Saturday, April 28, 2012

Dr. John L. Callas - The Second Copernican Revolution: Our Changing View of Our Place in the Universe

As we (finally) begin to explore our own solar system and gather more detailed information about other planets in our galaxy, nearby galaxies, and the universe as a whole, we are poised to completely redefine our understanding of who we are as living beings. AWESOME!

This was a recent Google Tech Talk.

Dr. John L. Callas - The Second Copernican Revolution: Our Changing View of Our Place in the Universe

Five hundred years ago, Copernicus advanced the theory that the Earth was not the center of the Solar System. That theory revolutionized our understanding of the Universe. It was initially met with great opposition because of what it meant about our own significance. Today there is a second Copernican revolution underway that will once again alter our significance. Advances in technologies and techniques are enabling the detection, observation and study of Earth-like planets around other stars. And several deep-space missions are currently exploring potentially-habitable worlds within our Solar System as possible abodes for life beyond the Earth. As one such mission, the two intrepid robotic explorers, Spirit and Opportunity, have been exploring the surface of Mars for evidence of past habitable environments that could have supported life. The rovers have traversed great plains, climbed mountains, descended into deep craters and survived rover-killing dust storms and frigid winters. Both rovers have found clues that Mars was once Earth-like with a potential for life. Soon they will be joined by another larger, more capable rover on the surface. Within the next few years, we may be poised to answering that central question, "Are we alone in the Universe?"

Speaker Info:

John L. Callas, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., has been project manager of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover project since March 2006. Previously, as science manager and then deputy project manager, he had helped lead the rover project since 2000. Callas grew up near Boston, Mass. He received his Bachelor's degree in Engineering from Tufts University, Medford, Mass., in 1981 and his Masters and Ph.D. in Physics from Brown University, Providence, R.I., in 1983 and 1987, respectively. He joined JPL to work on advanced spacecraft propulsion, which included such futuristic concepts as electric, nuclear and antimatter propulsion. In 1989 he began work supporting the exploration of Mars with the Mars Observer mission and has since worked on seven Mars missions. In addition to his Mars work, Callas is involved in the development of instrumentation for astrophysics and planetary science, and teaches mathematics at Pasadena City College as an adjunct faculty member.

Imagine: How Creativity Works w/ Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer's new book Imagine: How Creativity Works has been getting a lot of attention (NYT, WaPo, SciAm Mind), not all of it good (Guardian, The Millions). In this podcast from the RSA we get to hear him talk about the book himself.

For those interested, I also included an interview from Slate and video/animation of this book's ideas from HuffPo.

Imagine: How creativity works

25th Apr 2012

Listen to the audio
(full recording including audience Q&A)
Please right-click link and choose "Save Link As..." to download audio file onto your computer.

RSA Keynote

Shattering the myth of creative 'types', bestselling journalist and author Jonah Lehrer shows how new research is deepening our understanding of the human imagination, and considers how this new science can make us happier, our neighbourhoods more vibrant, companies more productive and schools more effective.

Chair: Ben Hammersley, technologist, writer and broadcaster. 
June Thomas interviewed Lehrer for Slate's book review podcast.

Listen to Episode 8 of The Afterword: Subscribe in iTunesRSS feedDownloadPlay in another tab 

This episode of The Afterword is brought to you by Audible. Get a free audiobook and 30-day trial today by signing up at
Jonah Lehrer.
Jonah LehrerPhotograph by Nina Subin.

In Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer explores some of the myths of creativity and discovers that it isn’t a gift possessed by a lucky few, but rather a variety of processes that everyone can learn to use more efficiently. This 32-minute conversation ranges from the origins of the Swiffer, why 3M is such an innovative company, what people who work alone can do to replicate the creative advantages of the busy workplace, to Steve Jobs’ views on proper bathroom placement.

The Afterword, which appears in the Slate daily podcast feed every other Thursday, features interviews with the authors of new nonfiction books. The show’s email address is

Podcast produced by June Thomas. The executive producer of Slate’s podcasts is Andy Bowers.
See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.
And finally, Huffington Post shared an animated passage from the book (on frustration as necessary for creativity) created by Flash Rosenberg.

Jonah Lehrer's 'Imagine: How Creativity Works,' Animated By Flash Rosenberg (VIDEO)

The Huffington Post  |  By

How Creativity Works

It seems like everywhere you turn (on the internet), there's a thought piece, review or Q&A about Jonah Lehrer's new book, "Imagine: How Creativity Works." The 30-year-old science writer studied sexy examples of creativity (Bob Dylan) as well as unsexy ones (Swiffer) in his quest to understand that mysterious thing called inspiration, and his work seems to have touched a nerve. Now one of Lehrer's most provocative passages -- a defense of frustration as a necessary phase during problem-solving -- has been transformed into a short movie by animator Flash Rosenberg (side note: great animator name!). Which is great, because who doesn't love big thoughts expressed in drawrings? Rosenberg does the animation equivalent of liveblogging to a narration of Lehrer's words, and as expected, the story of Archimedes in the tub makes for righteous visuals. We've posted the whole thing below.


Friday, April 27, 2012

Neuropsychologist Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy Dismantles Deepak Chopra's Latest Argument for Dualism

More and more, Deepak Chopra is venturing into realms where he is in waaay over his head - and actual scientists are kicking his New Age arse around the internets. When Chopra and Jean Houston went up against Michael Shermer and Sam Harris on ABC's Nightline Faceoff (Does God Have a Future?) it was a bloodbath.

This morning, Chopra published an article at Huffington Post arguing for a dualist understanding of mind and brain and a neuropsychologist dismantled his argument with ease.

First up, the whole Chopra article.

Good News: You Are Not Your Brain

Posted: 03/27/2012

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP, and Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy, Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School Director, Genetics and Aging at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).
Like a personal computer, science needs a recycle bin for ideas that didn't work out as planned. In this bin would go commuter trains riding on frictionless rails using superconductivity, along with interferon, the last AIDS vaccine, and most genetic therapies. These failed promises have two things in common: They looked like the wave of the future but then reality proved too complex to fit the simple model that was being offered.

The next thing to go into the recycle bin might be the brain. We are living in a golden age of brain research, thanks largely to vast improvements in brain scans. Now that functional MRIs can give snapshots of the brain in real time, researchers can see specific areas of the brain light up, indicating increased activity. On the other hand, dark spots in the brain indicate minimal activity or none at all. Thus, we arrive at those familiar maps that compare a normal brain with one that has deviated from the norm. This is obviously a great boon where disease is concerned. Doctors can see precisely where epilepsy or Parkinsonism or a brain tumor has created damage, and with this knowledge new drugs and more precise surgery can target the problem.

