There is increasing scientific evidence that human behavior is not rational or conscious, and may be completely programmed without logic or knowledge.April 1, 2010 |
Scientists are finding more and more evidence that human behavior is not rational, not conscious and may be completely programmed without logic or knowledge. These unconscious drives affect jury decisions, elections, wars, our everyday experiences and can sometimes determine life and death. This is the subject of two recent books: Shankar Vedantam's The Hidden Brain: How our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save our Lives, and Guillermo Jimenez's Red Genes, Blue Genes, Exposing Political Irrationality. Both demonstrate irrationality but from slightly from different places. We recently discussed these phenomena with the authors.
Maria Armoudian: Shankar Vedantam, you open your book with a rape case in which both the victim and the jury and everyone else involved all erred and sent the wrong person to prison -- for 13 years. Why did that happen?
Shankar Vedantam: This is a really tragic story, involving a woman, Toni Gustus, who was raped in Massachusetts. She was a remarkably conscientious eyewitness and took great pains during the crime to memorize the rapist's features. But over the course of the next weeks and months, as police showed her images of people whom they thought might be potential suspects, her memory of the case degraded, and she was pretty sure the police had the right person. But there was a little bit of a doubt at the back of her mind. When she spent that Christmas with her family at a church that had long been a source of comfort and solace, her doubt slipped away, and she told herself that she had gotten the man.
As it turned out, a DNA test conducted about a decade later showed that this man could not have been the criminal. The point, of course, is that we regularly think that people's intentions are decisive, that if someone means to be a good eyewitness or a good juror, judge or politician, that they are a good juror, judge or politician. It turns out that there is much in our lives that lies outside the boundaries of our conscious awareness, and in this church where Toni Gustus' doubts slipped away, in some ways reassurance and solace were not her friends in this situation. Her doubt at the back of her mind was actually her friend because it was telling her something is not quite right about this situation.
MA: So her emotions over the course of the investigation and in that particular environment -- the church -- ultimately led her to make the misjudgment?
SV: I think that's right. The ironic thing is that you can see why it would be most understandable for her to seek a situation where she was comforted and had some solace, but she was also in a situation where she was being asked to make a very difficult judgment. So without her intending to make a mistake, and with her intending to do things exactly right, she made this mistake. And she was a really conscientious, diligent person, someone whom I respect and regard very highly, so if this mistake can happen to Toni Gustus it can happen to any of us.
MA: Similarly, you point out the unconscious roles with race and gender. Even when people are conscientiously trying not to have prejudices, they are still programmed and affect us.
SV: Yes, the unconscious bias affects our romantic decisions, our financial decisions, our moral decisions, our political decisions. One of the domains is the question of unconscious prejudice. The striking thing here is that we pay a lot of attention to hate crimes or people who explicitly say racist things or sexist things. But it turns out that at an unconscious level, prejudice exists in very large numbers of people, perhaps even among most people. These effects are subtle; they're not the person who is burning a cross on someone else's lawn. This is a person who may have an unconscious association in [his or her] head. But when asked to make a decision about whether somebody is guilty or innocent of a crime, or whether to hire someone for a job, these unconscious associations play very powerful roles, especially because most people do not believe the unconscious exists. And so we have no way to guard against the manipulation because we don't even realize that we're being manipulated.
MA: One of the most convincing parts of your book dealing with gender bias was the experiences of transgendered people. People who transgendered from women to men suddenly -- although the same person, same qualifications, same education -- had a better income, opportunity and less interruptions.
SV: That's right. There is abundant research showing that, on average, women are not paid the same as men and face all kinds of challenges compared to men. But when you're asked to make a judgment about any individual person -- say Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential election -- it's very difficult to apply the general research on bias to an individual, because with any individual circumstance, there are many other factors: How good a candidate is Hillary Clinton, what are her positions on the issues; what's the competition like? And so on.
But there was a group of people who are their own control groups -- those who are transgendered. Research shows that when men transitioned to being women, their hourly salaries dropped, often quite dramatically. When women transitioned to being men, their hourly salaries on average rise. But the real effects of sexism are actually much more subtle than salary. Men who become women experience losses of all kinds of privileges that they didn't know they had, and women who become men experience the relief of being carried by a current that they didn't even know existed, and that's stronger than them.
MA: One other phenomenon pertained to the bystander effects whereby crowds, in some cases, do nothing to stop torture and even murder. But you said that if one person stands up, the crowd might move. What is that phenomenon?
SV: There are many cases showing that often when terrible things unfold we intuitively believe that it's a good thing to have many people around, because if there are many people then surely there will be some good Samaritans among them. It turns out that the opposite is true, that you're more likely to have people come to your aid when there are a few people rather than many people. But the bystander effect doesn't just affect our ability to act in the service of other people; it affects our ability to act in the service of ourselves. Groups rob us of our autonomy and our ability to act in intentional ways. And there is very compelling research, for example, showing that these forces played a very large role in the events that unfolded on the morning of September 11, 2001, in the south tower of the World Trade Center in particular.
SV: The south tower was the second tower to be hit that awful morning. And there was a 15-minute window between when the first tower was hit and the second tower was hit. Nearly everyone on one floor escaped the building and survived, whereas nearly everyone on the other floor stayed behind in their building and perished. The point is that in crisis, people tend to act together. They are either silent together or they act together; they intervene together or they're passive together; they either flee together or they stay at their desks together. The lack of autonomy from groups has great consequences.
