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When Your Body Is No Longer Yours

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When Your Body Is No Longer Yours

This article was a front-page feature on Medium.

Photo by  Andrei Lazarev  on  Unsplash

Have you ever wondered whether your arm actually belongs to you? I’d bet most people answer with a resounding “no”—because who would ask themselves such a question? But believe it or not, body ownership is something people take for granted far too often.

With many perceptual and cognitive functions, the brain operates outside conscious awareness. Minds don’t need to be burdened with or use working memory capacity on processes that work perfectly well unconsciously. And body and limb ownership is exactly one of those unconscious processes. Considering whether our arm belongs to us isn’t something we need to do—except when that process has a problem.

In typical everyday life, most of us experience an inner self inside our bodies (an intuition not unlike what many religions describe as a “soul”). Although it’s scientifically implausible for an immaterial self to exist separate from a biological body, it is difficult to shake this natural intuition. But when the experience of self versus body goes awry, the oddity of it all is in full view.

Out-of-body experiences are characterized by a person feeling as though they are seeing their own body from the outside, e.g., from the ceiling looking down or from across the room. They experience their inner self as projected out of their bodies and flung across space. These experiences have occurred in a range of neurological and psychiatric patients, but around 10% of healthy people have also reported such encounters once or twice in their lifetime.

Strange vestibular (balance and spatial orientation) sensations are common during out-of-body experiences and include a feeling of floating or flying in space separate from the body. Under normal circumstances, our senses are fully integrated, creating a coherent perception of our body in the world. But when vestibular sensations fail to integrate with visual sensations, this creates a conflict between how we perceive our body in space and how we perceive the outside world. Add in conflicts between proprioceptive (body position) and tactile (touch) senses, and our sense of our own body can be so confused it produces an out-of-body experience.

These conflicts between senses can be caused by sudden disruptions of the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) in the brain, which can occur during a struggle to remain conscious. The TPJ is known to be involved in exactly the kinds of integrated sensations that give a unified sense of self and body. In fact, if what’s going on in the TPJ is temporarily interrupted with transcranial magnetic stimulation—or when virtual reality causes a conflict between senses—how someone experiences their body becomes warped, and they’ll potentially feel something resembling an out-of-body experience.

Credit: holdentrils/Pixabay/CC0 1.0; altered by yours truly.

A simple trick called the “rubber hand illusion” can create a distorted sense of body ownership. If you want to try it, first, grab a fake hand (a stuffed rubber glove works) and sit in front of a table with both hands resting on it. Place the rubber hand on the table immediately to the right of your left hand and then hide your real left hand from view (ideally with a screen between the fake hand and your real hand). Ask a friend to repeatedly stroke the individual fingers of the visible rubber hand at exactly the same time and in exactly the same way they stroke the fingers of your real hidden hand. As you look at the rubber hand, you might begin to feel that it’s your own real hand.

This happens because of the conflict between your visual and tactile senses. You can feel a stroke on your left hand through your tactile sense, and you can see only one hand on the table roughly where your real hand normally would be. The brain makes sense of this by shifting its representation of left hand to the fake hand. Reactions to this illusion can be entertaining to watch.

In the most extreme neurological cases, the sense of bodily awareness and ownership can fully hit the wall. I’ve previously described a phenomenon known as anosognosia for hemiplegia, where patients with a paralyzed limb believe they have no paralysis at all. Somatoparaphrenia is another bodily delusion where patients deny they even own their limb. For example, one patient with a paralyzed left arm was both unaware of her arm’s disability and firmly claimed the arm belonged to her granddaughter. Discussions and reasoning with doctors generally did not help, leading either to a confused response of “I do not know” or a stronger conviction in her delusional belief.

Although we never think about body ownership under normal circumstances, the brain actively represents our body as a unique entity belonging to us, separate from the bodies of everyone else we meet.

These symptoms are frequently associated with significant damage in the right hemisphere of the brain. In one study, researchers measured automatic bodily anxiety responses (specifically, skin conductance responses or SCRs) as a sharp needle approached patients’ paralyzed limbs. Unlike patients who have normal paralysis, patients with somatoparaphrenia actually elicited a weaker SCR when the needle approached their paralyzed and disowned hand than when it approached their normal right hand. In other words, their brain so completely disowned the limb, they no longer worried the limb would hurt when stabbed.

The study above may present the most compelling example of how a sense of body ownership can practically disappear when things go sufficiently wrong in the brain. It’s also a reminder that although we never think about body ownership under normal circumstances, the brain actively represents our body as a unique entity belonging to us, separate from the bodies of everyone else we meet.

At least for me, the general malleability and vulnerability of our body representations inspires a greater appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes of our awareness. We don’t need to wait for our senses to break down to consider how valuable they really are to us. Perhaps the next time you look down at your left arm, you’ll spend an extra few seconds pondering just how amazing it is that you know it’s there and that it is yours. One less thing to take for granted.

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Your Brain’s Battle Between Happiness and Greener Grass

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Your Brain’s Battle Between Happiness and Greener Grass

Photo by  MI PHAM  on  Unsplash

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

We all do what we can to feel good. When you consider what it means to feel good, you probably think of the immediate pleasures that life has to offer: excitement, laughter, and requited love. But most of us want more diverse experiences, including a sense of calm, gratitude, and purpose. In fact, sometimes the best feelings we ever have come from long or grueling challenges. For me, this includes a backbreaking (almost literally) process of learning to snowboard, and a gruesome mountainous cycling challenge in the Canadian Rockies. It’s almost as though the pain of a difficult challenge makes the pleasure of success feel that much better in comparison.

Our moods hang like a cloud over everything we do. Sometimes they change as an immediate response to a new event, while other times they are more like background feelings without any obvious cause. They have a clear impact on our quality of life, but we are generally bad at understanding exactly how or why we feel the ways that we do. Worst of all, we often fail to see what truly makes us happy in life. Without this knowledge, we’re like a hamster on a treadmill, chasing elusive good feelings but never quite reaching happiness.

