Category Archives: Knowledge

Can anosognosia help explain some public acts of violence?

Anosognosia has been traditionally discussed when explaining why patients with Alzheimer’s disease (Perrotin et al., 2005), Schizophrenia (Gerretsen et al., 2015), and various lesions (Moro et al., 2016) have resulted in the patient lacking awareness of the functional deficits associated with their disease or affliction. There are two competing models to explain anosognosia; a psychological model, which claims the individual is protecting themselves from the stress caused by their disease, and a neurological model, which posits that the lack of the patient’s insight into their own disorder is due to a failure of neurocognition (Lehrer & Lorenz, 2014). However, both models are in agreement that it is the disease that results in anosognosia: The disease results in the patient not recognizing they have the disease – or at least some symptoms of the disease.

Researchers are still vying for a comprehensive neurological profile of this lack of awareness, and even though the diseases and the injuries that are associated with anosognosia are diverse, there is overlap in the parts of the brain that are impacted. Patients with anosognosia have been found to have hypometabolism in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) (Perrotin et al., 2015; Therriault et al., 2018; Vannini et al., 2017), hypometabolism in the hippocampus (Vannini et al., 2016), and reduced gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex (Spalletta et al., 2014). Some studies posit that reduced right hemispheric volume, which could occur through disease atrophy or injury, relative to the left hemisphere, particularly of the angular gyrus, the medial prefrontal cortex, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, insula, and anterior temporal lobe, lead to a lack of awareness in schizophrenic patients (Gerretsen et al., 2014).

To date, there appears to be little research on the prospect of anosognosia concomitantly occurring with an empathy or a moral deficit. This is surprising for two reasons. First, the aforementioned brain regions listed above, are also known to be involved in moral decision making (Baron-Cohen, 2012) and empathic responses (Alegria et al., 2016). Second, it is sometimes symptomatic of patients with Alzheimer’s Disease (Liljegren et al., 2016) and Schizophrenia (Del Bene et al., 2016) to behave violently towards others, which means that any anosognosia could extend to a patient’s unawareness of their own harmful behavior.

THE IMPORTANCE OF EMPATHY IN MORAL DECISIONS

If an illness or a lesion results in both a loss of empathy or moral decision making, as well as the self-awareness of these, the behavioral intentions of the individual could change. This is extremely dangerous when the deficit is empathy, because empathy helps to inform humans about harmful behavior; if we observe another human in pain, most of us are able to recreate a sense or a feeling of that pain and thus feel that the behaviors and actions that have led to this are wrong. This mechanism can be behind our drive to prevent harmful behaviors and, and cause us to strive to ease the pain of others. If we stop or ease the pain of another individual, we prevent the need for an empathic response, and thus we stop or ease the empathic pain in ourselves.

The presence of an empathic response to seeing others in pain can thus lead to the stymieing of bad behaviors, not necessarily while they are being carried out, but even stopping them before they are carried out. The absence of an empathic response to pain could lead one to have the perception that some harmful behavior is okay, because this person is missing the internal response that would inform them otherwise. Our view of behaviors being right or wrong, due to our empathic response, will also shape our guiding philosophies and worldviews. If we feel that something is right or wrong, we tend to try and understand these feelings by providing a rationale, and this rationale contributes to our own moral code.

HOW ANOSOGNOSIA WITH AN EMPATHY DEFICIT COULD LEAD TO A DANGEROUS SHIFT IN IDEOLOGY OR WORLDVIEW

Anosognosia involving an empathy deficit could have a profound impact on the person’s life and their choices. Before the onset of anosognosia and the empathy deficit, the person might feel that certain behaviors are wrong, such as assault and violence; with empathy, these behaviors can be understood as deeply destructive, and function to prevent one engaging in them. The onset of anosognosia and an empathy deficit could lead to a person transitioning from feeling that a certain behavior is bad, to amoral or even good behavior.

Our sense of what is normal also informs our moral code and how we should treat others. Most people tend to think of themselves as rational and fair minded (even though some are open to considering the views of others), and so what they think as right or wrong about the world (including behavior) feels true because it has come from a balanced place. If a person was unaware that they had an empathy deficit, they would still consider themselves rational and fair minded, as they don’t recognize a deficit to undermine this view of themselves. This could mean as their moral code is subtly changing due to an absence of empathy, the change feels true, and thus right, further validating their new view of certain behaviors. If they attribute a recently adopted ideology to this shift in their view, the ideology, too, would be further validated.

A cursory glance at any number of manifestos, penned by murderers before they acted, will inform you of how the way they saw the world changed, and finally how this change brought on their actions, which they felt were necessary. A deliberate act of murder is clearly a failure of empathy, and one cannot help wondering if the murderer was even aware of their empathy deficit.

SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF ANOSOGNOSIA WITH AN EMPATHY DEFICIT

If an empathy deficit is observed in a patient, or individual, it is therefore of the utmost importance to understand if they recognize this deficit. A person who could understand that they have an empathy deficit, even if it’s temporal, could perhaps take measures to ensure they behave in an innocuous manner, through counseling, or through supervision by friends, family, or healthcare professionals.

It is also crucial to know if a person was aware of an empathy deficit before they acted destructively towards others, because it introduces accountability when the suspect is tried. In some cases of homicide, if mental illness, disorder, or mental illness is suspected, the prosecution often has to argue against a defense that claims the defendant was not accountable due to temporary or permanent insanity, or the defendant acted in a way that was out of their control, because of a clinical difference in brain or mental functioning. If it can be shown that the defendant was aware of their empathy deficit, the legal system could hold them accountable for their actions.

