Saturday, May 30, 2009

Jane O'Grady - Can a machine change your mind?

Very cool article - the mind is certainly not the brain. The reductionist thinking of neuroscience is just silly sometimes. Strangely or maybe coolly, this comes via Open Democracy.

Can a machine change your mind?

The mind is not the brain. Confusing the two, as much neuro-social-science does, leads to a dehumanised world and a controlling politics

‘Can a machine read your mind?’ – the title of a recent (February 2009) article in the Times -- is meant to be sensational but is similar to hundreds of other articles appearing with increasing frequency, and merely repeating a story that has been familiar for the last 50 years. ‘It’s just a matter of time’ is the assumption behind such articles – just a matter of time before the gap between physical brain-stuff and consciousness is bridged. The Times article plays up the social interest angle of its story by describing experiments in which people’s brain activity is taken as proof of their guilt or innocence of crimes, or in which a computer ‘could tell with 78 per cent accuracy’ which of a number of drawings shown to volunteers was the one they were concentrating on ...

There are in fact even more extreme examples than those in the Times article of how neuro-science and social science increasingly overlap. Alan Sanfey, of the Neural Decision Science Laboratory at the University of Arizona, for example, describes a neuro-economic analysis of an Ultimatum Game in which one person is given the power over another to make an offer to split £100. If the other rejects the offer, no one gets anything. So far so familiar -- to other behavioural economics experiments that study the norms of fairness. One neuro-twist to the story, though, is that experimenters can make subjects more or less willing to accept unfair offers by subjecting their brains to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), non-invasive and painless stimulation of the brain.

At a recent meeting of a Conservative think-tank in London about the possibility of reducing concepts of moral action entirely to scientific explanations of behaviour, one politician joked about the policy applications of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation techniques. The world of understanding, cognition and even action can be managed by manipulating atoms rather than arguments ("opium of the people" in reverse -- chemicals inducing meaning, instead of meanings acting chemically). Even where such claims seem strongest and most striking, it is important to ask what exactly they amount to. Can we really move with ease from the world of atoms to the world of meanings? Or is any apparent smoothness due to the conceptual confusion involved in applying neuro-scientific discoveries to meaningful questions -- so that in the transition we inevitably lose essentially human parts of existence? These questions, newly pertinent because of scientific and social developments, have been anticipated in the philosophy of mind of the past 70 years.

In the late 1950s, philosophers like J J C Smart demanded why -- given the advances of science, and its success in establishing the identity of commonsense with scientific concepts -- specific states of consciousness (pain, seeing a yellow after-image) should not in fact ‘turn out to be’ specific brain states. Lightning has ‘turned out to be’ an electrical discharge, and heat to be molecular motion. In each case, said Smart, the scientific term obviously doesn’t mean the same as the commonsense term, but it does refer to the same phenomenon. Science tells us what lightning and heat actually are. Similarly, pain doesn’t mean brain state 7,008, and the person talking about her pain may well not know that what she is talking about is brain state 7,008 (any more than, prior to Alexander von Humboldt in the 19th century, people knew they were talking about H2O when they talked about water), but that is what she is ultimately talking about.

Biologists, neuroscientists, and scientised people in general, are often perplexed, even exasperated, that there should be any objection to some version of this Smart-type identification of brain states with mental states. They pat philsophers’ hands and tell them not to bother their clever little heads about the problem since it is a scientific one, and nothing to do with philosophy. ‘Just a matter of time’ again. But it surely is unavoidably a philosophical problem, since we need to know what exactly we’re dealing with. What would count as knowing that a brain state/mental state identity had been established? How could it be proved that brain state 7,008, for instance, is precisely the pain I’m having now? Well, is the usual answer, it’s just a matter of sophisticated technology being developed to correlate a specific site in the brain and movement of neurones etc with the occurrence of the pain, showing that each is happening at the same time, in the same place. Yes, but how can more than correlation be established? And correlation of time is hard enough, what could correlation of place come to?

Smart seemed to be conceding the correlation point when he admitted that what he postulated about brain state/mental state synchronisation could equally amount to epiphenomenalism as to identity (i.e., to the view that, with any neural event, there is also a mental, causally inactive, spin-off). Occam’s razor was his clinching argument for opting for identity – get rid of clutter and believe as simple and economic a theory as possible.

Which would be fine if, as some philosophers like Thomas Nagel have pointed out, your razor didn’t actually cut out the essential thing. How do we get rid of the sense that there always seems to be something left over from the straightforward conflation of brain state activity into mental state occurrence? In The Blue Book, Wittgenstein imagines a scenario in which scientists open someone’s head and observe his functioning brain, while he, by means of mirrors, observes it at the same time, all observers equally able to watch neurones firing, synapses opening, etc. In principle, why not? But, as Wittgenstein says, the brain-owner, unlike the scientists clustering round him, is observing, or experiencing, two things rather than one. He can observe that when he feels, or thinks about, certain things, certain activities occur in his brain at the same time. He experiences feeling or thinking in certain ways, and also he experiences observing his brain working in certain ways. The scientists only experience observing the brain working. What one could add to this is that if, at some time in the future, the subject whose brain has been observed were to see a video of what had happened during the brain-inspection, he (unless his memory were perfect or the experiment very brief) would be in the same position as the observing scientists were at the time – he would have to deduce what he had been thinking about or feeling then from what he now observes of his brain in the video.

Given the brain’s material object status, it wouldn’t, and, for identity theorists, shouldn’t, matter whose brain is being observed, and by whom, owner or non-owner, when it comes to ‘recognising’ mental states as brain states, and vice versa. But of course, it does matter – it makes all the difference. Also, as it should seem too juvenile to add, suppose the brain-owner were an expert on the history of the Restoration, and had been thinking about his new research during the experiment, the observers at the time would become no whit more knowledgeable about Restoration England. Oh well, might be the riposte, if we knew the entire history of the brain-owner’s history-acquisition, then we could read off from the lighted-up areas of his brain … etc. ‘Read off’ is still ‘deduce’, and it would require a lot of separate learning on the part of the brain-observer for her to be able to catch up with the brain-owner’s knowledge.

