Category Archives: consciousness

Ecstasy for PTSD

There is an in-depth and interesting article in Washington Post magazine regarding recent attempts to find therapeutic effects of MDMA or Ecstasy. It is an interesting read and readers of this blog will definitely find it interesting.
Thanks to Neurophiliosophy for this elaborate blog post regarding the same.

Consciousness continued: what vegetative patients can tell us about it.

A recent New Yorker article discusses patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state and what the recent research about their consciousness status can inform us about consciousness in general. The article starts with the much publicized research of Owen’s group that found that a woman, in a vegetative state, responded to verbal instructions and could imagine playing tennis. It also discusses what blindsight and neglect can tell us about (un)consciousness.

In the nineteen-eighties, researchers determined that patients who had the syndrome—now called “neglect”—could process some objects in the left field of vision. In one experiment, a patient was shown two pictures of a house. The images were identical except that, in one, flames were emerging from a window on the left side of the façade. The patient said that she couldn’t see any difference between the images, but, when she was asked which house she would want to occupy, she almost always chose the one that was not on fire. “This is more complex than blindsight, because it means that the patient was unconsciously able to interpret and understand the symbolic meaning of the pictures,” Naccache said. “It is a powerful experiment to demonstrate that unconscious perception and unconscious cognition can reach upper levels of the brain.”

The article then goes on to discuss Naccache’s theories and here I can see parallels to both Greenfield’s (sustained representation) and Koch’s views (focus on content, an ‘ignition’ and networks).

“When we are conscious, the key property is our ability to report to ourselves or to others the content of the representation—as when I say, for example, ‘I am perceiving a flower,’ or the fact that I am conscious of speaking with you now on the telephone,” Naccache told me. “You have patients who are conscious, or who are able to make reports, but you can prove that some stimuli escaped their conscious reports, as in the case of blindsight or neglect. You can study the neural fate of these representations by showing that, even if the stimuli were not reported by the subject, they were still processed in the brain.”

Naccache believes that consciousness also requires an ability to sustain a representation over time, which Owen’s patient clearly was able to do. “In assessing apparently vegetative patients who are unable to speak, and thus report, the direction of research should be to look for sustained representation,” he said. “If we can prove by neuroimaging techniques that this person is able to actively maintain a given representation during tens of seconds, it provides strong evidence of conscious processing.”

Naccache has recently incorporated a third neurological feature into his definition of consciousness: broadcasting. In a person who is conscious, he explained, information entering the brain is processed in a few areas and then distributed—or broadcast—to many others. “It’s as though there is a kind of ignition in the brain, and then information is made available to a very rich number of regions,” Naccache told me. “And that makes sense, that the information is initially represented locally and then made available to a vast network, because the person has this ability to maintain the representation within the network for a long time.

The article also covers Giacino’s work that supports more of Greenfields views with consciousness dependent on levels of arousal (which may map to the quantity of neuronal assemblies of Susan).

The woman had what Giacino calls a “drive disorder,” in which a patient is unable to speak, move, or, possibly, think unless physically stimulated—by touch. Doctors believe that such disorders are caused by damage to the limbic lobes or to other parts of the brain that trigger and sustain behavioral responses. Some patients with drive disorders respond to drugs that increase brain levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is associated with arousal. “Imagine if the woman were in a nursing home,” Giacino said. “Somebody would stop by for three minutes, check her bedpan, and present simple commands like ‘Squeeze my hand,’ ‘Close your eyes,’ and ‘Open your mouth.’ She is not going to do any of those things, but she clearly had a significant amount of preserved function. It had to be harnessed externally.” At J.F.K. Johnson, patients with drive disorders receive behavioral and drug therapy. (Some patients improve, but prospects for recovery are largely determined by the extent and nature of the damage to the drive system.)

Giacino applied Deep brain stimulation to one such patient and got spectacular results.

