A team of researchers have discovered the brain rhythmic activity that can split us from reality, causing a type of "out-of-body" phenomena known as dissociation.
- Researchers have identified the key rhythmic brain activity that triggers a bizarre experience called dissociation in which people can feel detached from their identity and environment.
- This phenomena is experienced by about 2% to 10% of the population, and nearly 3 out of 4 individuals who have experienced a traumatic event will slip into a dissociative state either during the event or sometime after.
- The findings implicate a specific protein in a certain set of cells as key to the feeling of dissociation, and it could lead to better-targeted therapies for conditions in which dissociation can occur.
What is dissociation?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bd2f1f29418bd4805bf1282001dca814"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/XF2zeOdE5GY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Dissociation is an experience commonly described as a feeling of sudden detachment from the individual's identity and environment, almost like an out-of-body experience. This mysterious phenomena is experienced by about 2% to 10% of the population.</p> <p>"This state often manifests as the perception of being on the outside looking in at the cockpit of the plane that's your body or mind — and what you're seeing you just don't consider to be yourself," explained Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, <a href="https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2020/09/researchers-pinpoint-brain-circuitry-underlying-dissociation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in a Stanford Medicine news release</a>. Deisseroth is a professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, as well as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.</p> <p>Nearly three-quarters of individuals who have experienced a traumatic event will slip into a dissociative state either during the event or in the hours or even weeks that follow according to Deisseroth. Most of the time, the dissociative experiences end on their own within a few weeks of the trauma. But the eerie experience can become chronic, such as in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, and extremely disruptive in daily life. The state of dissociation can also occur in epilepsy and be invoked by certain drugs. </p> <p>Until now, no one has known what exactly is going on inside the brain triggering and sustaining the feeling of dissociation — and so it has been a challenge to figure out how to stop it and develop effective treatments. </p>
New Research: The Molecular Underpinnings of Dissociation<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyNjk3My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNTQ3MTI1NX0._nJoxm1eDcTsHsy1Y27JxNl2uR5hlbEYDWYoQlO0EAU/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C121%2C0%2C121&height=700" id="26e86" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02f1c2a089af7e45c07a63a73ee1c610" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Mouse neurons | Neurons from a mouse spinal cord. Credit: NI… | FlickrMouse neurons | Neurons from a mouse spinal cord. Credit: NI… | Flickr<p>Last week, in a study published in <em><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2731-9" target="_blank">Nature</a></em><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2731-9">,</a> Deisseroth and his colleagues at Stanford University uncovered a localized brain rhythm and molecule that underlies this state.</p> <p>"This study has identified brain circuitry that plays a role in a well-defined subjective experience," said Deisseroth, who was the study's senior author. "Beyond its potential medical implications, it gets at the question, 'What is the self?' That's a big one in law and literature, and important even for our own introspections."</p> <p>The authors' findings implicate a specific protein existing in a particular set of cells as key to the feeling of dissociation. </p> <p>The research team first used a technique called widefield calcium imaging to record brain-wide neuronal activity in lab mice. They observed and analyzed changes in those brain rhythms after the animals had been administered a range of drugs that are known to cause dissociative states: ketamine, phencyclidine (PCP) and dizocilpine (MK801). At a certain dosage of ketamine, the mice behaved in a way that suggested that they were likely experiencing dissociation. For example, when the animals were placed on an uncomfortably warm surface, they acted in a way that indicated that they were feeling the heat by reacting to it by flicking their paws. However, they signaled that they didn't care enough about the unpleasantness to do what they would typically do in such a situation, which is to lick their paws to cool them off. This suggested a dissociation from the surrounding environment.</p> <p>The drug produced oscillations in neuronal activity in a region of the mices' brain called the retrosplenial cortex, an area essential for various cognitive functions such as navigation and episodic memory (a unique memory of a specific event). The oscillations occurred at about 1-3 hertz (three cycles per second). The authors then examined the active cells in more detail by using two-photon imaging for higher resolution. This revealed that the oscillations were occurring only in layer 5 of the retrosplenial cortex. Next, the researchers recorded neuronal activity across other regions of the brain. </p> <p>"Normally, other parts of the cortex and subcortex are functionally connected to neuronal activity in the retrosplenial cortex," reported <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02505-z#ref-CR1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Nature</em></a>. "However, ketamine caused a disconnect, such that many of these brain regions no longer communicated with the retrosplenial cortex."</p> <p>The scientists then used optogenetics, a method of manipulating living tissue with light to control neural function, to stimulate neurons in the mice's retrosplenial cortex. When the scientists did this at a 2-hertz rhythm, they were able to cause dissociative behavior in the animals analogous to the behavior caused by ketamine without using drugs. The experiments conducted by the team displayed how a particular type of protein, an ion channel, was essential to the generation of the hertz signal that caused the dissociative behavior in mice. Scientists are hopeful that this protein could be a potential treatment target in the future. </p>
