In the interests of continuing to be a magpie that picks up shiny accessible cognitive science, and packages it in tasty bites for you to add to your ‘thinking skills’ – I have transcribed a number of ‘quotes’ by the character of Dr. Daniel Pierce, a crime-solving genius neuroscientist in the TV show Perception.
The adviser for the show, (and presumably the source of the science in the script, and therefore these quotes), is rock-star neuroscientist and author David Eagleman – who said of the character:
“Pierce has an intimate knowledge of human behavior and a masterful understanding of the way the mind works. He also has an uncanny ability to see patterns and look past people’s conscious emotions to see what lies beneath.”
I love the opening of each show, where Daniel is giving a lecture to the students in his fictional Ivy League college, and he challenges them with think statements about the mind/brain. Have a read through, and take what you want from it, there’s a lot there. And enjoy!
Perception lecture quotes season one:
We’re not allowed do overs? You don’t like what happened ? Do over! Every moment we experience leaves a permanent imprint on our brains – shaping how we perceive things and people in the future. Constantly reminding us to be careful: who can we trust? When are we safe? What are we capable of?
There are benefits to a cautious approach to life – it helps us to avoid discomfort, unhappiness, sickness, danger… but there’s one danger it can’t help us with, that’s the danger that our biases prevent us from seeing things as they really are.
What is reality? Reality is a figment of your imagination. Who hasn’t woken up breathless from a nightmare? Neuro-chemical impulses that fire when we’re dreaming, visualising, imagining, are indistinguishable from those when we actually experience the event. How can we know what’s real and what isn’t?
What is ‘normal’? Are you sad? Or are you suffering from a neuro-chemical imbalance? How do the brains in ‘normal people’ respond to certain stimuli?
So I went fishing, caught a HUGE bass – THIS BIG! Alright, so, you’d know I was lying how? If I was a better liar, I’d have a huge advantage, a better job, more friends – studies show! What goes on in the brain when you’re lying? Your prefrontal cortex would light up like a christmas tree, we use our brains when we lie… Can the brain ever lie to itself? The self is a collection of several distinct neural networks, all running on this blob of brain jelly… Which you is the real you? Do genetics and environment stop you being ‘you’? Can you change who you are?
Which comes first, yesterday or tomorrow? What we think of as past present and future is a story stitched together in our basal ganglia, a ‘construct’….
All we really have is the present moment, the precious and irreplaceable ‘right this second’, that is never to be replaced again in all of history. Savor this while you can.
What is a conscience? Can we locate it in an MRI? People with damage to the prefrontal cortex are more willing to sacrifice a human life, as long as they perceive it’s for some greater good… What about those who have no trouble with heartless cruelty? Is empathy an aberration? The good news is that there’s an evolutionary advantage to kindness and co-operation, but on some level we’re all lone hunters, and it can feel dangerous to show kindness to other members of the tribe…
Does freewill exist? Do I exert conscious control over my actions? Or was I forced to do it by some unseen neural process? Science suggests free will is an illusion, if that’s true are ALL our choices made for us?
Is there something wrong with me? Why don’t I look like, act like, feel like, everybody else? No two brains are exactly alike, so being different, being unique, is undeniably a fundamental characteristic of being human.
How bad do you want it? Money? Success? Ambition drives us all. What William James called ‘the worship of the Bitch goddess success’. Freud would have us believe that all drive stemmed from the libido – but now we know that success is neurologically determined by ones ability to stay focused on a task; and persistence is a function of an active limbic system.
Our ambitions and our dreams give us a glimpse of a beautiful someday, and help us to get though a difficult today – but it can blind, and consume us, and lead us to empty hedonism. No matter how much we’re fueled by it, it isn’t carved in stone – dreams change, and even if we don’t get to climb mountains, there’s still a chance we can move them. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might get what you need.
What are you afraid of? Dying in a plane crash? Catching a disease? What you should really be afraid of is failing this class! [laughs] Fear can override rational thought – before the neocortex can even process a threat, the amygdala kicks in, and now you’re in fight or flight mode. The same neurological programming can also spook us, causing us to act irrationally, when in reality there’s nothing to worry about. Can we override our most primal instincts, condition ourselves not to react out of fear?
