Saturday, June 04, 2011

Bodhipaksa - The four foundations of mindfulness as a dynamic process

Bodhipaksa recently posted an excellent new article, The four foundations of mindfulness as a dynamic process, at Wildmind Buddhist Meditation. I like the process perspective he takes in this post - it aligns mindfulness with consciousness as a process, which is a much more accurate concept than seeing either one as a static experience.

Here is the beginning of his post, which is actually quite long and informative, so go read the whole article.

The four foundations of mindfulness as a dynamic process

The other day I was preparing for the fifth session of a six-week Introduction to Meditation and Buddhism class I’m teaching at Aryaloka, my local dharma center. I’d been running through the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, which of course is a key teaching, and in glancing over some of the suttas (scriptures) that deal with mindfulness — the seventh aspect of the Eightfold Path — I had a series of thoughts about the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (cattāro satipaṭṭhāna), which are the standard explanation of “Right Mindfulness.”[1]

The Problematic Satipaṭṭhānas

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are a crucial teaching in the Buddhist tradition. As well as constituting the definition of Right Mindfulness in the Eightfold Path, they feature in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10) and the Mahā-Satipatthana Sutta (DN 22). The four Satipaṭṭhānas form an important part of the Ānāpānasati Sutta, which is itself a key teaching. Additionally there is whole section on the satipaṭṭhānas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, containing 104 discourses. The satipaṭṭhānas are of course frequently referred to by many teachers, and entire books have been based around them. Lastly, the practice of the four satipaṭṭhānas is described in the canon as the “direct path” to Nibbāna, emphasizing their importance.

We might expect that such a key teaching would be clearly and consistently understood, but despite their central importance in Buddhist practice, the four satipaṭṭhānas are problematic. One only has to look at the variety of translations of the four terms kāya, vedanā, cittā, and dhammā, in various accounts of this teaching. The following are chosen more-or-less randomly:

  • Bhikkhu Thanissaro has Body, Feelings, Mind, and Mental Qualities
  • Joseph Goldstein (One Dharma): Body, Feelings, Mind & Mental States, and Dharma
  • Bhikkhu Bodhi (Middle Length Discourses): Body, Feeling, Mind, and Mind Objects
  • Bhikkhu Bodhi (A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma): Body, Feelings, States of Consciousness, and Mental Objects
  • Sangharakshita (Know Your Mind): Body, Feelings & Emotions, Thoughts, and Ultimate Reality

Even one author will not be consistent in their explanations. Bhikkhu Bodhi has two subtly different version above, and Sangharakshita has also parsed the Four Foundations as Body, Feelings, Thoughts, and Objects of the Mind’s Attention.

The only one of the satipaṭṭhānas that is universally straightforward is the first: the body (kāya). While I’ll describe each of the four satipaṭṭhānas in more detail later, we can note that the second, vedanā, is best described as “feeling” and not as “sensation”[2] (as is sometimes seen) or (with the greatest respect to Sangharakshita) “feelings and emotions.” The third satipaṭṭhāna, cittā, means “mind” and of course this involves both thought and emotion. It’s the last term, dhammā, that causes most confusion. For one thing, the word dhammā is famously broad. For example, it can refer to “reality,” or it can refer to the system of paths and practices that lead to the perception of that reality, or it can refer to something more like “things” or “phenomena.” Some interpreters (Goldstein, Sangharakshita) have chosen to go with the interpretation of “dhammā” as meaning “reality.” Others (Thanissaro, Bodhi) have gone with the interpretation of dhammā-s as being mental phenomena. Some writers leave it untranslated, which may or may not be helpful.

Read the whole article.

by H.H. the Dalai Lama
translated, edited and annotated by
B. Alan Wallace


Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

To disciples of increasing purity, ability, and rarity the Buddha gave more private guidance in the subtle mysteries. It appears that such teachings are included in the Mahayana sutras. There is no certainty, however, that all of the tantras were taught while the historical Buddha was alive. To an extremely small number of pure disciples the Buddha could appear today. They could encounter Vajradhara, the King of the Tantras, and he could reveal tantras and quintessential guidance to them.

This is possible even though more than twenty-five hundred years have gone by since the historical Buddha passed away. There is no possibility, after the Buddha's death, of additions being made to his public discourses. But I think that teachings to disciples of pure action do not necessarily have to be given during the historical Buddha's lifetime. (pg.44)

--from Transcendent Wisdom by H.H. the Dalai Lama, translated, edited and annotated by B. Alan Wallace, published by Snow Lion Publications

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Shrink Rap Radio #265 – The Polyvagal Theory with Stephen Porges, Ph.D.

Dr. Stephen Porges' polyvagal theory is one of the crucial biopsychological models for understanding how trauma impacts the body and leads to PTSD. It's probably not nearly as well-known as it should be in treatment circles.

His recent and important book is The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. But you can also download PDFS of some of his articles:
With that foundation, here is the interview.

#265 – The Polyvagal Theory with Stephen Porges, Ph.D.

Posted on June 3, 2011

Stephen W. Porges, PhD is Professor of Psychiatry and BioEnginneering and Director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His work on the autonomic nervous system has led to a new understanding of mechanisms involved in behavioral regulation and social engagement behaviors. He is developing new biobehavioral assessment tools to monitor individual differences in physiological regulation of behavioral state.

His research has led to an innovative intervention, The Listening Project, designed to exercise the neural regulation of middle ear structures to reduce auditory hypersensitivities and to improve the ability to listen and to attend to human speech. Dr. Porges speaks throughout the world about his Polyvagal Theory and its applications to typical and clinical populations. He is the author of the 2011 book, The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation.

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

Friday, June 03, 2011

Duane Elgin - The Living Universe (video interview)

The other day I posted an article from AOL/Huffington Post - Science and Spirit Converge in the Now - posted in support of The Living Universe: Where are We? Who are We? Where are We Going? the newest book by Duane Elgin.

Since then, I have found a lot more material, including three more blog posts from Huff Po, where he has only recently become a regular blogger:

Why We Need to Believe in a Living Universe

Consciously Recognizing Ourselves Before We Die

The Last Taboo on Television

There was a video in the "Science and Spirit" article from Huffington Post, but this is a longer interview format (with Richard Rathbun, president and CEO of the Foundation for Global Community/Global MindShift) that I wanted to offer it up by itself (in 2 parts).

I'm agnostic about his perspective - I have experienced that oneness he talks about with nature, with the life force, the feeling that all things are interconnected and interdependent.

I like his integral understanding of a vertical (creation) and horizontal (unfolding) aspects to the evolution of the universe - this is definitely in tune with AQAL theory.

But I have a hard time believing we are "special" in the vastness of the universe. I have a hard time with the "conscious universe" perspective, even though it's one I used to call my own. But now it's a little more anthropic than I can grasp. Maybe that says more about me than it does about the universe?!

But in the words of Mulder, "I want to believe." So I will read his book (of which he has been so kind as to send me a review copy), with an open mind and see what happens.

BBC - The Secret Life of Chaos

Cool video on chaos theory as a driver of complexity out of simplicity. As often as is the case, this is from the BBC.
BBC - The Secret Life of Chaos

Chaos theory has a bad name, conjuring up images of unpredictable weather, economic crashes and science gone wrong. But there is a fascinating and hidden side to Chaos, one that scientists are only now beginning to understand.

It turns out that chaos theory answers a question that mankind has asked for millennia - how did we get here?

In this documentary, Professor Jim Al-Khalili sets out to uncover one of the great mysteries of science - how does a universe that starts off as dust end up with intelligent life? How does order emerge from disorder?

It's a mindbending, counterintuitive and for many people a deeply troubling idea. But Professor Al-Khalili reveals the science behind much of beauty and structure in the natural world and discovers that far from it being magic or an act of God, it is in fact an intrinsic part of the laws of physics. Amazingly, it turns out that the mathematics of chaos can explain how and why the universe creates exquisite order and pattern.

And the best thing is that one doesn't need to be a scientist to understand it. The natural world is full of awe-inspiring examples of the way nature transforms simplicity into complexity. From trees to clouds to humans - after watching this film you'll never be able to look at the world in the same way again.

A Conversation Between David Brooks and Walter Mischel

This comes via the Association for Psychological Science (APS) site - another video of David Brooks, but this time he is talking about what he is interested in right now in social science. He is joined by Walter Mischel (Columbia University - he is most famous for the impulse control study involving marshmallows and children), a large figure in the world of social psychology.

It's an excellent conversation - as long as Brooks is not defending neo-con stupidity in foreign policy, I tent to like him quite a bit.

There is also mention of Brooks' new book, The Social Animal. I guess I'm going to have to read this at some point - everyone seems to be enthralled with it.

News from Psychological Science: A Conversation Between David Brooks and Walter Mischel

Published June 2, 2011

David Brooks, a featured New York Times columnist and a regular on the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and social psychology legend Walter Mischel discussed what’s exciting them in psychological science and why it matters outside the academy at the APS 23rd Annual Convention in Washington, DC. In his December 7, 2010 NY Times column “Social Science Palooza” I and II, Brooks summarized examples of recent findings in the scholarly study of human behavior and concluded, “A day without social science is like a day without sunshine.”

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Chogyal Namkhai Norbu - Suffering and the Four Noble Truths

Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen

by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu
compiled and ed. by John Shane


Dharma Quote of the Week

Suffering is something very concrete, which everyone knows and wants to avoid if possible, and the Buddha therefore began his teaching by talking about it in his famous formulation of the Four Noble Truths.

The first truth draws our attention to the fact that we suffer, pointing out the existence of the basic dissatisfaction inherent in our condition; the second truth explains the cause of dissatisfaction, which is the dualistic state and the unquenchable thirst (or desire) inherent in it: the subject reifies its objects and tries to grasp them by any means, and this thirst (or desire) in turn affirms and sustains the illusory existence of the subject as an entity separate from the integrated wholeness of the universe.

The third truth teaches that suffering will cease if dualism is overcome and reintegration achieved, so that we no longer feel separate from the plenitude of the universe. Finally, the fourth truth explains that there is a Path that leads to the cessation of suffering, which is the one described by the rest of the Buddhist teachings.

All the various traditions are agreed that this basic problem of suffering exists, but they have different methods of dealing with it to bring the individual back to the experience of primordial unity. (p.47)

--from The Crystal and the Way of Light: Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen, by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, compiled and edited by John Shane, published by Snow Lion Publications

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(Good until June 11th).

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Science Codex - Want to solve a problem? Don't just use your brain, but your body, too

Very interesting study - this seems to be more evidence for an embodied cognition, or a somatic cognition. I would guess, however, that this approach is more natural for some people than for others. I suspect that this related to relatively recent findings that words and gestures are processed in the same parts of the brain.

Want to solve a problem? Don't just use your brain, but your body, too

Posted On: June 2, 2011

When we've got a problem to solve, we don't just use our brains but the rest of our bodies, too. The connection, as neurologists know, is not uni-directional. Now there's evidence from cognitive psychology of the same fact. "Being able to use your body in problem solving alters the way you solve the problems," says University of Wisconsin psychology professor Martha Alibali. "Body movements are one of the resources we bring to cognitive processes."

These conclusions, of a new study by Alibali and colleagues—Robert C. Spencer, also at the University of Wisconsin, and Lucy Knox and Sotaro Kita of the University of Birmingham—are augmented by another, counter-intuitive one – even when we are solving problems that have to do with motion and space, the inability to use the body may force us to come up with other strategies, and these may be more efficient.

The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The study involved two experiments. The first recruited 86 American undergraduates, half of whom were prevented from moving their hands using Velcro gloves that attached to a board. The others were prevented from moving their feet, using Velcro straps attached to another board. The latter thus experienced the strangeness of being restricted, but also had their hands free. From the other side of an opaque screen, the experimenter asked questions about gears in relation to each other—e.g., "If five gears are arranged in a line, and you move the first gear clockwise, what will the final gear do?" The participants solved the problems aloud and were videotaped.

The videotapes were then analyzed for the number of hand gestures the participants used (hand rotations or "ticking" movements, indicating counting); verbal explanations indicating the subject was visualizing those physical movements; or the use of more abstract mathematical rules, without reference to perceptual-motor processes.

The results: The people who were allowed to gesture usually did so—and they also commonly used perceptual-motor strategies in solving the puzzles. The people whose hands were restrained, as well as those who chose not to gesture (even when allowed), used abstract, mathematical strategies much more often.

In a second experiment, 111 British adults did the same thing silently and were videotaped, and described their strategies afterwards. The results were the same.

The findings evince deeper questions about the relationship of mind and body and their relationship to space, says Alibali. "As human thinkers, we use visual-spatial metaphors all the time to solve problems and conceptualize things—even in domains that don't seem physical on their face. Adding is 'up,' subtracting is 'down.' A good mood is 'high,' a bad one is 'low.' This is the metaphoric structuring of our conceptual landscape."

Alibali, who is also an educational psychologist, asks: "How we can harness the power of action and perception in learning?" Or, conversely: What about the cognitive strategies of people who cannot use their bodies? "They may focus on different aspects of problems," she says. And, it turns out, they may be onto something the rest of us could learn from.

Dr. Allen Frances - Who Needs DSM 5? A Strong Warning From Professional Counselors

From the very beginning of the process, there has been a LOT of controversy around the development of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Revision - otherwise known as the DSM-5. Certainly, a major issue has been that this book is created by psychiatrists - medical doctors - 75% of whom do not actually do therapy with their clients anymore. They want to medicalize the field of psychology and mental illness, with the end result (unstated, of course) being that all diagnoses will eventually be treatable with pharmaceuticals.

Obviously, this does not sit well with a lot of people, including Dr. Allen Frances, who has been one of the loudest and most coherent voices in opposition. I've been very appreciative of his efforts and supportive of many of criticisms.

The American Counseling Association (ACA), the organization that represents professional counselors (LPCs) - such as my future self - set up their own task force to monitor the DSM-5 process and advocate on behalf of counselors, who (along with social workers [MSWs], Ph.D. psychologists (APA), and marriage and family therapists [MFTs]) do the majority of mental health counseling in this country. Let's just say that counselors are not pleased with the direction the DSM committees have moved with their medical model agenda.

Dr. Frances recently received an email from Dr. Dayle Jones who chairs the DSM 5 Task Force of the American Counseling Association (ACA). He posted about it on the ACA blog.

As Dr. Jones mentions, the revision of the ICD-10-CM codes (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th revision) will become official (October, 2013) about the same time that the DSM-5 is released - and the IDC meets all insurer-mandated and HIPAA coding requirements and will be free on the internet. I would personally favor the switch to the ICD-10-CM.

Who Needs DSM 5? A Strong Warning From Professional Counselors

Allen Frances, M.D.

I just received a very important email from Dr. Dayle Jones who chairs the DSM 5 Task Force of the American Counseling Association (ACA). Counselors provide a wide range of therapy, rehabilitation, and support services in very varied settings (like colleges, community mental health centers, psychiatric hospitals, substance treatment agencies, and private practice). There are more than 115,000 licensed professional counselors in the United States (far outnumbering the 40,000 psychiatrists as users of DSM). They (along with the 93,000 psychologists, 53,000 marriage and family therapists, and 198,000 social workers) have a deep interest in how DSM 5 will affect daily work with clients.

An ACA Task Force on DSM 5 was appointed to provide feedback to the American Psychiatric Association on proposed revisions. It has become extremely well-informed about DSM 5 and has developed an insightful analysis of the possible detrimental impacts. The ACA Task Force critique should carry great weight and cries out for a serious response (so far unreceived) from the DSM 5 leadership.

The following are direct quotes from Dr Jones’ email expressing the ACA concerns about the proposed revisions for DSM 5:

• Lowering of diagnostic thresholds - this constitutes pathologizing or medicalizing normal behavior, which goes against the philosophical orientation underlying the counseling profession with its emphasis on individual uniqueness, wellness and development. Examples include removing the grief exclusion criterion from major depressive episode; combining substance abuse and dependence into one disorder that requires only 2 of 11 symptoms; reducing the number and duration of symptoms in generalized anxiety disorder; reducing the number of symptoms required for adults to obtain an ADHD diagnosis; and many more.

• Consequences of the proposed revisions - counselors are concerned that the DSM 5 Task Force has failed to consider the risks of the proposed revisions. These include stigma, unnecessary treatments (including needless psychiatric drugs), or even overdiagnosis to the point of creating false epidemics.

• Excessive complexity of the dimensional assessments - counselors are first and foremost practitioners. A typical day involves conducting assessments; treating clients in individual, group, couples, and/or family counseling; completing case work such as diagnosis, treatment plans, and progress notes; and much more. As such, the process of diagnosis must be manageable and uncomplicated. Professional counselors already have intense time demands placed on them. Dimensional assessments that are complex and burdensome are likely to fail.

• Quality of proposed scales - the DSM 5 Task Force has allowed work groups to develop their own new assessments rather than choosing from among the many hundreds of well-established rating scales that cover almost every aspect of psychopathology. Counselors are concerned about the type and quality of scale development procedures (which is not documented on the DSM 5 website) and whether the scales are psychometrically sound. Ethical standards direct counselors (and really all mental health professionals) to use assessment methods that are reliable, valid, and appropriate to the individual, particularly when the results inform important decisions about whether or not the person has a particular mental disorder.

• Even though they are one of the largest constituencies meant to use DSM 5, counselors have been excluded from its development process. Not a single professional counselor was selected to be on the DSM 5 Task Force and counselors were initially not even listed as one of the professional groups that could apply for the “routine clinical practice field trials.” Counselors certainly feel left out, not recognized by psychiatrists as worthy of contributing to the diagnostic manual.

• Finally, we get to the crucial (and still open) question whether counselors should, and need to, use DSM 5? We have followed the DSM lead for the past 30 years. But the poor product and closed process of DSM 5 make us wonder whether to continue. DSM is not mandatory for most clinicians unless specifically required by their institutional settings. Should the DSM become so complicated, or if the development process is viewed as too questionable and controversial, counselors could choose to reject DSM 5 altogether and simply use the ICD-10-CM codes that will become official around the same time DSM 5 will be published in 2013. The ICD-10-CM codes meet all insurer-mandated and HIPAA coding requirements and will be free on the internet.

Dr Jones’ powerful email will hopefully stimulate a prompt (if belated) response from the DSM 5 leadership. The ACA has provided a much needed wake-up call for the American Psychiatric Association. Its projected future budgets are heavily dependent on expected publishing profits from DSM 5. Book sales are likely to be much reduced if the opinions of clinicians and the needs of patients continue to be ignored.

Allen Frances, M.D., was chair of the DSM-IV Task Force and of the department of psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC. He is currently professor emeritus at Duke.

Stewart Brand - "Look At the World Through the Eyes Of A Fool"

This is a cool interview with Stewart Brand from The European - if nothing else, you gotta love the title of the interview. Stewart Brand is the founder of the Long Now Foundation, the Global Business Network, and of the internet platform The WELL. From 1968 to 1998, he was editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue. Brand was the original founder of the Haight-Ashbury Trip Festival and, in the 1960s, persuaded NASA to release the first pictures of the whole earth from space after studying biology at Stanford University and serving in the US Army.

I disagree with Brand on nuclear power and some other things, but it's an interesting article with an interesting man.

"Look At the World Through the Eyes Of A Fool"

The European: You are currently involved in the Rosetta Project which aims to preserve the world’s dying languages. Has society become too eager to discard things and ideas?
Brand: Interesting, I never thought of it that way. I think we have become too shortsighted. Everything is moving faster, everybody is multitasking. Investments are made for short-term returns, democracies run on short-term election cycles. Speedy progress is great, but it is also chancy. When everything is moving fast, the future looks like it is next week. But what really counts is the future ten or hundred years from now. And we should also bear in mind that the history that matters is not only yesterday’s news but events from a decade or a century or a millennium ago. To balance that, we want to look at the long term: the last ten thousand years, the next ten thousand years.

The European: A big picture approach to issues like climate change and cultural transformation?
Brand: We’re bearing in mind the big picture. Let me give you an example of how that approach might play out: When NASA released the first photographs of the earth from space in the 1960s, people changed their frame of reference. We began to think differently about the earth, about our environment, about humanity.

The European: Did the idea of the “Blue Planet” even exist before those photographs became public?
Brand: There had been many drawings of the earth from space, just like people made images of cities from above before we had hot-air balloons. But they were all wrong. Usually, images of the earth did not include any clouds, no weather, no climate. They also tended to neglect the shadow that much of the earth is usually in. From most angles, the earth appears as a crescent. Only when the sun is directly behind you would you see the whole planet brightly illuminated against the blackness of space.

The European: So the arguments we make about politics or about the environment are very intimately tied to our perceptions, and to our emotional reactions to those perceptions?
Brand: I think there is always the question of framing: How do we look at things? The first photos of the earth changed the frame. We began to talk more about “humans” and less about Germans or Americans. We began to start talking about the planet as a whole. That, in a way, gave us the ability to think about global problems like climate change. We did not have the idea of a global solution before. Climate Change is a century-sized problem. Never before has humanity tried to tackle something on such a long temporal scale. Both the large scale and the long timeframe have to be taken seriously.

The European: Do you belief in something like a human identity?
Brand: In a way, the ideal breakthrough would be to discover alien life. That would give us a clear sense of our humanity. But even without that, we have done pretty well in stepping outside our usual frame of reference and looking at the planet and at the human race from the outside. That’s nice. I would prefer if we didn’t encounter alien intelligence for a while.

The European: One framing issue that comes to mind is the question of the extinction of species. The current rate of extinction is many times higher than the evolutionary average. Yet few people would probably argue that we are living through a critical period of the earth’s history.
Brand: Geologists are making very persuasive arguments about the effects that our behavior has on the scale of tens of thousands of years. We have become part of the geological record. As a biologist, I would say that the rate of extinction is problematic but not as bad as we used to think. But what I am more interested in is the recreation of extinct species using DNA samples. If we can bring back the mammoth, it could replace the Tundra with the old Mammoth grasslands, which fixes much more carbon.

The European: What is the value of reviving extinct species? Evolution progresses, species die and new ones arise. Why do you want to tamper with that process?
Brand: It sends a message of hope. We can rectify past mistakes, we can undo damage and harm. It would give people the sense that if we can fix something as profound as the extinction of a species, what else could we do for biodiversity? Instead of just complaining about problems, we would move towards fixing problems.

There is much more - read the whole post.

Adam Curtis – All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Very interesting documentary - bordering on conspiracy - about the confluence of Ayn Rand's philosophy and the cybernetic utopianism that arose in Silicon Valley. It draws together a wide range of threads to make a fairly convincing argument - although I wanted more details in many places, or additional perspectives.

Adam Curtis – All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Gareth Cook - Psychologists Put "Character" Under the Microscope - and it Vanishes

Character has been one of the enduring constructs in psychology - the idea that we are born with a certain collection of traits and dispositions that are relatively enduring throughout the lifespan. This article suggests that "character" may not be the stable quality we would like to believe. Scientists David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdelsolo argue that character is more context dependent than it is an enduring sets of predispositions.

The book is Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us.

Psychologists Put "Character" Under the Microscope--and it Vanishes

Authors David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo argue that much of our good and bad behavior is situational

Author David DeSteno (Image: Andre H. Mehta)

What can science reveal about our “character” — that core that shapes our moral behavior? The answer, according to a new book, is that there may not be much of a core, after all. In “Out of Character,” scientists David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdelsolo argue that how we think about character — a conception that dates back to at least the ancient Greeks — is deeply flawed. Our moral behavior, to a surprising degree, is shaped by the context in which we find ourselves. Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook spoke recently with DeSteno about the book, and the broader implications of the new science.

COOK: How did you become interested in the issue of character?

DESTENO: One of the main goals of my lab is to investigate how emotional responses guide social behavior. Most people are willing to believe that emotions can be useful to navigate the physical environment. For example, we feel disgusted at the sight of carrion, which prevents us from eating it. But for humans, navigating the social environment is just as important as navigating the physical one. For us, issues of trust, fairness, fidelity, intergroup conflict, and the like hold important consequences for successfully navigating our world.

Over the past decade of work, my lab has examined how changes in emotional states, often due to very subtle factors in one’s environment, can lead people to act in ways that they’d never expect: to be hypocrites, to lie, to cheat, but also to show compassion and kindness, and pride and leadership. What Piercarlo and I realized in looking back on this work is that, in essence, we were studying the factors that shape character – factors that, for most people, fly under their conscious radar. But of even more importance, what we saw was that the idea of character that most people posses is decidedly wrong.

What is wrong with our popular notions of “character”?

The derivation of the word “character” comes from an ancient Greek term referring to the indelible marks stamped on coins. Once character was pressed into your mind or soul, people assumed it was fixed. But what modern science repeatedly shows is that this just isn’t the case. As we discuss in our book, everyone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted.

When you think about it, the way we reason about character isn’t logically consistent. Take someone like Gov. Mark Sanford. Irrespective of their political views, most people thought he was a morally upstanding guy until that fateful day he admitted crossing the “sex line” with a mistress. Then, suddenly, we all assumed that he must have always been deeply flawed – a wolf in sheep’s clothing, if you will. He had just been pulling the wool over our eyes. Fair enough, but then why, when Farron Hall, who was a homeless drug addict who lived under a bridge in Winnepeg risked his own life to save someone who fell in the river, why don’t we now assume that he is really a good guy? We seem to believe that one bad act marks a supposed good person as deficient in character, but not that one good act marks a supposed bad person as now noble.

At one point you say that the distinction between good and bad is ““passe.”“ Can you explain what you mean by that?

Sure. The usual motif for how character works is that you have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, whispering into your ears. Early on in life, you decide to which voice you will listen, and that sets the direction for your life. The problem with this view is that, intense psychopathology aside, it makes little sense from an evolutionary perspective to assume that the mind would have “evil” mechanisms. What’s adaptive about being evil?

It makes much more sense to frame the two sides of the scale of character by immediate and forward-looking mechanisms – those that look for rewards in the short term and those that look in the long-term. In fact, social living requires finding the right balance between these two. Actions like borrowing money and not paying it back, or loafing on the couch instead of studying for the SAT’s, have immediate short terms rewards, but do them too often and no one else will want to associate with you. Similarly, always thinking of others and helping them at your own expense can lead you to give too much – so much that it negatively impacts your finances or resources. Yes, in the long run, the more good will you generate, the more you may receive if and when you need it, but you may end up never really needing it. So, using your resources to better your own immediate position is not always a bad thing. The trick, of course, is to find the right balance.

What Piercarlo and I argue is that moment-to-moment, both above and below our conscious radar, short- and long-term mechanisms are in a pitched battle to determine what we will do vis-à-vis others. Which side wins in any one instant depends on a host of factors, and understanding how the whole system works is one of the main points of the book.

Are there ways that this system functions that you think people will find surprising?

I think most surprising is the basic fact that character is always in flux. We tend to delude ourselves that character is stable, because people’’s day-to-day environments usually don’’t vary very much. But when an option or dilemma presents itself that holds very different ““pay offs”“ for the long- vs. short-term, that’’s when people may act in ways they or we would have never expected.

As we discuss in the book, simple acts like wearing colored wristbands or tapping in time to music with someone can influence the way our minds evaluate other people. In the short-term, when push comes to shove, individuals will discriminate against others who are wearing wristbands that differ in color from their own or, conversely, go out of their way to help others who were tapping in synch with them to music, as the brain interprets these colors or movements as markers of who is on “our team.”

There is something troubling in talking about these dueling systems, short-term versus long-term, because it seems to reduce people, and morality, to mechanism. Doesn’t this imply, at some level, that we are not responsible for our actions?

No, not at all. What it implies is that character isn’t solely about willpower. That doesn’t mean that we’re absolved of our responsibilities to others. Rather, it means that we have to accept that our moral behavior isn’t entirely directed by intention. However, it is usually controllable once we understand the way the system truly works.

We’re not out to dictate morality to anyone — that’s still, as it has always been, for each person to decide based on her or his beliefs, philosophy, or religion. Our goal is to show you how the system really works, and in so doing, to increase your ability to guide it in the directions you want. Once you know that your actions aren’t only influenced by willpower, you can better modify your actions by attending to, for example, what cues you expose yourself to in your environment, or what type of strategy you use (i.e., listening to your “heart” or your “mind”) to make a decision about how to treat someone.

Given your view of character, what lessons does this hold for parents? What would be examples of good ways to instill good behavior, and what would be bad ways?

I think the message here is two-fold. First, knowledge is power. Piercarlo and I would urge parents to be willing to suspend their view of how they believe character works and to examine the scientific evidence we’re putting forth.

The second part, assuming people are willing to let go of their long-held view, is that character shouldn’t be “taught” using a simple strategy of providing rules and examples. You can’t just tell Johnny to be good, or not to steal and assume that he will know how, or even be able, to do this by willpower alone. Moral education needs to be more skill-based. That is, we would advise parents to tell their kids not only what the goal is, but also how to get there — what tricks to expect their minds will engage in and what strategies they can use to keep their character moving in the direction they want. Because in the end, it’s not about “Are you a good person in general” — it’s about “Are you a good person right now.”

~ Are you a scientist? And have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT or Twitter @garethideas.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

ChangeSurfer Radio - Buddhism, Politics and the Future of the Mind & Will Enlightened Posthumans Establish Post-Capitalist Utopias?

Cool discussion - this is in two parts. From ChangeSurfer Radio, via the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies.

Buddhism, Politics and the Future of the Mind pt1

Kris Notaro

Changesurfer Radio

Posted: May 17, 2011

Dr. J. chats with IEET contributing writers Kris Notaro and Andrew Cvercko about their working out of the connections between philosophy of the mind, Buddhism, radical politics and transhuman possibilities. Part 1 of 2.

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Will Enlightened Posthumans Establish Post-Capitalist Utopias? pt 2

Andrew Cvercko

Changesurfer Radio

Posted: May 27, 2011

Dr. J. chats with IEET contributing writers Kris Notaro and Andrew Cvercko about their working out of the connections between philosophy of the mind, Buddhism, radical politics and transhuman possibilities. (Recorded in a closet-sized studio with a reggae party rocking next door. But legible.) Part 2 of 2.


Pema Chodron - LIGHTEN UP

This quote is excerpted from Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chodron, hands down one of my favorite books to read in tough times and to give as a gift. You can get a weekly quote from Pema in your inbox by clicking here.


Have you ever been caught in the heavy-duty scenario of feeling defeated and hurt, and then somehow, for no particular reason, you just drop it? It just goes, and you wonder why you made “much ado about nothing.” What was that all about?

