Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis – review | Books | The Guardian


A rigorous investigation of what it means to be human

A model of a human head as used by phrenologogists

Model of the human head as used by phrenologists. Photograph: Chris P Batson/Alamy

Raymond Tallis's books are not often easy to summarise, and not always easy to finish. He worked for years as a doctor, with a scientific speciality in the treatment of epilepsy and stroke victims, and wrote for his own enlightenment. Although he is capable of writing with great clarity and force about really important things, there is a sense that he is conducting an argument with the people he has read, rather than the people who might be reading him. Nonetheless, it's clear that the purpose of this book is to rescue atheism from the currently fashionable atheists.

  1. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity
  2. by Raymond Tallis
  3. Buy it from the Guardian bookshop
  1. Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book

He attacks, among others, the philosopher John Gray for his anti-scientific pessimism and the Daniel Dennett / Richard Dawkins axis for their pseudo-scientific optimism. All seem to him to mis-state, to elide, or to conceal the absolute strangeness of being human. But their viewpoint is so much taken for granted that it is easy to mistake it for the way the world is, rather than a worldview built like any other on metaphor, assumption and a bright dusting of wish fulfilment.

Broadly, these authors agree that we are animals directed by computers. We might not like to be such things, but it is what science shows we are. The only alternative to this would be some viewpoint dismissible as "religious". Tallis doesn't like it, either; but he also believes it a completely wrong picture, scientifically flawed as well as philosophical nonsense. At the same time, he remains "a proud atheist".

Aping Mankind is a double-barrelled blast at both the computer and the animal understandings of human nature and in particular of human consciousness. The arguments against consciousness as computation have been already made in his short book Why The Mind Is Not a Computer. As a gerontologist, he has been constantly brought up against the relationship between people and their variously damaged or decaying brains. That the one depends on the other does not mean that they are the same thing, or even the same kind of thing. The brain is something that appears to consciousness. Consciousness is not something that appears in the brain.

One of Tallis's central points is the discussion of "information". This word plays a central role in the Dawkins/Dennett world view, much more important and less obvious than the nonsense about "memes". Brains, computers, and even life itself, are all said to be processing information. DNA itself is pure digital information. But the word here needs scare quotes throughout, for it has two quite different and separate senses. The older usage of the term is inextricably bound up with meaning: information is something you know that carries a meaning. It is, in engineer's jargon, signal, rather than noise. Information, in this sense, is always information to someone or some system.

But there is a second sense of "information", arising from electrical engineering, and the beginnings of computer science, in which it is entirely measurable, and can be broken into discrete chunks. This has been an important and productive understanding – I couldn't be typing and you couldn't be reading without that kind of information science – but it came at the price of breaking "information" entirely away from meaning. Tallis quotes one of the pioneers in the field: "Information, in this theory is used in a special sense that must not be confused with its ordinary usage. In particular, information must not be confused with meaning. In fact, two messages, one of which is heavily loaded with meaning, and the other of which is pure nonsense, can be exactly equivalent, from the present viewpoint, as regards information."

Despite this admirable clarity pop science writers and artisans of metaphor have been trying for years to glue the two senses of "information" together again, as if what can be measured in computers is the same stuff as meaning for humans. "By smuggling consciousness into the matter of the brain, via the computer analogy, we make a materialist account of consciousness seen plausible ... When you personify the brain and bits of brain, this makes it easy to 'brainify' the person."

Once these two meanings of "information" have been unpacked and separated, so we can distinguish between the mathematically measurable properties of a fluctuating electric current, and the stuff that makes up the world we experience, then it's possible to unpick the idea that consciousness is brain activity, or that consciousness is just the way we experience brain activity. As Tallis points out, the brain activity we can measure is present to our consciousness. It's not present to itself. The fact that you can destroy selves by destroying bits of the brain does not prove they are identical. "A person's behaviour becomes more completely explicable in neurological terms the more damaged they are. A seizure sits more comfortably within the neural model of the mind than does living with epilepsy, which requires something to bring it all together."

