Tag Archives: consciousness

Scientists jump-start consciousness in brains of monkeys

Consciousness is just weird. We don’t know which parts of the brain are responsible for a conscious state. A new study, however, is making good progress after scientists identified an “engine of consciousness” — a region of the brain that, when stimulated, woke up monkey subjects even when they were under anesthesia.

Credit: Pixabay.

Research in the past showed that staying in a conscious state involves activity across the entire brain. However, some brain regions seem to play a more important role in this regard than others.

Take, for instance, the case of a patient who for months was in a “minimally conscious state” (a condition of severely altered consciousness that is distinguished from the vegetative state) following a brain injury. During this state, the man was mostly unaware of his surroundings although he would have some bouts of consciousness from time to time. In many ways, it was as if his mind was on some other planet.

In August 2007, researchers at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City implanted electrodes in the patient’s central thalamus, which contains neurons sensitive to eye position and which plays a critical role in forebrain arousal and organized behavior. The patient’s level of consciousness improved dramatically after this procedure.

This landmark study suggested that it is possible to switch wakefulness on and off with the right stimuli.

In a new study, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took this a step further, performing experiments on sleeping or anesthetized macaques.

“We decided to go beyond the classical approach of recording from one area at a time,” says senior author Yuri Saalmann, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “We recorded from multiple areas at the same time to see how the entire network behaves.”

The researchers implanted electrodes in various areas of the monkeys’ brains and sent mild electric impulses through them while the animals were either asleep or sedated.

The monkeys stayed asleep during most stimulation apart from the time when the impulse stimulated the central lateral thalamus at a specific frequency. At that time, the monkeys woke up even when they were under deep anesthesia.

Sleep and anesthesia have different mechanisms of action, so the fact that the monkeys became awake following the electrode stimulation suggests that a shared brain circuit is involved in wakefulness.

After monitoring the monkeys as they went back and forth between conscious and unconscious states, the researchers were able to identify two brain pathways that trigger a wakeful state when activated.

One of the circuits carries sensory information from the thalamus to the cerebral cortex, the outermost layered structure of the brain and controls higher brain functions such as information processing. The other pathway that needs to be activated to trigger consciousness is involved in making predictions, attention priorities, and goals.

“We found that when we stimulated this tiny little brain area, we could wake the animals up and reinstate all the neural activity that you’d normally see in the cortex during wakefulness,” Saalmann says. “They acted just as they would if they were awake. When we switched off the stimulation, the animals went straight back to being unconscious.”

There’s a big caveat though: once the stimulation stopped, the monkeys’ consciousness also slipped away.

In this study, consciousness does not refer to the individual awareness of one’s unique thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations, and environment. How this kind of consciousness, or sentience, arises is a complex question, which the study’s authors did not attempt to answer. In this context, consciousness refers to being awake (i.e. not asleep) and able to interact with one’s environment.

The newly identified link between the thalamus and the cortex may have important medical implications. For instance, the insight could lead to improvements in anesthesia and new treatments for people with consciousness disorders, such as the 2007 patient mentioned earlier.

There are also some study limitations, such as the fact that only two monkeys were examined. In the future, similar studies that employ a higher sample and work with other animal models (i.e. mice) could strengthen the study’s findings.

“The overriding motivation of this research is to help people with disorders of consciousness to live better lives,” says first author Michelle Redinbaugh, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “We have to start by understanding the minimum mechanism that is necessary or sufficient for consciousness, so that the correct part of the brain can be targeted clinically.”

“There are many exciting implications for this work,” she says. “It’s possible we may be able to use these kinds of deep-brain stimulating electrodes to bring people out of comas. Our findings may also be useful for developing new ways to monitor patients under clinical anesthesia, to make sure they are safely unconscious.”

The study appeared in the journal Neuron.

Scientists ask the public’s help in getting to the bottom of consciousness — by cracking a chess problem

Sir Roger Penrose from Oxford’s Mathematical Institute has a quest for you, a quest which will see you topple the belligerence of a dark king and hone in on what it means to be human.

Image via Pexels.

We define what it means to be human by our consciousness. It’s this self-awareness that we call upon to set ourselves apart from everything else under the sun, and yet, we can’t explain it any better than we could millennia ago. We’ve tried pinpointing where it’s anchored into the brain (see here and here), we’ve developed some interesting theories about how it works, but we’ve never managed to replicate it, not even in our most powerful thinking machines.

So what is consciousness, and what is it about it that we’ve failed to instill in a computer? That’s what Sir Penrose wants to find out — and he needs the help of everyone who will join him. In a public challenge set to coincide with the launch of the Penrose Institute (a UK-based research group affiliated with Oxford University and University College London), the Sir and the institute’s fellows ask people to solve a chess problem they believe can determine what sets our mind apart from machines.

