Saturday, November 03, 2012

Levevei Episode 53: Societal Development from an Evolutionary Perspective (David Sloan Wilson)

James Arnfinsen, host of the excellent Levevei (“way of life”) podcast series, recently interviewed David Sloan Wilson, one of the few biologists who have (rightly) supported and expanded on E.O. Wilson's sociobiology model. In addition to Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (2003) and Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (2007), Wilson's most recent book is The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time.

Episode 53: Societal development from an evolutionary perspective

By On October 31, 2012 ·

In this episode I have the delight of connecting with David Sloan Wilson, Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghampton University, New York. Wilson has written several books explaining evolution to the general public, while also championing the view that understanding evolutionary processes can be of great benefit to a whole range of issues, not only classical biology. From his point of view the evolutionary perspective can be applied to the human level as well, for instance in relation to social and cultural change.
In the interview we start of from his most recent book The Neighborhood Project – Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Timeand we explore how an evolutionary paradigm can inform and support urban development. Through different examples he makes an argument for how we can become wise managers of evolutionary processes and how universities can engage both local, national and global communities in steering towards a pro-social future.
Towards the end of our conversation Wilson tells about a planned case study involving Norway and he´s looking to connect with researchers and institutions for this purpose. If you´re interested in contributing or want to learn more, please contact Wilson directly at

The host: James Alexander Arnfinsen has a teacher education from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology… (more

Episode links:

In the interview David Wilson references the kriging-maps they derived from different neighborhood surveys. This one shows the degree of pro-sociality in the given area.

Joanna Macy - A Wild Love for the World (On Being)

On Being's Krista Trippett interviewed eco-philospher Joanna Macy on this week's show. Among Macy's many books are World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (2007) and Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy (with Chris Johnstone, 2012).

In this podcast they use Macy's translations of Rilke's poetry (Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy) as a jumping off point to her take on spiritual life and its relevance for the political and ecological challenges we currently face.

This Week's Conversation with Krista Tippett - Joanna Macy: A Wild Love for the World

November 1, 2012
Joanna Macy is a philosopher of ecology, a Buddhist scholar, and an exquisite translator of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. We take that poetry as a lens on her wisdom on spiritual life and its relevance for the political and ecological dramas of our time.

Unedited Interview:
» Joanna Macy
(mp3, 87:59) 

Friday, November 02, 2012

Rick Hanson - Neurodharma of Love

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson was at Spirit Rock Meditation Center recently giving a one-day retreat on the neurodharma of love. He speaks on (in order) Love and the Brain, Inner Strength (including self-compassion), Compassion and Lovingkindness, and Unilateral Virtue. The talks are posted below in reverse order (last one at the top) as they were at the Dharma Seed site..

Rick Hanson: Neurodharma of Love

Rick Hanson, PhD began meditating in 1974 and has practiced in several traditions. A neuropsychologist, writer, and teacher, he co-founded the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom (see and edits the Wise Brain Bulletin. First author of Mother Nurture (Penguin, 2002), his latest book is Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom (with Rick Mendius, MD; Preface by Jack Kornfield, PhD and Foreword by Dan Siegel, MD). He started sitting at Spirit Rock in 1993 and recently completed a nine-year term on its Board. A graduate of the Community Dharma Leader training program, he leads a weekly meditation group in San Rafael.

2012-10-27 -- NeuroDharma of Love: Unilateral Virtue, 1:16:27

2012-10-27 -- NeuroDharma of Love: Compassion and Lovingkindness Practice, 18:07

2012-10-27 --  NeuroDharma of Love: Inner Strength, including Self Compassion Practice, 16:38

2012-10-27 -- NeuroDharma of Love: Love and the Brain , 22:45

Evan Thompson - Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience and Meditation

This interview with philosopher Evan Thompson was posted at blog (Foundation for Psychological Research: Exploring issues at the intersection of brain, mind, culture, and mental health), about his book in progress, Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience and Meditation.

His last book (2007), was the excellent Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. I also recommend Between Ourselves : Second-Person Issues in the Study of Consciousness (2001), and his classic book on embodied cognition, co-authored with Francisco Varela, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1992).

Philosopher Evan Thompson

Science writer Karen A. Frenkel interviews philosopher Evan Thompson (University of Toronto) for the Foundation for Psychocultural Research about his new book in progress, Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience and Meditation.

