Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dharma Quote - Idle Talk

Dharma Quote of the Week from Snow Lion Publications.

...Idle talk is usually considered a destructive action because it wastes our time. But if our friend is depressed and can't listen to wise advice, we can joke, tell silly stories, and use small talk to lighten his mood. Because our motivation is kind, our joking and chatting are positive.

Laughing and having a good time aren't in opposition to Dharma. The more we leave behind attachment, anger, jealousy, and pride, the more we'll enjoy whatever we're doing. Our hearts will open to others and we can laugh and smile with ease. The holy beings I've been fortunate to meet have a wonderful sense of humor and are very friendly.

In Buddhist groups, it's important for people to get to know each other and have a sense of fellowship. We can share experiences with our Dharma friends and encourage each other on the path. Buddhism isn't an isolated path, and it's important for Buddhists to cultivate group unity and companionship.

It's not beneficial to retreat inside ourselves, thinking, "Every time I talk to someone I'm motivated by attachment. Therefore I'll concentrate on meditation and chanting and won't socialize with others." One of the fundamental principles of Buddhism is care and compassion for others. Although at times we may need to distance ourselves from others in order to settle our own minds, whenever possible we should actively develop genuine love for others. To do this, we must be aware of what's happening in others' lives, care about them as we do ourselves, and offer help whenever possible. Our ability to act with love develops with time and practice, and it has to be balanced with our need for private contemplation.

~ From Taming the Mind by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron, published by Snow Lion Publications

Weekend America - Science of Happiness

[Dalai Lama speaking on happiness and responsibility (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)]

A cool article on the Science of Happiness from Weekend Edition, discussing Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion, a new book by renowned scientist Paul Ekman and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Science of Happiness

Tania Ketenjian

SEPTEMBER 20, 2008

This weekend a groundbreaking book will hit bookstores. It's called "Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion." It brings together the thoughts and experience of world renowned scientist Paul Ekman and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. An unusual project for a renowned brain scientist, but Ekman is the kind of researcher who inspires passionate following. After becoming the eminent scientist on facial expressions, he demonstrated the literal power of positive thinking - that is, that if you hold your face in a smile, it'll actually make you feel better, and eventually, be healthier. This new book dives deeper into those ideas and breaks some powerful ground on the notions around east and west, science and spirituality, anger and compassion.


Tania Ketenjian: Paul Ekman thought he'd pretty much done what he needed to in his career. He'd proven that cultures around the world, from tribesmen in the Amazon to businessmen on Wall Street, display our emotions in almost the exact same way, using the same tiny muscles in our face. He'd shown also that how we use those muscles makes us feel things before our mind has even become aware of the emotion. (Hold a frown and you'll begin to feel sad.) After decades of studying the role that emotions play in our bodies and in our health, Ekman was satisfied. Then someone invited him to meet the Dalai Lama.

Paul Ekman: It changed the direction of my life. It enlarged it. It allowed me to start thinking of things I had not thought of before, and to have concerns that rejuvenated my life.

Ketenjian: This was in 2000. Ekman, the brain scientist, discovered The Dalai Lama studied the exact same things he had for most of his career. Things like how the mind works, the role emotions have in our lives, and the troubling ways that anger and bitterness can affect our health. The two started corresponding, and eventually decided to meet in the Dalai's place of exile, Dharmasala, India, for a talk.

Ekman: In total, we spent forty hours. Forty hours. I've never spent forty hours with anyone talking about anything. But he loves complexity, teasing things out, finding exceptions, bringing a wholly different, unknown perspective. So, it was illuminating. Every time I re-read this book… I see, there are ideas in it - it would take an army of scientists and philosophers to discuss and explore.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: In Buddhism, we emphasize importance investigation. That we call analytical meditation. If our findings through objective investigation, if that go against the Buddha's own words or traditional classic concepts, then we have the liberty to accept new findings, rather than quotations or words. So, I feel the similarity of approaches. Simply, experimentation, analyze, investigation.

Ketenjian: The two men met together recently at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. They sat close together, full in the face. Ekman said the Dalai Lama, and Buddhists generally, understand the need to analyze our mental process and our emotions as objects, measurable things that can affect us one way or another.

Dalai Lama: Firstly you have to sort of gain some experience about the watching mind. Then some impact, then eventually without effort, it automatically comes as a part of your mind, part of your life.

Ekman: There are areas where I don't think we are, necessarily, in complete agreement. If I remember, I think you have a more optimistic view of how the mind is at birth, and of the capability, particularly before there is language, of the child to grasp the world. And I, based on scientific studies of children, believe that the child is a limited learner who is prone to misinterpretations, to unreality. And so part of the task - I mean that's one of the areas that we completely agree about - is that we need to see the world as it is. And that very often we see it as it is not and act in those terms.

Ketenjian: They disagree too about the possible cause of negative emotions. Ekman is a Darwinian, so he believes negativity has got to benefit us in some marginal way, at least in terms of evolution, or it would have faded away over generations. The Dalai Lama can see little purpose for negativity. It's suffering to be weeded out, with the biggest tool he's got.

Dalai Lama: Unbiased compassion. That is the real counter-force of the hatred. Of course, it is not easy. Firstly you see, you need reasons. Then secondly, become familiar with all these reasons. Then eventually, your attitude, your whole attitude, you see, can change. As a result, you will be a much happier person. That is for sure. We are social animals. So therefore, I think compassion is something very, very relevant. Basically, the seed of that is equipped by nature, by biological factors. That is my view.

Ekman: Well, one of the things that I had never thought of, in all of my years of study, is the idea that one emotion might serve as an antidote to another emotion. That's a very interesting idea. I think it's a useful idea. Actually, it's like you take an antidote. You recognize, 'Oh! I've got this heartburn. I'll take something'. It is the opposite. 'Oh! I'm feeling very irritable. I'll engage in an antidote exercise, to lower this irritability.' … Why do we act to relieve the suffering of others? It is because, when we witness their suffering, it hurts us! We feel it, their pain. Bill Clinton used to say, "I feel your pain". But if you feel that other person's pain, that's very uncomfortable. And, so, Darwin says, "You act to relieve your own pain by helping them.

Dalai Lama: Firstly, you yourself get the maximum benefit. So, it is totally wrong [to say] the practice of compassion is something good for others, but not necessarily for yourself. That is what I think. That is a total mistake, I think.

