Recent Neuroscience, Consciousness, Self and Zenlp
Both meditators and those interested in NLP will find much to contemplate deeply in this year's BBC Reith Lectures.
The 2003 series deliver many interesting insights, but also pose some fascinating questions, as they give a philosophical overview of the current scientific knowledge of the brain.
The lecture series is internationally respected as an annual landmark of contemporary thought and this year's lecturer is an eminent neuroscientist.
Vilayanur S Ramachandran is Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition and professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Programme at the University of California, San Diego. He is also Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute.
We'd encourage you to read or listen to the full series at the BBC. Here are a couple of the issues that got us going. (Extracts from the lectures are in italics.)
Here's some science that sets you up to really think about how our unconscious perceptions work:
The message from the eyeball on the retina goes though the optic nerve and goes to two major visual centers in the brain. One of these I'll call it the old system, the old visual centre, it's the evolutionary ancient centre, the old pathway that's in the brain stem and it's called the superior colliculus. The second pathway goes to the cortex, the visual cortex in the back of the brain and it's called the new pathway. The new pathway in the cortex is doing most of what we usually think of as vision, like recognizing objects, consciously. The old pathway, on the other hand, is involved in locating objects in the visual field, so that you can orient to it, swivel your eyeballs towards it, rotate your head towards it. Thereby directing your high acuity central foveal region of the retina towards the object so then you can deploy the new visual pathway and then proceed to identify what the object is and then generate the appropriate behaviour for that object.
Let me now tell you now about an extraordinary neurological syndrome called Blindsight discovered by Larry Weiscrantz and Alan Cowey at Oxford. It's been known for more than a century that if the visual cortex which is part of the new visual pathway, if that's damaged you become blind. For example if the right visual cortex is damaged you're completely blind on the left side if you look straight everything to the left side of your nose, you're completely blind to.
When examining a patient named GY who had this type of visual deficit, one half of the visual field completely missing, where he was blind, Weizcrantz noticed something really strange. He showed the patient a little spot of light in the Blind region. Weiscrantz asked him "what do you see"? The patient said "nothing" and that's what you would expect given that he was blind but now he told the patient "I know you can't see it but please reach out and touch it" The patient said well that's very strange - he must have thought this is a very eccentric request. I mean, point to this thing which he can't see.
So the patient said, you know I can't, I can't see it how can I point to it? Weiscrantz said well just try anyway, take a guess. The patient then reaches out to touch the object and imagine the researcher's surprise when the patient reaches out and points to it accurately, points to the dot that he cannot consciously perceive. After hundreds of trials it became obvious that he could point accurately on 99% of trials even though he claimed on each trial that he was just guessing. He said he didn't know if he was getting it right or not. From his point of view it might as well have been an experiment on ESP. The staggering implication of this is that the patient was accurately able to point to an object that he denied being able to see. How is this possible? How do you explain his ability to infer the location of an invisible object and point to it accurately?
The answer is obvious. As I said GY has damage to his visual cortex - the new pathway - which is why he is blind. But remember he still has the other old pathway, the other pathway going through his brain stem and superior colliculus as a back-up. So even though the message from the eyes and optic nerves doesn't reach the visual cortex, given that the visual cortex is damaged, they take the parallel route to the superior colliculus which allows him to locate the object in space and the message then gets relayed to higher brain centres in the parietal lobes that guide the hand movement accurately to point to the invisible object! It's as if even though GY the person, the human being is oblivious to what's going on, there's another unconscious zombie trapped in him who can guide the hand movement with uncanny accuracy.
This explanation suggests that only the new pathway is conscious - events in the old pathway, going though the colliculus and guiding the hand movement can occur without you the person being conscious of it! Why? Why should one pathway alone or its computational style perhaps lead to conscious awareness, whereas neurons in a parallel part of the brain, the old pathway can carry out even complex computations without being conscious.
For NLPers this experiment raises the question of how much of our rapport building, of the unconscious dance between humans, operates outside of conscious awareness. But then Prof Ramachandran goes an interesting step further, especially for those people interested in what makes consciousness:
Why should any brain event be associated with conscious awareness given the "existence proof" that the old pathway through the colliculus can do its job perfectly well without being conscious? Why can't the rest of the brain do without consciousness? Why can't it all be blindsight in other words?
We can't answer this question directly yet but as scientists the best we can do is to establish correlations and try and home in on the answer. We can make a list of all brain events that reach consciousness and a list of those brain events that don't. We can then compare the two lists and ask, is there a common denominator in each list that distinguishes it from the other? Is it only certain styles of computation that lead to consciousness? Or perhaps certain anatomical locations that are linked to being conscious? That's a tractable empirical question and once we have tackled that, it might get us closer to answering what the function of consciousness might be, if any, and why it evolved.
Then Ramachandran goes on to say that a similar effect is familiar to us all:
Imagine you are driving your car and having a lively animated intimate conversation with your friend sitting next to you. Your attention is entirely on the conversation, it's what you're conscious of. But in parallel you are negotiating traffic, avoiding the pavement, avoiding pedestrians, not running red lights and performing all these very complex elaborate computations without being really conscious of any of it unless something strange happens, like you see an actual zebra instead of just a zebra crossing! So in a sense you are not any different from GY all of you here, you have "blindsight" for driving and negotiating traffic. What we see in GY is simply an especially florid version of blindsight unmasked by disease, but his predicament is not fundamentally different from yours and mine.
