Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bookforum Omnivore - Evolution in the Human Lineage

This is an excellent collection of links from the Omnivore blog. I especially was intrigued by How Culture Drove Human Evolution - A Conversation with Joseph Henrich from Edge.
Think back to when humans first got the capacity for cumulative cultural evolution—and by this I mean the ability for ideas to accumulate over generations, to get an increasingly complex tool starting from something simple. One generation adds a few things to it, the next generation adds a few more things, and the next generation, until it's so complex that no one in the first generation could have invented it. This was a really important line in human evolution, and we've begun to pursue this idea called the cultural brain hypothesis—this is the idea that the real driver in the expansion of human brains was this growing cumulative body of cultural information, so that what our brains increasingly got good at was the ability to acquire information, store, process and retransmit this non genetic body of information.
 It's an excellent article/talk.

Several of the other links are also quite good. Enjoy.

David Brooks - The Psyche Approach

In this important article, NY Times editorial columnist David Brooks discusses research demonstrating that early childhood experiences has lasting impact on people, especially when those experiences are negative. He mentions this research (including the adverse childhood experience [ACE] study of Felitti and Anda from the 1990s, and Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character) as evidence of a shift toward the psychologizing of domestic policy.

Brooks is a conservative, so to a certain extent this research supports the conservative belief that character is more important than environment. For example,
In the past several decades, policy makers have focused on the material and bureaucratic things that correlate to school failure, like poor neighborhoods, bad nutrition, schools that are too big or too small. But, more recently, attention has shifted to the psychological reactions that impede learning — the ones that flow from insecure relationships, constant movement and economic anxiety. 
There is a shift evident in Brooks' column, however, and it's an important one. Character is no longer seen as essentially innate - it is now recognized to develop within the interpersonal, social, and economic context of the child. 

The ACE Score that Brooks mentions looks at 10 adverse experiences - including verbal/emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, lack of adequate food/clothing/shelter, lack of emotional support/trust, parental chemical addiction, divorce/separation, physical/verbal abuse of mother, addiction in a family member, mental illness in family, or family member in jail/prison. The higher the score for the child (1-10), the greater the risk for learning disorders, affect regulation issues, behavioral problems, mental illness, criminal behavior, and so on.

Over at the ACE Study site, they applaud the use of their research by Brooks, but they would like to have seen more perspective on how these experiences shape lives (which Brooks addresses a bit in his book, The Social Animal):
There’s much more to this than psychological barriers. I wish he’d added this information to why childhood trauma has such tragic long-term consequences:

Toxic stress physically damages a child’s developing brain. This was determined by a group of neuroscientists and pediatricians, including neuroscientist Martin Teicher and pediatrician Jack Shonkoff, both at Harvard University, neuroscientist Bruce McEwen at Rockefeller University, and pediatrician Bruce Perry at the Child Trauma Academy.

So children with toxic stress have trouble focusing in school, developing healthy relationships with their peers and trusting authority. They cope with their high anxiety, depression, and fear by turning to biochemical coping strategies — e.g., alcohol, tobacco (nicotine relieves anxiety), methamphetamine (now illegal, but it was the first prescription anti-depressant), food, and even work. Addictions to these lead to emphysema, lung cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, autoimmune diseases, etc.

Other research is revealing how stress hormones produce systemic inflammation through the body that lay down the foundation for later disease.
There's more to read at their site.

If we can begin to incorporate this information into how we plan education and other realms of our domestic agenda, then we will have taken a huge leap forward in reducing crime, mental illness, and other social issues.

The Psych Approach

Published: September 27, 2012 

In the 1990s, Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda conducted a study on adverse childhood experiences. They asked 17,000 mostly white, mostly upscale patients enrolled in a Kaiser H.M.O. to describe whether they had experienced any of 10 categories of childhood trauma. They asked them if they had been abused, if their parents had divorced, if family members had been incarcerated or declared mentally ill. Then they gave them what came to be known as ACE scores, depending on how many of the 10 experiences they had endured. 

The link between childhood trauma and adult outcomes was striking. People with an ACE score of 4 were seven times more likely to be alcoholics as adults than people with an ACE score of 0. They were six times more likely to have had sex before age 15, twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer, four times as likely to suffer emphysema. People with an ACE score above 6 were 30 times more likely to have attempted suicide. 

Later research suggested that only 3 percent of students with an ACE score of 0 had learning or behavioral problems in school. Among students with an ACE score of 4 or higher, 51 percent had those problems.

