Saturday, January 08, 2011

Joshua Knobe - Do People Actually Believe in Objective Moral Truths?

Interesting article, from On the Human, another very cool blog.

Do People Actually Believe in Objective Moral Truths?

Gabrielle Giffords (D) Possibly Assassinated - AZ Congresswoman Shot in Head at Pointblank Range,+D+AZ8.jpg

Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, my Congresswoman, has been shot in the head at nearly pointblack range during a town-hall talk (Congress on the Corner) at a local Safeway (Ina and Oracle, for Tucsonans). She has been reported dead - but there is a conflicting report that she is in surgery still.

I am literally sick to my stomach - when they announced her dead on NPR it felt personal - she was MY congresswoman and some whack-job killed her and several other people just because she is a Democrat.

AZ is so fucking rightwing and so fucking in love with their damn guns . . . . The shooter had to have an automatic or semiautomatic weapon to get that many shots off so quickly. Those guns should be banned - should have been banned when Reagan was shot.

Gabrielle Giffords Dead: Dies Of Gunshot Wound To The Head

First Posted: 01- 8-11 02:13 PM | Updated: 01- 8-11 02:19 PM

Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic congresswoman from Arizona, was shot and killed today at a public event outside a grocery store.

A spokesman for the Pima County sheriff says that at least 12 people were shot, with at least 6 fatalities. The Tucson Citizen reports that Rep. Giffords was "shot point blank in the head."

Rep. Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was first elected to the House in 2006. She represents the state's 8th Congressional District.

Scroll down for live updates.

2:55 PM ET Staffer Dead

AP: At least one Giffords staffer has been killed.

2:48 PM ET Boehner 'Horrified'

Speaker of the House John Boehner issued the following statement about today's shooting:

“I am horrified by the senseless attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and members of her staff. An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. Acts and threats of violence against public officials have no place in our society. Our prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords, her staff, all who were injured, and their families. This is a sad day for our country."

2:44 PM ET Giffords' Tweet

Giffords' last tweet before the shooting: "My 1st Congress on Your Corner starts now. Please stop by to let me know what is on your mind or tweet me later."

2:40 PM ET Death Reports Retracted

CNN, Reuters & NPR no longer report that Giffords is dead.

2:37 PM ET Giffords Alive And In Surgery

A hospital spokeswoman tells MSNBC that Giffords is alive, still in surgery.

2:31 PM ET Still Alive?

MSNBC says a surgeon on the scene claims that Giffords is still alive, in critical condition.

2:30 PM ET Chilling

While there is no hard evidence at this point to suggest that the shooting was politically motivated, Matt Yglesias points out that an anti-Giffords event was held in June with the billing: "Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

Rep. Giffords was also on Sarah Palin's "target list."

As noted earlier, a gun was dropped at a Giffords event in 2009, and her office was vandalized in March.

2:19 PM ET Six Others Dead

NPR: At least six others have been killed.

2:19 PM ET Office Vandalized After Health Care Vote

The New York Times writes that Giffords' office was vandalized in March "a few hours after the House vote overhauling the nation’s health care system."

2:16 PM ET 'At Least 4 Dead'

University Medical Center says that at least four are dead.

2:15 PM ET Shooter Yelled Names At Targets?

A source tells Ed Espinoza that the shooter "called out names of people as aiming at targets."

2:14 PM ET The Shooter: 'Fringe Character'

A source talks to Gawker about the shooter:

The man was young, mid-to-late 20s, white clean-shaven with short hair and wearing dark clothing and said nothing during the shooting or while being held down. He didn't look like a businessman, but more of a "fringe character," our source said.

2:13 PM ET Confirmed Killed

Reuters, others confirm that Giffords has died.

2:08 PM ET Giffords Reportedly Dead

Rep. Giffords is dead, according to NPR.

2:06 PM ET No Known Threats

According to CNN's Mike Brooks, sources with the U.S. Capitol Police say there were no known threats against Rep. Giffords.

In 2009, a gun was dropped at a Giffords event.

2:02 PM ET Staffers Shot

According to Ed Espinoza, DNC Western States Political Director, Giffords' district director and local press secretary were also shot.

1:59 PM ET Young Shooter

NPR: "Witnesses described him as in his late teens or early 20s."

1:55 PM ET More On Giffords

Rep. Giffords, who is 40, is married to an astronaut. Jonathan Allen of Politico says that Giffords is involved with immigration and armed services issues.

1:51 PM ET At Least 12 Reportedly Shot

A Pima County sheriff's spokesman says at least 12 people were shot at the event. One person is in custody.

1:50 PM ET Medical Response

Pekau also tells CNN that three emergency evacuation helicopters are at the scene of the shooting.

1:46 PM ET 'Two Bodies'

Jason Pekau, a Sprint employee who works near the Safeway where the shooting occurred, tells CNN: "I see two bodies laying on the sidewalk in front of the Safeway."

1:45 PM ET 15-20 Gunshots?

A witness tells CNN that he heard 15-20 gunshots.

