Saturday, August 29, 2009

Wisdom Quarterly - How to Live as a Buddhist

Nice post from Wisdom Quarterly: American Buddhist Journal.

How to Live as a Buddhist

The Discourse to Sigala (Sigalovada Sutta), or "The Layperson's Code of Discipline," Translated by Narada Thera (WQ edit)

Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Buddha was dwelling in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrels' Sanctuary, near Rajagaha.

Now at that time, young Sigala, a householder's son, rising early in the morning, departing from Rajagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worshipped with joined hands the various quarters -- the East, the South, the West, the North, the Nadir, and the Zenith.

Then the Exalted One, having robed himself in the forenoon took bowl and robe, and entered Rajagaha for alms. Now he saw young Sigala worshipping thus and spoke to him as follows:

"Wherefore do you, young householder, rising early in the morning, departing from Rajagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship, with joined hands these various quarters -- the East, the South, the West, the North, the Nadir, and the Zenith?"

"My father, Venerable Sir [Bhante or "Lord"], while dying, said to me: The six quarters, dear son, you shall worship. And I, Lord, respecting, revering, reverencing, and honoring my father's word, rise early in the morning, and leaving Rajagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship with joined hands, these six quarters."

"It is not thus, young householder, the six quarters should be worshipped in the discipline of the noble."

"How then, Lord, should the six quarters be worshipped in the discipline of the noble? It is well, Lord, if the Exalted One would teach the doctrine to me showing how the six quarters should be worshipped in the discipline of the noble."

"Well, young householder, listen and bear it well in mind; I shall speak." -- "Very good, Lord," responded young Sigala.

And the Exalted One spoke as follows:

"Inasmuch, young householder, as the noble disciple (1) has eradicated the four vices in conduct, [1] (2) inasmuch as one commits no unskillful action in four ways, (3) inasmuch as one pursues not the six channels for dissipating wealth, one thus, avoiding these fourteen unwholesome things, covers the six quarters, and enters the path leading to victory in both worlds: One is favored in this world and in the world beyond. Upon the dissolution of the body, after death, one is born in a happy heavenly realm.

(1) "What are the four vices in conduct that one has eradicated? The destruction of life, householder, is a vice, and so are stealing, sexual misconduct, and lying. These are the four vices that one has eradicated."

Thus spoke the Exalted One. And when the Master had thus spoken, he spoke yet again:

Killing, stealing, lying, and cheating,
these four the wise never praise.

(2) "In which four ways does one commit no unskillful action? Led by desire does one commit unskillful action. Led by anger does one commit unskillful action. Led by ignorance does one commit unskillful action. Led by fear does one commit unskillful action [2].

"But inasmuch as the noble disciple is not led by desire, anger, ignorance, and fear, one commits no unskillful action."

Thus spoke the Exalted One. And when the Master had thus spoken, he spoke yet again:

Whoever through craving, hate, fear,
Or ignorance should transgress the Dharma,
All one's glory fades away
Like the waning moon.
Whoever through desire, hate, fear,
Or ignorance never transgresses the Dharma,
All one's glory ever increases
Like the waxing moon.

(3) "What are the six channels for dissipating wealth which one does not pursue?

(a) "Indulgence in intoxicants which cause infatuation and heedlessness;
(b) sauntering in streets at unseemly hours;
(c) frequenting unseemly shows;
(d) indulgence in gambling which causes heedlessness;
(e) association with unfit companions;
(f) the habit of laziness.

(a) "There are, young householder, these six consequences in indulging in intoxicants which cause infatuation and heedlessness:

(i) loss of wealth,
(ii) increase of quarrels,
(iii) susceptibility to disease,
(iv) earning a terrible reputation,
(v) unabashed exposure of body,
(vi) weakening of intellect.

(b) "There are, young householder, these six unprofitable consequences in sauntering in streets at unseemly hours:

(i) one is unprotected and unguarded,
(ii) one's spouse and children are unprotected and unguarded,
(iii) one's property is unprotected and unguarded,
(iv) one is suspected of terrible deeds [3],
(v) one is subject to false rumors,
(vi) one meets with many and varied troubles.

(c) "There are, young householder, these six unprofitable consequences in frequenting unseemly shows:

"One is ever thinking:

(i) where is there dancing?
(ii) where is there singing?
(iii) where is there music?
(iv) where is there recital?
(v) where is there playing?
(vi) where is there diversion? [4]

(d) "There are, young householder, these six unprofitable consequences in indulging in gambling:

(i) the winner is hated,
(ii) the loser grieves for lost wealth,
(iii) loss of wealth,
(iv) one's word is not relied on in a court of law,
(v) one is despised by friends and associates,
(vi) one is not sought after for matrimony; for people would say one is a gambler and unfit to look after a spouse.

(e) "There are, young householder, these six unprofitable consequences in associating with unfit companions, namely: any gambler, any libertine, any drunkard, any swindler, any cheat, any rowdy is one's friend and companion.

(f) "There are, young householder, these six unprofitable consequences in being addicted to laziness:

"One does no work, saying instead that:

(i) it is too cold,
(ii) it is too hot,
(iii) it is too late in the evening,
(iv) it is too early in the morning,
(v) one is too hungry,
(vi) one is too full.

"Living in this way, one leaves many duties undone, new wealth one does not acquire, and wealth one has acquired dwindles away."

Thus spoke the Exalted One. And when the Master had thus spoken, he spoke yet again:

"One is false; one says, 'friend, friend' only to one's face; one is a friend and associate only when it is advantageous.

"Sleeping [by day or even as late as] sunrise, cheating, irascibility, malevolence, unfit companions, avarice -- these six causes ruin a person.

"The person who has unfit companions and friends is given to unprofitable ways, to ruin does one fall in both worlds -- here and the next.

"Dice, womanizing, drinking, dancing, singing, sleeping by day, sauntering at unseemly hours, unfit companions, avarice -- these nine
[5] causes ruin a person.

"Who plays with dice and consumes intoxicants, goes to lovers who are as dear to others as their own lives, associates with the mean and not with the wise [elders] -- one declines just as the waning moon.