MA: Now on political rationality, Guillermo Jimenez also argues that there are possible genetic explanations, specifically with political decisions, sort of a biological predisposition toward political proclivities. Guillermo?
Guillermo Jimenez: One of the arguments that I make is that most of us are born somewhere along a left to right political disposition that influences our political orientation throughout our lives, much like what Shankar is talking about. The great majority of us have some political bias, but we tend to not perceive it because it lies in the unconscious. And we have a lot of techniques of self-deception to prevent it from rising to our consciousness. At the same time, we perceive it very well in the other party.
That's one of the funny things about irrationality -- that we can see it in others but not in ourselves. The Fox TV commentator Glenn Beck for me is the incarnation of political irrationality, from the liberal perspective. It's hard for a liberal to watch Glenn Beck without coming to the conclusion that the man is unhinged. He's so obviously biased that anything that Obama or a Democratic administration does, he will criticize. He doesn't perceive that bias, but liberals do. But liberals are not immune to this kind of irrationality.
MA: You describe the reaction that we sometimes have, when they watch their political opposite. The experience is that from every fiber of one's being -- the opponent's hair, his tie, the way he speaks, his accent -- makes us recoil. You said, in essence, his DNA really upsets our DNA -- and that this is prevalent on both sides, driven by a number of phenomena, partly genetically But how much of it is conditioning by the polarized media? And how much is biologically based?
GJ: There is incredible groundbreaking research in the field of the biological bases of political dispositions. In one experiment, a group of people identified as very liberal or very conservative through questionnaires -- when they were exposed to startling stimuli like loud noises, gruesome photographs -- they had very different involuntary responses. People who are more instinctively fearful tend to have more conservative political orientations and more likely to support defense spending, the Iraq war, capital punishment, patriotism. People who showed a calmer or less fearful instinctive response were more likely to support pacifism, liberal immigration policies, foreign aid and so forth. The [involuntary responses] suggest that there is a biological component, which may be slight, but it is present and detectable in our political opinions. But we don't perceive it ourselves.
We think that we come to our political opinions through some exercise of logic or reason. I argue that it's about 50 percent genetics. Then on top of that genetic layer, we have a cultural layer which reinforces biases and prejudices. So most of us end up doubly prejudiced or biased in our politics, partially from our biological inheritance and partially from our social upbringing.
SV: What I find fascinating about our divide is twofold: First, why is it so much more intense today than it was, say 50 years or 100 years ago? Our biology hasn't changed, but if you look at the number of Democrats who are passionately against a Republican president and vice-versa. The gap is just extraordinary today compared to what it was 100 years ago.
And the other thing that I find really intriguing is that many of the issues that divide liberals and conservatives don't fall along what you would call logical patterns. So for example, conservatives are against government intervention in general; they want a hands-off, laissez faire policy, but when it comes to abortion or family values issues they want a very interventionist government policy. They want a government to be involved in running people's lives or telling people what's appropriate and inappropriate.
I'm not saying that one side is hypocritical, because I think Guillermo is right in terms of saying that both sides are guilty of this. But why don't people see these inconsistencies themselves? When you're on one side, there's nothing that your side can do that feels wrong, and there's nothing on the other side that can do that feels right.
Research from political science argues that in many ways, the driver behind partisanship is the same driver that's behind our passion for our sports teams. When I think about it, it's absurd to be a fan of any single football team, because these are players who are interchangeably going between the different teams, yet they just happen to be wearing one set of colors. But when I'm watching the game, my team can do no wrong, and every ambiguous call that the referees make, I say well they made a mistake and they should have given it to [my team]. I think the same thing is happening at the political level, that we identify with a party in the same way we identify with sports teams, and that, in some ways, causes us to fail to see the inconsistencies of our own position and fail to see the weaknesses in our side or any good in the other side.
MA: There is research done in political psychology showing that membership in any group, even if it's completely arbitrary, automatically creates an us and a them, and a sense of competition. Perhaps that's a missing element and that's the thing that needs to be understood.
GJ: The symbol of the sporting contest is a great one. In psychology research, students who are randomly assigned to be for one or the other team and watch a game within minutes become very biased in favor of that team.
But to the other question: Why is it increasing? There are a number of reasons. Political scientists have found that polarization in Congress increases in times of economic stress. Also when we're trying to rewrite our fundamental social contracts, it makes sense that we would become more polarized. So while health care reform is on the table -- it's something we've been working on for 40 or 50 years that will change our country -- it's natural that you will have some polarization. On top of that is modern media and the Internet. Nowadays we can get all of our information from biased news sources. A lot of people that watch Fox News, then read the Wall Street Journal and Ann Coulter's books, are not going to get a fair or balanced view of reality. On top of that, you add the media circus, which makes money from conflict. They get eyeballs to their shows by presenting divisive political figures that rile up our emotions and get us glued to the TVs. So we have a number of factors working together which have given us this perfect storm of polarization.
MA: Guillermo, you say fear and loathing are the most dangerous parts of political irrationality. Why?
GJ: We have to be wary of political appeals to fear and to hatred. On the liberal side, we don't have a lot of appeals to hatred, maybe we did during the Bush era. There were a lot of liberals that hated George Bush. But now on both sides, our politicians attract our attention by creating fear in us. Liberals can be as guilty of this as conservatives. Conservatives present a frightening picture of liberal sadists who want to control your very life; and liberals present this counter-portrait of hateful, racist, corporate, warmongering conservatives. And the result is not a happy one for our political environment in general.
MA: That reminds me of something Shankar wrote about regarding terrorism and extremism, particularly that there is no real psychological profile that's different between a suicide bomber and somebody else. What does that mean for us?
