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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Why Lucid Dreams Matter

Lucid dreams are often defined as the ones you know you are having in real time. These are the dreams where you seem to be conscious. You are aware of the story line, and you are often a central character in the story. Sometimes, you may even consciously manipulate the dream content toward a more acceptable outcome.

Scientists have recorded physiological changes during sleep, and there are multiple episodes during sleep, especially early in the morning, that display brain waves similar to those when you are awake accompanied by rapid, jerky eye moves (REM). When people were awakened every time these signs appeared, they invariably said a dream was interrupted.
Source, with permission: Carroll Jones III, Nathaniel Graphics, 2013

Incidentally, I have studied this in animals. It appears that REM sleep is an innate property of the brains of mammals. I discovered REM sleep in ruminants, which at the time were assumed to rest without true sleep. I also discovered a rudimentary form of REM sleep in armadillos, which I studied because they are among the most primitive mammals. However, only people show numerous REM episodes lasting significant times. I have even published a theoretical paper suggesting why people need so much REM sleep.

Some people claim that they don't have lucid dreams, but there are physiological indicators that everybody does dream. It is possible that lucid dreams can occur but are not consolidated in memory. What is the first thing you do when you wake up? You start thinking about something other than what you were dreaming about, such as going to the bathroom, your aching joints, having breakfast, upcoming day's events, and so on. Such distractions interfere with memory consolidation of recent thought.

A sleep-lab study in which the EEG was recorded revealed certain physiological signs that are unique to lucid dreams, as opposed to non-lucid dreams. Subjects were trained to generate, recognize, and remember lucid dreams. Subjects who commonly reported having lucid dreams were selected for specific training, which included reminding themselves before going to sleep that they were to recognize when they were having lucid dreams and signal that to sleep monitors by a specific pattern of eye movements (in dream sleep, only the eyes move continuously because a descending motor-inhibition circuit in the brainstem is activated). During early-morning sleep, when lucid dreams were more prevalent, EEG recordings during lucid dreaming revealed REM-like activity in frequency bands δ and θ, and higher-than-usual REM activity in the γ band, the between-states-difference peaking around 40 Hz. 

Voltage power in the 40 Hz band is strongest in the frontal and frontolateral region. Moreover, the 40-Hz activity during REM is more coherent with similar activity in other regions of the cortex. The specific increase in gamma activity and the increased in 40 Hz-band coherence in lucid dreaming suggests that these are this may be the physiological basic of consciousness.
This study is important because the EEG changes are not like those in regular, non-dream sleep but are similar to what occurs in conscious wakefulness. Thus, REM sleep seems to be a form of consciousness. The lucid dreams are special because the content means something, but usually expresses it symbolically or in metaphors. Your brain has escaped the editing shackles of wakefulness and is free to reveal things you might not know about. Sometimes it is things you don't want to know about. However, you brain is trying to tell you something. You don't have to be a Sigmund Freud to figure out some of the meaning.

With my own lucid dreams, when I reflect on the content, I often find they help me to recognize and deal with deeply personal issues. They can point the way to personal insight. If you reflect on the dream content right after awakening, you are likely to remember it. Lucid dream content can change your life, one small step at a time.

Klemm, W. R. 2011. Why does REM sleep occur? A wake-up hypothesis. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 5 (73): 1- 12. Doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2011.00073

Voss, Ursula, Holzmann, Romain, Tuin, Inka, and Hobson, Allan, J. (2009). Lucid dreaming: A state of consciousness with features of both waking and non-lucid dreaming. Sleep. 32(9), 1191-1200.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Consciousness as Afterthought

I get a lot of questions in Quora about neuroscience, because neuroscience is what I do. A recent question prompts this post. The question was: "Does all thinking originate in subconscious thinking?" This is a provocative question. It gets to the heart of the matter: What is the default mode of brain operation, conscious or subconscious?

Semantic Confusion

Much of the confusion about consciousness arises because words fail us. We have poor definitions for the usual words: conscious, unconscious, subconscious, non-conscious. Before I attempt an answer to my Quora question, let me establish some background about terminology. First, the currency of thought is patterns of nerve impulse activity constrained by flowing in and through defined circuits of linked neurons. The impulse thought patterns that occur in primitive circuitry, like spinal  segments and neuroendocrine circuits are considered nonconscious thoughts because we can never be consciously aware of what those circuits are doing. We can, for example, use instruments to measure our blood pressure, but on its own, the brain can never detect that consciously.

Perhaps the most common kind of thought is that which occurs all the time, even when asleep, that we are not aware of. These days, scholars like to call this "unconscious" thinking.  But coma is clearly an unconscious state, and there often is little electrical activity that reflects thought. That is why a more useful term in this context is "subconscious," a term popularized by Freud. That is probably why the term has fallen into disuse. Too many of Freud's ideas have been discredited. But not his idea of subconsciousness.

