Saturday, August 04, 2012

The Heretic - Dr. James Fadiman and LSD Research

This is an excellent article from The Morning Sun, an online magazine of essays, art, humor, and culture published weekdays since 1999 (but it's new to me for some reason). This article by Tim Doody on Dr. James Fadiman's role in the history of LSD as a therapeutic agent (research prior to the ban had shown the incredible potential of this substance in a variety of possible treatments). 

The article includes mention of Steve Jobs' use of LSD, but also that of Francis Crick (his first conception of the DNA spirals was under the influence) and Kary Mullis, who was using LSD as he developed the polymerase chain reaction ("a genetic sequencing technique through which scientists can detect certain infectious diseases, map the human genome, and trace ancestral heritage back thousands of years").

By the way, the image at the top is from - where he was interviewed by Jordan Gruber a few years back (2007).

The Heretic

by Tim Doody

For decades, the U.S. government banned medical studies of the effects of LSD. But for one longtime, elite researcher, the promise of mind-blowing revelations was just too tempting.

At 9:30 in the morning, an architect and three senior scientists—two from Stanford, the other from Hewlett-Packard—donned eyeshades and earphones, sank into comfy couches, and waited for their government-approved dose of LSD to kick in. From across the suite and with no small amount of anticipation, Dr. James Fadiman spun the knobs of an impeccable sound system and unleashed Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68.” Then he stood by, ready to ease any concerns or discomfort.

For this particular experiment, the couched volunteers had each brought along three highly technical problems from their respective fields that they’d been unable to solve for at least several months. In approximately two hours, when the LSD became fully active, they were going to remove the eyeshades and earphones, and attempt to find some solutions. Fadiman and his team would monitor their efforts, insights, and output to determine if a relatively low dose of acid—100 micrograms to be exact—enhanced their creativity.

It was the summer of ’66. And the morning was beginning like many others at the International Foundation for Advanced Study, an inconspicuously named, privately funded facility dedicated to psychedelic drug research, which was located, even less conspicuously, on the second floor of a shopping plaza in Menlo Park, Calif. However, this particular morning wasn’t going to go like so many others had during the preceding five years, when researchers at IFAS (pronounced “if-as”) had legally dispensed LSD. Though Fadiman can’t recall the exact date, this was the day, for him at least, that the music died. Or, perhaps more accurately for all parties involved in his creativity study, it was the day before.

At approximately 10 a.m., a courier delivered an express letter to the receptionist, who in turn quickly relayed it to Fadiman and the other researchers. They were to stop administering LSD, by order of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Effective immediately. Dozens of other private and university-affiliated institutions had received similar letters that day.

That research centers once were permitted to explore the further frontiers of consciousness seems surprising to those of us who came of age when a strongly enforced psychedelic prohibition was the norm. They seem not unlike the last generation of children’s playgrounds, mostly eradicated during the ’90s, that were higher and riskier than today’s soft-plastic labyrinths. (Interestingly, a growing number of child psychologists now defend these playgrounds, saying they provided kids with both thrills and profound life lessons that simply can’t be had close to the ground.)

When the FDA’s edict arrived, Fadiman was 27 years old, IFAS’s youngest researcher. He’d been a true believer in the gospel of psychedelics since 1961, when his old Harvard professor Richard Alpert (now Ram Dass) dosed him with psilocybin, the magic in the mushroom, at a Paris cafĂ©. That day, his narrow, self-absorbed thinking had fallen away like old skin. People would live more harmoniously, he’d thought, if they could access this cosmic consciousness. Then and there he’d decided his calling would be to provide such access to others. He migrated to California (naturally) and teamed up with psychiatrists and seekers to explore how and if psychedelics in general—and LSD in particular—could safely augment psychotherapy, addiction treatment, creative endeavors, and spiritual growth. At Stanford University, he investigated this subject at length through a dissertation—which, of course, the government ban had just dead-ended.

Couldn’t they comprehend what was at stake? Fadiman was devastated and more than a little indignant. However, even if he’d wanted to resist the FDA’s moratorium on ideological grounds, practical matters made compliance impossible: Four people who’d never been on acid before were about to peak.
“I think we opened this tomorrow,” he said to his colleagues.

And so one orchestra after the next wove increasingly visual melodies around the men on the couch. Then shortly before noon, as arranged, they emerged from their cocoons and got to work.

Over the course of the preceding year, IFAS researchers had dosed a total of 22 other men for the creativity study, including a theoretical mathematician, an electronics engineer, a furniture designer, and a commercial artist. By including only those whose jobs involved the hard sciences (the lack of a single female participant says much about mid-century career options for women), they sought to examine the effects of LSD on both visionary and analytical thinking. Such a group offered an additional bonus: Anything they produced during the study would be subsequently scrutinized by departmental chairs, zoning boards, review panels, corporate clients, and the like, thus providing a real-world, unbiased yardstick for their results.

In surveys administered shortly after their LSD-enhanced creativity sessions, the study volunteers, some of the best and brightest in their fields, sounded like tripped-out neopagans at a backwoods gathering. Their minds, they said, had blossomed and contracted with the universe. They’d beheld irregular but clean geometrical patterns glistening into infinity, felt a rightness before solutions manifested, and even shapeshifted into relevant formulas, concepts, and raw materials.
[The volunteers] remained firm: LSD absolutely had helped them solve their complex, seemingly intractable problems.
But here’s the clincher. After their 5HT2A neural receptors simmered down, they remained firm: LSD absolutely had helped them solve their complex, seemingly intractable problems. And the establishment agreed. The 26 men unleashed a slew of widely embraced innovations shortly after their LSD experiences, including a mathematical theorem for NOR gate circuits, a conceptual model of a photon, a linear electron accelerator beam-steering device, a new design for the vibratory microtome, a technical improvement of the magnetic tape recorder, blueprints for a private residency and an arts-and-crafts shopping plaza, and a space probe experiment designed to measure solar properties. Fadiman and his colleagues published these jaw-dropping results and closed shop.
At a congressional subcommittee hearing that year, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy grilled FDA regulators about their ban on LSD studies: “Why, if they were worthwhile six months ago, why aren’t they worthwhile now?” For him, the ban was personal, too: His wife, Ethel, had received LSD-augmented therapy in Vancouver. “Perhaps to some extent we have lost sight of the fact that it”—Sen. Kennedy was referring specifically to LSD here—“can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.”
His objection did nothing to slow the panic that surged through halls of government. The state of California outlawed LSD in the fall of 1966, and was followed in quick succession by numerous other states and then the federal government. In 1970, agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration released a comprehensive database in which they’d sorted commonly known drugs into categories, or schedules. “Schedule 1” drugs, which included LSD and psilocybin, have a “significant potential for abuse,” they said, and “no recognized medicinal value.” Because Schedule 1 drugs were seen as the most dangerous of the bunch, those who used, manufactured, bought, possessed, or distributed them were thought to be deserving of the harshest penalties.

