Saturday, March 20, 2010

Roger Penrose - Conscious Understanding: What is its Physical Basis?

Roger Penrose is an interesting guy, even though I reject a lot of his theory of consciousness. This is the first I have heard from him since Shadows of the Mind and, later, his work with Stuart Hameroff on the quantum collapse theory of consciousness (the Orch-OR theory, Orchestrated Objective Reduction).

Wikipedia actually has a nice explanation of the theory and the objections to it (which are nearlt universal):

The creation of the Orch OR model

When he wrote his first consciousness book, The Emperor's New Mind in 1989, Penrose lacked a detailed proposal for how such quantum processes could be implemented in the brain. Subsequently, Hameroff read The Emperor’s New Mind and suggested to Penrose that certain structures within brain cells (neurons) were suitable candidate sites for quantum processing and ultimately for consciousness[4][5]. The Orch OR theory arose from the cooperation of these two scientists, and were developed in Penrose's second consciousness book Shadows of the Mind (1994)[2].

Hameroff's contribution to the theory derived from studying brain cells (neurons). His interest centred on the cytoskeleton, which provides an internal supportive structure for neurons, and particularly on the microtubules[5], which are the important component of the cytoskeleton. As neuroscience has progressed, the role of the cytoskeleton and microtubules has assumed greater importance. In addition to providing a supportive structure for the cell, the known functions of the microtubules include transport of molecules including neurotransmitter molecules bound for the synapses, and control of the cell's movement, growth and shape[5].

Hameroff proposed that microtubules were suitable candidates to support quantum processing[5]. Microtubules are made up of tubulin protein subunits. The tubulin protein dimers of the microtubules have hydrophobic pockets binding the drug taxol separated 8 nm away, which might contain delocalized π electrons. Tubulin has other smaller non-polar regions, for example 8 tryptophans per tubulin, which contain π electron-rich indole rings distributed throughout tubulin with separations of roughly 2 nm. Hameroff claims that this is close enough for the tubulin π electrons to become quantum entangled [6]. Quantum entanglement is a state in which quantum particles can alter one another's properties instantaneously and at a distance, in a way which would not be possible, if they were large scale objects obeying the laws of classical as opposed to quantum physics.

In the case of the electrons in the tubulin subunits of the microtubules, Hameroff has proposed that large numbers of these electrons can become involved in a state known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. These occur when large numbers of quantum particles become locked in phase and exist as a single quantum object. These are quantum features at a macroscopic scale, and Hameroff suggests that through a feature of this kind quantum activity, which is usually at a very tiny scale, could be boosted to be a large scale influence in the brain.

Hameroff has proposed that condensates in microtubules in one neuron can link with microtubule condensates in other neurons and glial cells via gap junctions[7][8]. In addition to the synaptic connections between brain cells, gap junctions are a different category of connections, where the gap between the cells is sufficiently small for quantum objects to cross it by means of a process known as quantum tunneling. Hameroff proposes that this tunneling allows a quantum object, such as the Bose-Einstein condensates mentioned above, to cross into other neurons, and thus extend across a large area of the brain as a single quantum object.

He further postulates that the action of this large-scale quantum feature is the source of the gamma synchronisation observed in the brain, and sometimes viewed as a neural correlate of consciousness [9]. In support of the much more limited theory that gap junctions are related to the gamma oscillation, Hameroff quotes a number of studies from recent years [10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19].

The Orch OR theory combines Penrose's hypothesis with respect to the Gödel theorem with Hameroff's hypothesis with respect to microtubules. Together, Penrose and Hameroff have proposed that when condensates in the brain undergo an objective reduction of their wave function, that collapse connects to non-computational decision taking/experience embedded in the geometry of fundamental spacetime.

The theory further proposes that the microtubules both influence and are influenced by the conventional activity at the synapses between neurons. The Orch in Orch OR stands for orchestrated to give the full name of the theory Orchestrated Objective Reduction. Orchestration refers to the hypothetical process by which connective proteins, known as microtubule associated proteins (MAPs) influence or orchestrate the quantum processing of the microtubules.

Objections to Orch OR

Penrose's interpretation of Gödel's first incompleteness theorem is rejected by many philosophers, logicians and artificial intelligence (robotics) researchers[20][21][22][23][24][25][26][27]. A paper by the philosophers Rick Grush and Patricia Churchland attacking Penrose has received widespread attention within consciousness studies[28]. Solomon Feferman, a professor of mathematics, logic and philosophy has made more qualified criticisms[29]. He faults detailed points in Penrose's reasoning in his second book 'Shadows of the Mind', but says that he does not think that they undermine the main thrust of his argument. As a mathematician, he argues that mathematicians do not progress by computer-like or mechanistic search through proofs, but by trial-and-error reasoning, insight and inspiration, and that machines cannot share this approach with humans. However, he thinks that Penrose goes too far in his arguments. Feferman points out that everyday mathematics, as used in science, can in practice be formalised. He also rejects Penrose's platonism.

The main objection to the Hameroff side of the theory is that any quantum feature in the environment of the brain would undergo wave function collapse (reduction), as a result of interaction with the environment, far too quickly for it to have any influence on neural processes. The wave or superposition form of the quanta is referred to as being quantum coherent. Interaction with the environment results in decoherence otherwise known as wave function collapse. It has been questioned as to how such quantum coherence could avoid rapid decoherence in the conditions of the brain. With reference to this question, a paper by the physicist, Max Tegmark, refuting the Orch OR model and published in the journal, Physical Review E is widely quoted[30]. Tegmark developed a model for time to decoherence, and from this calculated that microtubule quantum states could exist, but would be sustained for only 100 femtoseconds at brain temperatures, far too brief to be relevant to neural processing. A recent paper by Engel et al. in Nature does indicate quantum coherent electrons as being functional in energy transfer within photosynthetic protein, but the quantum coherence described lasts for 660 femtoseconds[31] rather than the 25 milliseconds required by Orch OR. This reinforces Tegmark's estimate for decoherence timescale of microtubules, which is comparable to the observed coherence time in the photosynthetic complex.