This kind of personhood – the capacity, in fact the compulsion, to bring things together into some kind of coherent narrative, without which experience is not just senseless, but almost impossible, is what he believes science cannot now explain. Anyone tempted to suppose that science has explained it even in principle – and that means almost all of us – should read him, and realise we're wrong.

Andrew Brown's Fishing in Utopia is published by Granta.

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Intelligence tests highlight importance of genetic differences | Science | The Guardian


DNA study links variations in intelligence to large numbers of genes, each with a small effect on individual brainpower

infant baby using laptop computer

DNA research suggests genetic differences could account for up to half the difference in individuals' intelligence. Photograph: Nick Gregory/Alamy

Genetic differences between people account for up to half of the variation in intelligence, according to a study of more than 3,000 individuals.

Intelligence is known to run in families, but no single genes have yet been identified that can be reliably linked to mental ability. Instead, researchers think, many hundreds or thousands of genes could be involved, each with a small influence on a person's overall intelligence.

"It has been getting clearer and clearer that any genetic contribution to traits on which people differ – like height and weight – comes about from large numbers of gene differences, each with very small effects," said Prof Ian Deary of the University of Edinburgh, who led the research on intelligence. "We thought that was one possibility for cognitive ability differences, and our results are compatible with that."

To test his idea, researchers looked at more than half a million locations in the genetic code of 3,511 unrelated adults. Each of these sites is where people are known to have single-letter variations in their DNA, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). These variations were correlated with the individuals' performance in two types of psychometric tests that are established in assessing intelligence: one test measuring recalled knowledge (via vocabulary) and the second measuring problem-solving skills.

They found that 40% of the variation in knowledge (called "crystallised intelligence" by the researchers) and 51% of the variation in problem-solving skills ("fluid-type intelligence") between individuals could be accounted for by the differences in DNA. The results are published on Tuesday in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Previous work on the environmental and genetic contributions to cognitive ability has been based on comparing intelligence in identical and non-identical twins, or studying it in people who were adopted. In the study led by Deary, the conclusions were gleaned from direct testing of people's DNA. "It is the first to show biologically and unequivocally that human intelligence is highly polygenic [involving lots of genes] and that purely genetic (SNP) information can be used to predict intelligence," Deary wrote in the journal paper.

Though the researchers now know the proportion of the variation in intelligence that is likely to be a result of genes, they do not know which genes are likely to be most important in determining intelligence. "If they can be found, and if we want to follow them up, to find out some of the mechanisms that underlie successful thinking, our best guess at present is that the number is huge. It could be many thousands," said Deary. "That could be a limitation to progress using this type of research."

Dr Simon Underdown, senior lecturer in biological anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, said human intelligence was a "stunning product of our evolution". He continued: "This paper brilliantly demonstrates that the genetic basis for our intelligence is not the result of a simple mutation in a single gene. Rather, the diverse range of genes that appear to influence our ability to think must have been actively selected for over hundreds of thousands of years. That we display such genetically influenced variation in intelligence across our species further hints at how important cultural, as well as biological, evolution has been to the human story."

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atrophy of grey matter


By Sarah Harris

Last updated at 10:12 PM on 15th July 2011


A study has found the overuse of the internet by teenagers is causing atrophy of grey matter, leading to concentration and memory problems (file picture)

A study has found the overuse of the internet by teenagers is causing atrophy of grey matter, leading to concentration and memory problems (file picture)

Excessive internet use may cause parts of teenagers’ brains to waste away, a study reveals.

Scientists discovered signs of atrophy of grey matter in the brains of heavy internet users that grew worse over time.

This could affect their concentration and memory, as well as their ability to make decisions and set goals. It could also reduce their inhibitions and lead to ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.

Researchers took MRI brain scans from 18 university students, aged 19, who spent eight to 13 hours a day playing games online, six days a week.

The students were classified as internet addicts after answering eight questions, including whether they had tried to give up using computers and whether they had lied to family members about the amount of time they spent online.


