Monday, July 25, 2011

the face of horror

trying not to feel ill:-(
"Deterioration of Mind Over Matter" Otto Rapp

Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist responsible for the Stanford Prison Experiment, tells us that the following makes it easy for people to do evil:
  • mindlessly taking the first small step down the road to evil;
  • dehumanization of others;
  • de-individuation of self (anonymity);
  • diffusion of personal responsibility;
  • blind obedience to authority;
  • uncritical conformity to group norms;
  • passive tolerance of evil (inaction, indifference).
I would add two other elements:
  • fundamentalist ideas, dogmatic beliefs, and deep-rooted ideologies;
  • neurology.
The first item perhaps helps to account for the unfathomable acts of hatred we witness in the form of terrorism motivated by religious fanaticism. Where now even small children as young as eight years old are instrumentalized as suicide-bombers. Either consentingly, due to severe brain-washing in special education camps (see Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy: Inside a school for suicide bombers), or forced against their will.

Here the world recently witnessed a new level of violence during the terrorists attacks in Mumbai in 2008. The terrorists consumed cocaine and LSD to be able to "battle" for 50 hours without food or sleep, efficiently killing nearly 200 people.

Tragically, it appears now, that religiously motivated hatred and terror is being joined by politically motivated hatred and terror. As committed recently by a friendly looking 32 year-old Norwegian, called Anders Breivik.

It takes a very high level of abstraction, i.e., a total absence of empathy and compassion for human beings, to single-handedly shoot and kill at least 68 teenagers, while quietly walking around a pristine little island for over an hour (this after detonating a 300 kg bomb in the heart of Oslo, killing another 8 people).

The motivation for this act is said to be rooted in political extremism. Hence the perpetrator's self-perception of being a liberator, enabling a better future, and not that of being a coldblooded killer, a psychopathic monster, bringing to light an incredible drive to cause suffering.

The children where not only Norwegian, crucially, they where attending a political youth retreat, affiliated with the party the killer perceives as the cause of all problems. He is quoted to having said: "The time for dialogue is over. We tried to give peace a chance. Now the time for armed resistance has come." He also stated that he only wanted to send a strong signal, not kill as many people as possible.

Apparently, nearly ten years of planing went into this incomprehensible act of hatred. The serial killer wrote a manifesto comprised of 1500 pages, explaining his cause, defining the (political) enemy, and detailing the solution, which he sent to hundreds of people, who share his political ideology, in Europe and the US.

The atypical element of the killing spree is that the perpetrator survived. Neither did he commit suicide, nor did he forcefully oppose his capture. In fact, it is said, that he wants a public trial in order for him to explain his motivations. He is said to view the period after his arrest as a sort of propaganda-phase. Although he has confessed to having carried out the bombing and the mass killing single-handedly, he pleaded not guilty in court. He also looked quite content while being transfered by the police.

However, perhaps this is all a side-effect of a deeper cause - a far simpler one. And all the attempts to explain and classify with ideology and mindsets are simply attempts to comfort ourselves with things we can comprehend.

In 1966, Charles Whitman, a former student at the University of Texas at Austin and an ex-Marine, aged 25, sat down to write his suicide note:
I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.

In his diary he had mentioned talking to a doctor about the "overwhelming violent impulses" haunting him. However, he never saw the doctor again. His note continues:
It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight. [...] I love her dearly, and she has been a fine wife to me [...]. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this.

After having murdered his wife and mother in their sleep, he went to the top of the University of Texas' tower and began to shoot indiscriminately at the people below, killing 14, before being shot by the police.

His suicide note also read:
If my life insurance policy is valid please pay of my debts [...] donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.

An autopsy revealed that Whitman's brain contained a tumor. The tumor was pressing on a brain region responsible for emotional regulation, especially fear and aggression. (Taken from Eagleman's book Incognito - The Secret Lives of the Brain, see more in this post).

