Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Myth Buster: Evelyn Hooker Exploded the Notion that Homosexuality Was a Mental Illness

From the most recent issue of the APA's Monitor on Psychology, "time capsule" tribute to the woman who got homosexuality delisted as a mental illness and removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III of the American Psychiatric Association.

The myth buster

Evelyn Hooker’s groundbreaking research exploded the notion that homosexuality was a mental illness, ultimately removing it from the DSM.

By Katharine S. Milar
February 2011, Vol 42, No. 2
Print version: page 24

In 1953, Evelyn Hooker, PhD, applied for a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) grant to conduct research on “normal homosexuals.” During this period of American history, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was seeking out communists wherever he suspected they might be lurking; homosexual acts were a crime; bomb shelters were springing up in backyards; and the term “normal” homosexual was thought to be an oxymoron. A variety of medical and psychological treatments to “cure” homosexuality were employed, including ice pick lobotomies, electroshock, chemical castration with hormonal treatment or aversive conditioning. Gay parties were raided by the police, particularly in election years when a crackdown on “sexual perversion” was seen as a positive step in the fight on crime.

Hooker’s proposal to study gay men began as a result of a close friendship she developed with a former University of California, Los Angeles, student, Sam From, who introduced her to the gay subculture. She became one of the heterosexuals “in the know.” It was From who told her it was her “scientific duty” to study homosexuals and promised her access to all the subjects she needed. Initially she demurred but eventually, with the encouragement of From and her colleague Bruno Klopfer, Hooker began an investigation that would ultimately result in the removal of homosexuality as a form of psychopathology from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III of the American Psychiatric Association. This research was the culmination of Hooker’s lifelong interest in social justice.

Humble beginnings

Evelyn Hooker was born Evelyn Gentry Sept. 2, 1907 in North Platte, Neb., the sixth of nine children. Photos of her as a school child show that she towered above most of her classmates; she was nearly 6 feet tall as an adult. Her family was quite poor, and neither parent was educated past fourth grade. Her adolescence was colored by these social stigmata; she attributed her study of “an oppressed, deprived people,” (homosexual men) to her early experience (Garnets & Kimmel, 2003, p. 36). After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Colorado with Karl Muenzinger, she aspired to earn a doctorate at Yale, but the department chair at Colorado refused to recommend a woman to his alma mater. Instead, she completed her doctorate in experimental psychology at Johns Hopkins University in 1932, studying vicarious trial-and-error learning in rats. A fellowship in 1937–38 took her to Berlin to pursue her increasing interest in clinical psychology at the Institute for Psychotherapy. She lived with a Jewish family and witnessed, with dismay, Hitler’s rise to power. Much later, after her return to the United States, she learned that all members of her host family perished in the concentration camps.

A trip to the Soviet Union at the end of her fellowship year exposed her to another totalitarian regime and caused problems for her after she returned to a tenure track position at Whittier College, in Whittier, Calif. Suspected of holding subversive political views, she lost her position. She appealed to her graduate mentor at Johns Hopkins, Knight Dunlap, who was then chair of the department at UCLA, but he could only offer her a research associate position in the psychology department, telling Hooker that the three women in the department were “cordially disliked” and he could not appoint another woman. She was instead appointed to the UCLA Extension division, and it was here that she met Sam From as a student in her introductory psychology course.

Stimulated by her experience with various forms of discrimination and her friendship with From, Hooker began interviewing gay men who were friends or friends of friends. In the middle of her investigations, her husband, Donn Caldwell, an alcoholic, divorced her, saying he didn’t want to destroy her as he was destroying himself. In emotional turmoil, Hooker left her research and California for a time. In 1948, she returned to her job at UCLA and rented a small house from a distinguished professor of English Edward Niles Hooker. They married in 1951.

Back in California, now happily married and without heavy teaching commitments, Evelyn Hooker returned to her research on gay men. She decided that her previous interviews were not useful; they had not been planned carefully enough. So, she decided to apply for a grant from NIMH. The chief of the grants division, John Eberhart, flew out to interview her to see who this woman was who claimed she had access to any number of gay men who were neither psychiatric patients nor prisoners. He told her, given the climate of McCarthyism, everyone was being investigated and if she got the grant, “you won’t know why and we won’t know why” (1993, p. 450). (Eberhart later told Hooker that her project was derisively referred to as “The Fairy Project” by some federal officials in Washington.) Funding was granted and Hooker embarked on her study.

She recruited 30 exclusively homosexual and 30 exclusively heterosexual men, matched for age, IQ scores and education. With the aid of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay-rights organizations, access to homosexuals was no problem, but finding heterosexual men who would agree to participate was very difficult. She could not conduct the study on the UCLA campus in spite of pressure to do so. The nature of the research required strict confidentiality, so she used a small study on her spacious Los Angeles estate on Saltair Avenue. She approached firemen, policemen, maintenance workers, any heterosexual men she could persuade to participate. Her husband said, “No man is safe on Saltair Avenue.”

