Consent Angel

When the dutch burning man organisation asked for volunteers to help make the decomp party a safer space by advocating consent, I sent them an email with suggestions saying I would be happy to volunteer. I got a generic thank you message claiming they would contact me with more details. They never did. Despite that I still decided to do what little I could in face of massive sexual harassment this party suffered from. Read on for some tales including self defense and intervention tips which I would love to get more feedback on.

———This might be triggering for some. ———————-

Every self made sheriff needs a badge

The Playa Provides
At the very beginning of the party as I was putting my costume on someone offered me a gift. ‘We made badges of all the 10 principles of burning man, well actually 11. This year we also have a consent badge, do you want to be an angel of one of these principles?’ He asked. Guess which one I chose? And so, the playa provided me with a very useful tool, my makeshift little badge.

During the night I realized the people violating consent could be fit in broad categories on a ranging scale. Despite wanting to punch all of them I kept violence mostly to the bare necessity preferring to educate and get people to realize their behavior was hurtful.

The “nice yet insensitive” – these people model others as they model themselves. All of us have been guilty of this at some time. It is a natural statistical mistake. For some men if something doesn’t bother them it’s hard for them to Imagine it will bother women. These people are quick to apologize once called out and open for deeper discussion on these topics.

Are you a safe person?

Example 1: I facilitated a consensual massage circle with 2 others when some guy sat by me and touched me on the shoulder.
“Ask before touching,” I told him in a neutral tone.
“Oh, right sorry, I thought touching you on the shoulder would be ok. But I should ask, you are right. Can I touch you?”
“What type of touch?” (Negotiating specifics is a good thing especially if you don’t know each other)
“Just join the massage circle, I’ve never seen this in a party”.
“Sure, this is burning man and for me it’s part of the culture to be able to gift physical fun as long as its consensual,” I explained and we continued to discuss this.

Example 2: There was a nude woman volunteering to be a live art piece others can draw on. She was being ‘pimped out’ by some guy. “Can I ask her if she gives consent for me to draw on her?” I ask.
“You don’t need to she’s a living art piece,” he said. I cringed, this is a very similar idea for an art project I suggested to the burning man organisation. Just imagine how awesome it would be to get people to practice asking for consent in this fun interactive way instead of silencing this woman’s voice and telling people to do what ever they want.
“She is alive so I’m going to ask.” She thanks me for asking and I draw on her shoulder. I see a friends of mine is using his spit and finger to fix some of his drawing. “You know you should probably ask if she’s ok with that. Being ok with people drawing on you with brushes isn’t the same as people using some of their saliva on your skin.”
“Hmm, I’d be ok with it but you are right I should ask,” he said and proceeded to ask the model. Do not be afraid to call out on your friends too. If they are the good guys they will be happy to remodel and make sure they are not hurting someone.

“The over privileged” – These are people who’s parent’s never taught them to ask for permission before taking other’s toys. The walk around believing the world was made for their enjoyment. They don’t want to hurt anyone but their enjoyment comes first.

Example 1: Before I left the living sculpture, I saw a woman take some black tape and without asking tape the model’s mouth shut. Both me and the model seemed shocked by that. “You know, you should probably ask before doing that, maybe she doesn’t want that?” The model nodded and took the tape off.  To my shock the woman laughed, and took the tape off the model’s hands and taped her mouth shut again. The model took the tape off again and said it’s not comfortable. She didn’t need me to help her but I was still deeply disturbed by this woman’s actions. “You know by taping her mouth you are really changing this art piece from something very beautiful and special to just another image objectifying and silencing women which is also very triggering for some. “Oh yeah I didn’t think about that,” she admitted.

bm

The most consensual hug the whole evening

Example 2: A woman was on a couch, lying on top of her chosen partner for the night and making out with him, her back was towards the room. A guy passed by and reached out to her with a long slow creepy “caress”.

“Do you know her?” I asked in a friendly voice.

“No,” he answered.

“Do you think maybe you should ask her before touching her?”

I can see his red alarm go off and he begins to get very defensive. “I didn’t touch her butt, just her back. I didn’t mean it that way…”

I engage with the female, presumably friend, he is with. “A lot of women really don’t like to be touched by strangers, right?” I ask her.

She nods “yeah, you should ask,” she says cautiously.

With his friend now siding with me he retreats and apologizes (although it’s not me he needs to apologize to) and says he will make sure to ask next time.

example 3: A guy took a close up picture of me while dancing. “you know you should ask me if i’m ok with you taking my picture.” I pointed out.

“oh yeah, I saw the signs”, he says dismissively.

“And?” I persisted and he goes on the defense.

“you can’t see your face in the pictures.”

“I don’t know that and for some people it might make them feel unsafe.”

“This is a public space,”his aggression started getting higher.

I engage with another man standing besides me “No, this isn’t. It’s burning man and we are trying to build a community that is safe for everyone. People come here to take off the masks they have to put on in public spaces right?” The guy beside me answers with a nod.

The selfish photographer’s social brain starts rewriting itself “oh, I guess I should reconsider.” he says slowly somethings sinking in. But is it enough?

For me burning man has always been an opportunity to explore gender fluidity.

Example 4: While standing on line for the party a guy decided to try to bully me because of my non binary gender appearance.

He laughed out load pointed figures and started asking me if I’m a guy or a girl.

“Does it matter?” I smiled.

“What the fuck?” he kept pointing and shouting loudly. Like all bullies he wanted attention so I do the opposite. I engage with others, not sure if they are his friends or not but they were very tense and silent. “I’m a complicated creature. Not everyone can be normal,” I tell them smiling.  All of us except him have a good laugh and they start speaking up for me. “Yeah, we should all just do what’s good for us.” one says. The bully is still trying to get attention “But why? why do that?” he asks. One of the people started to intervene on my behalf. “It’s ok, I can tell him”. I looked at him, some parts of my brain actually managed to muster up some compassion for this fearful attention seeking creature, he really was afraid of me. I came close and while holding his gaze openly I whispered into his ear “Because life is too short to be just one person”.

His behavior totally changed. “I’m sorry, case closed” he said and went quite muttering to himself “I get it now, I get it”. Honestly I don’t think it really mattered what I told him it was more about me totally lowering my defenses, somehow projecting this notion that he has nothing to fear from me, despite my difference I would be kind and friendly if he did the same.

The hungry rapist creeps – These are people that are starving for some semblance of power, cowards at heart looking to take by force that which should only be given freely.

Example 1: I was dancing in the corner when I see a man approached a woman dancing near me. He stepped into her space uninvited. She stepped back into the wall cowering, putting up her hands defensively. He tried to kiss her and she moved her head sideways trying to push him off her.I jumped in between them stationing myself so I can still see him but providing her with some space. “Do you know this guy?” I asked her.

“Yes, he’s my friend.” she answered.

“Do you want him to touch you in this way?”

“No, I just want to dance,” she said.

I turn to the guy. “You should ask before you touch people.”

“She’s my friend”, he tried to move past me towards her but i’m faster then him and I blocked his way.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I pumped up the aggression and used my crazy eyes. He mirrored my actions and pumped up his chest. I break the formation and changed my body position moving faster and stranger then he’s probably ever seen. My hands were still in front of me if I needed to use them but they are hanging as if I was a strange puppet on strings. “She doesn’t want to kiss you.” I say with my head tilted side ways and a crooked smile.

His chest deflates he he isn’t sure how to react. “you are giving me bad vibes, let me talk to my friend”, he tries to reach around and grab her.

I fake on the most overly flirtations and sexually aggressive smile and put my hand around him. “Oh really? I didn’t mean to give you bad vibes.” I shoved my bearded side of the face towards him as if trying to kiss him.

“Don’t touch me!” he retreated freaking out.

I took a step back too. “Oh you are right. I’m so sorry I should have asked before I touched you,” I smiled his brain goes into freeze mode again and I can see this recalculation, him starting to understand he like the creep I was to him.

