TOO MUCH NOISE

the rapidity with which the brain adjusts to circumstances is amazing. neuroplasticity is not the only far-out skill that nervous systems have, however: there are two extreme characteristics that somehow cozy up and find room together within our skull. these ubiquitous attributes are those tendencies of all brains that are at once coworkers and also contradictory:

brains are formless

the first extreme is the brain’s plasticity. this highly pliable, ultra-erasable, moment-to-moment functional wobbling of the teflon nature takes place at the cellular level. consider your conscious experience right now – it is changing, and changing rapidly. it would not conceivably follow from this observation that some stillness or lack-of-motion is present within your brain. far from it – movement in our experience must mean there is movement inside of your body. even the observation that our moment-to-moment experience changes immediately suggests an unseen organ operating that is as bodily as all the rest, and that must be undergoing minute and constant change. the colorful flickering of our momentary Right-Now-experience is simple proof that life is a film of many frames, and it by observing the bodies of others we can appreciate that underlying this is cellular mutability and impermanence.

brains are formed

the other tenant occupying the shadow of all experience, and the structure of your body, is regularity. your brain is shaped like [almost] all other brains. it cannot be understated how exactly similar your brain is in the overall sense to most peoples’ brains. there are no doubt anomalies – folks who have been injured, or born with developmental diseases, or other modifications. but we are mostly alike in our form. consider car engines. i’m no engine expert but do know that, like people, many types of engines are out there. so a brain is like an engine: unique, overall demonstrating commonalities so major they are almost forgettable. engines are regular in this way: an engine needs gas. it needs the oil changed every 3,000 miles. it needs a car with 4 wheels to roll well in order to bring itself to the dealership to get itself looked at, and if the driver is drunk shit might go poorly for the engine. engines will fall apart if they get too hot and they will absolutely turn to rotten caramel if you stick sugar inside of them. a brain has similar expectations and mandates that, no matter how unique the brain, must be met. things like heart rate, breathing, maintaining some muscle tone in your eyelids in order to observe the bear flying towards you – these are the basics expected of a working nervous system. it helps to have working hormones, air in your lungs, and maybe even a few simple movements in your limbs….and if you can’t choreograph an orchestra’s worth of complexity within your gut you won’t be digesting the bear meat from your hunt a moment ago. these are the deeply regular aspects of being a brain, and they somehow coincide with the plasticity aforementioned.

so brains are both extremely malleable and extremely regular. it distresses me on a daily basis that both of these opposite qualities occupy the same mess of tissue. the malleability [of our conscious mind] then takes place within a context and the structure of the brain shapes that regular context, our place in it, and somewhere down the line, on an irrelevant shelf: these both shape our conscious mind and day-to-day lives, relationships, and feelings.

there’s a little story from a children’s book that was special to me as a kid. it’s about a frustrated old man who lives by himself in a cabin and was written by author Ann McGovern. for anyone who has really fussed over concepts in sensation, perception, and neuroplasticity this story should be a silly one. most of us can relate to being frustrated by noise at one moment or another – it is a regular experience. but with a little help and a few sensory tricks we can get past it. Enjoy this brief little tale on frustration, patience, and change – in the meantime feel free to wonder what was happening in old Peter’s skull during this frustrating little story.

Too Much Noise!


 

Here are a few concepts (sorry for the watered-down sources) to play with when it comes to our rapid adjustment to novel or stressful experiences.

Habituation

Orienting response

Signal Detection & noise (R. H. Wiley)

Broadbent’s model of attention

Attenuation theory (Treisman)

Affective style, psychopathology, and resilience: Brain mechanisms and plasticity

Social influences on neuroplasticity

Shoutout to the wise man!

Exposure therapy

Contemplative Cops: Using Meditation in Law Enforcement

Should law enforcement officers engage in on-the-job meditation practices as a regular part of training or workflow? Might the use of certain contemplative exercises such as mindfulness training enhance the ability of police officers to perform their job safely (or recover afterwards)? Or, more simply: would meditating be good for cops? Should the police meditate? This note is written in response to a few online publications about this question that briefly describe the increasing osmosis between law enforcement and intentional, secular meditation practice. Only several online pieces from the early 2000s will be discussed [rather than the history/subject matters of police practice & contemplative practice in general]. If anyone doubts that exploring all possible strategies to reduce police violence is important, let’s just step into the comment area. Before initiating or joining any critical conversation about something as subjective as meditation (or something as serious as law enforcement) we might want to take a few things into consideration.

