Hacking Consciousness

Susan Greenfield was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, talking about a new ‘centre for the mind’ at Oxford (apologies if i’ve got the exact name wrong, but i can’t find a web reference) which she will be directing. The centre will carry out cross-disciplinary research into topics like consciousness, and Prof. Greenfield has some well put things to say about the whole topic – you can hear her again here.

Cross-disciplinary studies of consciousness must be a good thing – in the book see “Talk To Yourself” [Hack #61] for an example of some good work done by a philosopher (Peter Carruthers at The University of Maryland), based on the work of psychologists (most notably Elizabeth Spelke at Harvard)

One phrase Susan Greenfield used a couple of times jumped out at me: ‘hacking’! “You can’t just hack into someone’s consciousness”, she said. Well, maybe not in the sense she meant it….

No uniqueness in the speed of the brain’s evolution?

Reports (eg) of genetic evidence that the human brain evolved usually fast may be exaggerated – see this very thorough post at language log (thanks to Cosma for the heads up).

This quote seems pretty typical of the media reports:

Humans went into evolutionary overdrive as their brains developed, sending them on a path that set them apart from other animals, scientists believe

And you can understand the general yearning for signs of human uniqueness. Despite this there is no structure, or chemical, in the human brain that isn’t found in other species – and, it seems, even the pace of genetic change associated with human brain evolution isn’t unprecentedly fast (languagelog cites a cell adhesion protein in the zebrafish, and the SARS virus as just a couple examples of higher rates of change).

Continue reading “No uniqueness in the speed of the brain’s evolution?”

Eyes wide with fear


Here’s another story related to Vaughan’s post of a couple of days ago about the amygdala and fear perception.

A brain imaging study reported in the journal Science [1] found that showing the silhouettes of fearful eyes for just 17 milliseconds was enough to increase activity in the amygdala’s of human subjects – the effect is something like just seeing the whites of someone’s eyes in the dark (as shown in the picture, along with the comparison condition – the silhouette of the eyes of someone showing a happy expression).

The two things struck me about this. The first, obviously, is how brief the exposure is. If you are shown something for 17ms you will probably be unable to tell that you’ve been shown anything at all (you might see a flash), you certainly won’t be able to tell what it is. In this study the 17ms picture of eyes was immediately followed by a picture of a normal, expressionless, face – which makes perceiving the eye-silhouettes even harder (and, indeed, none of the participants in the experiment reported that they noticed anything unusual).

But their brains did. The amygdala was already ramping up, ready to signal ‘be afraid’ to the rest of the brain. And this to something that isn’t actually scary in itself – but a social signal that there is something to be afraid of nearby. Social and emotional information is being priority-routed through the brain’s processing streams.

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A reader writes:

I’ve recently discovered that I can play a video game while listening to spoken word audio (podcasts).

The game, AntiGrav, uses the body (via a cam which is interpreted as movements). It’s physically demanding and demands quick visual recognition and response– ie. flailing arms about and generally looking like an idiot. Terrific game.

The podcasts on the other hand are fairly intellectually engaging. However, I find that I cannot just sit and listen to them… I need to be doing something else. I can’t do programming work or read blogs/web pages, because I get overwhelmed by the two language-based inputs.

So I’m able to turn off the game music / effects and listen, while playing and do as well as I would listening to the game soundtrack.

This seems a suprising result, and I gather that they use different parts of the brain. Care to comment?

Good question – it is a little suprising that you can do both at once. I think the answer is not so much that they involve different input modalities (one visual, one auditory), but that the two tasks involve different types of processing which do not require a change of the ‘representational code’ between input and output.

Continue reading “Multi-tasking”

Cultivated Perception

Lots of psychology isn’t rocket science – it’s not exactly stuff you couldn’t have figured out yourself if you’d have thought about it for long enough. Often the conclusions from some area of investigation are explained to you and you think ‘Well, hey, that’s obvious’. And of course there’s an argument that true answers often should be obvious, once you’ve been told them.

One of the the things I hoped we could do with Mind Hacks was give people framworks for looking at how our minds work, and how we interact with the environment, so that it becomes easier to spot the obvious in advance. After all, we all have minds, so we all have access to the raw data to draw the conclusions – it’s just that there are many things you don’t notice until you’ve learnt to see them. (Until someone stops me i’m going to call this ‘cultivated perception’).

So, I should be working on designed a questionnaire (a sign that I committed grevious sins in a past life?) and I noticed how I could improve it with a little lesson from Chapter 8 of the book.

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The Social Yawn


All animals yawn (see animalyawns.com) and in humans yawning seems to be contagious. Seeing another person yawn, or even just reading about yawning can make you yawn. (We talk about unconscious immitation in chapter 10 of the book). James Anderson from the University of Stirling gave a lecture in Sheffield last week about yawning – in the introduction he told us that when he lectures on yawning lots of people in the audience, well, yawn. But his talk was only yawn-inducing in the social-contaigon sense.

Yawning, it seems to me, may provide us with paradigm case of an automatic behaviour that, moving along the phylogenetic scale, has become co-opted into a quasi-voluntary social signal.

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Hack #102 : Alter Input With Expectations

This is a hack which never made it into the book, but we thought it worth sharing. At this point, to get the most out of this hack, look at this figure (in a pop-up window) quickly before reading on. It’s not important to try and work out what it is, but have a good look. Seen it? Now, without further ado…

Hack #102: Alter Input With Expectation


The balance between feed-forward and feed-back connections in the brain gives a clue to the balance between raw sensation and expectations in constructing experience.

Feedback is ubiquitous in the brain. The brain is not just massively parallel [Hack #52], it is also massively interconnected- an awesomely complex cybernetic system.

Continue reading “Hack #102 : Alter Input With Expectations”