Where Do Thoughts Come From? The Claustrum
Thoughts "emerge" from the claustrum. This website suggests that the nervous system does not compute, but recognizes patterns. That hypothesis is now supported by the most recent scientific findings regarding thoughts. Thoughts are the final pattern recognition firing patterns on a real time “screen,” perceived by conscious awareness. While the impulses of one hundred billion neurons power the nervous system, current research points to a single organ, the claustrum, which acts as a “conductor,” which coordinates the highest cortical levels of the system. Thoughts "emerge into subjective experience" from the combinatorial firing patterns on the claustrum screen.
The mechanisms, which manage autonomous processes are not thoughts. The motor neuron impulses, which enable you to ride a bike, or drive a car are not thoughts. The neural processes, which identify an odor, a pencil on your table, or a word on this page are not thoughts. Nature has hidden numerous such processes from conscious awareness. Thoughts reach conscious awareness. Sensory perceptions, the recognition and recall of significant events, the experience of emotions and perception of the activities of the system, the posing of queries to the mind and perception of the results of mental search processes reach conscious awareness. These are thoughts. Science reports that nature has designed the claustrum to coordinate the outputs of various cortical regions into a single “thought orchestra.”
Science has no explanations for the subjective experiences of a seeming “ghost in the machine.” You recognize the flight of a bird in the sky, feel the breeze on your face and feel anger or despair. Your mind responds to your queries. Just ask yourself what you had for breakfast. You can recall images from your childhood. You understand the meaning of this sentence. How do patterns of nerve impulses become such subjective experiences? In the theory of complex systems, emergence is the effect, where new patterns arise out of myriad simple interactions. New properties do emerge at higher levels of complexity. Psychology emerges from biology and biology from chemistry. The whole completely differs from the sum of its parts. We can only speculate that when neural impulses reach the claustrum they emerge into conscious thoughts.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - The Screen
But, science has managed to capture the mechanisms at the critical point where nerve impulses become thoughts. Objects or events in the real world have many attributes, including color, shape, distance, velocity, smell, sound and feel. A PET study by Hadjikhani revealed the involvement of the claustrum in cross-model matching, in tasks that require the simultaneous evaluation of information from more than one sensory domain. Without this structure, the subject may still be able to respond to simple, isolated or to highly familiar stimuli, but not to complex or unfamiliar ones. The claustrum appears to enable the conscious experience, where these objects and events are perceived in an integrated manner and not as isolated attributes. The claustrum appears to be the region, which is a “dashboard,” which displays your thoughts.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - Switching Off
The claustrum has also been linked to the “switching on” of thoughts. Researchers led by Mohamad Koubeissi at the George Washington University were using deep brain electrodes to record signals to identify the originating regions of epileptic seizures for a patient. When they applied high frequency electrical impulses to the claustrum for the patient, the subject lost consciousness. She stopped reading and stared blankly into space. She failed to respond to auditory or visual commands and her breathing slowed. As soon as the stimulation stopped, she immediately regained consciousness with no memory of the event. The stimulation had inhibited activities in the claustrum and “switched off” conscious thoughts.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - The Links
The claustrum is a thin, irregular, sheet-like neuronal structure hidden beneath the inner surface of the neocortex. It has feedback and feedforward links to the prefrontal cortex, the motor cortex, the cingulate cortex, the visual cortical regions, the temporal cortices, parietooccipital and posterior parietal cortex, the frontoparietal operculum, somatosensory areas, prepiriform olfactory cortex, the hippocampus and the amygdala. Effectively, the claustrum has access to the “final reports” from important regions of the mind, which enter conscious awareness. This implies that specific pipelines carry these “thoughts reports” to conscious awareness.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - The Coding
Thought reports are combinatorial firing patterns in the output pipelines from various neural regions. In 1999, researchers uncovered combinatorial coding (Nobel Prize 2004), which can transmit virtually infinite volumes of data from the olfactory region. They found that a particular smell was recognized, when specific neuron receptor combinations fired. The olfactory system used an "alphabet" (A to Z) of receptors to identify a specific smell. Combinations of receptors (ABD, ABP, or XYZ), fired to indicate different smells. Subtle chemical differences caused distinct combinations to fire.