Each participant took three projective tests: The Rorschach, the Make a Picture Story Test (MAPS) and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). After scoring the tests herself, she then gave the test protocols with all identifying information removed to experts in those tests: Bruno Klopfer for the Rorschach, Edward Shneidman, the inventor of MAPS, and Mortimer Meyer for the TAT. An adjustment rating was assigned to each participant based on the test scores, and then the experts were given paired Rorschach protocols, one from a gay participant, one from a straight participant and asked to identify the homosexual. As with heterosexuals, homosexuals’ adjustment varied from superior to disturbed. Two-thirds of the research participants in each group were judged as having average or better adjustment. Further, experts were unable to identify the gay participant’s protocol from the matched pairs at better than chance accuracy. There was no association between homosexuality and psychological maladjustment. One of her experts, who was sure he could distinguish the groups, asked for another chance to review the protocols, but was no more successful the second time than the first.

Hooker reported that one of the most exciting days of her life was the day she presented the results of her research at APA’s 1956 Annual Convention in Chicago. This ground-breaking research and the work that followed on the homosexual subculture led to Hooker’s award in 1992 for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology in the Public Interest from APA. In her response to this honor, she shared the award with the gay and lesbian community and expressed pleasure that her research and her “long advocacy of a scientific view of homosexuality” could make their lives and the lives of their families better. She closed her address by reading from a letter she had received from a gay man thanking her for her work and saying, “I think you did it because you knew what love was when you saw it, and you knew that gay love was like all other love.”

~ Katharine S. Milar, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Earlham College and historical editor for “Time Capsule.”

Article Sidebar
Hooker’s legacy continues

Suggested reading

  • Garnets, L.D., & Kimmel, D. (2003). What a light it shed: The life of Evelyn Hooker. In L.D. Garnets & D.C. Kimmel (Eds.) Perspectives on gay, lesbian and bisexual experiences (pp. 31–49). New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Harrison, J. (Producer), & Schmiechen, R. (Director). (1991). Changing Our Minds, The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker. [film]. Distributed by Frameline.
  • Hooker, E. (1993). Reflections of a 40-year exploration: A scientific view on homosexuality. American Psychologist, 48, 450–453.
  • Minton, H.L. (2002). Departing from deviance: A history of homosexual rights and emancipatory science in America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Shneidman, E.S. (1998). Evelyn Hooker (1907–1996). [Obituary]. American Psychologist, 53, 480–481.

Upaya Dharma Podcasts - Zen Brain 2011: Consciousness and the Fundamental Nature of Mind Series: All 7 Parts

Upaya Zen Center

I have come to really look forward to the excellent Buddhism and Brain Science work that comes from the Upaya Zen Center. They offer the annual Zen Brain conference, which I WILL one day attend, and which features important people in their respective fields as presenters. This year is no different.

Here is the description from the first installment:

Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice distinguish between selflessness and fundamental mind, on the one hand, and mental states conditioned by the cognitive and affective distortion of self, on the other hand. In recent years, neuroscience has contributed new insights into the effects of meditation practice on the brain and behavior, as well as insights into how wholesome and unwholesome mental states and traits arise from and affect the workings of the brain and body.

Neuroscience also illuminates the brain systems underlying various modes of consciousness across the sleep-wake cycle, including waking states of perception, emotion, and memory, as well as dreaming, lucid dreaming, and deep sleep. In this retreat, prominent scientists and scholars will explore the koan of the basic or original nature of mind from the perspectives of Buddhist theory and practice, neuroscience, and philosophy of mind.

Special consideration will be given to the detailed conceptions of mind and consciousness in the Buddhist philosophical schools known as Yogacara/Cittamatra (Yoga-Practice/Mind-Only) and Madhyamaka (Middle Way), which also support and inform Zen. The potential cross-fertilization between these schools and contemplative neuroscience research will be emphasized at this retreat. Talks, discussions, and explorations with participants are embedded within Zazen practice throughout each day.

This year's presenters: Joan Halifax, Al Kaszniak, Richard Davidson, John Dunne, Evan Thompson, and Cliff Saron. Evan Thompson is particular favorite of mine - his work on embodied cognition is excellent - a recent example (in press) analyzes Daniel Dennett's "brain in a vat" thought experiment.

Zen Brain 2011: Consciousness and the Fundamental Nature of Mind Series: All 7 Parts

Recorded: Thursday Feb 3, 2011

The 7 part series Zen Brain: Consciousness and the Fundamental Nature of Mind is now published. You can access the desired part of the series by clicking on its link below:

1-20: Joan Halifax, Al Kaszniak, Richard Davidson, John Dunne, Evan Thompson, Cliff Saron: Zen Brain 2011 (Part 1 of 7)

1-21: John Dunne: Zen Brain 2011 (Part 2 of 7)

1-21: Richard Davidson: Zen Brain 2011 (Part 3 of 7)

1-21: Joan Halifax, Al Kaszniak, Richard Davidson, John Dunne, Evan Thompson, Cliff Saron: Zen Brain 2011 (Part 4 of 7)

1-22: Evan Thompson: Zen Brain 2011 (Part 5 of 7)

1-22: Joan Halifax, Al Kaszniak, Richard Davidson, John Dunne, Evan Thompson, Cliff Saron: Zen Brain 2011 (Part 6 of 7)

1-23: Joan Halifax, Al Kaszniak, Richard Davidson, John Dunne, Evan Thompson, Cliff Saron: Zen Brain 2011 (Part 7 of 7)

Shrink Rap Radio #256 – Mindful Sleep, Mindful Dreams with Rubin Naiman, PhD

Cool episode - I actually met this guy a year or two back at a lecture here in Tucson. One of my former clients studied with him and now is the administrator for a group of sleep clinics.