I talked to the woman again, showed her my make shift badge and told her she can ask me for help if she needs it. I made sure she wasnt’ dependent on this creep to get home and told her to be careful because if he doesn’t respect her boundaries here he will not respect her boundaries in other places. She thanked me and said she will talk to him. They sit down and talk I continue to dance while watching them. I also talk to another person beside me, explain the situation and tell him that if that creep harasses her again I might need his help to get security so we can kick this guy out. Honestly this was probably the hardest thing for me to do that night. My big feminist ego doesn’t want to ask for help but it is 100% the right move, so do not be ashamed to use it. The creep moved away. I talked to the woman again, gift her a blinky finger LED and did some shadow boxing example of what I would like to do to creep guys. She laughed and told me that he is a friend that just wants more from her and she explained to him she isn’t interested. I urged her to be careful and told her if i’m not around she can ask anyone else for help because there are a lot of good people in this party.

But this isn’t the end of creep guy. Later that night someone caressed my arm while I was moving on the dance floor. When I realized it was him I jumped forward and pressed a blinky toy forcefully into the corner of his eye. He let out a yelp of pain and I could see real fear on his face. “You do not touch me” I said keeping pressure on his eye doing everything I could to hold back from doing actual damage. I gave him a little shove and moved back looking at him like the despicable pathetic animal that his is. He puffed up his chest trying to save his bruised ego. But I’ve learnt that once they are really afraid of you they might keep barking but they will stay away from your bite. (Unless they are there with friends in which case get the fuck out of the place because trouble is coming).

None of my actions were perfect, nor would I advise anyone to necessarily take these specific courses of action. Self Defense is based on what characters you feel safe and able to bring out of yourself. I do hope the men and (woman) I interacted with will have some changes in their behavior, become better allies, more considerate of others or in the case of the creep I hope a small part of his brain starts predicting a woman being able to cause him massive physical damage. Despite the fact that most the harassment I encountered (although not all!) were by men and the women I personally  danced with or even cuddled/made out with all asked for my consent, a male friend of mine fell asleep and was woken up by a woman laying down on him and touching him. He was rightfully angry but he did not feel physically threatened. I asked him what would have happened if he had drank too much and couldn’t physically stand up to her. “that would have been bad,” he said a tiny glimpse of the fear so many woman carry around with them flashed on to his face.

What ever course of action you do choose to take I strongly suggest you keep your eyes open and do not let these types of behaviors go unnoticed. If you are intervening on behalf of others don’t presume you know what is going on and ask. I personally regret not asking the women how she would like me to help her before taking control of the situation and I should have intervened by asking her if she can show me were there toilets where or something that would get her away without me needing to resort to more drastic measures. If you do not feel you are able to intervene ask someone else or go get help. Don’t be a silent bystander.

And to the dutch burning man organisation I have this to say. You have utterly failed in making the decompression a safe space. As I have written to you before, putting signs up in the bathroom and entrance isn’t enough! You have paid some private outside security company (the head of security wouldn’t give me the name of the company just said it was his private company!). This company did not manage to deal with the queues and people were almost getting squashed and a woman with claustrophobia collapsed! To my knowledge this security company didn’t do anything to make this a safe space. I talked to another security guy and he said he didn’t deal with any men behaving badly, which mostly means he didn’t look for any. What I describe here is only part of the of the violations of consent I saw or experienced myself so I can only be fearful in estimating the amount of people that felt violated. Dear organizers I know you are working your asses off and I know you mean well but this should be your number 1 priority. No matter how amazing the art, how good the music, if people are getting harassed on your watch at this scale (this is actually a lot worse than the usual parties I go to!!!) you are doing something very wrong. Talk to me I have ideas.

In the meantime here are 3 tips that I’ve compiled based on my studies of brain and behaviour for the past 2 years, training in Martial Arts and self defense for over 20 and previously being part of the Israeli police forensics, investigating violent crimes.

  1. Break the prediction break the brain
    To cut things short, the brain is a prediction machine, if you break the prediction you break the brain.
    Sexual predictors or bullies predictions are simple, they are usually not the most creative or intelligent specimens of humanity. They are mostly predicting fear and obedience when they harass. They almost always start with checking your borders, either by a “vague” inappropriate touch or verbally. When someone stands up to them they are predicting the regular “who has a bigger dick” behavior pattern, puffing up their chest,  slowly pumping up their adrenaline and meager amount of bravery to get ready for a fight.
    To break these predictions create the most unpredictable batshit crazy character. Allow yourself to be anything, from overly nice to overly scary, overly stupid, overly violent, overly sexual or even animalistic or speak gibberish. If you do not respond in the predicted way a momentarily freeze response will occur in your attackers brain. For a brief moment their brain is susceptible to your influence. Which you can use to deescalate, get away or cause serious physical damage if necessary. The moment an attacker begins to take control switch again and do something totally unpredictable.
  2. Use Your Social Brain
    Humans have social brains, massive parts of our self identity are what others see in us. Once conflict arises, get the attentions of others as soon as possible. Engage them in the story you are creating, a story in which your perpetrator isn’t someone to be feared. The situation isn’t about just you and the perpetrator there is an active crowd now, and you can use their attention to divert the story in many ways. See the crowd as good Samaritans and not silent bystanders. The perpetrator must take notice of what’s happening and this destabilized the very simplistic social hierarchy pattern he is used to modeling. If the bystanders are friendlies don’t be ashamed to ask them for help, direct them as you would actors. If the others are the perpetrator’s friends that can still play to your advantage. Give all your attention to one of the friends, if you can tell who is the second ranking in their social hierarchy even better, pay him a compliment “what did this guy do to deserve such a cute friend like you?” Make indirect fun of the perpetrator while speaking to his friends “Are you like the spice girls and he is scary spice?” These type of social hierarchies are just waiting to start ripping each other apart. If you tell a story in which this “second in command” is actually the most powerful and an ally you might just get them to turn on each other. Remember you are smarter than these ass holes they only know how to play one game and it’s a game that is quite easy to play if you really have to.
  3. Play the Game
    For most of us, especially women violence is a language not well understood, and a brain that doesn’t know how to predict violence will freeze when facing it. That’s why I do advocate some real hands on self defense but even without that our imagination is our greatest tool. If you don’t feel you could crush this guy just imagine someone who would decimate this idiot and enjoy it too. Look them square in the eye and see them being crushed. See  their nose getting squashed by a fist, an elbow splitting their jaw sending splinterd teeth all over the room, a knee exploding their balls. Whatever gory blood thirsty images your brain can muster, bring them out, and imagine somebody (if not you), enjoying these images. Imagine that someone smile and let your mouth follow that imagination. There is nothing scarier than an unpredictable crazy person who enjoys ripping people’s eyes out. Vocalize your threats if you need to. I once screamed at a guy “I am going to rip your balls out and stuff them down your throat”. Since most men haven’t encountered a woman that can kick their ass it’s not part of their prediction. They do not believe they can come to any harm if they harass women. You don’t have to be able to hurt them just to induce the belief that maybe you can. These are cowards not looking for a fair fight. A friend of mine once got a group of fanatics looking to attack us to run away just by shouting “Dan, Mark, John, let’s kill these fuckers” while running towards them…” there were no Dan Mark or John, just me watching and learning. That same friend got out of a bunch of trouble once by speaking into his jacket lapel and shouting “Detective carter requesting immediate assistance at…”.

Remember even if your lies are found out you can always go back to playing nice, dumb or what ever. A woman in a wheel chair saved her self by relentlessly barking like a dog. You could also play the frightened cooperating person but make sure you have a joker up your sleeve. The earlier you can break the story your attacker is predicting the more able you will be to make a different ending. My recommendation is whatever happens do everything you can to not be moved to another location.