The observer (of the brain or brain-scan) has to infer a brain/mental state correlation, relying on the brain-owner’s report, and/or on induction – observation of similar brains in similar contexts, with a mass of correlations and brain-owners’ reports being accumulated and compared. In the examples in the Times article mentioned above, the experimenter needed to infer from movements (or lack of movements) in parts of the brain to the guilt or innocence of the brain-owner, or to rely on the experimental subject’s confirmation as to whether the drawing she seemed to be concentrating on actually was the drawing she was concentrating on. Reliance on both inference and induction surely makes ‘mind-reading’ by brain-scan open to the same sort of problems as the notoriously suspect lie-detector tests that already exist – that the experimenter’s deduction can be mistaken due to ways in which the experimental subject’s brain is (or does things) different to what is standard or expected. Anyway, the initial expectation of identity theorists that the regular coincedence of a particular type of brain state with a particular type of physical state could eventually be established (not just regular in one individual brain but across individuals’ brains in general) has largely been abandoned as impossible to achieve.

Leibniz made the same point as Wittgenstein when asking us to imagine somehow being able to wander about inside someone else’s (or it could be your own) brain. You can observe all sorts of things pulling and pushing, he says, but cannot observe the thoughts. Which is why spatial correlation of a brain state with a mental state sounds even more disorientatingly weird than temporal correlation, horribly like a category mistake. To claim, as Smart does, that sensations and thoughts are just processes in the brain makes sense in one way -- without brain movements consciousness wouldn’t happen; but what the consciousness is of, the content of consciousness (the beach on Formentera in 1983, some of your religious beliefs or disbeliefs, the difficulty of solving problems of consciousness) – is that in the brain exactly? And isn’t your pain felt in your tooth and your pleasure located in your breasts?

Just as you couldn’t pick out the precise area in a brain where a practising Jew’s disbelief in the resurrection of Jesus (or a physicalist’s disbelief in mind-body dualism, or an enamoured man’s feeling of love) is located, or that becomes activated when Jesus’s resurrection (or dualism, or the beloved) is mentioned, nor more could you get the practicing Jew to believe in the resurrection while preserving his other beliefs, or convert the physicalist into a dualist, or get the man to fall out of love, by tampering with or obliterating specific parts of her or his brain activity. A belief is part of a whole theory or system of beliefs, a feeling of love part of life history, memories, beliefs, etc. Given what is called the holism of the mental, a holism both of abstract belief systems, and of concrete, personal life histories, you couldn’t alter either just by tampering piecemeal. (obviously you could by damaging the brain so severely that the person became incapable of coherent thought or speech, actually wiping out wholesale the capacity to remember, believe, feel as others normally do, and the person specifically had done.) Another reason why at best you get correlation or causation, not identity.

It seems more feasible, perhaps, to seek to establish mental state/brain state correlations in the case of visceral, body-related mental states, like pain, than in the case of contentful (‘intentional’) mental states that overarch, and invoke, other parts of a person’s life and belief-systems. Apart from the obvious fact that there is no neat division here but overlap and further diversity, these two sorts of mental state have at least one thing in common – can either ‘a thought [or this particular thought] about the beach in Formentera’, for instance, or ‘pain [or this particular sensation of pain]’, be on a par with lightning, heat or water? How far is consciousness comparable to any physical phenomenon? Smart seems to have an uneasy inkling of their non-comparablity when he makes a point of seeking to ‘forestall irrelevant objections’ by pointing out that he is not talking about ‘the publicly observable physical object, lightning’ but about the sense datum or the brain state (which are, as he is of course arguing, one and the same) that are caused by lightning. Surely he is stressing this very obvious distinction because he has a worrying sense (anticipating Saul Kripke (see especially lecture 3) that there is not an equivalence between the equation: ‘lightning = an electrical discharge’ and the equation: ‘this particular (or this type of) mental state = this particular (or this type of) brain state.

‘Lightning’, ‘water’ and ‘heat’ are commonsense terms for phenomena that are, for scientific purposes, more accurately called ‘electrical discharge’, ‘H2O’ and ‘molecular motion’. The lightning and water equations only seem analogous to a mental state = brain state equation, because the common sense terms ‘lightning’ and ‘water’, unlike their respective scientific terms, somehow contain (and therefore smuggle in) the sense of what lightning and water look like. Therefore, to say that lightning is an electrical discharge, or that water is H2O, adds objective knowledge of what the phenomenon really is (lightning isn’t after all something hurled by angry gods). But how can ‘irritation at his assumption that this problem can be so easily solved’ or ‘remembering how we sat under the honeysuckle near Orford’ be more illuminatingly called ‘brain state 50,987 with x neurons doing y [and however complicated and precise you want to make this description]’? What exactly would be added to your feeling or memory by discovering (if you could) that it was a movement of atoms?

Is a conscious state really equivalent to lightning, heat or water? For, as Kripke pointed out, now, once it has been discovered that water is H2O, lightning is an electrical discharge, heat is molecular motion, we all know it to be the case that whenever you get water you get H2O etc. and anyone who doesn’t is ill-informed. Only ignorance prevents the perceiver of water, lightning or heat from knowing these respective identity statements to be true. Different meanings, same reference. But that surely doesn’t apply in the case of sensations, thoughts, memories, etc.

Water seems a certain way to us, and science, in its attempt to produce what Nagel calls ‘a view from nowhere’, ignores and extracts from the seeming, in order to get at what water really is, irrespective of the viewer's race, sex, age, or other subjective idiosyncracies, irrespective in fact of any viewer whatever. But we can't subtract the viewer when dealing with consciousness. Consciousness is unavoidably subjective and about how things seem, what things seem like to the conscious person. Of course another conscious person may deduce, or be informed about and thereby make deductions about the truth and quiddity of, another conscious person’s thoughts or feelings. And of course in some way consciousness may be caused by, or correlated with, the brain's microscopic properties. But (as Nagel hardly needed to remind us) what it feels like to be conscious of something, or to be in a particular state of pain or serenity, surely goes beyond those brain properties. A scientific description of what happens in the brain when someone has a certain thought or experience seems inevitably to leave out what the thought is about or the experience is like. Once again, there’s something left over, something which, if the person were observing their own brain states, they would be having in addition to seeing neurons fire and synapses wiggling.

What more would the person conscious of pain, of the memory of Formentera in 1983, of believing in physicalism, know about the pain, the memory or the belief, either as experienced or as described, if knowing that any of these ‘is’ brain state 3,9087? In what sense ‘is’ any of them a specific brain state or set of brain states?

As Kripke said, when God (obviously metaphoric here) created the world, all he needed to do to create heat was to create molecular motion (which is what heat is) but he needed to do something extra in order to create a sensation of heat. Ditto with creating water, it was just a matter of creating H2O, but the sight, sound, taste, feel, smell(?) of water were an additional labour, actually requiring the creation of sentient organisms. (In a way, heat is in a slightly different category from lightning and water. The latter two phenomena (especially water) can be more easily imagined as unperceived entities than heat can. With heat, the objective phenomenon is much more inextricably interwoven with the subjective effect of it, which is why Kripke’s use of heat as an example can be misleading.)

