Thursday, February 18, 2016

important links of studies and research findings

neuroscience of moral behaviour

Excellent summary of anatomical basis for moral behavioural regulation and impulse/urge control along with numerous cases and further links

further on the neuroscience of sleep

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Neuroscience of Optimism and Pessimism

If you've been following along, I think you're beginning to get the idea that Who We Are - all our dreams, ideas, plans, personality and character traits, ambitions, fears, loves, the whole shebang - is a result of how the dizzying array of brain regions and inter-region communication all sort of comes together to present "you" to your own seat of conscious awareness and the world. Your entire assembled "you" depends a great deal on a) what brain regions you were genetically predisposed to be more prominent, b) how those were subsequently developed or suppressed through environmental factors starting from your time in the womb, through your two "rapid growth" periods (one roughly from 18 months to sixty months and another during your mid-teen years) all through your adult years. Environmental factors include an enormous variety of possibilities ranging from parenting, nutritional and educational availability, sleep quality, cultural pressures or freedoms and much, much so on. 

Today we're going to take a look at two very key foundations of "Who We Are". A very interesting paper came across my desk recently that very carefully examined the neuronal basis for optimism and pessimism. The recurring theme of this blog is that we have many "drivers" that steer us this way or that way through life or react to any given situation and the "hardware" involved in these two traits are going to play massive roles in how you get through life so when I got a chance to read through and study this paper carefully, I became quite excited (well, I do with almost any good neuroscience paper). "This is going to make great material for my blog", I thought (then my dopamine system, anticipating a juicy reward, made sure I knuckled down and got to it). 

Before we proceed, however, we need a little lesson in some basic brain anatomy. We're going to start with the biggest and clearest "division of neuronal real estate" there is in the brain - the two brain hemispheres, left and right respectively. Strictly anatomically speaking, they look like this:

[actually because the front of the brain is at the bottom, the left hemisphere is on the right side of the image and the right hemisphere on the left]

One of the basic principles of how brains work is that there are great divisions of labour that are spread throughout the brain and one of the biggest divisions is the left-right split (and from there it subdivides down into crazily tiny little "labourers" with different tasks). There are some myths, however, regarding this left/right division of neuronal labour and no doubt you've read or been told something along the lines of "right brained" and "left brained" people. This will be roughly akin to logical, methodical and analytical people being "left brained" and creative and artistic people being "right brained" but that has thoroughly been debunked, never really having had any solid scientific basis in the first place so you can toss that out of whatever bag of ideas you had about how brains work (and how you work). Nonetheless, it is very well known through enormous amounts of real world study (particularly the study of brain injuries or stroke damage) or clinical research (clever laboratory experiments) or through animal research that there are many specific tasks that are handled individually by either of the respective hemispheres. 

Divided as they are both anatomically and in task assignment, the two hemispheres work very closely together, rather like two separate computers running different software that work together to solve a single problem. As there would be with two separate but simultaneously and harmoniously working computers, there are communication "cables" that link them together and between the two hemispheres of our brains there is a massive "trunk line" of axons called the corpus callosum. There are several high traffic volume trunk lines in the brain (bundles of axons that carry major brain wide signaling) and the CC is probably the busiest because of the enormous amount of activity that must go on between the two hemispheres (I hope to get to the brain's connectome, which I introduced in Neuroscience 101, and get into this "trunk line" traffic in more detail in the not too distant future).

Now that we have an idea of what brain hemispheres are (I always try to get my posts to pull double duty), let's move on to this business about optimism and pessimism. 

First of all we have to clear up the common misconceptions of what these two terms mean. The natural tendency is to consider optimism as a "positive virtue" and pessimism as a "negative disadvantage" but this is not very accurate. We are generally inclined to view "optimists" as these positive, happy people always looking on the bright side of life who are great to be around and pessimists as these negative Nellys who are miserable to have in one's company and while these general impressions are not exactly inaccurate, it's not so simple as that. 

It is also widely believed that we have some sort of "choice" in the matter of optimism and pessimism and that to be happier one merely has to "choose" to be more positive, more optimistic and to be less negative and pessimistic as if we can just flip from one to the other like flipping a light switch but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. As with anything to do with how we consciously experience our outlook on life and experience life itself (our inner perception of "reality"), there is actually little conscious control over this (and I will get to this brier patch of a question of free will and conscious choice at some point) but is instead all determined (I will avoid the equally thorny issue of determinism, however) by what goes on "beneath the hood". 

So let's start off by better understanding what these terms mean.

Firstly, science looks at these terms quite differently than we do in the day to day world. In guiding your conscious you and your body through life, your brain has a tremendous number of jobs to do and virtually all of these jobs are handled by "behind the scenes" machinations within the brain (your conscious you would literally "crash" and/or melt down if you had to consciously deal with all these things) and one of the greatest of these subconscious jobs, or systems, is what I'll refer to here as "risk-benefit assessment" and what we term as "optimism" and "pessimism" are simply your brain running massive numbers of brain wide calculations and coming up with "odds" of being successful or not at any given choice presented to you. 

These choices might be big life decisions about whether to go to college or to learn a trade or something as mundane as what to have for lunch at the deli. It might be about whom to date or not or it might whether to turn right or left at a fork in the road. We generally make these decisions seemingly quickly because "we" are not making them at all but instead the "decisions" that consciously flash into our heads have been determined by vast numbers of subconscious systems running certain calculations and/or having certain "pre-sets" (in programming parlance) that steer our seeming "choices" one way or the other. And one of the most pre-eminent systems in steering our "choices" and thus guiding us through life is the hardware involved in risk assessment. 

Therefore, in strict risk assessment terms, "optimism" favours the odds of a good outcome in a given situation and "pessimism" does not favour the odds of a good outcome. Or "optimism" plays down the odds of a bad thing happening and "pessimism" plays up the odds of a bad thing happening. As life is full of peril and reward, victory and defeat, a balance of optimism and pessimism is actually critical in risk-benefit assessment. However, both optimism and pessimism are prone to cognitive errors and as such may result in either overly risky behaviour or overly cautious behaviour. 

