Saturday, May 23, 2009

Gabrielle Carey - You Do Not Have the Right to Die

I disagree with the argument and the title of this article - if we have any rights at all, the right to determine how and when we die is at the top of the list. Making euthanasia illegal is dumb, but making it immoral is wrong, especially to the families of those suffering from terminal illness.

I would never support a healthy, depressed person's decision to suicide, but that is not the issue in this article. Euthanasia is an act of supreme compassion (as was no doubt the case when my mother died, or was eased into death, due to terminal cancer), and to frame it in terms of all the people on the earth who are struggling to live is just wrong-headed, and a false argument.

I'm posting this article, even though I disagree with it, because I think this needs to become a matter of conversation in our culture. Only two states (Oregon and Washington) allow physician-assisted suicide, but it happens far more often than you might think - and it should not be criminalized - nor thought of as a moral offense.

You do not have the right to die

  • Gabrielle Carey
  • May 11, 2009
Is suicide an act of selfishness? Illustration: Judy Green

Is suicide an act of selfishness? Illustration: Judy Green

When most of the world is fighting to live, is suicide the ultimate act of selfishness?

Three scenarios: a 17-year-old girl, traumatised after a break-up with a boyfriend, overdoses on painkillers; a 45-year-old woman, dying slowly and painfully from pancreatic cancer, is given a lethal shot of morphine by her husband; a 64-year-old man, devastated by the sharemarket crash, hangs himself.

The teenager, fortunately, gets found out, and is bundled into an ambulance; her stomach is pumped and she is monitored in hospital for several days. Luckily, there is no permanent liver damage. The woman with cancer, now mercifully dead, leaves behind a bereaved husband. But as well as the grief, he has to live out the rest of his life with the guilt that it was he, in the end, who killed his beloved wife. Should he or shouldn't he have done it? The 64-year-old man, destroyed not by the current financial meltdown but by the 1987 crash, was my father.

One is an attempted suicide; one an assisted suicide, one a successful suicide. It is said that for every suicide, on average there are eight people left behind who are seriously and often permanently damaged. When it comes to my father's suicide, I am one of those eight. Twenty-one years later I have concluded that suicide is — not always but often — an act of anger and revenge; ultimately an act of selfishness. This may, or may not, apply to the broken-hearted 17-year-old. That is not my line of inquiry right now. The point about her is that we are glad she was found; we are glad she was forced into an ambulance and we are glad her liver is not permanently damaged. We are very, very glad that she is still alive. A teenage girl does not have the right to die.

But the woman with pancreatic cancer, who had been dying so slowly and painfully? Surely she can choose? Intellectually, it is an easy answer. But how many people, chorusing with "Yes, of course she has a right to die", have accompanied a loved one during the sometimes long and intense process of dying? How many of them really understand that there is only one experience comparable to this, and that is being in labour, painfully waiting for a baby to be born? How many of them really understand how difficult it is to ask a dying loved one, "Do you want to die now? Will I give you the morphine?" It's the equivalent of asking a woman in labour almost anything; she is in so much pain, how reliable are her answers? (This last comment is made by someone who gave birth to both her children at home, without drugs, and who is a great supporter of a woman's right to choose.)

In the end, putting this abstract right to die into permanent action is often the responsibility not of the person dying — who is far too drugged up to make any rational decision, let alone inject themselves or swallow a lethal dose — but of a family member, someone who loves them very much. And this is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Firstly, of course, assisting someone to suicide is illegal. More importantly, however, it is a decision that the loved one, the one who remains living, has to live with forever.

And the 64-year-old man, depressed about his losses? Did he have a "right to die"? Do all those men, right across the US, who are killing themselves now as a result of the financial crisis, have a right to die? I don't think so.

I have had many years to contemplate how I might have prevented my father's death. By forcing him to see a doctor (he hated doctors) who might have prescribed anti-depressants? That might have seen him through the worst of his depression and then out the other side. But what if the doctor had recommended a psychiatrist? And what if the psychiatrist had recommended scheduling him because he was clearly such a high suicide risk? Would the family have agreed to admitting him, against his will, so that he could be monitored day and night? Would we have been able to save him from himself? I don't know. But I suspect that, if someone had walked into my father's house at the right moment, and had seen the rope he was preparing, had realised the extreme torment he was suffering, and had taken him by the hand, led him away, talked to him, kept him close, told him that he was loved and wanted and needed, he might well still be here today. I also suspect he would have wanted that. That he would have enjoyed getting to know his five grandchildren. But, of course, I don't know for sure.

Unlike my father, whose final act I now consider to be cowardly and selfish, when my mother was suffering intensely she behaved quite differently.

On being offered a lethal dose that could have saved her from undergoing brain surgery at the age of 80, she politely accepted the poison but then went away and decided against taking it. Given the choice of being or not being, she chose to be. Like my favourite literary character, who was also a woman in mourning, my mother, in the end, said yes I will. Yes. Or in Samuel Beckett's words from The Unnamable: "You must go on, I can't go on. I'll go on."

The phrase "the right to die" is so easy to say. In many circumstances, it seems so rational, even moral. But when I think of trying to explain the notion to my friends and family in the impoverished Mexican village where I lived for a number of years, I am certain I would meet with expressions of complete bewilderment. Their struggle for life is so all-consuming that the notion of the right to die would be beyond comprehension.

The right to die is clearly much more of a concern among the wealthy and highly educated of the developed nations.

Naturally, you might argue — because we are wealthier and healthier, because we live longer, because we are provided with more life-saving drugs and surgery, we are also, as a consequence, confronted with this problem of choosing when to end our lives.

But I put to you that perhaps the choice itself is just another First-World luxury. A privilege, like so many privileges of the wealthy — something that poses as a symbol of self-determination and freedom but ends up, paradoxically, to be yet another source of suffering.

Gabrielle Carey is a writer and novelist. Her new memoir Waiting Room is published by Scribe.

For help or information, visit, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, or Lifeline on 131 114.

NPR - Decoding The Mystery Of Near-Death Experiences

This was part 5 of the recent NPR series on the science of spirituality - Is This Your Brain On God?

Decoding The Mystery Of Near-Death Experiences

Listen Now [10 min 4 sec] add to playlist

Fifth of a five-part series

Person in a tunnel walking toward light.

Scientists have long dismissed reports of people "seeing the light" during near-death experiences. But now researchers are taking a closer look and asking whether a mind can operate while the brain has stopped.

Singer-songwriter Pam Reynolds says she had a near-death experience during brain surgery in 1991.
Rick Diamond

Singer-songwriter Pam Reynolds says she had a near-death experience during brain surgery in 1991. The doctors drained the blood from her head to snip an aneurysm. She says she found herself looking down at the operating table — and then noticed a tunnel and a bright light.

“I was lying there on the gurney minding my own business, seriously unconscious, when I started to hear a noise. It was a natural D, and as the sound continued — I don't know how to explain this other than to go ahead and say it — I popped up out the top of my head.”
Pam Reynolds
Michael Sabom, cardiologist in Atlanta who researches near-death experiences
Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR

Michael Sabom, a cardiologist in Atlanta who researches near-death experiences, believes that Pam Reynolds' "physical sensory perception was off the table" during her surgery. Other physicians disagree.

Read An Excerpt From 'Fingerprints Of God'

All Things Considered, May 22, 2009 · We've all heard the stories about near-death experiences: the tunnel, the white light, the encounter with long-dead relatives now looking very much alive.

Scientists have cast a skeptical eye on these accounts. They say that these feelings and visions are simply the result of a brain shutting down.

But now some researchers are giving a closer neurological look at near-death experiences and asking: Can your mind operate when your brain has stopped?

'I Popped Up Out The Top Of My Head'

I met Pam Reynolds in her tour bus. She's a big deal in the music world — her company, Southern Tracks, has recorded music by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Pearl Jam to REM. But you've probably never heard her favorite song. It's the one Reynolds wrote about the time she traveled to death's door and back. The experience has made her something of a rock star in the near-death world. Believers say she is proof positive that the mind can operate when the brain is stilled. Nonbelievers say she's nothing of the sort.

Reynolds' journey began one hot August day in 1991.

"I was in Virginia Beach, Va., with my husband," she recalls. "We were promoting a new record. And I inexplicably forgot how to talk. I've got a big mouth. I never forget how to talk."

An MRI revealed an aneurysm on her brain stem. It was already leaking, a ticking time bomb. Her doctor in Atlanta said her best hope was a young brain surgeon at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona named Robert Spetzler.