By waging war on psychedelics and their aficionados, the U.S. government not only halted promising studies but also effectively shoved open discourse of these substances to the countercultural margins. And so conventional wisdom continues to argue that psychedelics offer one of a few possibilities: a psychotic break, a glimpse of God, or a visually stunning but fairly mindless journey. But no way would they help with practical, results-based thinking. (That’s what Ritalin is for, just ask any Ivy League undergrad.)

Still, intriguing hints suggest that, despite stigma and risk of incarceration, some of our better innovators continued to feed their heads—and society as a whole reaped the benefits. Francis Crick confessed that he was tripping the first time he envisioned the double helix. Steve Jobs called LSD “one of the two or three most important things” he’d experienced. And Bill Wilson claimed it helped to facilitate breakthroughs of a more soulful variety: Decades after co-founding Alcoholics Anonymous, he tried LSD, said it tuned him in to the same spiritual awareness that made sobriety possible, and pitched its therapeutic use—unsuccessfully—to the AA board. So perhaps the music never really died. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say instead that the music got much softer. And the ones who were still listening had to pretend they couldn’t hear anything at all.

On a Saturday last October, 45 years after dispensing those last legal doses, James Fadiman stood on stage inside the cavernous hall of Judson Memorial Church, a long-time downtown New York incubator of artistic, progressive, and even revolutionary movements. High above him on a window of stained glass, a golden band wrapped Escher-like enigmas around the Four Evangelists. Fadiman appeared far more earthly: wire frames, trim beard, dropped hairline, khakis, running shoes—like a policy wonk at a convention, right down to lanyard and nametag.

A couple hundred people sat before him in folding chairs and along the side aisles of the hall. He adjusted his head microphone, then scrolled his lecture notes and side-stepped the podium. He felt fortunate to be there for many reasons, he said, including a health scare he’d had a few months back—a rather advanced case of pericarditis. “Some of you, I know, have experimented with enough substances so that you’ve ‘died.’ But it’s different when you’re in the ER.” He chuckled. “And you’re not on anything.”

Most everybody laughed at his icebreaker, understood he was comparing, quite unfavorably, his recent experience to the way that, under the influence of high-dose psychedelics, one’s personality has a tendency to scatter like stardust. Which is to say that Fadiman was not addressing an ordinary audience.

He was the first presenter of the day at the fifth-annual Horizons, a weekend-long forum organized to “open a fresh dialogue” regarding the role of psychedelics in “medicine, culture, history, spirituality, and creativity.” The crowd consisted of young and old, dreadlocks and suits, crushed velvet and institutional bonafides. A self-declared prophet sat near Bellevue Hospital’s leading addictions specialist. Both are pro-psychedelics, though they differ on what qualifies as appropriate usage. Said addictions specialist is currently administering psilocybin to people with recurrent and advanced-stage cancer in—surprise!—a government-sanctioned study. Most people enrolled in his study have reported that a single psychedelic session substantially reduced their anxieties related to death, while also qualifying as one of their most spiritual experiences.

“I kind of did the squarest bio I could,” Fadiman said, pointing at a Horizons brochure, “just in case other people were reading it.” Who did he mean? Squares? Feds? He’d chosen to highlight his post-ban work, which sounded mildly interesting though fairly innocuous. Co-founder of the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology. Course instructor at San Francisco State, Brandeis, and Stanford. Writer. Member of various corporate boards. Don’t be fooled though. His bio obscures a well-documented notoriety.

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe writes about encountering “a young psychologist,” “Clifton Fadiman’s nephew, it turned out,” in the waiting room of the San Mateo County jail. Fadiman and his wife were “happily stuffing three I-Ching coins into some interminable dense volume of Oriental mysticism” that they planned to give Ken Kesey, the Prankster-in-Chief whom the FBI had just nabbed after eight months on the lam. Wolfe had been granted an interview with Kesey, and they wanted him to tell their friend about the hidden coins. During this difficult time, they explained, Kesey needed oracular advice.

Fadiman’s influence transcends counterculture, though. It might even stretch through the very medium through which you’re reading these words. In What the Dormouse Said, John Markoff reports that Fadiman had dosed and counseled numerous “heads” as they were attempting to amplify consciousness through silicon chips and virtual reality. The personal computer revolution, Markoff argues, flourished on the Left Coast precisely because of a peculiar confluence of scientists, dreamers, and drop-outs. And indeed, if you were to illustrate with a Venn diagram the relationships between those involved with Acid Test parties, the Homebrew Computer Club, the Augmented Human Intellect Research Center at Stanford University, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, various backwoods communes, and, of course, the IFAS research center, you’d see an overlap of communities on the San Francisco Midpeninsula that just wasn’t available to the average IBM computer scientist in Westchester.
Though scientists are more typically seen as killers of myth, not its creators, Einstein and many of his more visionary contemporaries sound as trippy as any of yesterday’s mystics.
It’s true that Fadiman cooled it for several decades, did those square things in his bio, settled into the suburbs, and kept on the down-low any lingering passion for chemically boosted consciousness. But then, in 2010, with the publication of his book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys, it became official: At 70 years old, Fadiman had gone rogue. In a mild-mannered sort of way, yes, with charts, hypotheses, and a winning bedside manner. But government be damned, he was now an outspoken advocate for the careful but criminal use of psychedelics, especially LSD, his favorite.

What’s astounding isn’t so much that he came out of the psychedelic closet for a second time—most everyone retains a certain allegiance to their formative experiences—but that he is far from alone. And we’re not just talking about the tens of thousands of utopians who co-create an ephemeral Mecca in the swirling sands of Black Rock each summer.

Though draconian laws still keep psychedelics from the general public, next-generation administrators at the FDA and DEA have been approving research studies again. The taboo broke with a 1992 investigation of how dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a fast-acting psychedelic, impacts consciousness; DMT wasn’t burdened by the cultural baggage of its three-lettered cousin. And what began quite haltingly had become, by the middle of the last decade, if not routine then certainly notable: Terminated research from the ’60s was being replicated and even furthered in dozens of studies by big-name players, including Johns Hopkins, NYU, and UCLA. These studies, which almost exclusively explore the psychotherapeutic potential of psychedelics (as opposed to, say, how they might influence creativity), are getting results that would make a Big Pharma rep salivate. Of the hundreds of volunteers who’ve participated, a high majority have said that psychedelics, given in a safe, supportive setting, helped them to, depending on the study, accept imminent mortality, overcome drug and alcohol addiction, mitigate obsessive-compulsive urges, or heal post-traumatic stress disorder.

Yet another study recently passed the approval process despite strong objections from the Pentagon: In the summer of 2011, 16 vets who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD began receiving a combination of talk therapy and MDMA (pure Ecstasy). This, though the DEA still officially states that psychedelics’ “use in psychotherapy largely has been debunked.” The current relationship between regulators and these Schedule 1 substances is a tangle of impossible possibilities—not unlike the stained glass window overlooking Judson’s stage.