Consciousness Is Not the Same as Being Awake

Reflect on your own perceptual experiences. Every time you are consciously aware of something you were attending to it. True, you can be awake without being conscious (see Selective Attention below). This means that we have to make a careful distinction between wakefulness and consciousness. They are not synonymous. You can't be conscious if you are not awake, but being awake does not assure consciousness of non-attended objects.  Wakefulness is generated out of excitatory activity of the brainstem reticular formation acting on neocortex, as I explain in my book, Mental Biology. The mechanisms of consciousness have not been established, but they likely involve coherent nerve impulse activity in distributed circuitry.

The phylogenetic perspective argues for unconsciousness as the default mode of thinking, inasmuch as lower animals are not likely to have conscious thought, yet their behavior clearly indicates that they are awake and their brains are "thinking." Also, we know from studies of infants that behavioral signs of consciousness are rare and only emerge as the brain matures. It is clear that much human thinking occurs below the level of conscious awareness.

The many scholars who claim that humans have no free will use the assumption of subconscious thinking to defend their stance against free will. They came to this conclusion from experiments that say indicate that all willed action is generated subconsciously and only recognized later in consciousness. The experiments and the interpretation are flawed, as I explain in my book on free will. To help defend the stance that free will is an illusion, the proponents go further to argue that consciousness is just an observer, like a movie patron in a theatre. You can just watch what is happening but can't do anything about it. Thus, they construct the specious circular argument that you can’t have free will because free will requires consciousness by definition, and consciousness can’t do anything. How convenient! This absurd notion, held by academics who are not as smart as they think they are, assume that all our consciousness thinking is basically irrelevant. They assume that the neural activity of conscious thought cannot influence neural activity in other parts of the brain, even though they have to admit that the neurons that mediate conscious thought are functionally connected with the other parts of brain. By these connections, conscious thought can, for example, explicitly evaluate the meaning of stimuli, or order certain muscles to contract, or force mental  effort to memorize, or change our emotional state and visceral functions in light of reason or mindfulness meditation, and so on. The circuitry of consciousness is not in a pickle jar outside the brain. It is inextricably bound to other brain circuits.

I certainly don't mean to dignify the anti-free-will position by describing it. However, debunking that position opens the door to reconsider the possible relationship between subconscious and conscious thought. Suppose conscious thought is an afterthought, but not in the restricted sense prescribed by the anti-free-will crowd. Just because subconscious thought can lead to conscious thought does not mean that conscious thought has no action of its own. When we consciously think about what we have recognized in consciousness, all that thinking is, by definition, conscious.  Conscious thought can consider options explicitly. It can reason. It can set goals, plan, command action, evaluate consequences of action, and adjust programming as needed. Subconscious thinking can do that too. Most likely the two modes of thinking work in potentially synergistic ways, though it seems clear that conscious thought can veto subconscious impulses and bad ideas.

Consciousness as Selective Attention

Have you seen the U tube video of a pickup basketball game? The video instructs viewers to count how many times one of the teams pass the ball. Viewers are so focused on the task that many of them fail to see a man in a gorilla suite walk into the game, do a little chest pounding, and then walk off the court. The point is that the eyes and subconscious mind saw the gorilla, but not the conscious mind. The same phenomena has been confirmed in another context. The phenomenon is labeled by psychologists as "inattentional blindness." In other words, we are only conscious of targets of our attention.

Like all biological systems, brains are stimulus-response systems. Humans have unique ways to respond to stimuli and experience, in that their brains selectively identify the information content, evaluate it in terms of available optional responses, and then determines an appropriate response. Both subconscious and conscious thought can be involved, but conscious thought only operates on attended targets.

Scanning for Meaningful Impulse Patterns

While it is clear that conscious brains think, it may be useful to consider that consciousness is also a scanning mechanism. We don't know how such scanning is enabled by wakefulness, but we do know that the awake brain generates more regular oscillations of impulse activity. These oscillations arise in many localized subnetworks throughout the cortex, occurring at varying frequencies and extent of synchrony among other generators. Intracellular recordings of neurons reveal that one or a few spikes are generated each time the membrane depolarizes. Oscillation is a built-in feature of neural circuits which commonly oscillate because impulse output re-enters the circuitry that generates it.  Increasing the frequency of oscillation increases the total impulse discharge because there are more depolarizations per unit of time. This increases the informational throughput in the network. Likewise, the degree to which multiple oscillators synchronize to share data modulates impulse throughput throughout linked circuits.