Ketenjian: The Dalai Lama looks excited while speaking with Ekman, and he is. He says this whole experience has been fun - like translating ideas into a new language.

Dalai Lama: Sometimes spirituality becomes old-fashioned. So modern science now something refreshing. But our interests are the same. These are modern gurus, gurus of modern times. I am a Buddhist monk. I am, maybe, guru of old-fashioned. After the meeting with this old gentleman [Dr. Ekman]…this scientist, he categorizes certain new emotions. So, very, very helpful. And, similarly, hopefully, he will also get some useful information from my side. So, that means: Good collaboration. So from that aspect, sometimes I describe myself as a scientist.

The Daily Show - Barton Gellman

Barton Gellman discusses his new book about Dick Cheney, titled Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, with Jon Stewart.

Until Dick Cheney, it would have been ludicrous to wonder how to hold a vice president accountable.

Natural History - Mental Mirrors

Mirror neurons are all the rage in the neuroscience field. This article from Natural History offers a good introduction to the science.

Mental Mirrors

Mirror Neurons

Red area shows location of mirror neurons in the ventral premotor cortex, the part of the brain responsible for coding object-oriented movements such as grasping, holding, and manipulating. This region lies adjacent to the primary motor cortex, which sends electric signals to the muscles.

Marco Iacoboni

WHAT DO PEOPLE REALLY DO all day, every day? We “read” the world. And much of the world consists of other people. When a tennis player raises his racquet, for example, you know instantly whether he’s going to take a practice swing or throw his racket across the court in anger. We all make dozens—hundreds—of such distinctions every day. It is, quite literally, what we do, usually without a second thought. It all seems so ordinary.

In fact, it’s extraordinary—and even more extraordinary that it feels ordinary! We achieve our very subtle understanding of other people thanks to certain collections of special cells in the brain called mirror neurons. They are at the core of how we navigate through our lives. They bind us with each other, mentally and emotionally.

Mirror neurons are incredibly powerful; “vicarious” would not be a strong enough word to describe their effects. When we watch movie stars kiss onscreen, some of the cells firing in our brains are the same ones that fire when we kiss our lovers. And when we see someone else suffering or experiencing pain, mirror neurons help us to read her or his facial expression and make us viscerally feel the suffering or the pain of the other person. Those moments, I will argue, are the foundation of empathy (and possibly of morality). Research on mirror neurons gives anyone interested in how we understand one another some remarkable food for thought.

CONSIDER THE TEACUP EXPERIMENT I published an account of in 2005 [see illustration below]. Test subjects are shown three video clips involving the same simple action: a hand grasping a teacup. In one clip, there is no context for the action, just the hand and the cup. In another, the subjects see a messy table, complete with cookie crumbs and dirty napkins—the aftermath of a tea party, clearly. The third video shows a neatly set table, in apparent readiness for the tea party. In all three video clips, a hand reaches in to pick up the cup. Nothing else happens, and the grasping action observed by the subjects in all three versions of the experiment never changes. Besides the difference in context, there is only one other variation: in the “neat” scenario the cup is full, whereas in the messy one the viewer cannot tell if the cup contains liquid.

Do mirror neurons in the brains of the subjects notice the differences in context and in the contents of the cup? Most definitely. When a subject observes the grasping scene with no context at all, mirror neurons are the least active. The neurons are more active when the subject watches the after-tea-party scene, but they are most active during the neat, full-cup scene. Why? Because drinking is a much more fundamental intention for us than cleaning up. The teacup experiment—now well known in the field of neuroscience—belongs to a wealth of recent empirical evidence suggesting that our brains are capable of mirroring the deepest aspects of the minds of others at the fine-grained level of a single brain cell. Reading the intention of others is only one example of the kinds of distinctions that can be made with a remarkable lack of effort. We do not have to draw complex inferences or run complicated algorithms. Instead, we use mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons were first discovered in the brains of monkeys, where they are concentrated in two linked areas, called the ventral premotor cortex and the inferior parietal lobule, that are important for selecting appropriate motor behavior. Mirror neurons make up approximately 20 percent of the neurons in those regions, which lie close to the primary motor cortex, the area of the brain that sends electric signals to the muscles. In humans, however, mirror neurons may be located in many more regions of the brain, in varying amounts. (I hope to publish new findings about their location soon.)

Neuron Activity

Three video clips involving the same simple action of grasping a cup were shown to test subjects: in the first, the action occurs against no background (left); in the second, the background is a messy table complete with cookie crumbs and dirty napkins, implying the aftermath of a tea party (middle); in the third, the context is a neat tabletop, in apparent preparation for a party (right). The neat scenario suggests that the intent behind grasping the full cup is to drink, whereas the messy scenario suggests an intent to clean up. The blue-green bars under the images represent the relative amount of activity of the observer’s mirror neurons. Based on context, mirror neurons can distinguish intention. The activity of the observer’s mirror neurons is greatest for the neat scenario—almost double the amount in the messy one—because drinking is a more fundamental intention than cleaning up.

Melisa Beveridge

Mirror neurons seem to have nothing in common with deliberate, effortful, and cognitive attempts to imagine being in somebody else’s shoes. So how do they actually predict the action that will follow an observed scene? How do they let us understand the intention associated with such an action?My hypothesis is this: we activate a chain of mirror neurons when we watch an action. This chain of neurons can anticipate a whole sequence—say, reaching for the cup, grasping it, bringing it to the mouth—and so can simulate the intention of the human we are watching.

Mirror neurons in such a chain may be of different types. One kind—so-called strictly congruent mirror neurons—respond to identical actions, either performed or observed. For instance, a strictly congruent mirror neuron fires both when a monkey grasps an object with two fingers, in a “precision” grip, and when that same monkey sees another primate grasping with a precision grip. A different mirror neuron, also strictly congruent, fires when the monkey grasps with its whole hand as well as when the monkey sees somebody else grasping in the same fashion.

Other mirror neurons, however, show a less strict correspondence between performed and observed actions. Those are known as broadly congruent mirror neurons. They fire at the sight of actions that may not be identical, but that achieve similar goals. For instance, a broadly congruent mirror neuron may fire when the monkey is grasping food with its hand, and also when the monkey sees somebody else bringing food to the mouth.

