Saturday, May 15, 2010

Bookforum - The goodness of Godlessness

Bookforum is a great site to find interesting articles from around the internets. They often group their article collections by subject, which is cool - the article may not always be the most current (they once linked to one of mind from six months prior), but the diversity and range of views is great.

This is a recent collection on atheism and religion, one of the hot topics in America and Europe these days. It includes two recent reviews of Stephen Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, one of my favorite recent reads,

Randolph Feezell (Creighton): Religious Ambiguity, Agnosticism, and Prudence. Simon Watson (Emmanuel): Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Atheist Fundamentalism. From The Tablet, a review of The "New" Atheism: 10 arguments that don’t hold water by Michael Poole; and a review of Why Believe? by John Cottingham. An excerpt from The Christian Atheist by Craig Goeschel. The New Atheist writers are supremely self-confident in their ability to dispatch opponents with a sarcastic quip or two — and they show no evidence whatsoever of knowing what they are talking about. From First Things, how long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists? (and a response by Damon Linker). From The Humanist, PZ Myers on how he lost religion and gained 2.5 million friends. Two recent books by Eagleton and Hitchens converge on a common enemy, the bland atheist managerialism that assumes the point of life is fun. From Skeptic, Kenneth Grubbs on Antony Flew, 1923–2010: Following the argument wherever it leads (and more); and Chris Edwards on Motorcycle Maintenance Without the Zen: How Pirsig’s mistakes about atheism continue today. Peter Manseau reviews Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor (and more). From Freethought Today, Dan Barker talks about his book Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists; Barry Kosmin on the rising tide of secularity; and Phil Zuckerman on the goodness of Godlessness. Ryan Stringer on the value of atheism. Tom Rees on the sex lives of the atheists (and everyone else). Where do atheists come from? Social scientists have long wondered why so many people believe in God — we should ask why the rest don't. A review of A Short History of Secularism by Graeme Smith.

Kenneth Folk and Joel Groover - The Power of Progress: The Four Paths of Enlightenment

Nice discussion between Kenneth Folk and Joel Groover over at Buddhist Geeks on the Four Stages of Enlightenment.

As most regular readers here know, I am a skeptic in terms of reincarnation, which is the foundational belief system in this model of enlightenment stages. Still, there are interesting elements in the discussion, even for skeptics.

As a quick reminder, here is the basic progression, from Wikipedia:


The first stage is that of Sotāpanna (Pali; Sanskrit: Srotāpanna), literally meaning "one who enters (āpadyate) the stream (sotas)," with the stream being the Noble Eightfold Path regarded as the highest Dharma. The stream-enterer is also said to have "opened the eye of the Dharma" (dhammacakkhu, Sanskrit: dharmacakṣus).

A stream-enterer usually reaches enlightenment within seven successive rebirths upon opening the eye of the Dharma.

Due to the fact that the stream-enterer has attained an intuitive grasp of Buddhist doctrine (samyagdṛṣṭi or sammādiṭṭhi, "right view"), and has complete confidence or Saddha in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, he will not be reborn in any of the unhappy states or rebirths (an animal, a preta, or in hell).


The second stage is that of the Sakadāgāmī (Sanskrit: Sakṛdāgāmin), literally meaning "one who once (sakṛt) comes (āgacchati)". The once-returner will return to the human world only one more time, and will attain Nirvana in that life.


The third stage is that of the Anāgāmī (Sanskrit: Anāgāmin), literally meaning "one who does not (an-) come (āgacchati)". The non-returner does not come back into human existence, or any lower world, after death. Instead, he is reborn in one of the worlds of the Rūpadhātu called the Śuddhāvāsa worlds, or "Pure Abodes", where he will attain Nirvāṇa; Pāli: Nibbana; some of them are reborn a second time in a higher world of the Pure Abodes.

An Anāgāmī has abandoned the five lower fetters that bind the mind to the cycle of rebirth. An Anāgāmī is thus partially enlightened, and on the way to perfect and complete Enlightenment.


The fourth stage is that of Arahant, a fully enlightened being who has abandoned all fetters, and who upon death (Sanskrit: Parinirvāṇa, Pāli: Parinibbāna) will not be reborn in any world, having wholly abandoned saṃsāra.[2] [3]

If you want more on each stage, go check out the main articles.

With that foundation, here is the discussion.

The Power of Progress: The Four Paths of Enlightenment

The Power of Progress: The Four Paths of Enlightenment

12. May, 2010 by Kenneth Folk and Joel Groover

“At every level the flavor of the Teaching is of a single nature, the flavor of freedom. It is only the degree to which this flavor is enjoyed that differs, and the difference in degree is precisely proportional to the extent of one’s practice.” – Bhikkhu Bodhi

Kenneth Folk: You asked about the Four Paths and the Progress of Insight, so let’s talk about them.

Joel Groover: OK. So for me it has been kind of a revelation and… you know, it is funny to me. I’ve done a lot of reading of the magazines and dharma books and it was still a revelation that, actually, that these things are real—that these, the Paths, are actually something that people attain. I was really unaware of that. And now, I had studied in a Tibetan tradition when I was younger and took a class on Buddhism, but the Paths were presented, the Paths and Bhumis, along with like the nagas, the water spirits. It was just so bound up in … and this just may be my fault. I was a logical positivist at heart and maybe not listening carefully, but I didn’t really take this seriously.

KF: When I first began thinking about enlightenment, it was after my own first opening in 1982. And when I read about enlightenment it was mostly from the Zen point of view. A person could be forgiven for reading about Zen and concluding that enlightenment is just something that some people believe—in other words, that it is not an objective phenomenon, but just another thing to believe. Because the way it is sometimes presented in Zen, it sounds like an airy fairy, nebulous kind of wisdom that… it is a little bit hard to tell the difference between that and, say, any kind of religion.

JG: I heard one Zen student say, “Well, enlightenment is just moment to moment. You can be enlightened in one moment and not in the next.” What do you think of that?

KF: It is true from a particular point of view, from a particular perspective. From what I call the 3rd Gear perspective, that is true. There is only this moment. This moment is either awake or it isn’t. From another perspective, from the developmental perspective of 1st Gear, that is not at all true. There is an objective, developmental reality that is just as real as your body, to the extent that you can even say this body is real, which again is a matter of perspective, because it is possible to see this body arising and passing away in the mind.

But once you accept that this body is real, you can also accept that there is a developmental process that we call enlightenment, and it unfolds in a very predictable way. Although there are infinite variations depending upon… you can think about deep structure versus surface structure, which is a Noam Chomsky idea. Every human being has a face and most of us have two eyes and a nose and two ears, and so to a certain extent we are all the same, but within that structure, that deep structure of the basic face, there’s so much variation that you can recognize any of the several billion people on earth by the individual quirks of their face.

So we have deep structure and surface structure. The same thing applies to development, to just about any kind of human development. For example, every human being starts out as a fetus and is born an infant, becomes a toddler and adolescent, and eventually becomes a grown-up, should they be so fortunate to survive that long. And that is something we take for granted: that this development just happens in this particular order. Well, why does it happen in this order? Couldn’t it just be chaotic?

But the fact is, it is not chaotic. So when you think about the mind in the same terms, you can see that the mind develops, too. And there is a kind of development of the mind that is optional. Most people won’t ever experience it. If you just look at the raw numbers of all humans, most people will never get this kind of development we are talking about right now, which we are calling enlightenment. And they might not even believe it exists.

But it does exist, and it is just as real as this body.

JG: I hope this isn’t too big a subject, but do you consider the development process that you’re talking about to be wholly material in nature, in that there is no transcendent dimension to it and it could be eventually parsed out by physiologists if they could understand what was going on? Or is it something more mysterious and perhaps spiritual in nature, I guess you could say?

