By Ana Maria Ganev, PhD Candidate Faculty of Bioethics – Intern UNESCOBIOCHAIR
“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche ―
The Research Group of Neurobioethics of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights has been actively exploring scientific developments in neuroscience in order to discern some points of contact between neuroscience and a philosophical-anthropological vision centered on the human person. One of the most fascinating challenges is trying to disentangle what makes us human. A frequent answer to this old-age question is Creativity, but creativity itself is a mystery that engages cognitive neuroscientists in uncovering the neural correlates involved in this enthralling process.
Creativity is the ability to perceive the world in new ways; its benefits are widely recognized and appreciated. Indeed not only do art, music, literature, and scientific discoveries contribute to the survival and evolution of our species, but such creative innovations improve our daily living and enrich the human experience on both the individual and societal level. The main characteristics of the creative process include the ability to make new connections or “thinking outside the box”, the capacity to generate new ideas, recognizing alternative possibilities, divergent thinking, imagination and evaluation, cognitive abilities and intrinsic motivation.
While artistic, literary, musical and scientific creativity are perhaps the most fascinating of all human achievements, their basic brain counterparts remain poorly defined. Scientists relentlessly seek a neuroscientific explanation of the puzzling phenomenon of creativity in order to define it, understand how it works, predict individual creative abilities from patterns of brain connectivity and eventually find ways to nurture and enhance creativity skills.
Contrary to common belief, creativity does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain, in fact the brain participates as a whole in the creative process. We are all acquainted with the image of the “split brain” suggesting that the left hemisphere might be responsible for the logical, practical and analytical human traits, while the right hemisphere is accountable for creativity and boundless imagination. Although the left brain/right brain dichotomy remains prominent in the contemporary frame of mind, it no longer features in modern science, although there is of course a well-documented pattern of relative differences in function between the two sides of the brain (Corballis 2018).
Among the most common misconceptions or myths about creativity that may possibly lead to detrimental effects in the educational context, there is the belief that creativity is limited to arts, that no prior knowledge or hard work is needed, that it is just fun and requires nothing but pure talent, and that creativity is more of a product and not a process.
The cognitive neuroscience of creativity has made considerable progress by mapping brain networks involved in creative cognition. Three cognitive processes related to network interactions during creative performance have been identified: goal-directed memory retrieval (the ability to strategically search episodic and semantic memory for task-relevant information or, in other words, the recollection of past experiences specific to a time and place), prepotent-response inhibition (the ability to suppress interference from dominant or salient response tendencies such as obvious concepts or ideas that come to mind during divergent thinking, meaning that one has to inhibit the tendency of producing an automatic response), and internally-focused attention (the focusing of attention on self-generated thought processes and the shielding of internal processes from external interference) (Benedek et al., 2014; Beaty et al., 2019).
Furthermore, correlational work using prediction modeling indicates that functional connectivity between networks — particularly the executive control network (activated during decision-making and task-oriented processes) and default mode network (activated during passive rest and mind-wandering) — can reliably predict an individual’s creative thinking ability.
By mapping neural dynamics, scientists could provide interesting insights into key cognitive mechanisms, showing evidence that the capability for creativity is universal, thus each of us, in various ways and with varying degrees of skill, expresses it. Apart from our innate creative capabilities, in order to come up with new ideas and unexpected associations, we have to divest ourselves of inhibitions, allowing our minds to wander more freely and to seek new connections among many possible solutions.
“Electricity is not only present in a magnificent thunderstorm and dazzling lightning, but also in a lamp; so also creativity exists not only where it creates great historical works, but also everywhere human imagination combines, changes, and creates anything new.” ― Lev Vygotsky ―
Read the article in Italian
“A Lot to Think About” (Copyright © 2009 Linda Apple).
By Ana Maria Ganev, Intern and PhD candidate
“Reflect, before you think.”