An important subset of the broadly congruent type of mirror neurons fire in anticipation of logically related actions. These logically related mirror neurons, as they are logically called, are probably the neuronal elements needed to understand intentions associated with observed actions. I see you grasping a cup with a certain kind of grip, and my grip mirror neurons fire, the strictly congruent ones. So far I am only simulating a grasping action. However, given that the context suggests drinking, my logically related mirror neurons, the ones that code for the action of bringing the cup to the mouth, fire even before the cup is brought to the mouth. By activating this chain of mirror neurons, my brain is able to simulate the intentions of others.

Why do some cells fire for actions that are logically related? No one knows for sure, but it’s likely that mirror neurons “learn” from experience—such as when babies watch or interact with their caregiver. Suppose a baby sees a caregiver’s hand put food on the table, and then the baby grasps the food to eat. Grasping food and seeing food placed become associated in the baby’s brain. It’s not that the mirror neurons know there is a logical connection between the two actions; rather, the baby-caregiver interaction links the two as part of a sequence.

Read the whole article.

Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks - Love Is The Best Medicine For Fear

It's great to have the Hendrickses blogging at Huffington Post. They have a very valuable message to get out to the world.

I am especially enamored of this post because it deals, sort of, with parts, or subpersonalities.

Love Is The Best Medicine For Fear

Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks

From helping several thousand single and divorced people attract conscious, healthy relationships into their lives, we have developed an unshakeable confidence in the power of love to create miracles of lasting relationship.

If there is one big thing we've learned from working with thousands of people on their relationships, it's this: The barrier to a lasting, loving relationship with another person is an unloved part of ourselves. An aspect of yourself that you have never loved and accepted keeps you from receiving and giving genuine love with others.

Here's the practical reason that insight is so important:

If you don't love yourself, you'll always be looking for someone else to do it for you. However, this relentless seeking never works, because people who don't love themselves attract other people who don't love themselves. Then they try to get the other person to love them unconditionally when they're not even doing it for themselves.

The good news, though, is this: If you love yourself deeply and unconditionally for everything you are and everything you aren't, you attract people who love and accept themselves. On the other hand, if you feel fundamentally unlovable deep down inside, you'll attract a lover who feels the same way.

If we don't love some part of ourselves, we run around in desperation trying to get someone else to love us. Our hope is that if they give us enough love our unlovable part will go away. It never does. Only a moment of loving ourselves unconditionally will do that particular job.

Many of us spend our lives running away from that unlovable part of ourselves. When we finally confront it, we will usually discover it's a fear. It's usually a particular fear, and there are only a small number of them.

One of them is fear of abandonment. You can probably see why that fear could play havoc in your relationships. It certainly did in our early relationships, before we became aware that this fear was driving a lot of our troublesome behavior. When you're afraid of being left alone, you'll either keep people distant so it won't hurt so bad if they leave you, or you'll cling to them dependently so they can't leave without dragging you with them.

Another big fear is the dread of being smothered by the other person. When you're in the grip of this fear, you're worried that your individuality and freedom will be lost if you surrender to full union with the other person. So, you stay at arm's length, just as a person who's afraid of drowning might stand a yard or so away from the water's edge.

We came into our own relationship with both these fears, and it took quite a bit of working with them to help us get free of them so we could give and receive love freely.

The good thing to know about fear is that it's simply a pulsating quiver of racy-queasy sensations in your stomach area. Fear, said the legendary psychiatrist Fritz Perls, is merely excitement without the breath. Breathe into the fear and watch what happens: The butterflies will flutter out of hiding and fly away.

When you love that fear directly, you can actually feel the fear disappear. In the space where the fear used to be, you now feel a big open space into which a wonderful new relationship can enter. That's what happened for us, and that's what we've seen happen to a lot of people when they mustered the courage to love themselves and all their fears.

Next time you're feeling fear in a close relationship, just remember this: When love comes up against fear, love wins every time.

Interview: Investigating the Buddha's World

This is a great interview about the history and origins of Buddhism, from the current issue of Tricycle. I was just reading it today and am pleased to find it freely available at their site.

Interview: Investigating the Buddha's World

Buddhist scholar and author John Peacocke talks with Tricyle about what we can learn by taking a close look at the language and philosophies of the Buddha’s time.

The teachings of the Buddha have been variously understood by scholars, monks, and laypeople over the centuries. But what was it that the Buddha actually taught? While this remains an open and oft-debated question, scholar John Peacocke—in his work as both an academic and a dharma teacher—asserts that by looking to the history, language, and rich philosophical environment of the Buddha’s day we can uncover what is most distinctive and revolutionary about his teachings. Peacocke, who does not shy away from controversy, argues that in some very important ways, later Buddhist schools depart from early core teachings.

Peacocke has been practicing Buddhism since 1970. He was first exposed to Buddhism at monasteries in South India, where he ordained as a monk in the Tibetan tradition. He later studied in Sri Lanka, where Theravada Buddhism has flourished for centuries. Returning to lay life and his native England, Peacocke went on to receive his Ph.D. in Buddhist studies at the University of Warwick. He currently lectures on Buddhist and Hindu thought at the University of Bristol and next year will begin teaching at the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy Master of Studies program at Oxford University. A former director of the Sharpham Centre for Buddhist Studies in Devon, England, Peacocke also serves on the teaching council at nearby Gaia House, a retreat center offering instruction in a variety of Buddhist traditions. He now teaches and practices in the Vipassana tradition.

Tricycle editor James Shaheen visited with Peacocke near Bristol University in April to discuss what the language of the early Pali and Sanskrit texts tells us about Buddhism today.

© David Crowley

To what sort of world was the Buddha introducing his teachings?
Fifth-century BCE India witnessed a philosophically rich period, and a time of social, political, and cultural upheaval. It is during this period that we see the transition from tribal republics (ganasanghas) to a centralized power structure presided over by a monarch. The Buddha’s teaching—for example, in the Mahaparanibbana Sutta—is situated within just such a context. At the opening of the sutta we see an emissary of King Ajatasattu, the king of Magadha, attempting to obtain information from the Buddha in order to vanquish the Vajjian federation. Even the Sakyas (the Buddha’s tribe) were not immune from such territorial aggrandizement; they were defeated by the son of King Pasenadi during the Buddha’s own lifetime. There were also many competing religious traditions at the time, and in the early Pali canon, in theLong Discourses of the Buddha (Brahmajala Sutta), we find descriptions of sixty-two types of philosophies. These are considered by the Buddha to be sixty-two instances of wrong view. That’s the world of ideas the Buddha is responding to.

