To philosophy and back again

1 cubic mm of brain tissue has tens of thousands of neurons, a billion connectivity sites and 4km of connections (Churchland, 2013). Wow, I still struggle to comprehend that even though I’ve been reading about it for over 4 years now. I think struggling to comprehend the scale of what the brain truly is just from that perspective is partly why we view it as magical, but simplicity at that scale could create the complex behaviours that are us. When it comes down to that level, computers are pretty simple although that simplicity is exquisitely woven together and the end result is pretty impressive.

I’ve enjoyed reading Patricia Churchland’s book “Touching a nerve”. As she is a neurophilosopher it has some interesting discussions which intrigue me. She bravely tackles the conversation about the soul whilst illustrating her points with related information about what the brain actually has to do to get us to behave as coherent human beings. I like how she concludes the soul chapter with “brain science seems to have the leg up on soul science” which cleverly allows for the possibility that soul science may catch-up at some stage. She also covers morality, aggression & sex and warring tendencies with some interesting diversions and thoughts. I agree with her thought that if a criminal pleads that his brain did it and he wasn’t in control, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be locked up for everyone’s safety. In fact, I felt that that type of argument would make it worse for the criminal as he’s effectively saying “I can’t control this problem I have within me”. Currently, with little chance of changing these brain issues, then surely the criminal is effectively saying, I should be locked up. Strange how we’ve taken “It wasn’t me. It was my brain” to imply that the person should be set free regardless of what harm they may cause to others.

However, I found the chapter on consciousness a little unsatisfactory as I felt she didn’t distinguish that well between being conscious and knowing you are conscious. Someone put it as ‘knowing’ and ‘knowing you know’. Which without language are pretty hard to research. She did talk about being conscious through images rather than auditory (that voice in your head). I gave it a go but unfortunately, I needed the voice, like a narration about the images. Although a colleague gave a different perspective on that today. She said that at times she had a feeling about someone that, say, she didn’t trust. We then debated whether she needed to name the feeling with language and what it meant, or whether it remained just a known feeling.

Also, if you can ‘know you know’ without language then it makes me wonder whether an animal knows there is a tomorrow or that it’s going to die? Perhaps that’s too far but do they know another animal in their group has just died, which doesn’t require a sense of time. It’s an intriguing puzzle to ponder on: whether different animals have various greater or lesser forms of being conscious depending on how much ‘processing ability’ and ‘storage’ they have.

Just attempting to think about what that would be like was difficult. I can do ‘just being’, where I am just getting on with stuff and time seems to not be on my mind – I am just doing, absorbed. But having a lesser form of ‘knowing I know’ was hard to compute. For a seemingly objective subject neuroscience certainly wanders into the subjective.

On another note, I am developing my presentation at the UWTSD Coaching conference in November: What angle am I going to take from my research? My supervisor suggested that people would probably like to understand, as a coach how am I using the neuroscience knowledge that I am learning? Good question, very good question. The essence of the question is “well it’s great that you know a lot about the brain, but how does that help your coachees?”

Anyway, fear and determination made me really think about pulling something together and a new coachee provided just the catalyst I needed. This coachee is successful and a cautious decision-maker; they like enough information and time to reflect. When they think about having to make a decision faster than they would like and with less facts, then they feel anxious. Perfect.

So, once we’d explored the situation and set the outcomes etc, I sat down and proffered that I believed it would be useful to know what we might be up against – how they might be self-hindering and thwart their own progress. I’d thought beforehand about doing this and decided to only explain as little as I needed to. I’ve never believed in needing to use lots of big neuroscience words when ‘a part of the brain’ will suffice. Also, I decided to start by asking them if they’d really thought about how the surge of anxiety was actually generated and why? It seemed a good way to raise their awareness to needing to understand this a bit more with respect to their coaching goals.

We discussed neural pathways being shaped by experience and the need to navigate life when younger; how strong emotions from years back are triggered in current situations; how those neurochemicals affect threat level and cognitive ability. To understand the seemingly conflicting dynamic that a surge of anxiety may not be appropriate for the current situation, but it will drive your actions unless you can start to erode into that emotional response. It allowed us to explored quite targeted actions for reducing anxiety and therefore have a chance of experimenting with faster, less-informed decision-making.

I also felt that they then knew what I knew; that we both understand the task ahead and what may hinder its progress. Also, as it was more factual, it didn’t feel at all like a therapy session or became uncomfortable: It was insightful for them.


