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week 3 - Neurobiology and Behavior

Paul Grobstein's picture

Interesting how interested people are this year in whether "thought" can affect matter.  And a variety of related questions, as have been turning up in the forum in previous weeks.  Let's see where things go this week, as we discuss, among other things, quadriplegia and the "I-function" as an additional box.

urbrainondrugs's picture

Where is "I"

I would like to know just where this I-box is located. It is the area that gives us free will and not be simply machines processing inputs and outputs according to the environment situation. If the system is, say allergic to dogs, then the input would be allergens and the outputs would be to sneeze and to move away from the flea bitten animal. However due to the I box, the system can sneeze and ignore the reaction of moving away from the animal, instead staying even closer to the dog and petting it. The I box is what controls all variability within the system of boxes. Therefore, it is assumed that without the i-box, the system would be in a state of vegetation. A person in a vegetative state is someone who's mind is gone, but the body is still running basic functions because the brain and brain stem and NS system is still intact. As wikipedia defines it, a coma which has progressed to a wakefull state but without any sign of awareness. Because there are many who are in this induced vegetative state, is it possible to study what areas of their minds are active and what areas are not? By comparing the connections in the nervous system that are active in a concious person versus a person in avegetative state might give us a clue as to where this I-box may be located. By finding the location of the I-box in the mind, might we also find a person's soul?

biophile's picture

The I Box as a physical structure?

Can we really think of the I Box as a physical structure? I mean, it certainly depends on the interactions between different neural pathways... But does that mean that this "I Box" is a set of neural connections itself? Personally, I didn't envision the I box as a particular set of nerves, or even as a box in a box controlling other boxes like some gene inhibitor does on a cellular level. Rather, perhaps the I box is a property of the neural pathways of the brain. I don't think that a person's individuality or soul can ever be pointed out in a CAT scan; it just might be a complex form of organization of senses and memory and self that comes about as a result of many simpler interactions among the different parts of the brain. I don't think that the self can ever be reduced to the mere physical structures of the brain, as there are so many interactions and so many factors that complicate the system. It may be impossible to ever boil it down. So, that's the bottom line of my post I guess: the self (I-box) may not be a mere collection of physical structures; it might be an emergent property of those structures.

Pleiades's picture


I don’t think I like the idea of the I-box as a physical part of your brain. That idea seems far to static to me for something as complex as our brain. However, I do like the idea of a shifting, summation of properties of the neural pathways in the brain. I may have posted this before, but in some cases of multiple personality disorder one personality will have diabetes and the other won’t. What is happening with the I-box in this case? This transformation of body, if what we said in class is true, must in some way be linked with the so called I-box. And if the body is morphing so much is the I-box changing as well? I don’t think so. Although there is some change in the brain activity between two different personalities, there is no change of structure (the brain doesn’t morph, then change back). I think that however this I-box manifests itself, it is an integration of way that the other boxes work together, not necessarily a commanding force. And, for whatever reason, it can change and cause changes in personality and even body (for more on this subject read my web paper).

Meera Seth's picture

"A Small Part of the Brain, and Its Profound Effects"

A recent article in the New York Times entitled "A Small Part of the Brain, and Its Profound Effects" by Sandra Blakeslee (2/6/07) describes the significance of a little-known piece of brain tissue called the insula. With still much to discover about this organ and how it connects to the rest of the brain and the body, it has recently been recognized as a possible key component in what it means to be human.

The insula appears to play an important role in the control and regulation of a whole host of desires, impulses, and emotions. Blakeslee notes, "For example, the insula 'lights up' in brain scans when people crave drugs, feel pain, anticipate pain, empathize with others, listen to jokes, see disgust on someone's face, are shunned in social settings, listen to music, decide not to buy an iten, see someone cheat and decide to punish them, and determine degrees of preference while eating chocolate."

Who knew that so many thoughts and behaviors were the direct result of a tiny mechanism found deep in the brain? Moreover, to what extent does this biological attribute eliminate personal choice and free will? More practical questions (already underway in the scientific community) consist of how one could potentially manipulate the insula in order to treat drug addiction, anxiety, eating disorders, etc.

Aditya's picture

PVS: This is your body without an I-box.

A person is in post vegetative state when they are brain dead but their body maintains vegetative functions because the brain stem is intact. A person in PVS breathes on his own, is able to process nutrients, circulate blood, even open eyes, make sounds, and appear to be consciously there but theoretically they are not, and all these outputs are just reflexes.

Connecting what we talked about in class, the I-box of a person in PVS is not active, but everything else is functional. Without this box their body is just a big robot, feeding off nutrients. Is this i-box the mind? Well we can study people in PVS and find that PVS occurs after coma, or after seroius brain damage. I think this is another exmaple of how brain = behavior. Brain damage causes loss of the I-function which is extremely importnat for our existence.

Where is this i-box in our dreams? Like we said in class, what is important is not activity but patterns of activity of the same neurons for different functions. For dreams, this i-box probably consists of the same neurons we use to makee sense of the outside world but they are probably activated in different patterns.

Jodie's picture

Where do we draw the line

Where do we draw the line between dreams and reality? What does our I-box possess that can function in such amazing ways? If the I-box represents our experiences, how does hypnosis work? Often times, victims from a horrible crime/incident will go through hypnosis because they cannot remember anything at the does the I-box function then? How similar is hypnosis from dreaming because often times, people will have reoccuring dreams about a certain incident. Is there a definite answer to what exactly goes on in the human mind during these times?

Stacy Blecher's picture

I box mumbo jumbo

            The “I-box” within our brains is supposedly synonymous with conscious thought.  I like the idea, but our class discussion left me wanting more.  My understanding of the “I-box” is that inputs are directed through it and the behavior or output that results is what some want to call conscious activity.  However, due to the topographical layout of the nervous system not all inputs travel through the “I-box”.  These inputs still produce outputs, but these are what people call unconscious behavior. 

            An example of unconscious behavior would be Christopher Reeves’ response to me pinching his toe; his foot jerks away but if I were to ask Christopher if that hurt he would say no.  I agree with our conclusion that the topographical layout of the nervous system is responsible for his foot jerking away.  A topographic anatomy and its ability to respond to stimuli (such as me pinching foot) seems logical.  Since this system makes sense and ostensibly protects organisms from harm, I don’t understand the need for an “I-box”.  The nervous system should be able to sense and react to all possibly harmful stimuli and react accordingly to keep us safe.  I feel like having an “I-Box” might actually complicate matters or put us in more danger than we otherwise would be in if we were simply boxes all the way down.   But, I guess some would argue that’s what makes us humans.  That being a human being isn’t easy and that sometimes our inputs are shunted through this “I-box” that forces us to make difficult decisions about how to proceed with the outputs (or something like that). 

But then that brings us to the question of, are humans the only organisms that posses this “I-box”?  Part of me wants to say yes, because even though my hand might me in excruciating pain on a hot stove, I can (for a while) resist my nervous system’s immediate response to pull away.  I do not think that a cat would have the willpower to hold its paw on the hot stove.  On the other hand, I don’t think that cats go through their entire lives behaving unconsciously.  Cats don’t act on instinct alone.  I think they are capable of learning and consciously rubbing up against a person’s leg when they want food.  They think about what they want, remember what they did last time to get it and reenact the behavior.  I guess this is what one would call a trained cat.  But, is there a difference between being trained to do something and learning to do something?  We potty train our children, but we teach them the ABCs.  What is the difference?

Well, that was very much all over the place.  My apologies, I have a lot going through my I-box right now.

michelle's picture

How Advantageous is Having an I-Box?

I think most animals have an I-box to some degree. We’ve seen organisms selectively choose their mates and even choose to fight for them. This requires some decision making skills and an I-box. I think maybe the extent to which an I-box affects daily behavior depends entirely on the size of the brain and thus the size of the I-box. However, a too advanced and complex I-box seems somewhat dangerous to me, and I beginning to doubt its advantages in terms of evolution. I think humans are in constant battle with their biological needs and the I-box can sometimes help, but also hinder survival in humans. For example, we need nutrients from fruits and vegetables, but people can choose diets high in fat and cholesterol rather than eat healthy and benefit their bodies. This gets me wondering if the I-box is an evolutionary advantage or disadvantage. Sure feelings make living more interesting and diversified, but without feelings, do you think we’d be better suited for survival? We would behave solely off of biological urges. For example, we would eat when hungry and no anorexia or bulimia could affect that.

The National Institute of Mental Health claims that “mental disorders are the leading cause of disability (lost years of productive life) in the North America, Europe and, increasingly, in the world. By 2020, Major Depressive illness will be the leading cause of disability in the world for women and children.” Do animals, who tend to be more driven by biological needs, have mental disorders like humans? Are our brains too advanced to control? I think of our brains as this high-tech electronic where the complexity makes it difficult to fix if malfunctioning, somewhat like an i-Pod. I’ve dropped my walkman (yes the kind that plays tapes) a number of times and it still works fabulous, however my sister dropped her i-Pod once and it only works every now and then. I know there are a lot of benefits to having an i-Pod over a walkman, but its starting to seem to me that walkmans may outlast i-Pods. But humans can’t really choose at this point, we have the i-Pod model of the brain whether we like it or not. I guess we all just have to be careful not to drop our i-Pods or fill them with too much trashy info.

TMCorder's picture

Do we really need I-boxes to survive?

I think most animals have an I-box to some degree. We’ve seen organisms selectively choose their mates and even choose to fight for them. This requires some decision making skills and an I-box. I think maybe the extent to which an I-box affects daily behavior depends entirely on the size of the brain and thus the size of the I-box. However, a too advanced and complex I-box seems somewhat dangerous to me, and I beginning to doubt its advantages in terms of evolution. I think humans are in constant battle with their biological needs and the I-box can sometimes help, but also hinder survival in humans. For example, we need nutrients from fruits and vegetables, but people can choose diets high in fat and cholesterol rather than eat healthy and benefit their bodies. This gets me wondering if the I-box is an evolutionary advantage or disadvantage. Sure feelings make living more interesting and diversified, but without feelings, do you think we’d be better suited for survival? We would behave solely off of biological urges. For example, we would eat when hungry and no anorexia or bulimia could affect that.
The National Institute of Mental Health claims that “mental disorders are the leading cause of disability (lost years of productive life) in the North America, Europe and, increasingly, in the world. By 2020, Major Depressive illness will be the leading cause of disability in the world for women and children.” Do animals, who tend to be more driven by biological needs, have mental disorders like humans? Are our brains too advanced to control? I think of our brains as this high-tech electronic where the complexity makes it difficult to fix if malfunctioning, somewhat like an i-Pod. I’ve dropped my walkman (yes the kind that plays tapes) a number of times and it still works fabulous, however my sister dropped her i-Pod once and it only works every now and then. I know there are a lot of benefits to having an i-Pod over a walkman, but its starting to seem to me that walkmans may outlast i-Pods. But humans can’t really choose at this point, we have the i-Pod model of the brain whether we like it or not. I guess we all just have to be careful not to drop our i-Pods or fill them with too much trashy info.

Claire Ceriani's picture


This last class made me think of biofeedback treatments.  Biofeedback uses sensors to monitor electrical signals from muscles, skin temperature, heart rate, brain wave activity, and other processes in the body.  The information from the sensors is represented visually.  The patient then attempts to control the activity with his or her mind, training the brain to consciously monitor things it normally does automatically.  Biofeedback doesn’t work for all forms of paralysis, but it has been used to help people with muscle degeneration or mild injury to “relearn” how to control their muscles.  I think it’s also been used to help people learn to control their heart rates and blood pressure.  I remember reading an article a few years ago suggesting that biofeedback could help people control migraines and stress headaches.  There may be many things happening in the brain of which the “I-function” is not aware, but it seems to be possible to bring at least some of these processes to our attention and conscious control.  If this is the case, is it possible that some people’s “I-functions” naturally have more control/awareness than others’?

Kathleen Myers's picture

I, too, am interested in

I, too, am interested in biofeedback-and meditation, and a whole host of other awareness sharpening technologies. I use the word technologies because even though some of these techniques are quite ancient, dating back to the beginning of recorded history, the term best captures my view of them. They are tools, in the strictest sense, as I understand them.

Biofeedback has been proven to help people gain mastery of their pain and other physical complaints, while meditation has been proven to help people reduce stress, lower their blood pressure, etc. It can also be rather convincingly argued that meditation increases one's general feeling of well-being, sense of connectedness with and compassion for other, etc. An of course, some figures of world-historic significance have claimed that meditation helped rthem achieve Enlightenment. I can say from my own experience that regular meditation greatly ameliorates the anxiety/sadness/unhappiness I feel as a result of that "I'm just a lonely bag of skin in an indifferent cosmos" metaphysics of Western analytic philosophy. Hey Descartes! The whole mind-world separation thing? Thanks a lot bud!

I am a firm believer in the idea that thought creates one's reality, and nothing I've yet heard in this course has dissuaded me of this. As the old hermetic saying goes, "As above so below; as within, so without". In more modern lingo, "As you think so it becomes." The idea becomes a lot less fruity-seeming when you consider the fact that we are tool-wielding animals who both make and are made by our tools. All of which began with a thought, or many many thoughts which were thought by many many people...

I am a bit incomfortable with the idea that some folks may have more of a natural aptitiude for control of their awareness/attention. Perhaps it *is* true- just as some people seem to be born with an aptitude for music or art. But I think *training* is the key to developing control of one's attention. Some meditative technologies take more than seven years to learm (and this is after mastering more basic skills)!!This is akin to earning one's Ph.D.

More later, many thoughts. Hope this isn't too scatterbrained. Serendip ate my first post! Bad, bad Serendip.

Sarah Powers's picture

Congito Ergo Sum

Congito ergo sum. Je pense alors, je suis.  I think therefore I am.          –Rene Descartes It would be extremely frustrating to be a quadriplegic like Christopher Reeves.  If someone kicked John Doe, a quadriplegic, in the shin, his leg would recoil, but the “I” wouldn’t know it happened (unless John watched that someone kick you).  His body would be able to move without him willing it to, but when he would try to move his leg, without the kicking input, nothing would happen.  John would have this body that is connected to him, and he relies on it to live, but he has no control over it.  His actions from the neck down are only be reflex, lacking intention.  Yes. I am perfectly normal. If I want to raise my hand in class, no problem, but my body carries out so many functions that I can’t control, and really, wouldn’t want to.   Like the peristalsis movements in my intestines, I’m just as well off not being aware of them.  So what is the extent of the ‘I’ function? How much territory to we want to have it cover? The word, intention: it has a lot to do with the ‘I’ function.  For example, I observe that Suzy Q takes a step forward.  I can think of two possible summaries for this observation.  1)    Suzy Q wanted to step forward. She did so with intention. 2)    Someone pushed her forward. Suzy Q put her foot out to keep herself from falling.  She did so without intention. It both cases, Suzy is aware that she stepped forward. She’s able to think about it. To process it.  What if she couldn’t process? Couldn’t think about her actions?  First of all summary 1 wouldn’t hold true. She wouldn’t have an ‘I’ function.  She couldn’t think, therefore she couldn’t be—if Descartes is right.  I think therefore I am.  What does this mean for those who can’t think? The brain-dead. Do they exist?

