Saturday, September 26, 2015

Part I: Cognition, or the Process of Acquiring Knowledge, or Individuation

As Carl Jung put it, "In each of us there is another whom we do not know." Analytical psychology emphasizes the primary importance of the individual psyche and the personal quest for wholeness. The central concept of analytical psychology is individuation—the psychological process of integrating the opposites, including the conscious with the unconscious, while still maintaining their relative autonomy. Jung considered individuation to be the central process of human development.
Have you noticed that when you recall your first kisses, early birthdays, your earliest summer vacations, they seem to be in slow motion? "I know when I look back on a childhood summer, it seems to have lasted forever," says Baylor neuroscientist David Eagleman.

That's because when it's the "first", there are so many things to remember. The list of encoded memories is so dense, reading them back gives you a feeling that they must have taken forever. But that's an illusion. "It's a construction of the brain," says Eagleman. "The more memory you have of something, you think, 'Wow, that really took a long time!'

That may be because the brain records new experiences — especially novel and exciting experiences — differently. This is even measurable. Eagleman's lab has found that brains use more energy to represent a memory when the memory is novel. So, first memories are dense. The routines of later life are sketchy. The past wasn't really slower than the present. It just feels that way.

Older people have novel experiences — lots of them. Some of us have crazier middle ages than youths. We fall in love, out of love. Then our parenting years are filled with watching our babies' first thises, first thats. Retired people travel — if they can afford to — to duplicate some of those rushes of novel experiences.

Yes, it's true, the youngest years are chock full of novelty, but Duke's Warren Meck points out that when you hit your 60s and 70s, and time is beginning to run out, experiences get more precious and once again you remember all the details.

The Guardian:
We don't have a strong grasp of what reality "out there" even is, because we detect such an unbearably small slice of it. That small slice is called the umwelt.

Each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entirety of objective reality. Until a child learns that honeybees enjoy ultraviolet signals and rattlesnakes see infrared, it is not obvious that plenty of information is riding on channels to which we have no natural access. In fact, the part of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to us is less than a ten-trillionth of it. Our sensorium is enough to get by in our ecosystem, but no better.

The concept of the umwelt neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. I think it's a good starting point for our intuitions about our own experience.

Neuroscience is uncovering a bracing view of what's happening below the radar of our conscious awareness, but that makes your life no more "helpless, ignorant, and zombie-like" than whatever your life is now. If you were to read a cardiology book to learn how your heart pumps, would you feel less alive and more despondently mechanical? I wouldn't. Understanding the details of our own biological processes does not diminish the awe, it enhances it. Like flowers, brains are more beautiful when you can glimpse the vast, intricate, exotic mechanisms behind them.

Science News:
New findings hint that the brain has legions of assorted clocks, all tick-tocking at different rates. Some parts of the brain handle milliseconds and others keep track of decades. Some neural timers handle body movements; others monitor information streaming in from the senses. Some brain departments make timing predictions for the future, while timing of memories is handled elsewhere.

This diversity has led some scientists to focus on figuring out how the brain stitches together the results from its many clocks to reflect the outside world accurately. A deeper understanding of how the brain’s timekeepers work might also shed light on something much more profound: how the brain constructs its own reality. The brain sometimes squishes, expands or warps time, some studies suggest. Subtle timing slips have been linked to emotions, attention, drugs and disorders such as schizophrenia.

Time can be stretched even without risking life and limb. After just 10 minutes of meditation, people seem to perceive time as lasting longer than it objectively does, scientists reported in 2013. Emotions can also stretch or contract time. Looking at angry faces or scary spiders makes people think that time slowed, for instance. To further muddle matters, simply knowing that this link between emotion and time perception exists can weaken the connection, French scientists reported April 15 in Consciousness and Cognition.

As with many things in the brain, the sense (or perception) of time is not a simple matter. We do know that neurotransmitters such as dopamine and adrenaline alter our perception of time. Oliver Sacks, in his book Awakenings (also a well-known movie with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro), tells how patients suffering from rigid paralysis with symptoms similar to advanced Parkinson's disease awoke temporarily after taking L-dopamine, as if their brains, like a rusty engine that was oiled, suddenly clicked into the right sense-of-time gear.

There is also a genetic component to the sense of time. Plants, animals, fungi and bacteria, starting with the earliest, the cyanobacteria, share a similar circadian rhythm, the near 24-hour-long periodic reset of our brain and bodily functions. Fruit flies with a pathological sense of time have the same gene affected as humans with a sleep disorder named FASPS. If you doubt evolution and our shared common ancestry, this is an excellent reason for you to rethink your position.

David Eagleman:
"You have competing populations in the brain — one part that wants to tell something and one part that doesn't," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And the issue is that we're always cussing at ourselves or getting angry at ourselves or cajoling ourselves. ... What we're seeing here is that there are different parts of the brain that are battling it out. And the way that that battle tips, determines your behavior."

Eagleman's new book, Incognito, examines the unconscious part of our brains — the complex neural networks that are constantly fighting one another and influencing how we act, the things we're attracted to, and the thoughts that we have.

"All of our lives — our cognition, our thoughts, our beliefs — all of these are underpinned by these massive lightning storms of [electrical] activity [in our brains,] and yet we don't have any awareness of it," he says. "What we find is that our brains have colossal things happening in them all the time."

Our hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears, comic instincts, great ideas, fetishes, senses of humor, and desires all emerge from this strange organ — and when the brain changes, so do we. So although it's easy to intuit that thoughts don't have a physical basis, that they are something like feathers on the wind, they in fact depend directly on the integrity of the enigmatic, three-pound mission control center.

Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn't matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it's not. Whether we're talking about dilated eyes, jealousy, attraction, the love of fatty foods, or the great idea you had last week, consciousness is the smallest player in the operations of the brain. Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.

The brain is a complex system, but that doesn't mean it's incomprehensible. Our neural circuits were carved by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species' evolutionary history. Your brain has been molded by evolutionary pressures just as your spleen and eyes have been. And so has your consciousness. Consciousness developed because it was advantageous, but advantageous only in limited amounts.

In 1862, the Scottish mathematician James Clerk Maxwell developed a set of fundamental equations that unified electricity and magnetism. On his deathbed, he coughed up a strange sort of confession, declaring that "something within him" discovered the famous equations, not he. He admitted he had no idea how ideas actually came to him — they simply came to him. William Blake related a similar experience, reporting of his long narrative poem Milton: "I have written this poem from immediate dictation twelve or sometimes twenty lines at a time without premeditation and even against my will." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe claimed to have written his novella The Sorrows of Young Werther with practically no conscious input, as though he were holding a pen that moved on its own.

Continue to Part II: Consciousness, or The Agency of Multiple Selves.

More information:
» TED: "Michael Merzenich: Growing evidence of brain plasticity"
» Wikipedia: "Predictions made by Ray Kurzweil"
» Mental Floss: 12 Star Trek Gadgets That Now Exist

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