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The Love Hormone

Just some quotes from the NeuroLogica blog. I have nothing to add other than to say that the existence of oxytocin is yet another strike against both psi and religion. The latter of the two thinking that explaining and expounding on love is only within their purview.

As you cuddle with your mate your brain receives a comforting surge of oxytocin, reinforcing your feelings of attachment. More intimacy gives your pleasure centers a shot of dopamine, strongly reinforcing the behavior. Your brain becomes increasingly bathed in dopamine, serotonin, and other hormones and neurotransmitters, resulting in a suite of physiological and behavioral responses evolved to maximize the probability of inserting your genes into the next generation.

And…

The scientific view of love and romance can seem anything but romantic, and we can’t even let you have the scientific explanation without pointing out our current uncertainty and the need for more research. The fact is – love and romance are biological/neurological phenomena. They are being studied and we are slowly building a reductionist picture of exactly how and why we feel and act the way we do.

This view, however, is not incompatible with romance. It is a rationalist romantic view. Understanding biology is not inconsistent with embracing and even reveling in the human condition. Feelings of love and attraction are not diminished at all by an understanding of the possible evolutionary advantages of those feelings, or the underlying brain chemistry, any more then they are enhanced by ascribing those feeling to fate or magic.

Understanding the biology of love, rather, can be empowering. Sometimes we make decisions that are not in our best interest because we are in the grip of neurotransmitters and evolutionary signals of which we are not consciously aware. Thinking that those feelings are due to some magical design of the universe or something akin to fate, or to forces outside of your control, are convenient justifications for giving in to feelings that may be leading you to bad decisions. It’s helpful to understand that evolution does not need you to be happy, just prolific.

Wikipedia:

Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin’s role in various behaviors, including orgasm, social recognition, pair bonding, anxiety, and maternal behaviors. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone”. The inability to secrete oxytocin and feel empathy is linked to sociopathy, psychopathy, narcissism and general manipulativeness.

If human beings or love were fundamentally supernatural, then the dearth of oxytocin should not be linked with sociopathy. While correlation does not necessitate causation, we should also be weary of multiplying hypotheses unnecessarily; especially hypotheses that have a piss poor record of explanation.

In closing:

“What? Rainbows are caused by refracted sunlight and not magical pixie dust? This means rainbows no longer have any value”

(H/t Tim).

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2012 in cognitive science, psi

 

Morality In The Brain

In a nod to evidence against psi, different sections of the brain need oxygen when deciding between rules-based moral decisions and cost-benefit moral decisions.

Those values that people refused to sell out were considered to be sacred. The participants then went back to the brain scans. It turned out that the values later shown to be sacred were the ones that activated two particular brain regions: the left temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. The TPJ is the point where the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain meet on the side of the head, while the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is on the underside of the frontal lobe. Both of these areas are associated with rule retrieval and beliefs about right and wrong.

“When people engage sacred values in their thought processes, they are by and large using rule-based systems in their heads,” Berns said. “They’re not using cost-benefit calculations.”

This makes sense, given how inefficient it would be to weigh the pros and cons of every moral decision, he said.

Think of blood flow to certain parts of the brain as being the electrical system in your house. In order to use the microwave in the kitchen, power gets diverted to the area down there in order to use the microwave. Then, if you turn on the space heater in your bedroom upstairs, that’s where electricity gets sent to to allow the space heater to run.

Almost no one considered a preference for coffee over tea to be sacred; likewise, pretty much everyone held that sexually assaulting a child is horribly wrong. But there are plenty of values that fall into gray areas. Some people held their belief in God or the belief that abortion is wrong as sacred values. Others held the opposite viewpoints as just as sacred, or just didn’t feel that strongly either way.

And…

Interestingly, the people who tended to hold their sacred values most strongly, those with the biggest brain response differences between sacred- and non-sacred processing, also tended to be those who participated in the most group activities, Berns said. The groups could be anything from religious organizations to sports teams to professional societies, he said. The researchers are now continuing studies to find out how group conformity might play a role in sacred values.

Cool stuff.