The researchers compared them with a control group of 18 students who spent fewer than two hours a day on the internet.

One set of MRI images focused on grey matter at the brain’s wrinkled surface, or cortex, where the processing of memory, emotions, speech, sight, hearing and motor control occurs.

Comparing grey matter between the two groups revealed atrophy within several small regions of all the online addicts’ brains.


Are you addicted to the web? These eight questions will tell you if you are


The scans showed that the longer their internet addiction continued, the ‘more serious’ the damage was.

The researchers also found changes in deep-brain tissue called white matter, through which messages pass between different areas of grey matter in the nervous system.

These ‘structural abnormalities were probably associated with functional impairments in cognitive control’, they said.


The researchers added that these abnormalities could have made the teenagers more ‘easily internet dependent’, but concluded they ‘were the consequence of IAD (internet addiction disorder)’.

‘Our results suggested long-term internet addiction would result in brain structural alterations,’ they said.

The study, published in the PLoS ONE journal, was carried out by neuroscientists and radiologists at universities and hospitals in China, where 24million youths are estimated to be addicted to the internet.

'Wake-up call': Dr Aric Sigman said it was a shame that we needed photos of brains to realise that sitting in front of a screen is not good for children's health

'Wake-up call': Dr Aric Sigman said it was a shame that we needed photos of brains to realise that sitting in front of a screen is not good for children's health

In Britain, children spend an average of five hours and 20 minutes a day in front of TV or computer screens, according to estimates by the market-research agency Childwise.

Dr Aric Sigman, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, described the Chinese research as a ‘wake-up call’.

He said: ‘It strikes me as a terrible shame that our society requires photos of brains shrinking in order to take seriously the common-sense assumption that long hours in front of screens is not good for our children’s health.’

Baroness Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, described the results as ‘very striking’.

She said: ‘It shows there’s a very clear relationship between the number of years these young people have been addicted to the internet and changes in their brains.

‘We need to do more experiments and we need to invest more money in research and have more studies like this.’

The neuroscientist has previously warned there could be a link between children’s poor attention spans and the use of computers and social-networking websites. She is concerned that not enough attention is being paid to evidence that computer use is changing young people’s brains.

Professor Karl Friston, a neuroscientist at University College London, told the Scientific American journal the techniques used in the small-scale study were rigorous.

He said: ‘It goes against intuition, but you don’t need a large sample size. That the results show anything significant at all is very telling.’




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Some commentators seem to have missed what the research points to. It is not using the Internet per se that is harmful. It is playing virtual computer games instead of real social interaction. Using the computer to write is like using a typewriter. Using the Internet to learn new things is like reading an encyclopaedia (remember them?) Using a spreadsheet programme is like old fashioned calculators, only better than those machines with knobs and handles (anyone remember those? Shows my age doesn’t it?) The abacus has been used for millennia. What this study shows is that we humans develop, and our brains develop, when we have real social interaction with real living flesh and blood people, learning and practicing social skills and social inhibitions. It is living in a virtual world and losing contact with fellow inhabitants in the real world that is causing the damage. In other words, the study suggests we get a life.

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I remember when i was young the highlight of my evenings was playing Atari tennis , choosing whether to make the bat large or small , if i gave my kids an Atari they would probably call childline and report me lol....

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Internet = democratisation of knowledge! With the internet, I learned CSS, Html, Visual basics, surd and quadratic equation in Maths and I have found some teachers totally rubbish at their jobs. If you have the will, you really can learn a lot from the internet - not all people are playing computer games on line.

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Internet is the best thing that has happened to the world..period btw if you are intending to convey that reading DM through the web is dangerous to the brain? hmmm...

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doesn't it depend on what you're doing on the internet? I spend a lot of time reading up on the news, reviews, looking for different books etc etc. I don't use the internet for chatting (save for skype with my bf) or for social networking or online gaming or adult websites, etc. I really think it depends on what you are spending all that time doing. But then, I'm not addicted to the internet, it's usually just there when I have nothing else to do

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Most are brainless ....