The most irritating (to us lay people) aspect of philosophical and scientific attempts to reduce the mental to the neural, and to squash down human beings into being on all fours with other physical things, is that their proponents nearly always say that actually they are just putting the truth about consciousness more clearly and taking nothing away from our experience. Like politicians deviously withdrawing privileges, they expect us to be quite happy about this. Some developments of identity theory, however, are more upfront. They force consciousness into equivalence with lightning and water by impugning the ignorance of us ordinary people. The way we talk about sensations, memories and beliefs is, say eliminative materialists, hopelessly antiquated, a form of ‘folk psychology’ as hidebound and superstition-laden as talk about witches, or about epileptics being possessed by devils. ‘Folk psychology’ is a theory about how humans function, they say, that is pathetically inadequate in both describing and predicting. In time, a more scientifically sophisticated vocabulary will replace it.

Really? So we were wrong all the time about our memories and our passions? What sort of a world, I wonder, do these eliminative materialists envisage with their revised vocabulary about mental (or rather neural states). What exactly would be doing? What would be the point of training ourselves, or being trained, to report on our brain states?

The eliminative materialists may base their argument on the perspicuous fact that some mental terms do trail theories behind them, and can therefore be replaced, extrapolating from this the notion that such terms can be wholesale eliminated. ‘Depression’, ‘grief’, ‘melancholia’, ‘black bile’, ‘accidie’ are, it is true, not synonymous, nor do they, probably, refer to precisely the same phenomena; but does that mean that there are no such dark phenomena? ‘Dark’ is not just purple passagey – these, like many mental states, arent exactly describable except by pictorial and other metaphors. But I wonder how eliminative materialists would replace Macbeth’s description, or expression, of depression, melancholy, black bile or whatever in the ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech, or George Eliot's apercu on the insincerity of spontaneous feeling.

Metaphor bridges the gap between secluded mental states by invoking physical things that are open to all (whatever the likelihood of their being differently experienced). If indeed ‘folk psychology’ could be eradicated, along with all the metaphor and poetry that has grown up around it, then surely, with the irrepressibility of weeds, metaphor and poetry would spring up again around brain state terminology. But how would we be induced to abandon ‘folk psychology’ in the first place. Eliminativism seems to share the worst aspect of Cartesian dualism – its hopeless seclusion. Our brain states, although in principle open to anyone’s inspection, are in practice hidden. Why would we go the trouble of talking about our inner states, sensibly say objectors to dualism, unless in the context of sharable, palpable experiences? Even more ridiculous, by the same token, is the idea that we could be taught about, and discuss, brain states. Why would we ever dream of doing so?

Worse than this, would be the loss to morality and self-creation. Suppose, in a juxtaposition of eliminativism and Freudianism, a woman’s amygdala lighted up in the anger zone even as she was professing not to be angry. She is duly given the expert’s better-informed diagnosis of her state of mind. But is that an advantage, particularly if she accepts the diagnosis and acts on it. Denial of anger may sometimes be dishonesty or self-deception, but may also, even while being both, be part of the suppression of anger that is so imperative in civilised life. What about if a man objecting to a situation of social injustice were subjected to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to obliterate his present feeling of dissatisfaction and induce a feeling of pleasure? Surely what actually matters to him is the cognitive aspect of the dissatisfaction – the reason he was feeling it.

The new neuro-social-sciences are the latest of many attempts to naturalise the human---to make every aspect of our lives and selves comprehensible merely as subjects of scientific explanation. The social consequences of the naturalistic program make it especially important to understand its philosophical limits. Not only do we become experimental subjects, but we very easily become subjected -- to the particular types of control that scientific understanding invites, especially the "medical model" of the expert which offers the 'patient' diagnosis, prophylaxis, prognosis and cure. This may produce wonderful results in the right context, but should be tightly confined within the world of atoms; in the world of meanings, its essentially metaphorical status needs to be always understood. A naturalised, rather than thoughtful and deliberative politics, is not only creepy, it is incoherent. Ironically, it substitutes a medical metaphor for meaningful argument.

Hard-line identity theorists, and eliminativists above all, don’t appreciate how much they would change things if indeed we could come to believe and implement their theories. Our world would increasingly be leeched of meaning, morality, dignity and freedom, and if we rejected folk psychology in favour of scientific terminology about brain states, not only would we know less, not more, about ourselves; we would also have less to know about, because we would be less.

(All pictures have been taken from Alan Sanfey's very interesting presentation of Ultimatum Game results, here)

Neurologica Blog - Are We All Synesthetes?

Very interesting article - when I first read about Synesthesia back in college (the first time) I really wanted to know what it felt like to mix senses that way. When I used LSD back in the day, I was hoping that I would be one of the people who experienced that sensation. Never did.

Are We All Synesthetes?

Synesthesia is a rare and interesting neurological phenomenon in which one sensory modality crosses over into another. Synesthetes therefore may see sounds, or taste colors. Abstract concepts may also evoke sensory experiences. In color-graphemic synesthesia letters or numbers evoke the perception of a specific color (for each individual the same number will always evoke the same color). In ordinal linguistic personifcation, days of the week or months of the year convey a specific personality. Other forms of synesthesia involve spacial relationships and size. Over 60 forms of synesthesia have been reported.

What is happening inside the brain in synesthetes is currently under study, but early evidence suggests that their brains are hardwired for the experience - literally there is a cross-wiring where one type of sensation or information processing leaks over into another.

A recently identified form a synesthesia is visual motion to sound synesthesia - people can hear visual motion or flickering images. While the overall prevalence of synesthesia is estimated at less than 1%, visual sound synasthesia may be more common. On a personal note, I have experienced this myself on several occasions when I was profoundly sleep deprived. Every time I blinked my eyes or scanned my eyes across different levels of lighting I would hear a distinct “whooshing” sound.

Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology, performs crossmodal research at Oxford University. He is looking at the effects of processing multiple sensory modalities simultaneously in the normal population - and he thinks that to a certain degree we are all synasthetes. On his website he writes:

Synaesthesia is a rare condition in which people report, for example, ’seeing’ a colour when they hear certain words, like the days of the week, or numbers. Everyday language also uses cross-modal correspondences to describe a variety of sensory experiences - tastes can be ’sharp’ and colours can be ‘loud’, for example. But can such synaesthetic correspondences be demonstrated in normal individuals for simple stimuli, such as brightness, size, colour, motion etc. This project investigates a number of questions in this line.