"Who is drunk, poor, destitute, still thirsty even while drinking, frequents bars, sinks in debt like a stone in water, swiftly brings disrepute to one's family.

"Who by habit sleeps by day, and keeps late hours, is ever intoxicated, and is licentious, is not fit to lead a
household life.

"Who complains it is too hot, too cold, too late, and leaves things left undone, the opportunities for good race past such a person.

"But one who does not regard cold or heat any more than one regards a blade of grass and who does one's duties with stamina, does not fall away from happiness."

"These four, young householder, should be understood as foes in the guise of friends:

(1) one who appropriates a friend's possessions,
(2) one who renders lip-service,
(3) one who flatters,
(4) one who brings ruin.

(1) "In four ways, young householder, should one who appropriates be understood as a foe in the guise of a friend:

(i) one takes one's friend's wealth,
(ii) one gives little and asks for much,
(iii) one discharges one's obligations out of fear,
(iv) one associates for one's own advantage.

(2) "In four ways, young householder, should one who renders lip-service be understood as a foe in the guise of a friend:

(i) one boasts about favors done in the past,
(ii) one boasts about favors to be done in the future,
(iii) one tries to gain favor with empty words,
(iv) when opportunity for actual service arises, one claims inability.

(3) "In four ways, young householder, should one who flatters be understood as a foe in the guise of a friend:

(i) one approves of a friend's unprofitable deeds,
(ii) one disapproves of a friend's good deeds,
(iii) one praises a friend in that friend's presence,
(iv) one speaks ill of a friend in that friend's absence.

(4) "In four ways, young householder, should one who brings ruin be understood as a foe in the guise of a friend:

(i) one is a companion in indulging in intoxicants that cause infatuation and heedlessness,
(ii) one is a companion in sauntering in streets at unseemly hours,
(iii) one is a companion in frequenting unseemly shows,
(iv) one is a companion in indulging in gambling which causes heedlessness."

Thus spoke the Exalted One. And when the Master had thus spoken, he spoke yet again:

The friend who takes,
the friend who renders lip-service,
the friend who flatters,
the friend who brings ruin,
these four as foes the wise behold
and avoid from afar as paths of peril.

"These four, young householder, should be understood as warm-hearted friends:

(1) one who is helpful,
(2) one who remains the same in happiness and sorrow,
(3) one who gives good counsel,
(4) one who sympathizes.

(1) "In four ways, young householder, should a helpful person be understood as a warm-hearted friend:

(i) one guards you when you are heedless,
(ii) one protects your wealth when you are heedless,
(iii) one becomes a refuge when you are in danger,
(iv) when you have commitments, one provides you with twice as much as you need.

(2) "In four ways, young householder, should one who is the same in happiness and sorrow be understood as a warm-hearted friend:

(i) one tells one's own secrets,
(ii) one keeps your secrets confidential,
(iii) in misfortune one does not forsake you,
(iv) even one's life one sacrifices for your sake.

(3) "In four ways, young householder, should one who gives good counsel be understood as a warm-hearted friend:

(i) one restrains you from doing harm,
(ii) one encourages you to do what is profitable,
(iii) one informs you of what you do not know,
(iv) one points out the path to a heavenly rebirth.

(4) "In four ways, young householder, should one who sympathizes be understood as a warm-hearted friend:

(i) one does not rejoice in your misfortune [schadenfreude],
(ii) one rejoices in your prosperity [mudita],
(iii) one restrains others speaking ill of you,
(iv) one praises those who speak well of you."

Thus spoke the Exalted One. And when the Master had thus spoken, he spoke yet again:

The friend who is helpful,
the friend in happiness and woe,
the friend who gives good counsel,
the friend who sympathizes too --
these four as friends the wise behold
and cherish them with great devotion
as does a mother does her own child.

The wise and virtuous shine like a blazing fire!
One who acquires wealth in harmless ways,
like a bee that nectar gently gathers
riches mount up for such a person
as rapid as an ant hill's growth.

With wealth acquired in this way,
a layperson fit for household life
in portions four divides one's wealth:
thus will one friendship win.

One portion for wants one spends
two portions on one's business uses,
the fourth for times of need one keeps.

"And how, young householder, does a noble disciple cover the six quarters?

"The following should be looked upon as the six quarters: The parents should be looked upon as the East, teachers as the South, spouse and children as the West, friends and associates as the North, servants and employees as the Nadir, ascetics and brahmins as the Zenith [8].

"In five ways, young householder, a child should minister to one's parents as the East:

(i) Having supported me I shall support them,
(ii) I shall do their duties,
(iii) I shall keep the family tradition,
(iv) I shall make myself worthy of my inheritance,
(v) furthermore I shall offer alms in honor of my departed relatives [9].

"In five ways, young householder, the parents thus ministered to as the East by their children, show their compassion:

(i) they restrain them from harm,
(ii) they encourage them to do good,
(iii) they train them for a profession,
(iv) they arrange a suitable marriage,
(v) at the proper time they hand over their inheritance to them.

"In these five ways do children minister to their parents as the East, and the parents show their compassion to their children. Thus is the East covered by them and made safe and secure.

"In five ways, young householder, a pupil should minister to a teacher as the South:

(i) by rising in salutation,
(ii) by attending on one's teacher,
(iii) by an eagerness to learn,
(iv) by personal service,
(v) by respectful attention while receiving instruction.

"In five ways, young householder, do teachers thus ministered to as the South by their pupils show their compassion:

(i) they train them in the best discipline,
(ii) they see that they grasp their lessons well,
(iii) they instruct them in the arts and sciences,
(iv) they introduce them to their colleagues and associates,
(v) they provide for their safety in every quarter.

"The teachers thus ministered to as the South by their pupils show their compassion towards them in these five ways. Thus is the South covered by them and made safe and secure.

"In five ways, young householder, should a spouse as the West be ministered to:

(i) by being courteous,
(ii) by not despising,
(iii) by being faithful,
(iv) by sharing responsibilities,
(v) by giving adornments.

"The spouse thus ministered to as the West in return shows compassion in five ways:

(i) one performs duties well,
(ii) one is hospitable to relations and attendants [10],
(iii) one is faithful,
(iv) one protects what you brings home,
(v) one is skillful and industrious in discharging all duties.