In their reply to Tegmark's paper, also published in Physical Review E, the physicists, Scott Hagan and Jack Tuszynski and Hameroff[32][33] claimed that Tegmark did not address the Orch OR model, but instead a model of his own construction. This involved superpositions of quanta separated by 24 nm rather than the much smaller separations stipulated for Orch OR. As a result, Hameroff's group claimed a decoherence time seven orders of magnitude greater than Tegmarks, but still well short of the 25 ms required if the quantum processing in the theory was to be linked to the 40 Hz gamma synchrony, as Orch OR suggested. To bridge this gap, the group made a series of proposals. It was supposed that the interiors of neurons could alternate between liquid and gel states. In the gel state, it was further hypothesized that the water electrical dipoles are orientated in the same direction, along the outer edge of the microtubule tubulin subunits. Hameroff et al. proposed that this ordered water could screen any quantum coherence within the tubulin of the microtubules from the environment of the rest of the brain. Each tubulin also has a tail extending out from the microtubules, which is negatively charged, and therefore attracts positively charged ions. It is suggested that this could provide further screening. Further to this, there was a suggestion that the microtubules could be pumped into a coherent state by biochemical energy. Finally, it is suggested that the configuration of the microtubule lattice might be suitable for quantum error correction, a means of holding together quantum coherence in the face of environmental interaction. In the last decade, some researchers who are sympathetic to Penrose's ideas have proposed an alternative scheme for quantum processing in microtubules based on the interaction of tubulin tails with microtubule associated proteins, motor proteins and presynaptic scaffold proteins. These proposed alternative processes have the advantage of taking place within Tegmark's time to decoherence.

Most of the above mentioned putative augmentations of the Orch OR model are not undisputed. "Cortical dendrites contain largely A­-lattice microtubules" is one of 20 testable predictions published by Hameroff in 1998[34] and it was hypothesized that these A­-lattice microtubules could perform topological quantum error correction. The latter testable prediction had already been experimentally disproved in 1994 by Kikkawa et al., who showed that all in vivo microtubules have B-lattice and a seam [35][36]. Other peer-reviewed critiques of Orch OR have been published in recent years. One of these is a paper published in PNAS by Reimers et al.[37], who argue that the condensates proposed in Orch OR would involve energies and temperatures that are not realistic in biological material. Further papers by Georgiev point to a number of problems with Hameroff's proposals, including the lack of explanation for the probabilistic firing of the axonal synapses[38], an error in the calculated number of tubulin dimers per cortical neuron[39], and mismodeling of dendritic lamellar bodies (DLBs) discovered by De Zeeuw et al.[40], who showed that despite the fact that DLBs are stained by antibody against gap junctions, they are located tens of micrometers away from actual gap junctions. Also it was shown that the proposed tubulin-bound GTP pumping of quantum coherence cannot occur neither in stable microtubules[41] nor in dynamically unstable microtubules undergoing assembly/disassembly[42].

With that foundation, here is the lecture.

Google Tech Talk
March 10, 2010


Presented by Sir Roger Penrose.

Powerful arguments can be given, to support the case that the quality of human understanding is not something that can be simulated in a trustworthy way, by any entirely computational system. If this case is accepted, it raises the question of what deep physical processes and what subtle brain structures might be involved in order that consciousness can come about. Some remarkable new observations concerning A-lattice microtubules will be briefly described, these having considerable relevance to this issue.

Sir Roger Penrose is an English mathematical physicist and Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford and Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College. He has received a number of prizes and awards, including the 1988 Wolf Prize for physics which he shared with Stephen Hawking for their contribution to our understanding of the universe. He is renowned for his work in mathematical physics, in particular his contributions to general relativity and cosmology. He is also a recreational mathematician and philosopher.

Dr. Anna Dornhaus - Evolution of Mind and Brain

This is part three of six in the U of A Mind and Brain lecture series. I think this is interesting stuff, but I'm not down with most of this perspective.

Dr. Anna Dornhaus is Assistant Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona. Her lecture was given on March 9, 2010, as part of the College of Science Mind and Brain Lecture Series.

What does anybody need a brain for? Brains are energetically expensive to make and to use, and susceptible to making mistakes. Accordingly, not learning, i.e. sticking to an innate or random strategy, is often the best thing to do. Still, humans and other animals display sophisticated learning and cognition. Recent research shows that each animal has specific learning abilities and lacks others according to its environment and evolutionary history. Understanding what different brains are used for can help us understand why they evolved.

Friday, March 19, 2010

David Brooks - The Broken Society

I pretty much agree with Brooks today. Certainly, our society is broken, no doubt about that - how and why is another issue. However, I agree with these three ideas taken from Phillip Blond: "remoralize the market, relocalize the economy and recapitalize the poor." That is the only real way we will fix things - and they will never happen.

Interesting that Blond considers himself an adherent of "radical transformative conservatism." His ideas are essentially socialist within the American context:
Blond would reduce the power of senior government officials and widen the discretion of front-line civil servants, the people actually working in neighborhoods. He would decentralize power, giving more budget authority to the smallest units of government. He would funnel more services through charities. He would increase investments in infrastructure, so that more places could be vibrant economic hubs. He would rebuild the “village college” so that universities would be more intertwined with the towns around them.
I'm a pretty radical leftist in many ways, and none of this is offensive to me. But none of these ideas would ever get by in the States. These ideas, in the current political climate, are communism - Glenn Beck would have a heart attack ranting incoherently against such an approach.

So that is partly why I find it interesting that Brooks, a conservative (although he is one of the more moderate and open-minded conservatives), would pen this column.

He is correct on the assessment of America as too libertarian. It's a fundamental flaw in this country that we do not recognize how interdependent we are, how much we are socially and culturally embedded citizens. That "rugged individualism" the right is so enamored with here is a major source of so many of our problems - from "profit before people" to "my way or the highway" to "might makes right."

Yes, we are broken society.

The Broken Society

Published: March 18, 2010

The United States is becoming a broken society. The public has contempt for the political class. Public debt is piling up at an astonishing and unrelenting pace. Middle-class wages have lagged. Unemployment will remain high. It will take years to fully recover from the financial crisis.