Shrink Rap Radio #256 – Mindful Sleep, Mindful Dreams with Rubin Naiman, PhD

Rubin Naiman, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in integrative sleep and dream medicine. He is director of Circadian Health Associates, an organization that provides information, goods and services in support of sleep health.

Dr. Naiman completed his undergraduate studies at Rutgers University and the University of Arizona where he received a B.A. in Anthropology with honors and high distinction. He completed his M.S. in Rehabilitation Counseling also at the University of Arizona, and earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Alliant University (formerly U.S.I.U. and C.S.P.P.) in San Diego. Dr. Naiman has maintained a private psychology practice for more than twenty-five years and has worked as a consultant to businesses and organizations. For most of the past 20 years, he has focused on sleep and dream health services and products.

For more than a decade, Dr. Naiman served as the sleep and dream specialist at Canyon Ranch Health Resort in Tucson, where he founded the first formal sleep center at a spa. Subsequently, he served as director of sleep programs for Miraval Resort. Dr. Naiman has worked with a diverse clientele ranging from Fortune 500 CEOs to world class athletes, from homemakers to statesmen and entertainers. He has also provided consultation to organizations ranging from world class resorts to top rock and roll bands. Over the past 25 years Dr. Naiman has taught at a number of colleges and universities. He is a member of the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and the International Association for the Study of Dreams.

Dr. Naiman serves as the sleep specialist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, directed by Dr. Andrew Weil. He is the author of groundbreaking works including Healing Night, Healthy Sleep (with Dr. Andrew Weil), The Sleep Advisor, ToSleep ToNight and The Yoga of Sleep.

A psychology podcast by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

Friday, February 04, 2011

No Kid Hungry - Roll Up Your Sleeves And Put An End To Childhood Hunger

How we all can get involved to stop childhood hunger and starvation . . . .

Roll Up Your Sleeves And Put An End To Childhood Hunger



Share Our Strength prides itself on its renowned platforms to end childhood hunger for the nearly 17 million American children facing this invisible hunger.

Participate in One of Our Events or Programs

  • Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation launches with a sold out event in DC! Join the nation’s hottest chefs and mixologists at more than 40 Taste of the Nation events across the country. Events are volunteer-run and 100% of ticket sales help fight childhood hunger in America. For more information or to buy a ticket .
  • Share Our Strength’s Great American Bake Sale, presented by Domino Sugar and C&H, is a national campaign that mobilizes Americans to end childhood hunger by holding bake sales in their communities. This year’s campaign runs until July 31. Join us and hold a bake sale.
  • Share Our Strength’s A Tasteful Pursuit® is a national touring dinner series that features some of the nation’s best chefs who take their talents to the nation’s top culinary cities to create delicious, multi-course dinners paired with ultra-premium wines. Nearly a dozen dinners this year. All benefit Share Our Strength’s work to end childhood hunger in America. Attend an event.
  • Share Our Strength’s Great American Dine Out is a new national campaign that mobilizes thousands of restaurants and millions of consumers to dine out and help fight childhood hunger. Participate in the Great American Dine Out, September 20-26, 2009, and help end childhood hunger in America.
  • Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters™ is a nutrition education program that teaches low-income families how to get the most nutrition out of a limited budget. Volunteer.

Make a Donation

A little show of strength from your checkbook will go a long way for America’s nearly 17 million children who face hunger. Donate Now.


Having the strength to give a little of your time is one of the greatest gifts these kids will ever receive. Choose your favorite way to volunteer with a Share Our Strength event or program.

Hold a Food Drive

Food drives are essential sources of food for community food banks. They rely heavily on food donations to distribute much needed food to struggling people. Learn more about how you can hold a food drive, but remember to take pictures and then tell us about your experiences via email or on facebook.

Become a Sponsor

We’ve earned the reputation for being one of America’s most effective nonprofits and won acclaim for our enterprising corporate partnerships. If you’re interested becoming a corporate sponsor with Share Our Strength and our efforts to end childhood hunger, learn more.

Involve your organization

Workplaces, social and professional groups, parent groups, places of worship, charities and more can hold a Great American Bake Sale, buy tickets to our culinary events or donate services, product or dollars. If you’re a restaurant, we have even more ways you can help.

Biology of Consciousness - Gerald M. Edelman, Joseph A. Gally & Bernard J. Baars

I like Gerald Edelman's books (Edelman shared the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work with Rodney Robert Porter on the immune system) - and I liked Baars' Global Workspace Theory when I heard him lecture about (and read an article or two) - but I did not know they both are materialists (or I somehow ignored that fact).

