Existential neuroscience and autonoesis

I read a remarkable article by Marco Iacoboni in Social Neuroscience entitled “The Quiet Revolution in Existential Neuroscience”.  Instead of ‘quiet’ I wish it would be quite loud.  It makes for some dense reading but worth every nerve impulse to do so.  His main argument seems to be that instead of doing neuroscience based on the assumptions that the subjective and objective worlds are clearly delineated and that the subjective world is based upon representations which have been constructed through the accretion of analyzed elements (some pragmatic truth in that), our neuroscience should be based upon “the view of a human brain that needs a body to exist in a world of shared social norms in which meaning originates from being-in-the-world”.  What is important to our minds is not so much the analytic synthesis but the embodied context of experience.  Hey now, I can get behind that one.

Iacoboni marshals evidence for this view from a variety of research, especially studies into the frontoparietal mirror system.  (The frontal lobe has motoric functions that light up when we see someone doing something and the parietal lobe has perceptual and body schema functions that contribute to this mirroring).  Some studies show that mirroring emotions both incidentally and intentionally invokes not just the mirrored expressive actions but also the emotional processes themselves in the limbic system.  We mirror each other automatically on an almost continuous basis and that this leads to (I really like this next part) “a process according to which a certain intimacy is achieved . . . . . What is this intimacy if not the interdependence of both parties”.  What is emphasized here is not our separateness but our communal feelings. Mirroring helps us identify with and understand the other’s intention and emotional state.  This plays, of course, an important role in ‘mentalizing’ about others, what I call EC for Empathy Central and others label it ToM for Theory of Mind.

There is a lot more about this to be said but I want to explore another remarkable idea.  Iacoboni sees our minds interpreting much of our experience in context.  The same actions occur in many situations, so that to understand the other’s acts requires the inclusion of context in our deliberations.  (Be still, O my heart).  If I read him correctly, one major feature of any context is the degree of personal relevance; some situations are impersonal, i.e., without emotional engagement or involvement (think of doing things as a matter of course), and some are more personal, i.e., their emotional involvement leads to episodic memories (the experience is important enough to remember as an autobiographical episode of your life).  Experiences that are important to the self are autonoetic, as was discussed in my recent post 8/22/18, and autonoesis has many implications.


DMPFC=dorsomedial prefrontal cortex MPC=medial parietal cortex. Illustration provided by Georg Northoff – Georg Northoff  Brain and self – a neurophilosophical account Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 2013, 7:28.

Most amazingly, Iacoboni identifies two structures relevant to the mirroring system, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex, that light up when the experience is autonoetic (my interpretation).  For example, these two areas are silent during artificial laboratory tasks that have little ecological validity but they become more active when the task is social in a meaningful way.  Iacoboni says our ‘default state’ is to think socially and these two areas help in the ongoing social thinking needed to relate in a authentic, i.e., not rote or cant, manner.  To refer back to his earlier notion, these areas light up more when the situation’s import is based upon intimacy, i.e., engagement with the other, than when the situation is socially sterile.

Now, if you have followed my blog somewhat closely for more than a few months, you may already have a sense of how my dorsomedial prefrontal and medial parietal cortices are fired up.  Consider one of Iacoboni’s preliminary research finding that these areas light up when political aficionados discuss politics and grow dark when politically naïve or disinterested people do so.  I take this to mean that some of us feel politics is relevant to our lives and some do not.  Some do because they are cognitively engaged in issues and some do only because of the chameleon effect, i.e., they are responding by fitting in through social imitation and emotional contagion.  If you have done any phone canvassing for a candidate you might recall conversations based on positions, conversations based upon an emotional identification, and some when the person could care less.

Now consider a study posted about here on 4/18/18 that demonstrated that the closer you are, i.e., developing intimacy, with colleagues and friends, the more your neural responses to watching a movie are congruent with each other.  Also consider (and it may help to re-read my 8/22/18 post) the role of autonoesis in art. My empirical question is when someone ‘gets into’ a work of art, e.g., reading a novel that is hard to put down or seeing a movie that you love, do these areas indicative of autonoesis or personal engagement, i.e., dorsomedial prefrontal medial parietal cortices, light up? If you used an instrument to assess one’s aesthetic response such as the AESTHEMOS (see post 10/31/17), would this correlate with activity in these areas?  A very interesting study there wants to be done—oh to be a younger man in a research setting.  But go one step further with me.