Risky behaviour might range from being overly optimistic, throwing caution to the wind and entering a financially ill advised business venture, for example, or perhaps entering a disastrous marriage because you were so "sure" it would work out, or something like attempting to dash across a busy street or even becoming a gambling addict (who are famously prone to overestimating, or being too optimistic, about the odds of winning). 

Having a pessimistic bias, on the other hand, will result in being overly cautious and missing out on many otherwise good opportunities for gain and joy and thus perhaps living a very limited life where the specter of "defeat" lies around every corner. Possible great careers therefor may be avoided or loving relationships not entered and all manner of possible rewards missed. But it could also save one from entering overly risky ventures, making unwise purchases, getting into poor relationships and so on (and thus often saving your bacon).

So in properly understanding these two halves of our mental makeup, you must disabuse yourself of the notion that optimism is necessarily "good" and pessimism is necessarily "bad". Risk-benefit assessment that views a given situation towards a pessimist bias may well guide one away from danger or poor life decision and the ensuing trouble. On the other hand, optimistic risk-beneifit assessment may encourage one to go forth with a good opportunity that may have otherwise been missed. 

It is also a commonly mistaken assumption that one is either optimistic in every area of their life or pessimistic or that one is either optimistic or pessimistic all the time. One could well be overly optimistic in some areas (pursuing the opposite sex for example) and overly pessimistic in others (such as job prospects) and almost all of us will be feeling a little more of one or the other on any given day. 

There are other aspects of life decisions and directions that are affected. A consistently overly optimistic evaluation of one's abilities may keep one fruitlessly chasing a career path or business dream that one simply isn't equipped to achieve or, conversely, if one is too prone to pessimistic risk assessment bias preventing one from pursuing a job, career path or dream for which one is perfectly qualified or able. 

Successful and optimal living, therefore, requires a balance between optimism and pessimism. 

Proper risk-benefit outcome and abilities assessment - this balance between optimistic assessment and pessimistic assessment - is therefor going to be a huge factor in determining one's success in life as well as one's basic personality and vulnerability to mental health disorders so it behooves us all to best understand exactly how this system works and either achieves balance or not. 

With that in mind, let's take a look at what's "under the hood" and the "apps" - or brain hardware - that are responsible for each of these risk assessment biases, how they work and why and which will determine whether you're more an optimist or a pessimist (or perhaps a nice balance of both) and why. 

Back to our separate brain hemispheres and the division of labour between them, it turns out that optimism is mediated by the left hemisphere and pessimism by the right. 

Brain Regions Involved:

There are two small regions involved which are located in the frontal lobes and they are: the right inferior frontal gyrus (selectively encodes pessimistic information) and the left inferior frontal gyrus (selectively encodes optimistic information). The image below shows the right IFG and some of the other regions it's tied into (in reality, the wider network circuitry would be far more complex).

As with any brain regions, they do not of course work in isolation and will be part of various complicated "loops" (this happens to show a bit of what's involved in attention).

As with all collections of neurons that are involved in performing particular tasks along with the wiring that connects them to wider brain networks or "hubs", we are not created equal and so it is with the right and left inferior frontal gyrus respectively. As with any brain region, it's going to be a matter of hereditary (read: genetic) factors whether one region is stronger than the other along with environmental conditioning (and this topic of genetic factors and environmental conditioning is going to have to be something I go into proper detail elsewhere).  So depending on the luck of the genetic and environmental conditioning draws, your right inferior frontal gyrus (pessimistic region) might be more "robust" and dominant, or your left inferior frontal gyrus (optimistic) might be or it's entirely possible that you're blessed with a happy balance between the two. 

The thing with brain regions is that we almost never have any conscious idea what any of them are up to and if one is weak or another is dominant we will be unable to consciously know the difference. We'll be so used to those regions filtering information and creating "decisions" a certain way that we'll have no idea what any other way would be like, that's just our perception of reality. And even if we did, our brains would default back to their "normal operating state" without our awareness. 

This is roughly what is meant by "selective information processing". 

To quote our source paper

It was demonstrated in experiments where participants estimated their probabilities for experiencing a wide range of positive or negative events (e.g. having a happy marriage, winning the lottery, or suffering from cancer, Alzheimer's disease, etc.). Later, they were informed of the real probabilities of these events occurring to them, based on actual statistical records segmented by demographics, location and other characteristics. 

When asked to give a second estimate about their chances of experiencing the same events, the participants tended to update their knowledge mainly when the new information favored their previous position (i.e. when the positive events were statistically more likely to occur, or that the probabilities of negative events were lower than previously estimated). 

However, when the newly learned facts did not support their previous position, the participants tended to ignore it and at the second round they forgot to correct and update their estimations.

So you see what's happening here is that if people display an optimistic bias, it's because their incoming information tends to get routed through their more dominant left inferior frontal gyrus (optimistic region) and not so much through the right inferior frontal gyrus (negative region) and vice versa for negative biases. People (or we) don't try to do this. This is all very subconscious "data processing" and creations of mental outcomes. If the neuronal circuitry (among numerous other factors) is dominant for one or the other, that's just the way information is going to get routed, processed, outlooks created and "decisions" made.

Now, does all this mean we're locked into either being hopeless pessimists or foolishly risk taking optimists? Not at all. The brain, as we'll learn, is "plastic" and any region in the brain is able to be remolded and its function either enhanced or toned down. Through cognitive re-appraisal techniques, learned critical thinking skills and conscious and mindful effort (and there are various mental exercises that can be done to learn these skills and techniques), one can retrain these brain regions - in time - to achieve a better balance between optimism and pessimism. One can learn to better apply the right brain "pessimist" side to dampen down the inclination towards overly risky behaviour and one can learn to bring their "optimist" hardware on the left side more into play when evaluating life's choices. It does take daily conscious and mindful effort for any new behaviour to become habituated and for it to come more naturally to you. The neuroscience of patient effort is one we'll have to address another time, however. 

In the two decades I spent living in Asia or within Asian culture (which I did in my native Vancouver, BC), I learned a great deal of respect for Chinese philosophy and thought systems. And perhaps the best one that would apply here is the concept of yin and yang. Yin represents the darker side and yang the brighter side (to put it extremely simply). This philosophy states that you cannot ignore or favour either and that proper life is a balance of each.

