Tag Archives: default network

Art and the self

How is it that art moves us? What is happening when we react to the aesthetic in our lives? Vessel, Starr and Rubin (citation below) used fMRI and some specifically chosen paintings to investigate the aesthetic experience.


They wanted to separate the experience of being moved by art from the sensory stimuli of art, so that they could look at the highly personal part of appreciation. To do this they assembled a set of over a 100 images of paintings hanging in art museums/galleries (and therefore agreed to be ‘art’) but that had not had a great deal of public exposure so that they were new to the subjects. They also insured that they had a wide range of dates, styles, methods etc. because they wanted the subjects to differ somewhat in the pictures they were moved by. The subjects were shown all the pictures in random order, during fMRI scanning. They were asked to rate each picture in terms of how much it ‘moved them’. They rated the images 1 to 4 with 4 being the most moving, but they were not given any detailed instruction on criteria for the rating except just the idea of ‘how much the piece of art moved them’.


The results showed that subjects were making highly personal assessments. Paintings that got 4s also got 1s; ratings were not highly coordinated. There were less 4s then would be expected in comparison to similar rating experiments, as if the subjects were reserving a 4 for a somewhat special reaction. There were three patterns in the fMRI recordings. There were areas that showed no difference in activity for different ratings. For example, the activity in the visual cortex was more or less the same for a 1,2,3 or 4 rated picture. There were areas that showed a linear change with rating. The occipitotemporal cortex and some subcortical areas showed this linear rise in activity with the rating. Most interestingly there were some areas in the anterior cortex where there was a jump in activity between the 1,2 and 3 ratings and the 4 ratings. It seemed that only the paintings rated 4 activated these areas. This may have been the special criteria that explained why 4s were slightly rarer than expected. They were more a difference in kind than degree.


What were the functions of the areas identified by the scans? They were areas associated with the default mode network. As the task for subjects in the scanner was a ‘task’ that involved attention to external stimuli, it would be assumed the the default mode network would have deactivated. The default mode involves self-referential activity rather than activity driven by external inputs. But this is not a hard and fast rule. Some tasks required particular self-reference and areas of the default mode can be added to the task-positive network. The area of the default mode network that had the most activation (or lack of deactivation) in the 4 rated scans was the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC).


Ventral portions of the MPFC are involved in affective decision making processes, including (but not restricted to) encoding the subjective value of future rewards and assessing the emotional salience of stimuli. The anterior and dorsal portions of MPFC are active in tasks involving self-knowledge such as making judgments about oneself as well as about close others (family and friends), self- relevant moral decision-making and in “theory of mind” tasks that require gauging others’ perspectives .”


And the timing of the MPFC rise in activity is similar to our reaction to our name. “This is reminiscent of the MPFC recovery from deactivation observed when a highly self-relevant stimulus such as one’s own name is presented in a stream of self-irrelevant stimulation, as in the “cocktail party effect”.”


In other words, it was when the picture touched the self-identity of the subject rather than just their reaction to visual stimuli that they had the feeling of being specially moved. And no doubt this is why the ratings of a painting were so individual – why the same painting could get a 1 from one subject and a 4 from another.


We propose that certain artworks can “resonate” with an individual’s sense of self in a manner that has well-defined physiological correlates and consequences: the neural representations of those external stimuli obtain access to the neural substrates and processes concerned with the self—namely to regions of the DMN (default mode network). This access, which other external stimuli normally do not obtain, allows the representation of the artwork to interact with the neural processes related to the self, affect them, and possibly even be incorporated into them (i.e., into the future, evolving representation of self).”


The paper ends with this observation:


…if our self identity is to be influenced by the world we inhabit, it may be that similar moments should occur with greater frequency than would be expected based on the current conceptualization of the DMN as a network that is invariably suppressed during mental activity which is directed at the external world. It may be that our findings are just the “tip of the iceberg”—i.e., that instances of resonance between external stimuli and internal, self-related processing are more commonplace in daily life than what has so far been captured in fMRI experiments in the laboratory. By that view, much of our existence may be well-served by switching between periods of dominance of externally-directed (“task-positive”) brain networks over the DMN and vice versa, but those periods are punctuated by significant moments when our brains detect a certain “harmony” between the external world and our internal representation of the self—allowing the two systems to co-activate, interact, influence and reshape each other. ”


Edward A Vessel, G Gabrielle Starr, & Nava Rubin (2012). Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7 : 10.3389/fnims.2013.00258

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Bonn model of volition

In a recent paper, Bonn (citation below) puts forward a model of freewill. Although I wish that we could simply stop using the words freewill and determinism, Bonn’s type of treatment is the next best thing.


First he redefines freewill. (This is the part that bothers my sensitivities. By denying conscious freewill but not some other kind of freewill, communication gets difficult and often misleading.)