1:42 PM ET More On Giffords

Rep. Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was first elected to the House in 2006. She represents the state's 8th Congressional District.

1:40 PM ET 'Firing Indiscriminately'

According to MSNBC, the shooter ran into a "crowded area" and began "firing indiscriminately."

1:37 PM ET Shooter Reportedly In Custody

More from NPR:

Giffords was talking to a couple when the suspect ran up firing indiscriminately and then ran off, Michaels said. According to other witnesses, he was tackled by a bystander and taken into custody.

1:28 PM ET Congresswoman Reportedly Shot In Head

According to Tucson Citizen, Rep. Giffords was shot "point blank in the head."

1:25 PM ET Safeway Shooting

According to KOLD, a Tucson CBS affiliate, the shooting occurred just after 10:00 AM local time at a Safeway grocery store. KOLD has not confirmed that Rep. Giffords was shot.

1:19 PM ET At Least Five Others Hurt

NPR reports that Giffords was shot at a public event at a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. Peter Michaels of of Arizona Public Media tells NPR that at least five others, including staff, were hurt as well.

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Neuroskeptic - Antidepressants Still Don't Work In Mild Depression

Imagine that - Big Pharma has decieved us. This research review comes from Neuroskeptic - a very excellent blog.

Antidepressants Still Don't Work In Mild Depression

A new paper has added to the growing ranks of studies finding that antidepressant drugs don't work in people with milder forms of depression: Efficacy of antidepressants and benzodiazepines in minor depression.

It's in the British Journal of Psychiatry and it's a meta-analysis of 6 randomized controlled trials on three different drugs. Antidepressants were no better than placebo in patients with "minor depressive disorder", which is like the better-known Major Depressive Disorder but... well, not as major, because you only need to have 2 symptoms instead of 5 from this list.

They also wanted to find out whether benzodiazepines (like Valium) worked in these people, but there just weren't any good studies out there.

The results look solid, and they fit with the fact that antidepressants don't work in people diagnosed with "major" depression, but who fall at the "milder" end of that range, something which several recent studies have shown. Neuroskeptic readers will, if they've been paying attention, find this entirely unsurprising.

But in fact, it's not just not news, it's positively ancient. 50 years ago, at the dawn of the antidepressant era, it was commonly said that most antidepressants don't work in everyone with "depression", they work best in people with endogenous depression, and less well, or not at all, in those with "neurotic" or "reactive" depressions (see, e.g. 1, 2, 3, but the literature goes back even further).
Read the whole article.

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

Advice on Living Well
and Dying Consciously

by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
translated and edited by
Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D.


Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

Everyone tries to remove superficial pain, but there is another class of techniques concerned with removing suffering on a deeper level--aiming at a minimum to diminish suffering in future lives and, beyond that, even to remove all forms of suffering for oneself as well as for all beings. Spiritual practice is of this deeper type.

These techniques involve an adjustment of attitude; thus, spiritual practice basically means to adjust your thought well. In Sanskrit it is called dharma, which means "that which holds." This means that by adjusting counterproductive attitudes, you are freed from a level of suffering and thus held back from that particular suffering. Spiritual practice protects, or holds back, yourself and others from misery.

From first understanding your own situation in cyclic existence and seeking to hold yourself back from suffering, you extend your realization to other beings and develop compassion, which means to dedicate yourself to holding others back from suffering. It makes practical concentrating on the welfare of others, you yourself will be happier. (52)

[See the Archive, September 7 (2008), for continued passage.]

--from Mind of Clear Light: Advice on Living Well and Dying Consciously by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D.

Mind of Clear Light • Now at 2O% off
(Good through January 7th, 2011).

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Friday, January 07, 2011

Tech Nation - Antonio Damasio: The Conscious Brain

Nice podcast discussion with Antonio Damasio about his recent book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.

Antonio Damasio: The Conscious Brain

Author and USC professor

Dr. Moira Gunn talks with USC professor and author, Antonio Damasio, about the connection between mind and body and how they related to consciousness.

42 minutes, 19.5mb, recorded 2010-12-14
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Jay Earley, Ph.D. - Introduction to Internal Family Systems Therapy

Internal Family Systems Therapy (developed by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.) is the best "parts" work system I have ever used - and I have used all of the major ones. This brief introduction comes from Jay Earley, one of the most experienced IFS therapist, and one who is also versed in integral theory. This is a very simplified explanation - if you are interested in the model, I suggests getting the IFS book, which is down to the right on the sidebar in the list of recommended books.

Introduction to Internal Family Systems Therapy

Jay Earley, Ph.D.

IFS recognizes that our psyches are made up of different parts, sometimes called subpersonalities. You can think of them as little people inside us. Each has its own perspective, feelings, memories, goals, and motivations. For example, one part of you might be trying to lose weight and another part might want to eat whatever you want. We all have parts like the inner critic, the abandoned child, the pleaser, the angry part, and the loving caretaker.

