Sunday, February 26, 2012

God and tumor in the temporal lobe

God gains upper hand on Mr. Y.

Mr. Y. was just forty five years old when he succumbed to brain tumor. He was working in private hospital as a ward attendant. Till he became prey to the killer tumor in the brain he was a man of minimal religiosity. He just had faith in the Allah, the almighty and his messenger Prophet Muhammad; and that was all. He rarely observed such rituals of faith as five-times-a-day prayer, attending mass-prayer at the mosque on Fridays, observing fast in the month of Ramadan etc. But he was a very dutiful hospital attendant caring the patients to his best.
During the Ramadan fasting last year he became very religious and less dutiful. He spent most part of the days in prayers and reading Koran. Sometimes he sat lost in meditation and occasionally he conversed with some unseen ethereal personalities. Sometimes he was seen weeping. Seeing these grossly abnormal behaviour his wife thought of a psychiatric consultation.  When he was brought to me for psychiatric examination he had full grown beard and dark patch of the forehead indicating frequent prostration (sujood).  He was very co-operative and communicative throughout the clinical examination. In the psychiatric interview he admitted that it all started with a strange experience of being near the Allah almighty and he felt extreme happiness. Since that moment he decided to be more religious and observe the rituals devotedly. Following the first experience of the nearness of the God he had had visions of angels and some other superior beings. He said that sometimes he felt that his own self and the cosmos became one and the same. He wanted to go to Mecca to do the Hajj rituals and desired to die there. In the clinical examination I noticed lapses in his short term memory. There was also mild degree of paralysis of the right arm and leg. His wife gave a history of partial fits a few days ago. The muscle jerks were confined to the right side of face and upper part of the body. She thought the muscle jerks were unimportant because he didn’t become unconscious during the seizure.
On the clear indication of some organic abnormality in the left temporal lobe of his brain I referred him to a hospital equipped with a neurosurgery department.  In the work up there, Mr. Y. was found to be a case of left sided temporal lobe tumor. He was subjected to brain surgery and the microscopic examination of the removed tumor clinched the diagnosis malignant cancer called anaplastic oligodendroglioma. Mr. Y. withstood the brain surgery and recovered very well, but he died during the course of chemotherapy in a cancer centre, probably due to sudden stoppage of his heart.

Why Mr. Y. became hyper-religious?

Believers, when they come to know that they are suffering from a fatal illness, become more religious and seek solace from God, their savior and protector. But Mr. Y. was quite unaware of the cancer gnawing his brain. Obviously the reason for his over-religiosity was an abnormal growth in his left temporal lobe which triggered hyper-activity of the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system is the set of brain structures that forms the inner border of the cortex. The term "limbic" comes from the Latin “limbus”, for "border" or "edge".  It consists of following structures:
  1. Hippocampus: Required for the formation of long-term memories.
  2. Amygdala: Involved in signaling the cortex of motivationally significant stimuli such as those related to reward and fear.
  3. Fornix: carries signals from the hippocampus to the mammillary bodies and septal nuclei.
  4. Mammillary body: Important for the formation of memory.
  5. Septal nuclei: Located in front of the septum or partition wall between the ventricles or cavities of brain on either side. The septal nuclei provide critical interconnections between different parts of the limbic system.

The limbic system operates by influencing the endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system. It is highly interconnected with the nucleus accumbens, the brain's pleasure center, which plays a role in sexual arousal and the "high" derived from certain intoxicating drugs. The limbic system is also tightly connected to the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for logical thinking and executive functions of the mind. Some scientists contend that this connection is related to the pleasure obtained from solving problems. To cure severe emotional disorders, this connection was sometimes surgically severed, a procedure of psychosurgery, called a prefrontal lobotomy (this is actually a misnomer). Patients who underwent this procedure often became passive and lacked all motivation.
Much of our knowledge about the functions of the limbic system comes from the study of symptoms of patients suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy. Ordinarily epilepsy is characterized by suddenly falling and unconscious and violent jerking of the whole body lasting for about a few minutes. This type of epilepsy is commonly known as grand mal type of epilepsy. But in temporal lobe epilepsy, which originate from some part of the temporal lobe of brain and remain confined to the temporal, there will not be any violent jerking of the body. The most striking feature of the temporal lobe epilepsy is emotional outbursts which is equivalent of the violent jerking of the body in the common type of epilepsy. Temporal lobe epilepsy patients after an attack may say “my feelings were on fire.” The emotional outbursts range from intense ecstasy to profound despair. In some cases there may be a sense impending doom or even fits of extreme rage and terror. Women patients sometimes experience orgasm during temporal lobe seizure. But most remarkable of all are those patients who have deeply moving spiritual experience, including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God. Everything about them is imbued with cosmic significance. They may say, “Finally I have insight into the true nature of the cosmos.” They may have a sense of enlightenment. Even though temporal lobe seizure last for a few seconds, the whole personality of the individual drastically changes and get tuned to the spirituality they experience during seizures.
A relevant question is what would be the result if temporal lobe epilepsy occurs in an atheist? I don’t think an atheist may become believer or religious due to the emotional experiences caused by temporal lobe seizures, provided his/her logical system in the mind is strong enough to rationalize the emotional outbursts he/she is experiencing is due to abnormality of the temporal lobe of the brain.
Some so-called cognitive scientists believed that the limbic system in the temporal lobe is the “God Module” of the human brain gifted by the God almighty. One such cognitive scientist created a device to stimulate the temporal lobe to experience godliness.

