Saturday, June 19, 2010

Experience Shapes the Brain's Circuitry Throughout Adulthood

Neurology is not destiny - our brains grow and adapt over time based on experience - which is why therapy works, why we can continue to evolve as people, and why we are limited by the brains we are both with (to an extent of course).

Experience Shapes the Brain's Circuitry Throughout Adulthood

ScienceDaily (June 16, 2010) — The adult brain, long considered to be fixed in its wiring, is in fact remarkably dynamic. Neuroscientists once thought that the brain's wiring was fixed early in life, during a critical period beyond which changes were impossible. Recent discoveries have challenged that view, and now, research by scientists at Rockefeller University suggests that circuits in the adult brain are continually modified by experience.

The researchers, led by Charles D. Gilbert, Arthur and Janet Ross Professor and head of the Laboratory of Neurobiology, observed how neurons responsible for receiving input from a mouse's whiskers shift their relationships with one another after single whiskers are removed. The experiments explain how the circuitry of a region of the mouse brain called the somatosensory cortex, which processes input from the various systems in the body that respond to the sense of touch, can change.

The findings will be published next week in the online, open access journal PLoS Biology.

The Gilbert lab has been studying changing neuronal connections for several years. Their approach, in which the scientists use a viral labeling system to attach fluorescent proteins to individual neurons and then image individual synapses in an intact, living brain with a high-resolution two-photon microscope, has provided several important clues to understanding the dynamics of the brain's wiring.

Students in the Gilbert lab, Dan Stettler and Homare (Matias) Yamahachi, in collaboration with Winfried Denk at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, previously followed the same neurons week after week in the primary visual cortex of adult monkeys. They found that the circuits of the visual cortex are highly dynamic, turning over synapses at a rate of seven percent per week. These changes occurred without any learning regimen or physical manipulations to the neurons. Last year, Yamahachi, together with Sally Marik and Justin McManus, showed that when sensory experience is altered, even more dramatic changes in cortical circuits occur, with very rapid alterations in circuitry involving an exuberant growth of new connections paralleled by a pruning of old connections.

These studies and others by the Gilbert lab have begun to show that there are underlying dynamics in the sensory cortex and it's not a fixed system, as has long been believed.

In the new study, Marik and other members of the Gilbert lab looked at excitatory and inhibitory neurons within the mouse cortex during periods of sensory deprivation to determine how experience shapes different components of cortical circuitry. For this study they used the whisker-barrel system in adult mice. The barrel cortex, part of the somatosensory cortex, receives sensory input from the animal's whiskers. Scientists have shown that after a row of whiskers is removed, barrels shift their representation to adjacent intact whiskers.

Marik, together with Yamahachi and McManus, found that after a whisker was plucked excitatory connections projecting into the deprived barrels underwent exuberant and rapid axonal sprouting. This axonal restructuring occurred rapidly -- within minutes or hours after whiskers were plucked -- and continued over the course of several weeks. At the same time that excitatory connections were invading the deprived columns, there was a reciprocal outgrowth of the axons of inhibitory neurons from the deprived to the non-deprived barrels. This suggests that the process of reshaping cortical circuits maintains the balance between excitation and inhibition that exists in the normal cortex.

"Previously we showed changes only in excitatory connections," Gilbert says. "We've now demonstrated a parallel involvement of inhibitory connections, and we think that inhibition may play a role equal in importance to excitation in inducing changes in cortical functional maps."

The new study also showed that changes in the inhibitory circuits preceded those seen in the excitatory connections, suggesting that the inhibitory changes may mediate the excitatory ones. This process, Gilbert says, mimics what happens in the brain during early postnatal development.

"It's surprising that the primary visual or somatosensory cortices are involved in plasticity and capable of establishing new memories, which previously had been considered to be a specialized function of higher brain centers," Gilbert says. "We are just beginning to tease apart the mechanisms of adult cortical plasticity. We hope to determine whether the circuit changes associated with recovery of function following lesions to the central and peripheral nervous systems also occur under normal conditions of perceptual learning."

Journal Reference:

Marik SA, Yamahachi H, McManus JNJ, Szabo G, Gilbert CD. Axonal Dynamics of Excitatory and Inhibitory Neurons in Somatosensory Cortex. PLoS Biology, 2010; 8 (6): e1000395 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000395

All in the Mind - The Master & his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

This is a very cool episode of All in the Mind - a look at Dr. Iain McGilchrist's recent book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. I haven't read the book yet, but there are echoes in the review of Julian Jaynes' classic The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which after years of being dismissed is being taken seriously again.

Here is the brief Publisher's Weekly review of the book:
A U.K. mental health consultant and clinical director with a background in literature, McGilchrist attempts to synthesize his two areas of expertise, arguing that the "divided and asymmetrical nature" of the human brain is reflected in the history of Western culture. Part I, The Divided Brain, lays the groundwork for his thesis, examining two lobes' significantly different features (structure, sensitivity to hormones, etc.) and separate functions (the left hemisphere is concerned with "what," the right with "how"). He suggests that music, "ultimately... the communication of emotion," is the "ancestor of language," arising largely in the right hemisphere while "the culture of the written word tends inevitably toward the predominantly left hemisphere." More controversially, McGilchrist argues that "there is no such thing as the brain" as such, only the brain as we perceive it; this leads him to conclude that different periods of Western civilization (from the Homeric epoch to the present), one or the other hemisphere has predominated, defining "consistent ways of being that persist" through time. This densely argued book is aimed at an academic crowd, is notable for its sweep but a stretch in terms of a uniting thesis.
As is usually the case, Natasha Mitchell blogged about this weeks episode before it aired:

Left, right ... but not quite as you know it

Iain_2 'Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain'....'Unlock Your Creative Right Brain Genius'...Blah, blah, blerrgh.

You've seen the headlines.

Now ditch them for something more interesting.

My guest this week, eminent UK psychiatrist Dr Iain McGilchrist, has a unique case to make about the two hemispheres of the brain.

You can tell by the title of his latest book alone that it's vast and provocative - The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

And, whoah. What a read. Every page revealed countless further layers. From neuroscience. And from the expansive history of human endeavour - the arts, sciences, religion, philosophy and beyond.