"The aneurysm was very large, which meant the risk of rupture was also very large," Spetzler says. "And it was in a location where the only way to really give her the very best odds of fixing it required what we call 'cardiac standstill.' "

It was a daring operation: Chilling her body, draining the blood out of her head like oil from a car engine, snipping the aneurysm and then bringing her back from the edge of death.

"She is as deeply comatose as you can be and still be alive," Spetzler observes.

When the operation began, the surgeons taped shut Reynolds' eyes and put molded speakers in her ears. The ear speakers, which made clicking sounds as loud as a jet plane taking off, allowed the surgeons to measure her brain stem activity and let them know when they could drain her blood.

"I was lying there on the gurney minding my own business, seriously unconscious, when I started to hear a noise," Reynolds recalls. "It was a natural D, and as the sound continued — I don't know how to explain this, other than to go ahead and say it — I popped up out the top of my head."

A Tunnel And Bright Light

She says she found herself looking down at the operating table. She says she could see 20 people around the table and hear what sounded like a dentist's drill. She looked at the instrument in the surgeon's hand.

"It was an odd-looking thing," she says. "It looked like the handle on my electric toothbrush."

Reynolds observed the Midas Rex bone saw the surgeons used to cut open her head, the drill bits, and the case, which looked like the one where her father kept his socket wrenches. Then she noticed a surgeon at her left groin.

"I heard a female voice say, 'Her arteries are too small.' And Dr. Spetzler — I think it was him — said, 'Use the other side,' " Reynolds says.

Soon after, the surgeons began to lower her body temperature to 60 degrees. It was about that time that Reynolds believes she noticed a tunnel and bright light. She eventually flat-lined completely, and the surgeons drained the blood out of her head.

During her near-death experience, she says she chatted with her dead grandmother and uncle, who escorted her back to the operating room. She says as they looked down on her body, she could hear the Eagles' song "Hotel California" playing in the operating room as the doctors restarted her heart. She says her body looked like a train wreck, and she said she didn't want to return.

"My uncle pushed me," she says, laughing. "And when I hit the body, the line in the song was, 'You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.' And I opened my eyes and I said, 'You know, that is really insensitive!' "

A Vision That Matches The Record

Afterwards, Reynolds assumed she had been hallucinating. But a year later, she mentioned the details to her neurosurgeon. Spetzler says her account matched his memory.

"From a scientific perspective," he says, "I have absolutely no explanation about how it could have happened."

Spetzler did not check out all the details, but Michael Sabom did. Sabom is a cardiologist in Atlanta who was researching near-death experiences.

"With Pam's permission, they sent me her records from the surgery," he says. "And long story short, what she said happened to her is actually what Spetzler did with her out in Arizona."

According to the records, there were 20 doctors in the room. There was a conversation about the veins in her left leg. She was defibrillated. They were playing "Hotel California." How about that bone saw? Sabom got a photo from the manufacturer — and it does look like an electric toothbrush.

How, Sabom wonders, could she know these things?

"She could not have heard [it], because of what they did to her ears," he says. "In addition, both of her eyes were taped shut, so she couldn't open her eyes and see what was going on. So her physical sensory perception was off the table."

An Alternative Explanation?

That's preposterous, says anesthesiologist Gerald Woerlee.

"This report provides absolutely no evidence for survival of any sort of consciousness outside the body during near-death experiences or any other such experiences," he says.

Woerlee, an Australian researcher and near-death experience debunker who has investigated Reynolds' case, says what happened to her is easy to explain. He says when they cut into her head, she was jolted into consciousness. At that point, they had not yet drained blood from her brain. He believes she could hear — despite the clicking earplugs.

"There are various explanations," Woerlee says. "One: that the earphones or plugs were not that tightly fitting. Two: It could have been that it was due to sound transmission through the operating table itself."

So Reynolds could have heard conversations. As for seeing the Midas Rex bone saw, he says, she recognized a sound from her childhood.

"She made a picture in her mind of a machine or a device which was very similar to what she was familiar with — a dental drill," Woerlee says.

Woerlee says Reynolds experienced anesthesia awareness, in which a person is conscious but can't move. He figures back in 1991, that happened in 1 out of every 2,000 operations.

That doesn't convince cardiologist Sabom or neurosurgeon Spetzler. They believe the combination of anesthesia and the sluggish brain activity caused by hypothermia meant that Reynolds could not form or retain memories for a significant part of the operation. At the very least, Sabom says, Reynolds' story raises the possibility that consciousness can function even when the brain is offline.

"Is there some type of awareness that occurs from a nonfunctional, physical brain?" Sabom asks. "And if there is, does that mean that there's a soul or spirit?"

Re-Creating Near-Death Experiences

In the end, Reynolds' story is just an anecdote. And in fact, that's the problem with all the studies of near-death experiences. After all, you can't do clinical trials where you kill Mrs. Smith and tag along as she passes through the tunnel to the light, just to verify her story.

Except in Hollywood, of course. In the 1990 movie Flatliners (starring Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland), five medical students try to peer into the next world by stopping their hearts and returning to tell the tale.

The movie inspired Mario Beauregard, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal. What if he could do the next best thing? Since stopping people's hearts is a research no-no, he is asking people who have had near-death experiences to relive them while he looks to see what's happening in their head.

"And it seems that these people have a different sort of brain," Beauregard says in his soft French accent. "It's like there's a shift in their brain, and this shift will allow these people to stay in touch with the spiritual world more easily, on a daily basis."

Beauregard recruited 15 people who had a near-death experience. One of those was Gilles Bedard. In 1973, Bedard's heart stopped, and in the moments before he was resuscitated, he was greeted by what he describes as 12 beings of light.

"And I felt it was like the breath of the universe. Because it was like …" he says as he blows out his breath, slowly, like a low wind, "very, very peaceful."

Since then, Bedard has meditated every day, and he says he often reconnects with the light. The research question is, how will his brain respond when he does?

A Permanent Change In Brain Activity?

For the experiment, Bedard is shut into an isolation chamber at Beauregard's Montreal lab. Bedard's head sprouts 32 electrodes, which will record his brain wave activity. He's told to relax for a few moments. Then he'll be instructed to imagine his near-death experience.

A few minutes later, Beauregard and his research assistant are peering at a computer screen recording Bedard's brain waves. They cluck happily at the slow, large-amplitude Delta waves undulating across the screen — typical of a person in deep meditation or deep sleep.

Afterward, the researcher asks Bedard if he was able to connect with the light.

"Yeah, it was coming from within," he says. "It was loving, intelligent … very powerful."

It would take Beauregard a year to complete his research on near-death experiences. A few weeks ago, I called to ask him what he had found.

"It's like the near-death experience triggered something at a neural level in the brain," he said. "And perhaps this change, in terms of brain activity, is sort of permanent."

Beauregard says it's as if touching death jump-started the spiritual lives of these people. Their brains in the spiritual state look a lot like those of Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks who have spent tens of thousands of hours in prayer and meditation. Both groups showed extremely slow brain wave activity.

The researchers also saw significant changes in brain regions associated with positive emotions, attention and personal boundaries, as subjects who had had near-death experiences lost their sense of their physical bodies and merged with God or the "light."

Brain Chemistry Or A Trip To Heaven?

Skeptic Woerlee says there's nothing remarkable — and certainly nothing spiritual — about these findings.

"The brain function of many of these people who have undergone a near-death experience is altered," Woerlee says. "That's correct. It is altered. Extreme oxygen starvation does change brain function — because it causes brain damage to the larger cells in the brain."

It's brain chemistry, he says, not a trip to heaven.

In other words, Woerlee and Beauregard looked at the same images and came to opposite conclusions.

I found that dichotomy everywhere as I interviewed experts about the emerging science of spirituality. It's kind of like a Rorschach test: Some researchers look at the data and say spiritual experience is only an electrical storm in the temporal lobe, or a brain gasping for oxygen — all fully explainable by science. Others say our brains are reflecting an encounter with the divine.

And almost invariably, where a scientist stands on that issue has little to do with the clinical findings of any study. It has almost everything to do with the scientist's personal beliefs.

Shambhala Sun - John Tarrant’s Escape Arts in Delusionville: “Sam the Cyborg”

I huge fan of John Tarrant's work - The Light Inside the Dark almost literally saved my life at one point. I highly recommend the book for anyone who is depressed or knows someone who is depressed.