Story of the “God Helmet”

The "God Helmet" or “Koren Helmet” refers to an experimental apparatus devised by a psychology professor Stanley Koren. It was conceived by Koren and Canadian psychologist Michael Persinger to study the effects of subtle stimulation of the temporal lobes. Reports by participants of a "sensed presence" while wearing the God helmet brought public attention and it has appeared in several TV documentaries. The device has been used in Persinger's research in the field of neuro-theology, the study of the brain parts involved in religious beliefs and spirituality. The apparatus, placed on the head of an experimental subject, generates very weak fluctuating magnetic fields that Persinger refers to as "complex." These fields are approximately as strong as those generated by a land line telephone handset or an ordinary hair dryer, but far weaker than that of an ordinary fridge magnet. Persinger reports that many subjects have reported "mystical experiences and altered states" while wearing the God Helmet. Anecdotal reports by journalists, academics and documentary film makers have been mixed and the effects reported by Persinger have not been independently replicated.
The scientist and science writer Richard Dawkins, appearing in the BBC science documentary series Horizon, did not have a 'sensed presence' experience, but instead felt at times 'slightly dizzy', 'quite strange' and had sensations in his limbs and changes in his breathing. He summarized his experience as follows: "It pretty much felt as though I was in total darkness, with a helmet on my head and pleasantly relaxed". 
The so-called religiosity or spirituality propelled by the abnormalities of the temporal lobe and limbic system is nothing but emotional fits or seizures originating in some part of the temporal lobe.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Suicidal mind and suicidal brain