Photo by Raphaele Demandre. Dharamsala, India. October 2004.

Evan Thompson, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, works in the areas of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and comparative philosophy. He is the co-author (with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch) of the groundbreaking book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, (MIT Press, 1991), one of the first books to explore systematically the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and cognitive science, and to argue for the “embodied” approach in cognitive science. Thompson is also the author of Colour Vision: a Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception (Routledge, 1995) and Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Belknap Press, 2007), and co-editor, with Philip David Zelazo and Morris Moscovitch, of the Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

KAF: You are interested in the central problem of whether consciousness is a primary phenomenon not wholly dependent on the brain and can’t be reduced or understood as anything else. And in your new book, you call for acknowledging the contribution of these traditions to understanding the mind. On the other hand, you point out that science has contributed to knowledge of evolution and brain development. Please say more about your position on how we can get these two approaches to collaborate in our understanding of the mind and whether or not it transcends the brain.

ET: I’m interested in the nature of the mind. On the one hand, we have contemplative traditions with  expertise in examining first-hand the nature of the mind from within, where “from within” means through direct experience in a rigorous way that involves training attention, emotion, and awareness so that basic characteristics of the mind manifest in a clear way. On the other hand, we have our scientific tradition. Historically, the scientific tradition emerged in a way that excluded the mind—the mind was treated as subjective, and science was interested in things that are objective and public. So if you look at the rise of physics, for example, we have a bracketing off of subjective experience. But in the 20th century that method was turned back on the mind through experimental psychology. Today we can record what’s going on in the brain. Through neuroscience, due to new tools like brain scans and electrophysiological recordings, we try to see what’s going on in brain while someone is having a visual experience, or while sleeping, or dreaming. We try to investigate the mind through the brain.

I’m interested in how these two ways of understanding the mind relate to each other and can be brought into a productive interaction. This comes down to the problem of consciousness because when we look at brain recordings when someone’s falling asleep, is asleep, or dreaming, what we have are measures of the brain that have some relationship to consciousness, to the person’s experience. On the other hand, what we’re looking at in the meditative traditions is the mind or consciousness through direct experience. So the deep question that the encounter of these traditions raises is: What is the nature of consciousness? The traditional position of many contemplative traditions is that consciousness is primary, in the sense that it’s where we start from, where all our evidence comes from, and is what we always have to relate back to. So there is no way to meaningfully talk about getting outside of consciousness to see how it measures up to something else, because we’re always working within consciousness. From a scientific perspective, however, we’re looking at biological processes. It’s not as if consciousness is observable apart from a brain and a body. So our touchstone is always incarnate, embodied. We have these two inseparable aspects of consciousness—the experiential and the embodied. And so the question arises: is the biological primary or is the experiential primary?

We need to think about a new way of doing the science of the mind, the science of consciousness. This new way integrates biology and psychology with phenomenology and works directly with first-person experience in a laboratory setting.

KAF: What do you think?

ET: What I want to do in my new book, which is a work in progress called Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience and Meditation, is show that we can’t prioritize one over the other. We have to have a non-dualistic perspective.

On the one hand, from the scientific side we have to recognize that we’re always working within experience. Scientists perform measurements that relate back to their own experience as observers and they communicate what they observer to other scientists. This takes place within social experience. So there’s no way to get outside of experience there.

On the other hand, from the contemplative perspective, experience is primary, but it’s always embodied. In meditation, you put the body in a particular posture and orient it in certain ways. You’re also in a communicative context with other individuals, such as your teacher or the practice community.  So it’s misguided to think we can prioritize one over the other—the experience or the embodiment, We need a non-dualistic perspective that doesn’t valorize one over the other.

But that leads to the concrete question, especially if you’re a scientist, how do we work with that perspective concretely? What do we actually do? We need to think about a new way of doing the science of the mind, the science of consciousness. This new way integrates biology and psychology with phenomenology and works directly with first-person experience in a laboratory setting.

KAF: Can you give an example?

ET: One way in a neuroimaging experiment, for example, is to investigate attention or awareness with individuals who have trained their minds in meditation. The working hypothesis is that trained meditators can make reports about their experience that are quite refined and precise compared to the reports we get from inexperienced undergrads. I have in mind experiments where someone is in a brain scanner and we ask them to report about some aspect or quality of their perception or emotion. With more detailed and refined first-person reports we can enrich the information available about experience and how it relates to the brain.