lrifkin's picture

The Power of Thought

After almost three decades in existence, a Princeton Lab studying ESP will shut down at the end of the month. This very controversial lab has conducted highly debated research throughout the years. Other scientists, university administrations, and even some Nobel Laureates have discredited the lab’s work. However, the lab’s founders and researchers stick by their findings. They have, for example, conducted a test in which participants sat in front of a small machine that flashed numbers either slightly above or slightly below 100. Subjects were instructed to “think high” or to “think low” and the response from the machine was measured and compared to random chance. Human thought was proven to slightly alter the behavior of the machines.
So, although I will agree that these scientific experiments do seem somewhat hoaxy. I will not agree that they are a disgrace to the entire world of science, or that they have no validity. I know, from my own experiences, that the power of thought is incredible. A concept known as the “Law of Attraction,” is used to describe the control thought has on experience. The law states that one will get what they think about. Essentially, the law explains that like attracts like. If one is to focus on the fact that they feel as though they are about to fail a test, the Law of Attraction would say that that person will not do as well as if they were to focus on how smart they are and how good they are going to feel taking the test and after the test.
We have discussed our ability to control the inputs and outputs in our own brains. We have also discussed both our abilities to experience and not to experience these outputs and inputs. However, we have not discussed our ability to affect the inputs and outputs on foreign subjects and events. Is it possible for our brains to control the experiences or outputs of other things or people?

csandrinic's picture

Denial of Paralysis

After class, I got to thinking about paralysis, and whether or not there were any special circumstances in which someone who was paralyzed learned to move their limbs again. Although I did not manage to find any article that specifically dealt with this issue, I found something perhaps even more intriguing. In the New York Times article Discovering that Denial of Paralysis is not Just a Problem of the Mind, I learned about a neuroscientist in Italy who did research on stroke patients who suffer from what is known as denial syndrome, a disorder where paralyzed patients fervently insist that they are not paralyzed. Whereas scientists once believed that this denial was simply a defense mechanism stemming from the devastating reality of paralysis, research now shows that denial syndrome is in fact a neurological condition which occurs when certain brain regions are affected by a stroke. Whereas a specific part of their brain can no longer allow them to move, there is another closely related region of the brain which remains intact and continues to tell them that their bodies are responding normally. As a result, if a patient with a paralyzed left arm is asked if he or she can raise or is raising their left arm, they will respond both times with yes. Apparently, patients who display this disorder suffer little to no injury to the supplementary motor area, the region of the brain involved in the mental simulation of movements. When these patients are asked to raise their arms, this region produces a familiar pattern of brain activation and shows more or less normal function. However, the regions of the brain that maintain awareness of the movements and carry them out no longer work. The conflict between these two regions creates a strong sense of having moved but no sense of awareness that forces the patient to enter into a state of complete denial, even going so far as to denying the fact that the motionless arm is theirs.

  This phenomenon got me thinking about the role of the I-Function box in our brains. Whereas we spoke about how it is possible to receive inputs and generate appropriate outputs without necessarily being aware of doing so (in the way that Christopher Reeves will move his foot if it pinched), in this situation it is possible to believe that we are generating outputs, to simulate an output in our brain, without having any concrete input or visible output. I understand that the I-Function contains the experience of inputs and outputs. Christopher Reeves cannot feel his foot and openly admits that he cannot move it and yet it still responds to stimuli; the example that I have presented seems to me to present another aspect of this problem in that in this situation patients believe they can move a foot that is clearly paralyzed. It is interesting for me to see the way in which awareness of movement and the sense of having moved can be located in separate regions of the brain.

LS's picture

Denial in the Unconscious

Similarly I read an article in Scientific American Mind (April/May 2006) entitled Freud Returns.  This article is attempting to prove that there is some neurological basis for some (if not most) of Freud’s theories.  In this article there is an example of anosognosic patients who have damage to their right parietal region of their brain which makes them unaware of physical defects (such as paralysis.)  However when this region of the brain was activated the patients became aware of their deficit and when and how long ago the deficit occurred.  However when the stimulation wore off the patients returned to their previous state and subsequently remembered ever detail of the experiment and interview, except the part where they realized their deficit.  The link to Freud in this example was the repression of memories in the unconscious.  This example (and article) really caused me to take a new look at this.  (I mean we all value Freud’s contributions but for the most part think that a lot of his theories were off the mark.)


Maybe the conscious and the unconscious that Freud psychoanalyzed are our I-Function.  The I-function causes us to be aware of memory and events in our conscious life.  However if part of the I-function extends in to the unconscious maybe it represses these memories or events that the brain considers to be “dangerous.”   Perhaps the I-Function box exerts some control over the unconscious.  Just as the patients repressed the portions of the experiment where they recognized their physical deficit, perhaps our I-functions repress damaging memories in our unconscious I-function box.  Perhaps this unconscious I-function box may reveal some of it contents when our whole I-function is conscious during our dreams..hmm….

 Perhaps more to come….

leigh urbschat's picture

Just some more thoughts

It seems that we have more or less dismissed Descartes separation of the mind and body, however, our discussion of paralysis and csandrinic's post above got me thinking about this idea again. Paralysis is caused by severe injury to a part of the nervous system or a deficiency in the flow of blood to the brain. Both of these are physical injuries that impact the body and can impair one's controlled movement of certain areas of the body. The cases of denial of paralysis described in the above post occurred in those who had suffered from stroke. In the case of a stroke the afflicted person does not always have a severe accident such as someone like Christopher Reeves who received spinal chord injury, as a stroke is caused by a disturbance in the brain. In other words, a person who has suffered a stroke may not be aware of the damage that they are receiving to their body unlike Reeves who was well away that his paralysis was due to his falling off a horse. In one case the damage is very physical and affects the entire body, while in the other the damage is only internal and is not physically the result of an impact to the body. I am curious to know if paralysis denial has been studied in those who received spinal injury through extreme physical damage. People in that situation physically experienced the damage and therefore may be more accepting of the fact that parts of their body are paralyzed. Csandrinic wrote that in the case of a stroke victim, while “… a specific part of their brain can no longer allow them to move, there is another closely related region of the brain which remains intact and continues to tell them that their bodies are responding normally.” Although I can not say for sure, it would seem that in the case of a spinal chord injury due to accident this part of the brain would not be damaged as well. That being said, why do we think this denial is prone to those who have had internal brain damage rather than external physical damage that has also affected their nervous system? Just a thought…

Also, another situation I was thinking about was in the case of amputated limbs. My uncle had to have his leg above his knee amputated a few years ago and said that he could still feel the sensation of his leg even after it was gone. In his case, a physical part of his body was missing, and he knew that it was missing, yet his brain still conveyed the message that the leg was still attached. This seems to be almost the opposite case as in paralysis where the eyes can see that the body is still their, yet it can not feel the sensation of a pinch to the foot, whereas in my uncle’s case he was aware that his leg was missing, yet could still feel the sensation of his leg.