Jack Pemment © 2018

 

REFERENCES

Alegria, A. A., Radua, J., & Rubia, K. (2016). Meta-analysis of fMRI studies of disruptive behavior disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 173(11), 1119-1130.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2012). The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. Basic books.

Del Bene, V. A., Foxe, J. J., Ross, L. A., Krakowski, M. I., Czobor, P., & De Sanctis, P. (2016). Neuroanatomical Abnormalities in Violent Individuals with and without a Diagnosis of Schizophrenia. PLoS one, 11(12), e0168100.

Gerretsen, P., Menon, M., Mamo, D. C., Fervaha, G., Remington, G., Pollock, B. G., & Graff-Guerrero, A. (2014). Impaired insight into illness and cognitive insight in schizophrenia spectrum disorders: resting state functional connectivity. Schizophrenia research, 160(1), 43-50.

Gerretsen, P., Menon, M., Chakravarty, M. M., Lerch, J. P., Mamo, D. C., Remington, G., … & Graff‐Guerrero, A. (2015). Illness denial in schizophrenia spectrum disorders. Human brain mapping, 36(1), 213-225.

Lehrer, D. S., & Lorenz, J. (2014). Anosognosia in schizophrenia: hidden in plain sight. Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 11(5-6), 10.

Liljegren, M., Naasan, G., Temlett, J., Perry, D. C., Rankin, K. P., Merrilees, J., … & Miller, B. L. (2015). Criminal behavior in frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer disease. JAMA neurology, 72(3), 295-300.

Moro, V., Pernigo, S., Tsakiris, M., Avesani, R., Edelstyn, N. M., Jenkinson, P. M., & Fotopoulou, A. (2016). Motor versus body awareness: Voxel-based lesion analysis in anosognosia for hemiplegia and somatoparaphrenia following right hemisphere stroke. Cortex, 83, 62-77.

Perrotin, A., Desgranges, B., Landeau, B., Mézenge, F., La Joie, R., Egret, S., … & Chételat, G. (2015). Anosognosia in Alzheimer disease: Disconnection between memory and self‐related brain networks. Annals of neurology, 78(3), 477-486.

Spalletta, G., Piras, F., Piras, F., Sancesario, G., Iorio, M., Fratangeli, C., … & Orfei, M. D. (2014). Neuroanatomical correlates of awareness of illness in patients with amnestic mild cognitive impairment who will or will not convert to Alzheimer’s disease. cortex, 61, 183-195.

Therriault, J., Ng, K. P., Pascoal, T. A., Mathotaarachchi, S., Kang, M. S., Struyfs, H., … & Gauthier, S. (2018). Anosognosia predicts default mode network hypometabolism and clinical progression to dementia. Neurology, 90(11), e932-e939.

Vannini, P., Hanseeuw, B., Munro, C. E., Amariglio, R. E., Marshall, G. A., Rentz, D. M., … & Sperling, R. A. (2017). Anosognosia for memory deficits in mild cognitive impairment: Insight into the neural mechanism using functional and molecular imaging. NeuroImage: Clinical, 15, 408-414.

 

Manifesto: The relationship sociopaths have with themselves

ManifestoINTRODUCTION

Violent crime in the United States unfortunately remains a daily occurrence, and while domestic violence is undoubtedly the most common (and underreported), there now seems to be an increased interest in the role of ideology and murder. The recent shootings in San Bernadino, CA, and Philadelphia, PA, have been attributed to murderers who have been motivated by the ideology of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and only in early October, 2015, Chris Harper Mercer killed nine people near Roseburg, Oregon, after penning his own manifesto that presumably explored his murderous inclinations. In 2014, Elliot Roger shot and killed six people and injured fourteen, after writing a manifesto entitled ‘My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Roger.’

The motivations behind killing are complex and widely disputed, but it is time for some serious scholarship on the role that ideas play in dampening the conscience, at least temporarily, to provide an individual with a window of time where they have given themselves permission to kill. The role that ideology plays in the act of killing can be explained within the framework of sociopathy, but first this has to be distinguished from its estranged cousin, psychopathy.

 

PSYCHOPATHY

Psychopathy is noted as a mental disorder that is characterized by an emotional deficit and antisocial behavior [1]. Neuroscientists have found some profound differences in the brains of psychopaths when compared to the non-psychopathic, and these differences seem to result from developmental errors [2, 3]. Two key features of the psychopathic is the lack of empathy and remorse, and while many psychopaths are killers, a significant proportion of killers are psychopaths [4]. Psychopathy is also a clinical diagnosis, and so for somebody to truly be called a psychopath, they have to have been assessed by a professional mental health expert.

 

THE ROLE OF WORLDVIEWS AND IDEOLOGIES

When moving through our passage in life, we all develop a sense of what is right about the world, and figuring this out is probably one of the greatest sources of consternation many of us face on a daily basis. There seems to be a duality to this sense; feeling what is right, and then understanding conceptually what is right. When the two fit together, feeling right and being able to describe in words and ideas why we feel right, is an amazing and stable feeling, and the ideas are likely to become part of how we see the world. However, when our ideas and thoughts no longer feel right, or we feel right but do not know why, we are left feeling confused and perhaps even irritated.