What about humans?<p>The researchers also recorded electrical activity from brain regions in an epilepsy patient who had reported experiencing dissociation immediately before each seizure. The sensations experienced right before a seizure is called an aura. This aura for the patient was described as being like "outside the pilot's chair, looking at, but not controlling, the gauges," Deisseroth said.</p> <p>The researchers recorded electric signals from the patient's cerebral cortex and stimulated it electrically aiming to identify the origin point of the seizures. While that was happening, the patient responded to questions about how it felt. The authors found that whenever the patient was about to have a seizure, it was preceded by the dissociative aura and a particular pattern of electrical activity localized within the patient's posteromedial cortex. That patterned activity was characterized by an oscillating signal sparked by nerve cells firing in coordination at 3 hertz. When this region of the brian was stimulated electrically, the patient experienced dissociation without having a seizure. </p> <p>This study will have far-reaching implications for neuroscience and could lead to better-targeted therapies for disorders in which dissociation can be triggered, such as PTSD, borderline personality, and epilepsy.</p>
Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.
What exactly does "questions are the new answers" mean?
- Traditionally, intelligence has been viewed as having all the answers. When it comes to being innovative and forward-thinking, it turns out that being able to ask the right questions is an equally valuable skill.
- The difference between the right and wrong questions is not simply in the level of difficulty. In this video, geobiologist Hope Jahren, journalist Warren Berger, experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, and investor Tim Ferriss discuss the power of creativity and the merit in asking naive and even "dumb" questions.
- "Very often the dumb question that is sitting right there that no one seems to be asking is the smartest question you can ask," Ferriss says, adding that "not only is it the smartest, most incisive, but if you want to ask it and you're reasonably smart, I guarantee you there are other people who want to ask it but are just embarrassed to do so."
Thought expriments are great tools, but do they always do what we want them to?
- Thought experiments are quite popular, though some get more time in the sun than others.
- While they are supposed to help guide our intuition to help solve difficult problems, some are a bit removed from reality.
- Can we trust the intuitions we have about problems set in sci-fi worlds or that postulate impossible monsters?
The Swampman Cometh<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5tvT90uPz-U" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p>A thought experiment we've discussed <a href="https://bigthink.com/scotty-hendricks/seven-thought-experiments-thatll-make-you-question-everything" target="_self">before</a> that dives into questions of identity and meaningful language is the Swampman. <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/davidson/" target="_blank">Donald Davidson</a> wrote it in 1987:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Suppose a man is out for a walk one day when a bolt of lightning disintegrates him. Simultaneously, a bolt of lightning strikes a marsh and causes a bunch of molecules to spontaneously rearrange into the same pattern that constituted that man a few moments ago. This 'Swampman' has an exact copy of the brain, memories, patterns of behavior as he did. It goes about its day, works, interacts with the man's friends and is otherwise indistinguishable from him."<em></em></p><p>Is the Swampman the same person as Davidson? When he refers to things he "remembers" seeing before, even though the Swampman never actually saw them, do his words mean anything? This experiment, combined with "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus" target="_blank">The Ship of Theseus</a>" causes people to wonder if teleportation through creating a copy of a person and then destroying the original actually "kills" the person being <a href="https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2017/09/is-beaming-down-in-star-trek-a-death-sentence/" target="_blank">teleported</a>. </p><p>Of course, we don't have teleportation yet, nor are there actual Swamp-people running around (Or are there!?!?!). While the questions raised by the Swampman are important ones, Dennett's warning is that we shouldn't be too quick to trust our intuition when the problem is so separated from anything we've ever encountered. <em></em></p>