Student's picture

nervous system & body

Learning about the body and it's functions, and that it could theoretically, sustain life, or, a beating heart, for long periods of time, with machines, I thought was particularly interesting. It's interesting that our bodies, and our hearts, and our brains- such improbable assemblies- come together, create what we call life, but... that it's not an indefinite life, as no one has lived forever. There's some kind of timer... something that has a certain amount of life defined, a certain amount of time, which a person has to use these body parts and remain alive, after which, the body, the brain, and the heart, naturally fails them. It's frightening that our bodies can't naturally sustain themselves forever- that our physical self isn't invincible in this way. Our spinal cord and brain.. in all of their abilities, and functions, controls so much. It's interesting the way we've evolved- our design, or story up to this point- that our nervous system plays such a huge effect in who we are, as humans, and on a more individual level. It's interesting that our brain has such a tremendous amount of seemingly improbable assemblies, and that an injury to our spinal cord can result in a kind of paralysis, or quadriplegia. It's interesting just how seemingly destructable we are... that we can walk around, and function, and our systems are responsible and in control.. until they're not. For having appeared to have changed over time a great deal, into who we are now, it's interesting to think about why, over time, we haven't adapted something more- some kind of back-up system, to our brains and to our spinal cord- like saving something on a disk, rather than just on the hard drive- to keep us better functioning and able as a species, despite accidents or mutations..

James Damascus's picture

re: where are we located within the nervous system?

I've been wondering about this division between our "inner selves" and our material bodies. When we're young, we may assume that while we sleep, our surroundings are born away by some entity, or that we ourselves go some place (I was thinking about Dylan Thomas' poem "Fern Hill"). Perhaps these childhood observations are suggestive of the real answer in some sense- in other words, while the inputs and outputs we associate with waking life are shut down (we 'move away from our surroundings'), we are disconnected from the materially observable world, and retreat into some other 'place'- which we learned in class was inner-neuronal activity ('we go someplace'). A related question is just where are our "selves" located within the nervous system. Are our inner selves related in some way to the function of our inner neurons or the i function? Also, how do we deal with the example of Christopher Reeve following his accident- was the unaffected region of his brain really the only remaining vestige of "Christopher Reeve", or do we also consider the regions of his body that he no longer controlled actively part of his self or being. If he loses all brain function but his body is kept alive, is he still really there? 

Shayna or Sheness Israel's picture

Loosing the Brain, Telepathy, & My Cat's Personality o Catality

I have a series of comments that relate to my title. I will just outline them:

1) I wasn't in class last Thursday, so I am reading all of these posts about the I-box. From what I gather it has something to do with consciousness or something that can override other systems in our bodies and that the way things are overridden can show a resemblance to the distinctness of personalities.

That makes me think about my cat friend, Gracie. She has a neo-cortex and thus must have an I-box and personality (catality). This is proven to me by this little game that she plays that no one taught her, but frequently tries to get her to stop with no avail:

Step A) She sees my mother's big mug with a straw in it

Step B) She waits for my mother to turn around, then she pulls the straw out of the cup

Step C) She plays with it till my mother turns around

Step D) My mother turns around and screams, "No, Gracie. Stop. No, Gracie"

Step E) Gracie places the straw in her mouth and runs away or My mother takes it from her before she does

Important Info:

When Gracie plays too rough, I tell her, "No, Gracie. Stop. No, Gracie." Gracie always stops or stops and walk away. When she is eating something that she isn't supposed to, we say, "No, Gracie. Stop. No Gracie" and she stops.

This shows that she makes a choice on whether or not to do something depending on her goal. She somehow has been able to distinguish the severity of "mistakes" that she makes and decides whether or not respond accordingly.

That's why we call her silly or funny because she is so aloof and silly

2) If we say that thinking changes the molecular structure of the brain, than isn't it true that the more we think/study the brain, the further away it becomes from us?

3) What is proof, then? If the way we think about the brain changes it, then how can we be proven "fully" wrong because getting it wrong will also make the brain change how it was to become what we thought it was and thus we become more right.

4) Octavia Butler writes about telepaths, shape shifters, and empaths. It seem so mystical and yet so real when she writes. Who knew that she was correct. If our neurons are perturbed by information and thus rearranges, then I can change someone by giving them information. Let's take it to the next level: Butler's telepath Mary could send info to "ordinary or latent telepathic" people's minds and get them to do whatever she wants while also making the people think that they were acting independently and original. The difference between an active telepath and a latent telepath is awareness of one's powers or abilities. The most powerful active telepath is the one who could best focus their abilities. Why is this considered different from our 'reality', society, culture, etc?

francescamarangell's picture

The Power of Meditation

I read an interesting article about brain function and meditation. The article asked the question: Is the human brain capable of internally causing change to its structure and function without the use of external tools. If so, to what extent? They gave the example, if a piano player practices her arpeggios day after day then her brain begins to change so every time her index finger reaches for an arpeggio, the middle finger automatically follows and involuntarily plays at the same time. The brain was “re-wired” in a sense, so even when the piano player is not at the piano, her brain still correlates movement of the index finger with simultaneous movement of the middle finger. Her external actions caused a developmental alteration of the brain, producing new physical effects. Our input-output and box system fits nicely with this example. The input is practicing the piano, which leads to the change in brain structure development, which releases a changed physical output.

Scientists then asked, with the Tibetan Buddhist monks in mind, if your brain could change structure without an external input like practicing the piano. Could just sitting, meditating, and thinking alter brain structure? A study was held where scientists ran an fMRI on both a group of Buddhists Monks and a group of volunteers with jobs and families who said they meditated for about 40 minutes a day. In the group of moderate daily mediators, there were signs that showed evidence of increased grey matter in stimulated parts of the brain. It was mostly the right hemisphere that was affected, and more specifically the regions of the brain associated with attention: the main focus of meditation. When they ran the study on the monks, the change in brain structure was enormous. The change was, “of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature.” (Science Journal)

Is meditation a form of “exercise” for our brain? To what degree are we capable of ‘conditioning’ our brains and what physical effects does this have our bodies? Where is this power of change coming from if there is no material, external influences? How can the mere act of thinking or meditating physically change our bodies, and how does this relate to our box, I-function, input-output system?

Cayla McNally's picture

Meditation and the Brain

On a similar topic, I remember once hearing about a Hindu yogi who had sealed himself up for seven days with no food and not enough air. He then went into a meditative state for the week, slowing his breathing and basically hibernating. At the end of the seven days, he came out of the meditative state, and acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

The actions of the yogi make me wonder what makes his brain and body able to function vastly different than those of others do, and if the yogi’s brain structure has changed through repeatedly doing meditative activities, such as the one described in the previous paragraph. Judging by the study done on Tibetan monks, I would not be surprised if the yogi’s brain is in fact different because he constantly meditates.

Liz S's picture

Buddha Boy

I would say that undoubtedly, yes, the yogi’s meditation would lead to changes in brain function and/or structure. I think that everything we do alters the brain in some way. And it also makes sense that a man who can go for seven days in a hibernation/meditation state without drinking would probably have some brain differences from me.


You’re not referring to ‘Buddha Boy,’ are you? Probably not, but your yogi reminded me of him—he’s a young Buddhist monk (I think he’s 18 currently) in Nepal. He drew a lot of attention for allegedly meditation for months without food or water. Obviously, some people are skeptical of this fact (seeing as how the average human can only go for three to four days without dying from dehydration). But wouldn’t it be fascinating if such intense thinking could alter (through the i-function?) such a basic function like having to drink water?


