Saturday, October 09, 2010

Dr. Rick Hanson - Confronting the Negativity Bias

This is the follow-up to his recent response to Stephen Colbert's "March to Keep Fear Alive" rally - we do not need more fear, we need rational understandings of our fear.

Confronting the Negativity Bias

Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Posted: October 8, 2010

My previous post used the example of Stephen Colbert's satirical "March to Keep Fear Alive" as a timely illustration of a larger point: humans evolved to be fearful -- since that helped keep our ancestors alive -- so we are very vulnerable to being frightened and even intimidated by threats, both real ones and "paper tigers." With this march, Colbert is obviously mocking those who play on fear, since we certainly don't need any new reminders to keep fear alive.

Some Background
This vulnerability to feeling threatened has effects at many levels, ranging from individuals, couples, and families, to schoolyards, organizations and nations. Whether it's an individual who worries about the consequences of speaking up at work or in a close relationship, a family cowed by a scary parent, a business fixated on threats instead of opportunities, or a country that's routinely told it's under "Threat Level Orange," it's the same human brain that reacts in all cases.

Therefore, understanding how your brain became so vigilant and wary, and so easily hijacked by alarm, is the first step toward gaining more control over that ancient circuitry. Then, by bringing mindful awareness to how your brain reacts to feeling threatened, you can stimulate and therefore build up the neural substrates of a mind that has more calm, wisdom and sense of inner strength. A mind that sees real threats more clearly, acts more effectively in dealing with them, and is less rattled or distracted by exaggerated, manageable, or false alarms.

Let's start with the brain's negativity bias. In this post, I'll focus on why it evolved and how it has been built up in your brain. The next post will explore its consequences. The post after that will zero in on one key consequence: threat reactivity, which has many bad effects, including "paper tiger paranoia." And then following posts will emphasize solutions to these problems, from activating the soothing and recharging parasympathetic nervous system to mobilizing more of your inner resources to address the real challenges our planet faces.

An Evolving Negativity Bias
The nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years, from ancient jellyfish to modern humans. Our ancestors had to make a critical decision many times a day: approach a reward or avoid a hazard -- pursue a carrot or duck a stick.

Both are important. Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you've got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band's children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you've got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you: these are significant sticks.

But here's the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you'll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today - WHAP! - no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

Body and Brain Going Negative
Consequently, your body generally reacts more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones. For example, intense pain can be produced all over the body, but intense pleasure comes only (for most people) from stimulating a few specific regions.

In your brain, there are separate (though interacting) systems for negative and positive stimuli. At a larger scale, the left hemisphere is somewhat specialized for positive experiences while the right hemisphere is more focused on negative ones (this makes sense since the right hemisphere is specialized for gestalt, visual-spatial processing, so it's advantaged for tracking threats coming from the surrounding environment).

Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense (e.g., loud, bright) positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly. For example, people in studies can identify angry faces faster than happy ones; even if they are shown these images so quickly (just a tenth of a second or so) that they cannot have any conscious recognition of them, the ancient fight-or-flight limbic system of the brain will still get activated by the angry faces.

The alarm bell of your brain -- the amygdala (you've got two of these little almond-shaped regions, one on either side of your head) -- uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it's primed to go negative. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory -- in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.

In effect, as I wrote in my last post, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. That's why researchers have found that animals, including humans, generally learn faster from pain (alas) than pleasure. (For more on the neuropsychology of the negativity bias, and references, see the slide sets at my website.)

That learning from your childhood and adulthood - both what you experienced yourself and saw others experiencing around you - is locked and loaded in your head today, ready for immediate activation, whether by a frown across a dinner table or by TV images of a car-bombing 10,000 miles away.

What to Do?
To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.

So for starters, be mindful of the degree to which your brain is wired to make you afraid, wired so that you walk around with an ongoing trickle of anxiety (a flood for some) to keep you on alert. And wired to zero in on any apparent bad news in a larger stream of information (e.g., fixing on a casual aside from a family member or co-worker), to tune out or de-emphasize reassuring good news, and to keep thinking about the one thing that was negative in a day in which a hundred small things happened, ninety-nine of which were neutral or positive. (And, to be sure, also be mindful of any tendency you might have toward rose-colored glasses or putting that ostrich head in the sand.)

Additionally, be mindful of the forces around you that beat the drum of alarm -- whether it's a family member who threatens emotional punishment, or in the well-known example, a National Security Advisor (Condoleezza Rice) who warned in 2002 that the smoking gun of evidence for WMDs in Iraq could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. Consider for yourself whether their alarms are valid -- or whether they are exaggerated or empty, while downplaying or missing the larger context of opportunities and resources. Ask yourself what these forces could be getting out of beating that scary drum.

This mindfulness of both the inner workings of your brain and the outer mechanisms of fear-promotion can by itself make you less prone to needless fear.

Then you won't be so vulnerable to intimidation by apparent "tigers" that are in fact manageable, blown out of proportion, or made of paper-mache.