Eventually, when we have had enough experiences and self-reflection, we start to develop a complex set of ideas that reflect what we think is true about the world.

During these pensive moments we suspend speculation and possibility surrounding the veracity of the idea, and it moves towards becoming a belief. This suspension could very well mark the difference between the scientific mind and the religious mind, as science only ever deals in probabilities, whereas the religious mind attributes absolute rightness to the core ideas, and this is known as faith (probabilities allow for‘wrongness’, a catalyst for the converse of faith, doubt). Indeed, always allowing a margin of error could mean that a person never has beliefs.

Regardless of how much truth currency we end up placing in our ideas, they become the mental lens that guides our behavior, gives us our sense of morality, and shapes how we will or will not understand the many more concepts and behaviors that will eventually cross our stream of consciousness. The new ideas and behaviors will be measured up against what we already have in our mental banks, and their acceptance into our worldviews will likely be a reflection of how well they agree with the rest of what we think is true about the world. Needless to say, this process can be excruciatingly hard work and can sometimes result in our peace of mind and sense of self being at stake.

 

PSYCHOPATHS AND IDEOLOGY

Our own personal worldviews and ideology tend to develop as we reflect on past experiences, contrast them with new ideas in the present, and then use ourworldview and ideology for perpetual self-reflection and interpreting new events as they arrive. From the case studies of psychopaths described by Cleckley [5] and Hare [4], psychopaths present as individuals who have little to no regard for their own future, let alone the futures of those they interact with. The psychopath appears stuck in the present, with an inability to make long term plans, and also has precious little regard for the past, and so it is questionable that a psychopath can develop a complex worldview.

Our worldview is also a reflection of our sense of morality. The ideas that we come to regard as good ways to live are built into how we see and interpret the world. Therefore, it stands to reason that if a psychopath has a limited sense of morality, any potential worldview or ideology is at an automatic deficit. When asked to justify their criminal behavior, many psychopaths will just admit that there was a rightness to it, mostly because they felt the dire urge to carry it out. The truth criteria behind their reasoning doesn’t fit into a complex philosophical framework, only that as
they felt they had to do it, it must have been the right thing to do.

 

SOCIOPATHY

The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used to describe the same type of person, that is an emotionless individual with a sense of grandeur and is prone to the manipulation of others, but the root words psycho and socio denote different developmental origins. As Hare notes [4], those who prefer the term sociopah tend to think that social forces and early experiences can explain this type of individual, whereas those preferring psychopath think that psychological, biological, and genetic factors offer the best explanation.

This polarized view of the etiology for psychopathy is terribly outdated, and falls victim to the old nature versus nurture discussion on the origin of behavior. Traditionally, a line seems to have been drawn at the skin of individuals, and everything on the inside reflects nature, anything on the outside is nurture, and they are mutually exclusive. While this framework perhaps provides a useful starting point for discussion, we now know that social influences and biology can interact together in very profound ways to influence the future path of an individual from the level of the cell all the way up to the organism. Our senses are lapping up so much information on a daily basis, and all of that information is creating changes in our biochemistry, especially in our nervous system. If a parent yells continually at their child, we may think, “Well, that’s terrible nurturing,” but it is also elevating the level of cortisol in the child’s circulatory system; soundwaves stimulating cells, sending signals that prompt tissues and organs to release molecules into the blood. All sensory stimulation leads to biological changes and activity, which is why this distinction between the two terms denoting etiological differences does not work.

Crucially, Hare and Babiak describe the sociopath as someone who has a sense of morality, but their sense of right and wrong has been informed by a subculture [6]. This
difference between the psychopath and the sociopath is profound, because unlike the psychopath, the conscience and the ability for rationalization in the sociopath are fully intact, which indicates an entirely different neurology. If sociopaths have an ideology, ideas of right and wrong, these ideas must be behind their eventual murderous behavior, and also goes a long way to explain the spree killer.

The term spree killer refers to an individual who is motivated, with varying extents of planning, to commit an act or acts of atrocity in a short space of time. One of the striking features about these types of events is that there is no attempt to hide or conceal the destruction or any associated fatalities or injuries. There is only the event, which must be completed, and often the only outcomes for the killer will be death by a shootout with law enforcement, death by suicide, death by sentence of the death penalty, or lifelong incarceration.

These outcomes provide some insight into the minds of these individuals leading up to and during the act of atrocity. It is inconceivable that at least the majority of these types of killers had no awareness of what would befall them after the event, which means at least one of two things. First, the act itself was valued by the killer more than their own life, and second, there was a physiological drive so powerful in their mind for completing the act that no other behavior was possible in the moment. The necessity of the act, which the killer could have justified to themselves many times, is heavily idea based, and because of this they were likely to have had a worldview containing ideas that devalued the lives of others.

 

THE GREATER GOOD

The idea of the ‘greater good’ is intriguing because when it is placed within an ideological framework that is supposed to promote the good or health of a group as a whole, it inevitably leads to the denial of the rights or even life of an individual or a subgroup of individuals. When the rights of people are often trampled upon for the greater good, the justification for this treatment is often seen as a necessary sacrifice, or once the new ideas or policies are in place, everyone will benefit (legislating common sense).