"In these five ways does a spouse show compassion to one who ministers to a spouse as the West. Thus is the West covered and made safe and secure.

"In five ways, young householder, should a good person minister to friends and associates as the North:

(i) by liberality,
(ii) by courteous speech,
(iii) by being helpful,
(iv) by being impartial [fair and unbiased],
(v) by sincerity.

"The friends and associates thus ministered to as the North by a good person show compassion to one in five ways:

(i) they protect one when one is heedless,
(ii) they protect one's property when one is heedless,
(iii) they become a refuge when one is in danger,
(iv) they do not forsake one in one's troubles,
(v) they show consideration for one's family.

"The friends and associates thus ministered to as the North by a good person show their compassion towards one in these five ways. Thus is the North covered and made safe and secure.

"In five ways should a boss minister to servants and employees as the Nadir:

(i) by assigning them work according to their ability,
(ii) by supplying them with resources and wages,
(iii) by tending them in sickness,
(iv) by sharing with them any delicacies,
(v) by granting them leave from time to time.

"The servants and employees thus ministered to as the Nadir by their boss show their compassion in five ways:

(i) They arrive before one,
(ii) They go home after one,
(iii) They take only what is given,
(iv) They perform their duties well,
(v) They uphold one's good name and fame.

"The servants and employees thus ministered to as the Nadir show their compassion towards one in these five ways. Thus is the Nadir covered by a boss and made safe and secure.

"In five ways, young householder, should a householder minister to ascetics and brahmins as the Zenith:

(i) By lovable deeds,
(ii) By lovable words,
(iii) By lovable thoughts,
(iv) By keeping open house to them,
(v) By supplying their material needs.

"The ascetics and brahmins thus ministered to as the Zenith by a householder show their compassion towards one in six ways:

(i) They restrain one from doing harm [unprofitable],
(ii) They persuade one to do good [profitable],
(iii) They are kind with a good heart,
(iv) They cause one to hear what has not been heard before,
(v) They clarify what one has already heard,
(vi) They point out the path to a heavenly state [rebirth].

"In these six ways do ascetics and brahmins show their compassion towards a householder who ministers to them as the Zenith. Thus is the Zenith covered by one and made safe and secure.” Thus spoke the Exalted One. And when the Master had thus spoken, he spoke yet again:

Mother and father are the East,
Teachers are the South,
Spouse and children are the West,
Friends and associates are the North.

Servants and employees are the Nadir,
Ascetics and brahmins are the Zenith;
who is fit to lead the household life
should these six directions uphold.

Who is wise and virtuous,
gentle and keen-witted,
humble and amenable,
such a one to honor will attain.

Who is energetic and not indolent,
in misfortune unshaken,
flawless in manner and intelligent,
such a one to honor will attain.

Who is hospitable and friendly,
liberal and unselfish,
A guide, an instructor, a leader,
such a one to honor will attain.

Generosity, sweet speech,
Helpfulness to others,
Impartiality to all
as the case demands
[The Four Bases of Popularity].

These four winning ways make the world go round,
as the axle in a moving car.
If these in the world exist not,
neither mother nor father will receive
Respect and honor from their children.

Since these four winning ways
the wise approve and praise in every way,
to eminence they attain,
and praise themselves they rightly gain.

When the Buddha had spoken thus, Sigala, the young householder, said as follows:

"Excellent, Venerable Sir, excellent! Venerable Sir, it is as if someone were to set upright that which had been overturned, or were to reveal that which was hidden, or were to point out the way to one who had gone astray, or were to hold up a lamp in the darkness, so that those with eyes might see. Even so, has the noble doctrine been explained in various ways by the Exalted One.

"Venerable sir, I go for guidance [sarana] to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. May the Enlightened One remember me as a lay follower, as one who has gone for guidance from this day forward."


  1. Kamma-kilesa, literally, "actions (karma) of defilement."
  2. These are the four agati, "unwholesome courses of action": chanda (desire), dosa (aversion), moha (delusion), bhaya (fear).
  3. Crimes committed by others.
  4. A kind of amusement.
  5. The Pali original has here "six causes" because two compound words and one double-term phrase are counted as units.
  6. Dhammapada V. 49: "As a bee, without harming the flower, its color, or scent, flies away, collecting only the nectar..."
  7. This portion includes what is spent on good works [merit]: gifts to monastics, charity, etc.
  8. "The symbolism is deliberately chosen: As the day [begins] in the East, so life begins with parents' care; teacher's fees and the South are the same word: dakkhina; domestic cares follow when the youth becomes man, as the West holds the later daylight; North is 'beyond' (uttara), so by help of friends, etc., he gets beyond troubles" (Rhys Davids).
  9. This is a sacred custom of the Aryans (Nobles), who never forgot the departe. This tradition is still faithfully observed by Buddhists in Sri Lanka, who make ceremonial offerings of alms to the monastics on the eighth day, in the third month, and on each anniversary of the demise of the parents to benefit them in the beyond [if they should approve of the offering thus made and thereby make good mental karma by rejoicing in it being done]. The merit (punna) of these skillful actions is offered to the departed after such a ceremony. Moreover, after every punna-kamma (meritorious deed), a Buddhist never fails to think of one's parents and share that merit. Far from losing anything in the process, one gains exponentially by doing so. Such is the loyalty and the gratitude shown to parents as advised by the Buddha.
  10. [servants, visitors, guests, friends] literally, "the folk around" (parijana).

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week - The Preciousness of a Human Incarnation

Nice quote.

by H.H. the Dalai Lama,
edited and translated by Glenn H. Mullin

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

[Meditate on appreciation of the preciousness of a human incarnation and the human body as a spiritual vessel.]