SV: Well, although it seems as if terrorists should come from dysfunctional backgrounds or have dysfunctional personalities, there has been systematic research conducted among people who attempted to be suicide bombers with failed missions and who are now in prisons, that they are hardly more aberrational than the rest of us. It's not the case that they're more religious than the rest of us. If you look at the history of suicide terrorism, religion turns out to be neither necessary nor sufficient as an explanatory factor for suicide terrorism.
What is common to suicide terrorism in different eras as far back as the Japanese Kamikaze bombers during World War II is that suicide terrorists typically are formed in an environment where they're essentially cut off from the outside world, whereas in our normal lives, most of us get pulled in different directions, which creates conflict. We have ties to our families, churches, sports teams and professions. But the suicide bomber goes into what I call the tunnel in which the person doesn't face the conflicts of the outside world. All of the reference points within the tunnel are the reference points created by people within their own group. Then a dynamic called small-group psychology that takes over. Small-group psychology can change the norms f what's good and bad behavior. So what seem aberrational to us outside the tunnel can become aspirational to people within the tunnel.Maria Armoudian is a journalist, singer/songwriter and legislative consultant whose articles have been syndicated by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times syndicates. She has written for Salon.com, Daily Variety, Billboard, the Progressive and Business Week among others.
MA: It is reminiscent of Zimbardo's Lucifer effect. Guillermo, how do these take us to war and how are these seen differently between liberals and conservatives?
GJ: Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in 2002, developed the whole modern theory of cognitive bias in his article, "Why Hawks Win." He observed that most cognitive biases that we've discovered in the last 40 years tend to favor a militaristic warlike approach. The conduct of leaders as we lead up to war impacts the most common cognitive biases. The classic example is the Iraq war and the common bias of being overconfident. So there was Vice-President Cheney predicting that American soldiers would be welcomed in Iraq as liberators, and anybody who's read the news and what's going on in Iraq the last months knows that that was never the case. That's just one example of how bias can cause our leaders to go to war.
Saturday, April 03, 2010
Maria Armoudian - The Unconscious Politics That Shape Our World, Choose Presidents and Save or Destroy Lives
On March 23, 2010, Dr. LouAnn Gerken, Professor, Psychology and Director, Cognitive Science, presented "The Making of a Mind" as the fourth public lecture in the University of Arizona College of Science's Mind and Brain Lecture Series.
We're all born with a brain, but when does our brain begin to construct a model of the world a mind? Research now suggests that infants not only absorb a remarkable amount of information about the physical and social world, they also use this information much like scientists to make guesses about the structure of that world. By creating tentative models of different aspects of the world based on very small amounts of data, infants use their developing models to predict the behavior of objects, people and the world around them.
KINDNESS, CLARITY, AND INSIGHT
25th Anniversary Edition
by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso,
edited and translated by Jeffrey Hopkins,
co-edited by Elizabeth Napper
Dalai Lama Quote of the Week
People sometimes ask me whether Buddhism--an ancient teaching which comes from the East--is suitable for Westerners or not. My answer is that the essence of all religions deals with basic human problems. As long as human beings, whether from the north, south, east, or west--white, black, yellow, or red--have the sufferings of birth, disease, old age, and death, all are equal in that respect. As long as these basic human sufferings are there, since the essential teaching is concerned with that suffering, there is not much question whether it is suitable or not.
Still, there is a question with regard to each individual's mental disposition. Some people are more fond of one food; others find another more suitable. Similarly, for some individuals a certain religion brings more benefit whereas in other cases another brings more benefit. Under the circumstances, the variety of teachings found in human society is necessary and useful, and among Westerners, no doubt there are people who find Buddhism suitable to their requirements.
...The essence of the Buddhist teachings does not change; wherever it goes it is suitable; however, the superficial aspects--certain rituals and ceremonies--are not necessarily suitable for a new environment; those things will change.... In any case, this generation--your generation--who are starting this new idea in new countries have a big responsibility to take the essence and adjust it to your own environment.
--from Kindness, Clarity, and Insight 25th Anniversary Edition by The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, edited and translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, co-edited by Elizabeth Napper, published by Snow Lion Publications
Making it simple - eat this: fresh organic vegetables (as many colors as possible), lean meats (fish, chicken, turkey), nuts & seeds, nut butters, and oils (almonds, cashews, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, flax oil, almond oil, olive oil), and fresh organic fruits (the more fiber the better), and some occasional whole grains.
There are plenty of confusing topics in nutrition, but fats may take the cake. Are saturated fats like butter and animal fat terribly harmful? Should you worry about whether you're eating too much of one kind of polyunsaturated fat and not enough of another? What about olive oil? And shouldn't we be eating as little fat as possible, since so many of us are, well, fat? The distinctions are "enormously confusing unless you're a lipid biologist," says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University. There's a way to translate it all into relatively simple eating advice—more on that later. But first, here's the skinny on fat.
First, toss out the notion that the lower the fat content in your diet, the better. A certain amount of fat is essential to your body's functioning. And as you've probably heard, all fats are not alike in their effects on blood cholesterol levels, which can affect heart disease risk. Saturated fat, for example, generally increases levels of LDL, or "bad" cholesterol. But while this information was known when the surgeon general issued the first report on nutrition and health in 1988 and the National Academy of Sciences issued its own report in 1989, public health authorities felt that a message to reduce total fat would be best understood by the public. The thought was, says Nestle (who was managing editor of the 1988 report), that since saturated fats from meat and dairy products were the main sources of fat in the American diet, lowering total fat would automatically reduce consumption of saturated fat. That's certainly true, in theory.