IFS has discovered that every part has a positive intent for you, no matter how problematic it might be. For example, Sally has a part that says, “You couldn’t be successful at your ambitious goals. Who do you think you are?” This is hurtful to her and prevents her from taking action in her life, but when she got to know this part in her IFS work, she discovered that it was actually afraid she would be punished if she stuck her neck out, and it was trying to stop her to protect her from that pain.

Bill has a part that is judgmental and competitive with other people in a way that is not consistent with his true values. However, when he really got to know that part, he discovered that it was just trying to help him feel OK about himself in the only way it knew—by feeling superior to others.

When you understand that a part has a positive intent, it doesn’t mean that you give the part power. Sally doesn’t want her part to prevent her from taking action, and Bill doesn’t want his part to act out being judgmental and competitive. However, using the IFS approach, Sally and Bill can relate to their parts with understanding and appreciation while taking the steps to heal them.

This is fundamentally different from the way we ordinarily relate to our parts. Usually when we become aware of a part, the first thing we do is evaluate it. Is it good or bad for us? If we decide it is good, we embrace it and give it power. We act from it. If we decide it is bad, we try to suppress it or get rid of it. We tell it to go away. However, this doesn’t work. You can’t get rid of a part. You can only push it into your unconscious, where it will continue to affect you, but without your awareness.

In IFS, we do something altogether different and radical. We welcome all our parts with curiosity and compassion. We seek to understand them and appreciate their efforts to help us. But we don’t lose sight of the ways they may be causing us problems. We develop a relationship of caring and trust with each part, and then take the steps to release it from its burdens so it can function in a healthy way.

In the IFS system, there are three kinds of parts—managers, firefighters, and exiles. The managers are the parts you usually encounter first in exploring yourself. Their job is to handle the world and protect against the pain of the exiles. Exiles are young child parts that hold pain from the past. (We won’t get into firefighters in this short article.)

For example, John has one manager that tries to know everything about any organization he might work with and tries to do everything perfectly. This is an incredible burden for him and prevents him from being light and flexible in his work life. When he started to get to know this manager part, he learned that it was trying to protect him from being betrayed by people or projects he might put his heart and soul into. He also realized he had another manager part that was very suspicious of people. This part checks out people carefully to see how they might betray him. Both managers are trying to protect John from feeling the pain of an exile part that felt hurt and betrayed, first by his mother and then by an organization he was part of.

In the above example Sally had a manager that said, “Who do you think you are?” Although this message has prevented Sally from taking action as she would like, it is trying to protect Sally from the pain of an exile part who felt crushed and frightened of punishment. It turned out that Sally (and other children) had been punished by the nuns in her Catholic school whenever they became too visible, so from then on in her life, she had a terrified exile and a manager who tried to keep Sally invisible.

Parts take on extreme roles because of what has happened to them in the past. Exiles take on pain and burdens from what they experienced as children (or occasionally at other times). Managers take on extreme roles in order to protect you from the pain of the exiles. IFS has a method of understanding and working with these parts to release the burdens and heal the system, so you can function in healthy ways.

The IFS Process

So how does IFS work with our parts? IFS recognizes that each of us has a spiritual center, a true Self. This Self is naturally compassionate and curious about people, and especially about our own parts. The Self wants to connect with each part and get to know and understand it. The Self feels compassion for the pain of the exiles and also for the burdens that drives managers to act the way they do. The Self is also able to stay calm and centered despite the sometimes intense emotions that parts may feel. Everyone has a Self, even though in some people it may not be very accessible because of the activity of their parts.

The Self is the agent of healing. An IFS therapist or group leader will coach the Self in how to relate to the parts, but the Self is the true leader of the internal system and can love and heal each part, so you become free of extreme feelings and behavior.

Let’s see how this works. First you learn how to access the Self. IFS has many powerful ways of doing this which are beyond the scope of this article. Then the Self chooses a part to focus on. For example, let’s look at Bill, who has a manager who is judgmental and competitive. This is distressing to Bill because he believes in being cooperative and accepting and inclusive, and to some extent he is. But his judgmental manager crops up in situations where Bill feels threatened. Often he is able to hide his judgments, but sometimes they leak out and cause problems. This makes Bill considerably less effective at work and causes dissension in his organization. It also causes problems for him in his marriage.

Bill started out his IFS work by focusing on his Judgmental Part. It wasn’t easy for Bill to be in Self because he felt disgusted with the Judgmental Part for not living up to his ideals. (The Self is never disgusted, so this was really another part of Bill.) However, with some work, he was able to be genuinely in his Self so that he was interested in getting to know the Judgmental Part. He found out that it was trying to protect an exile part of him that felt inadequate. Bill had a learning problem as a child even though he is quite intelligent and competent. So there was a young part of Bill that had felt inadequate in school. The Judgmental Part was trying to compensate for this inadequacy by feeling superior to people. Bill had grown up in a judgmental, competitive home, so that was the primary model this part knew. As Bill got to know the Judgmental Part, he understood why this part acted as it did and appreciated its efforts in his behalf.