The ordinary samsaric mind sees the human body as just a tool with which to chase material, social, and biological needs, all of which satisfy only superficial levels of the spirit. Their effects do not pass beyond the gates of death. We have to learn to appreciate the intrinsic spiritual quality of human nature, to have a subtle confidence in the positive, creative aspect of our being. It is difficult to enter spiritual training if one regards one's life as having no purpose other than the pursuit of ephemeral, transient goals, as does a rat who builds a strong nest and then drags home all sorts of trinkets to it. In order to break the mind of this vain, mundane attitude towards life, we sit in meditation and contemplate first the eight freedoms and ten endowments,* and then the meaningful and rare nature of a human incarnation. This contemplation imbues us with a sense of spiritual dignity that subtly transforms our way of relating to ourselves and our existence. We cease to see ourselves merely as animals uncontrolledly chasing after the immediate cravings of the senses in a vicious circle of jungle law; and we come to appreciate the quality of penetrating awareness and the capacity for spiritual development that distinguishes humans from animals and insects. This causes the thought of extracting the essence of life to arise with a joyous intensity.

~ From The Path to Enlightenment by H.H. the Dalai Lama, edited and translated by Glenn H. Mullin, published by Snow Lion Publications

* Generally, the eight freedoms and ten endowments are the favorable conditions of your birth and the time in which you live that have enabled you to learn the dharma in this lifetime, and be able to practice it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Upaya Dharma Podcasts - Yoga, Science & Selflessness

Nice two-part podcast from a while back.

Yoga, Science & Selflessness 1

Speakers: Roshi Joan Halifax, David Riley, MD & Richard Freeman

In Buddhism as in yoga, states Roshi Joan, it is essential to actualize direct practice realization. We can’t completely understand yoga or Zen Buddhism from a book; these things must be directly experienced to have any deep value. Buddhism also emphasizes the realization of the absence of an inherent self. In meditation or asana practice, it is impossible to find any one center because the center is everywhere. Dr. David Riley picks up the “not-knowing” thread by discussing the practice of science itself, including scientists’ biases and beliefs and how scientists test hypotheses. Then David shares his research findings on yoga practice, with discussion from the participants, and Richard discusses healing, the placebo effect, and yoga as a therapeutic tool.

icon for podpress [Play] Yoga, Science & Selflessness 1 [105:33m]: Hide Player | Play in Popup | Download [Play]

* * * * *

Yoga, Science & Selflessness 2

Speakers: Roshi Joan Halifax, Richard Freeman, & David Riley, MD

How do we know what we know? Thus starts this evening’s talk with the teachers and participants. Roshi points out how science is now “proving” what meditators and yogis have know for millennia. However, to get these helpful practices into conventional settings that could really benefit from them – such as in medical centers, end-of-life care, schools or prisons – we can use research findings as support for meditation or yoga’s effectiveness. Richard speaks of the deep wisdom of the yoga sutras, including ways of knowing the world, which all too often take us away from direct perception. David adds that the scientific method is designed to challenge our perception of the direct experience. He asks the participants what research they would like to see in yoga – whether it is in physical health or mental health or in spirituality. A lively discussion ensues.

icon for podpress [Play] Yoga, Science & Selflessness 2 [86:08m]: Hide Player | Play in Popup | Download [Play]

Ed Yong - Holding heavy objects makes us see things as more important

Wow, weird. Very strange study.

Holding heavy objects makes us see things as more important

Category: Psychology
Posted on: August 25, 2009 12:00 PM, by Ed Yong


Gravity affects not just our bodies and our behaviours, but our very thoughts. That's the fascinating conclusion of a new study which shows that simply holding a heavy object can affect the way we think. A simple heavy clipboard can makes issues seem weightier - when holding one, volunteers think of situations as more important and they invest more mental effort in dealing with abstract issues.

In a variety of languages, from English to Dutch to Chinese, importance is often described by words pertaining to weight. We speak of 'heavy news, 'weighty matters' and 'light entertainment'. We weigh up the value of evidence, we lend weight to arguments with facts, and our opinions carry weight if we wield influence and authority. These are more than just quirks of language - they reflect real links that our minds make between weight and importance.

Nils Jostmann from the University of Amsterdam demonstrated the link between weight and importance through a quartet of experiments. In each one, a different set of volunteers held a clipboard that either weighed 1.5 pounds or 2.3 pounds.

The extra 0.8 pounds were enough to make volunteers think that a foreign currency was worth more money. Forty volunteers were asked to guess the conversion rates between euros and six other currencies, indicating their estimate by marking a straight line. Those who held the heavier clipboard valued the currencies more generously, even though a separate questionnaire showed that they felt the same about the euro.

Money, of course, does have its own weight, so for his next trick, Jostmann wanted to stay entirely within the abstract realm. He considered justice - an area that is free of weight but hardly free of importance. Jostmann showed 50 volunteers a scenario where a university committee was denying students the opportunity to voice their opinions on a study grant. It was a potentially weighty issue, but more so to the students who held the heavy clipboard. They felt it was more important that the university listened to the students' opinions.


Jostmann also showed that people are less likely to take matters lightly if they're holding something heavier. In his third task, he asked 49 recruits to rate the mayor of Amsterdam in terms of his competence, likeability, powerlessness, trustworthiness, intelligence, corruption, importance and charisma. They also had to give their opinion about Amsterdam itself - whether it was a great city and how much they enjoyed being in it. The weight of the clipboards didn't affect the evaluations of either the mayor or the city. However, the two sets of scores were more strongly correlated among the volunteers who held the heavier board.

Jostmann thinks that the extra weight made people invest that little bit more mental effort in awarding their scores - hence the more consistent rankings across the mayor- and city-based questions. This result, I feel, is a bit more tenuous. Jostmann argues the case that satisfaction with the mayor is an indirect measure of satisfaction with the city, so the two scores should match to some extent. That seems reasonable, but it hasn't been demonstrated, which makes interpreting the study a bit more difficult.

Go read the whole article, and a link to another take on this study.

SciAm Mind - Depression's Evolutionary Roots

A couple of years ago, I posted an article on depression as an evolutionary adaptation (which I seem unable to find now), but this article from Scientific American Mind offers a similar take. Basically, evolutionary psychology sees depression as an adaptive condition, not as a dysfunction.

Depression's Evolutionary Roots

Two scientists suggest that depression is not a malfunction, but a mental adaptation that brings certain cognitive advantages

By Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr.