But here's the rub in practice: "If you take out saturated fat, and you assume someone is in energy balance [i.e. their total calories haven't changed], what do you put in?" says Alice Lichtenstein, a nutritional biochemist and director of the cardiovascular nutrition laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. As it turns out, what you substitute for saturated fat seems to be important. "People reduced fat and replaced that fat with simple carbohydrates and refined sugar," says Mimi Guarneri, cardiologist and medical director of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, Calif.
That switch was aided by food companies, with their lines of "low-fat," yet sugar-filled products. A review published online in January in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition said that research actually shows that subbing in a higher carbohydrate intake, especially refined carbs like white bread and sugary cereals, can actually "exacerbate" blood cholesterol problems, including elevated triglycerides and reduced HDL ("good") cholesterol levels. To improve cholesterol, people should focus on limiting those refined carbs and reducing excess body weight, the review said. So much for unlimited SnackWells.
By contrast, trading saturated fats for polyunsaturated fats—the omega-3 fatty acids found in certain fish and the omega-6 fatty acids in vegetable oils such as safflower and soybean oils—does seem to offer a heart benefit. An analysis of existing research published in March in PLoS Medicine found that consuming those polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats reduces the incidence of heart attacks and cardiac death. Based on the evidence, "polyunsaturated fats are the best...fat to be increasing in the diet," says Dariush Mozaffarian, an author of the study and an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Medicine and co-director of the program in cardiovascular epidemiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
John Gittings at The Guardian UK reviews this new book - one that sounds very interesting for anyone who is concerned about the plight of Tibet and its people. The second half of the review looks at The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity (Verso), the leading Chinese critic Wang Hui - read the review here.
"The Struggle for Tibet" by Wang Lixiong and Tsering ShakyaAbout the authors (from Amazon):
Few will have heard of Tibet's Joan of Arc, the young Trinley Chodron, who believed that a bird sent by the Dalai Lama had given her magic powers and led a troop of "warrior-heroes" against the Chinese. Chodron was executed in 1969 during the cultural revolution.The Struggle for Tibet
by Tsering Shakya, Wang Lixiong
280pp, Verso Books, £8.99
Buy The Struggle for Tibet.
The US version came out in 2009, from Verso.
And before reading The Struggle for Tibet I, too, was unaware of the Tibetan monks who, more recently, were ordered to write down that the Dalai Lama "is the biggest obstacle to Tibetan Buddhism". By adding a barely visible dot to the script, they were able to convert "is" to "is not". Nor did I know that many educated Tibetans can only communicate in Chinese with Tibetan exiles they meet when travelling abroad, because their grasp of their own language is so poor.
But our ignorance is hardly surprising. We talk a lot about the Tibet we see from the outside, but as Robert Barnett, one of a handful of western scholars who understand the country, tells us in his introduction, the voices of the Tibetan people are only heard in "snatches and fragments".
After the country was sealed off by China in 1959 following the Lhasa rebellion and flight of the Dalai Lama, it became a "muffled, incoherent place". The British left has always been diffident about the Tibet issue, unable to shake off the memory of our own imperial designs, and uneasy at the CIA's role in the 1950s and 60s in the Tibetan resistance (two of the Dalai Lama's brothers worked with them).
A few years ago New Left Review (NLR) broke through this barrier, publishing a conversation between the Chinese scholar-activist Wang Lixiong and the leading Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya which launched a new debate. The dialogue, with subsequent analyses from both writers, now appears in The Struggle for Tibet, an excellent and informative book from Verso (the publishers founded by NLR).
After the 2008 riots in Lhasa and in China's Tibetan areas, Wang organised a petition signed by 300 Chinese intellectuals, included here as an appendix, complaining about the ferocious attitude of the tame Tibetan officials who rose to power during the cultural revolution, and urging Beijing to open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama.
Both scholars warn that Tibet's cultural and national identity has been dangerously eroded, and that China's rushed economic development only benefits a minority. "What do we see today?" asks Wang. "Temples brim with burning incense and butter lamps, which well-dressed people can afford to light in the thousands at once. Yet they only want the Buddha's blessings to help with job promotions and increasing their wealth."The Tibetan resistance, which spread in 2008, becoming more violent, is about "the right to have a voice", Shakya says, and Tibet will not remain mute for ever.
Wang Lixiong’s books include China Tidal Wave, Sky Burial: The Fate of Tibet, and Yellow Peril, the political fantasy that has gained widespread popularity in China despite having been banned by the communist regime. He lives in Beijing with his wife, the well-known Tibetan writer, dissident and poet Woeser. In response to a 2008 letter (co-authored with Tsering Woeser and several Chinese authors in and outside China) asking Chinese authorities to consider implementing the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach as the basis of a negotiated statute for the future of Tibet, Wang and Woeser were placed under house arrest by the Chinese authorities.
Tsering Shakya was born in Tibet and teaches Tibetan history and literature at the University of British Columbia, Canada. He holds the Canadian Research Chair in Religion and Contemporary Society in Asia at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Asian Research and is the author of The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947, and Fire Under the Snow: The Testimony of a Tibetan Prisoner. Tsering Shakya provides critical assessments of immigration and asylum procedures as well as compliance with various international civil/human rights laws for the Swiss Government’s Federal Office for Refugees. He also works off-air for Radio Free Asia’s (RFA) Tibet news service and on-air, every fortnight, presenting an international current affairs ‘slot’ on RFA. He also makes regular appearances on the BBC and CNN and frequently writes feature articles for Time magazine.
