Stepping Through the Mirror

The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction (New York Times)

psychotherapy:

via The New York Times:

Amid the squawks and pings of our digital devices, the old-fashioned virtues of reading novels can seem faded, even futile. But new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.

Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.

Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark.

The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.

Researchers have discovered that words describing motion also stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas. In a study led by the cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement concerned the leg.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.

It is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels. A 2010 study by Dr. Mar found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind — an effect that was also produced by watching movies but, curiously, not by watching television. (Dr. Mar has conjectured that because children often watch TV alone, but go to the movies with their parents, they may experience more “parent-children conversations about mental states” when it comes to films.)

Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

These findings will affirm the experience of readers who have felt illuminated and instructed by a novel, who have found themselves comparing a plucky young woman to Elizabeth Bennet or a tiresome pedant to Edward Casaubon. Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.


Annie Murphy Paul
is the author, most recently, of “
Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives.”

Software Developers and Insomnia: Pushing Beta Brainwaves to Extremes.

The mental activity associated with coding and all IT work is that of mathematics”, says Dr. David Dubin, medical director for Sleep Recovery Centers, Inc. “And the frequency produced by the mathematical brain is clearly that of beta. In code writers, that beta is totally pushed to extremes”.

It seems that there is also a fine line between mathematical beta and and the anxiety producing brainwave hi-beta as well. When the human brain develops an habitual daily pattern of beta, it can migrate upward into this next level of frequency range. And if this goes on long enough, chronic insomnia is usually what follows.

Intoxicating Fragrance: Jasmine as Valium Substitute

 

ScienceDaily (July 9, 2010) — Instead of a sleeping pill or a mood enhancer, a nose full of jasmine from Gardenia jasminoides could also help.

zuky:

thingsimreading:

afghanipoppy:

The funny thing is, that sounds beautiful. But for some reason (maybe cause I work at a psychiatrist office) I see the lack of desire more akin to the symptoms of depression. Which is not so beautiful. (What made me think of it was how JK Rowling describes her use of dementors as a symbol of her depression or the inability to desire)
ps This American Life ftw
dominickbrady:

Buddhism is interesting.  So is the concept that desire (and ignorance) is at the root of suffering. I don’t subscribe to Buddhism’s tenets either but the account on the program This American Life’s episode Testosterone made some aspects of this line of thinking more clear to me.

Prologue.
This American Life producer Alex Blumberg explains that he wanted to do this show because of his conflicted relationship with his own testosterone. He tells host Ira Glass that the reasons go back to a girl in his eighth-grade homeroom and the 1970s seminal feminist novel The Women’s Room. We also hear from a man who stopped producing testosterone due to a medical treatment and found that his entire personality was altered. (9 minutes)

Act One. Life At Zero.
The interview with a man who lost his testosterone continues. He explains that life without testosterone is life without desire—desire for everything: food, conversation, even TV. And he says life without desire is unexpectedly pleasant. The man first wrote about his experiences, anonymously, in GQ Magazine. (7 minutes)
   I know that sounds weird.  What does Testosterone have to do with Buddhism?  Testosterone is the hormone of desire and one the second man interviewed on this episode no longer had testosterone.
He describes seeing everything in life as “beautiful” as a default.  He says it was a different sort of beautiful than he had previously known because there was no emotional value to it.   Everything just became the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.   He describes it as how he imagined ‘God saw the world.’
When I heard that I thought about the principles of eliminating desire completely and asceticism as a technology for doing so…I understand that point more now.  I still can’t fathom attempting to live life without desire.
afghanipoppy:

toscanoirriverente:

Bizarro

If only it was this simple to understand. But I can say this, personally, I don’t believe in eliminating desire but rather balance and moderation. Desire doesn’t always lead to suffering, nor does wanting something mean unhappiness. Every characteristic you are dealt with can be used in a good or bad light - use it accordingly (i.e anger can be used in a good or bad way, no need to eliminate it, moderate it instead).
I haven’t said anything profound at all. Maybe I just haven’t met anyone who has eliminated desire or one who is almost there….



