Golgi stained neurons in the dentate gyrus of an epilepsy patient. Image: WikiCommons
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Self-awareness by numbers

What is consciousness? In the past, this question was the preserve of theologians, psychologists and philosophers. Scientists seemed unable to find a way to probe the grey matter between our ears. Now that has changed. The study of the brain has experienced a renaissance.

We are in a moment similar to that when the telescope provided a way for the likes of Galileo to explore the outer reaches of the solar system. The development of the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner, techniques of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and EEGs (electroencephalograms) has given scientists a way to ask the brain new questions. One of the most intriguing proposals to emerge is that mathematics might hold the key to unlocking the mystery of consciousness.

To understand what makes something conscious, one can look at the converse question of what contributes to things being unconscious. Every night, when we fall into dreamless sleep, our consciousness disappears. So what is happening in the brain that causes us to lose our sense of self until we wake or dream?

In the past, it was impossible to ask the sleeping, dreamless brain questions. New TMS techniques allow us to infiltrate the brain and artificially make neurons fire. By applying a rapidly fluctuating magnetic field to the brain, we can activate specific regions when people are awake and, more excitingly, when they are asleep. So how do the conscious and sleeping brains respond to this stimulation of neurons?

Experiments conducted by Giulio Tononi and his team at the Centre for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have shown that the brain’s reaction to TMS when it is awake is strikingly different from when it is dreamlessly sleeping. The first part of the experiment involves applying TMS to a small region of the participants’ brains when they are awake or conscious. Electrodes attached to the head record the effect using EEG. The results show that different areas far away from the stimulated site respond to the stimulation at different times in a complex pattern that then feeds back to the original site of the stimulation. The brain is interacting as a complex, integrated network.

Participants are then required to fall asleep and, once in deep, “stage-four” sleep, TMS is again applied to the brain in the same location, stimulating the same region. Unlike in the conscious state, the electrical activity does not propagate through the brain. It’s as if the network is down. The tide has come up, cutting off connections. The implication is that consciousness has to do with the complex integration in the brain.

Our gut has as many neurons as our brain, yet we don’t believe it is conscious. Is this because the neurons are not wired to have this integrated feedback behaviour? Tononi has even developed a mathematical coefficient of consciousness that measures the amount of integration present in a network. Called “phi”, it is a measure that can be applied to machines as well as the human brain and offers a quantitative mathematical approach to what makes me “me”.

Could Tononi’s phi help us understand if a computer, the internet or even a city can achieve consciousness? Perhaps the internet or a computer, once it hits a certain threshold, might recognise itself at some point in the future. Consciousness could correspond to a phase change in this coefficient, rather like the way water can change state when its temperature passes the threshold for boiling or freezing.

If consciousness is a spectrum encoded by this coefficient, measuring from the consciousness of a stone to the consciousness of the human mind, who are we to say there might not be consciousness beyond where evolution has taken the brain? The fMRI scans that have been done on Tibetan monks as they meditate seem to show that the act of meditation takes them into an altered brain state that might well be an increased level of consciousness. The brain appears to be organised into two networks: the extrinsic network and the intrinsic – or default – network.

When people are performing tasks external to themselves, such as playing a musical instrument or filling the kettle, it is the extrinsic portion of their brain that is active. When individuals are reflecting more on themselves and their emotions, it the default network that appears to be more dominant.

The interesting observation is that these two networks are rarely fully active at the same time. One side of the see-saw needs to be down in order to allow the other side to play its part in enabling an individual to concentrate on whatever task is at hand. Yet evidence from scanning the Buddhist monks during periods of meditation indicates that they seem to be able to raise both sides of this neural see-saw at the same time.

The research opens up the thrilling possibility that there are ways to increase your levels of consciousness. And so, on 2 March, as part of the Barbican’s and the Wellcome Trust’s season “Wonder: Art and Science on the Brain”, I will be collaborating with the musician James Holden to see whether we can use music to take the collective phi of our audience and turn it up to 11.

Marcus du Sautoy is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. “Wonder: Art and Science on the Brain” will run at the Barbican Centre, London EC2, from 2 March to 10 April

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.