I wish that a formal study would be conducted on him, just like with the Tibetan monks.

alexandra mnuskin's picture

Christopher Reeves and that tree in the forest

Thinking about Christopher Reeves and the I-function made me realize that we are actually back to the same tree falling in the forest problem. Because of his exaggerated I-function Christopher Reeves does not experience pain to the region below his damaged spinal chord. If someone pinches his toe his foot will jerk away, but his brain will not actually process the pain. One could think about that tree as Christopher Reeves. It is chopped down in an empty wood. If someone were there they would hear it making a noise. But because no one is there and because the tree can’t process the noise, not having ears or indeed even a nervous system, the noise doesn’t exist….just like the pain doesn’t exist for Christopher Reeves simply because he too cannot process it. All of this brings us back to the Emily Dickinson question….does any sensation, experience or idea actually exist without a brain to process it?

JaymElaine's picture

Christopher Reeves and the Input/Output Theory

So, yea Christopher Reeves was paralyzed from the neck down I believe. I was thinking more and more about this phenomenon and began to put it in terms of the input/output processing that our body does. Could Christopher Reeves be an example of how we as beings produce inputs without and outputs, or perform an output without receiving an input? I think it may be possible.  His arms and legs, or any part of his body below the neck may be receiving cues from both the environment and the cellular world on the inside of his body, but no output is produced because the connections have been severed, or because the brain just cannot process it (due to brain damage or what have you). So, like the leech, we too in a more simplistic sense, can produce these inputs and outputs independently, or at least it seems. 

Jayme E. Hopkins, '08

A.Kyan's picture

Mental Training for Sports

I just read in today's NYTimes ("Deep Breath as Pitchers Rethink Routines) on pro athletes using meditation techniques to strengthen their minds and thus, performance.  Furthering my belief that the mind can influence your brain and body to behave differently.  I'm excited to see that more people are welcoming this method! 

x's picture

Learning Relationship Behavior

I was reading this ( article in the washington post, and basically what it says is that a person's relationship behavior (& and future relationship failure) can be predicted at age 1 when a baby's reaction to her/his mother leaving and returning are observed. The more insecure you are as a baby, supposedly the more insecure you are in your early 20s in serious relationships.

While this study is interesting, it seems, to me, to be plagued with flaws. Exactly how do you define "insecure?" What is a relationship "problem" to some people may not be to others, and, likewise, certain problem solving skills may seem futile to some, but productive to others. Is there really a scale that evenly measure one relationship against another?

Which brings up another question - how can one measure behavior when, if we all have 10^12 neurons, there is so much possibility for behaving differently? How can behavior be made into a credible science when there are infinite possibilities for generalizations masquerading as truths?

wdegue's picture

Early Experience or Societal Pressure?

I agree with you Steph. It is a risky business trying to justify how behaviors in future relationships can be measured as such. Although there are some truths in Freud and later Erickson who believed that experiences at an early stage can affect one’s behavior, I find that they are leaving out an important factor; society’s influence on behavior. Right now as I sit in guild typing, my ipod is on and I would like to get up and dance. But I know the social code, doing so would cause my peers to think I’m loosing it somehow. I refrain myself from this action not because an early "insecure" experience, but because somehow it was communicated to me through society that doing so would be unacceptable. Therefore, I would say that early experiences may affect future relationships, but it is definitely not the only factor, the inputs giving by society I believe are stronger on the output.

This raises another question; is what we choose to be the ‘output’ in relationships and everyday life really reflects the input (i.e. early experiences and/or social pressures)?

A.Kyan's picture

Dreams and Behavior

At the end of Thursday’s class, we left off on the idea of patterns in neuron activity during dream states.  I don’t know much about the neurobiological workings of the brain when asleep, but I do know the quality of my dreams have a huge impact on how my day goes.  When I have distraught dreams of confusing sequences and stressful scenarios, I awake feeling mentally exhausted.  Such dreams occur when I’m feeling overwhelmed or worried.  Luckily, I more often have really fun, vivid dreams that always seem very real.  The other night my boyfriend, Tommy, awoke me in the middle of the night because I was muttering and trying to wrestle something.  I was disappointed that he awoke me because I had just scooped up my mother in one hand to safety and was wrestling a rifle out of something evil with my other hand.  I wanted to finish the job!  Tommy says to me, “You’re a freakin’ superhero in your dreams!”  And, my response was, “Well, aren’t you, too?”  I love to sleep.  In my dreams I can easily have no limitations like flying through the air, visiting magical lands and experiencing new things never imagined before.  When I awake from such dreams I feel invigorated, relaxed, and ready to start the day.  I wonder how brain activity during dream states affects our overall behavior.

Alex Hansen's picture

Do neurons play a roll in sleep and dreams?

In response to this post, I was forced to think about dreams and behaivor while sleeping.  I think that the idea of dreaming and sleep is very fascinating especially if thought about in regards to the nervous system.  I know that there are several different stages of sleep/dreaming that either belong to REM sleep category or the non-REM sleep category.  Each of the four non-REM stages which begin sleep is uniquely comprised of theta activity, sleep spindles, delta activity, etc. all of which include waves of different frequencies and these stages last for various amounts of time.  After which, REM sleep occurs, which is the abbreviated form of Rapid Eye Movement, and often there is an inhibition of most of the cranial and spinal motor neurons.  In comparison, it is stated that the neurons located in the preoptic area are significantly involved in sleep and dreams during the non-REM stages, especially those within the ventrolateral preoptic area.  The neurons involved with REM sleep include the acetylcholinergic neurons that are essential in initiating REM sleep and are located in the peribranchial area of the brain.  I am very curious as to the difference in the neuronal effects on these different stages of sleep.  I know that when an individual is awakened from a non-REM sleep stage, the person will often report the presence of a thought, an image or an emotion.  However, if the individual is in the REM sleep period and awakened, he or she will often be very alert and attentive in comparison to the previous awakening.  Thus, I am interested in knowing if the neuron system plays a role in this difference when an individual is awakened from a dream, if the neuronal difference has any affect.  I wonder what affect neurons play when the individual awakens naturally, and what causes the differences in moods when an individual is awaken because I know that at times I will awake with a lot of energy or in a good mood, etc, while other times the opposite will occur and the amount of sleep I obtained the night before still remains similar for the most.  I’m curious as to if neurons and sleep stages can predict the body’s approach to the day. 

eden's picture

Okay I'll admit it...

In class the other day we were talking about dreams, and someone said that they thought a forest in your dream was just as real as the forest not in your dream, ie the "real" forest.

And in my head I was like, (in the words of Niqui) "What a crock."

But I'm rethinking my initial judgement a little.

I still think that there is an obvious difference between the "real" forest, and the dream forest. I mean, any little kid can tell the difference between their dreams and "reality," I won't back down from that. After reading this post however, I was thinking about individual perception, and I realized that I guess dreams possess their own reality. And if that is true, I suppose that the reality that dreams possess is just as "real" as the reality we all share, only it is isolated to one person. So they are both reality. This idea is reenforced by the fact that sometimes the information gathered in dreams gets mixed together with things that happened in the "real" reality, which is why a person can walk around all day thinking that they had a conversation with the cute TA that they didn't have, and feel really awkward when they bring it up later and realize it was a dream. The two functions are essentially the same, the information is processed and stored as memories in the brain, but in the case of dreams it is completely internalized (ie predominantly interneural) and isolated to the dreamer.

