Saturday, February 11, 2012

David Brooks on Mitt Romney's Lack of an Internal Sense of Vision

David Brooks has been getting more and more into psychology over the last decade (as his most recent book, The Social Animal, makes clear), so it's not surprising to see this psychological analysis (The Crowd Pleaser) of Romney's finger-in-the-wind style of politics.

After pointing out a few similarities between Romney and Obama, he makes this observation: "But one glaring difference is that Obama seems self-sufficient while Romney seems other-directed."

He goes on to explain what he means by an other-directed person (in contrast to the inner-directed person, who was more common in the industrial age: strong internal convictions, rigid, steadfast):
The other-directed personality type emerges in a service or information age economy. In this sort of economy, most workers are not working with physical things; they are manipulating people. The other-directed person becomes adept at pleasing others, at selling him or herself. 

The other-directed person is attuned to what other people want him to be. The other-directed person is a pliable member of a team and yearns for acceptance. He or she is less notable for having a rigid character than for having a smooth personality.
If you notice, he did NOT say Obama is inner-directed - he said Obama is "self-sufficient." It's not clear if he sees that as a higher developmental stage, as for example:

inner-directed = traditional or pre-conventional
other-directed = modern or conventional
self-sufficient = post-modern or post-conventional

However, Brooks isn't advocating that Romney become self-sufficient, like Obama, he is advocating that Romney revert to an inner-directed perspective. This is traditional conservative thinking.
This is a bad moment to be coming across as an other-directed person. Americans are again in a state of spiritual anxiety, wondering if they are losing the hardy pioneer virtues that built the nation and defeated fascism and communism. In a period of fragmentation, information overload and social distrust, they want a leader who is rooted and resolute. 

Republicans are especially suspicious of the other-directed type. They feel as if they are battling against the headwinds of a hostile elite culture. They want their candidate to have built his temple upon a rock, to possess an unshakeable set of convictions, to be impervious to the opposition of Washington’s entrenched interests. They also believe that the next president is going to have to make some brutally difficult decisions in order to reduce the debt. This is not a task for someone who is perpetually adjusting to market signals.
When faced with new situations that are complex and challenging (such as the current financial crisis, the Syria/Iran problem, and the whole mess of other geo-political issues), the conservative reaction is to "get back to our roots," or "back to basics," but it's not to explore new options and new perspectives.

The inner-directed approach Brooks is advocating for Romney might win him the election, but it will produce simplistic and simple-minded solutions to problems that are mind-bogglingly complex.

That certainly isn't what I want in a president.

Bookforum - The Tribal Psychology of Politics

Yet another cool collection of links from Bookforum's Omnivore - this one looks at the nearly gang-like, tribal warfare between the political factions in this country..
  • What the Right gets right: What insights, principles, and analyses does this movement have to offer that liberals and Democrats might want to take into account? (and more: What does the Left get right?) 
  • Liberty, Equality, Hostility: The inability of conservatives and liberals to get along may be traced back to the French Revolution. 
  • Jonathan Haidt decodes the tribal psychology of politics: "Liberals need to be shaken [and they] misunderstand conservatives far more than the other way around". 
  • Conservatives are from Mars, liberals are from Venus: Thomas Edsall on how research in political psychology explains the fierce clashes between Republican and Democrats in our polarized system.
  • Conservatism is linked to low intelligence; but the real idiots are the progressives letting it win. 
  • The biology of politics: Liberals roll with the good, conservatives confront the bad. 
  • Nature, nurture and liberal values: Biology determines our behaviour more than it suits many to acknowledge, but people — and politics and morality — cannot be described just by neural impulses.
  • Do people become more conservative as they age?

Journal of Future Studies - Future Evolution of the Human Brain

This article offers an interesting look at the possible evolution of the human brain. The authors suggest that brain evolution will not be so much about increased size or transhumanist technology as it will be about "systematic, controlled and ethically acceptable pharmacological intervention."

Saniotis, A., Henneberg, M. (2011, Sept). Future Evolution of the Human Brain. Journal of Futures Studies, 16(1): 1-18.

Arthur Saniotis
The University of Adelaide, Australia
Maciej Henneberg
The University of Adelaide, Australia

The past course of the evolution of the human brain indicates that its major feature was not so much anatomical change as the alteration of biochemistry and physiology through neurohormonal regulation and neurotransmitter alterations. In the recent, historical past, human brain size decreased during the period of the rapid development of technology and increasingly complex social organization. The human brain is now adapting to an environment dominated by human control. Future evolution of the brain will be a result of conscious manipulation and responses to changing technologies and social organization. Technologically-oriented transhumanists propose artificial enhancements to the biological structure of human brain based on information technology. The importance of brain physiology leads to attempts at chemical manipulation of brains. Pharmacological intervention in the cases of brain malfunction is well established, while the use of psychoactive substances has also produced a vast criminal industry. Systematic, controlled and ethically acceptable pharmacological intervention in human brain functions may provide an alternative, or a complement to information technology intervention into the operation of human minds. Whatever we do, we must recognise that natural forces shaping human brain have been significantly relaxed.
Read the whole article.

Friday, February 10, 2012

PLoS ONE - Creatine Protects against Excitoxicity in an In Vitro Model of Neurodegeneration

Creatine . . . it's not just for bodybuilders anymore. I have periodically reported on the various health benefits of creatine over the years, including virus suppression (herpes), memory enhancement, and neurocognitive benefits. This new research supports another aspect of its cognitive benefits - it can suppress some of the excititory activity that leads to neurodegeneration.

As an aside, one of the authors is named Just Genius - how cool is that?!