Here’s another example. In the last five years there’s been a renewal of interest in mind wandering or “spontaneous cognition,” as psychologists call it. This goes back to William James. The mind flows in a “stream of consciousness,” to use James’ metaphor. Mind wandering reflects self-organizing activity that you miss when you put someone in a controlled experiential situation and give them a task. When left to its own devices the brain spontaneously generates images, thoughts, plans for the future. So neuroscientists have been putting people in scanners and their minds are allowed to wander. And then the scientists probe the subjects, asking them, “when your mind was wandering at a certain moment, were you aware or not aware that it was wandering?” The hypothesis is that a person who practices certain kinds of meditation would be faster at noticing when thoughts arising and be able to describe them more precisely, such as being able to say what intention or feeling was behind the thought, whether the thought lead to another one, whether there was an immediate awareness of the thought arising, or whether it was noticed later, and so on. Highly trained meditators can make these reports because meditation trains attention and awareness of the mind itself. That’s not to devalue the importance of working with people who don’t have meditative training; in fact, it’s very important to compare them and to control for other factors like age, culture, and gender.

KAF: So someone would be in an fMRI machine spacing out and if a neuroscientists saw more flow of blood in a particular part of their brain at a certain moment they would ask what they was thinking about and see if that changed blood flow?

ET: You’d be in scanner and have a repetitive task to do, like whenever you see a letter instead of a number, you press or withhold pressing a button. It doesn’t demand too much attention so your mind naturally wanders. Then the scientists randomly ask, “Were you on task or off?” and if off task, “Were you aware or not for being off task?” Then they compare the blood flow in various brain areas immediately prior to someone saying they were off task and aware, or off task and unaware. Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia is doing this mind wandering work and I’m collaborating with her on studies with meditators.

Here’s another example: you’re in the scanner and you see a red bar graph like a mercury thermometer and the red level goes up or down depending on what your brain is doing. You can try to make it go up or down through various mental procedures. If you’re trained in meditation, you might have greater flexibility to make the bar move.

KAF: What are some applications for this ability?

ET: The management of chronic pain. We know that some aspects of pain are sensory and some aspects have to do with whether you respond to this sensory aspect adversely or with acceptance. Brain areas that have to do with judgmental response to pain are affected by meditation training. So you can combine meditation training and neuro-feedback about these regions to try to help such patients learn mental pain management skills.

KAF: In your book you use phrases like “examining the brain from within,” “first-person exploration,” and “meditative insight.” What do you mean by them?

ET: I use the word “insight” in a precise way that comes from Buddhist philosophy and mediation. It means the ability to discern what’s happening precisely in your experience from moment to moment. It’s different from focusing your attention on one thing continuously without distraction. It requires stability of attention, but the point of insight is not simply to stabilize your attention but to hold your mind quiet and unwavering so that you can discern fluctuations like the arising of a feeling or thought, or the way that feeling leads to memory. Or the way a pain sensation biases you towards an aversive reaction so that you can work with that bias and loosen it so that you can deal with that pain more adequately. So the Buddhist practice of insight targets that discerning capacity of the mind; it’s what enables us to see things as they are instead of through all our habitual filters.

In the context of working on the neuroscience of consciousness, the hypothesis would be that people with training in meditative insight can provide more nuanced information about consciousness than others who don’t have that kind of training. One example I find particularly fascinating is work on dreaming. In the last couple of years, it’s been recognized that lucid dreaming (knowing you’re dreaming when you’re dreaming) is a robust, valid state of consciousness that’s different from ordinary dreaming and from being awake. Some neuroimaging pilot studies have been done on lucid dreaming. Meditative traditions in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism work with lucid dreaming as a state of consciousness that can be used to train the mind and work with negative emotions, which are so strong in dreams. I hypothesize that those with meditative training would make good participants in experiments on lucid dreaming because they can inhabit this state in a robust and stable way and report on it by making certain kinds of eye movements while dreaming.

KAF: Meditators can report on their eye movements?

ET: The way this works is when you’re in a dream and you know you’re dreaming, and your dream ego looks left and right and so on, that shows up as regular eye movements in the REM stage, when the eyes start out moving irregularly. If you have a pre-established code for what these regular eye movements mean, you can use that as way of making reports, and as a marker of when the dream became a lucid dream. The dreamer can report on some quality of the dream. You could ask the dreamer to jump up and down 10 times in the dream and signal when they begin and finish.  Then you can compare that to jumping up and down when they’re awake. Why is that interesting? It tells you about the time course of motor activity in the brain and the subjective sense of time in the dream state compared to the time it would take to make those movements in the waking stating.