Anyway, nice column.

John Tarrant’s Escape Arts in Delusionville: “Sam the Cyborg”

The true traveler has no fixed destination
and is not intent on arrival.

Escape arts are moves that break out of the walls in the mind. I think of a wall in the mind as a map that is preferred over reality. There are many reasons for the existence of such walls — fear, obsession, neurological shortcuts the brain makes.

Escape arts disassemble the walls or, as in dreams, allow us to step right through them. We can also think of escape arts as practices that appear in moments of natural clarity. They are often similar to the moves you make if you are interested in Zen and koans, but the world teaches escape arts to us; they just appear in a situation without any conscious feeling that you are entering spiritual territory.

Escape Art du jour: Not trying to control the agenda.

Usually when we want an outcome we worry, scheme, and plot to manufacture that outcome. Job interviews would be the classic example. It’s fairly well known that job interviews are more fun if you let go of the thought of winning or losing, of getting hired or not getting hired. All meetings, from first dates to spiritual conversations are likely to be more interesting if we are not trying to prove that we know something or to impress each other. Then a pure event is happening, something like art, play, exploration, or bird call.

A couple of years ago I was staying in Sydney with some friends who are family. My god-daughter, who is an actress, was just back from a film shoot in which she spent her time up a tree in a mangrove swamp evading a giant crocodile. She was somewhat gloomy about it, but it sounded like fun. “If,” I wondered to myself “you actually wanted to spend your time up a tree at night in a mangrove swap being attacked by a giant crocodile, how would you go about achieving that? How would you get a life that was interesting and surprising like that?”

Her then boyfriend, Sam, an actor barely known outside of Australia, was there, mending a wooden chair. He came from a place south of Perth on the Indian Ocean in Western Australia, a place into which people imported palm trees so that they could pretend it was somewhere else.

He was just back from California where he had been staying with James Cameron in Malibu. Cameron was preparing to make Avatar – Cameron has an interesting idea about changing the ways movies are made. You just wear gym clothes and run towards someone and on the screen it comes up in full costume and a battle scene. Or you wave sticks and it appears as a banshee flying; the technology is a step up from Gollum and his harness in Lord of the Rings. This might change our experience of movies too — to make them more like games that we take as a metaphor for life, like World of Warcraft for example.

Jake Gyllenhaal, fresh from Brokeback Mountain, was said to be the first choice for the lead but to have turned the gig down. Cameron, who has a reputation for working with unknown actors, defaulted to Sam. The producers, considering a couple of hundred million dollars to make the movie, wanted a name star. So Sam went to LA for an audition, to convince them otherwise.

“How was that?”

“They brought in some leading men, so I didn’t play it safe or think about getting the job. I didn’t hold anything back. I just went all out. It wasn’t really a question.” The implication was that leading men are the kind of people who play it safe.

I thought that it seemed like the sort of situation where you could have a lot of complicated thoughts about what people wanted and how to please them or, conversely, just step into the space that was there and occupy it fully.

Sam went back to mending the chair.

Now, two and a half years later, Terminator: Salvation is coming out as a summer blockbuster, and Sam is a cyborg who thinks he’s human and is pictured 150 feet high all over LA.

So that’s how you get to be up a tree in a mangrove swamp, being attacked by giant crocodiles, or this case by cyborgs bent on eliminating humanity.

And that’s the escape art, not having a thought of the outcome, not holding anything back, not even being in an interview. And I think of it as an escape art for every day — having nothing to lose, being no one who could lose anything, stepping into a freedom that is always waiting.

John Tarrant is the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Koans to Save Your Life and The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, & The Spiritual Life. He directs The Pacific Zen Institute, devoted to koan study and the arts.

NPR - Is This Your Brain On God?

I listened to this the other day - very interesting (even if I disagree).

The Science Of Spirituality

Is This Your Brain On God?

More than half of adult Americans report they have had a spiritual experience that changed their lives. Now, scientists from universities like Harvard, Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins are using new technologies to analyze the brains of people who claim they have touched the spiritual -- from Christians who speak in tongues to Buddhist monks to people who claim to have had near-death experiences. Hear what they have discovered in this controversial field, as the science of spirituality continues to evolve.

Can Positive Thoughts Help Heal Another Person?

Listen Now [8 min 26 sec] add to playlist

Fourth of a five-part series

Sheri Kaplan tested positive for HIV more than 15 years ago.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR

Sheri Kaplan tested positive for HIV more than 15 years ago. Kaplan has never taken medicine, yet the disease has not progressed to AIDS. She prays and meditates every day and believes God is keeping the virus at bay.

Read An Excerpt From 'Fingerprints Of God'

J.D. and Teena Miller took part in the Love Study at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR

J.D. and Teena Miller, who have been married for a decade, took part in the "Love Study" at the Institute of Noetic Sciences.

All Things Considered, May 21, 2009 · Ninety percent of Americans say they pray — for their health, or their love life or their final exams. But does prayer do any good?

For decades, scientists have tried to test the power of prayer and positive thinking, with mixed results. Now some scientists are fording new — and controversial — territory.

Mind Over Body

When I first meet Sheri Kaplan, she is perched on a plastic chair at a Miami clinic, holding out her arm as a researcher draws several vials of blood.

"I'm quite excited about my blood work this time," she says. "I've got no stress and I'm proud of it."

Kaplan is tanned and freckled, with wavy red hair and a cocky laugh. She is defiantly healthy for a person who has lived with HIV for the past 15 years.

"God didn't want me to die or even get sick," she asserts. "I've never had any opportunistic infections, because I had no time to be down."

Kaplan's faith is unorthodox, but it's central to her life. She was raised Jewish, and although she claims no formal religion now, she prays and meditates every day. She believes God is keeping the virus at bay and that her faith is the reason she's alive today.

"Everything starts from a thought, and then the thought creates a reaction," she says. "And I have the power to control my mind, before it gets to a physical level or an emotional level."

For the past decade, Kaplan has been coming every few months to see Gail Ironson, a professor at the University of Miami. Ironson, an AIDS researcher, runs down a battery of questions.

"During this time have you had any HIV- or AIDS-related symptoms?" Ironson asks.

"Nope," Kaplan says. "Nothing."

"What percent of your well-being do you think is due to your own attitudes and behaviors versus medical care?" Ironson continues.

Kaplan laughs: "110 percent."

Kaplan has never taken medicine, yet the disease has not progressed to AIDS (and she is not part of the population that has a mutation in the CCR5 gene that prevents progression of HIV to AIDS). In the mid-1990s, when having HIV was akin to a death sentence, Ironson noticed that a number of patients like Kaplan never got sick. Ironson wanted to know why. And she found something surprising.

"If you ask people what's kept you going so long, what keeps you healthy, often people would say spirituality," she says. "It was something that just kept coming up in the interviews, and that's why I decided to look at it."

Spirituality And Health

Ironson began to zero in on a patient's relationship with God in an attempt to predict how fast the disease would progress.

She focused on two key indicators. She measured viral load, which tells how much of the virus is present in a person's body, and immune cells called CD-4 cells, which help fight off the AIDS virus.

Ironson says over time, those who turned to God after their diagnosis had a much lower viral load and maintained those powerful immune cells at a much higher rate than those who turned away from God.

"In fact, people who felt abandoned by God and who decreased in spirituality lost their CD4 cells 4.5 times faster than people who increased in spirituality," Ironson says. "That was actually our most powerful psychological predictor to date."

"Just so I understand it," I confirm, "if someone weren't taking their meds and were depressed, they would still fare better if they increased in spirituality?"

"Yes," she says. "Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that people don't take their meds," she adds quickly, laughing. "This is really an important point. However, the effects of spirituality are over and above."

Can My Prayers Affect Your Body?

Ironson calls the finding extraordinary. She was one of the first researchers to connect a patient's approach to God to specific chemical changes in the body.

Of course, mind-body medicine — the idea that my thoughts and emotions can affect my own health — has been standard teaching at many medical schools for years. But does that mean my thoughts can affect another person's body?

"The answer is pretty unequivocally no," says Richard Sloan, professor of Behavioral Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.

Sloan notes that studies in the 1980s and '90s seemed to show that praying for a patient in a hospital sped up his recovery. But he says those studies were flawed. More recent, more rigorous studies, he argues, showed prayer either had no effect, or the patients actually grew worse.