Sometimes the billions of neurons firing in our brains concoct the most elaborate scenarios, a ‘dream job’ etc. – but fantasies can turn dark, we start to believe there’s a monster under the bed, or that evil forces are aligned against us. All these fantasies, good and bad, stem from an evolutionary imperative; our brains are exploring potential outcomes that might help us reach our goals or avoid danger. But if we allow fantasy to overtake our thinking, we could miss the reality that’s right in front of us. And sometimes, reality is not so bad.
[college movie day…] I showed those clips to pose the fundamental question – what is an abnormal brain? How does having one affect behavior? …. Some are treatable with surgery or pills, but we’re stuck with the 3 pounds of cauliflower we’re born with. Can we change? Is it malleable? It has the ability to change and grow throughout our life. In essence, our experiences rewire us, make us do and think things previously unthinkable, provoke us into forming new thoughts and ideas, teaching us lessons to avoid the mistakes of our past. Our brain is in a constant state of flux. Nothing in life is permanent.
Lets talk about love. How does love rewire the brain? When we meet someone new and exciting they invade our synapses like a virus, triggering neuro-chemicals that feed into attraction, arousal, obsession… We get distracted, we think about them all the time… But we’re not just thinking about them, we’re building an internal model, a simulation that helps us to predict how they think, or how they’ll feel. Relationships get into trouble when the simulation meets reality. Do we ever really fall in love with another person? Or just with our idea of who they are?
Why do we bother with relationships? We’re hardwired to crave intimate connections – we long for love, even though some end in heartache, leaving our delicate psyches shattered. Why do we even bother playing those odds? Because we only have to get it right once, and when it’s right we know it.
Why do we see a man in the moon? Jesus in toast? The human mind has evolved to see patterns and meaning in almost everything, known as paradolia.
What if I told all of you that you’re partially blind? That you think you can see everything, but in actuality you’re missing something? It’s true. Every time we open our eyes, light shines on our retina, nerve cells interpret and transmit to the brain, but a small area, a blind spot on the retina, can’t do this. How come we never notice the black area in our field of vision? The reason you never notice is that your brain is great at guessing what should be there, and filling in the blank. Sometimes we know what we want to see, and our neocortex turns the expectation into a virtual reality. Some of the world we see is really just an illusion. How do we uncover our blind spots? How do we ever fully see the truth that’s right in front of our eyes? Simply open your minds…. The eyes see only, but the mind is willing to comprehend it.
What is your deepest darkest secret? The one you’ve never told a soul? Did you betray a friends confidence? Shoplift? Sleep with someone you shouldn’t? Got a secret? Right now there is a war going on in your brain, your cingulate cortex wants to tell the truth, but the orbital prefrontal cortex is simulating how bad it will be… If the prefrontal wins, your stress level goes up – if the cingulate wins, it drops. So if it’s biologically healthier to confess, what is it about human nature that make us fight so hard keep them hidden? Freud said no mortal can keep a secret: ‘if his lips are silent he chatters with his fingertips, betrayal oozes out of every pore’. He might have been on to something. Although we may be desperate to keep our secrets, the harder we try to bury them, the more they rise to the surface. We are neurologically compelled to confess. That’s a good thing, confession is good for the body and brain, maybe even the soul, if you believe in that sort of thing.
Take a look at the person next to you. What do you see? A rival? A lover? Would it surprise you to learn that’s it’s mostly a fantasy? We get to know people by taking a few small clues, and processing them though a neural filter laden with our own personal biases – we rely on our mind to fill in the blanks of their identity. But how they really are, their essence, that’s in their brains, not ours. The reality is, (until the next dropout invents a way to plug in to others brains), we can never really know who they are. All we can do is arm ourselves with what we know to be true: our feelings. Love and longing, happiness, fear, friendship; these are the brains guidance system. If we can trust them, they help us find what we’re looking for.
