Choosing the Decisions We Make

You know that feeling of being run down by the overwhelming weight of the decisions that you have to make on a regular basis? I definitely have, and I’ve been practicing a solution that is working for me.

Decisions Use Energy

All decisions take up energy as we try process them. I’m starting to see this as neither good nor bad. What is important is where we prefer to extend our energy. This doesn’t mean that I want to automate everything and then sleep on the beach all day. There is a therapeutic beauty in daily practice of things we enjoy, like a [lightbox type=”image” href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lL9BiNuImws”]Japanese Tea Ceremony[/lightbox].

I’ll share an example from my experience. Making a decision of which trail or path to run on is a decision that I enjoy making. Trying to figure out which bills I need to pay at what time is not a decision process I enjoy.

From The Simple Dollar:

If we can find ways to take some of those decisions out of our hands, we reduce the number of active decisions we have to make in a given day. Thus, our decision fatigue is reduced and we’re less likely to make poor decisions due to such fatigue.

Our solution is to automate little decisions. We do this by spending time up front thinking of ways to eliminate some of our little regular decisions. Even eliminating tiny decisions really helps.

Automating Tasks That Aren’t Important

There are so many tools available that can help us with those decisions that we don’t enjoy as much. It might take a little work up front but the ease of mind later on is totally worth it.

Using the bill paying example above, I have set up my bills to be paid automatically based on the days that I get paid. This helps free my mind from trying to hold it all in my mental calendar. It is so simple and it is very easy to forget that it is simple.

Choosing the Decisions We Make

Automating some of these tasks allows me to enjoy the tasks/decisions that I enjoy to have as part of my daily routine. By doing this, I feel more fulfilled and have more energy to give to my favorite tasks.

I can reassess these automated tasks and the tasks that I enjoy every few months to see if they are still working to my benefit. This is much less upkeep than having to deal with them all daily.

What decisions do you enjoy making? Which would you prefer not to make as often? Are you able to automate some of those tasks?

Running with Mantras

Vajrasattva mantra

I wanted to share an awesome experience I had while running recently. First, a little back story. Suzanne and I have been attending a mantra group every Friday evening for the past month. This is something that we thought would be great to learn about and practice. The leader of the group is Aly Good and she has been a great teacher of the practices. You can learn more about Aly and mantras on her site, thewayofmantra.com.

We usually go through three or four different mantras each Friday, repeating them 108 times. These are very satisfying mantras and they definitely come up in your mind while you’re doing other things. This has been happening on my runs recently, especially since my headphones stopped working and I am back in my head while I’m running.

I went out for a long run a couple of days ago. Since my headphones are kaput, I decided to focus on the sounds of my steps and make sure that my form was nice and clean. It’s a good thing I can hear my feet again because they were slapping all around the place before.

About a year ago, I talked about how I use my runs as a meditation. This run was one step beyond that even. After a few steps a mantra started going through my mind. This mantra was repeated throughout my entire run. It helped me stay focused and in tune with my run. The mantra that I was reciting was this:

om gate gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha

This is known as the Gate Mantra and translates to OM gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond even the beyond, hail the goer. This is one of my favorites that we do because it makes some great vibrations when spoken.  I’m not sure why it was this one that came to my mind but it was perfect for my run.

I was able to keep a steady pace without trying hard. It helped me keep my rhythm and my strength throughout the entire run. I will definitely be exploring more mantras while running to see what other kinds of things happen.

Image Source

Keeping the Inner Child Alive

caines arcade smile

caines arcade smileDo you remember when you were young and had all sorts of thoughts and adventures that nobody else could see? We all had so much imagination and their were no limits to what we could and couldn’t do. In fact, we couldn’t even understand when an adult would say “you can’t do that” or “that can’t be done.” We would reply with “why not?” which would bring out frustration and confusion in the adult to say, “that’s just the way it is.” Continue reading “Keeping the Inner Child Alive”

Learning to Listen to Yourself

elephant-boy

functions of the brainOver the past few decades we have come to embrace the digital world. So many devices have been added to our daily lives to make it easier for us to do more. Think about a simple wrist watch. How many young people wear watches anymore? They are now worn mostly for decoration instead of function. How about cell phones that only call? Without a camera and data, what is a cell phone? The thought of a device that only has one function is outrageous!

