Saturday, November 13, 2010

Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald, Pictures of the Mind (2010)

Until the 1990s, much of what we knew about specific parts of the brain came from clinical observations occurring in the course of evaluating patients who had suffered brain lesions or other trauma. The neurologist knew that a certain part of the patient's brain had been damaged and knew that the patient's behavior was altered in some way. From these observations, the expert could conclude that the damaged part of the brain had some role in the emotional and/or cognitive life of the patient and generalize. Autopsies could, in some cases, lead to similar kinds of findings. But there are ethical limitations on intruding too deeply into the brain of a living patient unless it is essential to the patient's welfare. Michael Gazzaniga discusses these limitations in his book Human (September 27, 2009 post).

Imaging technology --- particularly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) --- has changed that, and Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald introduces that technology to explore how much we have learned about the brain, memory, our humanness and sense of self, and psychiatric therapy in just the past 20 years. She also explores the role of imaging technology and brain scans in the courtroom, as criminal defendants seek to excuse their antisocial behavior and explain that excuse to a jury.

Boleyn-Fitzgerald's book is not a bad follow-on to De Waal's Age of Empathy (see previous post), as imaging technology has been useful to see the brain's reaction to perceptions of others in pain. But there is almost a new-age component to this book, a suggestion that imaging technology will confirm that Eastern contemplative traditions --- in contrast to Judaeo Christian religious traditions --- are more closely linked to our mental welfare. Confirming what DeWaal noted, Boleyn-Fitzgerald reports "the insula --- a part of the limbic system that serves as the key interface between physical sensations and emotions --- and in the temporal parietal junction, which appears to play an important role in processing and understanding the emotional states of others" are associated with compassion and empathy. The fMRI research also shows that these areas of the brain are also very active when Buddhist monks meditate, and, when combined with knowledge of the brain's plasticity, these associations suggests that the brain may be trainable (particularly in younger ages) through meditative therapy to learn to become more empathetic and less self-centered. That is the primary message that Boleyn-Fitzgerald delivers here --- what we learn from scanning the brain will inform us better about methods or strategies to promote mental and social health.

Medical imaging technology has played a role in identifying the parts of the brain that control our decision-making and the formation of judgments. Consistent with Gazzaniga's research as reported in Human, as well as the research of Antonio Damassio and Marc Hauser, there is a predispostion founded in feelings and emotional responses --- not utilitarian calculation --- for the mind to solve moral dilemmas in a manner that is not inconsistent with the moral rules societies tend to live by. Imaging studies support this research.

"One property of human consciousness," Boleyn-Fitzgerald writes, "emerging from the scanners --- one fact that now seems inarguable --- is that the neural activity associated with the subjective experience of self cannot be located in a single area of the brain. This finding matches what we now know about the entanglement of neural circuits associated with emotion, cognition, memory, and moral decision-making." Our brain is decentralized, and there are separate parts of the brain that the scanners show are activated when "I" is acting and feeling in the present and "me" is trying to explain and understand what is happening. Gazzaniga explained this in terms of one part of the brain telling a story about ourselves, and the other part of the brain tries to interpret our story. Knowing this, Boleyn-Fitzgerald believes, will better enable us to know our "self" and our "identity," and assist in our ability to regulate our self.

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