Creatine Protects against Excitoxicity in an In Vitro Model of Neurodegeneration

Just Genius1, Johanna Geiger1, Andreas Bender2, Hans-Jürgen Möller1, Thomas Klopstock2, Dan Rujescu1*

1 Department of Psychiatry, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany, 2 Department of Neurology, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany


Creatine has been shown to be neuroprotective in aging, neurodegenerative conditions and brain injury. As a common molecular background, oxidative stress and disturbed cellular energy homeostasis are key aspects in these conditions. Moreover, in a recent report we could demonstrate a life-enhancing and health-promoting potential of creatine in rodents, mainly due to its neuroprotective action. In order to investigate the underlying pharmacology mediating these mainly neuroprotective properties of creatine, cultured primary embryonal hippocampal and cortical cells were challenged with glutamate or H2O2. In good agreement with our in vivo data, creatine mediated a direct effect on the bioenergetic balance, leading to an enhanced cellular energy charge, thereby acting as a neuroprotectant. Moreover, creatine effectively antagonized the H2O2-induced ATP depletion and the excitotoxic response towards glutamate, while not directly acting as an antioxidant. Additionally, creatine mediated a direct inhibitory action on the NMDA receptor-mediated calcium response, which initiates the excitotoxic cascade. Even excessive concentrations of creatine had no neurotoxic effects, so that high-dose creatine supplementation as a health-promoting agent in specific pathological situations or as a primary prophylactic compound in risk populations seems feasible. In conclusion, we were able to demonstrate that the protective potential of creatine was primarily mediated by its impact on cellular energy metabolism and NMDA receptor function, along with reduced glutamate spillover, oxidative stress and subsequent excitotoxicity.

Citation: Genius J, Geiger J, Bender A, Möller H-J, Klopstock T, et al. (2012). Creatine Protects against Excitoxicity in an In Vitro Model of Neurodegeneration. PLoS ONE, 7(2): e30554. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030554

Here is the introduction to the article:


The protective potential of creatine (1-methyl-guanidino acetic acid) has been extensively assessed in various models of neurodegeneration, including in vivo models of oxidative stress [1], [2].

Aging, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and potentially also neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia share some bioenergetic core features, specifically the contribution of oxidative stress caused by a progressive dysfunction of the respiratory chain along with mitochondrial DNA damage [3][5]. Thus, as a potential antioxidative agent and buffer of intracellular energy stores, creatine - specifically in a preventive approach - may also become an interesting new agent to increase life span and to delay the progression of the disorders mentioned above.

In neuronal cells, aerobic glycolysis is the primary source for ATP synthesis [6]. As stores of glucose, glycogen and O2 are limited in the brain, the availability of the creatine kinase/phosphocreatine (CK/PCr) system may operate as an important alternative energy source in tissues or subcellular compartments with high and fluctuating energy demands, e.g. in neurons [7]. Based on substrate level phosphorylation of adenine with CK/PCr this system is capable of rapidly restoring ATP levels within certain limits, determined by the tissue concentrations of creatine/CPK itself and the enzymatic system required for phosphorylation and phosphate group transfer. ATP is required to maintain the function of energy-demanding Na+/K+-ATPase and Ca2+-ATPase, thus preserving the membrane potential [8]. Considering that high relative CK activity could be demonstrated in the brain [9], it has been concluded that this enzyme serves as a key factor in the CNS energy metabolism. In support of this notion, a direct correlation between CK flux and brain activity has been provided by in vivo 31P nuclear magnetic resonance transfer determinations [10], [11]. The brain-specific isoform of the CK (CK-BB) in concert with a mitochondrial isoform (uMT-CK) and the required substrates (creatine/PCr) regulate intracellular ATP levels [12]. Via formation of an CK “energy shuttle”, CK activity has moreover been discussed to be directly implicated in neurotransmitter release, maintainance of membrane potentials and restoration of ion gradients over the membrane after depolarization [12][14].

Primarily, creatine is synthesized in a two step mechanism via AGAT (arginine: glycine amidinotransferase) in the kidney and pancreas [15]. The resultant guanidinoacetate is then shuttled to the liver, where it is subsequently methylated by GAMT (guanidinoacetate methyltransferase to result in creatine which ultimately is actively exported to tissues where it is energetically required. Loss of GAMT activity results in a well-defined creatine deficiency syndrome, which is characterized by developmental delay, neurological dysfunction and mental retardation [16]. In Huntington's disease, a further neurodegenerative condition, brain-type creatine kinase expression is reduced, which might contribute to damage in specifically energy-demanding tissues such as the brain and the cochlea, where intact energy shuttling processes are crucial [17]. The endogenous de novo creatine synthetic activity in the brain is rather low. It is interesting to note, that GAMT was identified to act as a novel target for p53, which serves as a further mechanism for metabolic stress adaptation [18]. Under normal conditions dietary intake constitutes about 50% of the total creatine content of the organism. Moreover, the blood-brain barrier permits passage of systemically supplemented creatine to the brain [19], which ultimately reaches the neuronal cytoplasm via a specific sodium and chloride dependent transmembrane transporter (CRT) working against a concentration gradient [20]. We thus speculate, that a specific diet should serve as an efficient strategy to enhance brain tissue creatine concentrations and establish an “energy buffer”.

In a previous report, we demonstrated that creatine supplementation in mice could increase healthy life span. Beyond a moderately increased life span, the most favourable effects of creatine related to neurobehavioral performance, most markedly in memory tests [21]. In an attempt to gain a better understanding of these neuroprotective properties on the cellular level, we conducted a study on a hippocampal cell culture model.
Read the whole article.

Leading@Google: Susan Cain (Introverts)

Susan Cain stopped by Google to talk about her new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. As a member of the 1/3 of the population who is introverted, this sounds like a book I might benefit from, although I have long ago learned to manage my introversion as best as I can - and to respect that I am not able to do some of the things that extroverts do easily.

Leading@Google: Susan Cain
At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over brainstorming in teams. Although they are often labeled "quiet," it is to introverts that we owe many of the great contributions to society--from van Gogh's sunflowers to the invention of the personal computer.

