Tag Archives: consciousness

Movie review: The Discovery – Has science proved the afterlife?

This Robot Makes People Experience a Ghostly Presence

By via WIRED

This robot causes people to experience the illusory sensation of someone standing behind them. © Alain Herzog/EPFL

This robot causes people to experience the illusory sensation of someone standing behind them.
Image © Alain Herzog/EPFL

People who’ve stared death in the face and lived to tell about it—mountain climbers who’ve made a harrowing descent, say, or survivors of the World Trade Center attacks—sometimes report that just when their situation seemed impossible, a ghostly presence appeared. People with schizophrenia and certain types of neurological damage sometimes report similar experiences, which scientists call, aptly, “feeling of presence.”

Now a team of neuroscientists says it has identified a set of brain regions that seems to be involved in generating this illusion. Better yet, they’ve built a robot that can cause ordinary people to experience it in the lab.

The team was led by Olaf Blanke, a neurologist and neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Blanke has a long-standing interest in creepy illusions of bodily perception. Studying these bizarre phenomena, he says, could point to clues about the biology of mental illness and the mechanisms of human consciousness.

In 2006, for example, Blanke and colleagues published a paper in Nature that had one of the best titles you’ll ever see in a scientific journal: “Induction of an illusory shadow person.” In that study, they stimulated the brain of a young woman who was awaiting brain surgery for severe epilepsy. Surgeons had implanted electrodes on the surface of her brain to monitor her seizures, and when the researchers passed a mild current through the electrodes, stimulating a small region at the intersection of the temporal and parietal lobes of her brain, she experienced what she described as a shadowy presence lurking nearby, mimicking her own posture.

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Hypnosis: Altered States – Crash Course Psychology #10

Via CrashCourse @ YouTube

You may think you know all about hypnosis from the movies. Zoolander, The Manchurian Candidate, etc… but there’s a whole lot more going on. In this episode of Crash Course Psychology, Hank tells us about some of the many altered states of consciousness, including hypnosis.

Can Thinking Change Reality

Story H/T: @ Skeptic Wars

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

I love the documentary series, The Day the Universe Changed, by James Burke. It’s a follow up to his equally good, Connections (I know, they have their criticisms, but overall they are very good). The former title is a metaphor – when our collective model of reality changes, for us the universe does change. When we believed the earth was motionless at the center of the universe, that was our reality.

James Burke The Day the Universe Changed

James Burke
The Day the Universe Changed

But Burke was not arguing that the nature of the universe actually changed, just our conception of it. Thinking alone cannot directly change external reality. That is magical thinking.

Such thinking, however, lies at the center of much new age spiritual claims. The secret of The Secret is that you can change your world by wishing. Proponents of such ideas are desperate for scientific validation of their basic premise. Such evidence does not exist. In fact over a century of such research shows rather conclusively that there is no such effect in operation in our world to any significant degree.

A recent article claiming that there is such evidence has been making the social media rounds – 10 Scientific Studies That Prove Consciousness Can Alter Our Physical Material World. After some flowery Eastern mysticism, and rather gratuitously abusing the memory of Nikola Tesla, the author gives a quick summary of what they believe to be ten lines of evidence supporting the notion that consciousness can alter physical reality. It would take a full-length post to debunk each of these ten claims adequately. I am only going to give an equally quick summary here, but will link to longer articles when possible.

1 – Quantum Double Slit Experiment

Double-slit experiment, artworkYou knew this had to be on the list. The claim is that the classic double slit experiments prove that consciousness affects reality at a fundamental level. Light (or other elementary particles, and even small atoms) traveling through one slit will shine as a blob on the other side, as if the particles of light were all piling up after the slit. If two adjacent thin slits are open, however, then we don’t see two blobs but rather an interference pattern, as if the light were traveling like water waves and interfering with each other as they traveled through the slits. This is the core experiment that demonstrates the wave-particle duality of light – it travels like a wave but then interacts like a particle.

These experiments are often distorted into the claim that the experimenter has to be watching, that their consciousness affects the outcome. This is simply not true, however. All that is required is a detector, which physically interacts with the particles. “Detecting” forces the wave function to collapse into a particle. I discuss this further here.