Friday, April 02, 2010
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is author of the excellent recent book, Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, to be released in a paperback format on April 15th. Highly recommended book.
From Huffington Post. Two important points in this column: (1) getting our feelings hurt actually HURTS; (2) feeling connected to other people is a basic human need. This last one - social connection -has a depth of research support, including longevity studies, heart health, cancer recovery, self esteem, and a lot more.
Todd KashdanMore on Happiness from around the web:
Did you know there is only one single characteristic that separates extremely happy people from "merely" happy people? They aren't more grateful, kind, or compassionate. They aren't more energized when they wake up in the morning (drinking the same amount of coffee as the rest of us). Rather, they possess an abundance of significant, meaningful, lasting relationships.
That is, there are people they can confide in, call on during difficult times, and share joyous events that have absolutely nothing to do with them. Human beings depend on other people for their well-being and survival. We might even say that human beings have a basic "need to belong." For this reason, it makes sense that being rejected by other people might be as painful as physical injuries.
Across multiple languages and cultures, people use injury-related terms such as hurt, heartbreak, and "emotional pain" to describe what it feels like to be rejected by other people. The notion of being hurt by other people might appear to be nothing more than a metaphor. But getting your feelings hurt actually hurts. Researchers discovered this after scanning people's brains while playing videogames. On the computer, they tossed around a ball with two other people who supposedly logged on from another part of the world.
In reality, the program was rigged so that people were heavily involved (getting the ball for half the throws) or excluded (getting the ball less than a handful of times over five minutes). The results were astounding. Here you have people playing a game with a ball that didn't actually exist with a group of people whom they didn't know and never expected to meet, and they really cared about the extent to which they were included. After the game was over, those who were excluded witnessed a plummet in their self-esteem and they viewed their life as less satisfying and meaningful.
I can't stress enough, all that happened was that they didn't get the ball thrown to them as often as they liked. Clearly, little is necessary to make us feel rejected and devalued as a person. We simply cannot underestimate the power of feeling cared for, valued, and connected to other people.
But let's up the ante. What if you openly despised the people who played catch with you in a videogame? Jews being told the other players thought the holocaust was a hoax, Black people told the other players were members of the KKK, and Christian fundamentalists told the other players were atheists. In this situation, who would possibly care about getting the ball? The ball might even be viewed as contaminated after touching the mitts of these rival group members.
Guess what? It didn't matter. Failing to get the ball thrown to you, even by people you despise, still led to anxious, depressed, and lonely feelings. And in these studies, when ostracized, the parts of the brain that lit up happened to be the same brain regions that light up when you get a migraine or slice through fleshy fingers while cutting bagels. What this means is that overlap exists between the brain systems that control physical and social pain!
Life is an experiment, try it out and let me know how it goes....
***Want to learn about these and other strategies for managing the anxiety and pain of pursuing the good life? Some will surprise you. Contact me for more information.Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. For more about his books, research, and services go to www.toddkashdan.com
Mirror neurons have been one of the hottest topics in neuroscience over the last 25 years, ever since the 1980s and 1990s, when Giacomo Rizzolatti (who was working with Giuseppe Di Pellegrino, Luciano Fadiga, Leonardo Fogassi, and Vittorio Gallese at the University of Parma, Italy) discovered these curious neurons in the brains of monkeys and, later, humans.
Among the loudest and most public fans of the potential of these neurons have been V.S. Ramachandran, who believes they might be very important in imitation and language acquisition. and Marco Iacoboni, who is the author of Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2008).
Here is a brief TED Talks video from Ramachandran on mirror neurons.
Dan Siegel has also placed a lot of emphasis on mirror neurons in his model of interpersonal and intrapersonal attunement - see The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being (W.W. Norton & Co., 2007).
I have been most interested in two areas of mirror neuron research (as well as their possible role in attachment theory, which is what Siegel explores), empathy and theory of mind. These quotes are from Wikipedia, which offers a surprisingly well-balanced look at this topic.
Stephanie Preston and Frans de Waal, Jean Decety, and Vittorio Gallese have independently argued that the mirror neuron system is involved in empathy. A large number of experiments using functional MRI, electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) have shown that certain brain regions (in particular the anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and inferior frontal cortex) are active when a person experiences an emotion (disgust, happiness, pain, etc.) and when he or she sees another person experiencing an emotion. However, these brain regions are not quite the same as the ones which mirror hand actions, and mirror neurons for emotional states or empathy have not yet been described in monkeys. More recently, Christian Keysers at the Social Brain Lab and colleagues have shown that people who are more empathic according to self-report questionnaires have stronger activations both in the mirror system for hand actions and the mirror system for emotions, providing more direct support for the idea that the mirror system is linked to empathy.
* * * *
I think there is more evidence so far for the presence of an emotional system of mirror neurons than there is for the Theory of Mind model.
Theory of mind
In Philosophy of mind, mirror neurons have become the primary rallying call of simulation theorists concerning our 'theory of mind.' 'Theory of mind' refers to our ability to infer another person's mental state (i.e., beliefs and desires) from their experiences or their behavior. For example, if you see a girl reaching into a jar labeled 'cookies,' you might assume that she wants a cookie (even if you know the jar is empty) and believes that there are cookies in the jar.