A vignette

About six months back a retired government executive and his wife came to my consulting office and narrated the story of his son Mr. S.’s alcohol addiction and sought for my help in rescuing him from the clutches of the liquor. I interviewed the couple in detail and got an idea how his son became alcohol addict. The couple reluctantly narrated the story. Mr. S. married a beautiful girl, Ms. V., by arrangement. They had had a son, who is now 7 years old. Ms. V. started an affair with one of the common friends of the young couple. Mr. S. came know about his wife’s affair accidentally. Ms. V. confessed, apologized, and promised to eschew the affair forthwith. Mr. S. agreed to continue the marital relationship, but he started drinking to immerse the agony. He became mentally and physically dependent on alcohol. I asked the couple who narrated tragic story to bring his son to the deaddiction centre for the treatment of alcoholism. I also warned them of the suicidal risk of their son. I explained to them that morbid jealousy and associated depression may prompt their son to commit suicide. Added to it alcoholism doubled the risk of suicide. He required treatment for alcoholism and cognitive psychotherapy for his depression. I requested them bring their son to me even if he is not willing to get admitted for deaddiction treatment, because the urgent need is psychotherapy to avert the suicidal risk. The senior couple didn’t turn up again, nor did they bring their son to me. Recently I came to know about the sad news of Mr. S.’s suicide by hanging.    
Changing views on suicide
The term ‘suicide’ has only a relatively recent history. Roy O’Connor, fellow of the International Academy for Suicide Research and a member of the American Association of Suicidology, says there is no recorded use before the year 1634. Previously the act of suicide was referred to in various forms including self-destruction and self-killing. In the Old Testament and New Testament of the Bible there are many examples of self-killing. The Bible mentions six specific people who committed suicide: Abimelech (Judges 9:54), Saul (1 Samuel 31:4), Saul's armor-bearer (1 Samuel 31:4-6), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), Zimri (1 Kings 16:18), and Judas (Matthew 27:5). Five of them were wicked, sinful men (not enough is said regarding Saul's armor-bearer to make a judgment as to his character). Some consider Samson an instance of suicide (Judges 16:26-31), but Samson's goal was to kill the Philistines, not himself. These instances are just neutral descriptions without any positive or negative allusions.  According to the Bible, suicide is not what determines whether a person gains entrance into heaven. 
For the ancient Greeks, suicide was seen as acceptable if it were undertaken for reasons that were viewed as justifiable, such as grief or to avoid dishonor. The Romans too viewed suicide without judgment.
From around 400 Common Era (CE), the Christian Church began to express disquiet about the act of suicide. In the Council of Braga (now in Portugal) held in 566 CE “prohibited masses to be said for the souls of those dying by suicide and the comfort for them of a Christian burial in hallowed ground.” (Discovering God’s Will For Your Life by Ray Pritchard p.10) In the fifteenth century suicide led to sever sanctions due to the influence of the Christian Church. The Church’s moral objection to suicide seemed to centre on what was believed to be a loss or rejection of hope, and thus taking a ‘stand’ against God.
The development of psychiatry as a distinct discipline within medicine  brought suicide into the realm of illness.
Types of suicide
Emile Durkheim
One of the most influential writers on suicide was the French sociologist Emil Durkheim. He asserted that suicide did not take place in isolation, but was  instead a consequence of interplay between the individual and societal pressures and influences. In his writing he proposed four ‘types’ of suicides:
  1. Egoistic suicide. Suicide occurs due to marginalization, with little social support and a sense of estrangement from society. The greater the disconnection between individual and society, the greater is the risk of suicide.
  2. Altruistic suicide. It might be accurate to describe altruistic suicide as the opposite of egoistic suicide, in that suicide occurs when the individual has become too integrated within society. That is, the experience of societal expectation and pressure becomes too great, with the individual feeling unable to meet these demands.  
  3. Anomic suicide. An individual is in need of stability. He/she should be in equilibrium with his/her status within the society. External changes, such as loss of status cause emotional distress for the individual, who no longer has a sense of containment and clarity regarding his/her role. Increase in suicides during times of economic recession has a link with this type of suicide.
  4. Fatalistic suicide. Opposite to anomic suicide, fatalistic suicide occurs when  and individual  feels excessively controlled, with little or no sense of control over their own future or destiny.

Suicide has prominence in other cultural and religious beliefs. In the Hindu religion suicide is not seen as acceptable for males, whereas for females the idea of suicide after bereavement as honourable is held, though it is prohibited now.
Prevention of suicide
1.         EdwinS. Shneidman (1918 - 2009) father of contemporary suicidology (the branch of science which study suicides) suggested that the key to preventing suicide is in the direct study of the human emotions. On the other hand Professor C. Van Heeringen, stressed the importance of understanding suicidal brain.(British Journal of Psychiatry 2003, 183:282-284) 
Cognitive process leading to suicide
A large number of studies have evidenced the existence of dysfunctional cognitive processes which are associated to a vulnerability to suicide, for example decision making and problem resolving processes. These deficits could represent factors associated to stress sensitivity, notably social. In stressful situations, they could increase the individual’s risk of experiencing feelings of despair, psychological pain, ruminations, and suicidal ideation; and in certain cases, to commit suicide.
Aron T. Beck
According to the American psychiatrist Aron T. Beck, who is considered as the father of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), the critical role that hopelessness plays in suicide is illustrated in the sequence of events that leads a depressed individual to commit suicide. The person systematically construes his or her experience in a negative way and anticipates dire outcomes for his or her problems. Ultimately, the person is drawn into an idea of suicide as way out of his or her “insoluble problems”. (Relationship Between Hopelessness AndUltimate Suicide by Aron T. Beck) The central role of hopelessness in suicidal idea formation has been established by empirical researches.
Suicidal brain
Frontal Cortex (orange)
It has been shown that these cognitive difficulties are associated to the dysfunction of particular brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex and other regions. The frontal lobes appear to be essential, with the right frontal lobe having a central role in the neural network for social cognition, including inferences about feelings of others. The ventral medial frontal regions are also important, possibly through their connections with the amygdala and other limbic structures which give them a key role in the neural network for behavioural modulation based upon emotion and drives. It has been difficult to dissociate social cognitive processes from the behavioural expression of these processes, but information is rapidly increasing based upon recent neuropsychological and neuro-imaging studies. Brain regions shown to be involved in suicidal behaviour constitute what may be called the ‘suicidal brain’.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