The world shapes our brain, but the brain very much pushes back to mould the world we occupy, and at a civilisational scale. McGilchrist has contemplated this powerful interplay for many, many years.

Borrowing a metaphor from a story by Nietzsche, he dubs the right hemisphere of the brain as "the Master ", and the left hemisphere as "his Emissary".

Find out why on the show this week. Catch the audio of the show on-air or over on the All in the Mind website here

And here, as promised, are some extra bits I couldn't pack into the program...and which he barely contained to 500 + pages!

Again, they'll make sense after you listen to the show, so do that first :)

Left, right - we need them both


Right brain - global in its outlook


Scientific investigation of the differences between the two brain hemispheres seems to have shifted out of vogue. Burnt by pop culture representations perhaps?


If there's been a shift in emphasis to left hemisphere interpretations of the world in the world, as Iain argues, has that played out in the brain's biology over the last 2000 years?


Iain calls for a reunion in the world, and brain:


The future of humanity - what gives Iain hope?


A plea for uncertainty - why?

Iain_McGilchrist_a plea_for_uncertainty

Enjoy! As ever, love to read your thoughts here on the blog - or it's *really* easy to over on the All in the Mind website where we now have a commenting function on each week's show webpage.

We barely touch the sides of Iain McGilchrist's thoroughly interesting book on the show. So, if you want to read deeper - take a closer look.

What do you think of his argument? Metaphor or more?

Here is the podcast now - with some links.

The Master & his Emissary - the divided brain and the reshaping of Western civilization

Eminent psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist offers an ambitious, provocative thesis about how the brain's two hemispheres came to be, and construct the world. Today there's a power struggle being played out between the left and right brain that he argues is reshaping Western civilisation in disturbing ways.

Show Transcript | Hide Transcript

Transcripts are published on Wednesdays. Audio on Saturday's after broadcast.


Dr Iain McGilchrist
Writer & psychiatrist
Former Consultant Psychiatrist and a Clinical Director at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospital, UK

Further Information

The Battle of the Brain - excerpt from Iain McGilchrist's book
Published in the Wall Street Journal, 2010

Michael Gazzaniga: Split brains and other heady tales
Broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National in 2008.

One of the big names of the brain is Michael Gazzaniga, whose career was forged in the lab of Nobel laureate Roger Sperry. His striking experiments continue to uncover the differences between your left and right hemispheres. He joins Natasha Mitchell to reflect on the brain's left and right, and the mysterious nature of free will.

All in the Mind blog with Natasha Mitchell
Add your comments and conversation to the blog or here on the program website too (look for Add Your Comments above). It's easy to do!


Title: The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
Author: Iain McGilchrist
Publisher: Yale University Press, 2009


Natasha Mitchell

Toward a Dialectical Theory of Human Tool Use

In this rather dense paper, the authors argue that humans have the ability to view body action as a problem to be solved - that it is precisely at this point that technical reasoning occurs. They argue that neither the computational nor ecological explanation of tool use is adequate, so they propose that affordance perception and technical reasoning work together in a dialectical way.

Clarification of terms: Affordance perception:
The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill … something that refers both to the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarily of the animal and the environment.
Gerald Fritz, et al, expand on this basic definition from J.J. Gibson to generate this concept:
We extend Gibson’s ecological approach under acknowledgment of Neisser’s understanding that visual feature representation on various hierarchies of abstraction are mandatory to appropriately respond to environmental stimuli. We provide a refined concept on affordance perception by proposing (i) an interaction component (affordance recognition: recognizing relevant events in interaction via perceptual entities) and (ii) a predictive aspect (affordance cueing: predicting interaction via perceptual entities).
Their two references:
[1] J.J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
[2] U. Neisser, Cognition and Reality. Principles and Implications of Cognitive Psychology, San Francisco, Freeman & Co., 1976.
Anyway - this is geeky material, but I find this kind of thing very interesting. The more we can understand how various realms of experience work together in forming our experience of the world.

The full article is freely available here as a PDF.

Osiurak, F., Jarry, C. & Le Gall, D. (2010). Grasping the affordances, understanding the reasoning: toward a dialectical theory of human tool use. Psychological Review; 117(2):517-40.


One of the most exciting issues in psychology is what are the psychological mechanisms underlying human tool use? The computational approach assumes that the use of a tool (e.g., a hammer) requires the extraction of sensory information about object properties (heavy, rigid), which can then be translated into appropriate motor outputs (grasping, hammering). The ecological approach suggests that we do not perceive the properties of tools per se but what they afford (a heavy, rigid object affords pounding). This is the theory of affordances. In this article, we examine the potential of the computational view and the ecological view to account for human tool use. To anticipate our conclusions, neither of these approaches is likely to be satisfactory, notably because of their incapacity to resolve the issue of why humans spontaneously use tools. In response, we offer an original theoretical framework based on the idea that affordance perception and technical reasoning work together in a dialectical way. The thesis we defend here is that humans have the ability to view body action as a problem to be solved. And it is precisely at this point that technical reasoning occurs. But, even if the ability to do technical reasoning gives humans the illusion of constantly doing less (e.g., TV remote control), they are still forced to use body action – and to perceive affordances – to operate the product of the reasoning (pushing buttons with the fingers). This is the principle of dialectic.

One of the most exciting issues in psychology is what are the psychological mechanisms underlying human tool use? Surprisingly, this question has received very little attention from psychologists (Johnson-Frey, 2004; Le Gall, 1992). A certain number of attempts have nevertheless been made to model how humans perform tool behaviour (referred to hereafter as the HOW issue). These attempts fall into two categories. The first category assumes that tools have no inherent meaning, and thus the meaning must be created internally and stored by the user. The other category assumes that tools have inherent meanings, which is detected and exploited by the user without mental calculation. Most attempts fall into the former category (e.g., Buxbaum, 2001; Rothi, Ochipa, & Heilman, 1991; Roy & Square, 1985; Yoon, Heinke, & Humphreys, 2002). They all are computational models, based on the core assumption that the use of a tool (e.g., a hammer) requires the extraction of sensory information about object properties (heavy, rigid), which can then be translated directly or indirectly1 into appropriate motor outputs (grasping, hammering). J.J. Gibson’s ecological approach to perception falls into the latter category. For J. J. Gibson (1979), we do not perceive the properties of tools but what they afford (a heavy, rigid object affords pounding). This is the theory of affordances.

Besides the question as to how humans perform tool behaviour, another important question concerns the specificity of human tool use. It has been pointed out that human tool use differs from that known to occur in non-humans in different ways. Only humans possess a vast repertoire of tool use skills (Johnson-Frey, 2007), make one tool to create another (McGrew, 1992) or spontaneously engage in object-object manipulations (K. R. Gibson, 1991). In broad terms, humans seem to have the capacity of spontaneously and almost systematically use tools so as to modify their way of interacting with the world, a feature which characterizes humans of all cultures through the ages (Leroi-Gourhan, 1971, 1973). For instance, humans use horses, bicycles, cars, boats or aeroplanes to move. Likewise, they use spears, traps, guns, and bows to hunt, or rucksacks, baskets, jags, cans and heavy goods vehicle to transport things. In fact, the relationship existing between humans and the environment is constantly changing, a specificity which is much more visible at the species level through the technical evolution. Just think about what the place where you grew up looks like now (kitchen utensils, household equipment, TV sets, computers, street equipment, cars, houses, and so on), and you will have a pretty good snapshot of it. So, to be complete, any theory that is supposed to describe the mental mechanisms of human tool use must not only address the HOW issue, but should also be concerned with the question as to why do humans spontaneously use tools? (Referred to hereafter as the WHY issue)

The purpose of the paper is threefold. Firstly, we address two tricky epistemological issues concerning tool use. The first one is what a tool is? Most papers on the topic do not define precisely what they mean by “tool use”, probably because they view tool behaviour as something obvious. Through this work, we wish to emphasize that tool behaviour is anything but obvious, however. The second is what does it mean to consider two behaviours to be analogous? A growing body of literature has described observations of tool use in a wide range of species. It is worth emphasizing that some reports in a species arise from a single individual on one occasion or only from observations in captivity (Beck, 1980; see also Chappell & Kacelnik, 2002). This contrasts markedly with the use of tools by humans which is very spontaneous and frequent. So, the question arises as to which extent tool use by humans and non-humans can be considered analogous.

The second purpose is to examine the potential of the computational view and the ecological view to account for human tool use. To anticipate our conclusions, neither of these approaches is likely to be satisfactory because of their incapacity to resolve the WHY issue. Nevertheless, with regard to the HOW issue, the ecological approach provides a better account of the perception of the relationships between an organism and the environment, notably by stressing that perception is “designed” for action.

In response, we offer an original theoretical framework based on the idea that affordance perception and technical reasoning work together in a dialectical way and this is the third purpose of this paper. Briefly, the thesis we defend here is that humans have the ability to view body action as a problem to be solved. And it is precisely at this point that technical reasoning occurs. But, even if the ability to do technical reasoning gives humans the illusion of constantly doing less (e.g., TV remote control), they are still forced to use body action – and to perceive affordances – to operate the product of the reasoning (pushing buttons with the fingers). This is the principle of dialectic. The dialectical theory of human tool use we propose here is inspired by the theory of affordances (J. J. Gibson, 1979) as well as the work of Gagnepain (1990) on the dialectical functioning of the human mind.
Read the whole article (PDF).

An Evening with Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong speaks at UC Santa Barbara. The talk runs a little less than an hour.
UCtelevision June 17, 2010One of the world's leading commentators on religious affairs, Karen Armstrong discusses the intersection of religion and secularism in contemporary life. She explores the ideas that Islam, Judaism and Christianity have in common and their effect on world events. Series: Walter H. Capps Center Series [Humanities]

The Dalai Lama - Go for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

Teachings on the
Practice of Guru Yoga

by the Dalai Lama
translated by Thupten Jinpa


Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

If we seek refuge in a being like the Buddha who has actualized [the omniscient] state, he is able to show us the path through which he had his own experience. The buddhas in front of you have actualized what is called the truth of the path, the realizations, and have eliminated all the objects of negation and achieved cessation; such a state is possible and existent as an object of knowledge. You can see the possibility of such a state through the reasonings employed for proving yogic direct perception. Hence you will understand that the buddhas in front of you are existent now and are not mere historical figures, and that others have the capacity to realize such a state.

It is beyond question that we desire happiness and do not want suffering, so we have to actualize what is called the truth of the path in order to achieve that. Therefore, it is necessary to have a guide, a guru, who can show the right path. And we need a sangha community as companions on the path. Thus you can realize that the Three Jewels as objects of refuge are indispensable and also that they are undeceiving when refuge is sought in them.

With such reflections, go for refuge to the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, entrusting yourself from the depths of your heart.

--from The Union of Bliss and Emptiness: Teachings on the Practice of Guru Yoga by the Dalai Lama, translated by Thupten Jinpa, published by Snow Lion Publications

The Union of Bliss and Emptiness • 5O% off • for this week only
(Good through June 25th).

Friday, June 18, 2010

Marion von Osten: Editorial — “In Search of the Postcapitalist Self”

This is an intriguing editorial comment from one of the editors of e-flux, a quite cool arts and culture network - which seems to serve essentially other artists, galleries, and museums.

Here is the About statement:

Established in January 1999 in New York, e-flux is an international network which reaches more than 50,000 visual art professionals on a daily basis through its website, e-mail list and special projects. Its news digest – e-flux announcements – distributes information on some of the world's most important contemporary art exhibitions, publications and symposia.

The daily digest is put together in cooperation with nearly a thousand leading international museums, art centers, foundations, galleries, biennials and art journals. Our focused and selective approach to the information we choose to distribute has been rewarded by an exceptionally high degree of attention and responsiveness from our readers.

Anyway, the idea of a post-capitalist self is interesting and worth pondering.

