Free Public Event: The Meditating Brain

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From contemplation to prayer, forms of meditation exist in every society. Now, using up-to-date technologies, these ancient practices are being increasingly studied by neurologists. Although learning to meditate—to turn off all distractions—is no easy task, the advertised benefits claim it to be worthwhile. Such alleged benefits include the “calming” of neurotransmitters, beating addiction, and even building a bigger brain.

Published studies argue that meditation can produce structural alterations in the brain and may even slow the progress of certain age-related atrophy. Similarly, some yoga advocates claim that the practice, which is explored as a treatment for major depressive disorders, expands mental faculties. Further, prayer, according to the Huffington Post, can help dissuade impulsive actions.

Neuroimaging technologies are revealing changes in blood flow to areas of the brain, indicating more activity. This program will explore the neurological bases of these claims, if any, by explaining how the mind and body talk with one another during the acts of meditation, yoga, and prayer.

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World Science Festival: Computational Creativity

Interest in artificial intelligence (AI) seems like it’s at an all-time high, with people both wary and intrigued about how machine learning systems will change, and hopefully improve, our lives. Past discussions we’ve covered have delved into the ethical sphere: Can autonomous robots that (currently) lack consciousness and emotions serve us well as future healthcare aides and soldiers? Can robots be moral? But last week’s World Science Festival in New York City looked at a different side of AI, with a panel discussion on “Computational Creativity: The Art of Ingenuity.”

Focused on the creation of art, music, and culinary arts, the panel was tasked with answering such questions as: Can a robot truly imagine an original masterpiece or just replicate known styles? Is computational creativity a collaborator or a competitor?

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Artificial Intelligence, Avatars, and the Future

Most people first heard the word “avatar” from James Cameron’s Avatar, one of the top grossing films of all time. Some consider avatars an extension of the self that can save the world in the context of virtual reality or a video game. In Hinduism, avatars are considered incarnations of deities or immortals. The Hindu god Vishnu, for example, has many avatars, including the Buddha.

Helping to sort out the avatar conundrum and the fascinating field of artificial intelligence was a Brainwave series program at the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC last Wednesday night. The program—“A.I. and Avatar: The New Explorers,”— began with a head-spinning question: “Can machines and other avatars expand the human experience—and perhaps even take our minds to the stars?”

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Discussing the Mystery of Consciousness

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What is consciousness? How can we use language to define it? Is there a way to measure it scientifically? Is it something only humans have, or do animals and plants have consciousness too? Does it require awareness of the self? What does it mean to have consciousness?

These questions inspired “The Mystery of Consciousness,” a recent discussion between neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, M.D., Ph.D., and philosopher David Chalmers, Ph.D., at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. The conversation was the first public event hosted by the newly formed Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement (ICE) at Dartmouth University, an organization that seeks to create dialogue between the sciences and humanities.

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What Makes Us Who We Are: Neuroscience and the Self

The idea of the mind is a relatively modern concept. In medieval times, it was believed that people were divided in two parts, the physical body and the spiritual soul. With the emergence of the scientific revolution and thinkers such as John Locke, the mind and secular life became an important topic in discussions about self-awareness. Since then, we have been trying to understand not only what it means to possess a mind, but also the neuroscience behind it.

That was part of the message at “My Neurons, My Self,” a panel discussion at the World Science Festival in New York City. Three eminent neuroscientists and a philosopher provided insight into the “mind-brain” problem, focusing on what defines the self. “What we don’t have yet is a way of bridging mental experience with the brain in a coherent model that allows for mental intention; we still are a ways off from solving the mind-brain problem,” said George Makari, M.D., director of the Institute of the History of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, in introducing the panel.

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