KAF: It enables us to compare brain activity to what’s going on in the mind during a lucid dream.

ET: Yes.

KAF: Let’s go on to religion and science. You object, in your book, to the bifurcation we see today between religious extremism and the scientific materialist tradition because they don’t recognize the contemplative traditions. What’s the best way to get them to recognize the contemplative tradition and use it so that we may survive together? 

ET: We have to create a scientific culture that recognizes the value of contemplative experience, and we have to create a culture of wisdom or spirituality that recognizes the value of science. We have to hold the two together. If we can’t or don’t, we will slide into one or other extreme—the resurgence of anti-scientific religious fundamentalism based on outmoded belief systems that are not valid and sustainable, or sustainable only in violent, terrible ways, or a scientific reductionism that doesn’t recognize the value of contemplative traditions, including the way that religious traditions have been the home where contemplative traditions have developed and flourished.

To be fair, many elements in religious history have been antagonistic to mysticism and contemplative experience, so it’s not as if reductionistic scientific trends are the only problem for contemplative traditions.

We have to move beyond this situation if we’re going to be a wholesome and healthy culture. The way I see forward is to working within both science and contemplative traditions to create a science that recognizes the importance and value of these traditions, while also transforming these traditions with scientific knowledge. I see this as potentially leading to a new post-religious or secular spirituality. I mean “secular” in the sense of a place where many different traditions can meet and hold something in common for the common good.

KAF: It’s interesting that your way out of this is that scientific culture should modify itself rather than the religious extremists. Why is that?

ET: Religious extremists should modify themselves. It’s important to challenge religious extremisms in a multitude of ways including from within the religious traditions themselves. I don’t mean to exclude that. But my strategy in this book is to show how science can be enriched and to point to different ways of thinking about science and religion from what we see in authors like Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Sam Harris is actually a bit different, in that he ends his book, The End of Faith, by talking about consciousness and meditative experience. It’s important for him that this be something that’s seen as valid. Hitchens sometimes says similar things, so there’s diversity among these authors and their positions. But the critical dismissal of religion most associated with Dawkins takes religion at its absolute worst, but has no discussion of how religion is not the same as theism, or how religious traditions have been the home for contemplative experience and how that kind of experience is a source of wisdom and insight relevant to science.

KAF: Is it more important to bridge the gap now than ever before?

ET: It’s more important than ever because these extremisms are stronger than ever before. Religious extremisms are particularly troubling and it’s very important to transform religious traditions in a why that maintains and enriches what’s best, which are the contemplative traditions and the social ethics informed by them, while leaving behind regressive and outmoded belief systems. That’s never been more important than now in world history. In the case of science, it’s very important that we have a deep inner appreciation of the mind and ways of working with it in a wholesome manner because this is a culture that suffers from a variety of ailments like ADHD that we treat try to treat with exclusively pharmaceuticals means. Our population is also an aging one that needs to deal with sickness and death. Our culture also inculcates certain habits of attention in children through video games and texting. I don’t mean to criticize these technologies in and of themselves, but they’re unhealthy when not placed in a richer, wider context of wholesome attentional functioning and mental wellbeing.

To create a rich science of the mind that’s adequate to the complexities of mind, we need a more precise language for talking about the mind, especially at an experiential level…. Indian and Tibetan traditions … have very systematic, precise descriptions of mental processes from the perspective of experience.

KAF: When you were talking about reporting states of mind, I wondered about having to overcome the language barrier, that is, the difficulty of describing them and interpreting how they’re reported. 

ET: First, to create a rich science of the mind that’s adequate to the complexities of mind, we need a more precise language for talking about the mind, especially at an experiential level. In western philosophy this was of concern to William James and philosophers in the phenomenological tradition, like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Edmund Husserl. In Indian and Tibetan traditions we have very systematic, precise descriptions of mental processes from the perspective of experience. These are arguably very helpful to recent developments in western science. For example, neuroscience and psychology have recently challenged the idea that there’s a sharp separation between thinking and feeling, or between reason and passion, or cognition and emotion. If you try to map these distinctions onto the brain, they make no sense. There is no area of the brain that is a thinking area vs a feeling area. If any area can be described as a cognitive area, it’s also a crucial area for emotion. 