2. Government Sponsored Psychokinesis Experiments

The claim is that government experiments demonstrated the ability to bend spoons and forks with the mind. The links provided as references, however, do not establish such claims. This, of course, is a theme of the article, providing links that give the appearance of evidence, even though they do not establish the claims being referenced.

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ALSO SEE: NeuroLogica Blog » Can Thinking Change Reality Part II.

Strange New State of Consciousness Could Exist, Researcher Says

By Bahar Gholipour via LiveScience

With anesthetics properly given, very few patients wake up during surgery. However, new findings point to the possibility of a state of mind in which a patient is neither fully conscious nor unconscious, experts say.

This possible third state of consciousness, may be a state in which patients can respond to a command, but are not disturbed by pain or the surgery, according to Dr. Jaideep Pandit, anesthetist at St John’s College in England, who discussed the idea today (Sept. 19) at The Annual Congress of the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland.

Pandit dubbed this state dysanaesthesia, and said the evidence that it exists comes partly from a recent study, in which 34 surgical patients were anesthetized, and had their whole body paralyzed except for their forearm, allowing them to move their fingers in response to commands or to signify if they are awake or in pain during surgery.

One-third of patients in the study moved their finger if they were asked to, even though they were under what seemed to be adequate anesthesia, according to the study led by Dr. Ian F. Russell, of Hull Royal Infirmary in England, and published Sept. 12 in the journal Anaesthesia.

“What’s more remarkable is that they only move their fingers if they are asked. None of the patients spontaneously responded to the surgery. They are presumably not in pain,” said Pandit, who wrote an editorial about the study.

Normally, while patients are under anesthesia, doctors continuously monitor them, and administer anesthetic drugs as needed. The goal is to ensure the patient has received adequate medication to remain deeply unconscious during surgery. However, it is debated how reliable the technologies used during surgery to “measure” unconsciousness are.

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10 Ways Magic Tricks Your Brain

By Scott Hillard via Listverse

We all like magic and more importantly we all like to think we can work out magic tricks if we really want to. But as it turns out, even a simple card trick utilizes neuro-scientific principles to trick our brain in ways that we usually can’t consciously control. So what exactly is wrong with our brain? Well nothing really, but years of evolution has left it with traits that leave it wide open to be duped by magic. For example . . .

10 • Focus

sleight-of-hand-magician_200pxMulti tasking is a myth, the human brain simply wasn’t designed to focus on two things at once and magicians take full advantage. Our attention is pulled to one thing in particular due to the ‘moving-spotlight‘ theory. In short, the theory says that our attention is like a spotlight, highlighting one thing while leaving what surrounds it in the dark. When an item or action is within the spotlight the parts of the brain involved in processing it work more efficiently, but anything beyond the spotlight is barely processed at all, at least not by our conscious mind. This allows magicians to pull a sleight of hand right under our noses, as long as something else is drawing our spotlight what happens beyond it, to our brain isn’t happening at all.

9 • Made Up Memories

Screen-Shot-2013-06-17-at-10.21.28-AM_200pxThe ‘misinformation effect’ occurs when information we are given after an event alters our memory of it. For example, a magician asks you to choose a card from the left side of the deck and return it without telling him. Before the razzle-dazzle where he guesses your card he may say something like ‘Now you chose any card you wanted, correct?’ And in the heat of the moment you will say you did. The truth is you were only given the option of the left side of the deck, but the ambiguous comments from the magician alters how you remember the trick, leaving you with a false memory making the trick seem perhaps more incredible than it was.

8 • Predicted Wrong Future

future-ahead_200pxWhen you see a ball get thrown in the air, it comes back down. You’ve a seen it a million times. You know that what comes up must come down and so does your brain. In fact because of something called the ‘Memory-prediction framework’ our brain sometimes remembers certain actions so well, it stops paying close attention because it predicts how they will end. When a ball gets thrown in the air our brain instantaneously recalls memories of similar events and produces an idea of what’s going to happen next, but sometimes it’s wrong. When a magician puts a ball in a cup only to have it disappear when the cup is lifted, we are shocked because what our brain predicted didn’t come true. Our brains often feed us a prediction and convinces us we saw it happen, which leaves us even more shocked when the predicted action didn’t happen at all.

