Saturday, May 17, 2014

No Amygdala No Fear


Headshot of psychologist Ralph Adolphs
So for the second consecutive year, I attended the Quinn Memorial Lecture at UBC. The talk was by Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Ralph Adolphs entitled “The Social Brain.” I was rather intrigued by the title and by the very fact that it was another opportunity to flex my brain muscles on the brain itself (self-reflexive or meta-learning, I suppose). For last year's "mental gymnastics," please click here.

Adolphs introduced his ideas by examining three ways we generally achieve knowledge. First, we get information from our physical environment. We learn about the world by observing what goes on around us and then draw our own conclusions. So this information is dependent upon social factors, and learning would occur by watching parents, teachers, friends and classmates.

The second form of knowledge is through our own minds. This may be linked to the first one, yet it is the specific ways of arranging and interpreting the input that makes it become knowledge that is unique to us. We do not process all the information around us, but rather what catches our eye or interest, and then we add our own spin and understanding to it. 

In other words, our brains are constantly active by creating links, background stories or filling the blanks to understand the reasons and motivations behind certain actions or situations. Imagine a piano falling from the sky (my own example). We immediately make assumptions on how and why this may have come about, perhaps negligence on the part of movers, frustration on the part of a composer or a young piano student, or maybe even an intended and premeditated (admittedly artistic) plan for murder.

The third way is the minds of others. At this point, I do not clearly remember what this part was about, but I am filling in my blanks and assume that it must have been about what others tell us or what we read in books about the world. So this is a type of filtered or “second-hand” knowledge based on observations of others that we can incorporate and assimilate for ourselves. Incidentally, all of these points were actually based on somebody else's ideas who was acknowledged in a small footnote by the slide, which my eyes could not fully make out, or I was simply too lazy to jot down.

So much preamble (though I believe interesting) to get to the main issue: the brain. Adolphs showed us a simple and brief clip, the Heider-Simmel demonstration from various years ago (1944 in fact!) depicting different geometric sizes and shapes moving around a square (or something along those lines). From it we immediately and automatically projected that the larger triangle was a bully trying to push around the other triangle and the circle, with both of the victims finally managing to escape leaving the aggressive triangle to its own devices. In fact, this bully ends up “punching” and breaking his abode in a fit of unchecked and uncontrolled anger. 

All of this feels like a kind of Rorschach test, but one that was clearly visible and comprehensive for those with “normal” brains since we tend to humanize things and intuitively create a background story by giving each of the shapes human motivations, reasons, and experiences.

Yet, in fact, patients with autism do not necessarily see it that way. They merely summarize the clip by saying that triangles and circles move around. There is no storyline behind the whole situation. They do not connect or color the incidents with everyday real life experiences as we tend to do. To those patients, these were only geometrical shapes moving about with no rhyme or reason. In a purely objective manner, they may be right as our storyline is nothing but a projection onto mere facts, namely random geometrical movements on a screen (more about this below).

There were other studies that examined people (and also animals) with lesions in their Amygdala and their reaction to general fear-inducing stimuli. In the case of one patient who was called SM, it appeared that she had no fear of snakes or frightening horror clips. In a similar way, chimpanzees with damage to their Amygdala did not perceive strangers as a threat, nor even as interesting. It seems that most of our fear is regulated by the Amygdala (although it is generally more complex than that as the brain cannot be mapped alongside specific regions but ought to be looked at as a connected and interactive network of different parts working simultaneously).

What I found quite interesting is that this is not merely a matter of a fight or flight response, but that it includes social phobia as well. So people with lesions in their Amygdala tend to have less social fear and inhibitions. SM, for example, fully aware of social conventions, would in real life situations disregard issues like personal space. In one experiment she would go up and be so up-close and personal that the experimenter felt uncomfortable, and then she even pinched his nose! Asked about personal space or whether this was the correct behavior in a given social situation, she showed complete rational awareness and understanding that such behavior is inappropriate.

We can conclude that without the Amygdala or with suppressed activity in this region, our fears may be reduced. Although fear is a necessary instinct for survival, it can also be redundant and counterproductive in social situations. How many of us see certain fears as disastrous when they are merely trifles and do not have serious tangible effects or consequences. For example, the most common social fear would be the fear of rejection and how many people have lost out on glorious opportunities for romance and job advancement due to it.

Speaking of which, I was keen on asking a couple of questions in the allotted question period at the end of the talk. Both of them were about the perception of reality of so-called “abnormal” brains. I was wondering whether their perception might not be more accurate than ours. In terms of those geometrical shapes, are we not superimposing our own experiences over the fact that they were nothing but shapes and lines moving randomly, as was the observation of the autistic person?

And secondly, is not most of our learning socially contingent? Are we not expected to give specific answers to certain situations? For example, an autistic person would feel confused over trivial questions like “Where do you live.” They would struggle with a clear answer because the answer may be Canada, the universe, planet Earth, Vancouver, a specific street or an exact address, a building complex or an apartment unit ad infinitum. So, in fact, this is a really complex question that we are socially programmed to answer only a certain way. But looking at it in a literal fashion, the question is rather ambiguous and confusing.

Now I had to overcome my own Aygdala activity to raise my hand and one of the two people with mikes finally saw me and walked in my direction. After I had finally conquered my (illogical and unreasonable) social fear and was about to pose my question, which I found both interesting and relevant, I was suddenly cut off by the organizer. He simply stated that the Q & A session was finished and that the Reception would now take place. I was devastated and angry and was not able to find an answer to my question. In fact, little after, I left the premises as I could not spot Adolphs anywhere to ask him in person.