This confluence of crises has produced a surge in vehement libertarianism. People are disgusted with Washington. The Tea Party movement rallies against big government, big business and the ruling class in general. Even beyond their ranks, there is a corrosive cynicism about public action.

But there is another way to respond to these problems that is more communitarian and less libertarian. This alternative has been explored most fully by the British writer Phillip Blond.

He grew up in working-class Liverpool. “I lived in the city when it was being eviscerated,” he told The New Statesman. “It was a beautiful city, one of the few in Britain to have a genuinely indigenous culture. And that whole way of life was destroyed.” Industry died. Political power was centralized in London.

Blond argues that over the past generation we have witnessed two revolutions, both of which liberated the individual and decimated local associations. First, there was a revolution from the left: a cultural revolution that displaced traditional manners and mores; a legal revolution that emphasized individual rights instead of responsibilities; a welfare revolution in which social workers displaced mutual aid societies and self-organized associations.

Then there was the market revolution from the right. In the age of deregulation, giant chains like Wal-Mart decimated local shop owners. Global financial markets took over small banks, so that the local knowledge of a town banker was replaced by a manic herd of traders thousands of miles away. Unions withered.

The two revolutions talked the language of individual freedom, but they perversely ended up creating greater centralization. They created an atomized, segmented society and then the state had to come in and attempt to repair the damage.

The free-market revolution didn’t create the pluralistic decentralized economy. It created a centralized financial monoculture, which requires a gigantic government to audit its activities. The effort to liberate individuals from repressive social constraints didn’t produce a flowering of freedom; it weakened families, increased out-of-wedlock births and turned neighbors into strangers. In Britain, you get a country with rising crime, and, as a result, four million security cameras.

In a much-discussed essay in Prospect magazine in February 2009, Blond wrote, “Look at the society we have become: We are a bi-polar nation, a bureaucratic, centralised state that presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry.” In a separate essay, he added, “The welfare state and the market state are now two defunct and mutually supporting failures.”

The task today, he argued in a recent speech, is to revive the sector that the two revolutions have mutually decimated: “The project of radical transformative conservatism is nothing less than the restoration and creation of human association, and the elevation of society and the people who form it to their proper central and sovereign station.”

Economically, Blond lays out three big areas of reform: remoralize the market, relocalize the economy and recapitalize the poor. This would mean passing zoning legislation to give small shopkeepers a shot against the retail giants, reducing barriers to entry for new businesses, revitalizing local banks, encouraging employee share ownership, setting up local capital funds so community associations could invest in local enterprises, rewarding savings, cutting regulations that socialize risk and privatize profit, and reducing the subsidies that flow from big government and big business.

To create a civil state, Blond would reduce the power of senior government officials and widen the discretion of front-line civil servants, the people actually working in neighborhoods. He would decentralize power, giving more budget authority to the smallest units of government. He would funnel more services through charities. He would increase investments in infrastructure, so that more places could be vibrant economic hubs. He would rebuild the “village college” so that universities would be more intertwined with the towns around them.

Essentially, Blond would take a political culture that has been oriented around individual choice and replace it with one oriented around relationships and associations. His ideas have made a big splash in Britain over the past year. His think tank, ResPublica, is influential with the Conservative Party. His book, “Red Tory,” is coming out soon. He’s on a small U.S. speaking tour, appearing at Georgetown’s Tocqueville Forum Friday and at Villanova on Monday.

Britain is always going to be more hospitable to communitarian politics than the more libertarian U.S. But people are social creatures here, too. American society has been atomized by the twin revolutions here, too. This country, too, needs a fresh political wind. America, too, is suffering a devastating crisis of authority. The only way to restore trust is from the local community on up.

Jon Stewart Parodies Glenn Beck

I tweeted this already, but I couldn't resist posting it here - it's that good.

Jon Stewart gets a lot of material from Glenn Beck, but the Daily Show host went all-in on Thursday night with a whopping 15-minute parody of the Fox News host.

Words don't really do it justice, unless they're on a chalkboard, so just enjoy the video ...



ABC - Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist: The Spiritual Journey of Former Buddhist Monk Stephen Batchelor

Surprised to see this on ABC - hat tip to Tricycle for the link. Nice to see Stephen Batchelor getting some exposure for his new book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist - a book I am currently reading a enjoying very much. In fact, aside from school reading, I've set everything else aside for now.

It's good to hear him talk about his issues with reincarnation and the recitation of daily of dharma and the tantric visualizations.

'Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist'

The fascinating spiritual journey of former Buddhist monk Stephen Batchelor.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu - Hang On to Your Ego

hang onto your ego

Great article from the Tricycle archives. This might be the first time I've encountered a Buddhist teacher who gets that we need a healthy, non-dysfunctional ego BEFORE we try to transcend the ego - to do otherwise is to invite all manner of problems.

Hang On to Your Ego

Although many believe that the ego is just a source of trouble, Thanissaro Bhikkhu teaches that a healthy, functioning ego is a crucial tool on the path to Awakening.

By Thanissaro Bhikkhu

YEARS BACK, many Buddhist teachers in the West began using the term “egolessness” to explain the Buddha’s teaching on not-self. Since then, egolessness has come to mean many things to many people. Sometimes egolessness is used to mean a lack of conceit or self-importance; sometimes, a pure mode of acting without thought of personal reward. In its most extended form, though, the teaching on egolessness posits a fundamental error of perception: that despite our sense of a lasting, separate self, no such self really exists. According to this view, to provide for the happiness of this illusory self, we not only place our hopes on an impossible goal but also harm ourselves and everyone around us. If we could only see the fallacy of the ego and understand its harmful effects, we would let it go and find true happiness in the interconnectedness that is our true nature.

At least that’s what we’re told, and often with a fair amount of vehemence. Buddhist writers, often so gentle and nonjudgmental, can quickly turn vicious when treating the ego. Some portray it as a tyrannical bureaucracy deserving violent overthrow; others, as a ratlike creature—nervous, scheming, and devious—that must be squashed. Whatever the portrait, the message is always that the ego is so pernicious and tenacious that any mental or verbal abuse directed against it is fair play in getting it to loosen its foul grip on the mind.