The researchers speculated that, because of damage to the man’s frontal lobe, thalamus, and brain stem—areas involved in regulating arousal—the nerve signals in his brain were muted. As Nicholas Schiff, a neurologist at Weill Cornell Medical College who led the study of the man’s brain, put it, “It’s as if a radio were turned to such a low volume that you couldn’t hear the music distinctly.” He added, “The scans confirmed our expectation that this patient had a greater capacity for language than he demonstrated.”

The researchers described implanting electrodes in the man’s thalamus, which, by stimulating the brain tissue, had enabled him to regain considerable physical and mental function. “Deep brain stimulation can promote significant late functional recovery from severe traumatic brain injury,” they wrote. When the electrodes were turned on in the man’s thalamus, his speech improved, his movements became more fluid, and he was able to chew and swallow. When the researchers turned off the electrical stimulation, the man soon relapsed.

This is close to associating arousal with a minimum quantity to synchronous firing of neuronal assemblies; but what I most like is the ignition analogy of Naccache.

The great consciousness debate

Over at the Mind blog, Deric has just posted a very fascinating exchange of opinions amongst Christof Koch and Susan Greenfield regarding the neural correlates of consciousness. the exchange seems to be from Scientific American, and in it both Christof and Susan put forward their views on the NCC and then have minor quibbles over particular conscious experiences / phenomenon. While Koch believes that consciousness of a percept arises from activation of a unique set of neurons, that form assemblies and networks and the neurons themselves differ from normal neurons (he implicates a strong role for layer 5 pyramidal neurons in Frontal cortex, having synapses with occipital visual areas, as being crucial for a conscious percept) , Susan insists that consciousness arises because of synchronous firing of neuronal assemblies – and the degree of consciousness depends on the number of neurons involved in that synchronous assembly (that lats up to millisecond intervals) . Thus while Koch focuses more on content of consciousness (and despite Susan’s criticism that is an important area of investigation) and how it arises from a qualitative phenomenon (different types of neurons – pyramidal- involved), Susan focuses more on degrees of consciousness and takes consciousness to be a qualitative phenomenon. I, like Deric , find merit in both arguments.

Some excerpts:

Koch’s view:

Physiologically, the likely substrate for NCC is a coalition of pyramidal neurons–a type of neuron that communicates over long ranges–within the cerebral cortex. Perhaps only a million such neurons–out of the 50 billion to 100 billion in our heads–are needed to form one of these coalitions. When, say, Susan enters a crowded room and I see her face, a coalition of neurons suddenly chatters in concert for a fraction of a second or longer. The coalition reaches from the back of the cortex, where representations of visual stimuli are first processed, into the front of the cortex, which carries out executive functions such as providing perspective and enabling planning. Such a coalition would be reinforced if I paid attention to the stimulus of her image on my retina, which would strengthen the amplitude or the synchrony of the activity among the select neurons. The coalition sustains itself and suppresses competing coalitions by feeding excitatory signals back and forth among the neurons in the back and front of the cortex. If, suddenly, someone calls my name, a different coalition of neurons in the auditory cortex arises. This coalition establishes two-way communication with the front of the brain and focuses my consciousness on the voice, suppressing the earlier coalition representing Susan’s face, which fades from my awareness.

This notion about networks of neurons has received a boost from recent results by researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, working under Stuart C. Sealfon of Mount Sinai and Jay A. Gingrich of Columbia. Sealfon’s and Gingrich’s teams have demonstrated in genetically modified mice that hallucinogens–such as LSD, psilocybin (an ingredient of mushrooms) and mescaline–act on a type of molecule, called a serotonin receptor, found on the pyramidal cells that cluster in layer 5. The hypothesis that the mind-bending effects of hallucinogenic compounds come from activation of one receptor type on a specific set of neurons–rather than from “messing up” the brain’s circuits in some holistic manner–can be further tested with molecular tools that can toggle layer 5 pyramidal cells on and off until the exact set of neurons being affected is identified.