Passionately argued, impressively researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so. Taking the reader on a journey from Dale Carnegie's birthplace to Harvard Business School, from a Tony Robbins seminar to an evangelical megachurch, Susan Cain charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in the twentieth century and explores its far-reaching effects. She talks to Asian-American students who feel alienated from the brash, backslapping atmosphere of American schools. She questions the dominant values of American business culture, where forced collaboration can stand in the way of innovation, and where the leadership potential of introverts is often overlooked. And she draws on cutting-edge research in psychology and neuroscience to reveal the surprising differences between extroverts and introverts.

Perhaps most inspiring, she introduces us to successful introverts--from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions. Finally, she offers invaluable advice on everything from how to better negotiate differences in introvert-extrovert relationships to how to empower an introverted child to when it makes sense to be a "pretend extrovert."

This extraordinary book has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how introverts see themselves.
From the Amazon page for the book, here is a brief Q and A with Susan Cain about the book.
Amazon Exclusive: Q & A with Author Susan Cain

Q: Why did you write the book?
A: For the same reason that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Introverts are to extroverts what women were to men at that time--second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent. Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts, and many introverts believe that there is something wrong with them and that they should try to “pass” as extroverts. The bias against introversion leads to a colossal waste of talent, energy, and, ultimately, happiness.

Q: What personal significance does the subject have for you?
A: When I was in my twenties, I started practicing corporate law on Wall Street. At first I thought I was taking on an enormous challenge, because in my mind, the successful lawyer was comfortable in the spotlight, whereas I was introverted and occasionally shy. But I soon realized that my nature had a lot of advantages: I was good at building loyal alliances, one-on-one, behind the scenes; I could close my door, concentrate, and get the work done well; and like many introverts, I tended to ask a lot of questions and listen intently to the answers, which is an invaluable tool in negotiation. I started to realize that there’s a lot more going on here than the cultural stereotype of the introvert-as-unfortunate would have you believe. I had to know more, so I spent the past five years researching the powers of introversion.

Q: Was there ever a time when American society valued introverts more highly?
A: In the nation’s earlier years it was easier for introverts to earn respect. America once embodied what the cultural historian Warren Susman called a “Culture of Character,” which valued inner strength, integrity, and the good deeds you performed when no one was looking. You could cut an impressive figure by being quiet, reserved, and dignified. Abraham Lincoln was revered as a man who did not “offend by superiority,” as Emerson put it.

Q: You discuss how we can better embrace introverts in the workplace. Can you explain?
A: Introverts thrive in environments that are not overstimulating—surroundings in which they can think (deeply) before they speak. This has many implications. Here are two to consider: (1) Introverts perform best in quiet, private workspaces—but unfortunately we’re trending in precisely the opposite direction, toward open-plan offices. (2) If you want to get the best of all your employees’ brains, don’t simply throw them into a meeting and assume you’re hearing everyone’s ideas. You’re not; you’re hearing from the most vocally assertive people. Ask people to put their ideas in writing before the meeting, and make sure you give everyone time to speak.

Q: Quiet offers some terrific insights for the parents of introverted children. What environment do introverted kids need in order to thrive, whether it’s at home or at school?
A: The best thing parents and teachers can do for introverted kids is to treasure them for who they are, and encourage their passions. This means: (1) Giving them the space they need. If they need to recharge alone in their room after school instead of plunging into extracurricular activities, that’s okay. (2) Letting them master new skills at their own pace. If they’re not learning to swim in group settings, for example, teach them privately. (3) Not calling them “shy”--they’ll believe the label and experience their nervousness as a fixed trait rather than an emotion they can learn to control.

Q: What are the advantages to being an introvert?
A: There are too many to list in this short space, but here are two seemingly contradictory qualities that benefit introverts: introverts like to be alone--and introverts enjoy being cooperative. Studies suggest that many of the most creative people are introverts, and this is partly because of their capacity for quiet. Introverts are careful, reflective thinkers who can tolerate the solitude that idea-generation requires. On the other hand, implementing good ideas requires cooperation, and introverts are more likely to prefer cooperative environments, while extroverts favor competitive ones.


I wish I could attend this conference - the small size makes it more desirable to someone like me who does not enjoy crowds and anonymity. Alas, I will be on my way to Europe a few days after the conference ends and I have not yet mastered the art of growing money on trees.

• A Gathering for Integral INQUIRY and ACTION •

Evolving Leadership for an Awakening World:
May 17 – 20
at the Chaminade Resort & Spa
in Santa Cruz, CA

Our most experiential and interactive conference ever!!!

Join thought leaders - practitioners, academics, coaches, consultants and more – who will together explore the frontiers of our knowledge and practices of what it means to be a conscious, integral leader in the 21st century.

Our program is a tapestry of finely orchestrated large group experiences, small group breakouts, community building, cutting edge media explorations, self-reflection and integral life practice, fellowship and dancing. While each session is revealing in its own way, all of these opportunities are woven together to reveal and nurture integral leadership in ways that are applicable and actionable in service to the world around us.