Playing glimpses of this violence loving character while giving the perpetrator a way out that maintains his delicate bruised ego (for instance by suddenly playing nice again or totally making light of the matter by laughing) should be enough to control the situation. If it isn’t and all else fails and you have no where to run, let this bloodthirsty character out to fight and shout and keep shouting! Viciously shred anyone that dares to try to harm you. Go for the neck or eyes, throw what ever you can and try to get to safety. You are so much stronger then you know!

The Feminist Viking?

24 hours after my first “Historical European Martial Art” class I found myself jogging in the forest and improvising an axe from two sticks and some vines. Read on for some thoughts about how playing with violence is good for the brain.
~Warning this post contains nudity~

That shield was sooo heavy!

That shield was sooo heavy!

The moment I entered the sports center I notice some statistical variations. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room with so many men with long hair. Not surprisingly beards were also in fashion.

Improvised axe

Improvised axe

After completing some rigorous repeated exercises for the warm up, I was taken to the side with 2 other new people to get basic instruction. Most importantly we were taught how not to hurt any players including myself. “Keep the shield below chin level and never deflect a sword attack upwards,” I was told.  In western countries, when you play with real steal weapons safety needs to be taken seriously. With all these lawsuits and over protective governments, one death might be enough to make this fun activity illegal.

My instructor was impressed with my zeal yet recommended that I don’t rush into attacking. “Stay more defensive and wait,” he said. But where is the fun in that? My body has learnt the fear of getting punched in the head or kicked in the gut but is seemed to have not yet learnt the fear of rushing into pointy objects so all too many spares and swords kept encountering my body. It wasn’t very pleasant but didn’t leave any marks. It has been a long time since I enjoyed playing with violence so much. This is the only style I know of that practices fighting in a “group vs group setting”, side by side, protecting each other, becoming a larger organism. This brought about a very primal sense of belonging to a bigger group. All team sports might be a sublimation of this.

 

Let’s talk about brains for a bit

How many wins does your personal slot machine have?

How many wins does your personal slot machine have?

I would like you to imagine them as slot machines. Brains always predict the future and the future they predict is basically a type of statistical gamble choosing from these possible options, like the rotating wheel of a slot machine. Just as the 3 bars of a slot machine are categorized as either a win or a loss, each future the brain predicts probably comes with some type of ‘cost’ function labeling how good or bad that future is for us.

A newborn baby resembles a slot machine with only a few different images. Let’s say just the 777 and the cherry, no diamonds or bells or cash. As we grow our slot machine gets more and more images, by interacting with the environment. Every time the future we predict isn’t exactly what happens new images will be created to allow for better prediction. We also seem to copy many images from other slot machines around us. But will these new images turn into a win or a loss? At the very beginning that only depends on the context and timing from the environment. For instance an image followed by food will be categorized as a win while an image followed by an electric shock will be a loss. This is obviously an over simplifications but it’s a useful analogy. The more images the slot machine categorizes as wins the more likely it is to land on wins. The more good experiences we have the more likely we are to be ‘optimistic’ and predict a good future.

That’s why the notion of play is so important as I explained previously. Playing allows kids to experiment and increases the chances for categorizing things as wins. Not necessary wins over others, it doesn’t have to be a 0 sum game where if someone wins the other loses. It just has to be a good learning experience, where we are allowed to make mistakes and the brains predictions don’t have to narrow down too much.

The Feminist Battles.

The workshop ended early because neighbors complained :(

The workshop ended early because neighbors complained :(

For whatever reasons, in most cultures being born with a vagina usually meant not being allowed to play with violence. Vikings are thought to be a type of exception. It’s hard to know exactly how many warriors had vaginas but the fact is that their stories and myths along with the artwork and burial sites indicate that it was part of their society. I too am a sort of exception of this age, one of the privileged few in these modern times who did get to play with violence in a safe and empowering setting and honestly it’s probably the main thing that has kept me relatively sane and functional.

It's just some skin!

It’s just some skin! Photo by SimplyWeb Photography

On the previous weekend I went to the F-Word, a feminist festival. I arrived early and volunteered to help with the setup including helping an amazonian blacksmith create an inspiring mobile metal workshop. However, not everything sat so well with me, especially at the party at night where I felt a strange sextual opression in the air. It was really hot and all I was wearing was a warm jumper. In festivals like Burning Man I wouldn’t have had to think twice about taking my shirt off and being topless, but here It felt like my boobs represented all these bigger issues. Feminism has always been a complex label for me and I don’t like labels in general. I do understand that in big battles soldiers have to fight under a banner that allows them to unite and not accidently kill each other on the battlefield. And this is how I view feminism. A banner needed in order to identify waring factors.  But when it comes to ideas about sex I often find myself standing on the minority side battling against most feminists for the freedom to do whatever I want with my vagina.

I think that for so many, sexuality has been tainted with pain and abuse that anything that has to do with sex might be categorized as a potential ‘loss’. I will do my best not to judge those that have been hurt but I won’t let their fear take away my freedom. All I can do is offer a different possibility, as given by my slot machine that was built by playing with violence, a glimpse at my brain that is able to predict ‘wins’ even under very extreme cases and a look at my very privileged vagina for which sex is just another simple fun activity, untainted by patriarchy or fear. Yes, I am very aware of my privileges but I would much rather share them instead of give them up and isn’t that what a healthy community should be about?

Psychedelic Science

I just came back from ICPR, The interdisciplinary conference on psychedelic research, where I presented my work, a theoretical model based on the predictive processing framework and current Neuroscience data that explains the psychedelic phenomenon. It was really well received and many people asked to have access to the slides and manuscript for the paper me and my supervisor are writing so here they are:

PowerPoint

Manuscript

I’m all for sharing data so use it as you wish but please give us credit for this work.

And here is an ameture vid taken of the lecture itself.

 

I’ll end with a few anthropological experiences and very interesting data I learned in other lectures so read on if you are interested:

20160604_130825

Lunch time

In the last conference I went to I was the only one that sat on the grass and ate lunch, getting stared at by all the other participants siting at the tables. This conference was a lot more laid back. Lots of us took our Lunch to sit on the edge of the canal. Many deep, personal and meaningful conversations were going on all around and I made some very interesting friendships I hope will last.

The biggest surprise to my was how much Ayahuasca research was going on and what a big part of the conference that was, most likely because in many countries it is still legal and used by many as a religious and healing ritual.

One of the most interesting finding it this research was that Harmine, a substance in Ayahuasca, seems to induce neurogenesis, creating more neurons in the brain. This can have massive implication for many degenerative diseases.

got gifted this beautiful coloring book by the artist!

got gifted this beautiful coloring book by the artist!

The down side of focusing on this research is the massive use of the word ‘spirituality’ which I am highly allergic to, due to my religious upbringing and very skeptical thought panels. The conference had two panels running at the same time, neuroscience vs spirituality. The spiritual panel got the bigger room and a much bigger audience. I seemed to be the only one concerned with this. When I asked about the scientists thought’s on this in the neuroscience panels I wasn’t taken seriously and got the answer “Well we are reductionists so we are ok with the small room”.

Partially to combat this ‘spiritual’ take over, and mostly because I found it amusing, I walked around with my rubber hand showing people how easy it is to trick their brain into thinking a rubber hand is a part of them. Explaining the brain is a predictive machine that just correlates sensory inputs and that these feeling of ‘oneness’ happen when you mess around with these predictive abilities and the brain stopes being able to differentiate between the self-organism and the environment. For me these explanations don’t reduce the ‘magic’ of psychedelics they increase them, but I always loved seeing behind the scenes of how magic tricks work.

This is not to say that we can’t learn from traditional rituals but we should sift through the data carefully. And just to show that I’m not totally closed minded here is a great story from the Ayahuasca tradition.  A person comes to a shaman asking for advice.
‘I have two wolves inside of me. One is kind and loving and the other is full of hate and anger. Which one will take control? ‘ He asked.
The  shaman think for a moment and answers, ‘The one that is fed more’.