Susan’s views:

My own starting assumption is that there is no intrinsic, magical quality in any particular brain region or set of neurons that accounts for consciousness. We need to identify a special process within the brain. And to be a truly robust correlate of consciousness, this neuronal process must account for a variety of everyday phenomena, including the efficacy of an alarm clock, the action of anesthetics, the distinction of dreams from wakefulness, the existence of self-consciousness, the possible difference between human and animal consciousness, and the possible existence of fetal consciousness. A more plausible view of consciousness is that it is not generated by a qualitatively distinct property of the brain but by a quantitative increase in the holistic functioning of the brain. Consciousness grows as brains grow.

The central problem is that models developed by Llinas and others conceive of consciousness as an all-or-nothing condition. They fail to describe how the physical brain can accommodate the ebb and flow of a continuously variable conscious state. I favor an alternative. For more than a decade, scientists have known that the activity of tens of millions of neurons can synchronize for a few hundred milliseconds, then disband in less than a second. These “assemblies” of coordinating cells can vary continuously in just the right space and timescales for the here-and-now experience of consciousness. Wide-ranging networks of neurons assemble, disassemble and reassemble in coalitions that are unique to each moment. My model is that consciousness varies in degree from one moment to the next and that the number of neurons active within an assembly correlates with the degree of consciousness present at any given time.

This neuronal correlate of consciousness–the transient assembly–satisfies all the items on the shopping list of phenomena above. The efficacy of an alarm clock is explained as a very vigorous sensory input that triggers a large, synchronous assembly. Dreams and wakefulness differ because dreams result from a small assembly driven by weak internal stimuli, whereas wakefulness results from a larger assembly driven by stronger external stimuli. Anesthetics restrict the size of assemblies, thus inducing unconsciousness. Self-consciousness can arise only in a brain large and interconnected enough to devise extensive neuronal networks. The degree of consciousness in an animal or a human fetus depends on the sizes of their assemblies, too.

Take a look at the original debate as there is an even more more stimulating point-counterpoint section too.

The eight-fold devlopmental model stretched to cover evolutionary ground

Regular readers of my blog will know how I am memserised by the eight-fold developmental model . I have applied that model to Cognitive Maps, linked it to Moral Development, development of perspective-taking, to language and universal moral grammar development, to language and stages of pretend play, to evolution of languages (color terms), evolution of language faculty (general), to personality and the BIG FIVE, and to evolution of color vision.

Just to recap, I believe in a 5 +3 = 8 step development/ evolutionary model, wherein the first 5 stages are qualitatively different from the last 3 ; but the stages of development / evolution are analogous in widely different faculties.

thus, I was quite surprised to discover a model of Consciousness, as proposed by Timothy Leary, that I was till now not aware of . Thanks to Mind Hacks, I spent a better part of my day on the net reading about Leary’s and RAW, eight circuit theory and I find it quite plausible and fascinating. Some links worth checking.

Although I do not buy the left-brain/ right-brain distinction in totality, I do find the fact that the first five stages are related to embodied consciousness, while the last three mark a departure and closely parallel other higher level stages quite interesting.

The evolutionary and developmental stages of Leary are :


The imprinting of this circuit sets up the basic attitude of trust or suspicion which will ever after trigger approach or avoidance

This is clearly the trust vs distrust development task identified by Erikson for infants. Leary though applies it to the living race (invertebrates ) on an evolutionary scale.


Again the first imprint on this circuit remains constant for life (unless brainwashed) and identifies the stimuli which will automatically trigger dominant, aggressive behavior or submissive, cooperative behavior.

This maps closely to Erikson’s second toddler stage, whereby the toddler has to master Autonomy (a sense of power) vs Shame and Doubt


It is no accident, then, that our logic (and our computer-design) follows either-or, binary structure of these circuits

Here the preschooler of Erikson, starts taking initiative. related to Initiative vs Guilt developmental task.

The fourth brain, dealing with the transmission of tribal or ethnic culture across generations, introduces the fourth dimension, time.

