Monday, December 31, 2012

My Favorite Books of 2012 - From Hallucinations and Psychopaths to Better Angels and the Age of Insight

Here are my favorite books from this past year, with the publisher blurb to give you the overview of the book. These are in no particular order. Many of these books appeared in this blog in the form of reviews written for other publications.

To be clear, I am not claiming these are the best books of the year, but rather, that these are the books I enjoyed reading or challenged my thinking in some ways. And as you might guess, the list is heavy with neuroscience and psychology books, but also one work of fiction and three books of poetry. There were some excellent books this year - please share some of your favorites in the comments.

[UPDATE] Somehow, when I did this list last night, I managed to forget one of the best and one of my favorite books from the list, which is now at the top. Thanks to Christian for reminding me of this book. (Technically, it came out in 2011, but I did not read it until 2012 when a friend gifted me with it - Thanks Tom!)

Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

  • Selected by the New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of 2011
  • A Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year 2011 Title
  • One of The Economist’s 2011 Books of the Year
  • One of The Wall Steet Journal's Best Nonfiction Books of the Year 2011
  • Winner of the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest

Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making, is one of our most important thinkers. His ideas have had a profound and widely regarded impact on many fields—including economics, medicine, and politics—but until now, he has never brought together his many years of research and thinking in one book.

In the highly anticipated Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities—and also the faults and biases—of fast thinking, and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behavior. The impact of loss aversion and overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the challenges of properly framing risks at work and at home, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning the next vacation—each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems work together to shape our judgments and decisions.

Engaging the reader in a lively conversation about how we think, Kahneman reveals where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and our personal lives—and how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble. Thinking, Fast and Slow will transform the way you think about thinking.

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The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson 
From the most celebrated heir to Darwin comes a groundbreaking book on evolution, the summa work of Edward O. Wilson's legendary career.

Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? In a generational work of clarity and passion, one of our greatest living scientists directly addresses these three fundamental questions of religion, philosophy, and science while “overturning the famous theory that evolution naturally encourages creatures to put family first” (Discover magazine). Refashioning the story of human evolution in a work that is certain to generate headlines, Wilson draws on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to show that group selection, not kin selection, is the primary driving force of human evolution. He proves that history makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology. Demonstrating that the sources of morality, religion, and the creative arts are fundamentally biological in nature, Wilson presents us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition and why it resulted in our domination of the Earth’s biosphere.

* * * * *

Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon 
From the National Book Award–winning author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression comes a monumental new work, a decade in the writing, about family. In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon tells the stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so.

Solomon’s startling proposition is that diversity is what unites us all. He writes about families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender. While each of these characteristics is potentially isolating, the experience of difference within families is universal, as are the triumphs of love Solomon documents in every chapter.

All parenting turns on a crucial question: to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves. Drawing on forty thousand pages of interview transcripts with more than three hundred families, Solomon mines the eloquence of ordinary people facing extreme challenges. Whether considering prenatal screening for genetic disorders, cochlear implants for the deaf, or gender reassignment surgery for transgender people, Solomon narrates a universal struggle toward compassion. Many families grow closer through caring for a challenging child; most discover supportive communities of others similarly affected; some are inspired to become advocates and activists, celebrating the very conditions they once feared. Woven into their courageous and affirming stories is Solomon’s journey to accepting his own identity, which culminated in his midlife decision, influenced by this research, to become a parent.

Elegantly reported by a spectacularly original thinker, Far from the Tree explores themes of generosity, acceptance, and tolerance—all rooted in the insight that love can transcend every prejudice. This crucial and revelatory book expands our definition of what it is to be human.

* * * * *

Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks 
Have you ever seen something that wasn’t really there? Heard someone call your name in an empty house? Sensed someone following you and turned around to find nothing?

Hallucinations don’t belong wholly to the insane. Much more commonly, they are linked to sensory deprivation, intoxication, illness, or injury. People with migraines may see shimmering arcs of light or tiny, Lilliputian figures of animals and people. People with failing eyesight, paradoxically, may become immersed in a hallucinatory visual world. Hallucinations can be brought on by a simple fever or even the act of waking or falling asleep, when people have visions ranging from luminous blobs of color to beautifully detailed faces or terrifying ogres. Those who are bereaved may receive comforting “visits” from the departed. In some conditions, hallucinations can lead to religious epiphanies or even the feeling of leaving one’s own body.

Humans have always sought such life-changing visions, and for thousands of years have used hallucinogenic compounds to achieve them. As a young doctor in California in the 1960s, Oliver Sacks had both a personal and a professional interest in psychedelics. These, along with his early migraine experiences, launched a lifelong investigation into the varieties of hallucinatory experience.

Here, with his usual elegance, curiosity, and compassion, Dr. Sacks weaves together stories of his patients and of his own mind-altering experiences to illuminate what hallucinations tell us about the organization and structure of our brains, how they have influenced every culture’s folklore and art, and why the potential for hallucination is present in us all, a vital part of the human condition.

* * * * *

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, David Eagleman 
If the conscious mind--the part you consider to be you--is just the tip of the iceberg, what is the rest doing?

In this sparkling and provocative book, renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman navigates the depths of the subconscious brain to illuminate its surprising mysteries. Why can your foot move halfway to the brake pedal before you become consciously aware of danger ahead? Is there a true Mel Gibson? How is your brain like a conflicted democracy engaged in civil war? What do Odysseus and the subprime mortgage meltdown have in common? Why are people whose names begin with J more like to marry other people whose names begin with J? And why is it so difficult to keep a secret?

Taking in brain damage, plane spotting, dating, drugs, beauty, infidelity, synesthesia, criminal law, artificial intelligence, and visual illusions, Incognito is a thrilling subsurface exploration of the mind and all its contradictions.