All of these things are made to heighten our life experience and help us with our daily tasks. Because we don’t have to spend a lot of time with some of these tasks, we have extra time and energy in our day. Where do we put that time? Mostly into work or video games. Many people have their time packed so solid throughout the week that they can’t squeeze anything else in.

Working on the glacier during the summers was amazing for my personal growth. I wasn’t able to use the devices that I usually relied on. I was forced to listen to myself and to be current in my own mind. It’s amazing what kind of personal growth you can achieve when you are left alone with your mind.

My Advice on Listening to Yourself

mountain meditationWhat’s my advice for keeping your true self through all of this? I would suggest to have at least one day a week where you don’t have any device on or near you. Don’t plan anything for that day. Wake up on that day and do whatever your body and mind is telling you to do. Take a walk or a hike purely for your enjoyment without your phone or camera. This will help you listen to your body and mind instead of your digital habits.

Try to be conscious more of the time. When you are eating, put down the phone, turn off the TV, put away the book. Focus on the food you are eating. Enjoy every bite you are taking. Don’t let your mind drift, focus on taking bites and chewing. If your mind starts to shift bring it back to the process of eating. Be in the moment with your meal. Try this at one meal a day for a week and you will see big changes.

Once you have a good handle on focusing on your food, you can start to focus on other tasks you do. Park in the farthest parking spot at work and focus on your walk up to the building. Enjoy that walk. Take it nice and slow. Soak in everything around you. Do the same with the drive home. Don’t try to rush it. Just enjoy the amazing feeling of riding smoothly over the ground.

Doing this will help bring you into the now of the world. While it’s good to think about the future, we also must enjoy the present. If we continue to say, “everything will be good when I have ____,” or “I’ll be happy when _____,” we’ll never be happy. Don’t postpone your life by putting hurdles in front of you. Take pleasure in life in the present and your future will be happy as well.

Adding More Time to Your Day

time moving fastI’ve thought a lot about time these past couple of months. One of the things that I have learned about time is that it isn’t necessarily a set amount. We can actually bend time (at least our linear understanding of it) to squeeze more into it. Using our own energy and focus we can add much more to our days and our lives.

The Time We’re Used To

We see time as being linear. We are born, time passes as we age, then we lay to rest. Our day consists of going from one thing to the next based on what time it is. We make appointments, we work set hours out of our day. This is the linear time that we all know and are quite used to.

We’ve all been in the situation where we just wanted to be done with our day. Think of how it is after a long night drinking. When you’re at work the next day you have trouble caring about the work. Most of the day will be spent trying to stay awake. You stare at the clock just hoping that it will go faster.

Stuffing Time With Energy

What happens when more energy is focused in time? Would there be more time? I propose there would definitely be more time.

Have you ever had a day where you were in the zone? A day where you got so much accomplished and you were surprised that the day was only half over? These are the days where your energy was focused into time. The more energy you have the better your chance of this effect. Energizing foods, proper rest and doing things you enjoy will all have a great effect on this time/energy event.

My challenge to you is to start with one week of raw vegan food. With this, visualize the things that you enjoy. Practice some affirmations and you will feel the effects of this great event.

15 Mile Running Revelation

zen walk

runnerYesterday I set out to run a little LSD (Long Slow Distance). My original thought was that I should run 6 or 7 miles just like the high school cross country track days. In the end it turns out that 15 miles was going to be the distance.

The Run

My running course is straight out and straight back so I always know the half way point. When I got to the 3.5 mile mark I thought “it’s a beautiful day, I feel good, I’ll just go another mile.” Every half mile I ran I would feel like I should go a little farther. It wasn’t until I got to the 7.5 mile mark that I felt like I should start heading back. You can check out the run on RunKeeper or follow my runs on twitter as @SenchaFit.

The Revelation

I use my runs as a way to visualize and meditate since I struggle with them while being still. The first 7.5 miles I was holding in my mind all the times I was attacked emotionally, physically, verbally, etc. by someone and I didn’t tell them how it made me feel. I then held in my mind all the times I could think of where I attacked others.