He explores things like, for instance, what name people think fits an abstract visual image. For example, which of these two shapes do you think is called “bouba” and which is called “kiki?”Most people will say the purple shape is bouba and the orange shape kiki. Why?

Read the whole article.

Authors@Google: Daniel Goleman - Ecological Intelligence

This Google talk offers more from Dan Goleman on his new book about Ecological Intelligence.

The bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence and Primal Leadership now brings us Ecological Intelligence.

Dara O'Rourke and Gregory A. Norris join Daniel Goleman to talk about
—revealing the hidden environmental consequences of what we make and buy, and how with that knowledge we can drive the essential changes we all must make to save our planet and ourselves.

We buy herbal shampoos that contain industrial chemicals that can threaten our health or contaminate the environment. We dive down to see coral reefs, not realizing that an ingredient in our sunscreen feeds a virus that kills the reef. We wear organic cotton t-shirts, but dont know that its dyes may put factory workers at risk for leukemia. In Ecological Intelligence, Daniel Goleman reveals why so many of the products that are labeled green are a mirage, and illuminates our wild inconsistencies in response to the ecological crisis.

Drawing on cutting-edge research, Goleman explains why we as shoppers are in the dark over the hidden impacts of the goods and services we make and consume, victims of a blackout of information about the detrimental effects of producing, shipping, packaging, distributing, and discarding the goods we buy.

This event took place on May 14, 2009

Authors@Google: Alva Noe - Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness

Very cool.

Alva Noe visits Google's San Francisco, CA office to discuss his book "Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness." This event took place on April 16, 2009, as part of the Authors@Google series.

The notion that consciousness is confined to the brain, like software in a computer, has dominated science and philosophy for close to two centuries. Yet, according to this incisive review of contemporary neuroscience from Berkeley philosopher Nöe, the analogy is deeply flawed. In eight illuminating, mercifully jargon-free chapters, he defines what scientists really know about consciousness and makes a strong case that mind and awareness are processes that arise during a dynamic dance with the observers surroundings. Nöe begins with a sharp critique of scientists, such as DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick, who insist that nothing but neurons determines our daily perceptions and sense of self. He then examines studies of human and animal behavior that demonstrate an inextricable link between identity and environment. Nöe regrettably limits his treatise by ignoring considerable research from transpersonal psychology suggesting that consciousness transcends physicality altogether. Still, the resulting book is an invaluable contribution to cognitive science and the branch of self-reflective philosophy extending back to Descartes famous maxim, I think, therefore I am.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Evolution of American Christianity?

OK, I'm going to use some Spiral Dynamics talk here, so be patient.

If this article is correct, and I hope it is, we may be witnessing the transformation of American Christianity from a Blue Meme mythic worldview toward an Orange Meme rational worldview. In Spiral talk, the jump from first tier to second tier (Green to Yellow) is generally considered the hardest transformative move, but I think that the jump from Blue to Orange is pretty tough as well.

When moving from Blue to Orange, an entity is essentially moving from pre-rational to rational, and this is no small achievement. This is essentially the philosophical Enlightenment, but unfortunately, very little of Christianity has made that leap. Now that may be changing, if this article is to be believed. The impact of such a change will affect gay rights, environmentalism, and a whole range of other issues.

Contra the New Atheists, this is to be supported and encouraged, not ridiculed.

America's 'Emerging Church:' Will a New Post-Evangelical Christianity Reflect More Tolerant Views?

By Rev. Howard Bess, Consortium News. Posted May 29, 2009.

Christian publications are abuzz with talk about the "emerging church," which seems to be more science and gay friendly.

In the last half of the 20th century, Evangelicalism swept the American religious scene.

This period of American religious history will go down as the age of Billy Graham. He may have been light on theological prowess, but he was a spell-binding preacher and an organizational genius.

His call to Christ was supported by the establishment of new colleges, new seminaries, parochial schools, home schooling, new publishing companies, new magazines, radio and television networks, and new ministries such as Campus Crusade, World Vision, Youth for Christ, and Pioneer Boys and Girls.

Evangelicalism changed the face of America. Predictably the change is not permanent and the next phase is setting in.

Church historians and sociologists are now talking about post-Evangelicalism. The most popular buzz term is the emerging church. Change is constant and the American religious scene is not static.

Talk about the emerging church is appearing in significant journals and periodicals. To keep up with what is happening, I spend a lot of time reading. I have my favorite publications. I read Christian Century, Context, and Christianity Today to name three.

I also read an array of other periodicals that represent a broad diversity of perspectives. The emerging church is becoming a common topic.

Scot McKnight, Professor of Religious Studies at North Park University, has been studying the phenomenon that is pervasive, but as yet little noticed by the general public. He calls the change ironic.

This new breed of Christian is a product of Evangelicalism and appears to be carrying on the Evangelical tradition; but serious scholars are asking "Is this a subsection of Evangelicalism or is it something quite different?"

The developing ironic faith takes the believer to a fork in the road. Will the believer abandon the Christian faith altogether or will the believer redefine the meaning of being a Christian?

Dr. McKnight identifies eight characteristics of the emerging church. In condensed form I am sharing his observations:

First, emergents cannot accept the idea of Bible inerrancy. Verbal inerrancy will not stand modern critical examination in the study of languages. To assign fixed inerrancy to ancient documents written in the Hebrew and Greek used thousands of years ago stretches credibility.

Second, emergents have come to believe that the gospel that they have been taught is a caricature of the message of Jesus, rather than the real thing. Increasingly they are putting other Biblical writings in the background and have shown increasing interest in what Jesus said and did.

They ask "If we are followers of Jesus, why do we not live and preach his message?" In short, they are looking for a much more radical Christianity than they have found in the Evangelical (and mainline) churches.

Third, exposure to science in public education, universities and personal studies has led emergents to disown the conclusion that when the Bible and science appear to collide, science must take a back seat to the Bible.

In this conflict, emergents are not abandoning the Bible, but are raising critical questions about the Bible's nature and content. This new bread of Christian remains quite committed to the Bible but they are very open to new ideas and understandings.

Fourth, emergents have become disillusioned by the clay feet of church leadership. It is not just the Jim Bakkers and the Jimmy Swaggarts, but the rank and file of church leadership.

Emergents compare what Jesus had in mind and what is going on in churches, and they see a need to start over. They want a fresh start with serious intent to follow Jesus.

Fifth, our public schools and our nation in general are insisting that we be truly multicultural. The churches' teaching, that people not like us, are doomed, is not acceptable to emergents. They want a much broader definition of what it means to be accepted in the family of God.

Sixth, emergents are insisting that God be understood as totally gracious and loving. The angry, vengeful God that is sometime presented in both Old and New Testaments is not acceptable.