Mary Midgley: The Solitary Self

This comes from and the RSA - an excellent and entertaining talk by English philosopher Mary Midgley on her recent book The Solitary Self. Here si the book description from Amazon:
Renowned philosopher Mary Midgley explores the nature of our moral constitution to challenge the view that reduces human motivation to self-interest. Midgley argues cogently and convincingly that simple, one-sided accounts of human motives, such as the 'selfish gene' tendency in recent neo-Darwinian thought, may be illuminating but are always unrealistic. Such neatness, she shows, cannot be imposed on human psychology. She returns to Darwin's original writings to show how the reductive individualism which is now presented as Darwinism does not derive from Darwin but from a wider, Hobbesian tradition in Enlightenment thinking. She reveals the selfish gene hypothesis as a cultural accretion that is just not seen in nature. Heroic independence is not a realistic aim for Homo sapiens. We are, as Darwin saw, earthly organisms, framed to interact constantly with one another and with the complex ecosystems of which we are a tiny part. For us, bonds are not just restraints but also lifelines.
She is on the right path in my opinion - we have been so infatuated with individualism and self-interest that we have created isolation and existential loneliness rather that individuation (in the Jungian sense). We need community, we need interpersonal connection - AND we need healthy healthy individual identity - both/and, not either/or.
Britain's leading moral philosopher, Mary Midgley, visits the RSA to challenge the idea that we are self-directed individuals at the mercy of our "selfish genes."

Midgley is one of the most renowned moral philosophers of her generation and the author of many books, including Beast and Man, Wickedness and The Myths We Live By. Her memoir, The Owl of Minerva was published in 2005.

Research - Choices Shape Preferences

Further confirmation that we rationalize our unconscious choices into preferences - and yet I still I believe in free will - go figure. In my defense, this is more about blind choice, while in other situations preferences do inform our choices, as the authors recognize.

This comes from the Association for Psychological Science.

Choices Shape Preferences

October 4, 2010

This is a photo of making choices between travel destinations. After you make a choice, you adjust your opinion to think better of the option you chose. Now a study published in Psychological Science has found that this is true even if you don’t know the options that you’re choosing between.

It has been proven that after you make a choice, you adjust your opinion to think better of the option you chose. Now a study published in Psychological Science has found that this is true even if you don’t know the options that you’re choosing between.

Think about choosing Rome or Paris for a vacation. When first starting to decide, you may rate them about the same. But after choosing one as your destination, you’re likely to say that you prefer that city. This is thought to be a way to reduce the psychological tension created by rejecting one perfectly reasonable alternative and picking another one. Recently, critics have pointed out a flaw in this experimental design: you might actually have already liked Paris more than Rome, but for some reason this preference didn’t show up when you were asked to rate them.

Tali Sharot and coauthors set out to improve on the experimental design. One group of volunteers was asked to rate a list of vacation destinations, and then choose between pairs of places. The participants were then told they were taking part in a subliminal decision making test where they had to choose between the names of two vacation destinations that were flashed on a screen, side by side for two milliseconds. However, what actually flashed on the screen was nonsense strings (such as “%^!x *&()%), meaning the participants were making a completely blind choice. After the test was finished, they were told which place they’d “chosen” and were asked to rate the destinations again. Then as an additional control, a second group of volunteers rated vacation destinations that were chosen for them by a computer. Both groups had their vacation choices made for them, but only the second group knew that it was a computer generated choice.

The results show that preferences were altered after participants made a blind choice, but not after a computer dictated the decision. It turns out that just as preferences form choices, choices shape preferences.

“It’s a relief to know that psychologists are right about this basic principle,” says Tali Sharot. But “the effect is much smaller than what we usually see when we do non-blind choice.” This means that the critics were right to point out the flaw in the usual experimental design; people do have a preexisting preference, even if it’s not strong enough to show up in ratings.
Sharot, T., Velasquez, C.M., & Dolan, R.J. (2010). Do decisions shape preference?: Evidence from blind choice. Psychological science, 21. doi: 10.1177/0956797610379235

APA Releases New Guidelines On The Treatment Of Major Depressive Disorder

Interesting . . . . The APA had released new guidelines for treating major depression -
They are endorsing electroconvulsive therapy for depression. I'm not a fan of ECT (except in the most extreme cases where suicide is likely and ALL other interventions have failed), but the vagus nerve stimulation and the transcranial magnetic stimulation have both shown good outcomes with low side effects when compared to ECT - but they still do not fully endorse these less invasive approaches.
Other somatic treatments
Evidence for the efficacy of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in treating major depressive episodes, already compelling at the time the guideline was published, has been strengthened by additional findings. Recent meta-analyses have highlighted the superior efficacy of ECT relative to sham treatment and also relative to pharmacotherapies for depression (57, 58). In depressed patients who received an acute course of ECT, data from the Consortium for Research in ECT have shown that thrice-weekly bilateral ECT is associated with rapid initial response and high rates of sustained response and remission (59). In comparison with bilateral ECT, right unilateral ECT has been associated with fewer cognitive effects (60, 61), particularly in autobiographical memory (62). However, as with bilateral ECT, cognitive effects vary with the extent to which the electrical stimulus exceeds the seizure threshold (60). In addition, the overall efficacy of unilateral ECT appears to be less than that with bilateral ECT (57). Several additional studies highlight the diminished efficacy of barely suprathreshold electrical stimulation with right unilateral electrode placement (60, 61, 63) and a corresponding need to administer right unilateral ECT at stimulus intensities that are at least six times the initial seizure threshold (64). Additional details on the clinical use of ECT in the treatment of major depression can be found in the 2001 revision of the APA’s The Practice of Electroconvulsive Therapy: Recommendations for Treatment, Training, and Privileging (64).