KF: Ultimately it is very mysterious because if you take it far enough, the entire universe is arising and passing away in the mind in this moment—all of this is happening within awareness; all of this is not other than awareness. So it is very mysterious. It certainly can be seen from the point of view of spirituality, and at the same time it can also be thought of, at least the developmental aspect of it, in a materialistic way.

In fact, I think of the developmental process of enlightenment as a physio-energetic process. The reason I say that, there is something quasi-physiological about it. “Quasi,” because apparently scientists cannot measure this energy that yogis experience and that is variously referred to as ki or chi or kundalini.

JG: Yes. Now my friend the neurologist, for example, will say, “Absolutely, thought is a material process. It is the brain acting upon itself.” And so it makes sense to him that cessation of thought in meditation, for example, would have a direct physiological correlate or experience. But talk about chi or prana and he starts to sneer. And he does not even believe that acupuncture works through any kind of energetic system but is just… I can’t remember the term he used for that, but it has to do with manipulation of the standard nervous system and pain-response, that sort of thing.

I don’t know if this is getting into tangential territory, but it is relevant, isn’t it? Because you are talking about an actual developmental process that does involve what traditionally has been called prana or kundalini energy, right?

KG: Yes. And we might do better not to be too eager to sneer. If you look at the history of science, if you sneer at anything that cannot be measured, you look foolish later because we keep finding ways to measure things we previously could not. It is certainly possible that someday we will find a way to measure kundalini.

JG: And to be fair, he is mostly upset about medical claims made—you know, “Put on these magnetic bracelets and your chi will do this or that.” He sees the real-world consequences of people excepting on faith the purported medical benefits of…

KF: I would have to agree with him that there is a lot of foolishness going on, basically having to do with selling people things. So yeah, I’m not so sure about magnetic bracelets. On the other hand, maybe I’m the fool and later we will find out that I sneered too soon. [laughs]

So with regard to kundalini, the important thing to me is that I do experience something that is very suspiciously similar to what other yogis have been writing about for thousands of years, and that my contemporaries also talk about. Now whether you embrace kundalini or not, there is something going on—there is a development going on and it is happening in a particular order. It doesn’t matter who the yogi is; the sequence of events cuts across individuals, traditions, and cultures. So that brings us to the Four Paths of Enlightenment as developed by Theravada Buddhism.

So we say that Theravada Buddhism has a particular system of understanding enlightenment, but it is important to point out that enlightenment is not unique to Theravada Buddhism. We are just talking about their way of describing it.

So they have mapped four “Paths,” or four levels of enlightenment. The “Path” word has to be clarified because in this context it is a technical term that refers to having attained a particular landmark of development. It does not mean the journey or the path leading up to that moment.

Any time somebody says First Path, Second Path, Third Path, they are talking about these developmental landmarks. So at First Path, also known as stream entry, the yogi is someone who has attained that particular developmental landmark called First Path. We’re not talking about a person working up to First Path, so it is a little bit confusing. After attaining First Path, a yogi is actually working toward Second Path.

Now within those four Paths, the territory can be further subdivided into the 16 Insight Knowledges. Altogether, this process that includes the 16 Insight Knowledges is called the Progress of Insight. So the Progress of Insight is a big deal in developmental enlightenment because it helps a teacher understand where a yogi is and, based on that understanding, to give targeted advice to tweak the practice to be more efficient.

Let’s talk about the Progress of Insight as it unfolds between the very beginning, a beginning yogi, and the time that that yogi attains First Path. Because once you understand the Progress of Insight, you have a very profound understanding of how your own mind is set up. I talked about how there are 16 Insight Knowledges, 16 subdivisions within the Progress of Insight. But there is a simpler way to pack it up, which is to divide the Progress of Insight into fourths. The first thing that happens is you are doing what Bill Hamilton called a “slow stirring of the mud,” trying to see what is going on in your own mind. Second, there is a time when the mind opens up and you are able to see the workings of your own mind on a moment-by-moment basis and see that things are arising and passing away in your mind.

That particular opening is called the Arising and Passing Away of Phenomena, often abbreviated to the “A&P.” The A&P is crucial to this whole thing, because before the A&P you are not really doing vipassana. You are doing the technique but you’re not penetrating the object, and so things seem solid. At the point of the Arising and Passing Away, everything can be seen to be made up of smaller phenomena that are coming and going momentarily—you just keep digging and drilling down, and you just keep uncovering things that are changing constantly.

Go read the whole discussion at the Buddhist Geeks site.

Arts and Culture - The Dark Mountain Project

These folks are interesting. Their basic idea is that Western culture, as it now exists, is doomed to burn out - that we are right now witnessing it's end. All the ideas about the future being better versions of the present our foolish in their opinion.

But the end of the present does not mean the end of human beings. We need new stories (they take a narrative constructionist view from what I gather in their writings) and in making new stories through art we can make a new future.
The Project

These are precarious and unprecedented times. Our economies crumble, while beyond the chaos of markets, the ecological foundations of our way of living near collapse. Little that we have taken for granted is likely to come through this century intact.

We don’t believe that anyone – not politicians, not economists, not environmentalists, not writers – is really facing up to the scale of this. As a society, we are all still hooked on a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. Somehow, technology or political agreements or ethical shopping or mass protest are meant to save our civilisation from self-destruction.

Well, we don’t buy it. This project starts with our sense that civilisation as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world. But it is driven by our belief that this age of collapse – which is already beginning – could also offer a new start, if we are careful in our choices.

The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.

Deeper than oil, steel or bullets, a civilisation is built on stories: on the myths that shape it and the tales told of its origins and destiny. We have herded ourselves to the edge of a precipice with the stories we have told ourselves about who we are: the stories of ‘progress’, of the conquest of ‘nature’, of the centrality and supremacy of the human species.

It is time for new stories. The Dark Mountain Project intends to conjure into being new ways of seeing and writing about the world. We call this Uncivilisation.

Our aim is to bring together writers and artists, thinkers and doers, to assault the established citadels of literature and thought, and to begin to redraw the maps by which we navigate the places and times in which we find ourselves.

What we are doing

The Dark Mountain manifesto is available to read on this site. It can also be purchased as a limited edition, hand-stitched pamphlet, printed by the unique Bracketpress. The manifesto lays out in more detail our thinking and our aims. Or, for the short version, you can read our eight principles of uncivilisation.

The Dark Mountain Project will bring together people who share these aims, and present their work, with the intention of changing the angles from which we view our world and the human story. At the moment, we have two vehicles for making this happen: the Dark Mountain journal and our public events.

This project is not a fixed thing, a campaign with a determined set of outcomes. We are always open to ideas, encounters, collaborations and suggestions for different approaches.

Who we are

The Dark Mountain Project was conceived and is curated by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine.

This website is the work of Steve Ounanian, Sangeet Gyawali and Pippa Buchanan.

These are their eight principles of uncivilisation, which I find interesting.

Eight Principles of Uncivilisation

‘We must unhumanise our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.’

  1. We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.

  2. We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.

  3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.

  4. We will reassert the role of story-telling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.

  5. Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will reengage with the non-human world.

  6. We will celebrate writing and art which is grounded in a sense of place and of time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.

  7. We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.

  8. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.
You can read the manifesto online, or you can download the PDF version - it's quite long. Here is the beginning of the document.

The Dark Mountain manifesto can also be read as a PDF or purchased as a limited-edition, hand-stitched pamphlet.



I. Walking on lava

The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Those who witness extreme social collapse at first hand seldom describe any deep revelation about the truths of human existence. What they do mention, if asked, is their surprise at how easy it is to die.

The pattern of ordinary life, in which so much stays the same from one day to the next, disguises the fragility of its fabric. How many of our activities are made possible by the impression of stability that pattern gives? So long as it repeats, or varies steadily enough, we are able to plan for tomorrow as if all the things we rely on and don’t think about too carefully will still be there. When the pattern is broken, by civil war or natural disaster or the smaller-scale tragedies that tear at its fabric, many of those activities become impossible or meaningless, while simply meeting needs we once took for granted may occupy much of our lives.