Intriguingly you cannot imagine the converse scenario. Paying conscious attention to driving and negotiating traffic while unconsciously having a creative conversation with your friend. This may sound trivial but it is a thought experiment and it is already telling you something valuable, that computations involved in the meaningful use of language require consciousness but those involved in driving, however complicated, don't involve consciousness.
I believe this approach to consciousness will take us a long way toward answering the riddle of what consciousness buys you and why it evolved. My own philosophical position about consciousness accords with the view proposed by the first Reith lecturer, Bertrand Russell, there is no separate "mind stuff" and "physical stuff" in the universe, the two are one in the same, the formal term for this is neutral monism.
This is a very important question and it has not been studied in detail, even in Blindsight patients. What are the limits of their abilities? It's claimed, for example Cowey has shown that some aspects of wavelength discrimination can be done with just using Blindsight, without your being consciously aware of it. But can you recognise facial expressions? I don't know the answer to that. So it's an empirical question. How much can the unconscious pathway do? And it's a very important question because remember I told you about these two lists, one - what are the things that we can do consciously, what are the things that you do unconsciously, what parts of the brain are involved? In compiling those lists, that question you asked is going to turn out to be very important.
So they are getting closer to giving the science behind some of the observable NLP techniques matching breathing patterns, for example.
In one of the most powerful rapport-building NLP techniques you match the breathing of the other person. You match the frequency of breath, and also the pattern of the breathing movement between chest and stomach. The technique can be done in a variety of situations it is particularly intimate between two lovers lying together, but can also help calm the angry, when the leader starts by matching their furious breathing, then leads them to a calmer breath.
Prof Ramachandran also provides considerable scientific insight into mirroring and matching the mimicking of another's body language in order to establish rapport with them.
I came across some studies by Giaccomo Rizzollati, experiments done on monkeys. If you record from parts of the frontal lobes which are concerned with motor commands you find there are cells which fire when the monkey performs certain specific movements, like one cell will fire when the monkey reaches out and grabs a peanut, another cell will fire when the monkey pulls something, yet another cell when the monkey pushes something. That's well known. These are motor command neurons. But Rizzollati found that some of these neurons will also fire when the monkey watches another monkey performing the same action, so you find a peanut-grabbing neuron which fires when the monkey grabs a peanut. When the monkey watches another monkey grab a peanut, it fires. It's quite extraordinary because the visual image of somebody else grabbing the peanut is utterly different so you have to do this internal mental transformation to do that computation and for that neuron to fire and Rizzollati calls these mirror neurons. Another name for them is monkey-see monkey-do neurons and these neurons I think are the ones that are damaged in these patients.
Because think about what's involved in your judging somebody else's movements. Maybe you need to do a virtual reality internal simulation of what that person is doing, and that may involve the activity of these very same neurons, these mirror neurons. So these mirror neurons, instead of being some kind of curiosity, hold important implications for understanding many aspects of human nature like how do you read somebody else's movements, their intentions, their actions. Many aspects of what you called a theory of other minds, a sophisticated theory of other people's behaviour. We think it is this system of neurons that is damaged in these patients. The patient can therefore no longer construct an internal model of somebody else's actions.
I also want to argue that these neurons may have played an important role in human evolution and I am going to talk about this at length in my Oxford lecture on the emergence of language and abstract thinking, because think about it. One of the hallmarks of our species is what we call culture. And culture depends crucially on imitation of your parents, of your teachers and the imitation of complex skills may require the participation of mirror neurons. So what I'm arguing is somewhere around 50,000 years ago maybe the mirror neurons system became sufficiently sophisticated that there was an explosive evolution of this ability to mime complex actions, in turn leading to cultural transmission of information which is what characterises us humans.
This also provides some factual architecture that the NLP technique of modeling fits into. Modeling is a sophisticated and informed mimicry of advanced skills which allows them to be copied, and then passed on. It is the essential skill for advanced NLP practitioners.
Prof Ramachandran also adds another unsettling view of consciousness:
let's go back to normals and do a PET scan when you're voluntarily moving your finger using your free will. A second to three-fourths of a second prior to moving your finger, I get the EEG potential and it's called the Readiness Potential. It's as though the brain events are kicking in a second prior to your actual finger movement, even though your conscious intention of moving the finger coincides almost exactly with the wiggle of the finger. Why? Why is the mental sensation of willing the finger delayed by a second, coming a second after the brain events kick in as monitored by the EEG? What might the evolutionary rationale be?
The answer is, I think, that there is an inevitable neural delay before the signal arising in the brain cascades through the brain and the message arrives to wiggle you finger. There's going to be a delay because of neural processing - just like the satellite interviews on TV which you've all been watching. So natural selection has ensured that the subjective sensation of wiling is delayed deliberately to coincide not with the onset of the brain commands but with the actual execution of the command by your finger, so that you feel you're moving it.
And this in turn is telling you something important. It's telling you that the subjective sensations that accompany brain events must have an evolutionary purpose, for if it had no purpose and merely accompanied brain events - like so many philosophers believe (this is called epiphenomenalism) - in other words the subjective sensation of willing is like a shadow that moves with you as you walk but is not causal in making you move, if that's correct then why would evolution bother delaying the signal so that it coincides with your finger movement?
So you see the amazing paradox is that on the one hand the experiment shows that free will is illusory, right? It can't be causing the brain events because the events kick in a second earlier. But on the other hand it has to have some function because if it didn't have a function, why would evolution bother delaying it? But if it does have a function, what could it be other than moving the finger? So maybe our very notion of causation requires a radical revision here as happened in quantum physics. OK, enough of free will. It's all philosophy!
I suspect those last few thoughts will impress those of us who enjoyed the Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra.