Saturday, April 02, 2011

NPR - 'Less Than Human': The Psychology Of Cruelty

Last week NPR's Talk of the Nation spoke with David Livingstone Smith, author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, about the importance of defining and describing dehumanization because it's what opens the door for cruelty and genocide.

David Livingstone Smith is co-founder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England.

David Livingstone Smith is co-founder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England.

March 29, 2011

During the Holocaust, Nazis referred to Jews as rats. Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis cockroaches. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals. In Less Than Human, David Livingstone Smith argues that it's important to define and describe dehumanization, because it's what opens the door for cruelty and genocide.

"We all know, despite what we see in the movies," Smith tells NPR's Neal Conan, "that it's very difficult, psychologically, to kill another human being up close and in cold blood, or to inflict atrocities on them." So, when it does happen, it can be helpful to understand what it is that allows human beings "to overcome the very deep and natural inhibitions they have against treating other people like game animals or vermin or dangerous predators."

Rolling Stone recently published photos online of American troops posing with dead Afghans, connected to ongoing court-martial cases of soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. In addition to posing with the corpses, "these soldiers — called the 'kill team' — also took body parts as trophies," Smith alleges, "which is very often a phenomenon that accompanies the form of dehumanization in which the enemy is seen as game."

But this is just the latest iteration in a pattern that has unfolded time and again over the course of history. In ancient Chinese, Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature, Smith found repeated references to enemies as subhuman creatures. But it's not as simple as a comparison. "When people dehumanize others, they actually conceive of them as subhuman creatures," says Smith. Only then can the process "liberate aggression and exclude the target of aggression from the moral community."

Cover of 'Less Than Human'

Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others
By David Livingstone Smith
Hardcover, 336 pages
St. Martin's Press
List price: $24.99

Read An Excerpt (see below)

When the Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen, or subhumans, they didn't mean it metaphorically, says Smith. "They didn't mean they were like subhumans. They meant they were literally subhuman."

Human beings have long conceived of the universe as a hierarchy of value, says Smith, with God at the top and inert matter at the bottom, and everything else in between. That model of the universe "doesn't make scientific sense," says Smith, but "nonetheless, for some reason, we continue to conceive of the universe in that fashion, and we relegate nonhuman creatures to a lower position" on the scale.

Then, within the human category, there has historically been a hierarchy. In the 18th century, white Europeans — the architects of the theory — "modestly placed themselves at the very pinnacle." The lower edges of the category merged with the apes, according to their thinking.

So "sub-Saharan Africans and Native Americans were denizens of the bottom of the human category," when they were even granted human status. Mostly, they were seen as "soulless animals." And that dramatic dehumanization made it possible for great atrocities to take place.

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Excerpt: 'Less Than Human'

Cover of 'Less Than Human'

Before I get to work explaining how dehumanization works, I want to make a preliminary case for its importance. So, to get the ball rolling, I'll briefly discuss the role that dehumanization played in what is rightfully considered the single most destructive event in human history: the Second World War. More than seventy million people died in the war, most of them civilians. Millions died in combat. Many were burned alive by incendiary bombs and, in the end, nuclear weapons. Millions more were victims of systematic genocide. Dehumanization made much of this carnage possible.

Let's begin at the end. The 1946 Nuremberg doctors' trial was the first of twelve military tribunals held in Germany after the defeat of Germany and Japan. Twenty doctors and three administrators — twenty-two men and a single woman — stood accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. They had participated in Hitler's euthanasia program, in which around 200,000 mentally and physically handicapped people deemed unfit to live were gassed to death, and they performed fiendish medical experiments on thousands of Jewish, Russian, Roma and Polish prisoners.

Principal prosecutor Telford Taylor began his opening statement with these somber words:

The defendants in this case are charged with murders, tortures and other atrocities committed in the name of medical science. The victims of these crimes are numbered in the hundreds of thousands. A handful only are still alive; a few of the survivors will appear in this courtroom. But most of these miserable victims were slaughtered outright or died in the course of the tortures to which they were subjected ... To their murderers, these wretched people were not individuals at all. They came in wholesale lots and were treated worse than animals.

He went on to describe the experiments in detail. Some of these human guinea pigs were deprived of oxygen to simulate high altitude parachute jumps. Others were frozen, infested with malaria, or exposed to mustard gas. Doctors made incisions in their flesh to simulate wounds, inserted pieces of broken glass or wood shavings into them, and then, tying off the blood vessels, introduced bacteria to induce gangrene. Taylor described how men and women were made to drink seawater, were infected with typhus and other deadly diseases, were poisoned and burned with phosphorus, and how medical personnel conscientiously recorded their agonized screams and violent convulsions.

The descriptions in Taylor's narrative are so horrifying that it's easy to overlook what might seem like an insignificant rhetorical flourish: his comment that "these wretched people were ... treated worse than animals". But this comment raises a question of deep and fundamental importance. What is it that enables one group of human beings to treat another group as though they were subhuman creatures?

A rough answer isn't hard to come by. Thinking sets the agenda for action, and thinking of humans as less than human paves the way for atrocity. The Nazis were explicit about the status of their victims. They were Untermenschen — subhumans — and as such were excluded from the system of moral rights and obligations that bind humankind together. It's wrong to kill a person, but permissible to exterminate a rat. To the Nazis, all the Jews, Gypsies and others were rats: dangerous, disease-carrying rats.

Jews were the main victims of this genocidal project. From the beginning, Hitler and his followers were convinced that the Jewish people posed a deadly threat to all that was noble in humanity. In the apocalyptic Nazi vision, these putative enemies of civilization were represented as parasitic organisms — as leeches, lice, bacteria, or vectors of contagion. "Today," Hitler proclaimed in 1943, "international Jewry is the ferment of decomposition of peoples and states, just as it was in antiquity. It will remain that way as long as peoples do not find the strength to get rid of the virus." Both the death camps (the gas chambers of which were modeled on delousing chambers) and the Einsatzgruppen (paramilitary death squads that roamed across Eastern Europe followed in the wake of the advancing German army) were responses to what the Nazis perceived to be a lethal pestilence.

Sometimes the Nazis thought of their enemies as vicious, bloodthirsty predators rather than parasites. When partisans in occupied regions of the Soviet Union began to wage a guerilla war against German forces, Walter von Reichenau, the commander-in-chief of the German army, issued an order to inflict a "severe but just retribution upon the Jewish subhuman elements" (the Nazis considered all of their enemies as part of "international Jewry", and were convinced that Jews controlled the national governments of Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Military historian Mary R. Habeck confirms that, "soldiers and officers thought of the Russians and Jews as 'animals' ... that had to perish. Dehumanizing the enemy allowed German soldiers and officers to agree with the Nazis' new vision of warfare, and to fight without granting the Soviets any mercy or quarter."

The Holocaust is the most thoroughly documented example of the ravages of dehumanization. Its hideousness strains the limits of imagination. And yet, focusing on it can be strangely comforting. It's all too easy to imagine that the Third Reich was a bizarre aberration, a kind of mass insanity instigated by a small group of deranged ideologues who conspired to seize political power and bend a nation to their will. Alternatively, it's tempting to imagine that the Germans were (or are) a uniquely cruel and bloodthirsty people. But these diagnoses are dangerously wrong. What's most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters. It's that they were ordinary human beings.

When we think of dehumanization during World War II our minds turn to the Holocaust, but it wasn't only the Germans who dehumanized their enemies. While the architects of the Final Solution were busy implementing their lethal program of racial hygiene, the Russian-Jewish poet and novelist Ilya Ehrenburg was churning out propaganda for distribution to Stalin's Red Army. These pamphlets seethed with dehumanizing rhetoric: they spoke of "the smell of Germany's animal breath," and described Germans as "two-legged animals who have mastered the technique of war" — "ersatz men" who ought to be annihilated. "The Germans are not human beings," Ehrenburg wrote, "... If you kill one German, kill another — there is nothing more amusing for us than a heap of German corpses."

This wasn't idle talk. The Wehrmacht had taken the lives of 23 million Soviet citizens, roughly half of them civilians. When the tide of the war finally turned, a torrent of Russian forces poured into Germany from the east, and their inexorable advance became an orgy of rape and murder. "They were certainly egged on by Ehrenburg and other Soviet propagandists..." writes journalist Giles McDonough:

East Prussia was the first German region visited by the Red Army ... In the course of a single night the red army killed seventy-two women and one man. Most of the women had been raped, of whom the oldest was eighty-four. Some of the victims had been crucified ... A witness who made it to the west talked of a poor village girl who was raped by an entire tank squadron from eight in the evening to nine in the morning. One man was shot and fed to the pigs.

Excerpted from Less Than Human by David Livingstone Smith. Copyright 2011 by the author.

Hokai Sobol - The Three Pathways of Awakening

Via Buddhist Geeks, Hokai Sobal is teaching what appears to be an excellent class called The Three Pathways of Awakening. At $50 for the six-week course, this is an excellent opportunity to study with an integrally informed Buddhist teacher.

The Teacher

Hokai Sobol is a practitioner in the Shingon esoteric tradition of Japanese Vajrayana as taught by the Acarya, Venerable Jomyo Tanaka. Having learned from many sources, Hokai is most interested in the core principles of practical Dharma, and their reframing in the context of emergent spiritual culture. He lives and works in Rijeka, Croatia, while also teaching online. Personal website:

The Three Pathways of Awakening
Developing a Post-Traditional Buddhist Practice with Hokai Sobol

This 6-week virtual course will offer you a fresh approach to working with the three classic Buddhist pathways of body, speech, and mind. We will emphasize combining the conceptual and the experiential in the context of open-ended inquiry with fellow practitioners.

We’ll explore the basic ways that body, speech, and mind are used as pathways to deep awareness, especially from the perspective of Vajrayana practice. With each aspect of teaching and practice there will be ample opportunity for us to inquire and reflect. Participants will have the opportunity to discuss and contribute during the course.

Post-traditional means not based on deference to traditional, established frames of reference. Therefore, we don’t do something just because others have done so in the past. We become increasingly reflexive and aware of the way we imbue our actions with purpose and meaning.

Main Features

Practical methods include:

  • Creating a customized personal practice
  • Generating awakened intention
  • Training sustained attention
  • Basics of mudra, mantra, and imagination
  • Creative and receptive modes in meditation
  • Integrating formal practice and everyday life

Overview of course content:

  • Introduction to Buddhadharma from a post-traditional perspective
  • Pathways of body, speech, & mind
  • Importance of having a clear view
  • Your role in emergent Buddhism
Format & Timing

This 6-week class begins on Sunday, May 1st and ends Sunday, June 5th. Each Sunday class starts at 9am Pacific / 12pm Eastern time and runs for 1 1/2 hours. For those who can’t make it to every class a high-quality recording of each session will be made available and sent out to the entire group following the class.

Each session will include guided and interactive practice sessions, mini-presentations on various topics, and plenty of time for questions and discussions. We’ll be using an advanced teleconferencing system called Maestro Conference. This system allows us to do more organized discussions and small-group breakout sessions to add more interactivity. All you need is a telephone line or VoIP line and a place to sit!


We do expect that you have general knowledge of Buddhist teachings, and some experience with meditation practices, but otherwise this is open to all interested, beginning and more experienced equally.

Cost: $50 (Limited to 50 people)
Dates: May 1st - June 5th (Sunday)

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Joan Chiao - Cultural Neuroscience and the Collective Good

Fig. 1

The Jepson School of Leadership Studies, at the University of Richmond, hosted The Jepson Colloquium "For the Greater Good of All: Perspectives on Individualism, Society and Leadership" during which Joan Chiao, Northwestern University, presented "Cultural Neuroscience and the Collective Good." January 23, 2010.

Friday, April 01, 2011

My Review of “The Best Buddhist Writing 2010”

I just recently read and reviewed The Best Buddhist Writing 2010 (Shambhala Publications) - the review is at Wildmind Buddhist Meditation - go check it out.
Frankly, I was prepared not to like much of what I was about to read. I had already worked out a title in my mind having to do with the reincarnation of old editions. For the most part, I was wrong—very wrong.

Stuart Kauffman and Charles Hulse - What If We Could Ask The Big Questions?

Over at NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, Stuart Kauffman and Charles Hulse muse on asking the big questions in life - the ones for which we are unlikely to find hard and fast answers, the ones that are mysteries even in the asking.
What if one finds, as Nietzsche stated, " ... when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." What if, faced with the questions of meaning and purpose, one finds himself dangling at the edge of the abyss.
Excellent post.

13.7: Cosmos And Culture

What If We Could Ask The Big Questions?

Do you have enough courage to put one foot into the abyss?
Enlarge David McNew/Getty Images

Do you have enough courage to put one foot into the abyss?

What if one is running through a world where the main concerns are procuring "purple plastic penguins for the poolside," catching the latest installment of the "lives and antics of the rich and infamous" and receiving the next dose of "Wonder Bread and high fructose corn syrup?" What if, as the result of an accident, or a series of dreams about being inundated by waterspouts and of being inundated by a real waterspout, one starts asking the forbidden "questions?"

What if one starts asking: Why are we here? Why am I here now? What does it mean to be human? What is our humanity? How did the universe and life come about? What really is the nature of reality? What is time? What is space? How do we really know? What is the nature of God? Why is there evil? What is the nature of consciousness?

Who is "I"? What is beauty? Are we under the control of a deterministic universe or do we have free-will? How can we choose, if we don't really know what can happen? What is the next step in human evolution? The evolution of anything? Can we even say it? What are the goals of technology? Just because we can, should we? (Not that these are new questions, but rather, new questions to the one pondering the questions.)

What if one finds, as Nietzsche stated, " ... when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." What if, faced with the questions of meaning and purpose, one finds himself dangling at the edge of the abyss. There, like the event horizon of a black hole, the souls of those who are foolish enough to have asked the questions before are sucked in, never to be seen again.

Yet, can't we ask?

What if one goes to science (reason) and religion (faith) for answers and finds them lacking (if not, possibly, the sources of the problem)? Those failing, what if one goes to the counselor's couch – only to laugh at the thought that such concerns are the result of unresolved childhood conflicts, repressed sexual / aggressive desires or the fear of death. (We've been there twice, maybe three times.)

Where does one go, in this time of instant oatmeal, instant messaging and instant gratification, to find the time and solitude to fully ponder these and other "deep" questions. Academia? We think not. The monastery? We doubt it. The asylum? Maybe.

How does one go face-to-face with the System and say, "Hey, we all need a few months (or years) to sort a few "things" out?"

"Get back to work (the void)," they storm. Although they may be right when they add, "And stop wasting time on those stupid questions. It will only get you in trouble."

Yet, why do the redwing blackbirds come back each year? Why do crocuses spring up next to melting snow? What more do we need? What if one just goes quietly into a forest?

So, we will end this by asking: Where in this day and age, does one go to ask the questions? Where does one go to find like "minded" people who are also seeking the answers? How does one find the time to read the great works, the space to ponder the great questions and the courage to keep one foot in reality while placing the other foot into the abyss?

Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche - Letting mind rest in the direct experience of the present moment

by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
foreword by the Dalai Lama
introduction by Lama Tashi Namgyal


Dharma Quote of the Week

With regard to awareness of the present moment, our mind is utterly insubstantial and yet has this characteristic of luminosity (Tib. salwa). "Luminosity" here simply means the cognitive capacity, the fact that our mind can know, experience, feel, and so on. This awareness always occurs in the present. When we are not thinking of the past or thinking of the future, when we're letting our mind simply rest in the direct experience of the present moment, then this awareness or lucidity emerges as an unfabricated intelligence.

Initially we do this very briefly, for one moment, two moments, and so on, but as we work with this, it starts to take on a momentum. However, it's important not to interfere with the naturalness of this awareness by appraising what is occurring, which means that we shouldn't think, "Well, this is happening, that is happening, I'm aware of this, I'm aware of that." Nor should we judge what's happening by thinking, "Well, this is good, this is what's supposed to be happening," or, "This is bad, this isn't what's supposed to be happening."

On the other hand, we do need to "plant the watchman of mindfulness and alertness," which means that we maintain some intentional awareness of what is occurring. Here, mindfulness means a simple, direct recollection of what we're trying to do. In other words, mindfulness is recollecting that we are trying to rest in a direct experience of the present moment. Alertness then is that faculty of mind that becomes aware when we become distracted from this present experience. However, this watchfulness or, this watchman, has to be very relaxed and gentle. It can't be too heavy-handed, otherwise the whole thing becomes a conceptual judgement. The technique of mind is to rest in this awareness of the present moment with a gentle watchman of mindfulness and alertness. (p.36)

--from Pointing Out the Dharmakaya by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, foreword by the Dalai Lama, introduction by Lama Tashi Namgyal, published by Snow Lion Publications

Pointing Out the Dharmakaya • Now at 5O% off
(Good until April 8th).

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , - Mapping the Brain and Neural Architectures

With the Neural Architectures exhibition as a backdrop, the Brain and Mind series continues as two scientists examine brain mapping and connectome research -- the effort to build comprehensive graphics of neural connections. Featuring Surya Ganguli and Richard Hahnloser.

Surya Ganguli

Surya Ganguli is a fellow at the Sloan-Swartz Center for Theoretical Neurobiology in the Keck Center at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and is supported by a career award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Interfaces in Science Program. At Sloan-Swartz, he conducts research on theoretical principles underlying the organization of neural circuitry mediating learning, memory, and sensorimotor processing. Before joining UCSF, he received his Ph.D. in string theory at the Berkeley Center for Theoretical Physics and the Theory Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. His undergrad days at MIT saw him studying electrical engineering and computer science, mathematics, and physics.

Richard Hahnloser

Professor Richard Hahnloser heads the Birdsong Research Group at the University of Zurich's Institute of Neuroinformatics. He is also Dean of the joint master's degree program in Neural Systems and Computation, offered in collaboration with the Mathematics and Natural Sciences Faculty at the University of Zurich and by the Department of Physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich). This program is an interdisciplinary research platform that offers theoretical and laboratory training in neural computation and systems neuroscience. Hahnloser earned his Ph.D. at the Institute of Neuroinformatics at ETH Zurich in 1999 and was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (Seung Lab) at MIT and the Biological Computation Research group at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs.

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Epigenetics: Mechanisms and Implications for Studying the Interplay Between Genes and the Environment

From the NIH site. Frances Champagne, Ph.D., Columbia University talks on the epigenetics of gene expression in the brain.
Neuroscience Seminar Series

Epigenetics: Mechanisms and Implications for Studying the Interplay Between Genes and the Environment

Dr. Champagne’s laboratory studies how genetic and environmental factors interact to regulate maternal behavior and how natural variations in this behavior can shape the behavioral development of offspring through epigenetic changes in gene expression in a brain region specific manner. In rodents, the quality of postpartum care has long-term effects on response to stress, reward, and to social behavior. These effects are associated with changes in gene expression in the brain. Cross-fostering studies have shown the postnatal environment to be critical to the regulation of these aspects of adult behavior. Interestingly, the quality of maternal care exhibited by mothers also correlates with the quality of care provided in the future by their female offspring. This transmission of maternal behavior from one generation to the next involves changes in the expression of estrogen receptors (ER) in the medial preoptic area (MPOA) of the hypothalamus. These changes are induced during the first week of life and are maintained into adulthood. The Champagne lab has examined the role of epigenetic modifications in the form of DNA methylation in mediating these stable individual differences in gene expression. These epigenetic effects allow for plasticity of phenotype in response to environmental signals that can be observed in subsequent generations. They are currently exploring both genetic and environmental influences on maternal care and the transgenerational impact of these influences for offspring development and behavior.
For more information, visit:

Frances Champagne, Ph.D., Columbia University
Runtime: 01:02:25
Download: Download Video

Watch the video at the NIH site.

Independence Project - Podcast: "Psychoanalysis and Buddhism" Interview with Pilar Jennings

A great two-part interview with author and psychoanalyst Pilar Jennings on Buddhism and psychoanalysis. Jennings is author, most recently, of Mixing Minds: The Power of Relationship in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism.

Follow the links to listen to the podcasts.
"Psychoanalysis and Buddhism" Interview with Pilar Jennings Part 1

This week, ID Project founder Ethan Nichtern interviews Pilar Jennings. This is the first of a two part interview.

Pilar Jennings, Ph.D. is a writer and researcher who has focused on the clinical applications of Buddhist meditation practice. She received her Ph.D. in Psychiatry and Religion from Union Theological Seminary, and has been working with patients and their families through the Harlem Family Institute since 2004. Prior to this training, she earned a Masters degree in medical anthropology from Columbia University, and a Bachelors degree in interdisciplinary writing from Barnard College. Pilar is a long-term practitioner of Tibetan and Vipassana Buddhism, and has studied with senior teachers in both traditions. Her recent book Mixing Minds, released through Wisdom Publications, explores the interpersonal dynamics between Buddhist teachers and their Western students, in comparison to the relationships between psychoanalysts and their patients. Pilar Jennings lives in New York City.

Subscribe to the ID Project Podcast Here or Via iTunes Here Please consider supporting the ID Project Podcast by signing up to become a member. More information is available on our donate page.

* * * * * *
"Psychoanalysis and Buddhism" Interview with Pilar Jennings Part 2

This week, ID Project founder Ethan Nichtern interviews Pilar Jennings. This is the second of a two part interview.

Subscribe to the ID Project Podcast Here or Via iTunes Here Please consider supporting the ID Project Podcast by signing up to become a member. More information is available on our donate page.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Theo Jansen - Kinetic Strandbeests on the Beach: Alchemy of Art & Engineering

Open Culture (great site, by the way) posted this video with a little commentary. I've been a fan of Jansen's kinetic sculptures since the first time I saw a video of them a decade or more ago. You all have probably seen them too, but who cares, they're amazing to watch.

Kinetic Strandbeests on the Beach: Alchemy of Art & Engineering

in Art | March 30th, 2011

Since 1990, Dutch artist Theo Jansen has given life to Strandbeests. They’re made of nothing more than a mass of yellow plastic tubes. But these kinetic sculptures feed off of the wind. They roam the beaches on their own. And they evolve. Soon enough, Jansen says, you will see Strandbeests living in herds, and who knows what the alchemy of art and engineering will bring next.

This clip comes from a BBC production, Nature Knows Best, that aired late last year. You can also catch Jansen introducing his self-propelling beach animals at TED.

Here is a longer video (a one hour lecture) from the University of Michigan, Theo Jansen - The Great Pretender.
Brought to you by U-M School of Art & Design.
Thursday, November 6, 2008

Since about 1990, Dutch artist Theo Jansen has been working hard on new forms of life. Plastic yellow conduit is used as the basic material of this new nature. He makes skeletons that are able to walk on the wind. Eventually he wants to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives.

William Benzon - Attractor Nets, Series I: Notes Toward a New Theory of Mind, Logic and Dynamics in Relational Networks

Seriously geeky theory of mind stuff from William Benzon. Here is a key passage from the 3rd section, one that explains the basics of his idea of neural nets in a "simple animal":
The nervous system of a simple animal is connected both to the external world and to the animal’s interior milieu.

Its neural net is divided into at least four partitions. Each partition has two classes of neurons. One is linked to the world outside the nervous system while the other is linked only to other neurons. The latter neurons may be linked to neurons within the partition, neurons in other partitions, or both. These partitions are as follows, identified by their external links:

External Effectors: Produces effects in the external world through coupling to the motor system.
External Sensors: Senses the state of the external world through sensors of various types.
Internal Effectors: Produces effects in the internal milieu by secreting chemicals or affecting the states of muscle fibers.
Internal Sensors: Senses the internal milieu through appropriate sensors.
As the author admits, these are only preliminary and somewhat incoherent notes (they are for him, not so much for us as readers) - but I find his work interesting in that it creates a neuronal link between subjective experience and external reality.

Who knows if he is right - but it's cool that he is sharing his thoughts with the public as he is developing them.

William Benzon
affiliation not provided to SSRN

March 6, 2011

These notes explore the use of Sydney Lamb’s relational network notion for linguistics to represent the logical structure of complex collection of attractor landscapes (as in Walter Freeman’s account of neuro-dynamics). Given a sufficiently large system, such as a vertebrate nervous system, one might want to think of the attractor net as itself being a dynamical system, one at a higher order than that of the dynamical systems realized at the neuronal level. A mind is a fluid attractor net of fractional dimensionality over a neural net whose behavior displays complex dynamics in a state space of unbounded dimensionality. The attractor-net moves from one discrete state (frame) to another while the underlying neural net moves continuously through its state space.
Here is the brief introduction and then the section he recommends one read first to get the gist of his project - the whole article is 52 pages, so hopefully the author will not mind these brief quotes to generate some interest.
I. Introduction
This document consists of working notes on a new approach to thinking about minds, both animal and human. As such these notes are primarily for the purpose of reminding me of what I have been thinking on these matters. They are not written, alas, in a way designed to convey these ideas to others.

Thus, they are variously rambling, inconsistent, vague, incomplete, and, no doubt, wrong-headed in places.

I would recommend that interested readers go through the notes in this order:

1. “Simple Animal” (the third section of notes, III)
2. “Lamb Notation” (the second section of notes, II)
3. “Minds in Nets” (VII)

While that is not the order in which I wrote the notes, the “Simple Animal” notes do a bit better job on the basic issues than the “Lamb Notation” section, which I had written first. Perhaps one should then read the rather long final section “Minds in Nets” (VII), which suggests some of the larger implications of this conception. If energy holds, I suggest the section on “Consciousness and Control” (VI). The section “Brief Notes” (V) is just that, and is dispensable.

The section on “Assignment” (IV) discusses one particular construction in some (not entirely satisfactory) detail.
From "Simple Animal":
III. Attractor Nets: Toward a Simple Animal
By attractor net (A-net) I mean the relationships among the attractors of a neural net. A net is said to be stressed if it is not at “equilibrium” or perhaps that should be “at frame.” In general, stress is applied to an NFA from outside. When it is at frame it is in one of its attractor basins.

[Note: Recall the note at the bottom of page 4 about the term "equilibrium" being a misleading one.]

Homogenous Attractor Nets
An attractor net is said to be homogenous if all of its attractors are can be related to one another through logical ‘or’. Thus:

In this diagram the rectangle is some neural net while the superimposed graph is a homogeneous attractor net. The zero node indicates “equilibrium” of “at frame.”[2] We can think of nodes s1, s2, and s3 as different patterns of stress on the network. Each pattern of stress is associated with a different path to frame, where the paths terminate at different points in the system’s state space. Those points are attractors, a1, a2, a3, with which I have labeled the arcs. The stressors are linked to the frame state through an ‘or’ connector (in Lamb’s notation).

What is stress in this context? Where the neurons are regulating the state of muscle fibers I am inclined to think of stress as the difference between the current state of the muscle fibers and the desired state. That is, it is error, in the sense that Powers’ uses the term in his control theory account of behavior.

If I do that on the motor side, then, I would like to do it on the sensory side as well. In effect, sensory systems are designed to respond to the difference between expected sensations and actual sensations. The general role of preafference in the regulation of behavior is in favor of this view. It is not clear to me how far such preafference extends toward the periphery. I believe there is some evidence in the auditory system that the preafference extends to the inner ear. In the visual system I believe there are efferent fibers in the optic nerves, though I’m not sure whether or not anyone has good ideas about what those optic efferents are doing. I don’t have any notions on the other sensory systems.

[Notice that how this notation transparently expresses Lamb’s observation that the only real “content” for such a network is at the periphery. Arc labels in the net are just a notational convenience that make it easier to read the diagram.]

Having said all that, I propose to use a slightly different notation in these notes, as follows:

As a convenience we use nodes a1, a2, and a3 to represent attractors. The arcs will be left unlabeled.

The danger of this notation is that it temps one to reify attractors into physical things, like neurons, or collections of neurons, or collections of synapses scattered about in some population of neurons. This temptation must be avoided.

Neural Interpretation, Mine & Lamb’s
Now let us think about this at the neural level and compare this with what I take to be Lamb’s neural interpretation of his notation. We’ve got a meshwork of tightly interconnected neurons. The net can be said to be at frame when, in Hays’ formulation, inputs have been “accounted for.” The net will have arrived at one of its attractor states and so aroused a gestalt that “absorbs” the externally induced stress, the input. This, of course, is some particular pattern of activity in the net. Each attractor state corresponds to a different pattern of neural activity.