Although other somatic treatments, including repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, magnetic seizure therapy, and vagal nerve stimulation, have also been studied over the past 5 years, evidence is not yet sufficient to recommend their use in routine clinical practice.
One of the other more troubling recommendations is that St. John's Wort is likely ineffective - with which I disagree.
St. John’s wort
Since publication of the guideline, results from additional meta-analyses and well-designed trials of St. John’s wort have become available. Although some additional randomized, controlled trials have shown St. John’s wort to be superior to placebo (40–42) or to comparator antidepressants (43, 44) in treating mild to moderate depression, other large trials have shown it to be no better than placebo (45–47) or comparator antidepressants in efficacy (42, 46–50). Several factors continue to confound interpretation of the literature, including trial length, adequacy of comparison treatment, and the reliability, stability, and comparability of Hypericum preparations. The most recent meta-analysis noted a trend for decreasing effect sizes in trials of St. John’s wort over time, suggesting that it may be less effective in treating depression than previously thought (51). Although St. John’s wort is generally well tolerated in clinical trials, increasing attention has been given to its tendency to compromise the effectiveness of other medications (e.g., cyclosporine, HIV protease inhibitors, oral contraceptives, digoxin, warfarin, and theophylline) by interactions mediated through cytochrome P450 enzymes (e.g., CYP3A4, CYP2C9, CYP1A2, CYP2C19) and transport protein P-glycoproteins (52–56).
I think the real issue here, which they sort of acknowledge, is the lack of a standardized formulation. Some drug company could make a lot of money if they would actually focus on this herb and standardize a production and dosage protocol.

On the other hand, they are now more strongly endorsing the inclusion of lifestyle factors such as exercise as both treatment and prevention, especially in older adults. They also acknowledge that it can be effective as a preventative in the general population. In addition, they acknowledge omega-3 fats as a valuable adjunct in some patients.

Finally, while they acknowledge that therapy (and they only mention CBT) is possibly beneficial, they still seem somewhat dismissive of psychotherapy. That is silly, at best.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Philosophy TV - Richard Brown and Pete Mandik on higher-order theories of consciousness

Excellent - serious topic and good discussion. Follow the link in the video to watch it - the site does not allow embedding.

Richard Brown and Pete Mandik

Richard Brown and Pete Mandik from Philosophy TV on Vimeo.

The higher-order approach aims to explain consciousness in terms of some relation between a conscious state and a representation of that state. Fans of this approach hope that it can pave the way to an account of consciousness that is both informative and amenable to naturalism. Yet higher-order theories face a wide range of interesting problems. In this conversation, Brown and Mandik discuss some of these problems and look for solutions to them.

Related works

by Brown:
The Higher-Order Approach to Consciousness: The Hot Ticket or In Hot Water?” (draft)
Deprioritizing the A Priori Arguments Against Physicalism” (2010)
What Is A Brain State?” (2006)
Blog: Philosophy Sucks!

by Mandik:
Key Terms in Philosophy of Mind (2010)
Beware of the Unicorn: Consciousness as Being Represented and Other Things that Don’t Exist” (2009)
with Josh Weisberg: “Type-Q Materialism” (2008)
The Neurophilosophy of Consciousness” (2006)
Blog: Brain Hammer

See also:
Austen Clark, “Phenomenal consciousness so-called” (2001)

More video:
Richard Brown’s virtual presentations
Pete Mandik on color-consciousness conceptualism
The Online Consciousness Conference

Production note: Attentive viewers will notice a mishap at 1:11:02. We have not edited it, with Richard’s and Pete’s gracious consent, in order to avoid a posting delay.

Upaya Dharma Podcasts - Power of Compassion Series: All 7 Parts
Another great series of podcats from Upaya Zen Center - this has been an amazing summer of programs from them, for which I am most grateful. This series features Matthieu Ricard & Roshi Joan Halifax.

I have included the info and podcast for the first episode, follow the links to hear the others.

Power of Compassion Series: All 7 Parts

Recorded: Wednesday Oct 6, 2010

The 7 part Power of Compassion series is now published. You can access the desired part of the series by clicking on its link below:

Power of Compassion: Part 1 of 7

Speakers: Matthieu Ricard & Roshi Joan Halifax
Recorded: Friday Sep 3, 2010

Compassion is one of the most positive and fulfilling emotions we can experience. Various studies have shown that people who are the most altruistic also appear to be the happiest. There is always, deep within ourselves, a potential for loving kindness, compassion and inner peace. This potential needs to be actualized and matured in order to achieve altruism as a way of being. This retreat explores how we can develop skills to develop compassion. Practices are taught and there are presentations on the latest research on altruism, empathy and compassion.

To access the entire series, please click on the link below:

Power of Compassion: 7 Part Series

Power of Compassion: Part 2 of 7

Power of Compassion: Part 3 of 7

Power of Compassion: Part 4 of 7

Power of Compassion: Part 5 of 7

Power of Compassion: Part 6 of 7

Power of Compassion: Part 7 of 7

Perspectives on Happiness - Recent Articles

Happiness, and how to get it if you don't have it, is still a very popular topic for researchers and bloggers. Here are few recent articles offering a variety of perspectives on this apparently allusive state of being.
Wed Oct. 6, 2010

For quite a while, scientists have largely understood happiness to be fairly static. Yes, your happiness would jump when you won the lottery, but a few years later, you'd be back to your genetically-determined "set point" happiness level. But this week, scientists from Netherlands, Germany, and Australia co-authored a paper (PDF) published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that says life choices can cause permanent changes in happiness levels. Scientists had a number of findings that you might find useful. For example, women who are unattached but thin are happier than women who are obese but partnered; working more hours than you want to is better than being underemployed; people who prioritize family or altruistic goals are happier than those who pursue materialistic or self-centered goals.

