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Conscious visual perception occurs outside the visual system

on 28 December 2019
poor vision

What we see may not be as important to us as we believe. This is because, what the brain sees, or at least thinks it does, is what ultimately forms what we call the outcome. Awareness is merely a human perspective, a consequence of cellular level processes, resulting in an intracellular second messenger cascading effect, that finally results in what we see, or believe we do (the outcome) . . . 

It surprises me that scientists have an ongoing debate about what consciousness is and where it happens in the brain when it is widely known that consciousness is essentially the culmination of the processing of many regions of the brain! So, it not a result of one or a few regions but rather many, working synchronously. In that sense, I see awareness as the outward, observable manifestation of internal brain processes. There is actually overlap in many brain regions, relative to sensory systems, and in that sense awareness is the end product of these sensory systems coming together to create an endpoint, that we term as awareness!

In my hypnotherapy practice, I often make reference to specific areas of the brain that are involved in the conditions that cause life to go off the rails, e.g. anxiety, stress (fears and phobias), depression etc. - It is because vision plays such an important role in being human (involving many brain regions, relative to emotion), that it plays such an important role in the development of anxiety type disorders - Deeper structural areas, e.g. the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, BNST (bed nucleus of stria terminalis), nucleus accumbens and hippocampus, to name a few, are involved in much of our fight or flight processes. However, other structures, like the insula, lingual, cingulate gyri as well as many frontal cortical areas, play a significant role too, many of which have links, one way or another, to the visual processes. However, the puzzle is incomplete because it needs some kind of chemical soup to make it all work! The soup, a colloquialism for various neurotransmitters/neuromodulators and chief among these are acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine and epinephrine/norepinephrine.

The above combo affects much of our functionality, i.e. in the context of life:

Acetylcholine (produced in many places throughout the brain) works at the motor/muscular level but is also a major player in the sympathetic nervous system (stress response) and parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response).

Serotonin (produced in the raphe nucleus of the brainstem), affects many functions, e.g. mood, anxiety, sleep, eating/sexual behaviours, gastrointestinal, temperature etc.

Dopamine (produced in the ventral tegmental area and substantia nigra (part of the basal ganglia motor system)), is primarily known as the brain's pleasure system but in reality, it is far more than that because it is also involved in aversion/avoidance and is important for motivational salience, resulting in towards (pleasure) or away from (pain) behaviours.

Epinephrine aka adrenaline (produced in the adrenal glands and medulla oblongata, part of the lower brainstem), plays an important role in the stress response and many other brain/body functions.

Norepinephrine aka noradrenaline (produced in the locus coeruleus of the brainstem and the adrenal glands), plays a major role in the mobilisation of many brain/body functions, in particular, in initiating the fight or flight response. Interestingly, it is at its lowest production levels during REM sleep - and I believe, is implicated in why hypnosis is so effective? For more information on this, click here.

These neurotransmitters/neuromodulators, by and large, are what makes things happen in our brain, resulting in behaviours, some wanted, some not and these processes occur outside of our conscious awareness. To a certain extent awareness, which occurs after the fact, so to speak, becomes an instrumental factor in the psychopathology of the above-mentioned conditions. And it is our predilection towards logical, rational thinking and analysing that cause much of our malaise and this mostly happens as a consequence of our subconsciously driven need to make sense of life as it unfolds! Essentially this means thinking is grossly overrated and, generally speaking, we're not that good at it either!

Because our brain is automatically and constantly scanning our environment, mostly for signs of danger, we are blissfully and consciously unaware of this inner neural processing, at least while it is happening, but we are very often aware of its outcome!. In order to increase the efficiency of its defensive mechanisms, the brain stores previously experienced situations, locations and responses (relative to sensory stimuli), in special storage systems called memory. Memory is a process that mostly occurs at synapses and each memory is the consequence of the specific firing (action potentials) of a number of synapses, which happens synchronously and sequentially. Because of the vast number of synapses (in the trillions), the number of memory permutations is incalculable! To complicate things a little, emotional memories, which are an intrinsic factor in the above-mentioned conditions, are predominantly stored in implicit memory systems and these are activated outside of our conscious awareness, and, therefore, do not require our permission, consent or involvement to become activated; hence why it is so very challenging to overcome anxiety and/or stress responses!

As an example of this process, anxiety occurs when the brain receives sufficient sensory stimuli, which in turn triggers a memory (and visa versa), be it of a novel experience or one of a preexisting memory (close enough will also do). This prospective signal of danger (or the perception of it),  then initiates the fight or flight response. As the disordered condition progresses, the final component of the stress/anxiety chain is usually an increasing and often debilitating avoidant response. The stress response (activation of the sympathetic nervous system (HPA Axis)), puts the body and brain in a defensive mode and prepares for fight or flight. The bigger problem for us though, is that the brain reacts to what it believes is dangerous, whether it is, or is not, is largely irrelevant, it's the belief that initiates the response and emotional memory is a major factor of that process. So, in that context, anxiety is a consequence of the anticipation of danger, not necessarily the presence of it! As an example, it is why someone with a fear of flying becomes anxious when merely booking their flight, not while actually on it!

So, when it comes to helping clients with anxiety, I have found it can be of some value to both understand the neural processes and the human logic of an oft totally illogical process. This is because we tend to have a view of ourself as being one thing and the functioning of our brain as something else, with no apparent awareness of the connectivity of both! In fact, I see life as the outcome of our brain's processing and, "the I," in the equation, being an innocent bystander and/or major contributor of its (dis)functionality!