An attractor node, then, represents some state, or set of states (the so-called attractor basin) of the neural net. The arcs connecting an A-node to the 0-node through the logical operator thus correspond to trajectories through the state space. Neither the attractors, the operators, nor the trajectories are physical things that one could discover though dissection and visual inspection. Rather, they the salient aspects of the topology of the net’s phase space.

This is somewhat different from Lamb’s interpretation. As I’ve indicated above, Lamb uses labels on his arcs where I use attractor nodes, He clearly thinks of his nodes, the logical connectors (which he calls nections, from connection) as collections of neurons, with the arcs being collections of axons. He offers thumbnail calculations of the number of neurons per nection (based on Mountcastle’s work on cortical micro-anatomy), and so forth. Thus he uses his notation in a more concrete way than I am proposing.

If one thinks about my proposal, however, one might wonder what the neurons in a homogeneous A-net are connected to, other than one or another. For, as I have defined it, a homogeneous A-net corresponds to a single Lamb or-nection, nothing more. These patterns of neural activity don’t seem to go anywhere, except to frame. I thus introduce the notion of a partitioned net, where each partition has an or-nection A-net. Partitions whose neurons are interconnected thus influence one another’s states; there are dependencies among their attractors.

Partitioned Nets
An attractor network is said to be partitioned if its attractors are in two or more sets such that an attractor from each set is required for the network as a whole to be at frame. Given the way the notion of an attractor is defined, this would seem to be an odd thing to happen; indeed, it would seem to be impossible, by definition. We must remember, however, that real neural nets almost certainly have a small world topology.

Every neuron is connected to each other neuron by at most only a small number of links. Some neurons are connected to one another directly (order 1); obviously, these neurons will have a strong influence on one another’s states. Other neurons will be connected through a single intermediary, making two links between them (order 2); still others through two intermediaries (order 3); and so on. Partitioning might arise in situations where two or more sets of neurons are strongly connected within the set through connections of order N or less while almost all connections between neurons in different sets are greater than order N.
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Simon Baron-Cohen - The Science of Empathy

Simon Baron-Cohen had this excellent article in The Guardian UK the other day - it's a good look at the science behind empathy, as well as the empathic lack in borderline personality disorder. There is also a link to a form you can print out to take a quiz designed to measure your own empathy.

Baron-Cohen has a new book coming out in May (US), The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, or April (England), Zero Degrees of Empathy: a New Theory of Human Cruelty). Same book, different titles.

I have a quibble with Baron-Cohen's use of diagnostic categories to label people - no one is their diagnosis. Even in the borderline and psychopathic people he describes below, that element is an adaptive part that developed to deal with unbearable childhood situations. From our perspective, those parts can act in horrible ways (especially the psychopath he describes), but to see these people as nothing other than their behavior shows a lack of empathy by Baron-Cohen, in my opinion.

Below the article I am including an older video on the neuroscience of empathy from Dr. Thomas Lewis speaking at Google in 2007.

The science of empathy

Does it upset you when you see people arguing? Do you cry at the cinema? Empathy is one of our most powerful emotions yet society has all but ignored it. Autism expert Professor Simon Baron-Cohen reveals the science behind "the world's most valuable resource" – and how its lack is the root of human cruelty.

See how you fare in our empathy test

Simon Baron-Cohen

Simon Baron-Cohen
The Observer,
Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble.
Photograph: Blend Images/Alamy

When I was seven years old, my father told me the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades. Just one of those comments you hear once and the thought never goes away. To a child's mind – even to an adult's – these two types of thing just don't belong together. He also told me the Nazis turned Jews into bars of soap. It sounds so unbelievable, yet it is actually true. I knew our family was Jewish, so this image of turning people into objects felt a bit close to home.

Years later, I was teaching at St Mary's Hospital Medical School in London. I sat in on a lecture on physiology. The professor was teaching about human adaptation to temperature. He told the students the best data available on human adaptation to extreme cold had been collected by Nazi scientists performing "immersion experiments" on Jews and other inmates of Dachau concentration camp, who they put into vats of freezing water. They collected systematic data on how heartrate correlated with time, at zero degrees centigrade.

Hearing about this unethical research retriggered that same question in my mind: how can humans treat other people as objects? How do humans come to switch off their natural feelings of sympathy for a fellow human being who is suffering?

The standard explanation is that the Holocaust (sadly echoed in many cultures historically across the globe) is an example of the "evil" that humans are capable of inflicting on one another. Evil is treated as incomprehensible, a topic that cannot be dealt with because the scale of the horror is so great that nothing can convey its enormity. But, when you hold up the concept of evil to examine it, it is no explanation at all. For a scientist this is, of course, wholly inadequate.

As a scientist I want to understand the factors causing people to treat others as if they are mere objects. So let's substitute the term "evil" with the term "empathy erosion". Empathy erosion can arise because of corrosive emotions, such as bitter resentment, or desire for revenge, or blind hatred, or desire to protect. In theory these are transient emotions, the empathy erosion is reversible. But empathy erosion can be the result of more permanent psychological characteristics.

Unempathic acts are simply the tail end of a bell curve, found in every population on the planet. If we want to replace the term "evil" with the term "empathy", we have to understand empathy closely. The key idea is that we all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum. People said to be "evil" or cruel are simply at one extreme of the empathy spectrum. We can all be lined up along this spectrum of individual differences, based on how much empathy we have. At one end of this spectrum we find "zero degrees of empathy".

Zero degrees of empathy means you have no awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions. It leaves you feeling mystified by why relationships don't work out, and it creates a deep-seated self-centredness. Other people's thoughts and feelings are just off your radar. It leaves you doomed to do your own thing, in your own little bubble, not just oblivious of other people's feelings and thoughts but oblivious to the idea that there might even be other points of view. The consequence is that you believe 100% in the rightness of your own ideas and beliefs, and judge anyone who does not hold your beliefs as wrong, or stupid.