I can think of no better area to apply that philosophy and life goal than to your right inferior frontal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus brain regions. :)

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Consciousness Explained - Part One

Consciousness Explained
Part One

Okay, one of my favourite subjects about the brain – consciousness! There are a couple of reasons I want to talk about consciousness.

Firstly, and most importantly, I would like my dear readers to at least somewhat understand what consciousness is because understanding that is important for understanding the subconscious and I strongly believe that better understanding the subconscious is very useful (actually, I think it's critical but it's okay if you just find it useful) to understanding “you”. When I write “you” in quotation marks like that, by the way, I am indicating the “consciousness” you experience during your waking hours. But I'll come back to this later. I think sleeping hours are at least somewhat significant as well, but not in the sense most people do (the meaning of dreaming and dream content) but that falls outside of what I want to talk about in this series.

Furthermore, understanding consciousness is very useful for understanding the mind which again is very useful (critical, I believe) to understanding “you”.

Now there is much to be said and explored about dualism and free will but I'm going to leave those aside as well today. For now I just want to establish the model I use for consciousness and subconscious so that my regular readers can better understand where I'm coming from when I talk about these two concepts.

Furthermore, when it comes to understanding who “we” are, it is important to understand our various mental states and any given mental state of mind is generated by the brain so the better we understand the brain, the better we understand the mind, and thus the better we can understand what's going on in “us” To clarify and establish my meaning of “mind”, I actually use “mind” and “conscious experience” more or less interchangeably because it is my position that they are more or less referring to the same mental experience.

To study conscious experience and subconscious it is now necessary to study neuroscience (anyone who does not study neuroscience and understand it at a high level does not belong in the discussion on understanding and defining consciousness and subconscious, in my not so humble opinion). I don't say this to be exclusionary, it's just that whatever consciousness is, it exists in the brain or is manufactured by the brain (I am of the latter school of thought), and it is necessary to study, understand and keep abreast of the latest neuroscience in order to understand the latest understandings of the consciousness/subconscious conundrum.

The question of consciousness and how to define it is not a new question of course. It's plagued science and philosophy since the dawn of those two disciplines. Many theories and models have been proposed, none of them providing any kind of basis for satisfactory consensus. Whatever you know about it, I'm going to ask you to put that aside and look at it differently. The reason I ask you to do this is because I strongly believe (and the road to this conclusion is too long and winding to briefly recount here, but it is based on very high understanding of neuroscience and discussions held within that field) that past models are a large part of the problem as to why we have so much trouble understanding “us” - we homo sapiens – and all of our various (generally hard to understand and deal with) behaviours. The various disciplines charged with our brain health (psychiatry, psychology and medical practitioners) simply have outdated and outmoded understandings of elementary concepts such as consciousness and the subconscious and since we generally turn to those fields if we seek to understand what's going on with ourselves, this would appear to me to be a bit of a problem. So please, set aside all other models that form the basis for your understanding of consciousness/subconscious.

This is what I refer to as the subconscious -

That is the human brain and all of it, everything you see there – and that represents all the hundred billion neurons and tens of thousands of kilometers of axon circuitry and countless glia cells as presented here in the introductory Neuroscience 101 post - operates below our “conscious” awareness or control. All that biological matter hums away without any conscious effort on our part at all. We – our “conscious selves” - have virtually no control over anything that goes on in there. There's a modicum of control that can be attained and there are times we can give it certain “commands” that certain parts will respond to to some degree, but I'll get to that as we go along in the series. I'd hate to try put an exact percentage of control we have over what goes on in that three pound mass you see pictured above but it'd certainly be well below 1%.

Once I studied neuroscience and understood it to a certain level, I understood that all the old Freudian and psychological models for subconscious and all those subsequently bootstrapped off of them – are inaccurate and muddy. They flail around in the dark because those that make them don't understand neuroscience (nor want to – because that would threaten their models, and thus careers, reputation, etc). It is only through the study of neuroscience and neuroanatomy and neurobiology and everything else involved in processes of the brain that one can even begin to approach the problem.

So it is this kind of model and approach to it that I firmly believe needs to be jettisoned:

So when I use the term “subconscious”, I am not using the term in the sense most people are used to thinking about it but am instead referring to the biological brain that hums away 24/7 from the latter states of fetal development till the day your vital organs shut down and the screen of your consciousness permanently fades to black.

The question of consciousness is one of the Holy Grails of all of science. The brain has been poked, prodded, scanned, dissected, sliced, diced and examined to the nth degree with some of the most technically advanced tools in human history. The brain has been mapped and its wiring laid out and the centres identified for all kinds of functions and circuits involved in various actions, thoughts and reactions. Amazing progress has been made in just the last five years to a decade in understanding how the brain works.

But nobody – and I do mean nobody – who studies the brain (as opposed to those philosophical theorists and psychology sorts) can say where – or even what – consciousness is. When science pokes into the brain – and as I said, this has been done to astonishingly minute detail – you cannot see where “consciousness” is. There's no “thing” or part to point to and go “ah-haa! That's where consciousness is!”. It's generally considered to be in the frontal lobes as that's where the neuronal centres for our higher executive commands and higher human functions are based but defining consciousness as being “there” runs into problems as well.

So there appears to be no physical basis or seat of “consciousness”. The brain just seems to somehow produce it and we somehow experience it. Therefore, you'll hear a lot of flailing away on theories of consciousness and it drives scientists batty because they like to be able to see something before they declare anything as “proven” or “factual”. And so far nobody has been able to do that, to “see” or detect with instruments where it is (it's such an enticingly intriguing Holy Grail of a scientific endeavor that even the quantum mechanics physicist folks have jumped into the fray with great enthusiasm).

So I'm certainly not going to claim that I've discovered the secret to defining consciousness. But I do think we need at least a common understanding and basic working model for our purposes in this blog and that's what I'm going to do here. The ideas I present here may not be “the answer”, but they are based on the latest and most advanced – not to mention the elementary basic - neuroscience I could find. So I didn't arrive at my model blindly or without solid basis.

