Brain’s Unconscious Loss Processing May Support Grief Resolution

Guest blog by Brenda Patoine

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A whole-brain representation of the neural signature associated with processing the loss of a loved one. Activation of this signature in the absence of a conscious thought of the loss correlated with less severe grieving. (GIF courtesy of Noam Schneck; adapted with permission from Biological Psychiatry: CNNI 2018 in press.)

What might grief look like in the brain? Is there a neural “fingerprint” associated with thoughts of a loved one, conscious or otherwise? Does the frequency with which that fingerprint shows up have anything to do with whether or not a bereaved person is able to move on from the death of a loved one and resume normal daily activities?

As psychiatry grapples with how to differentiate “normal” grief from bereavement-related depression and otherwise complicated or prolonged grief, one young scientist is tackling these questions from an altogether different angle, looking inside the brains of people recently bereaved due to suicide to identify grief-related patterns of neural activity and to track how those patterns might affect grief resolution.

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Extraordinary Show on Consciousness Extended

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Baba Brinkman with his wife Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

At $5 a ticket, theater lovers can experience the steal of the century at the SoHo Playhouse through mid-August. Baba Brinkman is starting a new run of his one-man, interactive show, “Rap Guide to Consciousness.” “We’ve had good crowds the last couple of days, and I’m excited to be doing the show again,” says Brinkman. “There’s also a new discount site that lets you book a ticket for $5 and then choose whether to pay more after you see it.”

The play fuses hip-hop, humor, and neuroscience together in a 70-minute multimedia presentation that attempts to explain difficult complex topics such as free will, artificial intelligence, the effects of psychedelic drugs, Bayesian probability, the presence or absence of thoughts in infants and animals, and much more. To hear about the origins of Brinkman’s first name Baba, his rapping influences and origins, and the time he and Lin Manuel Miranda were on the street together in Edinburgh Fringe handing out flyers, listen to my podcast with Brinkman.

– Bill Glovin

#WSF18: They’ve Got the Power

If you’re a science fiction lover who can’t get enough of Mr. Robot and Westworld and worry that robots might one day make us their slaves, the good news is that it’s not likely to happen anytime soon, but technology that falls into the wrong hands needs to be considered. That was the consensus of a discussion on artificial intelligence (AI) last Friday at the World Science Festival at New York University (NYU).

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Tim Urban and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider. Photo: World Science Festival/Greg Kessler

The spirited session was aptly named, “Teach Your Robots Well: Will Self-Taught Robots Be the End of Us?” Moderator Tim Urban, a writer on futuristic issues and co-founder of the Wait but Why website, began with: “This is the biggest topic you can take on; relevant to every person in the room.”

 

The panel of academics included Susan Schneider, director of the AI, Mind and Society (AIMS) Group at the University of Connecticut; Yann LeCun, an AI scientist and a professor at NYU, Peter Tse, a professor at Dartmouth University and author of The Neural Basis of Free Will; and Matt Tegmark, a professor at MIT and president of the Future Life Institute.

The panelists suggested—each in their own way—that AI isn’t as dangerous or potentially harmful as advertised. Tse made the point that Siri, Alexa, and Google are not yet on the same level as human intelligence. He drew a distinction between “artificial narrow intelligence” and “artificial general intelligence,” explaining that narrow AI would be like a robot learning how to fly a plane or drive a car, while general AI would include knowledge on how to do those tasks—but also mow the lawn, babysit children, cook dinner, and still learn new other skills.

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Bringing Consciousness to the Stage

An ongoing challenge in brain research is trying to understand how neuro-activity creates consciousness or the awareness of one’s self.  For example, we don’t understand how the brain creates colors and or why individuals process smell differently. Your favorite color is blue; mine is green. You hate even a sniff of gasoline, but I enjoy it. These are the hard problems of neuroscience and philosophy that we haven’t made a great deal of progress on.

Enter Baba Brinkman, a performance artist who has taken on explaining what makes our brains tick using words and images. His one-man, somewhat interactive show, “Rap Guide to Consciousness,” at the SoHo Playhouse through the middle of May, fuses hip-hop, humor, and neuroscience together in a 90-minute multi-media presentation that attempts to explain complex topics such as free will, artificial intelligence, the effects of psychedelic drugs, Bayesian probability, the presence or absence of thoughts in infants and animals, and much more.

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Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, gains insight into her husband’s brain. He created Rap Guide to Consciousness, now playing at the SoHo Playhouse in Manhattan.

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Free Public Event: The Meditating Brain

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Image: Shutterstock

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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