Editorial—“In Search of the Postcapitalist Self”

A number of alternate, informal approaches to art and economy that arose in the Berlin of the 90s created a great deal of space and potential for rethinking relations between people, as well as possible roles for art in society. Today, however, much of this hope has since been obscured by the commercial activity and dysfunctional official art institutions most visible in the city’s art scene, and though many of the ways of living and working that were formulated in the 90s are still in practice today (not just in Berlin), many of their proponents acknowledge a feeling that the resistant, emancipatory capacities inherent to their project have since been foreclosed upon. Our interest in inviting Marion von Osten to guest-edit e-flux journal’s issue 17 had to do precisely with this widespread, prevailing sense of rapidly diminishing possibilities in the face of capitalist economy, and her extensive issue offers a broad and ambitious reformulation of how we might still rethink resistance and emancipation both within, and without capitalism—even at a time when alternate economies move ever nearer to everyday capitalist production, and vice-versa.

—Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle

The idea for this issue came about around a coffee table with Anton Vidokle. We were at a café in Berlin Mitte, a spot I wouldn’t usually choose for an appointment—a sign of unfriendly changes in the city. Upon entering I immediately became aloof, but after a minute felt ashamed for assuming such a snobbish and unfriendly Berlin attitude, and had to ask myself how I could seriously claim to be a real Berliner in the first place—after all, for the last fourteen years, I’ve commuted almost every week to teaching jobs and projects. And most of my friends and colleagues have to organize their lives around similar routines (and there is less free will in it than the category of the “mobile class” might suggest). 1 Anyhow, moving on from these ambiguous thoughts, our conversation gave rise to some interesting afternoon dérives: the recent histories of Berlin’s leftist art collectives, and their interest in self-organization, self-publishing, electronic music, new forms of collective production, gender, postcolonial, and urban theory, as well as resistance and action against the monstrous reconstruction of Berlin in the 1990s, and the history of the Berlin Biennale as a marketing strategy for the city.2 We also reflected on the widespread university protests in Europe and the resistance to the implementation of the EU border regime, and the need for cultural institutions to find alternate means of establishing the grounds for more lasting forms of cultural production, education, and research beyond the “Become Bologna” and “Be Creative” imperatives.3 How can we find the finances and collective energy to begin this work immediately, while still placed at the center of so many contradictions? Finally, my own interest in contemporary feminist economists’ engagement with new political imaginaries prompted the question of whether it would be possible to rethink contemporary and historical leftist cultural projects beyond the neoliberal horizon, and more specifically in relation to postcapitalist and postidentitarian politics.

This last shift in perspective gave rise to this guest-edited issue of e-flux journal, which can be understood as the beginning of a debate that asks whether the (cultural) Left is still capable of thinking and acting beyond the analysis of overwhelming power structures or working within the neoliberal consensus model. What would such thinking beyond the existing critical parameters disclose and demand? Wouldn’t it call for spaces of negotiation and confrontation rather than of affirmation, cynicism, and flight? With the encouragement of the journal editors, I have invited artists, cultural producers, and theorists whom I know to be reflecting on these concerns, but who mostly have not articulated their thoughts publicly or alongside similar concerns; and yet, as readers will find, the authors provide few easy answers to the above questions—and conflicts resulting from alternate views and practices cannot be easily ignored. Rather than follow the exhausted master narratives of capitalism and crisis, this issue of e-flux journal investigates how cultural producers are already in the process of creating and reflecting new discourses and practices in the current climate of zombie neoliberalism. And what is disclosed and what changes if cultural production can be imagined precisely from the vantage point of postcapitalist politics?

Decentering Economy

For over thirty years, feminist economists, cultural scientists, and artists have argued convincingly against totalizing and essentializing views of capitalist economies. Feminist economists warned that describing capitalism as a self-perpetuating structure—with its ongoing need for crisis, renovation, and so forth—ignores on the one hand the heterogeneity of multiple economies, including household activities and pre- or postcapitalist economies, already existing inside Western and non-Western contexts alike. On the other hand, the anti-capitalist tradition tends to underestimate the problems of social asymmetries and gender and ethnic segregation occurring in formal and informal contexts due to patriarchy, discourses of modernization, and capitalism itself. Mainstream economists and critics have offhandedly referred to these contradictions as mere “side-effects” of capitalism, and with this same argument the traditional anti-capitalist stance has been to disregard historically sexist and racist forms of suppression—and even of non-capitalist economies—in Western societies and the global South alike.

These popular positions seem to understand capitalism as a

dynamic, powerful, mobilizing, penetrating force, which is everywhere, driving societal and historical change. Capital is the structure of the world economy. It is the global logic. The capitalist economy is a “system” spanning the globe, integrating “first” and “third” worlds. . . . For, compared with capitalism, other modes of production are always less efficient, less dynamic, less productive. They are always found lacking.4

Thus, neither the limits, situatedness, and contextuality, nor the Eurocentrism of the very concept of capitalism—its politics and techniques—are usually examined as constructions. As a result, the existence of new, transnational solidarities and postidentitarian political subjectivities are underestimated as minor sideshows of the real thing, which necessarily remains capitalism as it is practiced by Western economies. The deconstruction of this ontological basis for economic discourse has been at the center of the work of feminist economists in the last decades.5

Moreover, feminism itself constituted a global movement that did not need to form global institutions or parties in order to be politically influential.6 The feminist understanding that “the personal is political” has fostered ways of living that have opened up a variety of politics of becoming and has given rise to an understanding of the common or communal that is not fixed by sameness or homogeneity, by a singular identity such as “we women”—demonstrated by how conflicts between black, socialist, queer, and mainstream feminisms have served to strengthen the movement as a whole. This suggests the possibility that, in diverse social and economic conditions, among people living in vastly different places, without even sharing the same set of beliefs but actively sharing the experience of patriarchy, the goal of destabilizing the patriarchal system remain very much central. Today these views are also informed and enlarged by several postcolonial projects of decentering, such as “Provincializing Europe,” as Dipesh Chakrabarty, historian and member of the famous subaltern studies group, proposes through the title of one of his books, or the acknowledgment of the constitutive power of new political publics created by subaltern actors, experts, economies, and knowledges, as found in the cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s article “Deep Democracy”.7

