Real Life Zombies – Cotard’s Syndrome

It’s absolutely fascinating to study people with brain injuries, watching how weird people can get when their mind starts to malfunction.  I collect medical textbooks on neurological disorders because I want to peel behind the illusion that my brain is generating, seeing how this blob of jelly in my skull is creating all the experiences we are all having.

If you read through the literature, you’ll find patients with a disease called Cotard’s Syndrome.   In these patients, their amydala and other limbic structures, which are primary emotional systems, get disconnected from their object recognition systems, leading to some rather bizarre behavior.

For example, these patients will see themselves in the mirror but will lack any sort of emotional response to what they’re seeing.  So they’ll look on themselves but won’t think of their body as any different from the external world.  They are nothing special.  You see, in all of us, we live under this constant delusion that there’s “us” and then there’s the “external” world, but in reality, the only reason we do that is because we have these emotional circuits firing in our brains which tell us that our bodies are special objects which must be preserved.  It’s a survival instinct.  In these patients, all of that is disconnected so you’re left with these zombie people with little to no self preservation instincts.

What’s strange is that these people can still think, yet they feel no emotion.  Since they remember a time when they once could feel, they start to think they’ve died.  They reason that they no longer exist, and come to strange conclusions, wondering if their bodily limbs are really their own, oftentimes denying that they have blood or internal organs.  These patients don’t often live long because they stop taking care of themselves and won’t eat.

The New Scientist recently wrote an article in their new series Mindscapes, which covers patients with these sorts of disorders.   The patient, Graham, tried to commit suicide by jumping into the bathtub with a plugged in electrical appliance.  He was badly injured but ended up surviving, and his brain suffered some nasty damage.  PET scans showed so little activity, he was barely distinguishable from someone in a vegetative coma.

He was conscious and alive, but his emotional circuits were disconnected from the objects he was perceiving so he felt nothing.  Nothing excited him or even made him angry.  All was meaningless.  He’d also fried his sense of taste and smell, so you can imagine what it was like to eat food.  He was just shoveling this physical “stuff” into his mouth which jumbled around and went down his throat.  He was totally indifferent to whether he ate or not.  His teeth quickly turned black as he stopped brushing.

Quoting from the article,

Graham’s brother and carers made sure he ate, and looked after him. But it was a joyless existence. “I didn’t want to face people. There was no point,” he says, “I didn’t feel pleasure in anything. I used to idolize my car, but I didn’t go near it. All the things I was interested in went away.”

Even the cigarettes he used to relish no longer gave him a hit. “I lost my sense of smell and my sense of taste. There was no point in eating because I was dead. It was a waste of time speaking as I never had anything to say. I didn’t even really have any thoughts. Everything was meaningless.”

People rarely realize that the blob of jelly in our skulls has these hard-wired survival circuits which give us these conscious feelings of fear, pain, and other drives, all intended to keep our bodies going and replicating.  Our desires are of the same nature, but you don’t realize this until you study patients like Graham, and look into neuroscience.   Learning these things will completely change how you view yourself and what you think of this life.  I could go into any of your skulls, make a few snips and you’d become just like Graham.  Think about it and ask yourself what that means.

Graham had injuries in his default mode network, so he wasn’t even feeling that normal sense of “self” the rest of us have.  He was having conscious experiences but not as anyone in particular.  He was just perceiving objects and gliding through life, feeling nothing, not even a feeling that he himself existed.  He kept telling the doctors that he didn’t exist.  Fascinating stuff, especially if you’re interested in what the “self” is, which is a subject I always find myself studying.

This is also instructive into what happens with very depressed people or those that have suffered a severe trauma.  You get repressions and disconnections between the emotional circuits and other areas of the brain.  They become more and more prone to feel this sense that reality isn’t “real”.  Psychologists call this derealization.

For example, we form emotional connections to people and places, but once our emotional circuits are disconnected from the object recognition and spatial systems, you experience the same place but without the accompanying emotion, so it doesn’t feel right.  You see your mother but you don’t feel any love toward her, so you quickly reason, “This can’t be mom!  This isn’t real!  Am I in a dream?”

You may recall some old blog posts I wrote a long time back, talking about how the brain rationalizes what it experiences.  We have experiences and then, after the fact, rationalize what happened.  That same process happens in patients undergoing derealization.  They see their mother, remember once having emotional feelings toward her but no longer, they ask themselves if there’s any reason for this, they can’t come up with a reason, so their mind comes to the conclusion, “This must not be mother.”