 

“We know that there are things that the human mind achieves that even the most powerful supercomputer cannot, but we don’t know why,” Sir Roger Penrose from the Mathematical Institute of Oxford told The Telegraph.

“If you put this puzzle into a chess computer, it just assumes a black win because of the number of pieces and positions, but a human will look at this and know quickly that is not the case.”

 

Computers are often compared to our minds, but in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, published in 1989, Sir Penrose argued that not even quantum computers could rival our brain. Better understanding quantum physics might help us get to the bottom of consciousness, he adds. It’s a pretty controversial view, but Sir Penrose argues that there isn’t any data showing that the two aren’t related, so why not explore the possibility?

Still, we have to start from somewhere, and narrowing down the list of possibilities is a good first step. So the chess challenge was issued to determine what sets the human mind and its greatest emulator — supercomputers — apart. Here’s the problem:

Image credits Penrose Institute.

The goal is to figure out a way to legally get the white player to draw with the black, or outright win. A computer will always assume the black will win in this scenario, because the three bishops will force it to calculate all possible positions, which “will rapidly expand to something that exceeds all the computational power on planet Earth”, Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph explains.

But it should be easy for a human to solve, Sir Penrose says — given that you know the rules of chess. It isn’t going to give us the answers to consciousness by itself, but it’s definitely a fresh approach on a subject that has eluded us for a long time. And it might help with the existential angst people are feeling more and more lately in regards to AIs.

“If we find out how humans differ from computers, then it could have profound sociological implications,” Sir Penrose added.

“People get very depressed when they think of a future where robots or computers will take their jobs, but it might be that there are areas where computers will never be better than us, such as creativity.”

If you do take on this quest and succeed, you should email your results to puzzles@penroseinstitute.com.

What the team is most interested isn’t the solution itself, but how you got there — the thought process that led you to the solution. Was it a sudden revelation, a flash of inspiration, or did you need days full of perspiration to crack the dark king’s ploy?

Don’t be shy on the details, and you might just prove to be the key to getting to the bottom of consciousness.

 

The neuron coloured in green circles the entire brain. Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Giant neurons that circle the brain like a crown of thorns could explain how consciousness originates in the brain

The neuron coloured in green circles the entire brain. Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science.

The neuron coloured in green circles the entire brain. Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Using a novel imaging technique, neuroscientists showed how a couple of neurons inside the mouse brain branched out and extended around the organ like a crown of thorns. One such neuron, which originates from a cluster of cells called the claustrum and which is thought to act as the seat of consciousness, extended across the whole circumference of the brain. Nothing like it has ever been observed and the team involved in the research thinks this is circumstantial evidence that might confirm the claustrum as the pinnacle of consciousness.

The hidden seat of consciousness

The claustrum seems connected to all regions of the cortex. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Brain research has always been interested in the claustrum, a thin sheet of neurons attached to the underside of the neocortex in the center of the brain. This small neural structure, whose name means ‘hidden away’, is interesting for several reasons.

For one, it has a remarkable anatomy in that it receives input from almost all regions of cortex and projects back to almost all regions of cortex. For this reason, some scientists speculate that the claustrum is heavily involved in generating consciousness which is a ‘unified’ experience. Secondly, the claustrum is tiny, occupying only 0.25 percent of the neocortex’s volume in humans, and only consists of a few cell types, which makes it easier to study it.

Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, led a new research which probed individual neurons inside the claustrum in unprecedented detail. The researchers’ work confirms the claustrum is likely the most well-connected part of the brain with other regions.

Central to the researchers’ work is a novel imaging technique. Typically, to image individual neurons you have to inject cells with a special dye to make them stand out, then slice the brain into very thin sections. It’s then a matter of tediously tracing the neurons’ paths by hand. As such, there are only a handful of studies which were able to trace neuron through the entire organ.

The giants

The method developed by Koch and colleagues is far less invasive and saves time. They first engineered mice so that when they came in contact with a drug, specific genes activated to produce green fluorescent proteins in the claustrum. The fluorescent proteins spread through the entire length of the neuron, which proved very handy. Some 10,000 cross-sectional images of the mouse brain were taken then a computer algorithm stitched all of these together to make a 3D reconstruction.

Only three neurons lit up but these more than made up for it in sheer length. All three stretched across both brain hemispheres and one neuron was so long it wrapped around the entire brain’s circumference. Very long neurons can be found in places such as the leg or in the brainstem but nothing as extensive as claustrum neurons was observed until now.

According to Koch, the findings add weight to the idea that the claustrum coordinates inputs and outputs in the brain to give rise to what we familiarly call consciousness but know so little about.