Perhaps the oscillation itself is the scanning mechanism. As novel or particularly relevant input enters an oscillating circuit, that circuit’s own impulse firing pattern may be disrupted, re-set, change frequency, or alter its time locking to other subnetworks. Enhanced time-locking among circuits could have the magnifying intensity effect that seems to be required in selective conscious attention. The carrying capacity for information is limited, because only subsets of networks in the global workspace synchronously engage at any one moment. This is one way to improve the signal-to-noise ratio of neural circuit processing.

Perhaps conscious thought is the afterthought of this scanning once it latches onto a subconscious thought that compels attention. Such a mechanism has great biological advantage in that it is a way for brain to scan through a noisy stimulus- and thought-world to identify signals that are salient for appropriate and selective processing and response. Once the target is captured in consciousness, conscious neural activity evaluates the salient signals and determines what to do about it and directs useful action. Taken in this light, I answer a tentative yes to my Quora questioner who wanted to know if all thinking originates in subconscious thinking.


Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate. New York: Prometheus.

Klemm, W. R. (2016). Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will. New York: Academic Press.   The original basketball game example of the invisible gorilla.  A confirmation of the invisible gorilla in another context.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Six Principles of Learning in School Jazz Programs

Jazz is complex music that even some professional musicians have difficulty playing. Yet somehow, jazz-band teachers create new jazz musicians out of youngsters who just a few years earlier knew nothing about music. What magic must they be using? In the spring of every year in Texas, Katy High School near Houston hosts a jazz festival that showcases junior- and high-school stage bands from around the state. I have attended several times and never failed to be astonished at the musicianship of these youngsters. Each year, there is one or more middle-school band. Even the professional musicians who critique each band’s performance are amazed that these 7th and 8th graders “play like adults!”

I never cease to be astonished at how accomplished these students are. I ask myself, “How did those kids learn such complex music?" The music played by the school stage bands is mostly the big-band music of Goodman, Basie, Kenton, Ellington, and others from the eras of swing and progressive/modern jazz of the 50s and 60s. They also play more modern jazz.

The emphasis on teaching reaches into the festival itself. Each band or ensemble performs for 30 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of critique from professional jazz musicians (some of whom are music professors at universities). The critiques are shared with the audience, consisting mostly by family and friends. Are university professors ever asked to evaluate student performance in regular secondary school academic classes?

The festival includes small-group performances, which are also openly critiqued by professional musicians. Katy High puts great emphasis on music teaching and has built a magnificent Performing Arts Center, where the festival takes place. If Texas schools are hurting for funds, it certainly isn’t evident at Katy High School. I bet they get extra support from parents.

Jazz fans everywhere lament that jazz seems like a dying art form overwhelmed by the simpler music of country, rap, hip-hop, rock, and whatever it is that most kids listen to these days. But the professional “coaches” at the festival reassure the audience that “jazz is in good hands.” The future of jazz is bolstered by the fact that many school and university music programs teach jazz.
Learning to playing any musical instrument is hard, but playing jazz is the ultimate challenge. In jazz, you not only have to know the tunes, you also have to use the chord structure and complex rhythms to compose on the fly. A jazz professor from North Texas State University counseled in one of his critiques, “I know you have sheet music you have to follow, but when you hear something in your head, play it. That’s what we (jazz musicians) do — improvise!” My impression is that in regular academic classes, we don't do much to encourage the creative application of knowledge. In jazz, it is the whole point.

Another jazz professor during a critique session had two bands re-play a number from their performance. About one-third of the way through, he silently and casually walked through the rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, and drums) and picked up the sheet music. The kids went right on playing without skipping a beat, because they had already memorized the sheet music. His point was they were using the sheet music as a crutch and not engaging with each other. Musicians talk to each other with their instruments, and listening is a big part of jazz improvisation. Students playing jazz need to be engaged with what each member of the rhythm section is doing, and, moreover, the rhythm section needs to interact with the saxes, trombones, and trumpets.

Hearing such wonderful music from children raised a nagging question. Why can’t kids master science, math, language arts, or social studies? Why does everybody struggle so mightily to get kids to pass simple-minded government-mandated tests in academic subjects? And then it hit me. Jazz-band teachers do the right things in teaching that other teachers need to do more of.
Two things are essential in teaching: the professionalism of the teacher and the motivation of the students. Most school jazz programs provide both. Sad to say, this is not so true of traditional curriculum.

Consider professionalism. It was clear that these band directors really knew what they were doing. Some had professional playing experience. Most, I am certain, were music majors in college. Think about what they have to do. They take young kids who know little about music beyond humming a tune and teach them music theory, teach them to read music, and teach them to play the different instruments in a band. And then they have to teach students how to compose on the fly. You can’t do that without being a real professional.