Read the whole article.

* * * * *

The Value of Connecting With Others for True Happiness

Gretchen Rubin - Writer, The Happiness Project
Posted: September 30, 2010

Haring Every Wednesday is Tip Day.

This Wednesday: 9 reasons why starting a happiness-project group will boost your happiness.

A few days ago, I posted about happiness-project groups -- for people who want to launch or join a group for people doing happiness projects together. My new and improved starter kit is ready, for those who are interested (just email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com if you want a copy).

If you're wondering whether being a part of such a group would indeed boost your happiness, I believe the answer is yes: in two ways.

First, making and keeping a happiness-related resolution will make you happier. Feeling in better control of our circumstances, cultivating an atmosphere of growth, making an effort to ensure that our lives reflect our values -- these steps will make you happier, and a happiness-project group will help you accomplish this.

Read the whole article.

* * * * *

The Problem with Happiness

Todd Kashdan - Clinical psychologist, scientist, professor of psychology at George Mason University
Posted: September 30, 2010

Asked what is the fundamental objective of life, the vast majority of people answer quickly and definitively -- happiness. Their lives are organized around trying to be happy. Sounds good, right? Sounds even better when you read about the scientific benefits linked to happiness. Compared to less happy people...

  • Happy people have stronger, more intimate friendships.
  • Happy people are more likely to be in satisfying romantic relationships.
  • Happy people sleep better.
  • Happy people are more creative.
  • Happy people spend more time helping other people (altruism, generosity).
  • Happy people are viewed positively by other people whether it is likability, social skills, intelligence, physical attractiveness, confidence or samurai swordsmanship.
  • Happy people extract more pleasure and meaning when working, socializing or playing.

These findings are from cross-sectional, experimental, observational, longitudinal and experience-sampling studies. Thus, we can be confident that the findings are not flukes. And yes, many of these relationships go both ways. For instance, the quantity and quality of sleep affects our happiness and loneliness sucks the marrow out of living. But for now, let's just focus on a central point. Happiness is not just a sign that things are going well, the experience of happiness helps produce positive outcomes.

But there is a not-so-hidden problem.
Read the whole post.

* * * * *

The Pursuit of Happiness: Developing Empathy for Others

David Nichtern - Senior Shambhala Buddhist teacher
Posted: September 30, 2010

I had a major epiphany a few weeks ago while playing with our family's chocolate toy poodle, Leroy Brown. I realized that he's just trying to be happy. Sometimes when he's trying to be happy, he makes me happy -- like when I go to the grocery store and come back and he acts like he hasn't seen me for weeks. He's so excited to see me that he jumps up on me and we just really have a love-off and have fun together. Other times, when he's just trying to be happy he is annoying to me -- like when he's already eaten his meal and my wife and I are trying to eat ours. He comes to the edge of the table and whines and barks as if to say, "what about me ... I want your food too!" It may seem obvious, but it is now clear to me that he is actually not trying to annoy us at all -- that is not his intention.

When we see and feel life from somebody else's point of view, I think we can realize that for the most part other people are just trying to be happy in their own life in their own way.
Read the whole post.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Varsity - Is this a neuro revolution?

Cool article from a week or so ago. Neuroscience pretends to have the answers to everything, but there are some serious issues with its new favorite tool, the fMRI (not to mention the SPECT scan). Let's start with this:
A typical brain contains 100 billion neurons, each of which makes electrical connections, or synapses, with up to 10,000 other neurons. That means a quadrillion synapses to keep track of at any given time — about the number of stars in the visible universe or the number of people on 150,000 Earths.
When we see an fMRI what we see is a pattern of oxygenated blood flow in the brain in general regions of the brain. We do not really see what is happening at the level of the neurons - fMRI's are the view from 25,000 feet, where we really need is the ground level view or we will never be able to say anything specific about brain function.

Don't take my word for it, though, read Jonah Lehrer and the Language Log for a whole different take on why neuroscience is WAAAAAAY overblown at this point.

Which is not to say I will not continue to post new research. :)

Is this a neuro revolution?

They say a revolution is brewing.

We won’t see it in the streets and people won’t be talking about it on the daily news. Instead, it will happen in dimly lit laboratories, where human subjects lie with their heads in white tubular machines. In fact, it’s happening right now — as figures in lab coats crowd around a computer monitor, watching smudges of colour populate the screen. They are observing what’s happening inside a living human brain.

Neuroscience, the study of how the brain works, has become one of the fastest-growing fields in science, and has managed to infiltrate even the most unlikely areas of knowledge. 10 years ago, there was no such thing as neuromarketing, neuroliterature, or neuropolitics — and yet today it seems every discipline is competing for the coveted “neuro” suffix to add to its resume.

The recent explosion of brain science across so many domains of knowledge has led to forecasts of an impending “neuro revolution.” Some even believe it has already begun.

alt text

Zack Lynch, author of The Neuro Revolution and co-founder of the neurotechnology market research firm, NeuroInsights, describes the neuro revolution as an upheaval of the social, economic, and political planes of our lives, leading to what he calls the neurosociety. He explains that these changes are driven by neurotechnology, the tools used to understand and influence the brain.

“My thought on the neurosociety is that it really begins this year, quite frankly,” says Lynch. “The neurosociety begins to emerge in 2010 and takes us through 2060.”

“What we’re already beginning to see,” adds Lynch, “is that neuroscience and neurotechnology are beginning to infiltrate multiple aspects of our daily lives.”

