An Introduction to the Neuroscience Behind Creating Your Reality

Author Article

Have you ever wondered why two people can share the exact same situation, yet experience it differently?

Neural pathways are often described as a type of super-highway of nerve cells, the function of which is to transmit messages. Much like a walking track in the bush, the more you walk over it, the more trodden and clear it becomes. The same thing happens when we engage in behaviors such as thinking certain thoughts with a high degree of regularity.

You see the brain consumes between 20-30% of the caloric burn in our body at rest. It uses so much energy because it’s so complex and so it has needed to evolve and adapt in order to automate various processes as a way of conserving energy. This is why and how regular behaviors become habits (or things we seemingly do without a great deal of conscious thought).

Think about something simple like brushing your teeth. You can brush them just fine, no problem but what if I asked you to use your non-dominant hand to do that instead? You’d suddenly have to think about the action of your arm and the motion of your wrist or hand. It would be hard at first because it’s unfamiliar, but if you persevered with it, over time, it would become easier as the task became more familiar. This is an example of neuroplasticity and can be thought of as “re-wiring your brain.”

So now you know in general terms how neural pathways work and their function, we can proceed to look at beliefs. Perhaps you are familiar with the famous metaphor of the iceberg where the tip represents conscious thought and everything below the water line represents subconscious thought. The subconscious mind holds our beliefs, many of which we acquired as we were growing up. The function of a belief is in part to help us make sense of the world around us. It creates a filter for our brain to receive, store, interpret and recall information picked up from the world around us by our senses and it automates the way our brain processes information.

In order for a thought (which occurs in the conscious mind) to become a belief, it must be repeated. It’s this repetition that allows a neural pathway to be created. Here’s an example. Let’s imagine that growing up, you heard your parents say things like “you have to work hard to get ahead.” You heard it a lot. Now imagine that you too now hold the belief (without realizing it) that you have to work hard in order to make money. So you work long hours nearly every day. It affects your marriage, you stop seeing your friends due to your work commitments, and you stop going to the gym. You don’t sleep well at night and you are often irritable or grumpy because you feel pressured to make the money.

If you hold a belief that “you have to work hard to make money”, then that is what will show up in your reality. Your mind will filter out all of the information that it thinks is unimportant and will only bring you the information you’ve told it is important with your belief. So that’s all you see when, in fact, the reality might be very different.

Sometimes beliefs are healthy and other times, they work against us. The good news is that there is a part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System or the RAS and part of its role is to actively seek out the information that you tell it to. So, if you want to change a belief the RAS can be your greatest asset! The RAS transmits information between the conscious and subconscious minds and the other beautiful thing about it is that it doesn’t question you at all. Whatever you tell it, it will believe because it does not distinguish between fact and fiction. It simply obeys commands from your conscious mind.

But changing a belief takes time and consistent practice. There are many ways to help your subconscious mind adopt new thinking styles though and these include things like visualization, using your imagination, meditating, acting as-if, using journal prompts to uncover beliefs and develop healthier alternatives, using affirmations (they work on repetition and hence create new neural pathways) and through the use of story.

Hypnosis is another effective way of speeding up the process of changing beliefs because it goes almost directly to the subconscious. It can be more efficient than some other approaches but as with all interventions, is not without its limitations so won’t work for everyone.

One very effective tool that you can use to change a belief is listening to audio narrative such a meditation recording or an affirmation recording. This works best in the last five minutes before you go to sleep and in the first five minutes upon waking because that is when the subconscious mind is most receptive to information. You can prime your brain to develop the neural pathways that you prefer to have by doing things like listening to audio at these times.

When you change your beliefs by redirecting your conscious thought, you can change your belief (filter) and when you change your filter, you change your experience of the world around you, otherwise referred to as your reality. If you are consistent with your practice, you will be begin to see things differently in no time.

How would you prefer to feel today?

References

Goldstein, E. (2011). Cognitive Psychology (Third ed., pp. 24-76). N.p.: Linda Schreiber-Ganster.

Liou, S. (2010, June 26). Neuroplasticity. In web.stanford.edu. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from http://web.stanford.edu/group/hopes/cgi-bin/hopes_test/neuroplasticity/

Martindale, C. (1991). Cognitive psychology: A neural-network approach. Belmont, CA, US: Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.

Neurons, . (2013, May 6). Neurons. In www.biology-pages.info. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from http://www.biology-pages.info/N/Neurons.html

Tassell, D. V. (2004). Neural Pathway Development. In www.brains.org. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from http://www.brains.org

Walker, A. (2014, July 1). How Your Thought Pathways Affect Your Life. In www.drwalker.com. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from http://www.drawalker.com/blog/how-your-thought-pathways-create-your-life

Lucid Dreamers May Help Unravel the Mystery of Consciousness

Author Article

We spend around six years of our lives dreaming – that’s 2,190 days or 52,560 hours. Although we can be aware of the perceptions and emotions we experience in our dreams, we are not conscious in the same way as when we’re awake. This explains why we can’t recognize that we’re in a dream and often mistake these bizarre narratives for reality.

