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SciFoo 2010: a Conference from the Future

[ 15 ] August 3, 2010

Conference culture has a new younger sibling: the un-conference— a wonderfully spontaneous, informal, and, above all, communicative variation on the traditional model of presenting new research and ideas.

The Googleplex in Mountain View, CA, was home to the 2010 Sci Foo event. Click to enlarge. (Photo: Noah Hutton)

The main staging lobby at the Googleplex for SciFoo. Click to enlarge. (Photo: Noah Hutton)

I had the honor and privilege of being invited to participate in last weekend’s SciFoo un-conference at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA, where about 300 leading scientists, technologists, writers and other thought-leaders gathered for the fifth annual 3-day event hosted by Nature, Google, and O’Reilly Media. Participants from all corners of the Earth brought their most exciting ideas in theoretical physics, synthetic biology, neurotechnology, and social justice, among others—to toss into a teeming weekend schedule for all-day discussions, presentations, and long lunches that stretched disciplines and made science feel riskier. And, when it came to the ideas and attitudes on hand at SciFoo, riskier seemed to be a good thing.

Upon arrival at the Googleplex on Friday evening, the roughly 300 participants were given the opportunity to form the weekend’s schedule of presentations. We crowded around a series of large white boards to stick our oversized post-its on squares that corresponded to specific times and rooms of various sizes in the Googleplex, where we’d foster a discussion around any idea or specific piece of research we wished to bring to the table. The boards were quickly filled with a dazzling array of topics, with each hour holding around 14 distinct sessions running in parallel around the complex.

For more of an introduction to the concept of SciFoo, check out this Nature video made by talented science filmmaker Charlotte Stoddart about last year’s event:

I started Saturday morning at SciFoo in a session called “Lightning Talks” where presenters stood before a packed room and were challenged to deliver their latest and greatest in five minutes or less, and then to answer a few rapid fire questions from the audience at the end. Cognitive psych researcher Rebecca Saxe described augmenting moral decision-making, whereby modulating activity in distinct regions of the brain seems to alter behavior in morally-charged situations.  Mind Hacks author Vaughan Bell described several studies about hypnosis; Richard Jefferson reminded us that we exist because of communities of microbes living within our bodies. If there were an Olympic relay race model for communicating cutting-edge research and ideas, this session was it.

Later that morning, I attended a longer format relay presentation, where four thinkers stood up and delivered their “3 Rules” for a specific pursuit:

Eric Drexler on how to be a better scientist.

  1. What to do: aim to learn about the whole of science.
  2. How to do it: immerse yourself in other fields, dip into the scientific literature in an unfamiliar discipline once in awhile.
  3. Prepare yourself to recognize problems: turn unknown uknowns into known unknowns.

Carl Zimmer on how to be better understood as a scientist.

  1. When writing, mentalize. Try to put yourself inside the mind of your audience, and see what that feels like.
  2. Choose every word. (Check out Zimmer’s list of banned science writing words).
  3. Take storytelling seriously as a serious tool.

Garrett Lisi on rules for being a mad scientist.

  1. Make outlandish claims but be sane.
  2. Embrace your eccentricities.
  3. Extremize your hair.
  4. Break the rules.
  5. Have a rich life outside of science.
  6. Corrupt the youth.
  7. And the mysterious bridge to…
  8. Make a profit.

Jonah Lehrer on how to have more “aha!” moments.

  1. Take more warm showers.
  2. Pretend problems are far away.
  3. Move to Silicon Valley (i.e. foster diverse social networks across disciplines, have more horizontal interactions).

Participants created the schedule for the weekend conference on Friday evening. (Photo: Noah Hutton)

Other highlights for me included David Eagleman’s brilliant presentation on the neuroscience of time perception (including an experiment that involves a free-fall into a giant net while trying to tell time), Gabrielle Lyon’s session on the search for a replacement to the “pipeline” metaphor for science, and Ed Boyden’s fascinating research at M.I.T. using optogenetics to stimulate neurons with beams of light, a technique with a vast range of experimental applications. At my session on Saturday evening, I presented year one of my ongoing Blue Brain documentary film project and received some invaluable feedback from those in attendance. The screening morphed into a lively debate about the project and A.I. research in general, and many great suggestions for future questions and approaches to the film were put forth.

But for me, the definitive SciFoo moment came in a Saturday afternoon session led by Eva Amsen called Musicians & Scientists, where Eva described her terrific project to interview scientists who double as musicians (or vise versa), learning about what motivates them to pursue both. Halfway into the session,  two scientists in the room came forth with their own musical projects—first, Stanford physicist Hari Manoharan gave a mind-bending presentation of the work done in his lab—and then showed us what that work sounds like. Manoharan uses innovative methods to pick up and move individual atoms through a process called quantum tunneling. Manoharan can listen to the sound of the energy between these atoms as they move across one another, clicking into place or scraping across many others in sequence. Not only does this produce interesting rhythms (which Manoharan says some students have used for their own musical projects), it actually serves as a crucial scientific tool for the researchers to know where they are moving each atom by listening to each “click” and scrape.

