Tag Archives: Mind

Who Is Normal, Anyway? Part II

18 Oct

It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane

 Philip K. Dick

II – The Drugs

One of my most popular posts discusses this area, but it’s worth clarifying some points.

My motive is simple – to get the best possible care for people suffering from sometimes debilitating problems.

The question is what does the evidence say is the best solution?

Drugs may ameliorate some of the symptoms of these conditions, but they do not address the causes.

Much like a pain killer is most welcome when suffering with appendicitis, so some drugs can be beneficial to deal with the worst of the symptoms for some of these conditions. However, to stretch the appendicitis analogy, if you only took the drugs to dull the pain, then the appendix may rupture and the results of that ain’t pretty. Besides pain – while unpleasant – is key to diagnosing the cause of the problem.

Similarly with mental problems, drugs can often mask issues. For example I’ve seen a number of people I know suffering from such issues be subdued with a cocktail of anti-psychotics and anti-depressants. Yes, it reduced their worst symptoms, but it also removed all their emotions, all their motivations and drives. One said to me “I feel like an automaton“, another “I’m just a zombie“. Max movingly saysI don’t know how else to explain them except mental handcuffs“. I’ve heard similar comments from other people. I very much appreciate that this approach took away the worst of their distress and behaviour, but it did not get to the root of their issues and help them deal with the causes of their distress. In fact in some cases I’ve seen, the ‘abnormal’ behaviour was a way of the person working through their underlying emotional problems, and this approach stopped their progress in its tracks.

The problem is, these treatments tend to be predicated on the assumption of a biological cause.

Psychiatrist Dr Joanna Moncrieff says “psychiatric drugs…”work” by producing drug-induced states which suppress or mask emotional problems, which may suppress the symptoms of psychiatric disorders, along with other intellectual and emotional functionsThat sounds good. If your brain is not functioning properly“, however what if these reactions to environmental and psychological triggers are in fact adapted functions of the mind, evolved methods of coping with negative situations?

Professor Peter Kinderman saysPsychiatric diagnoses are not only scientifically invalid, they are harmful too. The language of illness implies that the roots of such emotional distress lie in “chemical imbalances“. This leads us to be blind to the social and psychological causes of distress. More importantly, we tend to prescribe medical solutions – anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medication – despite significant side-effects and poor evidence of their effectiveness. This is wrong.”

Allen Frances says that “Medication should be a last resort used only for the clearest, most impairing, and most persistent disorders. Instead the meds are often prescribed carelessly-almost like candy“.

It should be added that most of these conditions cannot be considered in the same way as physical diseases – the pathologies just aren’t there. They are arbitrary assignations that enable us to understand and treat certain common behaviours and feelings. (And that’s not to deride or belittle them in anyway.)

It is clear also, that positive effects of mind-altering drugs can be brought about through the power of the mind, say through meditation.

People say ‘But, but, look at all these people that call it an illness, that treat it with drugs’ – Appeal To The Crowd.

But this doctor with a white coat prescribed these drugs’ – Appeal To Authority.

But they have been treated this way for decades’ – Appeal To Tradition.

People talk about chemical imbalances: correlation? Yes. Causation? Not necessarily. In fact, such markers should be thought of as the result of difficult life circumstances. This is how the brain responds to external events. Hunger is a chemical imbalance. You don’t take drugs to make the feeling go away, you look to the cause of the hunger. You eat food.

While there is evidence of genetic markers that mean people are more prone to, say, depression than others, it’s still their environment that triggers those reactions. Epigenetics is still in its infancy, but it’s clear that environment can activate and deactivate genes.

The gene blame game makes popular headlines but is not scientifically accurate. It’s a little more subtle than that.

The biological / genetic model is appealing. Its reductionist and simplistic approach makes it easy to understand and to treat. However that doesn’t mean it’s always correct.

So beware the seductive but pernicious idea that medication heals people in all of these situations. The evidence shows it doesn’t. It only manages symptoms. Or worse, is used to make people manageable.

Part III – Stigma in the next post

Part I in the previous post.


Who Is Normal, Anyway?

3 Oct

The Mad Hatter: Have I gone mad?

Alice: I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret: all the best people are.

– Alice In Wonderland

People who have had nasty stuff happen to them are likely to act a bit differently, particularly when placed under stress.

Some people who don’t act normally are called mentally ill, and given labels to say they have this or that disorder.

While there is utility in such arbitrary labels, it is clear that there are also counterproductive results.

It’s a matter of subjective judgement whether certain behaviours are considered abnormal. And that’s often as much down to the way society works as the individual.

For example not so long ago homosexuality was a mental illness, with it’s own symptoms and then it wasn’t. Just like that. Now it’s considered as normal and healthy. Even nostalgia was defined as an illness until recently. Again, whether delusions are considered problematic can be a grey area: “Delusions, in the medical sense, are not simply a case of being mistaken, as the everyday use of the term suggests. They are profound and intensely held beliefs that seem barely swayed by evidence to the contrary – even to the point of believing in the bizarre.” Religion is a great example of this, but we don’t pathologise such behaviour. The thing is, everyone holds some delusional beliefs – it’s part of the human condition.

It seems clear that psychiatry makes some of these judgements based on what is acceptable to society as much as what is unhealthy for the individual. It’s not exactly rigorous science. While there are biological markers for a few states of mind, for the majority there are not, so we resort to classifying behaviour. How do we define what behaviours are the results of “mental illness” and what are normal? One suggestion is defining the behaviour of the majority as the norm, and classifying everyone outside of that average as disordered. The faults with that approach are immediately clear. Another suggestion is whether that behaviour causes self harm. If so smokers, or those with a bad diet, are defined as mentally ill.

So we then look to the perceptions and feelings of the person. Phenomenology, is the best tool for this, but is again subjective and imprecise. We can also look at whether these behaviours affect a person’s ability to lead a normal life, which requires normality within their culture to be defined.

Of course there are many difficult conditions that one would have difficulty arguing against being classified as problematic in any society. I’m acutely aware that severe depression can be debilitating, that psychosis can mean a person is unable to care for themselves. I’ve seen it first hand. Mind says that 1 in 10 adults are experiencing depression at any one time. Over 10% of mothers experience post-natal depression. Around 1% of people experience bipolar symptoms at some point.

However, while these methods will have clearer conclusions at the extremes of behaviour, there are massive grey areas in between.

The conclusion then, is that this is not a simple, easily solvable area. An acceptance that we don’t have black and white definitions is necessary, much as that is not satisfying. And as a result we don’t have panaceas either.

Part II – The Drugs in the next post

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

28 Dec

After following Jonah’s very readable blog for a while I decided I had to read his book. His blog introduced the latest neuroscience and psychological research in a very clear and digestible form.

That Lehrer has been embroiled in controversy for recycling his own work, and using unreferenced quotes from others is well known, however that of course does not detract from the message of his book in any way.

It’s an easy read, that is not too in depth and covers a lot of ideas about how the mind works that I’ve read before. While it’s not as incisive and informative as his blog, it is still useful, and reinforced ideas in a practical way.

He starts by describing how we use intuition (the examples of a quarterback & chess were used). Calculating faster than a computer, we are able to subconsciously make a good decision, if we have trained ourselves enough. We’ll “feel” that something is right without knowing why, or even needing to know.

However it’s important to know when we can use this intuition: if it’s an area you know well, where you have experience, then let the intuition lead. However if the decision is in a area in which you have had little practice, then don’t rely on your subconscious – think it through consciously.

Our subconscious training can be tripped up. Choking is well known, especially in sports, for example golf. If someone who is expert in an area consciously tries to figure out the technicality of what they’re doing, say understanding the position of their shoulder or the angle of their elbow, then they can easily lose the ability to fluidly use their body. Rather they must think in more general terms, such as a smooth golf swing.

There’s another way we can decide whether it’s best to use our intuition or our conscious mind to figure something out: if some problem has about 5 variables then we should use our conscious mind (the frontal cortex), however if there are a lot more variables, we should soak them all in, focus on something completely unrelated for a few minutes, then come back and make a decision – in that case the subconscious is good at sorting through the key facts.

He points out that the brain is an advanced pattern matching machine. This is very powerful when we want to figure out how things work, or make quick decisions, but it can lead to problems – recognising a face in clouds is a simple example. Also superstitions, seeing ghosts, etc. are faults with the system.

He talks about how morals are subconscious and are justified post-hoc, and are often not often logical.

He covers what Pinker would call the functional mind, i.e. that different bits of the brain will argue with each other, and once they’ve made a decision, present the result to the conscious part of the brain. He advises becoming aware of the argument, and embracing uncertainty until a good decision is found.

To be honest, having read a lot of stuff in this subject area I found this a really basic book, but if you are new to reading about neuroscience and how the mind works, it’s an easy-to-read introduction that you could get through in a few quick hours.

The best conclusion from this book is that we can understand how we work, use our inbuilt skills when they are appropriate, and train ourselves to make better decisions.

Collective Intelligence

10 Dec

Thomas Malone runs a fascinating group called the MIT Centre for Collective Intelligence. He is working “to understand the conditions that lead to collective intelligence rather than collective stupidity”.

(He has a good grounding having studied maths, computer science, economic systems and cognitive psychology.)

Here are the key points from an interview he recently gave about his work.

He describes the internet as a form of collective intelligence drawing particular attention to Linux and Wikipedia. He thinks “they’re just barely the beginning of the story. We’re likely to see lots more examples of Internet-enabled collective intelligence – and other kinds of collective intelligence as well – over the coming decades”.

As such he says his group is trying to find out how “people and computers can be connected so that—collectively—they act more intelligently than any person, group or computer has ever done before”. He says that “if you take that question seriously, the answers you get are often very different from the kinds of organizations and groups we know today”.

A major key to understanding this is finding a measure of collective intelligence using “a single statistical factor that predicts how well a given group will do on a very wide range of different tasks”.

Interestingly “the average and the maximum intelligence of the individual group members was correlated, but only moderately correlated, with the collective intelligence of the group as a whole”.

He found that there were two factors that had the most influence on his measure of group intelligence:

The first was the average social perceptiveness of the group members. We measured social perceptiveness in this case using a test developed essentially to measure autism. It’s called the “Reading the Mind and the Eyes Test”. It works by letting people look at pictures of other people’s eyes and try to guess what emotions those people are feeling. People who are good at that work well in groups. When you have a group with a bunch of people like that, the group as a whole is more intelligent.

The second factor we found was the evenness of conversational turn taking. In other words, groups where one person dominated the conversation were, on average, less intelligent than groups where the speaking was more evenly distributed among the different group members.

I find this area of discussion particularly interesting working, as I do, on large IT projects. Their success is significantly influenced by the way the people work together given the processes and personalities involved. Also as the problem domains of human endeavour become ever more complex, it’s less easy for individuals to solve problems, and it’s group efforts that are required – the Large Hadron Collider is a great example.

It’s interesting to contrast his work with the principles in James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom Of Crowds which talks about bringing the knowledge of individuals to bear on a problem. He claims that wise decisions are made by taking the average of the decisions of a group of individuals providing that three conditions hold: diversity of experience among the individuals, decentralisation of knowledge and independence of decision-making across the group.

In this fun article Tom Stafford writes that we rely more on our environment for intelligence than we like to think. Whether it’s Google and Wikipedia or people and our surroundings. He describes how we take so many cognitive short cuts that we actually don’t bother remembering many things, for example, if the people around us are likely to remember them for us. He says “our minds are made up just as much by the people and tools around us as they are by the brain cells inside our skull“.

Malone suggests: “You might well argue that human intelligence has all along been primarily a collective phenomenon rather than an individual one. Most of the things we think of as human intelligence really arise in the context of our interactions with other human beings. We learn languages. We learn to communicate. Most of our intellectual achievements as humans really result not just from a single person working all alone by themselves, but from interactions of an individual with a culture, with a body of knowledge, with a whole community and network of other humans.

I think and I hope that this approach to thinking about collective intelligence can help us to understand not only what it means to be individual humans, but what it means for us as humans to be part of some broader collectively intelligent entity.

Why We Believe What We Believe – Andrew Newberg

2 Nov

I’ve read a lot of good books describing how the mind works and this one is near the top of the list.

Andrew Newberg describes – with fascinating examples and studies – how we create our view of reality. Or to put it another way: our beliefs. This isn’t just about religion, though that is discussed in detail, but about how we create, adapt and persist our belief system and how that then shapes our perception of the world.

There’s some fascinating developmental stuff in there, such as how babies up to a certain age don’t believe an object exists when it’s outside of their perception.

He shows how a baby has twice as many neurons than an adult but way fewer connections. And in fact puts a positive light on the fact we lose brain cells as we age: we make too many connections as we grow, and pare away the ones that are not useful, resulting in a brain that can function better.

He discusses stages of belief such as how a child doesn’t have a moral dimension at first, understanding the difference between good and bad, i.e. as their actions affect them, but not between right and wrong, i.e. how their actions affect others – this is learnt roughly between the ages of 6 and 10, significantly influenced by the stories they are told, through which they learn to empathise.

Amusingly telling parents some of these things can result in an irrational response – “my baby recognises me”, “my baby is good and thoughtful”. But then we don’t like having our beliefs challenged, which is something he comes onto later in the book, discussing cognitive biases and how to become aware of the influences our beliefs have on our perceptions and corollary beliefs. This is also a good example of how we project our beliefs and way of thinking onto others, with an anthropomorphic bent,  a bias to which we are particularly prone.

So our view of the world is not a passive observation. We filter and process information according to our beliefs, which are acquired through nature, nurture and so on, and we actively create our view of reality.

His discussion of transcendent states is just brilliant. He covers nuns in prayer, Buddhists in meditation, Pentecostals speaking in tongues and an atheist meditating on God. These all bring excellent insights into how we can change our view of reality, suspend some of our belief systems, and become more open to, and aware of, other possibilities.

In Buddhist meditations, for example, we see an increase of activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the part that “monitor[s] our ability to stay attentive and alert, helping us to focus on a task… and in planning and executing a task”. Most interestingly there is a diminution of activity in the parietal lobes, those areas responsible for self image, and perception of space and time. That means that people do – in their perception – transcend their bodies, space and time and are able to be “in the moment”. Great insights can come from this mind state, as well as increased peace and well-being. Also these practices can reinforce a person’s view of the world as any things experienced in that state are usually used to confirm ones belief system, and if you think on a belief for long enough it becomes real.

Speaking in tongues (glossolalia) has a rather different effect: there is decreased activity in the frontal lobes and a “surrender of conscious will” (practitioners talk of a surrender of control to God). It therefore allows the person to think in new and creative ways, to see things from a different perspective, and is a useful mind-state in changing beliefs, in transforming oneself. Interestingly, glossolaliacs have an increased activity in the parietal lobes implying they have a greater sense of personal self, although as they tended not to practise for as long as the meditators, this may change if they practise more.

Newberg talks of these transcendent experiences as giving a feeling of oneness with the universe, or a connectedness with everything. With this will come a sense of peacefulness, and clarity of purpose. This was described by the atheist who meditated.

One of his closing comments is a challenge to which I continue to aspire:

Becoming a better believer is a difficult task to undertake, for re-wiring the brain requires patience and time. But if we succeed, to some small degree, then we will be better able to recognize our limitations, as well as our strengths. For this reason, I hold the deepest respect for those people who have had the courage to question and challenge their beliefs, for these are the individuals who have enriched our world through their creativity and willingness to grow.

The Body Has a Mind of Its Own by Matthew and Sandra Blakeslee

12 Jun

When I first saw the title of this book I thought it might be fluffy new age nonsense, but this is an insightful book, backed up with empirical evidence about how the brain and body work together.

It describes how the body and mind communicate, and how the different kinds of nerves work. For example, I didn’t know about proprioception so it was fascinating to learn that we have nerves in our joints and muscles that let us know the positions of our body parts in relation to others.

The book describes how the brain has different bits that are mapped to different parts of the body. You can see bits of the brain light up under fMRI scanners and the like, when people think about moving, or actually move, certain body parts.

It moves on to describe how tools, vehicles, bikes, etc. are incorporated into your body map, and as far as your brain is concerned, become a part of you. Ever notice how you duck when you drive under a bridge? And working the other way around, you can morph your body map to represent something in a virtual world, such as when playing a computer game. I’m sure you’ll have noticed when you’re moving a computer character with a controller you still try to help it along by moving your body.

It covers brain injuries, and missing limbs; of course the wonderful work of Vilayanur Ramachandran comes into play here. We see body maps getting muddled up and causing pro-sportsmen or musicians to forget how to do what they do, and ways around these problems using the theories in this area.

It shows how training doesn’t need to be physical; once you have a baseline of physical training, simply visualising your physical endeavour will make you better: from darts, to playing a musical instrument.

It also very interestingly describes why people have out-of-body experiences or see auras due to funny body maps that people have. Although people don’t really have such experiences, they perceive them due to body map issues.

Finally it looks at mirror neurons – the bits of your brain involved in empathy (though it’s worth noting that the existence of these is not universally accepted). It shows that when you watch others move, the same bits of the brain light up when you move, right up to the pre-motor cortex. It also dips its toe into the interesting waters of the boundary between you and others when you start to experience their emotions and feelings.

A well written and interesting read that gives a new perspective on how your mind and body work together.

On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee

13 Mar

A book with many fascinating insights into how the mind works, sadly flawed with some brash assumptions and glossing over important issues.

So his aim is to correctly understand how the mind works – he says most other people have got it wrong, and no one has a grand theory of how the mind works like he does. Ahem, yes, bit grandiose and martyr-like. The book is that, i.e. a grand theory of how the mind works. It’s the first part of his work. The second will be to figure out how to truly put this algorithm to work inside a machine. He says that while the AI industry has come up with some great applications, they missed the point as they started implementing AI before they fully understood the intelligent brain they were aiming to base it on.

I laud his aims – he made his money building personal gadgets (he designed the Palm Pilot) and is now spending his gains on his intelligence institute.

In summary, he is a long way from his grand claim of a complete understanding of the way “intelligence” works, but what he has produced is a good step in the right direction towards increasing our understanding.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first:

On p41 he makes the big, big assumption that only neocortex houses intelligence. This is pretty brash, given how we’re still learning about how the mind works and so much other stuff I’ve read shows how all the parts of the mind influence the others. That said, he hadn’t defined intelligence at that point.

And to say on p43 that the mind is produced only by the brain period is also bold given all the research about body-mind, and the nervous system around the body which many think has a lot more to play in the makeup of the mind than we intuitively assume. It has been argued that the mind wouldn’t function without the body, c.f. the feedback stuff he mentions. And this seems to be an unnecessary assumption.

And to his excellent paradigm for understanding how the mind works:

He posits that the mind can take any input – we have sight, hearing, etc. and learn to process it. It works the same for each: it takes in data over a period of time. Sight is not a snapshot – the eye has three “saccades” every second; it takes in a little part of the field of vision each time and builds up a picture over time. Similarly and more intuitively with hearing – we process a series of sounds over time. It wouldn’t make any sense if we simply had a snapshot of sound at a point in time. And so with touch – if you wake up touching something you can’t figure out what it is until you’ve moved along it, i.e. a sequence of touch input over time.

Then the cortex is made of 6 layers of neurons, each layer holding data that are an abstraction of the data in the lower layer. So for example when you hear music the lowest layer will register the notes, the next layer will put those notes into riffs, and so on. Or when you’re reading you’ll get letters at the lowest level, morphemes at the next, then words at the third, then phrases, and so on until you have more abstract understanding at the top.

When we’re learning something new, say reading, the simple part, i.e. the letters will go right to the top layer and we’ll be aware of that. As we learn, the letter bit goes down to a layer of which we’re not aware, and we can think more of the words, and as we get a bit more adept the meanings are all we need to consider at the top layer, and so on. So as we practise something, it gets so that we need to consider less of the details, which means we’ll only be conscious of the highest, i.e. most abstract layer.

Unless of course there’s an “error”. Only errors filters up the chain, say if you are walking into your house, the way you always do, but you suddenly notice that a floorboard is loose – that will shoot up the layers until the higher layers become aware of it. Otherwise all the actions are pretty autonomous.

So the abstraction process is what the brain excels at, and something I’ve always intuitively thought the brain did too, so good to see someone else confirming the theory.

Now given his system for how the mind works, the final chapter on applying this algorithm to all walks of life is most inspiring. The idea of this algorithm’s ability to learn given any input is powerful indeed. So just plug it into a camera and a car, for example, and it would use that same algorithm to figure out driving. And once we spend the time training one system we can simply copy it and refine it. It would truly revolutionise our world.

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