 sigh… this is all bastardization of Buddhist teachings, people speaking without knowing what they are speaking of to begin with. Buddhist teachings do not actually advocate elimination of anything. The Buddha taught being aware of one’s thoughts and feelings, not repressing them, not eliminating them. when one has anger, one recognizes that one has it, doesn’t judge it as good or bad, but simply as being there and determines a healthy way to move forward with it. the same with desire, it is not that all desire is inherently “bad” or causes suffering, but that allowing our desires to rule us causes suffering (to ourselves and others) and that one element of “suffering” is (see my previous posts from Pema) actually “dissatisfaction”, which i think is an especially accurate translation when it comes to desire. there are different paths for dealing with desire within Buddhism, as it is not just one simplistic teaching but there are multitudinous ways it can be practiced. for some, temporary elimination of desires might be a practice, as it teaches humility, appreciation, lack of attachment, and frees them from dissatisfaction, but it is not a moral anti-desire crusade. Like Islam, Buddhism is about balance and recognition of our whole selves, but attempting to bring out more of the positive and not allowing our baser nature to overtake us.
and Lord, i probably don’t have it all right either and may not have explained it very well, so i hope Zuky jumps in with something to say about this.

Thanks, Aaminah, I like what you’ve said. There are a lot of dime-store pop notions about monolithic Buddhism which many people like to expound upon with little understanding, so I’m very accustomed to that. I’ll simply state, for all practical purposes, there’s no such thing as eliminating desire. Desire is embedded in the spark of life which animates the universe. Desire is a plant stretching toward the sun. Why would you eliminate that? And how? In human beings, the burning desire for freedom and ecstasy and consciousness is what fuels Buddhist practice. In my school of Buddhist practice, desire is our good friend; we harness all our energies, sexual desire, social ideals, creative passions, even anger and violence; nothing is repressed, we work with all the winds that blow through our psyches and bodies, without judgment.
However, in Buddhist practice we reprogram our psychic operating system, we consciously rework our neural pathways, so that our mental state and our lives are not ruled by egoic attachment to fleeting desires and aversions. This isn’t a philosophy, it’s something you do and the more you do it the better you get at it. In the system of codification I learned from my mentors, there are five primary approaches or paths to this work, which can be practiced independently or in combination; they are the paths of (1) loving, (2) selfless giving, (3) cognitive discernment, (4) energetic mysticism, and (5) asceticism. There are countless variations and recombinations of these approaches to reformatting the psyche so that we do not depend on egoic attachment to fleeting desires and aversions for our happiness. And that’s all I’m putting on the table today. :)

"[D]esire is our good friend; we harness all our energies, sexual desire, social ideals, creative passions, even anger and violence; nothing is repressed, we work with all the winds that blow through our psyches and bodies, without judgment."
"[W]e reprogram our psychic operating system, we consciously rework our neural pathways, so that our mental state and our lives are not ruled by egoic attachment to fleeting desires and aversions. This isn’t a philosophy, it’s something you do and the more you do it the better you get at it.”
This.  Yes.

zuky:

thingsimreading:

afghanipoppy:

The funny thing is, that sounds beautiful. But for some reason (maybe cause I work at a psychiatrist office) I see the lack of desire more akin to the symptoms of depression. Which is not so beautiful. (What made me think of it was how JK Rowling describes her use of dementors as a symbol of her depression or the inability to desire)

ps This American Life ftw

dominickbrady:

Buddhism is interesting.  So is the concept that desire (and ignorance) is at the root of suffering. I don’t subscribe to Buddhism’s tenets either but the account on the program This American Life’s episode Testosterone made some aspects of this line of thinking more clear to me.

Prologue.

This American Life producer Alex Blumberg explains that he wanted to do this show because of his conflicted relationship with his own testosterone. He tells host Ira Glass that the reasons go back to a girl in his eighth-grade homeroom and the 1970s seminal feminist novel The Women’s Room. We also hear from a man who stopped producing testosterone due to a medical treatment and found that his entire personality was altered. (9 minutes)

Act One. Life At Zero.

The interview with a man who lost his testosterone continues. He explains that life without testosterone is life without desire—desire for everything: food, conversation, even TV. And he says life without desire is unexpectedly pleasant. The man first wrote about his experiences, anonymously, in GQ Magazine. (7 minutes)

   I know that sounds weird.  What does Testosterone have to do with Buddhism?  Testosterone is the hormone of desire and one the second man interviewed on this episode no longer had testosterone.

He describes seeing everything in life as “beautiful” as a default.  He says it was a different sort of beautiful than he had previously known because there was no emotional value to it.   Everything just became the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.   He describes it as how he imagined ‘God saw the world.’

When I heard that I thought about the principles of eliminating desire completely and asceticism as a technology for doing so…I understand that point more now.  I still can’t fathom attempting to live life without desire.

afghanipoppy:

toscanoirriverente:

Bizarro

If only it was this simple to understand. But I can say this, personally, I don’t believe in eliminating desire but rather balance and moderation. Desire doesn’t always lead to suffering, nor does wanting something mean unhappiness. Every characteristic you are dealt with can be used in a good or bad light - use it accordingly (i.e anger can be used in a good or bad way, no need to eliminate it, moderate it instead).