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2012 in cognitive science, psi

 

The Red Flags Of Quackery

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2012 in Funny, psi

 

An Analogy For the Progression of Science

A while back I was having a conversation with someone who professed to work with undead spirits and the supernatural. As you know, I don't think that appealing to the supernatural is a good explanation for whatever phenomenon we are attempting to describe. As a matter of fact, from a Bayesian point of view, it's much more likely that a naturalistic explanation that has an intrinsically higher prior probability, that can also explain the phenomena, is the better candidate for explanation.
 
I didn't actually get into a full-blown arguement with this person, I just sort of asked some Socratic-dialog like questions to see if she could quell my skepticism. One of the things I asked was how it was that these ghosts and other supernatural beings intake useful energy and release non-useful energy. She didn't seem to understand what I was asking, so I used a car and the human body as an example. Gasoline/food goes in, heat/methane/CO2 goes out. She simply asserted that supernatural beings consume "electromagnetic energy". This was an obvious attempt at using the literary genre of science to make it sound like she was doing actual science, but I obviously saw through that (i.e. I asked "what do you mean by that?" but she couldn't answer, since there are multiple types of E-M radiation).
 
What she then said was that science was wrong in the past, so it will probably be wrong in the future, and used the shift from a geocentric view of the universe to a heliocentric view of the universe as an example. "Laws of physics" she said, "were completely overwritten in the past, so they will be overwritten in the future". Therefore, she will be vindicated in some future physics that will show that her beliefs were always compatible with science. I actually do think that will happen, but not from the physical sciences. The part of science that will shed light on why she believes what she does will probably come up in neurology and psychology, or other areas of cognitive science, not from the physical sciences. Well, that part is already available, it's just that this scientific knowledge hasn't become common knowledge. Yet.
 
Anyway, if I had been thinking faster, I would have corrected her misrepresentation of the progression of science with the analogy I'm about to write. But all I could say was that previous theories were never really overturned, it was just that newer theories were less wrong than previous ones.
 
So yeah, here is the analogy: Imagine you live in an apartment building Harlem and you attempt to draw a map of all of New York City. Let's say you've never been outside of the block that your apartment building is on. This map might be accurate for say, your immediate neighborhood, but it won't be accurate for all of NYC. Let's say, then, that you decide to walk a 10 block radius around your apartment. Again, this map might be more accurate than your previous map; it will be accurate for the 10 block radius around your apartment and a bit beyond, but it still won't be accurate for all of NYC. Next, let's say that eventually, you decide to walk all around Manhattan island and then attempt another map of NYC. Again, this map will be more accurate than your previous maps, but it won't be accurate for the entirety of NYC.
 
Each update to this map, as you explore more and more of NYC with your own eyes, will be more accurate than your previous maps until you've been to all of NYC. Moreover, you will be able to see the logical evolution of these maps and why the previous maps got what they got right and got what they got wrong. No successive map will be completely unrelated to a previous map. Furthermore, each map follows a Bayesian updating scheme, where new information is included into previous information.
 
The scientific model of knowledge progression that the psi-ist person was promulgating was a wholly unBaeysian progression of science. As Isaac Azimov wrote, they think that one day science will say that the Earth is a sphere, and then the next day science will say that the Earth is a rectangle, the next day a trapezoid, the next day a donut, etc. None of those models has any logical progression between them, and none of those models follows any sort of Bayesian updating. They are just random.
 
So the next time I encounter someone who attempts to appeal to some future physics that will one day vindicate their psi beliefs, I'll have to remember to use that map analogy to set them on the correct path. Hopefully, any reader(s) of my blog will do the same 😉
 

The Stigma Against Mental Illness Is A Result of the Idea of Mind-Body Dualism

I've become entirely convinced that the stigma against mental illness is a result of Mind-Body dualism. This is basically the idea that our body is just some empty shell and that our mind sort of pilots it. Sort of like driving a car; there's the physical casing of the car yet it only moves ones a driver gets in and starts pushing buttons. Take a look at this article:

“It's an irony,” Kennedy told Gupta, “but we think no stigma towards Gabby and her brain injury, but [Loughner] has a brain injury as well, because clearly his brain was not working properly when he picked up that gun and shot all those people.”