Depressed, thinking
istock/Guillermo Perales Gonzalez

Depression seems to pose an evolutionary paradox. Research in the US and other countries estimates that between 30 to 50 percent of people have met current psychiatric diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder sometime in their lives. But the brain plays crucial roles in promoting survival and reproduction, so the pressures of evolution should have left our brains resistant to such high rates of malfunction. Mental disorders should generally be rare — why isn’t depression?

This paradox could be resolved if depression were a problem of growing old. The functioning of all body systems and organs, including the brain, tends to deteriorate with age. This is not a satisfactory explanation for depression, however, as people are most likely to experience their first bout in adolescence and young adulthood.

Or, perhaps, depression might be like obesity — a problem that arises because modern conditions are so different from those in which we evolved. Homo sapiens did not evolve with cookies and soda at the fingertips. Yet this is not a satisfactory explanation either. The symptoms of depression have been found in every culture which has been carefully examined, including small-scale societies, such as the Ache of Paraguay and the !Kung of southern Africa — societies where people are thought to live in environments similar to those that prevailed in our evolutionary past.

There is another possibility: that, in most instances, depression should not be thought of as a disorder at all. In an article recently published in Psychological Review, we argue that depression is in fact an adaptation, a state of mind which brings real costs, but also brings real benefits.

One reason to suspect that depression is an adaptation, not a malfunction, comes from research into a molecule in the brain known as the 5HT1A receptor. The 5HT1A receptor binds to serotonin, another brain molecule that is highly implicated in depression and is the target of most current antidepressant medications. Rodents lacking this receptor show fewer depressive symptoms in response to stress, which suggests that it is somehow involved in promoting depression. (Pharmaceutical companies, in fact, are designing the next generation of antidepressant medications to target this receptor.) When scientists have compared the composition of the functional part rat 5HT1A receptor to that of humans, it is 99 percent similar, which suggests that it is so important that natural selection has preserved it. The ability to “turn on” depression would seem to be important, then, not an accident.

This is not to say that depression is not a problem. Depressed people often have trouble performing everyday activities, they can’t concentrate on their work, they tend to socially isolate themselves, they are lethargic, and they often lose the ability to take pleasure from such activities such as eating and sex. Some can plunge into severe, lengthy, and even life-threatening bouts of depression.

So what could be so useful about depression? Depressed people often think intensely about their problems. These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerous studies have also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.

This analytical style of thought, of course, can be very productive. Each component is not as difficult, so the problem becomes more tractable. Indeed, when you are faced with a difficult problem, such as a math problem, feeling depressed is often a useful response that may help you analyze and solve it. For instance, in some of our research, we have found evidence that people who get more depressed while they are working on complex problems in an intelligence test tend to score higher on the test.

Analysis requires a lot of uninterrupted thought, and depression coordinates many changes in the body to help people analyze their problems without getting distracted. In a region of the brain known as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), neurons must fire continuously for people to avoid being distracted. But this is very energetically demanding for VLPFC neurons, just as a car’s engine eats up fuel when going up a mountain road. Moreover, continuous firing can cause neurons to break down, just as the car’s engine is more likely to break down when stressed. Studies of depression in rats show that the 5HT1A receptor is involved in supplying neurons with the fuel they need to fire, as well as preventing them from breaking down. These important processes allow depressive rumination to continue uninterrupted with minimal neuronal damage, which may explain why the 5HT1A receptor is so evolutionarily important.

Many other symptoms of depression make sense in light of the idea that analysis must be uninterrupted. The desire for social isolation, for instance, helps the depressed person avoid situations that would require thinking about other things. Similarly, the inability to derive pleasure from sex or other activities prevents the depressed person from engaging in activities that could distract him or her from the problem. Even the loss of appetite often seen in depression could be viewed as promoting analysis because chewing and other oral activity interferes with the brain’s ability to process information.

But is there any evidence that depression is useful in analyzing complex problems? For one thing, if depressive rumination were harmful, as most clinicians and researchers assume, then bouts of depression should be slower to resolve when people are given interventions that encourage rumination, such as having them write about their strongest thoughts and feelings. However, the opposite appears to be true. Several studies have found that expressive writing promotes quicker resolution of depression, and they suggest that this is because depressed people gain insight into their problems.

There is another suggestive line of evidence. Various studies have found that people in depressed mood states are better at solving social dilemmas. Yet these would seem to have been precisely the kind of problems difficult enough to require analysis and important enough to drive the evolution of such a costly emotion. Consider a woman with young children who discovers her husband is having an affair. Is the wife’s best strategy to ignore it, or force him to choose between her and the other woman, and risk abandonment? Laboratory experiments indicate that depressed people are better at solving social dilemmas by better analysis of the costs and benefits of the different options that they might take.

Sometimes people are reluctant to disclose the reason for their depression because it is embarrassing or sensitive, they find it painful, they believe they must soldier on and ignore them, or they have difficulty putting their complex internal struggles into words.

But depression is nature’s way of telling you that you’ve got complex social problems that the mind is intent on solving. Therapies should try to encourage depressive rumination rather than try to stop it, and they should focus on trying to help people solve the problems that trigger their bouts of depression. (There are several effective therapies that focus on just this.) It is also essential, in instances where there is resistance to discussing ruminations, that the therapist try to identify and dismantle those barriers.

When one considers all the evidence, depression seems less like a disorder where the brain is operating in a haphazard way, or malfunctioning. Instead, depression seems more like the vertebrate eye—an intricate, highly organized piece of machinery that performs a specific function.

Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Carl Zimmer - The Dark Matter of the Human Brain

Glial cells are the mystery of the brain. Center of consciousness or something else - we still don't know.

The Dark Matter of the Human Brain

Meet the forgotten 90 percent of your brain: glial cells, which outnumber your neurons ten to one. And no one really knows what they do.

by Carl Zimmer

From the September 2009 issue, published online August 19, 2009

Some of the common words we use are frozen mistakes. The term influenza comes from the Italian word meaning “influence”—an allusion to the influence the stars were once believed to have on our health. European explorers searching for an alternate route to India ended up in the New World and uncomprehendingly dubbed its inhabitants indios, or Indians. Neuroscientists have a frozen mistake of their own, and it is a spectacular blunder. In the mid-1800s researchers discovered cells in the brain that are not like neurons (the presumed active players of the brain) and called them glia, the Greek word for “glue.” Even though the brain contains about a trillion glia—10 times as many as there are neurons—the assumption was that those cells were nothing more than a passive support system. Today we know the name could not be more wrong.