* * * * *

The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Kevin Dutton 
In this engrossing journey into the lives of psychopaths and their infamously crafty behaviors, the renowned psychologist Kevin Dutton reveals that there is a scale of “madness” along which we all sit. Incorporating the latest advances in brain scanning and neuroscience, Dutton demonstrates that the brilliant neurosurgeon who lacks empathy has more in common with a Ted Bundy who kills for pleasure than we may wish to admit, and that a mugger in a dimly lit parking lot may well, in fact, have the same nerveless poise as a titan of industry.

Dutton argues that there are indeed “functional psychopaths” among us—different from their murderous counterparts—who use their detached, unflinching, and charismatic personalities to succeed in mainstream society, and that shockingly, in some fields, the more “psychopathic” people are, the more likely they are to succeed. Dutton deconstructs this often misunderstood diagnosis through bold on-the-ground reporting and original scientific research as he mingles with the criminally insane in a high-security ward, shares a drink with one of the world’s most successful con artists, and undergoes transcranial magnetic stimulation to discover firsthand exactly how it feels to see through the eyes of a psychopath.

As Dutton develops his theory that we all possess psychopathic tendencies, he puts forward the argument that society as a whole is more psychopathic than ever: after all, psychopaths tend to be fearless, confident, charming, ruthless, and focused—qualities that are tailor-made for success in the twenty-first century. Provocative at every turn, The Wisdom of Psychopaths is a riveting adventure that reveals that it’s our much-maligned dark side that often conceals the trump cards of success.

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Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your BehaviorLeonard Mlodinow
Leonard Mlodinow, the best-selling author of The Drunkard’s Walk and coauthor of The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking), gives us a startling and eye-opening examination of how the unconscious mind shapes our experience of the world and how, for instance, we often misperceive our relationships with family, friends, and business associates, misunderstand the reasons for our investment decisions, and misremember important events.

Your preference in politicians, the amount you tip your waiter—all judgments and perceptions reflect the workings of our mind on two levels: the conscious, of which we are aware, and the unconscious, which is hidden from us. The latter has long been the subject of speculation, but over the past two decades researchers have developed remarkable new tools for probing the hidden, or subliminal, workings of the mind. The result of this explosion of research is a new science of the unconscious and a sea change in our understanding of how the subliminal mind affects the way we live.

Employing his trademark wit and lucid, accessible explanations of the most obscure scientific subjects, Leonard Mlodinow takes us on a tour of this research, unraveling the complexities of the subliminal self and increasing our understanding of how the human mind works and how we interact with friends, strangers, spouses, and coworkers. In the process he changes our view of ourselves and the world around us.

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The Ravenous Brain, Daniel Bor 
Consciousness is our gateway to experience: it enables us to recognize Van Gogh’s starry skies, be enraptured by Beethoven’s Fifth, and stand in awe of a snowcapped mountain. Yet consciousness is subjective, personal, and famously difficult to examine: philosophers have for centuries declared this mental entity so mysterious as to be impenetrable to science.

In The Ravenous Brain, neuroscientist Daniel Bor departs sharply from this historical view, and builds on the latest research to propose a new model for how consciousness works. Bor argues that this brain-based faculty evolved as an accelerated knowledge gathering tool. Consciousness is effectively an idea factory—that choice mental space dedicated to innovation, a key component of which is the discovery of deep structures within the contents of our awareness.

This model explains our brains’ ravenous appetite for information—and in particular, its constant search for patterns. Why, for instance, after all our physical needs have been met, do we recreationally solve crossword or Sudoku puzzles? Such behavior may appear biologically wasteful, but, according to Bor, this search for structure can yield immense evolutionary benefits—it led our ancestors to discover fire and farming, pushed modern society to forge ahead in science and technology, and guides each one of us to understand and control the world around us. But the sheer innovative power of human consciousness carries with it the heavy cost of mental fragility. Bor discusses the medical implications of his theory of consciousness, and what it means for the origins and treatment of psychiatric ailments, including attention-deficit disorder, schizophrenia, manic depression, and autism. All mental illnesses, he argues, can be reformulated as disorders of consciousness—a perspective that opens up new avenues of treatment for alleviating mental suffering.

A controversial view of consciousness, The Ravenous Brain links cognition to creativity in an ingenious solution to one of science’s biggest mysteries.
* * * * *

Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul, Giulio Tononi 
From one of the most original and influential neuroscientists at work today, here is an exploration of consciousness unlike any other—as told by Galileo, who opened the way for the objectivity of science and is now intent on making subjective experience a part of science as well.

Galileo’s journey has three parts, each with a different guide. In the first, accompanied by a scientist who resembles Francis Crick, he learns why certain parts of the brain are important and not others, and why consciousness fades with sleep. In the second part, when his companion seems to be named Alturi (Galileo is hard of hearing; his companion’s name is actually Alan Turing), he sees how the facts assembled in the first part can be unified and understood through a scientific theory—a theory that links consciousness to the notion of integrated information (also known as phi). In the third part, accompanied by a bearded man who can only be Charles Darwin, he meditates on how consciousness is an evolving, developing, ever-deepening awareness of ourselves in history and culture—that it is everything we have and everything we are.

Not since Gödel, Escher, Bach has there been a book that interweaves science, art, and the imagination with such originality. This beautiful and arresting narrative will transform the way we think of ourselves and the world.

* * * * *

The Self Illusion, Bruce Hood 
Most of us believe that we are an independent, coherent self--an individual inside our head who thinks, watches, wonders, dreams, and makes plans for the future. This sense of our self may seem incredibly real but a wealth of recent scientific evidence reveals that it is not what it seems--it is all an illusion.