I made it to mile marker eight and just then my music stopped playing as I started my ascent up the steepest hill in the course. Each of the things that I had been holding in mind were flashing quickly as if a strobe light in my brain. As they finished I saw (in my head) nothing but white emptiness. At that moment I took responsibility for not saying how it made me feel when I was attacked. I also took responsibility for all the times that I attacked someone else. In that moment I truly knew that it was nobody else’s fault. It was not a circumstance’s fault. It was my responsibility.

enlightenmentThis all happened just within a second or two. After I took responsibility I felt an icy cold shiver run through my body as if it travelled every nerve. From this chill I got a sudden burst of energy and pushed up the hill as if it were flat. By the time I had gotten to the top the music was playing again, picking up where it left off. By whatever awesomeness the next song that came on was the the Rocky Theme Song. I chuckled as I made my way back home.

The Conclusion

I realize now how much I have hidden behind falseness. I blamed so many other things for the way my life was. It was always a slew of “this situation made fat” or “this person made this way,” when in reality it was my choice all along. Knowing this as I go further will help me truly see the good in people as I finally see it in myself.

For all those that have attacked me in the past, I don’t blame you. For all those I have attacked in the past, I am truly sorry and I will be much more conscious from now on.

Image Source: Zeimusu, h.koppdelaney

Our Brains Are Bigger Than We Think

brain synapse

brain synapseOur brains are as vast as the universe. When we see a picture of a brain we see the physical form of the organ that rests in our skull. What we don’t see are all the microscopic events happening all over the brain.

In fact, we have more than a million miles of “wires” in our brains. Imagine out of all that wiring packed in a small space, how many times the wiring can be mixed. Perhaps this is how we see things that others don’t, understand things that others can’t.

Synapse FTW!

Each synapse is connected to another. Synapses can be grown or removed. When they all work and communicate together our synapses make up what is called a connectome. Our connections are prompted by our genes but there is what is called neural activity that helps change our world.

This is proof that our genes only push us in a certain direction. It is up to us to change our genes in a way that benefits the whole. That whole being whatever is most dear to us.

Let’s keep using our brains well by challenging all that we know. Through curiosity and imagination we can keep our brains growing for generations to come.

This is a video of Sebastian Seung talking about how connectomes work and how we are now understanding more than we have before.

Video Transcription

We live in in a remarkable time, the age of genomics. Your genome is the entire sequence of your DNA. Your sequence and mine are slightly different. That’s why we look different. I’ve got brown eyes; you might have blue or gray. But it’s not just skin-deep. The headlines tell us that genes can give us scary diseases, maybe even shape our personality, or give us mental disorders. Our genes seem to have awesome power over our destinies. And yet, I would like to think that I am more than my genes. What do you guys think? Are you more than your genes? (Audience: Yes.) Yes? I think some people agree with me. I think we should make a statement. I think we should say it all together. All right: “I’m more than my genes” — all together. Everybody: I am more than my genes. (Cheering) Sebastian Seung: What am I? (Laughter) I am my connectome. Now, since you guys are really great, maybe you can humor me and say this all together too. (Laughter) Right. All together now. Everybody: I am my connectome. SS: That sounded great. You know, you guys are so great, you don’t even know what a connectome is, and you’re willing to play along with me. I could just go home now.

Well, so far only one connectome is known, that of this tiny worm. Its modest nervous system consists of just 300 neurons. And in the 1970s and ’80s, a team of scientists mapped all 7,000 connections between the neurons. In this diagram, every node is a neuron, and every line is a connection. This is the connectome of the worm C. elegans. Your connectome is far more complex than this because your brain contains 100 billion neurons and 10,000 times as many connections. There’s a diagram like this for your brain, but there’s no way it would fit on this slide. Your connectome contains one million times more connections than your genome has letters. That’s a lot of information.

What’s in that information? We don’t know for sure, but there are theories. Since the 19th century, neuroscientists have speculated that maybe your memories — the information that makes you, you — maybe your memories are stored in the connections between your brain’s neurons. And perhaps other aspects of your personal identity — maybe your personality and your intellect — maybe they’re also encoded in the connections between your neurons. And so now you can see why I proposed this hypothesis: I am my connectome. I didn’t ask you to chant it because it’s true; I just want you to remember it. And in fact, we don’t know if this hypothesis is correct, because we have never had technologies powerful enough to test it. Finding that worm connectome took over a dozen years of tedious labor. And to find the connectomes of brains more like our own, we need more sophisticated technologies, that are automated, that will speed up the process of finding connectomes. And in the next few minutes, I’ll tell you about some of these technologies, which are currently under development in my lab and the labs of my collaborators.