What war correspondents and relief workers report is not only the fragility of the fabric, but the speed with which it can unravel. As we write this, no one can say with certainty where the unravelling of the financial and commercial fabric of our economies will end. Meanwhile, beyond the cities, unchecked industrial exploitation frays the material basis of life in many parts of the world, and pulls at the ecological systems which sustain it.

Precarious as this moment may be, however, an awareness of the fragility of what we call civilisation is nothing new.

‘Few men realise,’ wrote Joseph Conrad in 1896, ‘that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.’ Conrad’s writings exposed the civilisation exported by European imperialists to be little more than a comforting illusion, not only in the dark, unconquerable heart of Africa, but in the whited sepulchres of their capital cities. The inhabitants of that civilisation believed ‘blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion,’ but their confidence could be maintained only by the seeming solidity of the crowd of like-minded believers surrounding them. Outside the walls, the wild remained as close to the surface as blood under skin, but the city-dweller was no longer equipped to face it directly.

Bertrand Russell caught this vein in Conrad’s worldview, suggesting that Conrad ‘thought of civilised and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.’ What both Russell and Conrad were getting at was a simple fact which any historian could confirm: human civilisation is an intensely fragile construction. It is built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; belief in its currency; above all, perhaps, belief in its future.

Once that belief begins to crumble, the collapse of a civilisation may become unstoppable. That civilisations fall, sooner or later, is as much a law of history as gravity is a law of physics. What remains after the fall is a wild mixture of cultural debris, confused and angry people whose certainties have betrayed them, and those forces which were always there, deeper than the foundations of the city walls: the desire to survive and the desire for meaning.

It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality. There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us. After a quarter century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall, the end of history, the crude repackaging of the triumphalism of Conrad’s Victorian twilight – Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis. Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.

This time, the crumbling empire is the unassailable global economy, and the brave new world of consumer democracy being forged worldwide in its name. Upon the indestructibility of this edifice we have pinned the hopes of this latest phase of our civilisation. Now, its failure and fallibility exposed, the world’s elites are scrabbling frantically to buoy up an economic machine which, for decades, they told us needed little restraint, for restraint would be its undoing. Uncountable sums of money are being funnelled upwards in order to prevent an uncontrolled explosion. The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.

You can read more at the site, or download the PDF.

Dalai Lama Quote on the Nature of Self

in Action and Performance Tantra

by His Holiness the Dalai Lama,
Tsong-ka-pa, and Jeffrey Hopkins

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

The self that is merely designated to mind and body has two natures, conventional and ultimate; its final nature is the ultimate one--the suchness of self which is free from all signs of dualistic elaborations. A mind that knows one's own nature to be beyond the limits of dualistic elaborations in accordance with its actual mode of subsistence ascertains suchness. Emptiness is called suchness because the nature of phenomena is exhausted as just such, as nothing else. The contemplation of suchness as equally the nature of yourself and the deity being meditated on is called the ultimate deity.

Just as one's own nature or mode of being is ultimately free from all elaborations of the conception of inherent existence and is essentially at peace since the self is only nominally existent, so is the status of the deity being meditated.

--from Deity Yoga in Action and Performance Tantra by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tsong-ka-pa, and Jeffrey Hopkins, published by Snow Lion Publications

Deity Yoga • 50% off • for this week only
(Good through May 21st).

Melvin Konner - How Childhood Has Evolved

Melvin Konner's latest book, The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind, was just published by Harvard University Press. This new article in The Chronicle Review takes on the idea that much of human personality is formed in the first three years of life - the basic premise of attachment theory.

I have previously posted an article by Konner on "The New Biology and The Self," a cool article he wrote on his preparations for being on a panel with Steven Pinker and others.

This next selection will be helpful, I think, in understanding Konner's stance on attachment theory - it comes from Science Week and originally appeared in Nature.

The following points are made by Melvin Konner (Nature 2004 429:705):

1) Attachment is the name we give to bonds between people. It has been central to song and story since the dawn of human time, but has only recently become a subject of scientific study. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) had much to say about how the mind handles it, but conceded that "our provisional ideas in psychology will someday be based on an organic substructure". Today, we have glimmerings of that substructure.

2) John Bowlby emphasized the most basic attachment, that of an infant toward its primary caregiver. Bowlby's model of attachment was informed by evolution -- eons of selection had pressed mothers and infants into each others' arms. The notion shared by Freud and B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) (otherwise sworn enemies) --that infants became attached through reinforcement of their hunger drive -- had failed decisively. Harry Harlow (1905-1981) demonstrated that "love in infant monkeys" transcended such simplicities when a wire-mesh surrogate mother supplying delicious milk lost out in the battle for infant attachment to another inanimate surrogate providing only warmth and contact comfort. From this and other observations, Bowlby reasoned that attachment was something built into infants and was programmed to unfold on a predetermined schedule. Anthropological evidence supports this general model. In all cultures, attachment behaviors -- such as turning and clinging to the primary caregiver in distress and privileging that person by preferentially quieting the distress -- becomes very strong in the second half-year of life.

3) It is probably not a coincidence that in the brain major pathways of the limbic system become coated with myelin during this phase of infancy. This improves the function of the subcortical circuits that process emotion and their connections to the frontal and cingulate cortex. Although there is no direct evidence, it is reasonable to hypothesize that this facilitates the infant's side of the bond.

4) For the other half of the relationship, oxytocin is vital in many non-human mammals. This peptide hormone, also involved in milk let-down and uterine contractions, causes mothers to retrieve and respond normally to infants. Oxytocin knockout mice develop a strange social amnesia. And vole species with strong maternal behavior have a different and denser distribution of oxytocin receptors in the brain than closely related species where maternal behavior is weaker. Sue Carter has shown that this brain pattern is also associated with other forms of affiliative behavior, not just in the maternal realm.(1-5)

References (abridged):

1. Bowlby, J. Attachment and Loss (3 vols) (Hogarth Press, London, 1969-1977)
2. Cassidy, J. & Shaver, P. R. (eds) Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications (Guilford, New York, 1999)
3. Konner, M. in Hunter-Gatherer Childhood (eds Hewlett, B. & Lamb, M.) (Aldine, New York, in the press)
4. Insel, T. R. Rev. Gen. Psych. 4, 176-185 (2000)
5. Fisher, H. E., Aron, A., Mashek, D., Li, H. & Brown, L. L. Arch. Sexual Behav. 31, 413-419 (2002)
Konner's new book, The Evolution of Childhood, was reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz in The Atlantic - Play's the Thing. This long passage from the excellent review further serves to contextualize Konner's positions:

The sine qua non of culture is socialization, a process we share with many other species. For mammals, it begins with an extreme bond between mother and offspring—a bond that has existed since early in the age of the dinosaurs, when even the infants of egg-laying mammals could feed directly from their mothers’ bodies and demand attention by crying. (Mammalian young cried at high pitches that their mothers could hear but reptilian predators could not.) Although the mother-child bond forms the core relationship, we are cooperative breeders. There is “ample evidence,” developed most prominently by the pathbreaking anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, that “human mothers have always gotten help” from fathers, grandmothers, older siblings, and other relatives. Still, some evidence suggests that kinship is not the be-all and end-all it is often believed to be. Research on the !Kung hunter-gatherer society, for example, shows no particular advantage to having a full complement of parents and grandparents, and in cases in which children have few kin, other adults apparently take up the slack, supporting the idea that indeed, it takes a village. Crucially, the many years that human females live after menopause confer a unique advantage on the species, in that grandmothers are almost always involved in child care, allowing their children, particularly their daughters, to produce more and healthier children.