There are several competing models which attempt to account for our theory of mind; the most notable in relation to mirror neurons is simulation theory. According to simulation theory, theory of mind is available because we subconsciously empathize with the person we're observing and, accounting for relevant differences, imagine what we would desire and believe in that scenario. Mirror neurons have been interpreted as the mechanism by which we simulate others in order to better understand them, and therefore their discovery has been taken by some as a validation of simulation theory (which appeared a decade before the discovery of mirror neurons). More recently, Theory of Mind and Simulation have been seen as complementary systems, with different developmental time courses.
The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness, edited by Dacher Keltner, Jeremy Adam Smith, and Jason Marsh (W.W. Norton & Company, 2010) looks at some of the evidence for the empathy concept of mirror neurons. For those who are interested, the essays and articles in that book all appeared originally in Greater Good Magazine, published by U.C. Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. There is a lot of very good info at the site, including stuff for parents and educators.
To be fair, I want to include a couple of the objections to mirror neuron theory. These two sections also come from the Wikipedia entry.
Evidence against mirror neurons
Three recent studies cast doubt on the importance of mirror neurons in the human brain. These fMRI studies suggested that the signal changes seen in 'mirror neuron regions' of the human brain are not necessarily due to the firing of mirror neurons themselves, but may reflect the responses of other neurons in these brain areas. The studies found evidence of movement selective activity for both observed and executed movements, i.e., for one population of visual neurons that respond selectively to observed movements and a separate population of motor neurons that respond selectively to executed movements, but there was no evidence of mirror neurons that would respond selectively to the same observed and executed movement. The authors of these papers concluded that although there may be movement-selective mirror neurons in the human brain, they make up only a minority of the neurons active during observation or execution of movement and do not dominate the fMRI responses in putative mirror system areas of the brain. Whereas these three papers failed to find evidence of mirror neurons that would respond selectively to the same observed and executed movement a more recent study has successfully demonstrated this effect . These authors argue that they were able to find the effect where others had previously failed because their study was optimally designed to find mirror neurons in the human inferior frontal gyrus.
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Then there is also this article from The Neurocritic posted the other day. The Neurocritic (who seems to really dislike the hype around mirror neurons) references another post that deconstructs an article by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his co-author (citation below). It's a brief argument, but it's useful.
Although many in the scientific community have been excited about the discovery of mirror neurons, there are some researchers who express skepticism in regards to the claims that mirror neurons can explain empathy, theory of mind, etc. Greg Hickok, a cognitive neuroscientist at UC Irvine, has stated that "there is little or no evidence to support the mirror neuron=action understanding hypothesis and instead there is substantial evidence against it." Hickok also published a detailed analysis of these problems in his paper, "Eight problems for the mirror neuron theory of action understanding in monkeys and humans." The eight problems he refers to are:
- There is no evidence in monkeys that mirror neurons support action understanding.
- Action understanding can be achieved via non-mirror neuron mechanisms.
- The primary motor cortex (M1) contains mirror neurons.
- The relation between macaque mirror neurons and the “mirror system” in humans is either non-parallel or undetermined.
- Action understanding in humans dissociates from neurophysiological indices of the human “mirror system.”
- Action understanding and action production dissociate.
- Damage to the inferior frontal gyrus is not correlated with action understanding deficits.
- Generalization of the mirror system to speech recognition fails on empirical grounds.
Talking Brains has a series of posts dismantling the mirror neuron theory of action understanding. Actually, he lets one of the leading researchers in the field, Giacomo Rizzolatti [and his coauthor] dismantle the theory himself in a recent review paper (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2010). Greg points out the inconsistencies in the NRN article...He gives you some links to follow for more "debunking."So, mirror neurons, those cells that fire during specific actions such as grasping-with-the-hand and while watching the same specific action -- the very cells that got everyone SO excited -- are not involved in action understanding. Rather, according to R&S, action understanding is achieved by cells that do not code for actions at all, but something higher level, goals/intentions....and also the problems with promoting an unfalsifiable theory:
It's worth noting that R&S directly contradict themselves in the sidebar definition of "Mirror-based action understanding":The comprehension of an observed action based on the activation of a motor programme in the observer’s brain. p. 265A motor program presumably controls a specific action, such as grasping-with-the-hand, not an action-independent goal or intention.I think the mirror neuron folks have a serious problem on their hands: there is apparently no empirical result that can falsify the theory. If a mirror neuron shows up in an unexpected place, it is a new part of the mirror system. If a mirror neuron's activity dissociates from action understanding, it was not coding understanding at that moment. If damage to the motor system doesn't disrupt understanding, it is because that part of the motor system isn't mirroring.As another long-time mirror neuron skeptic, I highly recommend this series:
Mirror Neurons - The unfalsifiable theory
Mirror neurons support action understanding -- "from the inside"?
Self-destruction of the mirror neuron theory of action understanding
Rizzolatti, G. & Sinigaglia, C. (2010). The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11 (4), 264-274.
Finally, here is an article debunking the newest "use" of mirror neuron theory (yes, all of this is still a theory and the research is still working to confirm the original hypotheses) - the claim that the aesthetic experience arises from simulating the sensory-motor experience of the subject IN the painting. Huh?!
This excellent, but short article comes from Chris at Mixing Memory - a very fine cognitive science blog.