Seventh, acceptance of homosexuals in the family of God is common. Being pro-gay or anti-gay is not the issue. Emergents recognize that sexuality is far more complex than is generally recognized. To live in harmony with gay and lesbian friends and family members is a part of the emergent's perspective.

Eighth, echoing the first named characteristic, emergents recognize the role that language plays in their understanding and practice of the Christian Faith. Theology is language bound. Language is a limited tool of communication.

If theology is language bound, it is also culturally shaped. To be rigidly exclusive does not make sense to emergent Christians.

In writing about the people who are leading the emerging church, I have served as a reporter. I want my readers to be aware of what is happening.

Scientific American Mind - The "Bitch" Evolved: Why Girls Are So Cruel to Each Other

Hmmm . . . not sure about the title, nor about the premise than women are worse to each than men are. Maybe more subtle, maybe, but no worse.
The "Bitch" Evolved: Why Girls Are So Cruel to Each Other

Researchers study the natural foundations of female social aggression

By Jesse Bering

Jesse Bering

Jesse Bering

About a month ago I was invited to give a brief talk to my nephew Gianni’s first grade class—nothing too deep, mind you, rather simply about what it’s like living in a foreign place such as Belfast. The highlight of my presentation was the uproarious laughter that erupted when I mentioned that people on this side of the Atlantic refer to diapers as “nappies” and cookies as “biscuits.” But one must play to the audience.

Now, my sister resides in a small town in central Ohio, so perhaps there’s something about the mid-West which breeds especially endearing and affectionate six-year-olds, but I should be forgiven for momentarily siding with Rousseau that afternoon on his overly simplistic view that society corrupts and turns such naïve, innocent cherubs into monstrous adults. To give an example, one little girl waved at me in so kind a manner that it seemed, in that instant, I was in the presence of a better species of humankind, one that naturally regards other people as benevolent curiosities and the contrivances of social etiquette haven’t tarnished and brutally tamed genuine emotions.

What punctured this rose-tinted illusion of mine was the knowledge that these diminutive figures giggling and sitting Indian-style on the carpet before me might also be viewed as incubating adolescents. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d swear the world knows not an eviler soul than an angry, angst-ridden, hormonally intoxicated teen. And if this little pigtailed girl is anything like the rest of her gender, in just a few years’ time she will unfortunately morph into an eye-rolling, gossiping, ostracizing, sarcastic, dismissive, cliquish ninth-grader, embroiled in the classic cafeteria style bitchery of adolescent female social politics.

If that strikes you as misogynistic, rest assured it’s merely an empirical statement. (Rest assured, also, that I’m afraid I have much in common with this tactical style, and I have great respect for more refined Machiavellians, so I’m not casting stones here.) In fact, over the past few decades, scholars from a variety of disciplines—including developmental psychology, evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology—have noted a striking difference in the standard patterns of aggression between reproductive-aged males and females. While teenage boys and young male adults are more prone to engage in direct aggression, which includes physical acts of violence such as hitting, punching and kicking, females, in comparison, exhibit pronounced social aggression, which includes such obnoxious things as mentioned in the various acts of bitchery listed above.

A prototypical example of an act of teenage social aggression is given by University of Flinders psychologists Rosalyn Shute, Laurence Owens and Phillip Slee in a 2002 article published in the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth:

Jo is a fifteen-year-old girl. She is average at her high school work and she is involved in school tennis in summer and netball in winter. In the past, she was well accepted, having a close group of friends and getting along well with most of her peers. After a day off with illness, she returns to school to find that things have changed. She walks over to her usual group but when she tries to talk to any of them, their responses are abrupt and unfriendly. She tries to catch the eye of her friend, Brooke, but Brooke avoids her gaze. In first lesson, she sits in her usual seat only to find that Brooke is sitting with someone else. At recess time, she joins the group late but just in time to overhear one of the girls bitching about her…

In peer discussion groups with teenage girls in South Australia, Shute and her colleagues found that Jo’s situation is incredibly common. And what’s especially sad is that adult authority figures such as teachers and parents often miss such devastating acts of reputational violence because they’re so subtle and often occur “in context”—that is, they’re less conspicuous than the physical altercations of boys.

Let me attempt to preempt the obvious criticism that this is not, of course, to say that all teenage girls are catty—need I really point out the obvious that many are of course wonderful, thoughtful and mature people? Nor is it to say that teenage boys are never socially aggressive or that girls don’t occasionally display physical violence. But the culturally recurrent findings of female social aggression, and the largely invariant age distribution where such behaviors and attitudes are especially prominent (flaring up between about age eleven and seventeen in girls), do suggest a strong psychological bent in the fairer sex that leads “naturally” to these types of catty displays.

This question of whether female social aggression is innate, much like men’s reaction to curl their hands into fists, was explored recently by Washington State University at Vancouver anthropologists Nicole Hess and Edward Hagen. In a 2006 study reported in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, Hess and Hagen rounded up 255 undergraduate students—men and women ranging from eighteen to twenty-five years in age—and asked them to read and mull over the following social scenario, which I’ll summarize here for brevity.

Let’s say that you’re at a campus party and out of the corner of your eye you notice one of your classmates (another male student for male participants and another female student for female participants) conversing with the teaching assistant for the class you share with this other student. The other student, who is unusually short, is overheard saying some rather nasty lies about you—in particular, he or she is telling the teaching assistant that you haven’t been working on a joint project for the class. Instead, this person says, you’ve been slacking off, coming to class with a hangover and partying in Baja. Your TA glances over at you, with your beer in hand, and then glances away quickly as if disgusted. Then your duplicitous classmate walks over to you and says, innocently, “Hey! How are things going? Hasn’t the weather been great lately?”

Once participants read this basic story, they completed a questionnaire about how they’d like to respond. On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being “disagree strongly” and 10 being “agree strongly,” participants were asked questions such as, “I feel like punching this person right now,” “I feel like telling people at the party that this person is clueless and spews useless comments during lecture,” and “I feel like saying, ‘Yeah, the weather has been nice.” Whereas the first two items are measures of direct and indirect aggression, respectively, the last item presumably tapped into the participant’s willingness to turn the other cheek, so to speak. Importantly, Hess and Hagen also asked the participants how appropriate they thought various acts of violence against the treacherous classmate would be.

Findings from this study indicated a clear difference in aggressive responses between the genders, with women overwhelmingly compelled to retaliate by attacking the offender’s reputation, mostly through gossip. This gender effect panned out even after controlling for participants’ evaluation of the social appropriateness of such acts. In other words, in spite of the fact that the women realized malicious gossip wasn’t socially appropriate, this was nevertheless their preferred first point of attack. Men, on the other hand, were more evenly divided in their response, but failed to show the same preferential bias for acts of “informational warfare” against the unlikable classmate.