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‘real neurophysiological occurrences’


By Louise Eccles

Last updated at 1:30 AM on 13th July 2011

Those who talk of having an out-of-body experience often find their claims of a spiritual experience are much mocked.

And now scientists have joined the sceptics, saying such events are nothing more than vivid hallucinations – and some of us are predisposed to them.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham claim they occur when ‘instabilities in the brain’ cause people to become disorientated and lose all sense of where their body is.

Far from being a ‘funky, hippie, spiritual event’, they are ‘real neurophysiological occurrences’.


Out-of-body events have been linked to instability in the brain

Out-of-body events have been linked to instability in the brain

The study claimed that people with irregularities in the temporal lobes, which control memory and object recognition, are much more likely to ‘transform their own body position’.


This trick of the brain could explain why model Miranda Kerr felt an out-of-body experience while giving birth to her son Flynn. Earlier this week, Miss Kerr, 28, who is in a relationship with actor Orlando Bloom, said: ‘I actually thought I was going to die at one point and left my body. I was looking down on myself. The pain was so intense.’

She is now likely to find herself classed in some scientific circles as an OBEr – after the abbreviation given to an out-of-body experience (OBE). Dr Jason Braithwaite, who led the latest study, said: ‘We studied 65 psychology students and we found OBErs had biases in body distortion and transformation.’

Mind out: Researchers say out-of-body experiences are just a trick of the mind

Mind out: Researchers say out-of-body experiences are just a trick of the mind

Volunteers who frequently experienced déjà vu, felt a limb did not belong to them or sometimes felt their body move while they were still were much more likely to feel out of body experiences. Previous research has also pointed to practical causes.

In April, Kevin Nelson, Professor of Neurology at the University of Kentucky, argued that the condition could be attributed to disturbed dreams.

He found that those who had OBEs were more prone to suffering rapid eye movement (REM) intrusion, where people become paralysed before they are fully asleep.

Swiss neuroscientist Professor Olaf Blanke, a world authority on consciousness, claimed that such experiences are a result of temporary glitches in perception caused when the brain becomes confused.

During one experiment, volunteers became so immersed in the computer-generated landscape they were shown through a virtual reality visor that they tricked their brains into temporarily believing they occupied the body of a 3D computer-generated character.

The study by Dr Braithwaite, of  Birmingham University’s Behavioural Brain Sciences Centre, is published in this month’s issue of Elsevier’s Cortex journal.




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I'm completely in favour of finding scientific explanations for things, and am an atheist. But I know several people who've had "out-of-body experiences", and whether they are a trick of the mind or a genuine spiritual experience is rather beside the point. They are extremely beautiful experiences and can profoundly affect the lives of those who experience them. Sometimes I think it's a sad world when we take the mystery out of such things and insist on finding explanations for everything. Perhaps if we looked in wonder at an unknowable world as our ancestors did, we'd appreciate it more.

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What about ghosts? Stiff-necked fools (scientists) , you have no "Divine eyes" to see the spiritual body of the HUMAN BEING: WE ARE SPIRIT SOULS, YOU NEED DIVINE EYES TO SEE THE SPIRITUAL BODY AND NOT THE "MICROSCOPE IN THE LABORATORY"

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Fools die for lack of "WISDOM"

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Beauty lies in the medial orbito cortex of the beholder: Scientists find the part of the brain that controls what we admire | Mail Online


Last updated at 8:16 AM on 7th July 2011

When we say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we may be wrong by an inch or so.

According to scientists, the secret of what we admire in fact lies in the medial orbito-frontal cortex – an area of the brain just behind the eyes.

University College London researchers say it is the part of the brain that lights up when we encounter something beautiful, whatever our taste.


The medial orbito complex is just behind our eyes and lights up whenever we encounter something beautiful - no matter what our tastes

The medial orbito complex is just behind our eyes and lights up whenever we encounter something beautiful - no matter what our tastes

Brain expert Semir Zeki asked 21 young men and women to rate the beauty of a selection of paintings and pieces of music. Their brains were scanned as they viewed and listened to them.