I haven’t said anything profound at all. Maybe I just haven’t met anyone who has eliminated desire or one who is almost there….

 sigh… this is all bastardization of Buddhist teachings, people speaking without knowing what they are speaking of to begin with. Buddhist teachings do not actually advocate elimination of anything. The Buddha taught being aware of one’s thoughts and feelings, not repressing them, not eliminating them. when one has anger, one recognizes that one has it, doesn’t judge it as good or bad, but simply as being there and determines a healthy way to move forward with it. the same with desire, it is not that all desire is inherently “bad” or causes suffering, but that allowing our desires to rule us causes suffering (to ourselves and others) and that one element of “suffering” is (see my previous posts from Pema) actually “dissatisfaction”, which i think is an especially accurate translation when it comes to desire. there are different paths for dealing with desire within Buddhism, as it is not just one simplistic teaching but there are multitudinous ways it can be practiced. for some, temporary elimination of desires might be a practice, as it teaches humility, appreciation, lack of attachment, and frees them from dissatisfaction, but it is not a moral anti-desire crusade. Like Islam, Buddhism is about balance and recognition of our whole selves, but attempting to bring out more of the positive and not allowing our baser nature to overtake us.

and Lord, i probably don’t have it all right either and may not have explained it very well, so i hope Zuky jumps in with something to say about this.

Thanks, Aaminah, I like what you’ve said. There are a lot of dime-store pop notions about monolithic Buddhism which many people like to expound upon with little understanding, so I’m very accustomed to that. I’ll simply state, for all practical purposes, there’s no such thing as eliminating desire. Desire is embedded in the spark of life which animates the universe. Desire is a plant stretching toward the sun. Why would you eliminate that? And how? In human beings, the burning desire for freedom and ecstasy and consciousness is what fuels Buddhist practice. In my school of Buddhist practice, desire is our good friend; we harness all our energies, sexual desire, social ideals, creative passions, even anger and violence; nothing is repressed, we work with all the winds that blow through our psyches and bodies, without judgment.

However, in Buddhist practice we reprogram our psychic operating system, we consciously rework our neural pathways, so that our mental state and our lives are not ruled by egoic attachment to fleeting desires and aversions. This isn’t a philosophy, it’s something you do and the more you do it the better you get at it. In the system of codification I learned from my mentors, there are five primary approaches or paths to this work, which can be practiced independently or in combination; they are the paths of (1) loving, (2) selfless giving, (3) cognitive discernment, (4) energetic mysticism, and (5) asceticism. There are countless variations and recombinations of these approaches to reformatting the psyche so that we do not depend on egoic attachment to fleeting desires and aversions for our happiness. And that’s all I’m putting on the table today. :)

"[D]esire is our good friend; we harness all our energies, sexual desire, social ideals, creative passions, even anger and violence; nothing is repressed, we work with all the winds that blow through our psyches and bodies, without judgment."

"[W]e reprogram our psychic operating system, we consciously rework our neural pathways, so that our mental state and our lives are not ruled by egoic attachment to fleeting desires and aversions. This isn’t a philosophy, it’s something you do and the more you do it the better you get at it.”

This.  Yes.

Learning Difficulties May Be Centred in the Eye, Not the Brain

ScienceDaily (June 14, 2010) — Problems with math? And perhaps with handwriting — and motor skills? Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) believe that the explanation for your troubles may be that not all of the cells in your eyes work the way they should.

Neurobiological Cause of Intergroup Conflict: 'Bonding Hormone' Drives Aggression Towards Competing out-Groups

ScienceDaily (June 15, 2010) — Researchers at the University of Amsterdam provide first-time evidence for a neurobiological cause of intergroup conflict. They show that oxytocin, a neuropeptide produced in the brain that functions as hormone and neurotransmitter, leads humans to self-sacrifice to benefit their own group and to show aggression against threatening out-groups. This finding qualifies the wide-spread belief that oxytocin promotes general trust and benevolence.

Experience Shapes the Brain's Circuitry Throughout Adulthood

ScienceDaily (June 15, 2010) — The adult brain, long considered to be fixed in its wiring, is in fact remarkably dynamic. Neuroscientists once thought that the brain’s wiring was fixed early in life, during a critical period beyond which changes were impossible. Recent discoveries have challenged that view, and now, research by scientists at Rockefeller University suggests that circuits in the adult brain are continually modified by experience.

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