In Paul Tough’s essential book, “How Children Succeed,” he describes what’s going on. Childhood stress can have long lasting neural effects, making it harder to exercise self-control, focus attention, delay gratification and do many of the other things that contribute to a happy life.

Tough interviewed a young lady named Monisha, who was pulled out of class by a social worker, taken to a strange foster home and forbidden from seeing her father for months. “I remember the first day like it was yesterday. Every detail. I still have dreams about it. I feel like I’m going to be damaged forever.”

Monisha’s anxiety sensors are still going full blast. “If a plane flies over me, I think they’re going to drop a bomb. I think about my dad dying,” she told Tough. “When I get scared, I start shaking. My heart starts beating. I start sweating. You know how people say ‘I was scared to death’? I get scared that that’s really going to happen to me one day.”

Tough’s book is part of what you might call the psychologizing of domestic policy. In the past several decades, policy makers have focused on the material and bureaucratic things that correlate to school failure, like poor neighborhoods, bad nutrition, schools that are too big or too small. But, more recently, attention has shifted to the psychological reactions that impede learning — the ones that flow from insecure relationships, constant movement and economic anxiety.

Attention has shifted toward the psychological for several reasons. First, it’s become increasingly clear that social and emotional deficits can trump material or even intellectual progress. Schools in the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, are among the best college prep academies for disadvantaged kids. But, in its first survey a few years ago, KIPP discovered that three-quarters of its graduates were not making it through college. It wasn’t the students with the lower high school grades that were dropping out most. It was the ones with the weakest resilience and social skills. It was the pessimists.

Second, over the past few years, an array of psychological researchers have taught us that motivation, self-control and resilience are together as important as raw I.Q. and are probably more malleable.

Finally, pop culture has been far out front of policy makers in showing how social dysfunction can ruin lives. You can turn on an episode of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” about a train wreck working-class family. You can turn on “Alaska State Troopers” and see trailer parks filled with drugged-up basket cases. You can listen to rappers like Tyler, The Creator whose songs are angry howls from fatherless men.

Schools are now casting about, trying to find psychological programs that will help students work on resilience, equanimity and self-control. Some schools give two sets of grades — one for academic work and one for deportment.

And it’s not just schools that are veering deeper into the psychological realms. Health care systems are going the same way, tracing obesity and self-destructive habits back to social breakdown and stress.

When you look over the domestic policy landscape, you see all these different people in different policy silos with different budgets: in health care, education, crime, poverty, social mobility and labor force issues. But, in their disjointed ways, they are all dealing with the same problem — that across vast stretches of America, economic, social and family breakdowns are producing enormous amounts of stress and unregulated behavior, which dulls motivation, undermines self-control and distorts lives.

Maybe it’s time for people in all these different fields to get together in a room and make a concerted push against the psychological barriers to success.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Julian Baggini - The Duality of Non-duality

This was Julian Baggini's lecture at the Science and Non-Duality Conference, 2012, The Netherlands. I highly recommend his most recent book, The Ego Trick: What Does it Mean to be You?

Julian Baggini is the author of several books, including Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind (Granta), Complaint (Profile) and, most recently, The Ego Trick (Granta). He has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including the Guardian, the Financial Times, Prospect and the New Statesman, as well as for the think tanks The Institute of Public Policy Research and Demos. He is founding editor of The Philosophers' Magazine. He has also appeared as a character in two Alexander McCall-Smith novels.

The Self Illusion - Susan Blackmore

This is a clip from Susan Blackmore's talk at Science and Nonduality Conference 2012 in The Netherlands.

Sue Blackmore is a psychologist and writer researching consciousness, memes, and anomalous experiences, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. She blogs for the Guardian, and often appears on radio and television. The Meme Machine (1999) has been translated into 16 other languages; more recent books include Conversations on Consciousness (2005), Zen and the Art of Consciousness (2011), and a textbook Consciousness: An Introduction (2nd Ed 2010).

The Transcendence of Time in Shamanic Practice - Michael Harner

Michael Harner, the founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, gave this lecture at the Science and Nonduality Conference, 2011.