What were the dominant beliefs of the time?
The Buddha was responding to two primary strands of thought. You have to bear in mind, though, that there was no such thing as Hinduism as we know it today. Rather, you had the dominant Brahmanical culture— Brahmanism—which was primarily a sacrificial religion, along with the breakaway Upanishadic culture that arose out of it and was eventually reincorporated into the Brahmanical worldview, and you had ascetic Jainism.

Can you say something first about Brahmanism?
Brahmanism dealt primarily with propitiating the gods, who were believed to maintain the cosmic order. Everything was believed to be ordered and regulated and it was through sacrifices to the gods that this order was maintained. Through meticulously executed ritual, the Brahmans induced the gods to do everything from ensuring predictable planetary orbits and regular seasons to sustaining the strictly hierarchical social order characteristic of the time. The three classes of Veda (Rig, Sama, and Yajur), which served as the Brahmanical culture’s literary base, are essentially instructions for properly performing rituals that will perpetuate what was thought to be the natural order of things. The defining concept of the Vedas is the notion of cosmic order, rita. So Buddhist thought is in part a reaction to a purely sacrificial and highly ritualistic culture. In the early canon you often find critical mention of ritual.

Can you give an example?
A number of examples are scattered throughout the Pali Canon. In the Kutadanta Sutta, the Buddha subverts the notion of literal animal sacrifice by claiming that true sacrifice is the performance of generosity, taking refuge or adhering to the five precepts. In another instance, in the Sigalaka Sutta, the Buddha comes across a young Brahmin named Sigalaka ritualistically paying homage to the six directions as a way of expressing honor, sacredness, and reverence. During the discourse the Buddha, as in the previous example, gets the Brahmin to see that the true way to express these things is through adherence to the precepts and generally behaving in an ethical manner. The Buddha in both cases reveals his practical bias. He does not concern himself with what he considers empty and pointless ritual. And he demonstrates his rhetorical brilliance by using the very customs and language of the dominant culture he critiques to subvert it.

Can you give an example of how he does that?
There’s hardly a term the Buddha uses that’s not actually derived from a pre-Buddhist context. The Buddha literally takes the religious language of the Brahmins and the Jains and deconstructs and redefines it for his own purposes. Basically, he’s hijacking the language and customs of the dominant religions—whether that of the ascetic Jains, the ritualistic Brahmins, or the philosophers and mystics of the Upanishads—to introduce an entirely new body of ideas. Take, for instance, the three ritual household fires of the Indian home. In Buddhism, they are no longer the sacred fires one must keep continuously lit in order to maintain cosmic and social order; rather, they become the fires of anger, greed, and delusion—the “three poisons” we are enjoined to extinguish. Upadana, or the “fuel” used to keep the fires burning, becomes in Buddhism the stuff that fuels samsara, the world of suffering, that is, “attachment” or “clinging.”

So his method was to critique the existing culture of the time by turning the language of that culture on itself?
That’s exactly right. He very cleverly hijacks virtually all of their language —and not just that of the Brahmanical culture but also that of the Jains. For example, take a term like asava. For the Jains the term means “influx” and refers to that which weighs down the soul and keeps it bound to the cycle of rebirth. However, for the Buddha the term has the connotation of something that flows out of us, namely, ignorance, sensual desire, and craving for continued existence. It is these things, form the Buddha’s point of view, that keep the individual bound to samsara.
According to the British scholar Richard Gombrich, the Buddhist Middle Way is in fact the middle way between highly materialistic Brahmanism and excessively ascetic Jainism. It’s not just asceticism in general that the Buddha is reacting to, it’s the extreme asceticism primarily associated with the Jains; and likewise, the household life and the strict and materialistic rituals of the Brahmins. Somewhere in between the two lies the Middle Way of the Buddha’s teachings.
Go read the whole intriguing interview.

Friday, September 19, 2008

I'm a Flaming Socialist

Well, maybe not so much -- but according to this brief test I am. I guess that explains why I don't like either political party. ;)

You are a

Social Liberal
(78% permissive)

and an...

Economic Liberal
(13% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on Free Online Dating
Also : The OkCupid Dating Persona Test

More McCain Lies

Sam Stein, writing at Huffington Post, exposes the hypocrisy of the newest McCain attack ad, which blames Obama for the job losses in Michigan. Uh, say what?

Here's the ad:

Here's the rebuttal:

In another sign of how John McCain is trying to turn the political world on its head (in which he is a populist and the Democrats have been setting the agenda for the last eight years) his campaign put out an ad on Friday blaming Barack Obama for the outsourcing of American jobs.

Titled "Overseas," the spot accuses the Illinois Democrat of pursuing policies that make it prohibitively expensive for business to operate domestically. In this case, the ad is tailored for a Michigan audience.

"Michigan manufacturing jobs are going overseas," the narrator says. "Barack Obama and his liberal allies are to blame. When manufacturers needed help making health care more affordable, they voted no. So jobs go overseas. Help to reduce energy costs? No. More jobs overseas. Lower taxes? No. Even more jobs overseas. They don't understand. Their votes cost Michigan jobs."

Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of the job losses in Michigan and other Midwestern states have occurred under the administration of Republican President George W. Bush. Add to that the fact that the free trade deals considered responsible for much of this development are supported by McCain and opposed -- on the basis that there need to be more labor protections -- by Obama. And couple it with Obama's proposal to spend over $200 billion on new jobs (a program that will undoubtedly be revised in the wake of this current economic crisis and forthcoming bailout), and it is hard to see how this ad doesn't stir strenuous objection.

Beauty and the Brain - Neuroaesthetics

A very fluffy article from Seed on Neuroaesthetics, the merger of neuroscience and art theory/criticism. Not sure this is a good thing, but it's damn interesting.

Neuroaesthetics promises to reinvigorate science's search for a theory of beauty.

Illustration by Gluekit.

Why is something beautiful? David Hume argued that beauty exists not in things but "in the mind that contemplates them." And everyone has at some point heard the old saw that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But Plato had a fanciful answer made to argue for a universal truth: In his world of forms, he claimed there existed a perfect Form of Beauty, which was imperfectly manifested in what we call beautiful. Despite the allure of Plato's metaphorical claim, students of aesthetics have struggled to substantiate it. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that there exist quantifiable, describable, universal aspects to the human capacity for appreciating beautiful forms, perhaps originating in our ancestors' experience on African savannas or in the need to find suitable mates. They have not solved the problem. However, recent work by several researchers at University College London — including the establishment of the first major grant-driven research program for the neurobiological investigation of aesthetics, or neuroaesthetics — has made the first steps toward a unified biocultural theory of art. An object's beauty may not be universal, but the neural basis for appreciating beauty probably is. The researchers' initial discoveries and the increasing formalization of the field promise to open the way for the first time to an understanding of beauty based on something other than speculation.

