It Seems So Real (but Isn't)


Brain Cited in "Out-of-Body" Claims

At a formal dinner party, the person nearest death should always be seated closest to the bathroom.

- George Carlin

by Joseph B Verrengia

Their stories are the stuff of creepy movies and daytime tv: hospital patients resuscitated on the operating table speak of being drawn toward a brilliant light, or looking down on their own bodies and the doctors working feverishly to save their lives.  What induces these brief, haunting images?

A new study suggests these "out-of-body" and "near-death" experiences may be influenced by a portion of the brain misfiring under stress.  The paper, which describes one patient's visions while she was being evaluated for epilepsy, does not wrestle with issues of the soul.

The researchers point to a processing centre in the brain known as the angular gyrus.  The angular gyrus is thought to play an important role in the way the brain analyses sensory information to give us a perception of our own bodies.  When it misfires, they speculate, the result can be visions of floating outside of ourselves.  The findings were published in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

"We do not fully understand the neurological mechanism that causes OBEs," conceded the study's lead researcher, neurologist Dr Olaf Blanke at the University Hospitals of Geneva and Lausanne in Switzerland.

Skeptics of OBEs said the experiment goes a long way toward providing a scientific explanation for what some believe is a paranormal phenomenon, even if the study is based on only one patient.  "Since all of our brains are wired in a similar manner, there is no reason to think that stimulation of this brain region in other patients will not corroborate the finding," said psychologist Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptic Society, which seeks to debunk alien abductions, ESP and other claims.  "It's another blow against those who believe that the mind and spirit are somehow separate from the brain," he added.  "In reality, all experience is derived from the brain."  (Dr Shermer received an undergraduate degree in psychology, an MA in experimental psychology and a Phd in the history of science - if it's important to you to know.)

Other researchers were less dismissive of the possibility that OBEs might be real.  They described the experiment as modest but interesting.  Neurologist Dr Bruce Greyson of the University of Virginia said the experiment does not necessarily prove that all OBEs are illusions.  He said it is possible that some OBEs occur in different ways than the scientists suspect.

The Swiss researchers mapped the brain activity of a 43-year old woman who had been experiencing seizures for 11 years.  They implanted electrodes to stimulate portions of her brain's right temporal lobe.  The temporal lobe, which includes the angular gyrus structure, is associated with perception of sound, touch, memory and speech.

Blanke suspects that the right angular gyrus integrates signals from the visual system, as well as information on touch and balance.  When electrical stimulation was applied, the patient reported seeing herself "lying in bed, from above, but I only see my legs and lower trunk."  She also described herself as "floating" near the ceiling.

Millions of people have reported OBEs, but relatively few have been clinically analysed.  Last December, the British medical journal Lancet published a Dutch study in which 344 cardiac patients were resuscitated from clinical death.  About 12% reported seeing light at the end of a tunnel, or speaking to dead relatives.

Other researchers have suggested that OBEs occur as brain cells die from lack of oxygen, or when the brain releases pain-reducing chemicals called endorphins.

Joseph B Verrengia is Science Writer for the Associated Press

Source: The Washington Post Wednesday 18 September 2002 © The Associated Press

A neurologist thinks that out-of-body experiences might be real??  Perhaps he also believes in channelling?  Magic spells?

Why Being Abducted by Aliens Can Seem So Real

by Steve Connor

A bizarre, dream-like paralysis experienced when people wake from a deep sleep can cause some sufferers to believe they have seen a ghost or even to have been abducted by aliens, despite being otherwise mentally normal.  Susceptible people experience the sleep paralysis (when they are semi-conscious yet incapable of moving) and sometimes hallucinate so vividly they genuinely believe they are victims of a supernatural event, Richard McNally, professor of psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver.  His study of people claiming they had been kidnapped by aliens found all had suffered sleep paralysis combined with "hypnopompic hallucinations", when vivid, wakening dreams of intruders, flashing lights and an alien presence can seem real.

The same psychological phenomenon can also explain other supernatural beliefs.  "It is part of believing in ghosts," Professor McNally said.  "In Newfoundland it's called being visited by the old hag, in the southern United States its being ridden by the witch, in Europe in the Middle Ages it was the incubus and the succubus, agents of the devil.  In Cambridge, Massachusetts, it's space aliens."

