Thursday, May 20, 2010

DARPA Interested in Brain Implants... BEWARE!

There are a couple of good articles that have come out recently that I both LOVE and FEAR! I have placed their URLs at the end of this commentary.
Basically, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is looking to sponsor research into using implants to help victims (war victims) of brain trauma heal! If indeed this is truly their endgoal, then I am all for it... If a part of the brain was traumatized and no longer works and is dormant, the promise for the future is that a brain implant can help resurrect that part of the brain through artificial stimulation. Remember that neurons are like muscles... If you don't use them, you lose them. So by artificially stimulating neurons that were damaged, it essentially jump starts their recovery and helps re-strengthen their previous programming. For example, let's say the specific neural net that was damaged was the network that recognizes the letters S and number 8 when read in from the optic nerves. A person with damage to that net may no longer be able to recognize those digits. However, by artificially stimulating that network, disrupted connections can regrow and reconnect according the previous network program. And in theory, heal the trauma and restore the victim's ability to recognize the letter S and the number 8. This is fantastic! This is great and I am all for it... However, their can be a darker side to all this....
Now imagine we have a soldier who is a victim of brain trauma that comes in for brain implant therapy. Well, of course, the VA hospital inserts a brain implant that helps recover the brain trauma, but while they are already with the skull opened up, let's say they also implant a couple of additional probes that stimulate other neural nets in the victim's brain. Which neural nets specifically would the military be interested in controlling???? I could name dozens, but let me name just a few to give you a taste....
1. The neural nets that process pain. This would allow the soldier to fight on even when he would normally be in excruciating pain. Great!!! A good way to make heros out of our soldiers!
2. The neural nets that process fear. Hmmmm... imagine being able to turn off a soldier's fear in the battlefield by the flip of a switch! That could be very advantageous to the military! OR if they do NOT want to a soldier to CHARGE up the hill at a certain point in time... they flip the fear switch ON and the soldier then decides to NOT charge simply out of fear.
3. The neural nets that process other emotions. We all know that emotions have a way of ramping up adrenaline and that could help in the battlefield... OR specifically, they could target those nets that control the natural release of adrenaline.
4. The neural nets that give the soldier a feeling of loyalty or "duty". Already, this programming takes place in bootcamp. It is just not done at the neural level. But imagine if it could be done! It would mean fewer soldiers going AWOL. It would mean soldiers who better follow orders...ANY ORDER!
5. The neural nets that control certain motor functions like targeting and shooting. If that could be sped up through artificial means, that would be very advantageous to the military. Soldiers with the ability to target and shoot their victims as fast as machines do.
6. The neural nets that are used for location sensing. While Luke Skywalker used the force to know where to go to find his enemy, imagine a soldier being guided remotely through feelings of where to turn and where to walk to. Our future soldiers may use another "force" to find their enemies.
7. The neural nets associated with any type of specific training. At night, while dreaming, networks associated with a certain military goal can be trained. Then, at the will of the controller, these networks can be activated during the daytime thus giving the soldier the desire or the impulse to accomplish the trained goal. What if the goal was to do something that the soldier would never do. However, with the programming done by the implant, what was once considered impossible in the realm of expected behavior can now be possible. This is a way to override the soldier's personal programming.

Soldiers of the future (I feel for them) will surely be the Guinea Pigs for this type of development. However, once perfected, the next step would be to use implants for the common folks. Now you see why this type of research makes me FEAR! Hmmmm... perhaps I need an implant to fix that fear!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hypnosis - a Double Edged Sword!

I have been interested in Hypnosis for a long time. However, I have come to realize that it can be both an effective tool in leading us down the path of scientific discovery of the brain as well as a tool that can lead us on a wild goose chase. The problem is determining at any point in time, which path are we on.

A few years back, my wife and I met a hypnotist at a Las Vegas show. He was sitting in the table next to ours and due to my habit of opening up conversations with complete strangers, we soon were chatting away. Of course, when he told us his profession, I had to dig deeper. Sure enough, the next night, my wife and I ended up at his hotel room for a hypnosis session. I had never been hypnotized and wanted to know if it is something real or not.