The study, published in the journal PLoS One, revealed the medial orbito-frontal cortex was more active when the subjects were looking at or listening to something they really liked.


Professor Zeki said: ‘Almost anything can be considered art but we argue that only creations whose experience correlates with activity in the medial  orbito-frontal cortex would fall into the classification of beautiful art.

‘A painting by Francis Bacon may have great artistic merit but may not qualify as beautiful.

'My medial orbito-frontal complex let me down when I married her'

The same can be said for some of the more “difficult” classical composers – to someone who finds rock music more rewarding and beautiful, we would expect to see greater activity in the brain region when listening to Van Halen than when listening to Wagner.’

The finding that both the artwork and the music tripped this same area of the brain is important, as it had been suggested different types of beauty trigger different pleasure centres in the brain.

Professor Zeki, who was funded by the Wellcome Trust, said: ‘The question of whether there are characteristics that render objects beautiful has been debated for millennia by artists and philosophers of art but without obvious conclusion.

‘So too has the question of whether we have an abstract sense of beauty, that is to say one which arouses in us the same powerful emotional experience regardless of whether its source is, for example, musical or visual.’

As might be expected, the brain region involved in processing vision was more active when the painting were shown, and the area that crunches sounds sprang to life when listening to the music.

But another brain area, the caudate nucleus, became more active the more someone liked what they we rehearing or seeking.

The caudate nucleus, which lies near the centre of the brain, is also known to light up when we think about someone we are in love with.

The professor has previously shown that maternal love is very similar to romantic.

There is also a fine line between the feelings of love and hate, with many of the same brain regions lighting up.





City living affects your brain, researchers find | Science | The Guardian

MRI of the brain

Researchers found that the regions of brain that regulate emotion and anxiety are overactive in city-dwellers. Photograph: Howard Sochurek/ Corbis

The brains of people living in cities operate differently from those in rural areas, according to a brain-scanning study. Scientists found that two regions, involved in the regulation of emotion and anxiety, become overactive in city-dwellers when they are stressed and argue that the differences could account for the increased rates of mental health problems seen in urban areas.

Previous research has shown that people living in cities have a 21% increased risk of anxiety disorders and a 39% increased risk of mood disorders. In addition, the incidence of schizophrenia is twice as high in those born and brought up in cities.

In the new study, Professor Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the University of Heidelberg in Germany scanned the brains of more than 50 healthy volunteers, who lived in a range of locations from rural areas to large cities, while they were engaged in difficult mental arithmetic tasks. The experiments were designed to make the groups of volunteers feel anxious about their performance.

The results, published in Nature, showed that the amygdala of participants who currently live in cities was over-active during stressful situations. "We know what the amygdala does; it's the danger-sensor of the brain and is therefore linked to anxiety and depression," said Meyer-Lindenberg.

Another region called the cingulate cortex was overactive in participants who were born in cities. "We know [the cingulate cortex] is important for controlling emotion and dealing with environmental adversity."

This excess activity could be at the root of the observed mental health problems, said Meyer-Lindenberg. "We speculate that stress might cause these abnormalities in the first place – that speculation lies outside what we can show in our study, it is primarily based on the fact that this specific brain area is very sensitive to developmental stress. If you stress an animal, you will find even structural abnormalities in that area and those may be enduring and make an animal anxious. What we're proposing is that stress causes these things and stress is where they are expressed and then lead to an increased risk of mental illness."

By 2050, almost 70% of people are predicted to be living in urban areas. On average, city dwellers are "wealthier and receive improved sanitation, nutrition, contraception and healthcare", wrote the researchers in Nature. But urban living is also associated with "increased risk for chronic disorders, a more demanding and stressful social environment and greater social disparities. The biological components of this complex landscape of risk and protective factors remain largely uncharacterised."