The Utility Monster<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/G2HiIF8zBBY" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p>This thought experiment from <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nozick-political/" target="_blank">Robert Nozick's</a> defense of libertarianism "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" asks what we'd have to do if Utilitarianism is correct and we met something capable of much greater happiness than anybody else.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater gains in utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose. For, unacceptably, the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster's maw, in order to increase total utility."</p><p>If there was a utility monster that got a million times more joy out of everything than anybody else does, would we be obligated to give it everything it demanded to maximize the total happiness? Even if those demands cause suffering, but never enough to tip the ethical scales, elsewhere? If so, what does this mean for Utilitarianism as a moral theory? </p><p>At first, this experiment doesn't seem too bizarre. We all grasp the idea of somebody who gets more out of something than we do; this is just taking that idea to the extreme. The fundamental problem with this experiment was pointed out by philosopher <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Parfit" target="_blank">Derek Parfit</a> who argued that, while we are capable of imagining somebody who is happier than we are or who would get more out of something than we do, the idea of a creature that gets a million times more happiness out of things is impossible to imagine in a <a href="https://books.google.com/books?id=6twLBwAAQBAJ&pg=PA240&lpg=PA240&dq=parfit+utility+monster&source=bl&ots=C-TcqwYRnO&sig=3wwLzjl3Z9KjAOBh3FFcb41aHG4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjYkIq7jqveAhU0IDQIHYtgAp04ChDoATAGegQIAhAB#v=onepage&q=parfit%20utility%20monster&f=false" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">meaningful way.</a></p><p>How can we get useful insights into the problem if we can't hope to grasp how this monster interacts with the world? Because of this difficulty, Parfit rejected the problem.</p><p>Utilitarian philosopher and Big Think contributor <a href="https://bigthink.com/u/petersinger" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peter Singer</a> accepts that if there were utility monsters there might be a problem for Utilitarianism, but, as he explained to <a href="https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/back-talk-peter-singer/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Nation,</a> he finds the idea far-fetched. When posed the problem in the context of a billionaire owning a superyacht rather than donating money to fund medical treatments, he replied:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We would have to assume that Larry Ellison actually has capacities for happiness that are vastly greater than anyone else's. Ellison's yacht cost $200 million, and if we assume that $400 can repair an obstetric fistula, that means that the suffering relieved by 500,000 obstetric fistula repairs is not greater than the happiness that Ellison gets from his yacht. That, I think, is not physically possible."<em></em></p>
Roko’s Basilisk<p>Continuing on the theme of bizarre thought experiments involving monsters, we have a strange reworking of <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/" target="_blank">Pascal's Wager</a> involving a super-intelligent AI. It was created by a contributor to the website <em>LessWrong </em>named "Roko."</p><p>Given the length of the original post, I will summarize it here:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Imagine for a moment that humanity will someday create a hyper-powered artificial intelligence that is capable of solving all of the world's problems. It follows a form of utilitarian ethics and is trying to reduce human suffering as much as it can, which is a considerable amount. Given all the good it can do, it coming into existence, and doing so quickly, would substantially benefit humanity. Fully capable of simulating anything it wants, it then decides to take steps to punish those who knew about the good it could do but didn't help create it by torturing simulations of them. </p><p>Is it rational then to start donating a lot of money to those creating this super intelligence to avoid having it simulate and torture a copy of you in the future? This experiment gained a fair amount of notoriety <a href="https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/evkgvz/what-is-rokos-basilisk-elon-musk-grimes" target="_blank">online</a>, and a name based on the creature that kills with its <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilisk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">gaze</a>, because by reading about it, you think about the monster and become a potential victim in the future, since now you know about it and might choose not to help create it. </p><p>Maybe I should have mentioned that part first. Oh well, so it goes. </p><p>As you might have realized, this experiment requires you to assume that we can reliably predict the behavior and motivations of a particular, ultra-intelligent AI that doesn't exist yet and may never exist. In terms of raw intelligence, this might be akin to asking a brainless starfish to predict how a human will behave one hundred years from now. While the experiment is said to have given some people <a href="https://slate.com/technology/2014/07/rokos-basilisk-the-most-terrifying-thought-experiment-of-all-time.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">nightmares</a>, it isn't taken seriously by most people outside a small circle on the internet. </p><p>Plus, the <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Roko's_basilisk#So_you.27re_worrying_about_the_Basilisk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">long list of assumptions</a> in the experiment includes that a simulation of you is actually "you" in a meaningful way. We have to solve the Swampman problem before we can agree on that point at all. </p>