But when people trained in classical Western psychotherapy read these attacks on the ego, they shake their heads in disbelief. For them the ego is not something evil. It’s not even a singular thing you can attack. It’s a cluster of activities, a set of functions in the mind—and necessary functions at that. Any mental act by which you mediate between your raw desires for immediate pleasure and your super-ego—the oughts and shoulds you’ve learned from family and society—is an ego function. Ego functions are our mental strategies for gaining lasting happiness in the midst of the conflicting demands whispering and shouting in the mind. They enable you to say No to the desire to have sex with your neighbor’s spouse, in the interest of a greater happiness. They also enable you to say No to the demands of your parents, teachers, or government when those demands would jeopardize your own best interest.

But ego functions don’t just say No. They also have a mediator’s sense of when to say Yes. If they’re skillful, they negotiate among your desires and your super-ego so that you can gain the pleasure you want in a way that causes no harm and can actually do a great deal of good. If your ego functions are healthy and well-coordinated, they give you a consistent sense of priorities as to which forms of happiness are more worthwhile than others; a clear sense of where your responsibilities do and don’t lie; a strong sense of your ability to judge right and wrong for yourself; and an honest sense of how to learn from your past mistakes for the sake of greater happiness in the future.

From this perspective, egolessness would be a disaster. A person devoid of ego functions would be self-destructive: either a beast with uncontrolled impulses, or a neurotic, repressed automaton with no mind of her own, or an infantile monster thrashing erratically between these two extremes. Anyone who tried to abandon ego functioning would arrest his psychological growth and lose all hope of becoming a mature, responsible, trustworthy adult. And as we know, self-destructive people don’t destroy only themselves. They can pull down many of the people and places around them.

This is not only the view of trained Western psychologists. Buddhist communities in the West have also begun to recognize this problem and have coined the term “spiritual bypassing” to describe it: the way people try to avoid dealing with the problems of an unintegrated personality by spending all their time in meditation retreats, using the mantra of egolessness to short-circuit the hard work of mastering healthy ego functioning in the daily give and take of their lives.

Then there’s the problem of self-hatred. The Dalai Lama isn’t the only Asian Buddhist teacher surprised at the amount of self-hatred found in the West. Unfortunately, a lot of people with toxic super-egos have embraced the teaching on egolesness as the Buddha’s stamp of approval on the hatred they feel toward themselves.

These problems have inspired many Western psychologists to assume a major gap in the Buddha’s teachings: that in promoting egolessness, the Buddha overlooked the importance of healthy ego functioning in finding true happiness. This assumption has led to a corollary: that Buddhism needs the insights of Western psychotherapy to fill the gap; that to be truly effective, a healthy spiritual path needs to give equal weight to both traditions. Otherwise you come out lopsided and warped, an idiot savant who can thrive in the seclusion of a three-year retreat, but can’t handle three hours caught in heavy traffic with three whining children.

This corollary assumes, though, that for the past twenty-six hundred years Buddhism hasn’t produced any healthy functioning individuals: that the collective consciousness of Buddhist Asian society has suppressed individualism, and that the handful of dysfunctional meditation teachers who came to the West—the ones who mastered the subtleties of formal meditation but tripped over the blatant pitfalls of American money and sex—are typical of the Buddhist tradition. But I wonder if this is so.

My own experience in Asia certainly doesn’t confirm this. During my sixteen years in Thailand I met, per capita, more people with a genuinely individual outlook on life and far fewer neurotics than I did on returning to the mass-media-produced minds of America. My teacher, Ajaan Fuang, had the healthiest functioning ego of anyone I had ever met—and he knew nothing of Western psychology. This observation doesn’t apply just to the Thai tradition. Psychologists have studied ordinary Tibetan monks and nuns who have survived years of torture—the severest test of healthy ego functioning—and found that they bear no psychological scars.

So there are many Asian Buddhists who clearly know the secret of how to develop a healthy ego. Some psychologists would have us believe that this was despite, rather than due to, their Buddhist training, but that belief could easily be based on a superficial reading of the Buddhist tradition. So we need to put this belief to the test.

One way would be to read the ancient texts with new eyes. Instead of assuming that the not-self teaching is counseling egolessness, how about assuming that it’s part of a regimen for developing a healthy ego? This idea may seem counterintuitive, but that’s no measure of its usefulness. The measure lies in testing it as a hypothesis. So as a thought experiment, let’s look at the earliest record of the Buddha’s teachings, the Pali canon, from the perspective of Western psychology and pose a question: is there any evidence that the Buddha was advocating a healthy ego?

Actually, tips on healthy ego functioning fill the texts. To begin with, the Buddha defines a wise person as one who knows the difference between what are and what are not his personal responsibilities, one who takes on only his own responsibilities and not those of others. This is the first principle in any ego functioning. Then there’s the famous verse 290 of the Dhammapada:

If, by forsaking a limited ease,
he would see an abundance of ease,
the enlightened person
would forsake the limited ease
for the sake of the abundant.

This is practically a definition of how ego functions operate well.

These insights aren’t random. They’re based on another assumption necessary for a healthy ego: the teaching on karma, that we’re responsible for our actions and that we’re going to experience their results. This assumption in turn is framed by the larger psychology of the Noble Eightfold Path. As any therapist will tell you, a healthy ego is strengthened by developing a healthy super-ego whose shoulds are humane and realistic. It’s also strengthened by the ability to safely satisfy your raw demands for immediate happiness so that the ego’s long-term strategies don’t get derailed by sudden overwhelming desires. These two functions are filled, respectively, by the Eightfold Path factors of right view and right concentration.

Right view contains the Buddha’s shoulds, which are in service to the desire to find true happiness. You divide your experience into four categories: suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Then you take to heart the imperatives proper to each: comprehending suffering, abandoning its cause, realizing its cessation, and developing the path. That’s the Buddhist recipe for a healthy super-ego—a series of shoulds that are on your side, that never ask you to sacrifice your own true well-being for the sake of anyone or anything else.