In an accompanying commentary in Nature, Dr Daniel Kennedy and Prof Ralph Adolphs, both at the California Institute of Technology, said that there are wide variations in a people's preferences for, and ability to cope with, city life.

"Some thrive in New York city; others would happily swap it for a desert island. Psychologists have found that a substantial factor accounting for this variability is the perceived degree of control that people have over their daily lives. Social threat, lack of control and subordination are all likely candidates for mediating the stressful effects of city life, and probably account for much of the individual differences."

Working out what factors in a city cause the stress in the first place is the next step in trying to understand the mental health effects of urban areas. Meyer-Lindenberg said that social fragmentation, noise or over-crowding might all be factors. "There's prior evidence that if someone invades your personal space, comes too close to you, it's exactly that amygdala-cingulate circuit that gets [switched on] so it could be something as simple as density."

He said the research could be used, in future, to inform city design.

"What we can do is try and make cities better places to live in from the view of mental health. Up to now, there really isn't a lot of evidence-base to tell a city planner what would be good, what would be bad."

Cocaine addiction linked to brain abnormalities


Scans showed cocaine users had enlarged grey matter in areas of the brain associated with processing reward. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Scientists have found "significant abnormalities" in the brains of people addicted to cocaine, which could help explain some of the compulsive behaviour associated with using the drug. It may also hint at why some people are more prone to addiction.

Brain scans revealed that cocaine users had a "dramatic decrease in grey matter" in their frontal lobes, according to researchers, which affected key functions including decision-making, memory and attention, while some of their brain's rewards systems were significantly bigger. Karen Ersche of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge, who led the latest work, found the longer a person had been using cocaine, the poorer their attention was, and the more compulsively they used the drug.

"That is the hallmark of cocaine dependence - namely, that most of them are intelligent people who go to great extents to buy cocaine, to get more cocaine, to put their jobs at risk, their families at risk,They feel like they're driven to use more" said Ersche.

The results were published on Tuesday in the journal Brain. Ersche and her team scanned the brains of 60 people who were dependent on cocaine and compared them to scans of 60 people without any history of drug-taking. "We found significant abnormalities in the brains of the cocaine users," she said.

Specifically, the amount of grey matter in the orbitofrontal cortex was reduced in people with cocaine addiction, an area involved in decision-making and goal-directed behaviour.

Other affected areas included the insula, an area of the brain involved in feedback processing, learning and feelings of cravings. The grey matter in the anterior cingulate, involved in emotional processing and being attentive, was also reduced.

In contrast, a region deep in the brain associated with reward processing, attention and motor movements - the chordate nucleus - was enlarged in subjects who were addicted to the drug. This could explain why those subjects were more prone to addiction but the scientists cannot be sure whether the enlargement is a result of cocaine use.

Laurence John Reed, a clinical senior lecturer in addiction neurobiology at Imperial College London, said the "most impressive" results were the basic comparison of controls and stimulant users, which showed how parts of the brain remodel themselves in response to drugs. "This is a striking and visual example of how addictive stimulant use can result in adaptation of very important brain systems which have a direct correlates with behaviour – specifically inattention, impulsivity and compulsivity – and really does underline why we need a much better neurobiological understanding of the processes involved."

Ersche said that, though she found links between brain structure and cocaine use,her research was not conclusive on which came first. "At the moment, correlation shows me a direct relationship - but I don't know which direction the relationship is. Has this been caused by cocaine, or are people who have this abnormality more vulnerable?"

But the work could be used to help in diagnosis and treatment of addiction.

"We basically show that cocaine is a disorder of the brain, which is a big step," said Ersche. "For a lot of people, it is still a moral issue and willpower has nothing to do with the brain."

Knowing that certain brain areas are abnormal, she said, meant that scientists could try to work out ways of training or medicating the brain to get around the damage.