I’d like to encourage us all to lighten up, to practice with a lot of gentleness. This compassion, this clarity, this openness are like something we have forgotten. Sitting here being gentle with ourselves, we’re rediscovering something. It’s like a mother reuniting with her child; having been lost to each other for a long, long time, they reunite. The way to reunite with bodhichitta (awakened heart) is to lighten up in your practice and in your life.

RSA - SuperCooperators w/ Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield

This is a cool, but short (at 28 minutes or so), discussion on how cooperation may have been one of the most power fuels for human evolution. The book is SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed by Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield.

Another great offering from the RSA.


05 Apr 2011

Evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak and author Roger Highfield explain how cooperation and altruism fit into the larger evolutionary puzzle. Chaired by Jonathan Rowson.

Download this video (mp4)

Discover - Why Did Consciousness Evolve, and How Can We Modify It? (2 Parts)

Malcolm MacIver posted this two-part article at the Discover Magazine site on the evolution and possible of future of human consciousness. It appears he plans a third post in this series, so these two are the introduction.

To be clear - I'm agnostic about his claims. I hold consciousness more as a process than a feature of the human mind that can be manipulated. Obviously, processes can be altered and changed - anyone who has done drugs knows that to be true.

But this article is proposing a version of transhumanism, and as I have mentioned many times, I want to see how this is going to work.

Why Did Consciousness Evolve, and How Can We Modify It?

Update 5/24/11: The conversation continues in Part II here.

I recently gave a talk at the Directors Guild of America as part of a panel on the “Science of Cyborgs” sponsored by the Science Entertainment Exchange. It was a fun time, and our moderators, Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant from the HowStuffWorks podcast, emceed the evening with just the right measure of humor and cultural insight. In my twelve minutes, I shared a theory of how consciousness evolved. My point was that if we understand the evolutionary basis of consciousness, maybe this will help us envision new ways our consciousness might evolve further in the future. That could be fun in terms of dreaming up new stories. I also believe that part of what inhibits us from taking effective action against long-term problems—like the global environmental crisis — may be found in the evolutionary origins of our ability to be aware.

This idea is so simple that I’m surprised I’ve not yet been able to find it already in circulation.

The idea is this: back in our watery days as fish, we lived in a medium that was inherently unfriendly to seeing things very far away. The technical way this is measured is the “attenuation length’’ of light through the medium. After light travels the attenuation length through a medium, about 63% of the light is blocked. The attenuation length of light in water is on the order of tens of meters. For a beast of a meter or two in length, which moves at a rate of about a body length or two per second, that’s a pretty short horizon of time and space. In just a few seconds, you’ll reach the edge of where you were able to see. If you’re down in the depths at all, or in less clear water, you may reach the edge of your perceptual horizon in about a second.

Think about that: life is coming at you at such a rate that every second unfolds a whole new tableau of potentially deadly threats, or prey you must grab in order to survive. Given such a scenario, we need to have highly reactive nervous systems, just like we revert to when we find ourselves driving in a fog or at night along a dark and winding road. The problem is that there was no respite from this fog. It was an unalterable fact of how light moves through water, relative to our own movement abilities and size.

But then, about 350 million years ago in the Devonian Period, animals like Tiktaalik started making their first tentative forays onto land. From a perceptual point of view, it was a whole new world. You can see things, roughly speaking, 10,000 times better. So, just by the simple act of poking their eyes out of the water, our ancestors went from the mala vista of a fog to a buena vista of a clear day, where they could survey things out for quite a considerable distance.

This puts the first such members of the “buena vista sensing club” into a very interesting position, from an evolutionary perspective. Think of the first animal that gains whatever mutation it might take to disconnect sensory input from motor output (before this point, their rapid linkage was necessary because of the need for reactivity to avoid becoming lunch). At this point, they can potentially survey multiple possible futures and pick the one most likely to lead to success. For example, rather than go straight for the gazelle and risk disclosing your position too soon, you may choose to stalk slowly along a line of bushes (wary that your future dinner is also seeing 10,000 times better than its watery ancestors) until you are much closer. Here’s an illustration of the two scenarios:

On the left, we have the situation when the distance we sense is close to the distance we will move in our reaction time (our reaction time is about 1/3 of a second; from that point to when we will stop is a bit longer– like those diagrams you see of stopping distance when driving at night show). There isn’t a whole lot of space to plan over. On the right, we can fit three very different plans to get to our prey: b1-b3, among others.

So what does this have to do with consciousness?

In 1992, psychologist Bruce Bridgeman wrote that “Consciousness is the operation of the plan-executing mechanism, enabling behavior to be driven by plans rather than immediate environmental contingencies.” No theory of consciousness is likely to account for all of its varied senses, but at least in terms of consciousness-as-operation-of-the-plan-executing-mechanism, due to some very simple “facts of light,” dwelling on land may have been a necessary condition for giving us the ability to survey the contents of our mind. “Buena vista consciousness,” for lack of a better term, might have been the first kind of consciousness that selection pressures could have brought about.

Given this picture of how a certain kind of consciousness came about, what are the knobs we might twiddle, either for the love of story making, or so that our transhumanist future selves might be conscious in a different way?

Let me borrow a moral quandary from philosopher James Rachels. Maybe you’re eating a sandwich right now. There is a child, far away, who is not, and who is about to die for lack of food. Surely, if that child were beside you, you would share your sandwich. But, then, what’s keeping you from sharing that sandwich anyway? The shipping costs? That’s easily avoided – we find someone on the ground who can buy the sandwich locally. If you think through the various possibilities, the only answer you eventually come to is that the starving child is too far removed from your state of awareness to really matter to you. Likewise with any number of a host of environmental devastations that are going on at this moment.

So, what if we massively expanded the blue space in the picture above, our sensorium? I don’t mean watch video of distant places (which surely is part of the way), but use artificial retina technology to directly pipe visual images from a disconnected place directly into your brain? Say, of the rain forest that is currently being destroyed so that an industrial meat producer in Peru can provide fast food chains in our country with low cost beef? This would be disruptive technology on a big scale.

Here’s another thought experiment: Notice that there is only one being in the pictures above. Consciousness does seem to be for one being at a time. What if we reengineer things so that we see what others in our group see, or so that when you do something good, the entire group feels good, rather than just you? This kind of consciousness has been explored in science fiction (The Borg on TV), and in art (Mathieu Brand’s Ubiq). We even know mechanisms of how something like the hive mind of bees work, such as regulation of the division of labor through various genes and hormones. Could something like this be the antidote to the endemic selfishness of Homo sapiens?