My friend first told me that me being an engineer would make it harder for me to end up in a hypnotic state. He explained that people that are logic oriented do not hypnotize well. I did not know if that was a "way out" for him should he fail, or if indeed it is true. But it does make sense to me that scientists, engineers, and mathematicians all would be more resistant to letting another person enter their private mind. Let me explain why I feel this way...

You might read my previous post to better understand the role of the Frontal Cortex (what I refer to as the "Good Sense Filter") of our brain. It's role is to filter out any subconscious ideas or solutions or decisions that do not make sense for our own good. This prevents us on acting on a stupid idea. The "Good Sense Filter" is the barrier between the conscious and the subconscious. Scientists, engineers, and mathematicians are very rule-based people and thus more "black and white" than grey. I would expect that they are generally less creative and as a result have very strong "Good Sense" filters that weed out more solutions or ideas that are nonsensical than the average Joe or Jane. I believe that in addition to the strongly pre-filtering of all ideas and solutions on the output, their "Good Sense Filters" also strongly resist relaxing itself enough for a hypnotist to enter into the subconscious. In a sense this "Good Sense Filter" is there to protect the conscious from the subconscious and the subconscious from the conscious.

Well, in reality, my own post-analysis of my hypnosis is that I do not believe I was truly hypnotized. If I was to any degree it was very shallow. If the results were more fantastic, I might think differently, but in reality, the session was very boring. Of course, this just matches what my wife says of me too!

However, let's imagine that instead of me being an engineer, let's image I was an artist. How would my hypnosis session have turned out? I believe that artists in general have weaker "Good Sense Filters" (aka Frontal Cortices) than most everybody. It explains their creativity (please read the my last posting to understand why). So an artist would have no problem in allowing his Frontal Cortex to go "offline" during a hypnosis session. Once the Frontal Cortex is offline, then essentially the hypnotist has free access to the subconscious. This allows the hypnotist to access recorded memories of the past even those that the Frontal Cortex may have programmed itself to ignore (aka "forget"). This is where the true value of hypnosis is... in accessing memories that have been suppressed (by the Frontal Cortex).

There is though a possibility that what is accessed is not really a memory at all. There is the possibility that what is thought to be memory is in reality a fantasy. To understand this, we need to remember of another time the Frontal Cortex is taken offline and what happens as a result...during dreaming! Remember that when we sleep at night, our Frontal Cortex goes offline as a pre-requisite to REM dreaming. Without the Frontal Cortex active, our dreams (or thoughts) at night appear to be random (however, I believe they are pseudo-random and I will discuss this in a later blog). And we dream of things without any control whatsoever. We dream of things that have occurred in the past and of things that never have occurred (aka fantasies). We even dream of things that can NEVER occur such as flying in the air (my favorite dreams). These are all thoughts and stories that play out in our mind at night when our Frontal Cortex is not active to suppress them or filter them from our conscious thought. What concerns me about hypnosis is that it can just as easily reproduce these fantasies we have when we dream as well as access true memories from the past. And how does the hypnotist know what is fantasy and what is reality? Of course, if the "memories" that are accessed are of a nature so bizarre as to be impossible, then we can conclude it is fantasy. But what of the fantasies that are more plausible? Indeed these can be concluded as true memories instead of fantasies.

Unfortunately, in hypnosis sessions, the hypnotist most often asks the person to "imagine" floating in a cloud, or "imagine" sitting in an empty room with multiple doors, or "imagine" something else in order to relax the person into the hypnotic state. In other words, to get the person into the hypnotic state, he is asked to begin the process of fantasizing. At what point then does the fantasizing stop and the recalling of true memory begin?

Another problem with hypnosis is in the way our brains organize memories. Our memories are not stored in time sequential order or in some easily addressable fashion as a computer memory is. Instead, our memories are stored and linked to in an ASSOCIATIVE fashion. So let's imagine I have a memory of myself in school learning advanced physics. The memory of myself in the classroom will be associated with my memories and conceptual learning of the advanced physics itself. These in turn may have an associative link to a section of my mind that remembers a TV show I saw on the possible physics involved in Extra Terrestrial aircraft. This in turn has an associative link to the stories I saw of Extra Terrestrial kidnappings on the X-Files. While in a dream state, I don't care what is reality and what is not... But what I am sure does happen in dreams is that associative links between memories are followed. And this makes sense from a neural perspective. As certain neural nets are activated as part of a dream, the axonal connected neural nets naturally get activated as well. And then a chain reaction of associated memory link activations happen and that in itself plays out in our mind like a story. If I were dreaming it may start with my physics class but it may end up with my being kidnapped by aliens all thanks to the chain reaction activation of associative links in my brain. Now, if this can happen in a dream, can in not also happen in a hypnosis session?

