The Mirror neuron is perhaps the most fascinating neuron, allowing us to touch other brains, establishing a connection beyond words. Before diving into the multiverse of mirror neurons we need to clear up some central concepts and provide a background. Mirror neurons were discovered in a landmark study where specific neurons in the brain of monkeys were discovered to become activated both when they carried out specific actions but also when observing someone else carryout those actions (1). Mirror neurons have since then been shown to be involved in autism, development of language and empathy. It has even been speculated that they have enabled humankind to cheat evolution jumping generations further in development then should be possible by pure Darwinism. We all have and use the ability to ‘mind read’ on a daily basis. Mind reading is underpinned by two simple concepts which explain the principles of mirror neuron workings: theory-theory (TT) and simulation theory (ST). Theory- theory put very simply is a scientific method to deduce the underlying motives/behaviour behind someone’s actions (2). This is like an algebraic equation where x, the underlying reasoning for actions, is deduced using the information available to us. Simulation theory however involves placing yourself in someone else’s shoes and coming to a solution to a problem as that person would. These two forms of mind reading can be understood in a thought experiment. Kahneman and Tversky (3) asked one cohort of individuals to imagine being in the place of someone who had missed their flight by 5 min. They also were asked to visualise being a second person in the same situation but the plane in this scenario departed at the correct time. Which individual do you think was more distressed in these two scenarios? It was striking that 97% thought that the first individual would be the most distressed. Theoretically, this is because of a common mechanism deployed by our brains to come to the same verdict. This involves using existing mechanisms in the mind to imitate and therefore predict what mental processes are occurring in another individual’s brain. We can already appreciate how these neurons enable empathy and even survival. On the other hand, simulation theory would reach the same conclusion, but this mechanism is based on the person putting themselves in the other person’s situation, thereby showing we all, for the most part, react to situations in a very similar way. It is important to note that mirror neurons alone cannot decipher the difference between observing an action vs carrying out an action. To a motor neurone these both equally result in their activation. (This concept is described eloquently and simply by V.S Ramachandran on the impact theory podcast for those interested in further exploration.) We can further explore this concept with a more interesting scenario. Synthesias are connections within the brain that lead to different senses being triggered synonymously (4). An example would be seeing colour when hearing sounds. Mirror touch synthesia is an example of a malfunction of mirror neurone functioning that results in a tactile sensation being elicited by observing another person being touched. It has been purposed that abnormally higher levels of activation of mirror neurons to be the culprit of this condition. Mirror neurons therefore in normal circumstances allow us to feel empathy when their actions are regulated in the context of the multitude of other signals entering the brain. An experiment on lovers shows the activation of mirror neurons in response to pain - a shock to a female subject and her partner (5). The response showed a remarkably similar activation of the pain response in the brain of the female being shocked and observing her partner being shocked, which shows that the ability to empathise is deeply rooted into us by mirror neurons. It is important to note that the shock used didn’t cause significant pain. Perhaps mirror neurons can explain our empathy. By evoking similar neuron firing patterns to the observations we see, mirror neurons reflect the internal brain state of those external to us - allowing us to truly read minds. Looking at wider evolution V.S Ramachandran proposes that a refinement in mirror neurone function in our ancestral history enabled humans to make dramatic advances in evolution (6). This conceptually makes a lot of sense. Imagine you are part of a tribe and its the monsoon season. It would be very difficult to survive very long hiding under trees and not knowing where to find food. Additionally, it would take an extremely long time, many generations, to develop adaptations to deal successfully with the monsoon season. We can however learn through mirror neurons via the aforementioned TT and ST theories, understanding why individuals are carrying out activities giving us the reasoning to do the same. We can learn how to build huts by observing how other members of our clan do this and we can also learn from other members where food can be found. Furthermore, we can ‘mind read’ as mentioned previously by observing facial expressions and observing other’s actions to determine if they are going to reveal themselves as a foe. It is absolutely fascinating that all these steps are facilitated by mirror neurons which clearly exhibits their significance to survival. It should be mentioned that this is a theory and other mechanisms too will be at play. To finish of mirror neurons are essential in establishing social ties and is absolutely important in its functioning in everyday activities. Where function is disrupted this can manifest as autism. Following from the aforementioned theory- theory model, a child with Autism spectrum disorder ASD will be unable to deduce mental states due to the lack of activity of the mirror neurons. The attributes of determining mental states develop at an early stage. Mirror neurons are one of many factors that inform how we behave socially, and this is clearly relevant to ‘mind reading’ via TT. Children with ASD are unable to develop this social awareness and therefore don’t understand why people behave the way they do- they so lack social communication skills such as maintaining eye contact and recognising social cues. It should be noted that autism is a very complex condition and there are multiple facets to its development though recognising its association to broken mirror neurons helps with treatment. This entails increased engagement with children at an earlier stage of development that can help buffer against the lacking functionality of their mirror neurons so that they grow to have some social awareness. This discovery is very important as we can help such autistic individuals in their personal and professional development through targeted therapy (7). In conclusion mirror neurons only exist because humans have evolved as social animals, this has resulted in common mechanisms in all brains to establish a human connection. Mirror neurons have stood the test of time and evolution revealing that social attributes of humans are not only nice to have but have been absolutely necessary to our survival. In light of this information, and given the times, it is interesting to appreciate how social interactions have been so intrinsic in a plethora of circumstances that effect all of us. References 1) Winerman, L. The mind's mirror. Monitor on Psychology, 36(9). (2005, October). 2) Ratcliffe, M. "Folk Psychology is not folk psychology". Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. 5 (1): 31–52. (2006). 3) Kahneman, D. and Tversky, A. The simulation heuristic, in Judgment Under Uncertainty (Kahneman, D., Slovic, P. and Tversky, A.,eds), pp. 201–208, Cambridge University Press (1982) 4) Globally Altered Structural Brain Network Topology in Grapheme-Color Synesthesia, Jürgen Hänggi, Diana Wotruba, Lutz Jäncke, Journal of Neuroscience 13, 31 (15) 5816 5828; (April 2011) 5) Linkovski O, Katzin N, Salti M. Mirror Neurons and Mirror-Touch Synesthesia. The Neuroscientist.23(2):103-108. (2017) 6) Edge (Internet), V.S. Ramachandran. MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution. [6.1.2000] (cited 08/02/2021) Available from: 7) Khalil R, Tindle R, Boraud T, Moustafa AA, Karim AA. Social decision making in autism: On the impact of mirror neurons, motor control, and imitative behaviors. CNS Neurosci Ther.24(8):669-676. (2018 Aug).