Ten adults convinced they were alien abductees were asked to relive their experiences which were taped and played back to them while they were monitored for stress.  They were compared with ordinary people who said they had never been abducted and another group who had suffered from a genuine experience and been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.  Heart rates, skin sweat levels and other signs of stress were similar to those of the alien abductees, Professor McNally said.  The type of people likely to believe in alien abduction have common patterns that Professor McNally called a "recipe" for an alien abductee.  "First, most had New-Age beliefs, [and] they were not only more open to alien visitation, they are interested in astral projection, tarot cards, telling the future, bioenergetic therapies and so forth.

"Second, they scored high on absorption, a trait associated with fantasy proneness and vivid imagery.  Third, and crucially, they had episodes of apparent sleep paralysis accompanied by hypnopompic – upon waking – hallucinations," Professor McNally said.  "Sleep paralysis occurs in about 30% of the population and about 5% of people will have the paralysis plus the hallucinations.  It can be a terrifying experience."

Steve Connor is the science editor in Denver

Source: The Independent [UK] 18 February 2003

God on the Brain

Gwen Tighe thought her child was Jesus

by Liz Tucker

Why do people experience religious visions?  In some cases the cause may be a strange brain disorder.  Controversial new research suggests that whether we believe in a God may not just be a matter of free will.  Scientists now believe there may be physical differences in the brains of ardent believers.  Inspiration for this work has come from a group of patients who have a brain disorder called temporal lobe epilepsy.  In a minority of patients, this condition induces bizarre religious hallucinations - something that patient Rudi Affolter has experienced vividly.  Despite the fact that he is a confirmed atheist, when he was 43, Rudi had a powerful religious vision which convinced him he had gone to hell.  "I was told that I had gone there because I had not been a devout Christian, a believer in God.  I was very depressed at the thought that I was going to remain there forever."

Gwen Tighe also has the disorder.  When she had a baby, she believed she had given birth to Jesus.  It was something her husband Berny found very difficult to understand.  "She said, isn't it nice to be part of the holy family?  I thought, holy family?  It then turned out she thought I was Joseph, she was Mary and that little Charlie was Christ."

Professor VS Ramachandran, of the University of California in San Diego, believed that the temporal lobes of the brain were key in religious experience.  He felt that patients like Rudi and Gwen could provide important evidence linking the temporal lobes to religious experience.  So he set up an experiment to compare the brains of people with and without temporal lobe epilepsy.  He decided to measure his patients' changes in skin resistance, essentially measuring how much they sweated when they looked at different types of imagery.  What Professor Ramachandran discovered to his surprise was that when the temporal lobe patients were shown any type of religious imagery, their bodies produced a dramatic change in their skin resistance.  "We found to our amazement that every time they looked at religious words like God, they'd get a huge galvanic skin response."

This was the very first piece of clinical evidence revealing that the body's response to religious symbols was definitely linked to the temporal lobes of the brain.  "What we suggested was that there are certain circuits within the temporal lobes which have been selectively activated in these patients and somehow the activity of these specific neural circuits makes them more prone to religious belief."

Scientists now believe famous religious figures in the past could also have been sufferers from the condition.  St Paul and Moses appear to be two of the most likely candidates.  But most convincing of all is the evidence from American neurologist Professor Gregory Holmes.  He has studied the life of Ellen G White, who was the spiritual founder of the Seventh-day Adventist movement.  Today, the movement is a thriving church with over 12 million members.  During her life, Ellen had hundreds of dramatic religious visions which were key in the establishment of the church, helping to convince her followers that she was indeed spiritually inspired.  But Professor Holmes believes there may be another far more prosaic explanation for her visions.  He has discovered that at the age of nine, Ellen suffered a severe blow to her head.  As a result, she was semi-conscious for several weeks and so ill she never returned to school.  Following the accident, Ellen's personality changed dramatically and she became highly religious and moralistic.  And for the first time in her life, she began to have powerful religious visions.