Now please do not think I am bashing Hypnosis or trying to discredit it. I honestly think that it is a valid science and should be pursued and studied. But I also think the output of hypnosis needs to be carefully studied and the possibility of that output being fantasy as opposed to real memories needs to always be considered.

And then... there are studies of people who have through hypnosis spoken languages that were never known or learned by the person. Reality or Fantasy??? These are definitely outliers and VERY INTERESTING! Fantasy cannot explain them. Reality cannot explain them either. So something else is going on that explains these cases... And maybe this can be discussed in a future blog.


Friday, May 7, 2010

Tapping Into Our Own Creativity Neurologically!

I am so excited... I just purchased a course from The Teaching Company (, titled "Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, 2nd Edition" on DVD. It should arrive within a week. When I read the course description online, I salivated all over my keyboard. (Pavlov surely is spinning in his grave!) What interested me so much about the course is their discussion on the Frontal Cortex! Yeah, I hear you thinking.... BORING!!! Maybe.... but I will save judgement till after I see the course.
You see, the Frontal Cortex is the section of the brain that I knew had to exist but I did not know what I thought existed really existed.... Does that make any sense??? Let me explain before you quickly hit the Back button and go back to searching for what you were surfing for...

About a couple of years ago, I came to the conclusion that there had to be a part of the brain that is the "GOOD SENSE FILTER"! Think about it with this example...
Let's say that I am speeding down the road (my typical 70mph in a 35mph zone) and a cop has tagged me with his radar and is now on my tail flashing his lights and requesting that I pull over. WHAT DO I DO??? BIG DECISION!
A. I pull over and humbly acknowledge my guilt.
B. I pull over and come up with a tall tale of how I am rushing off to an emergency of some kind.
C. I ignore his request to pull over and just keep driving as if I never saw him.
D. I speed up and try to lose him.
E. I slam on the brakes and hope that he slams into the back of me... then I sue his ass for tailgating!
F. I pull over and pull out my .45 caliber and pump some slugs into the copper.
G. I roll down my window and try my luck at firing a few slugs at him while I drive.
H. I go on a rampage and run over every pedestrian I come across just to really make things worse.
I. I put my .45 caliber to my own head and pull the trigger.
Now you are probably thinking that I am out of mind for even considering options F - I. Why? Because you (nor I in reality) would ever consider those options. However, apart from you and I, there exist some people (very few) who would consider options F - I. And I know there are some people (slightly more) that would consider options C - E. And there are even more people that would consider option B. NOW THE $64K QUESTION.... WHY??? Why would some people consider some or all of the options and yet others would never consider most of them....

I believe it is because we all have a part of our brain that is responsible for filtering out options that it feels would NOT work or would not help us achieve what we want... Happiness, or Security or whatever our prime motivation is. For lack of knowledge of a technical name, I will call this part of the brain the "GOOD SENSE FILTER". When this decision is put to the brain to consider, I believe that our brain weighs out the pros and cons of many options including options like those I listed above. However, before a decision is made, all the options are first brought to the "GOOD SENSE FILTER" which then uses it's knowledge base and experience base to toss out those options that violate our "GOOD SENSE". That is why when I am faced with the decision of what to do when the cop is asking me to pull over, the only options that I would consider would maybe be A or B. The other options were considered in my subconscious but since they were weeded out by the "GOOD SENSE FILTER" they never appeared in my conscious thought! Hallelujah for the "GOOD SENSE FILTER"!!! Without it, I would surely be behind bars! And I honestly believe that it is the reason many people are behind bars!

From what I read in the course material that I purchased, I now believe this "GOOD SENSE FILTER" is none other than the Frontal Cortex! Here is what the course description says about the Frontal Cortex....