In order to implement a social or political system that is predicated upon greater good ideas, those with power have to be convinced, legitimately through debate or tacitly through violence. The style of the fight employed for the realization of these ideas is indicative of how well these ideas are to be received and the immediacy with which the advocate needs them to be realized. A potentially receptive audience and a debate reflect an advocate that is patient and willing to modify or compromise. A perceived unreceptive audience and violence reflect an advocate that feels compelled to act and is not willing to compromise. We can spot instances of these behaviors throughout history, particularly in terms of governmental behavior, but the desire for self-expression and the acceptance of ideas also operates on a much smaller scale.

For many, seeking acceptance among peers, or perhaps more potently in school, is a natural, but often painful, part of life. Finding a personal happy medium between what friends think is right and what you think is right is a daunting experience. To add to this, teenagers, by virtue of being young, do not have many other experiences with which to compare their immediate experience in school; this lack of experience in determining what is right for them results in grief and anxiety, and often puts them at the mercy of going along with a group that has met with their approval, even though there is sometimes respect for those who have the confidence to be different and not be influenced by the group, perhaps because it is such a huge pressure to overcome. The acceptance of ideas and behavior in these environments is similar to political expression at a higher social level, and could even be all the worse because of the huge emotional price tag of group acceptance. The perceived receptivity of the group and the compulsion for ideas and behaviors to be accepted could determine a change in tact of how an individual will later confront the group.

Even though many spree killers have no doubt accepted their own demise before they act, it is this notion that fuels their drive to act. They feel that their expression has been permanently blocked by those that need to validate these ideas (and related behavior), and so the only conceivable route of expression becomes violence to those who are blocking. This creates a fertile ground for accepting ideologies that dehumanize these ‘blockers.’ With resentment already in place towards those preventing self-expression, dehumanizing ideology towards these individuals will become palatable and sticky. This ideology, if unchecked, becomes the greater good for the individual in question.

Indeed, it could be useful to look at prejudicial worldviews in light of barriers to self-expression and a person’s right to the pursuit of happiness. Misogyny from men could result if men believe that women, by virtue of being women, will prevent their self-expression, especially sexual expression and subsequent gratification and acceptance. Likewise, Anti-Semitism results when an individual believes that Jews, by virtue of being Jewish, will always seek to prevent the self-expression and pursuit of happiness of non-Jews. At the heart of prejudice, there is always a lazy mind that is unwilling to evaluate people on an individual basis, as sweeping blanket condemnations seek to address painful and confused emotions. A lack of worldly experience, perhaps, would also prevent the person from having the cognitive maturity to make these individual assessments. It is worth asking, therefore, what is the object of the hatred preventing the subject from experiencing? When we have an answer to that question, it tells us all about how the subject thinks they should be able to exist in the world; behaviors they should be allowed to express, and ridding behaviors and ideas that muddy the waters of their idealized life. Knowing this could lead to methods of prevention or even intervention.

 

THE MANIFESTOS OF SOCIOPATHS

When reading a sociopath’s manifesto there are a few important points to note about the writing. The sociopath is usually presenting a history that supports the necessary action that will arrive by the end of the manuscript. As the sociopath’s mindset is heavily ruled by a guiding ideology, their main points or perceived milestones in their own development are likely to be heavily skewed or even fabricated.

However, much insight can be gained into their mind by realizing that the manuscript reflects back to them how they would like to be seen, perhaps not just by their community or the population after they carry out the devastating act, but also to themselves; the manuscript is how the sociopath would like to be seen in the mirror. Once the reflection pleases them, they are free to act.

The sociopath is likely to have spent months, maybe years, carefully crafting the manuscript and gone to painstaking detail to get it just right, and so this helps to combat the idea that they have intentionally gone out of their way to fabricate in order to trick readers. While this is still a possibility, the manuscript is usually a testament to what the sociopath believes is right about the world, after all, it provided them with the justification to act. While the history they present might not be objectively accurate, or perhaps even stunningly ignorant, the sociopath sees themselves ultimately as truthful and righteous, and no doubt want others to see them that way, too.

 

WHY WRITING CAN BE IMPORTANT TO THE SOCIOPATH

While not all manifestos are written, it is worth taking a long hard look at the ones that are. There is a very intimate relationship between an author and their writing, after all, writing is a way from them to organize and catalogue their own thoughts. The linguist, Noam Chomsky, is famous for noting that the majority of our language use is internal, and far exceeds our use of language in dialogue. Just take a moment to realize how frequently your thoughts are rolling through your mind, and how most of them drift in and out of a language, usually your primary one. Writing is the art of taking these ticker-tape thoughts and stabilizing them on the page, and the words can then be further manipulated until they meet with the satisfaction of the author, i.e. capturing (almost) perfectly the author’s intent.

For the confused or troubled mind, where thoughts and feelings are whizzing around like delocalized electrons, writing helps to pull them together into one place and provides the writer with focus. When an individual is experiencing emotional pain and confusion, therefore, this focus provides stability and a platform from which they can move forward. This is far from unique to the sociopath, and is most likely one of the main reasons that people keep diaries or write blogs. Writing facilitates clear thought, and clear thoughts, among other things, help to calm the mind and allow one to plan and project their future; goals can be determined and decisions made over the required behavior to meet those goals.