As for motivation, teaching and learning jazz involves clearly identifiable motivating features. Jazz-band teachers can’t take credit for some of these features, but creative teachers in other subject areas can think of similar motivating things they could be doing, based on what is involved in jazz.

First, there is passion. Jazz stirs the emotions, from blues to ballads to hot swing. If Benny Goodman’s music doesn’t make you want to jump up and dance, you better check your pulse to see if you are still alive. That brings up this point: jazz is fun! Learning chemistry, for example, is almost never considered by students to be fun — but teachers should be thinking of ways to make it fun. 
Some academic subjects do have intrinsic emotional impact. If, for example, the emotions of history students are not stirred by the Federalist Papers or the turmoil of the Civil War and the country’s other wars, then history is not being competently taught. If the beauty of the laws of physics and chemistry or the biology of life are not evident in the teaching of science, it is the teacher’s fault. 

Second is that jazz involves personal ownership. A jazz student intellectually owns his instrument. He or she owns the assigned space on the bandstand. One critiquing musician at the festival reminded students that they own that space, and if the sheet music stand or the audio at their station was not left just right from the previous band, they must fix it. It is now their space.

Jazz players demonstrate their learning in public. How well a student has learned jazz is public knowledge. What you know and can do is on public display all the time in practice sessions with fellow band members and, of course, in public performances. Unlike many traditional classrooms, there is no way to hide. Every student is exposed to embarrassment by mistakes. In a traditional classroom, the teacher is counseled not to embarrass students. It is actually against federal law for teachers to reveal grades on individual performance, even within the more private area of the classroom. The belief system in education these days is that you should not allow an unprepared and under-performing student to be embarrassed. What dingbat policymaker came up with that? I know; it comes from the perverse politically correct movement that ignores the reality that youngsters have to earn self-esteem.

Third is that jazz is ultimate constructivism. All teachers know about constructivism, which is the idea that students have to do something to show they have mastered the learning task. Student jazz bands and combos demonstrate personal accomplishment all the time in rehearsals and stage performances. But in many traditional courses, the main constructive thing students do is fill in circles on a Scantron test answer sheet. In science, “science fairs” encourage constructivism, but these are usually one-time events. Students need to be doing something every day to demonstrate their learning. In English, how often do students write and rewrite an essay, poem, or short story? Does anybody write book reports anymore? In social studies, how many students are required to explain and debate capitalism, socialism, fascism, democracy, and republican government? Do students in academic courses spend hours in deliberate practice and applying their learning comparable to what a jazz student spends in practice? 

Fourth, jazz is social. Jazz students perform as a group, either in a big band or combo. Recall the earlier example from the Katy festival, where the professionals had to emphasize this point by taking away the sheet music. Students had to learn to talk and listen to each other through their instruments. In traditional education, there is a movement called collaborative learningthe idea of learning teams, but many teachers don’t use this approach or do it without regard for the proven formalisms needed for success. Regardless of academic subject, students benefit when they learn how to help each other learn.

Part of the social aspect of jazz is competition. In many schools, many students don’t have to compete to get into a music class. But once in, they have to display learning in order to advance into more prestigious classes (think the “One-o-clock Lab Band" at the University of North Texas). In whatever music lab they are in, they have to compete for “first chair” in their instrument section. It is like competing to make the varsity and then the first team in sports. Where is the equivalent in science, social studies, or language arts?

The fifth point: Unlike a traditional education, where the goal is to meet minimum standards on state-mandated tests, jazz band directors make very clear their high expectations that everybody in each band class should become as proficient as they can. The whole point of their teaching is mastery and excellence, not just achieving minimum standards. They expect excellence, and they get it, as documented by the festival performances. Thanks to the unenlightened thinking of No Child Left Behind law, our public education has degenerated into “No Child Pushed Forward.”
And finally we consider the matter of reward. Somewhere in teacher college courses, pre-service teachers learn about “positive reinforcement,” and most teachers try to use these ideas to shape the learning achievements of their students. But jazz performance provides public reward, in the form of public applause. Is there anything comparable in the teaching of science, social studies, or language arts? Is publishing (inflated) Honor Roll lists in the newspaper the best we can do?

So in a nutshell, the reason jazz students do so well is because their learning environment is built around six motivating factors:

1. Passion
2. Personal ownership and accountability
3. Constructivism
4. Social interaction, both collaborative and competitive
5. High expectations
6. Reward

What I take home from attended these school-band performances is a renewed feeling that, outside of jazz music programs, our schools are letting our children down. These young musicians prove that when motivated and challenged, they can do astonishing things. The printed program for the festival concluded with the comment, “The future belongs to those who are able to capture their creative intelligence. Jazz music education and performance develop the ability to create and produce the ideas that are individually unique.” Why can’t the rest of education do that?