Take, for instance, the field of neuromarketing. In recent years, a whole host of companies have sprung up, promising their big-business clients — corporations like Google, Hyundai, and Microsoft — a window into the consumer’s psyche.

Neuromarketing is based on the principle that consumers don’t generally know why they make certain choices about products: we don’t know why we like what we do. So while focus groups might lead to a fraction of that answer, technologies that allow companies to see the brain’s physical response to advertising materials seem to offer an even deeper insight into the consumer’s subconscious needs and preferences — the ones that marketers target in order to sell a product.

It’s this rationale that neuromarketers have used to ply their wares, and so far, they haven’t been hard to sell. The website of neuromarketing company Mindlab International opens with a video intro of faceless crowds walking up and down the street: “Wouldn’t you like to know what’s going on in their minds?”

Yes, we would.

And how about neuroaesthetics, the field that studies our brain’s reactions to different works of art? Or neurotheology, the science of neural processes underlying our beliefs in god? What about neuroeconomics, neurowarfare, and neuropolitics? We’d like to know what’s going on in our minds there too.

Perhaps the most notable application of neuroscience has been in courts of law. The field of neurolaw is responsible for bringing brain imaging into the courtroom for applications like brain-based lie detection. By monitoring activity in the brain regions associated with memory, researchers believe they can detect whether the accused was involved in the crime if corresponding memory areas light up when he is shown the evidence. Because let’s face it — we’d really like to know what’s going on in the mind of the accused.

alt text

In a heavily publicized case in 2008, a court in India convicted a 24-year-old woman of murder, based on the results of a brain scan. While these methods may appear tried and true in scientific literature, it is still unclear whether the results translate outside a lab setting.

“fMRI-based lie detection, for example, can do as well as 80-90 per cent correct in simple laboratory simulations where college students commit mock crimes and then lie or tell the truth, as instructed,” says Martha Farah, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and Center for Neuroscience and Society.

Read the whole article.

John Hagel - Reviewing "The Social Network" - Constructing Grand Narrative

At his Edge Perspectives blog, John Hagel takes a look at the new Aaron Sorkin/ David Fincher (they are among my favorite writers/directors) movie about Mark Zuckerberg and the birth of Facebook. Hagel believes the film has a social agenda in its narrative more than the desire to tell Zuckerberg's story:
Here is Peter Travers: “Fincher and Sorkin . . . define the dark irony of the past decade. The final image of solitary Mark at his computer has to resonate for a generation of users (the drug term seems apt) sitting in front of a glowing screen pretending not to be alone.” A key part of the grand narrative is to explain the large and growing following of social networks in terms of addiction. In fact, one of the characters in the movie, observing the rapid adoption of Facebook exclaims: "1,000 people overnight? If I was a drug dealer I couldn't give away drugs to that many people!"

Or, here is David Denby: “ After all, Facebook, like Zuckerberg, is a paradox: a Web site that celebrates the aura of intimacy while providing the relief of distance, substituting bodiless sharing and the thrills of self-created celebrityhood for close encounters of the first kind.”

An historical tragedy of epic proportions

This is the image many people have social network users and programmers - isolated, socially inept, and pathetic. With a half a billion users on Facebook now, as well as the proliferation of so many other social networking sites, this image is no longer as accurate as it was in the late 80s and 1990s.

In my experience (and certainly there are exceptions), social networking sites are technological extensions of our "meat space" lives into a global community. I have "friends" all over the world who I would not know if not for the internet and global cafes like Facebook.

All of which is to say that I (not having yet seen the film) agree with Hagel.

Reviewing "The Social Network" - Constructing Grand Narrative

The debate has begun. Many who know Mark Zuckerberg and his company are upset about the inaccuracies in The Social Network. Movie critics on the other hand love the movie. Few, though, are reflecting on what these two sets of reactions tell us about the moment we are living in.

We live in the midst of a social revolution and this movie represents the effort of mass media to make sense of the changes going on around them. Facts are not important. It is about symbols, metaphors and mythologies. It is about constructing grand narratives to shape our understanding of why things are happening.

And in this corner of the ring . . .

Let’s start by addressing at face value the two sides. The Social Network is full of inaccuracies according to those who are close to the personalities and the companies. David Kirkpatrick, author of the now definitive book on Zuckerberg’s company, does a great job of summarizing the major inaccuracies that underlie the entire film in his commentary here.

The response of the movie creators is that this is not a documentary and not meant to be accurate in all dimensions. Entertainment must be served first and foremost. This strikes me as a bit disingenuous, although all too common of Hollywood, given that the movie purports to be about real people and real historical events, down to the final trailers telling us what happened to each of the major characters. In fact, none of the key players in the making of this film has ever met Mark Zuckerberg, the subject of the movie. And neither the Director nor the scriptwriter has ever participated in his online social network. As we will see, though, the core inaccuracy of the film is key to supporting the mainstream media view of what is going on.

On the other side of the fence, we have the movie reviewers in the mainstream media who have, almost without exception, been ecstatic about the movie. In fact, the website Metacritic indicates that the movie now has a metascore of 97, based on 40 movie reviewers, the highest score of any movie currently showing. In fact, this metascore puts it into the top 20 of movies of all time, along with The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia.

Roger Ebert calls it “the film of the far” and gives an ecstatic review here. David Denby calls it “brilliantly entertaining.” Peter Travers gushes “The Social Network lights up a dim movie sky with flares of startling brilliance” and “it gets you drunk on movies again.”