Sloan says science understands how a person's thoughts can influence his own body — for example, through chemical changes in the brain that affect the immune system.

"There are no plausible mechanisms that account for how somebody's thoughts or prayers can influence the health of another person," Sloan says. "None. We know of nothing."

A few renegade scientists aren't satisfied with that. For years, they say, no one knew how morphine or aspirin worked. They just knew it worked. These researchers say typical prayer studies, in which a stranger prays for a stranger from a script, miss the critical element: a personal connection. So they're asking a different sort of question. Can a husband's love for his wife affect her body?

Or, as Marilyn Schlitz puts it: "Does our consciousness have the capacity to reach out and connect to someone else in a way that's health-promoting?"

The Love Study

On a bright spring day, Schlitz is leading Teena and J.D. Miller down a path to the laboratory at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, north of San Francisco. Schlitz is the president of the institute, which conducts research on consciousness and spirituality. The Millers have been married a decade and their affection is palpable — making them perfect for the so-called Love Study.

Schlitz takes Teena into an isolated room, where no sound can come in or go out. Teena settles into a deep armchair as Schlitz attaches electrodes to her right hand.

"This is measuring blood flow in your thumb, and this is your skin conductance activity," the researcher explains. "So basically both of these are measures of your unconscious nervous system."

Schlitz locks Teena into the electromagnetically shielded chamber, then ushers J.D. into another isolated room with a closed-circuit television. She explains that the screen will go on and off. And at random intervals, Teena's image will appear on the screen for 10 seconds.

"And so during the times when you see her," she instructs, "it's your opportunity to think about sending loving, compassionate intention."

As the session begins, Dean Radin, a senior scientist here, watches as a computer shows changes in J.D.'s blood pressure and perspiration. When J.D. sees the image of his wife, the steady lines suddenly jump and become ragged. The question is: Will Teena's nervous system follow suit?

"Notice how here … see, there's a change in the blood volume," says Radin, pointing to a screen charting Teena's measurements. "A sudden change like that is sometimes associated with an orienting response. If you suddenly hear somebody whispering in your ear, and there's nobody around, you have this sense of what? What was that? That's more or less what we're seeing in the physiology."

An hour later, Radin displays Teena's graph, which shows a flat line during the times her husband was not staring at her image, but when her husband began to stare at her, she stopped relaxing and became "aroused" within about two seconds.

After running 36 couples through this test, the researchers found that when one person focused his thoughts on his partner, the partner's blood flow and perspiration dramatically changed within two seconds. The odds of this happening by chance were 1 in 11,000. Three dozen double blind, randomized studies by such institutions as the University of Washington and the University of Edinburgh have reported similar results.

The 'Quantum Entanglement' Of Love

So how do you explain this? No one really knows. But Radin and a few others think that a theory known as "quantum entanglement" may offer some clues.

Here's how it works. Once two particles have interacted, if you separate them, even by miles, they behave as if they're still connected. So far, this has only been demonstrated on the subatomic level.

But Radin wonders: Could people in close relationships — couples, siblings, parent and child — also be "entangled"? Not just emotionally, and psychologically — but also physically?

"If it is true that entanglement actually persists, by means of which we don't understand," he says, "if they are physically entangled, you should be able to separate them, poke one, and see the other one flinch."

This idea — that we may be connected at some molecular level — echoes the words of mystics down the ages. And it appeals to some scientists.

But it infuriates others — like Columbia University's Sloan. The underlying idea is wrong, he says. Entanglement just doesn't work this way.

"Physicists are very clear that the relationship is purely correlational and not causal," Sloan says. "There is nothing causal about quantum entanglement. It's good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out."

Radin and others agree that that's what science says right now. But they say these findings eventually have to be explained somehow.

Part 5 of this series will explore whether people have souls that survive a brain's death.

Vanity Fair - Enter the Dragon King

Vanity Fair takes a look at the political situation in Bhutan, since the takeover of the king's throne by the son (King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck) of the man who insisted his nation embrace Democracy.

Gotta love a nation where the king wears a raven crown.

Himalayan Idol

His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan.

His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, wearing the ceremonial Raven Crown, greets monastic well-wishers. Photograph by Lynsey Addario.

Enter the Dragon King

For more than three decades, the fourth Dragon King of Bhutan steered his people into the modern world, while keeping their traditional culture intact. His recent abdication, at 53, in favor of his 29-year-old, Oxford-educated son, was another stroke of Realpolitik, strengthening the throne even as he moved the country to a parliamentary democracy. In a rare privilege for an outsider, the author joins the royal family at the coronation of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the new ruler of the world’s last Himalayan kingdom.

by Patrick French WEB EXCLUSIVE April 13, 2009

On a bitterly cold day last winter, high in the eastern Himalayas, the king of Bhutan voluntarily gave up his throne. Watched by his fiercely patriotic people, the fourth Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King, took the Raven Crown, a ceremonial headpiece with Tantric skulls stitched around the rim, surmounted by an embroidered raven’s head, and placed it on the head of his eldest son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The new king, a charismatic 29-year-old with a hairstyle that recalls Elvis Presley’s, is not your typical Himalayan monarch. Nor is Bhutan—the world’s last surviving Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, and an odd but successful mixture of ancient and modern—a country like any other. On the night of the coronation my wife, Meru, and I were having a quiet after-party at the Aman Hotel, in the capital, Thimphu, with some members of the Indian delegation, when their security detail went on sudden alert. Agents from New Delhi with spaghetti in their ears sized up an incoming group of Bhutanese men. The men turned out to be security agents, too. “Papa 2 clear,” said one of the Bhutanese, talking into a microphone hidden in the long sleeve of his traditional robe, as if it were an old-fashioned speaking tube. I thought that “Papa 2” might be code for “Prince 2,” because the flurry of activity marked the arrival of His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel, the new king’s brother, who had that day become heir-presumptive to the crown of Bhutan.

More of Lynsey Addario’s photographs: “A Coronation in Bhutan.”

The 24-year-old Jigyel, an Oxford graduate who dodged bullets with his father while fighting Assamese insurgents in the country’s southern jungles in 2003, typifies the incongruities of Bhutan. Dressed in impeccable black shoes, knee-length socks, and a gray robe, Prince Jigyel had dropped by the hotel to say hello to a guest—Nakata, the Japanese football star and fashion model, who is known as “the Asian David Beckham.” For the prince, it had been an emotional day. That morning, he had watched his father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, formally abdicate after 34 years as king. “When I saw His Majesty put the Raven Crown on my brother’s head,” Prince Jigyel told me later that evening, “I didn’t know whether to cry from happiness or from sadness.” It was instinctive for the prince to refer to his father in this reverential, regal way: “He’s the man behind the man. We think of him almost as a god.” Jigyel’s sister Princess Chimi was similarly moved: “I had never seen the Raven Crown before.”

The invitation to the coronation had come from the senior queen of Bhutan, and had reached us in London on a dank October day. It was unexpected, because coronations in Bhutan are usually closed to foreigners, but the queen told me I had been invited to witness the event because the retiring king and the crown prince both liked the books I had written on the history of Tibet and the Himalayas. Despite having little time for the monarchy in my own country, England, I was impressed with the Bhutanese version. The “old king” was in fact only 53, but his 34-year reign had been remarkable by any measure, and he now hoped to see the Raven Crown pass securely to the next generation. Having inherited the job as a teenager after the death of his father, he married four beautiful sisters, sired 10 children, and steered Bhutan into the modern era with extraordinary skill. He introduced effective health-care and education systems, banned Western-style buildings in favor of local designs, refused to let forests be chopped down indiscriminately, and introduced “appropriate technology,” such as Japanese power tillers, which were sold cheaply to Bhutanese farmers. Rather than build smoke-belching power plants or shun electricity altogether, he introduced hydroelectric schemes which now earn Bhutan substantial revenues by selling surplus power to India. (The king once observed, “Water is to us what oil is to the Arabs.”) Then, to coincide with his abdication, the king decided to introduce parliamentary democracy to Bhutan—this against the wishes of many of his loyal subjects, who seemed quite content with Bhutan’s form of benevolent monarchy. In any case, the distance traveled by Bhutan during the old king’s tenure on the throne is truly astonishing. At the time of his own father’s coronation, in 1952, Bhutan had no bridges or roads, and two foreign guests (an Indian political agent and a Sikkimese prince) had to make a nine-day journey from northeastern India to Thimphu by mule.

