Sunday, September 27, 2009


At the outset, a Hearty Welocme to Mr. Rafael Stoneman, Ms Cathy Ginter and 'Emptynessdancing' to the Blog. I look forward to their thoughtful contributions / comments -- ramesam.]

Bhagavad-Gita Chapter IV, Verse 10 provides an important key for attaining Oneness with the Supreme Consciousness through Self-Knowledge. The Sloka says: "Many have attained Beingness in "Me" (= Consciousness) having freed (themselves) from Attachment, Fear and Anger and staying absorbed in Consciousness."

Attachment (likes and dislikes), Fear and Anger are the innate emotions acquired by an organism in evoution to help in its self-protection and survival. These traits are reflected in the more primitive parts of the brain, chiefly the neural circuits known as the 'limbic system'. If the limbic system is damaged, an animal loses the capability to express these emotions. A person less prone to anger, fear and attachment will obviously be in a much happier state. Recently an interesting case of a patient with damage to these components is reported by Dr. J. Feinstein et al.

Roger lost almost his entire "limbic system" due to viral infection. What happened to Roger's mind when his brain suffered such injury?

"Roger's IQ is above average; his speech and language abilities are excellent; his vision and hearing are normal, although he has no sense of taste or smell. His short term (working) memory, attention, and reasoning abilities are unimpaired. His motor abilities are fine - he is reportedly an excellent bowler. [However,] he is unable to remember anything that has happened since the infection, which was 28 years ago..... Roger's personality and emotional life seems to have been changed by the infection as well, but in a rather fortunate way:

Roger appears remarkably unconcerned by his condition. He hardly ever complains and, in general, shows little worry for anything in life. Both of his parents and his sister fervently claim that Roger is always happy. Moreover, based on his family’s report, Roger is paradoxically happier now than he was before his brain damage. ... His premorbid disposition of being somewhat reserved and introverted has shifted to being outgoing and extroverted... Most conversations with Roger involve animated speech that is replete with prosody, gesture, and, often times, laughing. He readily displays signs of positive emotion including happiness, amusement, interest, and excitement. As previously noted, Roger’s positive mood has remained essentially unchanged over nearly three decades.

Another case is that of a lady referred to as "SM." Her amygdala (an important part located in the medial temporal lobes) known to process strong negative emotions, such as anger and fear, and considered to be the seat of emotion in the brain was damaged. Dr. R. Adolphs and his coleague noticed that SM was "very outgoing and is almost too friendly, to the point of "violating" what others might perceive as their own personal space. She is extremely friendly, and she wants to approach people more than normal."

Added on 10 June 2011:
"At one point they took SM to a pet store to see how she would behave around snakes, an animal she had earlier told them she hated. When she saw the snakes, she was immediately drawn to them. She even picked one up and began playing with its tongue. When asked to explain her behavior, she said that she was overwhelmed with curiosity."

(Excerpts from Science News, October, 2009)
"Using the latest neuroimaging tools, scientists are getting a look at what goes on in the hypnotized brain. The findings are mesmerizing. When hypnotized people act on a hypnotic suggestion, they really do see, hear and feel differently, such research shows."

"New research at the University of Geneva suggests that hypnosis alters neural activity by rerouting some of the usual connections between brain regions. Such neurological detours don’t happen when subjects merely imagine a scenario."

"David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford University School of Medicine says: "Ten to 15 percent of adults are 'highly hypnotizable,' meaning they can experience dramatic changes in perception with hypnosis. A person’s ability to become hypnotized is unrelated to intelligence, compliancy or gullibility, but may be linked to an ability to become deeply absorbed in activities such as reading, listening to music or daydreaming."

" In 2005, scientists at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City used functional MRI to show how hypnotic suggestions can override "automatic" processes in the brain. The fMRI results were also striking. Highly hypnotizable participants showed less activity in a brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is active when people are trying to sort out conflicting information from different sources."

"In the June 25 issue of Neuron, Yann Cojan of the University of Geneva and colleagues report: Hypnotized people who are told that their left hand is paralyzed show brain patterns that differ from those who aren't hypnotized and from those who aren't hypnotized but are told to pretend their left hand is paralyzed. Under hypnosis, neurons in the brain’s motor cortex fired up as usual to prepare for the task. But when instructed to use the left, or “paralyzed” hand, the motor cortex failed to send signals to motor execution regions. Instead, it directed its signals to another brain region, the precuneus. The precuneus is a sort of center for self-consciousness. ... By rerouting motor signals to the precuneus, hypnosis appeared to decouple the typical relationship between brain areas that generate the signals for hand movement and the areas that carry out such movements. Subjects who were not hypnotized and were asked to fake paralysis showed no such disconnect between these regions."

"Consciousness" is still an Achiless heel or a Holy Grail in Neuroscience. There is no agreed definition even for the word consciousness. However, it may be quite safe to say one thing. The word "Consciousness" as used in the Bhgavad-Gita verse quoted at the beginning of this Post and the "consciousness" that science is probing may not be the same.

Medicos have their own working definition for consciousness, though it is difficult even for them to categorize who is truly in a vegetative state when it comes to edge cases. A recent report by Dr. T. Bekinschtein and others showed how a patient supposed to be in a vegetative state has exhibited a remarkable capacity "to learn." By repeated training, the patient began to respond to a tone before blowing puffs of air on to his eyes. Some others are, of course, skeptical of the results and think it could be a Pavlovian conditioning.

In the meanwhile, anesthesiologists have scored a point. They seem to have found a "spot" for consciousness in the brain. Prof. Marshall Devor and Ruth Abulafia described this month (September 2009) their discovery of an area of the brain that participates in the control of "alert status."

"Loss of response to painful stimuli and loss of consciousness are the most striking characteristics of surgical anesthesia and anesthesia-like states, such as concussion, reversible coma, and syncope (fainting). These states also exhibit behavioral suppression, loss of muscle tone, a shift to the sleep-like "delta-wave" EEG pattern, and depressed brain metabolism."

"A small group of neurons near the base of the brain, in the mesopontine tegmentum, has executive control over the alert status of the entire cerebrum and spinal cord, and can generate loss of pain sensation, postural collapse and loss of consciousness through specific neural circuitry."

They described it as "center of consciousness" at least in the laboratory rats that they experimented with.

Added on 28 July 2011:
I have come across a very absorbing discussion on Defining Consciousness by J. Bogen (Neurosurgeon), C. Koch (Neuroscientist), S. Hameroff (Anesthesiologist), L. Brothers (Psychologist) and R. Kuhn (Moderator) at:

Added on Apr 06, 2012: As you awaken from anesthesia:

"We expected to see the outer bits of brain, the cerebral cortex (often thought to be the seat of higher human consciousness), would turn back on when consciousness was restored following anesthesia. Surprisingly, that is not what the images showed us. In fact, the central core structures of the more primitive brain structures including the thalamus and parts of the limbic system appeared to become functional first, suggesting that a foundational primitive conscious state must be restored before higher order conscious activity can occur."

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