Change from Within

Though this issue of e-flux journal is in search for a postcapitalist perspective without supposing that we already have access to it, it aims to offer a foundation for insights that challenge the common conception that in late or “cognitive” capitalism, all activities at work and in one’s spare time are subordinate to capitalist accumulation and ultimately lead to commodification. This is an assumption that has disqualified every alternative move dedicated to social communication and political change as bound to become complicit with neoliberal powers or a stimulus for the next wave of capitalist accumulation. But the foundation of the anti-capitalist position remains of course capitalism itself—even though critics must concede that “good old capitalism” is no longer totally identical with itself, or that possibly even “the end of capitalism (as we knew it)” has come, as emphasized by the feminist authors collective J. K. Gibson-Graham.8 Moreover, the concepts of the “social factory” and of “biopolitical labor,” discussed by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, have significantly influenced contemporary discourses surrounding social, political, and economic issues. But according to the authors of Empire, and as opposed to many interpretations, biopolitical labor creates not only material and immaterial goods, but also social conditions—and thereby social life itself. In this way, the production of social conditions must necessarily include possible grounds for change. According to Negri and Hardt, the term “biopolitical” indicates that the traditional distinctions between the economic, the political, the social, and the cultural have become increasingly blurred.9 In their analysis, they highlight the emergence of multiple forms of critique and practice as well as that of a “multitude” of singularities with the potential to provoke transformations. Their ideas have proven highly relevant in the fields of art and culture as well, since their theses—and many similar ones have been advanced by other authors this past decade—have maintained that culture increasingly operates within the political arena.10 But what is it that cultural production is capable of producing? What kind of political imaginaries does it help to constitute? How can cultural production act in relation to the productions of its time and change them from within, as Walter Benjamin asked ninety years ago?11

As Italian economist Massimo de Angelis argues, capital accumulation

must attend to the needs of a variety of social actors and groups, and at the same time make sure that these needs, desires, and value practices, manifesting themselves in terms of struggles, do not break away from its ordering principles, but, on the contrary, become moments of its reproduction.12

This contestation has two possible ends: the first is, as De Angelis clarifies, that social cooperation—which, as social beings, we cannot avoid—including the creation of sociality at work and in the home and in all forms of cultural or activist knowledge-production, becomes an alien force under the laws of market competition; the other is—as he argues in his conversation with the editorial collective of An Architektur in this issue—that the very fact that we are social beings, that we possess an ability to produce commonness, and not only common goods, needs to be understood as a contradiction within capitalism’s own relations of production, especially as this relates to its need for enclosure and scarcity.13 The central question then would concern not only how we might change the conditions of production and redistribution in their existing forms (with more state intervention or less), but how it is possible to reclaim the relations of production themselves—to change them from within, to redirect and to occupy the “social factory.” A problem that is usually brought up at this point is that the social factory, as the dominant contemporary form of the relations of production, does not appear to have a clear spatial or social boundary, and therefore seems unable to provide the same conditions for a common political movement. This is usually understood as a loss.

Read the rest of the article.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche - Three Words That Strike the Vital Point


by Dilgo Khyentse
edited by
Matthieu Ricard and Vivian Kurz


Now at 15% off.

Dharma Quote of the Week

[Understanding through the merging of sound and meaning takes place when one immediately understands the meaning of a teaching through hearing the sound of the words.]

One might ask what these words are in the key instructions on the Three Words That Strike the Vital Point. The sound and the word are the same. For example, the word "mother" can be understood as indicating someone who is very kind. If one says "mother," the meaning of what that word expresses is pointed out. What is known as "the three words" is like that.

What are the three words? "View," "meditation," and "action." What does it mean to "strike the vital point" with these three words? If one wants to kill a man and strikes his heart with a weapon, the man will not live another hour. He will die immediately. What vital point do these three words strike? Just as oil is present in a mustard seed, all of us, all sentient beings, have buddha nature. Though it is present, we do not recognize it, because our minds are obscured by delusions. When, as a result of the view, meditation, and action, we come to recognize these delusions, we can get rid of them in a moment. In one day sentient beings can be transformed into buddhas--that is the ultimate view, meditation, and action of dzogchen. Such a power of transformation is called "striking the vital point."

--from The Collected Works of Dilgo Khyentse by Dilgo Khyentse, edited by Matthieu Ricard and Vivian Kurz, excerpt from Volume 3: Primordial Purity

The Collected Works of Dilgo Khyentse • Now at 15% off
(Good until September 1st).

Learn more about author and artist
Matthieu Ricard.

Susan Piver - Love, Spirituality and Four Noble Truths

Great new post from Susan Piver - author of the recent The Wisdom of a Broken Heart: An Uncommon Guide to Healing, Insight, and Love among other books - over at Huffington Post.

Relationships are one of those tough areas where we often know that we are struggling to get it right, yet still seem in the fog about how to do so. Susan identifies our desire for lasting love, for the relationship to be permanent as one of our major blocks, rather than simply allowing the relationship to be what it is - bound by the same laws of impermanence as are all things, nothing is permanent.

Love, Spirituality and Four Noble Truths

By Susan Piver

Posted: June 18, 2010 08:00 AM

I have been a student of Buddhism since 1995, and the study and practice of dharma inform my actions, friendships and creative focus. When you become a Buddhist, part of the commitment is to take off the training wheels and do your best to put the dharma into play in all situations. It's no longer theoretical. It is your life. It's a fun, scary, and noble challenge.

When the Buddha became enlightened, the first thing he handed out was the four noble truths and upon becoming a Buddhist, they are your benchmarks.

  1. Life is suffering. (Doesn't mean "life sucks," by the way. More like, "life changes.")
  2. Suffering is caused by attachment. (Wanting things to be other than they are.)
  3. It is possible to stop suffering. (Phew.)
  4. There is an eight-fold path to liberate yourself from suffering, which includes such things as Right Speech, Right Action and so on.

There have been countless words written on each of these four and you could definitely spend a lifetime in contemplation of just one of them. To apply them to everyday life means to accept that things won't ever quite work out (at least not in any conventional sense) -- that when you hold on to anything too tightly (even the idea of not holding on to anything too tightly), it backfires; you can definitely figure all this out, and, finally, that there is a step-by-step explanation for how to do so, via practices, insights, devotion and so on.