[Chops a melon… as if to remove a diseased part of the brain…] Functions once controlled by the left hemisphere, the language centre, can eventually develop in the right hemisphere. To be fully human only takes half a brain. Do we have more brain power than we need? Or vast amounts of unrealised potential?
Why do we constantly strive for improvement? Much of our ambition is driven by the prefrontal cortex, it’s why we’re here, and not in the jungle eating bananas. Every day we hear of new technological advancements; upgraded phones, computers, new medical techniques… science seems to have unlimited potential. Many advances do make our lives better, but in our striving we can lose something important; accepting what’s already good about ourselves. Mozart, 200 years old, doesn’t require an upgrade… is perfect just the way it is.
We want to believe that the brain is all powerful, that there’s nothing we can’t learn or conquer – but despite it’s elegance and efficiency, there are some things the power of the mind cannot do. Sometimes when faced with an intractable problem, it’s not the brain that will solve it, it’s the heart.
Life awaits: friendships, inspiring work, independence, your place in the world… all outside the door. Imagine if that door was locked? You’re trapped, everybody else is living around you. That’s what mental illness feels like.…. Surgery can’t teach us how to take care of ourselves.. a long process… begins with learning how to trust our own minds again. Neurologists are a crazy bunch who believe we’ll discover cures, that there’s hope for all of us.
‘There are no second acts in American lives’, said F Scott Fitzgerald. But there can be for the brain! Devastated by injury, acquired savant syndrome, a high school dropout, savagely attacked, wakes to become a gifted painter! If our brains can have a second act, why not our lives? Broken relationships can heal, sins can be forgiven, wrongs can be righted. In our lives, as in our brains, we all deserve a second chance. We just have to be brave enough to see it.
Albert Einstein had a big one. A prefrontal cortex! More brain tissue correlates to more intelligence. The size and organisation of his brain allowed him to achieve greatness. Was he born with a special brain? Or did it grow with thousands of hours burning the midnight oil? Most likely a combination….
Did you ever wonder if somebody out there is exactly like you? A dopple-ganger? How does environment and genetics affect us? (…. Boring – looking for a soul mate… desire for a twin is an expression of our need to connect, because in this vast and overwhelming universe only our relationships with other people help us not to feel so alone)
A sense of morality is rooted in the circuitry of our brain. How much are we born with? How much is shaped from our environment? How much is learned from family? So many external reasons why we follow certain rules or conduct ourselves in certain ways… Is it possible some are born with a stronger moral character than others? Some studies show that a larger orbital prefrontal cortex correlates to having more friends. What kind of friends? Work? Internet? Friends who put up with your garbage? Or a best friend? The more you nurture, the deeper it grows… unless your friend is family, in which case you’re stuck with them, no matter what.
There’s nothing worse than a liar. Why do we take exception to them? Because it feels lousy. Literally. Disbelief gets processed by the limbic systems cingulate cortex and the interior insulin, the same part of the brain that reports pain and disgust. We long for something to believe in. Our brains reward us emotionally when we believe, we feel good, comfortable. We balance it all by critical thinking, by questioning everything, and always always being open to possibility.
Back in caves, our survival often depended on the ability to figure out fast who was friend or foe, it kept us alive. The amygdala served to make the snap judgments that kept us alive: fight or flight. It might be primitive, but it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Sometimes fighting for what we want is the right thing to do. Often we’re fighting fear of getting hurt, of making mistakes. Sometimes it’s wise to get out of dodge, to get off on our own…
Every now and then we need to break with the past, take a leap into uncharted territory.