People Seeds<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/4ezS5vQ1j_E" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p>A surreal experiment by <a href="https://philosophy.mit.edu/thomson" target="_blank">Judith Thomson</a> that appeared in her famous essay "<a href="https://rintintin.colorado.edu/~vancecd/phil215/Thomson.pdf" target="_blank">A Defense of Abortion<em>.</em></a>"<em> </em>The essay is a series of arguments for the morality of abortion in certain circumstances through thought experiments. While some parts of it are quite famous, this section seems to avoid widespread discussion:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Again, suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don't want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective; and a seed drifts in and takes root."<em></em></p><p>The question being, would it be acceptable to uproot the person-plant-fetus that gets in? Is it too much to ask that people live without cloth in their homes if they don't want people seeds to get in? How about never opening their doors or windows?</p><p>While this is supposed to be analogous to accidental pregnancy resulting from birth control failures, the downright bizarre nature of the thought experiment has been commented on by more than a few <a href="http://www.the-philosopher.co.uk/2020/09/thought-experiments-and-ethics-of.html" target="_blank">critics</a>. Philosopher <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathy_Wilkes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Kathleen Wilkes</a> argued that it was too far removed from our reality to provide <a href="https://www.philosophyexperiments.com/whosebody/Default12.aspx" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">meaningful intuitions</a> on abortion in her book "Real People<em>."</em></p><p>After all, society would probably have very different ideas on what the right to life means if we came into the world because a bit of pollen landed on the carpet.</p>
Twin Earth<p>A problem created to dive into questions of language by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilary_Putnam" target="_blank">Hilary Putnam</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twin_Earth_thought_experiment" target="_blank">Twin Earth</a> experiment dives into questions of language and meaning using a story straight out of a one-shot comic book:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"> "We begin by supposing that elsewhere in the universe there is a planet exactly like Earth in virtually all aspects, which we refer to as "Twin Earth." (We should also suppose that the relevant surroundings are exactly the same as for Earth; it revolves around a star that appears to be exactly like our sun, and so on). On Twin Earth, there is a Twin equivalent of every person and thing here on Earth. The one difference between the two planets is that there is no water on Twin Earth. In its place there is a liquid that is superficially identical, but is chemically different, being composed not of H2O, but rather of some more complicated formula which we abbreviate as 'XYZ.' The Twin Earthlings who refer to their language as 'English' call XYZ 'water.' Finally, we set the date of our thought experiment to be several centuries ago, when the residents of Earth and Twin Earth would have no means of knowing that the liquids they called 'water' were H<sub>2</sub>O and XYZ respectively. The experience of people on Earth with water and that of those on Twin Earth with XYZ would be identical."<em></em></p><p><br> Do the Earthling (who Putnam named Oscar) and his twin (also named Oscar) mean the same thing when they say "water?" Their mental states are the same when they refer to it, but the object in question is physically different in each case. If the twins' statements don't mean the same thing, then we must admit that external factors play a role in defining terms external to the speaker, a stance dubbed "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_externalism" target="_blank">scientific externalism</a>." <br><br>While this experiment is quite famous and has advanced a fair amount of <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/content-externalism/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">debate</a>, you can probably already see the difficulties some people have with it. </p><p>Philosopher <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyler_Burge" target="_blank">Tyler Burge</a> has argued that the whole experiment is flawed, as Earth Oscar refers to the concept of "H2O," while Twin Earth Oscar is referring to the concept of "XYZ." Dr. Burge argued that this means their mental states are different from the get-go. He also points out that the stuff flowing on Twin Earth <a href="https://coursys.sfu.ca/2015fa-phil-880-g1/pages/burge/view" target="_blank">isn't actually water</a>, which might derail the whole thing. </p><p>For his part, Putnam criticized others for using thought experiments that require you to ignore specific ideas to arrive at the intended ones. In this experiment, with humans presumably still being 60 percent water, you'd have to imagine that changing what water is at the molecular level would not alter the beings thinking about the water in any meaningful way. He has also admitted that Dr. Burge's first critique is actually a very good one. </p><p>Surprisingly, Daniel Dennett has spent a fair amount of time discussing the <a href="https://www.philosophy-science-humanities-controversies.com/listview-details.php?id=288841&a=$a&first_name=Daniel&author=Dennett&concept=Twin%20Earth" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">content</a> of the problem rather than on how strange the whole experiment is in the first place. It might go to show that philosophers love a good thought experiment, even if the results aren't directly applicable to the real world. </p>
Insomnia is the product of mental or emotional pressure.