He then contacted the exile who felt inadequate. He listened and watched as this part showed him scenes from his childhood where it felt ashamed and inadequate because of his learning problem, and he responded to it with compassion and caring. The young part responded to this by feeling cherished and valuable for the first time. Up until then, it had been hidden away in Bill’s unconscious, which only increased its feelings of worthlessness. With love from Bill’s Self and direction from the IFS therapist, this young part was able to release the burden of inadequacy it had been carrying and feel good about itself. This allowed the Judgmental manager to relax. It no longer needed to judge people to compensate for the exile’s pain. This enabled Bill to respond to people in the way he always wanted, with openness and acceptance and a cooperative attitude. As a result, he became much more effective at work, and he stopped having so many fights with his wife.

This description of the IFS process is greatly simplified for the sake of this short article. It doesn’t discuss many of the difficulties and complexities that IFS knows how to handle in order to accomplish this kind of healing.

Mark Vernon - Physics as Metaphysics: Is there a quantum spirituality?

Writing at Big Questions Online, Mark Vernon takes a critical look at the often well-intentioned but misguided attempts at combing quantum mechanics (QM) and spirituality. In general, whenever someone starts using QM to justify, explicate, or contextualize their spiritual ideas, you can be pretty sure they are cherry-picking ideas to support their own.

The field of QM is so vast and so often in flux that it's easy to pick and choose ideas and theories to support almost any nonsense. One of the most obvious examples of this was the recent "debate" between Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston on one side and Michael Shermer and Sam Harris on the other (part of ABC Nightline's Faceoff series, scroll down to the middle of the page). When confronted with actual science by actual scientists, the spiritual gurus did not fare very well.

Vernon is a little less harsh in this article. He is more gentle in his critique, but he names the elephant in the room in most of these "theories" - the anthropic principle - positing human beings and human consciousness as the pinnacle or center of the universe.

Physics as Metaphysics

Is there a quantum spirituality?

photo: US Dept. of Energy: Researcher Matthew Pelt tries to connect the quantum dots
Thursday, January 6, 2011

The notion that physics might have metaphysical meaning for human beings is as old as physics itself. The ancient Greeks did natural philosophy not only to learn about the cosmos but also to learn about how to live. In the medieval period, Aristotelian cosmology became tightly knitted to Scholastic theology, causing all sorts of problems for Galileo when he sought to challenge it. And then in the early modern period, Newton’s discoveries led again to a reassessment of what it is to be human.

No less a figure than Einstein invoked the notion of what he called “cosmic religion.” It would need to ask questions such as whether the universe is friendly towards us, the father of the new physics mused. And the new physics of the 20th century has certainly sparked a welter of speculation as to whether the meaning of life is written in the stars. Are the laws of nature transcendent, like God? Does the fine-tuning of various fundamental constants suggest that the universe is right for life, for us? Is consciousness as basic a feature of things as quarks and photons?

One of the best-known of the spiritualities that draw on the new physics was penned by physicist Fritjof Capra. In his 1975 popular classic The Tao of Physics, Capra relates a vision he had in the summer of 1969, as he stared out to sea from the beach of Santa Cruz. “I suddenly became aware of my whole environment as being engaged in a gigantic cosmic dance,” he recalls.

His use of the metaphor of dance stemmed from his knowledge of particle physics, which views matter as a flux of possibilities across fields of energy. Capra draws on one of the most familiar features of quantum physics: the wave-particle duality of light. If you look at it one way, light behaves like a wave. If you look at it another way, it is a particle. The suggestion is that we, as observers, are deeply implicated in the nature of things.

Further, as nothing can be both a wave and a particle, it looks as if the fundamental nature of things lies behind what the Templeton Prize-winning physicist Bernard d’Espagnat has called a “veiled reality.” This conclusion seems to offer a way of synthesizing the activities of science and religion. As Capra continues: “Physicists explore levels of matter, mystics levels of mind. What their explorations have in common is that these levels, in both cases, lie beyond ordinary sense perception.”

Such ideas are very influential, and similar moves have been made by other figures seeking new kinds of spirituality, like the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and, more recently, the Episcopal priest Matthew Fox. You can get a feel for it from this remark by Teilhard: “The history of the living world can be summarized as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen.”

Thus, today, it’s quite common to hear people reflecting that we’re all somehow connected, just like entangled quantum particles that remain linked even when they’re on opposites sides of the universe. Alternatively, there’s the growing spread of what has been called the Universe Story. It tells of the emergence of energy from the Big Bang, that formed the fundamental particles, that coalesced into the elements, that became the building block of the stars, that formed alongside planets, that are nurseries for life, which itself became consciousness, and then self-aware: in us, the universe can contemplate itself.

But does this quantum spirituality add up? A number of critiques can be pressed upon it.