A terrifying dream of Mr. M.
One night Mr. M., 43 year old man working as clerk in the postal department under the government of India, had a terrifying dream of being chased by a mad elephant. He woke up in panic. When he realized it was a dream, he became calm and slipped into placid sleep. In the morning he memorized the dream and pondered on it. He tried to rationalize that the dream was a memory in sleep of the TV footages he had seen recently in which a mad elephant rampaged a village and killed a man. But when he saw the same dream for a second time after about one week, he became anxious and nervous. He thought of some bad omen. So he approached the astrologer-priest of the nearby Hindu temple. The priest “interpreted” the dreaming of mad elephant as an ominous sign of a calamity awaiting him in the near future and suggested some remedial ritual which was very expensive one. Mr. M. became more anxious and couldn’t sleep peacefully at night. One of his friends in the office advised him to go for a psychiatric consultation to alleviate the anxiety and tension instead of spending money on the remedial ritual. Mr. M. came to me for consultation and I gave cognitive psychotherapy which mainly consisted of psycho-education on dreams.
What Cognitive psychology says on dreams?
In cognitive psychology dreams are successions of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep. In mammals and birds, sleep is divided into two broad types: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Each type has a distinct set of associated physiological, neurological, and psychological features. Dreams mainly occur in the REM stage of sleep—when brain-activity is high and resembles that of being awake. REM sleep is revealed by continuous movements of the eyes during sleep. At times, dreams may occur during other stages of sleep. However, these dreams tend to be much less vivid or memorable. Dreams can have varying natures, such as frightening, exciting, magical, melancholic, adventurous, or sexual.
The events in dreams are generally outside the control of the dreamer, with the exception of lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is self-aware. At times dreams can make creative thought to occur to the person or give a sense of inspiration. In such dreams there may be enlightenment on the solution for the problem on which the individual has been pondering for some time.
‘Meaning’ of dreams
Opinions about the symbolic meaning of the contents of dreams have varied and shifted through time and culture. Dream interpretations date back to year 3000 Before Common Era. The earliest recorded dreams were acquired from materials dating back approximately 5000 years, in Mesopotamia, where they were documented on clay tablets. In the Greek and Roman periods, the people believed that dreams were direct messages from the gods, or from the dead and that they predicted the future.
Cover of First German Edition of Freud's Book
Sigmund Freud, who developed the discipline of psychoanalysis, wrote extensively about dream theories and interpretations. He explained dreams as manifestations of our deepest desires and anxieties, often relating to repressed childhood memories or obsessions. In The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, Freud presented a psychological technique to interpret dreams and devised a series of guidelines to understand the symbols and motifs that appear in our dreams. He said that knives and pencils always represented penis, while bowels and caves stood for vagina.
Sigmund Freud
C G Jung
Carl Gustav Jung was a student of Freud who later rejected many of Freud's theories. Jung expanded on Freud's idea that dream content relates to the dreamer's unconscious desires. He described dreams as messages to the dreamer and argued that dreamers should pay attention for their own good. He came to believe that dreams present the dreamer with revelations that can uncover and help to resolve emotional or religious problems and fears. Jung wrote that recurring dreams show up repeatedly to demand attention, suggesting that the dreamer is neglecting an issue related to the dream. Jung believed that memories formed throughout the day also play a role in dreaming. These memories leave impressions for the unconscious to deal with when the ego is at rest. The unconscious mind re-enacts these glimpses of the past in the form of a dream. Jung called this a day residue.
The dream dictionaries created in line with Freudian and Jungian dream interpretations say fantastic things as: “To see an abbot in your dream suggests that someone has power over you and is making you do things that you do not necessarily want to do. You are feeling confined or restricted. The dream indicates that you will experience many obstacles and setback before achieving success and prestige.”
History of dream interpretation
Jacob's Dream: Ladder of Angels
Christians mostly shared their beliefs with the Hebrews and thought that dreams were of the supernatural element because the Old Testament had frequent stories of dreams with divine inspiration. The most famous of these dream stories was Jacob's dream that stretched from Earth to Heaven. Many Christian men preached that God talked to his people through their dreams.
The Greeks shared their beliefs with the Egyptians on how to interpret good and bad dreams, and the idea of incubating dreams. Greek legend states that the god Hypnos made the people sleep by touching them with his magic wand or by fanning them with his wings. Morpheus also sent warnings and prophecies to those who slept at shrines and temples. The earliest Greek beliefs of dreams were that their gods physically visited the dreamers, where they entered through a keyhole, and exiting the same way after the divine message was given.
Dreams also helped their practice of medicine, sending sick people to particular temples. Sick Greeks visited these temples to perform various religious rites, sleep, and hope to have a dream that assured a return to good health. They slept for many days, sometimes trying for weeks or months until they had the "right" dream. The great Greek physician Hippocrates (469-399 BCE) had a simple dream theory: during the day, the soul receives images; during the night, it produces images. 
Dreams and brain activity
Position of Thalamus in the brain
Harvard University psychiatrists John Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley proposed a new theory of dreams based on their neurobiological studies. The new theory known as the activation-synthesis hypothesis was first published in the AmericanJournal of Psychiatry in December 1977. They observed the differences in neuronal activity of the lowest part of the brain known as brainstem during waking and REM sleep. The new hypothesis proposes that dreams result from brain activation during REM sleep. During sleep the eyes are closed, so that the brain to some degree becomes isolated from the outside world.
All signals from the outside world coming through senses must pass through the thalamus before they reach the brain cortex. Thalamus is a relay station for all sensations coming through sensory organs. During sleep thalamic activity is suppressed. This means that the brain mainly works with signals from itself. A well-known phenomenon in dynamical physical systems where the level of input and output from the system is low is that oscillation makes spontaneous resonance patterns to occur. Hence, dreams may be the simple consequence of neural oscillations occurring in the brain during sleep.
Three explanations for prophetic dreams
Dr. Robert Stickgold
Pamela, Houston, Texas asked Dr Stickgold, Director, Center for Sleep and Cognition, Harvard Medical School:  How would you explain that what I dream comes to pass either that day when I get up or the next day?
The answer in full text: “I have three possible explanations for this. The first is that humans are very poor at statistics, and that random coincidences are almost always taken as being meaningful. (In fact, this is a great advantage, because it is the basic mechanism by which we discover causal relationships. We just seem to overdo it.) For example, if the average person has three or four dreams a year about something bad happening to one of their parents, then about one person out of 25 will have such a dream within a couple of days before the death of one of their parents. Even when there seem to be details that match, the odds of such matches occurring by chance are much, much higher than most people expect. (Probably the best example is the fact that if you have 23 people in a room, there's a 50:50 chance that two of them will have the same birthday.) Another part of this explanation is that we will often call two things a match when, in reality, most everything about them is different, but a few most important features match. Again, this leads to a misestimate of the likelihood of this occurring by coincidence.
“The second explanation is that it's not a coincidence, but reflects a nonconscious calculation by your dreaming brain. It's a variant of the question, how come when I think my wife's going to be angry at me for forgetting to do something, she often is? Thus, you might unconsciously have picked up indications about someone's health or feeling on a topic, and then dreamed about it. When it turns out to be right, we're always struck by this predictive power of dreams.
“The third explanation is what I call the "woo-woo" explanation, which is that the universe doesn't work the way mainstream science (myself included) thinks it does, and that dreams have a magical access to the future. For this to be true, many of the most fundamental laws of nature that scientists have discovered would have to be wrong. But this has happened at least twice in the last hundred years (relativity and quantum mechanics), so there's a reasonable likelihood that it's going to happen again. Having said that, I don't personally take this possibility seriously, because there haven't been any well-documented cases of someone, like you, being able to do this in a way that can't be explained by one of my first two explanations.”