Konner is especially interested in play, which is not unique to humans and, indeed, seems to have been present, like the mother-offspring bond, from the dawn of mammals. The smartest mammals are the most playful, so these traits have apparently evolved together. Play, Konner says, “combining as it does great energy expenditure and risk with apparent pointlessness, is a central paradox of evolutionary biology.” It seems to have multiple functions—exercise, learning, sharpening skills—and the positive emotions it invokes may be an adaptation that encourages us to try new things and learn with more flexibility. In fact, it may be the primary means nature has found to develop our brains.

Finally, Konner argues that even if culture is as subject to the laws of evolution as other aspects of physiology and behavior, it is, in its complex forms, unique to our species. (He does emphasize, however, that humans share with other animals a host of qualities and emotions—love, grief, altruism, heroism, loyalty, shame, dignity, awe, thought—that have wrongly been ascribed to humans alone.) Humans may not be the only ones who teach, but we alone create and build in a cumulative way, and we alone suspend ourselves in “webs of significance we ourselves have spun,” as Konner, borrowing from Clifford Geertz, elegantly puts it.

Ultimately, Konner is attempting to construct a sort of theory that encompasses all of human life. The evolutionary processes he describes are the way in which at every level—the genome, the nervous system, society, and culture—we, who carry along information accumulated over billions of years, continually interact with the environment, and thereby learn and change in response to it. Children, who are shaping and organizing their very selves, experience this most powerfully. And it should not be surprising, he speculates, if children—in the midst of the most exploratory phase of human life, thanks to “their huge, fast-growing, thoroughly dynamic brains”—have throughout the history of the species often been at the vanguard of cultural innovation.

In the following article, Konner argues that this wonderfully adaptive brain that we are born with also allows us to survive childhoods that are less than ideal. Essentially, Konner is among the newer movement to bring childhood development more into balance between nature (Konner's position) and nurture (the dominant model of attachment theory). As always, it's both/and, not either/or.

How Childhood Has Evolved

By Melvin Konner

Childhood According to Darwin 1

Michael Glenwood for The Chronicle Review

As a graduate student in the 1960s, I joined Irven DeVore and Richard Lee in a multifaceted study of the !Kung San, then still hunter-gatherers, in northwestern Botswana. Some anthropologists were persuaded that such studies would shed light on human origins, and some psychologists were convinced that infancy research had a similar role to play in helping us understand the individual. So it seemed logical to investigate, so to speak, the origins of the origins.

Not that either of those propositions was uncontroversial. Both Franz Boas's disciples in the United States and the structural anthropologists in Europe had rejected any notion that evolution orders cultures, and so there were those who found the claims of researchers on hunter-gatherers to be nothing less than offensive. We were, however, careful to point out that hunter-gatherers were not different from other people biologically or even psychologically, but were perfectly modern human beings living in the very circumstances that dominated human evolution. It was this overlap between them and early human beings—the ones who lived before the invention of agriculture—that led us to think that those who persisted in this way of life could shed light on our origins.

Then there was the question of childhood development. The idea that what happens in infancy might be of overriding importance in later development was also questionable. Some observers argued that the first three years of life were all that really mattered. (The re-emergence of that idea about a decade ago, in the language of brain science, didn't make it any more valid.) It was probably the lingering sway of psychoanalysis that made this such a tempting hypothesis in the 1960s, but attempts to reconstruct in retrospect the influences that shape patients' lives do not constitute scientific evidence.

While I was in Botswana, Jerome Kagan—one of the most brilliant of infancy researchers and one of my advisers—was doing research in rural Guatemala, where he, Robert Klein, and other collaborators saw infants who got none of the stimulation thought essential by middle-class parents in America, but who at age 10 performed very nicely, thank you, on basic age-appropriate cognitive tests. Kagan became deeply skeptical of the importance of early experience. By the late 1990s, as Judith Rich Harris conducted a frontal assault on "the nurture assumption," Kagan began to think that the pendulum had swung too far. But by then he, and many other developmentalists, were committed to genetic, temperamental, and neurobiological investigations and were less interested in the nurture assumption or its challenges.

I returned from Africa in the early 1970s to a revolution in the study of evolution. The new scholarship incorporated sociobiology, behavioral ecology, and what would become evolutionary psychology, but it is best and most comprehensively called neo-Darwinian theory. At first it seemed so mechanistic and trivializing that when applied to human behavior it often produced psychological and political revulsion. A letter to The New York Review of Books in 1975 that was signed by a number of distinguished scientists accused E.O. Wilson, one of the field's leaders, of joining "the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems." Yet this revulsion was often followed by critical appraisal, and then grudging and partial acceptance. I went through those stages, and by 1976 I was convinced that neo-Darwinism would someday have a small but important place in the spectrum of behavioral and social science—a prediction that was considered weak by enthusiasts and anathema by critics, but one now widely recognized to be true.

In 1979 I signed a contract with Harvard University Press to write a book on evolution and childhood. I thought it would take three years; it took three decades. In that time, advances in the fields of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, behavior genetics, and brain development greatly enhanced our understanding of childhood. There were thousands of person-years of studying animal behavior in the wild, hundreds of well-designed experiments testing Darwinian hypotheses about human behavior, enormous samples analyzed by advanced statistics in twin and adoption studies, accelerating gene technology, and functional brain imaging in real time in adolescents and even in children.

Those and other advances were both causes and results of a rapidly changing intellectual atmosphere. For one thing, both neo-Darwinism and behavioral genetics gained traction at a pace and in ways that I never predicted. A watershed moment was in 1997, when Newsweek splashed across the top of two pages in a special issue on childhood, "Scientists Estimate That Genes Determine Only About 50 Percent of a Child's Personality." To the extent that such a number is meaningful, it made good sense to me, but 20 years earlier, you would have been savaged for a far more modest guesstimate. Wilson, the author of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard University Press, 1975), had ice water poured on his head on the stage at a national scientific meeting, and Sandra Wood Scarr, a leading developmental psychologist, was spat upon on a major university campus; neither of them is remotely a genetic determinist. So the fact that "only about 50 percent" was now news showed just how far we had come.

Behavioral ecology and ethology, too, were transformed by neo-Darwinian ideas. Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and a few other important biologists continued to oppose them, but if Gould actually read Natural History, the magazine he wrote for so eloquently for decades, he must have noticed that hardly an issue went by without an article that was suffused with concepts like competition, reproductive success, life-history theory, the evolution of altruism, and other attempts to find and measure adaptations. (This phenomenon was even more evident in scholarly journals.)

Evolutionary psychology, meanwhile, secured a niche in psychological science. And behavior-genetic analysis went from being easily challenged and occasionally even fraudulent to achieving scientific credibility. And then genetics took its greatest step, which was to be able to study genes and genomes directly. True, the promise of linking specific genes to complex behavior remains mainly a promise; unlike decoding the genome, this is an enterprise not of decades but of centuries. Still, genes are no longer an abstraction, and the hard work of figuring out how they shape the brain, and therefore behavior, is under way.

But this work is not the death knell for environmental influences on human development; quite the contrary. For instance, the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU), a form of progressive mental retardation in infants resulting from a simple genetic mutation, can be managed by maintaining a special diet. And there are recent examples of how studying genes deepens our understanding of environmental influence. Genetic markers like the neurotransmitter-related enzyme monoamine oxidase, certain types of dopamine receptors, and perhaps the serotonin transporter all have variants that in some studies make individuals more vulnerable to psychological stress during early life. Those findings and countless more like them might one day enable us to tailor environments to infants and children, focusing our interventions with uncanny specificity.

The era when genetic hypotheses and discoveries resulted in a nihilistic attitude toward the prospects of some children is behind us—and good riddance. That said, there are still political and moral hazards in this work; vigilance is always needed. Discoveries will always be abused by some ideologues. But it is no longer possible to stop, slow, or ignore the advance of a science that now has great and well-deserved intellectual momentum.