But then overreach crept in. We are shown brain scans of repeat felons with pointers to the defective areas of their brains. The same holds for Buddhist monks, only in their case, brain activity is heightened and improved, especially in the prefrontal lobes associated with compassion. By now there is no condition, good or bad, that hasn't been linked to a brain pattern that either "proves" that there is a link between the brain and a certain behavior or exhibits the "cause" of a certain trait. The whole assumption, shared by 99 percent of neuroscientists, is that we are our brains.

In this scheme, the brain is in charge, having evolved to control certain fixed behaviors. Why do men see other men as rivals for a desirable woman? Why do people seek God? Why does snacking in front of the TV become a habit? We are flooded with articles and books reinforcing the same assumption: The brain is using you, not the other way around. Yet it's clear that a faulty premise is leading to gross overreach.

The flaws in current reasoning can be summarized with devastating force:
1. Brain activity isn't the same as thinking, feeling, or seeing.
2. No one has remotely shown how molecules acquire the qualities of the mind.
3. It is impossible to construct a theory of the mind based on material objects that somehow became conscious.
4. When the brain lights up, its activity is like a radio lighting up when music is played. It is an obvious fallacy to say that the radio composed the music. What is being viewed is only a physical correlation, not a cause.
It's a massive struggle to get neuroscientists to see these flaws. They are king of the hill right now, and so long as new discoveries are being made every day, a sense of triumph pervades the field. "Of course" we will solve everything from depression to overeating, crime to religious fanaticism, by tinkering with neurons and the kinks thrown into normal, desirable brain activity. But that's like hearing a really bad performance of "Rhapsody in Blue" and trying to turn it into a good performance by kicking the radio.

We've become excited by a flawless 2008 article published by Donald D. Hoffman, professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California Irvine. It's called "Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem," and its aim is to show, using logic, philosophy, and neuroscience, that we are not our brains. We are "conscious agents" -- Hoffman's term for minds that shape reality, including the reality of the brain. Hoffman is optimistic that the thorny problem of consciousness can be solved, and science can find a testable model for the mind. But future progress depends on researchers abandoning their current premise, that the brain is the mind. We urge you to read the article in its entirety, but for us, the good news is that Hoffman's ideas show that the tide may be turning.

It is degrading to human potential when the brain uses us instead of vice versa. There is no doubt that we can become trapped by faulty wiring in the brain -- this happens in depression, addictions, and phobias, for example. Neural circuits can seemingly take control, and there is much talk of "hard wiring" by which some activity is fixed and preset by nature, such as the fight-or-flight response. But what about people who break bad habits, kick their addictions, or overcome depression? It would be absurd to say that the brain, being stuck in faulty wiring, suddenly and spontaneously fixed the wiring. What actually happens, as anyone knows who has achieved success in these areas, is that the mind takes control. Mind shapes the brain, and when you make up your mind to do something, you return to the natural state of using your brain instead of the other way around.

It's very good news that you are not your brain, because when your mind finds its true power, the result is healing, inspiration, insight, self-awareness, discovery, curiosity, and quantum leaps in personal growth. The brain is totally incapable of such things. After all, if it is a hard-wired machine, there is no room for sudden leaps and renewed inspiration. The machine simply does what it does. A depressed brain can no more heal itself than a car can suddenly decide to fly. Right now the golden age of brain research is brilliantly decoding neural circuitry, and thanks to neuroplasticity, we know that the brain's neural pathways can be changed. The marvels of brain activity grow more astonishing every day. Yet in our astonishment it would be a grave mistake, and a disservice to our humanity, to forget that the real glory of human existence is the mind, not the brain that serves it.

Deepak Chopra and Rudy Tanzi are co-authors of their forthcoming book Superbrain: New Breakthroughs for Maximizing Health, Happiness and Spiritual Well-Being by Harmony Books.
In response to this, Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy, PhD & neuropsychologist, who blogs at Brain Ethics, posted a cogent rebuttal at his blog, since it was too long to serve as a comment.

Here is a part of his reply - go read the whole thing.
Mr. Chopra,
The level of BS in this assertion is so high that I don’t even know where to start! We now have a whole century (actually, much more, but let’s leave it at that) of evidence providing a very close link between the mind and the brain. I am utterly puzzled at how one can even make such claims as you do, and feel compelled to do some debugging of your text:
  • The starter dish fallacy: The brain does not “light up” – what you see is a statistical representation of the change in signal intensity that (for fMRI scans) represent changes in oxygenated blood, which is an indirect measure of brain activation. Dark regions are still active, but not particularly for the task we have chosen to focus on (or rather, the tasks that researchers have decided to compare). This is a non-trivial distinction, because the link suggested by Chopra to a radio tuning in is simply erroneous. See more below.
  • The big leap of reason is the semantic trick of saying that neuroscientists (including myself) believe that the brain is in charge, and not you… I thought Chopra just agreed that neuroscientists believed that the brain IS you? Actually, most scientists I know believe that the brain and you are indeed the same! What happens in the brain is part of you as an organism, as a person, and often as a sentient being. The activation of hypothalamic nuclei can help control hunger, thermoregulation etc.; the response of the amygdala can help you become aware of specific events; the activation in the medial orbitofrontal cortex does indeed reflect quite closely how much you enjoy reading this paragraph, the taste of that chocolate you’re having (lucky you) or the music you have playing in the background.
  • The great news is: this takes NOTHING away from the wonderful richness of your conscious life! But we understand so much better now HOW it is that the mysterious wet matter of the brain can even produce such magic. And the best part is…no supernatural explanations are yet needed. No need to evoke additional dimensions, pseudoscientific explanations or altogether magical mental bypasses.

Debates in Development: The Search for Answers

This series of video lectures from NYU's March 2012 conference, Debates in Development: The Search for Answers, is probably a little too geeky for most readers here, but I found some of the discussion interesting in terms how we deal with poverty in the poorest parts of the world.

Debates in Development: The Search for Answers

"Debates in Development: The Search for Answers," a one-day conference organized by New York University's Development Research Institute and featuring scholars on both sides of fierce debates on the way forward for the global War on Poverty.


Andrew Rugasira, founder and chairman of Good African Coffee, will deliver the keynote address, "Finding Answers in the Global Market."

In 2003, Rugasira began training farmers to grow high-quality coffee in the Rwenzori Mountains in Western Uganda. By operating a roasting and packaging facility in Kampala, Rugasira and the small, independent farmers in his network keep more of the value added than average exporters of agricultural products. Today, his network includes 14,000 farmers and his Good African Coffee is sold in supermarkets throughout the UK and online in the US. His keynote speech will elaborate on the home-grown efforts of African entrepreneurs to reap the fruits of globalization and improve the livelihoods of their own people.

MIT Professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo will present their new experimental approach to fighting poverty, featured in their best-selling new book, Poor Economics. They will face their fiercest critic in Angus Deaton of Princeton in the session "Searching for Answers with Randomized Experiments."

Professors William Easterly and Yaw Nyarko, co-directors of DRI, will deliver the conference's opening remarks (10-10:45 a.m.). The morning session will be "Development Goals, Evaluation, and Learning from Projects in Africa."

Session I: Development Goals, Evaluation, and Learning from Projects in Africa

Session II: Keynote Address: Finding Answers in the Global Market

Bruce Goldman - NEUROSCIENCE OF NEED: Understanding the Addicted Mind

From Stanford Medicine, this is a cool article on the neuroscience of addiction. About a third of the population believes addicts just need to suck it up and quit. End of story. But it really is not that easy - addiction is a learning process, and unlearning it (which means undoing or disrupting the neural circuits that had been laid down over time) also takes a lot of time.

Neuroscience of need

Understanding the addicted mind

Neuroscience of need - Understanding the addicted mind
In this MRI of a brain (side view), the green, yellow and red areas indicate bundles of neurons involved in addiction. Red represents reward pathways; green and yellow signify habitual responses.

In the past 10 or 15 years, there’s been a shift in thinking about addiction, to a new appreciation that it is, at its root, a maladaptive form of learning. And like learning to ride a bike, addiction is not quickly unlearned.

If you think quitting is a simple matter of willpower, you’re in good company. More than a third of the general public agrees, according to a 2008 survey by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. But it’s tougher than that.

“It’s kind of like putting on a lot of weight,” says Keith Humphreys, PhD, a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who has served as a senior White House drug-policy advisor. “Your body changes, and from then on losing weight is way harder than it ever was before you got fat in the first place. Because addiction-associated brain changes are so enduring, a lot of people are going to relapse. So the course of treatment has got to be longer-term than it often is.”

Some of the key biological insights were made by Stanford neuroscientist Rob Malenka, MD, PhD, who continues his studies using animal models to extrapolate to humans. And now others, like brain imaging expert Sam McClure, PhD, are finding that changes Malenka sees in rats take place in humans as well.

This new understanding of addiction’s long-term grip has policy implications: A short-term detox stint to rid the body of the unwanted chemical just won’t cut it. Authorities have to be prepared to treat addiction as they would any chronic disease, even though that implies long-haul and therefore costlier treatment (it’s still a lot cheaper than imprisonment). An equally important implication: They must also try their best — from both health and cost standpoints — to prevent people from starting down that lonely, dangerous road in the first place.


There are things you don’t forget, and there are things you can’t. For people who become drug addicts, the drug experience — the substance, but the entire “scene” too — is not only unforgettable but indelibly etched into the physiological brain circuitry that drives us onward through the obstacle course of existence.

And much of that memory is false. Because all addictive drugs appear to share a rather mysterious property: They’re “better than the real thing.” Better, that is, than the real things our reward circuitry was designed by evolution to reward: food, sleep, sex, friendship, novelty, etc. And better, even, than they were the last time around. At least, it sure seems that way to the addict.

About 25 million Americans are addicted to drugs (including alcohol but excluding nicotine), about the same number as those who have diabetes. But wanting a drug — really, seriously craving it — doesn’t mean you have to like it. “That’s a big part of the problem of addiction,” says Malenka, the Nancy Friend Pritzker Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Malenka was among the first investigators to home in on the molecular details of just how the mechanisms involved in memory and learning are hijacked by drugs of abuse.

Addictive drugs mimic natural rewards such as food and sex by kindling a network of brain areas collectively called the reward circuitry, which is responsible for enjoyment — which if you think about it, is an important survival response. It gets us to do more of the kinds of things that keep us alive and lead to our having more offspring: food-seeking and ingestion, hunting and hoarding, selecting a mate and actually mating.

Moreover, addictive drugs fire up the reward circuitry in a way that natural rewards can’t — by, in a sense, pressing a heavy thumb down on the scale of pleasure. Over time, the desire for the drug becomes more important than the pleasure the addict gets from it. By the time the thrill is gone, long-lasting changes may have occurred within key regions of the brain.

The brain is a little bit like the big snarl of tangled wires snaking their way out of that six-outlet surge protector behind your bed. They know where they’re going, even if you don’t. Nerve cells (or neurons, as scientists call them) can be seen as hollow wires transmitting electrical currents down long cables called axons to other neurons.

Addiction was once defined in terms of physical symptoms of withdrawal, such as nausea and cramps in the case of heroin or delirium tremens in the case of alcohol, which reflect physiological changes within cells of an addict’s body. It’s now seen as changes in brain circuits, or combinations of neurons; in other words, the very neurophysiological changes that result from learning and experience. You crave, seek and use a pernicious drug again and again because you have a memory of it being more wonderful than anything else, and because your brain has been rewired so that, when exposed to anything that reminds you of the drug, you will feel rotten if you don’t get some.

“These are symptoms of a brain disease, not a mere weakness of will,” Malenka says. He and other researchers are working to understand addiction as a sum of behavioral consequences of changes within nerve cells that occur with repeated drug use. Over time, these subcellular changes alter the strength of connections in the circuit, essentially hardwiring the yen for drugs into a habitual craving that is easily reignited not only by the drugs but also by environmental cues — people, places, things and situations associated with past drug use — even when the addict hasn’t been anywhere near the drug or the drug scene for months or years.

Serendipity strikes

In the 1950s James Olds, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher working with psychologist Peter Milner, PhD, at McGill University in Montreal, was conducting experiments to try to assemble a wiring diagram for some of this complicated brain circuitry. They were using a then-new technique, based on the understanding that neurons are at heart electrical critters, that came down to sticking electrodes (painlessly) into a rat’s brain, running an electric current and seeing what happened.
Your brain has been rewired so that, when exposed to anything that reminds you of the drug, you will feel rotten if you don’t get some.
At one point Olds and Milner were shooting for an area of the brain called the reticular formation, an archipelago of interconnected clusters dispersed throughout the brain and involved in arousal and attention. But they missed and hit another circuit by accident. They discovered that when they stimulated this circuit, the animals loved it.