Reference: Klemm, W. R. 2017. The Learning Skills cycle. A Way to Rethink Education Reform. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

How Learning and Memory Relate to Free Will

One common definition of "free will" is that a person can decide or choose among multiple alternatives without being forced by physical laws, luck, fate, or divine will. Most of us feel we are in charge of our choices when no outside force requires us to make a particular choice. But it is fashionable these days for scholars to insist that free will is an illusion, a trick the brain plays on us. I will spare you the philosophical knots of specious assumptions and convoluted logic that that scholars tie themselves into.

Why do I bring this up? What has the "free will" issue have to do with learning and memory? Everything. Rather than memory dictating our choices, either we have chosen what to learn and remember or we can veto or amend the influence in our decision-making.

Human brains make choices consciously and unconsciously by real-time evaluation of alternatives in terms of previous learning from other situations and their anticipated usefulness. This learning occurs in the context of the learned sense of self, which begins unconsciously in the womb. The conscious brain is aware that it is aware of choice processing and makes decisions in light of such understanding. When a given alternative choice is not forced, the conscious mind is aware that it is not obliged to accept any one choice but is "free" to select any one of the available options. Such realization might even guide many decisions at the subconscious level. In either case, neural networks weigh the probable value of each alternative and collectively reach a "decision" by inhibiting networks that lead to less-favored alternatives. Thus, network activity underlying the preferred choice prevails and leads to a selective willed action. What governs the network activity causing the final choice is the activity in other networks, which in turn is governed by stored memories and real-time processing of the current environmental choice contingencies.
What usually gets left out of free-will discussions is the question of how a brain establishes stored-memory preferences and how it evaluates current contingencies. These functions surely cause things to happen, but what is the cause of the cause? Any given brain can choose within certain limits its learning experiences and stored memory. We govern those choices by what a brain has learned about the self-interest value associated with given contingencies. Brain circuitry assigns value, and values chosen are largely optional choices. The conscious brain directs the choices that govern value formation, reinforcement, and preservation in memory.

Now we are confronted with explaining how neural circuit impulse patterns (CIP) representing the sense of self can have a free will. First, I reason that each person has a conscious Avatar that brain acts as an active agent to act in the world on embodied brain's behalf, as explained more completely in my recent book. This is reminiscent of the 3rd Century idea of a homunculus, a "little person" inside the brain. The modern view is that this homunculus exists in the form of mapped circuitry.

Certain maps are created under genetic control. These include the topographic map of the body in the sensory and motor cortices. Then there is the capacity for real-time construction of maps of the body in space that resides in circuitry of the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex. Other maps are created from learning experience from the near-infinite circuit capacity of association cortex. What these maps learn is stored in memory as facilitated circuit synapses and deployed "on-line" in the form of CIP representations of what was originally learned. New learning likewise exists as CIP representations in sub-network populations.

The Avatar itself is a constellation of CIPs representing the conscious sense of self. Certainly, by definition, the Avatar can make choices and decisions. Wakefulness releases consciousness to make its own choices and decisions. Avatar processing is certainly not random, and presumably can occur with more degrees of freedom than found in unconscious mind.

If the Avatar exists as CIPs, how can something as "impersonal" and physiological as that have any kind of "will," much less free will. Let us recall that "will" is little more than an intent that couples bodily actions to achieve the intent. This kind of thing occurs even in the circuitry that controls unconscious minds. These circuits automatically generate actions in response to conditions that call for a response. Such actions are stereotyped and inflexible only when there is no conscious oversight.

Each alternative is represented as circuit impulse patterns (CIPs) within a subpopulation of brain, which be considered as constituting part of the sub- or non-conscious mind. Each population's activity interacts with the others - and with the CIP representation of the Conscious Avatar. When activity level in any one subpopulation reaches a threshold, it suppresses activity in the alternative representation populations, leading to selection of that population's activity as the choice result. The Avatar CIP is poised to influence activity in the alternative sub-populations and thus can help direct the final processing result.

The Avatar must have some criteria that its circuits use to make a given decision. Those criteria have been learned and remembered. When CIP processes operate in Avatar circuitry, the Avatar population activity can modulate the alternative-choice representations in the context of self-awareness according to the informational representations of past learning and value assessments of current contingencies. You might say that when the brain generated the CIPs to represent the sense of self, those CIPs came endowed with a certain autonomy and freedom of action not available to the other CIPs in the brain that constituted unconscious mind.