“What happens in serious psychedelic work,” Fadiman said to the people before him, “is there’s a sudden reframing of massive amounts of worldview. We don’t know much about what that learning means, but we sure can see the results.” Though he applauds the aforementioned studies, he has come to Horizons specifically to speak on their limitations. In fact, his entire lecture is intended to be an attack on what he calls “the medical model,” an approach to psychedelic drug use that curtails access to only a fraction of society, and for only narrowly defined goals centered around personal therapy.
Fadiman studied the people before him, then widened his eyes with faux innocence. “How many of you are going to be in a legal research study next year?”

No hands.

“Including not me. You not only have to be ill [to participate], but you have to be ill with something fairly awful. Now, how many of you are planning to have a psychedelic within the next year?”
An overwhelming majority of the audience raised a hand, some enthusiastic, others sheepish. Heads swiveled like periscopes, the better to see all those mea culpas.

“So, I’ll talk to you.”

Widespread laughter: score!

“For a long time after research stopped in the ’60s, I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do the research that interests me the most, that’s the most life-changing, that has the most potential.’ I also realized that … what the government said is, ‘We are restricting some basic freedoms.’”

Throughout the lecture, his left hand poked like a conductor’s stick as he challenged his listeners with a series of questions.

“Can you go to most any group, from tea parties on one end, to us, I think we’re probably on the other, and say, Is religious freedom something that we support in this country?”

“Is it all right to establish or re-establish or discover a connection to the Divine?”

“Is it OK to do something that leads to your own self-healing and improves your connection to the natural world?”

“Is it OK to discover how the universe works? At the moment, we’ve got two Nobel Prize winners who’ve copped to the fact of where they got their ideas.”

Francis Crick is one and the other: Kary Mullis, who was intermittently under the influence of LSD as he developed the polymerase chain reaction, a genetic sequencing technique through which scientists can detect certain infectious diseases, map the human genome, and trace ancestral heritage back thousands of years.

Fadiman was warming up now, standing tall for the 23 million Americans who, according to government stats, have already taken LSD, and the 400,000-plus who will try it for the first time this year. Curiosity continues to trump criminalization.

“We’re not necessarily going to be content if certain psychedelics are available on prescription [for people who are really ill],” Fadiman said. “That’s not what psychedelic freedom is about.”

Just as he began to speculate on how and when “psychedelic freedom” might be achieved, the microphone slipped off his ear, shoulder-bounced, and tumbled to the floor. It sounded like gunshots or a door being bashed in. Fadiman threw up his hands, fingers splayed, head lowered, as if a SWAT team was raiding the auditorium. He had the audience laughing again as a sound tech scrambled to make things right. Nonetheless, his slapstick evoked a sobering truth concerning the tenuous turf between personal and legal conviction. How many people here have ever been in an actual raid? Hands please?
Read the rest of this lengthy and interesting article.

Sounds True Producer's Pick - Ken Wilber on Integral Mapmaking

For those new to Ken Wilber's version of integral theory, his CD collection from Sounds True is one of the best pre-Wilber-5 introductions to his thinking. I found it very useful back when, even though I had read the books. [Wilber-5 seems to begin (and end), approximately, with the publication of Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World.]

This brief clip from Wilber on his mapmaking process is part of the Kosmic Consciousness collection from Sounds True, in which he is interviewed by Tami Simon. This is kind of nostalgic for me - reminds me of a time when I was still excited by this stuff and I listened to the whole set on a road trip to Flagstaff and back.

Ken Wilber: Integral Mapmaking

Philosopher Ken Wilber is renowned for creating his astonishingly comprehensive integral “theory of everything,” a framework that helps us bring new depths of understanding to any facet of human knowledge and experience. But how does he choose what to incorporate into such an ambitious model? Sounds True producer Matt Licata chose this week’s selection from the audio learning program Kosmic Consciousness because: “Ken gives us a rare glimpse into his very personal thoughts and reflections about creating his integral theory. It’s inspiring to hear how he seeks out each piece of the cosmic puzzle from science, philosophy, psychology, and religion. I feel this audio allows us to connect with Ken on a more personal level than usually comes through in his books.”

More from Ken Wilber

Friday, August 03, 2012

Stephen Porges - The polyvagal theory: Phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system

The title of this paper sounds pretty geeky, and it really kind of is geeky. Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory, however, is an immensely important and under-recognized element in understanding and treating trauma.

In light of the earlier post from today, I thought I'd share this paper (openly available online), as well as two interviews, one in text and one with Shrink Rap Radio. There is also a book that lays out the whole theory, The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation.

The polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system

Stephen W. Porges

Department of Psychiatry, Uni ersity of Illinois at Chicago, 1601 W. Taylor Street, Chicago, IL 60612-7327, USA

The evolution of the autonomic nervous system provides an organizing principle to interpret the adaptive significance of physiological responses in promoting social behavior. According to the polyvagal theory, the well-documented phylogenetic shift in neural regulation of the autonomic nervous system passes through three global stages, each with an associated behavioral strategy. The first stage is characterized by a primitive unmyelinated visceral vagus that fosters digestion and responds to threat by depressing metabolic activity. Behaviorally, the first stage is associated with immobilization behaviors. The second stage is characterized by the sympathetic nervous system that is capable of increasing metabolic output and inhibiting the visceral vagus to foster mobilization behaviors necessary for ‘fight or flight’. The third stage, unique to mammals, is characterized by a myelinated vagus that can rapidly regulate cardiac output to foster engagement and disengagement with the environment. The mammalian vagus is neuroanatomically linked to the cranial nerves that regulate social engagement via facial expression and vocalization. As the autonomic nervous system changed through the process of evolution, so did the interplay between the autonomic nervous system and the other physiological systems that respond to stress, including the cortex, the hypothalamic -pituitary adrenal axis, the neuropeptides of oxytocin and vasopressin, and the immune system. From this phylogenetic orientation, the polyvagal theory proposes a biological basis for social behavior and an intervention strategy to enhance positive social behavior.
Porges, S. (20010). The polyvagal theory: Phylogenetic substrates of asocial nervous system. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 42; 123 -146.

See also: The Polyvagal Theory for Treating Trauma, an interview with Dr. Ruth Buczynski, PhD for the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine.

And finally, Dr. David Van Nuys interviewed Dr. Porges in June of 2011 for Shrink Rap Radio.

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

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

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

Smithsonian - Your Brain, By the Numbers

Facts are fun . . . .