Something weighing heavy on your mind? Measuring thoughts with a set of scales
Today, neuroscientists generally agree that mental processes are intimately associated with the function of the brain. However, this hasn’t always been the case. For example, Descartes’ famous distinction between res cogitans, the stuff of thought, and res extensa, the stuff of matter has persisted strongly over the 350+ years since his death. So what evidence has led to our modern understanding of the mind and brain? This is the brief story of the man who used a glorified kitchen scale to measure thoughts well over a hundred years ago in the first ever neuroimaging study. The search to measure the mind and soul empirically is as filled with pseudoscientific woo as Gwyneth Paltrow’s bathroom cabinets. For example, the infamously poor “21 grams experiment” by Duncan MacDougall in 1907 tried to measure the decrease of mass a human undergoes at death with the notion that this may by caused by the soul leaving the body. Out of 6 patients, one of them lost 21.3g, leading to the questionable conclusion that this is the weight of the soul. Needless to say, this wouldn’t win any awards for robust experimental design nor statistics in the 21st century. Not all such attempts were so unavailing though… Angelo Mosso was born in May 1846 into relative poverty. Having excelled through secondary school, he went on to study medicine with the help of several grants. Following his graduation from the University of Turin magna cum laude he went on to Leipzig and then Paris where he studied graphical methods to investigate the dynamics of physiological phenomena. Upon his return to Turin, he applied his newfound skills to the circulation of the brain. Unfortunately, the human brain is notoriously hard to get to without its owner being dead, or being put at severe risk of becoming dead. Luckily for Mosso, a man called Michele Bertino had a brick dropped on his head from a 40 ft bell tower. Whilst this may not sound particularly fortuitous, said brick produced a hole in Bertino’s skull which provided a literal window allowing access to his brain. Making use of a special plethysmograph he developed, Mosso recorded pulsations of Bertino’s brain under different conditions. These pulsations corresponded to changes in blood flow. He noted that cognitively demanding tasks, such as mathematical calculation, resulted in increased brain pulsation. Crucially, in such conditions he did not also see an increase in the pulse at his wrist leading to the conclusion that mental activity specifically increases blood flow to the brain. This may seem obvious to us now, but at the time was truly revolutionary. Figure 1: (left) The plethysmograph used to measure brain pulsations. (right) The brain and wrist pulsations recorded. Unfortunately, not everyone has a conveniently placed hole in their skulls and, even by the standard of 19th century medical ethics, creating one just to measure brain pulsations wasn’t a viable option. Mosso set out to find a way to measure blood flow in anyone’s brain and in 1882 he built what he called the “human circulation balance”. As with many incredible scientific breakthroughs, his idea was surprisingly simple. If blood is flowing to the brain during more intense thought then a carefully set up scale could theoretically measure the increase in weight of the head relative to the rest of the body. In practice, this was a bed that could pivot in the middle if the centre of mass shifted. However, there were many non-trivial issues to iron out. When someone lies down, the blood that gravity pulls down into their legs slowly redistributes throughout the body. This means that for an hour or so the weight at the head very gradually increases. His elegant solution to this problem? Wait an hour before recording; not everything needs a high tech solution. However, one thing that did need some clever engineering was the problem of participants breathing, which has a large cyclic effect on the location of the centre of mass, for which he employed a counterweighting system to dampen fluctuations. Figure 2: The human circulation balance Mosso had participants read materials of varying cognitive demands whilst laying on the balance. These ranged from basic newspaper articles to more complex mathematics and philosophy as well as material of emotional significance. His remarkable findings were that participants engaging in more mentally strenuous activity, like reading philosophy, resulted in the scale tipping more toward their head compared to the simpler newspaper articles. He concluded that the increase in cerebral blood flow was proportional to the complexity of, or emotion evoked by, the cognitive task. Furthermore, he was surprised to find that subjects did not react equally to the same stimulus, and speculated this might be due to differences in ‘age…and education’. In short, these were crude measurements of the mind. These remarkable findings resulted from the same mechanisms as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); the human circulation balance’s modern successor which measures changes in blood flow in different parts of the brain. It was such an exciting invention that in 1908, a French newspaper reported that the balance "would soon fully explain the physiology of the human brain". In much the same way, fMRI today has had a variety of outrageous and unsubstantiated claims made about its ability to “read the mind”. This seems to be a recurring interaction between our fascination with measuring the mind and our boundless human fallibility. “We’re sort of fascinated by seeing thought, which seems so nonmaterial — seeing it as a material thing. I think people often feel like if they see it on an imaging scan, it’s real in a way that it isn’t real if it’s just being talked about” — RUSSEL POLDRACK Figure 3: David Feilds’ replica of Mosso’s human circulation balance In 2014 David Field, a psychologist at Reading University and human circulation balance enthusiast, set out to recreate Mosso’s invention despite describing it as looking like “some kind of medieval torture device. I mean it's got a big strap to kind of stop the person moving around too much”. This recreation made use of a sensitive scale placed under the head to quantify how much the scale tipped under different conditions. As a proof of concept, participants were asked to hold their breath. This causes elevated carbon dioxide levels resulting in vasodilation and a well characterised increase in blood flow to the brain. Exactly as predicted, the data revealed a gradual increase in weight at the head end of the balance during the breath hold. They then moved on to test the ability of the balance to measure cognitive functions. In one condition subjects were played music in brief bursts with their eyes closed. In the other condition, they were played music whilst also looking at visual patterns associated with the music. While blood flow did not significantly increase during the music only condition compared to rest (likely due to an experimental design issue) it did increase in response to both music and the visual stimulus together. These findings by Field et al confirmed that Mosso had indeed built a 19th century neuroimaging machine with the potential to measure mental processes. Mosso’s findings went on to inspire Charles Sherrington (of Nobel prize fame) and Charles S Roy who went on to confirm the relationship between neural activity and blood flow by doing some unspeakable things to dogs.. But that’s a story for another blog post… REFERENCES Field, D. T. and Inman, L. A. (2014) ‘Weighing brain activity with the balance: a contemporary replication of Angelo Mosso’s historical experiment’, Brain. Oxford University Press, 137(2), pp. 634–639. doi: 10.1093/brain/awt352. Sandrone, S. et al. (2014) ‘Weighing brain activity with the balance: Angelo Mosso’s original manuscripts come to light’, Brain. Oxford University Press, 137(2), pp. 621–633. doi: 10.1093/brain/awt091. Zago, S. et al. (2009) ‘The Mosso method for recording brain pulsation: The forerunner of functional neuroimaging’, NeuroImage. Academic Press Inc., 48(4), pp. 652–656. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.05.062.
Is Free Will the Matter of Being Able to Express Your "REAL SELF"?