In The Self Illusion, Bruce Hood reveals how the self emerges during childhood and how the architecture of the developing brain enables us to become social animals dependent on each other. Humans spend proportionally the greatest amount of time in childhood compared to any other animal. It's not only to learn from others, Hood notes, but also to learn to become like others. We learn to become our self. Even as adults we are continually developing and elaborating this story, learning to become different selves in different situations--the work self, the home self, the parent self. Moreover, Hood shows that this already fluid process--the construction of self--has dramatically changed in recent years. Social networking activities--such as blogging, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter--are fast becoming socialization on steroids. The speed and ease at which we can form alliances and relationships are outstripping the same selection processes that shaped our self prior to the internet era. Things will never be the same again in the online social world. Hood offers our first glimpse into this unchartered territory.

Who we are is, in short, a story of our self--a narrative that our brain creates. Like the science fiction movie, we are living in a matrix that is our mind. But Hood concludes that though the self is an illusion, it is an illusion we must continue to embrace to live happily in human society.

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The Ego Trick, Julian Baggini 
Are you still the person who lived fifteen, ten or five years ago? Fifteen, ten or five minutes ago? Can you plan for your retirement if the you of thirty years hence is in some sense a different person? What and who is the real you? Does it remain constant over time and place, or is it something much more fragmented and fluid? Is it known to you, or are you as much a mystery to yourself as others are to you? 
With his usual wit, infectious curiosity and bracing scepticism, Julian Baggini sets out to answer these fundamental and unsettling questions. His fascinating quest draws on the history of philosophy, but also anthropology, sociology, psychology and neurology; he talks to theologians, priests, allegedly reincarnated Lamas, and delves into real-life cases of lost memory, personality disorders and personal transformation; and, candidly and engagingly, he describes his own experiences. After reading The Ego Trick, you will never see yourself in the same way again.

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The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Richard Davidson 
This long-awaited book by a pioneer in brain research offers a new model of our emotions- their origins, their power, and their malleability.

For more than thirty years, Richard Davidson has been at the forefront of brain research. Now he gives us an entirely new model for understanding our emotions, as well as practical strategies we can use to change them.

Davidson has discovered that personality is composed of six basic emotional "styles," including resilience, self-awareness, and attention. Our emotional fingerprint results from where on the continuum of each style we fall. He explains the brain chemistry that underlies each style in order to give us a new model of the emotional brain, one that will even go so far as to affect the way we treat conditions like autism and depression. And, finally, he provides strategies we can use to change our own brains and emotions-if that is what we want to do.

Written with bestselling author Sharon Begley, this original and exciting book gives us a new and useful way to look at ourselves, develop a sense of well-being, and live more meaningful lives.

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The Age of Insight, Eric Kandel 
A brilliant book by Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel, The Age of Insight takes us to Vienna 1900, where leaders in science, medicine, and art began a revolution that changed forever how we think about the human mind—our conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions—and how mind and brain relate to art.

At the turn of the century, Vienna was the cultural capital of Europe. Artists and scientists met in glittering salons, where they freely exchanged ideas that led to revolutionary breakthroughs in psychology, brain science, literature, and art. Kandel takes us into the world of Vienna to trace, in rich and rewarding detail, the ideas and advances made then, and their enduring influence today.

The Vienna School of Medicine led the way with its realization that truth lies hidden beneath the surface. That principle infused Viennese culture and strongly influenced the other pioneers of Vienna 1900. Sigmund Freud shocked the world with his insights into how our everyday unconscious aggressive and erotic desires are repressed and disguised in symbols, dreams, and behavior. Arthur Schnitzler revealed women’s unconscious sexuality in his novels through his innovative use of the interior monologue. Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele created startlingly evocative and honest portraits that expressed unconscious lust, desire, anxiety, and the fear of death.

Kandel tells the story of how these pioneers—Freud, Schnitzler, Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele—inspired by the Vienna School of Medicine, in turn influenced the founders of the Vienna School of Art History to ask pivotal questions such as What does the viewer bring to a work of art? How does the beholder respond to it? These questions prompted new and ongoing discoveries in psychology and brain biology, leading to revelations about how we see and perceive, how we think and feel, and how we respond to and create works of art. Kandel, one of the leading scientific thinkers of our time, places these five innovators in the context of today’s cutting-edge science and gives us a new understanding of the modernist art of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele, as well as the school of thought of Freud and Schnitzler. Reinvigorating the intellectual enquiry that began in Vienna 1900, The Age of Insight is a wonderfully written, superbly researched, and beautifully illustrated book that also provides a foundation for future work in neuroscience and the humanities. It is an extraordinary book from an international leader in neuroscience and intellectual history.

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The Archaeology of Mind, Jaak Panksepp 
A look at the seven emotional systems of the brain by the researcher who discovered them.

What makes us happy? What makes us sad? How do we come to feel a sense of enthusiasm? What fills us with lust, anger, fear, or tenderness? Traditional behavioral and cognitive neuroscience have yet to provide satisfactory answers. The Archaeology of Mind presents an affective neuroscience approach—which takes into consideration basic mental processes, brain functions, and emotional behaviors that all mammals share—to locate the neural mechanisms of emotional expression. It reveals—for the first time—the deep neural sources of our values and basic emotional feelings.

This book elaborates on the seven emotional systems that explain how we live and behave. These systems originate in deep areas of the brain that are remarkably similar across all mammalian species. When they are disrupted, we find the origins of emotional disorders:

- SEEKING: how the brain generates a euphoric and expectant response
- FEAR: how the brain responds to the threat of physical danger and death
- RAGE: sources of irritation and fury in the brain
- LUST: how sexual desire and attachments are elaborated in the brain
- CARE: sources of maternal nurturance
- GRIEF: sources of non-sexual attachments
- PLAY: how the brain generates joyous, rough-and-tumble interactions
- SELF: a hypothesis explaining how affects might be elaborated in the brain

The book offers an evidence-based evolutionary taxonomy of emotions and affects and, as such, a brand-new clinical paradigm for treating psychiatric disorders in clinical practice.