Your Brain, By the Numbers

Somehow, the brain is greater than the sum of its parts

  • By Laura Helmuth
  • Smithsonian magazine, July-August 2012, Subscribe
Spencer Lowell / Trunk Archive

100: Number, in billions, of neurons in a human brain

100: Estimated number, in terabytes, of information it can store

1: Number, in terabytes, of information a typical desktop computer can store

2: Percentage of the body’s weight represented by the brain

20: Percentage of the body’s energy used by the brain

95: Number of diagnoses in the 1952 DSM-I, the first edition of psychiatry’s manual for diagnosing mental illnesses

283: Number of diagnoses in the 2011 DSM-IV-TR, the most recent edition

303: Highest number of random digits memorized at the 2012 USA Memory Championship, a record

10: Approximate percentage drop, in one study, in the accurate recall of random letters as a result of chewing gum

50: Percentage of times that human volunteers successfully recalled a sequence of five numbers presented briefly on a computer screen

80: Percentage of times that a chimpanzee named Ayumu succeeded at the same task

Dacher Keltner - Secrets of the Vagus Nerve

This is a cool, though too brief, video from Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, who is also the faculty director of of The Greater Good Science Center, on the Secrets of the Vagus Nerve. This is a clip from a longer talk available only to members.

Secrets of the Vagus Nerve

July 2012 | TRT 6:17

The UC Berkeley psychologist and Faculty Director of the Greater Good Science Center shares his research on the vagus nerve, a key nexus of mind and body, and a biological building block of human compassion.

Watch the full talk (Members only)

Stephen Porges has done extensive research on the role of the vagus nerve in trauma and PTSD - his model is known as polyvagal theory.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Ellen Langer on NPR - Mindfulness: Using Your Brain To Beat Stress

Very cool to hear Ellen Langer interviewed today on NPR's Talk of the Nation. The presence of mindfulness in psychotherapy can largely be attributed to Ellen Langer's seminal research into mindfulness vs. mindlessness (her assessment of how most of us live our lives). Dr. Langer received her PhD in Social and Clinical Psychology from Yale University in 1974. In 1981, she became the first woman ever to be tenured in psychology at Harvard University.

Among Langer's books is the classic Mindfulness, as well as Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, The Power Of Mindful Learning, and Higher Stages of Human Development: Perspectives on Adult Growth, which she edited with Charles N. Alexander.

August 2, 2012

Psychologist Ellen Langer has spent 30 years researching mindfulness, which she describes as the process of letting go of preconceived notions and acting on new observations. Her ideas revolutionized the field of social psychology, and her work is now used from battlefields to schools to hospitals.

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. When psychologist Ellen Langer asked participants at a seminar to talk about someone or something that just drove them nuts, one woman spoke about her husband always being late for breakfast - a minor, everyday annoyance that Langer suggested might be reframed: Focus on the gift of a few moments alone.

A small thing maybe, but over more than 30 years, Ellen Langer's conducted a series of ingenious experiments that show how small and seemingly simple changes in our lives can reduce stress and help us lead healthier, happier lives. The Harvard psychologist's books include "Mindfulness" and "The Power of Mindful Learning" and "Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility." The latest of her many honors is her selection to give the Arthur W. Staats Lecture on Unifying Psychology tomorrow at the American Psychological Association conference in Orlando. She joins us in just a moment.

Has there been a stressful situation in your life that you turned around by reframing your outlook? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, best movie about the Olympic Games. You can email us your nominee now. The address again is But first mindfulness, and Ellen Langer joins us now from member station WMFE in Orlando. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ELLEN LANGER: Thank you for inviting me.

CONAN: And I think your study in the field of mindfulness actually started when you were studying what you called mindlessness. Tell us about the poker game.

LANGER: The poker game, my goodness, I haven't thought about that for almost 35 years. I was a graduate student at Yale, and we were going to play poker. It was my turn to deal. And all the cards would be face down, and I dealt the card rather than to the person next to me, to the person next to that person, and they just filled in and gave the person next to me the next card. And everybody went wild.

Misdeal, you know, and I didn't quite understand what difference it made which card I gave the person, since we couldn't see them anyway. And that said to me that people are mindlessly following rules and seem to give up thinking.

And so I went on then to study this concept of acting like a robot, not being there, and I must say that over - in almost 40 years, it's clear to me that this is pervasive, that virtually all of us, almost all the time, are not there.

When I was thinking about getting dressed this morning, I said: Let's see, what should I wear to be on your show?

LANGER: And reminding people it's a radio show, so it hardly matters.

CONAN: It doesn't really much matter, no, that's one of the blessings, in fact, of being in this industry. But I have to say that your groundbreaking discoveries in that field sort of branched in two directions. There is any number of people who have looked at that mindlessness thing and said, well, wait a minute, our brain doesn't make rational decisions all the time, doesn't make cold, calculating decisions all the time. This is evolution at work. This is the way we have evolved to think - and I think the popularization of this might be in the book "Blink."

You took it in another direction and said wait a minute, what might happen if we actually did start to make decisions and did start to think a little bit more.

LANGER: Yes, and I think that I've argued that it's never to our advantage to respond mindlessly. Only under one circumstance would it be, and that is if you found the very best way of responding, and things didn't change. And I think neither of those conditions are likely to be met.
It's always better, I think, that if you're going to do it to be there. It's also more enjoyable.

CONAN: It's also more fun, yes. So don't let your evolutionary response, your bottom brain react: Think about it.

LANGER: Right. I think that most of us are responding based on the things that we were taught when we were younger. And if we stopped and said, well, what was the basis for that learning, and typically there are a group of people behind these decisions who have particular biases that are behaving in a particular context that may not be relevant any longer.

And so you want to stop and say, well, does this make sense now. Even, you know, when we learn things for safety sake. So for many people, at least those, let's say, over 40, if they're skidding on ice, what they're probably going to do is slowly pump the brakes in their car.

Now that we have antilock brakes, the way to prevent accident is to firmly hit the brake. So, you see, even though we learn something at time one that was to be good for us, we keep doing it and doing it and doing it. Circumstances slowly change, and before you know it, what was good for you turns out to be quite bad. So by being more mindful, what happens is we can take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, but we also avert the danger not yet arisen.

CONAN: But this is not as easy as it sounds, is it?

LANGER: Well no, I think it's easier than it sounds, actually, that, you know, it's - people often confuse mindfulness with thinking, and thinking has gotten a bad rap itself. Now, when you're being mindful, as I study it, you're simply noticing new things. Even when you're thinking, what is stressful is the worry that you're not going to get the answer right, not the actual playing with the material.

Mindfulness is what you're doing when you're at leisure. If you are, oh, let's say, on a vacation, you're looking for new things. You've paid a lot of money to be in that state oftentimes. So I think that people would recognize that it's enjoyable rather than taxing. And it's even more than that. It's I think mostly energy begetting, not consuming.

CONAN: Perhaps I think your most famous experiment, you took a bunch of elderly gentlemen out to a very unusual vacation, back to 1959, in fact.

LANGER: Yeah, that's the - what we call the counter-clockwise study. What we did was to retrofit a retreat to 20 years earlier and had a group of men in their 80s. And I must say that was when 80 was 80, not the new 60.