As for right concentration, one of its crucial factors is a sense of bliss independent of sensual objects and drives. When you gain some skill in meditation and can tap into that bliss whenever you want, you can satisfy your desire for immediate pleasure, at the same time weakening any demand that the pleasure be sensual. As the Buddha once noted, people pursue sensual pleasure, with all of its inherent limitations, simply because they see no other alternative to physical and mental pain. But once you’ve mastered this more refined alternative, you’ve found a new way to feed the demand for pleasure right now, freeing the ego to function more effectively.

You have also learned the key to the Buddha’s strategy for true happiness: It is possible to taste an immediate gratification that causes no harm to yourself or anyone else. Genuine happiness doesn’t require that you take anything away from anyone—which means that it in no way conflicts with the genuine happiness of others.

This understanding is revolutionary. For people dependent on sensual pleasures, happiness is a zero-sum affair. There are only so many things, only so many people, to go around. When you gain something, someone else has lost it; when they’ve gained, you’ve lost. In a zero-sum world, the pursuit of your own happiness constantly has to be negotiated and compromised with that of others. But when people access the bliss of right concentration, they’ve found a way to satisfy their own desire for happiness in a way that can actively augment the happiness of those around them. When they’re more content and at peace within, they radiate a healthy influence in all directions. This is how healthy ego functioning, from the Buddhist perspective, benefits others as well as yourself.

The classic image illustrating this point is of two acrobats, the first standing on the end of a vertical bamboo pole, the second standing on the shoulders of the first. To perform their tricks and come down safely, each has to look after his or her own sense of balance. In other words, life is a balancing act. By maintaining your balance, you make it easier for others to maintain theirs. This is why, in the Buddhist equation, the wise pursuit of happiness is not a selfish thing. In fact, it underlies all the qualities traditionally associated not only with the path the Buddha taught to his disciples but also with the Buddha himself: wisdom, compassion, and purity.

Wisdom, the Buddha says, starts with a simple question: What actions will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness? The wisdom here lies in realizing that your happiness depends on what you do, and that the pursuit of happiness is worthwhile only if it’s long-term. The test of how far your wisdom has matured lies in the strategic skill with which you can keep yourself from doing things that you like to do but that would cause long-term harm, and the skill with which you can talk yourself into doing things that you don’t like to do but that would lead to long-term well-being and happiness. In other words, mature wisdom requires a mature ego.

The ego basis for compassion is depicted in one of the most delightful stories in the canon. King Pasenadi, in a tender moment with his favorite consort, Queen Mallika, asks her, “Is there anyone you love more than yourself?” He’s anticipating, of course, that she’ll answer, “Yes, your majesty. You.” And it’s easy to see where a B-movie script would go from there. But this is the Pali canon, and Queen Mallika is no ordinary queen. She answers, “No, your majesty, there isn’t. And how about you? Is there anyone you love more than yourself?” The king, forced into an honest answer, has to admit, “No, there’s not.” Later he reports this conversation to the Buddha, who responds in an interesting way:

Searching all directions
with one’s awareness,
one finds no one dearer
than oneself.
In the same way, others
are fiercely dear to themselves.
So one should not hurt others
if one loves oneself.

In other words, true self-love requires an appreciation that others feel self-love, too. This principle works in two ways: First, you recognize that if your happiness depends on the misery of others it won’t last, for they’ll do whatever they can to destroy that happiness. Your long-term happiness thus has to take into account the long-term happiness of others. Second, in a less calculating way, you recognize what we all have in common. If you take your own self-love seriously, you have to respect the self-love of others. In this way, compassion is based not on a sense of your superiority to those who are suffering but on a sense of mutual respect—a respect solidly based in your own self-interest.

Purity grows from providing your ego-based wisdom and compassion with a reality check. The Buddha once taught his son, Rahula, that purity is developed by examining your actions and their results to make sure that they actually cause no harm to yourself or to those around you. If you anticipate harm from an intended action, you don’t do it. If you see unanticipated harm coming from something you’ve done, you freely admit your mistake and learn how not to repeat it. You don’t cling childishly to the need to always be in the right. But if you see that you aren’t causing harm, you can take joy in the fact that you’re on the path to true happiness.

Because the Buddha saw how these enlightened qualities of wisdom, compassion, and purity could be developed through the pursuit of happiness, he never told his followers to practice his teachings without expecting any gain in return. He understood that such a demand would create an unhealthy dynamic in the mind. In terms of Western psychology, expecting no gain in return would give license for the super-ego to run amok. Instead, the Buddha taught that even the principle of renunciation is a trade. You exchange candy for gold, trading lesser pleasures for greater happiness. So he encouraged people to be generous with their time and possessions because of the inner rewards they would receive in return. He taught moral virtue as a gift: when you observe the precepts without ifs, ands, or buts, you give unconditional safety to all other beings, and in return you receive a share of that safety as well.

Even when advocating that his disciples abandon their sense of self, the Buddha justified this teaching on the basis of the rewards it would bring. He once asked his monks, “If anyone were to burn the trees in this monastery, would you suffer with the sense that they were burning you?”

“No,” the monks replied, “because we’re not the trees.”

“In the same way,” the Buddha continued, “let go of what’s not you or yours: the senses and their objects. That will be for your long-term well-being and happiness.”

Notice that he didn’t say to abandon the sense of self as a form of self-sacrifice. He said to abandon it for the sake of true well-being and happiness.

This point highlights one of the special features of the Buddha’s instructions for healthy ego-development. In Western psychology, ego-development is impossible without assuming a clear sense of self. But in Buddhism, with its realization that there is no clear dividing line between your own true happiness and that of others, the underlying assumption of ego-development is a clear sense of cause and effect, seeing which actions lead to suffering, which ones lead to short-term happiness, and which ones lead to a happiness that lasts.

This is one of the reasons why the Buddha never used terms like “ego-development” or “a well-integrated self.” The types of functioning we associate with a well-developed ego he would have described as a well-integrated sense of cause and effect focused on insights into the results of your actions. Buddhist practice is aimed at refining these insights to ever greater levels of sensitivity and skill. In this way he was able to teach healthy ego functioning while avoiding the twin pitfalls of ego-obsession: narcissism and self-hatred.