Professor Holmes is convinced that the blow to Ellen's head caused her to develop temporal lobe epilepsy.  "Her whole clinical course to me suggested the high probability that she had temporal lobe epilepsy.  This would indicate to me that the spiritual visions she was having would not be genuine, but would be due to the seizures."  Professor Holmes' diagnosis is a shattering one for the Seventh-day Adventist movement.  Their spokesman, Dr Daniel Giang, is a neurologist as well as a member of the church.  He dismisses the claims, insisting the visions started too long after the accident to have been caused by it.  He goes on to say: "Ellen White's visions lasted from 15 minutes to three hours or more.  She never apparently had any briefer visions - that's quite unusual for seizures."

We will never know for sure whether religious figures in the past definitely did have the disorder but scientists now believe the condition provides a powerful insight into revealing how religious experience may impact on the brain.  They believe what happens inside the minds of temporal lobe epileptic patients may just be an extreme case of what goes on inside all of our minds.  For everyone, whether they have the condition or not, it now appears the temporal lobes are key in experiencing religious and spiritual belief.

Source: Thursday 20 March 2003

Out of Mind: Synchronicity

by Paul Broks

The man with three nipples hauled the body from the bottom of the pool.  It lay limp and unresponsive despite the pumping and pounding.  "How long was he under?" someone asked.  Thankfully, I didn't know; it wasn't my shift.  I'd only just arrived.  We gave up, but then the old man spewed another gallon of water and wheezed back to life.  According to the report, his name was Waterman.

I spent several summers working as a lifeguard.  That year, it was a glassy new municipal pool in the West Midlands.  As well as the man with three nipples, I was working with a powerlifting champion and an escaped convict.  A typical snack for the powerlifter would be a whole roast chicken and two pints of milk.  We didn't know our colleague was a criminal until the police came to take him away.  I was sorry to see him go.  His replacement was a waster by the name of Veasey, who didn't last long.  The leisure services director turned up with a local dignitary for a tour of the site and they discovered our friend in the plant room sharing a spliff with some shivering nymph in a bikini.

Five years later, I was still lifeguarding - in Oxford now, sometimes at Hinksey pool, sometimes at one or other of the riverside bathing places, more often than not the murky backwater known as Tumbling Bay.  It was hidden behind the allotments at the edge of Botley Park.  No one ever went there.  One day I'm sitting in my hut, out of the rain, reading a newspaper, and I chance upon the name Veasey.  It's not the same person, but a train of memories is set in motion: the man with three nipples, the near-corpse, the powerlifter, the armed robber and louche, lazy Veasey.  I wonder what he's doing now.  That same evening I drop in to the Corn Dolly, which is not one of my usual haunts.  There's a rock band playing.  They're terrible and my brain, primed by beer and reminiscence, starts playing tricks because each time I look at the bass player I find I'm hallucinating Veasey.  Later, he materialises right next to me at the bar and I realise that it is Veasey.  It seems oddly inevitable.  "It's an amazing coincidence," I tell him, "You hadn't crossed my mind in years until this afternoon.  And now..."  "Yeah," he says, unimpressed.  I'm not sure he even remembers who I am.  "Good to see you, mate," he says, and then he's off.  I have never seen him again.

The Veasey coincidence spooked me.  Carl Jung, who coined the term "synchronicity," believed that "at least a part of the psyche is not subject to the laws of space and time."  He steeped himself in quantum theory and the I Ching and came up with the acausal connecting principle.  Psychological phenomena are a fundamental constituent of the universe, he believed, and the world is threaded through with patterns of connectivity governed by the meaning of events.  Meaningful coincidence - synchronicity - is an expression of this.  "Oh come," said Freud on one occasion, "That is sheer bosh."  I am inclined, for once, to agree with Freud.  But I can't shake off the eerie feeling.

The brain is a pattern recognition device and perception is all about attaching meanings to patterns.  Our survival depends both on the ability to identify regularities in the world and to respond to irregularities.  Generally, we know what to expect.  We have an intuitive sense of cause and effect, and of what is probable and what is improbable.  In the tumultuous cascade of people and events that constitutes a lifetime, random improbable conjunctions are bound to occur.  That they are down to chance doesn't make them any less disconcerting.  We still feel impelled to seek an explanation, some superordinate pattern.