Okay, all very well and good. It's not like I can do any of this, but I am fairly diligent about trying to in every area of my life. Well, every area but one. Work -- check. Money -- check. Family -- check. Society -- check. Romantic relationships -- check NOT.

When it comes to love and partnership, I definitely try to wiggle out of the four noble truths.
Read the whole post to find out how she tries to work through her ideas about relationships.

Babies Grasp Number, Space and Time Concepts

On Wednesday I posted Alison Gopnik's article on why she thinks babies are more conscious than we are - here is more evidence for her perspective.

From Science Daily:

Babies Grasp Number, Space and Time Concepts

ScienceDaily (June 15, 2010) — Even before they learn to speak, babies are organizing information about numbers, space and time in more complex ways than previously realized, a study led by Emory University psychologist Stella Lourenco finds.

"We've shown that 9-month-olds are sensitive to 'more than' or 'less than' relations across the number, size and duration of objects. And what's really remarkable is they only need experience with one of these quantitative concepts in order to guess what the other quantities should look like," Lourenco says.

Lourenco collaborated with neuroscientist Matthew Longo of University College London for the study, to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.

In his 1890 masterwork, "The Principles of Psychology," William James described the baby's impression of the world as "one great blooming, buzzing confusion."

Accumulating evidence is turning that long-held theory on its head.

"Our findings indicate that humans use information about quantity to organize their experience of the world from the first few months of life," Lourenco says. "Quantity appears to be a powerful tool for making predictions about how objects should behave."

Lourenco focuses on the development of spatial perception, and how it interfaces with other cognitive dimensions, such as numerical processing and the perception of time. Previous research suggests that these different cognitive domains are deeply connected at a neural level. Tests show, for instance, that adults associate smaller numbers with the left side of space and larger numbers with the right.

"It's like we have a ruler in our heads," Lourenco says of the phenomenon.

Other tests show that when adults are asked to quickly select the higher of two numbers, the task becomes much harder if the higher number is represented as physically smaller than the lower number.

Lourenco wanted to explore whether our brains just pick up on statistical regularities through repeated experience and language associations, or whether a generalized system of magnitude is present early in life.

Her lab designed a study that showed groups of objects on a computer screen to 9-month-old infants. "Babies like to stare when they see something new," Lourenco explains, "and we can measure the length of time that they look at these things to understand how they process information."

When the infants were shown images of larger objects that were black with stripes and smaller objects that were white with dots, they then expected the same color-pattern mapping for more-and-less comparisons of number and duration. For instance, if the more numerous objects were white with dots, the babies would stare at the image longer than if the objects were black with stripes.

"When the babies look longer, that suggests that they are surprised by the violation of congruency," Lourenco says. "They appear to expect these different dimensions to correlate in the world."

The findings suggest that humans may be born with a generalized system of magnitude. "If we are not born with this system, it appears that it develops very quickly," Lourenco says. "Either way, I think it's amazing how we use quantity information to make sense of the world."

Lourenco recently received a grant of $300,000 from the John Merck Fund, for young investors doing cognitive or biological science with implications for developmental disabilities. She plans to use it to further study how this system for processing quantitative information develops, both normally and in an atypical situation such as the learning disorder known as dyscalculia -- the mathematical counterpart to dyslexia.

"Dyslexia has gotten a great deal of attention during the past couple of decades," Lourenco says. "But as our world keeps getting more technical, and students in the United States lag other countries in math, more attention is being paid to the need to reason about numbers, space and time. I'd like to explore the underlying causes of dyscalculia and maybe get a handle on how to intervene with children who have difficulty engaging in quantitative reasoning."

Journal Reference:

Stella F. Lourenco, Matthew R. Longo. General Magnitude Representation in Human Infants. Psychological Science, 2010; DOI: 10.1177/0956797610370158

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Blogisattva Awards Are Back - Nominations Are Open!

Gladly, the Blogisattva Awards are back. Tom Armstrong began this tradition a few years back, and after a hiatus (see here), the tradition is returning with

Nominations Are Open!

Feel free to use the Submit Nomination tab to nominate your favorite bloggers /blogs. The nominations are open for the time frame of Dec 1, 2009 to this Nov 1, 2010; so there is still plenty of blogging to do before the finalists are announced. We have already had quite a few entries!

We will finish up all the details soon and they will be made available up on the guidelines tab.

We still need a couple of folks to finish filling out the rest of the panel, so if you are interested please contact us at this email address. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions please feel free to make them here in the comment section or send us an email. (edit: The panel has been filled, thanks for everyone's interest!)

One last item, if you would like to have a logo for people to click on your blog so they can nominate you, or another blogger, you can use the following graphic and point it to

Thanks and good luck!
Here is the list of categories:
Blog of the year, Svaha!

Best Post of the Year

Best Achievement in Skilled Writing

Best Achievement Blogging on Buddhist Practice or Dharma

Best Buddhist Practice Blog

Best "Life" Blog

Best Blogging on Matters Philosophical, Psychological or Scientific

Best Achievement in Kind and Compassionate Blogging

Best Achievement Blogging Opinion Pieces or about Political Issues

Best Engage-the-World Blog

Best Achievement in Design

Best Achievement in Wide Range of Topic Interests Blogging

Best Achievement with Humor in a Blog Post
You can follow them on twitter @Blogisattva to keep up to date on the awards. More to come soon!

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. - Mindfulness Meditation and Children: An Interview With Susan Kaiser Greenland

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. offers a nice interview (at Huffington Post) with Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of the forthcoming The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate, and owner of the website, on mindfulness meditation and children.

If more parents could teach their kids these kinds of techniques, we would have less violence and more compassion in the world. Unfortunately, these practices are only likely to be picked up by already liberal families who middle class or higher.

Where we really need this kind of education is the inner cities, in poor rural areas, and anywhere else that compassion is in short supply.

Mindfulness Meditation and Children: An Interview With Susan Kaiser Greenland

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Today I have the honor of interviewing Susan Kaiser Greenland, who had the courage to leave a well-paying law career to embrace a calling to teach mindfulness meditation to children as young as four years old. She is author of the upcoming book The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate, developed the website and the Inner Kids program, designed to teach young kids vital skills toward a more peaceful and compassionate world.