I read an interesting book, “Consciousness and the Brain” by Dehaene. It’s been on my stack for months and as I started reading it I thought, ‘oh I should have read this months ago’. But I am realising I can think that about almost every book so I’m just glad that I have now read it. The book is about what he calls, Conscious Access – we become aware of something.

Here are some of the highlights from it:

  • The image at your eyes moves around a lot and all the blood vessels are in front of your rods and cones, so images are blurred, blotchy and moving, yet we don’t see any of that. It seems that this can be tracked through the lower visual processing areas. It is not until it gets to higher neural areas that it’s sorted out; therefore, we see a clear and stable picture of the world.
  • Even if we are not conscious of it (eg. Famous gorilla and basketball experiment) the input goes a long way up into our brain. So, at any moment our brain is processing a lot of information that we never get to be aware (conscious) of. And some of it affects or biases our thinking.
  • These inputs get weaker as they travel upwards but some trigger higher neural areas which then send a signal back down to the sensory input. From my understanding, this signal is checking out what it thinks could be happening. If the sensory input comes back as agreeing then the higher cortical area gets more excited. A reinforcing loop gets set up and gains strength.
  • About 300ms after the initial stimulus the excitation gets strong enough that suddenly the cortex ‘ignites’, as he puts it, into lots of activity. It’s quite sudden and extreme.
  • This activity is the higher cortex sharing that information all over itself with lots of long-range axons firing. This neural network sends signals back and forth in a way that creates an oscillation of electrical activity, in the Gamma band (33+ pulses per second), which can be monitored outside of the brain.
  • The other thing that happens is that the active neurons tightly shut down (inhibit) other neurons so that your attention becomes very focussed. New sensory input will find it hard to trigger another neural circuit into activity, as at this time the brain deems that information to be irrelevant. In fact, the wave of activity is a positive voltage at the top of the head not a negative wave because there is more inhibition activity going on than excitory.
  • It seems that when we get stressed, the neurochemicals that cause vigilance increase and therefore we are more vigilant. This means we respond to fainter stimuli – I think this shows up as people perceiving things as more threatening when they aren’t. (It could be that when we talk about how important relationship is in coaching, that what we are doing is reducing the amount of these neurochemicals being released.)
  • It appears that in babies the wave of ignition happens but at about 1 second – probably due to the lack of myelination at this age.
  • He talks about Schizophrenia and how a disruption in creating a connected, excited neural network could create similar symptoms. It seems the brain gets the bottom-up sensory information but the top-down check from the higher areas to the sensory areas is impaired. This is checking for “I think it is this, are you sensing that?”. If it gets a signal back which matches its expectation of what it thought then there is no mismatch between expected and sensory input and the brain is satisfied it ‘knows’ what’s going on. If this loop is disrupted then the neural circuit does not get closure so the person will be ‘left’ with a feeling that something isn’t quite right or is missing. As the brain doesn’t like discrepancies, it invents a story to make sense of it. Also, when we do something, that part of the brain alerts the sensory areas to expect it – that’s why we can’t tickle ourselves and when we hear ourselves echoed back in a phone call we get disorientated as we weren’t expecting that. Again, if this is impaired then the person would not always realise it was them doing it, hence the claim of ‘other voices in my head’.
  • The brain is in a constant state of flux so these ignitions are happening without external stimuli. In fact, he reckons that the brain creates more of these ignitions internally or randomly than are externally triggered.

Dehaene, and others, are doing some amazing work with Comma, Vegetative-state, minimally conscious and Locked-In Syndrome patients. They are developing a test for consciousness in these patients. It seems that they have detected consciousness in Vegetative state patients who months later regain a further level of consciousness. Also in one very special 2007 case, a neuroscientist triggered a patient’s Thalamus area (electrodes) which is heavily involved in the system that determines how awake or vigilant we are. They thought this overall system might have been stuck in the ‘not awake’ mode and they managed to ‘kick-start’ it so the patient went from minimally conscious to a more stable state of consciousness. There are also some specific drugs which can bring back conscious to patients at the time they have them which points to the fact that if the system is not damaged then there could be a point in the future when we can awaken these people.

As a final snippet. I read (3 hours) a lovely book called, “The Little book of big stuff about the brain”: It is an easy and informative read about learning and reward, plus a bit on consciousness, and how to make those work well. Another book that took my eye, is called “Predictably Irrational”: looks like a thought-provoking business book although I haven’t read it yet.


Have a wonderful Christmas and I wish everyone the very best for 2018.