Now you’ve probably seen pictures of neurons before. You can recognize them instantly by their fantastic shapes. They extend long and delicate branches, and in short, they look like trees. But this is just a single neuron. In order to find connectomes, we have to see all the neurons at the same time. So let’s meet Bobby Kasthuri, who works in the laboratory of Jeff Lichtman at Harvard University. Bobby is holding fantastically thin slices of a mouse brain. And we’re zooming in by a factor of 100,000 times to obtain the resolution, so that we can see the branches of neurons all at the same time. Except, you still may not really recognize them, and that’s because we have to work in three dimensions.

If we take many images of many slices of the brain and stack them up, we get a three-dimensional image. And still, you may not see the branches. So we start at the top, and we color in the cross-section of one branch in red, and we do that for the next slice and for the next slice. And we keep on doing that, slice after slice. If we continue through the entire stack, we can reconstruct the three-dimensional shape of a small fragment of a branch of a neuron. And we can do that for another neuron in green. And you can see that the green neuron touches the red neuron at two locations, and these are what are called synapses.

Let’s zoom in on one synapse, and keep your eyes on the interior of the green neuron. You should see small circles — these are called vesicles. They contain a molecule know as a neurotransmitter. And so when the green neuron wants to communicate, it wants to send a message to the red neuron, it spits out neurotransmitter. At the synapse, the two neurons are said to be connected like two friends talking on the telephone.

So you see how to find a synapse. How can we find an entire connectome? Well, we take this three-dimensional stack of images and treat it as a gigantic three-dimensional coloring book. We color every neuron in, in a different color, and then we look through all of the images, find the synapses and note the colors of the two neurons involved in each synapse. If we can do that throughout all the images, we could find a connectome.

Now, at this point, you’ve learned the basics of neurons and synapses. And so I think we’re ready to tackle one of the most important questions in neuroscience: how are the brains of men and women different? (Laughter) According to this self-help book, guys brains are like waffles; they keep their lives compartmentalized in boxes. Girls’ brains are like spaghetti; everything in their life is connected to everything else. (Laughter) You guys are laughing, but you know, this book changed my life. (Laughter) But seriously, what’s wrong with this? You already know enough to tell me — what’s wrong with this statement? It doesn’t matter whether you’re a guy or girl, everyone’s brains are like spaghetti. Or maybe really, really fine capellini with branches. Just as one strand of spaghetti contacts many other strands on your plate, one neuron touches many other neurons through their entangled branches. One neuron can be connected to so many other neurons, because there can be synapses at these points of contact. By now, you might have sort of lost perspective on how large this cube of brain tissue actually is.

And so let’s do a series of comparisons to show you. I assure you, this is very tiny. It’s just six microns on a side. So, here’s how it stacks up against an entire neuron. And you can tell that, really, only the smallest fragments of branches are contained inside this cube. And a neuron, well, that’s smaller than brain. And that’s just a mouse brain — it’s a lot smaller than a human brain. So when show my friends this, sometimes they’ve told me, “You know, Sebastian, you should just give up. Neuroscience is hopeless.” Because if you look at a brain with your naked eye, you don’t really see how complex it is, but when you use a microscope, finally the hidden complexity is revealed.

In the 17th century, the mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, wrote of his dread of the infinite, his feeling of insignificance at contemplating the vast reaches of outer space. And, as a scientist, I’m not supposed to talk about my feelings — too much information, professor. (Laughter) But may I? (Laughter) (Applause) I feel curiosity, and I feel wonder, but at times I have also felt despair. Why did I choose to study this organ that is so awesome in its complexity that it might well be infinite? It’s absurd. How could we even dare to think that we might ever understand this?

And yet, I persist in this quixotic endeavor. And indeed, these days I harbor new hopes. Someday, a fleet of microscopes will capture every neuron and every synapse in a vast database of images. And some day, artificially intelligent supercomputers will analyze the images without human assistance to summarize them in a connectome. I do not know, but I hope that I will live to see that day, because finding an entire human connectome is one of the greatest technological challenges of all time. It will take the work of generations to succeed. At the present time, my collaborators and I, what we’re aiming for is much more modest — just to find partial connectomes of tiny chunks of mouse and human brain. But even that will be enough for the first tests of this hypothesis that I am my connectome. For now, let me try to convince you of the plausibility of this hypothesis, that it’s actually worth taking seriously.

As you grow during childhood and age during adulthood, your personal identity changes slowly. Likewise, every connectome changes over time. What kinds of changes happen? Well, neurons, like trees, can grow new branches, and they can lose old ones. Synapses can be created, and they can be eliminated. And synapses can grow larger, and they can grow smaller. Second question: what causes these changes? Well, it’s true. To some extent, they are programmed by your genes. But that’s not the whole story, because there are signals, electrical signals, that travel along the branches of neurons and chemical signals that jump across from branch to branch. These signals are called neural activity. And there’s a lot of evidence that neural activity is encoding our thoughts, feelings and perceptions, our mental experiences. And there’s a lot of evidence that neural activity can cause your connections to change. And if you put those two facts together, it means that your experiences can change your connectome. And that’s why every connectome is unique, even those of genetically identical twins. The connectome is where nature meets nurture. And it might true that just the mere act of thinking can change your connectome — an idea that you may find empowering.

What’s in this picture? A cool and refreshing stream of water, you say. What else is in this picture? Do not forget that groove in the Earth called the stream bed. Without it, the water would not know in which direction to flow. And with the stream, I would like to propose a metaphor for the relationship between neural activity and connectivity. Neural activity is constantly changing. It’s like the water of the stream; it never sits still. The connections of the brain’s neural network determines the pathways along which neural activity flows. And so the connectome is like bed of the stream; but the metaphor is richer than that, because it’s true that the stream bed guides the flow of the water, but over long timescales, the water also reshapes the bed of the stream. And as I told you just now, neural activity can change the connectome. And if you’ll allow me to ascend to metaphorical heights, I will remind you that neural activity is the physical basis — or so neuroscientists think — of thoughts, feelings and perceptions. And so we might even speak of the stream of consciousness. Neural activity is its water, and the connectome is its bed.

So let’s return from the heights of metaphor and return to science. Suppose our technologies for finding connectomes actually work. How will we go about testing the hypothesis “I am my connectome?” Well, I propose a direct test. Let us attempt to read out memories from connectomes. Consider the memory of long temporal sequences of movements, like a pianist playing a Beethoven sonata. According to a theory that dates back to the 19th century, such memories are stored as chains of synaptic connections inside your brain. Because, if the first neurons in the chain are activated, through their synapses they send messages to the second neurons, which are activated, and so on down the line, like a chain of falling dominoes. And this sequence of neural activation is hypothesized to be the neural basis of those sequence of movements.

So one way of trying to test the theory is to look for such chains inside connectomes. But it won’t be easy, because they’re not going to look like this. They’re going to be scrambled up. So we’ll have to use our computers to try to unscramble the chain. And if we can do that, the sequence of the neurons we recover from that unscrambling will be a prediction of the pattern of neural activity that is replayed in the brain during memory recall. And if that were successful, that would be the first example of reading a memory from a connectome.

(Laughter)

What a mess — have you ever tried to wire up a system as complex as this? I hope not. But if you have, you know it’s very easy to make a mistake. The branches of neurons are like the wires of the brain. Can anyone guess: what’s the total length of wires in your brain? I’ll give you a hint. It’s a big number. (Laughter) I estimate, millions of miles, all packed in your skull. And if you appreciate that number, you can easily see there is huge potential for mis-wiring of the brain. And indeed, the popular press loves headlines like, “Anorexic brains are wired differently,” or “Autistic brains are wired differently.” These are plausible claims, but in truth, we can’t see the brain’s wiring clearly enough to tell if these are really true. And so the technologies for seeing connectomes will allow us to finally read mis-wiring of the brain, to see mental disorders in connectomes.

Sometimes the best way to test a hypothesis is to consider its most extreme implication. Philosophers know this game very well. If you believe that I am my connectome, I think you must also accept the idea that death is the destruction of your connectome. I mention this because there are prophets today who claim that technology will fundamentally alter the human condition and perhaps even transform the human species. One of their most cherished dreams is to cheat death by that practice known as cryonics. If you pay 100,000 dollars, you can arrange to have your body frozen after death and stored in liquid nitrogen in one of these tanks in an Arizona warehouse, awaiting a future civilization that is advanced to resurrect you.