In 2015, a group from George Washington University found the claustrum can act like an ‘on-off switch’ for consciousness. They cite the case of a woman suffering from epilepsy which slipped into a near-catatonic state when the claustrum was stimulated via electrodes. Another study published in Consciousness and Cognition studied combat veterans with deep traumatic brain injuries affecting the claustrum. This time their results varied quite widely because many of the veterans had injuries in addition to their claustrum damage. These patients had an increase in the duration — and not frequency — of mental blackouts. This suggests the claustrum is involved both in ending and regaining active consciousness. Previous studies have also linked the claustrum with certain forms of coma and certain forms of dissociation.

Even if this ‘crown of thorns’ imaged by Koch’s team doesn’t prove directly that the claustrum is involved in generating or maintaining consciousness, the technique they developed will be extremely useful in the future. Speaking to Nature, Koch said he and colleagues will continue to explore neurons from the claustrum this time hoping to image more. If more neurons turn out to be this big, he might be on to something. So far, the claustrum seems the likeliest candidate for our consciousness’ biological origin.

 

head consciousness

The seat of consciousness might lie in two brain regions. Stimulating them could wake up patients from coma

Defining consciousness is an immense philosophical question, one that’s likely been pondered for as long as there have been humans around. Many years of contemplation over the nature of human consciousness lie ahead but, from a scientific perspective at least, we seem to be zeroing in on the biological components and mechanisms that give rise to it.

head consciousness

Credit: bykst, Pixabay

Building on decades worth of neural research, a team from Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center claims it has located brain regions that likely play a pivotal role in maintaining humans in a conscious state.

According to textbook neurology, consciousness is defined by two critical components: awareness and arousal. Previous research suggests the brainstem — the central trunk of the mammalian brain which is contiguous with the spinal cord and is responsible for sleep-wake cycle, but also automates respiration and heart rate — is the brain region responsible for regulating arousal. The neural systems responsible for awareness have been far more difficult to pinpoint but we do they’re somewhere in the cortex, where many of the brain’s higher functions are enabled.

Making sense of the seemingly tangled mess comprised of hundreds of billions of neurons can become a mammoth task. Which is why the researchers applied a sort of reverse engineering approach by studying patients who had brainstem lesions. Of the 36 patients involved in the study, 12 were in a coma while 24 were conscious.

Using brain scans, a map of the injured site was made for each participant which revealed that the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum — a very small region of the brainstem — is strongly associated with inducing coma. Ten out of the twelve coma patients had lesions in this area, while only one of the 24 controls did.

[ALSO SEE] Consciousness comes in ‘slices’ roughly 400 milliseconds long

Using the most complex and detailed wiring diagrams of the human brain, based on a data set called the Human Connectome, it was then a matter of identifying which other parts of the brain were connected to the coma-causing lesions. Singling them out one by one, the researchers found two areas of the cortex were particularly connected to the coma-associated region of the brainstem. One was located in the left, ventral, anterior insula, the other in the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC), as reported in the journal Neurology.

Both of these regions were previously associated by other studies as being involved in arousal and awareness.

“For the first time, we have found a connection between the brainstem region involved in arousal and regions involved in awareness, two prerequisites for consciousness,” said Michael Fox, HMS assistant professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess. “A lot of pieces of evidence all came together to point to this network playing a role in human consciousness.”

“We can look at not just the location of lesions, but also their connectivity,” he said. “Over the past year, researchers in my lab have used this approach to understand visual and auditory hallucinations, impaired speech and movement disorders. A collaborative team of neuroscientists and physicians had the insight and unique expertise needed to apply this approach to consciousness.”

To investigate further, a special kind of MRI machine scanned the brains of another subset of patients with consciousness disorders. In those patients with impaired consciousness, the newly identified brain network was disrupted seemingly confirming its importance in maintaining a state of awareness and arousal.

The implications of this study might be huge for the thousands of patients currently in comas. Some 90% of brain injured patients who are vegetative for one month or longer will fail to improve to a state better than severe disability if they wake up.

“The added value of thinking about coma as a network disorder is it presents possible targets for therapy, such as using brain stimulation to augment recovery,” Aaron Boes, a co-author of the new paper, said.

“This is most relevant if we can use these networks as a target for brain stimulation for people with disorders of consciousness,” said Fox. “If we zero in on the regions and network involved, can we someday wake someone up who is in a persistent vegetative state? That’s the ultimate question.”

Consciousness comes in “slices” roughly 400 milliseconds long

A new model proposed by EPFL scientists tries to explain how our brain processes information and then makes us consciously aware of it. According to their findings, consciousness forms as a series of short bursts of up to 400 milliseconds, with gaps of background, unconscious information processing in between.

Image via pixabay user johnhain

Subjectively, consciousness seems to be an uninterrupted state of thought and senses giving us a smooth image of the world around us. So to the best of our knowledge, sensory information is continuously recorded and fed into our perception; we then process it and become aware of it as this happens. We can clearly see the movement of objects, we hear sounds from start to end without pause, etc.