For one thing, the science is itself in a state of flux. The Big Bang, out of which this extraordinary experiment in emergence supposedly came, is itself now widely questioned by physicists. Some prefer a “mega-verse” that continuously gives rise to new universes in a process called “eternal inflation.” Others are asking whether there’s actually a multiverse: our universe is just the one out of the billions that is right for life, and so the fine-tuning is a delusion. Others again, are developing models of a pulsating universe, which expands over the eons to such an extent that it “forgets” its size, and so begins all over again.

Quantum spiritualities can accommodate such developments in science — though a skeptic might observe that they are so nebulous, they could accommodate just about anything. Then again, Capra himself notes, “Many concepts we hold today will be replaced by a different set of concepts tomorrow.” But he believes the basic link between the scientific and the mystical traditions will be enforced, not diminished.

Another critique is the pick-and-choose nature of this cosmic religiosity. It emerges in a number of ways. For example, the entangled nature of quantum particles is highlighted to celebrate our connectedness. What’s overlooked, though, is the colossally destructive power of quantum particles too — the fissions and fusions that release the energy of nuclear weapons. The quantum world is not just a strange place. It’s a hideously violent place too. Spiritualities are wary of celebrating that.

The pickiness appears in other ways. Some advocates, for example, don’t actually like references to fine-tuning and human consciousness because they perceive it as anthropocentric — what is sometimes referred to as the anthropic principle, that the cosmos was designed for us. The fear is that this is a way of reasserting human dominance in the order of things, by declaring we are at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of being. Ecologically-minded quantum writers seek something different: a spirituality that puts the planet first. They tend to overlook the priority some interpretations of quantum mechanics give to us observers.

The conclusion would seem to be that quantum spiritualities represent an à la carte approach to the science. It’s not the science that’s driving the spirituality. Rather, the science is being mined and filleted for metaphors and analogies that fit a pre-existing sense of things.

In fact, it ever was thus. When Isaac Newton published his theory of gravity, it was not just astronomers that grew excited. Astrologers did too. The theory of gravity said that bodies act upon one another over vast distances. Isn’t this precisely what astrology had long taught — that the alignment of the planets and stars at your birth had a profound and subtle effect upon the body of the newborn? Newton was saying no such thing, of course. But that did not stop quacks running away with his ideas.

So, I don’t think there is such a thing as quantum spirituality. Instead, there’s quantum physics and then there’s the human quest for meaning. They are distinct enterprises. We gain from both. But throwing them together in a spiritual mash-up creates a spiritual mess. Spirituality is not only about the search for rich metaphors. It’s also about the struggle for fine discernment. The bizarre world of quantum physics teaches us that, too: it is extraordinarily hard to interpret the cosmos aright.

Mark Vernon is a journalist, writer, and former Anglican priest. His books include The Meaning of Friendship, Plato's Podcasts: The Ancients' Guide to Modern Living, and After Atheism: Science, Religion, and the Meaning of Life. He blogs at

Chonyi Taylor - Just noting what happened

A Buddhist Approach to Finding
Release from Addictive Patterns

by Chönyi Taylor

Dharma Quote of the Week

The object of meditation this time is emotion. In other words, we specifically focus on the emotions that arise from our feelings of good, bad, and indifferent. In the first of the equanimity meditations, we made the choice to not follow up these emotions. This time we make the choice to meditate on them. We might choose to meditate on sensations and feelings that arise in our immediate, present environment. We might also choose to meditate on an event or person that sets off strong sensations, feelings, and emotions.

Let's say you choose to base your meditation on an event such as a family argument. This time you contemplate an aspect of that event and try to disentangle the sensations, feelings, and emotions. Sensations are what you feel with your body. Feelings assess whether that sensation is nice, nasty, or neutral. What emotions arise as a result of those sensations and feelings?

As we now know, equanimity means not getting caught in further exaggerations: "Oh, I am so bad because this is what I did," "Look how good I am," "How could anyone love someone like me?" and so on. In this meditation, equanimity means not judging whether we are good or bad people, but just noting what happened.

--from Enough! A Buddhist Approach to Finding Release from Addictive Patterns by Chonyi Taylor, published by Snow Lion Publications

Enough! • Now at 5O% off
(Good through January 14th, 2011).

Coming soon...
Watch for the latest edition of
Snow Lion: The Buddhist Magazine and Catalog
in the next few weeks.

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Thursday, January 06, 2011

Rick Hanson - How Did Humans Evolve the Most Loving Brain on Earth?

Interesting new post from Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom.

How Did Humans Evolve the Most Loving Brain on Earth?

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. - Neuropsychologist, Author

How did we evolve the most loving brain on the planet?

Humans are the most sociable species on earth -- for better and for worse.

On the one hand, we have the greatest capacities for empathy, communication, friendship, romance, complex social structures and altruism. On the other, we have the greatest capacities for shaming, emotional cruelty, sadism, envy, jealousy, discrimination and other forms of dehumanization, and wholesale slaughter of our fellow humans.

In other words, to paraphrase a Native American teaching, a wolf of love and a wolf of hate live in the heart of every person.