I once had a conversation with a friend of mine who said he doesn't really dream. I was flabbergasted. Dreams play such a big role in my life that I couldn't understand someone NOT remembering their dreams at all. Its like haveing part of your life just... missing! I've had lots of dreams where I figure out the solution to a problem I've been having, or gain motivation, or get some closure about something. Once when I was six I had a really vivid dream that my grandmother came and said goodbye to me, and the next day I found out she had passed away in the night. (weeeeeird huh?) So I guess it was my turn to be wrong. I put stock in dreams, and it would be pretty damn hypocritical of me to turn around and say that they aren't part of reality. They are part of my brain, so they are part of MY reality. +1 point for Emily Dickinson.

Sarah Harding's picture

Dreams are partially real?

As one of those people who rarely remembers dreams, I have a difficult time saying that dreams account for a large part of my life.  However, in the few dreams that I do remember, their reality is undisputed in my mind.  While dreaming, I don't recognize that the "world" I'm seeing is not the world that I percieve while awake.  This must mean that dreams have a large basis in reality, otherwise they would not be plausible stories.  

With 10^12 neurons in each of our brains, it's only logical that they would remember minute details of your life that you don't ordinarily remember.  For example...  how hot your coffee was this morning.   

 Since, to me, dreams are based in reality, I can't say that dreams are purely fictional and unreal.  However, they are not perceived consciously, which must mean that in our conscious, parallel lives, they are not reality.

So how do dreams affect our conscious lives?  We, as perceptive humans, must recognize logical flaws in our dreams, and realize that this "dream world" is not our waking reality.  However, I believe that intense dreams can leave you questioning the validity of a dream.  I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say here, other than the fact that because dreams are based in reality (based on actions/ events that have occurred during the day/ our lives), then they have to be at least partially true (for example: that cute TA exists in both the dream world and reality).... and this sliver of reality is what un-nerves us (pardon the pun) and causes us to wonder if it's real.  

Antonia J's picture


I would have to say that dreams are a huge part of my reality, too. Every once in a while I like to toy with the idea that dreams are reality, and that our days are just dreams, etc. I suppose we can never know, without any doubt whatsoever, that this isn't true. I mean, clearly, it's not... but then, it's always fun to just pretend that dreams maybe are reality, and we've just got it all wrong.

But, now that I've finished with my silly musings about dreams and reality, I have to admit that I'm not sure where I stand on what an I input means in terms of self, etc. I want to believe there's something more to a person, to me, to you, to anyone.... but then, it just doesn't make sense for there to be anything else.  The brain can be the only explanation for behavior and personality and all else that makes up a person. I guess I'm just torn between science and belief; I'm sure this is a common internal struggle once people start examining neurobiology.

I apologize... I'm just rambling, and I don't think I'm making any sense. I'm just trying to sort things out in my head, I guess.

Darlene Forde's picture

Dreams — the true reality?

I believe I may have been the one that argued that the forest in your dream is as real as the one everyone else can see.

I agree with you, Eden, that there there is an obvious difference between the "real" forest and the dream forest. But I do question the concept of "real". We have learned to accept those things that we see in the real world as real because society and/or other teach us from young that this is the realm of the real.

Yet, I think we need to recognize that the dreams are just as likely to be "real". We certainly experience them intensely. They produce profound effects in our body. We also know that sleep which includes "dreaming" is more regenerative.

Finally, let me truly play devil's advocate. How do we account for shared dreams? It is not unknown that two individuals might have the same exact dream. How can this be explained? How does the normally isolated world of the dreamer become shared?

"A shared dream is where you, and one of your friends or family, perhaps even a stranger meet in a dream share the same dream content and setting and wake up with enough clear, undistorted memory to verify it with the other party involved." ( )

For all we know every dream that we have is simulataneously experienced by another person in the world. If this individual is a stranger we may never know that how dream has been shared. Alternatively we may forget the dream in the morning. And, even if our shared dream was with a family member the contents of the dream may never be verified with the other participant.

If we return to the decapitated worm mentioned in an earlier class, whose nervous system was responsive after being separated fro the body, I think we need to recognize the possibility of dreaming. If over 99% of our neuronal cells are interneurons, rather than sensory or motor, it seems to me that the 'real world' must lie here—not in cursory sensations elicited by our sensory neurons.

Here are some links on shared dreams:

secaldwe's picture

Brain on Rewrite

     Last week we spent a great deal of time discussing the topographic organization of the brain.  I’ll admit, a lot of the specific names and regions overwhelmed me at first because I tend to compartmentalize in terms of “left brain”/“right brain” function.  Then I read through some of the articles in the January 29th issue of TIME featuring a “User’s Guide to the Brain.”  While I appreciate what we’re trying to accomplish in class by asking elemental questions like “if behavior is different, are the brains different too?” I have to step back and consider the opening article in TIME which states “trying to map the brain has always been cartography for fools.”  How can we truly pin down something so inconsistent?  I would go nuts if I had to write a paper on a book that kept changing its format as I was reading it– how can these scientists see any progress when dealing with the ultimate in incomprehensible shape-shifters?

     Someone in class brought up one of the newer studies about thought having the power to alter the physical layout of brain matter – how does this lend itself to topographic continuity at all?  Sure, we are learning more and more about the nature of memory and trauma but will we ever be able to draw clear border lines around areas of the brain according to function?  Is this a futile effort and we should throw our hands up now or will technology progress so much that one day we will be able to predict the movement of brain matter before it happens, according to some breakthrough mapping system?  This actually hurts my brain, just thinking about the advances that will be needed in order to “read a mind.”  For now, the brain reminds me of Alsace-Lorraine during WWII – what identification do you slap on a territory that’s changed hands so many times?  Crazy stuff, the brain rewriting itself…

Jessica Wurtz's picture

Power of the Mind

I was thinking about two blog postings, one about the effect of placebos and the other about “mind over matter” and overcoming different levels of pain, simply by telling yourself it doesn’t hurt all that bad.  While I truly believe in these two phenomena, because I have experienced it myself, and seen it around me, I began to wonder about just how powerful the mind can be, and I got stuck on one thought: if the brain can overcome severe pain, or help to heal the body just because it thinks that is what should be happening due to medication that is in fact a placebo, why can’t it seem to fix itself? Thinking about people with quadriplegia or any other kind of neurological disorder, or even mental disorders and disabilities, part of me wondered why the mind cannot fix these things as well.  A more scientific part of me says that of course that’s impossible, if a person severs their spinal cord, the brain has no way of overcoming that obstacle, and my rational self understands this fact.  But still, since we are nowhere near discovering the limits of the human brain (mind?), a more whimsical and philosophical part of me wonders just how much the brain/mind is capable of, and we just don’t know it yet.

Rebecca Pisciotta's picture

Placebo and the I-function

In response to your post I believe that to some extent the brain can fix itself. I find the placebo effect totally fascinating. I like to know how and why things happen, so the placebo effect is a intriguing puzzle. It is clear, and well documented, that an ill person can respond to treatment with a sugar pill. Persons who are given placebos can show physiological changes, and pain releif, identical to that of someone receiving actual medical treatment. These consistent findings take the mind over matter debate to a whole new level.

When thinking about the placebo effect I keep coming back to the idea of a spectrum of illness. One end would be objective illness; a broken leg, quadriplegia. On the other end would be subjective illness; mental disorders, depression. The effectiveness of placebos seems to depend on where on the spectrum the illness lies. I have not read any studies showing that administration of placebo drugs results in regained movement in quadriplegia. Whereas placebos and antidepressent drugs have about equal efficacy in many trials. This makes alot of sense to me, not because depression is any less "real" but because of its subjective nature. I think the I-function box plays a role in the effect of placebos. Even though the input to the biological systen is merely sugar, to the brain it is "medication" and due to a persons expectations, beliefs, and environment the output is "health". Maybe it is that in quadriplegia the I-function box is sitting on the bench, whereas in depression it is the key player?