This is an interesting new article in which Edelman and Baars team up with their materialist perspectives - show that they are complementary, not competitive.

Biology of consciousness
Gerald M. Edelman*, Joseph A. Gally and Bernard J. Baars
The Neurosciences Institute, San Diego, CA, USA

The Dynamic Core and Global Workspace hypotheses were independently put forward to provide mechanistic and biologically plausible accounts of how brains generate conscious mental content. The Dynamic Core proposes that reentrant neural activity in the thalamocortical system gives rise to conscious experience. Global Workspace reconciles the limited capacity of momentary conscious content with the vast repertoire of long-term memory. In this paper we show the close relationship between the two hypotheses. This relationship allows for a strictly biological account of phenomenal experience and subjectivity that is consistent with mounting experimental evidence. We examine the constraints on causal analyses of consciousness and suggest that there is now sufficient evidence to consider the design and construction of a conscious artifact.

The full article is available at the link above - open access is awesome - and you can also download the PDF version.

They propose to take on and solve the "hard problem" consciousness - the qualia or subjective element - why "red" is red and not soft, or cold.

Qualia, Subjectivity, and the So-Called Hard Problem

How can we account for qualia, subjectivity, and the self? According to the selectional theory based on the behavioral trinity, the experience of qualia occurs in each individual as a set of discriminations: “heat” is not “green,” “green” is not “touch,” etc. In this view, the complex unified scene at any given moment is a composite of multiple different discriminations integrated within the Dynamic Core.

It has been proposed that no matter how adequately a biological account appears to explain perceptual categorization, memory, and various mechanistic aspects of how the brain works, we remain confounded by the so-called “hard problem”: an inability to explain in scientific terms the phenomenal “feel” of conscious experience (Chalmers, 1996). Indeed, many people consider this to be an essential and mysterious problem, one that cannot be solved. Unlike the subjects of other scientific accounts, phenomenal experience entails a first-person point of view, and the suggestion is that it cannot be explained by scientific means. Qualia, the felt contents of consciousness, are therefore concluded to be possibly beyond scientific explanation (Chalmers, 1996). Here, we will attempt to refute this position.

What if Tarantino Directed the Super Bowl Broadcast?

This is awesome - not just Tarantino, but also David Lynch, Jean-Luc Godard, Wes Anderson, and Werner Herzog.

Via Open Culture (and Slate).

What would it look like if our great directors took creative control over the Super Bowl broadcast? Slate imagines it, showing you how Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, Wes Anderson, Werner Herzog and Jean-Luc Godard would put their cinematic stamp on the broadcast. The clip gets better as it moves along…

Enjoy the big game. And, if movies are more your thing, don’t forget to visit our big list of 340 Free Movies Online. Films by some of the great directors mentioned above appear on the list.

Wangchen Rinpoche - How Purification Works

The Nyungne Method of
Thousand-Armed Chenrezig
by Wangchen Rinpoche

Dharma Quote of the Week

How Purification Works
During Nyungne [fasting] practice, true purification is possible primarily because of the power of Chenrezig's compassion and blessing, as well as our faith, devotion, and correct motivation to do the practice. When such causes and conditions come together, a result inevitably occurs, and this result is understood as the interdependently-arising nature of all phenomena.

For the most part, enlightened and unenlightened phenomena all arise due to this interdependently-arising nature. As a spiritual practitioner, the basic qualities one must bring to the practice are faith, devotion, and a trust in the power of the practice and Chenrezig. These qualities stem from our own pure nature of mind, a purity that is identical to Chenrezig's heart, that is, unceasing love and compassion. When these two things are combined together, our devotion and faith and Chenrezig's love and compassion, one could say miracles happen; a true purification takes place.

It has been said that when one is sitting before the mandala of Chenrezig, one should believe that although Chenrezig is not physically visible to us, in fact he is really there in front of us. Just as we would be very careful of our thoughts and behavior if we were in the presence of a powerful and clairvoyant enlightened guru, in the same way we must generate vigilance so that we don't act shamefully in front of this great being. If we develop such vigilance and noble habit, then our negativities will automatically decrease. (p.11)

--from Buddhist Fasting Practice: The Nyungne Method of Thousand-Armed Chenrezig by Wangchen Rinpoche, published by Snow Lion Publications

Buddhist Fasting Practice • Now at 5O% off
(Good through February 11th).

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Sylvia Boorstein - The Transformational Capacity of Tenderness

This is a nice dharma talk from Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

Sylvia Boorstein - The Transformational Capacity of Tenderness

Sylvia Boorstein

My greatest joy is giving the gift of love and hope through the dharma, knowing it is possible for humans to transform their hearts. These dharma gifts include paying attention, practicing clarity and kindness and addressing the suffering of the world--which, of course, includes ourselves.