Many factors shape each of these two wolves, including biological evolution, culture, economics and personal history. Here, I'd like to comment on key elements of the neural substrate of bonding and love; in my next blog, I'll write about the evolution of aggression and hate; then, in the next several posts, we'll explore the crucial skill of empathy, perhaps the premier way to feed the wolf of love.

These are complex subjects, so I hope you'll forgive some simplifications. Here we go.


The growing length of childhood coevolved with the enlarging of the brain -- which has tripled in size over the last 2.5 million years, since the time of the first tool-making hominids -- and with the development of complex bonding, which includes friendship, romantic love, parent-child attachment and loyalty to a group.

As the brain grew bigger, childhood needed to be longer, because there was so much to learn. To keep a vulnerable child alive for many years, we evolved strong bonds between parents and children, between mates, within extended family groups and within bands as a whole -- all in order to sustain "the village it takes to raise a child." Bands with better teamwork outcompeted other bands for scarce resources; because breeding occurred primarily within bands, genes for bonding, cooperation, and altruism proliferated within the human genome.

Numerous physical, social and psychological factors promote bonding. Let's focus on physical factors and then drill down further to examine two chemicals inside your brain: dopamine and oxytocin. Both are neurotransmitters, and oxytocin also functions as a hormone when it acts outside the nervous system.

(By the way, dopamine and oxytocin, like many other biochemical factors, are present in other mammals, too, but as with most things human, their effects are much more nuanced and elaborated with us.)


It's an error to reduce love to chemicals, since so many other factors are at work in the brain and mind as well, so let's hold this material in perspective.

That said, it appears that when people are in love, among other neurological activities, two parts of their brain really get activated. They are called the caudate nucleus and the tegmentum. The caudate is a reward center of the brain, and the tegmentum is a region of the brain stem that sends dopamine to it; dopamine tracks how rewarding something is.

In effect, being in love rewards the pleasure centers in your brain, which then crave whatever it was that was so rewarding -- in other words, your beloved. Those reward centers are the same ones that light up when people win the lottery. Or use cocaine.

And being rejected in love activates a part of the brain called the insula, which is the same region that lights up when we are in physical pain.

So we are doubly motivated to hold fast to the object of our love: feel the pleasure, and avoid the pain.

Interestingly, when people are in lust, rather than in love, different systems of the brain get activated, notably the hypothalamus and the amygdala.

The hypothalamus regulates drives like hunger and thirst. Interestingly, the word in the early records of the teachings of the Buddha that is translated in English as the "desire" or "attachment" or "clinging" that is the root of suffering has the fundamental meaning of "thirst," so it's pretty likely that the hypothalamus is involved in much of the clinging that leads to suffering.

The amygdala handles emotional reactivity, and both it and the hypothalamus are involved in arousal of the organism and readiness for action. (While these systems are centrally involved in fight-or-flight responses to stress, they also get engaged in energizing activities that feel emotionally positive, like cheering on your favorite team, or fantasizing about your sweetheart.)

These neural components may shed some light on the subjective experience of being in love, which commonly feels softer, more "Aaaaahh, how sweet!" than the "Rawwrh, gotta have it!" intensity of lust.

That said, dopamine -- increased in love -- triggers testosterone production, which is a major factor in the sex drive of both men and women.

So, in short, we fall in love, among other neural circuits and psychological complexities, the same reward chemicals involved in drug addiction lead us to crave our beloved and want sex with him or her. Sorry to be mechanistic here, but you get the idea.

The intended result, in the evolutionary playbook, is, of course, babies.

Then what?


Oxytocin promotes bonding between mothers and children, and between mates so that they work together to keep those kids alive.

For example, in women, oxytocin triggers the let-down reflex in nursing and is involved in that blissful, oceanic feeling of peace and comfort and love experienced by many women while breastfeeding.

It also seems to be part of the female response to stress (more than in men, as women have much more oxytocin than men do), in part by encouraging what Shelley Taylor at UCLA has termed "tend-and-befriend" behaviors in women when they are stressed.

(Of course, men, too, will often reach out to others and be friendly during tough times, whether it's crunch quarter at the office, or somewhere in a dusty war -- another example of how there are many pathways in the brain to important functional results.)

The experiential qualities of oxytocin are pleasurable feelings of relaxation and rightness, so it is an internal reward for all bonding behaviors -- not just with mates.

Oxytocin encourages sociability; for example, when oxytocin capabilities are knocked out in laboratory mice, their relationships with other mice are very disturbed.

And oxytocin dampens the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis -- besides having functional benefits, this is another pathway for rewarding, and thus encouraging, bonding behaviors.

What triggers this warm-and-fuzzy, let's-get-together-now chemical?