* * * * *

The next two books here are ones I think are god and should be read, so I included them. However, as I read them I found myself disagreeing quite often, especially with Haidt.

The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt 
Why can’t our political leaders work together as threats loom and problems mount? Why do people so readily assume the worst about the motives of their fellow citizens? In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the origins of our divisions and points the way forward to mutual understanding.

His starting point is moral intuition—the nearly instantaneous perceptions we all have about other people and the things they do. These intuitions feel like self-evident truths, making us righteously certain that those who see things differently are wrong. Haidt shows us how these intuitions differ across cultures, including the cultures of the political left and right. He blends his own research findings with those of anthropologists, historians, and other psychologists to draw a map of the moral domain, and he explains why conservatives can navigate that map more skillfully than can liberals. He then examines the origins of morality, overturning the view that evolution made us fundamentally selfish creatures. But rather than arguing that we are innately altruistic, he makes a more subtle claim—that we are fundamentally groupish. It is our groupishness, he explains, that leads to our greatest joys, our religious divisions, and our political affiliations. In a stunning final chapter on ideology and civility, Haidt shows what each side is right about, and why we need the insights of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to flourish as a nation.

* * * * *

The Better Angels of Our NatureSteven Pinker 
A provocative history of violence—from the New York Times bestselling author of The Stuff of Thought and The Blank Slate

Believe it or not, today we may be living in the most peaceful moment in our species' existence. In his gripping and controversial new work, New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows that despite the ceaseless news about war, crime, and terrorism, violence has actually been in decline over long stretches of history. Exploding myths about humankind's inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious book continues Pinker's exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly enlightened world.

* * * * *

To wrap things up, the next three books are poetry. Just because.

Poems 1962-2012, Louise Glück 
It is the astonishment of Louise Glück’s poetry that it resists collection. With each successive book her drive to leave behind what came before has grown more fierce, the force of her gaze fixed on what has yet to be imagined. She invented a form to accommodate this need, the book-length sequence of poems, like a landscape seen from above, a novel with lacunae opening onto the unspeakable. The reiterated yet endlessly transfigured elements in this landscape—Persephone, a copper beech, a mother and father and sister, a garden, a husband and son, a horse, a dog, a field on fire, a mountain—persistently emerge and reappear with the dark energy of the inevitable, shot through with the bright aspect of things new-made.

From the outset (“Come here / Come here, little one”), Gluck’s voice has addressed us with deceptive simplicity, the poems in lines so clear we “do not see the intervening fathoms.”

From within the earth’s
bitter disgrace, coldness and barrenness

my friend the moon rises:
she is beautiful tonight, but when is she not beautiful?

To read these books together is to understand the governing paradox of a life lived in the body and of the work wrested from it, the one fated to die and the other to endure.

* * * * *

Collected Poems, Jack Gilbert 
Gathered in this volume readers will find more than fifty years of poems by the incomparable Jack Gilbert, from his Yale Younger Poets prize-winning volume to glorious late poems, including a section of previously uncollected work.

There is no one quite like Jack Gilbert in postwar American poetry. After garnering early acclaim with Views of Jeopardy (1962), he escaped to Europe and lived apart from the literary establishment, honing his uniquely fierce, declarative style, with its surprising abundance of feeling. He reappeared in our midst with Monolithos (1982) and then went underground again until The Great Fires (1994), which was eventually followed by Refusing Heaven (2005), a prizewinning volume of surpassing joy and sorrow, and the elegiac The Dance Most of All (2009). Whether his subject is his boyhood in working-class Pittsburgh, the women he has loved throughout his life, or the bittersweet losses we all face, Gilbert is by turns subtle and majestic: he steals up on the odd moment of grace; he rises to crescendos of emotion. At every turn, he illuminates the basic joys of everyday experience.

Now, for the first time, we have all of Jack Gilbert’s work in one essential volume: testament to a stunning career and to his place at the forefront of poetic achievement in our time.

* * * * *

A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver 
Mornings with the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver

In A THOUSAND MORNINGS, Mary Oliver returns to the imagery that has come to define her life’s work, transporting us to the marshland and coastline of her beloved home, Provincetown, Massachusetts. In these pages, Oliver shares the wonder of dawn, the grace of animals, and the transformative power of attention. Whether studying the leaves of a tree or mourning her adored dog, Percy, she is ever patient in her observations and open to the teachings contained in the smallest of moments.

Our most precious chronicler of physical landscape, Oliver opens our eyes to the nature within, to its wild and its quiet. With startling clarity, humor, and kindness, A THOUSAND MORNINGS explores the mysteries of our daily experience.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. - Five Things You Can Do Instead of New Year’s Resolutions

New Year's resolutions are a great to set ourselves up for failure. We make the promises to ourselves and then when we fail (and most people do not keep their resolutions) we beat ourselves up and feel even worse about ourselves than we did on New Year's Eve.

This collection of ideas for alternatives to the usual resolutions are creative and - to me - a lot more useful and practical in terms of improving our lives.

Five Things You Can Do Instead of New Year’s Resolutions

Fresh alternatives to help you celebrate 2012 and get to your 2013 goals.
Published on December 29, 2012 by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. in The Science of Willpower

Tired of the traditional New Year’s resolution to lose weight, get fit, or get out of credit card debt?

Below are five fresh alternatives to help you celebrate yourself in 2012, and get to your goals in 2013.

1. Write yourself a letter from your future self, dated 1/1/2014. Imagine looking back at 2013, from a place of having achieved your most important goal for the year. In your letter, thank your present self for all you did to achieve your goals—and be specific. Or give yourself some compassionate advice from your wiser, 2014 self. Research shows that connecting to your future self in this way can help you make a difficult change and succeed at your goals.