Why do nails on a chalkboard sound so horrible? Neuro-acoustics. One theory is that we dislike certain frequencies because they sound like monkeys, predators, or a baby’s cries…
Season 3 – part one
Paris is like love or art or faith – it can’t be explained, only felt. As a kid when I first heard those words in a movie, a great movie with Gene Kelly – it was my introduction to this magical city. Most people only know Paris through art or poetry, and this can create certain idealised expectations that can become embedded in our neural networks. Of course Paris isn’t always what we see in the movies. Waiters don’t just burst into song at the drop of a hat, no matter how much I tip them. And, in some cases, some tourists suffer a bizarre psychological reaction when their idealism of this city collides with the real thing. They feel disoriented, they suffer feelings of delusion and paranoia, some even experience hallucinations. This extreme form of culture shock is known, appropriately, as Paris Syndrome. What does this sort of phenomenon teach us about the brain’s ability, or inability, to adapt to the strange and the unfamiliar…. [think about that]
‘You’ve gained weight’. ‘You look tired’. ‘What the hell is going on with your hair?’. It doesn’t matter how well your day is going. All it takes is one little off hand comment to ruin it, right? That’s because the brain is hard wired to remember the negative interactions rather than the positive ones. But recent discovery suggests that the higher regions of the brain can actually modify how the lower regions function. That we can use our ‘intention’ and our ‘attention’ in sustained focussed ways to overcome the brain’s negative bias. So that it can be in our control to determine how bad experiences affect us. In other words, unless you’re clinically depressed, being unhappy may, in fact, be a choice.
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. Or will they? The same areas of the brain get activated when we experience social rejection, betrayal by a loved one, as when we spill hot coffee on our arm. In other words emotional pain hurts the same as physical pain. Science has developed drugs that can alleviate, and in some cases eliminate, our physical pain. And in some cases those same drugs are proving helpful in eliminating our emotional pain. So the prescription for a broken heart might actually be taking Tylenol and calling me in the morning [students laugh]. But is numbing our pain always a good thing? The more we know pain, in all it’s varying flavours, the more we can appreciate the sensations and the feelings that we like. It’s the nature of contrast. If we never felt bitterness or anger then we wouldn’t deeply appreciate our happiness. And if we never knew fear, then we couldn’t admire our courage. So maybe to more fully enjoy the beauty in our lives, we must first acknowledge and embrace our pain…
The brain stores memories in different ways, short term memories, where you left your keys, the girl you picked up in the bar last night, are managed by the hippocampus. But he hippocampus doesn’t keep them for long. It kicks them out to the cortex where they strengthen or weaken, depending on how often you visit them. Every time you access a memory, neurons are activated and that memory goes stronger. But ignore a memory for too long, and you may lose it forever. The past can come back to haunt us – the sins of our youth, old illness and injuries can stick with us for a lifetime. Even for all it’s incredible power, that tangled mass of neurons that you call your brain is a remarkably fragile organ. Take it out of it’s bone helmet, and it’s just jello, vulnerable to the slightest wound. A single concussion can have long term effects that show up decades later as major diseases like Parkinsons. A few too many nights of binge drinking; your brain might never be the same. Does that mean that we should live in protective cocoons? Never exposing ourselves to potential hurt, physical or emotional? Or is the real art of living to overcome our wounds, make the best of our limitations, and embrace our gifts?
[students turn over pages to start their exam] Female student asks: “I, eh, I think there might be a mistake, the answers are stapled to the test?” Correct! Before miss goody two shoes here blew the whistle, the neurons in your ventromedial and dorselateral prefrontal cortices were firing all cylinders, creating a rush of adrenaline and dopamine not unlike a boxer in the ring. But the fight here was between impulse and self control. It’s called temptation. Now her cognitive control mechanisms stopped her from cheating, but some of you were about to go through with it. I know you were, right [points at guy, who nods, and everybody laughs], your self control was hyped by the more emotional and impulsive limbic system which wanted the easy ‘A’. That’s bad, that’s bad because when we exercise greater self control we have greater success at work, stronger relationships, and better mental health. So if it’s better to resist temptation, why do we always find it so easy to give in?
