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Editing Consciousness: How Bereaved People Control Their Thoughts Without Knowing It - Neuroscience News

HomeArtificial Intelligence Editing Consciousness: How Bereaved People Control Their Thoughts Without Knowing It Neuroscience NewsDecember 10, 2018 Artificial Intelligencedeep learningFeaturedmachine learningNeuroscienceneurotechOpen Neuroscience ArticlesPsychology7 min read Summary: Using machine learning to analyze fMRI brain scans of grieving people, researchers shed light on how unconscious suppression occurs. Source: Columbia University. People who are grieving a major loss, such as the death of a spouse or a child, use different coping mechanisms to carry on with their lives. Psychologists have been able to track different approaches, which can reflect different clinical outcomes. One approach that is not usually successful is avoidant grief, a state in which people suffering from grief show marked, effortful, repeated, and often unsuccessful attempts to stop themselves from thinking about their loss. While researchers have shown that avoidant grievers consciously monitor their external environment in order to avoid reminders of their loss, no one has yet been able to show whether these grievers also monitor their mental state unconsciously, trying to block any thoughts of loss from rising to their conscious state. A new collaborative study between Columbia Engineering and Columbia University Irving Medical Center published online December 7 in SCAN: Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience demonstrates that avoidant grievers do unconsciously monitor and block the contents of their mind-wandering, a discovery that could lead to more effective psychiatric treatment for bereaved people. The researchers, who studied 29 bereaved subjects, are the first to show how this unconscious thought suppression occurs. They tracked ongoing processes of mental control as loss-related thoughts came in and out of conscious awareness during a 10-minute period of mind-wandering. Co-directed by Paul Sajda, professor of biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, and radiology, and John J. Mann, Paul Janssen Professor of Translational Neuroscience (in Psychiatry and in Radiology), the researchers used a new approach to track the interactions between mental processes: a machine-learning approach to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) called “neural decoding,” which establishes a neural pattern or fingerprint that can be used to determine when a given mental process is happening. “The major challenge of our study was to be able ‘look under the hood’ of a person’s natural mind-wandering state to see what underlying processes were actually controlling their experience,” says Noam Schneck, lead author of the study, a postdoctoral fellow in Sajda’s lab and now assistant professor of clinical medical psychology (in psychiatry) at Columbia University Department of Psychiatry/ New York State Psychiatric Institute. “No one has done this kind of work before, showing this type of consistent control of one mental process–thinking about loss–by another–selective attention–as it happens spontaneously and unconsciously. These findings are significant because they open the door to building a fuller picture of the unconscious mind. We know that the experiences we have arise as a combination of constantly interacting networks. Now we have shown this interaction as it happens naturalistically as well as the way it controls experiences.” The team recorded fMRI from people who had lost a first-degree relative (a spouse or partner) within the last 14 months. The subjects performed a modified Stroop task, a test widely used in psychology to measure a person’s ability to control the contents of attention, and a separate task presenting pictures and stories of the deceased. Using machine learning, the team then trained respective neural fingerprints for attentional control based on the Stroop task and mental representation of the deceased based on the pictures and stories. The team observed spontaneous fluctuations in these processes that occurred during a neutral mind-wandering fMRI task. They discovered that those with more avoidant grief engaged their attentional control process to block representations of the deceased from conscious awareness. The brain networks respectively involved in controlling attention towards the deceased (red) and representing the deceased (blue). During a 10-minute period of mind-wandering, avoidant grievers engaged the control network to block representations activated in the representation network from reaching consciousness. image is credited to Noam Schneck/Columbia Engineering. “Our findings show that avoidant grief involves attentional control to reduce the likelihood that deceased-related representations reach full conscious awareness,” says Schneck. “Even though they are not aware of it, avoidant grievers actively control their mental state so that spontaneous thoughts of loss do not enter their consciousness. This kind of tailoring of mind-wandering likely exhausts mental energy and leads to time periods when the thoughts actually do break through. It is like an ineffective pop-up blocker that runs in the background of your computer. You might not be aware that it’s there but it slows down the overall operating speed and eventually breaks down and the pop ups get through.” The researchers suggest that one treatment goal for avoidant grievers may be to relax the conscious and unconscious mental controls that they maintain over their thinking of the loss. Since this control and monitoring happens outside of conscious awareness, this would be challenging to do, but training in mindfulness and acceptance may help some people relax both their conscious and unconscious mental controls.

Why being left-handed matters for mental health treatment -- ScienceDaily

Since the 1970s, hundreds of studies have suggested that each hemisphere of the brain is home to a specific type of emotion. Emotions linked to approaching and engaging with the world -- like happiness, pride and anger -- lives in the left side of the brain, while emotions associated with avoidance -- like disgust and fear -- are housed in the right. But those studies were done almost exclusively on right-handed people. That simple fact has given us a skewed understanding of how emotion works in the brain, according to Daniel Casasanto, associate professor of human development and psychology at Cornell University. That longstanding model is, in fact, reversed in left-handed people, whose emotions like alertness and determination are housed in the right side of their brains, Casasanto suggests in a new study. Even more radical: The location of a person's neural systems for emotion depends on whether they are left-handed, right-handed or somewhere in between, the research shows. The study, "Approach motivation in human cerebral cortex," is published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. According to the new theory, called the "sword and shield hypothesis," the way we perform actions with our hands determines how emotions are organized in our brains. Sword fighters of old would wield their swords in their dominant hand to attack the enemy -- an approach action -- and raise their shields with their non-dominant hand to fend off attack -- an avoidance action

The Neuroscientific Case for Facing Your Fears – The Atlantic – Medium

When someone encounters a new experience — say, a terrifying rabbit — groups of neurons in their brain fire together, the connections between them become stronger, and molecules accumulate at the places where neurons meet. Many scientists believe that these preserved patterns of strengthened connections are the literal stuff of memories — the physical representations of the things we remember. These connected neuron groups are called engrams. When people bring up old memories, the engram neurons fire up again. They also enter a brief period of instability, when the molecules that preserved the connections between them disappear and must be remade. This process, known as reconsolidation, means that humans are partly reconstructing our memories every time they bring them to mind. And it means that the act of recollection creates a window of time in which memories can be updated, and fears can be unlearned.