First, as your author, I am not [& never have been] ordained or certified as a meditation teacher — nor as a law enforcement officer. This places me in a position of relative inexperience when it comes to the following topics, and I encourage any and all from these communities to provide input (or contact me at iandoyleolson@gmail.com). My relevant expertise will be mentioned below but it is not of primary importance for our conversation anyway.

Second, both law enforcement and meditation are kind of hard to talk about with any truth or accuracy. This is because law enforcement and meditation are both quite common and and varied – they happen all over the place, and in a lot of different ways. This piece of writing you are looking at is coming from someone with no experience as a police officer and no authority on meditation. This means that we will fail in covering the breadth and scope of both of these practices…oh well.

Third, the observations to come are not meant to be judgmental or laden with approval/disapproval – they are simply observations. Those individuals working in both the meditation & law enforcement communities have my support, & it is from a place of interest that I enter the discussion about them.

Why would the police meditate? (We’re talking about on-the-job meditation – not any personal practice at home.) There have been a few internet publications about this recently [see list below]. There are at least some of us who are of the opinion that when it comes to police and law enforcement, the United States is in a crisis. This crisis, as described by Buddhist dharma teacher and former police officer Cheri Maples, is characterized by “[an] unnecessary use of force, racial profiling, militarization of police departments, lack of trust between communities and police departments, lack of strategies to address trauma and emotional health of police officers, unconscious and unspoken organizational agreements in police culture, and a lack of informal safety nets for people across the country….” All of these issues warrant immediate and honest speculation on how to improve our state of affairs. And for the past several years, especially in the midwestern United States, the quest for solutions has been a hot topic. Among existing thoughts on how to reform police practices is the idea of introducing and/or standardizing traditional mental and emotional training techniques for law enforcement.

A healthy amount of the existing chatter in this conversation comes in from the angle of affective neuroscience. Affective neuroscience is the multidisciplinary study of the nervous system in the context of mood, emotion, and affective processing. One of the pioneers in this field who has publicly offered thoughts about police work is the research psychologist Richard J Davidson, a Harvard-trained buddy of the Dalai Lama who does most of his brain research in Madison, Wisconsin. Richie is a righteous dude who gave me the chance to chat with him when I was 19 – not too long after I had some experiences at the hands of the Madison Police Department that were not ideal. A year later, just as my own personal Zazen practice was deepening, he let me volunteer in his laboratory in Madison. I am grateful both for his input on my experiences and career at that time, and for my current opportunity to reciprocate.

Because a lot of Davidson’s work has focused on the neurophysiology of mental illness, well-being, and other emotional states, it seems clear why he might be interested in the neural correlates of (and effective steps towards) compassionate police work. Not only do police officers deal with homelessness, mental illness, and behavioral crises on the job – they also go home with personal trauma. This is notwithstanding the myriad instances of police brutality in the news, including some shootings in Madison and some unfortunate practices in Dane County Jail. Mediating stress, fear, anxiety, and panic responses under pressure are certainly complex issues at the level of media social discourse, but also at the level of the central nervous system – Dr. Davidson seems to be interested in connecting the two. He is already helping to get the police to meditate. According to a 2015 article in the Atlantic he has been helping the police in Madison, Wisconsin to either learn some contemplative practices or to connect them with someone who can. (I’ve reached out to the handful of officers that I know in the MPD to see what they think about it – updates to come.)

This seems like a great idea to me…generally speaking. But what are the specifics? What benefit(s) to police tactics or police work overall might be found in sitting practice? As much as I love both topics I wonder why the MPD first chose to talk to Richie: in other words, I am skeptical about the immediate intersectionality between police practices and high-level neuroscience research. Certainly as a prominent researcher of meditation (and a personal meditator himself) Richie likely some great insights about how the practice works, as well as great connections in terms of teachers. But is he really the best (or only) individual to be providing such practices or consultation to the police? With no information about the program in place at the Madison Police Department I can’t say much. But my academic familiarity with Richie’s research, experiences in his lab, encounters with the Madison police, EMT training, my personal Zen practice, and role as a law enforcement instructor for the Barbara Schneider Foundation have given me a thought or two: I have some initial doubts about the application of “mindfulness” to law enforcement. My opinion is that the types of mindfulness practices – at least those being explored at the Center for Healthy Minds (previously the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds), where Davidson is in charge – are likely beneficial for the emotional stability of police officers, but perhaps less relevant during actual fieldwork or crisis intervention.  Elsewhere there are similar programs – a quick Google search shows that meditation programs are appearing in a variety of police departments. A mindfulness program in Oregon has been implemented for several years now, and some initial results and data shared at a conference in April 2014. There’s also some similar stuff happening in India. As a certified EMT and supporter of technology I have wondered about the possible efficacy of some type of an App for blending these skill sets – a mindfulness trainer for law enforcement and EMS that could fit in one’s pocket. Maybe that will be the subject of further research and another brief piece. Time will tell how these law enforcement/meditation programs play out and it is my modest prediction that the futures of neuroscience research, public interest, police work, and federal/municipal/private funding may continue to overlap in a big way.