A view of the Google campus in Mountain View, CA-- home of SciFoo. (Photo: Noah Hutton)

Next, physicist Stephon Alexander presented a forward-thinking way to visualize the classic circle of fifths in music. Alexander has exploded the circle into 3-D space, creating a pentahelix whereby each note on the scale can be placed on a distinct point in a perpetually twisting structure. The result is something like a musical DNA strand, and Alexander–a jazz enthusiast– can now use the helical structure to visualize, for example, the geometry of a John Coltrane tune, with each chord lighting up a distinct 3-D object formed by the points of each note in space. For more about Alexander, check out his profile piece on the National Geographic site.

Manoharan and Alexander’s impromptu presentations within the theme of the session as a whole encapsulated for me what made SciFoo such an invigorating and risky place to test out new ideas and projects, and above all, to talk with other curious parties. For kids, science needs to be cool enough to be as interesting as say, sports; for adults, science will do best to stay just as engaging– maybe even risky at times– and always driven by an insatiable curiosity. The SciFoo model of unfettered communication among some of the most excited and passionate thinkers may be the best ticket to keep it that way.

More SciFoo coverage:

Joseph LeDoux: Inside the Brain, Behind the Music, Part 5

[ 5 ] July 23, 2010

Inside the Brain, Behind the Music is part of an ongoing series of dispatches written for the The Beautiful Brain by neuroscientist and rock musician Joseph LeDoux. Each piece presents the personal and scientific background of a song from his band The Amygdaloids‘ latest brain-themed album, Theory of My Mind (Amazon, iTunes,

Part 5: “Crime of Passion”

The amygdala is an evolutionarily ancient almond-shaped structure in the brain.

This week’s song is “Crime of Passion.” When I was writing this, I felt I was channeling Johnny Cash.  It just seemed like the kind of song he might have done.  Through a simple twist of fate, the amazing Rosanne Cash ended up singing this song with me on the record.

So why did I write a song called “Crime of Passion”?  If you’ve been reading these Dispatches, you know that I am very interested in how brains respond automatically (unconsciously) in certain emotionally provoking situations. Over the years, this rep has gotten around, and I’ve been contacted from time to time by people seeking help in legal cases involving murder, in particular prisoners on death row looking for a angle that might give them the basis of new hearing.  The hope is that I might provide information that would buttress the argument for shifting the blame from the defendant to his brain, especially his amygdala.  This strategy is apparently not unusual.  Consider the following quote from a 2007 article in The Sunday Times of London.  The author, Raymond Tallis, is describing the basis for an “amygdala defense”: “The case against Mr X must be dismissed. He cannot be held responsible for smashing Mr Y’s face into a pulp. He is not guilty, it was his brain that did it. Blame not Mr X, but his overactive amygdala.”

The idea of an amygdala defense is fairly new in detail but not spirit.  In 1843, Daniel M’Naghten shot the British Prime Minister and pleaded temporary insanity.  The insanity defense in a number of countries, including the US, is based on the M’Naghten case.  Temporary insanity caused by strong emotional arousal, usually from catching one’s spouse in a compromising position, is often accepted as a rationale for leniency.  The amygdala defense simply replaces the psychological justification (temporary insanity) with a brain explanation (an overactive amygdala).

Scientifically, we can weave together the various pieces of the puzzle into a coherent story that might justify a temporary insanity/crime of passion/amygdala defense.  Through rational thought, we control our behavior.  Rational thought is a function of the mind and a product of cortical areas of the brain.  The amygdala, which works unconsciously, is a brain region responsible for strong emotional responses. Strong emotion (stress) due to an overactive amygdala disrupts the function of cortical areas involved in rational thought, in part by releasing hormones and other chemicals that impair cortical function. Unconscious processes controlled by the amygdala can interfere with rational thought and allow the performance of irrational behaviors that the person would not otherwise not commit.

The author of the Sunday Times piece was none too pleased with this movement towards the “my brain made me do it” defense.  Where do you draw the line with this kind of defense?  When is the brain responsible and when are you responsible? How do you ever know?  Why wouldn’t everyone make this case?  Tallis goes on to quote Stephen Morse, a law professor, who argues: “it is people, not brains, who commit crimes and neuroscience . . . can never identify the mysterious point at which people should be excused responsibility for their actions.”

Tallis sees one instance where “the neuromitigation of blame” might be acceptable: in instances where there is unambiguous evidence of grossly abnormal brain function or abnormal mental function due to clear cut illness that may have its origin in brain disease.  This reminds me of the “Texas Tower Sniper,” Charles Whitman, who gunned down University of Texas students.  He too was gunned down, and an autopsy revealed a tumor impinging on his amygdala.  This medical condition was given at least some of the blame.  Had he survived and gone to trial, and had modern brain imaging techniques been available, and had they been used and locate the tumor, Whitman might well gotten something short of a death sentence, even in Texas.

But let’s go back to the amygdala defense in the crimes of passion sense (as opposed to the damaged brain sense).  There are two versions of this that need to be distinguished.  The first is the “my amygdala did it.”   This is the version I have most often been contacted about.  In this version, the amygdala, when activated, is responsible for the act of murder.  When the cuckold catches his wife, he picks up a knife or baseball bat, walks over to the bed, and kills his wife, her lover, or both.  But as far as we know, actions like these are not what the amygdala does.  It is hard-wired to control simple, preprogrammed responses like freezing, not complex sequences of behaviors, like finding a weapon and using it.  Other regions like the basal ganglia might be able to do this, and they probably also function unconsciously.  But I’ll leave it to a basal ganglia expert so say whether the caudate nucleus or the nucleus accumbens can commit a crime of passion.