Two other changes over the past 30 years make this a good moment to explore the evolution of childhood. First, advances in brain imaging are now as impressive as those in genomics, and it has influenced every branch of behavioral and social science. Before we could look at brains only after death, or very crudely during life, and supplement those meager findings with evidence from the study of other animals, and then guess how the brain generates its major product, behavior. Now we can watch brain circuits in action, down to the level of millimeters, while mental processes are going on.

For technical reasons, this has not been as easy to do in infants and children as in adults, but those difficulties are being addressed. Work by Mark Johnson on the development of face processing; by Jessica Dubois and Jésus Pujol on the emergence of language; and by Eric Nelson, Lawrence Steinberg, and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on the tug of war between impulse and inhibition in adolescent social behavior, all demonstrate the tremendous power of imaging to refine our understanding of child development. Behavioral changes can't be explained by brain maturation alone, but imaging brings a whole new kind of information to bear on children's mental life, whether as cause, effect, or both.

Second, cognitive neuroscience is no longer concerned merely with how the brain enables us to see a line, remember a word, or execute a calculation. In the field's early stages, cognition meant the things that can be measured by intelligence tests. With few exceptions, emotional intelligence, relationships, and emotions themselves were not considered suitable objects for serious study. Those areas were left to the psychoanalysts to speculate about as best they could. By the 1990s, however, prominent scientists like Kagan, Antonio Damasio, Richard Davidson, Robert Sapolsky, and Stephen Suomi turned their attention in these once-disdained directions and began to see new crucial dimensions of brain and behavior.

All of this research suggests that the evolution of intelligence and mind is driven not just by things like making tools and remembering food locations, but also by the vital need to negotiate emotions and relationships in the course of achieving reproductive success. That need is of the essence of higher-brain function; it is where the biobehavioral rubber meets the evolutionary road.

Where does anthropology, especially cross-cultural research, fit into this story? By 1970 psychological anthropology seemed on the cusp of a scientific revolution, with thinkers like Roy D'Andrade, Robert LeVine, and Beatrice and John Whiting developing careful methods of measuring child behavior and child-rearing in cultures across the globe. But as Patricia Greenfield deftly put it, anthropology took postmodernism "on the chin," and it did so at a time when opportunities for both scientific and humanistic research were dissolving. The result was a generation of critiques of past work, sometimes verging on political and philosophical cant, instead of primary studies of vanishing cultures.

Fortunately, some anthropologists ducked the blow and kept empirically oriented cultural anthropology alive. Many were motivated mainly by evolutionary or ecological hypotheses. Some collaborated with ethologists and psychologists to put the study of childhood on an ever-firmer base of empirical evidence. And although postmodernism was almost as inimical to Boasian descriptive ethnology as it was to the new forms of evolutionary anthropology, it was the latter where the greatest ire was raised. Some anthropology departments, including those at Harvard and Stanford, even broke apart for a time over the role of science and evolution in the discipline, but progress continued.

So where do we stand now in our grasp of how evolution shapes child development?

Human development is a legacy of the remote past and the basis of all we think about and do in relation to infants and children. The first three months of life, which have aptly been called the fourth trimester, are a legacy of the necessary early expulsion of human fetuses from the womb to avoid an even worse crunch than childbirth already is. Erect posture, followed by brain expansion, made this necessary. The result is a newborn not exactly asocial, but not yet responsive to social cues, and certainly in need of care. And parents should be patient. The programmed social awakening of the third month of life will meet almost all expectations, and it can't be rushed.

Another legacy of human evolution is the expansion of middle childhood, the period between age 6 or so and puberty. Alan Mann, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University and perhaps the leading authority on childhood in the fossil record, now sees this as a major human advance. In the course of what psychologists call the 5-to-7-year shift, the hard-to-control emotions of early childhood are left behind and replaced by logical patterns of thought and the ability to think about thought itself. Across cultures, it is a time when more is expected of children and more responsibility assigned to them. Biologically, middle childhood is a period of slower growth and calmer hormonal flux, ideal for a unique human enterprise: the acquisition of large stores of cultural knowledge.

That doesn't stop with the advent of puberty, but the dynamic changes greatly. Teenagers enter, in some form, the human mating dance, and that involves competition even in cultures where it is largely controlled by elders through arranged marriage. And groups beset by enemies must turn boys into warrior-defenders. It's a developmental phase fraught with danger for both sexes, and the evolutionary legacy is evident. Hormones mobilized by maturational change enable sexual and aggressive behavior, eventually in an adult mode. But there's the rub: How long will it, or should it, take?

The news of the past decade or so is that the human brain continues its maturational march between the ages of 10 and 20. The frontal cortex and other areas needed for mature thought are not fully developed until at least the end of that period. Meanwhile, the average age at which children reach puberty (as defined by hormonal change) has dropped at least two or three years over the past two centuries. That is not evolution but revolution, and it is likely that the endocrine change now occurs earlier in relation to brain development as well as to chronological age. If so, we have an even starker problem than the slowness of brain growth: hormonal surges at ever-younger brain ages and ever-lower levels of inhibition. The implications for schooling, for the increasing sexualization of the young, and for the culpability of juvenile offenders are potentially transformative.

That brings us to another way that evolution aids our understanding of childhood. If through most of human history puberty began later, then we now face a mismatch between our evolutionary design and our current environment. A clear example of this discordance is found in studies of childhood nutrition and activity. Children throughout our evolution were continually active, mostly in play and exploration, but also in providing some of their own subsistence. Their diets included substantial amounts of lean meat and fish, extremely low levels of saturated fat, salt, and refined carbohydrates, high intake of vegetables and fruits, large amounts of fiber, and a broad spectrum of micronutrients like calcium and vitamin C.

If there is any such thing as a natural lifestyle, that is it, and our modern departure from it has predictably engendered an epidemic of childhood and adolescent obesity, as well as what used to be called adult-onset diabetes. Calls for more acceptance of obesity are at odds with evolution and, more important, with children's health.

What about other characteristics of hunter-gatherer childhood, such as nursing, mother-infant co-sleeping, immediate parental response to crying, and the like? Here I would be more cautious, since, unlike in the case of diet and activity, we do not have decisive evidence for the advantages of those choices. However, neither do we have evidence that there is anything wrong with them, and, especially as they are part of the deep human past, pending further study parents should be left alone to make their own decisions.

Another thing is clear from the evolutionary record: Mothers have never done the job of child-rearing alone. Among primates, only humans provide for their young after weaning. As Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of California at Davis, showed in her book, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Harvard University Press, 2009), that required the support of grandmothers, fathers, and others. We should think of the natural human adaptation for child-rearing as one in which mothers are central but have large amounts of support.

Evolutionary thinking is particularly useful in illuminating our view of childhood in the realm of facultative adaptation—a sort of "if then" proposition built into our genes. Evolution and genes sometimes say, This is how it must always be, but often they say, If in such-and-such an environment, respond with this adaptation, but if in this other, very different context, respond with that one. Sometimes the consequences are dire for children. Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, of McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, have shown that abuse and neglect, up to and including killing children, are almost 100 times more likely in households with an adult male who is not genetically related to the child. Nothing, I think, could make it clearer that evolutionary explanations must be kept completely separate from moral and legal judgments. Yet this well-established fact about violence committed against children, independent of socioeconomic status and shown across national boundaries, should lead us to a new ways of thinking about abuse prevention. They can be subtle, not draconian, but they should recognize the facts.

From the viewpoint of the child, early life experience may serve as an important signal to understand her environment. The lack of trust that most psychologists believe stems from unstable nurturance can also be thought of, in evolutionary perspective, as an adaptive response to a situation that is at best unpredictable. The adaptation may even include maturing and initiating sexual activity earlier. That needn't constrain us to accept such harsh environments as inevitable, much less to condone the conditions that give rise to them. But since they do exist, we should adopt a more positive view of childhood adaptation in less-than-favorable circumstances. Respecting children rather than pathologizing them (or even while trying to help with their pathology) can in some cases be a good thing.

The evolutionary theorist Theodosius Dobzhansky used to say that nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution. We are now in a position to say that very little in childhood does, either—or, at a minimum, that children's behavior, their developmental course, and even our treatment of them make much more sense in that light. In a world in which religious fundamentalists and some postmodern liberals stand in unholy alliance against Darwin's science, we will do well to keep our minds open. Our children will benefit from a view of them and their care that includes our best understanding of that science.

~ Melvin Konner is a professor of anthropology and behavioral biology at Emory University. His latest book, The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind, was just published by Harvard University Press.

Konner, M. (2004). The ties that bind. Nature; Jun 17, 2004; 429, 6993; Research Library pg. 705.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Laughter REALLY IS the Best Medicine

A new study looks at the effect that mirthful laughter
and distress have on modulating the key hormones that control appetite

This cool study came out a couple of weeks ago, but I am just now getting around to posting it. Turns out that extended periods of laughter on a regular basis (Laughercise©) has some of the same benefits as regular exercise: enhances your mood, decreases stress hormones, enhances immune activity, lowers bad cholesterol and systolic blood pressure, and raises good cholesterol (HDL). How cool is that?

Body's Response to Repetitive Laughter Is Similar to the Effect of Repetitive Exercise, Study Finds

ScienceDaily (Apr. 26, 2010) — Laughter is a highly complex process. Joyous or mirthful laughter is considered a positive stress (eustress) that involves complicated brain activities leading to a positive effect on health. Norman Cousins first suggested the idea that humor and the associated laughter can benefit a person's health in the 1970s. His ground-breaking work, as a layperson diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, documented his use of laughter in treating himself -- with medical approval and oversight -- into remission. He published his personal research results in the New England Journal of Medicine and is considered one of the original architects of mind-body medicine.

Dr. Lee S. Berk, a preventive care specialist and psychoneuroimmunology researcher at Loma Linda University's Schools of Allied Health (SAHP) and Medicine, and director of the molecular research lab at SAHP, Loma Linda, CA, and Dr. Stanley Tan have picked up where Cousins left off. Since the 1980s, they have been studying the human body's response to mirthful laughter and have found that laughter helps optimize many of the functions of various body systems. Berk and his colleagues were the first to establish that laughter helps optimize the hormones in the endocrine system, including decreasing the levels of cortisol and epinephrine, which lead to stress reduction. They have also shown that laughter has a positive effect on modulating components of the immune system, including increased production of antibodies and activation of the body's protective cells, including T-cells and especially Natural Killer cells' killing activity of tumor cells.

Their studies have shown that repetitious "mirthful laughter," which they call Laughercise©, causes the body to respond in a way similar to moderate physical exercise. Laughercise© enhances your mood, decreases stress hormones, enhances immune activity, lowers bad cholesterol and systolic blood pressure, and raises good cholesterol (HDL).

As Berk explains, "We are finally starting to realize that our everyday behaviors and emotions are modulating our bodies in many ways." His latest research expands the role of laughter even further.

A New Study: Humor versus Distress, Effect on and Appetite Hormones

Berk, along with his colleague Dr. Jerry Petrofsky at Loma Linda University, and their team have recently completed a new study, which is being presented at the 2010 Experimental Biology conference in Anaheim, CA between April 24-28, 2010.

In the current study, 14 healthy volunteers were recruited to a three-week study to examine the effects that eustress (mirthful laughter) and distress have on modulating the key hormones that control appetite. During the study, each subject was required to watch one 20-minute video at random that was either upsetting (distress) or humorous (eustress) in nature. The study was a cross-over design, meaning that the volunteers waited one week after watching the first video to eliminate its effect, then watched the opposite genre of video.

For a distressing video clip, the researchers had the volunteer subjects watch the tense first 20 minutes of the movie Saving Private Ryan. This highly emotional video clip is known to distress viewers substantially and equally.

For the eustress video, the researchers had each volunteer choose a 20-minute video clip from a variety of humorous options including stand-up comedians and movie comedies. Allowing the volunteers to "self-select" the eustress that most appealed to them guaranteed their maximum humor response.

During the study, the researchers measured each subject's blood pressure and took blood samples immediately before and after watching the respective videos. Each blood sample was separated out into its components and the liquid serum was examined for the levels of two hormones involved in appetite, leptin and ghrelin, for each time point used in the study.

When the researchers compared the hormone levels pre- and post-viewing, they found that the volunteers who watched the distressing video showed no statistically significant change in their appetite hormone levels during the 20-minutes they spent watching the video.

In contrast, the subjects who watched the humorous video had changes in blood pressure and also changes in the leptin and ghrelin levels. Specifically, the level of leptin decreased as the level of ghrelin increased, much like the acute effect of moderate physical exercise that is often associated with increased appetite.

Berk explains that this research does not conclude that humor increases appetite. He explains, "The ultimate reality of this research is that laughter causes a wide variety of modulation and that the body's response to repetitive laughter is similar to the effect of repetitive exercise. The value of the research is that it may provide for those who are health care providers with new insights and understandings, and thus further potential options for patients who cannot use physical activity to normalize or enhance their appetite."

Appetite Loss may have a new Treatment Option

For example, many elderly patients often suffer from what is known as "wasting disease." They become depressed and, combined with a lack of physical activity, lose their appetite and jeopardize their health and well-being. Based on Berk's current research, these patients may be able to use Laughercise© as an alternative, initially less strenuous, activity to regain their appetite.

A similar loss of appetite is often seen in widowers, who typically suffer depression after the loss of a spouse. This often results in decreased immune-system function and subsequent illness in the surviving spouse. Chronic pain patients also suffer from appetite loss due to the chemical changes in their body that cause intolerable discomfort.

While laughter may seem unimaginable in the face of deep depression or intense chronic pain, it may be an accessible alternative starting point for these patients to regain appetite and consequently, improve and enhance their recovery to health.

Berk's current research expands the role of laughter on the human body and whole-person care, but also complicates an already complicated emotion. He acknowledges, "I am more amazed by the interrelatedness of laughter and body responses with the more evidence and knowledge we collect. It's fascinating that positive emotions resulting from behaviors such as music playing or singing, and now mirthful laughter, translate into so many types of [biological] mechanism optimizations. As the old biblical wisdom states, it may indeed be true that laughter is a good medicine."

Reference: Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (2010, April 26). Body's response to repetitive laughter is similar to the effect of repetitive exercise, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 14, 2010, from­ /releases/2010/04/100426113058.htm

Here is the original abstract from the April Experimental Biology conference where this study was presented.

Humor-associated laughter affects appetite hormones

Lee Berk1, Michelle Prowse3, Gurinder Bains3, Jennifer Batt4, Jerry Petrofsky3, Noha Daher3, Harmony Danner4, Laura Ludeman4, Michael Lahman4, Stanley Tan5 and Dottie Berk2

1 PT & Pathology
2 PM&R, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, CA
3 Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, CA
4 Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA
5 OakCrest Research Institute, Loma Linda, CA


We have previously shown that repetitious "mirthful laughter" (Laughercise), like physical exercise (PE), decreases stress hormones (cortisol & catecholamines), enhances immune activity (NK cell cytotoxicity, B-cells, activated T-cells, immunoglobulins, CD4/CD8 ratio), and lowers cholesterol & systolic blood pressure (Berk, 2001, 2009). Additionally, PE can modulate the appetite hormones leptin (decrease) and ghrelin (increases) immediate post-PE (Jurimae, 2007). Therefore, the objective was to compare the response of 14 healthy individuals who viewed a 20 min videos, humorous vs. distressing (cross-over design 1 wk apart), and measure leptin and ghrelin levels 1 wk before study (base), pre- (PR-V) and post-viewing (PO-V). Friedman’s ANOVA and Wilcoxon Signed Ranks tests were used for statistical analysis. Leptin decreased from base to PR-V –12% (p=0.02), base to PO-V –15% (p=0.03), and PR-V to PO-V –4% (p=0.03) for the humor group. Ghrelin decreased from base to PR-V –11% (p=0.05) (anticipatory effect), increased base to PO-V 9.0% (p=0.03), and PR-V to PO-V 52% (p=0.02). There was no significant change with the distress video. Laughercise appears to modulate and may optimize the appetite hormones leptin and ghrelin similar to PE. This may have clinical relevance for those where PE is difficult, the handicap, depressed or elderly individual/patient. Further research is needed to elaborate these data.

