The Ultimate in Introspection

This article from the NY Times is lengthy, but worth the read (h/t Jeff). It details the use of a new kind of therapy in which the patient is given a real-time fMR image of a part of their brain that's "causing" pain, which they then attempt to alter through the practice of certain techniques:

Over six sessions, volunteers are being asked to try to increase and decrease their pain while watching the activation of a part of their brain involved in pain perception and modulation. This real-time imaging lets them assess how well they are succeeding. Dr. Sean Mackey, the study's senior investigator and the director of the Neuroimaging and Pain Lab at Stanford, explained that the results of the study's first phase, which were recently published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that while looking at the brain, subjects can learn to control its activation in a way that regulates their pain. While this may be likened to biofeedback, traditional biofeedback provides indirect measures of brain activity through information about heart rate, skin temperature and other autonomic functions, or even EEG waves. Mackey's approach allows subjects to interact with the brain itself.

"It is the mind-body problem — right there on the screen," one of Mackey's collaborators, Christopher deCharms, a neurophysiologist and a principal investigator of the study, told me later. "We are doing something that people have wanted to do for thousands of years. Descartes said, 'I think, therefore I am.' Now we're watching that process as it unfolds."

Suddenly, the machine made a deep rattling sound, and an image flickered before me: my brain. I am looking at my own brain, as it thinks my own thoughts, including these thoughts.

Absolutely amazing. The invocation of Descartes is right on. I'm in the midst of writing a paper on Descartes and Spinoza and the passions. In Passions of the Soul, Descartes points out that our will does not allow us direct control over our body. So, for instance, I can't will to dilate my pupil, but I can will to focus on something far away, which then leads to that effect.

This is an attempt to cut out the middle man... sorta. It's basically the ultimate tool for learning techniques of self-control. As the article points out, something that take Buddhist monks 30 years to accomplish can now be jump-started, with possible lasting effect. So people with chronic pain, for instance, can learn to control their pain, by seeing what actually works!

This should provide a tremendous opportunity to increase reason's power in redirecting affect. It's truly astonishing the power we are gaining of recreating ourselves. We can alter our brain's chemistry, either through the use of pharmaceuticals, or through technologies like these. Someday, we may be able to rewrite the human genome, and edit out the nastiest parts of it. The opportunity to increase human happiness to unheard-of levels is one that we must not let pass us by.

If playing God is wrong, then I don't want to be right. I'd love to try this neuroimaging therapy myself. Just imagine looking at your brain in real time. What must be going on in there as the brain "looks" at itself? We still don't know nearly enough to answer that question.

But the possibilities are endless! It's enough to give one hope in a world that looks bleaker each day.


Jeff said...

Glad you liked the article, Dom. The part that was most interesting to me was the discussion at the end about the difference between the mechanisms associated with consciousness and "the emergent phenomenon" of consciousness itself. I thought the scientists response to the author's desire for transparency of self was right on. It's interesting how the article turns from a pragmatic look at diminishing pain to a quasi-mystical discussion about self-knowledge and a final almost religious reach in the end. Any comments on this?

specter_of_spinoza said...

Yes, thanks for sending it to me.

I reread the last portion again, which I neglected to comment on because it struck me as strange. This woman is very confused about what the mind is.

I've been reading Antonio Damasio's Looking for Spinoza which I'm thinking about using in my Descartes paper, because Damasio offers a scientifically supported interpretation of Spinoza that's absolutely amazing.

I'm starting to think that Spinoza's claim that "mind is the idea of body" is right on. This is a very difficult point to understand, but Damasio puts it like this.

What we experience as "feelings" (sorrow, joy, anger, fear, etc.) arises from our nervous system "mapping" the body. I don't know all the science on this stuff, so I could be off here, but think about it this way.

We are continuously getting feedback from every part of the body on a variety of levels: e.g., the presence of foreign bodies, tissue damage, the presence of heat or pressure, pH levels, CO2 concentration, and so on and so forth. This is too much information for consciousness to handle, so much of it stays in the background, emerging when appropriate.

What happens when we experience a feeling is that our body is reacting to a state of disequillibrium. For instance, when the glucose levels in our blood drop, we begin to feel hungry. But, this is just one aspect of our consciousness--as we well know since hunger accompanies a plethora of other perceptions at any given time.

This is tough to explain... Much of the idea is that our mind is not something "in our heads" but is extended, not just throughout the body, but outwards into the environment. Our perceptions of external objects, though, are what Spinoza calls confused ideas, because they tell us just as much (if not more) about our bodies as they do about the outside world (this might be a better way to interpret "secondary" qualities).

And when these are external objects are powerful, we are acted on, we undergo a passion. Our body enters a state of disequilibrium--say, I'm scared by a sudden noise--and we respond quickly. The heartbeat speeds up, the fight-or-flight response is activated, perhaps adrenaline kicks in.

These responses are "mapped" by certain parts of our brain, and we experience this as fear. However, other parts of the nervous system will sometimes interfere with this mapping. Let's say I'm attacked by a bear and it mauls my arm. If I experienced that pain full on, I would be paralyzed and probably die (thus, not passing on my genes to offspring, an evolutionary dead end). So, we have endorphins which mask the pain response and allow us to escape to live (and mate) another day.

If this doesn't make any sense, we should just talk about it in person.

Jeff said...

Sounds very interesting to me, but I wonder about the notion of equilibrium a bit. I'd like to hear more.