Over tens of thousands of years, our ancient ancestors all over the world discovered how to maximize human abilities of mind and spirit for healing and problem-solving. The remarkable system of methods they developed is today known as shamanism. Shamans are especially distinguished by the use of journeys to hidden worlds otherwise mainly known through myth, dream, and near-death experiences. A core feature of shamanism is that the Universe is divisible into three worlds: the Upper, Middle, and Lower. The Middle World, in which we live, has both its ordinary and non-ordinary (or non-spiritual and spiritual) aspects, and belongs only to this immediate moment in time. The Upper and Lower Worlds, in contrast, are purely spiritual and are found only in nonordinary reality, where they exist outside of time. The trained shaman can make "out of body" journeys to these worlds, moving back and forth with discipline and purpose in order to help and heal others. In these journeys, the shaman transcends time, going back to look at the past or traveling into the future to seek assistance on behalf of others from compassionate beings found there. In these worlds, there is no separation between the shaman and everything else. He or she knows, as ancient Siberian shamans knew that, "Everything that is, is alive." The Universe is experienced as a unified whole, and the shaman partakes of the love and the ecstasy of this transcendent reality.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

John Bunzl - Discovering an Integral Civic Consciousness in a Global Age

This Integral Post from Integral Life - an article by John Bunzl that originally appeared in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice - takes an interesting look at the relative absence of an "integral civic consciousness" in the current cultural landscape. This becomes an especially relevant issue in light of Terry Patten's project to collect all integrally-informed Obama supporters into one donation block (Integral Obama), essentially creating another "special interest group" that by contributing money hopes to have access to the president in some small way. This is how the game is played, of course.

Patten received a lot blowback on this initiative. He ended up having to post a justification for his project. If it seems challenging to get liberals all on the same page to support a small selection of important issues, rather than their own pet issues, getting the integral community (such as it is) together into one voice is about as likely as herding cats.

Personally, I do not see ANY likelihood of an integral or worldcentric global governance in the near future of human life on this planet. Perhaps that is why there is no civic efforts in that direction - because it is not a realistic ideal, even if Ken Wilber and others (Wilber, 2000; McIntosh, 2007; Stewart, 2000) have said that such governance is our species' only hope of survival.

With that bit of context, here is Bunzl's article.

Discovering an Integral Civic Consciousness in a Global Age

September 18th, 2012
This essay was originally published in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice. Click here to purchase the full issue.
  This article asks why, in an age of global crisis, global governance still remains a low priority for the integral community. It posits a civic line of development, suggesting only those possessing a worldcentric level of civic awareness can fully comprehend global problems and the need for binding global governance. I argue that modern (orange altitude), postmodern (green altitude), and even low vision-logic (teal altitude) worldviews still see global problems nationcentrically rather than worldcentrically. I explore this limitation in light of destructive international competition; a key and potentially catastrophic phenomenon that, it is argued, shows why only a worldcentric, late vision-logic (turquoise altitude) civic consciousness can disclose solutions to the global crisis. Ways in which green and teal altitude split off these realities are suggested, providing clues to how turquoise civic consciousness may be accessed and how the integral community may thus play a fuller, more effective role in global transformation.

Civics entails the rights and duties of citizenship and the role citizens have in establishing, shaping, and overseeing government at any level (Altinay, 2010). Civics is founded on citizens’ perception that governance is actually necessary; that it is functionally required to solve societal, environmental or economic problems at a particular level, be it local, national, or global.

If, for example, a citizen could not perceive national-scale problems, or mistook them as being of a merely local nature, she would see no need for national governance at all. Her civic consciousness would be merely local or ethnocentric. Such a citizen would recognize only their local authority or tribe as functionally required and would likely see any higher levels of government as superfluous, wasteful and suspicious. Those at orange altitude or higher, on the other hand, recognize national government to be required in addition to local governance. Their depth of civic consciousness thus has two levels. Yet, in an age when our problems are increasingly global and threaten our civilized survival, it is notable that very few citizens see any need for a third level, that being global governance. Indeed, for the vast majority of people, including those up to teal altitude, civic consciousness remains, as I will be arguing, at best nationcentric. The emphasis on global civics indicates that global problems must first be perceived as such; a worldcentric perception that indicates that merely technical solutions or national (or local) politics cannot suffice. Instead, a vertical transformation toward a form of binding global governance is necessary.

I distinguish the civic from the political line of development in the Lower-Right (LR) quadrant by noting that civics is fundamentally about the perception, by citizens, of a need for governance. Politics, on the other hand, is what happens after governance (or formal government) has been established. Civics, in that sense, is prior to politics.