With a paper by Freedberg and Gallese, to be published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, mirror neurons have made their way into neuroaesthetics (at some point, someone like Gallese will publish a paper arguing that mirror neurons explain everything, and we'll begin to wonder what the hell the rest of the brain is for). Here's the abstract from the paper1:The implications of the discovery of mirroring mechanisms and embodied simulation for empathetic responses to images in general, and to works of visual art in particular, have not yet been assessed. Here, we address this issue and we challenge the primacy of cognition in responses to art. We propose that a crucial element of esthetic response consists of the activation of embodied mechanisms encompassing the simulation of actions, emotions and corporeal sensation, and that these mechanisms are universal. This basic level of reaction to images is essential to understanding the effectiveness both of everyday images and of works of art. Historical, cultural and other contextual factors do not preclude the importance of considering the neural processes that arise in the empathetic understanding of visual artworks.
It's a good thing that they're challenging "the primacy of cognition in response to art," because God knows those other neuroaesthetic theories were heavy on the cognition and light on the sensory-motor aspects of aesthetic experience (cough, cough). Is it just me, or do the embodied/simulation people have serious persecution complexes? Anyway, I offer this without further comment.
OK, I tried, but I can't resist one more comment. One of the main arguments in the paper relies on research on the representation of pain. The basic idea is this. When we see a piece of visual art like, say, this one (they use a different drawing from the "Disasters of War" series, but I like this one damnit!):
According to Freedman and Gallese, the way we represent the pain that poor sap being stabbed by a spear is experiencing is by simulating the sensory-motor experience of pain in our own brains. As evidence for this view, they cite a couple papers (actually, they don't cite them, they refer to another paper by Gallese in which he cites them, which is... I'm just not going to say anything) that both describe similar findings. For example, Singer et al.2 describe a study in which they measured individuals' brain activity during a painful experience, and again while those individuals watched a loved one undergo the same experience. Singer et al. found overlapping activation during both imaging sessions, but not in the areas associated with feeling pain. Instead, the overlaps occurred in the areas associated with the emotions that the painful experience caused. In other words, Singer et al.'s study produced the revolutionary finding that empathy is feeling the emotions that others are (likely) feeling! Wow. But, umm... that's not what the simulation theory would predict. The simulation theory would predict that in addition to having the same emotions when experiencing or witnessing pain, we should also "simulate" the pain in the same regions where we experience pain. But Singer et al. didn't find that. Hell, the title of the Singer et al. paper is "Empathy for pain involves the affective but not the sensory components of pain" (my emphasis). So why would Freedman and Gallese use their results to argue for a simulation theory of aesthetics? I dare not speculate.
1Freedman, D., & Gallese, V. (In Press). Motion, emotion and empathy in esthetic experience. Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
2Singer, T., Seymour, B., O'Doherty, J., Kaube, H., Dolan, R.J>, & Frith, C.D. (2004). Empathy for pain involves the affective but not the sensory components of pain. Science, 303, 1157-1162.
I am not yet ready to give up on mirror neurons. There is a LOT of research going on in this field. For those who are interested, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has a ton of links to studies they have funded or partially funded.
As even this last objection shows, there is much more likelihood of an emotional system of mirror neurons than there is for a physical system. On the other hand, I think some people can learn by watching others perform an action. Maybe this type of sensory-motor mirror neuronn system only exists (in its strong form) in those people who tend toward bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. That would be a good study.
Buddhism's not such a raw deal.By James Baraz
Life, though full of woe, holds also sources of happiness and joy, unknown to most. Let us teach people to seek and to find real joy within themselves and to rejoice with the joy of others! Let us teach them to unfold their joy to ever sublimer heights! Noble and sublime joy is not foreign to the Teaching of the Enlightened One. Wrongly, the Buddha’s Teaching is sometimes considered to be a doctrine diffusing melancholy. Far from it: the Dhamma leads step by step to an ever purer and loftier happiness.
–Nyanaponika Thera (1901–1994)
“I DIDN’T KNOW BUDDHISM was about being happy,” one of the wedding guests said to me after the ceremony. I had just officiated at the marriage of two friends, longtime dharma practitioners. As part of the ceremony, I had invited everyone to join in a lovingkindness meditation for the couple. “May you both be happy, may you be filled with joy and love,” we had silently repeated, our wishes deepening with each phrase. With the vibrant power of lovingkindness awakened, the guest’s conclusion that Buddhism is about happiness was understandable.
Despite pervasive images of the smiling Buddha, the practice and teachings of Buddhism have had a reputation of being rather more somber than joyful. With so much emphasis on “suffering and the end of suffering,” there’s not much air time for happiness and joy. Some practitioners may even think that expressing those qualities is un-Buddhist. My friend Rick Foster, coauthor of How We Choose to Be Happy, frequently takes calls from listeners when he talks about his book on radio shows. He says he has come to expect that when a caller begins with “I’m a Buddhist . . .” almost invariably the statement will continue with something like: “and all your emphasis on getting happy seems to overlook the suffering in life.”
I went through a period of time in my own practice when I might have been one of those callers. For several long years, the truth of suffering became my primary guide. “Real” practice meant committing to “getting off the wheel,” freeing myself of lifetimes of suffering as I wandered through endless cycles of death and rebirth. The “end of suffering” got entangled in my mind with the “end of living,” which meant tempering aliveness and enthusiasm and fun. Perhaps it was a necessary stage in the awakening process, but the smiling Buddha who had so lovingly inspired me during my first years of practice had turned into a stern taskmaster. Practice became a serious endeavor.
