Reconstructing through altered states

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of doing a post-screening Q&A with the film-makers of an amazing documentary called My Beautiful Broken Brain.

One of the many remarkable things about the documentary is that one of the film-makers is also the subject, as she began making the film a few days after her life-threatening brain injury.

The documentary follows Lotje Sodderland who experienced a major brain haemorrhage at the age of 34.

She started filming herself a few days afterwards on her iPhone, initially to make sense of her suddenly fragmented life, but soon contacted film-maker Sophie Robinson to get an external perspective.

It’s interesting both as a record of an emotional journey through recovery, but also because Lotje spent a lot of time working with a special effects designer to capture her altered experience of the world and make it available to the audience.

I also really recommend a long-form article Lotje wrote about her experience of brain injury for The Guardian.

It’s notable because it’s written so beautifully. But Lotje told me she while she had regained the ability to write and type after her injury, she has been left unable to read. So the whole article was written through a process of typing text and getting Siri on her iPhone to read it back to her.

The documentary is available on Netflix.
 

Link to My Beautiful Broken Brain on Wikipedia.
Link to full documentary on Netflix.
Link to long-form article in The Guardian.

A brief hallucinatory twilight

CC Licensed Photo by Flickr user Risto Kuulasmaa. Click for source.I’ve got an article in The Atlantic on the hypnagogic state – the brief hallucinatory period between wakefulness and sleep – and how it is being increasingly used as a tool to make sense of consciousness.

There is a brief time, between waking and sleep, when reality begins to warp. Rigid conscious thought starts to dissolve into the gently lapping waves of early stage dreaming and the world becomes a little more hallucinatory, your thoughts a little more untethered. Known as the hypnagogic state, it has received only erratic attention from researchers over the years, but a recent series of studies have renewed interest in this twilight period, with the hope it can reveal something fundamental about consciousness itself.

The hypnagogic state has been better dealt with by artists and writers over the years – Colderidge’s poem Kubla Khan apparently emerged out of hypnagogic reverie – albeit fuelled by opium

It has received only occasional attention from scientists, however. More recently, a spate of studies has come out showing some genuine mainstream interest in understanding hypnagogia as an interesting source of information about how consciousness is deconstructed as we enter sleep.

 

Link to article in The Atlantic on the hypnagogic state.

The death of the soul has been greatly exaggerated

CC Licensed Image from Wikipedia. Click for source.I’ve got a piece in today’s Observer looking back on 20 years since novelist Tom Wolfe wrote a landmark article that threw open the doors on how the new science of cognitive neuroscience was challenging the notion of the self.

Exactly 20 years ago, Tom Wolfe wrote one of the most influential articles in neuroscience. Titled Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died, the 1996 article explores how ideas from brain science were beginning to transform our understanding of human nature and extend the horizons of our scientific imagination. It was published in a mainstream magazine, written by an outsider, and seemed to throw open the doors to an exhilarating revolution in science and self-understanding. Looking at the state of neuroscience and society two decades later, Wolfe turned out to be an insightful but uneven prophet to the brain’s future.

Wolfe’s article has been cited widely by both neuroscientists and the popular press.

It’s not entirely clear whether it shaped our popular understanding of brain science or whether it just predicted a future trend but it’s notable that before 1996 most press articles on fMRI were focused on technical details but subsequently they tended to be much more about ‘the brain reason for’ some aspect of human thought or behaviour.

Either way, it was clearly an important moment for neuroscience and my piece in The Observer looks back on Wolfe’s take on our changing view of human nature with the benefit of 20 years of brain science behind us.

And just to say, I occasionally have a bit of a grumble about the headlines written for my articles but hats off to however came up with “Neuroscience and the premature death of the soul” for this piece.
 

Link to ‘Neuroscience and the premature death of the soul’ in The Observer
Link to Tom Wolfe’s epic ‘Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died’.

Neuroimaging in 20 minutes

Neuroscientist Matt Wall did a fascinating talk on all things neuroimaging at a recent TEDx Vienna event. It’s a gently funny, engrossing talk that both introduces brain imaging and discuss some of the cutting-edge developments.

He particularly talks about some of the recent fMRI ‘mind reading’ studies – which are more complex, limited, and interesting than many people assume.

Recommended
 

Link to Matt Wall’s TEDx Vienna talk on neuroimaging.

Extremes of self-experimentation with brain electrodes

MIT Technology Review has jaw dropping article about brain-computer interface research Phil Kennedy. In the face of diminishing funding and increasing regulation he “paid a surgeon in Central America $25,000 to implant electrodes into his brain in order to establish a connection between his motor cortex and a computer”.

Both ethically dubious and interesting, it discusses what led Kennedy to this rather drastic decision:

Kennedy’s scientific aim has been to build a speech decoder—software that can translate the neuronal signals produced by imagined speech into words coming out of a speech synthesizer. But this work, carried out by his small Georgia company Neural Signals, had stalled, Kennedy says. He could no longer find research subjects, had little funding, and had lost the support of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

That is why in June 2014, he found himself sitting in a distant hospital contemplating the image of his own shaved scalp in a mirror. “This whole research effort of 29 years so far was going to die if I didn’t do something,” he says. “I didn’t want it to die on the vine. That is why I took the risk.”

 

Link to MIT Tech Review article.