Isn’t this life strange?  The brain activity within my body’s brain, in my neocortex, creates these feelings of being alive in this world.  I’m obsessed with why I’m experiencing any of this at all.  Once this body stops functioning, those electrical pulses will stop and I’ll no longer be conscious.  What then?  What happens to me?  Is there more to all of this?  That’s what I want to know, but I guess, even that desire to know is mostly rooted in my own survival instincts.  If I were like Graham, I suppose I wouldn’t even think the thought of “surviving”, or care one way or another.  That’s probably the answer.

An Obama Heckler That Needs Heard

During a recent speech, President Obama was heckled down by a woman, addressing concerns about drone strikes and Guantanamo Bay prison.   She was escorted out, but she needs to be heard.

“Can you tell the Muslim people that their lives are as precious as our lives?  Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA?  Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?  Will you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed?  Will you compensate the innocent family victims?  That will make us safer…”

– Medea Benjamin, Obama heckler

If you’re unaware of what signature strikes are, President Obama loosened the criteria for lethal force by which our military forces, such as drones, use before striking.  Under the old rules, the CIA and military were only allowed to use drone strikes against known terrorist leaders whose location had been directly confirmed and who appeared on secret CIA and JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) target lists.  Now all it takes is “suspicious” terrorist activity based on intelligence “signatures”.

Besides the innocent civilian lives which have been lost in the strikes, I also share the concern expressed by the American Civil Liberties Union, “A program of targeted killing far from any battlefield, without charge or trial, violates the constitutional guarantee of due process. It also violates international law, under which lethal force may be used outside armed conflict zones only as a last resort to prevent imminent threats, when non-lethal means are not available. Targeting people who are suspected of terrorism for execution, far from any war zone, turns the whole world into a battlefield.”  We’re dealing with assassinations based on vague criteria, and I don’t like it.

I wish we’d just get out of the Middle East, bring all the troops home, and focus our resources on domestic issues, such as healthcare, our infrastructure, and scientific research.  But that’s not going to happen.  The U.S. military industrial complex has no intentions of leaving the area anytime soon.  Our leaders, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, are warmongers.  They wants boots on the ground all over the world.  From this congressional interview, top U.S. military leaders claim we’ll be in the region for the next ten to twenty years.

There’s no need to buy the political rhetoric we hear in each election cycle.  The wars are not going to end. Polls indicate that roughly 70% of the American public want the troops to come home, but our leaders aren’t listening.    Just listen to Sen. Graham.  He has no respect at all for other countries or their sovereignty.  Yemen, Iran, the Congo — the man’s ready to wage war all over the world.

I’m Officially A Research Scientist

Well everyone, tomorrow’s a big day for me.  I’ll be starting a new job working in a research lab.  Dr. Yew San Hor recently asked me if I’d be interested in helping do research in his lab.  He’s been receiving awards and grants to build up his lab and team, and he invited me to join.   When I heard what we’ll be researching, I didn’t even have to hesitate.  We’re designing, building, and growing superconducting crystals and insulators which will be used in quantum computers.

What will my function be in the lab?  I’m not completely sure yet.  From what I gathered, he wants me to design software to manage all the data they’re collecting.  We also need to be able to interface our laptops with all the equipment, such as oscilloscopes and things, so I’ll be handling that.  According to Dr. Hor, I’ll be doing experimental work at times, but he also wants me to do theoretical simulations, building computer models of the different crystals.  This is right up my alley!

Superconducting crystal

I think we’ll be directly collaborating with a lab at Princeton in some capacity.  We’ll also eventually be building a special detector where we’ll be attempting to trap dark matter inside.  How cool is that!

I’m far from an expert in condensed matter physics, but I’ll be working in this lab for years so I just have to take it one step at a time.  I’m already working to build up a collection of condensed matter physics texts, and I’m sure I’m going to need them!

To think that I could actually get paid to study matter in exotic conditions!  I was telling my friend Fraser that I would’ve easily worked in this lab for free, but hey, if they’ll pay me, sure!  I’ll take it.  This is the first time in my life that I’ve been paid money to do something that I really want to do.  That’s never happened to me before.  This is a big milestone.  I’ve been spending most of my free time these days building simulations of all sorts and nobody has paid me anything!

I’m going to be building and working with machines like in the video above!  For the past few days, I’ve been in a mild state of freaking out.

A Liberal Decalogue

Anastasia sent me a link to Bertrand Russell’s ten commandments for teachers.  I liked them so much that I wanted to repost them here on my blog as well.  After reading these, it’s easy to see why I eventually ended up with an entire bookshelf  of his works.  He’s been a hero of mine for a long time, as many of you have surely noticed over the years.

Bertrand Russell

Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.