This is the traditional Social background process, stretched over the whole school life of the child, wherein he develops a sense of industry and a sense of skills that can be refined with hard work over time. Time if of essence here.


When this fifth “body-brain” is activated, flat Euclidean figure-ground configurations explode multi-dimensionally. Gestalts shift, in McLuhan’s terms, from linear VISUAL SPACE to all-encompassing SENSORY SPACE. A hedonic turn-on occurs, a rapturous amusement, a detachment from the previously compulsive mechanism of the first four circuits.

The fifth stage is a transforming stage that enables a rite of passage. In Erikson.s model it is transcendence of adolescence and taking on an adult role. One solves the problem of Identity vs Role Confusion. In my view this stage is also linked to Schizophrenia , which may result from role confusions and results in hallucinations. It is orthwhile to note here that many hallucinogens, as per Leary, lead to this stage.


The sixth brain consists of the nervous system becoming aware of itself apart from imprinted gravitational reality-maps (circuits I-IV) and even apart from body-rapture (circuit V).The evolutionary function of the sixth circuit is to enable us to communicate at Einsteinian relativities and neuro-electric accelerations, not using third circuit laryngeal-manual symbols but directly via feedback, telepathy and computer link-up. Neuro-electric signals will increasingly replace “speech” (hominid grunts) after space migration.

This meeting and communication between inter-stellar civilizations, bodes well on a human level with Erikson’s marriage as the sixth developmental milestone with Intimacy vs Isolation as a core developmental task


The seventh brain kicks into action when the nervous system begins to receive signals from WITHIN THE INDIVIDUAL NEURON, from the DNA-RNA dialogue. The first to achieve this mutation spoke of “memories of past lives,” “reincarnation,” “immortality,” etc. The “akashic records” of Theosophy, the “collective unconscious” of Jung, the “phylogenetic unconscious” of Grof and Ring, are three modern metaphors for this circuit.

this also bodes well with the collectivist nature of Erikson’s seventh developmental task, wherein , as a group of individual (member of society) one feels Generativity vs Stagnation.


When the nervous system is turned on to this quantum-level circuit, space-time is obliterated. Einstein’s speed-of-light barrier is transcended; in Dr. Sarfatti’s metaphor, we escape “electromagnetic chauvinism.” The contelligence within the quantum projection booth IS the entire cosmic “brain,” just as the micro-miniaturized DNA helix IS the local brain guiding planetary evolution. As Lao-tse said from his own Circuit VIII perspective, “The greatest is within the smallest.”

This too bodes well as the eights stage again being the ultimate stage of transcendence, coming to terms with one’s inevitable (human) death and either having Integrity vs Despair as one reflects on life and prepares to transcend it

I know that a lot of the above my sound nonsensical to the regular readers of this blog, but we know so little about consciousness, that it may be best to keep an open mind about it and about evolution and our fate as human race.

The Mind – Brain dichotomy: What it means to have a mind

Researchers at Harvard, Gray et al, are conducting an ongoing mind survey, and have also reported some findings from that online survey, based ona asmaple of more than 2,000 people.

The survey attempts to make one think about different forms of entities that may have a mind and to assign different degrees of consciousness/ mind on them.

Gray worked alongside fellow psychologists Heather Gray and Daniel Wegner on the study, which presented respondents with 13 characters: 7 living human forms (7-week-old fetus, 5-month-old infant, 5-year-old girl, adult woman, adult man, man in a persistent vegetative state, and the respondent himself or herself), 3 non-human animals (frog, family dog, and wild chimpanzee), a dead woman, God, and a sociable robot.

Participants were asked to rate the characters on the extent to which each possessed a number of capacities, ranging from hunger, fear, embarrassment, and pleasure to self-control, morality, memory and thought. Their analyses yielded two distinct dimensions by which people perceive the minds of others, agency and experience.