7 • Free Will

free-will_200pxWhen we ‘pick a card, any card’ we are very rarely picking at random, no matter what it seems. It is usually the magician choosing for us, only without our knowledge. In many card tricks the card we apparently choose is ‘forced’ meaning the magician did something, mental or physical, to make us choose exactly what they wanted us to. But our brain will often over look or deny this as an option, in favor of free choice. Our brain simply does not want to believe it was forced and will often omit facts that may indicate that it was, instead jumping fully into the false idea that all choices were all our own.

6 • Filling in The Blanks

Wayne-Alan-magic-show-lady-saw-in-half_200pxThe ‘woman sawed in half trick’ is old enough that most people know the secret. The head we see in one end of the box doesn’t belong to the legs we see at the other. But our brain insists and assumes it does, why? Because our brain is a sucker for continuity. When it sees a head in rough alignment with a set of legs it uses past experience to fill in the blank and tell us that obviously a torso exists between those two body parts. In many magic tricks an object is partially covered, and our brain uses what it CAN see to continue the image and fill in the blank, of course that is exactly what the magician wants.

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A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind

brains gears_600px
by via Science-Based Medicine

In his first book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Wrong, neurologist Robert Burton showed that our certainty that we are right has nothing to do with how right we are. He explained how brain mechanisms can make us feel even more confident about false beliefs than about true ones. Now, in a new book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves, he investigates the larger question of how a brain creates a mind. There is no alternative to the scientific method for studying the physical world, but Burton thinks there are essential limitations to science’s ability to investigate conundrums like consciousness and free will. Brain scientists fall into error because:

…our brains possess involuntary mechanisms that make unbiased thought impossible yet create the illusion that we are rational creatures capable of fully understanding the mind created by these same mechanisms.

He has a bone to pick with neuroscientists. They are discovering fascinating information, but their interpretations often go beyond what the data can really tell us. They often draw questionable conclusions from imaging studies that could have other explanations.

understanding-the-brain 02_200pxThere is a lot going on in our brains that we’re not aware of.  Subconscious brain mechanisms are like a gigantic committee. Everything from your DNA to your past experiences to your political leanings to your emotions is given a vote, and only the result is passed on to your conscious awareness. If all the raw input to the committee were accessible to consciousness, it would be too much information and would hopelessly impair our ability to act. For the mind to function, mental sensations have to override contradictory evidence to create certainty and motivation.

The brain tries to make our experiences meaningful by tricks like re-ordering the temporal sequence of events. When the batter swings, he thinks he is seeing the ball and then reacting; but he initiates his swing before he could possibly be consciously aware of the ball’s trajectory.

Our minds are not truly individual and independent.

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Your Sixth Sense

Perhaps you’ve lived this moment before. Perhaps you’re seeing yourself at a distance, as never before. Anomalous experiences are real and life-changing. That doesn’t mean they occur outside your own head.


By Matthew Hutson via Psychology Today

Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ve felt someone staring at you. Maybe you were at the grocery store.looking-back-over-my-shoulder_300px Maybe walking along the sidewalk. Maybe sitting on a bus. And sure enough, when you turned your head to look, the suspect’s eyes met yours.

You just had an anomalous experience.

The job of the conscious mind is to form a story out of all our sensations and reflections. Life as we experience it is not just a series of unconnected thoughts and events; it’s a coherent narrative unfolding in an orderly universe. But sometimes we have experiences that don’t fit our expectations and may even contradict what science has taught us is possible. In our attempts to accommodate such outlier phenomena, we often turn to unproven forces or entities. We start to believe in the paranormal.

Anomalous experience of this sort ranges from sensing a strange vibe in a room to feeling outside your own body. We often explain such experiences using concepts related to spirits, luck, witchcraft, psychic powers, life energy, or more terrestrial (and extraterrestrial) entities. Such explanations are often more appealing, or at least more intuitive, than blaming an odd experience on a trick of the mind.

astralt_250pxOne of the most common anomalous experiences is the sense of being stared at. When you see someone gazing directly at you, emotions become activated—it can be exciting or comforting or creepy—and this visceral charge can give the impression that gazes transfer energy. Further, if you feel uncomfortable and check to see whether someone is looking at you, your movement may draw attention—confirming your suspicions.