Glia, in fact, are busy multitaskers, guiding the brain’s development and sustaining it throughout our lives. Glia also listen carefully to their neighbors, and they speak in a chemical language of their own. Scientists do not yet understand that language, but experiments suggest that it is part of the neurological conversation that takes place as we learn and form new memories.

If you had to blame one thing for the mistaken impression about glia, it would have to be electricity. The 18th-century physiologist Luigi Galvani discovered that if he touched a piece of electrified metal to an exposed nerve in a frog’s leg, the leg twitched. He and others went on to show that a slight pulse of electricity moving through the metal to the nerve was responsible. For two millennia physicians and philosophers had tried to find the “animal spirits” that moved the body, and Galvani discovered that impetus: It was the stuff of lightning.

Over the next two centuries scientists got a clearer understanding of how those signals work. When a branch at one end of a nerve cell, or neuron, is stimulated, an electric pulse races toward the main body of the cell. Other branches might send separate pulses at the same time. The main body of the neuron conveys those pulses to an outgoing arm, or axon, which splits into numerous branches, each of which nearly touches other neurons. The slight gap between two nerve cells is called a synaptic cleft. The signal-sending neuron pumps chemicals into the space, and the signal-receiving neuron takes up some of them, triggering a new electric pulse.

All neurons have certain characteristic attributes: axons, synapses, and the ability to produce electric signals. As scientists peered at bits of brain under their microscopes, though, they encountered other cells that did not fit the profile. When impaled with electrodes, these cells did not produce a crackle of electric pulses. If electricity was the language of thought, then these cells were mute. German pathologist Rudolf Virchow coined the name glia in 1856, and for well over a century the cells were treated as passive inhabitants of the brain.

At least a few scientists realized that this might be a hasty assumption. The pioneering neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal earned a Nobel Prize in 1906 for what came to be known as the neuron doctrine—the theory that neurons are the fundamental units of the brain. Ramón y Cajal didn’t think glia were necessarily just glue, however. Instead, he thought they were a mystery—a mystery, he wrote, that “may remain unsolved for many years to come until physiologists find direct methods to attack it.”

Today the mystery of glia is partially solved. Biologists know they come in several forms. One kind, called radial glia, serve as a scaffolding in the embryonic brain. Neurons climb along these polelike cells to reach their final location. Another kind of glia, called microglia, are the brain’s immune system. They clamber through the neurological forest in search of debris from dead or injured cells. A third class of glia, known as Schwann cells and oligodendrocytes, form insulating sleeves around neurons to keep their electric signals from diffusing.

But the more neuroscientists examine glia, the more versatile these cells turn out to be. Microglia do not just keep the brain clean; they also prune away extra branches on neurons to help fine-tune their developing connections. Oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells don’t just insulate cells; they also foster new synapses between neurons. And once radial glia are finished helping neurons move around the developing brain, they don’t die. They turn into another kind of glia, called astrocytes.

Astrocytes—named for their starlike rays, which reach out in all directions—are the most abundant of all glial cells and therefore the most abundant of all the cells in the brain. They are also the most mysterious. A single astrocyte can wrap its rays around more than a million synapses. Astrocytes also fuse to each other, building channels through which molecules can shuttle from cell to cell.

All those connections put astrocytes in a great position to influence the goings-on in the brain. They also have receptors that can snag a variety of neurotransmitters, which means that they may be able to eavesdrop on the biochemical chatter going on around them. Yet for a long time, neuroscientists could not find any sign that astrocytes actually responded to signals from the outside. Finally, in 1990, neuroscientist Ann Cornell-Bell at Yale discovered what seemed to be a solution to the mystery. It turned out that astrocytes, like neurons, can react to neurotransmitters—but instead of electricity, the cells produce waves of charged calcium atoms.

The calcium comes from sealed packets scattered through the astrocytes. When stimulated, the cells rip open the calcium packets in the ray that first senses the neurotransmitters, triggering the opening of other packets elsewhere in the cell. The astrocytes then stash the calcium atoms back in their packets, only to unleash them again when next stimulated. Cornell-Bell noticed that a wave of such activity that started in one astrocyte could spread to other astrocytes. Several research teams also discovered that astrocytes themselves release powerful neurotransmitters. They can produce glutamate (which excites neurons so that they are more likely to respond to a signal from another neuron) and adenosine (which can blunt a neuron’s sensitivity).

For some brain scientists, these discoveries are puzzle pieces that are slowly fitting together into an exciting new picture of the brain. Piece one: Astrocytes can sense incoming signals. Piece two: They can respond with calcium waves. Piece three: They can produce outputs—neurotransmitters and perhaps even calcium waves that spread to other astrocytes. In other words, they have at least some of the requirements for processing information the way neurons do. Alfonso Araque, a neuroscientist at the Cajal Institute in Spain, and his colleagues make a case for a fourth piece. They find that two different stimulus signals can produce two different patterns of calcium waves (that is, two different responses) in an astrocyte. When they gave astrocytes both signals at once, the waves they produced in the cells was not just the sum of the two patterns. Instead, the astrocytes produced an entirely new pattern in response. That’s what neurons—and computers, for that matter—do.

If astrocytes really do process information, that would be a major addition to the brain’s computing power. After all, there are many more astrocytes in the brain than there are neurons. Perhaps, some scientists have speculated, astrocytes carry out their own computing. Instead of the digital code of voltage spikes that neurons use, astrocytes may act more like an analog network, encoding information in slowly rising and falling waves of calcium. In his new book, The Root of Thought, neuroscientist Andrew Koob suggests that conversations among astrocytes may be responsible for “our creative and imaginative existence as human beings.”