[…]

“If you have diabetes and have a chemical imbalance that you need more insulin, you don't have any question about it. But if you need some more serotonin or dopamine, you need a neurotransmitter, then [people] look at that as something askew, as if the brain isn't a part of the rest of the body.” This double standard, he says, is part of the continuing stigma against mental disorders.

The senator here makes a perfectly valid argument. Why is there no stigma against getting medicine for chemical imbalances like insulin yet when someone has a similar defect of chemicals that just so happen to affect the brain they're called “crazy”?

The brain is a computer, the mind is a program that runs on it. No one is up in arms with the idea of the brain being physical, yet once the necessary relationship is made — that without the brain there's no mind — then people start to huff and haw. Our brains can – and in most cases will be – just as imperfect as any other body part. If I have non-functioning or handicapped legs, then there are certain activities that I simply won't be able to do, like running. If I have a non-functioning or handicapped brain, similarly, there will be certain mental and cognitive tasks that I won't be able to do.

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2011 in mind-body dualism, psi

 

Neuroscientists Watch Memories Form In Neurons

More ammunition against psi-ists:
Our ability to form long-term memories depends on cells in the brain making strong connections with each other. Yet while it’s not well understood how those connections are made, lost or changed, the process is known to involve the movement of the AMPA receptor protein to and from those neuronal connections.

Reporting this week in Nature Neuroscience, researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have discovered by watching live neurons that the AMPA receptor goes where it needs to be with the help of the 4.1N protein, without which long term memories are not formed.

“This has been a long-standing challenge in the field, trying to see a process that involves a handful of molecules and occurs so quickly, on the order of one-tenth of a second,” says Richard Huganir, Ph.D., professor and director of the Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins. “We just haven’t had the right tools.” Huganir’s research team spent a year building a new microscope to do the experiments.

http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/Johns_Hopkins_Neuroscientists_Watch_Memories_Form_in_Real_Time

Removal of the Amygdala makes you literally fearless:

Although clinical observations suggest that humans with amygdala damage have abnormal fear reactions and a reduced experience of fear [[1], [2] and [3]], these impressions have not been systematically investigated. To address this gap, we conducted a new study in a rare human patient, SM, who has focal bilateral amygdala lesions [4]. To provoke fear in SM, we exposed her to live snakes and spiders, took her on a tour of a haunted house, and showed her emotionally evocative films. On no occasion did SM exhibit fear, and she never endorsed feeling more than minimal levels of fear. Likewise, across a large battery of self-report questionnaires, 3 months of real-life experience sampling, and a life history replete with traumatic events, SM repeatedly demonstrated an absence of overt fear manifestations and an overall impoverished experience of fear. Despite her lack of fear, SM is able to exhibit other basic emotions and experience the respective feelings. The findings support the conclusion that the human amygdala plays a pivotal role in triggering a state of fear and that the absence of such a state precludes the experience of fear itself.
 
 
Scientists extract images directly from the brain:
A device that reveals what a person sees by decoding their brain activity could soon be a reality, say researchers who have developed a more sophisticated way to extract visual stimuli from brain signals.

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, US, developed a computational model that uses functional MRI (fMRI) data to decode information from an individual's visual cortex – the part of the brain responsible for processing visual stimuli.

“Our research makes substantial advances towards being able to decode mental content from brain activity as measured using fMRI,” Kendrick Kay, a co-author of the study, told New Scientist. “In fact, our results suggest it may soon be possible to reconstruct our visual experiences from brain activity.”

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13415-mindreading-machine-knows-what-the-eye-can-see.html

 
 
 
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Posted by on February 24, 2011 in psi

 

Psi

While not as nefarious as religion, belief in psi (that is, psychic phenomena) shares a lot of the same failures of critical thinking and nonscientific reasoning as religion does. Psi, to me, is basically a belief in what I call “natural supernaturalism”. Psi is basically supernaturalism dressed up in the garments of natural and/or unknown phenomena. For example, many psi proponents cling to a sort of “psi-of-the-gaps” when it comes to the existence and cause of consciousness. The mechanics behind consciousness are not completely known, but at the same time they are not completely unknown either.