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Consciousness of an unconscious person
Canadian-American cognitive scientist Steven Arthur Pinker wrote in the TIME Science Magazine of Jan. 29, 2007:  “The young women had survived the car crash, after a fashion. In the five months since parts of her brain had been crushed, she could open her eyes but didn't respond to sights, sounds or jabs. In the jargon of neurology, she was judged to be in a persistent vegetative state. In crueler everyday language, she was a vegetable.
“So picture the astonishment of British and Belgian scientists as they scanned her brain using a kind of MRI that detects blood flow to active parts of the brain. When they recited sentences, the parts involved in language lit up. When they asked her to imagine visiting the rooms of her house, the parts involved in navigating space and recognizing places ramped up. And when they asked her to imagine playing tennis, the regions that trigger motion joined in. Indeed, her scans were barely different from those of healthy volunteers. The woman, it appears, had glimmerings of consciousness…”
Two problems
Questions once confined to speculations of spiritualists and theologians are now at the forefront of cognitive neuroscience. There are two questions on the problem of consciousness in cognitive science. The philosopher David Chalmers has categorized them into two: Easy Problem and the Hard Problem.
The easy problem
The Easy Problem is to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental functions, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved. Thanks to Freudian psychoanalytic theory the term unconscious became famous a century ago. But the Freudian ‘unconscious mind’ has nothing to do with the cognitive processes occurring without conscious awareness of the individual. Freudian theories are hermeneutical. Hermeneutics rests on interpretations only.
Some cognitive processes occurring in the brain such as daydreams, plans for the day, solving the problems, pleasures and peeves, etc. are conscious. You can ponder them, discuss them and let them guide your behavior. Other processes like applying the rules that order the words as you speak and the sequence of muscle contractions that allow you to drive a car or hold a pen are unconscious. They must be in the brain somewhere because you couldn't walk and talk and see without them, but they are sealed off from your planning and reasoning circuits, and you can't say a thing about them.
Hard problem
The second problem is explaining how subjective experiences, such as “feeling green” when one sees green colour, arise from the neural processes in the brain. When one sees a green thing, not only does it look different from a red thing, remind him/her of other green things and prompt to say, "That's green", but it also actually looks green: it produces an “experience” or “feeling” of sheer greenness that isn't reducible to anything else. American jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong once said in response to a request to define jazz: "When you got to ask what it is, you never get to know." The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem remains a mystery.
The Astonishing Hypothesis
The Astonishing Hypothesis is a 1994 book by scientist Francis Crick about consciousness. Crick is one of the co-discoverers of the molecular structure of DNA in 1953. Later he became a theorist for neurobiology and the study of the brain. The Astonishing Hypothesis is mostly concerned with establishing a basis for scientific study of consciousness. Crick places the study of consciousness within a larger social context. Human consciousness is central to human existence and so scientists find themselves approaching topics traditionally left to philosophy and religion.
The Astonishing Hypothesis posits that "a person's mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of the cells of the brain and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them. Crick claims that scientific study of the brain during the 20th century lead to acceptance of consciousness, free will, and the human soul as subjects for scientific investigation.
Crick had discussed the relationship between science and religion in his earlier book What Mad Pursuit. Crick's view of this relationship was that religions can be wrong about scientific matters and that part of what science does is to confront the errors that exist within religious traditions. For example, the idea of a mechanism for the evolution of life by natural selection conflicts with some views on creation of life by divine intervention. Crick's subtitle for The Astonishing Hypothesis is The Scientific Search for the Soul. Crick argued that traditional conceptualizations of the soul as a non-material being must be replaced by a materialistic understanding of how the brain produces mind.
In his review of Crick's book, J. J. Hopfield (Science magazine, 4 February 1994) concluded that, “The book should be read by scientists for its eloquent attempt to put consciousness, which we so much equate with the essence of our humanity, into the realm of science.”
Crick's ‘astonishing’ hypothesis is: "You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."
The brain as machine
Scientists have exorcised the ghost from the machine not because they are mechanistic killjoys who spoil the enthusiasm or fun of others, but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain. Using functional MRI scan, cognitive neuroscientists can almost read people's thoughts from the blood flow in their brains. They can tell, for instance, whether a person is thinking about a face or a place or whether a picture the person is looking at is of a bottle or a shoe. And consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have false visions and hearings (hallucinations) that are indistinguishable from reality. Chemicals that affect the brain can profoundly alter how people think, feel and see. Examples are intoxicants like cocaine, alcohol etc. and drugs like chlorpromazine, diazepam etc. Surgery that severs the corpus callosum, separating the two hemispheres (a treatment for epilepsy), spawns two consciousnesses within the same skull, as if the soul could be cleaved in two with a knife.
Story of the murderous left hand
More than fifty years ago a middle aged woman came to the world renowned neurologist Kurt Goldstein.The lady appeared normal in all respects of behaviour and communication. But she had a strange complaint—every now and then her left hand would come unto her throat and try to strangle her. She often had to restrain forcefully the murderous left hand with her right one. Her primary physician suspected some mental disorder and referred to her many psychiatrists, but none of them could find any mental abnormality with her. A detailed examination by Dr. Goldstein established that she was neurologically and mentally normal. But Dr. Goldstein came up with an explanation for her or rather her left hand’s bizarre behaviour. Each of the two hemispheres of brain is specialized for different mental capacities. The right hemisphere controls the muscles of the left side and vice versa. The two hemispheres are connected with thick band of fibers called corpus callosum that allows the two sides to communicate and stay in sync. This woman’s right hemisphere, which controls the movements of left hand, seemed to have some latent suicidal tendencies—a genuine urge to kill herself. Initially these urges may have been held in check by the inhibitory messages sent across the corpus callosum from the more rational left hemisphere. But if she had suffered, as Goldstein surmised, damage to the corpus callosum as the result of a silent stroke, that inhibition would be removed. The suicidal right side of her brain and the murderous left hand were now free to attempt to strangle her. The neuroscientist VS Rmachandran commented on Dr. Goldstein’s explanation: “This explanation is not as far-fetched as it seems, since it’s has been well known for some time that the right hemisphere tends to be more emotionally volatile than the left. Patients who have a stroke in the left brain are often anxious, depressed or worried about their prospects for recovery. The reason seems to be that with the left brain injured; their right brain takes over and frets about everything. In contrast, people who suffer damage to the right hemisphere tend to be blissfully indifferent to their predicament. The left hemisphere just doesn’t get all that upset.” (PHANTOMS IN THE BRAIN p.12)
Brain circuitry is the basis of intact consciousness
Let us consider a peculiar disorder in which a person holds adelusion, an incorrigible false belief, that spouse, parent, or other close family member has been replaced by an identical-looking impostor. This disorder is called Capgras delusion. It is named after Joseph Capgras (1873–1950), a French psychiatrist who first described the disorder in 1923 on the case of a French woman who complained that corresponding "doubles" had taken the places of her husband and other people she knew.
Some of the first clues to the possible causes of the Capgras delusion were suggested by the study of brain-injured patients who had developed prosopagnosia in which patients are unable to recognize faces consciously, despite being able to recognize other types of visual objects. In 1997, William Hirstein and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran reported similar findings in a paper published on a single case of a patient with Capgras delusion after brain injury.  Ramachandran also portrayed this case in his book Phantoms in the Brain. Since the patient was capable of feeling emotions and recognizing faces but could not feel emotions when recognizing familiar faces, Ramachandran hypothesizes that the origin of Capgras syndrome is a disconnection between the temporal cortex, where faces are usually recognized and the limbic system, involved in emotions.
Consciousness exists when brain is alive
When the physiological activity of the brain ceases, as far as anyone can tell the person's consciousness goes out of existence. Attempts to contact the souls of the dead (a pursuit of serious scientists a century ago) turned up only cheap magic tricks, and near death experiences are not the eyewitness reports of a soul parting company from the body but symptoms of oxygen starvation experienced by brain and reflected on to the weakened consciousness.
Tackling the hard problem
Daniel Dennet
To appreciate the hardness of the hard problem, consider how you could ever know whether you see colors the same way that I do. Sure, you and I both call grass green, but perhaps you see grass as having the color that I would describe, if I were in your shoes, as purple. Or ponder whether there could be a true zombie—a being who acts just like you or me but in whom there is no self actually feeling anything.
No one knows what to do with the Hard Problem. Some people may see it as an opening to sneak the soul back in, but this just re-labels the mystery of "consciousness" as the mystery of "the soul"—a word game that provides no insight.
Many philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, deny that the Hard Problem exists at all. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Murder in the class room
A report published in the Indian newspaper The Hindu on February 10, 2012 reads: “Tension gripped Armenian Street in Parry's Corner on Thursday as word spread that a teacher had been murdered in a private school in the area. The St. Mary's Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School which is nestled behind a church is 167 years old. Around 1,500 students study in the school. The class IX student, who carried a kitchen knife, had attacked a teacher, Uma Maheshwari, while she was correcting notes in a classroom on the first floor of the building. According to a police officer investigating the case, the boy had purchased the knife on Tuesday from a shop for Rs.20 and planned to carry out the act on Wednesday itself.”

