. of Anger

Goleman

Daniel Goleman – for source of image see link

Daniel Goleman’s popular book Emotional Intelligence explains what goes on inside our brain and body when anger occurs, causing us to have a flood of angry emotions.  Goleman outlines research undertaken by Psychologist Dolf Zillman who has undertaken much research relating to anger and rage.  Zillman has found that the universal trigger for anger begins with a sense of endangerment to our lives or the lives of those close to us.  This does not necessarily mean physical endangerment, but also includes symbolic threats to self-esteem and dignity such as being verbally insulted, being patronised or put down, and the frustration that comes when we can’t complete a task or goal.

Upon the initial trigger, catecholamines are released by the limbic system (amygdala) which immediately put the body into a “fight or flight” mode – that is, preparing the body for some form of action.  Additionally, the trigger also makes the amygdala alert the nervous system to be ready for possible action. This effect lasts much longer than the initial surge of catecholamines, keeping the emotional brain on stand-by for potential arousal, should we need it, further down the line.  This is why people are often more easily annoyed or quick to anger if they have experienced an angry situation recently.

I recognise that Baumeister’s concept of the depletion of will power is also relevant here but I am seeking not to complicate the picture anymore than is necessary to make my basic point,

b. of Disgust

Wicker et al (Neuron, Vol. 40, 655–664, October 30, 2003) performed an fMRI study in which participants inhaled smells producing a strong feeling of disgust. The same participants watched video clips showing the facial expression of disgust. Observing such faces and feeling disgust activated the same sites in the anterior insula and to a lesser extent in the anterior cingulate cortex (see The Emotional Centres of the Brain for an explanation of some of these brain areas). Thus, just as observing hand actions activates the observer’s motor representation of that action, observing an emotion activates the neural representation of that emotion. This finding provides a unifying mechanism for understanding the behaviors of others.

As other important work indicates (follow the links from this post to the work of Chua and Hauser), disgust is an emotion at work in pogroms against out-groups where labelling them as cockroaches, as happened in Rwanda, makes killing them far easier. They are not only no longer human: they are also a disgusting pest that justifies extermination.

rwanda genocide tutsi skulls

Rwanda Genocide – Tutsi Skulls (for source of image see link)

c. of Shame

Petra Michl et al (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access published November 19, 2012: Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study) used a functional magnetic resonance imaging paradigm to look for emotion-specific differences in functional brain activity within a healthy German sample, using shame- and guilt-related stimuli and neutral stimuli. Activations were found for both of these emotions in the temporal lobe. Specific activations were found for shame in the frontal lobe (medial and inferior frontal gyrus), and for guilt in the amygdala and insula. These results, as well as those I haven’t quoted to avoid jargon shock, suggest that shame and guilt share some neural networks, as well as having individual areas of activation. It can be concluded that frontal, temporal and limbic areas play a prominent role in the generation of moral feelings.

This will prove an important consideration when we are looking at possible sources of spiritual understanding. The Bahá’í Writings suggest, in line with these findings, that conscience is not innate but conditioned.

See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 105, pp. 132–33)

d. of Fear

Building on the role of the amygdala, Ledoux explains further (page 174)

the remarkable fact is that at the level of behavior, defence against danger is achieved in many different ways in different species, yet the amygdala’s role is constant. It is this correspondence across species that no doubt allows diverse behaviours to achieve the same evolutionary function in different animals. This functional equivalence in neural correspondence applies to many vertebrate brains, including human brains. When it comes to detecting and responding to danger, the brain just hasn’t changed much. In some ways we are emotional lizards. I’m quite confident in telling you that studies of fear reactions in rats tell us a great deal about how fear mechanisms work in our brains as well.

350px-Spiny_Lizard_-_Houston_Zoo

Spiny Lizard (for source of image see link)

So what?

I may have loaded the dice of my argument rather by placing this quote at the end of the sequence, but I do think there is a case for saying that most of what we regard as our key emotions are reptilian in origin, not even mammalian.

This has all been a necessary but rather long-winded way of preparing the ground for my next post, which attempts to contend that the love spoken of in spiritual texts in not reducible to such feelings as we have looked at so far, anymore than the wisdom found there is the same as intellectual understanding.

So, in my view, even at this basic empirical level, Gurdjieff has separated what should be seen as essentially the same, i.e. the emotional and the body brains. Even more crucially, as we will see, he has possibly separated love from wisdom in hypothesising that there is both a higher emotional and a higher intellectual centre in the spiritual realm. Until next time, then, for those who are still awake!

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mind diagram material

See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 105, pp. 132–33)

As time goes on my idea of what I think is happening in consciousness moves gradually more within the reach of speech. In my view, as modern humans in thrall to a materialistic ideology, we believe we live in a bubble largely mediated by the brain and to a considerable extent that is true. I’ve tried to model this idea in the diagram above: it’s not meant to replace the threshold model I’ve discussed elsewhere but rather to complement it. The threshold model represents an idea which was once more widely accepted in the West and needs to be again. The two ways of describing the situation are not incompatible. The threshold model allows for the fact that if you damage the brain as a receiver of transcendent wavelengths you end up locked into a very narrow range of signals, in some cases exclusively from the basest part of the spectrum.

Most brains most of the time for most of us have reasonably accurate access to our social and material environment. Transcendent reality is a no-brainer most of the time these days in the West, and I don’t mean that in the usual sense of the term.

Where’s the harm in that?

If my understanding of people and things keeps me safe and does no harm to anyone else, what’s the problem?

Well, for a start, it’s very rare for anyone’s brain to work that well all the time.  Our brains are far from perfect. The messages our brains convey to our minds are mucked up one way or another far too often for our comfort. Many of the ways this happens are relatively harmless and are dealt with in books such as those by Chris Frith – Making Up the Mind –  and Kahneman – Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow I have touched on the latter in an earlier post.

Sometimes though, as a result of these distortions, we harm ourselves and others all too frequently.

A good place to start examining some of the ways the brain can be shaped to warp our understanding in dangerous ways is Adrian Raine‘s overview of the roots of crime in his book The Anatomy of Violence. He’s no believer in transcendence: he dismisses Descartes, for example, saying with confident incredulity, that he thought the brain ‘was an antenna for the spirit to communicate with the body’ (page 65). He’s also radically sceptical about the idea of free will, and regards it as an illusion (page 315): ‘You did not choose to read this book. Your brain made you do it.’

Nonetheless, you’d have to go a long way to find a better analysis of the ways that the physical and the social can interact to create a dangerous brain. And he bravely goes out a long way onto a tapering branch in a thoroughly justified effort to bring the taboo topic of biology back into the frame of reference for any discussion of the origins of crime and violence.

It will be impossible for me to do full justice to his position in such a short space as this, so I do not propose to dwell on what are for me some of the weaker sections of the book but they have to be mentioned. The book has the structure of a sandwich.

The first part advocates an unqualified evolutionary perspective on the reasons why men are the main perpetrators of violence in our society. The data he uses certainly support this gender bias unequivocally. Evolution has clearly played its part. Most of what he adduces by way of a supposedly complete explanation is a plausible myth for which, by definition, there can be little if any evidence.

The last part explores, depending on your perspective, either a utopian or a dystopian view of our future ability to reduce crime, for example, by only allowing those with a licence to have children and by placing in secure but reasonably pleasant environments those whom our much improved testing methods have defined as almost certain to commit serious harm in the future. It’s a brave presentation of possibilities, but not to everyone’s taste perhaps – we’re in the land of the Minority Report almost.

There is more to his thesis than that though. There is the wholesome protein of well-supported analysis between these two slices of white bread.

Dennis Rader

Dennis Rader

My interest in this aspect of the mind-brain relationship has always been there, hence for example my post on Baron-Cohen’s book – Zero Degrees of Empathy. This interest was recently reactivated by the above-average crime drama on BBC – The Fall. There we see the activities of a serial killer whose identity we know right from the start. The story line was based on the murders of Dennis Rader so it was well-grounded in the real world and a fascinating depiction of how a man can execute a series of murders while at the same time appearing to be an ordinary family man.

This motivated me to get past the off-putting opening section of Raine’s book and reach the fascinating core of his analysis. Raine acknowledges from the outset that social and biological influences interact (page 9):

I want to stress that social factors are critical both in interacting with biological forces in causing crime, and in directly producing the biological changes that predispose a person to violence.

His Core Position

To summarise his strongest thesis brutally, he illustrates in compelling detail how impairments in various parts of the brain, which would usually result either from genetic imperfections and/or from pre-, peri- or post-natal insult or deprivation, though later injuries play a definite part, are compounded when attachment problems occur in infancy and early childhood. The damage that can occur to the developing brain is often preventable as in the case of the harm which is caused by alcohol, tobacco and drug usage. Sometimes, tragically, it is not preventable even though it should be, as in the case of post-war starvation conditions during pregnancy. It’s effects can be passed down the generations by means of the epigenetic effects – ie when our environment works to switch genes on or off.