If someone asked whether you want to implant an electrode in your brain directly targeting your pleasure centre and leave it switched on, what would you say? We could organize it so that it would be like the best drug in the world, but you would be protected from adapting to it or suffering from withdrawal symptoms or other negative physiological side effects. Even with these reassurances, we might hesitate. We don’t really want constant pleasure. Without life’s downs, the ups lose value. Would we be as productive, motivated, and appreciative of happiness, if we never really knew a life without it? Probably not.

Although negative emotions are practical in life, positive emotions are always the long-term goal. We direct any struggles or pains towards a future positive benefit in our life experiences. We often experience some fear before speaking to large groups or traveling to unfamiliar countries, but we don’t do these things because we want to feel the fear. We want the gifts at the end of the rainbow: enhancing our reputations and careers or broadening our horizons by meeting other cultures. We simply accept that fear is a central part of the journey towards gaining that positive outcome in our experiences.

When we are not afraid or nervous about what we are doing, we are unlikely to gain much at the end of the exercise. That may be because the activity is not scary in the first place, or because we have done it so many times already that we have adapted to it, and it’s no longer scary. Either way, we are unlikely to achieve anything life-changingly positive when we finish. We get nervous about new territories and public speaking precisely because they mean so much to us. We can all agree that we will have a more comfortable and pleasant life with less anxiety and sadness, but it is also true that tackling the occasional short-term drama can help us in the long term. We give ourselves the chance of entering a new realm of potentially greater mental well-being.

The optimal strategy is to find our personally ideal balance of creature comforts and novel excitements. This balance likely depends on our personality, especially on our level of openness, which relates to our desire to search for new experiences over familiar environments. A specific theory of animal behavior describes exactly this balance of explore vs exploit.

Life is full of decisions between sticking with what we know and exploiting the resources we already have, or riskily jumping at a new opportunity to potentially gain something much bigger. Humans and other animals need to deal with this challenge all the time. Antelope: “Do I stay here where it seems safe, and keep munching on this diminishing low quality grass, or do I move on and find some higher quality stuff while trying to avoid cheetahs?”. Human: “Do I go back to that restaurant I quite like tonight, or try this totally new one that I’ve heard about but might hate?”. We are not so different.

Photo on left by  Holger Bartholomä  on  Unsplash . Photo on right by  Zuza Reinhard  on  Unsplash .

Photo on left by Holger Bartholomä on Unsplash. Photo on right by Zuza Reinhard on Unsplash.

The brain is a prediction machine. It has a model of expectations about the world, and this model initially depends on our evolutionary genetics, but it also evolves as we live and learn new things about the environment around us. A human lives in a very different world than a whale, so each brain has its own individual preset models about how the world should look. As we navigate and act on the world, we naturally perceive new things around us, and we compare all of those new perceptions to our model of expectations.

When we find a big difference between them, something needs to change because uncertainty is dangerous. We either need to change what we are seeing, or we need to change our expectations of what we should see. If, as humans, we find ourselves lost in a dark forest or we are stuck outside on a cold night, we will spend all of our energy trying to get away from the darkness or the cold, given their inherent danger. We keep moving until our senses tell us we are in light or warmth again. But what if this is not an option? What if we have gone blind and we remain stuck in darkness for an extended time? Then we only have one other option for remaining sane: we change our expectations about the world, rather than continuing to try and change the sensory inputs themselves. In other words, we adapt so that the new world we find around us is no longer a constant surprise, and we find better ways of negotiating the world with the new model of expectations in our head.

We adapt our expectations in subtler ways in everyday life. For example, we might have a prior belief that raw fish is disgusting, and so we stay away from sushi. But then we might meet someone who encourages us to at least try it. The first time you try it might be a disaster. Your brain enters surprise mode, and kicks back to tell you to throw it away and never look at it again. But you might try a couple more times. The next few times are less surprising, and eventually you might even be quite comfortable with it. This process of becoming comfortable is the brain adjusting its expectations as new sensory experiences repeatedly show you that your predictions might be inaccurate. So your expectations for sushi might develop from ‘sushi = disgusting’ to ‘sushi = not so bad’, and perhaps eventually to‘sushi = awesome’. Because let’s face it, sushi is awesome.

Original pictures from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Original pictures from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

You can see shorter term adaptation happening in the brain during brain scans. When you are repeatedly shown the same image, the parts of your brain responsible for processing that image reduce in their activity over time. For example, when you are shown the same person’s face multiple times, activity in the fusiform gyrus area of your brain (which is important in decoding facial identity) decreases each time. When you are shown the same emotional expression, activity in the anterior superior temporal sulcus (involved in processing emotional expression) reduces over time. So the brain has in-built adaptation functions. New information tends to be more important than old information, so it makes sense to devote less processing power to information as it becomes familiar. In fact, this adaptation mechanism is so deeply ingrained, that it’s one of the few methods we have for measuring the psychology of newborn babies. When newborns are interested in something, they look at it, and when they get bored, they look away. By measuring how long they look at different objects and images before adapting and looking away, we can understand some of the innate preferences that we are born with, like preferring biological motion (walking people) to non-biological motion (random movement).

Adaptation is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing when we are working through an event that makes us fearful or anxious, because eventually we get used to it and calm our nerves. But we also face the same problem when we become especially excited or happy about a new event in our life. We never maintain the high for very long. Our energy and excitement when we start a new job dies down within a couple of months. Our passion and drive for going to the gym starts to fade after the first few workouts. And the romance and butterflies of a new relationship do not last forever either, even when we truly love someone.