Of course, all creative endeavour is geared towards the discovery of new patterns and connections, fresh ways of seeing the world; but sometimes the struggle for insight can be counterproductive.  Epiphany (a moment of realisation) has an obscure cousin in the lexicon of madness - apophany.  It refers to the point at which an ordinary experience becomes the fountainhead of delusion.  The newsreader says, "Good evening," and you know at once that he is Satan himself.  Your neighbour's car catches the light and you realise that he and his fellow extraterrestrials are bent on destroying your brain with their deadly rays.  ("Apophenia" is a theme of William Gibson's latest paranoia-flavoured novel, Pattern Recognition).  People vary in their susceptibility to seeing connections between seemingly unrelated events and ideas and, to paraphrase Seneca, all imagination has a dash of madness.  But weird coincidences can induce a psychotic wobble in the sanest of minds.  You get that vertiginous sense of alienation from consensus reality, that there are more things in heaven and earth.  It's no bad thing.

A couple of days after my encounter with Veasey I arrived for my afternoon shift at Hinksey pool.  I was taking over from Nick (the gay mountaineer) and Hazel (the wall-of-death rider's assistant).  Hazel was writing up an incident report.  An old bloke had slipped, cracked his head and fallen, dazed, into the deep end.  Nick fished him out, Hazel patched him up.  He seemed to recover well enough and they'd sent him on his way.  The man's name was Waterman.

Source: Prospect Magazine [UK] June 2003

I had tractor work done by a man named Driver, a well drilled by Underhill, I just read an article by an astronomer named Heavens; in my neighbourhood, there are lawyers named Advokat and also Shark, and a minister named Lovas.  And I'll bet lots of gardeners are named Green.


by Dr Martina Belz-Merk

There is currently a controversial debate concerning whether unusual experiences are symptoms of a mental disorder, if mental disorders are a consequence of such experiences, or if people with mental disorders are especially susceptible to or even looking for these experiences.

Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena.  The term was coined by K Conrad in 1958.  Peter Brugger of the Department of Neurology, University Hospital, Zurich, gives examples of apophenia from August Strindberg's Occult Diary, the playwright's own account of his psychotic break:

He saw "two insignia of witches, the goat's horn and the besom" in a rock and wondered "what demon it was who had put [them] ... just there and in my way on this particular morning."  A building then looked like an oven and he thought of Dante's Inferno.  He sees sticks on the ground and sees them as forming Greek letters which he interprets to be the abbreviation of a man's name and feels he now knows that this man is the one who is persecuting him.  He sees sticks on the bottom of a chest and is sure they form a pentagram.  He sees tiny hands in prayer when he looks at a walnut under a microscope and it "filled me with horror."  His crumpled pillow looks "like a marble head in the style of Michaelangelo."  Strindberg comments that "these occurrences could not be regarded as accidental, for on some days the pillow presented the appearance of horrible monsters, of gothic gargoyles, of dragons, and one night ... I was greeted by the Evil One himself...."

According to Brugger, "The propensity to see connections between seemingly unrelated objects or ideas most closely links psychosis to creativity ... apophenia and creativity may even be seen as two sides of the same coin."  Some of the most creative people in the world, then, must be psychoanalysts and therapists who use projective tests like the Rorschach test or who see patterns of child abuse behind every emotional problem.  Brugger notes that one analyst thought he had support for the penis envy theory because more females than males failed to return their pencils after a test.  Another spent nine pages in a prestigious journal describing how sidewalk cracks are vaginas and feet are penises, and the old saw about not stepping on cracks is actually a warning to stay away from the female sex organ.

Brugger's research indicates that high levels of dopamine affect the propensity to find meaning, patterns, and significance where there is none, and that this propensity is related to a tendency to believe in the paranormal.

In statistics, apophenia is called a Type I error, seeing patterns where none, in fact, exist.  It is highly probable that the apparent significance of many unusual experiences and phenomena are due to apophenia, for example, EVP, numerology, the Bible code, anomalous cognition, ganzfeld "hits", most forms of divination, the prophecies of Nostradamus, remote viewing, and a host of other paranormal and supernatural experiences and phenomena.