At some point in the life of the sociopath, the idea for committing an act of atrocity must enter their mind. The ease with which this idea is entertained will depend upon what they think is an accurate worldview (the right and wrong of the act), how necessary the action has become, and how compelled they feel to carry it through. This toxic idea will be stuck in their mind while they seek every justification for accepting it as more than just a good idea, but as something that they are compelled to act upon. During this time, there will likely be a high level of fantasizing and imagining, and an increased exposure to materials and ideas that facilitates the potential action in the mind of the sociopath; the act, slowly but surely, becomes inevitable.

The manifesto is a large part of making the act inevitable. It is worth bearing in mind that these acts are not a part of most people’s daily repertoire, including the soon-to-be-killer, and involve marathon amounts of planning and self-reflection. The sociopath needs to be able to see themselves actually doing the act, and there is very little room for doubt or uncertainty. This is why the manifesto is so important, because it allows the person to review and re-create their life history as if their life was always leading up to the deadly and devastating moment that they have decided is necessary. By cataloguing their history through the lens of their contemporary perturbed mind, therefore, right up until the present day, they are providing themselves with the consent and conviction that they need to go through with their plan.

This manufacturing of consent could also be why it is a good reason to stem the release of the manifesto after an act or at least hide many of the details surrounding the killer for as long as possible. If the manifesto was used as a tool to provide the author with consent to act, there is every chance it could be used by another individual with a similar history as a tool to act. If a like-mind is exposed to the manifesto soon after its author has acted, it could prompt the feeling of the immediacy to act again, perhaps resulting in a copy-cat killing. Silencing the thoughts and ideas of a killer after they have acted can only be effective for so long, but is still worth doing as a precautionary measure.

REFERENCES

1. Hare, R.D.; Harpur, T.J.; Hakstian, A.R.; Forth, A.E.; Hart, S.D.; Newman, J.P. (1990) The revised Psychopathy Checklist: Reliability and factor structure, Psychological Assessment: A Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2(3), 338-341

2. Raine, A.; Lencz, T.; Taylor, K.; Hellige, J. B.; Bihrle, S.; Lacasse, L.; Colletti, P. (2003). Corpus callosum abnormalities in psychopathic antisocial individuals, Archives of General Psychiatry, 60(11), 1134-1142

3. Raine, A.; Ishikawa, S. S.; Arce, E., Lencz; T.; Knuth, K. H.; Bihrle, S.; Colletti, P. (2004). Hippocampal structural asymmetry in unsuccessful psychopaths. Biological psychiatry, 55(2), 185-191

4. Hare, R.D. (1999) Without Conscience, New York, Guilford Press

5. Cleckley, H. (2015) The Mask of Sanity (3rd Ed.), Brattleboro, Echo Point Books and Media, LLC.

6. Hare, R.D. & Babiak, P. (2006) Snakes in Suits, New York, Harper Collins

Why religion is not a group identity

I’ll go ahead and throw it out on the table, because I want to be clear from the beginning. I am an atheist. I don’t think there is a supernatural force at play that comes anywhere close to some kind of father/parent/police figure hovering and presiding over existence. I know that you can get locked-in an argument about how can you really prove anything exists, and it’s a doozy to be sure. Sensory experience and thought/imagination certainly open up the doors for the possibility of things existing, but just feeling and knowing that these things are true on some level can be agonizing.

The level of truth we assign to these things can be achieved by at least two methods. Firstly, we can compare them to other things that we think are true, and arrive at a truth by comparison, or second, we can follow an emotional response that tells us it’s true, just because. These methods of thought are really the basis for how you approach the world, with those adhering to the former being your cynics, rationalists, skeptics, and nullifidians (love this word), and those adhering to the latter being your religious, believers, and the faithful.  Perhaps this is a spectrum that is worth exploring, and make no mistake, both approaches can be deep and involve profound experience that warrants the many hours it can take you to arrive at…. well, more questions.

This is the problem with discussions on belief. I’ve already digressed, shamefully.

The point is, I don’t really see religion as a group, anymore, and this is great because it’s unifying. It’s Catholicism without the voodoo. People the world over are trying to make sense of everything they do by assigning truth to the ideas they have about what they do, every day. In order to make sense of these ideas, as stated in the last paragraph, they will employ a mix of those two methods of thought.  To compare their ideas to other ideas, they’ll need to get them from somewhere. Books, TV, media, friends, and teachers, and these might all take on a particular flavor depending on geography and governance. We’re all familiar with the totalitarian regimes that attempt to control the free-flow of information, as your behavior needs to be manipulated and justified by approved ideas for the sake of obedience and stability.

When you see people the world over, doing this same thing, the tangible and pragmatic nature of the ‘group’ disappears. Nobody is doing the thinking for somebody else. You can be influenced by other people, sometimes strongly, but it’s your thinking that makes you you, no matter what method of thinking you employ. From here, it doesn’t make sense to have religious groups, you just have people making sense of their lives with what’s available. With this in mind, the problem can never be Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism – these are useless and arbitrary lines we draw when pretending to understand human behaviors, and ideas that we use to bolster a sense of identity when we need it. The problem is dangerous ideas and how they manifest in the mind.

The interesting thing about religious identity is that it can involve a lot of truth by comparison. But the core ideas, the ones that form the foundation for the entire faith, they are not established from truth by comparison. They are true just because. In my opinion the core beliefs are accepted at a later date than the first introduction to a particular set of ideas. If there’s something about the ideas you like – I enjoy the company of people at Church, I agree with the things Jesus (allegedly) said, Church has helped me to make sense of my life – these ideas become so meaningful that the core ideas that they are resting upon have to be true… just because. So while religion might not be useful as a group identity, it is certainly a great conceptual and cognitive tool for providing stability and understanding in one’s own life.