LANGER: I mean, they were really old, so much so that I questioned my sanity, you know, why am I doing this? I mean, I'm going to be responsible for these men for a week. At any rate, they lived as if the past was the present, speaking about the past in the present tense so that everything was right now.

And as a result of this, what happened is their vision improved, they became stronger, more mentally alert. And we had taken photographs of them before we started and then again at the end of this, and they were evaluated by people who knew nothing about the study as looking younger.

Now, the BBC just replicated this study with British celebrities, and they also, and it's right on film, easy to see, that the celebrities improved enormously. And what was interesting...

CONAN: I was just particularly struck...

LANGER: Would you like to say something? It's your show, I realize that.

CONAN: It's my show, yes, but no, I was particularly struck by the finding that their fingers became longer as - because arthritis loosened.

LANGER: Right. I analyzed those data myself way back when, and I was, you know, dumbstruck - what does it mean that their fingers got longer - until I recognized that it was, yes, the arthritis was reducing.

CONAN: And that suggests that this novelty, novelty of living 20 years in the past, well, did it fool them into thinking that they were 20 years younger?

LANGER: I'm not sure exactly what happened. It was a very big study, very hard to run all the different control groups that would help me answer some of the questions you might be likely to ask. I do know that there are several things that happened. The first is that when they first arrived, this was a group of people who had been over-cared-for, over-loved in some sense, by usually adult children, daughters mostly.

And all of a sudden, they were on their own, the way they had been in the past. And we expected them to take care of themselves, and so - of themselves. So what happened was that they weren't reminded of their presumed incompetence at every turn. And so as they started to get into the activities, I think what happened was first they didn't have the typical mindset that said they can't so that that would slow them up or prevent them from even beginning. The mindfulness of engaging in the activity would provide some of the energy that was needed.

They were - and then they would experience this change, I think, which would lead to more and more change.

CONAN: You did not publish this study.

LANGER: Well, I published it in a handbook by Oxford. You know, so it was peer-reviewed in a sense, but no, I didn't send it in to the journals because, dare I say, the mindless reviewing processes that often take place.

LANGER: You know, that it was a very big - imagine, I took these people away for a week. There could be so many other things that one might want to control for, you know, just being on a vacation. Well, that one we had two groups. The experimental group did better than the group that just reminisced for a week. But, I don't know, whatever people could come up with.

And in all honestly that I had just gotten tenure, and this was in 1981. It was a very big event for me personally, and so I wasn't interested in fighting that fight. But I have many, many new and exciting studies that I report in the "Counter-Clockwise" book that have all been, as you say, peer-reviewed, and they're out in the best journals. And so that plus the BBC replication made clear to me that the counter-clockwise study itself would have been published had I pushed it.

I think that one thing to underscore was that all that people would ever disagree with is the explanation for the findings. The findings were very straightforward. So - and that's something I think noteworthy.

People don't think that old people are going to improve. You know, usually, at best you think you're going to forestall the decrements rather than actually turn things around. So improvements in vision, you know, that was unheard of at the time.

CONAN: It helped lead you to this idea that if we could all live in a state of, in a sense, novelty all the time, be in the moment, as people say, well, we might have some of those benefits, too.

LANGER: Yes, I think that many of the things that stop us are things that we've learned that we don't question. We just assume that they're true, and let me give an example of something that was important to me. Many years ago, I was at this horse event. And this man asked if I'd watch his horse for him because he wanted to get his horse a hot dog.

Well, I'm Harvard-Yale all the way through. So I snicker to myself: What is he, kidding? Horses don't eat meat. He brought back the hot dog, and the horse gobbled it up. I like being wrong. You can actually learn something.

LANGER: And then I said: What does it mean, horses don't eat meat? How many horses were tested? How large were the horses? How hungry were the horses? How much meat was mixed with how much grain and so on and so forth? And that made me realize, as I discuss in the "Counter-Clockwise" book, that all that we know are probabilities that are given to us, and research as absolute fact.

CONAN: Ellen Langer, the mother of mindfulness. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Our guest is Ellen Langer, a pioneer of research into what's known as mindfulness. She demonstrated that we could be healthier and live better by noticing new things.

One recent example, Langer worked with a group of hotel maids. Just by doing their jobs, each got more than the recommended amount of daily exercise, she told them, but they didn't think of it as exercise. Once Langer told them that it was, yes, what you're doing is comparable to working out, they lost weight and reduced both body mass index and blood pressure without changes in their diet or their practices.

That deceptively simple idea can be applied to many other aspects of our lives. Has there been a stressful situation you turned around by reframing your outlook? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And I wanted to read a couple of emails we got. This is from Alex(ph) in Richmond, California: It's such a simple thing, but whenever I have something distasteful to do, like say clean the toilet or some such, instead of saying I have to go clean the toilet, I say I get to clean the toilet, that is I am in good health, and I am able to do this task. And it sounds - you know, it sounds, well, simple. But Ellen Langer, words matter.

LANGER: Well yes, enormously. It reminds me we just had a wedding at our house this weekend, and everybody was eager to help. And it occurred to me that helping clean up other people's houses is always fun. So I thought early in the morning, somebody should toot a horn or something, and everybody then switch houses so we could all have fun cleaning somebody else's place.

CONAN: It would be interesting to see the patterns that develop, too.

LANGER: But yes, words matter enormously. The words that I focused on are words related to health and disease. So when I started the "Counter-Clockwise" book, I looked at chronic versus acute illness, and I couldn't find a definition for chronic. You know, did you need to have the symptoms 24/7, three hours a month? There was no definition.

But it mattered enormously because when people see that they have a chronic illness, they believe that there's nothing they can do about it. And so then we set out to study this in various ways, not the least of which is once you start paying attention to when you have the symptoms and when you don't, three things happen.

The first is you see you don't have it all the time, so it's not quite as bad as you thought. You know, people are depressed, they think they're depressed all the time. No one is anything all the time. People who are dyslexic, it turns out that most words, over 90 percent of the words, they're reading they tend to read correctly, yet they define themselves by their illness.

So what happens is first you see you're not as bad as you thought you were. Second, by seeing that sometimes it's better, sometimes it's worse leads you to ask the question, well, why, and you may well come up with a solution. And the third, even if you don't, that whole process is mindful, and the 35-or-so years of research we've done shows that that kind of noticing new things leads to health and longevity.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in. This is Roger(ph), Roger with us from Walnut Creek in California.

ROGER: Yes, hi. Dr. Langer, it's a pleasure to talk to you. I'm a psychologist, research psychologist. In another study, that I'm going to take you way back again, another study that you're very famous for is the one you worked on with Judith Rodin on - it's called - well, it's known as the plant study.

LANGER: Right.

ROGER: And it was in a nursing home. And I wonder how that study informed your current work.