But have you ever found yourself reacting to something before actually becoming aware of the need to react? Let’s say you’re running and trip over, but you change your motions to prevent falling almost automatically. Or you’re in traffic, the car in front of you suddenly stops and you slam on the brakes instinctively, even before you realize the danger. If yes, you’ve most likely said “thanks reflexes” and left it like that.

This, however,  hints at processes that analyze data and elaborate responses without our conscious input, sparking a debate in the science community that goes back several centuries. Why does this automated response form — just as an extra safety measure? Or rather, because your consciousness isn’t always available when push comes to shove? In other words, is consciousness constant and uninterrupted, or more akin to a movie reel — a series of still shots?

Michael Herzog at EPFL and Frank Scharnowski at the University of Zurich now put forward a new model of how the brain processes unconscious information, suggesting that consciousness arises only in intervals up to 400 milliseconds, with no consciousness in between. By reviewing data from previously published psychological and behavioral experiments on the nature of consciousness — such as showing a participant several images in rapid succession and asking them to distinguish between them while monitoring their brain activity — they have developed a new conceptual framework of how it functions.

They propose a two-stage processing of information. During the first, unconscious stage, our brain processes specific features of objects such as color or shape. It then analyzes these objects with a very high time-resolution. But crucially to the proposed model, there is no actual perception of time during this phase — even time-dependent features such as duration or changes in color are not perceived as such. Time simply becomes a value assigned to each state, just as color or shape. In essence, during this stage your brain gathers and processes data, then puts them into a spreadsheet (a brainxcell if you will,) and “time” becomes just another value in a column.

Then comes the conscious stage: after unconscious processing is completed the brain renders all the features into our conscious thought. This produces the final picture, making us aware of the stimulus. Processing a stimulus to conscious perception can take up to 400 milliseconds, a considerable delay from a physiological point of view. The team focused their study on visual perception alone, and the delay might vary between the senses.

“The reason is that the brain wants to give you the best, clearest information it can, and this demands a substantial amount of time,” explains Michael Herzog. “There is no advantage in making you aware of its unconscious processing, because that would be immensely confusing.”

This is the first time a two-stage model has been proposed for how consciousness arises, and it may offer a more refined picture than the purely continuous or discrete models. It also provides useful insight into the way our brain processes time and relates it to our perception of the world.

The full paper, titled “Time Slices: What Is the Duration of a Percept?” has been published online in the journal PLOS Biology and can be read here.

 

This shot shows a scene during the Chinese experiment designed to train monkeys to recognize themselves in the mirror and become aware. Credit: Neng Gong and colleagues/Current Biology 2015

Monkeys can also recognize themselves in mirrors, but only with training

Only humans and great apes can recognize themselves when looking in a mirror, but new findings suggest that it’s possible for rhesus monkeys to realize they’re looking at themselves if trained properly. The findings bear important implications for humans as well, since they suggest patients with impairment of self-recognition can have their condition remedied with training.

To be self aware

This shot shows a scene during the Chinese experiment designed to train monkeys to recognize themselves in the mirror and become aware. Credit: Neng Gong and colleagues/Current Biology 2015

This shot shows a scene during the Chinese experiment designed to train monkeys to recognize themselves in the mirror and become aware. Credit: Neng Gong and colleagues/Current Biology 2015

You might not enjoy looking yourself in the mirror, but believe it or not your ruthless self inspection of pimples, funny moles and crooked teeth is a display of powerful cognitive effort and mental gymnastics that not too many species can boast.  Since the 1970s psychologists have used mirrors to search for signs of self-awareness in both humans and animals. Along the way, they came to believe that humans were almost universally able to pass a mirror-based self-recognition test by 24 months of age. As far as non-human animals go, chimps, gorillas and orangutans have been also found to pass the mirror test, although not all tried specimens pass it and some lost the ability as they aged.

While members of most species of great apes have shown compelling evidence that they recognize themselves, no monkey has done so. In early tests, researchers would put monkeys in front of mirrors of various shapes and sizes starting from early age, yet while the monkeys could learn to use the mirrors as tools for observing other objects they failed to show any signs of self-recognition. Such signs include exploration of otherwise unknown and invisible marks usually applied to the individual’s head. In contrast, great apes display focus and concentration as they use the reflection to pick their teeth, explore their ears, or investigate their genitals. At best, only fleeting/incidental touches near the mark have been reported in a few monkeys during mark tests. No monkey has ever been shown to use its reflection to carefully inspect a directly non-visible body part such as inside its mouth or behind an ear, in spite of repeated attempts to make things easier for monkeys.