People who believe that humans have no free will are hard-pressed to explain why no one is responsible for their choices and actions. What is it that compels foolish or deviant behavior? Is our Avatar compelled to believe in God or to be an atheist? Is our Avatar compelled to accept one moral code over any other? Is it compelled to become a certain kind of person, with no option to "improve" itself in any self-determined way? Do learning experiences compel us to make our choices of learning experiences? Of course not. We are free to reject learning that does not serve us well.

It seems to this Avatar that current debates about determinism and free will tend to obscure the important matters of our humanness. The door to understanding what is really going on is slammed shut by assertions that value choices and the decisions that flow from them cannot be free because they are caused by neural circuit impulse patterns. Free will debates distract us from a proper framing of the issues about human choices and personal responsibility.

While it is true that genetics and experience help program the Avatar circuitry, the Avatar does its own processing and makes choices about who to interact with and what experiences to value, promote, and allow. The Avatar can insist that it has a need to remember some lessons of experience and makes it a point to remember it. In short, the Avatar gets to help shape what it becomes.

Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate. New York: Prometheus.
Klemm, W. R. (2016). Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will. New York: Academic Press.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Two New Discoveries to Explain Why Exercise Is Good for You

Have you noticed that so many elderly people seem frail, walk slowly, and seem to lack energy? If this applies to you, noticing it is unavoidable. These problems are preventable. For 25 years, I jogged at least a mile and a half three times a week. This was crucial for helping me stop smoking. I don’t know why, except that I could not smoke and jog at the same time. Also, the 15-30 minute recovery time reminded me just how bad the smoking had been for my health.

Why did I quit jogging? The jogging messed up my joints. So, I took up swimming, but since I sink like a lead mannequin, that is just too much work. So now, I joined a gym, where I use the elliptical, treadmill, and muscle-building machines. This environment helps because I have companions in my discomfort, and occasionally I get the satisfaction of comparing myself to the few “90-pound weaklings” that show up.

We have known for many years that exercise is good for you, especially as you get older. Known benefits of exercise include:

  • Relieve stress and promote a sense of well being. (Well, at least after the soreness wears off).
  • Improve heart and cardiovascular function. (If the damage is already done, don’t expect huge improvements).
  • Lose weight. (Pushing away from the table is the best exercise for this effect).
  • Strengthens bones. (Reduces loss of bone density in old age. But high-impact exercise may damage joints).
  • Lower blood sugar and help insulin work better.
  • Help quit smoking. (Ever try to smoke while jogging? Ha!).
  • Improve mood and resist depression. (Ever heard of “runner’s high? It comes from release of endogenous opiates).
  • Releases proteins and other chemicals that improve the structure and function of your brain. (Memory ability improves too).
  • Improve your sleep. (I mean, besides making you really tired. To reduce interference from soreness, take acetaminophen before bed time).\
  • Reduce your risk of some cancers, including colon, breast, uterine, and lung cancer.

What was not as well known until recently was the effect of exercise on the immune system. Recent research indicates that exercise in older age can prevent the immune system from declining and protect people against infections. A recent study followed 125 long-distance cyclists, and found that some of those in their 80s had the immune systems of 20-year olds. Maybe this is a reason exercise can help prevent cancer.

The key indicator was the level of T-cells in the blood. T cells, named after the thymus where they first appear, are a type of white blood cell that makes antibodies. As people age, the thymus gland, located in the neck, shrinks and T-cell activity resides mostly in bone marrow. The study of cyclists revealed that they were producing the same level of T-cells as 20-year olds, whereas a comparison group of inactive older adults were producing very few. Thus, it would seem that, though not tested in this study,   physically active seniors would also respond better to vaccines than sedentary people.

The other new discovery is the importance of exercise on brain white matter integrity. White matter electrically insulates nerve fibers, which has two effects: 1) speeds communication in neural networks and 2) reduces “cross talk” among adjacent fibers. The study compared people averaging 65 who were mentally normal and those who had mild cognitive impairment, which is a risk factor for later development of Alzheimer’s Disease. In both groups, investigators measured cardiovascular function with a standard measure of heart and respiratory fitness, the VO2 Max test. They also used brain scans to measure white matter integrity. Levels of physical activity were positively associated with white matter (WM) integrity and cognitive performance in normal adults and even in patients with mild cognitive impairment.

Given all this, how much more reason do you need to get off the couch and start moving? Besides, at the end of a good workout, it feels so good to quit.

"Memory Medic's latest book is for seniors: "Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain. Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine," available in inexpensive e-book format at  See also his recent books, "Memory Power 101" (Skyhorse), and "Mental Biology. The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate" (Prometheus).
Ding, Kan, et al. (2018).Cardiorespiratory fitness and white matter neuronal fiber integrity in mild cognitive impairment. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 61(2), 729-739.