The first studies of aesthetics and the brain began with the sort of self-experimentation that science doesn't encourage anymore. In the 1920s neurologist Heinrich Klüver documented the hallucinations he experienced while under the influence of mescaline, using four categories: grids, zigzags, spirals, and curves. Noting their similarity to the hallucinations experienced in various conditions, such as migraine, sensory deprivation, and the hypnagogic state that occurs in the transition from wakefulness to sleep, he named them "form constants." These motifs do indeed seem to be constant — they recur throughout history and across cultures, and can be seen, for example, in prehistoric cave paintings, in the girih patterns of the tile mosaics decorating medieval mosques, and in the repeating tessellations of M.C. Escher's impossible figures or the rectangular forms of Mondrian's Compositions. Underlying those patterns, at least in part, are the intrinsic properties of the visual nervous system. Most neurons in the primary visual cortex occur in repeating structures called ocular dominance columns; these in turn are organized into hypercolumns, whose long-range interconnections are arranged geometrically. The spontaneous activity of these neural networks gives rise to the patterns Klüver studied.

Such investigations of the biology of aesthetics, however, had heretofore not been anyone's primary research focus; rather, the investigations have been subordinated to some other work, such as modelling the visual system. Semir Zeki of University College London is pioneering modern neuroaesthetics, and, thanks in part to a £1 million grant from the Wellcome Trust in the UK last autumn, is forging ahead with a research program that tries to establish the neurobiological underpinnings for creativity, beauty, and even love.

Go read the whole article.

Satire - Obama Promises To Stop America's Shitty Jobs From Going Overseas

From the Onion News Network's "War for the White House" series:

Obama Promises To Stop America's Shitty Jobs From Going Overseas

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - The Creative Personality

An old but cool article on The Creative Personality from Psychology Today -- hat tip to Dr. Helen for posting the link.
The Creative Personality
Ten paradoxical traits of the creative personality

Of all human activities, creativity comes closest to providing the fulfillment we all hope to get in our lives. Call it full-blast living.

Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives. Most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the result of creativity. What makes us different from apes--our language, values, artistic expression, scientific understanding, and technology--is the result of individual ingenuity that was recognized, rewarded, and transmitted through learning.

When we're creative, we feel we are living more fully than during the rest of life. The excitement of the artist at the easel or the scientist in the lab comes dose to the ideal fulfillment we all hope to get from life, and so rarely do. Perhaps only sex, sports, music, and religious ecstasy--even when these experiences remain fleeting and leave no trace--provide a profound sense of being part of an entity greater than ourselves. But creativity also leaves an outcome that adds to the richness and complexity of the future.

I have devoted 30 years of research to how creative people live and work, to make more understandable the mysterious process by which they come up with new ideas and new things. Creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals. If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it's complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an "individual," each of them is a "multitude."

Here are the 10 antithetical traits often present in creative people that are integrated with each other in a dialectical tension.

1. Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they're also often quiet and at rest. They work long hours, with great concentration, while projecting an aura of freshness and enthusiasm. This suggests a superior physical endowment, a genetic advantage. Yet it is surprising how often individuals who in their seventies and eighties exude energy and health remember childhoods plagued by illness. It seems that their energy is internally generated, due more to their focused minds than to the superiority of their genes.

This does not mean that creative people are hyperactive, always "on." In fact, they rest often and sleep a lot. The important thing is that they control their energy; it's not ruled by the calendar, the dock, an external schedule. When necessary, they can focus it like a laser beam; when not, creative types immediately recharge their batteries. They consider the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work. This is not a bio-rhythm inherited with their genes; it was learned by trial and error as a strategy for achieving their goals.

One manifestation of energy is sexuality. Creative people are paradoxical in this respect also. They seem to have quite a strong dose of eros, or generalized libidinal energy, which some express directly into sexuality. At the same time, a certain spartan celibacy is also a part of their makeup; continence tends to accompany superior achievement. Without eros, it would be difficult to take life on with vigor; without restraint, the energy could easily dissipate.

2. Creative people tend to be smart yet naive at the same time. How smart they actually are is open to question. It is probably true that what psychologists call the "g factor," meaning a core of general intelligence, is high among people who make important creative contributions.

The earliest longitudinal study of superior mental abilities, initiated at Stanford University by the psychologist Lewis Terman in 1921, shows rather conclusively that children with very high IQs do well in life, but after a certain point IQ does not seem to be correlated any longer with superior performance in real life. Later studies suggest that the cutoff point is around 120; it might be difficult to do creative work with a lower IQ, but an IQ beyond 120 does not necessarily imply higher creativity

Another way of expressing this dialectic is the contrasting poles of wisdom and childishness. As Howard Gardner remarked in his study of the major creative geniuses of this century, a certain immaturity, both emotional and mental, can go hand in hand with deepest insights. Mozart comes immediately to mind.

Furthermore, people who bring about an acceptable novelty in a domain seem able to use well two opposite ways of thinking: the convergent and the divergent. Convergent thinking is measured by IQ tests, and it involves solving well-defined, rational problems that have one correct answer. Divergent thinking leads to no agreed-upon solution. It involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in picking unusual associations of ideas. These are the dimensions of thinking that most creativity tests measure and that most workshops try to enhance.

Yet there remains the nagging suspicion that at the highest levels of creative achievement the generation of novelty is not the main issue. People often claimed to have had only two or three good ideas in their entire career, but each idea was so generative that it kept them busy for a lifetime of testing, filling out, elaborating, and applying.

Divergent thinking is not much use without the ability to tell a good idea from a bad one, and this selectivity involves convergent thinking.

3. Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility. There is no question that a playfully light attitude is typical of creative individuals. But this playfulness doesn't go very far without its antithesis, a quality of doggedness, endurance, perseverance.