Modern transportation makes a difference in Bhutan, but only up to a point. To enter Bhutanese airspace is to enter another world. The plane cruises at the height of the Himalayan peaks. To your left you pass Cho Oyu, Mount Everest, and Makalu, each summit spiking in a web of frosted snow and giving way to yet more distant summits, the shining whiteness becoming a filigree of ice trails as your eyes fall to the lower ridges and then to stepped fields and trees—the last great undestroyed forests of the Himalayas. You bump on air pockets as the plane turns at last into a valley and makes its way toward earth. Few scheduled flights come to Bhutan, and those that do need visibility: if the weather turns nasty, instruments won’t suffice to guide you safely to the runway. Rather, the pilot must look for a particular red house on the center of a particular ridge, then skim within 80 feet of its roof in order to land on the lone strip of tarmac in a hayfield beyond. The terminal building, ornate and tiered, might be mistaken for a temple—a testament to classic Bhutanese architecture. Every house in Bhutan must be traditionally built, and the national costume—a smart, multicolored, striped gho—is compulsory during office hours.

Bhutan is the most intact traditional society I have ever seen. Tourism is highly restricted and reserved mainly for the wealthy; if paparazzi arrive in the wake of a Hollywood or Bollywood star, their visas are withdrawn and they are sent home. It is the only country that has “Gross National Happiness” as a mandated government policy. Bhutan has held itself together—sometimes at significant human cost—by keeping aliens and ethnic impurity at bay, even as its neighbors have been fatally undone. Tibet was destroyed by Chinese Communist rule. Nepal has been run by revolutionary Maoists, after the royal family was massacred by the doped-up crown prince in 2001. Neighboring Sikkim became the 22nd state of the Indian union when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi annexed it, in 1975. Bhutan is still Bhutan, in part because it has taken a hard line. When a census was conducted in the late 1980s and tens of thousands of Nepali speakers were discovered to be living in the southern part of the country, they were expelled by force, although some had been there for three or four generations. Many of those expelled are still living in squalid refugee camps.

Arrangements for the coronation were handled by an official who rejoiced in the title “Head, Office of Protocol for Their Majesties the Queens,” a designation that can exist in no country other than Bhutan. The queens had graciously provided us with a driver and a palace protocol officer. From the airport we drove along a hillside road past deodars and blue pines to Thimphu, which has doubled in size during the past four years and now has nearly 100,000 inhabitants. (There are fewer than 700,000 Bhutanese in all, and although many nominally live below the poverty line, forestry and farming ensure a good, if tough, life.) On the way, the protocol officer said to me, “Do you have a lot of hooligans in England?” “What kind of hooligans?” I asked. “Football hooligans. I once saw a film about them, and I couldn’t believe it.” For the Bhutanese, who rival the Japanese in their concern for courteous formality and exquisite good manners, hooliganism is unimaginable. Bhutanese manners are so refined that it can be hard to tell if you’re having an argument.

An honor guard at the coronation ceremony. Photograph by Lynsey Addario.

A smartly dressed military officer named Captain Karma appeared at our hotel. Clicking his heels, he announced that we were summoned to tea with the senior queen. We were whisked up a steep hill through a series of security barriers to the palace compound. (Each of the four sister-queens has her own palace, but the king chooses to live in a simple, secluded log cabin, to which no one but his family has access.) Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo, at 53 the eldest queen, was elegant and relaxed. She had just returned from a ceremony at the dzong, or castle, in Punakha, a day’s drive away. “It was magnificent, like going back in time,” she said. “All the royal siblings were there, even the ones who are at school in Switzerland, and the ministers and chief justice and the central monastic body. His Majesty received the blessing from Shabdrung, like all the rulers of Bhutan had before him—the white, yellow, red, green, and blue silk scarves.”

His Holiness Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal was an exceptionally expeditious religious and military figure who came from central Tibet and effectively created the Bhutanese state, in the 17th century, by uniting rival kingdoms and warring monastic communities. “But His Holiness died,” I said, “three or four hundred years ago … ”

“We say that he is ‘resting,’ and we treat him as if he were alive,” the queen explained. “The chamberlain takes Shabdrung meals and betel nut each day, and water for his hands and face. His Majesty was in the presence of his remains, his holy relic.”

The queen is descended from a reincarnation of this seminal Bhutanese figure. The old king’s marriage to the four sisters thus ensured that any potential distrust between the royal family and the family of the nation’s founder was dissolved. The two lines are now physically embodied, for the first time, in the person of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the new king.

After studying at Cushing Academy, in Massachusetts, and Magdalen College, Oxford, the crown prince returned to his country to prepare for the advent of constitutional monarchy. Not surprisingly, he had become one of Asia’s most eligible bachelors. Like many Bhutanese he is an avid player of basketball, a sport popularized by his father during his bachelor days, when the women of Thimphu would come and watch in the hope of catching his eye. The new king is sociable and perceptive, with interest in photography and history. An Oxford friend remembers him drinking with Japanese students, and another recalls his nervousness when called upon to meet the British royal family. On a recent visit to Thailand, he was besieged by swooning female admirers. The Thai government ordered Web sites to remove what they regarded as disrespectful photos of him.

The new king is not, however, available. “His mothers would like to be assured of the next generation,” said the queen, on behalf of all the old king’s wives. “But he cannot marry a foreign person. It’s in the constitution—that not only the king, but all his royal siblings, must marry a Bhutanese.”

This new democratic constitution, the brainchild of the retiring king, brims with startling bits of Himalayan wisdom. For instance, prisoners are allowed conjugal visits—provided that one of the parties has been sterilized. Speaking to a retired official, the 84-year-old Dzongpen Kado, I asked what he thought of the outside world he saw on television. (Shows popular in Bhutan include American Idol, Ugly Betty, and, inevitably, Friends. You can also watch The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, though what the Bhutanese make of the monologue I cannot say.) “In other countries,” he said, “people seem more free. Either they don’t have rules, or they don’t follow rules. I think they are not afraid of killing each other. Here, people kill each other, but usually if they are drunk and have a fight.” At a state banquet, I met Bhutan’s chief of police and asked him what the national homicide rate was. “About 15 people a year,” he said. His biggest concern was the new—imported—practice of sniffing gasoline and solvents. “I go on television every night and advise our young people against it. They call me ‘Uncle Chief.’”

Read the rest of the article.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Alison Gopnik - Everything We Think We Know About Babies Is Wrong

I was lucky to see Alison Gopnik at the U of A consciousness conference last year - she is blazing new ground in what we know about the intelligence of infants. She is the new Margaret Mahler, and she is revising a lot of what has been taken for granted about infant minds, just as Mahler did.

This is a great article from Seed Magazine.

To Be a Baby

Bibliolog / by Evan Lerner / May 5, 2009

Alison Gopnik describes new experiments in developmental psychology that show everything we think we know about babies is wrong.

Thomas Nagel famously asked, “What is it like to be a bat?” That question has become a staple of Philosophy 101 courses, but we might be better served asking a more basic one: What is it like to be a baby? Though all of us experience life as a baby firsthand, we’ve long held misconceptions about what babies are capable of thinking, feeling, and understanding. Only recently have we overturned dominant theories of development in which very young children were thought to be barely conscious at all.

Out Aug 4 | Buy

In The Philosophical Baby developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik compiles the latest in her field’s research to paint a new picture of our inner lives at inception — one in which we are, in some ways, more conscious than adults. Gopnik spoke with Seed’s Evan Lerner about how babies and young children learn from us and what we can learn from them.

How does a better understanding of what’s going on in the minds of babies help us as adults?
Alison Gopnik:
One of the things we discovered is that imagination, which we often think of as a special adult ability, is actually in place in very young children, as early as 18 months old. That ability is very closely related to children’s ability to figure out how the world works. Imagination isn’t just something we develop for our amusement; it seems to be something innate and connected to how we understand the causal structure of the real world. In fact, the new computational model of development we’ve created —  using what computer scientists call Bayesian networks — shows systematically how understanding causation lets you imagine new possibilities. If children are computing in this way, then we’d expect imagination and learning to go hand in hand.

Seed: You describe children as being “useless on purpose.” What do you mean by that?
It’s related to one of the basic things that came out of our research: Why do children exist at all? It doesn’t make tremendous evolutionary sense to have these creatures that can’t even keep themselves alive and require an enormous investment of time on the part of adults. That period of dependence is longer for us than it is for any other species, and historically that period has become longer and longer.