Playing the guitar and singing had been a joyful pursuit for me since the days of the Beatles. Now I rarely did either, and when I did I noticed an underlying sense of guilt. How could I be a serious practitioner and spend my time just having fun? A lifelong sports fanatic, I felt conflicted when I’d get carried away yelling and screaming at the television as I watched my team play. My poor family and housemates had to deal with my somber persona as I suppressed my natural inclination to celebrate life. I carried this same tendency into my work as a dharma teacher, a slight wariness creeping into my attitude toward those aspects of life that were fun and attractive, that might entice one to remain “on the wheel.” This focus on suffering actually had a numbing effect. Shutting down my vitality left me feeling rather disconnected from myself and others, and less able to respond compassionately to the suffering of those closest to me.
Through the struggle and crisis of those years, I learned something important: lack of aliveness and joy is not a sign of awakening. In fact, it is just the opposite. As one of the seven factors of enlightenment, joy is not only a fruit of awakening but also a prerequisite. Joy creates a spaciousness in the mind that allows us to hold the suffering we experience inside us and around us without becoming overwhelmed, without collapsing into helplessness or despair. It brings inspiration and vitality, dispelling confusion and fear while connecting us with life. Profound understanding of suffering does not preclude awakening to joy. Indeed, it can inspire us all the more to celebrate joyfully the goodness in life. The Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu are good examples of people who have seen tremendous suffering and are still able to inspire others with an infectious joy.
We all know what it’s like to get trapped in dark, constricting states of mind—and how useless it is, in terms of awakening, to dwell there. That is exactly what the Buddha taught: we don’t need to stay stuck in greed, hatred, and delusion. Life can be lighter, more workable, even when it’s challenging. This lightening up, which I see as an aspect of joy, is the fruit of insight into anatta, the selfless nature of reality, and anicca, the truth of impermanence. When we are not attached to who we think we are, life can move through us, playing us like an instrument. Understanding how everything is in continual transformation, we release our futile attempts to control circumstances. When we live in this easy connection with life, we live in joy.
Joy has many different flavors. It might overflow from us in song or dance, or it might gently arise as a smile or a sense of inner fullness. Joy is not something we have to manufacture. It is already in us when we come into the world, as we can see in the natural delight and exuberance of a healthy baby. We need only release the layers of contraction and fear that keep us from it.
Methods for opening the mind to joy and happiness are found throughout the Buddha’s teachings. One sure way is through skillful practice of meditation. Through seeing clearly, we can free the mind of grasping, aversion, and ignorance, allowing our natural joy to manifest. In fact, research has amply demonstrated that meditation increases activity in areas of the brain associated with positive emotions.
But formal meditation is not the only way to tap into joy. The teachings say that when we cultivate wholesome mind-states—generosity, love, compassion, happiness for others—we experience pamojja, translated as “gladness” or “delight.” In one of the discourses (Majjhima Nikaya 99), the Buddha says, “That gladness connected with the wholesome, I call an equipment of the mind . . . an equipment for developing a mind that is without hostility and ill will.” As I climbed out of my “dark night,” I was delighted to discover that those positive feelings—joy, delight, happiness, gladness—rather than being impediments on the path, actually facilitate awakening. They are part of our tool kit for keeping the heart open. Gladness and delight do not merely balance out negative tendencies, they actually heal the aversive mind.
Over the past year, I have been leading dharma groups focused on cultivating joy in our daily lives. Participants learned, some of them for the first time, that relating to the present moment with joy is a choice we can make. Discovering this can change our lives. Whether we are paying careful attention to wholesome states when they arise, reflecting on gratitude, or feeling the delight of living with integrity (which the Buddha called “the bliss of blamelessness”), we can access joy by shifting the focus of our awareness to what uplifts the heart. The Buddha spoke of this as “inclining the mind” toward the wholesome. This doesn’t mean disregarding suffering; it does mean not overlooking happiness and joy. With so much fear and sadness in the world, it is healthy to let our hearts delight in the blessings of life. In waking up, it’s important to remember that in addition to the ten thousand sorrows there are also the ten thousand joys.
Ajahn Sumedho, abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, in England, writes, “Once you have insight, then you find you enjoy and delight in the beauty and goodness of things. Truth, beauty, and goodness delight us; in them we find joy.” When we open a channel to the wellspring of joy, the waters of well-being that flow into our lives are a gift not only to ourselves. As joyful bodhisattvas, we serve by inspiring spaciousness, perspective, courage, and goodness in the hearts of others. May you be happy and awaken joy in yourself and all those you meet.
JAMES BARAZ is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center and coordinates the Community Dharma Leader program and the Kalyana Mitta Network. SHOSHANA ALEXANDER contributed to this article. She is the author of In Praise of Single Parents and Women’s Ventures, Women’s Visions. Together with Baraz, she is writing a book about Buddhism as a path to joy.Image: "Rehearsal for the Kalachakra Ceremony, Labrang Monastery, Amdo, Tibet," ©Robin Brentano
AWAKENING JOY: A GUIDED MEDITATION
Sit quietly in a relaxed posture. Focus on the heart center. As you inhale, visualize breathing in benevolent energy from all around you. With each exhalation, allow any negativity to be released.
Reflect on a person or situation in your life you’re grateful for. Begin with the phrase “I’m grateful to . . .” or “I’m grateful for . . . ”
Invite into your awareness an image of that person or situation. Fully experience your gratitude, taking time to feel in your body the energy of that blessing in your life.
Take a moment to silently send a thought of appreciation to that person or that situation.—James Baraz
Repeat this for ten minutes, reflecting one by one on the various blessings in your life.
End with the intention to express your gratitude directly to those who’ve come to mind.
Notice the feeling of well-being as the meditation ends. As an experiment, do this as a daily gratitude practice for a week and notice its effects.