Right now I'm most enthusiastic about the first gift, paying attention, because it makes every part of our lives better. Paying attention allows us to become more clear, and each moment of clarity is a gift to ourselves and those around us. Clarity keeps us from contributing to more suffering. The gift of clarity and kindness also supports a peaceful heart, which allows us to address the suffering in the world with love. When we practice clarity, we offer the possibility for humans to live in a different way. But a peaceful heart is only the beginning. We also have to take action, go out and directly address the suffering with peace in our hearts.

As a parent, grandparent and a psychotherapist, I teach out of the stories of my life and the lives of those around me. I am especially touched by personal narrative, accounts of spiritual journeys, and how these become vehicles for connecting with the dharma. I believe in revealing my own story so that others are more at ease to reveal theirs. Truth talking is a way out of suffering. Discovering how our hearts and minds work and creating a dialogue supports right speech practice. This is an on-going primary practice that we can do all the time. My hope is that I encourage people how to pay attention and to tell the truth by example.

The Transformational Capacity of Tenderness 51:49

Download Stream Order

Spirit Rock Meditation Center: Monday and Wednesday Talks


Cindy Ricardo - Mindfulness: Finding Peace in the Midst of a Storm

This article is a nice reminder that we are not required to be at the mercy of our emotions, our struggles, our pain. We can choose to turn toward our suffering and not be in a battle with it. I know it sounds impossible from the outside, but with practice it not only ceases to be something out of reach, but it also stops being something that feels frightening.

This comes from the always useful and relevant

Mindfulness: Finding Peace in the Midst of a Storm

By Cindy Ricardo, LMHC, CIRT, Mindfulness Based Approaches/Contemplative Approaches Topic Expert Contributor

Click here to contact Cindy and/or see her Profile

What do you do when you’re feeling anxious, depressed or stressed out? How do you treat yourself? Are you able to be compassionate towards your own emotional pain or do you engage in self criticism, judgment or blame?

For most of us, our initial reaction to pain is to look around for someone to blame, blame ourselves or ignore our suffering. As humans we avoid pain and seek pleasure. We either avoid pain by getting distracted: taking drugs, drinking, gambling, become workaholics, surf the internet, etc. Or we go to the other extreme, reacting towards the world and ourselves through judgment, blame or criticism. We dwell in reactive thinking (I’m always doing this wrong or he’s always doing it wrong!) which escalates our emotions. Pretty soon we’re on an emotional rollercoaster rolling from one emotion to the next and feeling totally out of control. Neither of these approaches help us respond to our pain. Instead it increases our suffering, intensifies painful emotions and keeps us stuck in a pattern of reactive behaviors that lead to feelings of inadequacy and disconnection.

So why do we engage in behaviors that don’t help?

There are many different reasons behind our reactivity in the face of pain. Some of it has to do with childhood experiences and the how we learned to deal/not deal with our emotions, some of it has to do with our brains and how we’re wired to react when danger or a threat is present. Stereotypical gender roles (for women it’s okay to express feelings through sadness and tears, for some men the only feeling that is okay to express is anger) can greatly influence how we react/respond to our emotions. Spending time trying to figure out the origin of our triggers is important but it can take a long time and doesn’t address the immediate need to alleviate our suffering in the present moment. One approach that does help is the practice of Mindfulness.

Mindfulness – a compassionate approach towards life…

One of the most healing and compassionate approaches to pain that I’ve found is the practice of Mindfulness. The benefits of this practice are wonderful in that it helps us turn towards our suffering with a desire to heal and stay connected with ourselves, the world and others. Mindfulness is a practice that helps us stay in the present moment, becoming aware of what we’re feeling in our bodies, our hearts and learning to notice when we’re hooked into our stories or reactive thoughts. It’s a centering and grounding practice so that instead of creating stories, getting lost in negative thoughts, or reacting towards others out of our defenses we attune to our own pain in a loving way.

Read the whole article.


Thursday, February 03, 2011

Mind, Brain and Consciousness - Do you believe the mind is identical to the brain

From the new Mind, Brain and Consciousness blog at Psychology Today. Dr. Jacob Sage is the author of . . . yes, you guessed it . . . Mind, Brain, and Consciousness.

Do you believe the mind is identical to the brain

Ask yourself, is the functioning brain identical to the mind? If your answer is no, you are a closet dualist. You believe that brain and mind are made of different kinds of stuff. Such a stance will make it hard for you to understand the nature of consciousness. It will make the mental aspects of our lives mysterious and unknowable.

I am a working neurologist who sees brain disease causing mental dysfunction every day. Take the case of Representative Gabrielle Giffords. If she does not recover pretty much full brain function, her mental states will be altered, and she may not be able to function in Congress as she did before the bullet damaged her brain. If the bullet had done more damage than it apparently did, she might not now be fully conscious. Hopefully she will recover. There is the famous case of Phineas Gage, however, in which brain damage to the frontal lobes of the brain by a railfoad spike turned a sober, hard-working man into a lout. His mind was altered because his brain was altered. He was a different person after that spike went through his brain.