Zero degrees of empathy does not strike at random in the population. There are at least three well-defined routes to getting to this end-point: narcissistic, psychopathic, and borderline personality disorders. I group these as zero-negative because they have nothing positive to recommend them. They are unequivocally bad for the sufferer and for those around them. Of course these are not all the sub-types that exist. Indeed, alcohol, fatigue and depression are just a few examples of states that can temporarily reduce one's empathy, and schizophrenia is another example of a medical condition that can reduce one's empathy.

Carol is 39 years old. I met her when she came to our diagnostic clinic in Cambridge. (I have disguised details of her life for reasons of confidentiality.) She has borderline personality disorder. For as long as she can remember, and certainly going back into early childhood, she has felt her life was "cursed". As she looks back on her stormy childhood, her unstable teens and her crisis-ridden adulthood, she contemplates her lifetime of depression. Her relationship with her parents has been punctuated by periods of years during which she did not speak to them at all. She is aware that she has a huge reservoir of hatred towards her parents, who she feels maltreated her and who were never really parents towards her. However nice people are to her, she feels she can never quench this simmering rage which even today can come out as hatred towards anyone she feels is disrespecting her. Often people she perceives as disrespecting her are simply people who disagree with her, and she senses that they are doing this in a confrontational way.

In this way, there is a distortion or a bias in how she reacts to others, assuming they are treating her badly when they are not. If her children don't do what she says, she screams and swears at them, saying: "How dare you treat me with such disrespect? You can just fuck off! I hate you. I never want to see you again. You can just look after yourselves. I'm through with the lot of you! You're evil, selfish bastards! I hate you! I'm going to kill myself! And I hope you're happy knowing you made me do it!" She will then storm out, slamming the door behind her.

Minutes later, she will drive to one of her friends and spend the evening having fun, leaving her children reeling with the impact of her hurtful words. When her hatred and anger bubble up, there is no chance of her stopping it coming out. It bursts forth with venom, designed to hurt whoever's ears the words land on. Her own feelings are so strong that there is no space in her mind to consider how her children might feel, being told by their mother that they are evil. The irony of Carol's behaviour is that, in accusing others of selfishness (because their will does not accord with hers), she herself behaves with absolute selfishness.

When Carol was a baby, her mother used to ignore her. She thought it would just spoil children to give them attention, that to show them affection was to "make a rod for your back", by which she meant that the child would then expect love and become clingy. She breastfed Carol for just one week after she was born, and then passed the baby to a nanny to feed by bottle, saying she was too busy to look after the baby. Carol was hit constantly if she didn't do what her mother ordered her to do. At the age of eight, Carol was sent to boarding school, where she felt lonely and was withdrawn and socially anxious. Her mother felt she had completed her maternal duty and that children needed to learn to stand on their own two feet. As a result, she grew up looking after herself, knowing her mother was never around to care for her. She would cook her own meals, clean the house and cry herself to sleep every night.

A well-known borderline was Marilyn Monroe (baptised Norma Jeane Baker). Despite her glamorous outward appearance, a volcano simmered within her. Elton John wrote his famous song "Candle in the Wind" to describe her, which succinctly summarises how impulsively changeable she was. Norma was born in 1926 and her parents divorced in 1928. She always claimed she didn't know who her real father was. Norma's mother Gladys, because of her mental health, gave her away for fostering to the Bolender family, where she lived until she was seven. Norma believed the Bolenders were her real parents until she was told the truth at this age. Gladys came back into her life and her daughter went to live with her again, but after Gladys was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, her mother's friend Grace became Norma's guardian. Grace married a man called Ervin Goddard when Norma was nine years old, so the young Norma was sent to the Los Angeles Orphan Home and a series of foster homes. Two years later she went back to live with Grace but was sexually molested by Goddard.

Norma was married three times, first to neighbour James Dougherty in 1942 when she was 16 years old. He agreed to marry her to avoid her being returned to the orphanage. The marriage lasted only three years. She then married again in 1954, to baseball player Joe DiMaggio, but this time the marriage lasted less than a year. Very soon after, in 1956, she married playwright Arthur Miller, who described her as follows: "She was a whirling light to me then, all paradox and enticing mystery, street-tough one moment, then lifted by a lyrical and poetic sensitivity that few retain past early adolescence." Throughout her life she hated being alone and was terrified of being abandoned. In adulthood she was in and out of psychiatric clinics, and attempted suicide at least three times. She finally succeeded in killing herself (overdosing on barbiturates) on 5 August 1962.

As we heard in both Carol's case and Marilyn Monroe's life, borderlines cannot tolerate being alone. For them, aloneness feels like abandonment, and to avoid that awful feeling the person will seek out other people, even relationships with strangers. But, whoever they are with, borderlines either feel suffocated (by someone getting close to them) or abandoned (by someone being distant from them). They cannot find a calm middle ground in which to enjoy a relationship comfortably. Instead they go through an unhealthy alternating sequence of pushing others away (with angry hate), or clinging desperately to them (with extreme gratitude).

Remarkably, despite the unstable behaviour of borderlines, or "Type Bs", scientists have managed to study their brains, which are definitely different in much of the empathy circuit. First, there is decreased binding of neurotransmitters to one of the serotonin receptors. Neuroimaging also reveals underactivity in the orbital frontal cortex and in the temporal cortex – all parts of the empathy circuit.

A novel approach has been to follow up people who were abused as children and scan their brains. It is novel because it is prospective rather than retrospective: the emotional damage was done in childhood and the scientific question is: "What happens to their brain?" Not all of them will be Type Bs, but a significant proportion will be. Such people again have abnormalities in the empathy circuit, such as having a smaller amygdala. This is also true of women who were sexually abused, who later show less grey matter in their left medial temporal cortex, compared to non-abused women. Smaller hippocampal volume is also found in people who experienced a trauma and went on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One interpretation of all this evidence is that the early negative experiences of abuse and neglect change how the brain turns out. But the key point is that the zero degrees of empathy in borderlines arises from abnormalities in the empathy circuit of the brain.

Paul (not his real name, to protect his identity) is 28 years old and is currently detained in a secure prison after being found guilty of murder. He insisted he wasn't guilty because the man he stabbed had provoked him by looking at him from across the bar. Paul had gone over to the man and said, "Why were you staring at me?" The man had replied, I assume truthfully: "I wasn't staring at you. I was simply looking around the bar." Paul had felt incensed by the man's answer, believing it to be disrespectful, and felt he needed to be taught a lesson. He picked up a beer bottle, smashed it on the table and plunged the jagged end deep into the man's face.

Like me, the barrister at Paul's trial was shocked by the apparent lack of remorse and the self-righteousness of his plea of not guilty. Paul was adamant that he had simply defended himself. "He humiliated me in public. I had to show him I wasn't a doormat." I asked, "Do you believe you did anything wrong?" Paul replied, "People have treated me like shit all my life. I'm not taking it from no one no more. If someone shows me disrespect, they deserve what they get." I probed further: "Are you sorry that he died?" I waited to hear Paul's answer, holding my breath. He replied with anger in his voice: "Were the kids at school sorry when they bullied me? Was my boss sorry when he fired me? Was my neighbour sorry when he deliberately hit my car? And you ask me if I'm sorry that that piece of shit died? Of course I'm not sorry. He had it coming to him. No one's ever been sorry for how they've treated me. Why should I give a fuck about him?"

Paul's career of criminal behaviour had begun when he was as young as 13, when he had set fire to the school gym and sat in a tree across a field to watch it burn. He was expelled and from there went to three more schools, each time being expelled for aggression – starting fights in the playground, attacking a teacher who asked him to be quiet and even jumping on someone's head when they wouldn't let him join the football team.

Paul is clearly not the kind of guy you want to live near. Many would not hesitate to describe him as "evil". He is a psychopath – a Type P – though to give him the proper diagnostic label, he has antisocial personality disorder. He earns this label because he shows "a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others that begins in childhood or adolescence, and continues into adulthood".

Clearly Type Ps differ in important ways to Type Bs, but they share the core feature of being zero-negative: their zero degrees of empathy can result in them doing cruel things to others. The Type P brain, too, shows lots of evidence of abnormalities in the empathy circuitry. Given the association with neglect and abuse in childhood, there is evidence that early stress affects how well the hippocampus functions, and how active the neural systems are that respond to threat. Prolonged exposure to stress isn't good for your brain. The amygdala is one of the brain regions that respond to stress or threat. When it does, it triggers the hypothalamus to trigger the pituitary gland to release a hormone called ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone). This is then carried by the blood from the brain down to the adrenal gland where it triggers the release of another hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is often called the "stress hormone" because it is a good indicator of when an animal is under stress. There are receptors for cortisol in the hippocampus that allow the animal to regulate the stress response. Remarkably, too much stress can damage and shrink your hippocampus, irreversibly. This is one more piece of evidence for the argument that instead of using the term "evil" we should talk about reduced (or even absent) empathy.

Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world. Given this assertion, it is puzzling that in the school curriculum empathy figures hardly at all, and in politics, business, the courts or policing it is rarely if ever on the agenda. We can see examples among our political leaders of the value of empathy, as when Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk sought to understand and befriend each other, crossing the divide in Apartheid South Africa, but the same has not yet been achieved between Israel and Palestine, or between Washington and Iraq or Afghanistan. And, for every day that empathy is not employed in such corners of the world, more lives are lost.

I think we have taken empathy for granted, and thus to some extent overlooked it. Psychology as a science virtually ignored it for a century. Educators focusing on literacy and mathematics have also largely ignored it. We just assume empathy will develop in every child, come what may. We put little time, effort or money into nurturing it. Our politicians almost never mention it, despite the fact that they need it more than anyone. Until recently, neuroscientists hardly questioned what empathy is.

I sat in Alyth Gardens synagogue in Golders Green in north London last year. Two men went up on the stage. The first one spoke: "I am Ahmed, and I am a Palestinian. My son died in the Intifada, killed by an Israeli bullet. I come to wish you all Shabbat Shalom."

Then the other man spoke: "I am Moishe, and I am an Israeli. My son also died in the Intifada, killed by a homemade petrol bomb thrown by a Palestinian teenager. I come to wish you all Salaam Alaikum."

I was shocked: here were two fathers, from different sides of the political divide, united by their grief and now embracing each other's language. How had they met? Moishe had taken up the opportunity offered by a charity called The Parents Circle for Israelis and Palestinians to make free phone calls directly into each other's homes, to express their empathy to bereaved parents on the other side of the barbed-wire fence. Ahmed described how he had been at home in Gaza one day when the phone rang. It was Moishe, at that time a stranger in Jerusalem, who had taken that brave first step. They both openly wept down the phone. Neither had ever met or even spoken to someone from the other community, but both told the other they knew what the other was going through.

Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, political deadlocks, a family dispute, or a problem with the neighbour. Unlike the arms industry that costs trillions of dollars to maintain, or the prison service and legal system that cost millions of dollars to keep oiled, empathy is free. And, unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.

Zero Degrees of Empathy: a New Theory of Human Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen (Allen Lane, £20) is published on 7 April. To order a copy for £16 with free UK p&p, go to or call 0330 333 6847

Simon Baron-Cohen is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge university

In 2007, Author Dr. Thomas Lewis discussed "The Neuroscience of Empathy" as part of the Authors@Google series.
Thomas Lewis, M.D. is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, and a former associate director of the Affective Disorders Program there. Dr. Lewis currently divides his time between writing, private practice, and teaching at the UCSF medical school.