― by Stanislaw Jerzy Lec
Have you ever wondered about mind-wandering? Curiously we think our brains work less when we are being absent-minded, as if in a “stand-by” mode; nevertheless, recent studies contradicted this impression, demonstrating that our brains are extremely active and energy-consuming especially during our “resting-state” mode (i.e. when non engaged in active tasks). In fact, the Default Mode Network (DMN) is a set of brain regions that exhibits an increased blood-flow, glucose metabolism and oxygen consumption during resting-state and is thought to be activated when individuals are focused on their internal mental-state or “metacognitive” processes, such as self-referential processing, interoception, autobiographical memory retrieval, or envisioning the future. Conversely, DMN is deactivated during cognitive task performances. The specific regions thought to be part of the DMN include the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the inferior parietal lobule, the lateral and inferior temporal cortex and the medial temporal lobes (Buckner et al., 2008).
Its discovery was an unexpected scientific accident, a consequence of brain-imaging studies. For a long time, fMRI investigators considered that the brain was completely at rest during the control condition when participants lie quietly in an fMRI machine with eyes closed or eyes open fixed on a cross. Images taken under these conditions were considered to be just noise, but they turned out to be more than that. The DMN was originally described by the neurologist Marcus Raichle in 2001, who observed that select brain regions increased metabolic activity during rest and decreased activity when engaged in goal-directed (i.e., cognitively demanding) behavior. DMN activity increases during perspective-taking of the desires, beliefs, intentions and emotions of others (i.e., theory of mind or attribution of mental states to others), in remembering the past (e.g., autobiographical memory), in time-traveling (e.g., planning the future), in moral decision-making, in self-criticizing and other experiences of self (Buckner et al., 2008).
It may be that the stream of consciousness flows through those same key structures of the DMN. Ever since its discovery, the DMN has been described by various neuroscientists as the brain’s “orchestra conductor” or as an “uber-conductor” that ensures to keep order in a complex system of competing signals. This network is also known as “the me network”, because it appears to play a crucial role in the creation of mental constructs of the self, or “ego”. It’s worth mentioning as well the contribution of the DMN in aesthetic processing. While additional research is needed to better understand this role, it is likely that aesthetically pleasing images are both more evocative and lead to increased internal mentation (Belfi et al., 2018).
DMN-mediated self-reflection can lead to amazing intellectual and artistic achievements but also to destructive forms of unhappiness. A frequently cited quote is “A Wondering Mind is an Unhappy Mind”, thus stressing out the strong correlation between mind-wandering or daydreaming and sadness. This system might be broken as well, if its fragile equilibrium is shifted towards excessive rumination and obsessive thoughts, leading to psychological illnesses and mental disorders like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorders and existential distress. Furthermore, therapies like meditation have received attention for influencing activity in the DMN, suggesting this may be part of their mechanism for improving well-being.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed
every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.
For man has closed himself up,
till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
― by William Blake from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”
The UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights in collaboration with The University of Anáhuac, Mexico (Faculty of Bioethics) is launching the NEW Interdisciplinary Neuroethics Diploma Course to give basic knowledge about what is neuroethics, from an interdisciplinary perspective that allows appreciation of its neuroscientific and philosophic identities, and the practical use offered by the field of neuroethics and its study and application within each discipline.
Duration: 100 hours
Class hours: Take your classes at the time that suits you best. And on Saturdays we will have Live-Stream sessions from 9:00 am. to 12:00 pm. (Mexico time)
TECHNICAL REQUIREMENTS (ONLINE CLASS)
Computer with webcam and microphone.It is recommended that you connect to the internet with at least 10 megabytes.
Dr. Mariel Kalkach Aparicio
Lorea Sagasti Pazos
Sofia Yarza Del Villar
AFFILIATIONS / COLLABORATIONS
- Anahuac University Mexico
- UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights, Rome, Italy
- Istituto Scienza e Fede Gruppo di Neuroebioetica
- Bioética Clínica y Neuroética Anáhuac BINCA
- Education Faculty
- Law School
- Health Sciences Faculty
- Economics and Business Faculty
- Psychology Faculty
- Bioethics Faculty
For further information, application and spanish version click here.