Insight into Yourself and Others

As you work through this thought-provoking and engaging material, you will learn much about your own behavior, not to mention that of others. One particularly intriguing region of the brain relating to behavior is the frontal cortex, which plays a central role in decision-making, gratification postponement, and other important functions. The frontal cortex is the part of the brain that "makes you do the harder thing," whether it is concentrating on an unwelcome task, keeping anger under control, or telling a white lie about a spouse's new haircut. Consider these cases:

  • What happens when there is essentially no frontal cortex?: Railroad worker Phineas Gage suffered a massive frontal cortical lesion in a serious accident in the 1840s. Overnight, he changed from a sober, conscientious worker to a profane, aggressive, socially inappropriate man who could never regularly work again. The loss of his frontal cortex meant he lost his emotional regulation; he had no means to do the "harder thing."
  • What happens when the frontal cortex is "offline"?: During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the frontal cortex goes offline, which explains why dreams are often wild and unrepressed—why dreams are dreamlike. People don't dream about balancing a checkbook. They dream about dancing in musicals or floating in the air.
  • What happens when the frontal cortex is immature?: One of the great myths is that the brain is completely wired up and matured at a very early stage. However, the frontal cortex is not fully functional until an individual is about a quarter-century old—a fact that explains a lot of fraternity behavior, notes Professor Sapolsky. With this in mind, it's worth asking if a 16-year-old violent criminal is not, by definition, organically impaired in frontal cortical function.
WOW!!! Now doesn't this make you salivate too????

Now, here is some more theorizing on my part about this Frontal Cortex... This "GOOD SENSE FILTER" is obviously very important in our lives as it helps us make good decisions. However, I believe that it also LIMITS OUR THINKING! It limits our CREATIVITY! What is the difference between a "Creative" person and a "non-Creative" person besides the letters "non-"??? It is simply that a CREATIVE person does NOT filter out as many options for decisions or solutions that a non-creative person filters out. I believe that everybody in their subconscious comes up with many many solutions to our daily problems, but the CREATIVE person simply is the person whose "GOOD SENSE FILTER" is not as strong a filterer. NOW, before you egg heads say there is more to it than this... I agree with you... I also believe that there are many other factors such as the interconnectedness of the different parts of the brain that give rise to multi-disciplinary solutions. Another factor is simply experience and another is conceptual intelligence. BUT if we had a pair of twins with all of these other factors being equal, the person with the least filtering from the "GOOD SENSE FILTER" will end up coming up with more "creative" options to any problem.

I took a college course in Creative Thinking back in graduate school. It was the only truly FUN course I took. There was much advice as to how to develop our Creativity further, which I will discuss in couple of paragraphs. But for now, let me discuss the technique of using our dreams to help us solve problems. I am sure you have read the advice of putting a pad of paper and a pencil by our bed and whenever we wake up in the middle of the night with a crazy idea or dream, to write it down. I tried it but I was always to lazy to write in the middle of the night! But for those of you that remember your dreams, you know that you dream the craziest things at night. And you know that you also dream of yourself doing many things that you would NEVER CONSIDER doing in real life! And then there are those wonderful dreams where you can fly or do super-hero cool things.... Anyways, why is it we sometimes dream about things we would NEVER consider doing in real life??? Well, if you haven't figured it out already, it is because this "GOOD SENSE FILTER" goes offline at night when we dream. It is turned off! When I read about the Frontal Cortex going offline at night, well that cemented in my mind that the Frontal Cortex is indeed my hypothetical "GOOD SENSE FILTER"!

Now, why would the GOOD SENSE FILTER go offline at night? I have a couple of theories about this...
1. I believe that the true purpose of sleep is to record into long term memory our short term memories that are of significance. And in order to NOT compete with energy resources, the brain turns parts of the brain offline that it does not need in order to reserve energy for what it does need. Areas of the brain that are not needed at night are the motor cortex (at least the part that actually signals the spinal cord), the somatosensory cortex (which gets input from the senses), and the GOOD SENSE FILTER (aka Frontal Cortex).
2. Now another theory as to why the GOOD SENSE FILTER would be turned off at night is that it would or could come in conflict with the programming of the Long Term Memory. I believe that at night, our brain takes what is in our short term memory and then moves it to long term memory and records with NO BIAS. In other words, it records even things that we DO NOT WANT TO REMEMBER! Like those lies I told during the day... All of that gets recorded. I believe that this would or could be in conflict with what the GOOD SENSE FILTER would want to be recorded. An evidence of this may be the cases where people have "forgotten" traumatic events in their life. Indeed they are not forgotten but simply the GOOD SENSE FILTER was programmed to not allow those memories to be accessed by our consciousness. Yet under hypnosis or in our dreams, these events are NOT forgotten and are played back. Hence, there can be possible conflicts between our memory processes and what the GOOD SENSE FILTER will allow. The body in its evolution opted to let the memory processes win and chose to turn off the GOOD SENSE FILTER at night.
Probably the truth will be neither of these... But at least these are theories...