2. List your favorite memories and triumphs of 2012, including the challenges you faced with courage or humor (even if things didn't turn out the way you hoped). Studies show that remembering your strengths increases future perseverance and willpower; and reminiscing about the past increases future happiness.

3. Imagine the highlights of 2013. Make a list of at least 5 things to look forward to in the coming year. Anything from new episodes of a favorite TV show to a big trip you want to plan. Research shows that one of the best predictors of emotional health is the ability to anticipate and savor future pleasures.

4. Make a list of what you are grateful for in your life. Sure, New Year’s is a great time to think about what you’d like to change about your life. But you’ll be much happier if you first think about everything you’re grateful for. In fact, if you make a gratitude list first, you might be surprised how it shapes your wish list for 2013. You’ll have a clearer sense of what matters most to you, and a better vision of what you want the future to look like.

5. Make a 2013 commitment to someone else. Who says a New Year’s resolution has to be about what’s wrong with you, and how you should change? Honor something bigger than yourself with a financial commitment to a cause you care about. Most non-profit organizations will allow you to pledge a monthly donation for a one-year term. A side benefit: research shows that donating money boosts happiness and self-image--the perfect antidote to the self-critical resolution.

Kelly McGonigal, PhD is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her new book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. She is also the author of The Neuroscience of Change and Yoga for Pain Relief.

James Finley Interviews - The Contemplative Way in Christianity

James Finley, PhD, spent six years in the cloistered Trappist monastery of the Abbey of Gethsemani. Finley leads retreats and workshops throughout the United States and Canada, attracting people from all religious traditions who seek a contemplative path in their Christian practice. He is also a clinical psychologist in private practice with his wife in Santa Monica, California.

James Finley is the author of Merton's Palace of Nowhere, The Contemplative Heart, and Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God.

Jami (my girlfriend) was listening to an audio program of his from Sounds True and I really liked his integration of Christian mysticism and contemporary psychology as a form of nondual practice. His work is not dissimilar to that of Father Thomas Keating (Centering Prayer) and Father Richard Rohr (his seven themes).

Here are two interviews he has posted as his site - each is a good introduction to his thinking.
The following interview was conducted by Sounds True and will give the reader a sense of Dr. Finley's understanding of Thomas Merton and the Contemplative Way. 
Thomas Merton and His Path to the Palace of NowhereSounds True
* * * * *
The following interview was conducted by Gary Moon for Pathways Magazine and will give the reader a sense of Dr. Finley's understanding of Christian Meditation. 
Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God Pathways Magazine: April-June Issue 2000, Vol. 9, Number 2.

Gerald Wiest - Neural and Mental Hierarchies

This is an interesting article from the Frontiers and Psychology open source series, Frontiers in Psychoanalysis and Neuropsychoanalysis. Psychoanalyst and neurologist Gerald Wiest looks in this article at how neural hierarchies are related to mental hierarchies and how this plays out in contemporary psychoanalytic theory.

Neural and mental hierarchies

Gerald Wiest (1,2)*
(1) Department of Neurology, Medical University Vienna, Vienna, Austria
(2) Vienna Psychoanalytical Society, Vienna, Austria

The history of the sciences of the human brain and mind has been characterized from the beginning by two parallel traditions. The prevailing theory that still influences the way current neuroimaging techniques interpret brain function, can be traced back to classical localizational theories, which in turn go back to early phrenological theories. The other approach has its origins in the hierarchical neurological theories of Hughlings-Jackson, which have been influenced by the philosophical conceptions of Herbert Spencer. Another hallmark of the hierarchical tradition, which is also inherent to psychoanalytic metapsychology, is its deeply evolutionary perspective by taking both ontogenetic and phylogenetic trajectories into consideration. This article provides an outline on hierarchical concepts in brain and mind sciences, which contrast with current cognitivistic and non-hierarchical theories in the neurosciences.
Full Citation: 
Wiest, G. (2012). Neural and mental hierarchies. Frontiers and Psychoanalysis and Neuropsychoanalysis, 3:516. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00516

Here is the introduction to the article.

The Philosophical and Biological Foundations of a Theory

According to modern biology, the development of hierarchies distinguishes the organic from the anorganic world (Mayr, 1997). Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was the first who – influenced by Lamarckism – provided a coherent theory on the evolution, structure, and function of the nervous system. In his “Principles of Psychology” (Spencer, 1855), he postulated that the human mind can only be fully understood by considering its phylogenetic development. In his view, the phylogeny of consciousness illustrates a general principle of evolution, namely the development from a simple, undifferentiated homogeneity to a complex, differentiated heterogeneity. This conception implies that the human mind had evolved in the same way from a simple automatic response in lower animals to higher cognitive processes in man.

Spencer envisaged the evolutionary change of neural structures toward higher complexity as a process of stratification or layering of neural formations (Figure 1). Thus, each neural formation of the nervous system not only represents impressions and experiences of the individual’s past, but also those of its ancestors. From a neurological perspective, this would mean that a lesion at a higher cerebral level unveils neural and mental functions from an earlier evolutionary stage.
Figure 1. Herbert Spencer’s concept of the evolutionary change in the nervous system by means of superimpositions (A′) of neural layers exemplified in a neural ganglion (A). Consequently, neural excitation does not proceed anymore from a to b but is rather following new neural formations (d, e, f, g). Image from Spencer H (The Principles of Psychology, 1896, Appleton Press).
The British neurologist John Hughlings Jackson (1834–1911), one of the founding fathers of clinical neurology, was intrigued by the correlations between Spencer’s proposed evolutionary principles of neural functioning and his clinical observations in patients with focal brain lesions. In contrast to Spencer’s interest in evolutionary aspects of brain function, Jackson was more occupied with the reverse effect of evolution, which he coined “dissolution.”