If psi were a real phenomenon, then much of what we know about physics would have to be thrown out the window. Sound, for example, cannot be explained by psi. Sound only exists when there is a physical medium for sound waves to travel on. We need physical eardrums and physical nerves connected to our brain in order to interact with this physical medium and discern sounds. But psi proponents claim that people who have Near Death Experiences (NDEs) can hear things while floating outside of their bodies! By the psi-ists own definition, this floating mind outside of a human body has no physical manifestation so the psi-ist needs to come up with a mechanism for air (or some other media) to interact with this non-corporeal entity.

This is one of many problems facing psi. One of many.

Anyway, once positing the existence of non-corporeal entities, it’s a small leap to positing the existence of an all powerful non-corporeal entity that has always existed. And this is (or at least should be!) anathema to any nontheist who claims to believe in psi.

This post is mainly acting as an as an archive to some good scientific info related to neuroscience. I think I’ll post more as I come across more good anti-psi neurology articles.

A decade ago, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg did a series of scans on Buddhists while they were meditating. What he found was fascinating. Bob Holmes in New Scientist Magazine (21 April 2001), reported the following:

The researchers found intense activity in the parts of the brain that regulate attention–a sign of the meditators’ deep concentration. But they saw something else, too. During meditation, part of the parietal lobe, towards the top and rear of the brain, was much less active than when the volunteers were merely sitting still. With a thrill, Newberg and d’Aquili realised that this was the exact region of the brain where the distinction between self and other originates.
Broadly speaking, the left-hemisphere side of this region deals with the individual’s sense of their own body image, while its right-hemisphere equivalent handles its context–the space and time inhabited by the self. Maybe, the researchers thought, as the meditators developed the feeling of oneness, they gradually cut these areas off from the usual touch and position signals that help create the body image.

“When you look at people in meditation, they really do turn off their sensations to the outside world. Sights and sounds don’t disturb them any more. That may be why the parietal lobe gets no input,” says Newberg. Deprived of their usual grist, these regions no longer function normally, and the person feels the boundary between self and other begin to dissolve. And as the spatial and temporal context also disappears, the person feels a sense of infinite space and eternity.

More recently, Newberg has repeated the experiment with Franciscan nuns in prayer. The nuns–whose prayer centers on words, rather than images–showed activation of the language areas of the brain. But they, too, shut down the same self regions of the brain that the meditators did as their sense of oneness reached its peak.

This sense of unity with the Universe isn’t the only characteristic of intense religious experiences. They also carry a hefty emotional charge, a feeling of awe and deep significance. Neuroscientists generally agree that this sensation originates in a region of the brain distinct from the parietal lobe: the “emotional brain”, or limbic system, lying deep within the temporal lobes on the sides of the brain.

Neuroscience can now duplicate the mystical experiences claimed by religious people over the years in two different ways. One is through the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as ketamine and psilocybin. The other is through electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain.

Karl Jansen, M.D., Ph.D., a is a leading neuroscientist and a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In an article entitled, “Neuroscience, Ketamine, and the Near Death Experience,” published in The Near-Death Experience: A Reader (ed. Lee Worth Bailey and Jenny L. Yates) he writes:

There is overwhelming evidence that the mind is produced by the brain. The effects on the mind of adding drugs to the brain, and the religious experiences which sometimes result, provide further evidence (p. 267).

Jansen’s research shows that drugs such as ketamine produce out of the body experiences or the sensation of experiencing the divine which are virtually identical to many near death experiences.

Brain scientists have also found that electrode stimulation of the temporal lobes evokes experiences which become part of the subjective stream of consciousness, embedded into the very fabric of the personality, such that the personality, and even sexual orientation may be altered. Moreover, patients may experience profound visual and auditory hallucinations and even feel as if they have left their bodies and are floating in space or soaring across the heavens (Rhawn Joseph, Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, Clinical Neuroscience , 3rd Edition, chapter 9).