In a separate study published in the journal Heart, scientists at the Foundation CNR-Tuscan Region in Pisa, Italy, found that heavy cocaine use also causes serious damage to the heart, without any obvious symptoms at the early stages. Scans of the hearts of 25 men with long-term history of cocaine use picked up structural damage in 83% of participants and swelling in the lower left ventricle in around 47%. They also found tissue scarring in 73% of addicts, possibly a result of undetected heart attacks.

Around one in five cocaine addicts suffer from an inflammation of heart muscle, known as myocarditis, and the researchers said that a quarter of non-fatal heart attacks among the under-45s are associated with cocaine.


Dancing ballet 'can relieve Parkinson's symptoms' - Telegraph


They asked 24 people with the degenerative brain disease to take part in a series of classes where they learnt the steps to Rudolph Nureyev's Romeo and Juliet.

Over the course of 12 weeks they were temporarily transformed, rising out of wheelchairs during classes, smiling and rediscovering confidence on their feet.

Their progress was monitored by Sarah Houston and Ashley McGill from Roehampton University in west London.

Dr Houston said: "One of the most noticeable aspects of the project was how it supported participants’ confidence, as well as improving their bodily awareness."

Danielle Jones from the ENB, who helped with the classes, said: "They came into class after perhaps having a difficult day, shaking or stiff and maybe in a wheelchair.

"But as the class progressed, the music started and the exercises picked up tempo, that disappeared.

"They found walking across the room, which they would usually find really difficult, really easy."

Rather than concentrating on the disease, it was "a chance for them to have fun", she added.

She said Nureyev's choreography of Romeo and Juliet, from which they learned sequences from the Dance of the Knights, was "a fantastic piece of repertoire" with strong music that helped them perform their steps.

Artists from the company helped guide them through the moves.

One participant said: "Dancing like this is helping me to get Mr. Parkinson’s out of the driving seat of my life.

"The ballet did make me urgently want to move more, and move better and hinted at how this might be possible."

Craig Hassall, managing director of the ENB, said: "The common denominator was not a disease but a shared commitment to dance."

Parkinson's affects about 120,000 people in Britain. It is a movement disorder characterised by uncontrollable shaking and loss of co-ordination of muscles.

In the brain it is characterised by a devastating loss of nerve cells that produce dopamine and enable smooth control of the body.

Similar studies have proved dancing to music and Tai Chi to be effective at boosting self esteem in the elderly, relieving depression and reducing the chance of falls.

Minds, brains and woo | Andrew Brown | Comment is free |


Talking about 'brains' when we mean minds just adds a specious impression of profundity to platitudes

Here is a thought experiment. Suppose someone on Comment is free were to change their mind as a result of another poster's argument – I know, I know: I said it was a thought experiment – what would then have changed?

In the comments on my last piece there were quite a lot of people asserting with evident sincerity that what would then have changed was their brains, and that mind is a redundant concept.

Obviously, this is half true. When something changes in our minds, something, also, changes in our brains. But we have no idea what. We do in fact have a pretty clear idea about what changes in our minds. When I say "I have changed my mind about the weather today" my meaning is entirely clear to anyone who speaks English. If, on the other hand, I were to show you a brain scan taken before I believed it was going to rain, and after, there is no one in the world who could have the faintest clue what ideas these pictures were illustrating.

So when we're discussing thought and conscious processes, talking about minds is precise, and even measurable (what else do public opinion pollsters do?) while talking about brains is just hand-waving. It is, in fact, an expression of religious opinion – partly a statement of social belonging and partly an expression of faith in the sufficiency of a particular world-view to explain everything.

Is this scientistic faith well justified here? If there were perfect, real-time, infinitely detailed brain scanners, would these allow us to read thoughts off the brain being scanned? To some extent this is an empirical question. Someone who knows more about brain scanning technology than I do might be able to show that such a machine is impossible: that for technical reasons we could not freeze and read the state of every neuron. It certainly can't be done now. But let's assume that some sufficiently technologically advanced wand is waved and we get all the data.