When I use the term “consciousness”, then, I refer to the phenomenon we experience when we awaken each day and that screen we “see” in our “mind's eye” flashes to life. I don't view finding a “hard” definition that stands up to scientific rigor that important. I mean it's nice for the brain nerds who have to put food on their tables chasing grants to do that kind of neuronal navel gazing but it really makes no difference to us regular folks in the real world. On the other hand, I do believe it's important to understand what the most up to date knowledge of what the subconscious is so I just want to to split our understanding of consciousness and subconscious for the sake of understanding how much control we have over what's going on in “us” once our mind's 'eye' goes to work each day and that stream of thoughts inner dialog starts to assault us.

And just to further clarify what I mean by “consciousness”, we can think of “unconscious” states. “Unconscious” refers to something quite different than subconscious. Unconscious refers to times when we are having no conscious experience at all. This may be while we're in deep sleep, or when we've suffered a concussion and are “blacked out” or when we've become inebriated enough by substances (usually alcohol) to lose consciousness for various periods of time or when we've been rendered unconscious by an anesthetic. In these states we are not aware of anything around us and we do not form memories during these states (there may be some but very likely they'd be a) very difficult to recall and b) they'd be very unreliable).

Conscious awareness then is how much, and how, we understand what we're seeing on that “inner screen” when we are a fully awake, fully aware state. I think understanding this is very useful for understanding what we experience when we're trying to understand others' or our own behaviours, actions, decisions and so on.

So here is how I'll present consciousness to you, which I hope you'll start to use as your own working model for understanding your conscious experience, how to define it and – it is my hope – give you a better basis for working to improve your daily conscious experience and moving it towards something that works better for you. I am adamant that knowing where you have control and where you don't have control over your mental functions, levels of cognition and your “conscious experience” is critical to optimizing your life outcomes with the brain you have.

To present the model I wish to use I'm going to revert to a tried and true model for explaining the brain and consciousness/subconscious divide – the computer. And the Internet.

When you fire up your computer and the screen comes to life and starts to present you with information brought to you through a cable (or wifi but even that gets its signal from a cable), three basic components are involved in creating your experience.

  • The Internet cable or wifi connection

  • the computer hardware and software programs and stored data (IE: memory)

  • the screen

- the cable brings in data, just raw data as represented in digital code. This code, in the raw, means nothing. You could open up a live data cable and you'd see nothing. It's meaningless. Even if you could see all the “bytes” of the data, it'd mean nothing to you. It's just a meaningless string of zeros and ones. To make sense of blizzard of meaningless incoming data you need:

- the computer hardware. The hardware makes sense of all this input data. It runs the data through various bits of hardware and software within the hardware and assembles the raw data into something you can understand on:

- the screen/speakers. It is here where you can experience all the data as represented in zeros and ones in something you can understand and see and/or hear. It is here where all that incompressible raw data comes to life in words, pictures, sounds, movies and so on.

Take any three of these basic legs away and the experience dies (yes, I know, there are still speakers/headphones for the auditory experience but I'm going to take the liberty of putting sight and sound together as one experience so when I say take away the screen, I mean the speakers/headphones as well).

Now, to further my computer metaphor of our conscious experience, I'm going to break down and define these three basic legs further. We'll start with the computing hardware and software.

The computing hardware and software is your biological brain and all the “nuts and bolts” that make that up. We'll further break that down into the actual hardware and software.

The hardware is all the brain components that have been identified (and again refer to Neuroscience 101 for a primer on these). This is all the “hard” material that modern science can look at and identify.

Software starts to get harder to define because, like consciousness itself, the "software" - the "programs" in our brains - is not exactly something that can be seen with the naked eye or instruments. But it can be inferred from what happens between the hardware so we “know” it's there even if it's difficult to actually “see”. We'll come back to further understanding software in later segments of this series.

The Internet is going to represent the environment (when I use the word “environment”, I am referring to everything and everyone that you deal with on a day to day basis. Your living conditions and social world, in other words) and our sensory experience of it. The Internet signal is all the sensory information that's brought in by your five (presuming you have all five) sense organs – eyes for sight, ears for sound, skin for tactile touch, nose for smells and tongue for taste.

I'm going to abandon the internet cable metaphor and just use the wifi receiver in your computer. Just as your wifi receiver senses signals in the air and converts them to electronic signals your computer can understand, your various sensing organs do the same with light waves, sound waves, scent molecules, taste molecules and tactile sensations – they convert these into electronic impulses that are sent to various brain regions to be analyzed and “assembled” into something that will become part of your conscious experience.

In the computer, there is hardware responsible for processing different “senses” and there are only two – visual and auditory signals, which are processed by a graphics card and a sound card respectively. And these two processes are routed through other bits of hardware and wiring, along with various software differently used at various times to assemble the final picture and sound on the screen.

While vastly, vastly more complicated of course, our brains do essentially the exact same thing. Our “signal receivers”, our five senses, take in sensory data in the atmosphere around us at any one time. Just like your computer has a sound card for audio and a graphics card for visual, there are specific brain regions for processing each of the five senses. For example, your eye takes in light waves, converts these to electrical impulses which then travel along the optic nerve to the occipital lobe which will go through enormously complicated and various processing programs to assemble all those electrical signals that represent the light photons bouncing around all around you into what you consciously experience as “vision”.

Simultaneously, your auditory signal receptors – your ears – are converting sound waves into electrical signals and sending those along to various parts of the brain which assemble this “data” into what you perceive as voices, music, and innumerable other sounds. The visual and auditory centres work closely together to assemble both the final picture and what to “filter out” (IE: reduce the onslaught of sensory data down to what's most important at a given moment).

Now, among its hardware, your computer also has two kinds of memory – Random Access Memory, or RAM, which is a card, and long term memory on the hard drive(s). And the brain is remarkably similar – it too has two kinds of memory; a short term memory called your working memory and long term memory. They operate quite differently and separately in the brain and what makes it from working memory to long term memory is part of what's a major struggle for a lot of people. How your short term memory works ties in very closely to our “conscious” experience so we're going to come back to that in more detail later. It's VERY important.

Another computer metaphor for your conscious experience I'd like to introduce now is cloud computing. Cloud computing is when a number of computers work together for a single purpose or goal. I'm going to use it to represent our social worlds, or in other words, our relationships with other “brains”. We – or our brains to be more accurate – do not work by themselves or on their own. Some hermits do that but for most of us our brains must “interface” with other brains (or people).