Now, admittedly, this is a very good movie. It is well acted, the dialogue is wonderful and fast-paced, visually it captures and holds the attention, the music score reinforces the dramatic arc – all in all, it is well constructed and deeply entertaining. Everyone should see the movie as a compelling and beautiful example of story- telling. But is it really up there with The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia?

Who's got status?

Read the whole post.

Alison Gopnik - 'Empathic Civilization': Amazing Empathic Babies

Mother Holding Baby, 1986
Keith Haring

Cool article - this is older (from the beginning of the year), but any time you combine Alison Gopnik with Jeremy Rifkin, I'll read it. This article was part of a series of pieces Huff Post did to promote Rifkin's The Empathic Civilization.

Below this piece, I'd like to suggest another related article very worth your time to read.

'Empathic Civilization': Amazing Empathic Babies

Alison Gopnik

Posted: February 24, 2010

One of the best ways of understanding human nature is to study children. After all, if we want understand who we are, we should find out how we got to be that way. Until recently most philosophers and psychologists thought that babies and young children were profoundly amoral creatures. They also thought that children were irrational and egocentric -- unable to think logically or take the perspective of others. Jean Piaget and later Lawrence Kohlberg, the founders of the study of moral development, argued that children did not have truly moral concepts until adolescence. Instead, children simply thought that whatever other people told them to do was right.

In the last thirty years scientists have completely overturned this view. Even the youngest babies imitate the facial expressions of other people and take on their emotions -- a kind of empathy. This ability is NOT just the result of the much-hyped "mirror neurons" since, for one thing, mirror neurons have been found in monkeys who rarely imitate others. But it does show that human babies, in particular, are tuned in to other people in an especially close way.

By 18 months, babies have gone beyond empathy to genuine altruism, After all empathy just means I feel your pain, altruism means I try to make you feel better even when I don't feel that way myself. Betty Repacholi and I did an experiment with 14 and 18-month-olds. We showed them two bowls of food, one of raw broccoli and one of goldfish crackers. All the babies, even in Berkeley, like the crackers and don't like the broccoli. Then the experimenter ate some food from each bowl. Half the time she acted as if she felt the same way as the babies. But for half the babies she acted as if she was disgusted by the crackers and loved the broccoli, just the opposite of the way the babies felt themselves. Then she gave the babies the two bowls, held out her hand and said "Could I have some?" The 14-month-olds gave her the crackers no matter what she did. But the 18-month-olds actually went beyond immediate empathy to something more like genuine altruism. They gave her the crackers of she liked he crackers and the broccoli if she preferred the broccoli, They understood that the other person might want something different from what they wanted themselves, and they acted to make her happy. Other experiments suggest the same thing. Felix Warneken and Mike Tomasello found that 18-month-olds will crawl across a set of cushions to get a pen for a an experimenter who drops it out of reach -- and strains to get it back. But they won't do that if he purposely throws the pen to the ground.

By the time they are three children have taken these basic impulses towards altruism and empathy and turned them into a deeper and more genuinely moral kind of understanding. Judith Smetana and her colleagues asked children as young as two and a half about two kinds of rules in the daycare -- a rule about not dropping your clothes on the floor and a rule about not hitting other kids. Children said that breaking both kinds of rules would be bad. But they also said that the teachers could simply decide to change the first rule. They could declare that a messy room was OK and then it would be OK. In contrast, even the youngest children thought that it would NEVER be OK to harm another child, no matter what the teachers said.

If children are so good, if empathy and altruism are such a deeply-rooted part of human nature, then why are adults so bad? The impulse to evil seems to be as deeply rooted as the will to do good. Early empathy and altruism emerge in the close face-to-face intimate encounters between babies and their caregivers -- the most intimate relationships we ever have. But for genuine global morality we need to extend those feelings beyond our intimates to the six billion other human beings out there.

In fact, some studies suggest that by the time they are four, children already discriminate their own group from that of others, even when the groups are as arbitrary as Hutu and Tutsi or Serb and Croat. Children who are given a blue t-shirt rather than a red one to wear will then say that that they prefer to play with other children with a blue shirt. The human impulse to depersonalize "the others" seems as deep as the impulse to care about the people closest to you. Reestablishing that sense of personal intimacy with the "others" may be one of the best ways of bringing about global moral change.

Try this one, too.

How to Raise a Moral and Compassionate Child

One theory is to parent more like our distant ancestors did.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Darcia Narvaez is a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in moral and character development in children. She looked closely at how we're raising our children these days and found that we've stopped doing a lot of the things our ancestors in foraging hunter-gatherer societies did, and it's changing our kids for the worse.

According to Narvaez, our distant ancestors raised their babies with lots of positive touch (constant carrying, cuddling, and holding); breastfeeding for two to five years; and warm and prompt responses to cries and fussing, which “keeps the infant’s brain calm in the years it is forming its personality and response to the world,” she says. They also raised their children among other adult caregivers and let their kids play more with other children. All of this, she says, resulted in children who had better mental health, greater empathy, and higher intelligence than kids do now. "The way we raise our children today in this country," she argues in a write-up of her research, "is increasingly depriving them of the practices that lead to well-being and a moral sense."

Read the whole article.

Big Think - How Meditation Reshapes Your Brain

No new information here, but a nice collection and summary of the research. Big Think is rapidly becoming one of my favorite sites.