LANGER: Yeah, well, actually that was the basis of a lot of it. We gave people choices, and the choices were things like do you want a plant, water the plant, take care of it yourself, do you want to see a movie, things that didn't seen consequential. But we found that those people given these choices actually lived longer. And so that was very important in my trying to figure out what is going on. How can such a simple thing lead to such monumental - in my mind - monumental consequences?

And I see choice as an exercise in mindfulness, you know, that if you're given a choice that doesn't matter to you, you're not going to think about it. You don't even see it as a choice. We all have choices all the time. I can be talking now or not talking, but until I said that, it didn't occur to me that, you know, that I had a lively choice.

CONAN: You don't. Not talking is not an option.

LANGER: For me, I'm feeling that I'm not giving you a chance to do your share, Neal.

CONAN: Oh, that's quite all right.

LANGER: But so making these choices means you're going to notice subtle differences among the various alternatives or between two alternatives. And...

ROGER: It's also about empowerment, then.

LANGER: Exactly so that empowerment - making choices is empowering. Making choices is the essence of mindfulness. So it goes beyond just feeling more powerful: The neurons are firing, and life becomes more exciting.

ROGER: Thank you.

CONAN: Roger, thanks very much for the call.

ROGER: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Estelle(ph), and Estelle's with us from Marianna, Florida.

ESTELLE: Hi, how are you today?

CONAN: I'm good.

ESTELLE: Wonderful subject. Very briefly, I have a chronic disease, and I use mindfulness in order to have a good life and kind of taught myself to do it. I just decided that this disease would not define who I am or what I am. And it visits me occasionally. I empower myself to deal with it when it does and go on to have a very good life.

I've often had a lot of people say oh, how do you deal with this situation, you poor dear? And I think oh my goodness, you have much more wrong with you than I do me.

ESTELLE: And I just think that it's a state of mind. I never have a bad day. I just have days that aren't quite as good as others.

CONAN: Why do you...

LANGER: That's wonderful.

CONAN: Why do you think this works, Estelle?

ESTELLE: Oh, I don't think it works, I...

CONAN: I think she was going to say I know it works.

ESTELLE: Yeah, I know it works. And I believe that for me it works because I think that every day, when I open my eyes, I have a choice to have a good day or a bad day, and the experiences within it are also a choice of how I view them. So if I don't really quite feel well, it affords me the opportunity to do something that is not quite so busy, perhaps, for the day, whereas I may have gone out and mowed grass and been busy all day instead of wrote letters and enjoyed conversations with people.
So I just never really say this is terrible. I just say well, this affords me the opportunity to do something I might not have done if I could exercise my will to be different. And it really seems to work, and it helped me overcome being depressed, and it really - it works. It works. Keep your smile on, and suck it up.

CONAN: Ellen Langer?

LANGER: I think that's wonderful. You know, there's data that many people who have heart attacks, after the heart attack realize that life can be short and then begin to start living. When people are given a diagnosis of cancer, after the initial shock, there's a new way of orienting themselves to the world.

I think that people need to wake up and realize that basically we're - we've been sealed in unlived lives, and you don't get a second chance or probably don't get a second chance. And we need to take advantage of it now. And as your caller just said very nicely, I think, that when something looks - you know, is different, rather than see that difference as negative is to ask yourself how to make the most of that particular difference.

ESTELLE: Exactly, exactly, and that's what I've had to do because I had to give up so much of who I was. So I just became a different person. There's no sense in crying over it. You know, I wake up every day, you know, and I say this is the day the lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. And I am truly grateful for every moment that I have.

And of course there are times when we're all human, and we go boo-hoo, this is awful, but then you just suck it up and get on with it, you know, just carry on.

CONAN: Thanks very much, congratulations.

ESTELLE: Thank you very much for the show. I really enjoy it.

CONAN: Thank you. Is it important to know why this works, why Estelle feels better, why the maids lost weight?

ESTELLE: I think there are two different explanations. As far as why the maids lost weight, I think that the problem is, again, with language, that we have this idea of mind and body, as if they're separate, and the mind-body problem the is how do you get from this fuzzy thing called a mind to the body. And I prefer putting the mind and body back together. And as one then wherever the mind is so too will be the body and vice versa.

LANGER: And that explains, then, placebos, spontaneous remissions and the weight loss, you know, that basically if you had a couple of people in the gym, and one is working much harder than the other, but they were - the person who is barely moving saw herself as getting a full workout, this would suggest that she will benefit by that change in mindset, that there's nothing to explain, in some sense.

Now the - for the caller, that if one is buying into the mindset that whatever one has is awful and they're not engaging themselves, then what happens is it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, in part, you know, that - let's say - even - if you had some disorder, let's say you had arthritis, and you're gardening. And after the gardening you're in great pain and you see the pain as a function of the arthritis, over-assimilating everything to that diagnosis, that would dictate to you, you know, don't garden.

Whereas if you pay closer attention, and saw, you know, when I garden in this way, I - it feels much better when I garden in that way. Then what happens is you don't give up activities that you might actually enjoy, and then you're out in the world, enjoying yourself. You're living rather than being consumed by these negative mindsets.

CONAN: Let's go to Heather, Heather on the line with us from Wilmington, North Carolina.

HEATHER: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

HEATHER: So, kind of going with this whole mindfulness, my husband recently joined the military. And being separated after over five years of marriage for 10, 12 weeks at a time, rather than ending our letters to each other with, oh, God, you know, it's so long until I see you or I've been gone so long, we always ended it with: It's one day closer to being able to see you. It's one day closer till he comes home, one day closer to when I can possibly get a phone call. And that helped to change our mindset and improve our positivity, not just in our relationship with each other, but it's had a profound, phenomenal on our marriage, as well.

CONAN: And your husband keeps the same mindset, do you think?

HEATHER: Yes. We both learned that the more positive that we were, the more supportive that we were for each other, even in being separated, when we are together now, it's - like I just came back from a two-week absence. You know, being absent for that long, now when we see each other, it's just, man, this is -our time together is great. I can't wait until we can spend as much time together or, you know, learning how to just be positive about the time that we do have.

CONAN: And is your husband away now?

HEATHER: He is not. He is in training, but he's not away yet.

CONAN: Well, we wish you and him the best of luck.

HEATHER: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Our guest is Ellen Langer. Tomorrow, she gives the lecture at the APA Convention in Orlando, Florida, and joins us today from our member station there, WMFE. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And you mentioned earlier, some new research in that lecture tomorrow night. Can you give us any kind of a preview?

LANGER: Oh, we have - there are several new things that I'll talk about. One, that - we just got the data, so it hasn't been, as you said, peer-reviewed yet, but the numbers are quite clear. What we did was to take women in their fifth month of pregnancy and taught one group of them to be mindful. And in this sense, it was attending to the variability in their sensations.