This incident did color my perception of this talk and hued it in somewhat displeasing shades. It bothered me that I was not given the opportunity to ask my question. But somehow, to pacify this obsession of mine, my brain decided to recreate the same talk in my dream that same night. There the organizer came back after the reception and told us that they had an extra five minutes for more questions from the audience.

So I raised my hand and was called upon. I asked both of my questions and awaited the answer with eagerness. But it seems that my brain scolded me. Adolphs thought my questions of no relevance, even redundant and naive, and simply dismissed them without a clear response. 

Although disappointed with the outcome even in my dream state, I ended up getting some satisfaction of getting that off my chest. What the real answer to these questions are remains a mystery still, that is, unless Adolphs happens to read this and leaves me a comment here, or unless I have another dream, but this time around have my question answered.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Unlimited Skies: Escaping the Space-Time Prison

Bird standing on a wire fence


When people say that the sky's the limit, they implicitly agree that the space-time continuum has its constraints. You can reach for the moon and stars, but that is as far as you can possibly go. Many would be happy with that fact, but in reality, space restrains us from moving: Gravity grabs and binds our feet close to the ground, while time may seem eternal until we realize one day that it also comes with its own expiry date.

Our lives then are limited in both space and time. We are born at a certain place and end up buried or cremated somewhere else. The moment we breathe our first breath the stopwatch of our lives is ticking away towards its inevitable demise. We are trapped both in space and time, and there is no loophole, no escape. It is a one-way path that we need to travel alone, each within our own body and consciousness, each of us doomed to walk this road alone.

Our physical space is constrained. Although we can travel within it, we may move from one point to another, we are not free to be anywhere we wish. Certainly, the existence of more modern vehicles, such as cars, helicopters, jets and rockets have opened up a wider and speedier path of physical movement. With current technology we (or rather some of us) can travel beyond the sky and dance on the moon. But we cannot (at least for now) teleport ourselves from one location to another.

More importantly, we cannot be in two places at once. Our bodies need to fill up a specific space; they cannot exist without material space coordinates. And we are dependent upon our body's functioning. We may be limited in how we can move depending on our physical condition, for example, we may be walking at a snail or brisk pace. We may be bed-ridden or wheel-chair-bound, which would restrict our physical movements somewhat more.

Yet it seems that even though the body is firmly rooted in a location, our mental capacities may have more freedom to roam. This is our mental space. In thought, or some may call it spirit, we can transfer or imagine ourselves in another place. Although we may be in a confined space, our thoughts may have wings, as they say, and transport us to the far corners of the moon.

In fact, often depending on our own willingness, our mental space can be restricted or limitless. We may denounce such feats as idle play or see it as an opportunity to transcend our own physical limitations. We may see an alternate version of our lives and perhaps be inspired to strive towards this new vision. Put differently, our minds may be stuck in routine and self-defeating prophecies, or they may be fodder for hopes and dreams driving us towards change and improvement where not even the sky would be the limit.

It is that mental space that has given people in confined spaces the hope and willingness to not give up but to continue with their lives. A confined space may be a prison, a closed society in which lives are controlled scrupulously and basic freedoms are denied, an unhappy marriage, a joyless but necessary job, or perhaps a seemingly insurmountable medical condition. How people choose to react mentally will often define how they will proceed in each of these situations.

As a result, a confined space does not mean that we need to limit our own mental space. There are many stories of heroic patience and persistence that have led people to overcome immense suffering. For example, it was that mental space that was left untouched by Nelson Mandela's oppressors, and he held onto it for decades in his obscure prison cell. It is that hope from which the Dalai Lama gains sustenance in his daily struggle for freedom and independence. Such scenarios happen often on more mundane and smaller scales in our individual lives.

But it is not only space that can be defined in such a dichotomous way; the same view can be applied to time as well. Time, in fact, can be differentiated along the lines of perceived and measured time. Generally speaking, time functions as a measure, as a way of keeping track. Whether time exists on its own, independently as an entity, is highly debatable. Some physicists (like Julian Barbour) claim that time is an illusion, while others (like Lee Smolin) believe it to be real (whatever that means). Nonetheless, as an instrument to measure existence, it is very useful, to say the least.

Hence, time limits or brackets our existence. We have awareness that time is passing in seconds, years, lifetimes. It never stops. We never get younger. We never move back in time. It counts down up to our very end, but even after our death, it keeps ticking. We all agree to set our clocks, the same way we arrange Daylight Savings Time. We all know how long a minute or a year feels to us.

Yet we may also perceive time differently. When we are in a state of boredom, time seems to slow down. It is that endless meeting or the day at work or the queue at the cashier that seems to never end. However, seen in terms of time, it may only be a matter of minutes. But when we enjoy ourselves, time flies, we say. Hours, or even days may pass by as quickly as the wind. Our perception of time may influence or color our reaction to it. Our lives may be seen as an endless stream of pointless moments or as a fleeting moment of bliss.

But no matter how we may perceive time, it will tick away regardless. It is strange how when we are in the moment, we feel it lasts a long time, but when we suddenly look back, twenty or thirty years have passed, and it felt like yesterday when we were young. Whether we are consciously counting or not, time will always flow.

So indeed, we are existing as prisoners of time and space. There may be a time (!) when we are freed of our (physical) constraints in an afterlife, but for now we have to deal with our own limitations. The same way we cannot physically fly, we cannot outlive our own lives since they must come to an end eventually. That end may be another beginning. 

In the meantime, we may not be able to stop time or the sun from rising, but we can make good use of it and gather the rosebuds while we may, as Herricks poem “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time” fittingly summarizes our condition. Nonetheless, as long as we use our imagination and creativity, neither time nor space is going to limit us.