Three levels of consciousness

The paper I am writing for this module definitely follows the 80-20 rule: The 20% being the Knowledge and Information Review. I can’t believe how long 1000 words took to write as I couldn’t nail down what I was actually trying to conclude. I had numerous concepts swirling in my head which luckily lent itself to doing a cluster diagram. That crystallised out the heart of what I was trying to say from everything I could say. I finally cracked it one night between 11.30pm and 1.30am – which is far too student-like but my brain woke up and having struggled for three days there was no way I was going to put it off until the morning. Then the real fun started as I remembered far more than I’d “meticulously recorded”. Yes I know, earlier I’d been so pleased about how organised I was but it wasn’t thorough enough. Although I didn’t have to re-read everything, I did spend three days locating and re-reading loads of sections to find the one little bit that underpinned my thinking. It’s a real balance between the pleasure of reading and the interruption of note taking. Hence a few upgrades on the organisational front: Firstly after reading or watching anything, no matter how small, I need to log it and write a summary about it. Secondly, I need to ‘cite it’ at the point I find it as I spent hours re-finding where I’d got stuff from and how to reference it properly.

Therefore on a joyous January 5th I completed the first draft and sent it off for comments. Having learned from my first submission, I was much better at hitting the word count: At least that’s one improvement. I think it was easier as when I read it and thought about the questions I could get asked, I soon removed sentences I didn’t feel confident about. Consequently the feedback was generally much better and I felt relief-cum-satisfaction after that amount of effort. Furthermore I also have guidance on how to write the claim for ‘being a capable researcher’ (2000 words) – so now only 5000 words to go – gosh that’s depressing having just written that. This needs to be in before May which seemed a long way off but it’s not feeling like that at this moment.

Now I can read books again! With eight books stacked up I have been more regimented about reading time. 60 pages a day is a struggle as that’s about three hours with note taking. I did well with Damasio’s book, ‘The feelings of what happens’, which took just over a week. It is about emotions, levels of consciousness and the self. He starts by talking about how we look to maintain homeostasis (regulation of body functions within the narrow range required for survival). For him, an emotion is the response when homeostasis is lost so that the organism regains it. Emotions are chemical and neural responses which create biological changes, eg, increased heat rate, for the response of running away in fear. He believes “emotions are generated in few brain regions, most being sub-cortical, as in the Brainstem, hypothalamus and basal forebrain. Also the Periaqueductal gray (PAG) is a major coordinator of emotional responses. These regions process different emotions to varying degrees with each emotion having a distinctive pattern.”

From this he talks about consciousness and three types of self. At the basic homeostasis level he has the Proto Self, which is a representation of the state of the organism. We form non-conscious biases before we consciously realise it and these are built on doing more pleasant things and avoiding unpleasant things.

Then there is a Core Self which relies on moment to moment consciousness with only some mental ‘images’ being made conscious (having special attention). Our Core Consciousness is constantly changing as different ‘images’ intrude and we become aware of them. Therefore our Core Self is transient, changing from moment to moment. He discusses cases where people are reduced to their Core Self for a while. These people can pick up a coffee cup and drink, go out the door, etc but have no idea as to what or why they are doing things. They also seem emotionless. Although Core Consciousness “gives us enhanced wakefulness and focussed attention”, if left alone in our world they would not survive very long.

However, experiences are laid down as autobiographical memories and it is this that gives rise to Extended Consciousness which creates a timeframe and larger context. We can have purpose to our actions above and beyond just responding in the moment which creates the Autobiographical Self. The Autobiographical Self is steadier and changes over a longer timeframe as we store different memories. He advocates that extended consciousness increases survival rates and therefore that consciousness is useful to us.

Throughout he connects his theories to parts of the brain wherever he can.

  • Lots of brainstem activity for sadness and anger. Little activity for happiness.
  • Significant disruption of core consciousness often correlates to damaged sites near the brain’s midline.
  • Commas come from minuscule brainstem damage. The PAG is one of the areas damaged. ‘Sleep’ and ‘wakefulness’ periods are controlled by the brainstem.
  • Apparently blinking and up/down eye movement happen via the back of the brainstem and all other movements happen via the front. Sometimes the back of the brainstem is undamaged and these people are paralysed except for blinking and up/down eye movement. From communicating in that limited way, we can learn a lot about their thinking.
  • ‘Locked In syndrome’ patients are much calmer than you’d expect. Maybe as the body is in a calm state and registers nothing, the brain reads this as ‘calmness’.
  • People with ‘face amnesia’ do not consciously recognize friends and family but their skin conductance changes so their brain recognises them and reacts.

Damasio’s 2012 book looks interesting. Also the BBC’s magazine FOCUS is good and often has a summary article of many new neuroscience developments.