Here is just a small sample of our AMAZING line-up:
  • Don Beck: pulls back the curtain and reveals the pragmatic side of Spiral Dynamics as a key solution to complex global issues
  • Cindy Wigglesworth: facilitates exploration of the good, true, and beautiful bridge between spiritual intelligence and daily integral leadership actions
  • Barrett Brown: exposes the inner workings of the world’s foremost integral leaders, making our own aspirations and developmental actions more clear and accessible
  • Brett Thomas: coming off his deep-dive learning experience in the Integral Leadership Collaborative, Brett shares even more critical practices and actions toward becoming a more integral leader
  • Jeff Salzman: the guru of the integral interpretation of world events, helps to refine our expanded lenses so that we can see more, be more of what the world so desperately needs
  • Bert Parlee: invites you on a journey into Integral Optimism, thus helping you find new strength and emotional capacity in our ever-challenging world
  • Dana Carmen & Allison Conte: will team with Bert Parlee to lead us into an ecstatic polarities dance – exploring polarities as a useful integral concept and range of practices
  • Dean Anderson: shares his decades of in-the-trenches experience as one of the most integrally-informed organizational change practitioners on the planet
…and that’s just a peek into what is in store for our ever-expanding community of integral seekers.
  • We will be inspired to push the edges of our own development and expand our vision of leadership potentiality.
  • We will learn from seasoned experts who are practicing and advancing our knowledge of integral leadership.
  • We will take away practical tools that we can immediately apply to our lives and work.
  • We will encourage everyone to share what is working and what is not in our integral leadership experiences.
  • We will commune, share meals together and explore the depths of our collective wisdom.
  • We will laugh and play and practice and dance.
  • We will return home fully refreshed, invigorated and grounded in a spirit of wellness and love.
ATTENTION: This year’s ILiA Conference is a smaller, more intimate learning community and we are restricted to 70 attendees. Register as soon as is humanly possible.


The RAPID Action price is $599 and includes:
  • Lunches and dinners throughout the conference
  • Full use of the beautiful grounds surrounding the Chaminade
  • All sessions from May 17 - May 20
  • Saturday night party

Registration is open NOW.

Rapid Action discount ends on February 24!!
Click here for registration details.

Enjoy luxurious accommodation at The Chaminade with SPECIAL ILiA room rates.

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Thursday, February 09, 2012

Michael Taft - Hardwired for the Mystical?

Michael Taft at Science 2.0 reports on research suggesting that the human brain may be hardwired for mystical experience. Andrew Newberg has been the leader - much to his own ridicule - in this research. But from an evolutionary perspective, one has to ask why we have these experiences.

As I posted yesterday, there is considerable research showing that much of our experience of altered states occurs in the prefrontal cortex, part of the frontal lobe. This is the part of the brain associated with executive function, working memory, self awareness, and much more of what we consider higher functions.

Why then, if we alter the function in these brain centers, do we experience altered states and mystical states rather than reverting to a more survival mode that would keep us alive until the executive functions come back online? There is little or no biological survival value in experiencing bliss states, nonduality, mystical visions, or any other altered state that might get us killed and eaten.

There has to be another purpose.

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By Michael W. Taft | February 8th 2012 

About Michael W. Michael W. Taft is a student of evolution, psychology, and the capacities of the human brain. A professional researcher and writer for more than... View Michael W.'s Profile
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The gap between atheists and the religious seems at times to be an impossible divide, almost as if believers and non-believers come from different species. What separates the secular from the sacred? An "Ask the Brains" question on the Scientific American site recently inquired as to any differences between the brain of an atheist and the brain of a religious person. Andrew Newberg, the director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia, responded that, yes, in fact, there are some small but perceptible differences between the brains of believers and non-believers. Newberg is a pioneer in the field of "neurotheology," the study of how the brain approaches faith.

For example, the frontal lobe of the brain governs reward, attention, and motivation. In past studies, those who meditate or pray regularly seem to have more active frontal lobes on average than those who do not. Meditation has even been shown to grow the frontal lobe. Newberg's own research has measured changes in cerebral blood flow among Franciscan nuns as they prayed in a meditative fashion, finding an significant increase in activity in the frontal lobe as well.

The hippocampus is the center of memory and navigation in the brain; recent research from Duke University shows that people who have had a "born-again" experience showed more atrophy of the hippocampus on average than the religious who didn't identify as born-again. Research also suggests that the religious brain has higher levels of dopamine (the hormone associated with motivation, reward, and dozens of other processes) than the non-religious brain. But does the belief cause the brain changes, or does the brain initiate the impulse to believe?

The human tendency to believe in the supernatural may have its roots in the development of language, or in our capacity to assign minds and actions to others, known as the theory of mind. How it evolved is up for debate, but the ritual burial practices of our Paleolithic ancestors imply that it has been around as long as humanity itself, becoming increasingly more complex with time. The stunning cave art found in Lascaux or Chauvet seems to have served some sort of ritual purpose as well. As humanity stabilized into sedentary populations after the neolithic revolution, organized religion began to take over in small pockets of civilization, spreading as the associated cultures began to increase in influence and power. The stunning megaliths at Göbekli Tepe, the 12,000 year-old structure on a hilltop in Turkey, may even suggest that the religious impulse was instrumental in the development of human society.

But the effects of religion may also pertain to the present day. A recent study finds that the religious tend to have higher self-esteem and are better adjusted psychologically than the non-religious. The catch? This finding only held true in countries that put a high value on religion. Perhaps for these people, the value in religion is not in having faith itself, but in the social capital that comes with it in a pious society. This finding is reinforced by research done with senior women with and without a faith-based support network. But is religion just an old-fashioned social network in a world full of new social opportunities? After all, about 15 percent of Americans identify as having no religious affiliation, and the number seems to be growing.

All of which leads us to an interesting point, in terms of the future of humanity. As Kiwi researcher James Flynn discovered, humanity’s IQ is increasing rather dramatically. This is probably due to increased nutrition, better early education, and a much more stimulating environment. Research also suggests that the progression will slow and finally stop as it reaches its higher end—Homo sapiens can only get so smart. But this intelligence maximum would still represent most of humanity possessing an IQ on something of the order of (measured in today’s numbers) 140. In other words, someday we may be living on a planet of geniuses, assuming that we are able to provide enough food, medicine, and education.

We also know that as IQs rise, there tends to be a corresponding rise in atheism. It seems that the smarter a person is, the less likely he or she is to believe in a god. Does this mean that humanity is destined to shed the belief in a higher power like some sort of vestigial tail? Will we become a planet of brilliant secular humanists? Nobody knows, of course, but it is interesting to note that there are some countervailing forces at work.