Until recently, studies of astrocytes examined only a few cells sitting in a petri dish. Now scientists are figuring out how to observe astrocytes in living animals and learning even more about the cells’ abilities. Axel Nimmerjahn of Stanford University and his colleagues, for instance, developed a way to mount microscopes on the skulls of mice. To watch the astrocytes, they inject molecules into the mice that glow when they bind to free calcium. Whenever a mouse moves one of its legs, Nimmerjahn and his colleagues can see a little burst of calcium waves. In some cases, hundreds of astrocytes may flare up at once, and the flares can last as long as several seconds.

Astrocytes are also vital for synapses. Stanford University neuroscientist Ben Barres and his colleagues found that neurons that grew with astrocytes formed nearly 10 times as many synapses as neurons growing without them, and the activity in those synapses was nearly 100 times greater. Since synapses change as we learn and form new memories, Marie E. Gibbs of Monash University in Australia suspected that astrocytes might be important to our ability to learn. To test that idea, she and her colleagues gave chicks colored beads to peck at. The red beads were coated in a bitter chemical; usually a single peck was enough to make the chicks learn never to peck a red bead again. But when they were injected with a drug that prevented astrocytes from synthesizing glutamate, the birds were unable to remember the bad taste and would peck at the beads again.

But these sorts of experiments have not swayed some skeptics. If the calcium waves really are so important, for instance, you would expect that a genetically engineered mouse that couldn’t make calcium waves would be one sorry rodent. Ken McCarthy, a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his colleagues engineered mice to grow astrocytes that lack a key protein required to pry open their calcium packets. These mice grew up to be indistinguishable from ordinary ones, for reasons still unclear.

There is something marvelous in the fact that we barely understand what most of the cells in our brains are doing. Beginning in the 1930s, astronomers realized that all the things they could see through their telescopes—the stars, the galaxies, the nebulas—make up just a small fraction of the total mass of the universe. The rest, known as dark matter, still defies their best attempts at explanation. Between our ears, it turns out, each of us carries a personal supply of dark matter as well.

SciAm Mind - In Defense of Evolutionary Psychology

Still not convinced. Evolutionary Psychology offers a partial truth at best, and more often some misguided interpretations of why we do the things we do. Far too often it's a reductionist version of what makes us complex human beings.

In Defense of Evolutionary Psychology

Lisa DeBruine of the University of Aberdeen proposes that the value of evolutionary psychology lies in its ability to inspire new questions about human behavior. Christie Nicholson reports.

60-Second Psych
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[Below is the original script. But a few changes may have been made during the recording of this audio podcast.]

Some in the scientific community are criticizing the so-called “post-hoc” claims of evolutionary psychology. This is the discipline that explains modern behavior using theories of human adaptation over thousands of years.

But a paper in press by Lisa DeBruine at the University of Aberdeen defends evo psych by offering another angle. She writes: “…the real power of an evolutionary perspective lies not in generating…reasons for behavior that we already know about, but in generating novel predictions about behaviors that have not yet been investigated.”

DeBruine points to an evolutionary way of thinking that can allow us to ask new questions that then lead to testable hypotheses. Take this example: back in the mid-60s predictions were made about how humans perceived vertical and horizontal distances differently.

One such theory predicted that vertical distances are overestimated when viewed from bottom up. But no experiments were done, until researchers proposed a possible evolutionary reason for the discrepancy in vertical views.

And here the researchers predicted that humans ought to overestimate a vertical distance from top down, versus looking up from below because of this evolutionary reasoning: a fall from a high perch is much more likely to lead to death or injury. And this ain’t good for the overall fitness of the species.

Russell Jackson and Lawrence Cormack confirmed this effect in 2007. They found that nearly all of their 210 subjects (from two separate experiments) perceived the height to be 32 percent greater when looking down than when looking up.

DeBruine’s point in her paper is that evo psych perspectives are valuable not because they provide reasons for human behavior, but because they lead to new hypotheses that then lead to discovery that is supported by verifiable evidence.

—Christie Nicholson

60-Second Psych is a weekly Podcast. Subscribe to this Podcast: RSS | iTunes

Psychology Today Blogs - A little science on positive energy

Joachim Krueger offers a little insight on positive energy, one of the buzz phrases currently popular among the self-appointed spiritual teachers.

One Among Many

The self in social context

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Screw Cardio! Four Complexes for a Shredded Physique by Chris Shugart

I hate cardio - so when I want to do "energy work," my term for cardiovascular training, I do lighter weights with very little rest and compound movements. I generally think of it as general physical preparedness (GPP), but sure, it's a form of cardio that preserves muscle and burns fat like a furnace.

Screw Cardio! Four Complexes for a Shredded Physique

My lungs screamed, my muscles burned, and I was, quite literally, seeing black spots dance before my eyes like some lame Windows screensaver from 1998.

I glanced at the clock.

No. Fucking. Way. Ninety seconds had passed by already?

It was time for another set.

I grabbed the bar for set number four, dug deep mentally, and pushed through another round. About a minute later my "off-day" cardio was done. It had only taken around nine minutes total, yet I was wiped out. I actually looked forward to some foam rolling because it meant I got to lie down on the floor.

I glanced over at the cardio area. I saw three beer-bellied men pounding away on the treadmills. I could practically hear their knees and ankles barking with the abuse.

Two women were behind them on the ellipticals. They were talking and laughing and had probably burned more body fat getting out of their minivans than they had while lollygagging on the hamster machines.

Finally I looked over at the stairmill. That's a torture device of a cardio machine, no doubt, and the guy on it was sweating through his shirt. He'd been up there a while, so he was clearly "good" at the stairmill... all 150 emaciated pounds of him. No thanks.

Now, let's compare that to my recent "cardio" workouts, if you could technically even call them that. Depending on the load, in about ten minutes I could...

I could also...

So what the hell was I doing? Something that's been around a long time and that's gone by a lot of names in the past. Today we simply call them complexes.

Complexes: Not So Complex

Quick review: A complex is where you pick up a barbell, perform several reps of an exercise with it, then move right into another exercise, then another, and another, and maybe one or two more. Then you see black spots, get all ripped 'n shit, and bang swimsuit models.