Is there a problem in principle, too? Would it be possible, even in theory, to interpret the data from the bottom up? I really don't think so, because meaning is held in nets that are individual to every brain. Their patterning is a product of individual history. If I were to repeat that sentence in Swedish or in French the patterns of brain activation would be different, yet the meaning would be the same. The man at the brain scanner could not get from one to the other.

So talking about "brains" when we mean "minds" is like talking about "memes" when we mean "ideas": it adds a layer of portentious mystification to something we already don't understand very well. It's all just deepity and woo.

The evidence that minds exist is that we have them. It is every bit as strong and simple as Dr Johnson's kicking a stone to refute Bishop Berkeley's claim that nothing except mind exists. What's hard is fitting our knowledge of minds into the physical world. But this is not a problem that can be removed by denying its existence.

There is something very odd about the idea that the mind is an illusion that a brain has about itself (which is what is implied in a lot of this talk). Illusions are themselves things that only minds can have. An illusion, or a delusion, demands that there is a subjectivity being deluded. If a Buddhist says that the world is an illusion, at least they are being consistent, in that they suppose the ultimate reality is more like a mind – the kind of thing that can have an illusion or can be deluded. But no one can fool a rock, or a computer. Why should a brain be different? Use one side of the paper only.

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Face to faith: When we meditate or use our powers of perception, we call on more than just a brain | Comment is free | The Guardian


When we meditate or use our powers of perception, we call on more than just a brain

How does the animated meat inside our heads produce the rich life of the mind? Why is it that when we reflect or meditate we have all manner of sensations and thoughts but never feel neurons firing? It's called the "hard problem", and it's a problem the physician, philosopher and author Raymond Tallis believes we have lost sight of – with potentially disastrous results.

In his new book, Aping Mankind – about which he was talking this week at the British Academy – he describes the cultural disease that afflicts us when we assume that we are nothing but a bunch of neurons.

Neuromania arises from the doctrine that consciousness is the same as brain activity or, to be slightly more sophisticated, that consciousness is just the way that we experience brain activity.

If you think the brain is a machine then you are committed to saying that composing a sublime poem is as involuntary an activity as having an epileptic fit. You will issue press releases announcing "the discovery of love" or "the seat of creativity", stapled to images of the brain with blobs helpfully highlighted in red or blue, that journalists reproduce like medieval acolytes parroting the missives of popes. You will start to assume that the humanities are really branches of biology in an immature form.

What is astonishing about this rampant reductionism is that it is based on a conceptual muddle that is readily unpicked. Sure, you need a brain to be alive, but to be human is not to be a brain. Think of it this way: you need legs to walk, but you'd never say that your legs are walking.

The same conflation can be exposed in a more complex way by reflecting on the phenomenon of perception. It is what we do every moment of the waking day. You're doing it right now: casting an eye to the paper in front of you and seeing words on a page. But if you were just a brain, you would not see words. There'd be just the gentle buzz of neuronal activity in the intracranial darkness.

The distinguished evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar acted as interlocutor to Tallis at the British Academy event. He didn't want to pick a fight, though he was clearly not going along with the attack. Surely this is just the way science works, he asked? We begin with simple levels of explanation and then proceed to more complex ones, working from the bottom up. Well, responded Tallis with his customary quick wit: "If you go bottom up, it's important to go up the right bottom."

Tallis did not think that better scanners and more sophisticated analysis would solve the problem either. Even if neuroscience one day tracks every single neuron firing in real time, you won't be watching consciousness. You'll have more precise correlations to play with, yes. But people will still experience pain and say "Ouch!", not "Oh, no worries: it's just neuron cluster 148 lighting up."

So why can't consciousness be thought of as just the way we experience brain activity, Dunbar continued? Because that's dishonest, Tallis retorted. Inside that innocent-sounding sentence, you have smuggled those two little words "we experience". And that's the entire problem: how do we experience?

Tallis doesn't claim to know. He described himself as an "ontological agnostic", the nature of consciousness being a tremendous mystery. "We just don't know how we should think about being and how mind fits into nature. But we'll never learn if we start out taking all the wrong paths."

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