Because of the Buddha’s basic terms of analysis were actions understood under the framework of cause and effect, we have to understand his use of “self “ and “not-self “ under that framework. For him, “self “ and “not-self “ aren’t metaphysical principles. They’re mental actions that can be mastered as skills. This is why he was able to use both concepts freely in his teaching. When the concept of self was conducive to skillful action, he would talk in terms of self—not only on the level of generosity and virtue, but also on the level of meditation. If you think that meditation is an exercise in not-self from the very beginning, read the discourses on mindfulness and you’ll be surprised at how often they describe the meditator’s internal dialogue in terms of “I,” “me,” and “mine.”

As for the concept of not-self, the Buddha would advise using it whenever unskillful attachment to things or patterns of behavior got in the way of your happiness. In effect, he would have you drop unhealthy and unskillful ways of self-identification in favor of ways that were more skillful and refined. Only on the highest levels of practice, where even the most skillful concepts of self get in the way of the ultimate happiness, did the Buddha advocate totally abandoning them. But even then he didn’t advocate abandoning the basic principle of ego functioning. You drop the best happiness that can come from a sense of self because an even greater happiness—nirvana, totally timeless, limitless, and unconditioned—appears when you do.

So this is where our thought experiment has led. If you open your mind to the idea that the Buddha was actually advocating ego-development instead of egolessness, you see that there’s nothing lopsided or lacking in his understanding of healthy ego functioning. In fact, he mastered some ego skills that Western psychology has yet to explore, such as how to use right concentration to satisfy the desire for immediate pleasure; how to develop an integrated sense of causality that ultimately makes a sense of self superfluous; how to harness the ego’s drive for lasting happiness so that it leads to a happiness transcending space and time.

These principles have taught many Asian Buddhists how to develop healthy egos over the centuries—so healthy that they can ultimately drop the need to create “self.” All that remains is for us to put these principles to the test, to see if they work for us as well.

~ Thanissaro Bhikkhu is the abbot of Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego, California. His most recent book is Meditations3, and his next book, Handful of Leaves 5, is due out this summer.

Image: blending, Angie Buckley, 2001. © Angie Buckley

Become a Tricycle Community Sustaining Member - Janet Treasure: Eating Disorders

Janet Treasure: Eating Disorders


A lecture to investigate the problems of eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, by Professor Janet Treasure of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.

Professor Janet Treasure - Director of the Eating Disorder Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, and at the South London Maudsley Hospital NHS Trust. The unit is active in research and development in all aspects of eating disorders treatment, biology, clinical problems etc. She is also Professor of Psychiatry at Guys Hospital, Kings & St Thomas Medical School, London.

Professor Treasure is a psychiatrist who has specialized in the treatment of eating disorders for over twenty years.

The Eating Disorder Unit at the South London Maudsley Hospital NHS Trust is a leading centre in clinical management and training of eating disorders. The unit provides eating disorder services for a population of 2 million in south East London and accepts specialists referrals from throughout out the United Kingdom.

Professor Treasure was chairman of the Physical treatment section of the UK NICE guideline committee. She is the Chief Medical Officer for the Eating Disorder Association (the main UK eating disorder charity) and is the trustee of the Sheffield eating disorders association. She is on the Academy of eating disorders accreditation committee. She has also been active in both research over this time and has over 150 peer reviewed papers. In 2004 was honoured to be awarded the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) Leadership Award in Research (This award honors an individual who has over substantial period of time ( i.e., 10 years or more) developed through research new knowledge about eating disorders that is internationally respected and that has had a measurable impact on the field, either by significantly furthering our understanding of the etiology of eating disorders, by changing treatment or by fostering new lines of research).

Professor Treasure has been a co-coordinator of a multicentre European study that is examining the genetic and environmental factors in the management of eating disorders. Professor Treasure was also Vice Chairman of a European project examining the effectiveness of treatment of eating disorders in over 20 countries.

Professor Treasure has edited four texts on eating disorders "Neurobiology in the Treatment of Eating Disorders" Ed Hoek K, Treasure J, Katzman M (1997) & "Handbook on Eating Disorders," Szmukler G, Dare C & Treasure (1995) (edition 1 &2) Wiley and, Owen, Treasure & Collier (2001) "Animal Models of Eating behaviour and body composition," Kluwer Academic Publishers The Netherlands. She has authored 2 self help books, one on bulimia nervosa "Getting better bit(e) by bit(e): A Survival Kit for Sufferers of Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorders" and one for parents and teachers as well as sufferers themselves on anorexia nervosa "Anorexia nervosa; a survival guide for families, friends and sufferers".

She is working on developing manuals & CD Roms to describe working with individuals and families of people with anorexia nervosa. The ethos of both the research and clinical practice is to work collaboratively with carers and users and to use new technology to further this endeavour.

The web site hosts information for all stakeholders, users, carers and professionals

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Group CBT Is Effective in Treatment-Resistant Depression

I am not a huge fan of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and generally see it as a band-aid that stops the immediate bleeding, but does not treat the wound. However, it is just about the only treatment model being researched these days as a result of the HMO-fueled demand for short-term treatment models. As a result, a lot of people who cannot afford long-term therapy are being treated with CBT. So I guess the goal, then, would be to make CBT as effective as possible - and progress is being made in that area, as this study shows.

To be clear, the group CBT intervention was used in conjunction with medication.

This is an Open Access article from BMC Psychiatry, so if you would like to read it, the link at the bottom will open the pre-publication PDF.

Psychosocial functioning in patients with treatment-resistant depression after group cognitive behavioral therapy

Miki Matsunaga, Yasumasa Okamoto, Shin-ichi Suzuki, Akiko Kinoshita, Shinpei Yoshimura, Atsuo Yoshino,Yoshihiko Kunisato and Shigeto Yamawaki

BMC Psychiatry 2010, 10:22doi:10.1186/1471-244X-10-22

Published:16 March 2010
Abstract (provisional)


Although patients with Treatment Resistant Depression (TRD) often have impaired social functioning, few studies have investigated the effectiveness of psychosocial treatment for these patients. We examined whether adding group cognitive behavioral therapy (group-CBT) to medication would improve both the depressive symptoms and the social functioning of patient with mild TRD, and whether any improvements would be maintained over one year.