Spiritual beliefs may not only help individuals survive, but there is evidence that religion plays a strong role in group survival as well. In a study of several hundred historical American intentional communities, University of Connecticut anthropologist Richard Sosis found that secular groups were four times more likely to disappear per year than groups founded on religious principles. And in a further study that focused on just the religious groups, Sosis found a direct correlation between the number of religious rules placed on members and the longevity of the group as a whole. The stricter the rules, the longer the community lasted. Strictures that were placed on members of secular communities held no such power. “Dr Sosis therefore concludes that ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a community—what is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified.”

Might future atheist cultures be less fit than the religious societies next door? Or is there a form of belief or spiritual practice that is suitable for atheists? As Professor Newberg noted in his answer cited above, we can reap many of the benefits of the spiritual brain with mindfulness meditation, a practice suited for even the most ardent atheist. Or perhaps mythology will give way to elegant metaphysics, creating a sort of Religion 2.0, wherein authority comes from reason and philosophy instead of the supposed revelations of a divine being. Duke University philosopher Owen Flanagan recently published an article titled "Buddhism Without the Hocus-Pocus," proposing that religious Buddhism dispense with all supernaturalism (such as the concepts of karma and reincarnation), and inscribe the ethical and epistemological aspects of the faith onto a naturalistic, non-theistic background.

Throughout human history religion has helped us to understand our world and to form effective groups based on a shared ideology. Though Western society is becoming increasingly more secular, the power of a shared faith to mobilize groups is obvious from Palestine to Tibet. We may not necessarily be hardwired for mystical experiences, but we are hardwired to benefit from a robust belief system shared by our peers and a contemplative spiritual practice, even if not necessarily a theistic one. Where we're headed is unlikely to be completely sacred, but it's probably not going to be entirely profane, either.

One option to consider: David Eagleman’s Possibilianism.

Roger Scruton - Nature, Nurture and Liberal Values

From Prospect Magazine (UK), Roger Scruton reviews two recent (and one not-so-recent) books: Beyond Human Nature by Jesse Prinz (2008, Allen Lane, £22), Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman (2011, Canongate, £20), and You and Me: the Neuroscience of Identity by Susan Greenfield (2011, Notting Hill Editions, £10) - that last one is not yet published in the U.S.

Here is one good quote from the article:
In her lively monograph Susan Greenfield emphasises that our brains are plastic and can be influenced in ways that pose a risk to our moral development. Prinz’s defence of nurture against nature may look like a defence of human freedom. But nurture can as easily destroy freedom as enhance it. We can bring up children on passive and addictive entertainments that stultify their engagement with the real world and rewire the neural networks on which their moral development depends. The short-term pursuit of gratification can drive out the long-term sense of responsible agency.
Indeed. And yet we are beyond the point of turning back. So, to me, the reality is that we need to find ways to make this technology serve our best interests and our best selves, rather than allowing it to make us slaves to our machines.

Nature, nurture and liberal values

25th January 2012  —  Issue 191 Free entry

Biology determines our behaviour more than it suits many to acknowledge. But people—and politics and morality—cannot be described just by neural impulses.

The window to the soul or just a collection of cells? Transition 5 (detail)
by Susan Aldworth

Beyond Human Nature by Jesse Prinz (Allen Lane, £22)
Incognito by David Eagleman (Canongate, £20)
You and Me: the Neuroscience of Identity by Susan Greenfield (Notting Hill Editions, £10)

Human beings are diverse and live in diverse ways. Should we accept that we are diverse by nature, having followed separate evolutionary paths? Or should we suppose that we share our biological inheritance, but develop differently according to environment and culture? Over recent years scientific research has reshaped this familiar “nature-nurture” debate, which remains central to our understanding of human nature and morality.

For much of the 20th century social scientists held that human life is a single biological phenomenon, which flows through the channels made by culture, so as to acquire separate and often mutually inaccessible forms. Each society passes on the culture that defines it, much as it passes on its language. And the most important aspects of culture—religion, rites of passage and law—both unify the people who adhere to them and divide those people from everyone else. Such was implied by what John Tooby and Leda Cosmides called the “standard social science model,” made fundamental to anthropology by Franz Boas and to sociology by Émile Durkheim.

More recently evolutionary psychologists have begun to question that approach. Although you can explain the culture of a tribe as an inherited possession, they suggested, this does not explain how culture came to be in the first place. What is it that endows culture with its stability and function? In response to that question the opinion began to grow that culture does not provide the ultimate explanation of any significant human trait, not even the trait of cultural diversity. It is not simply that there are extraordinary constants among cultures: gender roles, incest taboos, festivals, warfare, religious beliefs, moral scruples, aesthetic interests. Culture is also a part of human nature: it is our way of being. We do not live in herds or packs; our hierarchies are not based merely on strength or sexual dominance. We relate to one another through language, morality and law; we sing, dance and worship together, and spend as much time in festivals and storytelling as in seeking our food. Our hierarchies involve offices, responsibilities, gift-giving and ceremonial recognition. Our meals are shared, and food for us is not merely nourishment but an occasion for hospitality, affection and dressing up. All these things are comprehended in the idea of culture—and culture, so understood, is observed in all and only human communities. Why is this?

The answer given by evolutionary psychologists is that culture is an adaptation, which exists because it conferred a reproductive advantage on our hunter-gatherer ancestors. According to this view many of the diverse customs that the standard social science model attributes to nurture are local variations of attributes acquired 70 or more millennia ago, during the Pleistocene age, and now (like other evolutionary adaptations) “hard-wired in the brain.” But if this is so, cultural characteristics may not be as plastic as the social scientists suggest. There are features of the human condition, such as gender roles, that people have believed to be cultural and therefore changeable. But if culture is an aspect of nature, “cultural” does not mean “changeable.” Maybe these controversial features of human culture are part of the genetic endowment of human kind.