The Civic Holarchy

Like all lines of development, the proposed civic line tetra-evolves and manifests in all four quadrants. Civic holons are most obvious in the LR quadrant, in what I will be referring to as “the civic holarchy.” This is the holarchy of our institutions of governance that has evolved and bonded together human societies from the earliest hunter-gatherer bands, through to Middle-Age city and small-states, and up to present-day institutions of national and global governance (Wilber, 2000; Wright, 2001).

Across a wide variety of cultures, the civic holarchy typically comprises, in the LR, the following levels: Local Authority → State → Nation-state. That is, the smallest civic holon is generally a local authority of some kind; an authority that determines local taxes and regulations. In some countries, local authorities form the parts that make up the larger whole of a state; an intermediate level of government which is itself part of a larger nation-state. In other countries, local authorities directly form the parts of the nation-state. In either case, each is a whole/part and each subsequent level transcends and includes its predecessor.

I end the civic holarchy with nation-states because although there may be many supra-national institutions of governance, such as the European Union, the United Nations (UN), and others, these institutions remain, for reasons elucidated later, heavily influenced by nation-states and their differing national interests. It is thus nation-states that today remain the key class of actors on the world stage, the most senior level in the civic holarchy.

Democracy and civics are closely intertwined wherever individuals have a legally binding vote. Thus, in democratic countries, individual citizens can be said to represent the Upper-Right (UR) quadrant correlate of civic holons at each level. Meanwhile the civic consciousness of an individual citizen represents the Upper-Left (UL) quadrant correlate. Similarly, the civic culture of a society will manifest in the Lower-Left (LL) quadrant and will be reflected by its institutions of governance in the LR. This is not to suggest an absence of civic consciousness in non-democratic nations; only that it is not mediated by democracy.
Read the whole article.

Sounds True - Pema Chödrön: The Fundamental Ambiguity of Human Existence

This was the Sounds True Weekly Wisdom Producer's Pick from last week - Pema Chodron talking on ambiguity and becoming comfortable with uncertainty. Sounds True producer Randy Roark offers this selection from The Three Commitments as an example of how "accepting the underlying groundlessness of human life can give us a new understanding of personal freedom." There is a link at the bottom to all of Pema Chodron's offerings at Sounds True. Enjoy!

Pema Chödrön: The Fundamental Ambiguity of Human Existence

Pema Chödrön teaches that the awakened life begins and ends with wonder—the thrill of letting go and thoroughly enjoying the ride. What prevents us from making this leap? Our ego’s survival instincts. In the audio program The Three Commitments, Pema teaches about Tibetan Buddhism’s essential life instructions for letting go of confusion and fear so we may take the next step towards true liberation and joy. Sounds True producer Randy Roark chose this week’s selection as an example of how Pema artfully turns our fears into an opening for transformation—describing how accepting the underlying groundlessness of human life can give us a new understanding of personal freedom.

More from Pema Chödrön

Michael Lacewing - Could Psychoanalysis Be a Science?

Back in 1895, Sigmund Freud began writing his Project for a Scientific Psychology, in which he sought to establish psychoanalysis as a natural science (this paper takes a modern look at the theory). Within three decades, his inner circle had ruptured with Carl Jung (Analytical Psychology), Alfred Adler (Individual Psychology), and Otto Rank (Object-relations) all leaving to follow their own path and develop their own models of psychotherapy.

Freud's hope for a natural science rested on his belief in the biological origins of drive theory and an intuition about energy use in neurological function.

Modern psychoanalysis is greatly influenced by neuroscience, attachment theory, and infant/child development. This newer relational, intersubjective psychoanalysis (as well as neuropsychoanalysis)  is now the most scientific of the psychodynamic models currently in use.

In this article, Michael Lacewing attempts to analyze whether or not psychoanalysis is an actual science, mostly from a philosophical perspective.

Could Psychoanalysis Be a Science?

Michael Lacewing
University of London - Heythrop College

September 20, 2011

Fulford, K. W. M. et al (eds) Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (Forthcoming)


Could psychoanalysis be a science? There are three ways of reading this question, which will structure our discussion:

1. Is psychoanalysis the kind of investigation or activity that could, logically speaking, be ‘scientific’? If we can defend a positive answer here, then it makes sense to ask:

2. Is psychoanalysis, in the form in which it has traditionally been practiced, and continues to be practiced, a science? If there are good reasons to doubt its credentials, then we might ask:

3. Is psychoanalysis able to become a science? This is a question about what is needed for the necessary transformation.

I shall argue that psychoanalysis can be a science (§1), but that the historical debate raised important challenges to its methodology, viz. confirmation bias (§2.1), suggestion (§2.2), and unsupportable causal inference (§2.3). I argue that recent developments (§3.1-2) meet these challenges, and conclude with some reflections on the interdisciplinary nature of psychoanalysis (§3.3).

Full Citation:
Lacewing, M. (2011, Sep 20). Could Psychoanalysis Be a Science? Fulford, K. W. M. et al (eds) Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (Forthcoming). Available at SSRN:

Here is a little bit of the introduction, in which he rules out psychoanalysis as a natural science, then turns to whether or not it is a social science.

1. Could psychoanalysis (logically) be a science?
This is a question about what psychoanalysis is and what counts as science, a question about our concepts of ‘psychoanalysis’ and ‘science’. Psychoanalysis involves both the clinical encounter and the production of psychoanalytic theory. It is a mistake to restrict the meaning of ‘psychoanalysis’ to the interaction between analyst and analysand (§1.3), though this remains central to psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic theory is a theory of the nature and functioning of the human mind, especially in relation to motives. Much of its evidential base rests in the clinical data – neurotic symptoms, dreams, present thoughts and emotions – but psychoanalysis has always gone beyond clinical data to appeal to data from other fields of enquiry (§3.3).

Psychoanalysts have been active in producing some of this data, e.g. in child development or psychiatry, and in integrating the results into new psychoanalytic theory. It is the generation of psychoanalytic knowledge that is of central interest here, and so our immediate question is ‘Are the form of psychoanalytic knowledge and the method of its generation of a kind that could (logically) qualify as scientific?’.
On the meaning of ‘science’, I shall proceed pragmatically. I assume we have a rough conception that enables us to identify paradigmatic examples, and I shall argue by comparing psychoanalysis and ‘established’ sciences, especially social psychology (§1.2) and the social sciences more broadly (§2.2).

1.1 But first, could psychoanalysis be a natural science? The most plausible defence of an affirmative answer rests on Freud’s ‘economic’ model of human psychology. The aim of his Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895) was ‘to discover what form the theory of psychical functioning will take if a quantitative line of approach, a kind of economics of nervous force, is introduced into it’ (296). Freud intended ‘to furnish a psychology that shall be a natural science’ seeking to understand human psychology in terms of a ‘conception of neuronal excitation as quantity in a state of flow’ (296), governed by biological principles of homeostasis. The model he applied, popular at the time, was that of the reflex; energy in requires energy out, to prevent energy from building up dangerously within the system, which Freud argued is experienced as pain. And so neurones and the nervous system as a whole have a tendency to divest themselves of energy.
If the economic model were the core of psychoanalysis, there would be reason to consider it a natural science. But there would also be good reason to reject it. First, many of the claims of the economic model have been superseded by neuroscience. The nervous system does not operate on a reflex model, and does not tend to divest itself of energy. Neurones generate their own energy metabolically, rather than receiving it from outside stimulation, which therefore modulates, rather than creates, nervous system activity. Sensory surfaces are not conductors, but transducers, of external energy, converting it into electrochemical impulses of negligible energy but with varying frequency – and so the nervous system cannot be swamped by energy from outside, nor can energy be trapped in it. The energy within the system is not conducted – it is not a quantity in a state of flow – but is transmitted by propagation. Finally, the quantity of energy involved bears no correlation to the psychological state of the person; the nervous system uses information, not energy, to structure its activities (see Hobson 1988, esp. pp.284-6; Holt 1965). Second, and perhaps most central to our enquiry, given this last claim, the clinical methods of psychoanalytic enquiry are inappropriate for generating knowledge of neural functioning.
Fortunately, psychoanalysis survives the demise of the economic theory. Freud repeatedly drew upon the economic model in his later psychological theorizing, e.g. he modelled psychic conflict as involving forces, understood associative links in content as involving energy pathways, talked of psychological ideas and experiences as cathecting neural networks, analysed psychic phenomena such as condensation and displacement in terms of transpositions of energy. This all needs to be reformulated just in terms of psychological content and processes. Freud sometimes approaches clinical questions in economic terms, e.g. narcissism (1914a), mourning (1917), and masochism (1924), and to the extent that psychoanalytic theories of these phenomena rest implicitly or explicitly on a mistaken conception of human beings as closed systems of fixed amounts of undissipated libido, the theories must be rethought. The theory of instincts, ‘our mythology’ as Freud put it (1933, p.94), must be translated into psychological terms, abandoned, or radically amended in the light of recent biological and neuropsychological investigations. All this can be or has been done.