Duggai, Niharika A. et al. (2018). Major features of immune senescence, including reduced thymic output, are ameliorated by high levels of physical activity in adulthood. Aging Cell. 8 March.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Better Things Get, the Worse They May Seem

“Too much of a good thing” and “it’s all relative” now take on new meaning. A new research report of seven studies suggests an explanation for the paradox that humans misjudge the extent of a changing situation. This report, published in the June 29th issue of the premier journal, Science, demonstrated that people often respond to diminished prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their perception of its prevalence. For example, when looking at a matrix panel of blue and purple dots, if the experimenter reduces the percentage of blue dots, the subjects began to see purple dots as blue. Or when shown panels of threatening faces mixed with neutral faces in which the percentage of angry faces became rarer, they began to see neutral faces as threatening. Or when unethical requests of the subjects were made rarer, subjects began to regard innocuous requests as unethical. In other words, reduced prevalence of a certain stimulus created a bias for finding more of that stimulus than actually existed.

The investigators began with the blue/purple dot test. When they saw the biasing effect of reducing incidence of blue dots, they wondered if this same principle applied to other kinds of stimuli and to more abstract comparisons. The bias showed up also in their test with angry and neutral faces and in the test with unethical and innocuous requests.

Everyday experiences suggested this research. For example, others had reported that when unprovoked attacks and invasions decline, the perception of new instances receive magnified judgement. I might speculate that the empowerment of women by the women’s rights movement has made recent incidents of sexual harassment more notable than would have been the case years ago when it was not so unexpected. Or perhaps the current outrage over illegal immigrant children separated from their parents and attempts to close the border are magnified by the fact that so many have been already reunited and set free in the U.S.

The authors rightly concluded, “These results may have sobering implications. Many organizations and institutions are dedicated to identifying and reducing the prevalence of social problems, from unethical research to unwarranted aggression. But our studies suggest that even well-meaning agents may sometimes fail to recognize the success of their own efforts.”

They add reference citations that show that societies have made “extraordinary” progress in solving a wide range of social problems, but that the majority of people think the world is getting worse. In prosperous countries, like the U.S., social problems usually continue to improve. However, many people in such environments seem to keep finding more and more things to complain about. For example, as the economy improves, it seems increasingly easy to find poverty or wealth gaps. As civil rights improve, it seems easy to find abuses and even to misinterpret neutral events as abuse. Thus, despite all progressive efforts, the problems seem intractable, when in fact they are not. Politics is contaminated by flawed judgment caused by changed prevalence of social problems contaminates our politics.

We tend to cling to old myths when they no longer apply as well as before. This diminishes appreciation of the successes of government policy. In the U.S., the growing hostility of citizens toward their country may actually be the result of the improvements in the country. Compounding the problem is the common feeling that it is not politically correct to consider that this kind of bias might exist. Even when a person knows of this bias, sometimes it is of political benefit to keep contentious issues alive.

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Levari, David E. et al. (2018). Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment. Science. 360(6396), 1462-1467.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Consciousness Explanation. Part II

In an earlier post, “Where Neuroscience Stands in Understanding Consciousness,” I presented a summary of the progress occurring in neuroscientific understanding of consciousness (

Now a recent report in the May issue of Science adds to a growing understanding of how the brain generates conscious recognition. The study examined neural impulse discharge responses of monkey brain to visual stimuli. Electrodes were implanted in the four visual cortex areas that are sequentially activated by visual stimuli. The stimulus was a circular spot of varying contrast in the lower left area of the visual field. Monkeys were cued when a stimulus was delivered, though whether they saw it or not varied with the spot’s contrast against the visual background. Monkeys were trained to report when they knew they saw the spot by shifting  their gaze from a central fixation point to the spot’s prior location some 450 msecs earlier. Monkeys reported unrecognized spots by shifting the gaze to the right of the default fixation point. Investigators imposed the delay for reporting to eliminate the response being a simple reflex saccade. A longer delay would have been more convincing, but it might have taxed the monkey’s working memory and easy distractibility.

As expected, spots of sufficient contrast evoked impulse discharge in each of the four visual cortex regions. Whether or not the monkey reported actually seeing the spot depended on whether there was also increased impulse discharge in the region of frontal cortex that had implanted electrodes. No doubt, other non-monitored frontal areas might also have been activated under conditions where recognition was reported. The point is that conscious recognition requires activation of widely separated brain areas at the same time.

Not demonstrated here is how the frontal activity is interacting with activity in the visual cortex areas, but that certainly could be predicted from studies in my lab, reported in 2000. We showed that conscious realization of alternate perceptions of ambiguous figures in humans occurred when brain electrical activity (EEG) over the visual areas of scalp became highly synchronized, over a wide range of frequencies with multiple frontal areas, both in the same and even opposite hemisphere. Figure 1 shows the topography of coherence change at the moment of realization for the upper frequency band of 25-50Hz.