By Ana Maria Ganev, Phd Candidate of the School of Bioethics – Intern at UNESCOBIOCHAIR
The 19th Summer Bioethics Course ended with two exceptional conclusive days on July 9-10, 2021. This wide-ranging summer course on bioethics and consciousness started with an introductory speech by Alberto García Gómez, the Pro-Dean and Professor at the School of Bioethics of Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorum in Rome (APRA), who expressed his gratitude towards the coordinators of this webinar, Prof. Fr. Alberto Carrara, LC, Director of the Neurobioethics Study Group and Dr. Maria Paola Brugnoli, Coordinator of the Neurobioethics Study Subgroup on Consciousness.
The first speaker, the psychologist and hypnotherapist Katalin Varga, Director Department of Psychology, at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest in Hungary, drew to a close the psychological part of the summer course with a presentation about the suggestive communication with critically ill patients. She presented several captivating research results proving that that appropriate communication, called Psychological Support Based on Positive Suggestions, can improve the medical care in various settings. The evidence was reflected in various parameters like shorter hospital stay, better cooperation of the patient, less medication needed, reduced side effects and painkiller use, increased survival rate and faster recovery.
The section with reference to the philosophical-anthropological and theological-spiritual perspective on human consciousness was introduced by Giorgia Salatiello, Professor Emeritus of the faculty of Philosophy of the Pontifical Gregorian University. At first a clear distinction has been made between consciousness, self-awareness and self-transcendence. Self-awareness is a peculiar and exclusively human capacity which implies reflection and a complete return to oneself (the Thomistic concept of reditio completa). It is necessary to investigate the implication of these issues from a gnoseological and metaphysical point of view. Immediately afterwards, the anthropological implications are to be taken into consideration as well as the noteworthy theme of freedom and consequently the theme of responsibility. Most importantly, the capability of self-awareness ought to be set apart from its use and application.
The following speaker, Prof. Fr. Adrián Canal, LC, (APRA), undertook the purpose of shedding some light on the notion of consciousness in Descartes and Locke. The final section was dedicated to the main aspects concerning the continuity between Descartes and Locke, who both considered consciousness as an interior sentiment that accompanies thinking, as well an interior reflexivity, and is not to be confused with perception, memory, nor reflection.
The next presentation, by Prof. Fr. Alex Yeung, LC. (APRA), pursued the answer to an intriguing question: Are the Origins of Consciousness an Emergence or Divine Intervention? From an Aristotelian-Thomistic approach, integrated with neurosciences, consciousness refers to the concomitant experiential quality of intentional acts. Metaphysical reflection first centers on the principle of unity of the human person, which, being a substantial unity (biological unity besides a functioning perceptive brain), requires the presence of a spiritual soul (Aristotelian form).
The first day ended with the lecture of Prof. Fr. Michael Baggot, LC, (APRA), who focused the attention on the renowned ethicist Karol Wojtyła, who placed Thomistic interpretations of consciousness in dialogue with 20th century thinkers from other intellectual traditions. Wojtyła highlighted the mirroring and reflexive functions of consciousness, as well as the metaphysically grounded anthropological reflections in view of considering the acting person as a moral agent.
On the last day of this stimulating and compelling summer course, Prof. Fr. Francisco Ballesta, LC, (APRA), focused his presentation on clinical ethics in patients with pathologically-impaired or altered state of consciousness. After a brief analysis of the ethical criteria that must regulate the healthcare of these kind of patients, Prof. Ballesta compared them with real cases in clinical practice.
The second speaker, Emanuela Cesarella, Lawyer at the Court of Rome, gave a particular emphasis to the notion of law, to be considered not as a sterile instrument for regulating the relationships between subjects as part of the legal system, but as the manifest expression of human values. She highlighted as well the relevance of the right to conscientious objection in protecting personal ethical beliefs as opposed to controversial laws.