Therapy, therefore, is a process that brings brain processing, and our subsequent awareness of it, consciously, onto the same side of the equation. However, it is the steps involved in therapy, that can often make the process rather complex! Mostly this is a consequence of memories being formed and held in systems outside of our conscious awareness (i.e. beyond cognitive awareness), many of which were formed when we were young children when awareness was much less of a factor than survival, which perceptively, then, was almost everything else. This can often be observed in a seemingly responsible, intelligent and mature adult (the victim), who behaves childishly when under pressure or duress. It's as if their brain reverts to previously-stored survival strategy that ensures survival, albeit from a child's world view! While, to the observer, the victim's behaviour seems illogical, immature and ineffectual, from the victim's world view, it makes perfect sense and is, therefore, defensible. So, it is often useful for a client to understand that in these circumstances, the observer, is likely to be in a logical (human) frame of mind, while the victim, is in an illogical/survival (animal) frame of mind! Survival has no concern of the quality of life, merely the continuity of it. On the other hand, our logical and cognitive processes are mostly concerned with the quality of our life; guess who will almost always win this battle?

Hypnotherapy, as a therapeutic intervention, is particularly efficient because it works at the same level of memory processing, i.e. at theta/delta brainwave levels (sleep states). This is where memory consolidation and reconsolidation occur and, during which, these juvenile memories were formed. This memory-based dichotomy is often a causal factor in issues that develop later in life, and seemingly they are viewed as a consequence of certain, knowable, events. Take a situation that happens with multiple people involved, as simple as getting stuck in a lift or as complex as a 9/11 type event, where people are in the same incident at the same time, but most often are affected differently by it? There is usually some kind of, infant/juvenile memory, related to their past experience that determines their outcome. Hypnotherapy has a unique ability to assist the brain in finding, reprocessing and reconsolidating these types of memory and how they express themselves! When a memory expresses itself differently, the outcome will be different too. Eventually, this kind of hypnotherapeutic intervention can have a cascading effect, in that it can rewrite similarly formed, associated and expressed memories!

It is because of this that hypnotherapy stands out as one of the most effective strategic life management methods there is. Especially because of its ability to align both sides of the dilemma of life, logical and illogical and because it promotes clear thinking and good states of mental wellness. The behaviours that make life challenging are often a result of too much stress, too little sleep and too little by way of clarity! So, to get or take back control of your mind and your life, it makes perfect sense to use a methodology, hypnosis, that addresses the subconscious's role in perpetuating negative, vague and ambiguous states of mind. Hypnosis helps us to create calm relaxing states that make life work better!

If you would like to address any concerns you have in this direction, or, if you just want to make your life feel better, then why not make an appointment for a Free Consultation? Hypnosis gives you the ability to have a good life! 

The objective here is to help people understand how and why we become illogically trapped into irrational emotional experiences that may actually be happening for reasons different to that which we would imagine! If you want to know more about how Hypnotherapy can help you; why not make an appointment for a Free Consultation?

For more information on the Free Consultation - Go Here or to book your Free Consultation today, you can do so here


The Research:

A Dartmouth study finds that the conscious perception of visual location occurs in the frontal lobes of the brain, rather than in the visual system in the back of the brain. The findings are published in Current Biology.

The results are significant given the ongoing debate among neuroscientists on what consciousness is and where it happens in the brain.

"Our study provides clear evidence that the visual system is not representing what we see but is representing the physical world," said lead author, Sirui Liu, a graduate student of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth. "What we see emerges later in the processing hierarchy, in the frontal areas of the brain that are not usually associated with visual processing."

To examine how the perception of position occurs in the brain, participants were presented with visual stimuli and asked to complete a series of behavioural tasks while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. For one of the tasks, participants were asked to stare at a fixed black dot on the left side of the computer screen inside the scanner while a dot that flickered between black and white, known as a Gabor patch, moved in the periphery. Participants were asked to identify the direction the patch was moving. The patch appears to move across the screen at a 45-degree angle, when in fact it is moving up and down in a vertical motion. Here, the perceived path is strikingly different from the actual physical path that lands on the retina. This creates a "double-drift" illusion. The direction of the drift was randomized across the trials, where it drifted either towards the left, right or remained static.

Using fMRI data and multivariate pattern analysis, a method for studying neural activation patterns, the team investigated where the perceived path, tilted left or right from vertical, appears in the brain. They wanted to determine where conscious perception emerges and how the brain codes this. On average, participants reported that the perceived motion path was different from the actual path by 45 degrees or more. The researchers found that while the visual system collects the data, the switch between coding the physical path and coding the perceived path (illusory path) takes place outside of the visual cortex all the way in the frontal areas, which are higher-order brain regions.

"Our data firmly support that frontal areas are critical to the emergence of conscious perception," explained study co-author and co-principal investigator, Patrick Cavanagh, a research professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth, and senior research fellow and adjunct professor of psychology at Glendon College. "While previous research has long established the frontal lobes are responsible for functions such as decision-making and thinking, our findings suggest that this area of the brain is also the end step for perceiving where objects are. So, that's kind of radical," he added.


Story Source:

Materials provided by Dartmouth CollegeNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

Sirui Liu, Qing Yu, Peter U. Tse, Patrick Cavanagh. Neural Correlates of the Conscious Perception of Visual Location Lie Outside Visual CortexCurrent Biology, 2019; 29 (23): 4036 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.10.033

Cite This Page:

Dartmouth College. "Conscious visual perception occurs outside the visual system." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 December 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/12/191214122545.htm>