-IV

 

sources

(9/30/2015) http://www.thewayofmeditation.com.au/blog/the-current-crisis-in-policing-and-how-buddhist-mindfulness-can-help/

(7/2014) http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/nov/07/india-police-yoga-meditation-police-crime-figures

(4/16/2014) http://www.oregonlive.com/hillsboro/index.ssf/2014/04/hillsboro_cops_meditation_trai.html

(early 2014) https://www.change.org/p/president-of-the-united-states-make-it-mandatory-that-police-officers-meditate

(3/4/2013) http://www.tm.org/blog/people/transcendental-meditation-helps-police-with-ptsd/

(fall 2011) http://www.ntoa.org/massemail/RyanFA11.pdf

(2/15/11) http://www.spiritvoyage.com/blog/index.php/from-police-officer-to-peace-officer-meditation-and-cops

Objective subjectivity: Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness

this paper was written for Joy Laine’s philosophy of mind class at Macalester College during the fall of 2014. it describes one of the most exciting new theories about consciousness, which comes straight out of my home town of Madison, WI!

Philosophy has offered many interesting opinions and insights about consciousness, but does anybody really know what it is? Humankind’s empirical understanding of the universe and how we arrived here has increased in the last several centuries. Modern science has made some advances in helping us understand fundamental physical laws and neuroscience research is perhaps the next frontier in tackling the mystery of individual selfhood. In our day and age there seems to be a general consensus that private mental phenomena and their associated brain activity are well connected, but it remains an embarrassing mystery how exactly they contribute and relate to one another. Despite plenty of factual information and data about neural correlates of consciousness it remains that without a theoretical knowledge system or ontology our subjective selfhood will continue to be the most intractable phenomenon that anyone has attempted to describe. What objective knowledge system might account for the mystery of our daily consciousness? In some sense the question becomes: how can subjective information be characterized objectively?

            Giulio Tononi is a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has proposed a bold and unique hypothesis about the nature of inner subjectivity. This “integrated information” theory of consciousness draws on Tononi’s sleep research, some thought experiments, and a robust mathematical framework to assert that inner subjectivity consists of quantifiable experiences that are generated by a set of informational relationships in a complex of elements (Tononi, 2008). The scope of this project is impressive, drawing on phenomenology, neuroscience and physics to try to make fundamental claims about consciousness. Tononi has released two accounts of IIT that are worth mentioning. The first is a very technical and scientifically rigorous paper called Consciousness as Integrated Information: A Provisional Manifesto. This work was published in 2008 and is a patchwork of philosophy, science, and mathematics.

We see in the introduction of his paper some of the problems associated with consciousness research, if there is such a thing:

“How much consciousness is there during sleepwalking or psychomotor seizures? Are newborn babies conscious, and to what extent? Are animals conscious? If so, are some animals more conscious than others? Can they feel pain? Does a bat feel space the same way we do? Can bees experience colors, or merely react to them? Can a conscious artifact be constructed with non-neural ingredients? I believe it is fair to say that no consciousness expert, if there is such a job description, can be confident about the correct answer to such questions. This is a remarkable state of affairs. Just consider comparable questions in physics: Do stars have mass? Do atoms? How many different kinds of atoms and elementary particles are there, and of what are they made? Is energy conserved? And how can it be measured? Or consider biology: What are species, and how do they evolve? How are traits inherited? How do organisms develop? How is energy produced from nutrients? How does echolocation work in bats? How do bees distinguish among colors? And so on. Obviously, we expect satisfactory answers by any competent physicist and biologist.” (Tononi, p. 217)

With all of these mysteries as a starting point Dr. Tononi uses thought experiments to formulate his argument about what consciousness is and how it arises from the natural world. Consider a photodiode. Both a photodiode and a human being are capable of indicating whether or not a nearby screen is lit. What’s the importance of this observation?

“The first problem of consciousness reduces to this: when you distinguish between the screen being on or off, you have the subjective experience of seeing light or dark. The photodiode can also distinguish between the screen being on or off, but presumably it does not have a subjective experience of light and dark. What is the key difference between you and the photodiode?” (Tononi, p. 217)

To Dr. Tononi, the difference is quantity and quality of information. Using a classical definition of information as reduction of uncertainty (and a “logarithmic entropy function”) he suggests that there is at most one bit of information represented in the photodiode at the moment it makes its decision (because there are only two possible states). A simple binary decision informs the photodiode, whereas we know that a rich subjective experience would and does inform the human decision. In other words, we as human beings are able to distinguish between many other possible states besides “light” or “dark” whereas the photodiode can’t. The question is why this is important. Tononi seems to think that it’s obvious that there is more experience contained within the subjective experiences of our day-to-day lives and that the way this information becomes subjectively charged is the means by which it is integrated. Having started by defining consciousness Tononi seems to have subsequently given himself a means to describe how it arises. That is the main argument of Tononi’s manifesto: that integration of information arranged in certain complexes (such as in the human brain) produce consciousness. The paper is very technical. The second notable work by Dr. Tononi about IIT is a book released for general audiences called Phi: A Voyage From The Brain to the Soul. 

A rather unique book, Phi straddles questions of metaphysical anxiety, scientific uncertainty, and philosophy with a clear and vibrant mysticism. It is written in the form of a dreaming Galileo, who encounters scientists and thinkers of the future (some of whom come from our modern day neuroscience laboratories). Step by step these strange time travelers inform Galileo of what has been discovered about the brain and mind in their time. As the dream progresses the reader’s conception of what consciousness fundamentally is becomes guided through the stages of Tononi’s argument and thought experiments that were also present in his manifesto. The difference between the book and his original paper is that subtle narrative reference and free-flowing dialogues carry the book along in lieu of the manifesto’s unintelligible equations and mathematics. One of my personal opinions about the book was that it was enormously creative and that its execution was brilliant. Some of the thought experiments and their descriptions were rambling and unnecessary for the progression of the argument, though.

There are strengths and weaknesses to the theory and much time could be spent on both of them. For convenience I will only mention one of each in this paper. First, let’s consider a unique technological advancement Tononi’s theory has been affiliated with. In medical situations it is common practice to attach electrodes to a patient’s head and measure the electrical activity on their scalp to get some indication of their brain activity. The correct interpretation of this information can offer clues as to whether or not the individual is having any significant brain activity or not. With a higher degree of understanding experts hope to be able to ascertain an exact level of consciousness via this method – with the help of Dr. Tononi’s IIT. This includes scenarios where a family may want to know if a loved one is in a coma or simply paralyzed, or if a surgical patient’s general anesthesia has successfully rendered them unconscious. Even though this is a long-standing practice, much improvement stands to be made in the technology. Tononi and a colleague have created a device that allows them to do this and hope to continue developing it (Lang, 2013).

Of the less believable repercussions of consciousness as integrated information include the possibility that the entire universe has a degree of consciousness. A complex capable of generating sufficient phi (“consciousness”) to register a private, inner “me” feeling certainly happens in our own brains. What else generates a feeling of having a self? One of the mathematical predictions of the current model of IIT suggests that even individual hydrogen atoms have a certain level of consciousness. This seems counter-intuitive: could it really be the case that every single atom is buzzing around with a tiny level of consciousness, and that certain weird configurations of matter are more conscious than others?

Galen Strawson is another current thinker who has written on the possibility of the universe being conscious. He may come to Tononi’s defense on this topic. An essay of his titled Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism offers a rejection of traditional Cartesian opposites that has become rather familiar in our course this semester. The argument for his form of monism – more aptly called his ?-ism (Strawson, 2006) – is long and complex. The realest thing to Strawson is immediate conscious experience, and so whatever we call it – physical or mental – is what exists in his view. He insists repeatedly that to define reality in any particular terms is to simply affix some type of language pattern onto whatever we really know to be real, those being spatio-temporally located events. As long as we are being honest with ourselves, says Strawson, we must accept that consciousness at some level emerges from the universe. So it seems plausible in Strawson’s system to admit that there may be some type of phi value in all microscopic complexes, though a closer read of Tononi’s opinions suggests he himself may not even believe this.

SOURCES

Lang, Joshua. “Awakening.” The Atlantic. 2 Jan. 2013. Web. Nov. 2014. <http://m.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/01/awakening/309188/&gt;

Strawson, Galen. “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism entails Panpsychism.” Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006. Web. http://www.academia.edu/5488726/Realistic_monism_why_physicalism_entails_panpsychism_Appendix_2006

Tononi, Giulio. “Consciousness as Integrated Information: A Provisional Manifesto.” The Biological Bulletin 215.3 (2008): 216-42. Consciousness as Integrated Information (full text). Bio. Bulletin. Web. <http://www.biolbull.org/content/215/3/216.full&gt;

Tononi, Giulio. Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul. New York: Pantheon, 2012. Print.