More details on the idea of buena vista consciousness can be found on pages 492-499 of this chapter I wrote in 2009.

UPDATE: A more technical paper describing how to quantify sensory and movement spaces is here.

March 14th, 2011 by Malcolm MacIver

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Why Did Consciousness Evolve, and How Can We Modify It, Pt. II: The Supremacy of Vision

I’m back after a hiatus of a few weeks to catch up on some stuff in the lab and the waning weeks of spring quarter teaching here at Northwestern. In my last post, I put forward an idea about why consciousness– defined in a narrow way as “contemplation of plans” (after Bridgeman)–evolved, and used this idea to suggest some ways we might improve our consciousness in the future through augmentation technology.

Here’s a quick review: Back in our watery days as fish (roughly, 350 million years ago) we were in an environment that was not friendly to sensing things far away. This is because of a hard fact about light in water, which is that our ability to see things at a far distance is drastically compromised by attenuation and scattering of light in water. A useful figure of merit is “attenuation length,” which in water is tens of meters for light, while in air it is tens of ten thousand meters. This is in perfectly clear water –add a bit of algae or other kinds of microorganisms and it goes down dramatically. Roughly speaking, vision in water is similar to driving a car in a fog. Since you’re not seeing very far out, the idea I’ve proposed goes, there is less of an advantage to planning over the space you can sense. On land, you can see a lot further out. Now, if a chance set of mutations gives you the ability to contemplate more than one possible future path through the space ahead, then that mutation is more likely to be selected for.

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll wrote a great summary of my post. Between my original post and his, many insightful questions and problems were raised by thoughtful readers.

In the interest of both responding to your comments and encouraging more insightful feedback, I’ll have a couple of further posts on this idea that will explore some of the recurring themes that have cropped up in the comments.

Today, since many commenters raised doubts about my claim that vision on land was key – raising the long distance sensory capabilities of our sense of smell, and hearing, among other points – I thought I’d start with a review of why, among biological senses, only vision (and, to a more limited degree echolocation) is capable of giving access to the detail that could be necessary to having multiple future paths to plan over. Are the other types of sensing that you’ve raised as important as sight?

Having the kind of overview needed for real-time planning of a path to a goal – at least an unpredictable, moving goal like prey – requires being able to access detail over a large amount of space relative to where you are moving in your immediate future. I’ll show why the only types of biological sensing capable of providing this sort of broad overview to animals are sight and echolocation, and why sight is easily the more powerful of the two.

Two important factors determine one’s ability to sense from a distance: resolution (the minimum size an object or a feature can be before you can no longer distinguish it), and range (how far away an object can be detected). Given our particular terrestrial environment, sight wins out over all other types of sensing on both counts.

First, a little bit on our yardsticks. Range designates the maximum typical distances that something is sensed. Resolution is fairly intuitive these days, since many of us have had the experience of working with some image we’ve grabbed from the internet with a resolution that is too low for our needs. You can measure it in a variety of ways, such as how many pixels can be resolved or displayed in a given unit of length. The new iPhone’s “retina” display has a resolution of 300 pixels per inch, for example, and as the publicity has suggested, this is similar to the resolving power of our eyes when the display is held at typical viewing distances.

For biological senses, resolution is partially set by how densely packed the sensory receptors are. For visual systems, the packing density in the fovea (for animals that have them), at the central part of the retina, is extremely high, and the density rapidly diminishes away from the fovea.

But there is another constraint, besides how closely spaced the sensory receptors are: the wavelength of the energy you are sensing the world with. As a first approximation, you cannot resolve objects below the wavelength of the energy you are sensing with. This is true whether you are sensing the consequence of probing the environment with that energy, as in the case of bats and their echolocation, or just passively absorbing the energy emitted by some external object, such as an object reflecting sunlight into your visual system. In the case of vision, the wavelengths are small compared to the packing density of our sensory receptors, so we don’t notice this issue. In the case of probing with sound using an artificial sense (for humans), such as ultrasound, or in the case of echolocation for bats and dolphins, the resolution limits imposed by the energy become more constraining. At 80,000 cycles per second (what some bats use, and four times higher than we can hear), resolution is about one quarter of a centimeter. Dolphins emit at somewhat higher frequencies, but because sound goes about four times faster in water than in air, they end up with a resolution of about 1 centimeter.

With that background on range and resolution, we can ask “what senses provide detailed overviews at far distances (say, at least 100 times longer than your body)?”

Let’s go through some of the biological possibilities: hearing; echolocation, also referred to as sonar (which also involves hearing, but at a much higher frequency, and includes the generation of an echolocation beam); touch; taste; smell; flow sensing (in science referred to as the “mechanosensory lateral line”); sensing of weak electric fields, called “electrosense”; active electrical sensing, called “electrolocation” (similar to normal electrosense, but like echolocation, includes not only perception of electric fields, but generation of them as well—so hearing is to echolocation what electrosense is to electrolocation); magnetosense, the ability to sense Earth’s magnetic field; vision (all types, including polarized light, and ultraviolet). For simplicity, I will consider these one at a time, although in many biological situations, multiple senses would be combined.

Passive hearing: sound can travel a long distance before it can no longer be heard. Underwater, it can travel even further. But there is a problem: hearing can tell you something out there is producing sound (like a screeching animal), but it cannot tell you anything about all the things that are not producing sounds, like the quietly resting boulders nearby the screeching animal or the ferns silently bending in the wind across the stream from said animal. This is in great contrast with vision in daylight: everything that reflects light, which is basically everything, can be seen.

As a consequence, when you hear something, you can get a sense of the direction of the object producing sound, and an estimate of distance. So you can get closer to the thing that produces the sound, but using sound alone, it’s challenging to be clever about how you get closer, since you don’t know anything about the stuff in between you and the thing generating sound (again, we are taking these senses one at a time). If you’ve ever played the Hot and Cold game as a kid, this is similar: the sound gives you enough information to tell if you’re getting hot or cold (approaching or moving away), plus some sense of distance and what kind of object is making the sound.