Another common experience is déjà vu, a phenomenon two in three people report. Most of us shrug it off as a mental hiccup. Indeed, researchers propose it’s a sense of familiarity without a recollection of why something is familiar, or perhaps a timing issue in the brain where thoughts are experienced twice because of a slight wiring delay, lending the second occurrence an odd sensation of repetition. But some people believe it’s a glimpse into a past life.

While anomalous experiences may be associated with stressful circumstances, personal pathologies, or cognitive deficits, the experiences themselves may not always be so bad, and may actually be healthy inventions. They’re just our attempts to make sense of a weird situation. After all, there’s nothing the mind likes better than a good story.

Meaningful Coincidences

photoalbum_250pxAlex and Donna Voutsinas were leafing through family photo albums a week before their wedding in 2002 when one picture caught Alex’s eye. In the foreground was Donna, five years old, posing at Disney World with one of the Seven Dwarves. Behind them was Alex’s father pushing a stroller. And in the stroller was Alex. The boy’s family was visiting from Canada, and the two children would not meet until 15 years later. When he saw the photo, Alex said, “I got chills. It was just too much of a coincidence. It was fate.”

Nearly anyone would get chills in such a situation, but it takes a lot less—hearing the same new word twice in an hour, meeting someone who shares our birthday—to make us pause and say, “Well, how about that!” Such moments occur when we spot patterns, an ability (and compulsion) built into the brain from the earliest stages of perception. Pattern-finding lets us make sense of sensory input (those four legs are part of a table) and to predict regularities in our environment (apples fall down, not up; they’re often tasty; and throwing them makes people mad).

Pattern-finding is so central to survival and success that we see patterns everywhere, even in random data—a phenomenon called apophenia. We spot faces in clouds and hear messages in records played backward. And while we expect some level of order in the world, on occasion our pattern-spotting gets away from us and makes a connection we wouldn’t expect. When that happens, we demand, at least subconsciously, an explanation.

It turns out that our favorite kinds of explanations involve “agents”—beings capable of intentional action. The agent could be a person, a god, or a superintelligent robot. We’re biased to blame even simple events on agents—spotting them or their footprints allows us to manage them if they are dangerous: It is better to mistake a twig for a snake than to mistake a snake for a twig.

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The Brain Retroactively Edits Consciousness

The brain apparently edits a person’s conscious experience retroactively.

via LiveScience

Brain The 03_350pxUp to a half-second after an object disappears from view, the brain can “edit” the experience to retain that object, a new study from France shows. The finding may partly explain the weird feeling of being able to recall something you heard even when you don’t consciously remember hearing it.

The finding also contradicts the notion that the brain sequentially takes in sensory information, processes it and then consciously experiences it, said Tufts University cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, whose books include “Consciousness Explained.”

“You have to get away from the idea that consciousness is like a movie that’s playing in your head and that once the processing is done happening then you’ve got this finished movie that you see.” Dennett told LiveScience. “The editing can go on and on.” [The 10 Greatest Mysteries of the Mind]

The results were published online Dec. 13 in the journal Current Biology.

Strange perception

CONSCIOUSNESS 1239_200pxIntuitively, people think of a linear progression from seeing or hearing something to consciously noticing it. But consciousness and perception may be more of a two-way street, said study author Claire Sergent, a cognitive scientist at Paris Descartes University.

To understand how visual consciousness works, Sergent and her team conducted trials involving 18 students. The participants were shown groups of lines appearing in a circle on either the right or the left side of the screen before they disappeared.

Sometimes the lines were too faint to consciously notice, while other times they were very obvious.

In some of the trials where the lines were very faint, the researchers drew participants’ attention to the spot where the lines had been by briefly dimming the circle — creating more contrast between the circle and the background. That “cueing of attention” happened up to a half-second after the lines disappeared.

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Temporal Binding

via NeuroLogica Blog

brainSkeptics should add another term to their lexicon of self-deception and cognitive biases – temporal binding.

Over the last half-century or so psychologists have been quietly documenting many various ways in which people deceive themselves and distort their thinking. This knowledge, however, has insufficiently penetrated the public consciousness. When it does it is mostly framed as, “isn’t that an interesting quirk of the human mind,” but the deeper lesson, that we cannot trust our own perception and memory, is rarely brought home.