Figure 1. Topographic summary of p<0.01-level coherence increases across all 10 ambiguous figures, all subjects, in the 25-50 Hz band. Each square matches a given electrode and shows how activity at that location became more coherent with activity at other locations at the instant the subject consciously realized the alternate perception in any of 10 ambiguous figures. From Klemm et al. (2000). Widespread coherence increases were also seen in the band below 25 Hz.

Thus, it seems that a meaningful detectable signal, which need not be limited to vision, not only activates its immediate neural targets, but those target cells can trigger feed-forward to trigger activity in more frontal areas. Feedback from those frontal areas can set up time-locked oscillatory coupling across wide expanses of cortex that is apparently necessary for conscious recognition. The time locking probably amplifies the signals to the threshold for conscious realization.

The distributed signal processing does not necessarily mean consciousness requires huge expanses of neural tissue. Recall from the split-brain studies in Roger Sperry’s lab that even half a brain can be fully conscious of the stimuli it can receive. The magic of consciousness seems to lie in the qualitative nature of data sharing, not in the volume of tissue involved.
Thus, the major issue is how oscillatory coupling of otherwise isolated circuitry amplifies signals to become consciously recognized. “Amplify” may be a misleading word, inasmuch as there is no compelling evidence as yet that consciousness is related to having more nerve impulses per unit of time. The impulses certainly don’t get bigger, because their voltage magnitude is constrained by concentration and electrostatic gradients. Rather, the secret may lay in the controlled timing of impulses. A likely form of amplification results from the reverberation of activity among coherent neuronal ensembles, which could have the effect of sustaining the stimulus long enough to be consciously detected, that is, for the brain to “see” what the eyes were looking at.

Consciousness may also simply be a matter of improving the signal-to-noise ratio. Time-locked, reverberating activity should be more isolated and protected from random activity which is unreliably associated with a given stimulus. Intuitively, that is what we sense in daily experiences. When we look at a tree, the cognitive noise of the multitude of tree signals may obscure our seeing the bird in the tree until, by accident or intent, we are able to see the bird.

This still leaves us with an incomplete answer. What is it about amplifying or reducing background noise that makes stimuli consciously recognizable? Where is the “who” in the brain that does the realizing? When my brain sees or hears something, it is “I” who consciously see or hear it. How does my brain create my “I” and where in my brain is my “I?” One possibility is that the unconscious brain can release a set of unique network activity that operates much like an avatar, giving brain a functionality it otherwise would not have. I elaborated this idea in my post, “The Avatar Theory of Consciousness” (

How does this avatar “I” find a stimulus that it recognizes? Is it searching for it, like a searchlight scanning across the cortex for stimulus-induced activity? Or maybe it is not “looking for” sensation but rather is triggered into temporary existence when a stimulus acquires the needed threshold to launch consciousness. The monkey experiments support the latter option. However a stimulus becomes recognized, the awareness may outlast the triggering. We often consciously think about the meaning of a momentary stimulus, integrate it with memories, and develop beliefs, intentions, and responses, either cognitive or behavioral or both.

One more thing needs mention. In the monkey experiments, it was clear that the monkeys were continuously awake, even when they were not detecting presented stimuli. Thus, being awake is not the same as being conscious. We know this also from human experiments on inattentional blindness, which reveal that consciousness depends on selective attention. Wakefulness is a necessary condition for consciousness but not, by itself, sufficient.

For more explanation of brain function, see my book:


Van Vugt, Bram, et al. (2018). The threshold for conscious report: signal loss and response bias in visual and frontal cortex. Science. 360 (6388), 537-542.

Klemm, W. R., Li, T. H., and Hernandez, J. L. (2000). Coherent EEG indicators of cognitive binding during ambiguous figure tasks. Consciousness & Cognition. 9, 66-85.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Joys of Consciousness

The Joys of Consciousness

You take time to be alone, valuing your personal time.
You meditate.
You feel light and buoyant.
You feel spiritually uplifted.
You find a solution to a problem.
You have a fresh new idea.
You notice something beautiful.
You walk outside in nature and feel refreshed.
You engage in physical activity that's invigorating.
You are playful and take time to play.
There is a moment of pure joy.

You smile in appreciation.
You respect someone else's boundaries without being asked.
You lift someone else's spirits.
You make another person laugh.
You give someone a helping hand.
You do something kind.
You forgive a slight.
You offer yourself in service to someone in need.
You feel a close bond with another person.
You cherish another person.

from The Healing Self by Deepak Chopra and Rudolph E. Tanzi
     re-sequenced to show the joys of nurturing oneself and then nurturing others.