Active hearing (echolocation, or sonar): echolocation has many of the benefits of vision, but without requiring light. Bats and dolphins generate echolocation pulses which travel out and then return after being reflected by nearby objects. By moving the parts of their body that generate the echolocation pulse (mouth or nose), they can “scan” their environment. However, both resolution and range is significantly worse than in the case of vision, at least on land. We already went through resolution limits of echolocation. In terms of the range of echolocation, in water it is quite good – up to one hundred meters for the kinds of objects dolphins hunt for — far better than vision in water. It’s interesting that a mammal, that may have been used to large visual ranges on land prior to going back to the ocean, came up with a style of sensing that gives you the best long distance sensing in water. Due to more rapid attenuation of high frequencies in air, bats have a shorter range – on the order a few meters for their prey.

The primary reason for the short range of echolocation systems is that their probe signal falls off with the fourth power of distance. This means that in order to double the range of an echolocation system, you need 16 times more power. Obtaining large ranges with echolocation, therefore, runs into energy consumption issues, and limits to the loudness of sounds that can be generated before damage to tissue ensues.

Touch/taste: This one is easy. While for small insects and rodents, touch appendages can reach out for a good fraction of body length, one body length is about the maximum for the length of things like whiskers and antennae before they become unwieldy. Taste sensors are on the body surface or on things like the tongue, so like touch, isn’t great for sensing at a distance.

Smell: Like passive hearing, the sense of smell can have fantastic range (sharks can smell injured prey from 5 km; male moths can find female moths at up to 10 km). But once again, it only tells you about things emitting odors. This allows you to approach them (if you are lucky with respect to environmental conditions), but you can’t use smell for a detailed overview of the space ahead. It’s fun imagining what would be needed in order to have smell work this way. Every object would need to be emitting a distinct odor, and downstream, these odors would have to stay relatively separated. Then, by scanning your nose through the odor array, you might be able to obtain an “olfactograph” of the space ahead!

Flow sensing: Fish and some other aquatic animals possess special sense organs for detecting flows due to the movement of other animals. This can guide predatory strikes. Seals have been demonstrated to be able to follow flows made by fish after some time has elapsed. In general, however, flow sensing is very “near field”, operating on the range of a body length or two at most.

Passive electrosense. Because all animals in water generate a weak bioelectric field, the ability to detect these fields evolved very early in the history of animals. They are found, for example, in the most ancient vertebrate that still exists, the lamprey (so old it doesn’t even have a jaw). Many other aquatic animals have them as well, such as sharks. The detection of external bioelectric fields occurs at very near range, about a body length or two.

Active electrosense (electrolocation). In active electrical sensing (also called electrolocation), an animal detects how its environment is modulating a self-generated weak electric field. In my doctoral work, I showed that it is effective at less than a body length for prey-like objects, and perhaps a few body lengths for larger objects. Like echolocation, the fall off of active electrosense is with the fourth power of distance, so it rapidly becomes prohibitive to sense at a distance.

Magnetic field sensing: Certain animals have been shown to detect the direction of Earth’s magnetic field. This is very useful for navigation. It should be clear, however, that it will not, in any circumstance, provide a detailed overview of the space ahead.

Vision: Given our relatively transparent environment, illuminated for at least a portion of the day with loads of light from the sun (about a thousand watts of light per square meter on a clear day at noon, a typical “radiant flux density” at the surface of Earth), vision reigns king as a system for imaging. It’s true that some land environments are dense enough to make vision nearly as short as it is in water – but in places like tidal flats, savannah, and prairie, being able to see far ahead pays big dividends.

Because of the high velocity of the electromagnetic radiation vision uses, the resolution limit for visible light is much, much smaller than our ability to perceive, because the distance between our sensory organs for light is quite large compared to the wavelength of light (for example 500 billionths of a meter is one of the wavelengths we see with). As a consequence, as the distance between receptors of the eye has decreased, and our optical abilities along with it, we are able to resolve a sixtieth of one degree with our visual systems. That means we can see a rabbit at a bit over half a mile, an astonishing capability compared to how far out our water-based ancestors could sense.

In contrast, as my original post mentioned, because of the “attenuation length” of light in water, the distance at which 63% of the light from an object is absorbed by the water, is on the order of tens of meters in perfectly clear water. So light from the sun has to go down into water, thereby losing 63% of its intensity after tens of meters – and then reflect off an object, and get to your eye, again losing 63% of its intensity in some tens of meters. In costal waters or anywhere the water is a bit cloudy with phytoplankton or algae, attenuation length is ten times less – going down to meters. No matter what you do with your sensors and optics, this is going to result in significantly diminishing returns to see things further away.

On land, the attenuation length for light in air is on the order of 100 km. This is similar to the attenuation length of sound in water, which is why dolphins and whales do so well with echolocation underwater (but still, for dolphins only on the order of 100 meters for prey-sized objects).

That finishes our survey of what senses are good for quickly accessing points in a big amount of space. To sum up: to sense something means you need to detect energy emanating from the object. Some things, like sounds or odors emitted by animals or environmental phenomena, are sparsely distributed (not every point in your surroundings is emitting the energy), and this feature enables us to find the croaking frog or cracking branch.

But, in such situations, because our ability to sense these objects depends to some extent on the surrounding objects NOT emitting any such energy, it is not possible to get a detailed point by point sensation of a large amount of space. In contrast, with vision, echolocation, and active electrosense, energy is delivered to all objects of interest. So, you can sense them, whether or not they emit any kind of energy on their own. As such, only these senses (and similar ones) have the capacity to provide detailed point-by-point overviews. Of these, vision on land is by far the most powerful, in part just because there is an intense amount of energy being delivered by our Sun for at least a portion of the day, and easily delivered by artificial means otherwise; and in part, because the short wavelength means that vision systems can perceive with unparalleled acuity.

In the next post, I’ll explore the connection between having a big amount of space at hand, and planning to an unpredictable, moving goal, like another animal you’re hoping to dine on. I’ll argue that such planning requires you to have a big chunk of space at the beck and call of your sensory system, relative to the space you’re about to move into.

Image by Malcolm A. MacIver

Correction: In the original post I stated “Dolphins emit at somewhat higher frequencies, but because light goes about four times faster in water than in air, they end up with a resolution of about 1 centimeter.” Thanks to @Kees for pointing out my mistake – I meant that sound goes four times faster in water.

May 23rd, 2011 by Malcolm MacIver