Aristotle in talking about drama but it applies, I think, in some way to art forms in general, says that since we know the art is not ‘factual’, i.e., couldn’t be relevant to our ‘real’ life, to engage emotionally (and aesthetically, I would say) we must have a willing suspension of disbelief.  So I wonder if such a suspension allows what I am calling these autonoetic areas to fire up, and if we find art uninvolving, e.g., we could care less about the characters or the plot of a stupid movie, do these areas remain dark?  Oh my, that is seeking the deep aesthetic in life and mind.  Travel on.


Whose brain could we study?

I am going out on a lark here.  I just read an excellent review of research along with a proposed model of how our brains do empathy:  “A social cognitive neuroscience model of human empathy” by Jean Decety in another great collection of papers, Social Neuroscience: integrating Biological and Psychological Explanations of Social Behavior.  We are going to go into some complexities here but in truth, the reality is even more mind-boggling.  So Dr. Decety postulates 4 components to empathy:

  • ‘Shared neural representations’ which I understand to be the mirrored actions, especially emotional expressions, by which we resonate with one another.  (See posts 9/27/15, 7/29/15 & 7/31/15).
  • ‘Self-awareness’ which I take to be essential in knowing which resonant activity originated within us and which within the other.
  • ‘mental flexibiity’ by which Decety means the ability to set mentally one’s own perspective in the background and so enable the taking of another’s perspective.
  • ‘Emotional regulation’ which I understand to be quite basic to developing empathy and also higher intellectual skills. The development of emotional regulation is critical to our maintaining focus on our current mental set, intention, and task as well as to setting our personal feelings aside to address the concerns of others.

As Decety explains these 4 components, he reviews the neuroscience, including clinical findings, relevant to each.  For example, autistic people can generally engage in mimicry, i.e., mirroring, intentionally, but do not do so incidentally and this latter is necessary for mentalizing about another’s state of mind. It is one reason researchers like Ramachandran and Baron-Cohen (see my post 7/29/18 ) think autists suffer from a mirroring deficit.

The neuroanatomy supporting empathy is also profoundly complex.  Generally there are centers in the posterior brain, especially in the right hemisphere, that receive and integrate social information, and centers in the front of the brain that provide executive functions and guided responses to that information, again especially on the right side.  The front and back areas communicate with each other directly in some cases through long fasciculi, i.e., nerve fibers traversing the cortex, and also through their interconnections with lower centers like the hippocampus for memory and limbic system for emotional processing.


Exterior view of left hemisphere. Lobes are same on the right. Some structures are deeper within the larger folds.

Decety does an admirable job sorting through various findings to present relevant hypotheses about neural functioning.  For example,

  • The frontal polar cortex facilitates inhibiting our own perspective, which is the default one that we usually follow in our considerations, in order to take on another’s perspective. This area also helps evaluate our own responses and behaviors for their contextual fitness, i.e., do they fulfill the intent? Was the intent properly developed from a coherent adequately formulated context?
  • The prefrontal cortex interacting with the inferior parietal lobe (in the back and integrating information from many perceptual sources) and the insula (old cortex deep with the brain kind of in the middle) on the right side helps to differentiate actions from one’s own self from those of another.
  • The paracingulate sulcus (again old cortical structures deep in the brain) in the medial prefrontal cortex helps process social feedback, i.e., how do others view our actions?

And so forth.  I always find it amazing to consider that while these areas are performing these particular functions, they are also contributing to many others, e.g., attention and focus, memory input and output, etc.

Two ideas here struck me as particularly interesting.  First, damage from say a stroke to the right frontal lobe so important to emotional expression and social responding sometimes shows up in personal confabulation, i.e., the patient makes up stories about themselves seemingly unaware that he is doing so.  The second is that when faced with the personal distress of others, say due to their own circumstances or even to their assessment feedback of the original actor’s actions in some matter, our brains can respond either with empathic concern given their perspective (an optimal response) or with egoistic anxiety (retreating to one’s own narcissistic concerns).

