Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Neurosciencey Look At Emotions

        Emotions are incredibly complex; there one of the fundamental parts of our humanity – everyone experiences them every day – yet scientists know surprisingly little about them. A big reason for this is that the brain is so incredibly complex. A hundred billion neurons firing every minute is quite a bit, and it’s difficult – to say the least – to measure all of that activity in real time. However, there are collections of neurons in the brain – nuclei – that both relate to different types of emotions and are large enough to be removed, either accidentally or through noninvasive magnetic impulses.

            One of these is the amygdala, the main control center for fear response. Fear is the oldest emotion; it’s helped keep our species alive for millennia by directing us away from harmful situations, and it makes sense that it would have its own dedicated area of the brain. When the amygdala is removed, animals, including humans, show a remarkable reduction in fear response. There’s one example I remember of a women who had her amygdala removed because of a tumor: she was walking home late at night when a man pulled a gun on her and asked for all her money. Because she didn’t have any fear response, she just walked right up to him and slapped him; he was so unnerved that he ran away. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What Is Free Will?

In an article, “Neuroscience vs Philosophy: Taking Aim At Free Will,” Kerri Smith focuses on the interplay between philosophy and neuroscience and how the two of them relate to, shape, and discuss the concept of free will. One of the main arguments of the piece revolved around the experiments done by John Dylan-Hynes, in which he hooked a number of people up to a fMRI machine and recorded their brain activity when they felt the urge to push a button while being shown a random sequence of letters; he found that there is activity in the brain up to seven seconds before there is a conscious decision being made to actually press the button.
            The article also mentioned an experiment done by Benjamin Libet who hooked a series of people up to an EEG, showed them a clock face, and asked them to record when they felt the urge to move their finger. Libet also recorded that there was activity in the brain before a conscious decision was recorded. Although, he only recorded brain action several hundred milliseconds before the conscious decision.
            Haynes used his experiment’s results to come to the conclusion that humans do not actually have free will, and that our conscious decisions are actually only an after-thought of cranial activity. In other words, our actions are predetermined by our brain’s impulses, some of which can be active up to seven seconds before a conscious decision is actually made. However, there are some problems with this theory as mentioned in the article. One is that the recorded brain activity could simply the brain gearing up to make the decision; gathering information, compiling data, and so forth. Other counter arguments pointed to possible distractions within the experiments themselves. For instance, “Critics said that the clock was distracting, and the report of the conscious decision was too subjective. (2).”         

            One of the main questions that I brought up while I was reading this article – and the snippet of our book reading that went along with it – was, ‘Does this even matter?’ Granted, I’m a monist. (for those who don’t know, a monist is someone who believes that the mind, brain, and body are all one and the same – there are no differences between them; no soul –) And, as a monist I believe that we are our brains – as much as it doesn’t feel like it. – All of our thoughts, all our actions, everything that makes us who we are, are actually complex interactions between the billions of neurons in our brain. (Fun fact: there are actually more neurons in our brain than stars in the sky.) This means that, for me, it doesn’t matter how much delay there is in the pre-supplementary motor system before an action is taken, it’s still our actions; our decisions.  

Thursday, October 8, 2015


            I stand on cliff’s edge, waves pounding against an obsidian rock a hundred meters below. The empty Atlantic Ocean splays out in front of me, touching the grey sky.
I shuffle my feet and look down. The tips of my red converse shoes hang out over open air. The right one is untied. The rock is small, jagged, only the size of my thumb. I bend down and tie white laces. Mist tickles my face.
I stand. Wind ripples my blue shirt, biting into my skin. Like the frozen water would have bit her. My eyes become acid. “Why?” I shout. God doesn’t answer. No one does. A seagull cries overhead.

I take a single step forward. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

How Sheep Lose Their Brain

          My moist black nose twitches. This space smells off. The air is fresh, but there’s no green in it; no life. Instead, it smells hard, like the rough prod of a silver stick. All the corners are hard too; surgically precise, as though everything is afraid of being soft. The human carrying me shifts his grip, trapping my face against his removable fur. All I can see is white, and all I feel is his fur.
            He carries me through a doorway, and the smell changes. There is iron in it now, the ruddy smell of Old Man Joe’s water. Water that made me throw up. I jerk my back leg. My hoof flies out of the man’s grip only to hit something painfully solid that rings with a dull thud.     
            “Fucking sheep; control yourself.”
            He grabs my leg in a vice grip and forces it back into my body. I try to resist, but my legs are not in a strong position.
            “Need help?”
            “Nah, I got him.”
            I cry out as loudly as I can, hoping his hands move to my mouth.
            “Shut up… Here, bring the sedative.” His grip remains strong. I relax for a beat, trying to lull him. Then, I kick out as hard as I can. Something in my back left leg twists the wrong way, and pain roils up my leg. I cry out again just as a sharp pin bites my neck.
            The man carrying me sets me down on something hard and cool. I brace my back legs to try to get up, but the left one twists again; my hind falls in a lump. I moan. The door is only a couple meters away, but there’s a softness coming up my body.
            “There there. It’ll be alright.” I feel a hand pet my head. I relax into it, letting the softness carry my mind away.