These remarks leave open the possibility that psychoanalysis abuts neuroscience as a discipline, and there may be fruitful exchange (it may even be that neuroscience formulates a workable version of an ‘energy’ concept). But psychoanalysis does not qualify as a natural science in its own right. This does not rule out the possibility that it may qualify as a social science, and it is to this question we now turn.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Meditation Experience Predicts Introspective Accuracy

I loves me some meditation research. This new study finds that the more meditation experience a person has greater accuracy of subjective reports, especially those involving introspection of one's own internal processes than non-meditators. Take home: More meditation means greater self-awareness.

Meditation Experience Predicts Introspective Accuracy

Kieran C. R. Fox1*, Pierre Zakarauskas2, Matt Dixon1, Melissa Ellamil1, Evan Thompson3, Kalina Christoff1,2

1 Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 2 Brain Research Centre, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 3 Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada


The accuracy of subjective reports, especially those involving introspection of one's own internal processes, remains unclear, and research has demonstrated large individual differences in introspective accuracy. It has been hypothesized that introspective accuracy may be heightened in persons who engage in meditation practices, due to the highly introspective nature of such practices. We undertook a preliminary exploration of this hypothesis, examining introspective accuracy in a cross-section of meditation practitioners (1–15,000 hrs experience). Introspective accuracy was assessed by comparing subjective reports of tactile sensitivity for each of 20 body regions during a ‘body-scanning’ meditation with averaged, objective measures of tactile sensitivity (mean size of body representation area in primary somatosensory cortex; two-point discrimination threshold) as reported in prior research. Expert meditators showed significantly better introspective accuracy than novices; overall meditation experience also significantly predicted individual introspective accuracy. These results suggest that long-term meditators provide more accurate introspective reports than novices.

Full Citation: 
Fox KCR, Zakarauskas P, Dixon M, Ellamil M, Thompson E, et al. (2012) Meditation Experience Predicts Introspective Accuracy. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45370. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045370

Here is some of the introduction. The whole article is open access, so you can read it online or download the PDF.


William James exhorted us more than a century ago, “Introspective observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always” [1], but for much of the 20th century, psychologists did not regard introspective reports as valid data for scientific inquiry. Some contemporary researchers have doubted the very possibility of accurate introspection [2]; others have demonstrated that while introspective reports may be reliable under simple conditions, reliability decreases with increasing demands on central processing resources [3].

Introspection can of course be defined in many ways; here we mean it in the straightforward manner used by James: “The word introspection need hardly be defined – it means, of course, looking into our own minds” [1]. That is, in its simplest form introspection involves “considerations of our own experience… [and] our own internal states” [4].

‘Introspective accuracy’ (IA) can putatively be quantified by a variety of methods that combine introspective reports of subjective, mental phenomena with some objective (neural, physiological, or behavioral) measure of these same phenomena. A subject's IA with respect to a given task or process is the degree to which their introspective reports agree or correlate with such objective measures [3], [5].

Recent research provides evidence for large inter-individual variability in introspective accuracy, which may be traceable to and predicted by differential grey matter volume in rostrolateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC)/Brodmann Area (BA) 10 [5]. Individual differences with respect to a given skill invite the question of whether that skill can be ameliorated, and a recent study involving extensive training supports the idea that well-trained subjects can provide accurate and useful introspective reports [6] (though direct improvement of introspection through training has yet to be demonstrated, to our knowledge). Further, RLPFC/BA10, thought to be a key region involved in introspection and metacognitive awareness [7], is amenable to voluntary up- and down-regulation through real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) neurofeedback training [8]. This functional plasticity [8] and structural heterogeneity [5] in frontal regions key to introspection thus provides a possible neural basis for inter-individual differences, and possibly intra-individual enhancements, in introspective accuracy.

In parallel with this renewed interest in introspection, cognitive neuroscience has begun to focus on the family of mental training practices known as ‘meditation’ [9]. Many meditation practices are highly introspective in nature: common techniques direct the meditator's attention toward emotional states, the arising of thoughts, and even the quality and focus of attention itself [10], [12], [13]. This heavy focus on introspection has led to the hypothesis that experienced meditators might possess the capacity for more objective assessment of their own internal states and mental contents (i.e., greater introspective accuracy) [10], [11]. While a recent study examining subjective reports of emotional state alongside objective measures of autonomic arousal found that long-term meditators' introspective reports correlated better with objective measures than did reports from meditation-naïve controls [14], other similar work has shown equivocal results [15], or no differences between meditators and controls [16]. The evidence for enhanced introspective accuracy in long-term meditators, then, remains meager.