I love this story because this really is the essence of what we are, feedback loops. And the best thing we can do is put our self in a loving and nourishing environment and practice the things we want to get better at.

Finally, in lectures regarding MDMA therapy I was pleased to hear that some of the methods I’ve been using to deal with my shit are being used in therapy. For instance, drawing brain maps and using objects and music to anchor good memories to, so they can be easily retrieved by looking, touching the object or listening to the music.

 

 

 

Floating in the void

For ages now I’ve been itching to try a sensory deprivation tanל. This Easter I finally got the chance and it was an experience very hard to put into word. That doesn’t mean I won’t try, read on for more.

Just before closing the tank and turning off the light.

Just before closing the tank and turning off the light.

Sensory deprivation tanks have been around since the 50’s, a body temperature salt water bath that is enclosed in a totally dark booth with sound isolation. Why would someone want to try such a thing? Well these tanks were first used in experimentation trying to test the hypothesis that if all senses were cut off the brain would go to sleep. Long story short, people do not fall asleep in isolation tanks but their brain does have stronger slow theta waves seen normally right before sleeping, in meditation states and in children.     People also reported many different altered states of consciousness, hallucinations and claim that after the tank their senses were hyper strong and clear.

 

My experience

Getting into a laying down position in the tank wasn’t as easy as I imagined, every little movement would cause me body to rotate and move. It felt like I was in space. When I found a good position and turned off the lights it felt like slowly falling into an endless abyss. Everywhere around me there was nothing.

After a few minutes I began ‘seeing’ some purple color and shapes but that too went away and I had to remind myself to blink because I forgot if my eyes were open or closed. The most phantom feeling was in my feet. Occasionally I ‘felt’ my feet were touching the ground and had to wiggle my toes to make sure that they weren’t. After a few more minutes I began hearing the hum of electric machinery and at some point I was wondering about a ruckus someone with high heels was making, stomping around, but then realised it was my own heart beat. Usually when I meditate a thousand thoughts will pop up, mostly worrying about the future, school, finances and relationships. This time there were almost no verbal thoughts. My brain was very much awake and mostly silent. When I sent a query looking for the usual ‘stream’ the only thing that came back was: “All is good now, the future will come when it does”

My whole life I’ve experienced some oversensitivity to sensory stimulus, mainly in the soma sensory (touch) system. I hated wearing socks as a kid, everything would constantly itch me and drive me crazy. In kindergarten I was obsessed with sifting the sand in the sand box so I could run my hands through it without feeling all of these annoying bits and pieces. Whenever I would try to meditate in my martial arts training my senses would start ‘screaming’ and become overly irritated. I was hoping that this deprivation tank will help answer which part of my brain is causing the trouble.

Sensory deprivation tanks do not cut off your sensory input but they ‘feed’ the sensory receptors with information that has very little variance. In general, variance and change is exactly what your brain models. For those of you who have been following my posts, you should know by now that the brain is a hierarchical system with each layer explaining away and turning off the information from lower layers. Only the information that hasn’t been predicted progresses up the brain hierarchy in the form of ‘prediction errors’. So, once a stimulus stops changing our predictive mechanism easily explains it away and there is no information to communicate to higher brain areas. This will happen even with eyesight. Your eyes constantly make tiny micro movements to change the inputs of information. Without these movements, if you keep your eyes still you will go blind after a few moments, you can try this yourself.

My theory was the if the over sensitivity in my brain was due to increases top down prediction versus bottom up information, putting me in an isolation tank wouldn’t help and these prediction would enforce themselves on my perception anyway, perhaps even more so. But if my over sensitivity was due to increased precision of bottom up prediction errors steaming from my lower sensory areas than an isolation tank will decrease my symptoms. My top down predictions in these lower brain areas would finally be able to catch up and predict the over simplified sensory stimulus.

After a marvelous peaceful hour in the tank I have very little doubt that the second theory is much more likely.  I would postulate that ‘normally’ these overly precise prediction errors drive sensory input to higher areas in my brain than most people leading to a bunch of interesting symptoms and compensatory mechanisms.

Back to the real world

The lights faded in slowly yet still caught me by surprise. I climbed out of the tank and gravity immediately hit me. I wobbled around trying to get my ‘land’ legs back. In the shower, rinsing off the salt, the stream felt like a thousand little needles hitting my skin and I jumped up startled. I took my time in the waiting room, drinking some tea and trying to prepare myself for the outside world. The ‘noise’ came back again once I hit the streets.There was a sense of ‘self pity’, but instead of giving in to that I tried to top down ‘instruct’ this brain: “Try to get to those previous quiet states now that you know they exist.  I don’t know how plastic this brain is but I do believe that exposing it to this quiet state might allow it learn how to reach this state even in noisier environments.

When people ask me why I do all the strange things that I do I usually answer “because I can’t just sit down and stare at the wall in peace”. This experience has taught me that maybe I can. The wall just has to be total darkness and I have to be floating in a bath of salt water.

Finally, this has made me realize the possible benefits both in research and in therapeutic mechanisms floating can have and I will definitely be back for more. Next time I just have to remember to take out all the salt out of my ears because that’s driving me crazy now.

 

 

 

Seeing Is Believing

A friend’s visit took me to a museum exhibition that allows you to experience blindness for an hour. You navigate different locations in total blackness with only the voice of your visually impaired guide calling out to you.  Read on for some thoughts and insights about our brain.

download (1)

Ever since reading the philosophy of David Hume this realization that “I” am my sensory input has stuck with me. A year into my neuro science masters I’ll tell you that “I” am also these top down predictions that have been learnt throughout the years, but these predictions have been created in order to deal with sensory input. So what are blind people’s predictions? How do they experience the world without such a strong sense?

First we were given a cane and a crash course how to walk with it, tapping on the floor directly in front of us. While everyone just took a cane I took some time checking different sizes wanted my ‘extra’ limb to feel good.

Different sense modalities provide us with information about different distances and sight allows us to extend out world model to include further away environments. That’s why I chose a longer cane hoping that would help compensate and provide me with information about further away surroundings.

For me it was a scary experience especially leaving my eyes open. When I closed my eyes and saw nothing the prediction error wasn’t as big. But staring into total nothingness the brain refused to let go that nothing was there. “Are you seeing these white shiny dots?” my friend asked midway. As fake top down hallucinations took over her perception.

In most people alpha waves increase when closing their eyes, even compared to total darkness. This is most likely an inhibitory mechanism to prevent these false inferences. Would this still occur with blind people? Would their alpha waves of blind people be different? I couldn’t find any information on that.

I asked our guide about anxiety levels when she goes out and she said she doesn’t feel frightened unless she is going somewhere totally knew. It felt so limiting. I kept trying to find the challenge within the limitation and also remain patient because everything just takes much longer. It was also very hard that we were a bunch of ‘new’ blind people constantly bumping into each other. It was so tiring for my brain and I kept sitting down whenever I managed to feel up a bench or a sofa.

The next realization I had was that the directionality of perception spread out. Without the visual input coming from the front there was a different sense of three dimensionality, my brain was modeling the back of the body and the sides with the same amount of resources. This resulted in a slight sense of floatation.

We were taken to a fake supermarket trying to feel our way through shelves packed with stuff. I asked about technological aid and was told that some apps exist where you can take a picture and get information about it. Now I see that there is also a site where you can lend your eyes to a blind person. http://www.bemyeyes.org/. Too bad it’s just on iphone

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what happen when two sets of eyes meet and stare at each other.  It’s not just the knowledge that someone is watching you, it’s the knowledge that they are admitting to watching you. It’s like a ‘handshake’ protocol both sides saying “Yes, I see you”.   Supposedly blind people don’t have this, they don’t know when people are ‘looking’ at them and I was wandering if this gave them some extra freedom but my guide said she somehow did have a sense of when she was being looked at.