Well, we have covered a good deal of ground here.  In my past life as a clinical psychologist I worked with many youth, including some with attachment and sexual aggression problems, who had deficits in some of these empathy ‘components’.  Each person’s deficits were unique in form and history and most retained some islands of empathic functioning.   Let me list some major areas:

  • Failure to resonate with another. The person may only resonate when the other mirrors them, but they seem unable to mirror or resonate with the other’s feelings.
  • Confusion as to the agent of thoughts and feelings. They think their own thoughts and feelings are also the other’s and they may fail to process accurately social feedback when the other tries to disagree or otherwise present their own perspective.
  • This leads to problems with perspective taking. They may assume that their perspective is shared by everyone.
  • Poorly developed emotional regulation presents difficulties for staying on mental task and intent as well as for responding with empathic concern for the other—instead they act upon their own egoistic anxiety and fail to engage socially in an adequate manner.

As I read and thought about these ideas I kept thinking of someone who seems to experience all of these deficits despite what otherwise may be intact intellectual capacity.  And I wondered if scientists could study that person’s neurological structure and functioning to learn from what seems to be an unusual case, someone whose empathy deficits appear global but without a history of neurological disease or injury or of developmental trauma.  I can think of only one person like this at the moment and that is why I want to ask our President, Mr. Trump, to donate his brain to science upon his death.  I know more could be discovered if he were to undergo evaluation while alive through experimental protocols, e.g., using fMRI, but I also know he is much too busy being president and running his businesses to do such a thing.  I am not talking about a simple post mortem autopsy such as the one that found a tumor impacting the amygdala of Charles Whitman, the Texas tower shooter (see my posts 9/3/15 & 12/26/17), but a detailed scientific examination of his brain structure, sort of like we wish would have happened with Einstein’s brain, which unfortunately was not done very rigorously.  I believe a knowledgeable neuroanatomist could assess the integrity of most of the relevant areas and some of their interconnections.

Now I have no way really of getting my message to our President and I am not on Twitter nor knowledgeable about it, but I wonder if some tweeting aficionados sent out some messages using #SaveTrump’sbrainforscience (if I understand the format correctly), what might transpire.  Travel on.

a precious process part 2

So we know from last post that the mirror system contributes to our social skill of reading another’s intention.  Most researchers frame their studies of this theoretically as contributing to cooperation and joint activity and that is fine as far as it goes, but I also think that mirroring and empathy play an important role in both the evolution and the development of intimacy, which is important to the development of verbal, i.e., symbolic, communication.  Consider the epitome of intimate relationships, mother and child.  Watch a video of a mother-infant face to face interaction, how they mirror each other in action, e.g., sticking out tongues, and in rhythm, and this is only the beginning. In my former life I was a speech-language pathologist working primarily with preschoolers, some of whom had articulation disorders that made their speech difficult to understand.  I learned that no matter how disordered the child’s articulation, his or her mother could understand them.  Often fathers could too, though not as well as mother, depending on how involved the dad was in parenting.  Also older siblings were usually pretty good at understanding them.  In these early years communicative success is critical to energizing development. Indeed, as throughout our lifespan, feeling understood is a prerequisite to feeling good about our relationships and our life.


so is this kid happy or what?

Parent-child mirroring also plays an essential role in the development of emotional regulation.  Allan Schore gives a comprehensive summary of research into this in his two volumes on Affect Regulation and Affect Dysregulation.  While most people focus on the how the child learns to gain comfort, calm, self soothe, and recover from emotional distress, Shore also sees the importance of emotional innervation, i.e., the infant learns how to be positively excited through mirroring with parents.  We need to develop and acquire the capabilities to cope with distress, alleviate sadness, and also very importantly to be happy, i.e., to energize with positive emotions and use that energy for relating, or as my wife and I said in our vows, “to build a space for joy.”

Consider now how energetic, joyful mirroring appears later in life and its important contribution to social bonding and the expansion of intimacy.  I believe all cultures, at least those healthy dynamic ones, have traditions that promote musical fellowship and ecstatic dancing, e.g., drum circles, Celtic ceilidhs, and some vibrant church services.