By remembering combinations, the olfactory bulb could use a small number of receptor types, (A to Z), to identify millions of odors (the infinite vocabulary of A to Z combinations). Even slight changes in chemical structure activated different combinations of receptors. Thus, octanol smelled like oranges, while the similar compound octanoic acid smelled like sweat. The combinatorial patterns on a television screen enables us to identify an infinite number of moving images. Similar firing by a few thousand nerve fibers in the olfactory system represent the recognition of trillions of odors.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - The Process
Pattern recognition enables a hierarchy of neural regions to identify objects and events at higher and higher levels of complexity. The process begins when numerous receptors in the body convert sound, light, taste, smell and touch into biochemical and electrical signals. Typically, when an odorant molecule locks on to an odor receptor, calcium channels in the membranes of the nerves open and calcium ions pour inside, generating the electrical charge of a nerve signal. Such signals are carried by peripheral nerves to the central nervous system.
Chemoreceptors in the tongue report taste. Other receptors are massed together to form sense organs such as the eye and the ear. Chemicals from damaged tissue cause nociceptors to fire and report pain. Their signals are routed to the primary areas of the cortex. The signals then flow to the secondary areas, which integrate the signal combinations from the other half of the body. Such integration handles binocular vision and stereophonic sound. The combined signals travel to the association regions, which identify objects and events.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - Recognition
The combinatorial messages from the somesthetic association region enable you to consciously recognize a pair of scissors by its feel, with your eyes closed. If this region is damaged, you will be able to feel the scissors, but you will not be able identify it. The brain has many specialized regions, which integrate information. As an example, a visual region integrates the multiple views of a rabbit behind a picket fence into the perception of a single rabbit, when those “slices of the rabbit” appear to move in unison. Just as the olfactory region identifies odors, this region visually integrates moving objects.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - Motor Systems
Lower level pattern recognition processes, which identify an odor, or a word on a page are not thoughts. Many processes of the body, including unconscious body movements and digestive processes are not thoughts. The activities of the nervous system, which manage motor control do not fire in the claustrum. The person is said to carry on in his stride, without a thought. Riding a cycle, or the intention to steer the bike does not by itself produce thoughts. But proprioceptive regions report on the position and movement of limbs. You can have thoughts about your posture or of the ideal strokes in tennis, or golf.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - Inhibition
The recognition of sensory patterns bring information in one group of pipelines to the claustrum. There are other pipelines to the region from functional brain regions, including event recognition and emotions. Thoughts occur at the highest “dashboard” level, where the claustrum inhibit those patterns, which are not contextually logical to create a rationalized whole. The claustrum may inhibit conflicting viewpoints, which do not match the final objects or events recognized by the system. At this level, the global perceptions of the system are integrated into conscious thoughts.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - The Range
Thoughts can represent an idea, notion, line of thinking, belief, concept, conception, conviction, opinion, view, impression, image, perception, mental picture; assumption, presumption, hypothesis, theory, supposition, postulation, abstraction, apprehension, understanding, conceptualization; feeling, funny feeling, suspicion, sneaking suspicion, hunch. On seeing a person, the mind brings contextual information into the claustrum. A thought occurs that the person is immensely rich. These are higher level pattern recognition results.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - Mirror Neurons
Thoughts can be an awareness of the feelings of others. Pattern recognition enables you to experience the feelings of other people. The mirror neuron circuits enables the brain to identify the activities of others and then to fire the nerve signals required to experience similar feelings. These neurons operate within the anterior insula and the inferior frontal cortex. Researchers noted that specific neurons in this region fire when a monkey reaches for a peanut, pulls a lever, or pushes a door. Iaccomo Rizzolati discovered that neurons in the same regions also fire, when the monkey watches another monkey perform similar actions. Mirror neurons fire pain signals when a subject observes another person being pricked by a needle. To create conscious awareness, these circuits also fire at the claustrum level.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - Despair
Thoughts trigger behaviors and emotions at the highest level of pattern recognition. When the natural curiosity of your mind fails to discover the goal of your current activity, a sense of frustration enters yor thoughts. When the same curiosity fails to discover your role in the grand purpose of the cosmos, the heightened frustration creates despair and dissatisfaction. An existential despair intensifies the ongoing dissatisfaction with the petty successes of one's pointless life. This state of the nervous system uses every context to dump negative perceptions into your thoughts.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - Shyness
A thought can make a person feel breathless. It can fill her with anticipation, or fear. If you are a shy person, apprehension tenses your body and recalls memories of your past failures in social gatherings. Your mirror neurons identify the thoughts of others. They absorb their facial expressions of hostility, pity, or contempt. Lacking “small talk,” you feel tongue tied and awkward and fear being a “wet blanket.” Your system responds by freezing. In the meanwhile, your rational prefrontal brain sends requests. “Say something. Anything!” A feeling of desperation enters your thoughts.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - Jealousy & Envy
The emotions of envy and jealousy are not conscious thoughts. They are triggered through the recognition of the patterns of human behavior. The prospect of failure in achieving a desired goal triggers jealousy. Career growth, a partner's love, or a mother's undivided attention are usually the threatened goals. Jealousy brings painful thoughts of the competitor's actions. Envy originates from regret, leading to anger, over one's powerlessness to get an alluring asset owned by a perceived equal. Envy triggers angry thoughts.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? - Sadness
Sadness is an emotion, a sense of irreparable loss, which is strengthened by thoughts of “what might have been.” A major disappointment make a person abandon his dreams and ambitions. The system considers such thoughts impossible and inhibits them. Such thought patterns then stop firing in the claustrum. The thoughts are abandoned. When a person faces a crisis and fear signals from the amygdala send many disturbing thought patterns to the claustrum, making the person feel “awful.”