Finally we were led into the light and I felt how the power structure changed. In the dark we were dependent on our guide to call out to us so we would follow in the right direction and now suddenly we had access to much more information than her. I thanked her for the profound experience hoping that one day she would at least be able to have a taste of our world.

 

Seeing Is Believing

A friend’s visit took me to a museum exhibition that allows you to experience blindness for an hour. You navigate different locations in total blackness with only the voice of your visually impaired guide calling out to you.  Read on for some thoughts and a recommendation to try your-self.

Ever since reading the philosophy of David Hume this realization that “I” am my sensory input has stuck with me. A year into my neuro science masters I’ll tell you that “I” am also these top down predictions that have been learnt throughout the years, but these predictions have been created in order to deal with sensory input. So what are blind people’s predictions? How do they experience the world without such a strong sense?

First we were given a cane and a crash course how to walk with it, tapping on the floor directly in front of us. While everyone just took a cane I took some time checking different sizes wanted my ‘extra’ limb to feel good.

Different sense modalities provide us with information about different distances and sight allows us to extend out world model to include further away environments. That’s why I chose a longer cane hoping that would help compensate and provide me with information about further away surroundings.

For me it was a scary experience especially leaving my eyes open. When I closed my eyes and saw nothing the prediction error wasn’t as big. But staring into total nothingness the brain refused to let go that nothing was there. “Are you seeing these white shiny dots?” my friend asked midway. As fake top down hallucinations took over her perception.  

In most people alpha waves increase when closing their eyes, even compared to total darkness. This is most likely an inhibitory mechanism to prevent these false inferences. Would this still occur with blind people? Would their alpha waves of blind people be different? I couldn’t find any information on that.

I asked our guide about anxiety levels when she goes out and she said she doesn’t feel frightened unless she is going somewhere totally knew. It felt so limiting. I kept trying to find the challenge within the limitation and also remain patient because everything just takes much longer. It was also very hard that we were a bunch of ‘new’ blind people constantly bumping into each other. It was so tiring for my brain and I kept sitting down whenever I managed to feel up a bench or a sofa.  

The next realization I had was that the directionality of perception spread out. Without the visual input coming from the front there was a different sense of three dimensionality, my brain was modeling the back of the body and the sides with the same amount of resources. This resulted in a slight sense of floatation.

We were taken to a fake supermarket trying to feel our way through shelves packed with stuff. I asked about technological aid and was told that some apps exist where you can take a picture and get information about it. Now I see that there is also a site where you can lend your eyes to a blind person. http://www.bemyeyes.org/. Too bad it’s just on iphone

 

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what happen when two sets of eyes meet and stare at each other.  It’s not just the knowledge that someone is watching you, it’s the knowledge that they are admitting to watching you. It’s like a ‘handshake’ protocol both sides saying “Yes, I see you”.   Supposedly blind people don’t have this, they don’t know when people are ‘looking’ at them and I was wandering if this gave them some extra freedom but my guide said she somehow did have a sense of when she was being looked at.

Finally we were led into the light and I felt how the power structure changed. In the dark we were dependent on our guide to call out to us so we would follow in the right direction and now suddenly we had access to much more information than her.

 

Coalitions

Lack of sleep and too much small talk influenced me to exit a Saturday brunch party and sit on the sidewalk in San-Francisco, hiding away from the rain that has been drenching the city for a few days.  Barley a minute passed before a homeless woman who looked around my age stood before me. She was holding a piece of cardboard in one hand and a fast-food soda drink in the other.  

“Can I sit?” She asked

“Sure,” I said, making space for her to lay down her cardboard and sit down.

She looked at me intensely for a moment.

“You’re cute that’s why you’re defensive,” she said.

I looked back at her and smiled. “They always want things from the cute ones don’t they?”

She nodded.

“They only want money from me. I inherited 8 million dollars and they took it all from me…” She began falling into her barley cohesive psychotic loop.

I wished her well, excused myself and went back into the building

A Bayesian account of ‘hysteria’ http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/brain/135/11/3495.full.pdf

A Bayesian account of ‘hysteria’
http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/brain/135/11/3495.full.pdf


Human’s are strange creatures, our brains do their best to model incoming sensory information and predict the future. Repeated patterns bind together and turn into priors, into expectations, into ‘meme’s trying to spread their recorded pattern and influence perception with their prediction. Sometimes these memes become too strong and force themselves onto any incoming signal. This can lead to depression, OCD, ‘hysteria’ and even psychosis.  This past year I have been researching this subject with a very practical goal in mind. ‘How can we get opposing memes to get along with each other? How can we create a coalition in the brain that can overcome past traumatic events that lead to over active priors?”  This very intense first weekend in SF has triggered many of these memes and some of them want to be released from this brain and out into the world.

Superheroes

On Friday I went to a unique superhero themed house party.  It began with short science lectures. Then there talks about consent and responsible usage of substances as well as the organizers offering support and suggesting a ‘safe word’ to any who might need it. This was an amazing attempt to create a safe environment. The party was spread across a three story house with many surprises throughout: a sauna,  a hidden tiny room under the stairs with images of eyes stuck on to the walls, some LED art, cuddle spaces and a VR experience, were some of the things I encountered.

Most people were conversing, cuddling, slowly migrating from one room to another to see what recharges they could find.

A messy combination of gene environment interaction shaped the brain that I belong to into something that doesn’t enjoy many of the default things most humans seem to enjoy.  Socializing is boring and tedious, cuddling is too passive. This brain needs massive amounts of novelty and activity to keep these memes busy processing information, otherwise they begin to over process the same signal and the ‘meme’s begin to fight amongst themselves. “We know this,” they will scream with burning sensations beginning to take over.

 

What will recharge you?

That’s the first question I learnt to ask. Allow your brain to create a ‘positive’ prediction of something that enough memes can participate in.

For my brain one of the defaults is movement. A massive part of your brain is devoted to predict and create movement. As long as there is enough space to allow these memes to do what they do, move the body, feel the body, expand their learnt patterns, there is enough of a ‘positive’ coalition.


At this party for instance, almost no one was dancing so the whole dance floor was free for me to start rolling/ crawling/ dancing.

Then a strange thing happened, one person sat down and began watching me, and then another and another.

Another strange quirk of fate probably due to growing up in a religious environment that was perceived as a danger, mostly allows my brain to shut down the weak incoming social signals. There are very few ‘memes’ that model what others think of me and even fewer that care.

“Do I need something from them?”

“Can they hurt me in anyway?”

“Do they want to take away my autonomy and agency, enslave me to their needs and inforce their memes into me?”

My brain does not look for social approval, love, or attention from outside sources, only for physical safety and freedom. ‘Will they let me do what I want to do?’

sketch

Some sketches drawn at the party when I got bored.

If this safety is judged not to exist my brain will enter ‘self- preservation mode’. Many memes have been specialized for just this occasion, Retreat if possible. If not, ‘maintain’ high borders, expect nothing good from anyone, show no vulnerability, activate language center to provide loads of information to overstimulate opponents, maintain physical distance if needed. If this does not result in actual physical altercation which many of these memes actually enjoy. If there is just this constant stress of an unsafe environment this will quickly wake up what I have come to call ‘the opposition’,  memes that early on in life came up with what might have been a brilliant survival tactic back then to help the brain lower anxiety. “Destruction“ as a means to maintain some level of structural integrity.  “We want to destroy everything and die” they will scream.

Interestingly I’ve noticed that when deciding if this is a safe space or not my brain seems to model not only my safety but the safety of others. I don’t think this comes from altruistic reasons just practical ones. “If others don’t feel safe, they might know something that I don’t”.