It is safe to say that the neural circuitry of of the Norwegian killer is profoundly broken, lacking vital elements which allow us to be human: empathy, compassion, connectedness, and love. But then, can any level of understanding ever heal the pain of the victims? How do you live your life after you have witnessed the agony of incomprehensible acts of meaningless hatred and violence? After peering into the face of horror?

 "Necronomicon 2" H.R. Giger

What would it mean, if Anders Breivik could really be treated with brain surgery or medication, restoring in him a normal level of empathy and compassion? What if his brain's propensity for ideology would then crumble in the face of its new found capability for humanity? What if he could be cured of the age-old fallacy, that causing any kind of suffering will cease or remedy any other kind of perceived suffering?

I sometimes wonder, if one could define a spectrum for love and hatred, and assuming it to be symmetric, what state of blissful being would lie at the other end of such abysmal hatred...

Friday, July 15, 2011

the brain: our two cognitive minds (part ii)

mind shattering...

When you hear a person proclaim the following, what do you think:
And it was as though my consciousness had shifted away from my normal perception of reality, where I'm the person [...] having the experience, to some esoteric space where I'm witnessing myself having this experience.
I can no longer define the boundaries of my body - I can't define where I begin and where I end.
And in that moment my brain chatter [...] went totally silent [...]. And at first I was shocked to find myself inside a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. [...] I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.
I felt this sense of peacefulness. And imagine what it would feel like to loose 37 years of emotional baggage. I felt euphoria.

A drug induced psychedelic experience? A religious revelation? A state of mind achieved by years of mediation practice? A manifestation of a manic or psychotic episode? No. This is what happens when a golf-ball sized blood-clot is messing with your brain circuitry...

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist. The above quotes are her recollection of the reality she experienced while suffering a stroke:
A blood vessel exploded in the left half of my brain. In the course of four hours I watched my brain completely deteriorate.
And then I realize, oh my gosh, I'm having a stroke. And then the next thing my brain says to me is: 'Wow, this is so cool. How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?'

The stroke nearly killed her, and it took eight years to recover from:
I curled up into a little fetal-ball, and, just like a balloon with the last bit of air just out of the balloon, I just felt my energy lift and just felt my spirit surrender.

Jill wrote a book about her life-changing experience: My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey. In 2008, she gave a very personal and moving account of the stroke during a talk at the TED conference (see embedded video below).

She describes the brain as follows: The two hemispheres of the brain are two independent cognitive minds. The right hemisphere functions like a parallel processor, while the left hemisphere functions like a serial processor. As a result, the right brain focuses on the present moment, the here and now. It thinks in pictures and constructs an enormous collage of this eternal moment; how it looks, smells, tastes, feels and sounds like. We are all connected through the consciousness of the right hemisphere.

The left brain is into linear thinking, methodical, focused on the past and future. It takes the collage of the present moment, picks out details, which it categorizes and organizes, and associates them with everything learned in the past to project all possibilities into the future. It thinks in language, creating the ongoing brain chatter. It is responsible for creating the sense of self, the "I am", which lets us become separate.

The experience of this day in 1996 transformed Jill, giving her rational outlook on life a distinct spiritual spin, a generic spirituality which could be argued to be inherent in our brain circuitry:
But then i realized: but I'm still alive. I'm still alive and I have found nirvana. Then everyone who is alive can find nirvana. And then I pictured a world with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew they could come to this space at any time. And that they purposely can choose to step to the right of their left hemisphere and find this peace.
I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemisphere, the more peace we will project into the world and the more peaceful our planet will be.
What a stroke of insight this could be.

See part i: the brain: alien processes running under the hood.

random quote of the day...

know yourself...

Those who feel certainty are stupid and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt.

Betrand Russel

Saturday, July 9, 2011

the brain: alien processes running under the hood (part i)


"In the same way that the cosmos is larger than we ever imagined, we ourselves are something greater than we had intuited by introspection."

In his recent book Incognito - The secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman looks under the hood of the brain and exposes its alien circuitry. The revealed insights have a distinct constructivist and postmodern taste (more on these issues from the philosophy of science on my science blog here), perhaps surprising coming from a scientist describing experiments.