So the investigators tried something new. They taught the rats to press a lever in order to deliver shocks to their own brains, and recorded the points in the brain that rats liked to electrically stimulate over and over again by pressing that lever — and press it they would, sometimes for hours on end, to the exclusion of just about anything including eating or drinking. (Of course, the rats couldn’t move the electrodes from one part of their brain to another. So Olds and Milner did that for them.)

Point by point, Olds and Milner were able to map the network of brain regions, interconnected as they are by bundles of axons running from one region to the next, that became known as the reward circuit. To oversimplify things a great deal, this circuit includes nerve bundles that run from deep inside the brain to spots such as the nucleus accumbens (associated with pleasure), the more recently evolved prefrontal cortex (involved in decision-making, planning and so forth), and other places of more ancient evolutionary vintage that control habitual movements and are sometimes referred to as the “lizard brain.”

A brain, viewed from behind in two planes, showing the pathways implicated in addiction. The pathway travels from dopamine neurons (central) to areas in the striatum.
A brain, viewed from behind in two planes, showing the pathways implicated in addiction. The pathway travels from dopamine neurons (central) to areas in the striatum.
But what flips on the reward circuit in regular life, when electrical zaps to the brain are blessedly few and far between? The same chemical that’s triggered by dope. It’s called dopamine.

Dope fires up your dopamine

Dopamine is one of a growing number of known neurotransmitters, substances neurons produce for the purpose of relaying information from one neuron to the next. Different groups of neurons manufacture different neurotransmitters, which all work pretty much the same way but in different nerve bundles and with a spectrum of different results. These substances are stored inside numerous tiny bulbs budding from points along a neuron’s long, electricity-conducting axon at key contact points the neuron shares with other neurons.

When an electrical signal roaring down the axon’s surface rumbles past one of these little bulbs, myriad molecules of neurotransmitters get squirted into the surrounding space. They diffuse across that space (called a synapse) to specialized receptors on the abutting neuron, where the interaction can either set off (enhance) or shut down (impede) a new electrical current in the downstream neuron.

These dopamine-squirting neurons constitute a tiny fraction of all neurons. But each of them can network with up to 10,000 or more other neurons stretching to the far corners of the brain. A dollop of dopamine in your tank can really boost your reward mileage, so to speak.

Once dopamine’s centrality to the neurons constituting the reward circuit was worked out, people started wondering whether drugs might activate the reward circuits. It turned out that they do.
“One reason that the advances in our study of the neurophysiology of addiction so far exceed our understanding of other psychiatric disorders is because the animal models for addiction are extremely good,” says Malenka. Teach a rat to press a lever for an infusion of a drug of abuse, and you will see the same compulsive behavior in the rat that you would in a person. “A rat will work very hard to get drugs,” he says. “It will press that lever hundreds, even thousands, of times and endure pain and suffering to get drugs.”

In this rear view of the brain, the colored areas show the origin of the dopamine neurons in the midbrain.
In this rear view of the brain, the colored areas show the origin of the dopamine neurons in the midbrain.
As these animal studies have shown, virtually all abused drugs — for instance, heroin and other opiates; cocaine, amphetamines and other psychostimulants; nicotine; and alcohol — operate by interfering with the reward circuitry. They cause the release of dopamine in target structures such as the nucleus accumbens, that key structure in the experience of pleasure.

Different drugs do this in different ways. Cocaine and amphetamines prolong the effect of dopamine on its target neurons. Heroin inhibits other neurons that inhibit these dopamine neurons. (In the logic circuitry that is the brain, a double negative roughly equals a positive.)

Hijacking the reward system

You might think that the more you eat, or the more sex you have, or the more good vibrations you get, the more dopamine your reward-circuit neurons will squirt at their target structures in the brain. But it’s not so simple.

A seminal 1997 Science paper by P. Read Montague, PhD, at Baylor postulated that what really gets the reward circuitry jazzed up isn’t so much the good vibes as it is the extent to which the goodness of the vibes exceed expectations.

The newer theory was based on animal studies involving lever pressing, with a twist. In this case, the test animal learns that if it presses a lever after it receives an environmental cue — to wit, a light goes on — it will get a reward: say, a nice slice of apple or a drop of juice, both of which rats love. Of course, the animal soon learns to reach for the lever the instant the light goes on. With repeated exposure, the rat gets the hang of it, and a few interesting things happen inside its brain. First of all, the reward itself (the food) no longer produces the dopamine surge associated with reward-circuit activation.

Second of all, it is now the light, not the food, that triggers the activity in the reward circuit. The timing of the reward-circuitry’s dopamine squirts has shifted from the time of reward delivery to the time of the cue (the essence of the so-called “conditioned response” familiar to anyone who has ever taken Psychology 101).

It’s not that the juice or apple slice no longer tastes good. It’s that the reward circuitry is responding to the difference between what we expect and what we get. How much dopamine gets secreted depends not on how great the reward is, but on the degree to which it meets expectations. The juice still tastes great, but it’s no longer a surprise; it’s predictable. However, the light’s timing can’t be predicted. It’s always a surprise, and (as the animal now knows) it’s always a prelude to something good.

The reward circuitry is always secreting dribs and drabs of dopamine. If an experimental animal gets a bigger-than-expected reward, the frequency and amount of dopamine secretion increases; if it’s smaller than anticipated (or if the light goes on but the animal’s frantic lever-pressing brings no juice at all), dopamine secretion drops below baseline levels. Moreover, this depression in firing rates of dopamine-secreting neurons occurs precisely when the anticipated reward should have come, but didn’t. Thus, the brain seems to interpret the absence of the expected reward not merely as a lack of enjoyment but as a punishment. (How does a rat spell “disappointed”?)

Sam McClure, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford who studied under Montague, has been imaging human brains to visualize connections between the regions that constitute the reward circuit. “Variations in dopamine levels tell all kinds of structures in your brain when something you want is within reach, getting closer, slipping away or not working for you anymore,” he says.

At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Cocaine, heroin and other abused substances usurp this system. And they do it in a really creepy, pernicious way: by short-circuiting it.

With normally rewarding things like food and sex, we usually have a pretty good idea of how good it will be. It’s when the reward exceeds our expectations that the dopamine circuitry really lights up big time. Conversely, if our expectations aren’t met, dopamine activity drops off.