If on the other hand the environment is judged as safe then the meme “Can we play together?” will appear. And this is what happened at the party. I began playing and improvising with the small crowd until another person joined the dance. He was not a professional dancer but we explored possibilities together and at least for part of the dance entered a shared state, a mutual growth function were we both wanted the same thing. Then my brain began picking up signals, was he trying to impress me? Was he trying to lead the dance to a more sexual place? This might have been my over sensitive priors but what came out was a little improvised “Macho” dancing, my body movement becoming extremely dominate and ‘male’ like. The crowd burst out laughing and clapping and that ended the dance.

I’ve wrote a more about safe space, expectation and improvisation in the post about burning man called  “adventure mode”.  The basic idea is to create an environment of plenty and that has to start with ‘radicle self-reliance’. It is this coalition’s opinion that only when you (mostly) do not need others for your happiness, only when there is a coalition that is able to look inwards and self-recharge can there begin to be a group coalition that looks out for each other without creating co-dependent situations.

The last few months I've been creating a gratitude wall. a little art piece or something I collected that reflect something I'm grateful for

The last few months I’ve been creating a gratitude wall. a little art piece or something I collected that reflect something I’m grateful for

The last few days I’ve been asking people here what recharges them? I was surprised that most answers were about outside goals: a lot of ‘making the world a better place’ in different forms. From my perspective that has to do with spreading your memes ‘outwards’ instead of developing them inwards and this is likely to lead to even bigger conflict and neediness from the outside world to accept your contribution.

So how about being egotistical for a second (or a lifetime), filling your cup before you fill others?

Here is a partial list of the recharges I have come up with throughout my lifetime that require no other human and are legal J (in no specific order):

Dancing, sketching, making strange art, looking at the mirror, hot showers, learning new things about the brain I belong to, Climbing, punching my punching bag, creating and participating in my own behavioral experiment (even if they don’t teach me anything), reading, writing, reading what I write. masturbating, eating novel (tasty) food, watching bad superhero tv shows and imagining my own scripts that would make them way better, staring and noisy patterns and allowing my brain to impose shapes and figures on them, eating chocolate, being topless, creating my gratitude wall, searching for more self-recharges 😉

“It wasn’t a “battle” it was just life”, A dying atheist wrote in her last message to her loved ones. The brain I belong to has managed to build a coalition strong enough to try to imprint this meme. Life might have many battles in it, both internal and external, much of my life has been spent fighting them. Now, it would seem, it’s time to start building coalitions. Both within my own brain and among others I wish to share my life with.

 

Lucy In The Sky With Scientists

I was fortunate enough to attend a psychedelics seminar that presented the results of the first ever fMRI study that investigated what happens to the human brain on LSD. Read on to explore the science, my theories and as always the anthropological experience.

The conference

The conference

This was not a typical scientific seminar, there were almost no ‘professionals’ attending yet the conference hall was packed with around 150 people that were really excited, which is a rare case for university seminars. These people actually paid to support the study in what is possibly the largest crowd funding scientific experiment to date (the money side was head by WALACEA a site trying to democratize science).

The 'Self' network trying to predict the 'meme' machine we are made of.

The ‘Self’ network trying to predict the ‘meme’ machine we are made of.

I arrived early and used the time to conduct an informal survey. Most of the people were there because psychedelics had helped them or loved ones. Many of them had been following the media divulging very positive results regarding psychedelics experimental treatment for anything from alcoholism to the fear of death in those terminally ill. ‘My dad had terminal cancer and from what I read I wish he had access to psychedelic treatment’, one women told me and I found myself sharing with her and others my limited knowledge.
Psychedelics will reveal the scaffolding ‘you’ are really made of.  The various networks that are creating a meme machine that is constantly connecting “cause” and “effect”, trying to predict the sensory inputs, will be exposed. These networks know nothing about permanence, they are in constant change being turned on and off according to environmental influence. It is only the higher level “self “ that has created an inaccurate model of permanence. This ‘self’ is just a network that links the other networks together trying to predict (and thus influence) the behavior of the whole organism, as well as other organisms (if you are interested you can read more in my neuro-philosophy paper). Once this specific network is destabilized and reality is experienced without it, a familiar sensation takes over, we have all felt it as young children before we had a “self” and if we are perceptive enough we get a slight glimpse of it every night for a brief moment before we fall asleep. If experienced in the right environment there is only wonder and openness in this state of being.

 

Some Background

Amanda fielding from the Beckley foundation for consciousness and drug policy research, which has been supporting this research, told a tale from her personal history. When psychedelics were still legal, they had a massive impact on her life, and she began working on the connection between consciousness states and blood flow to the brain way before fMRI was everywhere.

Prof David Nut, used his exquisite British wit and love of Aldous Huxley to delved into the idiocy of policy makers when it comes to drug research.  “Orthodoxy is the diehard of the world of thought. It learns not, neither can it forget.” – he quoted Huxley hoping that after 50 years of spewing blatant lies policy makers will start looking at the science that shows the massive positive impact  psychedelics can have and indeed have had on most pre-Christian cultures.

The results in a nutshell
With great clarity and a tad of British shyness Dr Robin Carhart-Harris presented his experiment and preliminary results to the mostly no- scientific crowd. 20 healthy subject with previous experience with psychedelics (16 m 4 f) received 75 mcg of lsd intravenously (which gives a stronger affect that digesting it. This was chosen because of the extremely expensive price of 3000 pounds! for a dose of ‘legal’ LSD from a lab in Switzerland). They were scanned in an fMRI machine while resting and then also listened to music in an experiment designed by Mendel Kaelen.

The 'normal' brain on the left (few controlled high ways) and the brain on Psilocybin (many new roads open), a graphics based on fMRI functional connectivity data.

The ‘normal’ brain on the left (few controlled high ways) and the brain on Psilocybin (many new roads open), a graphics based on fMRI functional connectivity data.

I’m going to start with a metaphor that wasn’t used and is a little wider than what can totally be proven but I’ll show some evidence to support it and suggest some more experiments that can be done to test it so bear with me. Imagine your brain is a city with many neighborhoods each of them with its distinctive characteristic and function in the city. There is the stressed financial district dealing with money, soho with its art and hipsters, the industrial area with all the factories and down town with its restaurants. In order for the city to function these different areas have to communicate with each other and pass information and goods between them. To do that, imagine these neighborhoods were connected by highways but not everyone could get on these high ways. There were tolls and  these highways were highly regulated by a central government that decided what has to go where. Then, imagine one day the toll company went on strike and these highways were closed down. What would happen?

At first each neighborhood would be less influenced and constrained by the others and could have more freedom in managing its activity. But for the city to still keep running some information would need to be shared and collaborated so the back roads would start getting used and new roads would start to be built, these roads wouldn’t be as regulated at the high ways so some soho artists could go to the financial district and start painting the buildings even if they weren’t asked to while some accountants and lawyers could go downtown to have a good time.

psy2In this metaphor the people are the electrical brain activity, the neighbourhoods are the specialized networks that deal with specific types of information and the. The 5ht2a serotonin receptors in your brain sit at critical nodes constricting information flow, performing the function of a “Toll”. Lsd and psilocybin over stimulate these receptors and the ‘toll company’ goes on strike.

Carhart-Harris uses the term The Entropic Brain Hypothesis to outline his theory that claims that the brain in in a high entropic state with a higher disorder and more flexibility while on psychedelics.

How is this seen in brain imaging?

Passive eyes closed resting state fMRI scan Psilocybin decreases BOLD signals in DFM and decouples them. (R. L. Carhart-Harris et al., 2012; 2013)

Passive eyes closed resting state fMRI scan
Psilocybin decreases BOLD signals in DFM and decouples them. Similar results found for LSD.
(R. L. Carhart-Harris et al., 2012; 2013)

It turns out that this ‘toll company’ is actually responsible for a lot of the brain activity, and the main results seen in fMRI for both LSD and psilocybin is less blood flow in these critical areas of the brain. Especially in the Default Mode Network that deals with ‘self-memories’ and according to Carhart fits well with Fraud’s notion of ego (and my idea of a self being a model that predicts the organism’s behavior)

MEG data showing decrease in brain wave activity (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013)

MEG data showing decrease in brain wave activity (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013)

Now when you look at what’s left of the blood flow you see that the correlations between areas grow representing this higher degree of connectivity and when looking as close by areas the blood flow becomes less homogeneous.