One particular meditation technique, vipassana (‘Insight’) meditation (VM), includes paying close attention to the inner experiences (conceptual, emotional, tactile, and visceral) associated with the current state of the body, primarily in order to better develop a non-discursive awareness centered in the present moment [12], [13]. Such practices may involve the meta-representation by the brain of diverse internal bodily responses and states [10], a view supported by a number of neuroimaging studies of VM meditators, as well as subjects engaging in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses (at heart a secularized version of VM, with a comparable focus on breath sensations, body awareness, etc. [12]). Neuroimaging has shown that among VM and MBSR meditators the insula, a region whose grey matter volume predicts the accuracy of interoceptive reports [17], exhibits increased cortical thickness [18] and grey matter density [19], as well as increased fMRI blood oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) signal during present-centered awareness [20]. VM and MBSR meditators also show structural and functional augmentations of primary and secondary somatosensory cortices, including increased cortical thickness [18] and fMRI-BOLD signal [20]. Finally, VM meditators show significantly thicker cortex [18] (and in Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, increased grey matter density [22]) in RLPFC/BA10, suggesting enhancement of a region strongly implicated in introspection [5], [7], [8], [45].

Despite this converging evidence that introspection and body-awareness may be heightened in VM/Mindfulness meditators, and despite the extensive body of objective data on tactile sensitivity in humans with which subjective reports could be compared, no study has yet examined the accuracy of introspective reports from a representative cross-sectional group of VM practitioners.

VM provides an ideal means of exploring introspective accuracy: the body-scanning meditation (BSM; vedananupassana) practice within this tradition focuses intensively on awareness of ambient tactile experiences of an entirely subjective nature, varying greatly in quality and intensity. Complementary scientific exploration of tactile sensibility has been extensive in humans, and has likewise shown marked variability in regional sensitivity throughout the body. Correlating subjective with objective measures of tactile sensitivity can thus provide a convenient measure of the extent to which introspective reports agree with what is to be expected from neurophysiological measures.

To explore this idea, we first gathered two sets of well-replicated, objective data on tactile sensitivity from previously published research that involved large samples of adults: (i) psychophysical discrimination and (ii) proportion of cortical area dedicated to various body regions in primary somatosensory cortex (S1).

Shrink Rap Radio #321 –The Brain in Trauma and PTSD with Robert Scaer MD

Very cool - it's nice to hear Dr. Scaer after reading his books - The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation and Disease and The Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency - both of which should essential reading for any therapist who works with trauma. I didn't realize he also has a third book now out - Eight Keys to Brain/Body Balance.


Shrink Rap Radio #321 –The Brain in Trauma and PTSD with Robert Scaer MD

Robert Scaer, M.D. received his B.A. in Psychology, and his M.D. degree at the University of Rochester. He is Board Certified in Neurology, and has been in practice for 36 years, twenty of those as Medical Director of Rehabilitation Services at the Mapleton Center in Boulder, CO. His primary areas of interest and expertise have been in the fields of traumatic brain injury and chronic pain, and more recently in the study of traumatic stress and its role in physical and emotional symptoms, and in diseases.

He has lectured extensively on these topics, and has published several articles on posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociation, the whiplash syndrome and other somatic syndromes of traumatic stress. He has published three books, the first
The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation and Disease, presenting a new theory of dissociation and its role in many diseases. A second edition of this book was released in October, 2007. A second book, The Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency, addresses the broad and relatively unappreciated spectrum of cultural and societal trauma that shapes every aspect of our lives. A third book, Eight Keys to Brain/Body Balance, released in October, 2012, is geared to a lay audience, providing a practical understanding of the physiology of the brain/body interface and its role in healing stress and trauma. He is currently retired from clinical medical practice, and continues to pursue a career in writing and lecturing in the field of traumatology.

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A psychology podcast by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.
copyright 2012: David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

TED Talks - 12 Talks on Understanding the Brain

TED has featured a LOT of really cool talks on the brain over the years - and these are 12 of their top picks, although not necessarily mine. Still, there are some excellent talks here, including VS Ramachandran, Michael Merzenich, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, and Oliver Sacks.