Clearly I am still in the process of thinking this one out, I would love to hear other ideas about the I-function box and its role in the placebo effect

James Damascus's picture

Neuron Plasticity Involved in Learning And Memory

I find the topic(s) of 'thought and physiology' fascinating. Since Thursday's class, I did some searching around on the internet, and found an interesting article published in 'Nature Neuroscience' by a group at the University of Texas at Austin. Their study, published in 2005, suggests that neurons experience changes across their dendrites during the processes of learning and memory recall. The research shows that ion channels distributed in the dendritic membrane change during a simulated learning task and that this requires the rapid production of new proteins- "Our new work strongly supports the idea that learning involves changes in dendrites,"                                                                                                                                                                                            To record the changes during learning, cells from the rat hippocampus (an important area of the brain for short-term memory) were electrically stimulated to mimic the electrical stimulus that shoots through neurons when animals perform a learning task. The researchers found that when stimulated with electrical bursts, hippocampus neurons showed h-channel plasticity and a rapid increase in the synthesis of h-channel proteins.  Thought and Memory researchers know that protein synthesis in neurons is related to long-term memory, because protein synthesis inhibitors block long-term memory in animals.                                                       Researchers have traditionally focused on the role that changes at synapses play in learning (Dendrites--the thin branch-like extensions of a neuron cell--receive many inputs from other neurons that transmit information through contact points called synapses) , with the outcome being that they change in ways that make it easier for connected neurons to pass information. This study is unusual in the sense that it show that learning and memory are likely to not only involve changes at synapses, but also in dendrites. They found that h-channels, which are distributed throughout the dendrite membrane and allow the passage of potassium and sodium ions into and out of the neuron, are altered during learning."The h-channels undergo plasticity, not near the synapse but probably throughout the dendritic tree," says one of the authors.   Based on this article I would say that "thought" can affect matter directly although it would be more accurate to say that "thought" is a physiological process involving physiological (read: material) changes and mechanisms.       

AriannahM's picture

Brain and Behavior Through the Insula

Last week in the Science Times, I read a very interesting article about relating to brain and behavior. The article, by Sandra Blakeslee, focused on the relationship between the insula and addictive behavior, in particular, smoking. According to some researchers, if a procedure was developed that could simply change the insula without destroying it, addictive behavior could be “cured”.

The insula is located in the lateral sulcus region of the brain. It is thought to be responsible for a wide variety of things including, but not limited to, emotion, cravings, pain, empathy, morality and emotional response to music. This is clearly a very important section of the brain that cannot be manipulated without careful research.

The researchers argue that problems like drug addiction and eating disorders would be solved if a procedure was developed. This leads me to question the link between brain and behavior once again. If simply tweaking a part of the brain can stop all addictive behaviors, how much “control” do we really have over our actions? Do we control our brains or do our brains control us?

Holly Stewart's picture

A Box for Consciousness?

I think we might be starting to get somewhere with the whole “I-function” box this week. This box is supposed to represent our experience, and furthermore our ability to constantly integrate that experience into our behavior. Some inputs go through this “I-function” box and then become outputs and some inputs simply go straight to outputs. We loosely related these connections to conscious and unconscious behaviors respectively. I want to explore the relationship between the “I-function” box and conscious experience.

First, I want to solidify the connection between consciousness and our new box. The “I-function” box suggests that we have an aspect of our brain for conscious experience (and also a part for unconscious experience). So thus, in the case of humans, it seems we can assume the “I-function” box and consciousness are interchangeable. I think many people would argue that the “I-function” box is unique to humans, much like what Dante says in his “hierarchy of being” idea. This hierarchy says that only humans and higher forms have consciousness (and thus have the “I-function” box), while all lower forms operate on instinct if anything at all. I am not so sure that I agree with this. Conscious experiences over time can become somewhat subconscious and this works for both animals and humans. Take the activity of walking for example: when you learn to walk it is a conscious experience to put one foot in front of the other and figure out your balance and all that. But over time (as in now) you don’t really think too much about walking, you just do it. This works similarly for animals. For example: when you throw a ball to a dog. It may take a while for you to teach the dog to go and get the ball and bring it back to you, but over time this becomes a learned behavior where whenever the dog sees a ball (even if it’s not theirs) it knows what it is supposed to do. In both examples there is experiential learning. But over time the input doesn’t need to go through the experience/learning/memory “I-function” box for an output (i.e. a conscious behavior), rather an action can simply go from input to output. These examples were trying to show that both animals and humans may have this “I-function” box but also that there might be some exchange between conscious and unconscious experience, that activities might transition back and forth (e.g. if you were in a car accident you may have to consciously learn to walk again). So I guess my next question would be can a conscious activity truly become an unconscious activity (from the perspective of outputs and inputs)?

We are still looking at connections between structure and function in the brain. We cannot move beyond trying to look for what is it in the brain that gives us conscious and unconscious behavior. Are we at the most basic level with the “I-function” box or are we able to further reduce consciousness down to the neurons themselves. We are looking at objective mechanisms of the cognitive system. One of the best articles I have read on this “I-function” box as related to consciousness is called “The Puzzle of Consciousness” by David J. Chalmers in Scientific American in 2002. This article discusses behavior and looks at how consciousness works both objectively and subjectively. Science is definitely still struggling with understanding the subjective human experience (how is it that we all have “I-function” boxes that operate the same way but with different characteristics), but in my mind we are also struggling with the objective experience (how is experience/learning/memory integrated into our behavior). The New York Times Science Times this week addressed one aspect of this discussion in “How do we see red? Count the Ways” by Natalie Angier. We all experience red but we experience red differently (both as different people and different animals). This indirectly ties back into consciousness, since we all are experiencing the same world but we are experiencing it very differently. Even though we may have similar inputs and we all may have an “I-function” box, something different happens in the output.

I went all over in this post (I had a bit to say!), but the point of the matter is that I think we are making progress in having this “I-function” box and accounting for experience, but I think we need to further define the implications and assumptions that are associated with such a box. Consciousness? Humans only? What about subjective experience? As in every other week thus far, many questions remain.

katherine's picture


I recently read an article from the New York Times titled “A Princeton Lab on ESP Plans to Close its Doors”.  The main focus of the article was the controversy that surrounded the lab and whether the study of ESP was “hard science”.  However what really piqued my curiosity in the article was a description of a routine experiment performed by the scientists in the lab.  After looking at an electric box that projected a random series of numbers just above and below 100, the person was asked to either think of high numbers or low numbers and continue looking at the box.  The scientists would then look for a correlation between the numbers being shown and what the person was told to think about.  Taking into consideration chance, the researchers found that 2 or 3 times out of 10,000 each person was able to change the outcome of the machine, implying that they were able to somehow communicate with the machine. 

I find it highly unlikely that humans are able to communicate with a machine in this capacity.  Just 2 or 3 times out of 10,000 doesn’t really convince me that the subjects were communicating with the machine.  How do we know that those 2 or 3 times can’t be attributed to chance or experimental error?  On the other hand, how do we know they aren’t attributed to chance?  If it isn’t chance, then maybe the people were communicating with the machine. 