But cocaine, heroin, alcohol and nicotine directly activate the circuit — they goose dopamine secretion — regardless of how high the expectation was. “Every time you take it, you activate that dopamine activity, so you’re getting a readout that says, ‘Wow, this was even better than I thought it would be,’” McClure says. “It’s always better than you expected. Every single time.” The experience is remembered as always getting better — even if, paradoxically, it’s actually not so great anymore. (“Tolerance mechanisms” within the brain can cause a drug’s pleasant effect to diminish with repeated use.)

The needle and the damage done

In susceptible individuals, repeated drug use creates the same kind of lasting changes in the connections among neurons that we get from learning to ride a bike.

One important way our brains snap an experience into long-term memory is by strengthening the synaptic contacts between neurons in the network that encodes this experience. This involves a number of biochemical changes in both the bulb protruding from a neuron’s axon and the brush-like extension of a nearby neuron. Drug abuse can also cause neurons to sprout brand-new synapses — for example in the nucleus accumbens, the hotspot for positive emotions. It can weaken synapses, too. Nora Volkow, MD, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse has shown that the plan-oriented prefrontal cortex functions poorly in cocaine addicts.

The long-term strengthening of drug-associated memory circuits, combined with that “even better than expected” illusion addictive drugs foist on users, goes a long way toward explaining what is probably the biggest problem addicts and those who treat them face: a pronounced tendency to slide back into the habit. It’s why former White House drug-policy advisor Humphreys believes long-term treatment is vital.

If you are an addict, not just the drug but also all the associated physical, geographical and social cues exert a powerful effect, even decades after the last time you were anywhere near the drug: You walk past the bar you used to get drunk in and see your buddies in there, or you smell cigarette smoke — or, if you used to inject cocaine or heroin, all it may take is seeing a spoon — and you experience a craving and risk a relapse. Stress — you lose your job, suffer a divorce, undergo a financial crisis  — can mimic drugs’ influence on the reward circuitry, and is therefore another major cause of relapse.

Who’s susceptible? (Who knows?)

Only a fraction of people who experiment with drug use get addicted. But virtually all of us have an intact, functional reward system. So why wouldn’t we all be subject to the tyranny of drug-induced illusions of “better-than-expected-ness?”

The short answer is that nobody knows enough to be able to single out a potential addict with any certainty. “There’s no such thing as an ‘addictive personality,’” says Humphreys. “Those 25 million addicts in the United States have wildly different personalities.” There are, however, obvious risk factors: genetics, poor social support networks, a sense of having nothing to lose and stress.

One big risk factor, says Humphreys, is the age at which you start using. “We’re the most vulnerable to addiction in our early teenage years, when our brains are most plastic. So it’s not an accident that almost every single adult smoker started smoking when they were teenagers. If you start smoking when you’re 30, you are almost certainly not going to get addicted. But the younger you start, the more likely you are to keep smoking.

“There are two groups of people who really understand that: prevention professionals, and the tobacco companies. You want to make addictive substances as inaccessible as possible in the environment, particularly for young people.”

The biggest risk factor of all, of course, is the initial use of an addictive substance, says Malenka. “It’s impossible to get addicted if you never take the drug.”

NPR - Howlin' Wolf: A Blues Legend With An Earthy Sound

The other day I posted an article by psychoanalyst Robert Stolorow on the healing power of the blues. In that line of thinking, here is a piece from NPR on the blues of Howlin' Wolf,  one of the greats - a segment occasioned by the release (a few months back) of a new four-disc retrospective set titled Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters 1931-1960.
Howlin Wolf
  Frank Driggs Collection

With his growling vocals, Howlin' Wolf fought his way to the top of the cutthroat Chicago blues scene.

April 26, 2012
Howlin' Wolf's masters from the Chess label have just been released on a four-disc set titled Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters 1931-1960.

When your father has worked a good piece of bottomland into producing crops that support the family and he dies young, if you're the oldest son you have to take over, no matter what. That's one theory of why Chester Arthur Burnett didn't make his first recording until he was 41. Other bits of the story, which are still falling into place, have him learning music from Charley Patton, maybe spending some time in prison and having a bad time in the Army during the war. But by 1951, the farm was in safe hands, and Burnett, performing on the radio as Howlin' Wolf, caught the ear of Sam Phillips, who was running the Memphis Recording Service and talent-scouting for blues labels like Chess and Modern.

These early recordings were earthy, a quality which provided the foundation for Wolf's style and his appeal. Chess had its first hit with Wolf's "How Many More Years" in 1951, and it cracked the national R&B Top 10.

This was Wolf's regular Memphis band: Willie Johnson on guitar, Wolf on harmonica and Willie Steele on drums, with piano possibly by Ike Turner. Chess wanted him to move to Chicago so it could record him itself and use some of its house band, so in 1953, he packed a Cadillac with his stuff and took off north. By March, he was in Chess Studios, letting everyone know he'd arrived in the song "I'm the Wolf."

It's not his most compelling songwriting, but he had the A-team behind him — Otis Spann on piano and Willie Dixon on bass — and he was just getting warmed up. With the band now containing Hubert Sumlin, a very young guitarist Wolf called his "adopted son" and the musician who'd shape his sound and stick with him until Wolf died, he took to the road, barnstorming the South and then returning to Chicago's South Side clubs in triumph. He only recorded four sides in 1955, but started 1956 with one of the most enduring pieces of folk poetry ever written, "Smokestack Lightning."

What is "Smokestack Lightning," anyway? What's going on in this song? Who knows? Who cares? The towering vocal delivery means that Wolf knows, and he passes that knowledge along, utterly bypassing the listener's intellect. It just missed the R&B Top 10 in March, but it was competing with a lot of modern rock 'n' roll. Wolf wouldn't be rock 'n' roll until a few years later, when the Brits discovered him, but he was a law unto himself — and very few Chicago bluesmen except Muddy Waters dared challenge him.

The fact was, blues was fading as the audience for it aged and younger men — and a couple of women — were updating its sound in Chicago. Wolf's records fell off the charts, but he continued to record and tour, and he was one of the few blues artists whose albums Chess put out, confident that it could sell them. One problem he faced, though, was that his songwriting didn't seem to be clicking with record buyers anymore, so in 1960, Chess put him in the studio with a trio of Willie Dixon's tunes: "Back Door Man," "Spoonful" and "Wang Dang Doodle," which was a hit for KoKo Taylor.

Howlin' Wolf still had a big chapter of his life to go, and he'd live until 1976. Great records lay around the corner, as well as a revival of his career as the folkies and the rock crowd discovered him. I hope Universal sees fit to issue a second volume dedicated to more music by the one and only Howlin' Wolf.