How Meditation Reshapes Your Brain


In 2006, filmmaker David Lynch—a poet of the sublimely bizarre and the surreally normal—wrote a book on transcendental meditation. Describing his experience, he writes: "It takes you to an ocean of pure consciousness, pure knowingness. But it's familiar; it's you. And right away a sense of happiness emerges—not a goofball happiness, but a thick beauty."

Coming from the man behind disturbing mindbenders like "Eraserhead" and "Blue Velvet," it's hard to take this statement seriously. But Lynch is indeed being sincere; he has reportedly meditated for 20 minutes twice a day since the 1970s. And his belief in the power of this age-old practice is shared with an estimated 20 million people in the United States alone who engage some form of meditation.

Sharon Gannon, the co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga, the largest yoga center in the U.S., tells Big Think that meditation is all about ignoring stimuli. "We're so habituated to reacting to every stimulus," she says. If the phone rings, we answer it; if someone knocks at the door, we open it. But meditation is a space where we don't react to the stimuli that constantly bombard us; it is about letting go, and it paradoxically makes us better able to engage. "Without taking the time every day to let things come and let things go without acting upon it, you won't have clarity of mind," she says.

Watch a short video of Sharon Gannon.

But what is actually happening in the brain as we seek nirvana? Meditators have long described their experiences as transformative states that are markedly different from normal consciousness, but only recently have researchers found the evidence to back this up.

Richard Davidson is one of the foremost researchers of meditation's effects on the brain. A Harvard Ph.D graduate and a friend of the Dalai Lama, he was chided early in his career for wanting to study something as unscientific as meditation. But in 2004 he became an overnight scientific celebrity for discovering that Buddhist monks exhibit vastly different brainwaves during meditation than normal people. Brainwaves are produced as the billions of neurons in our brains transmit action potentials down their axons to the synapses where they trigger the release of neurotransmitters. These action potentials are essentially electrical charges that are passed from neuron to neuron. By placing sensors on the scalp, researchers can detect not the individual firings of neurons—they are far too small and numerous to differentiate—but the sum total of this electrical activity, dubbed brainwaves for their cyclical nature.

Types of Brain Waves

The frequency of brainwaves varies among different mental states, indicating the amount of neuronal activity in the brain. Delta waves (below 4 Hz) are the longest waves and occur mostly during deep sleep. Theta waves (5-8 Hz) are seen most commonly in young children and in drowsy adults, often as an entree to sleep. Alpha waves (8-12 Hz) are the waves of an relaxed, non-aroused mind. Beta waves (12-30 Hz) are fast and low amplitude and are characteristics of an engaged mind. And finally gamma waves (30-100 Hz) are the highest in frequency and are thought to represent the synchronization of different brain areas as they carry out certain cognitive or motor functions. It is important to realize that the brain never produces just one type of these brain waves; they all occur simultaneously, but their ratios will change depending on one's mental state.

Using this electroencephalograph technology, Davidson asked his monks, each with 10,000 to 50,000 hours of meditation practice over their lifetimes, to concentrate on "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion." A group of inexperienced meditators were also trained for one-week and then instructed to do the same. The results were dramatic, revealing two important things: first, the monks exhibited a higher ratio of high frequency gamma brainwaves to slower alpha and beta waves during their resting baseline before the experiment began; and when the monks engaged in meditation, this ratio skyrocketed—up to 30 times stronger than that of the non-meditators. In fact, the gamma activity measured in some of the practitioners was the highest ever reported in a non-pathological context. Not only did this suggest that long-term mental training could alter brain activity, it also suggested that compassion might be something that could be cultivated.

New neurobiological research bolsters the idea that meditation effects a permanent restructuring of the brain. In 2008 a team of researchers from UCLA led by Eileen Luders compared the brains of long-term meditators with those of control subjects. In the brains of the meditators, they found larger volumes of gray matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex and the right hippocampus, areas thought to be implicated in emotion and response control. "It is likely that the observed larger hippocampal volumes may account for meditators' singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior," Luders writes. They also discovered a marked increase of gray matter in the thalamus, which is thought to act as the brain's switchboard, relaying information between the cerebral cortex and subcortical areas. The change in size might allow for the meditators' enhanced sense of focus during their practice.

And it turns out, you don't have to be a yogi to reap the benefits of meditation. Even those who participate in short-term training courses can alter their brains, according to research published this summer: In a collaborative study between the University of Oregon and the Dalian University of Technology in China, neuroscientists discovered that a Chinese meditation technique called integrative body-mind training (IBMT) could alter the connectivity in the brain after just 11 hours of practice. Using a type of magnetic resonance called "diffusion tensor imaging," the researchers examined the white matter fibers connecting different brain regions before and after training. The changes were most dramatic in the anterior cingulate, an area implicated in emotion control.


Far from being simply a relaxed state, meditation is a period of heightened activity in the brain—one that can actually reshape your brain. People as diverse as David Lynch and the Dalai Lama have touted the benefits of meditation, claiming that it can increase attention, combat stress, foster compassion, and boost health. And in the past two decades, neuroscientists have begun to understand the biological substrates of these claims. Research suggests that long-term meditation increases the orbitofrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the thalamus, potentially increasing one's capacity for attention as well as compassion.