Taken to the classical view, I define our ‘real self’ as a repository of our desires and motivations. The view that this entails freedom, because it exercises intentional agency and causal control, is one that I do not agree with. Vulnerability to external influences reduces first-order desires and motivations to the mark of subjugation - not freedom. This essay argues that though higher-order desires can also be externally influenced, it is their fulfilment through the manipulation of our 'self' that is free will. In other words, free will is not the matter of being able to express your 'real self', rather it is the ability for self-manipulation. We Are Not Always Free as Simple Intentional Agents In order to know what free will is, we must understand what it is not. Here I am not arguing that pursuit of desires does not entail freedom. I am questioning the ownership of those desires. Admittedly, both intentionality and agency are fundamental requisites of free will. Without agency, we would not be able to do anything—we will simply have things happen to us. Like an apple, which has no say in when it will fall from its tree, or a car that has no idea when it will move, examples of non-agential entities show that agency is necessary for moving around an environment. Intentionality, described by Franz Bretano as "aboutness", is our agency conforming to our desires. Eleanor Knox simplifies the concept of intentional agents as “systems that have intentional states […] desires to bring stuff about”. An intentional agent has some representations of its environment; has motivations (what it would like to achieve in that environment); and is consequently able to interact with that environment in pursuit of its motivations and goals. We intuitively recognise this as an autonomous self that enjoys positive liberty; described as a “condition of liberation from social and cultural forces that are perceived as impeding full self-realization” (Blackburn, 2016). It is also congruent with the Frankfurtian mantra that 'the will that you want is the will that you have' (Frankfurt, 1971). However, what if the will we want is a false will, one that is informed from external forces? This is the concept of false consciousness. We are born into a world of influence that informs our thoughts and desires, to fulfill them would be a form of subjugation to sociopolitical forces. That 80% of content watched on Netflix is recommended to us or our voting preferences shift by 37.1% according to search result rankings on Google, exemplifies how our actions—that are based on first-order desires—do not belong to us. They lie far outside the realm of ‘the self’ and in the clutches of systemic powers that direct our goals via programmed algorithms. Furthermore, certain environmental influences can take hold despite our best personal interest. For example, stereotypes often reflect repressive and unjustified caricatures of people’s capabilities and motivations. They are constructed by the zeitgeist of the time. Studies on the phenomenon of stereotype threat found that reminding women or people of colour of their gender or racial identity before a test artificially reduces their scores (Steele and Quinn, 2006). When certain tropes are reinforced, we conform to them and internalise a belief which is foreign to our ‘real self’. We succumb to expectations rather than achieving our desire to succeed. Consider: are we supposed to think that a woman, who chooses to remain silent on her sexual abuse out of fear of the punishments society will sanction her with, is free? Her goal of job security motivates her to commit to the instrumental desire of keeping quiet. She is in every sense an intentional agent, yet we cannot say that she is liberated from patriarchal conditioning. Consequently, our first-order desires can be incredibly vulnerable to external influences. We are not always free as intentional agents, therefore intentional agency and the expression of ‘real self’ does not seem sufficient to entail freedom of will. Higher-Order Desires can be Free from External Influences I will concede that higher-order desires can also be inherited from external influences, but unlike first-order desires, we can exert a measure of control over our higher-order desires; they are malleable. First-order desires are rigid — we have no choice but to either wait till they abate, or indulge in them. Say I acquire the first-order desire to eat Swiss chocolate after having eaten it for the first time a few days ago. Experience of the desire is necessary as we cannot desire that which we do not have knowledge of. I want to eat Swiss chocolate. But my higher-order desire may be to abstain and keep a clean diet, which in itself could have been established by a targeted healthy-eating Instagram ad. You could argue that my abstinence (higher-order desire) would be a result of external influence just like first-order desires. However, I have the choice to either agree with this higher-order desire or re-evaluate it. I can influence the influencing force. On the other hand, I cannot exert control on my first-order desires on their own — upon eating Swiss chocolate for the first time, I am genetically predisposed to my opinion of it. The point of the matter is, desires are not free if they are immune from external forces. Interactions between desires and external influence is inevitable. Desires are free when we are able to influence the influencing forces. And we only have the ability to manipulate higher-order desires. This is what I call a moment of self-manipulation. The desire to want chocolate (higher-order) can be manipulated with self-restraint; we can exert control, thus showing the capacity for free will Moments of Self-manipulation We are occasioned to manipulate ‘the self’ after a moment of crisis, where preconceived notions of our ‘self’ is challenged. This could be from enticing influences or what other people think of us, our goals and desires. One study on a community in Utah targeted women; one group was called and told that other community members thought of them as uncooperative and lacking a community spirit — challenging their conceptions of their own ‘self’. The other group had their self-image consolidated when the researchers said that other community members considered them helpful. Upon the second call, when the researchers asked for help on a local project, the women in the first group were twice as likely to offer help (Steele, 1970). This shows that when the integrity of the self is attacked, we are forced to rationalise our ideas of ‘self’. We either accept a change in our motivations, goals, personal values - and therefore manipulate our ‘self’ - or we reaffirm those values. The Frankfurt example which shows the transition from a willing addict to a willingly dry addict also highlights how self-manipulation entails free will. When the addictive first-order desires die down, a person is forced to introspect and consider whether those actions are reflective of their ‘self’ — all their desires, goals and motivations. If the answer is no, that person shifts their higher-order desires, becoming an unwilling addict. According to Frankfurt’s definition of free will, this transition goes from a free state to an unfree state (unwilling addict), as the will they want is different from what they have. Though little is known about the transition of the unwilling addict to a willingly dry addict, what is clear is that a shift in higher-order desires (or self-manipulation) precedes attainment of free will, when the willingly dry addict is liberated from addictive desires and the will they want is the will they have. Therefore, one can only begin to overcome addiction if they manipulate the ‘self’, shift their higher-order desires and become cognitively aware of their new will. To conclude, fulfilment of first-order desires can be an expression of slavery to systemic powers - it does not originate from the ‘self’. Higher-order desires are different in that they can be influenced by external forces, but we wield the power to influence the desires in turn. Forces of influence do not injure my choice in manipulating higher-order desires. If external influencing forces were hard determining forces, we all would have the same set of desires. That we are individuals with separate degrees of desires and motivations implies an internal level of control, where we are able to manipulate our higher-order desires. And this is what free will is: self-manipulation. We cannot control the winds, but we can adjust the sails. REFERENCES Webb, R. (2020). Your decision-making ability is a superpower physics can't explain. [online] New Scientist. Available at: [Accessed 23 April. 2020]. freedom, positive/negative. Oxford Reference. (2020). Retrieved 29 April 2020, from Frankfurt, H. (1971). Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person. The Journal Of Philosophy, 68(1), 5. Apa.org. (2020). Retrieved 29 April 2020, from
Is it true that the mind is indivisible, as Descartes claims?
