Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

03 OCTOBER, 2012

The Neurochemistry of Empathy, Storytelling, and the Dramatic Arc, Animated

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What cortisol and oxytocin have to do with a 19th-century German playwright.

This week, I’m headed to the Future of Storytelling summit, an unusual cross-disciplinary unconference exploring exactly what it says on the tin. Among the presenters is neuroeconomics pioneer Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies and author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. In this short film on empathy, neurochemistry, and the dramatic arc, directed and edited by my friend Kirby Ferguson and animated by Henrique Barone, Zak takes us inside his lab, where he studies how people respond to stories.

What he found is that even the simplest narrative can elicit powerful empathic response my triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin, provided it is highly engaging and follows the classic dramatic arc outlined by the German playwright Gustav Freytag 150 years ago.

Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry — and that’s what it means to be a social creature.

Complement with Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

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19 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The Science of Orgasms and Your Brain on Porn

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Inside the complex tangle of biology and behavior that shapes our relationship with and experience of sex.

We’ve already explored the origins of sex, the neurochemistry of heartbreak, and how drugs affect desire. But what, exactly, happens in the brain when the body belts out its ultimate anthem of sexual triumph? Count on creative duo Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, better known as AsapSCIENCE — who have previously explained how music enchants the brain and what science teaches us about curing hangovers — to break down the body’s response during orgasm:

But what about sexual experiences that don’t involve direct contact with a partner? What happens inside the brain then is arguably even more intriguing. In this talk from TEDxGlasgow, physiology teacher Gary Wilson peels the curtain on the complex scientific processes that accompany, and perpetuate, the world’s addiction to pornography. Specifically, he looks at how the Coolidge effect fuels internet porn:

For more on this ceaselessly fascinating tangle of biology and behavior, see the recently released The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction by neuroscientist Larry Young and journalist Brian Alexander, who take us inside the living brain to explore how its neurotransmitters, hormones, and circuits shape the very behaviors we find ourselves most invested in.

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30 AUGUST, 2012

How Consciousness Evolved and Why a Planetary “Übermind” Is Inevitable

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“There is no reason why this web of hypertrophied consciousness cannot spread to the planets and, ultimately, beyond the stellar night to the galaxy.”

“These new media have made our world into a single unit,” Marshall McLuhan observed in 1960, when he made the case for the emergence of a “global village”. Meanwhile, in the half-century since McLuhan’s meditations, scientists and philosophers alike have become increasingly occupied with the study of consciousness — what it is, how it works, and how it shapes our sense of self.

In Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (public library), neuroscientist Christof Koch“reductionist, because I seek quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses; romantic, because of my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky about us and deep within us” — explores how subjective feelings, or consciousness, come into being. Among Koch’s most fascinating arguments is one that bridges philosophy, evolutionary biology and technofuturism to predict a global Übermind not unlike McLuhan’s “global village,” but one in which our technology melds with what Carl Jung has termed the “collective unconscious” to produce a kind of sentient global brain:

The ever-increasing complexity of organisms, evident in the fossil record, is a consequence of the unrelenting competition for survival that propels evolution.

It was accompanied by the emergence of nervous systems and the first inkling of sentience. The continuing complexification of brains, to use Teilhard de Chardin’s term, enhanced consciousness until self-consciousness emerged: awareness reflecting upon itself. This recursive process started millions of years ago in some of the more highly developed mammals. In Homo sapiens, it has achieved its temporary pinnacle.

But complexification does not stop with individual self-awareness. It is ongoing and, indeed, speeding up. In today’s technologically sophisticated and intertwined societies, complexification is taking on a supraindividual, continent-spanning character. With the instant, worldwide communication afforded by cell phones, e-mail, and social networking, I foresee a time when humanity’s teeming billions and their computers will be interconnected in a vast matrix — a planetary Übermind. Provided mankind avoids Nightfall — a thermonuclear Armageddon or a complete environmental meltdown — there is no reason why this web of hypertrophied consciousness cannot spread to the planets and, ultimately, beyond the stellar night to the galaxy at large.

The rest of Consciousness traces Koch’s groundbreaking work with physical chemist Francis Crick (who, along with james Watson, discovered the double-helix structure of DNA) and explores how science has attempted to reconcile the hard physicality of the brain, the most complex object in the known universe, with the intangible world of awareness, populated by our senses, our emotions, and our very experience of life.

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