If you believe in the guy with the red cape and the pitchfork the world is divided up into good and evil. Of course, evolved thinkers like us know that life is not so absolute. Or is it? FMRI scans of psychopaths reveal that their brains have subtle differences. There’s less activity in the pre-frontal cortices, and decreased regional brain matter in the paralimbic systems. In other words, they may be wired to do ‘evil’. It’s a scary thought, but equally amazing is our capacity to do good. The brains ability to create empathy, compassion, and connection. These things can give someone the drive to live a life of sacrifice, or commit to someone they love, or just to connect with a friend…
I read your papers on peripheral neuropathy yesterday, five precious hours of my life that I’ll never get back. [laughs] Memorising facts and then regurgitating them in 5000 carefully crafted words is not science people, it’s intellectual bulimia. Real science happens when we explore what we don’t know: Galileo, Curie, Einstein, they all had the imagination and the guts to look at a set of facts and say, ‘okay, but what about this? And what if that? They asked questions. Instead of revisiting what we already know, let’s spend this hour in pursuit of ignorance, our own.
Think of your life as a story. Actually you already do. FMRI studies show us that following a story, with a beginning and middle and end, causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin. These chemicals give us the uniquely human ability to connect with someone, even a total stranger, and empathise. In other words, stories are what we use to find meaning in our lives. Now imagine for a moment that we lived without the understanding that our story must eventually end, what if our lives were as infinite as the universe, if the ticking clock never stopped. What would our story be then? Would we still love? Or care? Would those tiny fleeting moments that mean everything, mean anything at all?
A man loses both legs and gets robotic ones that he can power with his mind, a gaggle of baby geese accept the zoologist as their mother, and Lewickie [professors assistant], having a hard time finding romance, turns to a virtual sex simulator created by an adult toy company in Japan. Prosthetic limbs, filial imprinting, Japanese sex robots… what do they all have in common? They’re all replacements. From limbs made of steel and wires, to mothers who aren’t even the same species, to highly evolved self pleasure devices, as far as the brain is concerned, if it gets the job done, does it really matter if it ain’t the real thing?
How many of you have heard the term ‘mommy brain’? For generations women have been told that having children will turn their brains to mush. That the demands of motherhood will cause them to spiral into mindless behaviour like putting the keys in the refrigerator or the milk in the closet. But in fact, recent studies show that new mothers develop certain cognitive enhancements, the Hypothalamus, the Amygdala, and the pre-frontal cortex actually grow post partum, these areas motivate a mom to care for her infant, to enjoy the simple interaction, and to be more effective at skills like reasoning, planning, and judgement. Put another way, love grows a mothers brain, literally. But what about dad’s? Men’s testosterone levels drop by about a third in the weeks following their child’s arrival, making them more nurturing, less aggressive… but before you guys start panicking about the other side effect of low T, just keep in mind that your wife will probably be more interested in your baby than in your baby maker. As amazing as these brain makeovers are, all the neurobiology in the world can’t explain the joy that comes from holding a newborn. Or from witnessing the miracle of new life.
How many of you are elitists? Nobody? Those designer jeans, are they really worth 200 bucks? And you, basketball Jones, do those customised hightops make you jump like Lebron? Clever marketing has conditioned us to believe that we get what we pay for. In fact researchers at Stanford used an MRI to gauge brain activity while participants sipped samples of red wine. Guess what they found – when people thought that they were drinking 5 dollar merlot, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, part of the brain involved with pleasure and reward was minimally active. But when told that same wine was a 100 dollar bottle of Chateuneuf de Pape, the pleasure centre lit up like the Las Vegas strip. Which tells us that even though we might not be snobs, or medial orbitofrontal cortices are.
Why are breakups so damn excruciating? Maybe because everything reminds you of your lover. And hence your loss. Hearing your favourite Smiths song on the radio, eating hot dogs on the lopsided park bench where the first I love yous were spoken. It’s no wonder you can’t go 24 hours without bursting into tears. When people see images of their loved ones, the caudate nucleus of their basel ganglia floods with dopamine. Nicotine and other drugs also stimulate increases in dopamine, so that when you try to quit smoking or sugar, your brain craves that substance, the same way it craves the person who broke your freaking heart. You’ll do crazy idiotic things to get your fix – that’s because when you’re in love it’s not ‘as if’ you’re an addict, you are an addict. Literally. As we all know, going cold turkey is a bitch.
[this is a work in progress… so forgive typos, and slight errors in text, and the missing quotes of the final episodes, they’ll be up soon….]