Rene Descartes’ 1641 paper Meditations on First Philosophy claims that everything can be categorised as being composed of two mutually exclusive ontological substances: res extensa, substance extended into space that is incapable of thought, and res cogitans, substance unextended into space that is capable of thought. That is to say, Descartes claims that the mind, composed of res cogitans, is indivisible and exists independently of the res extensa composed brain and body (Robinson, 2016). In this essay, I will outline the reasons given by Descartes for the indivisibility of the mind, and then assess the validity of the claim in light of a modern understanding of neuroscience, to which I will ultimately argue that the mind is divisible - contrary to Descartes’ claims. Descartes’ claim of mind indivisibility is predicated upon his prior claim that the body and mind are separate entities, which he demonstrates via a method of hyperbolic doubt. By discarding any and every belief that could possibly be false, either by means of honest misinterpretation by the senses or deliberate deception by an all-powerful and evil being, Descartes concludes that despite being able to doubt the existence of his own body and all that is around him, the fact that he is able to think means he cannot doubt his own existence, or else there would be no entity performing any introspection; hence cogito ergo sum (Newman 2019). Building upon this separation of mind and body, Descartes further separates the uniqueness of the mind by reasoning it to be composed of an ontologically different substance to the body, via what is now known as Leibniz’s law of the identity of indiscernibles: if entity X possess property P, and if entity Y lacks property P, then entities X and Y are not identical (Forrest 2010). In his sixth meditation, Descartes reasons that the ontological substance of the mind and body are different, as the body has the property of being divisible by means of amputation, but such a property is not exhibited by the mind, as one is unable to distinguish any individual part within themselves or self-divide thought. Therefore, in accordance to Leibniz’s law of the identity of indiscernibles, Descartes concludes that the mind and the brain cannot be of the same ontological substance, since they contradict in their basic property of divisibility (Calef, no date), thus giving rise to the distinct and independently existent res extensa, a dividable substance extended into space that is incapable of thought, and res cogitans, an undividable substance unextended into space that is capable of thought. Descartes’ claim that the mind is indivisible faces objection on two possible fronts. The first seeks to disprove mind indivisibility by illustrating the untenability of the prerequisite claim that the body and mind are two separate and independent entities by raising the issue of interaction, thus removing the basis on which divisible res extensa and indivisible res cogitans stand upon. Also known as Elizabeth’s objection, the Princess of Bohemia points out that if the body and mind were truly distinct and independent entities, then by Descartes’ own definition, the mind would be formless (non-extended) and hence be unable to interact with the body (a substance extended in space) to produce voluntary movement (Shapiro, 2013). Descartes attempts to counter this contradiction by identifying the pineal gland as the point of interaction, theorising that voluntary movement occurs when spirits dwelling in the brain will the appropriate neurons into action (Lokhorst, 2013). However, this an untenable counterargument to make in light of its glaring conflictions with our modern understanding of neuroscience and the causal closure of the universe, and thus is sufficient reason consider Descartes’ claim of the mind being indivisible as false. The second objection seeks to disprove mind indivisibility by empirically showing the diversity of the mind, in contrast to Descartes’ unified and holistic view of the mind. An example of the diversity of the mind is the discontinuity of consciousness from day to night – that is, during sleep. Upon the transition from light to dark, the mind has the possibility of dreaming, in which case the continuity of consciousness is preserved. However, more often than not, one goes to bed and somehow awakes refreshed with no recollection of the proceeding 8 hours. (Calef, no date). The Cartesian dualist may rebut that the unity of the mind is preserved since the division is temporal in nature and not spatial, but such an admission inherently concedes that there are two states in which a mind can exist in: one in which is it privy to conscious thought, and one in which it is not; thus, the mind is divisible. A corpus callosotomy is a palliative procedure in which the corpus callosum, the link between the two hemispheres of the brain, is severed, and is an example of a spatial division of the mind. Patients that have undergone this procedure often exhibit callosal syndrome, in which their mind becomes fragmented. For example, if a patient is flashed a word on the side of their right eye only, they are able to correctly identify and enunciate the word flashed. However, if the patient is flashed a word on only the side of the left eye, they are unable to enunciate the word flashed, but if given a pencil and piece of paper, they are able to draw or write out the word, thus showing they had originally identified the correct word (Wolman 2012). Unfortunately for the Cartesian dualist, callosal syndrome demands a simple ultimatum: either the physically damaged res extensa brain has altered the formless res cogitans mind, which necessitates the acceptance of Elizabeth’s interactional objection, or accepting that the res cogitans mind is divisible through an apparent split in knowledge and function – either of which would force a denial of Descartes’ claim that the mind is indivisible. The only refuge point then seems to a concession of the divisibility of the mind, and instead maintain that res cogitans-esque consciousness of a person is indivisible instead. This is still one point which neuroscience appears to support, as the res cogitans-esque consciousness does not seem to be compartmentalised within any particular region of the brain. Even in cases of patients with severe degenerative neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, a person’s possession of consciousness does not suddenly disappear with the degradation of the final neuron within a specific region of the brain. However, this alternative claim cannot be made under the Cartesian banner of dualism, since now there exists a slight distinction between a mind and the state of being conscious, regardless to whether consciousness is or is not a function and or property of the mind and or brain – in other words, we have transitioned to property dualism. In summary, Descartes’ perspective of the mind and brain being separate and independent identities results in unfavourable contradictions with our current understanding of neuroscience. The central claim of Cartesian dualism, that the res cogitans mind is indivisible, faces contest in regard to its mechanism of interaction with the res extensa brain and body – a problem that is compounded by the temporal and spatial divisions illustrated by loss of consciousness and neurological disorders respectively. Overall, I find the above stated reason sufficient strong enough to deny Descartes’ claim that the mind is indivisible. References Calef, S. (n.d.). Dualism and Mind | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [online] Iep.utm.edu. Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2020]. Forrest, P. (2010). The Identity of Indiscernibles (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). [online] Plato.stanford.edu. Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2020]. Lokhorst, G. (2013). Descartes and the Pineal Gland (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). [online] Plato.stanford.edu. Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2020]. Newman, L. (2019). Descartes’ Epistemology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). [online] Plato.stanford.edu. Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2020]. Robinson, H. (2016). Dualism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). [online] Plato.stanford.edu. Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2020]. Shapiro, L. (2013). Elisabeth, Princess of Bohemia (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). [online] Plato.stanford.edu. Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2020]. Wolman, D. (2012). The split brain: A tale of two halves. [online] Nature. Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2020].
Can memory be taken at face value as an accurate record of past events?