In cloud computing, several or many computers must work in close concert with one another and to do that they have to be “on the same page”, or in other words, they must have very close and agreed upon working protocols. For computers, this is relatively easy if they're all running the same or similar software and responding to similar commands. But even with computers it's not so simple.

As in cloud computing, we humans must also work with many other “computers” - brains – (I have this habit now of seldom referring to people as people or individuals and referring to them as “brains”. This is because our thoughts, spoken dialog, and inner and outer behaviours are nothing more than the products of what our brains are capable of and do at any one moment in time). And just like in cloud computing, to properly succeed in any kind of cooperative effort, we have to “be on the same page” or have similar working/behavioural protocols to make that happen. How well we operate in life depends a great, great deal on how our brains interface and cooperate with other brains.

That's the end of Part One. In Part Two, I'll further explain and establish our working model for the understanding of your conscious experience and further use the computer metaphors for better understanding both your conscious experience and what's going on in the “hardware” and “programs” when your conscious experience is producing something like a bipolar episode or depressive episode or a crisis point meltdown and even the delusions of schizophrenia and so on.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Neuroscience of Slumber

Unlike the lass above (or fraulein, as that's a German painting), I couldn't sleep the other night. This is not an uncommon occurrence for me and for millions of us who spend nights staring at the ceiling, tossing and turning and making sleep difficult for their significant others. I normally do pretty well with it, to be honest. My health condition is closely linked to sleep and as sleep is very important to manage this condition, I learned to master sleep. But even at that, now and again it's a problem for me. For many people, however, it's a chronic problem.  Since I needed a new column for this blog and since I couldn't sleep, I thought I'd knock off two birds with one stone and read up on the neuroscience of sleep and produce something useful whilst my mind refused to be seduced into slumber. 

Our sleep is at least somewhat governed by our circadian rhythm. Now what is that and how does that get governed? A circadian rhythm is:
 any biological process that displays endogenous, entrainable oscillations of about 24 hours. These rhythms are driven by a "circadian clock" and rhythms have been widely observed in plants, animals, fungi and cyanobacteria. The term "ciradian" comes form the Latin "circa", meaning "around" or "approximately" and "diem" meaning "day". (1)

Now where would this circadian "clock" be? Do we have a piece of little Swiss handy work in us somewhere? Well, no. As we should know by now, just as Apple "has an app for that", the brain has an "app" - a specific brain region - for all of our functions so let's have a look at what brain regions are involved in sleep (and this will be an incomplete list, but we're just looking at the basics today). 

This is why most of us get jet lag when we travel to far away time zones - our ciradian clocks get all thrown off. 

The little brain nodule that rules our sleep rhythms appears to be in the suprachiasmatic nucleus region of the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus - not to be confused with the thalamus - is in our limbic region which lies below our outer cortex. We should be by now getting familiar with the limbic region (and if not, back to neuroscience 101 with you). So inability to sleep could mean the SCN region of the hypothalamus is too stimulated or, more likely, not receiving enough "it's dark out" messages from some special neurons in the retina. These neurons have specifically evolved to detect and be activated by certain wavelengths of light that come at the end of the daylight period just before it turns dark. They then send this message onto the hypothalamus. Let's have a look. 

The hypothalamus is responsible for some pretty basic stuff, as you'll see in this illustration. So you can see that a lot of basic "drives" we have are located here and - back to our topic - so it is with basic sleep cycles. I'll sometimes refer to the brain functions being "bottom up" in nature, that is what drives your thoughts is driven from these "bottom" regions and not the other way around. 

The sub-region that regulates the circidian rhythm, the suprachiasmatic nucleus is, obviously, located where it says "sleep-wake".

Now you see how clever the brain design is? (I say "design" but of course I mean how cleverly it evolved). It routes the optic nerve, in that part called the optic chiasm, so that those "it's dark now" signals from the special neurons in the retina can be dropped off in the SCN so that it can start sending other signals out to other parts of the brain that it's time to shut down. So part of our modern problems with sleep is that we no longer "listen" to these signals. We evolved to follow the rhythm of natural light cycles but today we ignore these and "override" them thus possibly disrupting how our circidian rhythms work. 

So that region is one factor in our wake/sleep cycles and their disruptions. 

Now, another culprit for sleeplesness could be an even deeper brain nodule, the locus ceoruleus. This fellow's sole purpose in life is to crank norepinephrine throughout your brain. Norepinephrine is a major "wakefulness" neurotransmitter. If you can't seem to "wake up", then it could well be your locus ceoruleus is not working up to snuff (for possible reasons far too deep for us here today). And no, coffee - or caffeine - doesn't go down there (though caffeine will sorta mimic norepinephrine). Conversely, if you're lying wide awake at 3am feeling "wired" (and without any stimulants), it could be that your LC is hyperactive for some reason.

Here's the locus ceoruleus and its pathways. 

Overabundence of neropinephrine is a suspected factor in the manic phases of bipolar disorder (which is my particular condition so this bad boy has probably been working overtime - literally - in me recently). What's not well known is how the two regions we've looked at here - the hypothalamus and the locus ceruleus - work together or not but it appears as though the hypothalamus is in the "norepinephrine loop" meaning that the SCN could be receiving this stimulant thus having its "clock rhythm" thrown out.  

So we possibly have two very deep subconscious brain structures in rebellion and not allowing you to sleep. 

There's more though - anxiety is no doubt also playing a role. When anxiety strikes, almost your whole limbic system is on high alert, mostly, perhaps, the cingulate gyrus (which is thought to produce that dread feeling of anxiety) and this is often where that "racing mind" feeling comes from. Again, this is a "bottom up" pathway - from the limbic region to your "seat of thoughts" - so again, we have another deep brain region driving you. And as the cingulate gyrus is part of our elementary "threat alert" system (or stress response system) its role is to force "what could be wrong" thoughts into you conscious awareness which could then be keeping you awake (which is kind of their point - they're designed to make you do something about the ideas it's presenting of "what's wrong"). Anxiety - what's really low level chronic stress - is going to make it really difficult to relax and go to sleep which is why people often turn to anti-anxiety drugs or even anti-psychotics - they can inhibit circuitry activity to and from this region and thus "knock down" those anxious thoughts. But this is a poor long term strategy (for various drug side affect and long term drug addiction problems). It might be better to start working on the basis for those feelings of anxiety (which may or not be imagined). 