Interestingly, Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions have very detailed taxonomies of mental phenomena, but no sharp distinction between cognition and emotion. Things are taxonomized in a different way—according to whether they’re wholesome states of mind, like compassion, or unwholesome states like envy or hatred. Attention is neither wholesome nor unwholesome in itself. These taxonomies have to do with looking at the mind so it can be trained and shaped in wholesome ways. Within that framework, some things we would call cognition are in some places and some things we’d call emotion are in other places, but there’s no distinction between cognition and emotion. This kind of taxonomy can be a useful and refreshing perspective for western science. I’m not saying we can take it and impose it on the brain. That’s too naïve.  But it could provide a shift, a different way of looking at how the mind works. That could be and has been very inspiring for neuroscientists like Richie Davidson, who’s done a lot of work on the neuroscience of meditation.

Second, when working with foreign cultural and linguistic traditions, for example long-term Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, immediately a complicated dialog has to take place in order to do  psychological or neuroscientific investigations into how their meditative practices might affect the brain and its structure and functioning. We need to understand what these practitioners are talking about when they describe their experiences. That understanding requires second-person perspective in a laboratory where we work with someone who is skilled in mediating between western science and the Tibetan language and meditative philosophical perspective. To do this kind of experimental research on meditation, you need a multi-talented team. So we get a different kind of neuroimaging lab—one with people who have an array of skills in meditation, Tibetan language, philosophy, and neuroscience. We’re creating a much richer field of knowledge than what happens when we just run studies on American undergraduate students. It’s not as if this field is just there, waiting to be put into action; we have to create it.

KAF: Are there a few such labs now in the US?

ET: There are a number of teams in Europe, the US, and Canada. Richie Davidson has spearheaded a lot of this research. He has published major scientific studies and has a big lab devoted to this kind of research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. There are others in various places.  Amishi Jha at Miami University works on mindfulness training and its impact on attention. Kalina Christoff , who I already mentioned, is working on meditation and mind wandering. Adam Anderson at my university, the University of Toronto, uses mindfulness based stress reduction, which is a clinical secular adaptation of yoga and Buddhist meditation, to investigate emotion and how we experience the self. Tanya Singer in Leipzig at the Max Planck Institute is working on empathy and compassion and meditation. Within neuroscience it’s a small group of people compared to the majority.

Within clinical psychology there many people examining mindfulness based stress reduction and mindfullness-based cognitive therapy. There are a number of groups in the US, Canada, England, and Europe. This kind of research is much more widespread than the neuroscience research on meditation.

KAF: Cultural neuroscientist Shinobu Kitayama believes that studying the brain with fMRIs and EEGs will make it possible to see how culture might be transformed into a biological process. He believes the brain is very malleable and designed to incorporate cultural information. Your work is very cross-cultural too. So do you think Western and Eastern minds may be wired differently, so that each may implement contemplative or meditative traditions differently?

ET: I wouldn’t say it that way. “West” and “East” are very general categories. “West” includes North American, Europe, and South America, and “East” encompasses Japan, China and Korea and India.

KAF: OK. But you know what I’m getting at. Might an Indian do mediation differently than a New Yorker like me?

ET: We don’t know because we don’t have enough studies and evidence that speak directly to that. But given the kind of work being done in cultural neuroscience and at the interface with anthropology, we have very good reason to believe that culture strongly shapes how the brain and the body develop. Connecting this work to meditation is speculative because we don’t have evidence that speaks directly to the way culturally different practices or styles of meditation affect the brain. But it’s reasonable to think that the way attention is trained or the way different cultures support habits of attention might be reflected in the way brain systems for attention are structured and organized. It’s reasonable to believe this. One caveat is that many people think everyone in Asia meditates. But in many Asian cultures, the majority of Buddhists don’t meditate, though they participate in social practices that have a meditative dimension. And those who do meditation don’t learn to meditate as young children. Most Asian cultures don’t start training in mediation until adolescence—maybe 15, 16 or 17. You may be trained in other things, such as memorizing texts if you’re a young monk, which indirectly train attention. So all of this is to say we really need much more research that relates the culture to the meditative practices to the brain systems, and this research hasn’t been done. But cultural neuroscience has a great perspective for looking at the kind of research that needs to be done here.