The participants attribute different degrees of these factors to the characters based on a forced choice between a pair of characters on a particular ability related to a mind capacity like feeling fear or making moral decisions. I believe they than id factor analysis or some such statistical method to come up with two independent dimensions or factor underlying the concept of mind: Agency or Experience.

Agency seems to be related to the fact that people (entities with mind) can take volitional actions and are thereby responsible for their actions. They can thus also be judged morally based on their actions and the choices they make.

Experience seems related to the fact that people (entities with mind) have an ability to feel and are emotional entities that have subjective experience of emotions like pain, fear and hunger and also have desires, longings and feelings etc.

The ability to perceive qualia surprisingly didn’t come out as a separate entity and consciousness or ability to perceive qualia is supposedly covered under the Experience factor.

These dimensions are independent: An entity can be viewed to have experience without having any agency, and vice versa. For instance, respondents viewed the infant as high in experience but low in agency — having feelings, but unaccountable for its actions — while God was viewed as having agency but not experience.

“Respondents, the majority of whom were at least moderately religious, viewed God as an agent capable of moral action, but without much capacity for experience,” Gray says. “We find it hard to envision God sharing any of our feelings or desires.”

The regular readers of this blog will remember that one of the important distinction that I hypothesized between Schizophrenia and Autism was that due to agency: with schizophrenics attributing too much Agency; and Autistic attributing too less Agency to others (other people or other entities that may have mind). Also as God is perceived as having too much Agency, but not much Experience, thus when the Schizophrenia end of spectrum kicks in, they may also attribute too much agency to themselves and feel God-like or Divine. The negative symptoms related to less of experience would also fit the fact of being God-like or being an angel/ special person and thus not having too much emotions. The Autistic end of the spectrum however would be guided by too-less-mind sort of attributions and thinking; and thus they may view themselves and others as brains and not minds. They might thus be more capable with inanimate objects and rules of nature (thus making them good scientists/ engineers/ systemizers) ; but poor at social/ ethical aspects that require attributing minds to animals for example.

One should also distinguish between the two dimensions of Agency and Experience. Thus Autistic may have a defect due to Agency, but may have mirror neurons or other systems that confer on them the ability to feel , not only subjective feelings of self – but empathetic feelings of others too.

Also, it has been this blogs contention that the Dimension of experience is best seen as a dimension on one end of which is the Bipolar patients and on the other end of which is the Deprosanalisation/ apathetic / derealization spectrum. while the Bipolar feels too much emotions and motivations; the depersonalised/ derealized person may show too less emotion/ motivation.

Thus in mind at one end we have people having too much mind/ believing in too much mind (and exemplified by Schizophrenic and Bipolar ) and at the other end we have too people having too much brain/ believing in too much brain (exemplified by Autistic/ depersonalised people). One gives great Art, the other great Science.

Returning to the current study:

“The perception of experience to these characters is important, because along with experience comes a suite of inalienable rights, the most important of which is the right to life,” Gray says. “If you see a man in a persistent vegetative state as having feelings, it feels wrong to pull the plug on him, whereas if he is just a lump of firing neurons, we have less compunction at freeing up his hospital bed.”

This is exactly one of the pertinent point made by the film Munnabhai MBBS– that coma patients have feelings and have a right of life. While I have featured the effects of Lage Raho Munnabhai earlier; I would also like to pay tribute to its prequel/ precursor.

On that note, let us keep our antennas up for how thinking about us as entities with Agency and Experince can lead to Art; while thinking of us as brains can lead to good scince. I’m sure you’ll agree that we need both of these concepts about us humans.

Self-awareness in elephants!

As per a recent news report, it has been found that elephants too have self-awareness. The test used was that of identifying a spot on their body, when in front of mirror and observing their behavior when in front of mirror. This is a classical measure of self-awareness, though some disagree about its importance.

After apes and dolphins, Elephants also seem to have self-awareness!

The original study is available at PNAS and offers some convincing data.

Update: The video of the elephant touching the mark on her body after seeing her reflection in mirror is available at the Neurohilosopher.