Now, getting back to the TITLE of this blog post... "Tapping Into Our Own Creativity Neurologically!" How can we train ourselves to be more creative??? Well, here are some of my ideas.
1. HUMOR!!! Listening and TRYING to be humorous requires that we open our mind to different ways of thinking. Yes, go buy a joke book and read it! Go to the library and check out audio CD's of Comedians. I have done this and have quite a collection of pirated MP3's of comedy routines! (please don't tell the FBI on me!)
2. LOSE YOUR FEAR OF FAILURE!!! Many options, solutions, and creative decisions are filtered out by the GOOD SENSE FILTER due to an inherent FEAR OF FAILURE! Purposely look for opportunities to take more risks in your day to day life! Live life a little more on the edge! Now here is where I fear that someone taking this advice of mine will end up in prison or dead, and I will be the one blamed! I will then take that risk and stick with my advice.... Live life on the edge! Lose your fears! Overcome your fears! Just please don't sue me if it you do something too stupid!
3. Take up a new ARTISTIC hobby! Have you ever noticed that artists are the craziest people alive? The more artistic they are the crazier they are... Michael Jackson, Boy George, Madonna, Picasso, Salvador Dali are just a few of the craziest of them! Of course, I am synonymizing "crazyness" with "creativity". There is a strong relationship between artistry and creativity! So learn to paint. Or learn to sing. Or learn to dance. Or learn to weld crazy structures and place them in your front yard like one of my favorite artists did... Starr Kempf. See... for photos of his work. This artist unfortunately ended up killing himself! Now, why would he kill himself or even consider it??? By now you should have figured it out... His GOOD SENSE FILTER was not filtering as much as others which explains why he even considered option I above. AND it also correlates with his artistic nature. My advice is take up art... but don't go so far as to kill yourself over it!
4. EXPLORE and DISCOVER! My wife hates this habit of mine. I inherited this from my father. If there are a hundred ways to drive from point A to point B, then I want to drive all 100 even if I do not know if a course will indeed get me there. My dad did this often when I was a kid and we at times got "lost" even though my father would never admit to being lost. But eventually we would find our way, arrive late, and all would be well regardless. LOL! As a result of this, I always know the shortcuts and I learn new things along the way. The act of forcing ourselves to explore new roads, new methods of doing things, is forcing our GOOD SENSE FILTER to open up and relax a little!
5. Try seeing things from the eyes of other people! Try to feel what they feel. Try to understand why certain people do what they do. Try to judge people less and instead try to simply see where they are coming from. Try being sympathetic to ideas that you would not consider. If you are a republican, try thinking like a democrat. If you are a democrat, try thinking like a republican. If you are a libertarian, then God Bless You, you are already perfect! LOL. If you are a Christian, try thinking like a Jew or a Muslim. If you are a Jew or Muslim, try Christianity on for size. If you are atheist, try envisioning what God would or could be like. Being sympathetic to others forces you to consider other ideas that you might not normally consider and works those creative muscles in your head. This does not have to be a permanent change of life... just thinking about it is enough to open your creative mind!
6. Some other things I learned about in my Creativity course at college... Try writing with your other hand. Try looking at the bottom of everything, in other words, try to see things from new angles. Try learning a new language. Try speaking in Pig Latin... All of these things have an effect of giving you new experiences and exercising new areas of the brain which help in being more creative.

Soon this DVD course I purchased online should be arriving and I will spend my free time for the following 12 hours soaking it all up. I hope that indeed the course will confirm my theories about the GOOD SENSE FILTER being our Frontal Cortex. And hopefully I will learn more things to discuss in this blog! Keep tuned....