Now, what happens when your brain runs down from too little sleep? Well, I could flood you with the science on this and, trust me, none of it is good. Brains absolutely need to sleep no matter how "tough" you think you are about not needing sleep. As the old TV ad used to go, "you can pay me now, or you can pay me later". In other words, you will pay later in life for depriving your brain of sleep. 

And you'll pay in the short term too, the brain just does not function as well on too little sleep. Even in peak conditions the brain does not fire up every region at one time. It "prioritizes"; it only sends energy to those parts of the brain that it thinks are necessary at any given time. And if your brain starts getting tired, it will - with absolutely zero input from "you" - start shutting further regions down to prioritize and conserve energy usage. And guess what your brain considers "non-vital" operations? Your cortical regions, especially your "seat of control", the frontal cortex. Your basic survival instincts and functions are in the limbic region and brain stem so the brain will send more energy there. Which means, hey, more energy to your emotional regions! And you wonder why you get cranky and more emotional when you get tired. As well, your brain will dial back energy to your frontal cortex, which is where your functions of concentration, focus, judgement and higher thinking are, the very things you need to get through that afternoon meeting with the boss. You'll be staring bleary eyed at your boss really regretting staying up half the night on Facebook, I tell ya. 

That's the short term downside to lack of sleep. I know for many of you lack of sleep is a chronic problem. 

Let's have a wake up call on this (pardon the pun) and look at the long term. Remember glia cells from Neuroscience 101? I said we'd be looking more at these little guys and now is the time. 

The science on glia cells and their exact roles is not completely understood and established (and as you can see, there are different types of glia cells doing different things) but the roles of glia cells appear to be so many and so critical that I could easily fill a whole column. Here though is the best basic way to look at them; they are very critical support systems for neurons, dendrite growth (remember, it's dendrites that form key inter-neuron communication connections ... more in a moment) and axon maintenance and two of the more critical roles are supplying neurons with oxygen and other nutrients and - here's the big take away for today - it appears more and more that glia cells are critical for flushing out toxins. And the grand poompah tie in to today's lesson? It's even more and more appearing that glia cells need - ta-da!! - sleep to do their job. Yes, they're the night crew that comes in and cleans up after the day crew. 

Just briefly, it goes like this. Neurons take in nutrients. Neurons are cells. All cells produce waste. Neurons thus produce waste. You know, nutrients in, waste out. All living things are like this. Waste doesn't just disappear into thin air. Someone has to deal with it. And it appears that when it comes to the neurons in your brain that glia cells are that "someone". So to put it another way, neurons produce poop and glia cells are the pooper-scoopers. And the glia cells need you to "shut down things" - IE: sleep - for them to do their job properly. Plus - PLUS! - if you don't shut things down, then the neurons will still be "up" and - ta-da! - still producing neuron poop. So not only are you not allowing the night shift glia cells time to do their job, you're piling up more neuron poop in your brain! Now do you really want to go around the next day with a head full of neuron poop? Ever wonder why you're so groggy when you don't sleep? Well, yeah, it could be a lack of norepinephrine but it could also mean that, because the night crew couldn't do their jobs, you've got a head full of neuron poop. Or what the more scholarly articles call "toxins". Yes, toxins - waste products of brain functions - will build up from chronic lack of sleep. Very, very not good, people. 


Now back to dendrites and glia cells. Dendrites are the little spikes on neurons that receive signals from other cells. They are, therefore, utterly critical to all brain functions - IE: the passing of information from one neuron to another and thus "thought". Back to Neuroscience 101, dendrites also grow and prune back all the time. When not needed - a memory falls into disuse and the information from a particular neuron is no longer needed, for example - dendrites prune back. But what we need to sear into our memories today is the growing part. Dendrite growth is what makes the learning of new information possible. Learning stimulates dendrite growth. It's critical for new learning to "stick" in our memories for dendrites to seek out new connections with neighbouring neurons and pathways and then to strengthen those new connections. It's these new connections that make learning - and remembering - the new information possible. Quite simply, if those dendrites don't do their thing then learning is not going to happen. And back to glia cells, what helps dendrites grow and seek new connections and then strengthen them? Glia cells it appears. And what is essential for glia cells to do their thing? Once again, sleep. This is why sleep and proper rest have always been considered so important for learning; it's because that without it the dendrite growth essential for new connections - and thus learning and remembering - is simply not going to happen. Meditative breaks during the day help as well but that's for another day. 

Sleep is also essential for reducing stress and the less sleep we get, the more stress will build up and stress as well greatly negatively impacts brain performance thus creating a cycle of poorer daytime performance building more stress (and worry and anxiety) which further impacts sleep and rest and so on. So learning to get a better night's sleep is crucial in helping to break that cycle. You get better sleep, you perform better in the daytime, you perform better in the daytime you stress less and get to sleep easier and on and on. 

"OK", you're saying, "this is all good and fine, Brad, but what the hell do we do about it??". 

I thought you'd never ask. I mentioned the "bottom up" nature of brain functions. Here's where we're going to learn some "top down" management techniques to get those rebel brain regions at least somewhat under control. 

First up is the very thing right before you now as you read this post. The light from the screens of all our various electronic devices is not good for those special neurons in the retinas of the eyes we talked about that are responsible for sensing oncoming darkness. The light wave that emits from device screens - be it TVs, computer screens, tablet screens or handheld devices - is the same wavelength of light in the DAWN sky. So yeah, if you use a device late in the evening before bed? You're sending wavelengths of light that are telling your circadian cycle it's time to get up! Which makes it pretty hard for your eyeballs to communicate to your suprachiasmatic nucleus in your hypothalamus to tell it to kick the circadian rhythm into gear. So it is the light from screens of devices that is almost certainly playing a big part your difficulty in sleeping. Not to mention that what you're reading is probably getting your limbic region all in a huff (and anxious).  

So what to do? This is where you need to make an "executive - IE: top down - decision" and set a limit and stick to it. No more electronic devices after a certain hour and then make that a habit. Need help with that habit? I can think of nothing better than to go to behavioural change expert, Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal whose book The Willpower Instinct is just by far the best I've seen for learning and implementing new habits. And she not only has great habit change techniques, but also good meditation techniques. Win/win there, baby. 

I know - I know - how hard it is to turn your brain off in the evening. You're a busy person, I know. But here's the thing - you'd get a LOT more done during the day with a well rested and maintained brain and thus not feel so anxious in the evening about undone things! Yes, yes, easier said than done; I know. But hey, everything worthwhile takes effort. So give yourself lots of time to wind down. If your sleep time target is 10pm, stop device use by 9.

Then - and this is important - make a list of things to do the next day. This will send a message to your brain that says, "yo, cingulate gyrus (remember, that anxiety centre I told you about), we got this stuff covered. Going to do it all tomorrow just like the list says. So you can relax and go to sleep." And then DO that stuff that next day or the next time you write your list your brain will think you're lying (brains are awfully smart about these things). This is just a terrific habit to get into before bed time. 

You could do a little light reading to feel sleepy. I know books are almost guaranteed to put me asleep in the late evening. You just don't want anything too demanding. Remember, you're trying to dial your brain activity back, not ramp it up. 

Next, you're going to meditate. Turn off all lights and just ... well, I don't have time for a meditation lesson here now but I use an extremely simple one of counting as I breathe in and then out and focusing on those breathes. Inhale - one-two-three, exhale - one-two-three. The key thing is to focus on your breathes. It takes practice, I can tell you, but after several weeks, you'll start to get it. Once I mastered this (after only a few weeks), I'd do my counting and measured breathing techniques for not too long and the next thing I knew it was the next morning and I'd slept like a log.

So not being on a device, making the list for the next day, and doing the sleep time meditating is going to calm some of those deep regions in your brain down. As for longer term ways to deal with stress, I can think of no better methods than my very own Positive Difference Making Fundamentals. I've got a LOT of feedback on these from people "in the know", shall I say. They work.

OK, you say, you can fall asleep but wake up at 2am and can't get back to sleep. I totally hear you on that one. Happens to me often too. The thing to do here is not get into a habit of doing things once you're awake. I won't turn on the light or do anything. I'll keep my eyes closed and repeat my meditative techniques. And if that doesn't get me back to sleep, I'll still be keeping my brain in the most restive state possible. Or it may take an hour but I'll still manage to fall asleep for another few hours of valuable sleep.  

And this is the last big take away for today. Any habit - ANY habit - takes time to change so go easy on yourself if it doesn't go well at first. Most people freak out, throw up their hands and give up if it doesn't happen the first night. This is a journey. It takes time. The goal is to be getting to sleep earlier and getting better sleep in - say - a month or so. Just stick to the fundamentals I gave you here - and maybe research some more on your own - and you'll get there. I promise.

And just think - that next big board meeting? (or whatever it is you do that's important) You'll not be showing up all groggy from a brain full of neuron poop. 

You're welcome. 


(1) - Wikipedia

Kelly McGonigal's The Willpower Instinct

Many scholarly articles like this onethis one and this one.

More studies on the importance of sleep in forming new memories

David Suzuki's The Nature of Things

Plus, you can find more ways to beat insomnia here.

Good night and sleep tight. 

PS - sorry about the font size issues. It looks formatted properly in the composition box but then when posted some font sizes where bold or within a link come out larger. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Tale of Two Men in a Bar

Two men walk into a bar. Each looks at a third man for no more than a second or two. The third man returns a glance to the two men. The first man impassively passes by the third man. The second man immediately gets angry, approaches the third man and gets into a loud confrontation. 

What gives? The third man - whom we'll call Pete - gave each of the first two men the exact same glance. Why were their reactions so different? We'll call the impassive man Bob and the angry man Roger. Bob further compounds the situation by saying Roger is too sensitive. Roger denies this and now is really in a huff! (I think we can deduce that Bob is the man on the left in our above illustration and Roger on the right). "I don't know why, but that Pete just always pisses me off", Roger tells Bob.

How could Pete piss off Roger with a mere glance and not Bob? What do you think; is Roger too sensitive and he overreacted? Is Bob a cool customer or is he missing something? And what did Pete's expression really mean when he returned Roger and Bob's glances? 

This is a simple scene that plays out every day in dozens of settings throughout our worlds, from kindergarten sand boxes to corporate board rooms. We're going to address a number of different brain region activities all in one go today. One is a common difference among us - individual "sensitivity". Two is going to be a bit of a primer of both how our senses work, in this case how our sense of sight works, and in this particular case a bit about how our "facial recognition software" works. Plus, as an added bonus, we'll further deepen our understanding of what is meant by each of us having our own unique "realities". 

Now, let's return to the scene in the bar. No words were exchanged at first so the auditory sense wasn't involved. Or was it? Maybe there's more there than "meets the eye". We'll exclude the sense of smell for now and no touch or taste was involved. Now these all may have played a role but we'll leave that for now. Let's just focus on the exchanged glances for now and the sense of sight.

Now you may recall from our introduction to basic brain regions in Neuroscience 101 that we don't actually "see" with our eyes. Our eyes are really just highly sophisticated light collectors. The eyes collect light (and a narrow band of the light bandwidth it is) and translate the bits of information contained in those beams of light (a rather complicated business we'll leave for another day) into electrical signals which it sends off to the brain via the optic nerve. What we experience as "vision" really originates in that region at the back of the brain called the occipital lobe. That's where it all happens, not in the eyes. So really when we say someone has a "good eye" for something, what we really mean is that they have a "good occipital lobe" for something!  

Here's where it is:

And it is in the occipital lobe that "facial recognition software" is located. Facial recognition is one of our higher evolved functions, though most primates are pretty good at it. Lower mammals less so (despite what some pet lovers would like to believe but we'll leave that for another time). Our facial recognition software would be an excellent example of being what neuroscientist David Eagleman famously calls our "zombie programs", that is it's a brain function that runs autonomously without any, or at least very little, conscious input from "you". It's also one of the very first zombie programs to come on stream after you're born. One of the first things a newborn will turn its gaze to is people's faces and, with the help of a few other brain processes, it'll very quickly learn to recognize and lock in on its mother's face.

Our facial recognition software is a very complicated process and we are not all created equal in it. There's basic stuff - like analyzing simple things like "data points" to distinguish a man from a woman - and then further stuff to distinguish Bob from Roger for example. This is basic stuff that is now becoming replicated by facial recognition software - as in the computer variety as opposed to our brain "software" - now used in places such as airports and such to pick out known terrorists as one example. So artificial intelligence has started to catch up to us humans there.

Here's an example of the artificial version. Our brain version would track similar points but in far more detail.

But now to get to, in part, what we mean by "sensitive". Humans are still better at detecting the wide array of facial expressions we use to display emotions. And it is here that individual people are not created equal. One would assume that we'd all recognize emotional clues from facial expressions in the same way but not so. Some of us not only collect more "data" - the finer points of varying human expressions - but we assemble it better and have a wider array of differing facial models. 

So two different people could see the exact same expression on a third person's face and literally see two different things just like we saw with our two gentlemen walking into the bar. Now, remember what I said in Neuroscience 101 about our each having our own realities? This is just a fraction of what I'm talking about. 

But - but! - it doesn't end there. 

Once the occtipital lobe assembles this "picture" of a given face, it needs to send the data off to another region for further processing. And that would be the "emotional centre". 

All sensory data - sight, sound, touch, taste and smell - gets routed through that little tandem in the heart of the limbic system, the hippocampus and amygdala. The hippocampus is responsible for "filing" data away for future reference and the amygdala is responsible for "tasting" that visual data - Pete's expression when he glanced at Bob and Roger for example - for emotional content and it will also attach an emotional value to it as well. It's the amygdala, not "you", that decides whether you should feel happy, sad, excited, glum and much so on about all the little things your sensory organs take in every second that you are conscious (in the awake sense of the word). Then, in a neat little dance between the two of them, the amygdala and hippocampus will decide whether that data should be filed away for future reference and furthermore, how much priority that data will be given in the future. 

Those little data processing partners, just to remind, look like this:

So back to the facial expression on the Pete's face and Bob and Roger experiencing that expression differently, it is largely the amygdala that differentiates the two individual experiences. One person's amygdala may "decide" that the expression in question is just "meh" and the other person's amygdala may decide that that expression is worth remembering and to make sure you remember it well, it's going to attach a good bit of anger to it (the amygdala actually works with a good deal of other brain regions - emotional regulation centres located in the frontal lobes, for example - but it is the main brain nodule responsible for emotions).  

But to further understand the scene in the bar we have to look a bit further into how Bob and Roger each got the way they were. 

Remember in Why? I said all newborns start out the same? Well, that's only partially true of course. As far as basic hardware goes, yes, each newborn will be much the same but there will be fine differences between each newborn's hardware and wiring and that of course is determined by genetics and its womb environment. 

Let's look at the regions involved in our bar scene; the occitipal lobe, amygdala and hippocampus. They'll look the same on the outside but genetics will kick their development in slightly different directions. In a "sensitive" person, they may be gifted with a more finally tuned facial recognition software system. They may also have a more active amygdala. Their hippocamus may also be slightly different. 

From there it is the individual's environmental experiences that will take over and that will go from our kindergarten sand box right up to our boardroom. From the sandbox, Roger, for example, with his genetically programmed more sensitive hardware, will not only "see" more in his playmates' facial expressions, but his amygdala will attach more emotion to them and with this higher emotional value the hippocampus will give this data higher priority in storing it away for future reference (IE: putting it in short term and long term memory banks). And this feedback loop system will run autonomously for all of Roger's life constantly re-enforcing his "sensitivity". 

Bob meanwhile started out with facial recognition software that simply didn't "see" as much of the nuances in other kids' faces and furthermore, his amygdala would be more "meh" about what he did see and further-furthermore, his hippocampus, because it's receiving a "meh, not important" message, doesn't bother filing as much facial data away. And this plays out throughout Bob's life and thus, when he saw Pete's expression in the bar, he noticed nothing. 

Roger's more highly attuned "facial recognition" software, however, saw a kaleidoscope of information and furthermore, his memory - a subconscious autonomous function, not a conscious function - remembered something about Pete's expression that Bob did not - or could not. Now what might that be?

Well, we can't be sure but I'd bet dimes to doughnuts that it has something to do with speech. We won't get into this too much today but if Roger's facial recognition software is "sensitive", I'd bet that his speech recognition software is as well. Looking at our first brain image again, that's located here, in the Wernicke's area.

Just quickly, to wrap today's lesson up, Roger's brain system quite likely at some point saw a very similar look on Pete's face at some previous point which at that time was accompanied by some nasty words perhaps. In that case, the speech recognition software would have been included in the loop we looked at above which would have attached further meaning to the facial expression. Roger doesn't exactly remember that encounter but his "sensitive" memory does and thus, without Roger really knowing why, Pete's glance at him - with perhaps an eyebrow raised a certain way - set off an alarm bell in his amygdala - "Hey! It's that "look" again!" Likely too, Roger had seen similar looks on other people in the past and perhaps had strong emotional components attached to them as well. 

And all this adds up to a mere glance within a second or two "setting off" Roger. The more passive Bob, meanwhile, because all his hardware never really developed to notice these things, well, notices nothing.

One last factor and we're done for this segment. These systems don't operate at the same rate of speed in each individual either. Roger's brain might be able to jump from face to face more quickly and deduce more. Bob's might run slower and at the moment his eyes took in Pete's expression, his facial recognition software and limbic system may have still been grappling with a face he'd exchanged glances with moments before. 

So when I say someone is "sensitive", I actually mean it as a compliment. They just "get" a lot more out of things around them. And they'll generally be more empathetic because they have "better data" to send off to their brain's empathy centre. Which is a topic for another day. 

So there we go; a look at how some simple exchanged glances in a bar get processed differently and some further understanding of how each of our individual "realities" are created - all in one fell swoop. 


And scholarly stuff such as this.

Thanks as always for reading along. I hope it was insightful for you and we'll see you next time!