Related NPR Stories

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Open Culture - Robert Hughes, Famed Art Critic, Demystifies Modern Art: From Cézanne to Andy Warhol

Nice overview of modern art history.

Robert Hughes, Famed Art Critic, Demystifies Modern Art: From Cézanne to Andy Warhol

Leonard Mlodinow - The Subliminal Self

Nice episode of NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook. The guest on this show, Leonard Mlodinow, is author of the new book is Subliminal:  How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (April 24, 2012).

A fresh take on the uncanny, unnerving power of the unconscious mind.

photo illustration (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)
photo illustration (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

We think we’re thinking our way through life. Well, yes and no. We’re thinking, but our unconscious minds are enormously powerful drivers. We think, but they can decide – often before we’ve even asked the question. For decades, we’ve understood we’re open to “subliminal seduction.” Our unconscious mind can be wooed.

Freud called it a beast. New science is showing just how powerful the mind beneath can be, and – often – how helpful. It’s us. And it’s way ahead of us.

This hour, On Point: Leonard Mlodinow on the power of the unconscious mind.
-Tom Ashbrook


Leonard Mlodinow, a theoretical physicist, scriptwriter, and author, he teaches at the California Institute of Technology. His new book is Subliminal:  How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.

From Tom’s Reading List

Scientific American “One advantage of belonging to a cohesive society in which people help each other is that the group is often better equipped than a set of individuals to deal with threats from the outside.”

New York Post “This year marks the 50th anniversary of an article in Advertising Age magazine in which a marketing consultant named James Vicary admitted to perpetrating one of the great hoaxes in psychological science: the idea of subliminal advertising. Vicary had made his claims a few years earlier — just after the end of the Korean War, an era in which ideas like mind control and brainwashing had found a place in the public consciousness.”

BBC “These images capture a patient’s brain activity the moment they slip into unconsciousness”

Video: Spiderman Product Placement

Mlodinow writes: “In the film “Spider-Man,” for example, a can of Dr Pepper was featured for about 4 seconds when Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) shot a spider web from his wrist toward it. Though it is likely that few of the tens of millions exposed to that image consciously registered or remembered it, the makers of Dr Pepper bet that it would have a subliminal effect.”

Excerpt: Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior

Use the navigation bar at the bottom of this frame to reformat the excerpt to best suit your reading experience.



Unconscious Power by Iron Butterfly
Subliminal by They Might Be Giants

Daniel Kahneman on The Machinery of the Mind

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, on The Machinery of the Mind. Kahneman is Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. Kahneman's recent book is excellent and highly recommended.

Daniel Kahneman on The Machinery of the Mind

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Terrence Deacon - Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter

Via Wonderfest: The Bay Area Beacon of Science, neuroscientist Terrence Deacon, who is chair of UC Berkeley's Anthropology Department, delivers an intriguing lecture of the emergence of mind - human consciousness - from matter. Years ago, I read and enjoyed, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain.

This lecture is based on his new book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, which argues that "key elements of consciousness (feelings, meaning, and purpose, among others) emerge from specific CONSTRAINTS on the physical processes of a nervous system." His is definitely an emergent model of consciousness.

Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter from Wonderfest on

Terrence Deacon - Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter

What are such things as emotion, purpose, and meaning? In this presentation, Terrence Deacon, neuroscientist and chair of UC Berkeley's Anthropology Department, addresses such crucial questions in the study of consciousness.

Professor Deacon's talk will focus on the central idea of his new book, "Incomplete Nature," namely that key elements of consciousness (feelings, meaning, and purpose, among others) emerge from specific CONSTRAINTS on the physical processes of a nervous system.

As physicists work toward completing a theory of the universe and biologists unravel the molecular complexity of life, a glaring incompleteness in this scientific vision becomes apparent. The "Theory of Everything" that appears to be emerging includes everything but us: the feelings, meanings, consciousness, and purposes that make us (and many of our animal cousins) what we are. These most immediate and incontrovertible phenomena are left unexplained by the natural sciences because they lack the physical properties - such as mass, momentum, charge, and location - that are assumed to be necessary for something to have physical consequences in the world. This is an unacceptable omission. We need a "theory of everything" that does not leave it absurd that we exist.

Terrence Deacon

Professor Deacon's research has combined human evolutionary biology and neuroscience, with the aim of investigating the evolution of human cognition. His work extends from laboratory-based cellular-molecular neurobiology to the study of semiotic processes underlying animal and human communication, especially language. Many of these interests are explored in his 1997 book, The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain.

His neurobiological research is focused on determining the nature of the human divergence from typical primate brain anatomy, the cellular-molecular mechanisms producing this difference, and the correlations between these anatomical differences and special human cognitive abilities, particularly language. In pursuit of these questions he has used a variety of laboratory approaches including the tracing of axonal connections, quantitative analysis of regions of different species brains, and cross-species fetal neural transplantation. The goal is to identify elements of the developmental genetic mechanisms that distinguish human brains from other ape brains, to aid the study of the cognitive consequences of human brain evolution.

His theoretical interests include the study of evolution-like processes at many levels, including their role in embryonic development, neural signal processing, language change, and social processes, and how these different processes interact and depend on each other. Currently, his theoretical interests have focused on the problem of explaining emergent phenomena, such as characterize such apparently unprecedented transitions as the origin of life, the evolution of language, and the generation of conscious experience by brains. This is fueled by a career-long interest in the ideas of the late 19th-century American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce and his theory of semiosis. His new book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, explores the relationship between thermodynamic, self-organizing, evolutionary and semiotic processes and provides a new technical conception of information that explains both its representational and normative properties.

Geoff Fitch - Generating Transformative Change Through Working with Polarities

James Alexander Arnfinsen speaks with Geoff Fitch, founder and CEO of Pacific Integral, in this podcast from LeveLei.


In this episode I´m glad to be joined by Geoff Fitch, founder and CEO of Pacific Integral. This is an organization in the U.S. that “works with both individuals and organizations that are committed to the emergence of a sustainable, equitable and beautiful future for humanity”. Geoff is coming to Norway in June in relation to a 5-day seminar focusing on transformative and integral education. In our conversation we explore Pacific Integral´s highly acclaimed program Generating Transformative Change (GTC), before we delve into the possibilities and mysteries of working with polarities. Through poignant examples relating to both personal and systemic transformation, Geoff demonstrates how transcending the either/or-mindset can lead to deep change and transformation for both individuals and society at large.