So, again, when you are going to notice when you're better, when you're worse, that seems to improve situation in many different ways. One, you see it's not as bad as you thought it was. Two, you come to know how to organize yourself to, again, decrease the negative times. And three, the whole activity tends to be more mindful, which is good for your health and well-being.

At any rate, what we found was that this attention to variability increased health for both the mother and the infant. We used the Apgar measure for the infant, which is a measure that we take - is taken the moment they - of birth, and then five minutes later, on things like heart rate, respiration, the color, muscle tone and flexibility. And so that's very exciting.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Sherry(ph), Sherry with us from Rochester, New York.

SHERRY: Hi, there. I was listening to your show, and I just got caught in a horrible traffic jam, and I started to get all stressed out. And then I realized I could be mindful and be appreciative that I have time to listen to your show.

SHERRY: So I figured I'd give you an example of practicing mindfulness.

CONAN: There's an opportunity...

LANGER: There you go.

CONAN: ...we think America should take every day. We're greatly in favor of traffic jams.

SHERRY: I think so, too.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Sherry.

SHERRY: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: This is an email we have from Adam in Lincoln Park, Michigan: Your guest has mentioned the benefit of more people being more mindful in the moment. However, as an artist, I wonder what her opinion is about what I would call automatic behavior, such as drawing or painting, or even the performance of music by a virtuoso. Certainly, much of what creative people do would be considered mindless in the sense of conscious decisions aren't being made, but are a sort of automatic behavior.

LANGER: On the contrary. The research that we've done with symphony orchestras, for instance, and with painting and so on suggests that the more present one is, the more that they're actively noticing what they're doing. They're not evaluating themselves. They're right there, doing their art - results in a product that other people, who are oblivious to how they did it, will end up preferring it.

We have symphony orchestras where we instruct them, the members of the orchestra, to play this particular piece and make it new in various, subtle ways that only they would know. And the ways must be subtle, because they're playing classical music as a group. And we record these. The comparison group is told: Remember a performance of the same piece that you were very pleased with and try to replicate that.

So they would be playing either this mindfully or mindlessly. We would record it. We would play it for people. And overwhelmingly they prefer the mindfully played piece. And overwhelmingly the musicians prefer playing mindfully. Much of the time, when we're being mindless, it's because we're being evaluative. What if we don't get it right, or what am I supposed to be doing now? Do I still have it? Will the end result be good? And when you're doing it mindfully, you're not lost in that morass of evaluation.

CONAN: Ellen Langer, we hope you can retain your concentration and be in the moment in the lecture tomorrow night.

LANGER: Thank you.

CONAN: Good luck. Appreciate your time today. Psychologist Ellen Langer joined us from member station WMFE in Orlando. She's a Harvard professor of psychology and author of "Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility."

Coming up, the Olympics are good on the small screen. They're even better on the silver screen. And everybody always loves an underdog.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's above me.

CONAN: Murray Horwitz, our favorite film buff returns with the best movies about the Olympic Games. Summer, winter, doesn't matter, call in with your nominee. 800-989-8255. You can also email us: Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

People With Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory Have Different Brains

This is an interesting finding . . . although not entirely unexpected. The subjects who demonstrate this extraordinary skill do not seem to score any higher on the usual memory tasks. The differences in brain structure are highly specific to just the autobiographical memory centers of the brain.

I'd like to be able to tell you which nine areas of the brain are involved, but the publisher (Science Direct) wants $31.50 to see the article. What a load of sh!t. Open source publishing should be the rule, especially when authors and institutions are already paying publishers to be in the journals.

Brains Are Different in People With Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory

ScienceDaily (July 30, 2012) — UC Irvine scientists have discovered intriguing differences in the brains and mental processes of an extraordinary group of people who can effortlessly recall every moment of their lives since about age 10.

The phenomenon of highly superior autobiographical memory -- first documented in 2006 by UCI neurobiologist James McGaugh and colleagues in a woman identified as "AJ" -- has been profiled on CBS's "60 Minutes" and in hundreds of other media outlets. But a new paper in the peer-reviewed journal Neurobiology of Learning & Memory's July issue offers the first scientific findings about nearly a dozen people with this uncanny ability.

All had variations in nine structures of their brains compared to those of control subjects, including more robust white matter linking the middle and front parts. Most of the differences were in areas known to be linked to autobiographical memory, "so we're getting a descriptive, coherent story of what's going on," said lead author Aurora LePort, a doctoral candidate at UCI's Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory.

Surprisingly, the people with stellar autobiographical memory did not score higher on routine laboratory memory tests or when asked to use rote memory aids. Yet when it came to public or private events that occurred after age 10½, "they were remarkably better at recalling the details of their lives," said McGaugh, senior author on the new work.

"These are not memory experts across the board. They're 180 degrees different from the usual memory champions who can memorize pi to a large degree or other long strings of numbers," LePort noted. "It makes the project that much more interesting; it really shows we are homing in on a specific form of memory."

She said interviewing the subjects was "baffling. You give them a date, and their response is immediate. The day of the week just comes out of their minds; they don't even think about it. They can do this for so many dates, and they're 99 percent accurate. It never gets old."

The study also found statistically significant evidence of obsessive-compulsive tendencies among the group, but the authors do not yet know if or how this aids recollection. Many of the individuals have large, minutely catalogued collections of some sort, such as magazines, videos, shoes, stamps or postcards.

UCI researchers and staff have assessed more than 500 people who thought they might possess highly superior autobiographical memory and have confirmed 33 to date, including the 11 in the paper. Another 37 are strong candidates who will be further tested.

"The next step is that we want to understand the mechanisms behind the memory," LePort said. "Is it just the brain and the way its different structures are communicating? Maybe it's genetic; maybe it's molecular."

McGaugh added: "We're Sherlock Holmeses here. We're searching for clues in a very new area of research."

Aurora K.R., LePort, Aaron T., Mattfeld, Heather Dickinson-Anson, Fallon, James H., Stark, Craig E.L., Kruggel,  Frithjof, Cahill, Larry, and James L. McGaugh. (2012). Behavioral and neuroanatomical investigation of Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). Neurobiology of Learning and Memory; 98 (1): 78 DOI: 10.1016/j.nlm.2012.05.002


A single case study recently documented one woman’s ability to recall accurately vast amounts of autobiographical information, spanning most of her lifetime, without the use of practiced mnemonics (Parker, Cahill, & McGaugh, 2006). The current study reports findings based on eleven participants expressing this same memory ability, now referred to as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). Participants were identified and subsequently characterized based on screening for memory of public events. They were then tested for personal autobiographical memories as well as for memory assessed by laboratory memory tests. Additionally, whole-brain structural MRI scans were obtained. Results indicated that HSAM participants performed significantly better at recalling public as well as personal autobiographical events as well as the days and dates on which these events occurred. However, their performance was comparable to age- and sex-matched controls on most standard laboratory memory tests. Neuroanatomical results identified nine structures as being morphologically different from those of control participants. The study of HSAM may provide new insights into the neurobiology of autobiographical memory.

