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I love cafes, and it's not about the coffee

It's chilly today. But outside the Silver Moon Bakery on Broadway uptown there's some sun.  In a down jacket with a cup of hot coffee you can sit at one of the little tables outside without feeling cold. And you can type on your laptop keyboard, and write about being outside the Silver Moon Bakery on a chilly day.

I was at the Hungarian Pastry Shop for breakfast this morning and saw a friend sitting at a table near the entrance. We talked about what makes one coffee place feel friendly and sociable, while another's cold and impersonal.

The Hungarian is friendly.  Often you share a table with a stranger because there are too many customers for everyone to sit at one of the fifteen tables alone. Most of the tables seat six, so you still have some personal space. But sometimes people start up conversations, say good morning, or just smile when they leave.  I almost always see a few people I know.  Not close friends, but people I can kid around with for a few minutes before we start to read or work.  In the mornings, I often have my coffee and croissant with guys I've come to know over the years. We talk about things we're reading about, thinking about, things we find funny or interesting, like "What makes the Hungarian so much friendlier than other cafes we've known?".

There's a Starbucks one avenue west of the Hungarian.  It's the same neighborhood, but hard to imagine ever having a conversation with anyone there.  At the Starbucks, I keep to myself  like most everyone else. The solitary norm doesn't just come from their small, individual tables. There's a large table too, but that's a last resort. It's where you sit when there are no other tables available. When you find yourself stuck there, you keep your eyes right in front of you, and don't shift your gaze to others.  Sometimes it makes me sad.  I'm surrounded by people seated nearby, and a part of my brain subconsciously expects a feeling of social connection.  But no.

At the Hungarian, when you order at the counter, they ask you your name, and when your order's ready, a waitress finds your table by shouting out "Jon?" Can you imagine someone at Starbucks bringing your coffee to your table? It would be a big change, and probably not the kind of change Starbucks is looking for. 

The Hungarian is much livelier than Starbucks, but it has no music.  At the Hungarian, the only sound is of people talking, laughing, a waitress shouting "Jon?", "Julliet?", two women at the table in front of me speaking French, the sound of the milk steamer, more talk and laughter,  "Bob?".  A minute later, again "Julliet?".  Julliet's at one of the tables outside.  The waitress carrying the almond croissant and cappuccino will find her.

But that was hours ago.  At the Silver Moon, where I'm now sitting outside in the cold and typing, there's no social interaction at all.  It's a take-out bakery with a few small outdoor tables. Anonymity, but just what I need right now to type this post.  As much as I enjoy feeling connected to others, it's nice to be able to titrate social interactions -- not too much not too little.  I'm adjusting my dose.

Humans aren't the only animals to titrate their rewards.  Rats will enthusiastically press a lever to receive intravenous cocaine, but they don't press as fast as they can to get as much cocaine as they can. Instead, they press for some cocaine, and wait until they're ready for their next dose before pressing again. Say a rat receives an injection of 1 milligram of cocaine each time it presses the lever, and presses the lever once each minute.  If the experimenter now delivers only half as much cocaine for each lever press, the rat will press the lever twice as often.  It adjusts its behavior to maintain its preferred level of cocaine. It likes cocaine. But it wants the amount it wants at the time it wants it.

Pleasure seeking doesn't have to mean identifying the rewards you like best, and gorging on them. 
Ideally you consume the amount you want at the time you want.

Right now, I don't need a high dose of social interaction. I'm glad to be alone, anonymous, sitting outside, typing this blog post.  And the truth is that, as I type, I imagine you reading this, an imagined 'you', and that does give me a feeling of social connection. It doesn't matter that you're not outside this bakery with me sitting in the cold, or inside the warm Hungarian Pastry Shop waiting for the waitress to bring us coffee.  It's still a friendly connection with another mind.  Maybe you feel a hint of the connection too, wherever you are.

Blogging at Psychology Today


I've arranged to submit occasional posts to Psychology Today at a blog I'm calling Purple Brain.  It's one of their many Neuroscience blogs, and at least in the near term I'll keep my posts there to topics related to the brain and mind.  In other words, I'll avoid the kinds of posts I sometimes slip in here: ones about funny characters I know from the Hungarian Pastry Shop, or the drama of having a pair of bluejeans with a zipper that looks like it's unzipped all the time, or the woman looking down from her sixth floor window who saw me yelling at a dog.  I won't write about any of that type of stuff there.

I'm not going to make it formal either- life's too short (and funny) for formality.  But at least for now I'll try not to come off there as a nut. 

In the meantime, please click to see my first post there.  They keep track of web traffic, and with your help, they may think I'm a real popular guy.

The Conscious Brain


When people are not conscious, e.g. those in a vegetative state, their brains show very low levels of neuronal activity.  Their neurons may occasionally respond to stimuli, say a loud sound, but not many neurons, and not for very long.

Those in a minimally conscious state, with only occasional periods of awareness, show somewhat higher and more sustained levels of brain activity.

When we are fully conscious, the things we see, think, remember, and our other conscious experiences, are accompanied by strong activation of the neurons in the brain.

So there’s a relationship between conscious awareness and the activity of brain cells.    As I write this post, I’m picturing a brain.  To do this, I'm activating certain neurons in visual areas of my brain that give rise to the mental image.

But not all neuronal activity gives rise to consciousness. Some neurons, for instance, become active just before you grasp a cup, and determine the position for you to place your fingers as you move your hand toward it. If your grasp is wide, these brain areas will quickly send updated commands to your hand muscles so that you grasp the cup in a way that allows you to lift it, and not drop it. Next time you grab for a similar-sized cup, your brain may instruct your hand muscles to produce this 'narrower' grasp. Lots of neurons in several areas of your brain are activated in order to adjust your hand position, and usually this activity falls outside your awareness. The neurons are activated but they don’t give rise to a conscious experience of adjusting your hand position.

What is the difference between the neuronal activity that gives rise to conscious awareness and the neuronal activity that doesn't.
  • Maybe it depends on the part of the brain that's activated.  There may be some brain areas where neuronal activity is off-limits to conscious awareness. You might imagine these areas to include those that control aspects of body movement; habitual, automatized behaviors; and the kinds of thoughts and goals that Freud envisioned residing within the unconscious.
  • Maybe most of the neurons in the brain are off-limits to consciousness. It could be that conscious experiences are made up of the neuronal signals that transmit information to a privileged brain region, a kind of 'seat of consciousness'.  This area (which some neuroscientists imagine to be in the frontal cortex) would be the stage upon which the drama of our inner-lives (the hopes, plans, memories, regrets, and so on) unfold. 
  • Maybe any of my 100-billion-or-so neurons can contribute to a conscious experience -- so long as the neurons fire rapidly enough, or so long as their activity is synchronized with the activity of enough other neurons in the brain.
There are many other 'maybes' about how neural activity could relate to consciousness. But whichever explanations turn out to be true, the nagging and interesting questions would remain: "Why should neurons in those brain areas, and not others, give rise to a conscious experience?" "What's so special about brain area X that I'm only conscious of inputs to that area?" "Why do neurons have to fire at a certain rate, or in a certain rhythm with respect to other neurons, in order to produce a conscious sensation?"