Reading without meaning

EyeLet’s capture the process.

It’s Saturday afternoon. You have nowhere to be, and it’s just you, the couch, a pumpkin latte (why not?), and that one in a million novel that is so good you could die after reading it and it wouldn’t matter because you’d know you had lived.

It was effortless. It was as if your brain had tuned out everything before the words exploded in your mind’s eye, and you don’t even remember turning the pages, the phone ringing, or your sullen dog staring up at you with its head resting in its food dish. These moments are magic and timeless, but they are hard to slip into and maintain. Normal reading is punctuated by these moments, but interspersed with rude interruptions from reality, like when your need to pee infiltrates your dream and forces your dream-self to find a bathroom.

So many things have to be just right for you to get that good reading experience. Block out the “noise” from outside the book, and make consistent instantaneous leaps from words to experience. We’ve all felt the frustration when these things fail. The number of distractions are infinite, and if we’re reading a difficult writing style or there are too many difficult words, the only experience we get is frustration. Although, of course, practice makes perfect.

I have often wondered about the times when I have read, where it didn’t feel like I’d taken anything in. This isn’t to say I was distracted, thinking about other things, just that I cannot account for the turning of five pages or more. I know I read over them, but the train was gliding over the tracks in silence. Was it registering on some deeper level, unseen by my mind’s eye? If asked the right question, would I be able to pull the literary events from wherever they fell in the recesses of my memory? Or did the words go up in smoke before hitting my retina?

I have come to think that the process of latching onto sentences and riding them like a cheap rollercoaster is an independent process within the act of reading. It is a form of reading without semantics.

Upon reflection, I believe there to be two types of reading without semantics; in the light, and in the dark.

This is an example of reading without semantics in the light:

 

Tutti mi chiedono, tutti mi vogliono,

donne, ragazzi, vecchi, fanciulle:

Qua la parruca… Presto la barba…
Qua la sanguigna…
Presto il biglietto…
Qua la parruca, presto la barba,
Presto il biglietto, ehi!
Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!

This is a brief section of the famous aria Largo Al Factotum from The Barber of Seville. For those of you who don’t speak Italian (but have English as a first language), those words probably seem like gibberish, yet you can still read over them. The syllables are still somehow pleasing, and if you hear it sung, well, you can gain full enjoyment without understanding a single word. And here you can read over it without meaning, yet still feel present in the moment for the entire duration. Here, the syllables might trigger mild associations with your memories, but it will be very limited (after all, you’re probably not trained in this language).

Reading without semantics in the dark is when you feel that you’ve been reading, but your mind’s eye was closed. The syllables failed to activate any associations and thus you failed to experience meaning.

Reading is obviously better with semantics. But what is to made of those times when meaning and time flew over your head? Were we still flexing our reading apparatus, training for our next outing with a killer novel, or were we just wasting our time?

Presto il biglietto, ehi!
Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!

Can knowledge acquisition fit an addiction model?

Can knowledge acquisition fall into an addiction model?

The thought of being addicted to knowledge appears somewhat ridiculous, after all, knowledge acquisition is seen as laudable and a necessity for a rich and fulfilling life. Knowledge is often heralded and even worshipped by cultures the world over; indeed knowledgeable individuals are valued and seem to command a certain level of respect. Knowing more about something than somebody else can even serve to boost one’s social status, and once we realize that we can never know everything, we mandate and support the use of academic professionals for the sake of finding out more truths; truths that we can lap-up, think about and discuss without doing the cognitive fieldwork. So even now we can begin to see the craving and the use and abuse of information. In short, we just cannot do without it.

Finding out something new can often be a thrilling experience, urging you on to build-upon this thrilling piece of new information, or seeking another hit of information to reward you with the same feeling as before. If humans can rapidly learn cues and contexts that predict the availability of addictive drugs (von de Goltz; Kiefer, 2009), what is to say they are not using the same cognitive machinery to learn where to obtain another hit of information? A friend, the Internet, a book, a library, or a professor, and this exchange can often take place quickly and efficiently in the comfort of one’s own home with the use of a phone, a computer or a television. Finding a source of knowledge is in fact rewarding in itself and will quickly become highly valued and used for future acts of knowledge acquisition.

Behavior that constitutes addiction is often known to be both impulsive and compulsive. Impulsivity is marked by rapid and unintended reactions to internal and external stimuli, without regard for negative consequences. Compulsive behavior is characterized by perseveration in the face of adversity (Koob, 2009). It is not hard to see how knowledge acquisition fits both of these behaviors. Reading news headlines, texting and responding to text messages, the sudden urge to see how an entertaining plotline continues at the point of a cliffhanger, the use of social internet sites to view a status update of friends (or enemies), and waiting by a phone in the anticipation of receiving important information all represent an impulsive need to know. And as our attention is directed at receiving this information we can easily become blind to the consequences. This can range from short term foibles like automobile accidents caused by using a phone or an animated conversation with a passenger, to the long term neglect of friends, family and pets if the behavior is not moderated.