Nina Holton, whose playfully wild germs of ideas are the genesis of her sculpture, is very firm about the importance of hard work: "Tell anybody you're a sculptor and they'll say, 'Oh, how exciting, how wonderful.' And I tend to say, 'What's so wonderful?' It's like being a mason, or a carpenter, half the time. But they don't wish to hear that because they really only imagine the first part, the exciting part. But, as Khrushchev once said, that doesn't fry pancakes, you see. That germ of an idea does not make a sculpture which stands up. It just sits there. So the next stage is the hard work. Can you really translate it into a piece of sculpture?"

Jacob Rabinow, an electrical engineer, uses an interesting mental technique to slow himself down when work on an invention requires more endurance than intuition: "When I have a job that takes a lot of effort, slowly, I pretend I'm in jail. If I'm in jail, time is of no consequence. In other words, if it takes a week to cut this, it'll take a week. What else have I got to do? I'm going to be here for twenty years. See? This is a kind of mental trick. Otherwise you say, 'My God, it's not working,' and then you make mistakes. My way, you say time is of absolutely no consequence."

Despite the carefree air that many creative people affect, most of them work late into the night and persist when less driven individuals would not. Vasari wrote in 1550 that when Renaissance painter Paolo Uccello was working out the laws of visual perspective, he would walk back and forth all night, muttering to himself: "What a beautiful thing is this perspective!" while his wife called him back to bed with no success.

4. Creative people alternate between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality. Great art and great science involve a leap of imagination into a world that is different from the present. The rest of society often views these new ideas. as fantasies without relevance to current reality. And they are right. But the whole point of art and science is to go beyond what we now consider real and create a new reality At the same time, this "escape" is not into a never-never land. What makes a novel idea creative is that once we see it, sooner or later we recognize that, strange as it is, it is true.

Most of us assume that artists--musicians, writers, poets, painters--are strong on the fantasy side, whereas scientists, politicians, and businesspeople are realists. This may be true in terms of day-to-day routine activities. But when a person begins to work creatively, all bets are off.

5. Creative people trend to be both extroverted and introverted. We're usually one or the other, either preferring to be in the thick of crowds or sitting on the sidelines and observing the passing show. In fact, in current psychological research, extroversion and introversion are considered the most stable personality traits that differentiate people from each other and that can be reliably measured. Creative individuals, on the other hand, seem to exhibit both traits simultaneously.

Go read the other five at the site.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention -- this was a book I remember enjoying quite a bit (back in 1997 or '98 or so).

John McCain - Still Angry After All These Years

My gf works in the mental health field. She and many of her colleagues view McCain's anger issues as a manifestation of untreated PTSD from his being shot down, imprisoned, and tortured during the Vietnam War. But as Gerson points out in the link above, McCain has always been a hothead with a short temper and slef-righteous attitude toward his opponents.

Personally, I think it's a little of both -- and that's scary in a man who wants to lead the "free world" (whoever they are).

, which is picked up by Psychology Today, offers a different take on it.

Still angry after all these years

John McCainWhen John McCain gave his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, he spoke at length about his imprisonment in Vietnam, and his harrowing ordeal. What was fascinating about this speech was that he maintained a relatively calm tone, even though he was describing events in which he was beaten and physically broken. This calm tone contrasts with McCain's reaction when he is reminded of the vile attack ads that were used against him when he ran against George W. Bush in the primaries. In those discussions, McCain can get visibly angry.

You might think that McCain is suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that affects his ability to remember and recall his time as a POW, but a paper in the August, 2008 issue of Psychological Science suggests a different explanation.

BetrayalZhansheng Chen, Kipling Williams, Julie Fitness, and Nicola Newton did a clever set of studies contrasting people's ability to relive physical and social pain. They asked people to describe physically painful past experiences (like getting a root canal, or breaking a bone) and socially painful experiences (like being betrayed by a loved one). The experiences were all judged to be equally painful at the time that they occurred. So, the pain of the root canal or broken bone was just as bad as the pain of the betrayal. When people redescribed the physical pain situation, they did not re-experience the pain. But, when they redescribed the social pain, they did re-experience it. That is, they felt pain again when thinking again about a past socially painful experience.

One nice thing about this set of studies was that the researchers used both self-report and also demonstrations of cognitive deficits caused by the pain. It is well-known that people have trouble thinking when they're in pain. Just try to concentrate with a headache or after an injury. In two of the studies, people were asked to do hard cognitive tasks after recalling physically or socially painful situations. The people who recalled the physically painful situations did much better on the cognitive tasks than the ones who recalled socially painful situations, suggesting that the social pain being experienced was real pain. People were not simply calling the memory for the social event painful. They seemed to be experiencing the pain again.

This result meshes with the observation that the pain of a betrayal or the pain of being neglected by your parents can stay with you throughout your life. Future research is going to have to look at why social pain is so easy to re-experience in order to create ways to dampen that pain over time.

So this is a cool study for what it reveals about social pain, but it's also useful in how we assess McCain and his emotional fitness to be president.

Here is a brief bit on anger and anger management from the American Psychological Association:

Anger Management

The goal of anger management is to reduce both your emotional feelings and the physiological arousal that anger causes. You can't get rid of, or avoid, the things or the people that enrage you, nor can you change them, but you can learn to control your reactions.

Are You Too Angry?

There are psychological tests that measure the intensity of angry feelings, how prone to anger you are, and how well you handle it. But chances are good that if you do have a problem with anger, you already know it. If you find yourself acting in ways that seem out of control and frightening, you might need help finding better ways to deal with this emotion.

Why Are Some People More Angry Than Others?

According to Jerry Deffenbacher, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in anger management, some people really are more "hotheaded" than others are; they get angry more easily and more intensely than the average person does. There are also those who don't show their anger in loud spectacular ways but are chronically irritable and grumpy. Easily angered people don't always curse and throw things; sometimes they withdraw socially, sulk, or get physically ill.

People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can't take things in stride, and they're particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake.

What makes these people this way? A number of things. One cause may be genetic or physiological: There is evidence that some children are born irritable, touchy, and easily angered, and that these signs are present from a very early age. Another may be sociocultural. Anger is often regarded as negative; we're taught that it's all right to express anxiety, depression, or other emotions but not to express anger. As a result, we don't learn how to handle it or channel it constructively.

Research has also found that family background plays a role. Typically, people who are easily angered come from families that are disruptive, chaotic, and not skilled at emotional communications.

Maybe it's just me, but this isn't the type of person I want running the military and the rest of the nation. McCain admits he has anger issues, proudly, which is no surprise considering that he comes from a military family. He also comes from a generation that is much more emotionally repressed than current generations, or even the Boomers, which leads to more anger control issues.