Buddhist Geeks 262: The Emerging Science of Mindfulness Meditation w/ David Vago

Mindfulness practice has become entirely mainstream in the last 20 years or so, and now we are doing the research to see how and why it works. David Vago, this week's guest on Buddhist Geeks with Vince Horn, is one of the leaders in that research as an instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and as past Senior Research Coordinator for the Mind & Life Institute (co-founded by the Dalai Lama).

Buddhist Geeks 262: The Emerging Science of Mindfulness Meditation

by David Vago

Episode Description:

BG 262: The Emerging Science of Mindfulness Meditation David Vago, is an instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and has held the position of Senior Research Coordinator for the Mind & Life Institute, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering dialogue and research at the highest possible level between modern science and the great living contemplative traditions.

 In this episode, David relates how his personal mindfulness practice has integrated with his professional scientific research. He talks about the thriving community of scientists interested in mindfulness that has taken root in contemporary academia and research, and he highlights some current projects and lines of inquiry that have benefited from this uniquely supportive atmosphere.

Episode Links:


Pending . . . .

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Bookforum Omnivore - The End of Religion?

This collection of links from Bookfoum's Omnivore offers some interesting reading material, including the interview with Sam Harris (in Tablet Magazine) that I posted the other day. Also worth reading is Slavoj Zizek's rather subdued (for him), "If there is a God, then anything is permitted."

The end of religion

Jul 30 20127:00AM

  • Stephen LeDrew (York): The Evolution of Atheism: Scientific and Humanistic Approaches. 
  • From IEET, will life extension mean the end of religion
  • It’s a simple but very scary concept — that we live in an “Existential Atheistic Nihilist” world and universe. 
  • One of the selling points of religion is that it offers hope in a heartless world; does that mean those without religion are also without hope? 
  • A review of The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now by George Levine. 
  • An interview with Greta Christina, author of Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss off the Godless
  • If there is a God, then anything is permitted
  • What did Nietzsche mean by the death of God? Benjamen Walker and guests explore the legacy of the German philosopher's statement (and more and more and more). 
  • From Secular Web, Michael D. Reynolds on how Christianity has been destroyed
  • The Christian right, radical Islamists, and secular leftists agree: Sam Harris is America’s most dangerous man. 
  • A review of Difficult Atheism: Post-Theological Thinking in Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux by Christopher Watkin.

John Marzluff, Ph.D. - The Alluring Language of Crows and Ravens

John Marzluff, Ph.D. is a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington where he researches the behavior and conservation of birds, especially crows, ravens, and jays, and teaches classes in field ecology, ornithology, and endangered species conservation. Marzluff is author of Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans.

Why are crows and ravens so verbose?

On a recent trip into the Alaskan wilderness I had the opportunity to listen and wonder about animal communication. I marveled at the thunderous breaths and splashes of humpback whales, though I could not hear their songs. Soprano seabird cries—the keer-keer of the murrelet, yodel of the loon, and tinny screech of the tern—combined with the base of sea mammal sounds and soft crashing of waves to create a truly wild symphony. In this orchestra, the raven was the soloist.  From the spruce forest came a performance that was simply divine. A unique rendition of quorks, yells, trills, knocks, and rattles rang with clarity above the wild background. The raven repeated some phrases, perhaps to emphasize an important message, but variety is what distinguished the raven’s language from that of the typical seabird or sea mammal. As a life-long student of ravens, I recognized many of the calls. Most are directed to potential territorial intruders, but others signal common dangers or opportunities. Always, it seems there is something new to hear. Today it was a dripping noise, perhaps innovated by the composer raven as she listened to mussel shells clink against pebbles.  As I listened I questioned why the raven should be so verbose.  

A rich vocabulary is an advantage to any animal that must coordinate daily activities with social partners. This is the case for the raven, as each bird jointly defends space with a lifelong mate, quarrels and displays status with others that flock to rich foods, and warns all listeners of danger afoot. As Tony and I describe in our book “Gifts of the Crow,” the raven is the largest songbird and as such has a brain capable of continual song learning. New, useful, and intriguing noises can be memorized by the raven and imitated as near perfect renditions. These can be incorporated into a growing and individual repertoire. A complex social lifestyle, long lifespan, and songbird brain provides the motive and the machinery a raven needs to remain the most eloquent of avian orators.

The vocal nature of the raven allows it to thrive in a variable social scene. Speech also allows the huge ebony birds to engage humans. As I stood near the Gustavus, Alaska boat dock a worker rode his bike toward shore. The man let out a curious “Kraaw” as he peddled past a perched raven. The raven looked, but did not answer. With continued listening, some day he may reply. The Caesar, Augustus, purchased ravens that routinely spoke, hailing him with praise as “the victorious commander.” Some ravens at the Tower of London also speak to tourists, commanding those who stray to “keep to the path.”  By investigating the reports of ravens and other corvids that imitate human speech, we have learned that they often use our words to get a desired reaction—recognition of a social partner, a startled drop of a favorite food, or the rounding up of other animals.

The sounds made by crows and ravens share many properties with our language, and above all this is what so captivates those who listen. The words they learn are associated with a particular meaning, and unlike onomatopoetic words, the sounds themselves have no inherent meaning. To a corvid, our words are arbitrary symbols. As we listen, we are also learning that their typical corvine calls are also often arbitrary. Ravens cluck like hens at the sight of a predator, trill at each other when ready to battle for a privileged spot at a carcass, and beg for mercy from a dominant. Some raven calls are even referential; the haaa call refers only to meat. There may be important information in the sequence of a crow’s caws or a raven’s quorks, but as of yet that has not been deciphered. The future may bring finer resolution. One thing we don’t expect to learn about corvid communication is an ability to converse about the past or future. As far as we know, all animal communication (other than our own) is about the hear and now. But for myself, and the worker in Gustavus, there remains plenty to wonder about whenever we hear a gabbing group of ravens. As we wrote in Gifts of the Crow:
“Talking crows reveal a part of their cognitive lives. To talk, crows must be able to form and replay memories. They confront the immediate with memory of the past. They dream. While we don’t claim that speaking crows really grasp the complexity of human language, they use our words to get what they want, which is remarkable. That a crow will learn and use a human trick reinforces the depth to which our species are intertwined. Crows manipulate, deceive, play, and converse with other species. They anticipate rewards and, to reap them, devise and carry out plans. When we overhear crows singing softly to themselves, we wonder if they derive pleasure simply by listening to the sounds they can make. So much of what we hear from crows or ravens is inexplicable. They ring like bells, drip like water, and have precise rhythm. They sing alone or in great symphonies. Some of their noise could be music.” (Copyright 2012 Free Press)
Take a good listen to the next crow or raven you encounter and let us know what you hear. Help us to connect sounds with meaning, so that we may continue to improve our understanding of the communicative abilities of smart and innovative birds.