KAF: Do you think the contemplative traditions can enhance neuroplasticity and how flexible the mind and brain may be? Has this been shown?

ET: We do have some evidence from Richie Davidson’s lab. He looked at how attention is changed as a result of intensive insight or Vipassana meditation practice. He tested visual attention along with EEG measures that are well-known and well-understood markers of attentional processing. He ran attentional tests on individuals before they went on an intensive three-month retreat and after the retreat, and compared their performance also to non-mediators. He found that three months of Vipassana meditation significantly improves the function of attention and that this is reflected in EEG brainwaves associated with attention. There are other studies that show there are pretty significant changes to attention as a result of meditation. They tell us that, yes, intensive mediation practice leads to significant changes in attention and that these changes are reflected in brain functioning.

KAF: I’ll just be devil’s advocate for a moment. The contemplatives that you describe who have observed their own process of dying, have had the luxury, it seems to me, of dying during peaceful times or circumstances. I wonder if you think this tradition would help when someone is dying in an emergency or a time of war?

ET: That’s a really great question. One centerpiece of the contemplative traditions is practicing to increase awareness of death and mortality and to try to create a wholesome frame of mind that can meet death when it happens. We do have anecdotal reports of Tibetans who’ve been tortured and imprisoned who say that what got them through the torture and helped them survive was their ability to recognize that the torturer was also a sufferer, in the sense that the torturer was committing an act that was destructive to his own mind, ordered by someone else, and who was ignorantly perpetuating his own suffering. Not necessarily in the same way as the person tortured, obviously. But that he was in a predicament, that he was unhappy and in a condition of suffering.

This ability to feel compassion for someone who is severely mistreating you suggests that these monks may be exceptional individuals. This also relates to scientists who are interested in why some people who suffer severe trauma, such as these monks, don’t develop PTSD, and what mediation might or might not have to do with this kind of resilience. In any case, this kind of resilience suggests to me that the ability to deal with death in variety of situations as a dying person or caregiver could be significantly improved by having contemplative ways to face suffering.

The crucial point here is that we are a culture that refuses to face the reality of dying, that flees from it, that does everything it can to hide it, and creates horrific hospital environments in which to end one’s days. A scientific culture that has a contemplative mindset and allows itself to recognize the reality of death, and works with that contemplative perspective to create situations more socially harmonious and beneficial to the dying and those dealing with the dying, is something we desperately need.

The crucial point here is that we are a culture that refuses to face the reality of dying, that flees from it, that does everything it can to hide it, and creates horrific hospital environments in which to end one’s days. A scientific culture that has a contemplative mindset and allows itself to recognize the reality of death, and works with that contemplative perspective to create situations more socially harmonious and beneficial to the dying and those dealing with the dying, is something we desperately need. There are people already working with this in hospice care. Joan Halifax, Roshi, a Buddhist teacher in Santa Fe, NM, has a contemplative training program called “Being with Dying” to help clinicians be more effective with end-of-life care. That’s where I see real value of the contemplative perspective on death.

KAF: You write that attention is unstable and that meta-awareness is hard. I think it’s getting more unstable with people multitasking—kids listening to iTunes while playing video games and doing homework these and other technologies on in the background. I worry that they spread attention thin, whereas video games are one-pointed concentration, to use your phrase. So how can we get kids who grew up with these technologies to be contemplative? What if they don’t want to be?

ET: That connects to work people are trying to do with mindfulness and education. What may be the most important is to develop mindfulness training methods or programs that aren’t religious but secularize and can be used in public school settings. Mindfulness methods with no religious content and acceptable to those you come from one religion or another, or no religion.

KAF: Is there an attempt to do this with religion?

ET: Within religion there are contemplative movements within Christianity and Judaism in religious schools. I don’t know about Islam.

KAF: You’d like to see it secularized?

ET: I’d like to both see secular and non-secular. Both are essential. I also think it’s urgent to restructure schools in a way that doesn’t simply import these mindfulness methods into the schools and leave everything else unchanged. They need to be integrated with other ways of restructuring curricula so that they’re integrated in a meaningful way.