Compulsive and impulsive behavior can be seen in the light of delayed reinforcement.  When we act to obtain reinforcement, there is always a delay between the action and the outcome, and thus to control the world successfully, animals must be able to use delayed reinforcement (Cardinal, 2001). How well we control our anxiety caused by the anticipation of knowledge is the difference between compulsive and impulsive behavior; the perceived reward remains the focus, but the time allowed by the individual to achieve their goal differs in accordance with their need. This is perhaps even analogous to the neuronal rewards for sex. Instant gratification by way of masturbation provides a reward for an impulsive appetite, whereas a compulsive appetite is not bound by the need of a quick fix, even though the means of achieving the goal may have developed into an unhealthy obsession. The need to know things instantly can invoke impulsive behavior, but by contrast scholastic behavior is rife with trials and tribulations, yet the anticipatory rewards contribute to the ongoing drive for worthwhile knowledge. Many scholars fight adversity every day for publication in prestigious journals and for validation among their peers, and the best way to do this is to present a new piece of knowledge or an original perspective on an existing idea and hope that it too hijacks the reward system of the right people and satisfies their need for knowledge gratification, or at least the needs of a potential market. Despite this immense adversity, tremendous efforts are made, regardless.

There is perhaps also a difference in the quality of this gratification. Information obtained by the need of a quick fix does not require much thought, whereas those who seek to satisfy their intellect’s engage in long bouts of sustained sensory stimulation to build up their cognitive machinery to better understand the world; the satisfaction gained from this is arguably a greater reward, such as an emotional “Eureka!” moment of discovery.

Dopamine could play a role in the addiction to learning. The mesolimbic pathway delivers dopamine into the frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive functions, such as planning, forecasting and working memory. Dopamine appears to play an integral role in cognition. Stimulation of the D1 receptor in the PFC is linked to increases in the amount of NMDA receptors and could possibly play a role in NMDA receptor processes in the PFC (Wolf ; Gao, 2008). Increased activity of NMDA receptors can in turn increase AMPA receptors, resulting in long term potentiation and the strengthening of the prefrontal synapse, something that could be vital for maintaining working memory and our natural capacities for problem solving and critical thinking. The study by Wolf et al. goes on to suggest that addictive drugs like cocaine, which block the re-uptake of dopamine, could enhance NMDA receptor activity, which could in turn facilitate the neuronal plasticity that focuses behaviors towards drug-seeking. If natural levels of dopamine are high or dopamine re-uptake is naturally low or inhibited, surely neuronal plasticity could focus on behaviors that utilize the prefrontal neurons, such as working memory and learning, albeit weaker than cocaine addiction? This could present a natural addiction to learning behavior, although there is no evidence to support this claim.

High concentrations of dopamine have been linked to increased levels of endorphins (an endogenous morphine-liked compound) in the mammalian brain (Neri et al., 2008). In rats, β-endorphin has been linked to memory consolidation and memory retrieval (Barros, 2003). Endorphins are well known for the feelings of euphoria produced when they bind to opioid receptors in the brain, and so if increases of dopamine result in increases of endorphins, there could easily be a desire for the organism to replicate the behavior that caused the good feelings. If high levels of dopamine are involved in strengthening synaptic connections in the prefrontal cortex that are involved in cognition, and also producing higher levels of β-endorphin, which aids memory retrieval and memory consolidation, plus creating a mild euphoric feeling, it is not hard to see how the machinery involved in knowledge acquisition is tempting you to repeat this behavior.

I would like to suggest that the reward for learning has to be more than adaptive behavior that could promote the success of the organism. A neuronal reward system would encourage humans to learn and seek knowledge, which in turn would result in adaptive behavior, allowing for the successful cognitive evolution of the species. A biological system of addiction is perfect, as it gives the human a big push towards self-perpetuating beneficial learning behavior, even if misery and negative consequences are experienced along the way.

Erasing traumatic memories

A recent article from the website neuroscience news gives some insight into the work of Dr. Glanzman at UCLA; Glanzman has been trying to figure out the molecular basis for long term memory. Many now believe that when a protein kinase phosphorylates certain proteins in the synapse (CAMKII), the catalytic region of the protein remains accessible, which will increase the probability of long term potentiation (LTP: neurons that fire together wire together). CAMKII usually requires a second messenger for it to remain open, but the protein kinase phosphorylates the “hinge-like” protein, essentially blocking its closure, which allows access to the catalytic region. Glanzman has identified Protein Kinase M as a crucial kinase in this process; and so if Kinase M is inhibited, the chances of LTP and memory formation are drastically reduced or diminished. (Holes in my memory plugged by Bear et al. 2007 – see recommended resources).

There seems a long way to go before the molecular mechanisms in human memory are properly understood and techniques applied to weaken or reduce traumatic memories, but Elizabeth Phelps, a neuroscientist from NYU, has a made some phenomenal steps in understanding how re-writing fear memories in humans could be accomplished, see the video below.

Elizabeth Phelps on re-writing fear memories (I also recommend watching the other videos on youtube where Dr. Phelps discusses her research)

Knowledge and Addiction

Can knowledge acquisition fall into an addiction model?

The thought of being addicted to knowledge appears somewhat ridiculous, after all, knowledge acquisition is seen as laudable and a necessity for a rich and fulfilling life. Knowledge is if often heralded and even worshipped by cultures the world over; indeed knowledgeable individuals are valued and seem to command a certain level of respect. Knowing more about something than somebody else can even serve to boost one’s social status, and once we realize that we can never know everything, we mandate and support the use of academic professionals for the sake of finding out more truths; truths that we can lap-up, think about and discuss without doing the cognitive fieldwork. So even now we can begin to see the craving and the use and abuse of information. In short, we just cannot do without it.