The other version of the amygdala defense is more reasonable scientifically.  This is the overactive amygdala hypothesis that Mr. Tallis mentioned.  In this version, intense emotional arousal strongly activates the amygdala and this biases the way brain areas (including action control regions such as those in the basal ganglia) subsequently behave (or misbehave).  Can this happen? Sure.  Did it happen in a particular case? Who knows?  But even if we could prove through imaging that the amygdala was hyperactive to emotional stimuli in the perp close in time to the crime, where would we draw the line between active and hyperactive, and most important, could we link amygdala activity in a causal way to the crime?

Personally, I don’t think that imaging can tell us much about the amydala’s role in a crime. The amygdala participates in a lot of functions, most famously, fear and aggression. But it is also involved in evaluating food as tasty and safe or poisonous, and in processing the meaning of odors; it contributes to reproductive behavior (sexual and parenting behavior); it is also important in the reinforcement or reward of behavior.  A hyperactive amygdala, in other words, does not mean anything on its own.  Very specific tests need to be performed to determine why it is hyperactive (which function or functions it is hyperactive in relation to).  Perhaps most important, imaging gives you correlational information, not information about cause and effect.  A person might commit a crime and have a hyperactive amygdala, but whether the hyperactivity caused the crime, whether the crime caused the hyperactivity, or whether the two were caused by completely independent factors cannot be concluded from simply taking a picture of the brain.

I have declined requests to contribute as an expert witness in crimes of passion. I just don’t think we know enough at this point to make life and death decisions on the basis of what was going on in the brain during such an act.  In particular, I truly believe that strong emotion can take over the brain and bias it in unusual directions.  But I also think it is probably very difficult to rule out all premeditation in a crime of passion.  We know that it only takes a few hundred milliseconds for brain events to reach consciousness.  It takes longer than that to pick up a baseball bat or knife, or to cross the room and strangle a person.  So some conscious thought has the opportunity to slip in and put on the breaks.  The question is whether the emotional arousal was so great that it prevented the conscious thought from putting on the breaks, or maybe even completely prevented the infiltration of consciousness.  How we would ever know what went on in those few hundred critical milliseconds?

I think the most difficult issues raised by the neuro-version of the crime of passion/insanity defense concern the nature of the self and willful self-control.  When one says, “I didn’t do it, my amygdala did,” who is the “I” in question?  Is that the conscious self, perhaps the prefrontal cortex?  If so, maybe the argument might be that people are responsible when their conscious self (or prefrontal cortex, in a neuro version) controls behavior, but not when unconscious processes (or brain areas) control behavior.  But that doesn’t really work. Much of what we call consciousness depends on underlying unconscious processes.  Given this, maybe we have to conclude that we can really never know if behavior is consciously produced, and therefore should never be held responsible for our actions.  Obviously, this is not a viable option.  Alternatively, we could conclude that we are always responsible, in which case there is no room for a crime of passion/insanity defense.

In the end, I don’t have an answer to the crime of passion legal problem but I do have a song about it.

“Crime of Passion” by The Amygdaloids

Click here for lyrics to “Crime of Passion”

“Crime of Passion” is a classic country waltz (3/4 time) and has a traditional verse/chorus structure. I originally wrote it completely from the point of view of an inmate who had murdered his wife’s lover upon discovering her with him.  Facing death, the inmate hasn’t come around and forgiven her.  Quite the opposite.  In the chorus he wails, “If I could go back, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t kill for you, you’re not worth, what I’m going through.”  When Rosanne agreed to sing this song with me on the record, I rewrote the lyrics in a “call and response” format.  So in the recorded version you get a little taste of the wife’s point of view as well.  She pipes up in the verses a bit. So when hubby says, “You were to me,” his mate completes the phrase, “like nectar to a bee.”  Hubby goes on, “My source of life,” and she responds, “your loving wife.”  She expresses her sorrow when she signs solo in a part of the chorus: “A crime of passion has got you, locked in that dirty old cell, A crime of passion has got you, lost in a living hell.” LeDoux is a University Professor, Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology and Child Psychiatry at NYU. He is also the Director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU and at the Nathan Kline Institute. The author of two best-selling books, The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self, LeDoux is also a singer and song writer of The Amygdaloids, a band of scientists that plays music about mind and brain and mental disorders. The Amygdaloids‘ latest album Theory of My Mind which features the song “How Free is Your Will” is available on Amazon, iTunes, and at

What do you think about applying modern neuroscience to the legal system? Have a question for Joe? Let us know in the comments section below.