This new way of thinking gained support from the evolutionary theory of morality. Defenders of nurture suppose morality to be an acquired characteristic, passed on by customs, laws and punishments in which a society asserts its rights over its members. However, with the development of genetics, a new perspective opens. “Altruism” begins to look like a genetic “strategy,” which confers a reproductive advantage on the genes that produce it. In the competition for scarce resources, the genetically altruistic are able to call others to their aid, through networks of co-operation that are withheld from the genetically selfish, who are thereby eliminated from the game.

If this is so, it is argued, then morality is not an acquired but an inherited characteristic. Any competitor species that failed to develop innate moral feelings would by now have died out. And what is true of morality might be true of many other human characteristics that have previously been attributed to nurture: language, art, music, religion, warfare, the local variants of which are far less significant than their common structure.

I don’t say that view of morality is right, though it has been defended by a wide variety of thinkers, from the biologist John Maynard Smith (its original proponent) via the political scientist Robert Axelrod to such popularisers as Matt Ridley and Richard Dawkins. But even if morality is a partly acquired characteristic that varies from place to place and time to time, it might still rest on innate foundations, which govern its principal contours.

Noam Chomsky’s speculative linguistics has proved enormously important in this debate, since language is at the root of culture in all its manifestations: it is a paradigm case of a social activity that entirely changes the relationships, capacities, knowledge and the world of those who engage in it. Yet there could be no explanation of language that regarded it merely as a socially transmitted trait, with no deeper roots in biology. The rapid acquisition of language by children, at the same rate in every part of the globe, and on the same paucity of information from the surroundings, suggests that there is an innate universal grammar, to which each child attaches the fragmentary words and phrases that strike his ear, to generate new and intelligible utterances of his own. What Steven Pinker has called the “language instinct” is implanted by evolution, which endows each child with mental competences that are common to our species.

If we follow the evolutionary biologists, therefore, we may find ourselves pushed towards accepting that traits often attributed to culture may be part of our genetic inheritance, and therefore not as changeable as many might have hoped: gender differences, intelligence, belligerence, and so on through all the characteristics that people have wished, for whatever reason, to rescue from destiny and refashion as choice. But to speculate freely about such matters is dangerous. The once respectable subject of eugenics was so discredited by Nazism that “don’t enter” is now written across its door. The distinguished biologist James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, was run out of the academy in 2007 for having publicly suggested (admittedly in less than scientific language) that sub-Saharan Africans are genetically disposed to have lower IQs than westerners, while the economist Larry Summers suffered a similar fate for claiming that the brains of women at the top end are less suited than those of men to the study of the hard sciences. In America it is widely assumed that socially significant differences between ethnic groups and sexes are the result of social factors, and in particular of “discrimination” directed against the groups that seem to do less well. This assumption is not the conclusion of a reasoned social science but the foundation of an optimistic worldview, to disturb which is to threaten the whole community that has been built on it. On the other hand, as Galileo in comparable circumstances didn’t quite say, it ain’t necessarily so.
Read the whole article.

Bookforum - The Wonders of Evolution

From yesterday's Bookforum Omnivore, an interesting collection of links on the wonders of evolution - it's hours of fun for the whole family!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Matthew Taylor - Developing Development (with a Nod to Robert Kegan)

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, is looking toward developmental psychologist Robert Kegan (of Harvard University, and author of The Evolving Self, In Over Our Heads, and Immunity to Change, among other books) for ways to advance our understanding of development. Glad to hear it - this is his blog post about this topic.

Developing development

February 6, 2012 by
Did you hear about the car aerial that married a satellite dish; the wedding was a bit boring but apparently the reception was brilliant. Sadly, I can’t apply this adjective to the response I received for my set of posts over the New Year about entitlement. Yet, unabashed by the evidence that the longer I talk about an issue the less convincing I become, I am this week planning to write a series of posts on aspects of human development…..

Last Thursday I chaired an event at which Richard Sennett spoke about his new book Together. As tends to be the case with Richard’s work the book is often fascinating, sometimes inspiring and occasionally baffling. His core thesis certainly struck a chord.

Sennett joins many other thinkers in identifying both the importance of collaboration to human prospects in the 21st century but also the challenges of living and working with people – often very different to ourselves in values, backgrounds and lifestyles – in a fast moving, shrinking world. He suggests three attributes which people need to be able successfully and enduringly to function together (and alongside these, three apparently similar attributes they must supplant).

First, we must seek dialogic rather than dialectic communication (in essence this means conversation which accepts and negotiates different perspectives rather than seeking to find a single shared view). Second, we should aim for a subjunctive rather than a declaratory form of expression. Sennett writes:
‘The subjunctive mood counters Bernard Williams’ fear of the fetish of assertiveness by opening up instead an indeterminate mutual space, the space in which strangers dwell with one another…’.

Third, the sentiment that suits modern togetherness is empathy rather than sympathy:
‘Both sympathy and empathy convey recognition, and both forge a bond, but one is an embrace the other an encounter…Sympathy has usually been thought a stronger sentiment…I feel your pain puts a stress on what I feel; it activates one; own ego. Empathy is a more demanding exercise, at least in listening; the listener has to get outside him- or herself’.             
Rather like the objects in an impressionist painting the edges of Sennett’s concepts tend to blur into each other, but what struck me was the congruence with the idea of self-authorship developed by developmental psychologist Robert Kegan. Using a similar framework to Jean Piaget’s pioneering work on child cognitive development,  Kegan’s masterwork is The Evolving Self, in which he describes the stages of psychological development, each subsuming the one before, which take place not just in childhood but throughout life.