Memory is core to the human experience; it allows us to connect and integrate the seemingly random complex web of experiences gained throughout a lifetime into a coherent self-narrative that forms our sense of identity (Camina and Güell, 2017). The fallibility of memory has been explored by many people since Ebbinghaus’ first foray into forgetting (Schacter, 1999), and has progressed most notably to the creation and implantation of false memories. The topic of false memories, memories of one’s “past” which are incongruent with reality, is of particular importance due to the weight and trust placed in eye-witness testimony during sentencing in a court of law (Howe and Knott, 2015; Johnson and Raye, 1998; Lindsay and Johnson, 1989). Therefore, this essay aims to explore the fallibility of memory, first by illustrating the vulnerability of the memory recall system to falsify memories through suggestion of misinformation, then the creation mechanism of said false memories, and finally how false memories can lead to wrongful conviction – to which this essay will ultimately conclude that memory cannot be taken at face value as an accurate record of past events. The vulnerability of the memory recall system is best illustrated through suggestibility, which is the brain’s tendency to take on external inferences to modify internal memories and create false memories (Schacter, 1999). This was used to notable effect by Loftus, Miller and Burns in their seminal 1978 paper Semantic Integration of Verbal Information into a Visual Memory, in which 195 participants were shown a series of 30 coloured images depicting a single auto-pedestrian accident involving an identical red car at either a stop or yield sign. Immediately after viewing, participants were given a questionnaire which contained a question either consistent with the images or misleading and contrary to the images. After a 20 minute filler activity, participants undertook forced-choice recognition test to identify the previously shown slides from 15 pairs of new and old slides, with the critical slide being the red car at either the stop or yield sign. Their results showed that when a consistent question was asked (stop sign picture with a stop sign question), participants identified the correct slide 75% of the time, but only 41% of participants could identify the previously shown slide when asked a misleading question (stop sign picture with a yield sign question) (Loftus, Miller and Burns, 1978). Thus, even after accounting for random 50/50 guessing, participants who were given misinformation during questioning performed at a significant detriment compared to their consistent question counterparts. Although the exact mechanism for how questioning affects memory is under debate, further studies involving leading questions and similarly doctored images have produced similarly falsified memories (Wade, Garry, Don Read and Lindsay, 2002). These two studies succinctly show that the memory recall process is vulnerable to manipulation via exposure to misinformation either in the form of questioning or images, and hence memory cannot be taken at face value as an accurate record of the past. The exact cellular mechanism by which false memories are created has yet to be fully elucidated, but it is understood that when memories are recalled they are not holistically replayed, but rather reconstructed in the hippocampus from a group of diverse constituent fragments into a complete memory that can then be re-experienced (Horner et al., 2015; Rolls, 2013). It is during this reconstruction stage that the mind is vulnerable to falsifying memories (Schacter, 1999). Loftus, Miller, and Burns originally postulated that misinformation caused the original memory to be overwritten by the incorrect suggestion, although more recent studies have attributed the cause to the mis-attribution of the source of information, whereby the mind believes the suggested misinformation to be from the original sensory information, and hence perceived as true (Schacter, Harbluk and McLachlan, 1984; Zaragoza and Lane, 1994). Additionally, fuzzy trace theory has also been suggested as a possible mechanism for false memory creation, which categorises memories as either literal, verbatim traces, or as liberal, imprecise gist traces (Reyna and Brainerd, 1995), As gist trace memory is posited to required less cognitive power to use, it is the preferred method of memory storage. However, this comes at the expense of generalisation and hence increases error rate and susceptibility to incorporating misinformation as truthful memories (Reyna, Corbin, Weldon and Brainerd, 2016), most notably illustrated as the misidentification of a theme word when recalling a list of closely related words (Pardilla-Delgado and Payne, 2017). Through either of these two models of misinformation integration and false memory generation, the memory recall process is shown to be vulnerable to manipulation, and hence memory cannot be taken at face value as an accurate record of the past. The implications of false memories reach far beyond clinical settings, as eye-witness testimonies are a major component during with court sessions. In regard to source mis-attribution, improper questioning with misinformation cues during police interrogation may produce coerced and falsified confessions to crimes people did not commit, with subjects creating vivid false memories and subsequently languishing in guilt despite conclusive evidence of their innocence (Gudjonsson, 2002). On the other hand, gist memory derived false memories in fuzzy trace theory have also implicated otherwise innocent individuals in heinous crimes, such as the identification of an innocent rape suspect in a photo line-up due to chance similarities in vehicle description and facial features, transitioning into definitive conviction of his guilty status by the prosecution (Loftus, 2003). The implications of these unjust convictions have resulted in life imprisonments in the case of the Birmingham Six (Gudjonsson & Mackeith, 2008), and death by stress-related heart attack in the case of Steve Titus (Loftus, 2003). These miscarriages of justice highlight the ramifications of misinformation generated false memories, and the formal consideration of misinformation suggestion during legal proceedings as the Gudjonsson scale of suggestibility show that memory cannot be taken at face value as an accurate record of past events. In conclusion, the complex process of memory formation is retrieval is not infallible, due to both the source mis-attribution phenomena, and the generalised nature of gist memory in fuzzy trace theory. These false memories can have major legal ramifications, and cause massive disruption to people’s lives, culminating in an understanding that false confessions may come from innocent people and the formal incorporation of misinformation suggestion as a test in eye-witness validity. In all of these ways, it has been shown that memory cannot be taken at face value as an accurate record of past events. References Brown, J., & Campbell, E. (2010). The Cambridge handbook of forensic psychology (p. 49). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Camina, E., & Güell, F. (2017). The Neuroanatomical, Neurophysiological and Psychological Basis of Memory: Current Models and Their Origins. Frontiers In Pharmacology, 8. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2017.00438 Gudjonsson, G. (2002). Unreliable Confessions and Miscarriages of Justice in Britain. International Journal Of Police Science & Management, 4(4), 332-343. doi: 10.1350/ijps.4.4.332.10880 Gudjonsson, G., & Mackeith, J. (2008). The‘Guildford Four’ and the‘Birmingham Six’. The Psychology Of Interrogations And Confessions, 445-457. doi: 10.1002/9780470713297.ch17 Horner, A., Bisby, J., Bush, D., Lin, W., & Burgess, N. (2015). Evidence for holistic episodic recollection via hippocampal pattern completion. Nature Communications, 6(1). doi: 10.1038/ncomms8462 Howe, M., & Knott, L. (2015). The fallibility of memory in judicial processes: Lessons from the past and their modern consequences. Memory, 23(5), 633-656. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2015.1010709 Johnson, M., & Raye, C. (1998). False memories and confabulation. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 2(4), 137-145. doi: 10.1016/s1364-6613(98)01152-8 Lindsay, D., & Johnson, M. (1989). The eyewitness suggestibility effect and memory for source. Memory & Cognition, 17(3), 349-358. doi: 10.3758/bf03198473 Loftus, E., Miller, D., & Burns, H. (1978). Semantic integration of verbal information into a visual memory. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning And Memory, 4(1), 19-31. doi: 10.1037/0278-73220.127.116.11 Loftus, E. (2003). Our changeable memories: legal and practical implications. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4(3), 231-234. doi: 10.1038/nrn1054 Pardilla-Delgado, E., & Payne, J. (2017). The Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) Task: A Simple Cognitive Paradigm to Investigate False Memories in the Laboratory. Journal Of Visualized Experiments, (119). doi: 10.3791/54793 Reyna, V., & Brainerd, C. (1995). Fuzzy-trace theory: An interim synthesis. Learning And Individual Differences, 7(1), 1-75. doi: 10.1016/1041-6080(95)90031-4 Reyna, V., Corbin, J., Weldon, R., & Brainerd, C. (2016). How fuzzy-trace theory predicts true and false memories for words, sentences, and narratives. Journal Of Applied Research In Memory And Cognition, 5(1), 1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2015.12.003 Rolls, E. (2013). The mechanisms for pattern completion and pattern separation in the hippocampus. Frontiers In Systems Neuroscience, 7. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2013.00074 Schacter, D. (1999). The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. American Psychologist, 54(3), 182-203. doi: 10.1037/0003-066x.54.3.182 Schacter, D., Harbluk, J., & McLachlan, D. (1984). Retrieval without recollection: An experimental analysis of source amnesia. Journal Of Verbal Learning And Verbal Behavior, 23(5), 593-611. doi: 10.1016/s0022-5371(84)90373-6 Wade, K., Garry, M., Don Read, J., & Lindsay, D. (2002). A picture is worth a thousand lies: Using false photographs to create false childhood memories. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9(3), 597-603. doi: 10.3758/bf03196318 Zaragoza, M., & Lane, S. (1994). Source misattributions and the suggestibility of eyewitness memory. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, And Cognition, 20(4), 934-945. doi: 10.1037/0278-7318.104.22.1684
* Originally published in the BNA Bulletin Autumn 2020 A Story of Mind and Machine Humans went from splitting stones to splitting uranium atoms. Our evolutionary journey is a mark of incredible intelligence that pulled us out of our caves and into the land, where we’ve built glittering empires of steel and glass. We've unfurled the limits of intelligence further than ever before. But in our journey to master Medicine, Science and the Arts, have we pushed the limits of intelligence too far beyond our reach; away from Mind and into Machine? Algorithmic Intelligence Advances in current machine intelligence come from reducing complex human behaviours into a series of steps. Algorithms connect these steps, mapping every input to an expected output. And it does so with revolutionary success. Some AI algorithms have identified new antibiotic molecules that show little resistance. Other algorithms have extended the reach of medical care that was otherwise limited by humans; powering robots in Wuhan to autonomously move around hospitals, cleaning wards and delivering food and drugs to patients. The doctor will see you now... These successes conjure imaginations of sentient robots outsmarting, outwitting and outperforming humans. However, the very term ‘artificial’ betrays that imagination. Intelligence generally seems to be a function of organic life, not of inorganic tools. It was Da Vinci’s mind, not his chisel which he skillfully employed, that was a mark of intelligence. AI, far from a future Frankenstein nightmare, is simply a tool at our disposal. Its “intelligence” stems from human interpretation of its data; making sense of the 0s and 1s and blurred pixels. A Grey Future This is not to diminish the impact of AI, which through data processing and pattern spotting, has already furthered our collective understanding. And there is little doubt machine intelligence will transform our lives in the future, accelerating our learning and understanding of the universe around us. But it will only do so on our command, written along our codes. The tighter we knit ourselves with technology, the starker the disparity between the two threads of mind and machine becomes. Future humans will not become obsolete because not all actions are reducible to black and white binary. Our highest level performance is found in the subtle grey. Ultimately, minds can be algorithmic but algorithms cannot become minds.