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Fruits and Vegetables Reduce Inflammation - Relevance to Cancer Prevention and Healthy Aging

Fruits and Vegetables

We all know we are supposed to eat our fruits and vegetables (FV), that they are good for us and all that. Hell, some people even claim that doing so might prevent cancers from growing in our bodies. The direct evidence for that claim is lacking, but a new study suggests we are getting closer.

A new article just released online connects the intake of more FV in healthy young adults with lower levels or pro-inflammatory chemical markers in the body. While this does not directly demonstrate a cancer prevention activity, nearly all of the pro-inflammatory markers that are reduced with higher FV intake are associated with cancer progression (and reduced risk of coronary artery disease and heart disease).

Not only that, but we also know that obesity increases ALL of these pro-inflammation markers, that these markers are associated with metabolic syndrome (leading to type-II diabetes), and that inflammation is thought to be the cause of many diseases (including cardio vascular disease, Alzheimer's Disease, several forms of cancer, insulin resistance, inflammatory-bowel diseases (IBDs), inflammatory arthritis, sepsis, and even the aging process itself).

After looking at the research, I will offer dietary suggestions. Now on to the study.


Helen Hermana M Hermsdorff, Maria Angeles Zulet, Blanca Puchau, and Jose Alfredo Martinez. (2010). Fruit and vegetable consumption and proinflammatory gene expression from peripheral blood mononuclear cells in young adults: a translational study. Nutrition & Metabolism 2010, 7:42doi:10.1186/1743-7075-7-42. Published online 13 May, 2010.

Abstract (provisional)


Fruits and vegetables are important sources of fiber and nutrients with a recognized antioxidant capacity, which could have beneficial effects on the proinflammatory status as well as some metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease features. The current study assessed the potential relationships of fruit and vegetable consumption with the plasma concentrations and mRNA expression values of some proinflammatory markers in young adults.


One-hundred and twenty healthy subjects (50 men/70 women; 20.8+/-2.6 y; 22.3+/-2.8 kg/m2) were enrolled. Experimental determinations included anthropometry, blood pressure and lifestyle features as well as blood biochemical and inflammatory measurements. The mRNA was isolated from peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) and the gene expression concerning selected inflammatory markers was assessed by quantitative real-time PCR. Nutritional intakes were estimated by a validated semi-quantitative food-frequency questionnaire.


The highest tertile of energy-adjusted fruit and vegetable consumption (>660 g/d) was associated with lower plasma concentrations of C-reactive protein (CRP) and homocysteine and with lower ICAM1, IL1R1, IL6, TNF-alpha and NF-kappa-B1 gene expression in PBMC (P for trend <0.05),>19.5g/d) from fruits and vegetables (P for trend <0.05).>11.8 mmol/d) of dietary total antioxidant capacity showed lower plasma CRP and mRNA values of ICAM1, IL1R1, IL6, TNF-alpha and NF-kappa-B1 genes (P for trend <0.05).>


A higher fruit and vegetable consumption was independently associated not only with reduced CRP and homocysteine concentrations, but also with a lower mRNA expression in PBMC of some relevant proinflammatory markers in healthy young adults.

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

The following text from the full paper offers some background on the study:

A low-chronic inflammatory status is a recognized link between excessive adiposity and metabolic syndrome features, diabetes, and atherosclerosis [1, 2]. In fact, a number of studies has demonstrated an increased expression of transcription nuclear factors such as nuclearfactor-kappa-B (NFκB) as well as of interleukins (IL) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNFα) in obese subjects [1, 3]. These changes appear to involve a higher production of proinflammatory and pro-atherogenic molecules such as C-reactive protein (CRP), homocysteine, selectins and adhesion molecules as well as some cytokines [1, 3]. Furthermore, circulating peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) may have an important role in all these complex inflammatory processes, which are mediated by transcriptional nuclear-factors, cytokines and other pro-atherogenic molecules [4].

In turn, fruits and vegetables contain components such as plant proteins, potassium, magnesium, fiber, and others compounds with antioxidant capacity, whose consumption may reduce the risk of suffering metabolic syndrome manifestations [5-8]. Thus, the intake of fruits and vegetables has been related to marked reductions in proinflammatory and oxidative stress markers [9-12]. These previous findings indicate that a targeted emphasis on fruit and vegetable consumption could potentially help individuals in preventing and/or reducing the onset of cardiovascular diseases and metabolic syndrome complications by means of a beneficial modulation of low-grade inflammation and oxidative stress mediated processes. In this context, nutrigenomic studies have demonstrated the healthy effect of specific nutrients and calorie-restriction on PBMC proinflammatory gene expression [13, 14]. However, the effect of fruit and vegetable consumption on the expression of proinflammatory-related molecules in PBMC has not yet been apparently investigated.

Overall, the present study assessed the potential association of fruit and vegetable consumption with plasma concentrations of CRP, homocysteine, IL6, and TNFα as well as gene expression profiles, which were assessed through messenger RNA (mRNA) levels of genes encoding intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM1), interleukin-1 receptor-type 1 (IL1R1), interleukin-6 (IL6), tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNFα), subunit-1 or p50 (NFκB1) and subunit-3 or p65 (RELA) of NFκB in PBMC, from young adults.

It's worth noting that many of the pro-inflammatory markers here are also associated with obesity, which suggests that obesity itself may be connected to higher low-grade inflammation, and in turn leading to higher rates of CVD and heart disease, as well as cancer.

This comes from the discussion section:

An altered expression of ILs, TNFα, ICAM1 genes and of their respective receptors in adipose tissue as well as in PBMC has been implicated in the higher risk of suffering metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease [3, 4, 35]. In addition, NFκB is a redox-sensitive transcription factor implicated in the transmission of different signals from the cytoplasm to the nucleus, which are involved in the regulation of inflammatory and immune genes, apoptosis, and cell proliferation [36]. In this regard, the activation of this transcription factor has been involved in atherosclerosis [37]. Therefore, the reported inverse association between fruits and vegetable consumption and the selected proinflammatory gene expression measurements suggest a new clinically relevant mechanism concerning the prevention of subclinical inflammation status in healthy adults by a high intake of fruits and vegetables.

In this study, we also found a statistically significant inverse association of fruit and vegetable consumption with CRP and homocysteine concentrations. These results are consistent with some earlier cross-sectional studies carried out on children and adolescents [38, 39] as well as middle-age adults [7, 40]. Moreover, in a randomized crossover study, the addition of vegetables to the diet has been able to reverse the increase in circulating vascular adhesion molecule-1 (VCAM1), ICAM1, IL6, and TNFα levels, as induced by a single high-fat (saturated) meal consumption [11]. Furthermore, in a randomized controlled 4-week trial, a high consumption (eight vs. two servings/day) of fruits and vegetables also significantly reduced CRP levels [12].