Elisha: Susan, what an amazing path you've chosen. When I teach mindfulness to adults, I often hear, how come we didn't get this education when we were little, the world would be a much better place. What inspired you to leave the golden handcuffs and venture into this sorely needed area?

Susan: Thanks, Elisha. I'm not so sure I choose the path; often it feels more as if it chose me. I practiced meditation myself and saw how it helped me, so it was only natural to wonder if it could help my children too. But the inspiration to begin looking in earnest for ways to practice with my children (who were quite young at the time) came when I was on a week-long meditation retreat with Ken McLeod. I had studied with Ken for a few years before this retreat and was friends with many of his students.

Looking around the meditation hall one evening, I noticed that many of us were parents and was struck by the fact that none of us were talking about bringing mindfulness to our kids. Something happened during that retreat and I felt a shift - a desire to integrate mindfulness into my family life in a more direct way. It's not uncommon for me to leave a retreat thinking that I've had some major insight -- so after having one of these a-ha moments after meditation I wait a week or so before acting on it. If after a week I still feel that way I try to do something about it. A week after I got home from Ken's retreat that year -- now over a decade ago -- I knew this practicing mindfulness with kids was something I wanted to do (or maybe needed to do. Although I had no idea that it would eventually lead me away from my law practice -- which I also enjoyed.

Elisha: Can you give us a brief synopsis of some of the vital skills you teach these children?

Susan: The Inner Kids program has evolved over the years and now my primary objective is to teach kids a more mindful worldview. In classical training, that worldview comes through the development of three qualities simultaneously: awareness, wisdom, and values. My work is secular, yet informed by classical models, and those three qualities (awareness, wisdom and values) can be translated beautifully as attention, balance and compassion, what I like to think of as the New ABCs of learning. By learning these new ABCs, kids, teens, and their families can develop a more mindful worldview by:

  • Approaching new experiences with curiosity and an open mind;
  • Developing strong and stable attention;
  • Seeing life experience clearly without an emotional charge;
  • Developing compassionate action and relationships;
  • Building communities with kindness and compassion;
  • Working together to make a difference in the world;
  • Expression gratitude; and
  • Planting seeds of peace by nurturing common ground.

Elisha: While the instructions in mindfulness practice can be simple, the practice itself can be anything but easy at times. What happens when children throw tantrums or when they are bullied? How do you approach this practice during the difficult moments?

Susan: It's crucial that adults working with kids understand that this is a process-oriented practice (as opposed to a goal oriented practice) and the aim of the process is transformation. It is not at all uncommon for kids to have a hard time when they begin to look at their inner and outer experiences clearly without an emotional charge (or with less of one). Sometimes it's tough for kids, teens, and even adults to process what they see through introspection and it may be impossible for them to contextualize or understand their insights on their own. It's important to have patience with kids and simply see them clearly, and love them, for who they are -- even when they are not on their best behavior -- and trust that navigating this less than perfect behavior is a necessary part of the transformation that mindfulness and meditation can bring about.

Elisha: Can you share a practice that parents, caregivers, or teachers may be able to take into their lives with their kids?

Susan: I think helping kids find a physically comfortable posture from which to practice meditation is very important. Encouraging kids to lie down while practicing breath awareness is quite useful but also is an activity that I use called the Pendulum Swing (or tic-toc with younger children.) The aim of this activity is to help those who find it hard to be still (either sitting or lying down) to meditate in a group. Here's how it goes . . .

Go read the rest of the article to see a cool exercise you can do with (your) kids to teach them mindfulness meditation.

~ Adapted from a publication on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy at Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is Co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, and the Mindful Solutions CD Series dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, ADHD and Success at Work. Visit his blog, Mindfulness and Psychotherapy at You may also find him at

Adbusters - Narcissism Is the Fast Food of the Soul - Advertising and Neuromarketing

Compelling article from Adbusters - the Compass (a UK think tank) argument is that we need to stop ALL marketing / advertising aimed at children younger than twelve. Young minds, the argument goes, are incapable of comprehending the tactics used to sell them toys, breakfast cereals, and other assorted crap that contributes to a variety of family and social issues (family breakdown, teenage alienation and premature sexualization).

I have no doubt that children are made more narcissistic through these advertising methods - (neuromarketing is WAY ahead of the average person's ability to comprehend what is being done to their brains) - but I suspect this is also true for adults.

Neuromarketing is a new field of marketing that studies consumers' sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective response to marketing stimuli. Researchers use technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure changes in activity in parts of the brain, electroencephalography (EEG) to measure activity in specific regional spectra of the brain response, and/or sensors to measure changes in one's physiological state (heart rate, respiratory rate, galvanic skin response) to learn why consumers make the decisions they do, and what part of the brain is telling them to do it.

Marketing analysts will use neuromarketing to better measure a consumer's preference, as the verbal response given to the question, "Do you like this product?" may not always be the true answer due to cognitive bias. This knowledge will help marketers create products and services designed more effectively and marketing campaigns focused more on the brain's response. This makes neuromarketing and its applied results potentially subliminal.

Neuromarketing will tell the marketer what the consumer reacts to, whether it was the color of the packaging, the sound the box makes when shaken, or the idea that they will have something their co-consumers do not.

The word "neuromarketing" was coined by Ale Smidts in 2002.[1]

The Neuromarketing blog is a good resource for understanding these methods and how effective they can be in shaping our desires.

Narcissism Is the Fast Food of the Soul

Adbusters | 15 Jun 2010

Photo by Roderik Henderson, Transvoid: The Mental Desert

Photo by Roderik Henderson, Transvoid: The Mental Desert

Society has been discussing the negative effects of advertising for decades. But now, suddenly a real backlash is occurring with concrete changes emerging in countries around the world.

Sao Paulo enacted a near-complete ban on outdoor advertising in 2007 and Spain recently passed a new law restricting advertisements that promote the “cult of the body,” including slimming products, surgical procedures and beauty treatments. Restrictions on cigarette and alcohol advertising have marked significant victories in many countries, as have limits on advertising on children’s TV shows.