Once, when I was young, I went with my aunt to a movie theatre.  We got there early, so the house lights were still on.  We chatted while waiting for the movie to begin.  My aunt pointed out a red-haired lady about 10 rows in front of us.  She said, "I do believe that's my old friend, Ethel Beatendorff, whom I haven't seen in many years.  I'm going to go down and say hello to her."  She went down, sat briefly beside the lady, spoke for only 30 seconds or so, stood up, uttered an exclamation of delight, leaned over the back of the seat in front of her and hugged a brown-haired lady who had just come in to be seated.  My aunt and this lady stood and talked until the lights dimmed, then my aunt returned to sit beside me.  It seems the first lady had not been her old friend Ethel - but the second lady, who had just that moment arrived and who had let her hair return to its natural brown colour, had been Ethel.  My aunt said she would never have recognised her if they had not met face to face while she had Ethel on her mind.  In another instance several years ago, my son and I were in Lametown, right outside Suva, Fiji, walking back to our boat laden down with groceries.  A lady in a jeep stopped and offered us a ride.  It turned out we had lived within 20 miles of each other in North Carolina and had had many of the same friends.  Neither of these events made me a believer in synchronicity.  We have so many events in our lives - it would be unusual if there weren't times when coincidences occurred.

Technology and the Pursuit of Happiness

Electrode Surgery

The United States' Declaration of Independence asserts that all individuals have an unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  In the years since that document was drafted, its phrasing has been subject to much interpretation, and laws have been enacted to limit the scope of those rights, particularly the latter two.  For instance, forbidding one from taking mood-altering drugs alienates an individual from his or her liberty and pursuit of happiness, but this limit exists under the debatable reasoning that drug use generally tends to trespass on the rights of others, including their right to pursue happiness.

But what if there were a way to achieve the same "high" sensation as one can get from illegal drugs, anytime, anywhere, and without the chemical side effects and criminal motivation?  Such a technology does exist, and has seen limited use in humans for several decades.  The practice is known as evoking pleasure by Electrical Stimulation of the Brain (ESB), and despite its invention in 1954, few people have ever heard of it, and much fewer have ever experienced it.  It sounds like the stuff of science-fiction, but it's real technology.

he brain's reward center was discovered quite by accident in 1954, when researchers James Olds and Peter Milner were studying a part of the brain called the reticular formation which, when stimulated with implanted electrodes, caused laboratory animals to avoid the action which brought on the sensation.  In the early testing, the electrodes did not always end up in the areas of the brain that researchers were aiming for, and one such mistake led to a fortuitous discovery.  The electrode on one particular animal missed the reticular formation and went went into the brain's septal area instead.  This animal behaved in an unexpected way: rather than avoiding the action which brought on the electric shock, it repeated the action continually.  James Olds wrote the following for Scientific American magazine in 1956:

In the test experiment we were using, the animal was placed in a large box with corners labeled A, B, C, and D.  Whenever the animal went to corner A, its brain was given a mild electric shock by the experimenter.  When the test was performed on the animal with the electrode in the rhinencephalic nerve, it kept returning to corner A.  After several such returns on the first day, it finally went to a different place and fell asleep.  The next day, however, it seemed even more interested in corner A.

At this point we assumed that the stimulus must provoke curiosity; we did not yet think of it as a reward.  Further experimentation on the same animal soon indicated, to our surprise, that its response to the stimulus was more than curiosity.  On the second day, after the animal had acquired the habit of returning to corner A to be stimulated, we began trying to draw it away to corner B, giving it an electric shock whenever it took a step in that direction.  Within a matter of 5 minutes the animal was in corner B.  After this the animal could be directed to almost any spot in the box at the will of the experimenter.  Every step in the right direction was paid with a small shock; on arrival at the appointed place the animal received a longer series of shocks.

These early experiments found that applying a small electrical charge to the brain's reward centres provided a very potent positive-feedback mechanism.  Even if an animal was deprived of food for 24 hours, when confronted with a choice between food and this particular type of brain stimulation, it would always select the latter.  The researchers also built an apparatus where an animal could use a lever to trigger the electrical current, and after it learned how the mechanism worked, the animal would stimulate its own brain regularly about once very 5 seconds, taking a stimulus of a second or so every time.