Training a monkey to look in the mirror

Neng Gong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues weren’t convinced, so they took extra measures. Rhesus monkeys were sat in front of a mirror and had a pesky laser light shined on their faces. They rewarded the monkeys each time they touched the affected area, and after days of training, the researchers switched to a non-irritating red laser light. Two to five weeks in, the monkeys had learned to touch faces areas market by the laser spot they couldn’t feel in front of the mirror. When the mirror was replaced by video images, the monkeys were also apt at noticing the virtual face marks.

Five out of the seven trained monkeys also showed signs of typical self-direct behavior induced by mirrors, like touching the marks on the face or ear then looking and/or smelling at their findings, as if they were communicating to their selves “what’s this on my face?”. They also used the mirrors unprompted by researchers to inspect other body parts that weren’t marked. In effect, the monkeys had passed the mirror test.

“Our findings suggest that the monkey brain has the basic ‘hardware’ [for mirror self-recognition], but they need appropriate training to acquire the ‘software’ to achieve self-recognition,” says Gong said.

The findings suggest that there’s hope for patients inflicted with mental retardation, autism, schizophrenia, or Alzheimer’s disease and who are unable to recognize themselves in the mirror anymore.

“Although the impairment of self-recognition in patients implies the existence of cognitive/neurological deficits in self-processing brain mechanisms, our finding raised the possibility that such deficits might be remedied via training,” the authors write in Current Biology. “Even partial restoration of self-recognition ability could be desirable.”

meaningful_life

Living a happy or meaningful life – what’s the difference?

meaningful_life

While happiness and meaningfulness often overlap, the two are distinct states of being. A Stanford project looked into the lives of various people inline between the two and found some key differences based on how people choose spend their time and what experiences they cultivate. The findings may surprise some of you, while others will choose to dismiss them. After all, a study about “life” is far from being conclusive – in this case, there’s no such thing as a right answer.

Their conclusions suggest that happy people tend to live in the present moment and are classed as takers, whereas meaningfulness is associated with givers. The researchers studied the answers of 397 people surveyed over a month-long period, examining whether people thought their lives were meaningful or happy, as well as their choices, beliefs and values. According to the Stanford researchers, there are five key differences between living a happy and meaningful life:

 Getting what you want and need: While satisfying desires was a reliable source of happiness, it had nothing to do with a sense of meaning. For example, healthy people are happier than sick people, but the lives of sick people do not lack meaning.

• Past, present and future: Happiness is about the present, and meaning is about linking the past, present and future. When people spend time thinking about the future or past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives become. On the other hand, if people think about the here and now, they are happier.

• Social life: Connections to other people are important both for meaning and happiness. But the nature of those relationships is how they differ. Deep relationships – such as family – increase meaning, while spending time with friends may increase happiness but had little effect on meaning. Time with loved ones involves hashing out problems or challenges, while time with friends may simply foster good feelings without much responsibility.

• Struggles and stresses: Highly meaningful lives encounter lots of negative events and issues, which can result in unhappiness. Raising children can be joyful but it is also connected to high stress – thus meaningfulness – and not always happiness. While the lack of stress may make one happier – like when people retire and no longer have the pressure of work demands – meaningfulness drops.

• Self and personal identity: If happiness is about getting what you want, then meaningfulness is about expressing and defining yourself. A life of meaning is more deeply tied to a valued sense of self and one’s purpose in the larger context of life and community.

So, does this mean that living a meaningful life automatically makes you miserable? Not necessarily, it does mean however that one can find meaning in life, even though experiencing unhappiness.  It seems people who seek and experience a meaningful life meet struggles,challenges and stress. Yet, while sometimes unhappy in the moment, these people – connected to a larger sense of purpose and value – make positive contributions to society. Examples of highly meaningful, but not necessarily happy, lives may include nursing, social work or even activism.

“People have strong inner desires that shape their lives with purpose and focus – qualities that ultimately make for a uniquely human experience,” said Jennifer Aaker Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Tibetan local community waiting for the Dalai Lama to renew his visit at Emory University. (c) New York TImes

What Dalai Lama followers can learn from science and viceversa

Tibetan local community waiting for the Dalai Lama to renew his visit at Emory University.  (c) New York TImes

Tibetan local community waiting for the Dalai Lama to renew his visit at Emory University. (c) New York TImes

Reconciling modern western science, which deals with matters pertaining to the external, physical realm, and ancient monastic studies, which delve into the inner self , can be daunting task if not … impracticable. For the past three years, however, the Dalai Lama and a group of Tibetan monks have been making multiple stays at Emory University, learning from science scholars there, while teaching their culture and practices at their own turn.

“It is quite rich material about what I call the inner world,” said the Dalai Lama. “Modern science is very highly developed in matters concerning the material world. These two things separately are not complete. Together, the external and the internal worlds are complete.”