It is a great revelation when we learn firsthand that we didn’t fully appreciate something or someone until we lost them. The loss snaps us out of the adaptation that took over, allowing us to more realistically appraise the object’s value and desperately want it back. One great example is good health. We live our lives taking good bodily health for granted and never thinking about it, until we develop an awkward cyst, infection, or goodness forbid, cancer that we need to get fixed. Then we spend our days praying for our good health to return, promising that we’ll better appreciate it this time. And often we do appreciate it more, at least for a week or so…

In one sense, adaptation to the good stuff in our lives also has an advantage. It allows us to develop new motivations and keep moving forward. In a world where we want to earn more, learn more, and experience more, it is not conducive to be fully happy with what we have. A little boredom gives us the push we need to climb up the ladder of life. But it is entirely obvious that most of us do not have this balance right.

This is why it’s important to make the most of what we have while we have it. One great way to do this is to strengthen your sense of awareness. Open monitoring mindfulness is just one technique for helping with this. Instead of getting lost in your thoughts, the aim is to attentively monitor all your thoughts and experiences as they appear, without reacting to them. You don’t necessarily need to sit cross-legged on a pillow to enjoy this mindset. You simply have to become more aware of how you’re thinking and feeling moment-to-moment in your everyday life. This level of internal self-monitoring requires practice, because it’s far from easy to maintain. But there is good evidence for the positive benefits of mindfulness, especially when it comes to emotional and relationship issues. So it’s worth the effort, and the effort can be enjoyable.

Whenever we break out of the ongoing buzz of annoying thoughts in our head, we tend to notice more of what’s going on around us. It might be as simple as noticing the freshness of the air in the park or the reckless abandon of a dog chasing sticks. These sound insignificant but have you ever noticed the experiential difference between walking through a park while paying attention vs walking while lost in thought? When you leave the park at the end of the first scenario, you feel as though you’ve had a full, rich, and meaningful experience. At the end of the second, you don’t have much of an experience at all, and you wonder where the time went. That’s if you don’t continue blindly scurrying all the way home without even noticing that you have left the park and the experience has ended.

These differences are far from trivial. Too many of us appreciate traveling vacations only in hindsight, because on the trip we get distracted by flight delays, baggage problems, too much heat, too much cold, overspending, uncomfortable accommodation, undercooked meat, foreign languages, and goodness knows what else. When we focus on the positives, we savor the best parts of the experience while we are actually there, rather than taking 500 rapid-fire photos to enjoy only once we are home.

Photo by  Jon Flobrant  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

Outside of the most extreme hardships, the things that make us happy are usually within our reach. We just need to look for them. Ongoing gratitude and appreciation can be tough to cultivate because we are so inclined to push them away as we chase bigger and better things. But if we try, we can set ambitious goals and make progress, all the while appreciating what we already have.

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Creative Sparks and Brainwaves

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Creative Sparks and Brainwaves

Photo by  Aziz Acharki  on  Unsplash

Creativity. It’s tough to find another word so widely used yet so difficult to understand. When we think ‘creative’, we think of Beethoven’s symphonies, Picasso’s portraits, and Wren’s architecture, but the exact definition is a little foggy. A common intuition of creativity is that it’s artistic creation, but then we’d have to dismiss the geniuses who find creative workarounds in scientific fields and technological innovation. The dictionary talks more about the ability to create something original, but then throwing a pile of dog excrement at a wall could also be considered creative. Originality is one part of the act of creative ambition, but an equally important part is less acknowledged: problem solving. Believe it or not, good problem solving might be what distinguishes my “Dog Excrement on Wall” from Picasso’s “Guernica”.

It might seem strange to think of the creative process as problem solving. When you paint a pretty picture, have you really solved a problem? A good artist has some purpose in mind when they create their art, and it might be to elicit a particular emotion or experience in their audience. So we can express this kind of problem as “how I do make people feel what I want them to feel?”, or “how do I express this thought in a way that relates to people and helps them overcome their own problem?”. And this is not always an easy problem to solve. People have adapted to photographs, Hollywood films, and social media; all things that can have powerful effects on our emotional experiences, but also things that have generally lost an important sense of subtlety and nuance. Social networks for example have become rage and show-off machines. You either read about news that makes you angry or see the latest selfie from an old friend who seems determined to prove that they have a better life than you. We are left in this position because these are the things that drive the strongest responses from people. But it means that our life gets funneled into simple entertainments that are attractive on a basic level but do not necessarily help us improve on any deeper level. So this has become the artist’s job. The best artists try to solve the problem of providing us with material that makes for better living.

A good way to describe creative work is to say that it provides unique and valuable solutions to complex open-ended problems. There is no single best answer for a good piece of music or art, and no single way to provide an audience with an engaging, memorable, or worthwhile experience. With other more scientific subjects, there may ultimately be a single best answer. But there are many different ways to envision and find that answer, so creativity is required in the process of identifying important problems and developing strategies to solve them. It is the play and exploration within these large spaces of ideas and solutions that we can describe as creative. It is not particularly creative to solve a Rubik’s cube or drive a car because there are specific formulae that we stick to in completing those activities. In fact, when we become experienced enough in these kinds of activities, we can do them almost automatically without any real attention. Creative problems generally do not allow that kind of automaticity, and cannot be solved with step-by-step guides.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Given its complexity and resistance to basic procedural instructions, it might seem a long shot to expect that we could improve our creativity. Scientists have tried to develop simple tasks that require creative thought in an attempt to study it in more detail. One such approach to studying creativity is a divergent thinking test, in which people are asked to provide multiple answers to specific problems, for example “name as many alternative uses as you can for a newspaper” (answers might be swatting a fly or making a paper hat). Tasks like this require you to ‘think outside the box’, going beyond the most immediate answer that pops to mind when you hear a question. A newspaper’s traditional role is to provide you with reading material but once you exhaust that answer to the question, where do you go next? This is creative in the sense that it forces you to think of some strange ways you might be able to use a newspaper, but of course it’s relatively limited in its creative demands. People overlap a great deal in the kinds of answers they come up with, which is not like many other traditional forms of creativity. It’s unlikely that another architect of Christopher Wren’s time would have independently designed a replica of St Paul’s Cathedral by chance. There are too many ways in which highly creative tasks can diverge in their solutions.

Despite its limited creativity, divergent thinking does seem to say something useful about creativity. Musicians perform better in divergent thinking tasks than non-musicians, suggesting that their creative spark within music generalizes to other areas of creative thinking too. They also perform better in a task known as the Remote Associates Test (RAT), where you are asked to find the word that connects three other words (e.g. ‘blue’, ‘cake’, and ‘cottage’ are linked by the word ‘cheese’ which can precede or follow each of them). The RAT requires both convergent and divergent thinking, and you only have to try some examples of the test online to know how tricky it can be. Some evidence suggests that creativity training (for example through lectures and divergent thinking practice) can improve divergent thinking and problem solving. So perhaps improvements in our creative ability are not entirely beyond reach.

If you’re anything like me, some of your best ideas will come to you in the most unexpected places. A particularly fruitful area for me is the shower. I can sit all day at my desk focused on finding a solution to a tricky problem, and the day can easily end in a fit of rage over wasted time and failed productivity. But then I can go to the bathroom, stand under the shower washing away my sorrows, think about what I should buy for dinner as I pick up the soap, and suddenly the most powerful idea of my lifetime will pop into my mind mid-lather. It’ll just come out of nowhere. Why would my maker torture me so? Success should come when you’re trying, not after you give up.

Photo by  Robert Collins  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

To consider whether the torture is justified, we need to look more carefully at what creativity requires and how the brain typically deals with such a challenge. Many explanations of brain function use the concepts of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ processing. These are certainly not strictly defined or independent processes, especially because the brain is a highly bi-directional machine, but it can be helpful to distinguish between the two possible streams of processing. Bottom-up processing refers to activity that starts from the lowest levels of sensation. For example, I happen to see an object on the table, which the visual areas of my brain process and categorize as an apple, and then I imagine the taste and texture of that apple, and then recall the amazing apple pies that my mum used to bake me in my childhood. You start from the most basic principles of perception and work your way up to higher levels of memory and association. Top-down processing on the other hand runs in the opposite direction. I might feel nostalgic one day and think of my happy childhood memories, which brings me to the memory of those delicious apple pies, which then makes me want an apple pie now, and so I do everything I can to drive my low level perceptions towards finding apples and cooking them.

We should keep in mind that top-down vs bottom-up is a convenient conceptualization rather than a definitive law in the biology of the brain. However, you would probably expect that creative activities and divergent thinking involve more of the higher level top-down functions, in which the brain hits upon solutions based on past experiences, memories, feelings, and contexts. So how might the brain actually deal with this kind of process?

Activity in the brain can occur rhythmically as oscillations or brainwaves, and these oscillations are categorized into different frequency bands. Lower frequency oscillations (slower oscillations with longer wavelengths), such as alpha (8–12 Hz) and theta (4–8 Hz), are commonly associated with long range interactions in the brain and top-down processing, while higher frequency oscillations are more associated with directed attention and perception (once again, these are not clear-cut boundaries but patterns that seem to hold true to a meaningful extent). So creativity could benefit more from the low frequency oscillations. One of the most easily visible and reliable signals in the brain is the appearance of alpha waves when you close your eyes or relax your mind. So it’s probably more likely that these signals appear in the shower when you are beginning to relax and let your mind drift, rather than when you are dead focused on a specific problem while staring at your computer. And if these signals are more conducive to creativity, then you are more likely to come up with crazy but useful ideas in the shower.

Photo by  Eric Nopanen  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

A free and relaxed mind is more likely to happen upon unusual perspectives or associations that could help with a problem, while a busy and occupied mind is looking at a problem with something that resembles tunnel vision, and so creative flashes are less likely. Indeed, people also report frequent creative ideas during hypnagogia, which is that slightly disoriented state between waking and sleeping, also associated with lower frequency alpha and theta oscillations. The chemist who discovered the benzene ring structure reportedly had his moment of inspiration in exactly this state.

Researchers have used neurofeedback training to stimulate alpha and theta oscillations in the brain. In these training protocols, oscillations in the brain are recorded and communicated to participants using different sounds (e.g. lower frequency oscillations produce a lower pitched sound). Participants are told to maximize the sounds associated with theta waves, and over time, they implicitly learn how to shift their brain towards lower frequency oscillatory states (although they are not always sure how they do it). Evidence suggests that this kind of training can improve mood and performance in creative activities including music and dancing. While we may not yet have the chance to do this kind of neurofeedback training by ourselves at home, we can certainly do more of the things that engage those kinds of brain states. Meditation, walks, relaxation, naps, and showers, are great examples of things we should take a little more seriously in our work. And they don’t really have much of a downside.

Activities that promote new mental perspectives on problems, and escapes from narrow-minded attention, are a creative’s best friend. These are some of the great benefits that lie in the power of metaphor and poetry, and allow the mind to make distant connections that it would otherwise miss. None of this article is to say that you should avoid focused effort and hard work at your desk because we all know this activity has its own advantages for productivity. But for those moments when we need a creative spark, we often need to take a step back in order to see both the forest and the trees.

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The Science of Setting Yourself Up for Success

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The Science of Setting Yourself Up for Success

Before making any progress in life, we need to set the best possible goals for ourselves. These are the goals that encourage the most positive development and success. People often attribute their failures to poor effort, execution, or ability, and forget to consider whether the goals they set themselves on Day 1 were appropriate. It seems obvious to say but let’s make sure we are on the same page: if you set the wrong goals, you have prepared the ground for wasted time, wasted effort, and probably a truckload of frustration, all the way up until you realize you need to try something new.

Goals can span multiple levels of human psychology. At the most basic level, they guide our immediate actions as we navigate the world. Let’s call these intentions — they are the urges and desires we have to perform some action in this moment that changes our internal states or changes the environment around us. These changes do not need to be profound; an intention could be as simple as scratching our nose to get rid of an itch. If we step up from our basic intentions, we then have the longer-term goals that are useful for tomorrow or next year. Let’s call these plans — they are the motivations we have that we cannot do much about right now, but we keep them in mind for when the time comes. I will talk through intentions and plans in sequence.

Intentions

Every time we make an action — when we pick up a cup, do up the buttons on our shirt, insert our key into the lock on the front door — our brain is implicitly setting intentions and making predictions about how the world will behave after we go through with those intentions. Of course, we are not always aware of intending something in these simpler instances. We do not think “ok I will push this button into that hole on my shirt in order to tie the two sides together and avoid revealing my naked torso to the world when I step outside”. It just happens. The brain is good at that.

Photo by  Joanna Nix  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Joanna Nix on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

These basic intentions and actions that we use every day only come to our attention when something goes wrong. While we are doing up the buttons on our shirt, we might be thinking about what we will have for dinner tonight, or what to say at the important work meeting in a few hours. But imagine that the next button on our shirt happens to be missing because the cat chewed it off. As our fingers move down to feel for the next button, and fail to detect anything that feels like a small plastic disc, an error signal cascades around the brain, hitting areas that include specific parts of the parietal lobe and cerebellum. This error signal basically says “something unexpected just happened so we need to recruit more brain resources to work out what is going on”. This is where our conscious mind kicks in to help solve the problem. Our conscious mind is good at keeping us focused on a specific issue but also acts as a major bottleneck on anything else we might want to do at the same time. We can no longer think about what to have for dinner while our unconscious system handles putting the shirt on. We are now too busy trying to work out what on earth happened to the shirt button.

This general intention monitoring mechanism also explains some of the more frivolous facts in life, like why we can’t tickle ourselves. When we intend something to happen, and the outcome matches our predictions for that intention, our brain actually suppresses the perceived intensity of that outcome. It is a sort of “nothing to see here folks” signal. But when we have no intention to do something, and an event surprises us, then we feel the full force of its sensory consequences. This is the difference between tickling ourselves and being tickled by a friend. In one case, we have the intention to tickle ourselves which dampens the experience of feeling tickled because the brain is modeling the exact consequences of our intended action. In the other case, we have no such intention or model for the outcome, so the experience is a squirm-inducing laugh-cry phenomenon. Even if we know that a friend is about to tickle us, we still feel their tickle because we cannot directly model their action as if it was our own. Our implicit motor prediction system is powerful but restricted to when we are planning our own actions.

So our intention setting system for immediate actions is a great machine for keeping us efficient. It whirs away, building specific intentions and predicting their consequences. If what actually happens in the world is strange and does not match the predictions, then we generally pay a little closer attention to what we are doing.

Neurosurgeons like to play around with these intention systems. If you are undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor, you are likely to be awake as the surgeon cuts away a section of your skull and begins work to excise the invader. This allows the surgeon to ask questions about your experience and track what might be going on as they move around the different parts of your brain that they have access to. The best way to confirm the function of a particular brain area is to probe it and ask how the patient feels.

Researchers in 2009 led by Michel Desmurget tested an interesting question: can I use my stimulating electrode to make the patient experience a particular goal or intention to act? They had access to two specific brain areas in patients undergoing surgery: the premotor cortex and the inferior parietal lobe. When they stimulated parts of the inferior parietal lobe with a low intensity current, patients reported desires to move particular body parts, for example “I felt a desire to lick my lips” or “I had a desire to move my right hand”. When they stimulated the same areas at higher currents, patients reported actual movements such as “I moved my mouth, I talked, what did I say?”. But the researchers saw no movements from the patients and detected no change in the muscle recordings. The movements that patients reported were entirely illusory. When researchers stimulated the premotor cortex on the other hand, patients actually moved parts of their body like their fingers or mouth. However, the patients reported no movements and would deny moving even after being questioned. So setting an intention for movement, performing an action, and being aware of that action are separate functions in the brain. In everyday life, the brain works as one tightly integrated unit, but the inferior parietal lobe seems specifically important for setting or monitoring intentions.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Much of what your brain is doing right now is outside your conscious awareness, and that includes many of the processes that set your goals or intentions. Just like the surgeon’s electrode can make you feel “I want to speak now”, your own unconscious brain activity can also produce the intentions you experience in everyday life. In fact, evidence suggests that if I put you in a brain scanner and ask you to freely choose between pressing a button with your right or left hand, your unconscious brain activity will predict which hand you choose 7–10 seconds before you ever realize what you want to do consciously. And don’t think that your intentions to stop an action or change your mind are any more driven by your conscious input. In one of my own studies, we tested whether unconscious fluctuations in brain activity could influence decisions to withhold actions rather than perform them. We measured the levels of activity in people’s motor cortices as they tapped out a rhythm with their finger and skipped a tap in the rhythm whenever they felt like it. We found that before they chose to skip a tap, motor activity in their brain would decrease to predict their upcoming intention to withhold an action. In effect, the spontaneous levels of activity in your motor cortex, which you can never really be aware of, guide your intentions about whether or not to act. They could make the difference between clicking or not clicking ‘send’ on that angry email to your boss, running or not running for that train at the platform, or maybe even pulling or not pulling the trigger on that gun in a moment of anger. Activity that you are not aware of can determine what you think you want to do.

We may often experience urges that come from deep dark places in our biology. Civilized society has largely done, and is still doing, a fantastic job at training us into well-behaved adults who are capable of exercising restraint and considering the moral consequences of our actions. But in extreme situations, things can still go terribly wrong.

A medical report from 2003 describes the life of one particular unfortunate soul. A man leading a relatively normal life began to develop an uncontrollable interest in pornography in his late 30s. This interest began to consume his life and started to advance into its worst possible form: an urge for child pornography. He became less able to control his urges over time, and eventually victimized his young stepdaughter. After being found guilty of child molestation in court, he was committed to a rehabilitation program. His behavior continued to deteriorate as he made sexual advances towards staff at the rehabilitation centre, and he was eventually called to court for a prison sentencing. Before the sentencing could take place, he went to a hospital with severe headaches and explained he wanted to kill himself and feared that he would rape his landlady. A brain scan showed a growing tumor taking over his right orbitofrontal cortex at the front of the head, a brain area known to be important for impulse control and emotional urges. Seven months after removing the tumor and going through strict assessments and behavioral programs, the patient had made significant progress. So much progress in fact that he was no longer believed to be a danger to his stepdaughter and was allowed to return home. Later that year, he began to complain of headaches again and his obsession with pornography returned. Another brain scan revealed that the aggressive tumor had resurfaced with a vengeance. Doctors successfully removed the tumor a second time.

The case above highlights how our urges and intentions in life can dramatically change depending on the state of our biology, and how their source can be very much hidden from us. If activity in the brain shifts in an unhealthy direction, whether due to a visible abnormality or not, our goals in life can shift from finding rewards in family, friends, and careers, to finding rewards in immoral, destructive, and unacceptable actions. We should never take the integrity of our healthy brains for granted. If we are lucky enough to have an intact ability for self-control and productive decision-making, we should consider the intentions we have, and assess whether they will contribute to improving our lives and the world around us. Intentions in your mind often seem to come out of nowhere if you pay attention to them. One moment you are sitting quietly typing up a document at work, and the next, you would do anything to get your hands on churros dipped in chocolate. The frequent randomness and caprice of your intentions should make you all the more wary of them. Not all intentions are sensible, and only attentive consideration will allow you to control whether they should guide your actions or be ignored.

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

Plans

With the short term intentions above, we decide whether we want to do something and then we do it. But we also regularly plan for further in the future. A powerful element in human cognition is the ability to look forward and form goals for tomorrow, next week, and next year. These goals can be simple and straightforward like “I need to post that letter in the morning”, where the only real obstacle is our own memory. But they can also be more complex or philosophical like “I want to find the right person to spend my life with by the end of the year”, where the challenges still depend on remembering your plan, but also depend on many other factors outside of your control.

Setting the right plans depends on a reliable capacity for self-reflection. You need to know how good you are at a particular task and how much it truly motivates you. In giving advice about goal-setting, people often lump these two things together with goal difficulty, but it’s important to understand that they are separable. The advice I hear most often is to “make sure that a goal is not too easy and not too hard”. This is generally true but it’s more practical to expound on the statement a little. “Too hard” is a bad thing because it destroys motivation, and “Too easy” is a bad thing because progress is slower than it needs to be given your level of ability. Edwin Locke, an American researcher and pioneer of goal-setting theory, puts it most precisely when writing about the role of difficulty in goal-setting with his co-author: “So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance”. In other words, as long as you are aware of the limits of your ability and don’t set goals beyond them, and as long you are fully motivated to commit to your plans, set your goals to be as difficult as possible because that will lead to the greatest success.

Other evidence from experimental psychology can lend a helping hand with what are called ‘implementation plans’ (actually they are called ‘implementation intentions’ but I will use ‘plans’ to avoid conflict with the intention vs plan terminology I defined earlier). A common problem with the way we generally set our goals is that they are far too vague. We tell ourselves “I want to lose weight” and “I want to quit smoking”, and entirely lose track of those thoughts at first sight of a chocolate cake or cigarette.

Well, implementation plans make it more difficult to forget or ignore the goals we set. Instead of a blanket abstract statement like “I want to be healthy”, an implementation plan needs to be formatted with an ‘if-then’ structure. For example, “if I feel a craving for a chocolate cake, then I will eat a stick of celery”. This more concrete formulation is harder to lose track of or find exceptions to. It forces us to consider the future a little more seriously, and builds a stronger connection between cue (the ‘if’ part) and behavior (the ‘then’ part).

Photo by  Alex Hockett  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Alex Hockett on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

In one experiment, researchers tested implementation plans with unemployed opiate addicts in a hospital to see whether their employability behaviors would improve. After showing the participants model resumes, the researchers explained that they could submit their own resume at the end of the day. Those who formed relevant rather than irrelevant implementation plans about completing a resume were far more likely to hand in a resume when the time came. In fact, out of the patients who suffered addiction-related withdrawal symptoms, 8 out of 10 who formed relevant implementation plans submitted their resume, while 0 out of 11 of those who formed irrelevant implementation plans submitted their resume. Strong and specific implementation plans make us more resistant to distraction and counterproductive impulses when we are trying to stick to plans we set.

If the advantage of implementation plans applies to people suffering severe withdrawal symptoms from their heroin addiction, then it should certainly apply to luckier people who are simply distracted by the occasional shortbread while trying to eat healthier. You can even supplement your implementation plans with an added kick up the bottom, by making a public commitment out of your plans amongst friends and family. You’re a lot less likely to give up a goal when loved ones are watching you and judging your integrity.

Another problem with our goal setting is the scope of our plans. We have already seen that formatting a plan with a concrete ‘if-then’ structure helps enormously, but there are simpler helpful strategies that your grandmother taught you. Breaking down goals into small concrete steps with an approach as simple as writing a list can do wonders. When we try to keep multiple tasks and goals in our busy head, they spiral out of control and begin to look like large demons, each more difficult to defeat than the last. The stress makes it harder to think clearly, and we naturally end up delaying any action at all. Seeing the same goals written down on a piece of paper allows you to appraise them more realistically, and relieves the burden of holding the tasks in your working memory. You have something concrete in the world to organize your thoughts around and a piece of paper is far less intimidating than an abstract thought. You can see it clearly so it doesn’t escalate in your anxious head. Something so small could not possibly be unmanageable. And each time you complete a task, you can visually see your number of remaining tasks reduced as you tick one off. It is hard to overstate the value of tangibility.

It helps to be aware of the many external and internal factors that affect our intentions, goals, and decisions. There are hidden depths and secrets to our motivations that we may never be aware of. But considering our intentions a little more carefully, and cutting ourselves some slack when we realize we have stupid intentions, can help to cool down a hot head in the future. It also helps to demystify that feeling we have all experienced at some point when looking through old photos or daydreaming about past mistakes: “what on earth was I thinking!?”. Nobody should expect permanent happiness but we can certainly aim for greater self-efficacy and achievement. We all have our own ideas about what the perfect life looks like, and it’s about time we crafted that vision a little more carefully for ourselves. Then we can move towards it with a stronger sense of pragmatic self-belief and awareness.

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You’re a Superhero: Your Brain Can Manipulate Time

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You’re a Superhero: Your Brain Can Manipulate Time

Photo by  Ahmad Odeh  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

Have you ever felt time moving faster or slower than usual? For most of us, there is one obvious example of this, and we describe it with the phrase “time flies when you’re having fun”. You probably first noticed this effect back at school: in a boring class, time would pass slowly enough to drive you insane, but out in the playground, 1 hour lunch breaks would feel more like 20 minutes. It’s another grand injustice to add to the human condition, like the fact that the best-tasting foods are the most likely to kill you.

Scientific experiments have indeed shown that even under controlled conditions in a lab, we actually perceive time to be significantly shorter when we are enjoying ourselves. In fact, we may even use our time perception as a cue to judge how much we enjoyed an event: the less time it seemed to take, the more fun it must have been. Like many seeming injustices in nature, there are often good evolutionary reasons for the annoying things in our lives.

So what reason could there be for time passing faster when we are positively motivated? One strong theory is that when things are fun, they are likely to be important and so we should spend more time on them. Eating, playing, and sex are all critical drives, so they need to be fun in order to motivate us to chase them down. And if time is moving faster while we engage in these important tasks, we are likely to spend a lot more time on them before moving on to do something else. Fortunately, in the modern developed world, we’ve crafted environments that make it incredibly easy to fulfill these fun drives. Most of us only need to travel for a few minutes to get our hamburger hit. Unfortunately, when it’s so easy to find high-calorie food, it’s also easy to eat ourselves into an unhealthy lifestyle.

Original picture from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Original picture from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

We’ve commonly experienced time moving faster during fun, but other time perception effects are more surprising. Find a ticking clock and stare at the ticking hand (a digital clock should be fine if you can see the seconds changing, ideally without the millisecond counter). Keep your head still as you look at the clock, and shift your eyes away from the clock as far to the left or right as possible without discomfort. Keep your eyes here for a short while, then shift your eyes straight back to fixate directly on the clock. Try it a few times so that you can manage this in a single eye movement.

When you look back to the clock, you may notice the ticking hand freeze for a moment. Time noticeably slows down during that single second. This effect is called chronostasis. When you shift your eyes (saccade), the world becomes a complete blur, because the image on your retina is violently moving around. And yet, despite these fast and very frequent saccades, you never feel disoriented or even surprised. This is because your marvelous brain automatically suppresses vision during each saccade to make life a little less dizzy. When you finish a saccade, the brain needs to compensate for lost time. It replaces the vision you lost during the saccade with the new image you see in front of you. So time feels momentarily slower, because your perception is packed with a bit extra. The brain is so good at this that you rarely notice it happening, but when you have a reliable external indicator of time, like a ticking clock, it’s much easier to see the effect in action.

Other interesting reports of time slowing down come from experienced athletes. For example, tennis and baseball players explain that as the ball approaches them, it appears to slow down allowing them to see it more clearly as they prepare to strike — you might think of this as feeling ‘in the zone’. A few years ago, my colleagues at UCL found that when people prepare a reaching action with their arm, time slows and their vision actually improves as the brain takes in more information. Expert basketball players also appear to mentally experience the actions of other players in slow motion.

This is all great evidence that our brains manipulate time when we need a little extra help. It’s always exciting to be reminded that our brains are not passive narraters of the reality around us. They are instead active reconstructors that have evolved to interpret the world in a way that is efficient and practical for survival.

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Why Feeling Insignificant Can Be Deeply Empowering

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Why Feeling Insignificant Can Be Deeply Empowering

“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?” - Virginia Woolf (Night and Day)

In the Western world, we are carefully nurtured by those around us until we reach ‘maturity’, and then we are left to face the world alone. We do, of course, improve in our ability to live independently as we get older. As babies and toddlers, our independence is pretty much limited to breathing. Everything else, including feeding, cleaning, and transport, is closely supervised by adults who hopefully know what they are doing. But when we hit our late teens and early twenties, perhaps excluding the occasional error in feeding and hygiene, we are able to do all of these things alone. So we are encouraged to spread our wings and fly.

Independence is important, but if we are honest, there are many moments of fear and uncertainty where we could use guidance, even well into adulthood. We all want help with our minds because we are needy creatures, but asking for it can be a daunting experience because we do not want to seem incompetent or babyish. So we are left with the impression that others are living successful happy lives, while we put on a brave face that masks an insecure internal reality.

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Our hesitance to ask for help is part of a collective psychosis, driven by the extreme assumption that adults should be able to take care of their own psychological development, and anything else is a sign of weakness. In fact, we are all wearing the emperor’s new clothes, and it may take someone screaming “But we are all incompetent!” to snap us out of our delusions of suffering alone. It’s about time we all got a little more familiar with each other’s worries and follies, so that we can see just how much overlap there is between us. Sharing our concerns with someone who responds with an acknowledging nod of “I’ve been there my friend” can have a profoundly positive effect on our emotional life.

I remember one particular moment in my own life where this scenario came to pass. It was a chilly Saturday night; the kind that makes your knuckles feel numb within minutes of stepping outside. I was a fairly standard emotionally volatile 17 year old sitting with friends in the local pub in my small town on the outskirts of London. I noticed an on-off girlfriend walk in and sit at the next table with her friends. It was the kind of relationship you might label with “it’s complicated” on an online social network page. We got chatting later in the night, but naturally with the early stages of intoxication looming, a slightly heated debate took to the stage (so important was this debate that I have entirely forgotten what it was about).

After making our way out of the pub into the conveniently cold night that would cut any argument short, we exchanged a few more intense words, then I turned and darted away into a dark and lonely park nearby to feel sorry for myself. I sat down at the nearest and gloomiest bench I could find to complement my mood, and contemplated why the universe wouldn’t let me be happy like everyone else. A drunken gentlemen probably a decade or so my senior at the time — my age now as I write this sentence — walked past at that moment and mumbled something I didn’t quite catch. I blurted out what any British person would at such a time: “Sorry?”. He stopped and smiled and asked a question that I found shocking at the time: “Is it a girl?”. With my current more mature mind, this question seems far less magical, but at the time I thought this man was a prophet so I asked him to surrender his enlightened teachings. He continued in a rather haphazard but comprehensible way to explain that we all go through romantic anguish, and that it blinds us to the clear fact that any time we spend in misery is time that we will later regret. So why waste any of our limited life on emotional pains that will eventually disappear and barely be remembered? I can assure you that his insights that night were not particularly deep, wise, or even fully coherent, but simply meeting someone who could highlight the fundamental non-exclusivity of my feelings was remarkable proof of the power of shared pain and empathetic community. It demonstrates we all go through those kinds of struggles and come out better at the end. I immediately hopped up and went home to happily finish a book I was reading about earthworms.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Your pains and anxieties seem much less significant when you feel part of something bigger. This bigger thing can span from other members of society to the universe as a whole. The larger parts of that range may be difficult to feel any strong connection to because their scale is so vast that our ape brains struggle to comprehend them in any realistic way. But they probably also present a more powerful experience of togetherness or ‘oneness’ if conquered, something that many Buddhists teach (I’m not a Buddhist myself). At a more basic level, connecting properly with others around you allows you to take someone else’s perspective of your own pain, which helps to get you out of your own skin and away from your self-centered perceptual or cognitive biases that distort your view of the world.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

A mental disorder known as anosognosia presents a particularly extreme example of the benefits of shifting away from your first person perceptions. Anosognosia refers to an inability to see or understand your illness, even when it is abundantly clear to everyone else. When patients have anosognosia for hemiplegia (paralysis on one side of their body), they will repeatedly and confidently deny that they have a problem, even though they cannot move their limbs. If they are asked to move their limbs, they tend to make irrational excuses for why their limb cannot move at that moment in time. But they are utterly convinced that they are healthy, and are not just making up stories that they know are false. When a group of researchers decided to film a patient denying their symptoms and replay it back to them, they discovered a dramatic change in the patient’s reactions. The patient was effectively cured of their anosognosia, purely through seeing themselves from a third person perspective. This video replay approach has now been used more widely with similar results. Although this is a rare and extreme case, it does illustrate the power of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. We all have needs that can benefit from escaping our narrow minded and often robotic first person perspectives.

So what exactly are the needs that we share as humans? Abraham Maslow took on this challenging question in the 1940s. His solution was a famous pyramid, the “hierarchy of needs”. According to Maslow, our most basic needs at the bottom of the pyramid are physiological. We need food to prevent starvation and shelter to protect us from the elements. Without these, we make very little progress in the world. A step up the pyramid brings us to our safety needs; we can only thrive if we manage to avoid war, abuse, and any other violent or dangerous situation that threatens to cut our life short. Only after meeting these most basic needs do we begin to care about our more advanced psychological needs in the upper levels of the pyramid. These are belonging, esteem, and ultimately self-actualization: we need friendship and intimacy, we need self-respect, and then we need to realize our full personal potential.

Maslow’s model makes intuitive sense overall. People in war-torn countries are probably less able to find the time and mental space to care about reaching their full potential when they are worrying about whether the next bomb will drop on their home. If we cannot keep ourselves alive with easy access to food, then we cannot motivate ourselves to find friends or self esteem. However, I cannot help but feel that this conceptualization of human needs adds to the common sentiment that our psychological needs matter less than our physiological needs. It is a sentiment that makes us believe we should feel slightly embarrassed when complaining about being lonely or sad. The truth is, when we fail to meet basic psychological needs, we can be far worse off than a simple step down in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A lack of food can kill us, but so can a lack of psychological and emotional stability. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 25–34 after unintentional injuries. In one 2013 survey of 9th-12th grade students in the US (~14–18 years of age), 17% of students had seriously considered suicide within the last 12 months preceding the survey. These are not small numbers.

I believe our human needs in the modern world have a more complicated structure than the hierarchy presented by Maslow (as valuable as that hierarchy has been within the psychological sciences). Food is no less important than it used to be, but we need to take our psychological needs just as seriously, not just as secondary phenomenon worthy of less concern. Intense sadness can feel just as bad as hunger, and looking at the suicide statistics above should at least give us second thought about assuming it is any less fatal. In fact, suicide presents an additional bizarre problem compared to deaths from failures of physiological needs, specifically that people actively want to die, rather than dying unintentionally from bodily failures. Whatever the subtleties of the problem, in the modern developed world, it is relatively uncommon for someone to die of starvation, so we may need to begin accepting our psychological needs within our primary needs.

We are all capable of making progress towards meeting our needs for mental wellbeing . Some of us, due to both genetic and environmental luck during our development, will find this much easier than others, and some of us will naturally be more resistant to psychological challenges and pressures. But most importantly, within our own little fortunate or unfortunate worlds, we can all make the most of the cards we are dealt.

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