The researchers suggested that these findings implied that it is also possible for people to control other aspects of their lives such as being able to cure disease in oneself and others.  This part of the research makes more sense to me.  As mentioned by Dmckeever people can experience different levels of pain from the same procedure.  To what extent can a positive attitude or “mind over matter” mentality change our perceptions of our experiences?  If we are able to control our own experiences and behaviors, are we able to influence others’ as well?

Molly Tamulevich's picture

I'm not convinced

I wouldn't be convinced by those numbers either. However, everything I've read about ESP seems to indicate that it's more likely that humans would be able to communicate with each other or with animals in this manner, not with a machine. I have been reading a lot about visualization, and as part of my day, I've tried incorporating positive images about what I want or how I feel into my thought process. Then while I was reading an article about voodoo, I started thinking about the negative effects of visualization. Say that I could, through the power of my intangible thoughts, visualize my sickness away. Maybe it's like prayer. Say I pray for someone's health and they recover. What if I prayed for their sickness? An experiment was conducted in 2006 in Washington DC in which a group of people prayed for a decrease in the murder rate over the next five months. Results showed a 27% decrease from the previous year. What if they had prayed for an increase? A thought could be a dangerous thing, and what's more, if there was someone out there constantly wishing you ill and effecting you, how would you stop it? You can't force a person to change their thoughts. Is that why people once killed supposed practicioners of black magic? Were their very attentions and thoughts that poison to those around them? I just know that I value the power of thought too much to risk it, and even though I might be mean sometimes, I don't want to seriously wish harm on anyone, because what if it has an effect?!

dmckeever's picture

Mind Over Matter

All this talk of brain = behavior and location of the neurons that cause pain has me thinking of the phenomenon of “mind over matter.” From my experience, adopting such a theory does work. When I tell myself that something isn’t painful, I overcome the pain. I can handle it without reacting/flinching. Example: I had two friends that got tattoos at the same time; one giggled and said it tickled while the other said it was the most painful thing she had experienced in her life. If all of our behavior comes from the brain, how can we account for the differences in pain tolerance between people? How can we account for the different ways people deal with/react to pain? Is it a difference in structure or pathways that accounts for these differences among people? I find it very difficult to deny the power of the mind in dealing with pain because all my life I have seen people overcome great pain with mental strength. I am really posing a question for thought: if Emily Dickinson is right, then are these differences in tolerance and reactions, which could be grouped in with all other behavior, simply a product of the structural make-up of the brain?

Caroline Wright's picture

Re: Mind Over Matter

As we have talked about in class there are of course innumerable differences in the brain structure of individuals. Differences in ability, personality, thinking techniques, strengths and weaknesses. It makes sense that there would be differences in tolerence of pain and the power of the mind over the body as well. In this case I am using "the mind" as the conscious thought aspect of the brain. Its also probably a matter of practice. In the case of people who learn to meditate and can lower their heartrate to unheard of levels, they can control they're body with their mind, but it takes practice. This is the case with many reflexes in the body, such as the Patellar Tendon reflex for an easy example. While you doctor is talking to you while you are at your appointment it is much easier for them to get a good reflex from you, however if you are concentrating on controlling the movement of you leg then you can inhibit the norma response. Likewise, when you get shots of blood drawn, often the doctor will talk to you and distract you. This causes a level of distraction that decreases the attention of hte patient away from the area, causing them less pain. This power of distraction could be harnessed by any individual on their own, and therefor increase their tolerence. And I just lost my train of thought becuase I've been rambling. In a last word, yes, I think Emily Dickinson would say that these differences are also simply a product of the brain. We are products of the brain, so anyhting we think/say/do/feel is a product of that same brain. 

Lauren Poon's picture


In class, I was interested by the ideas of “leaving one’s body” and dreams allowing the nervous system to take over with no input and no outputs. Instead of inputs from the environment controlling behavior, only the inner neurons’ patterns of activity conduct behavior. Does this inner activity in our nervous system relate to our inner self? Are inner selves all the same since we all have an I function or are they different because the patterns of neuron activities are too complex to recreate in two people? I lean towards the latter. There is something more to the behavior than inputs, conscious or unconscious, followed by outputs. This may be explained by the I function. There seems to be a unique factor about the I function that contributes to defining us as human beings and as individuals.

James Damascus's picture

re: where are we located within the nervous system?

I've been wondering about this division between our "inner selves" and our material bodies. When we're young, we may assume that while we sleep, our surroundings are born away by some entity, or that we ourselves go some place (I was thinking about Dylan Thomas' poem "Fern Hill"). Perhaps this childhood observation is true in some sense- in other words, while the inputs and outputs we associate with waking life are shut down, we are disconnected from the materially observable world, and we retreat into some other 'place'- which we learned in class was inner-neuronal activity. A very important question these observations raise is where are our "selves" located within the nervous system. Are our inner selves related in some way (as Lauren puts it) to the function of our inner neurons or the i function? Also, how do we deal with the example of Christopher Reeve following his accident- was the unaffected region of his brain really the only remaining vestige of "Christopher Reeve", or do we also consider the regions of his body that he no longer controlled consciously part of his self or being. If he loses all brain function but his body is still alive, is he still really there?

RachelBrady's picture

Experience and the Spinal Cord

     Ever since Thursday’s lecture I’ve been thinking about the example of the poor decapitated frog twitching his hind leg after being tickled; the capabilities of the spinal cord alone continues to amaze me. I understand how this mechanism works using the concept of topographic organization of the spinal cord, but it appears that all of these output movements (of the examples we were given) are reflex and defensive responses. They are actions that would commonly be called involuntary. In the example of quadriplegia, Christopher Reeves withdrew his foot when touched, but was not able to reproduce the motion when asked. So in an isolated spinal cord it would seem that in order to get a fixed response the right sensory stimulus must be applied.         

         The mechanisms of the spinal cord and corresponding extremities are enough to sustain life (with a supply of nutrients and oxygen) however; they seem to be lacking the experience aspect of living. In the above example of the frog, one could consider the reflex as being an experience, but it is limited in the sense that if you tickle the frog in the same way it will most likely produce the same twitching behavior. It would seem logical to me to assume that if the same stimulus was applied under the same conditions to produce an identical behavior then the same neural pathway must have been used. This descriptions seems comparable to a machine, and machines are not usually thought of as experiencing. If the spinal cord alone is not capable of experiencing (in the sense of perceiving and relating) then it must be the brain working in concurrence with the spinal cord to create this sensation of experience.

         When the body encounters some external stimulus it will elicit a response in the nervous system; if your hand is stocked sensory neurons send the ‘signal’ to the upper part of your spinal cord, which then returns a signal to the motor neurons in your arm, most likely causing you to retract it. I would like to propose that after the signal goes to the spinal cord, a signal is not only sent to the motor neurons, but also to the brain. It is in the brain where the electrochemical information is ‘interpreted’ so that you are able to make a connection between the shock and the pain in your hand, and possibly produce a behavior in addition to the reflex (verbally expressing that pain for example).

         It is still unclear to me what the actually process of experiencing is; this is merely an interpretation of information. I am also unclear on how information is stored in the form of memory. In general people learn from experience, but in what form is this experience stored? And are there other forms of learning behaviors? Babies seem to be able to learn behaviors through imitation, is there specific neurons responsible for this type of learning as opposed to experiential learning? So many questions so little time.

Paul Grobstein's picture


Sorry about the broken link Tuesday when we were talking about whether organisms that act differently have differences in their brains, even if they're the same species. Its an important point, and I've fixed the link in the course notes. You can go directly to the relevant material at /bb/kinser2/bb/ .