The Dalai Lama,  an energetic 78-year-old who rises at 3:30 every morning for four hours of meditation, has made countless efforts throughout the years to educate the general population about meditation. Buddhist teaching offers education about the mind, he says, and with this partnership he aims to both advance Tibetan monastic studies, largely unchanged for the past 600 years, and help science transcend some seemingly intractable problems at the same time.

Science and meditation

A great deal of efforts was required for this partnership to work. For one, translating certain concepts and scientific phrases that simply do not have an equivalent word or even phrase in Tibetan was daunting. Photosynthesis, clones, DNA, even atoms or electrons. These are hard to convey in an one-to-one linguistic parity.

“Much of our work is to make new phrases novel enough so students won’t take them with literal meaning,” said Tsondue Samphel, who leads the team of translators.

But the effort won through eventually, in part at least.

“We understand impermanence of things as simply existing through our traditions,” said Jampa Khechok, 34, one of the new monks on campus. “We are now challenged to understand the nature of impermanence through the study of how fast particles decay.”

So far an initial batch of six monks who first arrived in 2010 have exchanged studies, while dozens of monks and nuns have taken lectures from Emory professors who traveled directly to Dharamsala, India, to instruct them, and 15 English-Tibetan science textbooks have been developed for monastic students.

Synergy between the two might help answer some difficult questions, like what is the nature of the mind and consciousness, can artificially develop consciousness, and much more. Even quantum science might have something to learn from Buddhist teachings. Follower so the Dalai Lama believe everything in the Universe happens for a reason, everything is connected in a beautiful karma cycle. More or less, this is how classic, deterministic physics works as well – at a macro level, every action has a reaction, and events can be predicted based on this. At a quantum level, though,  an inherent randomness in the behavior of quantum particles is presented. This may suggest our very existence is the product of absolute randomness. Some claim that this is due to an incomplete understanding of nature — that there are hidden variables and even at the quantum level, causality holds true.

There are also practicable applications to the Dalai lama-science partnership. Linda Hutton, a social worker, has a longstanding clinical practice treating sexually abused children and families in Greenville, S.C.  During Dalai Lama’s sixth visit to Emory, she attended some of the meetings there.  Now, using meditation, she teaches children with a child abuse past to cope with trauma. “I draw from a lot of medical research,” she said, “but what I have found here transcends that.”

Another result has been the development of something called cognitively based compassion training, a secular mediation program proven to improve empathy. There had been a number of studies made using MRI scans on Tibetan monks that meditate, showing different brain activity. Certainly, there is much to learn for both parties. Hopefully other western and monastic scholar alike might follow suit and exchange experiences. Who knows what loose ends and knots might be finally tied.

via NY Times

conscious-unconscious

How the brain loses and gains consciousness

conscious-unconsciousFor more than two centuries physicians have been using general anesthetics to perform surgeries, however even now in the 21st century scientists know very little about what happens to the brain when the patient moves to and fro a state of consciousness. This becomes even more important when you consider the very rare but frightening cases in which some patients wake up from anesthesia during surgery. MIT scientists have now found the process that moves the brain from conscious to unconscious and vice versa, furthering our understanding. Also, novel monitoring devices that can accurately determine whether a patient is about to wake up can be now created.

“When anesthesiologists are taking care of someone in the operating room, they can use the information in this article to make sure that someone is unconscious, and they can have a specific idea of when the person may be regaining consciousness,” says senior author Emery Brown, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and health sciences and technology and an anesthesiologist at MGH.

In the new study, MIT scientists monitored the brain activity of volunteers that were under anesthetics for two hours at a time. Each participant had an array of 64 electrodes attached to the scalp. Propofol, the most common anesthetic, was steadily injected in the participants, while the researchers monitored their response to sounds.

Every four seconds a mechanical tone or the participant’s name was played in the foreground, time at each the participant had to push a button to signal that it was received. During all this time, the EEG monitored brain activity. Once the subjects became less responsible, distinct brain patterns surfaced. Early on, when the subjects were just beginning to lose consciousness, the researchers detected an oscillation of brain activity in the low frequency (0.1 to 1 hertz) and alpha frequency (8 to 12 hertz) bands, in the frontal cortex. A specific relationship between the two frequency bands was also inferred: Alpha oscillations peaked as the low-frequency waves were at their lowest point.

Consciousness: switch on, switch off

Later on they found that while the subject become fully under anesthesia the alpha oscillations flipped so their highest points occurred when the low frequency waves were also peaking. This resulting pattern blocked neural communications between various regions of the brain. For instance, the frontal cortex and the thalamus, which normally communicate with each other across a very broad frequency band to relay sensory information and control attention, were constrained from sharing information.