This research led to a number of experiments where animals large and small were rewarded with electrode-driven pleasure when they took the particular actions the researchers were looking for.  This positive-reinforcement conditioning was used to dramatic effect, allowing animals to become controllable via human-operated remote.

One of the most striking demonstration was done in 1964 by Dr Jose Delgado of Yale University’s School of Medicine, when he caused a bull which was charging towards him to stop in its tracks and trot away.  He had used a hand-held radio transmitter to energise the pleasure-giving electrodes which had been implanted into the bull's brain the previous day.  Dr Delgado was also known to "play" monkeys and cats like electronic toys.

Between 1950 and 1952, another man named Dr Robert G Heath experimentally implanted similar depth electrodes into human brains, the subjects mostly comprised of mentally ill patients from state mental hospitals.  His experiments were met with uneasiness from the scientific community at the time, yet he continued.  Upon the discovery of the brain's pleasure centres by Olds and Milner in '54, he put much of his research focus there.  He found that using ESB in these areas of a human brain had a similar effect as it did on laboratory animals, bringing the subjects immediate pleasure.

From The Three Pound Universe:

A woman of indeterminate age lies on a narrow cot, a giant bandage covering her skull.  At the start of the film she seems locked inside some private vortex of despair.  Her face is as blank as her white hospital gown and her voice is a remote, tired monotone.

"Sixty pulses," says a disembodied voice.  It belongs to the technician in the next room, who is sending a current to the electrode inside the woman's head.  The patient, inside her soundproof cubicle, does not hear him.

Suddenly, she smiles.  "Why are you smiling?" asks Dr Heath, sitting by her bedside.

"I don't know.  Are you doing something to me?  [Giggles.]  I don't usually sit around and laugh at nothing.  I must be laughing at something."

"One hundred forty," says the offscreen technician.  The patient giggles again, transformed from a stone-faced zombie into a little girl with a secret joke.  "What in the hell are you doing?" she asks.  "You must be hitting some goody place."

Along with electrodes, Heath's team would sometimes implant a tube called a canula which could deliver precise doses of chemicals directly into the brain.  When researchers injected the neurotransmitter acetylcholine into a patient's septal area, "vigorous activity" showed up on the EEG, and the patient usually described intense pleasure, including multiple orgasms lasting as long as 30 minutes.

In another controversial experiment in 1972, Dr Heath wired up a homosexual man's pleasure centres in order to help him "cure" his homosexuality.  During the initial 3-hour session, subject B19 stimulated himself some 1,500 times.  Dr Heath wrote of the experiment, "During these sessions, B19 stimulated himself to a point that he was experiencing an almost overwhelming euphoria and elation, and had to be disconnected, despite his vigorous protests."  Since unnatural methods can bring about unnatural results, energising the man's electrodes as he looked at erotic pictures of women temporarily "cured" him of his homosexuality, but once the electrodes were removed, he went back to normal.

Today, medical technology allows such electrodes to be completely implanted into the human body, including a battery pack the size of a book of matches.  But these are a rarity, used only in very specific and extreme cases.  Not even victims of intractable neuropathic pain or depression are permitted to have their pleasure centres wired.  Individuals with happiness deficits are instead treated with drugs, which are both more and less invasive, depending on how you look at it.  Medications don't involve holes drilled into the skull, but they do act upon the entire body, causing a host of unwanted chemical side-effects.  Often they also result in a lifelong expense.

Some bioethicists feel that ESB technology should be made available to everyone, protected by the "pursuit of happiness" clause in the Declaration of Independence.  Are there dangers in having euphoria just a click away, all the time?  Would it be bad thing to have intense orgasmic pleasure at the push of a button?

It seems clear that the pleasure centre of the brain evolved to guide our actions and to motivate us, by rewarding us when we do well.  This is evidenced by the fact that the primary activity that living things have evolved to do - to mate and reproduce - brings more pleasure than any other natural means (of course I'm referring to the mating part).  Therefore, it may be that a pleasure-giving device would detract from our ambition and good judgment.  Some people also worry that individuals who are raised without unhappiness and heartache would lack the "character" that makes us human.  There is also the concern that most rewards decline in value after prolonged exposure, and some claim that this sort of technology would slowly erode a person's ability to feel good.