I’m a child of the ‘70s. I was raised around yoga and meditation. Some of it was funny and was the silliness of the times but other aspects of it were very important and had lasting value for me. I learned a very simple breath-centering mantra when I was around seven years old. It was crucial for me to have the sense that there was a place to go mentally to center myself in order to deal with the difficulties you face when you’re a kid. That’s a human birth right. We all have that ability and we should all be a given some training that gives us that ability just as we’re trained to learn the multiplication tables and play basketball. That would be really important. Kids who want to resist it will and that’s not worth directly fighting. It’s more important to make this available. Kids fight things at different developmental stages and it’s important for kids to fight certain things so that’s part of life and not troubling to me. But if all we have are texting and video games and iPods and things like that to capture our attention, then we’re unbalanced. It’s not that we should get rid of those things and they won’t go away anyway. It’s that they should be situated in broader, richer context.

KAF: The New York Times recently ran two stories about meditation and Yoga coming back.  “Look Who’s Meditating Now,” was in the Fashion and Style section. There’s a celebrity and it references celebrity faddism with the Kabala. It mentions that the squash team at Trinity College begins its meets by mediating together. The other story, “Agent Pursues a Cut of the Yoga Boom,” was a local piece.  But there was a meeting in December and there were some statistics about how meditation may reduce hypertension and diabetes. Can you comment on whether there’s fashion here or whether the contemplative tradition can get diluted.

ET: On the one hand, anything that improves quality of life is great. On the other hand, it’s a dilution of the real point and purpose of contemplative traditions to assimilate them into the American self-help agenda. The self-help agenda is about a self that is very egotistically conceived and the meditative traditions are about breaking that down and creating a sense of compassion and connectedness and empathy for other suffering beings—not just humans but also animals. There is an element of fashion and faddism. A self-help agenda can assimilate something new that’s driven by marketing. I’m don’t think that’s of particularly deep, lasting value.

KAF: Whom do you most want to reach with your new book?

ET: My hope is to reach a wide audience of scientists, clinicians, and philosophers—professionals and clinicians who have an interest in nature of mind and consciousness and want to know how meditation and neuroscience are creating a new, richer picture of the human mind and consciousness. I especially like the idea of reaching graduate and undergraduate students because they’re the future of knowledge. To inspire them with this vision, that would be a great accomplishment.

Lawrence Krauss Presents “Secular Sermon” on Theoretical Physics and the Meaning of Life

Alain de Botton's The School of Life brought Lawrence Krauss (Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics Departments at Arizona State University and director of the Origins Initiative) to London’s Conway Hall to deliver one of their signature “Secular Sermons.” You can watch his 45-minute presentation below and learn how science, as he tells it, both describes and offers an escape from reality.

Lawrence Krauss Presents “Secular Sermon” on Theoretical Physics and the Meaning of Life

October 29th, 2012

Alain de Botton, the writer who “has always tried to get ideas to impact on the way we actually live,” started The School of Life in order to offer an education crafted “according to things we all tend to care about: careers, relationships, politics, travels, families.” At its central London location, you can enroll in courses like “How to Have Better Conversations,” “How to Balance Work with Life,” and, perhaps most critically important of all,  “How to Be Cool.” This seems like just the sort of institution which won’t confront you with the sort of numerically rigorous, seemingly abstract math and science classes that gave us grief in our regular educations. Yet de Botton and his School of Life co-founders understand that just because a subject assigns aggravating homework doesn’t mark it out as irrelevant. According to Lawrence Krauss, Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics Departments at Arizona State University and director of the Origins Initiative, physics could hardly have more to do with your daily experiences.

The School of Life brought Krauss to London’s Conway Hall to deliver one of their signature “Secular Sermons.” (De Botton, you may know, recently published a manifesto calling for a religion for atheists.) You can watch his 45-minute presentation free online and learn how science, as he tells it, both describes and offers an escape from reality. Using examples from his field of physics, Krauss demonstrates how science, by zooming in as close as possible or zooming out as far as possible, puts our everyday concerns and quibbles in proper context. What’s more, he notes,physics has it that we’re all made up of the same bits and pieces as everything, and thus everyone, else. Have you ever heard a more elegant argument for the notion of universal connectedness? But this isn’t to say that Krauss marshals the fruits of such rigorous study in the name of warm-and-fuzzy pronouncements. When you hear him declare how physics will make you understand that “you’re even more insignificant than you thought,” you’ll know just how far his sensibility lays from either warmth or fuzziness. The life of a physicist, so I’ve heard, benefits from a little gallows humor.

Related content:

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Psych Files Podcast - Can We Teach Critical Thinking?