Who wrote the book of love?

As an example of what I would call an unhealthy culture, remember almost any repressive fundamentalist religion. Scottish Presbyterian ministers in the 19thcentury demanded that musical instruments be destroyed (how could they destroy the family fiddle?), my Baptist family frowned on all dancing and rock and roll (were Buddy Holly and Elvis really doing the Devil’s work?), and even today the Taliban and ISIS use inquisitorial measures to restrict dancing and music.  One measure of unhealthiness is hypocrisy; for example when allied forces invaded Afghanistan in the effort to fight terrorism, they captured some Taliban leaders and their cars that had within tapes and CDs of music they had forbidden others to have.  It’s a small sick joy listening must have brought them.

Finally consider falling in love and how sexual intimacy involves the energetic acceleration of each partner’s pleasure centers together.  This is a highly skilled, difficult and variable performance and its learning requires a certain level of healthy development that includes how to mirror such actions and feelings.  In my past life as a clinical psychologist I worked with sexually aggressive youth, i.e., they had sex on someone, not with them.  Their aggression generally resulted from key experiences that bruised their empathic capability and stunted their capacity for real intimacy.  They used sex to energize themselves through feelings of power and control at the expense of their ‘partner.’  This bruising and stunting is more pervasive in our culture than many understand.

Why is the #MeToo movement so important? Because it demands change to how males (mostly) exert power to gain energy for themselves while draining the other’s energy; indeed they transform the victim’s energy from intimacy’s positive dynamic to the negative toxins of trauma and assault.  And so, the #MeToo movement in its full expression insists that our culture promote true intimacy through the abnegation of the mostly male illusion that coercion is a path to intimate joy (and parents need to instill a finer model for masculine intimacy).  That mirroring leads to intimacy is then a most precious process, and we must nurture and protect it.  Intimacy needs cherishing, or as Stevie Wonder sang, “Love’s in need of love today”.   (Now don’t get me started about the separation of parents and children and the consequent bruising of the child’s development of empathy.)  Better now to travel on.

a precious process part 1

I found a 2015 article that shows an important aspect of mirror systems in our empathizing, the lateralization of empathy and verbally directed attention, and the necessary neural (is there any other kind?) connection between context and intention:  http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0030079.   Marco Iacoboni and colleagues, who first discovered mirror neurons back in the day, used a complicated experimental design to investigate mirroring systems in humans.  The set-up is to show video clips to subjects undergoing fMRI and then examine and compare the different brain responses to different clips.  Now these films were of a cup grasped either by the handle or by the whole cup with either of two contexts, either a table set for tea with cookies, clean plates, folded napkins, etc. or a table after tea with only cookie crumbs on plates, napkins in disarray, etc.  The idea is to see what neural systems operate to identify the intention of the person grasping the cup, either to drink or to wash. They used variations so that they could subtract neural patterns from one another to see the effects of the different types of grasping, the effects of context without the cup being grasped, and context with the cup being grasped.  All told, a very logical design that let them examine those factors and brain patterns.

Their motivation was to see if mirror neurons contributed directly to the apprehension of another’s intent or if other neural systems were used to mediate that process.  Their results showed that the mirroring system does contribute directly to the viewer’s understanding of intent without other areas being recruited, that it was the mirrored action coupled with context that enabled the apprehension of the other’s intent, that the intent itself was processed especially in the right frontal lobe, and that verbal directions were processed more through the left sided attentional system.  Another implication is that the mirroring system automatically processed the information about the intent no matter if the directions directed the subject to attend to that or distracted the subject to other features.  Quite an accomplishment all this, I think.

I have maintained that right sided structures process the immediate concrete information while the left side deals more with displaced information.  The reading of another’s intent from actions would be just such a current event, so the nexus of processing the intent to the right side makes sense.  That the mirroring system does this as a matter of course also makes sense because monitoring another’s intention is critical to social interaction, specifically to interacting with social intelligence, and is usually done incidentally in an interaction.