Newberg first took baseline images of the brains of the meditators to use as a standard for comparison (Newberg 5). It was important that these scans of the brain be taken while the subjects were at rest so that brain activity while one is simply relaxed could be differentiated from brain activity while one is having a spiritual experience. The baseline scans showed an “even distribution of activity throughout the brain,” characterized by a large amount of activity in the posterior, superior parietal lobe and a moderate amount in the prefrontal cortex (Newberg 4).1
The subjects then meditated. When they reached the peak, they pulled on a string attached at one end to their finger and at the other to Dr. Newberg.2 This was the cue for Newberg to inject the radioactive tracer into the IV connected to the subject. Because the tracer almost instantly “locks” onto parts of the brain to indicate their activity levels, the SPECT gives a picture of the brain essentially at that peak moment (Newberg 3). The results revealed a marked decrease in the activity of the posterior, superior parietal lobe and a marked increase in the activity of the prefrontal cortex, predominantly on the right side of the brain
The brain region in question, the posterior parietal cortex, is involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation
To further probe its role, Cosimo Urgesi, a neuroscientist at the University of Udine in Italy, turned to 88 people who were being treated for brain cancer.
[…]
Doctors removed neurons from the 48 glioma patients to stem the spread of their tumours, whereas the people with meningiomas had tumour cells removed, but no neurons.
Both before and not long after the patients received this surgery Urgesi’s team gave them a battery of personality tests. In particular, the researchers were interested in a personality trait known as self-transcendence.

People score highly for this trait if they answer “yes” to questions such as: “I often feel so connected to the people around me that I feel like there is no separation”; “I feel so connected to nature that everything feels like one single organism”; and “I got lost in the moment and detached from time”. The same people also tend to believe in miracles, extrasensory perception and other non-material phenomena.

Abstract

Meditative practices typically require several coordinated cognitive activities. This study measured changes in cerebral blood flow during “verbal” based meditation by Franciscan nuns involving the internal repetition of a particular phrase. These results are compared with those we previously described in eight Buddhist meditators who use a type of “visualization” technique. Three experienced practitioners of verbal meditation were injected via i.v. at rest with 260 MBq of Tc-99m HMPAO and scanned 30 min. later on a triple head SPECT camera for 45 min. Following the baseline scan, subjects meditated for approximately 40 min. at which time they were injected with 925 MBq of HMPAO while they continued to meditate for 10 min. more (total of 50 min. of meditation). The injection during meditation was designed not to disturb practice. Subjects were scanned 20 min. later for 30 min. Counts were obtained for regions of interest for major brain structures and normalized to whole-brain blood flow. Compared to baseline, mean verbal meditation scans showed increased blood flow in the prefrontal cortex (7.1%), inferior parietal lobes (6.8%), and inferior frontal lobes (9.0%). There was a strong inverse correlation between the blood flow, change in the prefrontal cortex and in the ipsilateral superior parietal lobe (p<.01). This study on a limited number of subjects demonstrated the feasibility of studying different types of meditation with neuroimaging techniques, suggested that several coordinated cognitive processes occur during meditation, and also raised important methodological issues. 

V.S. Ramachandran says that we have mirror neurons that make us literally feel what others feel and that we have neurons in our limbs that cancel this actual feeling, and that when you lose an arm you can actually feel what you see happening to others in your phantom limb.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0pwKzTRG5E

At this point, though, a psi believer will repeat the mantra that “correlation doesn’t imply causation”. This is simply taking a tenet of skepticism and reducing it to the absurd. If we have no reason to posit more entities, then we shouldn’t do so unnecessarily. We know that only beings with a central nervous system possess consciousness. This is a pretty robust correlation. The psi-ist, in order to cogently argue against this very well established empirical fact, should produce some instances of consciousness that exist that isn’t in some way connected to some sort of physical central nervous system. The only being that I know that fits this description is a personal god.

Natural supernaturalism.
 
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Posted by on December 1, 2010 in psi, supernaturalism

 
 
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