A psychologist’s view
Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, wrote in the Saturday Essay titled “What's Wrong With the Teenage Mind?” in the Wall street journal of January 28, 2012: "‘what was he thinking?’ It's the familiar cry of bewildered parents trying to understand why their teenagers act the way they do.”
The Saturday Essay continues: “How does the boy who can thoughtfully explain the reasons never to drink and drive end up in a drunken crash? Why does the girl who knows all about birth control find herself pregnant by a boy she doesn't even like? What happened to the gifted, imaginative child who excelled through high school but then dropped out of college, drifted from job to job and now lives in his parents' basement?”

Adolescence has always been troubled and turbulent
Why so? The answer is: due to teenage weirdness. Weirdness means a spell or charm. Developmental psychologists and neuroscientists have now come up with an explanation of the foundations of that weirdness. The new concept is that there are two different neurological and psychological systems that operate while childhood blossom into adulthood. Alison Gopnik writes: “Over the past two centuries, and even more over the past generation, the developmental timing of these two systems has changed. That, in turn, has profoundly changed adolescence and produced new kinds of adolescent woe. The big question for anyone who deals with young people today is how we can go about bringing these cogs of the teenage mind into sync once again.”
Reward system in the brain
Reward Pathways begins in the mid brain
The first of these two systems deals with emotion and motivation. It is very closely linked to the biological and chemical changes of puberty and involves the areas of the brain that respond to rewards. Reward is an operational concept for describing the positive value an individual ascribes to an object, behavioral act or an internal physical state. It associated with a very positive feeling of well being or euphoria and pleasure. Natural rewards include those that are necessary for the survival of species, such as eating, mating, and fighting. This reward system turns the placid child into restless, turbulent, emotionally intense teenager, desperate to attain every goal, fulfill every desire and experience every sensation. Later, it turns them back into relatively placid adult.
The major neurochemical pathway of the reward system in the brain involves the mesolimbicand mesocortical pathway. The pathway begins in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain and connects to the limbic system via the nucleus accumbens, the amygdala, the hippocampus and as well as to the medial prefrontal cortex.  