“... psychologists tend to operationalize free will by relating it to self-report which requires a form of self-reflective conscious awareness. The implicit condition is that one must be able to report upon all the processes leading up to a decision or behavior in order for it to be “free,” and conversely, if my brain generates an idea or initiates an action without my conscious awareness it is somehow not “me” doing the thinking or acting. The conception of freedom argued for here, on the other hand, merely requires that thoughts and resulting actions be novel and internally generated, that they result from a combination of experiences and characteristics which is unique to the individual. Unconscious, or implicit, processes are, in this view, essential components of how an individual processes information: Regardless of whether a particular process can be observed and narrated by the conscious, self-aware part of the brain, it can still make unique and important contributions toward thought and action, and thus, to the independence of the individual. The arguments here, thus, specifically reject the simplistic notion that free will requires complete conscious awareness of the processes involved.


He make clear that he believes that internal processes belong to the individual whether they are conscious or unconscious, with no exclusively conscious “me”.


Then he begins to describe a model of how volition may work with our memory being an important part of this model.


Our memory is known to be inaccurate and many feel this is a fault (kludge if you like). “the lack of factual accuracy in our recollections may instead be the signature of a system that evolved, not to store accurate representations of the past, but instead, to provide a means of flexibly imagining the future, as well as conceiving of other hypothetical scenarios. Surviving in the real world does not depend upon accurate recall of every past detail as much as an ability to predict future contingencies. A system that can integrate details of multiple past events and is more sensitive to broad patterns and associations rather than accurately representing minutia would be well suited to this purpose. ..Growing evidence points to a core network of brain regions involved in remembering the past and imagining the future, as well as other forms of mental simulation… remembering the past and predicting the future incorporate memory systems in the medial temporal lobes, the lateral parietal lobes and the hippocampal formation, in addition to areas in the medial frontal lobes which are involved in perspective taking and theory of mind, or understanding others’ mental states. It seems that many forms of self-projection; imagining the past and future, navigation (imagining the self in different physical locations) and theory of mind (taking the perspective of other people) depend on this same core network of memory-related brain areas …When the brain is not occupied with processing external stimuli, activity reverts to this area where stored impressions are consolidated and reorganized. The default network seems to facilitate the internal experience of scenarios and perspectives that transcend simple recall, and it seems to do so automatically through making connections between, or recombining, elements of multiple memory traces. ”


This system is very personal to each of us – our history, values, habits, emotions all make the plans and goals that result from this memory system unique to us.


Bonn describes two motor systems. “The first motor control system runs from the sensory cortices to the primary motor region via the premotor area. Activity in these areas relates to stimulus-driven, or reflexive, responses to sensory input as well as to habitual behaviors such as grasping, eating, and walking which are performed largely unconsciously . The second motor system involves multiple regions, including the cingulate, frontal cortices, and basal ganglia, which connect to the primary motor cortex via the pre- supplementary and supplementary motor areas. Behaviors that require planning and goal maintenance engage some or all of this system. Processes mediated by pre-supplementary motor area (preSMA) connections generally allow for the flexible, online integration of goal states, decisions, and action priorities with feedback from the environment…The preSMA, along with the frontopolar cortex and the rostral cingulate, is active in tasks requiring decisions between multiple options…The frontopolar cortex is also involved in maintaining goal states such as suppressing responses to immediate environmental demands and, along with the anterior cingulate (ACC), is seemingly involved in the production of goal-directed action sequences. The ACC, through the preSMA, also seems capable of selecting and initiating action in the absence of external prompts, as well as monitoring and adjusting those actions in response to feedback. All told, there are extensive findings indicating that the preSMA is involved in interfacing multiple goal and decision-related subsystems with the primary motor cortex.” There seems little doubt that we have the ability to control our actions. The supplementary and pre-supplementary motor areas can internally guide choice and selectively inhibit action in a ‘volition-like way. We have control.


Bonn puts together the memory and the motor abilities in his model.


To this point we have established two important concepts. First, processing in the default network allows humans to create novel combinations of information. Information stored in memory is broken down to elemental form and connections made between elements during times of reduced sensory input. This allows for patterns and relationships among multiple impressions to be extracted and for the flexible generation of counterfactual simulations. Second, faculties exist for internally maintained goals to exert flexible control over behavior. Humans can replace automatic, reflexive behaviors with internally guided, goal-directed action. ”


The task related network and the default network have been pictured as mutually exclusive, not working at the same time, but recent work shows that they interface and engage together in planning.


Here is a diagram of the model:


Here is the paper’s abstract:


This paper examines the concept of free will, or independent action, in light of recent research in psychology and neuroscience. Reviewing findings in memory, prospection, and mental simulation, as well as the neurological mechanisms underlying behavioral control, planning, and integration, it is suggested in accord with previous arguments (e.g., Wegner, 2003; Harris, 2012) that a folk conception of free will as entirely conscious control over behavior should be rejected. However, it is argued that, when taken together, these findings can also support an alternative conception of free will. The constructive nature of memory and an integrative “default network” provide the means for novel and


creative combinations of information, such as the imagining of counterfactual scenarios and alternative courses of action. Considering recent findings of extensive functional connections between these systems and those that subsume motor control and goal maintenance, it is argued that individuals have the capability of producing novel ideas and translating them into actionable goals. Although most of these processes take place beneath conscious awareness, it is argued that they are unique to the individual and thus, can be considered a form of independent control over behavior, or free will.


Bonn GB (2013). Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Frontiers in psychology, 4 PMID: 24367349

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