Okay, okay, Coach Dan John has a much better definition: "A complex is a series of lifts performed back to back where you finish the reps of one lift before moving on to the next lift. The bar only leaves your hands or touches the floor after all of the lifts are completed."

Alwyn Cosgrove is even more concise: "A complex is a circuit using one piece of equipment, one load, and one space."

So maybe you perform front squats for 8 reps, then push presses for 8 reps, then bent-over rows for 8, and finally back squats for 8 — all without putting the damn bar down.

It's brutal. Better still, it's brutally effective for fat loss and improving all the physical qualities I listed in my snazzy intro.

But the best thing? You can't do it while talking on the fucking cell phone or otherwise "going through the motions." It requires focus, discipline, hard work, and quite possibly a touch of insanity.

Make no mistake, if anyone says this is easy you can bet they've never actually tried it.

So When Do You Use Complexes?

Here's my personal favorite split using complexes:


Complex training sounds almost like one of those infomercials that run at 3AM: "In only 10 minutes twice per week you can build that toned body you've always wanted! But wait, there's more!"

But of course it takes more than twenty minutes a week to get "toned," and complexes don't fold up and store neatly under your bed, or sell for only three easy payments of $19.95. But when added to your favorite bodybuilding program they can really take you to the next level of physique development.

So let's learn a few, shall we?

4 Killer Komplexes

Ready to add complexes to your program? Here are four good ones to get you started. And by "good" I mean you're going to cry for mama. I've also tossed in some words of wisdom from our coaches who've used complexes successfully with their clients and physique athletes.

Cosgrove's Evil 8

"Complexes elevate metabolism beyond anything you've ever experienced before," says Alwyn Cosgrove.

Sounds good to us, but how much weight do you use? "Just remember," says Cosgrove, "it's a metabolic stimulus, not a strength or hypertrophy stimulus, so be conservative. MMA pro David Loiseau uses only 85-95 pounds when doing the complexes I prescribe for him."

That said, don't go too light, either. A good "Cosgrove rule of thumb" is that if you're not questioning why in the hell you're doing these exercises, or convincing yourself that two circuits is enough, you're not going heavy enough.

The basic rule is to use the heaviest weight you can on the weakest movement in the complex. For example, if the complex contains an overhead press and a back squat, you'd use the weight you can handle on the overhead press, not the squat. Otherwise you'd get crushed, and girls would laugh.

But honestly, loading doesn't matter much. If you're de-conditioned or you fall into that dreaded category of "big 'n strong but outta shape," then you'll be tortured with a naked Olympic bar... and maybe even a broomstick. You'll figure out loading anyway during your first complex workout, so don't think about it so damn much and just go do it.

Crazy idea, I know.

Here's one of the most effective Cosgrovian complexes:

On round one, perform 6 reps of each exercise, moving from one exercise to the next, never letting go of the bar, never resting. Remember, you'll finish all six reps of each exercise before moving to the next one.

Rest 90 seconds after the first circuit, then perform 5 reps of each in the next circuit; rest 90 seconds, 4 reps of each; rest 90 seconds, 3 reps of each; rest 90 seconds, 2 reps of each; rest 90 seconds, and then do 1 rep of each.

Cosgrove says that the entire workout should take about 12 minutes, not counting the time you spend sobbing like a little girl in a purdy pink dress.

Tumminello's Weight Plate Metabolic Circuit

I learned this one from Coach Nick Tumminello. I like it because it uses a single Olympic weight plate. Buy a rusty one at a garage sale, throw it into your back yard, and you can have a killer workout anytime you want.

Tumminello uses this complex when he trains Baltimore Ravens TE, Quinn Sypniewski. Think you can hang with big Quinn? Then perform the complex below five times through with only 90 seconds between each round.

Overhead Squat
Swings (like kettlebell swings)
Bentover Row
Reverse Lunge and Twist
Diagonal Chops

Note: If you missed it, check out our full review of Coach Tumminello's DVD on complexes HERE.

Waterbury's Submission Complex

Last time I went to California to visit Chad Waterbury I watched him submit an MMA champion in record time. No, it wasn't an armbar; it was a complex that make this well-conditioned athlete tap out.

Waterbury loves complexes. He notes: "If you're ever short on time, use complexes. If you ever want to burn a little extra fat by boosting your excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), use complexes. Or if you want to enhance your anaerobic endurance, use complexes. They can also be used as general physical preparedness (GPP) boosters after your workouts or for additional training sessions each week. I'm a big advocate of complexes, and you should be too!"

Here's one of Chad's favorites. I like this one because, unlike most complexes, it uses dumbbells instead of a barbell, adding some cool variety.

Reverse Lunges,
Romanian Deadlift,
Good Morning,
Front Squat,
Military Press,
Bentover Row,
Floor Press,

Rest 60 seconds and repeat 2-4 more times depending on your testicular fortitude.

Ferruggia's Timed Complex

"For those of you who've never done complexes, get ready for a whole new in-the-gym experience!" says Jason Ferruggia.

The goal of this complex is speed. Start a timer and perform it once through, 6 reps for every movement. The next time you perform it, try to beat that time.

Start with a 45-pound bar for this one. After a few workouts and improved times, add load.

Once you master the empty Olympic bar, how much weight should you add? Ferruggia says, "Ninety-five fucking pounds will be absolute fucking hell for even the strongest and most-well conditioned fucking warriors!"

Note: "Fucking" added because that's the way Jason actually talks. No fucking kidding.

Final Tips & Wrap-Up

Here's a good tip from Dan John: Print out the complexes in large type, then stick it to the wall in front of you or place it on the floor. That way you won't forget a movement in a longer complex series.

And by "forget" I mean skip it because you're being a weenie and/or your heart is about to burst from your chest, skip across the floor, and scare the shit out of the gay guys in the Zumba class.

Now, can you make up your own complexes? You bet. Just try to pick exercises that flow smoothly into one another. But truthfully, just about any combo works. As Waterbury notes, you're only limited by your imagination.

Try two of these complexes this week. Just add them to your "off" days or cardio-only days. The hamsters on the treadmills will elevate their metabolisms just watching you do them!

Go check out the site for videos on how to do some of this crazy stuff.