Overestimation of rewards
Recent studies by the neuroscientist B.J. Casey's at Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology suggest that adolescents are reckless because they overestimate rewards. In other words adolescents find rewards more rewarding than adults do. The reward centers of the adolescent brain are much more active than those of either children or adults. Think about the incomparable intensity of first love!

Social rewards more valuable
The teenagers give much importance to the social rewards than the natural rewards pointed out earlier. This is more in the respect of their peers. In a recent study by the developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg at Temple University, teenagers did a simulated high-risk driving task while they were lying in a brain-imaging machine. The reward system of their brains lighted up much more when they thought another teenager was watching what they did—and they took more risks.

Control system
The second crucial system in the brain is that of control. This system originate from the foremost portion of the frontal cortex and reaches out to control and guide other parts of the brain, including the parts that govern motivation and emotion. This is the system that inhibits impulses and guides decision-making that encourages long-term planning and delays gratification.
The functional efficiency of the control system depends much more on learning. It becomes increasingly effective throughout childhood and continues to develop during adolescence and adulthood, as we gain more experience. You come to make better decisions by making not-so-good decisions and then correcting them. You become a good planner by making plans, implementing them and seeing the results again and again. Expertise comes with experience.
In the distant past of the human history, these systems of motivation and control were working in tandem. In the past, to become a good gatherer or hunter, cook or caregiver, you would actually practice gathering, hunting, cooking and taking care of children all through middle childhood and early adolescence. This tunes up the control system in the frontal cortex. In contemporary life, the relationship between these two systems has changed dramatically. Puberty arrives earlier, and the motivational system kicks in earlier too.At the same time, contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they'll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to practice even basic skills like cooking and caregiving. Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don't do much of anything except go to school.
The experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world is increasingly delayed, and the growth of the control system depends on just those experiences. The pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl at the University of California, Berkeley, said: “Today's adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.”

The remedy
Instead of simply giving adolescents more and more sermons on good behaviour give them extra hours of after-school classes and homework—we could try to arrange more opportunities for apprenticeship. Work develops the control system in the brain. Community-service programmes for youth is the best way to tame the overactive reward system of the adolescent brain. "Take your child to work" could become a routine practice rather than a single-day annual event, and college students could spend more time watching and helping scientists and scholars at work rather than just listening to their lectures. Summer enrichment activities like camp and travel, now so common for children whose parents have means, might be usefully alternated with summer jobs, with real responsibilities. It is better not just accept the developmental patterns of adolescent brains. We can actually shape and change them, not by sermons but by activities.