The evolutionary answer seems to be that there is a tradeoff between the ability to learn and imagine — which is our great evolutionary advantage as a species — and our ability to apply what we’ve learned and put it to use. So one of the ideas in the book is that children are like the R&D department of the human species. They’re the ones who are always learning about the world. But if you’re always learning, imagining, and finding out, you need a kind of freedom that you don’t have if you’re actually making things happen in the world. And when you’re making things happen, it helps if those actions are based on all of the things you have learned and imagined. The way that evolution seems to have solved this problem is by giving us this period of childhood where we don’t have to do anything, where we are completely useless. We’re free to explore the physical world, as well as possible worlds through imaginative play. And when we’re adults, we can use that information to actually change the world.

Seed: You think Freud’s and Piaget’s conceptions of young children’s theory of mind are wrong. What do we know that they didn’t?
AG: Both Piaget and Freud thought that the reason children produced so much fantastic, unreal play was that they couldn’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. But a lot of the more recent work in children’s theory of mind has shown quite the contrary. Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities. It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both. The picture we used to have of children was that they spent all of this time doing pretend play because they had these very limited minds, but in fact what we’ve now discovered is that children have more powerful learning abilities than we do as adults. A lot of their characteristic traits, like their pretend play, are signs of how powerful their imaginative abilities are.

Seed: So is this just a matter of a changing frame of reference, where we now value imagination more?
AG: Well, the science has changed, too. For Freud and Piaget, it was a perfectly good hypothesis. If you just looked at young children and babies, they just did not seem very smart. We have new techniques we use to get more subtle measurements of what’s going on in children’s minds, and that’s the thing that has overturned that earlier view. When we take more than a superficial look at what children are doing, it turns out that they both know much more and learn much more than we ever thought before.

Seed: What are these techniques? How can we interrogate the minds of people who can’t yet fully communicate?
Children are not very good at spontaneously telling you what they are thinking. With adults, we give them a questionnaire and have them give us answers. That doesn’t work for babies, who can’t talk, and for young children, who can only give a kind of stream-of-consciousness response. So one thing is to look at what they do rather than what they say. This works if you give them very focused questions with very simple answers. Rather than ask a child to explain how a toy machine works, we’ll ask, “Do you think this block or that block will make the machine go?”

Seed: What have you found?
AG: These techniques show that children can work with very complex statistical information. In the machine example, we show children’s patterns of conditional probability, the relationship between certain blocks and the machine turning on or off. If I tried to give you just a description of the sequence of events in one of these experiments in a conversation, I’d probably get it wrong and you wouldn’t be able to remember it — it’s pretty complicated for even adults to describe. But when you give kids these complicated sets of relationships and then just ask them to make the machine go or make the machine stop, they do the right things. Although they can’t consciously track how these conditional probabilities work, they are unconsciously taking that information into account. And they do this in the same way that sophisticated Bayesian network machine-learning programs do.

Credit: crimfants

Seed: What about less objective causal inferences, such as ones dealing with morality?
AG: One of my favorites of these experiments is one that’s been around for quite awhile but hasn’t been fully appreciated. Two-and-a-half-year-olds already recognize the difference between moral principles and conventional principles. You can ask them if it would be okay to hit someone at daycare if everyone said it would be okay, versus asking them whether it would be okay to not hang up your coat in the cubby if everyone said it would be okay. These children say it’s never okay to hit someone, but whether or not you have to put your clothes in the cubby could change from daycare to daycare. They already seem to appreciate the difference between the kinds of morality that comes from empathy and the kind that comes from our conventional rules. From the time they are two, they recognize both are important but in different ways. That’s pretty amazing.

Seed: So where do adult philosophers go from here?
AG: Back to the 18th century, in some ways. If you look at someone like David Hume, he thought he was doing a kind of theoretical science — he didn’t think there was a line between what we find out from science and what we find out from philosophy. Increasingly, modern philosophers say that we can learn about the big questions by looking at science. But science, especially developmental psychology, can also tell us about philosophy; it can tell us about what we start with, what we learn, and what the basic facets of human nature are. The kind of picture you often get from scientifically oriented philosophy is often very much in the vein of evolutionary psychology, with everything innate and genetically determined. But one of the more important things that has come out of developmental work is that there’s also a powerful capacity for change. And we’re starting to understand how that change takes place at a very detailed neurological and computational level.

And the same is true when we look at our moral development. A lot of moral psychology has been saying that we have these innate moral instincts, or innate moral grammars. When we look at children, we do see some of these innate moral intuitions, but there is also this tremendous capacity for moral revision. In some ways, I think those are some of the most distinctively human abilities. They give us the ability to say, “Oh wait, the way that we’ve been operating is not working, and that’s wrong.” And this gives us the ability to change those things that are wrong and get to better moral principles than we started out with.

CHIMERAS OF EXPERIENCE - A Conversation with Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer at Edge - good stuff.
The paradox of modern neuroscience is that the one reality you can't describe as it is presently conceived is the only reality we'll ever know, which is the subjective first person view of things. Even if you can find the circuit of cells that gives rise to that, and you can construct a good causal demonstration that you knock out these circuit of cells, and you create a zombie; even if you do that... and I know Dennett could dismantle this argument very, very quickly ... there's still a mystery that persists, and this is the old brain-body, mind-body problem, and we don't simply feel like three pounds of meat.

A Conversation with Jonah Lehrer


"I always thought of myself as a scientist," says Jonah Lehrer "and then I had the privilege of working for several years in the lab of Eric Kandel as a technician, doing the manual labor of science, and what I discovered there was that I was a terrible scientist. As much as I loved the ideas, I excelled at experimental failure, I found new ways to make experiments not work. I would mess up PCRs, add the wrong buffers, northerns, westerns, southerns. I would make them not work in quite ingenious ways, and I realized slowly, over the course of those years, that the secret to being a great scientist is to love the manual labor of it." But there are many ways to contribute to the conversation that is science, and Lehrer is making important contributions as a writer who has internalized the process of the scientific method in asking interesting questions about ourselves and the world around us.

"Neuroscience has contributed so much in just a few decades to how we think about human nature and how we know ourselves," he says. "But how can we take that same rigor, which has made this research so valuable and, at the same time, make it a more realistic representation of what it's actually like to be a human. After all, we're a brain embedded in this larger set of structures."

"You can call it culture, call it society, call it your family, call it your friend, call it whatever it is. It's the stuff that makes people sign onto their Facebook a thousand times a day. It's the reason Twitter exists. We have got all these systems now that really make us fully aware of just how important social interactions are to what it is to be human. The question is, how can we study that? Because that, in essence, is a huge part of what's actually driving these enzymatic pathways in your brain. What's triggering these synaptic transmissions and these squirts of neurotransmitter back and forth is thoughts of other people, what other people say to us, interacting with the world at large. " Read on...

John Brockman

JONAH LEHRER, Contributing Editor at Wired and the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist, has written for The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.

Jonah Lehrer's Edge Bio Page


[JONAH LEHRER:] The questions I'm asking myself right now are on a couple different levels. For a long time there's been this necessary drive towards reductionism; towards looking at the brain, these three pounds of gelatinous flesh, as nothing but a loop of kinase enzymes. You're a trillion synaptic connections. Of course, that’s a necessary foundation for trying to understand the mind and the brain, simply trying to decode the wet stuff. And that's essential, and we've made astonishing progress thanks to the work of people like Eric Kandel, who has helped outline the chemistry behind memory and all these other fundamental mental processes. Yet now we're beginning to know enough about the wet stuff, about these three pounds, to see that that's at best only a partial glance, a glimpse of human nature; that we're not just these brains in a vat, but these brains that interact with other brains and we are starting to realize that the fundamental approach we've taken to the mind and the brain, looking at it as this system of ingredients, chemical ingredients, enzymatic pathways, is actually profoundly limited.

The question now is, how do you then extrapolate it upwards? How do you take this organ, this piece of meat that runs on 10 watts of electricity, and how do you study it in its actual context, which is that it's not a brain in a vat. It's a brain interacting with other brains. How do you study things like social networks and human interactions?

Just think, for instance, about what’s now the hottest method in cognitive neuroscience: The fMRI machine, the brain scan. Think about the fundamental limitation of this machine, which is that it's one person by himself in what's essentially a noisy coffin. So you give him the stimulus. He's going through the experimental task, whatever it is. Choosing whether or not to buy something, doing a visual memory task. Whatever the protocol is, you're in essence looking at a brain in a vacuum. You're looking at a brain by itself, and we don't think enough about how profoundly abstract that is, and what an abstraction that is on the reality we actually inhabit, the reality of being a human and what human nature is all about.