The main reason many people remain dualists, however, is because they find it impossible to believe that brain function can entirely explain consciousness. They think that after all the neurotransmitters have hit their receptors and all the neurons have fired, there is still something that has been left out of any explanation of consciousness. The thing that has been left out, they say, is the conscious feeling of what is like to be in a certain state. Furthermore, all the whirling electrons cannot explain why a certain neuronal configuration results in our seeing blue rather than red. Another objection that I have heard is, "What about my soul"? So they conclude than consciousness cannot be fully explained by brain function. But if that is true, where is consciousness and what is it?

As a neurologist, I contend that consciousness is nothing more than the ability of our brain to acquire information (which is the state of being awake) AND all the content that the information contains AND the ability to get all that information into and out of memory. The key word is "ALL". If you have all that, you are conscious of the blue sky and the red sun. Nothing more is needed to be conscious of that beautiful sky. My contention is that the brain can do all that, and, therefore, a functioning brain is identical to a conscious mind. That makes me a materialist and not a dualist. In the coming months, I want to explore these ideas. I want to hear what you think, your objections to my position and your arguments for and against these ideas.

New Caledonian Crows Are Nature's Avian Savants

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I am fascinated with corvids, especially crows and ravens. Ravens are likely one of the smartest creatures on Earth, surpassing most primates and many younger humans. Among crows, who are also very intelligent, the New Caledonian crows are nature's outlier savants - far brighter than their evolutionary niche would require.

Unlike many bird species, crows have a longer maturation period - often at least three years. The New Caledonian crows have very communal social structures; bigger brains even than other corvids; and they are excellent tool makers and users.

My friend Tom Armstrong, also a fan of corvids, sent me this link.

Nurturing Nests Lift These Birds to a Higher Perch

image by Serge Bloch

Amid all the psychosocial caterwauling these days over the relative merits of tiger mothers and helicopter dads, allow me to make a pitch for the quietly dogged parenting style of the New Caledonian crow.

New Caledonian crows are renowned for their toolmaking skills.

In the complexity, fluidity and sophistication of their tool use, their ability to manipulate and bird-handle sticks, leaves, wires, strings and any other natural or artificial object they can find into the perfect device for fishing out food, or fishing out second-, third- or higher-order tools, the crows have no peers in the nonhuman vivarium, and that includes such textbook dexterous smarties as elephants, macaques and chimpanzees.

Videos of laboratory studies with the crows have gone viral, showing the birds doing things that look practically faked. In one famous example from Oxford University, a female named Betty methodically bends a straight piece of wire against the outside of a plastic cylinder to form the shape of a hook, which she then inserts into the plastic cylinder to extract a handled plug from the bottom as deftly as one might pull a stopper from a drain. Talking-cat videos just don’t stand a chance.

So how do the birds get so crafty at crafting? New reports in the journals Animal Behaviour and Learning and Behavior by researchers at the University of Auckland suggest that the formula for crow success may not be terribly different from the nostrums commonly served up to people: Let your offspring have an extended childhood in a stable and loving home; lead by example; offer positive reinforcement; be patient and persistent; indulge even a near-adult offspring by occasionally popping a fresh cockroach into its mouth; and realize that at any moment a goshawk might swoop down and put an end to the entire pedagogical program.

Jennifer C. Holzhaider, the lead author on the two new reports, said that in one year of their three-year field study, the crows they were following gave birth to a total of eight chicks.

“We thought, yay, we’ll have eight juveniles we can watch,” she said. But the goshawks, the rats, the owls and the torrential rains took their toll, and only one of those eight chicks survived. “It’s a hard life in the jungle; that’s all there is to it,” said Dr. Holzhaider.

By studying the social structure and behavior of the crows and the details of their difficult daily lives, the researchers hope to gain new insights into the evolution of intelligence, the interplay between physical and social skillfulness, and the relative importance of each selective force in promoting the need for a big animal brain.

The researchers want to know why it is that, of the 700 or so species of crows, ravens, rooks, jays and magpies that make up the world’s generally clever panoply of corvids, the New Caledonian crow became such an outlier, an avian savant, a YouTube top of the line.

“It’s a big puzzle,” said Russell D. Gray, head of the Auckland lab. “Why them? Why is this species on a small island in the Pacific able to not just use but to manufacture a variety of tools, and in a flexible rather than a rote or programmatic way? Why are they able to do at least as well as chimpanzees on experiments of cognition that show an understanding of the physical properties of the world and an ability to generalize from one problem to the next?”

If the birds learn to avoid holes and barriers in the experimental setting of a plastic tubed box, for example, they will avoid holes and barriers in the very different conditions of a wooden table. “Knowing their social structure,” Dr. Gray said, “is one part of the jigsaw.”

New DNA studies suggest that corvids first arose at the end of the dinosaur era, roughly 65 million years ago, somewhere in the neighborhood of Australia, and radiated outward from there. The ancestors of the New Caledonian crow didn’t travel far before settling on the 220-mile-long land sprig from which the species derives its name.

The modern New Caledonian crow is funereal of bill and feather and, at an average of 12 inches in length and 12 ounces in weight, a middling sort of corvid: much smaller than a common raven, slightly more compact than the ubiquitous American crow, but beefier than a jay or a jackdaw. Brain size is another matter.