The brain is "the most complex material we've discovered in the universe."

It is "an alien kind of computational material."

"The machinery is utterly alien to us, and yet, somehow, it is us." "Almost the entirety of your inner universe is foreign to you."

"Humans distinguish themselves in that they are so flexibly intelligent."

"When the brain finds a task it needs to solve, it rewires its own circuitry until it can accomplish the task with maximum efficiency."


"Our brain runs mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs that runs below it."

"The conscious mind is not at the center of the action in the brain; instead it is far out on a distant edge, hearing but whispers of the activity."

"The unexpected part of the news is that the conscious you is the smallest bit-player in the brain."

"Almost all of our actions are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems."

"We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood."

"Fabrication of stories is one of the key businesses in which our brain engages."

"Consciousness seems to be about setting goals for what should be burned into the circuitry, and it does little beyond that."


"You're not perceiving what's out there. You're perceiving whatever your brain tells you."

"We do not see with our eyes but rather with our brains."

"Waking perception is something like dreaming with a little more commitment to what's in front of you."

"What we call normal perception does not really differ from hallucinations, except that the latter are not anchored by external input."

"You're perceptual world always lags behind the real world."

"What you are able to experience is completely limited by your biology."

"Our brains sample just a small bit of the surrounding physical world."

This is all why we would never "stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense."

"Instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it."

"There are thoughts you cannot think."

"Consider that you probably would not want to discover the alien subroutines that lurk under your own frontal cortex."

"The exact levels of dozens of neurotransmitters are critical for who you believe yourself to be."


"Just because you believe something to be true, just because you know it's true, that doesn't mean it is true."

"Deeply held beliefs about logic, economics, ethics, emotions, beauty, social interaction, love, and the rest of your vast mental landscape" are all products of the biologically evolved "hardwiring" in the brain.

"Each individual believes his way is reality."

"Minds seek patterns." "They are driven to 'patternicity' - the attempt to find structure in meaningless data."


"The drives you take for granted depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption."

"The behavior of the patient cannot be be separated from his biology."

"Our choices are inseparably married to the tiniest details of our machinery."

"So we see that the invisibly small molecules we call narcotics, neurotransmitters, hormones, viruses, and genes can place their little hands on the steering wheel of our behavior."

"So in our current understanding of science, we can't find the physical gap in which to slip free will - the uncaused causer."

"After centuries of debate, free will remains an open, valid, and relevant scientific problem."


"Many 'pathogens' can influence how you turn out; these include substance abuse by a mother during pregnancy, maternal stress, and low birth weight. As a child grows, neglect, physical abuse, and head injury can cause problems in mental development. Once a child is grown, substance abuse and exposure to a variety of toxins can damage the brain, modify intelligence, aggression, and decision-making abilities."

"How you turn out depends on where you've been."

"When modern brain science is laid out carefully, it is difficult to justify how our legal system can continue to function without it."

"Blameworthiness is the wrong question to ask." "The concept and word to replace blameworthiness is modifiability, a forward-looking term that asks, What can we do from here?"


The brain is best understood as "two separate realms of conscious awareness."

"The origin of consciousness, argues Julian Jaynes, resulted from the ability of the two hemispheres 'to sit down at the table together and work out their differences'."

"Amazingly, as long as the surgery is performed on a child before he is about eight years old, the child is fine." The mentioned surgery is called a hemispherectomy, in which an entire half of the brain is removed, to treat Rasmussen's encephalitis. "He can do anything that a child with two hemispheres can do."


"Do human minds interact with the stuff of the universe?" "What is it about observation?". I.e. the measurement problem in quantum physics.

"Why did artificial intelligence become stuck?" "If we hope to invent robots that think, our challenge is not simply to devise a subagent to cleverly solve each problem but instead to ceaselessly reinvent subagents, each with overlapping solutions, and then to pit them against one another."