Then there is the untreated PTSD. No matter how long McCain has been angry -- and in the Gerson article there is mention of him holding his breath until he passed out, as a two-year-old (how freaking unhealthy is that?) -- the experience in Vietnam had to leave emotional and psychological scars.

One has to wonder, especially considering his series of "mental lapses," is this man even fit to be president?

Study Links Political Attitudes to Startle Reflex

Hmmm . . . interesting, but I am clearly an anomaly in this research (see below).

Political attitudes are predicted by physiological traits

Is America's red-blue divide based on voters' physiology?

HOUSTON -- (Sept. 16, 2008) -- Is America's red-blue divide based on voters' physiology? A new paper in the journal Science, titled "Political Attitudes Are Predicted by Physiological Traits," explores the link.

Rice University's John Alford, associate professor of political science, co-authored the paper in the Sept. 19 issue of Science.

Alford and his colleagues studied a group of 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs. Those individuals with "measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq War," the authors wrote.

Participants were chosen randomly over the phone in Lincoln, Neb. Those expressing strong political views -- regardless of their content -- were asked to fill out a questionnaire on their political beliefs, personality traits and demographic characteristics.

In a later session, they were attached to physiological measuring equipment and shown three threatening images (a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face and an open wound with maggots in it) interspersed among a sequence of 33 images. Similarly, participants also viewed three nonthreatening images (a bunny, a bowl of fruit and a happy child) placed within a series of other images. A second test used auditory stimuli to measure involuntary responses to a startling noise.

The researchers noted a correlation between those who reacted strongly to the stimuli and those who expressed support for "socially protective policies," which tend to be held by people "particularly concerned with protecting the interests of the participants' group, defined as the United States in mid-2007, from threats." These positions include support for military spending, warrantless searches, the death penalty, the Patriot Act, obedience, patriotism, the Iraq War, school prayer and Biblical truth, and opposition to pacifism, immigration, gun control, foreign aid, compromise, premarital sex, gay marriage, abortion rights and pornography.

The paper concluded, "Political attitudes vary with physiological traits linked to divergent manners of experiencing and processing environmental threats." This may help to explain "both the lack of malleability in the beliefs of individuals with strong political convictions and the associated ubiquity of political conflict," the authors said.


Alford's co-authors were Douglas R. Oxley, Kevin B. Smith, Jennifer L. Miller, John R. Hibbing and Mario Scalora, of the University of Nebraska; Matthew V. Hibbing, of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and Peter K. Hatemi, of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics.

I startle very easily, but I am very liberal in my thinking, conforming more to those with a low startle reflex. So I guess this another of those "gee, that's interesting" studies that offer correlations more than anything else.

However, pretending for a minute this study reveals something meaningful, it might have more to do with experiences of trauma or maladaptive bonding.

Those who experiences certain forms of trauma, like sudden environmental disasters (earthquakes, tornadoes) are more likely to have heightened startle reflexes than those who haven't. This could also make people more conservative in their thinking.

Another possibility is maladaptive bonding can make people more sensitive to environmental surprises and also more conservative (read: fearful) in their thinking.

With such a vague study, it's hard to make any meaningful conclusions.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Daily Show - Economic Meltdowns Have Their Up Sides

Funny . . . we now own AIG!

McCain's Mental Deficit

Or, rather, is John McCain mentally prepared to be president of the United States.

Seems John-boy had some confusion while doing an interview with the Spanish El Pais (includes video). But that is just one of many recent gaffes.

McCain's embarrassing confusion is already pretty major news in Spain today, but at this point, the only major U.S. outlets who've picked up on this are the online sections of Time and the Washington Post.

Forgetting Zapetero's name is almost forgivable, though hard to explain for a candidate who claims to be an expert in foreign policy. But the interviewer kept using the word "Spain." She even gave him a big hint with the word "Europe."

Let's also not lose sight of the broader pattern. McCain thinks the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia was "the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War." He thinks Iraq and Pakistan share a border. He believes Czechoslovakia is still a country. He's been confused about the difference between Sudan and Somalia. He's been confused about whether he wants more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, more NATO troops in Afghanistan, or both. He's been confused about how many U.S. troops are in Iraq. He's been confused about whether the U.S. can maintain a long-term presence in Iraq. He's been confused about Iran's relationship with al Qaeda. He's been confused about the difference between Sunni and Shi'ia. McCain, following a recent trip to Germany, even referred to "President Putin of Germany." All of this incoherence on his signature issue.

I'm curious. What do you suppose the reaction would be from the political establishment if Barack Obama had made these mistakes over the course of the campaign? What would reporters, pundits, and Republicans have to say about Obama's ability to lead a complex world in a time of war and uncertainty?

I think an intellectually honest person would agree that if Obama had made these same mistakes he'd be labeled "clueless" on foreign policy. So, why the double-standard?

Truthiness in Presidential Politics

The two major presidential campaigns (yes, there are four other people running for president this year) have little regard for truth. The problem with this is that even though the media sometimes expose the lies, the campaigns keep repeating them and the public believes they are truth.

Campaigns (especially the GOP approach -- note that McCain's staffers are Rove proteges) live by one simple rule -- never underestimate the gullibility of the American voter.

This is from today's New York Times:
Some fact-check organizations could be forgiven if they get disheartened about the value of their work — but not just because Mr. Rove has little use for them.

It seems that despite all the exposure of lies, the campaigns just go right on repeating them, as if those whoppers had never been debunked in the first place.

Just look at the roster of statements debunked — and still repeated — by Mr. McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, his running mate: Mr. Obama will raise taxes on the middle class; Mr. Obama wants to teach sex education to children; Ms. Palin did not seek earmarks as governor; Ms. Palin told Congress “thanks but no thanks” for the Bridge to nowhere.

Mr. Obama has also misstated facts and twisted words — saying Mr. McCain wants to stay in Iraq for 100 years, for example — but examples from him are fewer and farther between.

Asked for comment about why the McCain campaign would repeat assertions that have been debunked, Tucker Bounds, a spokesman, suggested that these assertions were not inaccurate but were "legitimate and factual criticisms" that the Obama campaign was simply labeling as lies.

There are plenty of systematic efforts these days at fact checking, notably by, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, at the St. Petersburg Times, and The Fact Checker at The Washington Post, along with assessments from other news organizations, including The New York Times.