This array of videos shows spectrographic data (representing brain wave frequencies) from each of 44 electrodes attached to the scalp of a healthy volunteer undergoing propofol anesthesia. The spectrograms are arranged according to their approximate position on the scalp, with the front of the head at the top of the screen, and the back of the head at the bottom of the screen. Activity moves from back to front with loss of consciousness (levels 1 to 5) and from back to front with return of consciousness (levels 6 to 8). Each video shows brain activity throughout a 140-minute period of the study. Video by Aylin Cimenser.

In a similar previous study, conducted by the same team of researchers, only with epileptic volunteers, instead of healthy ones, similar findings were made. Then, researchers found that during anesthesia, neurons within small, localized brain regions are active for a few hundred milliseconds, then shut off again for a few hundred milliseconds. It’s this flickering brain pattern that creates the low frequency oscillations that block communications between areas of the brain and pulls us into unconsciousness.

“You were not supposed to wake up”

When the anesthetic dose was lowered, the participants began to regain consciousness, and a reversal of brain activity occurred. Yet again, the alpha frequencies flipped so that they were at their peak when the low-frequency waves were at their lowest point.

“That is the signature that would allow someone to determine if a patient is coming out of anesthesia too early, with this drug,” said Patrick Purdon, an instructor of anesthesia at MGH and Harvard Medical School.

Only in one in 10,000 operations patients wake up from anesthesia, but this is enough to cause general panic surrounding surgeries. Armed with this new found knowledge, anesthesiologists might soon have monitoring tools based on brain wave patterns that accurately signal whether or not the patient is fully unconscious or not.

The researchers now plan on monitoring brain signals for other anesthesia drugs as well. The findings were reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Many people who have gone through near-death experiences recall a "light at the end of the tunnel". Such cultural aspects will be studied as part of the research funded by the grant.

Private foundation awards after-life research grant worth $5 million

Many people who have gone through near-death experiences recall a "light at the end of the tunnel". Such cultural aspects will be studied as part of the research funded by the grant.

Many people who have gone through near-death experiences recall a “light at the end of the tunnel”. Such cultural aspects will be studied as part of the research funded by the grant.

Consciousness is considered the prime driver for superior intelligence, and was initially considered the definite barrier which separates man from beast, although other animals, like fellow primates, have been found to exhibit sings of consciousness in the past years. There’s one big question, however, that follows the epiphany of “I am”, and that is “what happens when I no longer am?”. Consciousness breeds spirituality, and eventually religion to comfort man and relieve him from constantly seeking an answer to this question, which might never be answered. Even to this day, after thousands of years and the writings of history’s greatest free thinkers, we know little more than our ancestors who first set out to explain their existence.

[RELATED] The secret to a long life – consciousness

Recently, the Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation — founded by the late Wall Street mutual funds pioneer to help explore spirituality – has awarded a grant worth $5 million, to be centered at UC Riverside, which will support the study of “immortality” and after-life. John Martin Fischer, a philosopher with UC Riverside most famous for his work on free will and determinism, is leading the project. According to the project’s website, the funding, will be split as follows – $1 million of that to host conferences on campus about the afterlife, to support post-doctoral students; while the rest of $4 million will be awarded to various researchers worldwide in the sciences, social sciences, philosophy and theology who will be studying the subject.

“The main questions there are whether it’s technologically plausible or feasible for us, either by biological enhancement such as those described by Ray Kurzweil, or by some combination of biological enhancement and uploading our minds onto computers in the future. I think another more interesting and important question is would we choose to be immortal in that sense, or does death and finitude give life meaning? So that’s kind of the philosophical side of the question of never dying.

But then there’s the religious notion of immortality, which involves an afterlife. So we’ll be looking at a full range of questions about Judeo, Christian and also Hindu, Buddhist, and other Asian religions’ conceptions of the afterlife to see if they’re theologically and philosophically consistent. We’ll look at near death experiences both in western cultures and throughout the world and really look at what they’re all about and ask the question — do they indicate something about an afterlife or are they kind of just illusions that we’re hardwired into?” said Fischer in an interview for Business Insider.

Of course, such a huge grant has already attacked a wave of criticism. Some of the project’s contestants claim that the foundation backing the Immortality Project is biased, and intends on blurring the line between science and theology.

“If the intent is to do “serious scientific work” then why include theologians? They aren’t a discipline with scientific methods at the base of their field and it’s pretty safe to say they’ll tend to come to this topic with some pretty huge preconceptions and biases, and arguably even conflicts of interest,” reads a comment on the Chronicle discussing the subject.

 

 

 

114 year old Walter Breuning, the oldest attest individual to have lived. Breuning died Thursday, April 14, 2011 of natural causes in a Great Falls hospital.