Finding out something new can often be a thrilling experience, urging you on to build-upon this thrilling piece of new information, or seeking another hit of information to reward you with the same feeling as before. If humans can rapidly learn cues and contexts that predict the availability of addictive drugs (von de Goltz; Kiefer, 2009), what is to say they are not using the same cognitive machinery to learn where to obtain another hit of information? A friend, the Internet, a book, a library, or a professor, and this exchange can often take place quickly and efficiently in the comfort of one’s own home with the use of a phone, a computer or a television. Finding a source of knowledge is in fact rewarding in itself and will quickly become highly valued and used for future acts of knowledge acquisition.

Behavior that constitutes addiction is often known to be both impulsive and compulsive. Impulsivity is marked by rapid and unintended reactions to internal and external stimuli, without regard for negative consequences. Compulsive behavior is characterized by perseveration in the face of adversity (Koob, 2009). It is not hard to see how knowledge acquisition fits both of these behaviors. Reading news headlines, texting and responding to text messages, the sudden urge to see how an entertaining plotline continues at the point of a cliffhanger, the use of social internet sites to view a status update of friends (or enemies), and waiting by a phone in the anticipation of receiving important information all represent an impulsive need to know. And as our attention is directed at receiving this information we can easily become blind to the consequences. This can range from short term foibles like automobile accidents caused by using a phone or an animated conversation with a passenger, to the long term neglect of friends, family and pets if the behavior is not moderated.

Compulsive and impulsive behavior can be seen in the light of delayed reinforcement.  When we act to obtain reinforcement, there is always a delay between the action and the outcome, and thus to control the world successfully, animals must be able to use delayed reinforcement (Cardinal, 2001). How well we control our anxiety caused by the anticipation of knowledge is the difference between compulsive and impulsive behavior; the perceived reward remains the focus, but the time allowed by the individual to achieve their goal differs in accordance with their need. This is perhaps even analogous to the neuronal rewards for sex. Instant gratification by way of masturbation provides a reward for an impulsive appetite, whereas a compulsive appetite is not bound by the need of a quick fix, even though the means of achieving the goal may have developed into an unhealthy obsession. The need to know things instantly can invoke impulsive behavior, but by contrast scholastic behavior is rife with trials and tribulations, yet the anticipatory rewards contribute to the ongoing drive for worthwhile knowledge. Many scholars fight adversity every day for publication in prestigious journals and for validation among their peers, and the best way to do this is to present a new piece of knowledge or an original perspective on an existing idea and hope that it too hijacks the reward system of the right people and satisfies their need for knowledge gratification, or at least the needs of a potential market. Despite this immense adversity, tremendous efforts are made, regardless.

There is perhaps also a difference in the quality of this gratification. Information obtained by the need of a quick fix does not require much thought, whereas those who seek to satisfy their intellect’s engage in long bouts of sustained sensory stimulation to build up their cognitive machinery to better understand the world; the satisfaction gained from this is arguably a greater reward, such as an emotional “Eureka!” moment of discovery.

Dopamine could play a role in the addiction to learning. The mesolimbic pathway delivers dopamine into the frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive functions, such as planning, forecasting and working memory. Dopamine appears to play an integral role in cognition. Stimulation of the D1 receptor in the PFC is linked to increases in the amount of NMDA receptors and could possibly play a role in NMDA receptor processes in the PFC (Wolf ; Gao, 2008). Increased activity of NMDA receptors can in turn increase AMPA receptors, resulting in long term potentiation and the strengthening of the prefrontal synapse, something that could be vital for maintaining working memory and our natural capacities for problem solving and critical thinking. The study by Wolf et al. goes on to suggest that addictive drugs like cocaine, which block the re-uptake of dopamine, could enhance NMDA receptor activity, which could in turn facilitate the neuronal plasticity that focuses behaviors towards drug-seeking. If natural levels of dopamine are high or dopamine re-uptake is naturally low or inhibited, surely neuronal plasticity could focus on behaviors that utilize the prefrontal neurons, such as working memory and learning, albeit weaker than cocaine addiction? This could present a natural addiction to learning behavior, although there is no evidence to support this claim.

High concentrations of dopamine have been linked to increased levels of endorphins (an endogenous morphine-liked compound) in the mammalian brain (Neri et al., 2008). In rats, β-endorphin has been linked to memory consolidation and memory retrieval (Barros, 2003). Endorphins are well known for the feelings of euphoria produced when they bind to opioid receptors in the brain, and so if increases of dopamine result in increases of endorphins, there could easily be a desire for the organism to replicate the behavior that caused the good feelings. If high levels of dopamine are involved in strengthening synaptic connections in the prefrontal cortex that are involved in cognition, and also producing higher levels of β-endorphin, which aids memory retrieval and memory consolidation, plus creating a mild euphoric feeling, it is not hard to see how the machinery involved in knowledge acquisition is tempting you to repeat this behavior.

I would like to suggest that the reward for learning has to be more than adaptive behavior that could promote the success of the organism. A neuronal reward system would encourage humans to learn and seek knowledge, which in turn would result in adaptive behavior, allowing for the successful cognitive evolution of the species. A biological system of addiction is perfect, as it gives the human a big push towards self-perpetuating beneficial learning behavior, even if misery and negative consequences are experienced along the way.