Should we ridicule the modern seekers of immortality, calling them fools? Or will they someday chuckle over our graves? I don’t know — I prefer to test their beliefs, scientifically. I propose that we attempt to find a connectome of a frozen brain. We know that damage to the brain occurs after death and during freezing. The question is: has that damage erased the connectome? If it has, there is no way that any future civilization will be able to recover the memories of these frozen brains. Resurrection might succeed for the body, but not for the mind. On the other hand, if the connectome is still intact, we cannot ridicule the claims of cryonics so easily.

I’ve described a quest that begins in the world of the very small, and propels us to the world of the far future. Connectomes will mark a turning point in human history. As we evolved from our ape-like ancestors on the African savanna, what distinguished us was our larger brains. We have used our brains to fashion ever more amazing technologies. Eventually, these technologies will become so powerful that we will use them to know ourselves by deconstructing and reconstructing our own brains. I believe that this voyage of self-discovery is not just for scientists, but for all of us. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this voyage with you today.

Thank you. (Applause)

Video Source: TED Talks, Image Source: AndyBient

How We Learn by Watching

human brain scan

human brain scanHumans are an amazing species and a lot of what makes us special is our brain. As we start to dive deeper into brain research we are finding more and more that our consciousness is linked to everyone else’s.

At a TED Talk in 2009, Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, talks to us about how watching somebody perform a task has the same effect on our brain than if we performed that task. It is our body that sends signals saying it wasn’t this body that performed that action. If we disable the signals from our body, we can effectively experience what we see just as if we had done it.

This may have huge uses in muscle memory and learning. Think of the empathy that we would have for others if we got our physical body out of the way. Imagine the ability that we all could have if our bodies responded to our consciousness by what they have learned from others. It’s worth the practice to see how much we can learn by watching.

Video Transcript

I’d like to talk to you today about the human brain, which is what we do research on at the University of California. Just think about this problem for a second. Here is a lump of flesh, about three pounds, which you can hold in the palm of your hand. But it can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space. It can contemplate the meaning of infinity, ask questions about the meaning of its own existence, about the nature of God.

And this is truly the most amazing thing in the world. It’s the greatest mystery confronting human beings: How does this all come about? Well, the brain, as you know, is made up of neurons. We’re looking at neurons here. There are 100 billion neurons in the adult human brain. And each neuron makes something like 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other neurons in the brain. And based on this, people have calculated that the number of permutations and combinations of brain activity exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe.

So, how do you go about studying the brain? One approach is to look at patients who had lesions in different part of the brain, and study changes in their behavior. This is what I spoke about in the last TED. Today I’ll talk about a different approach, which is to put electrodes in different parts of the brain, and actually record the activity of individual nerve cells in the brain. Sort of eavesdrop on the activity of nerve cells in the brain.

Now, one recent discovery that has been made by researchers in Italy, in Parma, by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues, is a group of neurons called mirror neurons, which are on the front of the brain in the frontal lobes. Now, it turns out there are neurons which are called ordinary motor command neurons in the front of the brain, which have been known for over 50 years. These neurons will fire when a person performs a specific action. For example, if I do that, and reach and grab an apple, a motor command neuron in the front of my brain will fire. If I reach out and pull an object, another neuron will fire, commanding me to pull that object. These are called motor command neurons that have been known for a long time.

But what Rizzolatti found was a subset of these neurons, maybe about 20 percent of them, will also fire when I’m looking at somebody else performing the same action. So, here is a neuron that fires when I reach and grab something, but it also fires when I watch Joe reaching and grabbing something. And this is truly astonishing. Because it’s as though this neuron is adopting the other person’s point of view. It’s almost as though it’s performing a virtual reality simulation of the other person’s action.

Now, what is the significance of these mirror neurons? For one thing they must be involved in things like imitation and emulation. Because to imitate a complex act requires my brain to adopt the other person’s point of view. So, this is important for imitation and emulation. Well, why is that important? Well, let’s take a look at the next slide. So, how do you do imitation? Why is imitation important? Mirror neurons and imitation, emulation.