Oxytocin is released in both women and men:

  • When nipples are stimulated (such as through nursing)
  • During orgasm, promoting the afterglow of warm affection (and a tendency, sometimes annoying in a partner, to fall asleep!)
  • During extended physical contact, especially "skin-to-skin" contact (e.g., cuddling children, long hugs with friends, teens forming packs on the couch, lovers caressing after sex)
  • When moving together harmoniously, like dancing
  • When there are warm feelings of rapport or love; a strong sense of compassion and kindness probably entails releases of oxytocin, though I haven't seen a study on that specific subject (a great Ph.D. dissertation for someone).
  • Probably during devotional experiences, such as in prayer, or while in the presence of certain kinds of spiritual teachers

Probably, oxytocin can also be released just by imagining -- the more vividly, the better -- the activities just mentioned, particularly when combined with warm feelings.

Of course, dopamine and oxytocin are just two of the many factors at work in our relationships. For example, philosophical values or ideals of universal compassion, such as in the major religions of the world, can also influence a person's behavior greatly, with or without any measurable surges of dopamine or oxytocin.

Nonetheless, appreciating the biochemical factors at work on Valentine's Day, or at any time we experience bonding or love, can help a person not get quite so swept away by the ups and downs of relationships.


For more on the topic of love, see part three of my book (chapters 8, 9 and 10), "Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom."

Marcelo Gleiser - Cosmos Vs. Chaos: Entropic Thoughts For A New Year

Theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser, who blogs at NPR's 13.7 Culture & Cosmos group blog, had some thoughts on the end of 2010 and the arrival of another new year.

He muses that part of the impact of order in nature is to create disorder - which feels to me like the scared dance of chaos.

It happened again, the year is gone. Some people think it went too fast, others too slow. We want to learn from our experiences, avoid repeating mistakes, start doing new things, activities that now make sense, that recently became compelling: a new diet, a new exercise routine, a new blog, volunteering for a charity. We do it to make the new year new, to separate it from the one that just finished, to make it better and, in the process, to make us better.

We are busy creatures, trying to undo Nature’s trend of undoing. We try to bring order, some measure of control over the disorder around us: cosmos vs. chaos.

Einstein once remarked that of all theories of physics, the one that he’d bet wouldn’t change is thermodynamics, the study of heat and disorder. Gravity could change, quantum mechanics could change, even electromagnetism could change. But the three laws of thermodynamics are here to stay. The first says that energy is conserved. The second that in an isolated system (that is, a system that doesn’t exchange energy with the outside world) disorder — entropy — grows. The third says that you can’t cool a system below “absolute zero,” equivalent to a temperature of -459 Fahrenheit. The reason is simple: you can’t take away heat from something that has none left.

Some may object to what I said above, that Nature has a trend of undoing things, and state that Nature creates all the time, that we see order all around us, in flowers, rainbows and, of course, in ourselves. Well, we are not a closed system: we, animals, plants, Earth, exchange energy with each other and, most importantly, with the Sun. We are solar creatures, completely dependent on the Sun for our existence. In fact, the balance is precarious; if the Sun misbehaved a bit we would be toast.

But none of this stuff today.

A lot of the order that we see around us, from hurricanes to waves to storms — like the one that just hit the Northeast (see Adam’s post yesterday), living creatures big and small, all can be interpreted as mechanisms to increase disorder, degrading the luminous energy coming from the Sun into amorphous infrared radiation that the Earth exhales back into outer space. The second law says it in a gloomy way: the structures that exist now are bumps on the road to an inexorable end where disorder will triumph. This kind of thinking made many people unhappy in the 19th Century. It still does today. Maybe it’s time to shift our focus. Something else to do this coming year.

To obsess over what will happen in the “end” is to miss what goes on now. What matters is what happens in between.

We and all other living creatures (and hurricanes and rainbows) are the spurts of order that makes it all worthwhile. The wonder is in the richness of forms that do emerge en route to disorder, the holdouts against decay. To look at things from a one-dimensional perspective tends to lead us into a very distorted view of reality. This is John Keats’ (mistaken) critique of science that we find in his poem Lamia, that reason “unweaves the rainbow,” that to use it to interpret reality is to take away the beauty of Nature. I’d say that to use only reason is the mistake: There are many ways to look at a rainbow and they all serve different purposes and have useful meanings.

A rainbow should be looked at in many different ways. Only then can we admire it fully.

Science and scientists are not one-dimensional; we don’t look at Nature only from the light of reason. To look for explanations behind natural phenomena is, as Einstein remarked, akin to an act of devotion. To admire a flower or a rainbow for their beauty and to then try to understand their function within a wider natural landscape only adds to their beauty. In this sense, there is a religious aspect to science. The word religion comes from “religare,” to reconnect. But reconnect with what? Different choices for different religions. As we search for the laws that describe Nature and its creations, we are reconnecting with our cosmic origins. This is my religare, the one that brings meaning to my life and makes me whole. If life is a struggle against the inexorable mandate of entropic growth and material decay, it is even more beautiful for it.

Why not call it sacred?

Davie Yoon - Do Infants Possess a Social Sense (Encoding others beliefs)?

This is an interesting research review from Davie Yoon's blog at the International Cognition and Culture Institute. There have been several studies now that examine how infants are quite capable of making sense of their environment - including forming a cognitive sense their primary caregivers - and this one seems to add to that material.