The final lecture was held by Prof. Melissa Maioni (APRA), who introduced the inspiring topic of the relationship between consciousness and art. Is there a neural basis for the aesthetic experience? Is there a relationship between states of consciousness and the perception of beauty? With the aim of grasping the truth of beauty and enhancing aesthetic experience with a moral insight oriented towards good and beauty, philosophical and bioethical besides neurological and psychobiological theories should be integrated and harmonized.
By Ana Maria Ganev, Phd Candidate of the School of Bioethics
The first part of the 19th Summer Bioethics Course took place on July 2-3 and will continue with its second part on July 9-10, 2021 at 15:30-18:30. This international and interdisciplinary summer course on human consciousness started with a welcome speech by Alberto García Gómez, the Pro-Dean and Professor at the School of Bioethics of Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorum in Rome. This intense, thought-provoking summer course on bioethics and consciousness began by approaching this topic from the clinical and psychological point of view. The first speaker was Dr. Amir Raz, from Chapman University, who held a presentation about “The Suggestible Brain”, explaining his recent studies on how behavior could be generated through suggestion. He introduced some interesting themes to be further investigated and discussed, such as neuroenchantment, suggestibility and placebo, and suggestibility considered as a gift and not as a weakness. He stressed several times during his presentation that what happens between our ears is more important than what happens outside our skull. The second speaker was Matilde Leonardi, a neurologist specialized in bioethics, who dedicated her presentation to defining altered states of consciousness are from a clinical perspective. The definition should allow for comparison of severity across different types of disability, in order to distinguish the main neuropathological states of consciousness. How do we know whether someone other than ourselves is conscious? While this question seems philosophical, it requires nevertheless a scientific evidence-based approach in order to be able to give answers, take certain actions and understand its multiple implications. The UCLA speaker, Martin Monti, has further developed the theme of ethical decision-making in patients who survive severe brain injury and enter the limbo of Disorders of Consciousness (DoC) such as the Vegetative State (VS) and the Minimally Conscious State (MCS). The first day ended with an engaging performance of the piano accompanist Luisa Zecchinelli with the soprano Annunziata Lia Lantieri, who introduced the entertaining subject of psychology and consciousness in music. The two artists focused their attention on the valuable role of the voice as consciousness of the internal universe of each person.
On the second day of the summer course, the psychiatrist and psychotherapist Benedetto Farina highlighted psychopathological alterations of consciousness, concentrating mainly on the DIDs (Dissociative Identity Disorders). Dissociative symptoms or disorders are widespread nowadays and often severe, almost always generated by traumatic experiences that can lead to the separation of the individual’s personality and determine multiple identities. The functioning of dissociative processes and alterations in self-consciousness are being investigated not only from psychological and psychopathological point of view, but also from a neuroscientific one. The following speaker Claudio Imperatori, from the European University of Rome, introduced the fascinating topic of the Default Mode Network, as well as altered consciousness in psychiatric patients. The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a network of brain structures that are activated or light up with activity when we have no mental task to perform, like when daydreaming, ruminating or reflecting on our-self. This default network is most active when the brain is engaged in “metacognitive” processes. However, there are several other networks, such as the Central Executive Network and the Salience Network, responsible for other tasks and activated during processes like memory, decision-making, problem-solving and detection of salient stimuli. The third speaker, Prof. Michela Balconi from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, turned the spotlight on the sense of agency. The aim of the presentation was to point out the role of consciousness during an action and the sense of agency, in other words, the mechanism of the subjective awareness of the initiation, execution and control of an action (authorship and ownership).
Finally, the second day ended with a comprehensive summary and overview of the neurobioethics of consciousness by Dr. Maria Paola Brugnoli and an introductory study on the various meanings of the term “consciousness” by Prof. Alberto Carrara. The second part of this interdisciplinary summer course will be dedicated to the study of consciousness from a philosophical and theological perspective and from a legal and social perspective.