Episode links:
Pacific Integral
NextStep Integral
Polarity management
Enacting Containers for Integral Transformative Development, article by Geoff Fitch, Venita Ramirez, and Terri O’Fallon

Noam Chomsky - Language and the Mind Revisited - The Biolinguistic Turn

This is an old lecture by linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky (professor at MIT) given at UC Berkeley in 2003. For that evening in the Charles M. and Martha Hitchcock Lecture series, Chomsky examined biolinguistics - the study of relations between physiology and speech.

A second video of Chomsky is featured below, which is the second half of this talk. Fair warning - this is not easy material - Chomsky is speaking to people who are well-versed in this field.

Chomsky has been one the most influential scholars over the last three or four decades - between 1980 and 1992, he was cited as a source more than any other living scholar, and ranked eighth overall.

As background for this lecture, Wikipedia offers a good summary of his influence in linguistics (below the video).

Chomskyan Linguistics

Chomskyan linguistics, beginning with his Syntactic Structures, a distillation of his Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1955, 75), challenges structural linguistics and introduces transformational grammar. This approach takes utterances (sequences of words) to have a syntax characterized by a formal grammar; in particular, a context-free grammar extended with transformational rules.
Perhaps his most influential and time-tested contribution to the field, is the claim that modeling knowledge of language using a formal grammar accounts for the "productivity" or "creativity" of language. In other words, a formal grammar of a language can explain the ability of a hearer-speaker to produce and interpret an infinite number of utterances, including novel ones, with a limited set of grammatical rules and a finite set of terms. He has always acknowledged his debt to Pāṇini for his modern notion of an explicit generative grammar although it is also related to rationalist ideas of a priori knowledge.

It is a popular misconception that Chomsky proved that language is entirely innate and discovered a "universal grammar" (UG). In fact, Chomsky simply observed that while a human baby and a kitten are both capable of inductive reasoning, if they are exposed to exactly the same linguistic data, the human child will always acquire the ability to understand and produce language, while the kitten will never acquire either ability. Chomsky labeled whatever the relevant capacity the human has which the cat lacks the "language acquisition device" (LAD) and suggested that one of the tasks for linguistics should be to figure out what the LAD is and what constraints it puts on the range of possible human languages. The universal features that would result from these constraints are often termed "universal grammar" or UG.[35]

The Principles and Parameters approach (P&P)—developed in his Pisa 1979 Lectures, later published as Lectures on Government and Binding (LGB)—makes strong claims regarding universal grammar: that the grammatical principles underlying languages are innate and fixed, and the differences among the world's languages can be characterized in terms of parameter settings in the brain (such as the pro-drop parameter, which indicates whether an explicit subject is always required, as in English, or can be optionally dropped, as in Spanish), which are often likened to switches. (Hence the term principles and parameters, often given to this approach.) In this view, a child learning a language need only acquire the necessary lexical items (words, grammatical morphemes, and idioms), and determine the appropriate parameter settings, which can be done based on a few key examples.
Proponents of this view argue that the pace at which children learn languages is inexplicably rapid, unless children have an innate ability to learn languages. The similar steps followed by children all across the world when learning languages, and the fact that children make certain characteristic errors as they learn their first language, whereas other seemingly logical kinds of errors never occur (and, according to Chomsky, should be attested if a purely general, rather than language-specific, learning mechanism were being employed), are also pointed to as motivation for innateness.

More recently, in his Minimalist Program (1995), while retaining the core concept of "principles and parameters," Chomsky attempts a major overhaul of the linguistic machinery involved in the LGB model, stripping from it all but the barest necessary elements, while advocating a general approach to the architecture of the human language faculty that emphasizes principles of economy and optimal design, reverting to a derivational approach to generation, in contrast with the largely representational approach of classic P&P.

Chomsky's ideas have had a strong influence on researchers of the language acquisition in children, though many researchers in this area such as Elizabeth Bates[36] and Michael Tomasello[37] argue very strongly against Chomsky's theories, and instead advocate emergentist or connectionist theories, explaining language with a number of general processing mechanisms in the brain that interact with the extensive and complex social environment in which language is used and learned.

His best-known work in phonology is The Sound Pattern of English (1968), written with Morris Halle (and often known as simply SPE). This work has had a great significance for the development in the field. While phonological theory has since moved beyond "SPE phonology" in many important respects, the SPE system is considered the precursor of some of the most influential phonological theories today, including autosegmental phonology, lexical phonology and optimality theory. Chomsky no longer publishes on phonology.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Robert Stolorow - Blues, Trauma, Existential Vulnerability

Robert Stolorow is one of the co-founders of intersubjective psychoanalysis (along with Donna Orange, George Atwood, Bernard Brandchaft, and Jessica Benjamin, among others). Deeply influenced by Hume, he moved Kohut's Self Psychology into the post-modern. All of which is to say I am a huge fan.

The fact that he and his son have written an article on the therapeutic value of the blues is even better. Classic blues has always been a balm for the soul in my life - Lightnin' Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf, Blind Willie McTell, and of course, Robert Johnson.

Louisiana Red is the musician they discuss in this article - I couldn't find the exact song, but this one is hauntingly beautiful - "Blues for Ida B."

The therapeutic power of the blues.

"I can't stand living, but I'm scared of dying, but Old Man River, he just keeps rolling along."—Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II

[This blog was coauthored with my son, Ben Stolorow, who is a working jazz pianist performing in the San Francisco Bay Area, both as a solo artist and together with his sister Stephanie under the name “Stoli Rose”].

With roots in African music, the blues was born in the Mississippi delta as a distinctively African American musical genre in response to the de-humanizing traumas of slavery and its aftermath. It has origins in spirituals, work songs, field hollers, etc., all of which are types of music associated with enslaved people attempting to deal with their painful situation. Although blues is a uniquely African American music, it has a uniquely universal appeal. There is something in the blues, and in music with qualities that derive from the blues, that people can relate to. What are these qualities? Irrespective of whether people who relate to the blues are truly able to relate to the collective historical trauma of African Americans, there seems to be something expressed in the music that strikes an emotional chord in people from a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. What is this something? And why is the blues universally compelling? That is the mystery: that people of many different cultures respond to the blues and to the “bluesy feeling” prevalent in other music.

In this blog, we try to show that there is something about the blues that allows us to come face to face with universally traumatizing dimensions of human existence. Indeed, the music itself may be seen as a process of working through such trauma (musicians use the phrase “working it out”). How does the blues put us in touch with the universally traumatizing aspects of the human condition? We will look for answers both in the blues’ lyric aspects (such as themes of irony and the absurdity of existence) and musical qualities (such as pitch-bending and the bluesy sound produced by shifts and ambiguities between major and minor keys). First, however, we must explore the nature of emotional trauma itself.