The study (full text is not available without subscription):

The Social Sense: Susceptibility to Others’ Beliefs in Human Infants and Adults


Human social interactions crucially depend on the ability to represent other agents’ beliefs even when these contradict our own beliefs, leading to the potentially complex problem of simultaneously holding two conflicting representations in mind. Here, we show that adults and 7-month-olds automatically encode others’ beliefs, and that, surprisingly, others’ beliefs have similar effects as the participants’ own beliefs. In a visual object detection task, participants’ beliefs and the beliefs of an agent (whose beliefs were irrelevant to performing the task) both modulated adults’ reaction times and infants’ looking times. Moreover, the agent’s beliefs influenced participants’ behavior even after the agent had left the scene, suggesting that participants computed the agent’s beliefs online and sustained them, possibly for future predictions about the agent’s behavior. Hence, the mere presence of an agent automatically triggers powerful processes of belief computation that may be part of a “social sense” crucial to human societies.

Full Citation:
Kovács, A.M., Téglás, E. & Endress, A.D. (2010, Dec. 24). The Social Sense: Susceptibility to Others' Beliefs in Human Infants and Adults. Science, Vol. 330 no. 6012: pp. 1830-1834. DOI: 10.1126/science.1190792
Yoon asks some good questions about the study. Are these skills innate (I suspect they are, a way to enhance survival chances)? Is this human-specific or does it reflect other primates or other mammals?
The Smurf Studies: Do 7-month-olds have a "social sense"?
Davie Yoon's blog
Written by Davie Yoon
Sunday, 02 January 2011

In a recent paper published in Science (24 December 2010) and entitled "The Social Sense: Susceptibility to Others' Beliefs in Human Infants and Adults", Agnes Kovacs, Ernő Téglás and Ansgar Denis Endress describe a striking set of experiments that may be of interest to ICCI readers, and suggest that "adults and 7-month-olds automatically encode others' beliefs, and that, surprisingly, others' beliefs have similar effects as the participants' own beliefs." These studies add to a growing empirical literature that started with Onishi & Baillargeon 2005 and that stands in contrast to Sally-Ann-style studies of false belief (which rely on explicit predictions and suggest it is not until 4 or 5 years that children can represent others' false beliefs). Here, the authors argue that representing an agent's beliefs -- even when they contradict one's own beliefs, and even when that agent has left the scene -- is triggered automatically and may be part of an innate human "social sense."

Around the Department of Cognitive Science at the CEU in Budapest, these are known as the "smurf studies", because they all feature a movie with different smurf dolls and a ball that rolls behind an occluder (Figure 1).

Kovacs et al, Figure 1

The main measure for adults is reaction time after the occluder is removed to detect whether a ball is present or absent. Adults are faster to detect the presence of a ball behind the occluder if they and the smurf both know that the ball should be there (true belief) AND are similarly quick even if they know the ball shouldn't be there, but the smurf would think it is there (false belief). To get at the question of whether this sort of automatic agent-belief representation is present early in life and thus possibly innate or at the very least pre-verbal, they tested 7 month olds in a looking time version of the adult experiments. Here they measure looking time to the "no ball" outcome, as an index of how surprised the infant is that the ball isn't there. The infant looks longer if the ball should have been there and is gone vs. the ball shouldn't be there, and it's gone (true belief). They ALSO look longer if they knew the ball shouldn't be there, but the smurf would think it IS there (false belief)! Hence both adults and infants are influenced in their expectations not only by their own beliefs but also by that of another agent, even if the agents beliefs are in contradiction with their own!

Aside from the relevancy of these results for theory of mind and social cognitive developmental research -- these studies also raise questions about the nature of mental representation and memory across delay. It's also a very meaty paper. There is a lot of data and a lot of ideas and hypotheses to sink our teeth into.

As Gyorgi would say, three cheers to Kovacs and colleagues for this exciting contribution to the social cognition literature. I only hope that they and others in the field will next address the crucial question of how it all happens!

Further questions - Davie Yoon

How human-specific is the phenomenon described in this paper? What about other primates, or human-domesticated species, or other non-human-domesticated yet socially-complex species?

Is the capacity for such mental representation innate? Will we find the same pattern of behavior in newborn infants? What about dark-reared or otherwise visually naive animals?

Does an individual's aptitude with this class of mental representations have important consequences for other aspects of that individual's social life? For example, would the quality of these representations predict an individual's language learning trajectory, risk for social communicative disorders like autism, etc?

How are neural representations for unseen objects that do and do not match reality stored differently? How about one's own versus another's representation of such objects?

Are the behavioral effects described in the paper consistent with an advantage or interference effect? This would require comparing the current results with measures of adult RT and infant looking time to a baseline event in which no information about the presence of absence of the ball is provided prior to the inclusion event.

Apologies to the authors if I have missed discussion of these issues that appear already in the manuscript or supplementary materials.