Kegan argues not just that we should aspire to greater self-awareness but that we need to reach a higher, more empathic, level of functioning to meet the practical requirements of twenty-first century citizenship. In particular, successfully functioning in a society with diverse values, traditions and lifestyles “requires us to have a relationship to our own reactions, rather than be captive of them”. Kegan writes of an ability to “resist our tendencies to make ‘right’ or ‘true’ that which is merely familiar and ‘wrong’ or ‘false’ that which is only strange”. In a 2002 overview of survey evidence for the OECD, Kegan concluded than only one in five people across the world have achieved the competencies necessary for what he termed a ‘modernist’ or self-authoring order of consciousness.

The view that there is both the need and the scope for human beings to develop to a ‘higher’ level of functioning has many adherents. Another version lies in my articulation of the RSA strap-line ‘twenty first century enlightenment’. But many questions arise?

How distinct is such a view from well-meaning but vacuous view that it would be a better world if we were all better people?

Among the different accounts of human beings need to develop to thrive in the modern world, what are the important similarities and differences?

How credible is the view that human development can enhanced. Perhaps it happens anyway (cf the Flynn effect or Steven Pinker’s recent evidence of declining violence) or perhaps, as John Grey would no doubt argue, we flatter ourselves with the idea we can somehow transcend the flawed character of our species.

Broadly, what routes to enhanced human development hold out the greatest promise: education, culture, institutional innovation, spiritual awakening?

Specifically, what examples are there of sustained improvements in human psychological and behavioural development and can these examples be scaled?

As a strong advocate of a necessary human development thesis, my aim here is to sharpen the case rather than find holes in it. I was excited last week to be contacted by Robert Kegan himself who has said some very generous things about the RSA’s 21st century enlightenment thesis. But I am also impatient of making the same broad case time and again but not yet feeling it carries sufficient conviction let alone a concrete set of policies and practices.  Of the questions above my sense is that the last is both the most important and the hardest.

Arne Dietrich - Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis

This is a very interesting article on the neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness. He argues that what we think of and experience as altered states of consciousness can be explained by transient prefrontal cortex deregulation.

I think there are serious risks to understanding when we reduce complex subjective experiences to "deregulation" of a particular brain region. Granted, the prefrontal cortex is the seat of executive function (planning, decision making, attention, working memory, self-awareness, and so on), so it makes sense that this region of the brain would be involved in altered states, but I have issues with a reductionist model.

That said, this is still an interesting model his is proposing.

Dietrich, A. (2002). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and Cognition, 12 (2003) 231–256. doi:10.1016/S1053-8100(02)00046-6
by Arne Dietrich

Department of Psychology, Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory,
Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, GA 31061, USA

Received 1 April 2002

It is the central hypothesis of this paper that the mental states commonly referred to as altered states of consciousness are principally due to transient prefrontal cortex deregulation. Supportive evidence from psychological and neuroscientific studies of dreaming, endurance running, meditation, daydreaming, hypnosis, and various drug-induced states is presented and integrated. It is proposed that transient hypofrontality is the unifying feature of all altered states and that the phenomenological uniqueness of each state is the result of the differential viability of various frontal circuits. Using an evolutionary approach, consciousness is conceptualized as hierarchically ordered cognitive function. Higher-order structures perform increasingly integrative functions and thus contribute more sophisticated content. Although this implies a holistic approach to consciousness, such a functional hierarchy localizes the most sophisticated layers of consciousness in the zenithal higher-order  structure: the prefrontal cortex. The hallmark of altered states of consciousness is the subtle modification of behavioral and cognitive functions that are typically ascribed to the prefrontal cortex. The theoretical framework presented yields a number of testable hypotheses.

Read the whole article.

Lucy McKeon - The Neuroscience of Happiness

From Salon, Lucy McKeon speaks with Shimon Edelman, a cognitive expert and professor of psychology at Cornell University, about his new book, The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life.

The neuroscience of happiness

New discoveries are shedding light on the activities that make us happy. An expert explains.

The neuroscience of happiness
 (Credit: Zurijeta via Shutterstock)

They say money can’t buy happiness. But can a better understanding of your brain? As recent breakthroughs in cognitive science break new ground in the study of consciousness — and its relationship to the physical body — the mysteries of the mind are rapidly becoming less mysterious. But does this mean we’ll soon be able to locate a formula for good cheer?

Shimon Edelman, a cognitive expert and professor of psychology at Cornell University, offers some insight in “The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life.” In his new book, Edelman walks the reader through the brain’s basic computational skills – its ability to compute information, perform statistical analysis and weigh value judgments in daily life – as a way to explain our relationship with happiness. Our capacity to retain memories and develop foresight allows us to plan for the future, says Edelman, by using a mental “personal space-time machine” that jumps between past, present and future. It’s through this process of motivation, perception, thinking, followed by motor movement, that we’re able not only to survive, but to feel happy. From Bayes’ theorem of probability to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Edelman offers a range of references and allegories to explain why a changing, growing self, constantly shaped by new experiences, is happier than the satisfaction any end goal can give us. It turns out the rewards we get for learning and understanding the workings of the world really make it the journey, not the destination, that matters most.

Salon spoke with Edelman over the phone about the brain as computer, our cultural investment in happiness, and why knowing how our brains work might make us happier.

In the book, you approach neuroscience from a popular perspective, using language and allegories laypeople can understand. How can even a superficial understanding of how the brain works aid in one’s self-understanding?
Well, I think the principles in question are actually pretty accessible on what you call a superficial level. When we make decisions it basically boils down to value computation: Different options get weighed and chosen on the basis of mathematical processes.