MEG results for LSD weren’t presented yet, but a previous paper (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013) showed that decrease in activity of brain waves each, bandwidth decreasing in a different area.

One  surprising result in which LSD was different from psilocybin was that LSD increased blood flow to the visual areas while psilocybin didn’t. Carhart postulated that this might be because of the different time line of the drugs, the psilocybin when administered intravenously takes affect very fast while LSD doesn’t and the timing of the scan might show a specific phase of the drug. I would be very interested in getting the exact details of the experiment and comparing them, to see if there were any other changes in the experiment design that could explain this, some environmental influence that would activate the visual area in the LSD experiment more than it did in the psilocybin one.

Predictive Coding and my dream thesis

If you’ve been following my latest blog post you’ve already heard of predictive coding. The predictive coding framework claims that in essence the brain is a prediction machine, it tries to predict it’s sensory input to form a model of the environment (including itself). Predictive coding explains that the cognitive system is ordered hierarchically, in levels (Bastos et al., 2012). For any pair of levels, the higher-level will have hypotheses predicting the bottom–up signals from lower-levels. If the predictions are good, the bottom–up signals will be ‘explained away’. Only discrepancies between the winning prediction and the bottom–up signal remain as ‘prediction error’. This framework explains that sensory information is processed probabilistically, with prior predictions and posterior inferences made based on Bayesian optimized probabilities.

Google deep dream.  10-30 stacked layers of artificial neurons. Allowing a layer to become over active will produce "hallucinations".

Google deep dream.
10-30 stacked layers of artificial neurons. Allowing a layer to become over active will produce “hallucinations”.

Since psychedelics seem to change the flow of information represented in the brain this framework can be a great model to help explain what is actually going on. Within the predictive coding framework I would postulate that Priors coming from the Default Mode Network aren’t passed to other networks and become less important in explaining away the bottom up sensory information. This will cause an increase in prediction error in lower levels of the brain. To deal with this, these lower levels will have to update their model more frequently without the constraint from higher layer priors.  This can explain the visual hallucinations and the subjective experience of heightened senses, more vivid colours, sounds, taste and touch. The tree is perceived as greener because higher layer abstract prediction saying ‘yeah, it’s green, we’ve seen this a million times’ can’t reach the lower layer and turn off the incoming data. Furthermore subjective reports claim that hallucinations start out as just variations of a noisy signal, like clouds shifting and morphing, but after a few second of maintaining the same visual input a very vivid totally unrelated image might appear. This can be explained by accumulation of “prediction error” that finally makes it’s way through some back road and connect with some higher level network which suddenly explains away the prediction error with wrong higher level priors. This can also explain “trippy repetitive thoughts” because higher layer abstract networks can also be triggered in certain cases and hyper activated.

In other words Prediction error that gets into a network will be ‘overly explained” within that network which is released from it’s normal constrains  This is exactly what is seen in Google deep dreams artificial neuron network. Neural networks trained to discriminate between different images can generate images too by inverting them (Mahendran & Vedaldi, 2014) and letting  a layer enhance what it has ‘found’ causes very trippy images to be produced. Indeed, Cartheit mentioned that he believes something very similar is happening to the brain on psychedelics.

Forward vs backwards connections -  Granger causality  (Zheng & Colgin, 2015)

Forward vs backwards connections –
Granger causality
(Zheng & Colgin, 2015)

Psychedelic Treatments

Psychedelic treatment for addictions and post trauma are getting amazing result (see ref at the end).  My speculative theory is that traumatic memories or addictive behavior are usually stored in the ‘worst neighborhoods’ isolated from the rest of the brain activity but still have managed to get enough access to the “tolls” and send out their predictions to the rest of the brain, effecting the general mood and behavior.  While on psychedelics other networks that are being activated have an opportunity to reach that bad neighborhood and renovate it, add some color, good food or financial maintenance. This does work both ways however which is why the right “set and setting are crucial” and why Psychedelics should be treated with the utter most respect and care. There are many reports out the of a bad trip having long term and even permanent results on people.

My dream thesis

Recent papers have found that slow brain waves (alpha and beta) correspond with top down activity and expectations the brain creates while gamma activity corresponds to bottom up activity. They did this by using MEG data and performing a Granger causality analysis that can assess what signal is more likely to cause the other signal. I believe that comparing this type of analysis on the brains of people that have ingested psychedelics will allow us to characterize the different flow of information and possibly prove this theory. Specifically I would expect to see a lower Ganger causality in the Alpha bands coming from higher levels of the hierarchy to lower levels showing the decreased effect of the higher level priors. While within lower close by areas I would expect to see higher Granger causality in the Alpha band (if MEG is accurate enough to source locate close enough areas). And perhaps it would even be possible to locate areas that have a higher Gamma band Granger causality than usual because prediction error has been rerouted through them.

Short Summary 

Couldn't resist being a fan and asked Carhart-Harris for a photo

Couldn’t resist being a fan and asked Carhart-Harris for a photo

The science of psychedelics is finally starting to develop after years of being blocked by political reasons. Understanding how these substances affect us has the potential not only to teach us about ourselves but also to help treat some of the 21st centuries biggest problems. We really shouldn’t let closed mindedness stop the progress of this field, so how about sharing these thoughts with some friends or colleague?

___________

Psilocybin showing success in treatment of addictions and OCD:

•Alcohol addiction: abstinence increased significantly. Gains were largely maintained at follow-up of 36 weeks. (Bogenschutz et al., 2015)
•Nicotine addiction – 80% showed abstinence at 6-month follow-up (typically <35%) (Johnson, Garcia-Romeu, Cosimano, & Griffiths, 2014)
•OCD – tested in nine subjects in a within-subjects design. Produced significant decreases (Wilcox, 2014)

 

Adventure Mode

After more than 10 days at burning man I’m going to try to explain what makes Black Rock City a unique niche environment that biases behavior towards playfulness, improvisation and adventure. I’ll try to explain why this is so rewarding for the brain and why the hippies got the ‘go with the flow’ thing right. Wish me luck and read on!

The man at the center

The man at the center

The predictive coding framework (Friston & Kiebel, 2009) claims that in essence the brain is a prediction machine, it tries to predict it’s sensory input and form a model of the environment as well as predict the best interaction with the environment. The reason for this is flat out survival. Biological life must “maintain their states and form in the face of a constantly changing environment” (Friston, 2010) yet interactions with the environment are needed for food and reproduction.

One way to make predictions easier for the brain is to actively intervene and change the environment, making it more predictable (Clark, 2013). Almost all animals do that, create nests, lairs or mark their territory. Human’s just do it on a much larger scale. We create cities, social norms and chain stores to make things easier to predict.

Black Rock City is a unique man made environment, on one hand it is more predictable than most cities. It is designed in a shape of a clock with the man at its center, there are public toilets at every corner and a fence making sure people don’t get lost in the desert. Due to the high ticket price and the gifting economy an environment of plenty is created making it much safer than most cities. Not to say that crime doesn’t exist, our bike got stolen from under our nose and I heard of a sexual assault in another camp but relatively speaking, it is safe and allows your brain to stay away from ‘fight or flight’ mode. Safety exists also in the social domain, as Burning Man defines itself as an inclusive community which allows for radical self expression. You will not be excluded for being naked, or gay, or having a unique fetish or hobbie.

no way to predict the next moment? WTF is that?

no way to predict the next moment? WTF is that?