Joseph LeDoux: Inside the Brain, Behind the Music, Part 4

[ 0 ] July 15, 2010

Inside the Brain, Behind the Music is part of an ongoing series of dispatches written for the The Beautiful Brain by neuroscientist and rock musician Joseph LeDoux. Each piece presents the personal and scientific background of a song from his band The Amygdaloids‘ latest brain-themed album, Theory of My Mind (Amazon, iTunes,

Part 4: “How Free is Your Will”

Watercolor by Noah Hutton

Are we free to choose?  Is all behavior determined?  Do you have to be conscious of a decision in order for it to be considered volitional?  Are we better off with or without free will? These are some of the issues touched on in my song, “How Free Is Your Will.” Note that there are no question marks in the song.  I just decided to leave them out. No particular reason.  I just freely chose to do that (or at least I believe I did).[1]

The problem of free will is closely tied up with the problems of consciousness and personal responsibility, which are themselves knotted together.  You have to be aware of what you are doing (conscious) in order to be responsible for your actions.  Christian theology says that humans but not other animals can gain or lose access to the Kingdom of Heaven by their actions.  Rene Descartes, a devout Catholic and one of the founders of modern philosophy, brought consciousness in when he said that only humans are responsible for actions because they have consciousness. Other animals, in his opinion, are reflex machines. They are pulled this way and that by their circumstances and are not free to choose right from wrong. And since they cannot choose, they cannot gain or lose heaven by their actions.

For Descartes, the terms consciousness and mind were equivalent. If it is not conscious, it is not mental in Descartes’s scheme.  But things have gotten a little more complicated in modern times, with the emergence of the idea that the mind has conscious and unconscious aspects.  Are we responsible for actions produced by unconscious processes in our brain? I’ll talk about this in a later post when I consider the song Crime of Passion.  For now, I simply want to explore the nature of free will.

Free will is a really hard problem for a dualist, one who believes that consciousness (mind, soul) is distinct from the brain. How can an immaterial thought, a thing of consciousness, cause neurons to fire in such a way as to produce willful actions?  This is the problem of “downward causation.”  The flip side of this question is the problem of “qualia.”  How can the material brain create a mental experience, such as the feeling of pain or the serenity of the red glow of a beautiful sunset?   While these issues are not so easy for materialist-inclined brain researchers either, at least we have the advantage of being able to work within one realm, the material realm, rather than having to try to forge a relation between two realms (material and mental).

“How Free is Your Will” by The Amygdaloids

Click here for lyrics to “How Free is Your Will”

Let’s go back to the song.  Each of the first ten verses repeats a question in its first line: “how free is your will.” The refrain of these verses then elaborates on the question.  For example, the first verse goes:  “How free is your will, do you have control, are you in charge, who’s running your soul.”  The music under the verses is a very simple two-chord vamp that goes back and forth between A and G. There’s a fun little instrumental movement that breaks up the repetitiveness of the chords and lyrics every now and then.

After verse ten, there’s a longer instrumental segment that ends with the vamp flipping for the last two verses.  This change of the chord sequence, which now goes from G to A, adds a burst of forward momentum since the chord interval, instead of going from high to low pitch, as at the beginning, now goes from low to high pitch.  Corresponding with this is a change in the first line of the last two verses.  Instead of asking “how free is your will,” they exclaim, “free will.” The refrains, which are the same as from the previous two verses, now become demonstrative conclusions under the influence of the forward moving sound.

The song ends on an instrumental chords sequence that I have no clue about.  I wrote the song with willful intention all the way through, until I reached the end.  At that point the song took over.  The chords just emerged from my fingers (in other words, unconscious processes in my brain took over and allowed this set of chord changes to unfold). I was surprised by these chords, since the sequence was more a more intricate and complex than what I typically write.  I scrambled for a pen to make some notes as I didn’t have confidence that I could recreate the sequence spontaneously.

When we use the term “I” we are usually referring to our conscious mind. So can “I” take credit for that chord sequence?  Did I willfully produce it?  I think this problem, like some other issues in philosophy, is about how the words are used.  Of course I wrote the song and came up with the chords.  I just didn’t do it completely consciously.  The fact is, though, I didn’t do it completely unconsciously either.  As the sequence began to unfold, the music being made was feeding into consciousness and creating qualia that allowed some good ole downward causation to help refine the efforts of my unconscious mind.  So, like many things we do in life, it was a collaboration between conscious and unconscious processes.  It’s hard to separate them sometimes.  Since introspection alone can’t give us all the answers, we need scientists to do experiments and figure out how they work the various processes above and below the surface.  Don’t worry, even if we figure this stuff out, your will is going to be as free, or determined, as it is today.  We may just know a little more about what that means. LeDoux is a University Professor, Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology and Child Psychiatry at NYU. He is also the Director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU and at the Nathan Kline Institute. The author of two best-selling books, The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self, LeDoux is also a singer and song writer of The Amygdaloids, a band of scientists that plays music about mind and brain and mental disorders. The Amygdaloids‘ latest album Theory of My Mind which features the song “How Free is Your Will” is available on Amazon, iTunes, and at

What do you think about free will? Have a question for Joe? Let us know in the comment section below.

The Summit of Consciousness

[ 1 ] July 13, 2010

World leaders, great thinkers, activists of every possible political stripe and a large number of media and law enforcement personnel poured into Toronto at the end of June. Though most of them were there for the G-20 summit, about 300 had arrived to attend the 14th annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC), held at the same time.

The discussions at the ASSC conference will not have the immediate impact on world affairs that those of the G-20 did, but for those who attended it, the central topic was as important as any global issue: The nature of consciousness, perhaps the most fundamental aspect of our existence – and how best to investigate and think about it.

