Archive for the ‘Damasio’ Category

Mirror Neurons for an “Exquisitely Social Species”

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

“A unifying neural hypothesis on how individuals understand the actions and emotions of others” was presented to the world in 2004 by neuroscientists Gallese, Keysers and Rizzolatti. Our understanding of other minds, they claimed, is facilitated by “mirror neurons,” so-called because they fire when an individual performs or observes an action, and when she experiences an emotion herself or observes that emotion in someone else. The authors described mirror neurons as a system that enables humans and other social primates to simulate each other’s behaviour and internal states, thereby enabling learning, communication, and prediction of others’ actions.

Humans are an exquisitely social species. Our survival and success depends crucially on our ability to thrive in complex social situations. One of the most striking features of our experience of others is its intuitive nature. This implicit grasp of what other people do or feel will be the focus of our review. We will posit that, in our brain, there are neural mechanisms (mirror mechanisms) that allow us to directly understand the meaning of the actions and emotions of others without any explicit reflective mediation. Conceptual reasoning is not necessary for this understanding. [Gallese et al, 2004, p 396]

The mirror neuron hypothesis sparked a storm of interest among scientists and philosophers concerned with the human mind. It sparked controversy too, with some researchers cautioning that the data vastly underdetermines the interpretation placed on it, and that animal studies have been extrapolated to conclusions about the human species. This caution is justified, but so is the excitement. The bare facts of what has been discovered so far are hard to reconcile with any hypothesis that could be considered boring, and the current pace of discovery suggests that we will soon know much more. If the Gallese/Keysers/Rizzolatti theory is even approximately right, neuroscience is giving birth to an intellectual revolution with the potential to profoundly change both scientific and common-sense understanding of how our minds work. (more…)

The Separateness of Persons

Monday, January 16th, 2012

We are born into this world profoundly alone, our strange, unbounded minds trapped in our ordinary, earthwormy bodies—the condition that led Nietzche to refer to us, wonderingly, as “hybrids of plants and of ghosts.” We spend our lives trying to overcome this fundamental separation, but we can never entirely surmount it. Try as we might, we can’t gain direct access to other people’s inner worlds—to their thoughts and feelings, their private histories, their secret desires, their deepest beliefs. Nor can we grant them direct access to our own. [Schulz, 2010, p 252]

The feeling of separateness from other people, so eloquently expressed by Kathryn Schulz in her book, Being Wrong, is rooted in a theory which almost all of us learn at our mother’s knee between the ages of three and six—the theory of other minds.

Human beings are self-conscious creatures. Your brain supports a model of the world, part of which is a model of yourself. When you were around four, your self-model became sophisticated enough to support a secondary, higher-level model—a model of your model of the world, and within that, a model of your model of yourself. You began to draw the subjective-objective distinction. Or to put it more simply, as Kathryn Schulz has, you realized you could be wrong about things. Reality was not always the way you perceived and believed it to be. (more…)

Persons in Law

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

We cannot understand the self by examining people in isolation.   Too many important aspects of personhood only appear in a social context.

Thomas Metzinger’s work describes the self-model in which our ideas about ourselves are rooted.  The model is (usually) transparent, in that we operate through it without (usually) any awareness of a distinction between the model and the underlying reality.  It is a model to which we have a profound emotional attachment—most of us care, deeply, about ourselves in the past, present, and future.  As a result, our self-models are motivational.  They spur and shape our actions.  We evaluate possible courses of action by putting our self-models through various simulations, and responding emotionally to the different outcomes we imagine.  The research of Antonio Damasio has begun to show how our emotions must inform our executive decision-making processes in order for us to make what are commonly recognized as ‘rational’ decisions.

Most of what Metzinger and Damasio have to say about the self is as true of isolated individuals as of human beings immersed in society.  But a case can be made that the concept of the self could only have emerged in a social context.   I have argued that our concepts, particularly the entities recognized by our ontology, reflect what is important to us. The spatio-temporal boundaries between ‘things’ are artificial, not natural; they do not exist in nature, but are imposed upon nature by human beings.   A person is an entity whose boundaries roughly coincide with those of a human biological organism.  A person is commonly considered to begin sometime around birth; sooner in some traditions, later in others.  The person is usually thought to persist until biological death; but many people believe that it continues much longer than that; and some believe that if the organism is sufficiently damaged, then the person may cease to exist before its organism dies.

Among other things, a person is a unit of moral and legal responsibility—a bearer of enduring rights and privileges, duties and obligations, merits and demerits, assets and liabilities, debts and credits.  Those attributes of individual persons result from, and depend on, the fact that individuals are members of a larger society.  If a human being is isolated for a long time from other human beings, legal obligation disappears from his life, and moral obligation, if it does not entirely disappear, is vastly curtailed.  I would not go so far as to say that an isolated human being ceases to be a person; only that certain central and important aspects of personhood simply disappear from his or her life.  Having moral and legal rights and obligations is a central and important aspect of personhood. (more…)

Rationality and its Limits

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Rationality depends on emotion.  A.R. Damasio’s Descartes’ Error – Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain reveals how the human ability to make rational, prudent choices fails unless it is supported by normal emotional responses.  His findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom which portrays emotions as enemies to reason – impulsive forces which urge us to make poor choices, and which must be held in check by cool logic and deduction.

Damasio shows that rational behaviour results from a bottom-up process that begins with subconsciously learned emotional responses that can be detected in galvanic skin responses (GSR’s), and other physical signs.  This unconscious learning preceeds, and helps to facilitate, cognitive learning.

Moreover, people require these learned emotional responses to make rational, self-interested choices, even after they have cognitively ‘figured out’ what choices are in their interests.

Both results seem counterintuitive, the latter most strikingly.  Most people who consider themselves sane think that if they know what is in their best interests, they will choose accordingly.  They won’t, says Damasio, unless that knowledge is supported by feeling. (more…)

The Neurology of Anticipation

Friday, August 27th, 2010

In the previous post, I asked what is the difference between having a painful experience myself and feeling sympathy for someone else’s pain.  The answer seems pretty clear.  My experience of my own pain is neurologically ‘hard-wired’, but there is no direct neural connection between other persons and myself which exposes me to their pain.  Things could have been different.  If we, like the Na’vi of the movie Avatar, had the physiological equivalent of USB-ports which allowed us to connect our nervous systems at will, then we could experience the pains, pleasures, and other sensations of other people while we were connected to them.  The ‘privacy’ of our minds is an anatomical limitation, not a metaphysical necessity.

A parallel question can be asked about future experience.  What is the difference between anticipating my own pain and having sympathy for a friend whose pain I can foresee?  As in the case of present pain, there is a vivid difference in my experience between anticipating having pain, and expecting you to have pain.   There is nothing resembling a direct neural connection between myself, now, and myself in the future, to explain this difference.  Nevertheless, neuroscience can help us understand it: why it is so vivid, why expectation of my own pain makes me anxious rather than just sympathetically concerned, why foreseeing pain in my own future feels like an unavoidable problem for me in a way that foreseeing your pain does not.

Another difference is that sympathy for others, unlike self-concern, seems at least partially under conscious control.  When we feel we cannot afford it, we tend to dial it down or switch it off altogether.  It feels optional, in contrast to the sense of unavoidability that clings to self-concern.

In his book, Hardwired Behaviour, Laurence Tancredi of the New York University School of Medicine offers some clues to an answer from a neurological perspective.  The engine of self-concern is a cyclical interaction between the limbic system, which generates our emotions (giving emotional ‘meaning’ to experience), and the prefrontal cortex, which makes plans and decisions. (more…)