12 talks on understanding the brain

Read Montague is interested in the human dopamine system — or, as he puts it in this illuminating talk from TEDGlobal 2012, that which makes us “chase sex, food and salt” and therefore survive. 

Specifically, Montague and his team at the Roanoke Brain Study are interested in how dopamine and valuation systems work when two human beings interact with each other. Twenty years ago, studying a topic like this was all but impossible because scientists relied on worms and rodents for insight into the brain. But today, in addition to animal research, neurobiologists have at their disposal functional MRI (fMRI), which allows them to make “microscopic blood flow movies” and map the activity of human brains in action. 

“We have a behavioral superpower in our brain and it at least in part involves dopamine,” says Montague in this talk. “We can deny any instinct we have for survival for an idea. No other species can do that.” 

So how do we assign value to ideas, process the gestures of those around us, make complicated decisions, and create informed judgments about each other? Montague’s lab hopes to discover much more about how these processes work by “eavesdropping” on the brains of 5,000 to 6,000 participants all over the world as they play negotiation games. It’s fascinating research that could tell us more about our social nature. Because as Montague says, “You often don’t know who you are until you see yourself in interaction with people who are close to you, people who are enemies to you, and people who are agnostic to you.” 

To hear much more about Montague’s work, watch this talk. And after the jump, hear insights from 11 others who are working hard to give a clearer picture of how our brains work. 

Allan Jones: A map of the brain Curious to see what a real human brain looks like? Watch this talk from Allan Jones, the CEO of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, given at TEDGlobal 2011. In it, he describes the Institute’s work to map brain function in the same detailed way that we map cities, investigating how the 86 billion neurons in the brain work together. (Read this great article in Forbes magazine about Paul Allen, the Microsoft cofounder who spent more than $500 million creating the Allen Institute.) 

Gero Miesenboeck reengineers a brain Optogeneticist Gero Miesenboeck has a different approach for understanding the brain — rather than recording the activity of neurons, he works backwards, seeking to control them. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2010, Miesenboeck explains his work manipulating neurons in fruit flies to see what happens when the brain’s code is broken. 

Daniel Wolpert: The real reason for brains Why do we have brains in the first place? Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert hypothesizes that the human brain didn’t evolve to think or to feel, but to control movement. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2011, Wolpert shows how perception creates graceful, agile human movement. 

Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor got a new view of the miraculous functioning of the brain when she had a massive stroke. In this powerful talk from TED2008, she describes feeling powerless as her brain functions shut down, and talks about her recovery. 

VS Ramachandran: 3 clues to understanding your brain The human brain may be a “three pound mass of jelly,” but it can “contemplate the meaning of infinity.” In this talk given at TED2007, neurologist VS Ramachandran explains his work to understand basic brain function, delving into three delusions that happen when brain activity goes awry. 

Michael Merzenich: Growing evidence of brain plasticity The brain is constantly able to change and adapt. In this talk from TED2004, neuroscientist Michael Merzenich describes the brain’s ability to re-wire itself, and shows why this elasticity is so meaningful. 

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore studies the brains of teenagers because, rather than being fully developed, the organ continues to build through a person’s 20s and 30s. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2012, Blakemore shows why teenagers are more impulsive and more prone to feeling embarrassed than their adult counterparts. 

Henry Markram: A brain in a supercomputer There may be 100,000,000,000,000 synapses in the human brain, but their functioning can be understood. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2009, neuroscientist Henry Markam explains how a supercomputer can help model the brain. 

Christopher deCharms: A look inside the brain in real time Can you see how you feel? Yes, using fMRI. In this fast-paced talk from TED2008, neuroscientist and inventor Christopher deCharms shows how the brain can be viewed in real time using this amazing technology. 

Charles Limb: Your brain on improv Charles Limb is a surgeon who studies creativity, and is fascinated by how people create music. In this fun talk from TEDxMidAtlantic, Limb shows his work putting jazz musicians and rappers in fMRIs to see what happens when they improvise. (Read the TED Blog’s Q&A with Limb here.) 

Oliver Sacks: What hallucination reveals about our minds When we see with our eyes, we also see with our brains. But sometimes, the two do not match up. In this talk from TED2009, neurologist Oliver Sacks describes Charles Bonnet syndrome, which leads visually impaired people to experience lucid visual hallucinations. From there, he shows what this teaches us about normal brain function.