“In the past, we let candidates get away with exaggerations and falsehoods, but not any more,” said Bill Adair, the Washington bureau chief of the St. Petersburg Times and editor of “And we’re not shy about making a call. When they say something wrong, we say it’s false or even pants-on-fire wrong.”

But why, with all this fact checking, and with traditional news organizations increasingly emboldened to call out the candidates, do candidates repeat inaccuracies?

The answer is partly campaign strategy — the McCain campaign has made much of the “us versus them” war with the media, and throwing sand in the Obama engine is a great distraction — but it also reflects an understanding of the psychology of how people absorb information.

If candidates feel free to assert falsehoods and repeat them, it is generally because voters will believe them and the candidates can get away with it.

This is why the political system in this country is irreparably broken. Most of the voters are idiots and as long as that is true, there is no reason for candidates to run clean and honest campaigns.

We seem to get the candidates and the campaigns we deserve.

Tribes of the 21st Century

Once upon a time, a community was limited by how far a person could walk. Later it was defined by distances a horse could cover easily, then a car, and now with the internet, geography no longer plays a role in defining a community for many people.

I count myself among those people. While have good friends here in the desert, I have many more "friends" spread across the country and the globe. I rely on blogs, Twitter, and Friend Feed to keep in touch with people, as well as the old email stand-by.

This article from Miller-McCune takes a look at the notion of community in the digital age, as discussed in the new book, Electronic Tribes.

Tribes of the 21st Century

An essay collection makes the case that, in the digital age, community is more a matter of ideas than of geography. Even if the idea is a Nigerian e-mail scam.

By: Matt Palmquist | August 26, 2008 | 09:00 AM (PDT)

feature photo

A scene from "World of Warcraft," considered the world's most successful massively multiplayer online role-playing game.KRTphotos/Newscom

Electronic tribes, a collection of 16 competitively selected academic essays published this summer by the University of Texas, examines the communities that develop online, from teenagers who download music on Napster to the unsuspecting targets of Nigerian e-mail scams. While the analysis is sometimes lacking, the essays combine to build a powerful argument that online communities have fundamentally altered the ways and reasons people ass ociate. Whereas communities used to form based primarily on geographic proximity, Electronic Tribes suggests they are increasingly forming, in both the real and virtual worlds, around ideas.

The best essays in the book, edited by Tyrone L. Adams of the University of Louisiana, Lafayette and Stephen A. Smith of the University of Arkansas, are those in which the author actively participates in some kind of listserv, message board or online game. In “Don’t Date, Craftsterbate,” the writer charts the levels of trust that the hobby-loving members of the Web site have established beyond knitting advice, chronicling the slight embarrassment (and subsequent cheering up) of a woman who posts a delicate question about her menstrual cycle. Another essay takes a close look at “World of Warcraft,” the massively multiplayer online role-playing game that now boasts more than 2 million paying subscribers who often elevate their virtual lives — slaying orcs and forming guilds — above their “real” ones. “All the players I interviewed insisted they were able to separate and manage the two realities,” writes Thomas Brignall III. “However, the hard-core players expressed the sentiment that WOW life was better, or at least wished offline socialization was similar to WOW’s.”

This becomes a dominant theme in many of the essays: Can online culture be transferred, or translated, into the real world? Will the revolution not only be televised, but will it have started because of a breakaway guild? McDaniel College’s Deborah Clark Vance, who studied a Web site called Boomer Women Speak, doesn’t think so, seeing the virtual world as merely another portal through which people express traits forged in real experience. She writes: “Internet technology may not cause, so much as expose processes we typically undertake — realizing our affinity, deciding whether we are in or out of a particular group, noticing the limits to which we identify.”

Indeed, when the essays turn to the darker corners of the Internet, it is the ability to organize over vast distances, rather than proselytize to the uninitiated, that captures the authors’ attention. “The new technology has eradicated most of the barriers that once segregated the Aryan old guard from racist youth,” writes Jody M. Roy, Ripon College communication professor, in “Brotherhood of Blood,” an essay examining cyberhate groups. “At the most basic level, the electronic community provides groups like Aryan Nations and the National Alliance with a cost-effective way to share their vast libraries of racist literature with skinhead youth.”

The Internet also provides a haven for white-collar crime, and the final essay in the book explores the evolution of the notorious Nigerian e-mail scams (known as “419” after the heading for the fraud section of the country’s criminal code) that have bilked people out of billions of dollars around the globe. Tracing the con to the “Spanish Prisoner Letter” of the 16th century, in which a letter solicited money to free a relative from jail, the authors note the irony that in 1914, the year of Nigeria’s founding, the British ambassador to Spain warned colonial officers to keep Nigerians on their guard against the ruse. But if the modern scam owes something to the corruption and chaos of colonial rule, why has Nigeria — and, in particular, the country’s southeastern ethnic group, the Igbos — led the fraudulent charge? The authors write: “This cultural dimension of the 419 phenomenon has never been explored in any scholarly or popular accounts of the origins of the scams, but in a world that is becoming increasingly mediated in its communications and intercultural in its interactions, it certainly should be.”

That suggestion could extend to all of the worlds explored in Electronic Tribes: Internet groups represent fertile, and mostly uncharted, territory for behavioral scientists, and the book raises many fascinating questions that largely go unanswered. For instance, it’s interesting to note that members of LiveJournal can become the most important people in other members’ lives without ever meeting face to face or exchanging real names, but what are the wider implications for society? Are relationships formed around ideas inherently stronger than those formed because of geography? What does the transient nature of the virtual world, with blogs popping up one day and vanishing the next, mean for these relationships?

Even though many of the essays read more like early drafts than finished articles, Electronic Tribes presents a wealth of insight on a subject sorely in need of more analysis. As shared interests become more important than a shared ZIP code in forming and maintaining friendships, the observation of the University of Denver’s David R. Dewberry in “Theorizing the E-Tribe on” seems especially apt: “We have all formed new urban tribes at our new homes — in Chicago, in Texas, in Oklahoma, and in Denver — but when we do move away from those places, from those urban tribes, we will not leave our new friends behind as long as there is the e-tribe.” We live in an age of two different worlds, with two different sets of friends; perhaps the second edition of Electronic Tribes can tell us a bit more about what it all means for the person in the middle.

What say you? Is on-line community "real"? Are "electronic tribes" the communities of the cyber-future?