In Jackson’s view, neurological symptoms such as aphasia, hemiparesis, or epileptic seizures, represent a dissolution, i.e., a reversal of the evolution of the nervous system, caused by a cerebral lesion. Jackson found that evolutionary higher cerebral centers inhibit the lower ones and lesions at these higher centers are accompanied by the production of “negative” symptoms (e.g., a palsy due to the absence of function) and of “positive” symptoms (e.g., pyramidal signs), caused by a functional release of the lower centers. Neurological or psychiatric symptoms can in this regard provide a look into the phylogeny of neural function. In his major work entitled “Evolution and Dissolution of the Nervous System” (Taylor, 1931/1932) Jackson outlined his theory of brain function, which still belongs to the foundations of neurology. The validity of a hierarchical organization of the nervous system has subsequently been confirmed by modern neurology and neuroscience for a variety of neural systems (Kennard, 1989; Swash, 1989; Vallbo, 1989; Miller and Cohen, 2001;Greene et al., 2004). The Jacksonian concept contrasts with non-hierarchical models of brain function, such as the theories by Hebb (Brown and Milner, 2003) or Lashley (1958). These models propose that brain function, in particular cortical processing, is based on the distributed processing of cell assemblies, i.e., of neural networks. According to lesion studies, Lashley proposed for example, that memories are not localized but widely distributed across the cortex, which has not been confirmed in subsequent studies. Classical empirical studies as well as recent imaging studies – on the other hand – provide convincing evidence that the rostro-caudal axis of the frontal lobe may indeed be hierarchically organized (Goldstein and Scherer, 1941; Luria, 1966; Mesulam, 2002; Petrides, 2005; Badre and D’Esposito, 2009). However, the Jacksonian concept not only paved the way to the establishment of neurology as a scientific discipline, it also had a profound impact on Sigmund Freud and the development of psychoanalytic metapsychology.
Read the whole article.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Dalai Lama - Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life - Day 2

These are the morning and afternoon sessions given on Day 2 of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's four day teaching on Shantideva's "Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life" given at the request of a group from Russia in Delhi, India, on December 24-27, 2012. His Holiness speaks in Tibetan followed by an English translation.

Morning Session:

Afternoon Session:

Singularity 1 on 1 - Jamais Cascio: You Matter! Your Choices Make A Difference

Singularity 1 on 1 is a podcast from the Singularity Weblog, which was started as a personal journal of Socrates’ thoughts on trends, news, issues, films and people related to the technological singularity.
The site aims to spark a conversation about the impact of technology, exponential growth, and artificial intelligence.

This episode the guest is Jamais Cascio, one of the world's top 100 thinkers according to Foreign Policy. He writes and speaks on a variety of topics from technology and global warming, to war, nuclear proliferation, ethics, and sustainable development - and he is a well-known figure in the singularity circles.

Jamais Cascio on Singularity 1 on 1: You Matter! Your Choices Make A Difference.


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Jamais Cascio is one of the worlds top 100 thinkers according to Foreign Policy. He writes and speaks on a variety of topics from technology and global warming, to war, nuclear proliferation, ethics and sustainable development. Thus my goal was to discuss most of those topics for, in one way or another, they are relevant to our future. Unfortunately I got tangled up in our discussion of the singularity and we spent most of our time on that topic. The good news, however, is that I am planning to use this as an excuse and invite Jamais to come back again on Singularity 1 on 1.

During our conversation with Jamais Cascio we cover a wide variety of topics such as: his personal story of becoming “an easily distracted generalist;” his undergraduate and graduate training in history, anthropology and political science; his views on the singularity community in general and the technological singularity and Singularity University in particular; his criticism that creators of new technology rarely consider the ethical and political implications of their inventions; what he means by saying “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of the singularity;” the benefits of irrationality and biology; mind uploading versus human augmentation; the lack of agency and assumed machine perfection as some of the most upsetting aspects of the singularity…

As always you can listen to or download the audio file above, or scroll down and watch the video interview in full.

If you want to help me produce more episodes of Singularity 1 on 1 please make a donation:

Who is Jamais Cascio?

Photo by Bart Nagel, courtesy Institute for the Future

Selected by Foreign Policy magazine as one of their Top 100 Global Thinkers, Jamais Cascio writes about the intersection of emerging technologies, environmental dilemmas, and cultural transformation, specializing in the design and creation of plausible scenarios of the future. His work focuses on the importance of long-term, systemic thinking as a catalyst for building a more resilient society. Cascio’s work appears in publications as diverse as the Atlantic Monthly, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Policy. He has been featured in a variety of television programs on future issues, including National Geographic Television’s SIX DEGREES, its 2008 documentary on the effects of global warming, and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s 2010 documentary SURVIVING THE FUTURE. Cascio speaks about future possibilities around the world, at venues including the Aspen Environment Forum, Guardian Activate Summit in London, the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC, and TED.

In 2009, Cascio published his first non-fiction book, Hacking the Earth: Understanding the Consequences of Geoengineering, praised by Foreign Policy as “the most subtle analysis yet on the subject.” Cascio has long worked in the field of foresight strategy. In the 1990s, he served as technology specialist at scenario planning pioneer Global Business Network, and later went on to craft scenarios on topics including energy, nuclear proliferation, and sustainable development. Cascio is presently a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, and also serves as Senior Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

In 2003, he co-founded, the award-winning website dedicated to finding and calling attention to models, tools and ideas for building a “bright green” future. In March, 2006, he started Open the Future as his online home, writing about subjects as diverse as robot ethics and the carbon footprint of cheeseburgers.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1985: The Concert Film

Incredible musician, and an interesting look at a man at the height of his powers and fame. Brought to you by Open Culture.

Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1985: The Concert Film

December 27th, 2012

In the 1980s, Stevie Ray Vaughan tore through the international music scene like a Texas tornado. His amazingly fluid and dexterous guitar playing on a series of platinum albums established Vaughan as a household name and helped spark a blues revival. But in the summer of 1990 a helicopter he was riding on crashed into a hill in Wisconsin, and the whirlwind had passed.

This concert film captures Vaughan in full force. It was made on July 15, 1985, during Vaughan’s second appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. His first, in 1982, had seemed like a disaster at the time. Vaughan and his band Double Trouble had never made a record and were virtually unknown outside of Texas in 1982, and their performance at Montreux was met by booing from the some members of the audience. Vaughan was shaken. He had never been booed before. But the 1982 Montreux performance turned out to be the most important of Vaughan’s career, as Chris Gill explains in Guitar World:
David Bowie was in the audience, and he made a point of meeting Vaughan and his manager in the after-hours lounge. John Paul Hammond, the son of record producer John Hammond, also saw the show and asked for a tape of the performance to give to his father. Jackson Browne caught the band’s performance in the after-hours lounge, and he sat in with the group until early the next morning. Within the next few months, Browne invited Vaughan and Double Trouble to his L.A. studio to record a demo, Bowie asked Stevie to appear on his next album [Let's Dance], and John Hammond, who helped develop the careers of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, helped the band sign a deal with Epic Records and offered to produce their debut album. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
So the 1985 Montreux appearance was something of a triumphal return for Vaughan. There was no booing this time. Vaughan had a pair of platinum albums under his belt, and he and Double Trouble were touring Europe to promote their third album, Soul to Soul. In the film, Vaughan and the band are introduced by festival founder Claude Nobs, who gave them their big shot in 1982. The trio of Vaughan on guitar and vocals, Tommy Shannon on bass, and Chris Layton on drums had just been expanded to include Reese Wynans on keyboards. They play 13 songs, including three with Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland, who joins them on “Cold Shot,” “Tin Pan Alley” and “Look at Little Sister,” in which Copeland and Vaughan trade blistering guitar solos. Another song, Copeland’s “Don’t Stop By the Creek, Son,” was apparently performed that night but cut from the film. The rest of the concert appears to be intact.

Here’s the set list:

  • Scuttle Buttin’
  • Say What!
  • Ain’t Gone “N’ Give Up on Love
  • Pride and Joy
  • Mary Had a Little Lamb
  • Cold Shot
  • Tin Pan Alley
  • Look at Little Sister
  • Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
  • Texas Flood
  • Life Without You
  • Gone Home
  • Couldn’t Stand the Weather

Related content:

‘Electric Church’: The Jimi Hendrix Experience Live in Stockholm, 1969

Willems and Francken - Embodied Cognition: Taking the Next Step

This article is new from Frontiers in Cognitive Science (open source science and neuroscience writing), one of the group of Frontiers in Psychology publications. In this article, the authors seek to take stock of the current research into embodied cognition (which they feel is too non-specific), and from there they want to formulate directions for how this field can be studied in a more fruitful fashion.

Embodied cognition: taking the next step

Roel M. Willems1,2* and Jolien C. Francken1
1Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands2Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, Netherlands
Recent years have seen a large amount of empirical studies related to “embodied cognition.” While interesting and valuable, there is something dissatisfying with the current state of affairs in this research domain. Hypotheses tend to be underspecified, testing in general terms for embodied versus disembodied processing. The lack of specificity of current hypotheses can easily lead to an erosion of the embodiment concept, and result in a situation in which essentially any effect is taken as positive evidence. Such erosion is not helpful to the field and does not do justice to the importance of embodiment. Here we want to take stock, and formulate directions for how it can be studied in a more fruitful fashion. As an example we will describe few example studies that have investigated the role of sensori-motor systems in the coding of meaning (“embodied semantics”). Instead of focusing on the dichotomy between embodied and disembodied theories, we suggest that the field move forward and ask how and when sensori-motor systems and behavior are involved in cognition.
Full Citation: 
Willems RM and Francken JC (2012) Embodied cognition: taking the next step. Frontiers in Psychology; 3:582. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00582

Here are the first two sections of the paper to give you an idea where the authors are going with this piece.

Introduction: Exciting Embodiment

In the last two decades, cognitive science has embraced the thesis of “embodiment.” Embodied cognition stresses the intertwined nature of thinking and acting, and as such is an antidote to the traditional divide between cognition on the one hand and perception and action on the other. The excitement about embodiment within cognitive science lies mainly in its promise to destroy the traditional “sandwich” (or “hamburger”) model of cognitive processing, with its strict perception-cognition-action scheme (e.g., Hurley, 2001). The sandwich model regards “thinking” as the real stuff (the beef so to say), and takes perception and action as separated slave systems, providing input to cognitive processors (perception) and executing its commands (action).

Instead, embodied cognition stresses that perception and action are directly relevant for our thinking, and that it is a mistake to regard them as separate. The thesis comes in various formats, and a more in depth coverage is beyond the scope of this article (e.g., O’Regan, 1992; Van Gelder, 1995; Clark, 1997; Barsalou, 1999; Wilson, 2002; Noe, 2004;Gallagher, 2005; Wheeler, 2005).

In this paper we want to take stock and see what embodiment has done for a particular research domain in cognitive science, namely the study of semantic representations. With respect to semantic representations, embodied cognition is related to the claim of modality-specific versus abstract representations, in which modality-specific views predict sensori-motor cortex to be constitutive of conceptual representations (see Kiefer and Pulvermüller, 2012 for an excellent recent overview).

This being an opinion paper, it is by no means our intention to give an overview of the field. Instead we highlight certain studies, where we could have chosen others. Of particular importance is that we have chosen to ignore the neuropsychological literature regarding semantic representations (see e.g., Gainotti, 2000; Caramazza and Mahon, 2003;Kiefer and Pulvermüller, 2012).