Now, let’s look at culture, the phenomenon of human culture. If you go back in time about [75,000] to 100,000 years ago, let’s look at human evolution, it turns out that something very important happened around 75,000 years ago. And that is, there is a sudden emergence and rapid spread of a number of skills that are unique to human beings like tool use, the use of fire, the use of shelters, and, of course, language, and the ability to read somebody else’s mind and interpret that person’s behavior. All of that happened relatively quickly.

Even though the human brain had achieved its present size almost three or four hundred thousand years ago, 100,000 years ago all of this happened very, very quickly. And I claim that what happened was the sudden emergence of a sophisticated mirror neuron system, which allowed you to emulate and imitate other people’s actions. So that when there was a sudden accidental discovery by one member of the group, say the use of fire, or a particular type of tool, instead of dying out, this spread rapidly, horizontally across the population, or was transmitted vertically, down the generations.

So, this made evolution suddenly Lamarckian, instead of Darwinian. Darwinian evolution is slow; it takes hundreds of thousands of years. A polar bear, to evolve a coat, will take thousands of generations, maybe 100,000 years. A human being, a child, can just watch its parent kill another polar bear, and skin it and put the skin on its body, fur on the body, and learn it in one step. What the polar bear took 100,000 years to learn, it can learn in five minutes, maybe 10 minutes. And then once it’s learned this it spreads in geometric proportion across a population.

This is the basis. The imitation of complex skills is what we call culture and is the basis of civilization. Now there is another kind of mirror neuron, which is involved in something quite different. And that is, there are mirror neurons, just as there are mirror neurons for action, there are mirror neurons for touch. In other words, if somebody touches me, my hand, neuron in the somatosensory cortex in the sensory region of the brain fires. But the same neuron, in some cases, will fire when I simply watch another person being touched. So, it’s empathizing the other person being touched.

So, most of them will fire when I’m touched in different locations. Different neurons for different locations. But a subset of them will fire even when I watch somebody else being touched in the same location. So, here again you have neurons which are enrolled in empathy. Now, the question then arises: If I simply watch another person being touched, why do I not get confused and literally feel that touch sensation merely by watching somebody being touched? I mean, I empathize with that person but I don’t literally feel the touch. Well, that’s because you’ve got receptors in your skin, touch and pain receptors, going back into your brain and saying “Don’t worry, you’re not being touched. So, empathize, by all means, with the other person, but do not actually experience the touch, otherwise you’ll get confused and muddled.”

Okay, so there is a feedback signal that vetoes the signal of the mirror neuron preventing you from consciously experiencing that touch. But if you remove the arm, you simply anesthetize my arm, so you put an injection into my arm, anesthetize the brachial plexus, so the arm is numb, and there is no sensations coming in, if I now watch you being touched, I literally feel it in my hand. In other words, you have dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. So, I call them Gandhi neurons, or empathy neurons. (Laughter)

And this is not in some abstract metaphorical sense. All that’s separating you from him, from the other person, is your skin. Remove the skin, you experience that person’s touch in your mind. You’ve dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. And this, of course, is the basis of much of Eastern philosophy, and that is there is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are, in fact, connected not just via Facebook and Internet, you’re actually quite literally connected by your neurons. And there is whole chains of neurons around this room, talking to each other. And there is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else’s consciousness.

And this is not mumbo-jumbo philosophy. It emerges from our understanding of basic neuroscience. So, you have a patient with a phantom limb. If the arm has been removed and you have a phantom, and you watch somebody else being touched, you feel it in your phantom. Now the astonishing thing is, if you have pain in your phantom limb, you squeeze the other person’s hand, massage the other person’s hand, that relieves the pain in your phantom hand, almost as though the neuron were obtaining relief from merely watching somebody else being massaged.

So, here you have my last slide. For the longest time people have regarded science and humanities as being distinct. C.P. Snow spoke of the two cultures: science on the one hand, humanities on the other; never the twain shall meet. So, I’m saying the mirror neuron system underlies the interface allowing you to rethink about issues like consciousness, representation of self, what separates you from other human beings, what allows you to empathize with other human beings, and also even things like the emergence of culture and civilization, which is unique to human beings. Thank you. (Applause)

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