More Resources

—"Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence," (2009) published by Antoine Lutz in The Journal of Neuroscience [PDF]

—"Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation," (2007) published by Michael Posner in the journal PNAS

David Lynch on meditation [VIDEO]

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

John McMurtry: Reclaiming Rationality and Scientific Method - The Life-Coherence Principle as Global System Imperative

McMurtry's conclusions are exactly correct, in my opinion - the "how" of correcting the problems is the big picture piece I am not seeing yet. Here is the main issue that I agree with:
What has been excluded must be included - the universal life support systems whose preconditions must be taken into account for full coherence of any claim to truth. There are three general criteria of truth versus falsehood and ignorance. The first two are known, but the third has been missing. There is (1) consistency of assertions with established evidence, what scientific method has mastered. There is (2) consistency of inferences with premises, what philosophical logic and analytic philosophy have mastered. And there is (3) consistency of objectives and conclusions with life support systems which have been recognized by neither. There is no full coherence without consistency of all three. One cannot deny any of these three requirements of reason without absurdity. It cannot be rational or scientific to ignore or flout empirical evidence, to be inconsistent in claim, or to violate the requirements of universal life support systems. The most primary consistency – that without which life capacity is always reduced or destroyed – is now due.
Sounds right to me. Here is the beginning of the rather long article posted at Global Research: Center for Research on Globalization. I could be optimistic, but
McMurtry seems to be arguing for a worldcentric values system in the global economy.
The Life-Coherence Principle as Global System Imperative

Global Research, October 5, 2010


This paper explains what has long been missing across domains and levels of analysis: (1) the life-blind inner logic regulating the dominant paradigms of “rationality” and “scientific method”; (2) the reasons why it selects for unforeseen consequences of ecological, social and economic collapse; and (3) the life-coherence principle which identifies and corrects the derangement.


12.1. The Nature of the Rising Global Crisis and Why It Cannot Be Seen

12.2. Recognizing the Connected Disasters and Their System Causal Mechanism

12.3. The Ultimate Decider: Society’s Rule System Decides Life as Better or Worse

12.4. The Driver of the Ruling System: Self-Maximizing Rationality with No Life Ground

12.5. The Regulating Sequence of System Rationality and Its Alternative Step By Step

12.6. The Hidden Mechanism: Private Financial Subjugation of Society and the Academy

12.7. Prisoner’s Dilemma and Game Theory: The Paradigm of Scientific Rationality

12.8. The Underlying Incapacity of Critical Responses to the World Disorder

12.9. The Failure of Rational and Scientific Method to Understand Global Collapse

12.10. The Unexamined Problem of System-Cooked Science

12.11. The Life Coherence Principle: The Missing Ground of Scientific Rationality

12.1. The Nature of the Rising Global Crisis and Why It Cannot Be Seen?

Humanity’s governing rule system has generated a fatal contradiction. There is a deep-structural contradiction between its life-means support-system requirements, on the one hand, and the global system of private money-sequence and commodity growth, on the other. It is not, as Marx taught, a contradiction between productive force development and capitalist relations because both grow in technological tandem while the world burns. It is a deeper contradiction of the ruling system with life and life support systems themselves. The meaning of this crisis has been tracked throughout this study from 1.12. The Life-Blind Nature of Modern Economic Rationality and 1.14. The Axiological Sequences of Money Capital and Life Capital through 9.10. Above Public and Market Rules: The Money-Sequence System Disorder to 11.5. The Unseen War: Goods for Corporate Persons Are Bads For Human Persons and 11.12. Absolutization of the Ruling Rights System Overrides Life and Life Support Systems.

The reigning system is governed by private money-sequence growth as determining goal, and more priced-commodity yield growth is its justifying performance. Yet both of these ruling principles of value gain cumulatively violate life requirements at organic, civil and ecological levels. Although calls for a steady-state or no-growth system increase as the negative externalities of system growth destabilize the life of the planet, these rising calls usually remain stuck within the old concept of growth. Unlimited consumerism and inequality are rightly rejected, but no yardstick of life needs and capacity realization steers conception instead. To speak of “a fuller, greater, or better kind of development”, as Herman Daly, the most grounded of contemporary critical economists does in his Ecological Economics and the Ecology of Economics , is not made criterially clear by defining it as “qualitative improvement in the composition of the physical stocks of wealth that result from greater knowledge of technique and purpose”. How does one tell “better” from worse, or “qualitative improvement” from not? The problem here is one of repeating pro-value terms without principled meaning. This is a common problem, as we have seen, even with advanced theorists who know something has gone badly wrong. Life-value analysis meets such problems by its primary axiom and measure, explained in Chapter 6 on and systematically addressed ahead as “the life-coherence principle”.

The more prevalent problem is that system irrationality cannot be seen at all by its agents because they presuppose it as necessary and/or good a-priori. Critical philosophers too lack this grounding principle, as 5.15. The Imperative of a Higher Value Standard to Judge Practices and Traditions and10.11. Justice Theory Without Life-Ground, Life Plans without Life have explained at the most general normative-analysis level.

12.1.1. The Idea of an Invisible Hand Regulating Competition to an Optimal Result

The idea of an ‘invisible hand’ adjusting supply of private commodities to private money demand by self-maximizing competition among atomic agents is the theodicy of a ruling system which can see nothing else. There has been much said and unsaid about this logic of “the free market”, but the concept of “free market” itself has remained confused. The free market of local and independent artisans not affecting supply or demand explained by Adam Smith has almost nothing in common with the transnational-corporate oligopolist system regulating the world today. At the same time, the universal human life needs and the life support systems which lie at the base of the economic enterprise are blinkered out. If the economics is critical rather than propagandist, the generic life-standard regulators required to govern at the system level are lost in local examples without a principled ground of alternative.
Read the whole article.