In a 2004 study by Scott M. Grundy, et al, (Definition of Metabolic Syndrome) published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology (2004;24:e13), it was suggested that based on current evidence, people who exhibit metabolic syndrome have higher levels of all of the pro-inflammatory markers discussed in the study above. The term metabolic syndrome describes a variety of factors originally termed syndrome X and then insulin resistance syndrome.

In 1988, Reaven2 noted that several risk factors (eg, dyslipidemia, hypertension, hyperglycemia) commonly cluster together. This clustering he called Syndrome X, and he recognized it as a multiplex risk factor for CVD. Reaven and subsequently others postulated that insulin resistance underlies Syndrome X (hence the commonly used term insulin resistance syndrome). Other researchers use the term metabolic syndrome for this clustering of metabolic risk factors. ATP III used this alternative term. It avoids the implication that insulin resistance is the primary or only cause of associated risk factors.

More to the point, metabolic syndrome is associated with a variety of conditions, including polycystic ovary syndrome, fatty liver, cholesterol gallstones, asthma, sleep disturbances, and some forms of cancer - and type II diabetes.

Grundy outlines the components of metabolic syndrome as follows:
ATP III1 identified 6 components of the metabolic syndrome that relate to CVD:

  • Abdominal obesity
  • Atherogenic dyslipidemia
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Insulin resistance ± glucose intolerance
  • Proinflammatory state
  • Prothrombotic state
These components of the metabolic syndrome constitute a particular combination of what ATP III terms underlying,major, and emerging risk factors. According to ATP III, underlying risk factors for CVD are obesity (especially abdominal obesity), physical inactivity, and atherogenic diet; the major risk factors are cigarette smoking, hypertension, elevated LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, family history of premature coronary heart disease (CHD), and aging; and the emerging risk factors include elevated triglycerides, small LDL particles, insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, proinflammatory state, and prothrombotic state. For present purposes, the latter 5 components are designated metabolic risk factors.
I bring this up only to demonstrate that the findings from the new article above have implications beyond the reduced risk of CVD. One of the primary proinflammatory markers is Il-6. In a 2008 paper, Naugler & Karin, in "The wolf in sheep’s clothing: the role of
interleukin-6 in immunity, inflammation and cancer
" (Trends in Molecular Medicine:474; 11 Pages), the authors look at IL-6 and its relationship to cancer.
For years, IL-6 has been known to have a key role in the maturation of B cells, as well being as a member of the trio of cytokines [tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-a and IL-1 complete the triumvirate] that drives the acute inflammatory response. More recent reports have shown how dysregulation of IL-6 signaling contributes to inflammation-associated disease conditions, including obesity and insulin resistance, inflammatory-bowel diseases (IBDs), inflammatory arthritis, sepsis and even the aging process itself.

Two of the most exciting recent advances involve inflammation-associated carcinogenesis and the innate–adaptive immunity interface, in both of which IL-6 has an important role. The inflammatory process is increasingly linked to carcinogenesis, most notably to the promotion and progression of cancers. Several new reports of different experimental models of cancer show a requirement for IL-6 signaling and several epidemiological reports linking IL-6 signaling to human cancers have appeared.
I want to offer one more passage from this article because I think it is related to the main article above, and because I think it offers a pathway for understanding the re-emergence of some forms of cancer years after the original tumor was removed.
Chronic inflammation describes a state in which inflammatory cells are recruited to a site, undergo expansion and differentiation and are prevented from undergoing apoptosis. Apoptosis normally limits inflammation but becomes dysregulated in states of chronic inflammation. A key regulator of these effects is NF-kB [75], which integrates stress stimuli and, depending on the cell-type studied, prevents apoptosis or initiates signals that enhance or perpetuate the inflammatory process.

The emergence of neoplasia requires several elements, including self-sufficiency in growth signals, insensitivity to growth-inhibitory signals, evasion of apoptosis, limitless replicative potential, tissue invasion and metastasis and sustained angiogenesis [76]. Most of these functions occur through the activation of NF-kB [77]. IL-6 is a growth signal and blocks apoptosis and, as such, is one of the effector signals of activated NF-kB in the promotion of neoplasia. IL-6 signals through STAT3, which is in turn activated in diverse cancers [78].

The obvious cancer in which to find IL-6 involvement is multiple myeloma (MM), a neoplasm of terminally differentiated B-cells (plasma cells), which is dependent on IL-6. Although it was thought initially that MM cells produced their own IL-6, which perpetuated the malignancy through autocrine action, it was later discovered that bone marrow stroma was the main source of IL-6 in this tumor [79].
One of the known ways in which prostate cancer kills men is that the cancer cells (generally stem cells) migrate to an area in the body where there is active bone marrow and take up residence, essentially escaping detection and any impact of chemo or radiation therapies.

The fact that IL-6 is also associated with bone marrow suggests a mechanism for understanding why the cancer cells seek out active marrow - the feed off of the inflammatory response. So, and I am speculating here, if we can control the production and expression of IL-6 through diet (and exercise, among other ways, including meditation), we might be able to delay or suppress the re-emergence of these cancer stem cells. Doing so effectively saves the lives of those who die from prostate cancer since few men actually die from the original tumor but, rather, from the metastatic spread of the cancer stem cells into the lower back (the only site of active bone marrow in middle aged men) and then into the rest of the body.

So What Do We Do?

Based on the feature article and other research I have done, I can make the following suggestions. Do as many of these as you can and your health will improve, your weight will go down, and you'll feel better, not to mention reducing all inflammation related illnesses, including cancer.

We'll start with foods we need LESS OF in our diets:

Avoid ALL sugar, especially high fructose corn syrup.

Avoid ALL trans-fats (deep-fried foods, margarine, processed foods).

Avoid pro-inflammatory fats (saturated fats contain arachidonic acid, which we need, but too much causes inflammation responses in the body). Also limit or or avoid butter, cream, cheese and other full-fat dairy products; unskinned chicken and fatty meats; and products made with coconut and palm kernel oils.

Avoid most vegetable oils: regular safflower and sunflower oils, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and mixed vegetable oils.

Limit all refined grains and non-fruit/vegetable carbohydrates in general. Carbohydrates are basically sugars, and sugars increase insulin levels, and higher insulin levels increase inflammation.

Now some foods we need MORE OF in our diets:

We need to eat more fruits and vegetables. Among the most studied for their anti-inflammatory benefits:
  • all dark berries
  • tart cherries
  • cruciferous vegetables (horseradish, kale, collard greens, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, and others)
  • higher fiber vegetables (pumpkin, yams)
Use extra-virgin olive oil as a main cooking oil. If you want a neutral tasting oil, use expeller-pressed, organic canola oil. High-oleic versions of sunflower and safflower oil are acceptable also, preferably non-GMO (genetically modified).

Include avocados and nuts, especially walnuts, cashews, almonds, and nut butters made from these nuts. (Peanuts are less healthy.)

Try to eat 40 grams of fiber a day. This is easy to do by increasing your consumption of fruit (especially berries and apples), vegetables (especially pumpkin, cruciferous veggies, and to a lesser extent, beans), and unrefined whole grains (whole grain rice, quinoa, and steel cut oats).

Consume more omega-3 fatty acids: eat salmon (preferably fresh or frozen wild or canned sockeye), sardines packed in water or olive oil, herring, and black cod (sablefish, butterfish); omega-3 fortified eggs; hemp seeds and flaxseeds (preferably freshly ground); or take a fish oil supplement (see below), pumpkin seeds, and walnuts.

Eat plain dark chocolate in moderation (minimum cocoa content of 70 percent), and moderation means an ounce or two a day.

Eat organic as much as possible.

For more info on the anti-inflammation diet, see Dr. Andrew Weil - and ignore his high carbohydrate recommendations. Protein intake (lean meats, fish, chicken, turkey, low-fat dairy, and eggs) should be 40% of calories, healthy fats should be 30%, carbohydrates (mostly from fruits and vegetable) should be 30%.