The Erosion of a Concept: The Case of Embodied Semantics Representations

Often embodied cognition is defined very broadly. When we for example look at experiments investigating “embodied semantics,” an important prediction is that understanding sensori-motor concepts leads to activation of sensori-motor cortices. So when people read about hand and foot actions, parts of the motor cortex involved in moving the hands and the feet are activated (e.g., Hauk et al., 2004; Tettamanti et al., 2005). Although interesting from the sandwich model perspective, it is unfortunate that the main hypothesis often does not go beyond predicting “involvement” of sensori-motor cortices (see also Binder and Desai, 2011; see alsoChatterjee, 2010).

An illustration of this lack of specificity is how easily embodied cognition can capture strikingly different findings. For instance, Buccino et al. (2005)used single-pulse TMS to stimulate the hand or foot/leg motor area while participants were listening to sentences expressing foot and hand actions. Reaction times (RTs) and motor evoked potentials (MEPs) were specifically modulated for the effector involved in the described action: a hand-action-related sentence produced decreased MEPs in the hand area and slower RTs when subjects responded with their hand. The authors conclude that the processing of language modulates the activity of the motor system in an effector specific way. However, in another TMS study with a similar designPulvermuller et al. (2005a) report that faster RTs are observed to hand/arm words after stimulation of the hand area.

It is striking that although the results are opposite (slower versus faster RTs), both are taken as confirmation of the embodied semantics theory. Instead, the researchers could have elaborated more about the reason of their divergent findings. For instance, maybe the differences arise because the interference occurs at a decision making level after semantic analysis (Mahon and Caramazza, 2008; Chatterjee, 2010). By formulating more specific hypotheses, e.g., here on the direction of the effect and the underlying mechanism, these findings could have been more informative. It strikes us as disappointing to not go beyond the conclusion of involvementof cortical motor areas; the pattern of results suggests that something more interesting is going on than motor cortex activation in response to action words. One is left with the question what result would be taken as evidence against embodied cognition?

Another sign of an underspecified theory is that similar findings can be interpreted as evidence in favor as well as against embodiment. Take the studies of Saygin et al. (2010) and Bedny et al. (2008).

First, Saygin et al. showed activation of perceptual (visual) areas when subjects were reading sentences describing motion. More specifically, they found increased BOLD levels in motion sensitive area MT+ when participants read sentences like “The wild horse crossed the barren field” versus “The black horse stood in the barren field” (Saygin et al., 2010). Second, in the study of Bedny et al. participants judged pairs of words that implied motion (animals, e.g., “the horse,” “the dog”), had intermediate implied motion (tools, e.g., “the sword,” “the axe”), or had little implied motion (natural kinds, e.g., “the bush,” “the pebble”). These authors did not find modulation of MT+ activity for words with different motion ratings. Regions within posterior lateral temporal cortex were more active when comparing verbs and nouns, independent of the amount of motion associations of the words.

A general theory of embodiment would have predicted both studies to find modulation in area MT+ related to amount of motion expressed in the materials. The fact that the one study does observe such modulation, and the other does not is an interesting clue to the context-dependence of sensory cortex activations during language comprehension or as Saygin et al. (2010) p. 2486) put it: “the choice of task and stimuli can influence the power to detect modulations of MT+ by linguistic events.” Instead, what happens is that one set of authors interpret their findings as in line with embodied cognition, and the other set of authors interprets their findings as evidence against embodiment, since they show that retrieval of sensory motor features is not obligatory during word comprehension (Bedny et al., 2008). The differences in their findings can probably be attributed to the differences in design. However, both studies generalize their results to the question of whether it supports an embodied or disembodied account, and it is in this interpretation stage that opposite conclusions are drawn.

Many experiments are driven by the “embodied versus disembodied” distinction. This is not a fruitful approach, and in the next section we will show that such a broad distinction does not do justice to the experimental findings that are available. To foreshadow our conclusion: Instead of quarreling about embodied versus disembodied, the field should take the next step and ask the question when and how sensori-motor cortices play a role in understanding.

Brain Science Podcast - Neuroscience Highlights for 2012 (BSP 92)

Dr. Ginger Campbell, devotes this month's Brain Science Podcast to a review of the guests and topics she has covered in 2012. The guest list is impressive: Patricia Churchland, PhD, William Uttal, PhD, Christof Koch, PhD, Sebastian Seung, PhD, Rachel Herz, PhD, Pamela Greenwood, PhD, Terrence Deacon, PhD, Bruce Hood, PhD, Evan Thompson, PhD, and Jaak Panksepp, PhD.


Neuroscience Highlights for 2012 (BSP 92)

The Brain Science Podcast recently passed 4 million downloads and it remains entrenched at or near the top of the iTunes rankings for Science and Medicine. So now it's time for our 6th Annual Review Episode. The purpose of this year-ending podcast is to review some of the year's highlights and key ideas. As I reviewed the transcripts of this year's episodes I was struck by the fact that although each episode stands alone, they also inform one another. One unifying theme was the importance of taking an evolutionary approach to understanding how the human brain generates complex features like mind and consciousness.

Listen to Episode 92

Episode Transcript (Coming Soon!)

Interviews have become an outstanding feature of the Brain Science Podcast. This year I interviewed 10 scientist, including five who have appeared in past podcasts. Here is a list of this year's guests: 
# Indicates returning guest. See Guest List for previous episode.
* See the Bibliography page for books featured on the Brain Science Podcast.

In addition to discussing the books by these guests, I also reviewed Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga and Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio.

Related Episodes:
  • BSP 32: Brief Introduction to Brain Anatomy
  • BSP 47: Basics of Brain Evolution
  • BSP 57: Chris Frith, author of Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World
  • BSP 67: Thomas Metzinger, author of The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self