Although most researchers acknowledge the somewhat speculative nature of evolutionary arguments in this area, female social aggression among reproductively viable females is usually interpreted as a form of mate competition. Hess and Hagen, for example, suggest that the sex differences uncovered in their study would likely have been even more pronounced in a younger group of participants. Evolutionarily, historically and cross-culturally, they point out, girls in the fifteen- to nineteen-year-old range would be most actively competing for mates. Thus, anything that would sabotage another females’ image as a desirable reproductive partner, such as commenting on her promiscuity, physical appearance or some other aberrant or quirky traits, tends to be the stuff of virile gossip. Also, the degree of bitchiness should then demonstrate a sort of bell-shaped curve over the female life course. On the surface this seems mostly true. Anecdotally, I can’t think of a single postmenopausal woman who seems hell-bent on undermining another woman’s dating life—unless, perhaps, that involves spreading rumors about the sexual rival of her fertile daughter, in whom she has a vested adaptive interest. Then I can actually give you a name. As with most overarching research questions, though, there are many empirical studies yet to be run on the peculiar nature of female social aggression.

And I should say, if you’re still unconvinced and you’ve any doubt about acts of social aggression occurring in practice, have a gander at the current topics of ongoing conversation among the girls of

~ In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.

Reading Buddha's Discourses

Nice teaching on the intensity of the Buddha's original teachings.

Dana Foundation - Neuroimaging: Separating the Promise from the Pipe Dreams

There has been a lot of recent criticism of fMRI studies that purport to tell us about the function and structure of the brain - and deservedly so. I like the studies as much as the next geek, but too many people are making far too many generalizations based on these studies.

This great article is from the Dana Foundation's Cerebrum. [Originally I had posted the whole article, but the Dana Foundation does not participate in Creative Commons.]

Neuroimaging: Separating the Promise from the Pipe Dreams

By Russell A. Poldrack, Ph.D.
About Russell A. Poldrack, Ph.D.
May 27, 2009

Colorful brain images may tempt researchers to make claims that outpace solid scientific data—and may tempt the public to believe those claims. In particular, although brain imaging has provided solid evidence of alterations in brain structures and functions associated with many psychiatric disorders, it can be used neither to diagnose such disorders nor to determine exactly how treatments work—at least not yet. Keeping some key ideas in mind can help us evaluate the next report of a brain-imaging “breakthrough.”

On any given day you are likely to see a news report mentioning brain imaging. As I write this, a quick search of recent news stories yields the following headlines:

Neuroimaging research clearly has captured the imagination of both the public and science writers. Given how far brain imaging has come in the last two decades, this is understandable. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has revolutionized our ability to safely image brain activity, and its broad accessibility has allowed researchers around the world to ask fascinating new questions about the mind and brain. At the same time, it is all too easy to leave the limitations and caveats of these methods out of the picture. This results in a common perception that overrates the power of brain imaging to explain everything from love and beauty to financial decision making.

Read the whole article.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Prop 8 and Pre-rational Worldviews

Many of us were sad that the California Supreme Court upheld Prop 8. But not everyone. This woman named Judy Jones posted this comment on Facebook, which she links to her FriendFeed account:
Saying of silent prayer of thanks to Heavenly Father for the Prop 8 decision.
She has taken some serious heat for this statement, which is heartening - but then I already knew that the crowd there tends to be more open minded. Part of the heat was for announcing her "silent" prayer on two (or more) social media sites. Be that as it may. Here are a few of her responses:
Judy Jones

If you don't like the way it ended, you need to go back and try again which I'm sure you will. I prayed a silent prayer, not a "secret" prayer.

I disagree and that's all I can say.

I do not hate anyone, Lokei. I do care about Heavenly Father's laws (as I see them). One of them is that homosexual acts are a sin. Do gays have a right to have law to protect them? YES. Do they have the right to serve in the miltary? YES. Do they have the right to see their loved ones in the hospital? YES. Do they have the right to have laws to protect them from people who harrass them? Yes. Where I draw the line is that they have sex with one another which is a sin. If you don't like what I'm saying, I can't help that. That is my faith and belief.
She offers no defense for her "beliefs" other than that they are her "Heavenly Father's laws" (as she sees them), which by extension is how she thinks the rest of us should see them.

It's probably not very compassionate of me to single her out, but she stands as an example of the worldview that we face in trying to get equal rights for ALL human beings. People who think as she does are largely pre-rational in their beliefs, which can't be defeated with reason - she (and people like her) will hold tighter and tighter to her faith the more she is challenged.

This is an object lesson for those of us trying to defeat these infantile worldviews - a rational argument will change their beliefs. However, people like her will be increasing ostracized and isolated in the coming years, as it should be.

People aged 18-34 support gay marriage by a margin of 60-40%. That is the future that awaits us - and it can't get here too soon for me.

Nick Lane - 10 things I'd tell Darwin

Very cool to see how much we know now that we didn't when Darwin was alive - and how close he was to the truth anyway.

10 things I'd tell Darwin

Guest post by Nick Lane, author of Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

Figure 20 When Matt Ridley read Nick Lane’s new book he said “If Charles Darwin sprang from his grave, I would give him this fine book to bring him up to speed.” We asked Nick to write a quick 10-point primer for the father of evolution about our current understanding of the science of life.

"Darwin knew everything and nothing about evolution. Everything, because nobody grasped the priciples of natural selection better than he. Nothing, because almost all of today’s proofs of his theory are written in the languages of genes and molecules that he knew nothing about.

Darwin would be amazed and delighted by the scope and details of our current understanding of life. In Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution I take life’s most celebrated ‘inventions’, each one of which transfigured our planet, and trace what we know of how they came to be"

Here’s what Nick would tell Darwin:

Figure 1 1. The Origin of Life
Darwin famously speculated about life beginning in some warm pond, but recent research has framed a far grander setting – the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. One type of vent bubbles hydrogen gas into the oceans, giving rise to a myriad of honeycomb cells with delicate mineral walls. These natural cells replicate spontaneously under the pressure of the vents. What’s more, they concentrate organic molecules, including DNA, up to amazingly high levels, and generate energy across a membrane just as living cells do today. There’s lots to learn, but as a setting for the origin of life, it brooks no equal.