But some people – lucid dreamers – have the ability to experience awareness during their dreams by “re-awakening” some aspects of their waking consciousness. They can even take control and act with intention in the dream world (think Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Inception).

Lucid dreaming is still an understudied subject, but recent advances suggest it’s a hybrid state of waking consciousness and sleep.

Sleep paralysis. My Dream, My Bad Dream, 1915. (Credit: Fritz Schwimbeck/Wikimedia)

Lucid dreaming is one of many “anomalous” experiences that can occur during sleep. Sleep paralysis, where you wake up terrified and paralyzed while remaining in a state of sleep, is another. There are also false awakenings, where you believe you have woken up only to discover that you are in fact dreaming. Along with lucid dreams, all these experiences reflect an increase in subjective awareness while remaining in a state of sleep. To find out more about the transitions between these states – and hopefully consciousness itself – we have launched a large-scale online survey on sleep experiences to look at the relationships between these different states of hybrid consciousness.

Lucid Dreaming and the Brain

About half of us will experience at least one lucid dream in our lives. And it could be something to look forward to because it allows people to simulate desired scenarios from meeting the love of their life to winning a medieval battle. There is some evidence that lucid dreaming can be induced, and a number of large online communities now exist where users share tips and tricks for achieving greater lucidity during their dreams (such as having dream totems, a familiar object from the waking world that can help determine if you are in a dream, or spinning around in dreams to stop lucidity from slipping away).

recent study that asked participants to report in detail on their most recent dream found that lucid (compared to non-lucid) dreams were indeed characterized by far greater insight into the fact that the sleeper was in a dream. Participants who experienced lucid dreams also said they had greater control over thoughts and actions within the dream, had the ability to think logically, and were even better at accessing real memories of their waking life.

Another study looking at people’s ability to make conscious decisions in waking life as well as during lucid and non-lucid dreams found a large degree of overlap between volitional abilities when we are awake and when we are having lucid dreams. However, the ability to plan was considerably worse in lucid dreams compared to wakefulness.

Lucid and non-lucid dreams certainly feel subjectively different and this might suggest that they are associated with different patterns of brain activity. But confirming this is not as easy as it might seem. Participants have to be in a brain scanner overnight and researchers have to decipher when a lucid dream is happening so that they can compare brain activity during the lucid dream with that of non-lucid dreaming.

Ingenious studies examining this have devised a communication code between lucid dreamer participants and researchers during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when dreaming typically takes place. Before going to sleep, the participant and the researcher agree on a specific eye movement (for example two movements left then two movements right) that participants make to signal that they are lucid.

The prefrontal cortex. (Credit: Natalie M. Zahr, Ph.D., and Edith V. Sullivan, Ph.D. – Natalie M. Zahr, Ph.D., and Edith V. Sullivan, Ph.D.)

By using this approach, studies have found that the shift from non-lucid to lucid REM sleep is associated with an increased activity of the frontal areas of the brain. Significantly, these areas are associated with “higher order” cognitive functioning such as logical reasoning and voluntary behaviour which are typically only observed during waking states. The type of brain activity observed, gamma wave activity, is also known to allow different aspects of our experience; perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and memories to “bind” together into an integrated consciousness. A follow-up study found that electrically stimulating these areas caused an increase in the degree of lucidity experienced during a dream.

Another study more accurately specified the brain regionsinvolved in lucid dreams, and found increased activity in regions such as the pre-frontal cortex and the precuneus. These brain areas are associated with higher cognitive abilities such as self-referential processing and a sense of agency – again supporting the view that lucid dreaming is a hybrid state of consciousness.

Tackling the Consciousness Problem

How consciousness arises in the brain is one of the most perplexing questions in neuroscience. But it has been suggestedthat studying lucid dreams could pave the way for new insights into the neuroscience of consciousness.

This is because lucid and non-lucid REM sleep are two states where our conscious experience is markedly different, yet the overall brain state remains the same (we are in REM sleep all the time, often dreaming). By comparing specific differences in brain activity from a lucid dream with a non-lucid one, then, we can look at features that may be facilitating the enhanced awareness experienced in the lucid dream.

Furthermore, by using eye signaling as a marker of when a sleeper is in a lucid dream, it is possible to study the neurobiological activity at this point to further understand not only what characterizes and maintains this heightened consciousness, but how it emerges in the first place.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Researchers shed light on the neural networks that appear to govern human consciousness.

via Identifying Brain Patterns of Consciousness — Neuroscience News Updates

Neuroscientists Say They’ve Identified The Unique Brain Patterns Of Consciousness

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By Davinia Fernandez-Espejo

Humans have learned to travel through space, eradicate diseases and understand nature at the breathtakingly tiny level of fundamental particles.