Now a report by the UK think tank Compass entitled “The Advertising Effect” is a bold call to further action.

Compass urges radical new policies to restrict and control advertising, an industry whose goal they say is, “the creation of a mood of restless dissatisfaction with what we have got and who we are so that we go out and buy more.”

The Compass plan of attack includes new taxes on advertisers and a complete ban on advertising in public places, all alcohol advertising and viral marketing. But it is their insistence that we outlaw advertising to children under 12 years old that is truly revolutionary.

Warning of the role advertising plays in family breakdown, teenage alienation and premature sexualization, Compass insists, “Children should be protected until their minds are able to cope with complex selling techniques – they should be free to be children not just consumers.”

It will be the next generations who will ultimately decide whether to proceed with our hyperconsumptive way of life or embrace a more sustainable standard of living. We must take all necessary steps to prevent their indoctrination and counter the effects of advertising.

The strength and scope of the trillion dollar a year advertising industry is frightening, but as awareness grows and tangible changes are seen, there is hope that its pervasive influence on our lives can be scaled back in the future.

– Staff

For more on neuromarketing, check out this PBS Frontline episode on The Persuaders. Here is the introduction.
neuromarketing: is it coming to a lab near you? by Mary  Carmichael

For an ad campaign that started a revolution in marketing, the Pepsi Challenge TV spots of the 1970s and '80s were almost absurdly simple. Little more than a series of blind taste tests, these ads showed people being asked to choose between Pepsi and Coke without knowing which one they were consuming. Not surprisingly, given the sponsor, Pepsi was usually the winner.

But 30 years after the commercials debuted, neuroscientist Read Montague was still thinking about them. Something didn't make sense. If people preferred the taste of Pepsi, the drink should have dominated the market. It didn't. So in the summer of 2003, Montague gave himself a 'Pepsi Challenge' of a different sort: to figure out why people would buy a product they didn't particularly like.

What he found was the first data from an entirely new field: neuromarketing, the study of the brain's responses to ads, brands, and the rest of the messages littering the cultural landscape. Montague had his subjects take the Pepsi Challenge while he watched their neural activity with a functional MRI machine, which tracks blood flow to different regions of the brain. Without knowing what they were drinking, about half of them said they preferred Pepsi. But once Montague told them which samples were Coke, three-fourths said that drink tasted better, and their brain activity changed too. Coke "lit up" the medial prefrontal cortex -- a part of the brain that controls higher thinking. Montague's hunch was that the brain was recalling images and ideas from commercials, and the brand was overriding the actual quality of the product. For years, in the face of failed brands and laughably bad ad campaigns, marketers had argued that they could influence consumers' choices. Now, there appeared to be solid neurological proof. Montague published his findings in the October 2004 issue of Neuron, and a cottage industry was born.

Neuromarketing, in one form or another, is now one of the hottest new tools of its trade. At the most basic levels, companies are starting to sift through the piles of psychological literature that have been steadily growing since the 1990s' boom in brain-imaging technology. Surprisingly few businesses have kept tabs on the studies - until now. "Most marketers don't take a single class in psychology. A lot of the current communications projects we see are based on research from the '70s," says Justine Meaux, a scientist at Atlanta's BrightHouse Neurostrategies Group, one of the first and largest neurosciences consulting firms. "Especially in these early years, it's about teaching people the basics. What we end up doing is educating people about some false assumptions about how the brain works."

Getting an update on research is one thing; for decades, marketers have relied on behavioral studies for guidance. But some companies are taking the practice several steps further, commissioning their own fMRI studies à la Montague's test. In a study of men's reactions to cars, Daimler-Chrysler has found that sportier models activate the brain's reward centers -- the same areas that light up in response to alcohol and drugs -- as well as activating the area in the brain that recognizes faces, which may explain people's tendency to anthropomorphize their cars. Steven Quartz, a scientist at Stanford University, is currently conducting similar research on movie trailers. And in the age of poll-taking and smear campaigns, political advertising is also getting in on the game. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles have found that Republicans and Democrats react differently to campaign ads showing images of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks. Those ads cause the part of the brain associated with fear to light up more vividly in Democrats than in Republicans.

That last piece of research is particularly worrisome to anti-marketing activists, some of whom are already mobilizing against the nascent field of neuromarketing. Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert, a non-profit that argues for strict regulations on advertising, says that "a year ago almost nobody had heard of neuromarketing except for Forbes readers." Now, he says, it's everywhere, and over the past year he has waged a campaign against the practice, lobbying Congress and the American Psychological Association (APA) and threatening lawsuits against BrightHouse and other practitioners. Even though he admits the research is still "in the very preliminary stages," he says it could eventually lead to complete corporate manipulation of consumers -- or citizens, with governments using brain scans to create more effective propaganda.

Ruskin might be consoled by the fact that many neuromarketers still don't know how to apply their findings. Increased activity in the brain doesn't necessarily mean increased preference for a product. And, says Meaux, no amount of neuromarketing research can transform otherwise rational people into consumption-driven zombies. "Of course we're all influenced by the messages around us," she says. "That doesn't take away free choice." As for Ruskin, she says tersely, "there is no grounds for what he is accusing." So far, the regulatory boards agree with her: the government has decided not to investigate BrightHouse and the APA's most recent ethics statement said nothing about neuromarketing. Says Ruskin: "It was a total defeat for us."

With Commercial Alert's campaign thwarted for now, BrightHouse is moving forward. In January, the company plans to start publishing a neuroscience newsletter aimed at businesses. And although it "doesn't conduct fMRI studies except in the rarest of cases," it is getting ready to publish the results of a particularly tantalizing set of tests. While neuroscientist Montague's 'Pepsi Challenge' suggests that branding appears to make a difference in consumer preference, BrightHouse's research promises to show exactly how much emotional impact that branding can have. Marketers have long known that some brands have a seemingly magic appeal; they can elicit strong devotion, with buyers saying they identify with the brand as an extension of their personalities. The BrightHouse research is expected to show exactly which products those are. "This is really just the first step," says Meaux, who points out that no one has discovered a "buy button" in the brain. But with more and more companies peering into the minds of their consumers, could that be far off?

Watch the episode online.