Why are we conscious? What functions does consciousness serve, and how can we tell whether other creatures are conscious? How does consciousness arise from brain activity? What tasks can the brain perform without conscious awareness, and what distinguishes conscious and unconscious mental processes? Though philosophers have grappled with such questions for thousands of years, rigorous scientific research of these issues is a surprisingly recent development.

A difficult pursuit

To do science, you must be able to objectively observe and measure the phenomenon you are interested in; anyone else should be able, in principle, to make the same observations. But how can you measure someone else’s subjective experience? No one has direct access to anyone’s consciousness but his or her own. On top of this, there is no single, widely accepted definition of consciousness.

These two problems are the main reasons that the scientific community had traditionally resisted the idea of devoting time and effort to investigating consciousness. In the last two decades, however, the realization that you cannot ignore such a basic natural phenomenon just because it presents methodological difficulties has gained legitimacy. Consciousness research is now a thriving field, bringing together scientists with backgrounds in psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science and many related fields, as well as philosophers. Ingenious ways to overcome the difficulties inherent to the topic are constantly being thought up, and though this young field still faces formidable challenges, the atmosphere at the ASSC conference reflected a prevalent attitude of optimism and excitement.

Global debates

The Conference’s participants arrived from over 25 different countries, and, as has become a tradition at the ASSC, comprised about two-thirds scientists and one third philosophers. To many of the attendees, who are used to the narrow specialization of most academic conferences, this mix of backgrounds is one of the ASSC’s greatest attractions: “It is great to have an opportunity to argue with the scientists doing work on the cutting edge of consciousness research,” says Ned Block, a professor at New York University and one of the world’s leading philosophers of mind.

A lot of arguing could indeed be heard over the four days of the conference, but it was nearly all good-natured; my own impression was that although the ASSC attendees were not devoid of the fierce competitiveness that characterizes researchers in so many fields, there was very little of the animosity that such competition often arouses. Perhaps this is a feature of a field where so many of the most basic questions have yet to be resolved.

The heated discussions that followed many of the presentations continued into the social events that took place each evening. “The ASSC was my first international conference, and I could not anticipate that it would be so much fun,” Says Ido Amihai, a graduate student from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. Amihai gave a talk on his thesis research, which is based on previous findings that the human brain can process certain visual stimuli, such as faces, without awareness. In his research, Amihai demonstrated that certain aspects of faces – he investigated gender and race – require awareness to affect behavior.

Trends and prizes

Many of those presenting new work at the conference were graduate students and postdocs, in line with the ASSC’s policy of encouraging young researchers. In a special mentoring event on the second day, students were paired with experienced researchers for lunch and a discussion of research and career development.

The William James Prize, awarded annually at the conference for an outstanding published contribution to the empirical or philosophical study of consciousness by a graduate student or postdoctoral scholar, was awarded to Yann Cojan from the University of Geneva in Switzerland during the opening ceremony. Cojan headed a team whose paper, published in the journal Neuron in June 2009, investigated brain activity under hypnosis. In his acceptance lecture, Cojan described the history of hypnosis and its relation to the study of consciousness, before going on to describe his own findings: While undergoing functional MRI, participants were instructed to prepare to move their hand. After a few seconds they were told whether or not to actually perform the movement. Some of the time, they were hypnotized and believed that their hand was paralyzed. Interestingly, when the volunteers were under hypnosis, the preparatory activity in motor cortex was normal; but there was increased activity in other regions related to attention, mental imagery and self-awareness. Moreover, the connectivity between these regions and motor cortex was enhanced, indicating that hypnosis doesn’t work by directly controlling motor activity, but rather through the effects of internal representations and self-monitoring processes on such activity.

Prizes were also given to new research presented at the conference itself by students: a multi-disciplinary panel of judges selected two empirical and two philosophical studies to receive the prestigious awards. Hakwan Lau, an assistant professor at Columbia University in New York and past recipient of the William James prize, points out that the winning studies reflect an interesting trend evident in this year’s conference – an emphasis on metacognition (knowing what you know) and higher-order theories of consciousness.

A great deal of past research on consciousness has in fact been focused on perceptual performance: being able to complete a task has been equated with awareness of the relevant stimuli. However, as a lot of the work presented this year shows, there is a clear distinction between what the brain can achieve, and the neural activity related to awareness of what our brains are doing.

Being conscious of what you know

Lucie Charles, a doctoral candidate from the INSERM-CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in Paris, France, was one of the student winners. Her research used measures of the brain’s electrical activity to investigate processes related to making mistakes, and how error-related brain activity is modulated by awareness. She asked participants to perform a visual task, and also to evaluate their own performance – whether they thought they had gotten it right or not. By manipulating the time elapsing between the visual stimuli and a meaningless “mask” that followed them, Charles could render the stimuli either clearly visible or very difficult to see. She found that a specific neural signature, believed to indicate the activity of cognitive control mechanisms, was evident when volunteers were aware that they had made an error but absent when they could not consciously report the stimuli. Previous research has shown that the kind of subliminal stimuli used by Charles can be processed by the brain’s visual centers. These new results, however, indicate that subliminal visual stimuli fail to reach higher-order cognitive control stages of processing.

Another winner of the student prize, Stephen Fleming from University College London in the UK, investigated the relationship between metacognition and brain structure. Like Charles, Fleming also had his volunteers perform a visual task. By adjusting the difficulty of the task online, he was able to keep all his volunteers’ performance at equal levels. When he asked them how sure they were of how well they were doing, however, there was a wide variety of confidence levels. Fleming measured his participants’ metacognitive sensitivity – how appropriate one’s confidence is (comparing rates of high confidence after correct and incorrect responses). Fascinatingly, he found a correlation between metacognitive sensitivity and the size of brain structures in the frontal and cingulate cortices, as well as the level of connectivity between frontal regions in the brain’s two hemispheres. Knowing what you know, therefore, may depend on the brain’s structure and not just its activity.

Another interesting study, presented by Helene Gauchou, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, examined whether people know more than they are aware of. Gauchou used an unconventional method: The Ouija board, commonly used in séances where people place their hands on an overturned cup and move it around a board of letters, spelling out words without conscious intention. In séances, the responses are often surprisingly sensible – prompting believers to attribute them to spiritual influences. It is now well established, however, that what is really at work here is something called the ideomotor effect: Participants move the cup themselves, but having other people also touch the cup enables them to lose a sense of responsibility (or “agency”) for the movement. Gauchou asked volunteers to use a Ouija board to answer general knowledge yes/no questions. Another person initially touched the cup, so the volunteers could believe it wasn’t them causing the movement. Then Gauchou blindfolded them, and the other person (actually an experimenter) removed his hands. Astonishingly, volunteers’ performance on questions they claimed they didn’t know the answers to was significantly better than chance. This did not happen when they simply answered such questions verbally. A lot of our memory, says Gauchou, is implicit: We know stuff we have forgotten that we know, but these results show that we can still access such knowledge.

A multitude of perspectives

The abundance of new research at the conference left no choice but to have presentations in parallel sessions, meaning that three different talks went on at the same time. The organizers did an admirable job of trying to make these sessions focus on different topics, so everyone could attend the ones they were interested in – but for many of the attendees, part of the fun came from being exposed to research outside their own day-to-day topics of investigation. (I gave a talk myself, and must admit I was quite disappointed when I realized I really wanted to see both of the other talks that took place at the same time as mine)!

Some cutting-edge issues, however, were discussed in symposia attended by everyone. Among these was a discussion chaired by Antoine Lutz from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on the potential of research on meditation to contribute to understanding consciousness. In a different symposium, on physiological approaches to consciousness research, Alex Maier from the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, presented new work in which he used both intracranial electrodes and fMRI to measure activity in monkey brains, resolving some previously-reported discrepancies between these two methods. Naotsugu Tsuchiya from the California Institute of Technology presented new research that used electrode arrays implanted in humans (a common procedure before some kinds of brain surgery). This kind of research was also described by Robert Knight from the University of California, Berkeley, who was one of the conference’s keynote speakers. Keynote speakers are usually invited because they work in a somewhat different field, but can give an illuminating, outsider’s point of view. Other keynote speakers included Nicola Clayton from the University of Cambridge, UK, who talked about the remarkable cognitive abilities of birds (specifically, crows); and Morris Moscovitch from the University of Toronto, who discussed the relationship between memory and consciousness, drew from fascinating findings on memory in brain-damaged patients.

The conference ended with an after-party at a local bar, many excited farewells and promises to keep in touch and meet again at next year’s ASSC conference, which will be held in Kyoto, Japan.

David Carmel is a research scientist at the Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science in New York University. His research focuses on visual awareness and attention in humans, using brain imaging and behavioral experiments.

Joseph LeDoux: Inside the Brain, Behind the Music, Part 3

[ 4 ] July 8, 2010

Inside the Brain, Behind the Music is part of an ongoing series of dispatches written for the The Beautiful Brain by neuroscientist and rock musician Joseph LeDoux. Each piece presents the personal and scientific background of a song from his band The Amygdaloids‘ latest brain-themed album, Theory of My Mind (Amazon, iTunes). LeDoux and The Amygdaloids will be performing live on NPR’s Science Friday with host Ira Flatow on Friday, July 9th at 3 pm ET.

Part 3: “Glue”

On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, I was a freshman in high school sitting at my desk in Mr. Smith’s class on Business Administration.  Suddenly, someone burst through the door shouting, “Kennedy was shot.”  Mr. Smith switched on the classroom TV and we all sat rapt while Walter Cronkite reviewed the situation.  All classroom changes were suspended, and we remained where we were the rest of the afternoon.

Flashbulb memories are highly detailed, exceptionally vivid snapshots of the moment and circumstances in which surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard.

I remember this event as if it happened yesterday.  The recollection is clear and vivid.  Psychologists call this a “Flashbulb memory,” a phrase meant to highlight its clarity, as if a moment was captured by a flash of light that makes it prominent, relative to the moments before and after the flash.

So what is responsible for the flash in our head when we have a flashbulb memory?  The answer, plain and simple, is emotion.   Emotional arousal causes brain circuits that form memories to stamp experiences in a particularly strong way.  It sort of makes sense, doesn’t it?  When you are emotionally aroused, it means something important (either positive or negative) is happening in terms of your well-being.  In general, you want to remember and repeat behaviors that expose you to stimuli associated with good things, and avoid doing things that might expose to bad things. One way the brain achieves this goal is by making memories of the good and bad stand out relative to the mundane and ordinary.

But saying that emotion achieves this goal is just begging the question.  Fortunately, we have a good deal of information about how emotion does this.  Consider the emotional arousal that occurs in negative emotions such as fear.  In dangerous situations, activity is triggered in our friend the amygdala (see Part 1, Fearing).  When this occurs, the amygdala sends messages through its neural output connections to a variety of areas that control different kinds of behavioral and physiological responses that help keep you safe and also help prepare you for similar future events.  Particularly important in the storage of memories for future events are connections to systems that release neuromodulatory chemicals (like norepinephrine and dopamine) within the brain, and hormones (like cortisol) that travel through veins to the brain. These chemicals produce widespread activation of the brain and help keep you focused and alert, but also enhance the storage of memories.  The chemicals can be thought of as neurological glue that helps makes memories stick.

Glue” by The Amygdaloids

Click here for the lyrics to “Glue”

Some of the songs I have written are tributes to researchers whose work I respect.  My song “Glue” is a tribute to James McGaugh of the University of California at Irvine.  He and his colleagues have led the way in showing how chemical modulators in the brain and hormones from the body make memories stick. The chorus in “Glue” is where the scientific facts come into this love song:  “There must be something in my brain, there must be something in my veins, there must be some primal glue, that keeps my memory stuck on you.”

Before leaving this dispatch about the emotional regulation of memory, it’s important to give you an update on flashbulb memories.  For many years, they were thought to be not just strong and vivid, but also especially accurate.  We now know that they are not more accurate.  Their strength gives you confidence in their accuracy but when emotionally based memories are checked against facts, they turn out to be no more or less accurate than non-emotional memories.  So whether my vivid memories (of someone running into Mr. Smith’s classroom and shouting that JFK had been shot, of there being a TV in the class that covered the incident in real time, of Walter Kronkite being on it,  and of us staying in that room rather than going to other classes) are accurate is up for grabs.

We shouldn’t put all the blame on the storage process.  Inaccuracy also comes into memory during the act of remembering.  It’s long been known that remembrance is a time of change, a time when new information is introduced into the memory.  At some point when I remembered the events of that day, I may have filled in that I saw Walter Cronkite on the TV in the classroom because of his later coverage of JFK’s death and funeral.   What’s particularly fascinating is just how much information gets added to a memory each time you retrieve it.  It’s like a game of “telephone” that you play with yourself so that each time you tell a story from memory you store the memory afresh and the next time you remember the last memory rather than the original.  And the more emotionally arousing, the more likely the new information will be stored and will override the previous memory for all the same reasons that emotional arousal influences the original memory that is stored.  This is a particularly salient problem for eyewitness testimony–people will sometime testify about what they read in the newspaper rather than what they witnessed at the crime, since reading about the crime leads to storage of new information that ends up being part of the memory.

Memory is pretty good but it isn’t perfect.  Perhaps inaccuracy is the cost of rapidly storing emotional information in an especially persistent way so that at least the general tone of important situations will be remembered vividly in the future, if not the exact details. Don’t forget (in fact, remember strongly, and accurately, if you can) that the brain is, and always will be, an imperfect device, a work in progress, one which we simply expect too much of sometimes.

Joseph LeDoux is a University Professor, Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology and Child Psychiatry at NYU. He is also the Director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU and at the Nathan Kline Institute. The author of two best-selling books, The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self, LeDoux is also a singer and song writer of The Amygdaloids, a band of scientists that plays music about mind and brain and mental disorders.

The Amygdaloids‘ latest album Theory of My Mind which features the song “Glue” is available on Amazon and iTunes. “Glue” will be performed live on NPR’s Science Friday program on July 9th at 3 pm ET.

Do you recall any flashbulb memories? Have a question for Joe? Let us know in the comment section below.

Joseph LeDoux: Inside the Brain, Behind the Music, Part 2

[ 2 ] July 1, 2010

Inside the Brain, Behind the Music is part of an ongoing series of dispatches written for the The Beautiful Brain by neuroscientist and rock musician Joseph LeDoux. Each piece presents the personal and scientific background of a song from his band The Amygdaloids‘ latest brain-themed album, Theory of My Mind (Amazon, iTunes).

Part 2: “Mind Over Matter”

Today’s song is “Mind Over Matter.” This is one of two songs that Rosanne Cash, bless her heart and incredible voice, sang with me on Theory of My Mind.

To explain what this song is about, I want to briefly discuss the expression in the title.

Let’s start with something Plato reportedly said: that he looked forward to death so that he could be free of his body and all of the distractions it posed to the pure thoughts of his soul.  For Plato, the body was a source of wild passions (animal instincts or emotions).  To lead a good, virtuous life, one uses reason (thought or cognition) to control these inner beasts and keep them from being expressed in behavior.  But this control of behavior by the mind is not what “Mind Over Matter” is about.

"Mind Over Matter" music video directed by Alexis Gambis.

Plato’s view of the mind as pure thought contrasts with the more modern scientific view, which is that cognition and emotion are both parts of the mental landscape. The goal is to understand how the brain (a material object) makes all these processes of the mind possible.  The modern view also emphasizes that much of what the mind does (including the control of the behavioral responses of the material body) takes place unconsciously.  This applies to both the cognitive and emotional aspects of mind.

Descartes, sort of like Plato, equated the mind with consciousness.  Freud helped crystallize the idea that consciousness is only a part of the mind.  But the unconscious today is considered even more important than Freud imagined—it doesn’t just refer to a repository of previously conscious anxious thoughts, but also refers to the basic mental machinations that keep everything psychological humming along.

Physics provides an understanding of how the material world works.  And neuroscience is showing us how a physical object, the brain, makes the mind possible. We know a lot more about the basic processes of the brain involved in seeing, hearing, smelling, speaking, eating, sleeping, and mating than we do about how some of the underlying processes percolate up into consciousness.  But most scientists take for granted that the entirety of our mind operates within the constraints imposed on matter by the laws of physics. This doesn’t mean that the mind or soul does not exist. It just means that whatever the soul is, it is subject to the laws of physics.

The Amygdaloids perform in the music video for "Mind Over Matter" directed by Alexis Gambis.

I attended a conference sponsored by the Vatican a few years back. I was surprised to find theologians from various religions who accepted the dependence of the mind (soul) on the physical brain. These theologians, in other words, accepted that the soul was tethered to and made possible by the brain, at least during life.  They were struggling to find some way that physics (as it currently exists or might exist in the future) could explain how the soul could be a physical entity (though not one you could see and touch, but a physical entity nevertheless) that survives death of the body.

As a neuroscientist, I also firmly believe that the mind (or soul, if you like) is part of the material world, a product of the brain.  I am not claiming that we fully know how the brain makes the mind possible, but I believe it does.  That’s the hypothesis I’ll cling to until it’s falsified by scientific evidence, or more likely, until I’m 6 feet under and no longer have a brain that can have such a thought (unless the theologians are correct and there is some kind of physics that will allow my mind a material life of its own in some invisible aspect of space-time).

Back to “Mind Over Matter.” Let’s look at a few key lines from the song. First thing to note is that a number of my songs have an inverted structure– they start and end with a chorus, and the verses come in the middle. I don’t know why I’ve been doing that but that’s how they come out sometimes (the ole unconscious at work). The opening chorus lines in the song are:  “Mind over matter, that’s something I’m trying to do; it’s just a little physics, that keeps me apart from you.”  So right away you know that the singer is missing someone. He then says to the missing person that he wants to “break down space and time, and be together with you.”  This suggests that the person is in some unknown place.  So far so good in terms of physics.  But as we go into the verses we see options such as time travel (“are you still in my time?”) and communication with the afterlife (“or in a place heavenly?”).  But simpler options are in there as well (“different continent or on the sea?”).  Determined to close the gap, he asserts, “wherever you are now, I’ll use my mind to find; no amount of space or time, can keep you from being mine.”

So you might be thinking that “Mind Over Matter” is an odd song for a brain scientist to write since it implies several potential violations of the laws of physics.  But in the end scientists are just like everyone else.  We have longings and fantasies that don’t always make perfect sense.  We miss those who are no longer with us, and long to be with them, even if we know it is not physically possible.  I am scientifically rigorous when I am wearing my scientific hat. But I don’t necessarily spend every waking moment of the day carefully considering whether my thoughts and feelings match the predictions of physics.

I always find it interesting when song writers explain where a particular song came from. So, if I may, I’ll share the origin of “Mind Over Matter” with you. A couple of years ago my wife Nancy and I went to the Rubin Museum’s Friday evening film program called “Mind Over Matter.”  The film was “The Innocents,” a chilling cinematic version of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. I read the book in college, and I saw the film many years later in the old Carnegie Hall Cinema.  During the showing at the Rubin, I thought that “Mind Over Matter” would be a great title for one of my mind/brain songs.  So I went home I picked up my guitar and started randomly picking.  Out came the opening guitar riff (again the unconscious doing its thing).  I then sang the first phrase “mind over matter” and an hour later it was basically done. Record time for me.

Lenny Kaye (L) and Joseph LeDoux perform "Mind Over Matter" at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City in April. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

The Rubin Museum, though, has another role in the story.  This past spring I participated in the Brainwave Festival there, where I got to sing “Mind Over Matter” live in its place where it germinated. My partner in musical crime was Lenny Kaye, the legendary guitarist of the Patti Smith Group.  Lenny came up with another song called “Mind Over Matter,” a much earlier version by Nolan Strong and the Diablos.  The doo-wop flavor of Lenny’s choice was a perfect compliment to the rock/pop/country feel of mine. We had a great time.

“Mind Over Matter” is my favorite song on the CD. I hope you’ll listen and like it too.  Thanks to Alexis Gambis, his crew, and the Imagine Science Film Festival  for making the wonderful video possible.

Joseph LeDoux is a University Professor, Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology and Child Psychiatry at NYU. He is also the Director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU and at the Nathan Kline Institute. The author of two best-selling books, The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self, LeDoux is also a the singer and song writer of The Amygdaloids, a band of scientists that plays music about mind and brain and mental disorders.

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