The predictable infrastructure is the basis for all the mayhem that grows on top of it. Just standing on a street corner you have no idea what crazy art installation, costumed person, game, or strange social interaction might come your way. The weather too includes maddening dust storms that come out of no-where and the fact that there is no cell phone reception (well, this year to my dismay there actually was some) makes creating concrete plans and sticking to them virtually impossible.

So what does this have to do with improvisation and playfulness?

Let’s get back to the brain for a second, these predictive processes  in the brain are organized in a hierarchy. For any pair of levels, the higher-level will have hypotheses predicting the bottom–up signals from lower-levels. If the predictions are good, the bottom–up signals will be ‘explained away’. Only discrepancies between the winning prediction and the bottom–up signal remain as ‘prediction error’.

Creating a top down prediction that is far from reality = delusion

Creating a top down prediction that is far from reality = delusion

For instance, while lower levels of your brain exposed to a tree leaf will model the greenness of it to great detail, higher layers will just use an abstract word and shut down the lower layers, limiting the activation of  the lower level green ‘colour networks’.

Many improvisational techniques use exercises that overwhelm the ‘higher’ levels of the brain and split up the hierarchy allowing lower layers to be the ones explaining the input signals. For instance, try acting out an action but saying that you are doing something else or pointing at a familiar object but giving it a different name. These exercising force your brain to move away from ingrained prediction patterns confuse your higher verbal brain function that are used to predicting (describing) reality.

The lower layers react faster as the information doesn’t have to be carried all the way to the top and this added speed and fluidness is what improvisation is all about.

Why is that so much fun? Well, the dopamine reward system of your brain actually reacts much stronger to surprise rewards than to predictable ones. By not having these higher levels expectations, the brain can experience a higher degree of reward, and because of the higher refresh rate of the lower levels, your brain will be getting rewarded much more often.

A tiny part of the fun

A tiny part of the fun

 

The feeling of safety is also crucial for professional improvisers, the fear of messing up blocks the brain and puts actors, dancers, or musicians into ‘freeze’ mode.

The massive amounts of unpredictable information in Black Rock City combined with the safe structure are a controlled exercise in overwhelming higher levels of your brain. The addition of some chemicals that further reduce higher functions of  the brain increase this affect even more. As many will testify, this is a city made for tripping. Tripping reduces the activity of these higher levels and takes your brain back to a more childlike state. It’s no surprise that one of the main themes of burning man is giant playgrounds and giant games (my camp was part of that too with human foosball and creating a giant billiard with balling balls). While our brain can be reduced to a childlike state our body stays the same, thus we need to increase the size of the playground to give us the same magical, almost overwhelming feeling, we had as children climbing the monkey bars reaching out to the sky.

hippies get some things right

hippies get some things right

There is a fine balance to be found – if the top-most layers expect too much they will ‘enslave’ the lower layers and try to force ‘reality’ do be something that it’s not. While totally getting rid of the higher layers isn’t a good thing either, it makes the brain incredibly susceptible to the current stimulus coming from the environment, which can be cold, dusty or dirty on the physical level or crushingly sad and depressing if you go into the temple. This sounds very zen, but you can get you brain into a state of  knowing that “everything is going to be ok and even if it’s not ok it will still be ok.” This is just the right amount of higher layer biasing towards a positive prediction but still freeing the lower layers to react in an improvised way to whatever actually happens.

Mood badges! brainstorming with some pro artists and burners got me to this idea.

Mood badges! brainstorming with some pro artists and burners got me to this idea.

I found a cool way to slightly hack this system using ‘mood badges’. An LED lit badge that signals out to the world what type of interaction would be recharging. “Teach me stuff”, “Flirt with me” or “Tell me a secret”, became a setting for an improvised social interaction that was deeper and more satisfying than the usual small talk conversations. I’m seriously thinking of wearing them in my daily life, or maybe even making a cell phone app out of it. Anyone interested?

Anyway if you want to read more about predictive coding and the ‘sense of self’ you can read my neuro philosophy paper: 2015-07-13 Predictive Coding final5. Or read some of the papers in the references.

P.S Thank Brodi for the pics!

 

Friston, K. (2010). The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory? Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 11(2), 127–138. http://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2787

Friston, K., & Kiebel, S. (2009). Predictive coding under the free-energy principle. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 364(1521), 1211–1221. http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2008.0300

Friston, K., Thornton, C., & Clark, A. (2012). Free-energy minimization and the dark-room problem. Frontiers in Psychology, 3(MAY), 1–7. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00130

What are you?

A collection of information processing units designed through millennia of evolutionary trial and error to effectively model the environment and simulate interactions between the environment and these units.

Effectively?

Receptive fields of V1 neurons. These basic structures are the most effective way  to encode natural images.

Receptive fields of V1 neurons. Combining these basic structures is the most effective way to encode complex natural images.

Yes, one buzz word would be ‘sparse coding’.  Only a minority of units are needed to encode a typical stimulus. This is well documented in the low level V1 visual system in the brain. The receptive fields (the stimulaus that causes the neurons to fire) of V1 neurons that create a basis for all images are optimized for ‘natural images’.

It seems plausible that the rest of the units work in the same manner. Take emotions for instance. Wouldn’t they just be ‘sparse coding’ efficiently encoding interactions with the environment?

Fear, love, hate, disgust…they are all just a basis set, optimized to encode ‘naturalistic’ interaction.

To what end?

To perform actions on the environment that will ensure survival.  Any complex pattern requires a local decrease in entropy in order to different between inside and out, between environment and organism. In life forms the whole metabolic system couples exothermic reactions, that is, energy producing processes with endothermic processed that need that energy. Most life on earth arises from the energy delivered from the sun’s photons exciting electrons to a higher level, or as the biologist Albert Szent Györgyi put it “Life is interposed between two energy levels of the electron” (Although some life depends on deep sea thermal outlets or volcanos).  The survival of life depends on slowing the downwards cascade of this energy; maintain this local minimization of entropy. Any interaction with the environment is very costly although some interaction is needed to obtain more energy/food. This is why the the end goal of these units is to simulate possible action outcomes with the environment and choose which of them will minimize the loss of entropy/maximize survive chances. Another buzz word in this context would be, minimizing ‘free-energy’, or surprisal which is the information theory equivalent of entropy. The free energy principle tries to explain how (biological) systems maintain their order (non-equilibrium steady-state) by restricting themselves to a limited number of states. So if you are one of those who is constantly searching for a ‘goal’, minimization of entropy/free-energy seems to be as good as it gets. Striving for complex knowledge structures and creating just about anything and minimizing waste fit well with this idea but so does bringing more life into this world and cleaning my room.

Is that all that you are?

Me chronologically

Me chronologically

me chronologically inverted

me chronologically inverted

me, least information on top

me, least information on top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘I’ am a model within a model, projected out into the world allowing others with a similar algorithm to effectively model me. Or perhaps one could turn the tables. The effective modeling others conduct when encountering ‘me’ is mirrored back into these units as a simplified singular version of itself.

One could postulate that there are as many ‘I’ as the people who know me, although they too are probably composed of an effective sparse basis.

 

For more reading:

Clark, A. (2013). Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences36(03), 181–204. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X12000477

Cook, N. D., Carvalho, G. B., & Damasio, A. (2014). From membrane excitability to metazoan psychology. Trends in Neurosciences37(12), 698–705. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2014.07.011

Friston, K., & Kiebel, S. (2009). Predictive coding under the free-energy principle. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences364(1521), 1211–1221. http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2008.0300

Friston, K., Thornton, C., & Clark, A. (2012). Free-energy minimization and the dark-room problem. Frontiers in Psychology3(MAY), 1–7. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00130

Olshausen, B., & Field, D. (1996). Emergence of simple-cell receptive field properties by learning a sparse code for natural images Nature, 381(6583), 607-609 DOI: 10.1038/381607a0