2. DNA
In 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson walked into The Eagle in Cambridge and declared they knew the secret of life – the structure of DNA. It immediately provided the mechanism of heredity so sorely missed by Darwin. But Watson and Crick didn’t know how DNA coded for proteins. The story of the code within the DNA code is one of the best (and least known) scientific detective stories of the 20th century – and it also points to life’s origins in deep sea vents. Most unexpectedly, the detailed mechanism by which DNA is replicated implies that life actually emerged from the vents twice from a common ancestor that lived inside.

3. Photosynthesis

Without photosynthesis, life wouldn’t be up to much. It provides us not only with all the food we need to live, but also with the oxygen needed to burn it up to provide our energy. And yet true photosynthesis arose only once in the whole history of evolution – in bacteria that were later captured by algae and plants and put to work. The trick depends on an enzyme that splits water to extract hydrogen, releasing oxygen as waste. The core of the water-splitting enzyme is similar to a mineral in its structure. Knowing how it works at the atomic level could help to solve the energy and climate crises of our planet.

4. The Complex Cell

Complex life, like photosynthesis, arose only once on earth. The differences between plants, animals, fungi and algae suggest that plants arose from one type of bacteria and animals from another, but that’s not what happened. Compared to bacteria, our cells are virtually identical to those of a daffodil: we are in fact closely related. Complex cells arose in an unprecedented merger between bacteria. That vital step was not anticipated by Darwin, who saw organisms as diverging rather than converging. Yet without that improbable chimera, natural selection may never have got beyond bacteria, and none of us would be here.

5. Sex
Sex is absurd. Not only does it cost a small fortune to find a partner, but it transmits horrible venereal diseases and parasitic genes, and randomises all successful combinations of genes. Worse, sex requires males, viewed by implacable feminists and evolutionists alike as a waste of space. So why we all have sex anyway was viewed as the queen of evolutionary problems in the 20th century. An old explanation for the benefits of sexual recombination has risen in a new guise, and helps explain not only why we have so much sex, but also why it got going in the first place in simple cells.

Figure 17-1

6. Movement
Muscle is the invention that sets us animals apart. Yet the two molecules that make muscles work, the chain-like proteins actin and myosin, are found in all organisms, even those without any muscle. Nothing would have given Darwin more pleasure than the finding that the same molecules that power muscular contraction evolved from simpler forms that propel amoebae around, support plant cells, and help bacteria to divide. Or that they they work by forming a dynamic scaffold in cells in the same way that a variant form of haemoglobin does when it distorts red blood cells in sickle-cell anaemia. Selection fashioned such spontaneous quirks into the might of muscle.

7. Sight

Darwin himself pondered the evolution of ‘organs of extreme perfection’ such as the eye, and it’s been an icon ever since. What use is half an eye, say detractors, yet the eyeless rift shrimp reabsorbs its fully formed larval eyes and replaces them with a naked retina – literally half an eye – as it moves down to the black-smoker vents. We now know how eyes evolved in more detail than any other organ. Surprisingly, it looks as if the critical light-sensitive protein at the centre of it all, rhodopsin, evolved from an ancestor in algae where it is used to calibrate light levels in photosynthesis. Some bacteria even use rhodopsin for a type of photosynthesis.

8. Hot Blood
Hot blooded animals keep their thermostat jammed on hard at 37°C, regardless of need. Many small mammals need to eat as much in a day as a lizard eats in a month, and a serious penalty is smaller populations. One big benefit is stamina, yet dinosaurs like Velociraptor apparently combined stamina with a low resting metabolism. But hot blood may also solve an interesting problem with diets rich in carbon and low in nitrogen, such as leaves. Vegetarians get enough nitrogen from leaves only if they eat a lot and get rid of the excess carbon. We hot bloods just burn it off, and that enables herbivores to survive on a much lower quality diet.

9. Consciousness
There’s no doubt that consciousness evolved, and that many animals are aware of themselves and their surroundings, perhaps right down to bees. But still there are deep uncertainties about what consciousness actually is. We simply don’t know yet how neurons firing in the brain can generate a feeling of anything. This is what philosophers call the hard problem, and it may be solved by studying the behaviour of animals like bees that apparantly gain neural rewards for finding nectar. I’d tell Darwin that consciousness is the last great challenge for understanding natural selection.

10. Death

But death is no challenge. Without death, natural selection would count for nothing, and life could never have evolved the majesty of consciousness at all. Yet death benefits individuals, or rather their genes, in some way. Mitochondria, the power-houses inside our cells, hold the key. They generate reactive free radicals that ultimately undermine our health. The problem is that in the short term, free radicals optimise respiration, making us as strong and energetic as we can be when young. Antioxidants disrupt that. So sadly the penalty for vigour in youth is decreptitude in old age. But there’s hope. Birds leak fewer free radicals and live longer than mammals, without losing their vigour. And that means the anti-ageing pill is not a myth.

Edge - What's Next?

Looks like a great book. I want.
If these authors are the future of science, then the science of the future will be one exciting ride! Find out what the best minds of the new generation are thinking before the Nobel Committee does. A fascinating chronicle of the big, new ideas that are keeping young scientists up at night. Daniel Gilbert

WHAT'S NEXT? [5.26.09]
Dispatches on the Future of Science
Edited By Max Brockman

"A preview of the ideas you're going to be reading about in ten years."Steven Pinker

[ED. NOTE: What are "the big, new ideas that are keeping young scientists up at night?" Beginning today with Laurence Smith's "Will We Decamp for the Northern Rim", and in the coming weeks, Edge will publish a selection of the essays in Max Brockman's book What's Next: Dispatches On the Future of Science, published today by Vintage Books. —JB]

NEW Max Brockman: PREFACE

To generate this list of contributors, I approached some of today’s leading scientists and asked them to name some of the rising stars in their respective disciplines: those who, in their research, are tackling some of science’s toughest questions and raising new ones. The list that resulted amounts to a representative who’s who of the coming generation of scientists.

Max Brockman
is a literary agent at Brockman, Inc.. He also works with Edge Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit foundation that publishes Edge. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania in 2002, he lives in New York City.
Max Brockman's Edge Bio page

[...continue to Max Brockman's Preface to "What's Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science]


At stake is no less than the global pattern of human settlement in the twenty-first century.

Laurence C. Smith is Professor and vice chairman of geography and professor of earth and space sciences at UCLA. He studies likely impacts of northern climate change including the economic effects in the Northern Rim. Laurence C. Smith's Edge Bio Page

[...continue to Laurence C. Smith: "Will We Decamp For the Northern Rim?"]


Evolution has equipped our brains with circuits that enable us to experience what other individuals do and feel.

Christian Keysers, a neuroscientist, is professor of the social brain and scientific director at the Neuroimaging Center of the University Medical Center Groningen. His research contributed to the discovery of auditory mirror neurons and enlarged the concept of mirror neurons by applying it to emotions and sensations. Christian Keysers's Edge Bio Page


Given our rudimentary understanding of the human organism, particularly the brain, how can we hope to enhance such a system? It would amount to outdoing evolution....

Nick Bostrom, a philosopher and director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. His research covers issues in the foundations of probability theory, global catastrophic risk, the ethics of human enhancement, and the effects of future technologies. Nick Bostrom's Edge Bio Page


The early universe is hot and dense; the late universe is cold and dilute. Well...why is it like that? The truth is, we have no idea.

Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist, is a senior research associate at Caltech. His research ranges over a number of topics in theoretical physics, including cosmology, field theory, particle physics, and gravitation. He is the author if a graduate textbook, Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity and cofounder and contributor to the Cosmic Variance blog. Sean Carroll's Edge Bio Page

Stephon H. S. Alexander: "JUST WHAT IS DARK ENERGY?"

Dark energy, itself directly unobservable, is the most bewildering substance known, the only "stuff" that acts both on subatomic scales and across the largest distances in the cosmos.

Stephon H. S. Alexander is an associate professor of physics at Haverford College. His research focuses on unresolved problems—such as the cosmological-constant or dark-energy problem—that connect cosmology to quantum gravity and the standard model of elementary particles. Stephon H. S. Alexander's Edge Bio Page


Using modern brain-imaging techniques, scientists are discovering that the human brain does indeed change well beyond early childhood.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London.Her research focuses on the development of mentalizing, action understanding, and executive function during adolescence, using a variety of behavioral and neuroimaging methods. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore's Edge Bio Page


Perhaps the least anticipated contribution of brain imaging to psychological science has been a sudden appreciation of the centrality of social thought to the human mental repertoire.

Jason P. Mitchell is principal investigator of Harvard University's Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, where he uses functional neuroimaging (fMRI) and behavioral methods to study how perceivers infer the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of others. Jason P. Mitchell's Edge Bio Page

Matthew D. Lieberman: "WHAT MAKES BIG IDEAS STICKY?"

Big Ideas sometimes match the structure and function of the human brain such that the brain causes us to see the world in ways that make it virtually impossible not to believe them.

Matthew D. Lieberman, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA, conducts research in such social cognitive neuroscience topics as self-control, self-awareness, automaticity, social rejection, and persuasion. Matthew D. Lieberman's Edge Bio Page


People often speak of a "moral faculty" or a "moral sense," suggesting that moral judgment is a unified phenomenon, but recent advances in the scientific study of moral judgment paint a very different picture.

Joshua D. Greene, a cognitive neuroscientist and a philosopher, is an assistant professor at Harvard University's Department of Psychology. His primary research interest is the psychological and neuroscientific study of morality, focusing on the interplay between emotional and "cognitive" processes in moral decision making. Joshua D. Greene's Edge Bio Page


Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity.

Lera Boroditsky is an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford University. Her research centers on the nature of mental representation and how knowledge emerges out of the interactions of mind, world, and language. Lera Boroditsky's Edge Bio Page


Once we come to understand how our memories are formed, stored, and recalled within the brain, we may be able to manipulate them—to shape our own stories. Our past—or at least our recollection of our past—may become a matter of choice.

Sam Cooke, a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a neuroscientist who probes the biology of memory. Sam Cooke's Edge Bio Page


The main goal of my research is to discover the nature of the what-if mechanism and how it allows us to create and comprehend fictional worlds.

Deena Skolnick Weisberg is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the psychology department at Rutgers University. Her research focuses primarily on the cognitive skills underlying the creation and representation of non-real scenarios—particularly stories, games of pretending, and counterfactual situations—and on how those skills mature in child development. Deena Skolnick Weisberg's Edge Bio Page

David M. Eagleman: "BRAIN TIME"

The days of thinking of time as a river—evenly flowing, always advancing—are over. Time perception, just like vision, is a construction of the brain and is shockingly easy to manipulate experimentally.

David M. Eagleman is Director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine The Dynamically Reorganizing Brain; and a book of fiction titled Sum. David Eagleman's Edge Bio Page


In the 6 million years since hominids split from the evolutionary ancestor we share with chimpanzees and bonobos, something happened to our brains that allowed us to become master cooperators, accumulate knowledge at a rapid rate, and manipulate tools to colonize almost every corner of the planet.

Vanessa Woods, author of It's Every Monkey for Themselves, is an award-winning journalist who has a double degree in biology and English from the University of New South Wales. She is a researcher with the Hominoid Psychology Research Group and studies the psychology of bonobos and chimpanzees in Africa. Vanessa Woods's Edge Bio Page

Brian Hare is an anthropologist and an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Anthropology and Anatomy at Duke University. His research centers on human cognitive evolution, and his experience in the field includes work in Siberia, the jungle of Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Brian Hare's Edge Bio Page


While viruses have to infect cellular forms of life in order to complete their life cycles, this does not mean that causing devastation is their destiny. The existing equilibrium of our planet is dependent on the actions of the viral world, and their elimination would have profound consequences.

Nathan Wolfe is the Lorry Lokey Visiting Professor of Human Biology at Stanford University and directs the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative. His research combines methods from molecular virology, ecology, evolutionary biology, and anthropology to study the biology of viral emergence. Nathan Wolfe's Edge Bio Page


We would like to know what the conditions and selection pressures were that tipped the ancestors of the eusocial insects over the ledge and down toward eusociality.

Seirian Sumner is a research fellow in evolutionary biology at the Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London. Her research focuses on the evolution of sociality—how eusociality evolves and how social behavior is maintained. She has worked with a variety of bees, wasps, and ants from around the world, studying their behavior through observation, experimental manipulation, and molecular analyses, including gene expression. Seirian Sumner's Edge Bio Page


It is now clear that humans (whether fossil or living) are not immune from biological forces and that extinction was (and, indeed, is) a distinct possibility.

Katerina Harvati is a paleoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology specializing in Neanderthal evolution and modern human origins. Her research interests include evolutionary theory, the relationship between morphological variation and genetic and environmental factors, and the evolution of primate and human life history. Katerina Harvati's Edge Bio Page


Even as scientific output has increased exponentially, concerns have been raised that growing specialization will end by making it impossible for scientists in different fields to communicate, let alone collaborate.

Gavin Schmidt is a climatologist with NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, where he models past, present, and future climate. He is a cofounder and contributing editor of, which provides context and background on climate science issues that are missing in popular media coverage.Gavin Schmidt's Edge Bio Page