But these are all guesses, there is no way to know for certain how a human might change in response to such technology.  One could also point out that many people never tire of other stimulations such as sex or pleasurable foods, and that while many people will naturally partake of those pleasurable activities a lot at first, most will gradually moderate the usage to times when it is most needed or appropriate.  But nothing would stop an ESB-wired person from taking a day off work, putting a brick on the button, and enjoying an afternoon of bliss.  As an added benefit over sex and chocolate, this technology isn't likely to result in unwanted pregnancies, disease, or weight gain.

The idea of putting electrodes into the brain is still too high on the creepy scale for most people, so there is little chance of the pleasure-o-matic concept gaining much following in the near future.  But in the coming decades, when technological improvements on the human body begin to become commonplace, this sort of idea may just find some footing.  If you find the whole idea of electrode-induced happiness interesting, there are a whole lot of thoughts on the matter at The Hedonistic Imperative website.  You might also enjoy the book The Three Pound Universe by Judith Hooper.

Source: posted by Alan Bellows on 26 December 2005

See also:

bulletHappy at All Cost (in the section on Lifestyles) - Just what should be the importance of happiness in our lives?  The question is not one that's easy to answer.  (That page links to several others on related topics...)

Suicide's Genetic Key Discovered

by Carly Weeks

Canadian researchers may have discovered the underlying cause that leads some people to commit suicide or suffer major depression, a finding that could revolutionise how mental disorders are treated.  After examining the brains of people who committed suicide, a team of scientists discovered an abundance of protein affecting a particular gene that controls anxiety and stress compared with the brains of people who had died of heart attacks or other natural causes.

The study is part of the burgeoning field of epigenetics that examines how genes are regulated, or turned on and off.  "It's a really new avenue of research," said Michael Poulter, lead researcher and professor in the physiology and pharmacology department at the University of Western Ontario.  (Dr Poulter is also a scientist at the Robarts Research Institute in London, Ontario.)  "There's only a few people around the world that are doing it."

In this study, researchers found that people who committed suicide had elevated levels of a specific protein.  They believe the abundance of the protein alters or modifies a gene that normally helps people cope with stress.  As a result of the change, the gene shuts down and malfunctions, inhibiting the individual's ability to handle stress and cope with anxiety.  The researchers, whose findings were published in this month's Biological Psychiatry journal, aren't sure why some people have higher levels of the protein.  But Dr Poulter believes it is somehow linked to stressful life events and how people may cope with them in different ways.

The discovery marks the first time researchers have shown an abundance of protein may be associated with depression and suicidal behaviour and may lead to major breakthroughs in treatment of such disorders.  That's because many of the current treatments for depressive disorders focus on addressing chemical imbalances in the brain.  But those imbalances may just be manifestations or symptoms of the depression, which could actually be caused by the genetic malfunctions identified in this study, Dr Poulter said.  One of the key areas of focus in creating future treatment for mental illness may be developing a drug that could inhibit the overactivity of the protein that is causing the gene to malfunction, Dr Poulter added.  "If we can give a drug that provides this long-term relief, I think we're on to something much more effective and perhaps at the root of the illness," he said.  "There might be a whole new class of antidepressant drugs out there within a few years."

One of the major questions this research raises is whether the abundance of protein and subsequent gene malfunction noted in the study is exclusive to people who committed suicide.  Dr Poulter said it would be worthwhile to determine whether people who suffer from major depression, but die from other causes, have the same genetic malfunctions as those who take their own lives.  However, that question will be extremely difficult to answer because so few people are willing to donate their brains for scientific purposes.  "[It's a] tough cohort to get.  We've collected 4 brains like that in 3 years," he said.

While the research in the field of genetic regulation is still in its relative infancy, it holds significant promise for helping scientists to understand how certain genes function and what may lead to depression and other disorders.  "We've identified a fundamental process that controls the patterning of gene expression," Dr Poulter said.  "We've shown that it is disturbed in a neurological disorder."  He added that it is still too early to say whether prolonged periods of stress and anxiety throughout a person's life may have a greater impact on the genes that control how well people cope with stress and anxiety.  "We all cope differently," he said.  "Some people like stress.  It's really tough."

Source: 31 July 2008

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