“All corvid brains are relatively big,” said Dr. Gray, “but preliminary evidence suggests that the New Caledonian brain is big even for corvids.” Moreover, the brain is preferentially enlarged, displaying impressive bulk in the avian equivalent of the cogitating forebrain, particularly structures involved in associative learning and fine motor skills.

Their bills are also exceptional, “more like a human opposable thumb than the standard corvid beak,” said Dr. Gray.

The bills “appear specialized to hold tools,” said Anne Clark, who studies American crows at the State University of New York at Binghamton but who also has observed New Caledonian crows in the field. “When I was watching them, they seemed to grab a stick whenever they appeared unable to figure something out,” she said, rather as a mathematician has trouble solving a problem without a pencil in hand.

The birds are indefatigable toolmakers out in the field. They find just the right twigs, crack them free of the branch, and then twist the twig ends into needle-sharp hooks. They tear strips from the saw-toothed borders of Pandanus leaves, and then shape the strips into elegant barbed spears.

With their hooks and their spears they extract slugs, insects and other invertebrates from deep crevices in the ground or in trees. The birds are followers of local custom.

Through an arduous transisland survey of patterns left behind in Pandanus leaves by the edge-stripping crows, Gavin Hunt of the University of Auckland determined that toolmaking styles varied from spot to spot, and those styles remained stable over time. In sum, New Caledonian crows have their version of culture.

Being cultured is hard work. In studying the birds’ social life, Dr. Holzhaider and her colleagues confirmed previous observations that New Caledonian crows are not group-living social butterflies, as many crows and ravens are, but instead adhere to a nuclear family arrangement. Males and females pair up and stay together year-round, reaffirming their bond with charming gestures like feeding and grooming each other, sitting close enough to touch, and not even minding when their partner plays with their tools.

Young birds stay with their parents for two years or more — a very extended dependency, by bird standards — and they forage together as a family, chattering all the while. “They have this way of talking in a quiet voice, ‘Waak, waak, waak,’ that sounds really lovely,” said Dr. Holzhaider.

The juveniles need their extended apprenticeship. “They’re incredibly persistent, wildly ripping and hacking at Pandanus leaves, trying to make it work,” said Dr. Holzhaider, “but for six months or so, juveniles are no way able to make a tool.”

The parents step into the breach, offering the trainee food they have secured with their own finely honed tools. “By seeing their parents get a slug out of a tree, they learn that there’s something down there worth searching for,” she said. “That keeps them going.”

The carrot-on-stick approach: It works every time.

Steve Handel - Emotions Are Like Poop

The Emotion Machine is a newish blog penned by Steven Handel - I haven't had a lot of time to explore yet, but he seems to be interested in positive psychology, mindfulness meditation, and various forms of personal growth. The title of this one caught my attention.

I'm not sure I fully agree with his perspective, but it's certainly one way of looking at the issue. I just don't tend to see emotions as a "waste product," they are too important to the system of the self to be considered waste.
Emotions Are Like Poop

I don’t care what you are, whether a Buddhist monk or a sociopath, we all have emotions, and emotions play a huge role in how we think and behave.

In truth, emotions seem to be a byproduct of consciousness itself, our ability to experience the world from our own unique vantage point of self-perception. As human beings, we experience our world through a multitude of different senses. According to most research on perception, humans sense the world in over 10 different modalities: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, balance and acceleration, temperature, proprioception (our 3d representation of how our body is positioned), pain, direction, among other internal receptors in our lungs, bladder, esophagus and more.

This raw sensory “data” conglomerates into what we call everyday experience. It is the building blocks of all our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and relationships.

Our brain is so complex in arranging this data that it becomes a kind of sensory organ all on it’s own. When we reflect on a past event, we can experience that memory in an entirely different way depending on other thoughts and feelings we experience in the moment. Similarly, we can create entirely new sensory experiences through our dreams, imagination, and creativity.

Our minds are designed to eat up information and organize it in significant and meaningful ways. How we digest this information will ultimately affect our thoughts, behaviors, and well-being in the future.

Some information gets deleted, it just isn’t worth remembering. For example, do you remember what you had for lunch a year from today?. Our minds aren’t infinite in memory, so much of what we sense and experience is eventually discarded and forgotten, especially if it’s not very important.

Presumably, it’s only what the mind finds important that we actually remember. Like that time you touched a hot stove when you were 3 years old. That’s something very useful to know for your survival, right? So your brain quickly makes the association “stove → hot → pain.”

Read the whole post.

Meditation program based in Buddhist practice helps reduce violence at Alabama prison

Meditation programs should be available in every prison - and this little article shows that it works to reduce inmate violence, as well as teaching them some good skills (especially for the men who will get out one day and need to reintegrate into society).
Meditation program helps reduce violence AL prison

BESSEMER, Ala. (AP) — Deep inside an overcrowded prison with a reputation for mayhem, convicted killers, robbers and rapists gather in a small room. Eyes closed, they sit silently with their thoughts and consciences.

Their everyday life is just outside in the hall — a cacophony of clanging steel doors, yelling and feet shuffling along cold concrete floors. The noise never really ends; peace is at a premium in Alabama's toughest lockup.

Despite a history of violence at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, which is named for a slain corrections officer, the prison outside Birmingham has become the model for a meditation program that officials say helps inmates learn the self control and social skills they never got in the outside world.

Warden Gary Hetzel doesn't fully understand how the program called Vipassana (which is pronounced vuh-'POSH-uh-nuh) can transform violent inmates into calm men using contemplative Buddhist practices.

But Hetzel knows one thing.

"It works. We see a difference in the men and in the prison. It's calmer," he said of the course that about 10 percent of the prison's inmates have completed.

The word Vipassana means "to see things as they really are," which is also the goal of the intense 10-day program using the meditative technique that dates back 2,500 years.

Vipassana courses are held four times a year in a prison gymnasium, where as many as 40 inmates meditate 10 hours a day. Most sit on cushions on the floor, while a few use chairs.

The courses begin with three days of breathing exercises — the prisoners learn to focus on bodily sensations so intently they feel the exhalations on their upper lip. Students are required to not speak to each other.

Outside volunteers guide their way, along with recordings of chanting and instructions.

On Day 4, students are told to begin letting their deepest thoughts percolate up through their consciousness so they can sense the effects on the body, like tension or anger. The ultimate goal is to learn not to react to those sensations.

Students are forced to grapple with their innermost selves. Some men are brought to tears; a few have thrown up. It's not unusual for half of the students or more to quit or be sent back to the prison population for disobeying the rules.

Those who finish come out changed, prison officials say.

Convicted murderer Grady Bankhead said the hours of meditation forced him to accept responsibility for his crime and helped him find inner peace. Bankhead, who's serving life without parole, radiates calm.

"I've been here for 25 years and this statement is going to sound crazy, but I consider myself the luckiest man in the world," Bankhead, 60, said last month after the latest course at Donaldson.

For Ronald McKeithen, Vipassana became a tool for controlling his actions.

"I had a lot of anger issues, and this has given me a way to deal with it," said McKeithen, 48, serving life without parole for robbery. Eyes shut, his face is relaxed during a weekly meditation session for prisoners who finish the program.

Vipassana courses have been taught in Indian prisons for decades and began in 2002 at Donaldson. The program was temporarily shut down over concerns among some Christians that Vipassana was some sort of evangelical Buddhism — it's not, teachers and prisoners insist — but it restarted in 2006.

"It's medicine for the mind," said Timothy Lewis, 45, serving life without parole for robbery and assault.

About 380 state inmates have completed a Vipassana course, said Dr. Ronald Cavanaugh, who brought the program to Donaldson while working there and is now treatment director for the Alabama Department of Corrections. It took him three years to convince administrators to allow the program and to find the space for it.

A Department of Corrections study of about 100 inmates who completed the program and were still in custody in late 2007 found they had 20 percent fewer disciplinary actions after the course, Cavanaugh said.

"The goal of Vipassana is to change one's relationship to thoughts instead of changing the content of the thoughts," said Cavanaugh. "You don't need to act or react to thoughts. You can just observe them."

Vipassana courses have been taught at a few other lockups in California, Massachusetts and Washington, but ended for reasons including space limitations, security concerns and funding. Donaldson is currently the only U.S. prison with the courses, but advocates are trying to get others interested, said Harry Snyder of the Vipassana Prison Trust. The trust pays for volunteers to travel to the prison and conduct courses.

John Gannon, executive director of the International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology, said he applauds Alabama's efforts.

"Anything that helps to reduce impulsivity is likely to reduce recidivism ... and that's what the process is about as I understand it," said Gannon, of Pismo Beach, Calif.

Baptists far outnumber Buddhists in Alabama, and state corrections officials deserve credit for their willingness to try the program, said Jenny Phillips, a Massachusetts psychotherapist who introduced Cavanaugh to Vipassana meditation.

Phillips wrote a book and produced a documentary movie about the Donaldson program called "The Dhamma Brothers," which incorporates the Indian word that refers to the concept in Vipassana of gaining happiness through doing good for others. It's an older, alternate spelling of the word "dharma," which is used more often in popular culture.

"You can feel the energy when another Dhamma brother passes by you," said Bankhead, an inmate leader of the program. "You can relax. It's one person calming five or six."

While the warden said Vipassana helps officers and administrators keep a lid on Donaldson, the lockup is still considered the state's roughest. It's the last stop for inmates with behavior problems, and more than one-third of its approximately 1,500 prisoners are either serving sentences of life without parole or are on death row.

A judge is currently considering a prisoner lawsuit that claims Donaldson is so crowded and violent it violates inmates' constitutional rights. State officials don't deny that Donaldson has problems, but they dispute that the lockup is unconstitutionally harsh.

An organization for corrections officers has taken the unusual step of siding with the inmates by agreeing with some of their claims about Donaldson, but no trial date is set.