The question now, and this is a fascinating question to think about, is how can we take this research, which is so rigorous, and how can we make it more realistic.

Neuroscience has contributed so much in just a few decades to how we think about human nature and how we know ourselves. But how can we take that same rigor, which has made this research so valuable and, at the same time, make it a more realistic representation of what it's actually like to be a human. After all, we're a brain embedded in this larger set of structures.

You can call it culture, call it society, call it your family, call it your friend, call it whatever it is. It's the stuff that makes people sign onto their Facebook a thousand times a day. It's the reason Twitter exists. We have got all these systems now that really make us fully aware of just how important social interactions are to what it is to be human. The question is, how can we study that? Because that, in essence, is a huge part of what's actually driving these enzymatic pathways in your brain. What's triggering these synaptic transmissions and these squirts of neurotransmitter back and forth is thoughts of other people, what other people say to us, interacting with the world at large.

As someone on the fringes of the field, part of the excitement to me is the fact that at this point there still are these different levels of description, and no one quite knows how they all fit together. There's the electrophysiologists with their galvanic needle measuring the individual dopamine neuron, and then there's the person in the brain scan, looking at different circuitry, different blobs of brain lighting up in a brain scanner. Then there's the EEG machine.

Even if you're just looking at the wet stuff, even if you're just looking at the meat, there are all these different ways of describing it, and how you ask your questions, the experimental tools you have, in large part drive what kind of questions you can ask and what kind of stuff you're looking for. Even within cognitive neuroscience, there's this tremendous variation in terms of how the brain, how the circuitry, is described.

We feel like more than just the sum of a trillion neurons. We feel like more than just three pounds of wet flesh, and so simply describing the brain in terms of its neurotransmitters and neurons and all these chemicals and exciting ingredients doesn't fully grapple with what it feels like to be human, the first person subjective experience of being a conscious being. When you think about the really grand epic questions of neuroscience ... what is consciousness? How can we form a scientific explanation for consciousness, for human experience? That is the holy grail. That question itself necessitates us to think beyond the strict limitations of reductionism, simply because describing the experience as mere squirts of neurotransmitter, oscillations of electricity in the prefrontal cortex, won't, in itself, fully answer the real question, which is how does this meat generate chimeras of experience, chimeras of being a self, in a body.

Consciousness is a very tough thing to explain away, because in the end, the paradox of modern neuroscience stems from the constant drive towards the smallest possible fundamental unit you can study, measure and quantify. Let's grant the fact that one day we can find the circuit of neurons that explains conscious experience. You knock out these 10 cells in the prefrontal cortex, generating this binding rhythm, whatever it is. To me, that still begs the real question which is, how does that create the illusion, even if it is just an illusion, as Dennett would say, an epiphenomenon. You still have to explain where the chimera comes from. Where the subjective experience comes from, where the taste of the apple in an apple comes from.

The paradox of modern neuroscience is that the one reality you can't describe as it is presently conceived is the only reality we'll ever know, which is the subjective first person view of things. Even if you can find the circuit of cells that gives rise to that, and you can construct a good causal demonstration that you knock out these circuit of cells, and you create a zombie; even if you do that... and I know Dennett could dismantle this argument very, very quickly ... there's still a mystery that persists, and this is the old mind-body problem, but it’s an old problem for a reason: we don't simply feel like three pounds of meat.

We don't simply feel like kinase enzymes and synaptic proteins and all that. We feel like this unified self staring out at a world, watching rain fall on Fifth Avenue. It's hard to imagine neuroscience as it's presently conceived ever explaining this mystery in terms of neurons and cells and glials and all the rest.

I've talked to enough scientists who thought that LSD would be a great way to study it if it weren't so tough to get it in the lab. Here are these drugs that profoundly and reliably and in ways you can actually measure distort our experience, and you can study what LSD does to serotonin in the prefrontal cortex You can study how it affects dopamine projections from the ventral striatum.

I was talking to a scientist last year who studies 'aha' moments. What happens in your brain when you have an epiphany? He was saying it would be great for him to use LSD in the lab, because when you take a hit of acid, you're a eureka machine. You think you've solved the world. You think you've solved the cosmos. You're just writing down notes on cocktail napkins. Not until you wake up in the morning do you realize you wrote down the most banal things ever — in the moment, you're just having one epiphany after another. Wouldn't it be great for him to give people LSD and study what happens in their brain? It turns out that it's very tough to do. It's very tough to get grant funding. People still remember Tim Leary at Harvard in the early '60s. There's still a stigma attached to it. We joke about it, but it could still be a very, very useful experimental tool.

As far as my background goes, I was a double major at Columbia in Neuroscience and English, and I always thought of myself as a scientist. I always thought I wanted to be a scientist. This was my narrative since I was eight years old, when I read E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins and didn't understand a word of what they were saying, I still fell in love with their approach to the world, the way the looked at nature, and saw it as a puzzle to be decoded.

I always thought of myself as a scientist, and then I had the privilege of working for several years in the lab of Eric Kandel as a technician, doing the manual labor of science, and what I discovered there was that I was a terrible scientist. As much as I loved the ideas, I excelled at experimental failure, I found new ways to make experiments not work. I would mess up PCRs, add the wrong buffers, northerns, westerns, southerns. I would make them not work in quite ingenious ways, and I realized slowly, over the course of those years, that the secret to being a great scientist is to love the manual labor of it.

What you're doing as a scientist is doing experiments. Ninety-nine percent of what you do as a neuroscientist is the act of experimentation, and also, thinking with a disciplined thought process, taking very big grandiose ambitious questions — "What is memory?" — and breaking them down into testable questions you can study in a sea slug or in a genetically modified mouse. I realized I didn't have that talent, which is such an important talent, to take a very big question and break it down into these empirical units. So I began thinking about science writing.

I love scientists. I love hanging out with scientists. I always think of the W.H. Auden line about when he's in a room full of scientists, he feels like a shabby curate in a room of dukes. That's how I feel. They're the most fun people to hang out with. Even on days when I wasn't working in the lab, when I was still an undergrad I would love to go do my homework in the coffee room just to eavesdrop on these conversations I could barely understand, because there were so many acronyms I couldn't follow. CREB1, CREB2, CPEB. Who knows what they're talking about, but it had the feel of, here are people solving reality one little acronym at a time. But I realized that I didn't have the talent, didn't have the skills, the discipline to be a scientist myself.

I first began thinking about science writing, and then I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to Oxford where I studied twentieth century literature for one year and then the history of science in the Theology department for my second degree.

It was a great experience to broaden my mind, and that's when I began thinking about science writing and began working on my first book. I kind of fell into this.

My first goal is simply to translate the science. When there's an amazing new paper that just came out in "Proceedings" and Nature and Science, I want to talk to the scientist, get a sense for how they came up with these answers. These aren't the final answers. This is our provisional draft of reality.

Simply translating the act of the scientist is the first job of any science writer. Then, in my more grandiose moments, the other big job of a science writer is to see connections, s to see the forest composed by all these trees. The act of being a scientist, by definition, the act of being a modern scientist requires you to really focus. You have to drill down. You have to spend years studying one brick, one synaptic protein, one kind of thing that turns on the amygdala, one very particular question.

One of the great privileges of being a science writer is you get to zoom out a bit and see connections that maybe the scientist themselves aren't aware of. You get to hopscotch between these different levels of description; you can talk to a psychologist and try to figure out how their paradigm for studying human behavior actually relates back down to dopamine neurons, to human nature at its most minute.
That's the real privilege of being a science writer, and that's part of the reason I love writing about neuroscience, because I feel like there's so much to connect. We still have no idea how it fits together. We're just at this point where we know enough to know how little we know. That makes it very exciting to be a journalist.

There are a number of people I've been thinking about in this regard, three of which immediately come to mind: Walter Mischel, Eric Kandel, and Geoffrey West.


Walter Mischel at Columbia University is probably best known for the marshmallow task. It's a very simple experiment he did at the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University between 1968 and 1972, where you bring a four-year-old into the experimental room, and he'd say, "Kid, you can have one marshmallow right now, or if you can wait for about 15 minutes while I run an errand, you can have a second marshmallow." And he offered the kids marshmallows or cookies, pretzel sticks, and what he found was that there's tremendous variation in terms of how long kids can wait; every kid wants the second marshmallow or the second cookie, but some kids will eat the marshmallows before the scientist leaves the room. Some kids will wait two minutes. The average waiting time is about two and a half minutes, and some kids can wait the full 15 minutes.

The question is, what allowed some kids to wait? And it wasn't that these kids wanted the marshmallow any less or that these kids had more willpower. It's that these kids knew how to distract themselves. These are the kids who would cover their eyes, turn their back, sing songs from Sesame Street, pretend to fall asleep.

My favorite kid is a boy with neatly parted hair, and he chose the Oreo cookies, and you can watch him. He's just really struggling with it. It's an agonizing, agonizing wait, and he carefully surreptitiously looks around to make sure no one's watching him. There's a large one-way mirror right to his left that he conveniently ignores. He picks up the Oreo cookie, carefully unspools it, licks off the white cream filling, puts it back together, puts it on the table, and then he could wait 15 minutes, no problem. Mischel notes that the kids who can wait what they’re better at is the strategic allocation of attention. They know that my willpower's weak and if I'm thinking about this yummy, delicious marshmallow, I'm going to eat it. What I have to do is not think about it; I need to distract myself.

Then you do this longitudinal study, and you find that the kids who could wait at the age of four — and this is the most predictive test you can give a four-year-old, much more predictive than an IQ test — it predicts their behavior in school, how likely they'll do drugs, their body mass index. The SAT score of a kid who can wait is 210 points higher than the SAT score of a kid who can't wait. It's an incredibly predictive test. Here's this very simple experiment, this very simple protocol you give to four-year-olds, and it turns out to explain a lot about their behavior as teenagers, adolescents.

Mischel and his collaborators are now flying 55 of these kids out to Palo Alto — they're now in their 40s — to put them in brain scans, and to see the different brain areas that underlie this ability to exert willpower, but the larger lesson is that what we think about willpower is actually completely wrong.

People think about willpower as gritting your teeth, but willpower actually is profoundly weak; no one can really resist a marshmallow if you're thinking about how sweet the marshmallow is. What these people are better at is — and this is how the scientists describe it — is the ability to control their thoughts, to control the contents of working memory.

Some people are much better at that, and that's a crucial life skill that allows you to — my favorite television show's on, but I need to study for the SAT, I need to do homework. How can I resist this temptation? It allows you to control your temper, to not lose your temper when someone calls you a name. It really is a very, very important life skill, and that's what Mischel was able to measure at the age of four.

I've been thinking a lot about that, and now Mischel 's trying to go back into the schools to see if he can teach this to kids. Once kids leave kindergarden, we stop thinking about them in terms of character, in terms of these personality traits, but it turns out these are crucial things, and schools shouldn't just be in the business of teaching algebra, of teaching literacy, teaching spelling.

They have to be in the business of teaching kids how to think, teaching them these metacognitive rules. Teach kids how to structure their thoughts, how to do a better job of controlling their mind, and that's going to have a huge payoff in terms of academic skills later on. I've been thinking a lot about that. Mischel's just a magnificent and very meticulous scientist.


I was so lucky to have Eric Kandel as a mentor. Even to call him a mentor is a very presumptuous thing, but just working in his lab was such a defining and pivotal experience. Here is this brilliant, brilliant man. The smartest man I've ever met, who defined more than anyone else the theory behind modern neuroscience, which is that you can take this very, very complex mental process — what is memory? — and you can study it by basically annoying a sea slug, by impressing a sea slug, by poking a sea slug, waiting for the sea slug to habituate, to adapt, and that sea slug will use the same ingredients, the same kinase enzymes, the same whatever, to remember the memory as a human. That was such a fundamental insight. It's easy to forget what a profound shift in thinking that was and how controversial it was at the time.

He's since branched out in so many interesting ways and looked at memory in so many from so many other angles. In other words, he hasn’t just defined the way we ask these questions, but he’s also come up with a staggering number of good answers. But just working in his lab, more than anything else, allowed me to fall in love with the scientific process, with the scientists themselves. I used to love going to lab meeting and I loved how contentious it was and how people would ask each other questions. This is where the ideas happen. It's not a man sitting by himself. It's not Newton under the apple tree. It's scientists talking to themselves, asking each other the hard questions, coming up with alternate explanations. That's when the breakthroughs happen.

Also, of course, Eric is this incredible intellectual. He's so cultured. He can talk about the molecules behind memory with the same eloquence he talks about Egon Schiele and Klimt and Freud. I was in the lab and talking to him just when he was starting to go back and visit Austria again and visit Vienna and rediscover his relationship to Vienna. That was fascinating, watching him grapple with and struggle with his past, because there's a lot of forgiveness involved. But it was such a privilege, such a lucky privilege, to be able to watch him think.


What fascinates me about Geoffrey West's work is not just the sheer ambition of it, trying to come up with metabolic equations of life. He is the Director of the Sante Fe Institute. He's a theoretical physicist and one of the questions he's working on is, can you come up with a set of equations that define the metabolic processes of life from the rat to the elephant, and can you come up with a set of equations that describe how animals process energy, and how their cells work varies with the sheer size of the animal?

This would be a kind of universal equation of life, a very grandiose idea, and it's a very controversial idea, and it's hard to know why it would exist. There are, of course, outliers on this neat, sloping line, but it's still a very elegant idea, and one of those hypotheses where even if it's wrong it will still teach us so much.

I'm drawn to West now because he's done some really interesting work trying to apply these same laws to cities. As we talked about earlier, one of the big challenges going forward is how can we ask deep and interesting questions about humans in groups, social networks, cities.. How has the invention of the city changed human nature?

West has come up with really elegant ways to start to measure using algorithms, using these mathematical tools and the skill set he has to measure how the kind of city we live in affects how we think. For instance, whether or not the city fosters random interaction, If you bump into a stranger on the subway, that turns out to have all sorts of big consequences. It's like Jane Jacobs, who talked about the serendipity of the sidewalk and bumping into people. Geoffrey West has shown that cities that foster those kinds of random interactions score higher in measures of innovation. Like the number of patents they produce. Cities that don't, cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas, score much lower on these innovation scales. Obviously, there's no causation here, just some elegant correlation. but you can begin to see these really elegant connections between urban theory and Jane Jacobs, between who you bump into on the sidewalk and how that actually may foster creativity for reasons we can't yet begin to explain. It's this whole different way to look at human nature, to study these groups, and it's a really interesting approach.


Part of why there isn't more writing about science in the major publications is that people simply aren't used to asking these questions through that prism. It's not just in journalism. It's in the academy more than anywhere else that there are separate domains, and that if you're asking questions about art, then you shouldn't be asking questions about neuroscience.

Obviously you can take that too far and you don't want to say Rothko is nothing but oscillations in your visual cortex, because that leaves out what makes Rothko Rothko, but it's still so fun to try to merge these disciplines, to try to take a novel and say, "Why does this work? Why am I finding this imaginative narrative so gripping?" By trying to figure out why certain works of art endure – why Hamlet titillates the human brain - you can often learning something quite interesting about the art and the brain.

In terms of journalism and the challenge of accurately representing science, the thing I struggle with is capturing the process. Too often there is this tendency to say, what makes this science story interesting? What's the payoff? Is there a new drug in the pipeline? Have they published a big new paper in Nature that's going to solve where human language comes from? We’re so focus on the result, on the conclusion, on the abstract of the paper and the last paragraph in the paper, but really what a science paper is is the methods section, it’s the process. And that is incredibly hard to actually translate to the public, partly because it can be pretty tedious but to get inside how a scientist thinks, to show that what makes science such a valuable, essential and crucial modern institution, is that there is this process. Someone had to struggle for years, someone had to sift through, parse through ambiguous data and come up with a good tentative answer, and that's incredibly difficult to translate to the public.

It's not simply that we need more science coverage. Really what we need absolutely more of, starting now, is to give people a better sense of the scientific process. A lot of the scientific illiteracy I see out there and the scientific misunderstanding of the American public, and the reason many people find it so easy to brush aside science or to simply believe that science is unweaving the rainbow, is because they don't understand the scientific process and the struggle and what a beautiful romantic process it often is. What we need more of, and this is a challenge to the writer, is to convey to people the excitement and the drama of a man or woman trying to take these big, big questions and come up with a new answer. It’s a noble pursuit.