Yet we have no idea how consciousness – our ability to experience and learn about the world in this way and report it to others – arises in the brain.

In fact, while scientists have been preoccupied with understanding consciousness for centuries, it remains one of the most important unanswered questions of modern neuroscience.

Now our new study, published in Science Advances, sheds light on the mystery by uncovering networks in the brain that are at work when we are conscious.

It’s not just a philosophical question. Determining whether a patient is “aware” after suffering a severe brain injury is a huge challenge both for doctors and families who need to make decisions about care.

Modern brain imaging techniques are starting to lift this uncertainty, giving us unprecedented insights into human consciousness.

For example, we know that complex brain areas including the prefrontal cortex or the precuneus, which are responsible for a range of higher cognitive functions, are typically involved in conscious thought.

However, large brain areas do many things. We therefore wanted to find out how consciousness is represented in the brain on the level of specific networks.

The reason it is so difficult to study conscious experiences is that they are entirely internal and cannot be accessed by others.

For example, we can both be looking at the same picture on our screens, but I have no way to tell whether my experience of seeing that picture is similar to yours, unless you tell me about it.

Only conscious individuals can have subjective experiences and, therefore, the most direct way to assess whether somebody is conscious is to ask them to tell us about them.

But what would happen if you lose your ability to speak? In that case, I could still ask you some questions and you could perhaps sign your responses, for example by nodding your head or moving your hand.

Of course, the information I would obtain this way would not be as rich, but it would still be enough for me to know that you do indeed have experiences.

If you were not able to produce any responses though, I would not have a way to tell whether you’re conscious and would probably assume you’re not.

Scanning for networks

Our new study, the product of a collaboration across seven countries, has identified brain signatures that can indicate consciousness without relying on self-report or the need to ask patients to engage in a particular task, and can differentiate between conscious and unconscious patients after brain injury.

When the brain gets severely damaged, for example in a serious traffic accident, people can end up in a coma. This is a state in which you lose your ability to be awake and aware of your surrounding and need mechanical support to breathe.

It typically doesn’t last more than a few days. After that, patients sometimes wake up but don’t show any evidence of having any awareness of themselves or the world around them – this is known as a “vegetative state”.

Another possibility is that they show evidence only of a very minimal awareness – referred to as a minimally conscious state. For most patients, this means that their brain still perceives things but they don’t experience them.

However, a small percentage of these patients are indeed conscious but simply unable to produce any behavioural responses.

fMRI scanner (Semiconscious/Wikipedia/Public Domain)fMRI scanner (Semiconscious/Wikipedia/Public Domain)

We used a technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which allows us to measure the activity of the brain and the way some regions “communicate” with others.

Specifically, when a brain region is more active, it consumes more oxygen and needs higher blood supply to meet its demands.

We can detect these changes even when the participants are at rest and measure how it varies across regions to create patterns of connectivity across the brain.

We used the method on 53 patients in a vegetative state, 59 people in a minimally conscious state and 47 healthy participants. They came from hospitals in Paris, Liège, New York, London, and Ontario.

Patients from Paris, Liège, and New York were diagnosed through standardised behavioural assessments, such as being asked to move a hand or blink an eye.

In contrast, patients from London were assessed with other advanced brain imaging techniques that required the patient to modulate their brain to produce neural responses instead of external physical ones – such as imagining moving one’s hand instead of actually moving it.

(Tagliazucchi et al. 2019)(Tagliazucchi et al. 2019)

We found two main patterns of communication across regions. One simply reflected physical connections of the brain, such as communication only between pairs of regions that have a direct physical link between them.

This was seen in patients with virtually no conscious experience.

One represented very complex brain-wide dynamic interactions across a set of 42 brain regions that belong to six brain networks with important roles in cognition (see image above). This complex pattern was almost only present in people with some level of consciousness.

Importantly, this complex pattern disappeared when patients were under deep anaesthesia, confirming that our methods were indeed sensitive to the patients’ level of consciousness and not their general brain damage or external responsiveness.

Research like this has the potential to lead to an understanding of how objective biomarkers can play a crucial role in medical decision making.

In the future it might be possible to develop ways to externally modulate these conscious signatures and restore some degree of awareness or responsiveness in patients who have lost them, for example by using non-invasive brain stimulation techniques such as transcranial electrical stimulation.

Indeed, in my research group at the University of Birmingham, we are starting to explore this avenue.

Excitingly the research also takes us as step closer to understanding how consciousness arises in the brain.

With more data on the neural signatures of consciousness in people experiencing various altered states of consciousness – ranging from taking psychedelics to experiencing lucid dreams – we may one day crack the puzzle.

Davinia Fernández-Espejo, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology and Centre for Human Brain Health, University of Birmingham.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.