Can plasticity of the occipital cortex explain the phenotype of dreams in the blind? What does the phenotype of dreams in the blind suggest about structural and functional changes in the occipital - “visual” - cortex of early blind (EB) individuals? In this essay I will describe some characteristics of blind people’s dreams, and then put forward cross-modal plasticity as a possible explanation for the differences between oneiric sensory elements in blind vs. sighted individuals. While sighted people experience mainly visual impressions in their dreaming life, most studies reveal that in the dreams of the EB auditory imagery is the most frequently experienced sensory modality, followed - in decreasing order - by tactile, gustatory and olfactory sensory components. Late blind (LB) individuals, instead, retain some form of visual imagery, and tend to experience more oneiric tactile impressions than sighted controls (SC), but they do not always have enhanced auditory imagery in their dreams (3-5, 9). The likely reason why LB individuals retain visual imagery is that, before they lost sight, their occipital cortex “got used” to processing visual information from the retina; later on, after blindness onset, this part of the LB brain can still produce visual impressions when stimulated, as in rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. In the EB, instead, the occipital cortex could never specialise in visual processing, and therefore it fails to produce any kind of visual imagery (2, 5, 9). However, the occipital cortex of the EB has some extraordinary abilities that distinguish it from that of most LB and SC individuals. Only to mention auditory processing, several studies report that the occipital cortex of EB participants was activated during tasks such as sound localisation and detection of changes in auditory stimulation (6-8, 10). The unique features of the “blind visual cortex” could be underpinned by visual-auditory cross-modal plasticity. Simply put, in EB individuals the absence of visual stimuli may lead to the creation of new connections between the occipital cortex and areas of the brain involved in auditory processing, or to the unmasking of existing connections which are normally inhibited in the presence of vision (2). This cross-modal plasticity, which has been observed in blind moles (1), may also explain why auditory imagery is the most common sensory modality in EB people’s dreams. However, more research is needed to further elucidate the differences in dream phenotype between EB, LB and SC, and to understand the means by which the occipital cortex of the EB is reorganised to process non-visual sensory inputs. Bibliography: 1) Bavelier, D., & Neville, H. J. (2002). Cross-modal plasticity: where and how? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 3(6), 443-452. doi:10.1038/nrn848 2) Burton, H. (2003). Visual Cortex Activity in Early and Late Blind People. The Journal of Neuroscience, 23(10), 4005. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.23-10-04005.2003 3) Christensen, J. A. E., Aubin, S., Nielsen, T., Ptito, M., Kupers, R., & Jennum, P. (2019). Rapid eye movements are reduced in blind individuals. Journal of sleep research, 28(6), e12866. doi:10.1111/jsr.12866 4) Kerr, N. H., Foulkes, D., & Schmidt, M. (1982). The structure of laboratory dream reports in blind and sighted subjects. J Nerv Ment Dis, 170(5), 286-294. doi:10.1097/00005053-198205000-00006 5) Kirtley, D. D., & Sabo, K. T. (1979). Symbolism in the dreams of the blind. Int J Rehabil Res, 2(2), 225-232. doi:10.1097/00004356-197905000-00005 6) Kujala, T., Huotilainen, M., Sinkkonen, J., Ahonen, A. I., Alho, K., Hämälä:inen, M. S., . . . Näätänen, R. (1995). Visual cortex activation in blind humans during sound discrimination. Neuroscience Letters, 183(1), 143-146. doi: 7) Kujala, T., Palva, M. J., Salonen, O., Alku, P., Huotilainen, M., Järvinen, A., & Näätänen, R. (2005). The role of blind humans’ visual cortex in auditory change detection. Neuroscience Letters, 379(2), 127-131. doi: 8) Liotti, M., Ryder, K., & Woldorff, M. G. (1998). Auditory attention in the congenitally blind: Where, when and what gets reorganized? Neuroreport: An International Journal for the Rapid Communication of Research in Neuroscience, 9(6), 1007-1012. doi:10.1097/00001756-199804200-00010 9) Meaidi, A., Jennum, P., Ptito, M., & Kupers, R. (2014). The sensory construction of dreams and nightmare frequency in congenitally blind and late blind individuals. Sleep Medicine, 15(5), 586-595. doi: 10) Weeks, R., Horwitz, B., Aziz-Sultan, A., Tian, B., Wessinger, C. M., Cohen, L. G., . . . Rauschecker, J. P. (2000). A positron emission tomographic study of auditory localization in the congenitally blind. J Neurosci, 20(7), 2664-2672. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.20-07-02664.2000
Hello everyone! We would just like to share an amazing webinar series called Braincast, created by Dr Sotiris Posporelis. From the neuropsychiatric complications of COVID-19 to mental health, there is a lot of exciting content on its way! Check out the link below:
What can giving MDMA to octopi teach us about human social behaviour?