How the magic of cinema unlocked one man’s coma-bound world

Image from NIH. Click for source.An Alfred Hitchcock film helped to prove one patient had been conscious while in a coma-like state for 16 years. The discovery shows that neuroscience may still have lots to learn from the ancient art of storytelling, says Tom Stafford.

If brain injury steals your consciousness then you are in a coma: we all know that. What is less well known is that there exist neighbouring states to the coma, in which victims keep their eyes open, but show no signs of consciousness. The vegetative state, or ‘unresponsive wakefulness syndrome’, is one in which the patient may appear to be awake, and even goes to sleep at times, but otherwise shows no reaction to the world. Patients who do inconsistently respond, such as by flinching when their name is called, or following a bright object with their eyes, are classified as in a ‘minimally conscious state’. Both categories of patients show no signs of deliberate actions, or sustained reaction to the environment, and until recently there was no way for anyone to discern their true, inner, level of consciousness.

The fear is that, like the ‘locked-in syndrome’ that can occur after strokes, these patients may be conscious, but are just unable to show it. The opposite possibility is that these patients are as unconscious as someone in the deepest coma, with only circuitry peripheral to consciousness keeping their eyes open and producing minimal responses automatically.

In the last 10 years, research spearheaded by cognitive neuroscientist Adrian Owen has transformed our understanding of these shadowlands of consciousness. There is now evidence, obtained using brain scans, that some patients (around one in five) in these ‘wakeful coma’ states have conscious awareness. If asked to imagine playing tennis, the brain areas specifically controlling movement become active. If asked to imagine finding their way around their house, the brain regions involved in navigation become active. Using these signals a small minority of patients have even communicated with the outside world, with the brain scanner helping observers to mind-read their answers to questions.

The practical and ethical implications of these findings are huge, not least for the treatment of the hundreds of thousands of people who are in hospitals around the world in these conditions right now.

But the meaning of the research is still hotly debated. One issue is that the mind reading uses neural responses to questions or commands, and careful controls are needed to ensure that their patients’ brains aren’t just responding automatically without any actual conscious involvement. A second issue, and one that cannot be controlled away, is that the method used may tell us that these patients are capable of responding, but it doesn’t tell us much about the quality of conscious experience they are having. How alert, aware and focused they are is hard to discern.

In a relatively new study, a post-doctoral fellow at Owen’s lab, Lorina Naci, has used cinema to show just how sophisticated conscious awareness can be in a ‘minimally conscious’ patient.

The trick they used involved an 8 minute edit of “Bang! You’re dead”, a 1961 episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. In the film, a young boy with a toy gun obsession wanders around aiming and firing at people. Unbeknownst to him, and the adults he aims at, on this day he has found a real gun and it has a live bullet in the chamber.

The film works because of this hidden knowledge we, the viewers, have. Knowing about the bullet, a small boy’s mundane antics become high drama, as he unwittingly involves unsuspecting people in round after deadly round of Russian roulette.

Naci showed the film to healthy participants. To a separate group she showed a scrambled version involving rearranged one-second segments. This ‘control’ version was important because it contained many of the same features as the original; the same visual patterns, the same objects, the same actions. But it lacked the crucial narrative coherence – the knowledge of the bullet – which generated the suspense.

Using brain scanning, and the comparison of the two versions of the film, Naci and colleagues were able to show that the unscrambled, suspenseful version activated nearly every part of the cortex. Everything from primary sensory areas, to motor areas, to areas involved in memory and anticipation were engaged (as you might hope from a film from one of the masters of storytelling). The researchers were particularly interested in a network of activity that rose and fell in synchrony across ‘executive’ areas of the brain – those known to be involved in planning, anticipation, and integrating information from different sources. This network, they found, responded to the moments of highest suspense in the film; the moments when the boy was about to fire, for example. These were the moments you could only find so dramatic if you were following the plot.

Next the researchers showed the film to two patients in wakeful comas. In one, the auditory cortex became activated, but nothing beyond this primary sensory region. Their brain was responding to sounds, perhaps automatically, but there was no evidence of more complex processing. But in a second patient, who had been hospitalised and non-responsive for 16 years, his brain response matched those of the healthy controls who’d seen the film. Like them, activity across the cortex rose and fell with the action of the film, indicating an inner consciousness rich enough to follow the plot.

The astounding result should make us think carefully about how we treat such patients and marks an advance on the arsenal of techniques we can use to connect to the inner lives of non-responsive patients. It also shows how cognitive neuroscience can benefit from the use of more complex stimuli, such as movies, rather than the typically boring visual patterns and simple button-press responses that scientists usually use to probe the mysteries of the brain.

The genius of this research is that to test for the rich consciousness of the patient who appears unresponsive you need to use rich stimuli. The Hitchcock film was perfect because of its ability to create drama by what we believe and expect not because of what we merely see.

My BBC Future column from last week. The original is here. The original paper is: Naci, L., Cusack, R., Anello, M., Owen, A. M. A common neural code for similar conscious experiences in different individuals. PNAS. 2014;111(39):14277–82.

Twelve minutes of consciousness

The Economist has an excellent video on consciousness, what it is, why and how it evolved.

The science section of The Economist has long had some of the best science reporting in the mainstream press and this video is a fantastic introduction to the science of consciousness.

It’s 12 minutes long and it’s worth every second of your time.