In this post: some sexy news about the female brain, then, some careful caveats about brain claims in general.
First off, Time reports on the first three-dimensional movie of a female orgasm. Captured by a team of researchers led by Barry Komisaruk at Rutgers University, the movie shows the brain activity correlated with the orgasm of a single subject. Like most fMRI captures, the ‘heat’ of the colours is correlated with oxygenated blood movement, and thus brain activity – the more rufous the colour, the higher the activation. In the case of an orgasm, the entire brain is dense with activity. (By the way, if you are interested in what it is like to achieve an orgasm in an MRI – the guardian has the scoop here)
In his as-of-yet-unpublished findings, presented to the Society for Neuroscience conference, Komisaruk speculatively links the sequence of brain activation to (presumably, though not mentioned) first-person experiences of such orgasms, third-person observations, and previous literature on orgasm and brain circuitry. This yields some pretty titillating conversation for a scientific finding, such as:
…facial expressions during orgasm (the “O face”) are often indistinguishable from those made in pain, and suggests this may be explained by activity in the insula.
We are used to thinking of Siddhartha Gautama as having spent his life seeking to attain wisdom and the release from unwanted thoughts and passions. We are less used to conceiving of Siddhartha as having been in pursuit of a specific brain state; and yet, we might be curious as to whether or not the mental state of nirvana is a physiological possibility for us, and if so, what characterises it? What was the Buddha’s brain doing at the moment of enlightenment; what does the brain of an advanced buddhist monk do whilst the monk is nearing what we might term a pre-nirvana state?
Despite the fact that East has met West so many times in the last few centuries that they must detest being continually reintroduced to one-another, NYU researcher Zoran Josipovic (as the BBC reports) is continuing, as he has been doing for the past decade, to use fmri in order to study the neurological states of Buddhist monks. Yet in the last few years, he has advanced a compelling hypothesis. The human mind, as we know from experience, vacillates between total or near-total involvement in the external world, a state where we experience little or no self-awareness, to states that are self-conscious and self-aware to the fact that we may have little recollection of what was happening around us. Josipovic refers to these alternate kinds of experience as intrinsic and extrinsic networks.
Buddhist monks, whilst meditating, display a kind of neural activity that few, if any, non-meditating subjects have ever demonstrated: dual, equal, and simultaneous activity in the intrinsic and extrinsic networks. Of course, the relationship between these networks is by no means one of two distinct, unrelated systems– they work together to provide our ordinary, everyday experience of the world (an experience that involves some side-commentary and some focus or attention on the external world). The interesting aspect of Josipovic’s results is that, during meditation, no one system is dominant, which leads Josipovic to conclude that the resulting first-person experience is permeated both by a feeling of total involvement and oneness with the environment, and also with a self-awareness of being so utterly involved. The apparent contradictoriness of the description appears to us only because we have rarely, if ever, occupied this median neurological state.
However, we might also wonder: do we tend to over-estimate the experiential exoticness of advanced states of meditation? Is it possible that the feelings of tranquility and oneness enjoyed by advanced meditators are not so experientially different from our own, but merely prolonged? Why do we expect Buddhist monks to feel and experience the tenets of their philosophy, rather than merely to affirm them and find comfort and resilience within them? Are we filling the heads of Buddhist monks with fictional, super-states of consciousness?
One might expect that in order for oneself to enjoy the pleasure and reward of smoking, one must be the person in question that is smoking a cigarette. Merely watching another person smoke keeps us as far away from the felt experience of nicotine as the distance between self and other. Necessarily, I cannot experience your experience (even if I choose to join you in a smoke).
Did you know that sun can damage your skin? How likely are you to increase your sunscreen use this week? No, don’t tell me. Chances are, you will be a less reliable indicator of your own behavior than a brain scan will. It may sound crazy, but this is the conclusion of a study published June 23, 2010 in the Journal of Neuroscience.
The research team, led by Matthew Lieberman, a psychology professor at UCLA, had subjects watch a public service announcement about the benefits of sunscreen while in an fMRI machine. The researchers looked for an increase in activity of the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with values, preferences, and self-reflection. Then, the researchers Continue reading “Don’t ask me, ask my brain.”
Besides its surprisingly good action cinematography, ‘Minority Report’ owes its huge success to the deep discomfort it created in viewers. The movie constructs a future world where law enforcement makes use of ‘Pre-Cogs’ — humans who have been given the gift of foresight through genetic modification, so that they can see crimes before they happen. When a crime is predicted, the purported criminal is promptly apprehended and the crime prevented. The movie forces the viewer to confront a host of questions that have troubled philosophers for millennia.
If the future is predetermined, in what sense can we be said to be free? Central to our commonsense conception of freedom is the inherent possibility of doing otherwise. If the future is closed to alternate possibilities, then there is no sense in which a murderer could have acted differently and then it seems that the act of murder is not a free act. Relatedly, if a person cannot do otherwise, is there a sense in which the person is morally responsible for the action? Hume, most famously, articulated the seemingly essential relationship between the notion of moral responsibility and the possibility of freely choosing your actions. ‘Ought implies can,’ he said. One is morally obligated to act in a certain way only if one can in fact act in such a way. If the future is predetermined, then in a clear sense the murderer could not have failed to murder. But then what sense is there to the claim that the murderer ought not to murder? And if there is no sense to be given in response to this question, there is little reason to hold the murderer morally responsible. The murderer is no different from a person who happens to slip on a banana, land on an innocent bystander, and accidentally snap his neck. The person is causally responsible for the unfortunate killing, but, since the person could not have done otherwise, is not morally responsible for it.
Ed Yong (via Pharyngula) reports on a cool study conducted by psychologist Nicholas Epley:
Epley asked different groups of volunteers to rate their own beliefs about important issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, affirmative action, the death penalty, the Iraq War, and the legalisation of marijuana. The volunteers also had to speculate about God’s take on these issues, as well as the stances of an “average American”, Bill Gates (a celebrity with relatively unknown beliefs) and George Bush (a celebrity whose positions are well-known).
The result: “In every case, [Epley] found that people’s own attitudes and beliefs matched those they suggested for God more precisely than those they suggested for the other humans.”
Ed says that Epley’s study shows that “relying on a deity to guide one’s decisions and judgments is little more than spiritual sockpuppetry.” (A sockpuppet is a “false identity through which a member of an Internet community speaks with or about himself or herself, pretending to be a different person, like a ventriloquist manipulating a hand puppet” — Wikipedia.)
I can think of at least one other plausible interpretation of this study.