Forty-three patients with TRD were treated with 12 weekly sessions of group-CBT. Patients were assessed with the Global Assessment of Functioning scale (GAF), the 36-item Short-Form Health Survey (SF-36), the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HRSD), the Dysfunctional Attitudes Scale (DAS), and the Automatic Thought Questionnaire-Revised (ATQ-R) at baseline, at the termination of treatment, and at the 12-month follow-up.


Thirty-eight patients completed treatment; five dropped out. For the patients who completed treatment, post-treatment scores on the GAF and SF-36 were significantly higher than baseline scores. Scores on the HRSD, DAS, and ATQ-R were significantly lower after the treatment. Thus patients improved on all measurements of psychosocial functioning and mood symptoms. Twenty patients participated in the 12-month follow-up. Their improvements for psychosocial functioning, depressive symptoms, and dysfunctional cognitions were sustained at 12 months following the completion of group-CBT.


These findings suggest a positive effect that the addition of cognitive behavioural group therapy to medication on depressive symptoms and social functioning of mildly depressed patients, showing treatment resistance.

The complete article is available as a provisional PDF. The fully formatted PDF and HTML versions are in production.

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John H. Evans - Sociology of Religion: Not Much has Changed—And Should It?

Interesting post from The Immanent Frame - I'm often curious as to how religious believers (not wacky fundamentalists, but serious thinkers) view the current state and future of their chosen faith. Oh yeah, clearly, by religion these authors mean Christianity.

Sociology of religion:

Not much has changed—and should it?

posted by John H. Evans

I applaud David Smilde and Matthew May for gathering the requisite data to evaluate some of the impressions sociologists of religion have about their field. Their analysis also provides some background for calls for a change of direction in the field, such as that found in “Toward a new sociology of religion,” coauthored by Peggy Levitt, Courtney Bender, Wendy Cadge, and David Smilde. We need to be clear about what is happening in the field before advocating any specific changes. To that end, I would like to look at Smilde and May’s findings through a thicker interpretive lens. The sociology of religion has actually changed very little in the past thirty years. For example, the number of religion articles in top journals, and the percentage of those articles focused specifically on Christianity, Protestantism, and the US have remained constant. While some of the changes reported in the paper are shown to be statistically significant, they are often so small as to be substantively insignificant. So, rather than reacting to a supposed change in the sub-discipline, we should instead be debating whether we want to change what is, by all appearances, a relatively stable field.

The Strong Program

One particular change that I would advocate is the continued cultivation of the “strong program.” The “strong program” refers primarily to the supposition that religion is not something to be explained in terms of external factors, but rather something that itself explains other phenomena. If this is a trend, then sociologists of religion have succeeded in convincing scholars in a wide range of sub-fields that religion matters. However, this finding should also be interpreted cautiously; as we see in Figure 2, the trend is flat for the first 20 years and tilts strongly upward only during the last four. These last four years, then, could be a blip in the data.

If such a change has occurred, it might be due less to having convinced other sociologists to examine religion than to the perception that the religious diversity of scholars has increased in recent years. This perception could lead to a declining tendency to treat religion as a dependent variable, and thus increasing interest in religion as an independent variable.

I remember one of the first bodies of literature that I encountered as a budding sociologist explained the rise of the religious Right among evangelicals as the result of “status discontent.” I wondered at the time what my graduate student colleagues who were evangelicals thought about this reductive handling of their beliefs. I suspect that many of the older articles in which religion was to be explained by other phenomena were motivated by the secularization theory-infused question, “why do people believe this stuff that we know is really something else?”

Of course, sociologists have always said that what the locals think is going on is not, in fact, what is going on. But I think that we’ve lost our taste for that intellectual move when it comes to a central component of identity like religion. Smilde and May describe something similar when they explain the positive portrayal of religion in less developed countries as due to the “romantic” sentiments of anthropologists who “admire the uniqueness and creativity of ‘cultural others.’” I think that sociologists now share this romanticism, and that this development dovetails with changing notions of civility in American culture, which dictate that explaining away someone’s sincere religious beliefs be viewed as disrespectful (especially if that person is on a panel with you at an SSSR meeting). Evidence for this interpretation can be ferreted out of Table 5, which shows that the one religious phenomenon that is still consistently explained is that of “new religious movements” (a.k.a. “cults”). People want to explain why anyone would ever join the Unification Church, but have lost their taste for explaining why anyone could be, for example, an evangelical. One still does not need to worry about encountering a “cult” member at SSSR meetings. If this is indeed what is going on, I would hope that we can get to a point where, within the bounds of civility, we can still investigate each others’ religious beliefs and associations, as such interrogation remains vital to the sociology of religion.

Pro-religious Research

There has been much buzz among sociologists of religion lately regarding claims of an increase in “pro-religious” research by people who are personally supportive of religion; and while Smilde and May do not derive any strong conclusions from the relevant data, much of the commentary has focused on this issue. Smilde and May articulate the common concern that such a trend would crowd out legitimate examinations of the negative effects of religion—or, more ominously, that gatekeepers could push negative research aside because it does not fit the interests of a pro-religious faction. We do not know how good or bad religion ultimately is, but if only sub-topics that tend to produce positive depictions of religion are supported, that would no doubt be bad for the sub-field, as it would prejudice our knowledge of religion.

I am sure that there have always been scholars suspected of focusing on issues that tend to produce positive representations of religion, and others thought to consciously or unconsciously neglect negative interpretations of their data. But, for all the talk of either a general increase or an up-then-down trend in “pro-religious” research, I read Smilde and May’s data, shown in Figure 3, as indicating no substantial change over the past thirty years related to the aforementioned concerns about crowding out negative findings. Because there is a concern that there exists a prevalent bias toward positive evaluations of religion (and thus a disincentive to produce negative findings), what matters is the ratio of positive to negative socio-evaluative findings. First, if we look at the gap between positive and negative evaluations over the thirty years surveyed, we see that it started at 5%, peaked at 21%, and then fell back to 13%. If that change is statistically significant, it is not substantively significant. If the argument is that there is a large gap, indicating discrimination against scholars who want to demonstrate the negative effects of religion, 13% is just not that much of a gap. Second, the authors claim the growth of a new category of article, in which both positive and negative aspects are portrayed. In the final five-year period of the survey, these articles were twice as common as during any previous time period. If there was an emerging bias against negative portrayals of religion, it appears to have subsided. In sum, I read this analysis as substantively showing that there has not been a surge in “pro-religious research” of the type that would crowd out negative research, but rather a growth in evaluative research in general, as would be expected with the emergence of the strong paradigm.