Despite the human and octopus lineages being separated by 500 million years of evolution, we still share some similarities in the ancient neurotransmitter systems that form a key part of the way our brains work. In this time octopi developed several extra legs and humans went on to dominate the globe using just two, and on the way, we discovered several substances which can profoundly alter our brains’ neurochemistry. Neuroscientist, and lead investigator of the study, Dr. Gül Dölen from John Hopkins researches how neural functions can give rise to complex social behaviour. Octopi are not entirely dissimilar to teenagers in that they are generally extremely anti-social and solitary, with the sole exception of when they come together to mate. As she puts it, “During reproduction they are social for three minutes while they mate and then they go back to wanting to kill each other” (Octopi, not teenagers). Therefore, she and her team asked the interesting question of what is going on in the brain of an octopus during this switch. Despite sounding like something drunk university students might joke about at 3am, giving MDMA to octopi provided some unlikely insights into the ancient origins of social behaviour. To test the effects scientifically, the investigators took an established three-chamber paradigm used to study rats’ behaviour, and made it underwater. The octopus is given freedom to choose to spend its time in one of three spaces; an empty central room, one with an interesting object, or one with another octopus. When they put sober octopi put into this situation, they tended to spend significantly more time with the interesting object, in this case, an action figure. However, following a 10 minute bath in MDMA solution, they spent significantly more time in the chamber alongside the other octopus. However, the more interesting findings were in the qualitative differences in the way high octopi behave. The sober octopi generally avoided going near the other octopus, and when they did, contact was limited to a single-arm poke. However, when given MDMA, the octopus will engage in extensive ventral surface contact – a fancy way of saying it becomes more huggy. “They’re basically hugging the [cage] and exposing parts of their body that they don’t normally expose to another octopus,” said Dölen. They also displayed behaviours that, while not exactly the same as what you might find at a music festival, certainly reminiscent of them. As Dölen puts it, “Some were being very playful, doing water acrobatics or spent time fondling [a stream of bubbles]”. Others simply stretched out their arms and floated about. The study is severely limited by the fact that, unlike its appendageally blessed research participants, it had a single arm; there was no placebo arm within the study to compare the behaviour following administration of placebo between the two trials. However, it remains is hard to overstate how remarkable the fact that MDMA can have even vaguely comparable effects on an octopus and ourselves is. The nervous system of the octopus could hardly be more different than our own; roughly two-thirds of their neurones are located in their arms, which are thought to function semi-autonomously, rather than their central brain. MDMA acts by changing the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This research therefore provides evidence for a more prominent role of basic neurochemistry in complex social behaviours, which is in contrast to the broad notion that behaviours in humans arise from nuanced circuitry at the systems level. Prof David Nutt, a world leading expert on the neuropharmacology of illicit drugs at Imperial College London, has suggested that this study may be yet another blow to anthropocentrism – the notion that humans are uniquely important within the universe – and other species could also have the capacity for complex social mechanisms such as emotion and empathy. “This just proves that this is not some peculiar human characteristic, it’s not even a mammalian characteristic, it’s a characteristic of brains,” he said. “It also shows that serotonin has a hugely important role in mediating social interactions right across species.” The scientific landscape is changing and illicit substances are offering unique and fascinating opportunities to examine questions at the forefront of scientific investigation. The fact that humans and octopi show similar responses to MDMA provides hope to future research using other animals to elucidate further neural processes as well as how these drugs might offer benefit to patients with different neurological and psychiatric disorders. What’s next? Giving weed to giraffes to study vertigo? Adderall to squirrels to study ADHD? There has never been a more exciting time to be a neuroscientist… Edsinger, E. and Dölen, G. (2018) ‘A Conserved Role for Serotonergic Neurotransmission in Mediating Social Behavior in Octopus’, Current Biology. Cell Press, 28(19), pp. 3136-3142.e4. doi: 10.1016/J.CUB.2018.07.061. Name: Tim Lawn Current occupation: Neuroimaging PhD student Email:
My name is Kat and I have recently graduated from King's with a degree in Neuroscience. In my final year, I had to learn how to balance the responsibility of being the President of the Neuroscience Society, stay on top of my studies, and figure out how to write a dissertation for the first time. Below are some tips that have helped me to stay organised and achieve a high grade on my lab project. For a lot of students, starting research lab project is equally frightening and exciting. The dissertation you are required to write is different in content and style to anything you were asked to write in your degree. Below are some tips that I found helpful when writing my dissertation. Get in touch with your supervisor early. Once you are assigned your project, send your supervisor an email asking for a meeting before the start of the project. If they are unable to meet with you, ask for preliminary reading. Read publications related to your project (if available) before you start. Ideally, mark the parts you don’t understand and ask for clarification. There is no point in trying to appear smart/show off in front of someone who is an expert in that area. Regularly check in with your supervisor and always come prepared to the meetings. Always carry a small notebook with you, during meetings and lab work. Write down EVERYTHING. One thing that really helped me, was at the end of each day going over my notes, writing down the dates and exactly what was done for example (01.01.2021 Cut spleen samples, animal’s number X, Y and Z). Organise your study schedule around your work. If you have some space to do computer work in the lab building, work on your dissertation during the workday, in between lab work. I would advise to focus on your write up during the week, Monday-Friday and dedicate weekends to lecture revision and exam preparation. Together with your supervisor, come up with a write up plan. You only get one draft to submit. Ask your supervisor by when ideally, they would like to see your write up done. If possible, have your complete final draft done by the end of March, leaving April for exam revision (this is if your project is in Semester B, which is the case for Neuroscience students). Ask if you may practice your presentation in front of your supervisor or a colleague from the lab. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. If possible, attend lectures and conferences during your degree, bringing your scrap notebook with you to get an idea of what a project presentation looks like. Most importantly, be clear on what you are trying to achieve. Your project should tell a story. You should be able to explain what you did to a scientist in the same field, a colleague in your year and someone lacking science background. Do not worry if you don’t have the perfect results. Lab work can be tricky, and you have only three months to complete your project. Aim to carry out the lab work to the best of your abilities, but if you can’t produce results or your results don’t make sense, focus on explaining this in your discussion. The write up should show that you engage mindfully with the process, rather than simply going through the motions. Follow Kat on twitter @KasiaPlesniar
“There is no beautiful surface without a terrible depth. ” Perhaps one of Nietzche’s greater readings, the idea that in order to explore our own complexity, we must be willing to take a plunge into the unknown, confront the undesirable and find comfort in the unpleasant. For many, the art of meditation is a gateway to a peaceful state of mind, a vacation from the realities of life in order to uncover a higher form of realism. It is a process of training your mind to focus and redirect your thoughts. However, the reasons for meditation vary just as the methods of its practise. In this series we will be exploring what meditation means, it’s origin, the scientific mechanism, and the validity of its use therapeutically to treat mental health disorders. Alan Watts describes the practise of meditation as a technique to join our minds with reality. “Most civilised people are out of touch with reality because they confuse the world as it is, with the system of symbols we have about the world we have in our mind” Constellations are patterns of stars that we grouped to help navigate through the darkness, but do they “exist” ? Are the bright wonders that light up the night sky as mythological creatures, shapes, and animals a reflection of reality? Why does 1 hour have 60 minutes, and one minute, 60 seconds? Our perception of reality is quite unique, for it is a compilation of thoughts, ideals and experiences specific to each of us. We are constantly thinking, planning, observing and learning. Even in silence, there is an internal chattering of the mind. With the development of technology, we may struggle to keep up with the now fast-paced work culture, possibly beginning to sense a lack of meaning. A lack of being fully present in the moment. Have we been fully alive, in body and mind? Is there more to uncover about ourselves? Sanjay Raturi says that, “If you want to open your eyes, close them.” Perhaps the answers we seek can only be found once we have looked inwards and grasped a true awareness of our thoughts and emotions. Many pursue this conscious effort of self-exploration through meditation. A common problem with definitions is that they automatically assign objectivity to words and concepts. It is, therefore, important to note that meditation can loosely be associated with various different techniques from breathing exercises to Tai Chi. Perhaps, it would be wiser to define it as an individual’s journey to their “source”, rather than the actions that we associate it with. Just as the word “medication” is associated with a healthy body, “meditation” may just be the process of restoring our minds to a natural state of health, i.e. the “source”. We see ideas of self-growth and awareness implemented into many historical practises of meditation. In the classical language of Buddhism, meditation is referred to as “bhavana” which means mental development or “Dhyana” which means mental calmness. In Ancient China, work produced by Laozi, a Chinese philosopher, described meditation practises as, “ Bao Pu” translating to “embracing simplicity”, and “Shou Zhong”, which roughly means “guarding the middle”. Despite the diversity in its practise, its meaning extends equally as far as the unexplored depth carried within us. It is why this age-old tradition has been passed down from one generation to the next, being embraced by almost every culture/religion in the world. In understanding its origins, we can provide purpose to meditative practises and therefore gain the true benefits from them. Pinning down the origin of meditation is tough, because there is no way to prove that these ideas had not existed long before they were written. Some even speculate that signs of the practise date back to the Neanderthals themselves. But, like all historical sources, there is only so much we can gather before we introduce bias! The earliest documented source of meditation is from the Hindu tradition of Vendatism in India, dating back to 5000BC-3500BC. These were wall paintings of individuals sitting in a meditative position with their eye’s half opened; presumably a form of meditation. According to the Vedic texts dating back to 1500BC, the true purpose of meditation is to connect to your “deep inner self”. Humans, as stated by the Vedic texts, are composed of the physical body, the inner faculty (which includes your mind, intellect and ego), and the deep inner self: a pure, unchanging source of consciousness, that holds the natural laws and knowledge that governs the world. It was believed that through meditation you slowly move from the outer realm of the body into the deep inner self. Only once you have discovered the deep inner self can you overcome inner duality and unite yourself with a transcendental reality. This was the path to a life of peace and simplicity. Strongly associated with the Vedic practise was the Hindu practise “Yogi”, which was the practise of meditating in caves. Interestingly, modern day yoga is believed to have originated from this spiritual practise of self-liberation and discipline. Therefore, we can begin to see how these ancient practises are still in many ways present in the modern day. Vedic Text The most popular association to meditation is Buddhism, despite the image of the Buddha meditating on a lotus leaf appearing years later. The Buddha took techniques from traditional Hindu practises, including meditative techniques from the Yogi’s, to form the mindfulness technique satipatthana. This can be translated to mean : “to keep attention inside”. Unlike the Hindu traditions, this practise is not emerged in transcendental beliefs or worship, but in spiritual awakening and enlightenment. There is a strong focus on transforming the mind, through developing clarity, peace, and awareness. These ideas were believed to have been developed in 6th century BC, and over the centuries they have spread and diverged into different lineages across Asia. Other worthwhile practises that emerged around the same century include Taoism, an Ancient Chinese tradition that focused on uniting the self with the “Tao”, or cosmic energy, and Confucianism, which focused more on morality and community. As well as having a deep-rooted history in various Asian practises, we can also see the practise of meditation in almost every existing religion. Christian mystics practised their own form of mediation by repeating words of prayer, while Sufis (Islamic mystics) practised contemplation and gazing in order to connect with God. It seems that the history of meditation has relations to a broad range of cultures and religion. However, it is interesting to consider how these practises have been incorporated into our modern- day culture, particularly in the West. Ideas of meditation started spreading to the West in the 1700s, when Eastern philosophical texts had been translated into European languages. However, these ideas were mainly discussed amongst philosophical scholars such as Voltaire and Schopenhauer, not yet being known for its therapeutic benefits. It was only around the 1960s that meditation started to be seriously researched, but even then, it was a topic brushed off by mainstream scientific researchers. In 1967, a Harvard Medical School professor Dr Herbet Benson found that those who meditated could lower their heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature voluntarily, something which scientists at the time believed to be impossible. He found that Swami Rama, one of the first yogis to be studied, could produce alpha, beta, and delta brain waves on demand, and could even remain conscious of his environment while in deep sleep. While meditation research was slowly growing in the scientific world, it became a very popular part of the “hippie culture”, popularised by the Beatles who used transcendental meditation to cope with fame. By the 1990s, meditation became a well-known practise, with books such as Ageless Body, Timeless Mind by Deepak Chopra, selling over 137,000 copies and the Bill Moyers TV specials Healing of the mind becoming increasingly popular. It had become a “Hollywood friendly” scientifically approved practise, preserving its popularity within our modern-day culture. While meditation has lost most of its spiritual connotations in the West, it has become of great scientific interest amongst researchers, particularly those investigating mental health. The teachings from centuries past can no longer be rendered “superstition”, which is why understanding them may benefit our personal definition of meditation, and even help us to practise it. That way, we can begin to see past the reality built within in our minds and live within the present. As Lodro Rinzler said, “It is no longer your spiritual friend saying you should try meditation… it’s your doctor.” I hope you enjoyed reading this blog post on the origin of meditation! Feel free to comment below, or email me at : In the next post, in my Meditation series, I shall be discussing the scientific research surrounding meditation, and the possible effects it has on the brain.
Okay now this one can be pretty tough sometimes! We all love the occasional domino’s pizza or Nando’s! However try and not make fast food a habit. Remember healthy eating is not about cutting out food, but eating a balance. By doing this you can maintain a healthy weight and reduce health risks such as high cholesterol. It has also been shown to improve memory and alertness! Below are the benefits of a healthy diet, and tips on how to eat healthily 1. Maintaining a healthy weight An unbalanced diet can increase the incidence of obesity which is associated with chronic conditions such as cancer or heart disease A balanced diet free from processed foods contains a lot of plant-based products, usually rich in fibre. Fibre is known to help keep you fuller for longer. This is supported by a 2018 study that showed that a balanced diet containing fibre and protein leads to weight loss without using a calorie counter 2. Decreased risk of heart disease and stroke There is a long-standing association between coronary heart disease and trans fats. Trans fats is known to affect the balance between the two types of cholesterol in our bodies: Low-density lipoprotein: This is often categorised as “bad”, and can built up in your artery walls High-density lipoprotein: Known as “good” fat, picks up excess cholesterol, and returns it to the liver. Fat deposits in the arteries can rupture and cause a blood clot, potentially leading to cardiac arrest. Research has shown up to 80% of premature heart disease and stroke can be prevented by increasing levels of physical activity and maintaining a healthy diet. 3. Reduced cancer risk Obesity is the cause of 13 types of cancer, so maintaining a healthy lifestyle through a balanced diet and exercise is very important. A study in 2014 found that diets rich in fruits, vegetables and fiber lowered the risk of colorectal and liver cancer. Phytochemicals in fruits, vegetables and nuts can act as anti-oxidants, which can protect cells from cancer-induced damage 4. Stronger bones and teeth Most of our bone growth occurs in childhood and adolescence. Therefore it is important to maintain our bone density during and minimise bone loss during adulthood. A healthy diet containing the correct amounts of calcium and magnesium is important in strengthening our bones and teeth, preventing osteoporosis and osteoarthritis later on in life.