Emotional trauma
Emotional trauma is an experience of unendurable emotional pain. In his book Trauma and Human Existence (link: Robert Stolorow has claimed that the unbearability of emotional suffering cannot be explained solely, or even primarily, on the basis of the intensity of the painful feelings evoked by an injurious event. Emotional pain is not pathology, it is inherent to the human condition (we will have more to say about this later). Painful emotional states become unbearable when they cannot find a “relational home”—that is, a context of human understanding—in which they can be shared and held. Severe emotional pain that has to be experienced alone becomes lastingly traumatic and usually succumbs to some form of emotional numbing. In contrast, painful feelings that are held in a context of human understanding gradually become more bearable and can eventually be woven seamlessly into the fabric of whom one experiences oneself as being.

Trauma's existential significance
Having discussed emotional trauma in terms of its context-embeddedness, we turn now to its existential significance: how it is implicated in the human condition in general. Robert Stolorow has proposed that the existential meaning of emotional trauma lies in the shattering of what he calls the "absolutisms of everyday life"—the system of illusory beliefs that allow us to function in the world, experienced as stable, predictable, and safe. Such shattering is a massive loss of innocence exposing the inescapable dependence of our existence on a universe that is unstable and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured. Emotional trauma brings us face-to-face with our existential vulnerability, our vulnerability to suffering, injury, illness, death, and loss, possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats. Because we are limited, finite, mortal beings, trauma is a necessary and universal feature of our all-too-human condition.

The therapeutic power of the blues
The working through of painful emotional states requires a context of human understanding in which they can be held. Central to this process of helping us to bear and live in our emotional pain is the bringing of the visceral, bodily aspect of emotional experience into language. Such visceral-linguistic unities, unities of bodily sensations with words, of “gut” feelings with names, are achieved in a dialogue of emotional understanding, and it is in such dialogue that experiences of emotional trauma can be transformed into endurable and namable painful feelings. The blues are a wonderful example of such dialogue. The lyrics, of course, provide the words that name the particular experience of trauma. The more formal aspects of the music seem universally to evoke the visceral dimension of emotional pain. In the unifying experience of the blues, songwriter, performers, and listeners are joined in a visceral-linguistic conversation in which universally traumatizing aspects of human existence can be communally held and borne. In experiencing the blues, we are joined together in an experience of our existential kinship-in-the-same-darkness.

The role of lyrics
We have claimed that emotional trauma puts us in touch with our mortality: we all know that we will die, but we don’t know when. These facts about our existence evoke conflicting feelings, and such ambivalence about our mortality often plays a central part in the lyrics of the blues. As one of countless possible examples, consider the first verse of the blues song by Louisiana Red, Too Poor To Die:

"Last night I had a dream
I dream I died
The undertaker came
To carry me for the ride
I couldn't afford a coffin
Embalmin' kinda high
I jumped off my deathbed
Cause I too poor to die
I's in trouble
And I'll tell you the reason why
I'm just too poor people
I'm too poor to go lay down and die."

The absurdity of our finite, mortal existence is clearly captured in these lyrics. Louisiana Red, obviously traumatized by the suffering of poverty, anticipates his death in his dreams. But the poverty that traumatizes him renders him “too poor to go lay down and die”—he can’t afford a coffin, embalming, or in subsequent verses, gravediggers, or to grease the devil’s palm—so he jumps off his deathbed and evades death. In a twist of tragic irony, the very same poverty that puts him in touch with his mortality provides him with the means for escaping it, and simultaneously it becomes the focus of his lament.

Musical characteristics of the blues
The blues has musical qualities that communicate the visceral aspects of emotional trauma. In music, one of the most important expressive devices is the use of tension and release. The tension and subsequent release can be melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic.  Emotionally expressive music tends to have a greater degree of musical tension, which makes the release more effective. One of the ways in which tension is created in the blues is called “pitch-bending.”

Pitch-bending is a technique that is used by both vocalists and instrumental musicians. It plays on our ear being accustomed to hearing melodies composed of pitches, or notes, that relate to a key.  A key is comprised of a series of usually seven adjacent notes (as in the major scale) that are fixed.  Blues musicians will slide up or down in between pitches of a key, thus “bending” the notes and creating tension.

Pitch-bending gives rise to an ambiguity between major and minor keys. Blues musicians intentionally sing or play around the pitches of the key to create tension. Then, at just the right moment the musician will resolve the tension created by the pitch being out of tune by sliding up or down to the “correct” pitch. This technique is an enormously effective expressive device. 

Because of this ambiguity in the blues between major and minor keys, the music is not really in either key. We suggest that this ambiguity is one of the elements of the music that gives it its power to capture viscerally the emotionally traumatizing quality of human existence. This is so because we typically associate music in a major key with happy or joyful emotions and music in a minor key with sad or painful feelings. Blues music gives us both at the same time, paralleling the way the lyrics can convey the tragic irony and absurdity of our existence, as we discussed earlier. Contradiction and irony are built into the structure of both the music and the lyrics of the blues, just as they are built into the structure of our existence.

Concluding remarks
We have tried to show that in the unities of its music and its lyrics, the blues provide a therapeutic, visceral-linguistic conversation in which universally traumatizing aspects of human existence can be communally held and lived through. Therein, we have suggested, lies the blues’ universal appeal. But, to grasp the profundity of the blues, we must return to its origins in African American history and in the traumas of slavery.

Why was the need for such a visceral-linguistic conversation especially powerful in this context, so powerful as to give rise to a musical genre with such universal appeal? LeRoi Jones suggests in his book, Blues People, that the birth of the blues was linked to the circumstances of newly freed African slaves having to establish their identity as African Americans. Having endured generations of brutal enslavement, these former Africans were faced with having to figure out their identity in a land where they and their ancestors were forcibly brought to work, and to do so amid the bleak conditions of post-slavery and post-Civil-War America. They needed a form of dialogue through which the devastating nature of their experience in America could be conveyed and shared in their English and, at the same time, that could capture viscerally the traumatic suffering entailed in that experience. It was in this context, claims Jones, that the blues came into being.

In the blues there is a quality of acceptance of the way things are, however miserable. The conditions under which the creators of the blues brought this profound music into being show a remarkable resilience of spirit. The world owes an incalculable debt of gratitude to the creators of the blues, who endured unimaginable suffering while bringing forth this powerful music that continues to help people face, own up to, and cope with the human condition.

Copyright Robert Stolorow and Ben Stolorow