The secret to a long life: consciousness

114 year old Walter Breuning, the oldest attest individual to have lived. Breuning died Thursday, April 14, 2011 of natural causes in a Great Falls hospital.

114 year old Walter Breuning, the oldest attestest individual to have lived. Breuning died Thursday, April 14, 2011 of natural causes in a Great Falls hospital.

A healthy life style, plenty of exercise and good genes might be your best bet, if you’re looking for a long life, but an eight decade study in the making found one common denominator – the answer to longevity is consciousness.

In 1921, in a quest to understand what really sets apart people who happen to reach 80, even 90 years old, Dr. Terman embarked patiently in a life long study. He chose 1,528 bright San Francisco 11-year-olds, and followed each individual with respect to their personality, parents marriages, play habits and so on, with an interview being conducted every 5 or 10 years. Dr. Terman eventually died in 1956, but his colleagues continued the regular interviews with the original subjects, asking the same questions Dr. Terman had asked.

In 1990, Dr. Friedman and Leslie Martin, still a graduate student at the time, wanted to a dwell into a similar study, only to rejoicefuly find that a similar attempt had been made many decades before. So, the two followed in Dr. Terman’s footsteps and continued his legacy. Dr. Friedman and Dr. Martin meticulously went through Dr. Terman’s records, dredged up death certificates and asked Dr. Terman’s questions of study participants’ survivors, while at the same they also conducted a group analysis of other similar studies, and collaborated with experts from many fields.

Key traits for a long life: prudence and persistence

As part of the eight decade long study, Friedman and Martin found that the key features of a long life are prudence and persistence.

“The findings clearly revealed that the best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness,” they write, “the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person, like a scientist-professor — somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree.”

The continuation of the study wasn’t without predicaments either. One of the major issues they faced was how to pose the same questions Dr. Terman put more than 80 years ago, and still keep the study relevant and consistent. For example one of Dr. Terman’s original questions he asked parents sounded like “How likely are you to upbraid a workman?”. Not quite familiar in contemporary terms, but by employing a complicated linguistic measurement called factor analysis, Dr. Martin said, the researchers were able to come up with the 21st-century equivalent: “How do you deal with co-workers?”

According to Dr. Friedman, “genes constitute about one-third of the factors leading to long life.” This means if your grand daddy lived to be 90, that doesn’t mean you’ll be too. What does consciousness has to do with longevity, then?

Conscious people are safer, older

Researchers have a couples of explanations for this. The most obvious explanation is that conscientious people are more likely to live healthy lifestyles, not smoke or drink to excess, wear seat belts, follow doctors’ orders and take medication as prescribed – conscious people are very safe. Secondly, conscientious people tend to find themselves not only in healthier situations but also in healthier relationships: happier marriages, better friendships, healthier work situations. A happier man is more likely to live longer – this doesn’t necessarily mean that conscious people are happier, just that they’re more like to be happy.

The most fascinating and important explanation that links consciousness with longevity is that some people are simply biologically predisposed to be not only more conscientiousness but also healthier, researchers found. ”

“We thought it must be something biological,” Dr. Friedman said. “We ruled out every other factor.”[…] “Not only do they tend to avoid violent deaths and illnesses linked to smoking and drinking,” they write, “but conscientious individuals are less prone to a whole host of diseases, not just those caused by dangerous habits.”

Stress is good for longevity

If you’ve been walking all your life on sunshine, don’t expect a few more years scrapped from the calendar.

“If you’re cheerful, very optimistic, especially in the face of illness and recovery, if you don’t consider the possibility that you might have setbacks, then those setbacks are harder to deal with,” Dr. Martin said. “If you’re one of those people who thinks everything’s fine — ‘no need to back up those computer files’ — the stress of failure, because you haven’t been more careful, is harmful. You almost set yourself up for more problems.”

A stress free lifestyle isn’t too helpful either, instead challenges that push you and make you more conscious of yourself and your surroundings have a much greater effect.

“There’s a misconception about stress,” Dr. Friedman said. “People think everyone should take it easy.” Rather, he said, “a hard job that is also stressful can be associated with longevity. Challenges, even if stressful, are also a link.” In the end, he said, “if people were involved, working hard, succeeded, were responsible —no matter what field they were in — they were more likely to live longer.”

Many people, of course, have to stay in a job they don’t like or don’t do well in. That’s bad stress, and they found those people were more likely to die young.

Other lifespan-increasing factors were having a very close social network, being extroverted, being aware of satisfaction with life as a whole, and being religious or spiritual. When it comes to the subject of married, researchers found that it was not influential factor in living longer, although having a healthy and loving marriage did play a big part – for men only that is. This might light some sparks, I’m sure.

If you’d like to find out more on the subject, the whole study has been carefully written for the general public in the form of a recently released book, titled “The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study.”