Once the damage is done it is hard if not impossible to remedy when the person whose brain is impaired is unwilling to invest any effort in the process. Willingness to invest effort suggests that there are ways of repairing the brain even of a possible psychopath. I think the will to do so comes from the mind which is independent of the brain but requires an intact brain to operate: Raine, of course, would feel the drive to mend your brain comes from the brain itself.

deficits

To simplify somewhat, the focus of much of what he writes concerns defects in conscience, emotional conditioning and the organisation of one’s behaviour.

Conscience

In terms of conscience and conditioning the limbic system plays a key role (page 90):

Josh Greene, an amazing philosopher and neuroscientist at Harvard, published the first study to describe what happens at a neural level during personal moral dilemmas. . . . Compared to more “impersonal” moral dilemmas that do not bring you face-to-face with someone else, your brain shows increased activation in a circuit that comprises the medial prefrontal cortex, the angular gyrus, the posterior cingulate, and the amygdala. . . . . This is where that amygdala and other limbic activation comes in, contributing to the emotional “conscience” component of moral decision-making alongside some subregions of the prefrontal cortex.

It appears to account for the lack of conscience in a psychopath (page 115):

We can think of a conscience as essentially a set of classically conditioned emotional responses. . . . Because of this lack of fear conditioning, psychopaths lack a fully developed conscience. And it is that lack of conscience—a sense of what is right and what is wrong—that makes them who they are.

Two Types of Psychopath

The kind of thing that makes this book such an invaluable read is that Raine does not stop there. He looks at evidence that draws a distinction between two types of psychopath (page 124):

The unsuccessful psychopaths also show what we would expect based on prior research with institutionalized psychopaths, a blunted autonomic stress response—only small increases in sweat rate and heart rate from the resting baseline. The successful psychopaths, in sharp contrast to their unsuccessful counterparts, show significant increases in heart rate and skin conductance relative to their resting state. Essentially there is no difference between the successful psychopaths and the normal controls.

He is all too aware that this then raises another crucial question (page 128):

But if the successful psychopath does not have the autonomic impairments that haunt failed psychopaths, what made him psychopathic in the first place?

And as you would expect from such a thorough study, he has an answer (page 128):

The successful [psychopaths’ pulse rate is] six beats per minute slower than the control group, and slightly below the level of the unsuccessful psychopaths. So, successful psychopaths have the low resting cardiovascular arousal that we argued earlier may result in stimulation-seeking, a cardinal feature of the psychopath.

As if that was not complicated enough, he throws another ingredient into the mix (ibid.):

. . . . .the successful psychopaths evidenced a psychosocial impairment not shown by the other two groups—being raised by people other than their natural parents or being brought up in a foster home or other institution. Parental absence and a lack of bonding may have helped shape the lack of close social connectedness and the superficiality that typifies psychopathic relationships.

Clearly then, brain abnormalities interact with environmental influences so we are not looking at a simplistically biological model here.

Learning from Mistakes

A different area of the brain comes into play when we look at impulse control and the organisation of behaviour (page 138):

Those with a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder—lifelong persistent antisocial behavior—had an 11 percent reduction in the volume of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. . .

He goes on to explain why this matters (page 141):

 The ventral prefrontal cortex . . . .  connects to the limbic system and other brain areas to generate appropriate emotional responses within a social context, measured here by a sweat response. . . . Second, at a cognitive level, such neurological patients make bad decisions.

What is even more interesting is that such deficits impair the linkage with emotional learning in such a way that people do not get warning bells ringing in their heads when they enter situations which past experience has demonstrated to them are potentially dangerous. They never made the connection so they repeat the mistake. In a card choice experiment which required the participants to learn to discriminate between a high-reward high-risk deck with low longterm returns from a low-risk low-reward deck with high longterm returns, guess what? There were no alarm bells ringing in the lesion patients’ heads (page 142) ‘so they continue to pick cards from the bad decks.’

Only Simulations to go on

This is a very small sample of evidence from a book which is 453 pages long. While the incidence of extreme consequences such as murder and rape as a result of brain impairment is relatively low, the prevalence of distorted perceptions of personal and practical reality as a result of milder deficits in the brain are far more widespread. What is even more unsettling is that even the normal brain cannot be relied on to deliver completely accurate estimates of what is really going on outside our heads. I’ve explored that elsewhere so I won’t bang on about it again here. I simply wanted to do a bit more to dispel the complacency with which we all assume we know what’s real and what’s not, what’s good and what’s bad.

Unfortunately, all we have is a relatively useful approximation of reality to go on, and we have to be prepared for it to sometimes let us down quite badly.

So, is there anything we can rely on more securely? Is there anyway our consciousness can reliably access a trustworthy simulation of a more viable reality? That’s something I hope to return to in due course when I might be able to speak to the possibility, even probability, of a model more like the one below.

mind diagram with transcend

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