This is a cool discussion on critical thinking that revolves around the decision of the Texas GOP to oppose the teaching of critical thinking in the schools. This is big enough news that even
Stephen Colbert had his entertaining take on this issue (click here).

This what their 2012 platform says:
Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
"I done wan nobody makin my kids think. Hell, I tell em wha they belief."

Here are a couple of other sections from their education platform:
Religious Freedom in Public Schools – We urge school administrators and officials to inform Texas school students specifically of their First Amendment rights to pray and engage in religious speech, individually or in groups, on school property without government interference. We urge the Legislature to end censorship of discussion of religion in our founding documents and encourage discussing those documents.
And this . . .
Controversial Theories – We support objective teaching and equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories. We believe theories such as life origins and environmental change should be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced. Teachers and students should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these theories openly and without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind.

Oy Vey! I guess they think that if they can make the population dumb enough and incapable of questioning what they are told, then they can do whatever they want. It has worked so far.

But this is the state that gave us Governor and then President Bush, not to mention that strangely incoherent man who ran for the GOP nomination this year, Governor Rick Perry.

By the way, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham (University of Virginia), and author of Cognition: The Thinking Animal, argues that it cannot be taught in this 2007 article. Willingham defines critical thinking first, a defintion that feels hard to argue with, but must feel scary to the Texas GOP:
Critical thinking consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth. Then too, there are specific types of critical thinking that are characteristic of different subject matter: That’s what we mean when we refer to “thinking like a scientist” or “thinking like a historian.”
He then suggests that all the research to date says that we can't teach critical thinking:
After more than 20 years of lamentation, exhortation, and little improvement, maybe it’s time to ask a fundamental question: Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill.
Finally, here is an expanded definition of critical thinking that helps set the stage for this discussion (and I highly recommend the paper these quotes come from, Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? From American Educator, Summer 2007).
Critical reasoning, decision making, and problem solving—which, for brevity’s sake, I will refer to as critical thinking—have three key features: effectiveness, novelty, and self-direction. Critical thinking is effective in that it avoids common pitfalls, such as seeing only one side of an issue, discounting new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning from passion rather than logic, failing to support statements with evidence, and so on. Critical thinking is novel in that you don’t simply remember a solution or a situation that is similar enough to guide you. For example, solving a complex but familiar physics problem by applying a multi-step algorithm isn’t critical thinking because you are really drawing on memory to solve the problem. But devising a new algorithm is critical thinking. Critical thinking is self-directed in that the thinker must be calling the shots: We wouldn’t give a student much credit for critical thinking if the teacher were prompting each step he took.
And now, your podcast.

The Psych Files Podcast, Ep 183: Critical Thinking – Important? Yes. But Can We Teach It? Well….

Why does it concern psychologists that the Texas GOP platform recently opposed the teaching of critical thinking? Most of us have been told since we were very young that critical thinking is very important. Psychologists certainly agree and a lot of time spent in most psychology classes is spent learning how to think critically. Why is it such a central part of our classes? And here’s a kicker: it might be a lot harder to teach it than we had hoped. Find out why critical thinking is so central to psychology. Sounds kinda dry? I think you’ll find this a lot of fun (in a mental kind of way…).

Resources on Critical Thinking

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. – 2012 Platform of the Republican Party of Texas
School Health Care – We urge legislators to prohibit reproductive health care services, including counseling, referrals, and distribution of condoms and contraception through public schools. We support the parents’ right to choose, without penalty, which medications are administered to their minor children. We oppose medical clinics on school property except higher education and health care for students without parental consent. — 2012 Platform of the Republican Party of Texas

Empathy Represses Analytic Thought, and Vice Versa

This is an interesting finding . . . . When we are at rest, our brains move back-and-forth between the social and analytical networks. However, when are engaged in a task, we employ the appropriate neural pathway for that task. This study suggests that we have a built-in "neural constraint" on our ability to use multiple pathways, or least to be both empathetic and analytic, at the same time.

As a therapist, during sessions with clients I am generally doing my best to use the empathetic pathways, trying to be "experience near," as the Self Psychologists would say. I tend not to analyze the session until I am doing notes, which is when I can conceptualize the session within the psychological framework(s) I employ. It never occurred to me before that this was a necessary division of labor that my brain imposes on me.

Full Citation:
Anthony I. Jack, Abigail Dawson, Katelyn Begany, