Is reality just a hallucination we all agree on?

This was the essence of Anil Seth‘s TEDTalk (Sussex University); he’s researching consciousness. It’s worth watching as there are some demos which really hit home the point that we construct the world (reality) in our brains. The sound example gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘our interpretation of the world is reality’ or in NLP ‘the map is not the territory; respect others’ maps of the world’. Food for thought for my coaching, as is Damasio’s talk.

This awesome-ness of the brain has been reinforced with my latest reading. I decided I need to understand sentences like “We have used purified neuroendocrine dense-core vesicles and artificial membranes to reconstruct in vitro the serial events that mimic SNARE–dependent membrane docking and fusion during exocytosis” if I am going to read primary research papers. So I have two textbooks: Principles of Neurobiology and Foundations of Behavioral Neuroscience Although it means I am reading with a highlighter (to mark key themes), a pen (to write on the page what the big words mean so when I read it next time I’ll know what they are), my phone (to Google what the big words mean) and my Kindle (to take notes which I can store as Word documents). It doesn’t make reading easy and it is very slow as it hurts my brain reading this stuff. But I now have a routine which helps: a short break every 30 minutes and a one hour break every three hours. Currently with the first textbook, I’m 150 pages in on 600.

With some other articles though, I get frustrated that simple everyday words aren’t deemed good enough. Take the wonderfully simple word ‘large’. What’s wrong with that? Everyone gets it and I can easily read a passage with it in. But no, obviously it is not good enough for some people who need to use, or invent, the phrase ‘high-dimensional’. I was seriously tempted to work out how much extra paper and ink was wasted by using ‘high-dimensional’ rather than ‘large’ but pulled myself up as I thought I was probably getting a bit obsessed about it. But throughout the article I had to keep reminding myself that a ‘high-dimensional cavity’ was a ‘large hole’ and a high-dimensional clique’ was a ‘large cluster’ – give me strength, as if this wasn’t hard enough to understand. There could be a sequel to the book, “Why business people speak like idiots”.

And to make it worse, from reading the textbook, I feel as if I know very little and that I should have known this stuff ages ago. But in good coaching style, I’m reframing this to the fact that I am now ready to read this, and it is an exciting read. Exciting because I had not realised what went on inside a neuron. It’s a whole little world of its own.

(For the next bit, I just want to put in a disclaimer: I wanted to tell you a few awesome things about neurons and I have limited knowledge so the next section is to the best of my understanding using analogies. But it is written with my best intentions at heart as I was stunned at the complexity of a neuron and at the fragility of it as well.)

In very simple terms from what I understood (Chapters 1-3 of ‘Principles of Neurobiology’) – There are bits going in and out of the neuron cell’s nucleus. Some bits (cargos) are carried by proteins via ‘microtubules’ (tubes) along the axon or dendrite. At the ends, many thinner helix structures help distribute them to various points. Sounds a lot like a logistics set-up for many online shops! At the axon and dendrite ends a lot happens with one thing leading to another which leads to another. It reminded me of the game Mousetrap where you essentially build a ‘marble run’ composed of many different components: Once built and triggered, various parts flip, roll, spin or fall to trigger the next section and at the end a net falls down trapping the mouse. Well it sounds rather like that – a cell membrane receptor has a protein complex attached to it inside the cell. Outside a neurotransmitter, such as serotonin, attaches to the receptor which changes the protein complex. Part of the changed complex then affects an enzyme which releases a chemical messenger. This goes off to a store of Calcium inside the cell and opens a channel so the calcium comes out into the cell. The increase of calcium inside the cell does a lot of different things, one of which will be resetting the initial protein complex. So, a neuron has at its centre a factory which takes things in and makes new things to send out, a logistics operation using a tube system to distribute things and get stuff back, and many games of Mousetrap which are initiated by elements inside or outside the neuron – simple! I wish.

A final thought: Some neurotransmitters inside the neuron are in little sacs. These sacs are placed close to the cell membrane and are ‘held’ by ‘coils’. These connect to similar coils on the cell membrane. When triggered, both coils pull tight so the sac and membrane move closer together and merge (Fig 1 – B). Then neurotransmitters can leave the cell and go off to other neurons. One way a muscle relaxant works is to disable one of the coils so it cannot pull tight when triggered. Thus the neurotransmitter which signals the muscle to contract does not get released as it should, so the muscle stays relaxed. That is how subtle these chemicals are and this is how delicate or complex our brains are. With thousands of these mechanisms and others in our brains I can start to understand how just the tiniest change can cause major mental problems or alter what we think happened.

Re my Dprof: I now have 60 further level 7 credits for my R&D Capability Claim paper and have resubmitted my Research Proposal.

Self comes to mind (Damasio 2012)

Is it really a month ago since I did the last blog? I suppose that means a lot must have been happening. Not quite so much on the neuroscience side as I have been working hard to get my resubmission sorted but I am reading (trying) Damasio’s latest book ‘Self comes to mind’. I definitely think I have learned more about human nature and behaviour through reading these types of books than any ‘Neuroscience for …’ book. I find the neuroscience elements go in subliminally as they are often being used and I don’t feel anxious that I need to know all that stuff. Anyway I have a proper textbook for that if I need it.

Let me give you a few themes from the book:

Simple cells, in order to survive, must be able to detect internal and external changes. They must have a response policy for these and be able to act to avoid the threat. The response policy needs to have conditions which if met trigger a movement as the simple cell does not ‘think’. It appears as if the cells act with intention but they don’t. They are just doing what they do which all adds up to a lot. Brains evolved to make this more effective and varied, so they can ‘sense, decide and act’.

The basic intention of the organism’s design is to maintain structure with the overarching purpose to survive so genes can be reproduced. (Easy to forget when life seems to be about which mobile phone or App to buy.) Therefore incentive mechanisms are needed for guidance, so chemicals are released to signal good things (dopamine, oxytocin) or threats (cortisol , Prolactin) to optimise behaviour towards or away from. However, if you have senses you have far more information on the external situation. Therefore, we have developed beyond mere survival to having certain ranges of well-being.

He’s also big on the brain making maps; maps of everything. Brains are constantly up dating their map of the body so it knows that it’s ok or whether it has to do something to get in back within that tight range of requirements needed for survival. He also suggests that event maps make up our memories. He feels that it is more efficient to store ways of recreating maps than every detail of a memory. In essence, the map retriggers the detail of that event within us. There certainly seems to be a lot of evidence that there is neural firing similar to the original event, which happens when we recall it. This can mean that if a memory gets triggered in some way – of which there are many – then a response happens whether we like it or not. Depending on its strength and our abilities to control it, it may undermine what we are doing at that moment. Sometimes we will know this is happening (typically from explicit memories) and sometimes we just know how we feel, and assume that the current situation is making us feel that way (usually from implicit memories). Useful to know when the other person acts ‘irrationally’.

He talks about how we might learn due to mirror neurons. These mimic in our brain what we see others doing. This means we encode how to do things and may be partly how we learn so many things as we grow up. He talks about how if we have encoded it through mirror neurons then we can act it out as required. It makes me think in coaching that maybe I might need to do more real-plays of situations that my coachees want to handle so that they have a memory of doing it. In essence it puts it in their system. I wonder if this is why visualisation has an effect. Seems like a topic that could have more relevance once further explored and understood, so maybe one to look out for.

The saga of my panel has continued and it has been interesting to notice how I have been going through the change curve and what has helped that. It definitely helped to know that I have passed, although the conditions I need to meet are as stringent as I’d feared. Knowing was a mixed blessing as it rekindled some of the emotions but at I least understood the size of the task. Later that week we met as a group and it was helpful to talk about it. Partly it ‘normalised’ the experience and partly it enabled me to explore my options going forward. I also untangled what I felt I could have done differently, from the situation’s dynamic. This certainly helped me think more rationally and tempered the emotional response. I read in LaDoux that the emotional response is about creating action to re-stabilise the system and that once that action happens, the inhibitory neurons are fired to turn off the fight/ flight response. So the act of creating a response quenches what initiate it.

Another week passed until I spoke with my Advisor about the conditions, so I started by tackling the obvious ones. Doing one thing helped me to think clearer and then another condition made more sense, so I started working on that as well. Then I understood another, so by the time I spoke with my Advisor I had sent through my plan for addressing 5/6 of the conditions.

One useful outcome is that I now feel even more certain that my research method is well chosen as I have had to put up a stronger defence of it. Martin Seligman in ‘Authentic Happiness’ says that people move on when they can make something ‘good’ out of the situation, no matter how small. I’d go with that. And although begrudgingly at first, I have got to ‘acceptance’ on the change curve mainly because I have separated what I feel is inexcusable behaviour from the extra thinking the conditions have made me do. Now I can handle the two things independently.