Well, if pursuit is the key to happiness, is this kind of happiness sustainable? And if so, what might it look like?
Let me say firstly the answer is yes, and then I’ll have to elaborate a bit. There’s an example that made it into the book last minute because I’d just watched a movie, a Canadian film called “One Week” about a guy who gets diagnosed with cancer. He gets on his motorcycle and rides west and comes across all kinds of people and places. At one point, he goes on a hike, gets lost and meets another hiker there, a woman. They end up camping around a fire and he asks her at one point, “If you knew you had one week to live what would you be doing?” And she says without any hesitation, “What I’m doing now.” So what better definition of true happiness than that? And that’s definitely obtainable. If you just pause and ask yourself.

Read the whole interview

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

PLoS ONE - Towards the “Baby Connectome”: Mapping the Structural Connectivity of the Newborn Brain

Very cool - if we can begin to map and understand the connectome of the infant brain, and find some form of average, we are that much closer to being able to see how "nurture," or the environment, impacts brain development into adulthood. This may allow us to identify how attachment changes the brain, how neglect changes the brain, and how abuse changes the brain in very distinct ways.

Towards the “Baby Connectome”: Mapping the Structural Connectivity of the Newborn Brain

Olga Tymofiyeva1*, Christopher P. Hess1, Etay Ziv1, Nan Tian1, Sonia L. Bonifacio2, Patrick S. McQuillen2, Donna M. Ferriero2, A. James Barkovich1, Duan Xu1

1 Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, California, United States of America, 2 Department of Pediatrics, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, California, United States of America


Defining the structural and functional connectivity of the human brain (the human “connectome”) is a basic challenge in neuroscience. Recently, techniques for noninvasively characterizing structural connectivity networks in the adult brain have been developed using diffusion and high-resolution anatomic MRI. The purpose of this study was to establish a framework for assessing structural connectivity in the newborn brain at any stage of development and to show how network properties can be derived in a clinical cohort of six-month old infants sustaining perinatal hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE). Two different anatomically unconstrained parcellation schemes were proposed and the resulting network metrics were correlated with neurological outcome at 6 months. Elimination and correction of unreliable data, automated parcellation of the cortical surface, and assembling the large-scale baby connectome allowed an unbiased study of the network properties of the newborn brain using graph theoretic analysis. In the application to infants with HIE, a trend to declining brain network integration and segregation was observed with increasing neuromotor deficit scores.
Citation: Tymofiyeva O, Hess CP, Ziv E, Tian N, Bonifacio SL, et al. (2012). Towards the “Baby Connectome”: Mapping the Structural Connectivity of the Newborn Brain. PLoS ONE, 7(2): e31029. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031029


During brain maturation, structural and functional pathways are formed and reshaped in cases of prenatal, perinatal or early childhood brain injury. Studying these pathways in vivo remains a challenge. With advances in MRI, it has become possible over the last decade to noninvasively characterize large white matter bundles using diffusion MRI. The technique has been widely applied to both the adult and the baby brain [1], and has led to new insights into the tissue microstructure of individual tracts. Tractography has been extensively used to visualize white matter tracts and offer tract-based regional analyses. More recently, studies in the adult brain [2][4] have attempted to provide a more complete description of the brain's structural connectivity by assembling the “connectome,” a term introduced by Sporns et al. [5] in analogy to the human genome. In these recent studies, the analysis included not only single tracks and regions-of-interest (ROIs) but also the whole brain structural network topology, as assessed at the scale possible using diffusion MRI techniques. The brain network describes interregional mesoscale connectivity patterns of the brain and can be represented by the connectivity matrix (also called “adjacency matrix”) of size n2, where n is the number of brain regions (nodes). Graph theoretic analysis can be applied to the connectivity matrices in order to extract important network characteristics [6], [7]. Key concepts to describe and quantify complex brain networks include local topological parameters, such as node centrality, and global (aggregate) parameters, such as characteristic path length and average clustering coefficient that in concert may indicate the presence of so called “small-world” network characteristics [8]. Studying the human connectome using network science offers a unique opportunity to better understand inter-individual differences in neural connectivity.

The purpose of this study was to establish a framework for assessing structural connectivity in the newborn brain at any stage of development, starting with premature neonates, and to show how such a framework could be used to characterize structural network properties in a cohort of six-month old infants with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE). Babies with neonatal encephalopathy face a much higher risk of neurological and developmental deficits that are difficult to predict on an individual basis [9]. Characterization of individual structural connectivity networks, together with conventional anatomic MRI imaging, may provide valuable anticipatory information about the potential for encountering abnormalities at a later stage in development. Our hypothesis in this work was that the topological trajectory of the baby brain network is altered by perinatal HIE, and as a result the observed clinical severity of injury would correlate to different structural network phenotypes at 6 months.

Imaging newborn infants poses several unique technical challenges. For reliable structural connectivity network construction and characterization, the following issues had to be addressed:
  1. - data quality assurance. Data quality suffers from bulk motion, particularly in unsedated infants. Therefore, it is necessary to analyze the occurrence of corrupted diffusion-weighted images and develop an algorithm for their correction or rejection, as in the case of information loss due to motion during half-Fourier acquisition [10]
  2. - automated and unbiased definition of network nodes of the connectome. Another challenge that had to be addressed for the proposed work was the need for an automated and yet unbiased cortical parcellation scheme suitable for objective evaluation in the developing brain. No single universally accepted parcellation scheme currently exists for human brain regions [5]. In previous studies of the adult human brain [3], [4], [11], [12] parcellation of the brain into nodes was based on anatomic templates and landmarks or functional architecture. Also, a recent study of white matter connectivity in the first years of life [13] used an anatomic template to map the brain at ages of 2 weeks, 1 year, and 2 years. We believe that rapidly changing newborn brains require an unbiased parcellation scheme that does not rely on (adult) brain atlases. This is crucial for the design of both cross-sectional and longitudinal brain imaging studies during the course of development in order to account for the neural plasticity of the pediatric brain. As a part of this work, we propose two different template-free parcellation schemes, and demonstrate their relationship to derived brain network parameters in infants after neonatal HIE.

Read the whole article.