Skeptics have taken modern neuroscience to heart. Our philosophy incorporates what I call “neuropsychological humility” – the basic recognition that our brains are subject to a host of flaws and biases, and therefore we cannot simply rely upon what we remember about what we thought we experienced. Rather, we need to rely upon a rational process and objective evidence as much as possible (part of this is relying on rigorous science to form our empirical conclusions). These flaws and biases are not confined to parlor tricks, contrived psychological experiments, and sitting in the audience of a magic show, but apply in everyday life.

Temporal binding is one tiny slice of the cognitive biases that form our everyday thinking. The overarching concept is that our memories are not passive recorders, nor are they primarily focused on the accurate recall of details. We do have a memory for details, but we also have a thematic memory, which seems to predominate. The thematic memory remembers the meaning of events, and then details are altered to fit this meaning. We construct a narrative and then over time our memory increasingly fits that narrative. This is not a conscious or deliberate process – our memories just morph over time. We are not aware of this process, nor can we distinguish an accurate memory from one that has morphed completely out of alignment with reality. They are both just memories.

Temporal binding is one manifestation of this general phenomenon, and is related to the logical fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc – after this therefore because of this. We tend to assume that if A precedes B then it is likely that A caused B. The logical fallacy is in assuming that A did in fact cause B without adequate independent evidence, merely because of the temporal association.

It seems that we evolved to make this assumption. Often A precedes B because it did cause it, and apparently there is a survival advantage to assuming that A probably did cause B, rather than being skeptical of this fact.

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Automatic writing (trance writing)

via The Skeptic’s Dictionary

Automatic writing is writing allegedly directed by a spirit or by the unconscious mind. It is sometimes called “trance” writing because it is done quickly and without judgment, writing whatever comes to mind, “without consciousness,” as if in a trance. It is believed that this allows one to tap into the subconscious mind, where “the true self” dwells. Uninhibited by the conscious mind, deep and mystical thoughts can be accessed. Trance writing is also used by some psychotherapists who think it is a quick way to release repressed memories. There is no scientific evidence that trance writing has any unique therapeutic value.

Advocates of automatic writing claim that the process allows them to access other intelligences and entities for information and guidance. They further claim that it permits them to recall previously irretrievable data from the subconscious mind and to unleash spiritual energy for personal growth and revelation. According to psychic Ellie Crystal, entities from beyond are constantly trying to communicate with us. Apparently, we all have the potential to be as clairaudient as James Van Praagh and John Edward.

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Proof of Heaven?

by via NeuroLogica Blog

In an article for Newsweek, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander recounts his near death experience during a coma from bacterial meningitis. This is sure to become a staple of the NDE/afterlife community, as Alexander recounts in articulate and breathless terms his profound experience. His book is called, Proof of Heaven – a bold claim for someone who insists he is and remains a scientist.

Alexander claims:

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.

While his experience is certainly interesting, his entire premise is flimsily based on a single word in the above paragraph – “while.” He assumes that the experiences he remembers after waking from the coma occurred while his cortex was completely inactive. He does not even seem aware of the fact that he is making that assumption or that it is the central premise of his claim, as he does not address it in his article.

Of course his brain did not go instantly from completely inactive to normal or near normal waking consciousness. That transition must have taken at least hours, if not a day or more. During that time his neurological exam would not have changed significantly, if at all. The coma exam looks mainly at basic brainstem function and reflexes, and can only dimly examine cortical function (through response to pain) and cannot examine higher cortical functions at all. His recovery would have become apparent, then, when his brain recovered sufficiently for him to show signs of consciousness.

Alexander claims there is no scientific explanation for his experiences, but I just gave one. They occurred while his brain function was either on the way down or on the way back up, or both, not while there was little to no brain activity. During this time he would have been in an altered state of consciousness, with different parts of his cortex functioning to different degrees. This state is analogous to certain drug-induced mental states, or those induced by hypoxia and well documented, and there is even some overlap with the normal dream state. All of these are states in which the brain’s construction of reality is significantly different from the normal waking state.

Documented features of these altered states (and features commonly experienced by everyone during dreams) include a sense of oneness with the universe, a sense of the profound, of being in the presence of a godlike figure, and of automatic knowledge with absolute certainty. The latter is not uncommon during dreams – you just know things in your dreams that were not communicated or directly observed, and you have no doubt about that knowledge.

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Also see: Victor Stenger: Not Dead Experiences (NDEs).

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