Two thoughts to finish up here, one about when this mirroring system dysfunctions and one about how it culminates and fulfills its evolutionary mission. The first instance happens with brain damage and/or developmental deficits.  Strokes etc. rarely damage just the mirror system but when it is included, patients have difficulty imitating or miming actions, reading and comprehending another’s intentions and feelings, and behaving in socially appropriate ways. Developmental deficits, such as those on the autism spectrum, result in deficient empathy and all that that entails. Several researchers, such as V. S. Ramachandran, think that mirroring deficits are at the core of the autistic syndrome, i.e., the person’s ToM (Theory of Mind as it is generally called, EC or Empathy Central as I like to call it) is deficient, i.e., Ramachandran calls it ‘a broken mirror system’.  Without this precious knowledge a person experiences difficulty establishing and maintaining social connections.

What about when the mirroring system operates optimally and develops with appropriate experience?  Over the past year I have come to understand that just as our symbolic capability makes human communication distinctive in the animal realm, so too does our empathic capability make human intimacy distinctive.  Indeed, I think that our symbolic capability emerges from our intimacy (look back at recent posts to see this).  Now intimacy is hard to study empirically yet it is critical to our humanity. Consider how important trust issues are and how destructive a breach is; we think we know our intimates well enough to trust them completely.  When we meet someone who seems erratic we will constrain our trust and development of intimacy.  Also consider how well married couples, e.g., old people, who are very intimate, know each other’s intent implicitly; they can readily read each other’s intents even in novel situations.  It is as if they share one mind on some matters.

So the mirroring system functions as an initial phase in a crucial process that leads to intimacy if successful interaction proceeds on course.  I have more to say about this but that will be in part 2. Travel on.


Book review: The telltale brain

Book review: The Telltale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V. S. Ramachandran

This book has a lot to recommend it. I don’t have much time or energy right now but wanted to get something new posted before I slip out of harness here for awhile. Ramachandran is a scientist-practitioner of the highest order, both treating patients with neurological problems and running experiments both to improve treatment and to understand the mind better, so he has a wealth of experience, knowledge and insights into the mind.

He uses clinical anecdotes to illustrate neurological conundrums and he then considers some hypotheses for their explanation.   If he can test these, he does. If they help with treatment, even better. For example, he discusses the possible mechanism for phantom limb. When a limb is amputated the patient often feels like it is still there and some even feel excruciating pain in that limb. How do you treat physical pain that arises from an illusion? Ramachandran and colleagues tried using mirrors to present an image of the missing limb based upon the other intact one and this visual feedback facilitated the brain learning that the limb is actually gone and the pain also disappears. They then extended MVF (mirror visual feedback) to treat other conditions. Ramachandran goes on to discuss many examples of various syndromes as a way of elucidating brain structure and function. This is creative clinical neuroscience at its best.

Most significantly for me, he discusses not just mirror neurons but mirror systems and finds that they probably play a role in many domains from motor skills to empathy to culture. (Now you see why I like this book?) Even better he is one of the few to include the concept of symbols in his theorizing about language and art and to identify neural systems for meaning. For example, the visual system processes ‘seeing where’ and ‘knowing what’ is seen through different subsystems, and humans have an additional ‘so what’ circuit for processing its significance. And two chapters on art is two more than most have.

I did find, given my particular perspective, some exasperating passages. He says in an aside at one point that it is possible to overdo the concept of an “embodied mind”—I would like to know how. Of course he uses the term ‘hard-wired’ as a stand-in for the complicated structuring of neurochemical connections but I am not going to quibble much about that. I found his use of the term ‘semantic’ at times errant. He does not seem to have much sense of deep vs surface structure or that syntax is how we transform meaning to phonemic strings and back again. I also think he misunderstands Chomsky’s notion of a grammar as a biological phenomenon, but I do not know to what context he is referring when he asserts such things, so I do not want to be too picky about linguistics here when he has so much to offer.  I was not surprised that he does not mention Langer’s distinction between presentational symbols carrying import and discursive ones carrying meaning.

At the end though he gives a brief hint that art comes about maybe through the connection of ‘doing’ circuits with ‘feeling’ ones, i.e., of motor habits with intimacy, and that I will take as some affirmation of my thinking here. Anyway, try this book out if you want to see a detailed explication about the biological roots of our humanity and travel on.