Where Do Thoughts Come From? Attention
The act of paying attention brings information to the claustrum. Maunsell had studied neural signals in the visual area of the cortex of monkeys, when viewing a swarm of dots on a computer screen. He was able to correlate the firing of specific neurons, with recognition of the movement of specific dots. The focus of attention is a PFR activity. When the animal focused on just one of the dots, the directed attention caused the neurons that signaled its motion to fire more strongly. At the same time, neural signals related to other dots were attenuated. Evidently, the stronger signals in the claustrum brought the view of a particular dot into the conscious awareness of the monkey. The act of paying attention produces a conscious thought. Just pay attention to your toe and you can sense the movement of your toe.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? Meditation
When you pay attention to your feelings and sensations, the patterns in the claustrum reflect them. Conscious awareness also stills unrelated neural activity. Self awareness is the process of paying attention to your feelings and sensations. The intense activity in the amygdalae, which causes painful emotional thoughts can be reduced through attention. Columbia University researchers observed that when fear stimuli was perceived consciously, the pre frontal regions acted to dampen down amygdalae activity. Self awareness acts to shut down needless distress and still thoughts. In meditation, a person keeps reciting a single word for long periods. In this case, mental activity reduces and several parallel lines of vague and distressing thoughts stop firing in the claustrum. The person achieves a sense of peace.
Where Do Thoughts Come From? Creativity
On facing a problem, the prefrontal regions and the limbic system search for solutions. The claustrum reflects patterns concerning possible courses of action as well as the troubling results of actions which could lead only to more problems. The person may decide to sleep on a problem and later, the brain discovers a solution and the claustrum reflects the “Aha” feeling of discovering a solution. As a person mulls over a design problem, the brain discovers a solution and it pops into view in the claustrum.
For my peace of mind, I earmarked 20 minutes for meditation on the terrace. With my eyes closed, I sense my hands on the chair and feel the numbness in my feet.
I feel my breath flowing through my nose, my throat, my chest and my stomach. I can hear the chirping of birds, the phut phut of auto rickshaws, the occasional roar of a truck and the insistent hooting of horns.
The wide sky and the treetops come to my attention, when I open my eyes, I see a pale moon over two hundred thousand miles away. I see the nuclear fires, blazing for millions of years in the pale globe of the setting sun. I see a single star millions of miles away in space.
I can see green shoots coming up on a tree, watch the dives and swoops of birds, the great circles of the hawks and flocks of birds flying home for the night.
Diffused light from the sun reflects off a parrot on the tree and enters my eye through a pinhole opening. I sense the bustling mood of the bird, even though it is smaller than a drop of water in my eyes.
All these things are seen and felt by me in a few brief minutes. In the distance, is the head of a man seeming to be no bigger than a pea. Yet, that head too sees and feels such things. Ten million people in this great city see and feel in ten million ways.
My mind wanders to a misty view of postwar London; an exciting glimpse of Disneyland. An awed view of Tiananmen Square. The looming Himalayan ranges. My mind takes me to distant galaxies.
It carries me into the heart of millions of invisible neurons, where electrical charges flash thousands of times a second powering my contemplation. I see the campaigns of Julius Caesar and Alexander. I feel the longings of Jehangir.
Already my mind has taken me to palaces, battlefields and even the stars. If I lost everything, but can just see and feel, in just a few brief minutes, my mind can travel the world, or imagine the cosmos.
While my thoughts wandered far and near, the thought "20 minutes is a long time" also kept floating in. And yet, life has already blessed me with over twenty million waking minutes! I have an infinity of time on my hands. Have I a right to expect more from life?
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