A related claim is that an increase in the ratio of positive to negative findings on religion has been driven by funding entities with a pro-religious orientation. While the authors do not give us the percentage of unfunded articles with a positive orientation, by my calculations (based on data derived from other tables) it is 20%. If so, then articles receiving government funding are 21% more likely than articles with no funding to positively evaluate religion. The difference between private funding and no funding is 12%, and funding from religious sources is no more likely to produce positive claims than nonreligious funding. So, religious funders are actually the least pro-religious, in terms of socio-evaluative findings, followed by private foundations, with the government the most pro-religious of all. It is hard to see this as religiously inspired funders supporting only research that will portray religion in a positive light, unless one sees government agencies as wanting to promote religion, and the religious foundations as not knowing their own interests. I have no doubt that some of the private funding sources have pro-religious agendas, but if they can only produce a 12% difference in positive articles, and have not upset the ratio of positive to negative research over time, concerns about them seem overblown. I suspect that many funding entities have nonreligious agendas that nonetheless happen to result in a very slight preference for topics in which religion happens to figure positively (e.g., public health).

Both the increasing religious diversity among sociologists of religion and the diversity of socio-evaluative findings on religion have overall been good for the field. The former, combined with changing notions of civility, may have contributed to a decline in attempts to explain religion itself. This needs to be worked on. However, it does not seem to have led to an orientation in the field whereby religion is only promoted, not analyzed. As with the other findings in the report, the central story here is that there has been no substantive change. On the other hand, we should debate case by case whether we want to prod the field into making some perhaps long overdue changes.

APA citation:
Evans, John H.. (2010). Not much has changed—and should it?. Retrieved March 18, 2010, from The Immanent Frame Web site:

Compassion - Ben Goertzel: Cosmist Manifesto
Hmmmm . . . . While Goertzel suggests that "as transhumanist technology advances many of us will choose to give up our humanity, via various routes. Perhaps in doing so we will achieve greater levels of compassion and joy than any human can" - I would reject that as even a possibility. It is our humanity that allows us to be compassionate, or not compassionate.

Like most Utopian conceptualizations of the future, this one is no more likely than jet-packs and flying cars. But it is entertaining.

One more time, with feeling: consciousness cannot exist in any sense as we know it now, without culturally embedded body-minds, located spatially and temporally, interacting interpersonally with other culturally embedded, spatially and temporally located body-minds.


Ben Goertzel
Ben Goertzel
Cosmist Manifesto

Posted: Mar 17, 2010

We tend think about compassion on the level of individual selves and minds: Bob feels compassionate toward Jim because Jim lost his wife, or his wallet, etc. Bob sympathizes with Jim because he can internally, to a certain extent, “feel what Jim feels.”

But it’s often more useful to think of compassion on the level of patterns.

The pattern of “losing one’s wife” exists in both Bob and Jim. Its instance in Bob and its instance in Jim have an intrinsic commonality, and when these two instances of the same pattern come to interact with each other, a certain amount of joy ensues—a certain amount of increasing unity.

Compassion is about the minds containing patterns, adopting dynamics that allow these patterns to unify with other patterns that are “external” to the containing mind.

It is about individual minds not standing in the way of pattern-dynamics that seek unity and joy.
The tricky thing here is that individual minds want to retain their individuality and integrity—and if the patterns they contain grow too much unity with “outside” patterns, this isolated individuality may be threatened.

The dangers of too much compassion are well portrayed by Dostoevsky in The Idiot, via the tale of the protagonist Prince Myshkin.

There seem to be limits to the amount of compassion that a mind can possess and still retain its individuality and integrity. However, it seems that (unlike Myshkin) mighty few humans are pushing up against these limits in their actual lives!

And of course, transhuman minds will likely be capable of greater compassion than human minds. If they have more robust methods of maintaining their own integrity, then they will be able to give their patterns more freedom in growing unity with external patterns.

Should Compassion Be Maximized?

Should compassion be maximized? This is a subtle issue.

From the point of view of the individual, maximization of compassion would lead to the dissolution of the individual.

From the point of view of the cosmos, maximization of compassion would cause a huge burst of joy, as all the patterns inside various minds gained cross-mind unity.

But joy is about increase of patternment. The question is whether, after every mind wholly opened up to every other mind and experienced this burst of compassion, there would still be a situation where new patterns and new unities would get created.

Perhaps some level of noncompassionateness, some level of separation and disunity, is needed in order to create a situation where new patterns can grow, so that the “unity gain” innate to joy can occur?

The Practical Upshot

We should be compassionate. We should open ourselves up to the world.

We should do this as much as we can without losing the internal unities that allow our minds to operate, to generate new patterns and new unities.

Our selves and our theaters of reflective, deliberative consciousness are frustrating and even self-deluding in some regards—but they are part of our mind architecture, they are part of what makes us us. At this stage in our development, they are what let us grow and generate new patterns. We can’t get rid of them thoroughly without giving up our humanity.

Perhaps as transhumanist technology advances many of us will choose to give up our humanity, via various routes. Perhaps in doing so we will achieve greater levels of compassion and joy than any human can. But until that time, we have to play the dialectical game of allowing ourselves as much joy and compassion as we can while keeping our selves and our internal conscious theaters intact enough to allow us to function.

While this may sound like a frustrating conclusion, the fact is that nearly no one pushes this limit. As I said above, outside of fiction I’ve met very few individuals who experience so much compassion it impairs their ability to function!

This brief article is part of the overall Cosmist Manifesto.

Ben Goertzel is a fellow of the IEET, and founder and CEO of two computer science firms Novamente and Biomind, and of the non-profit Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute (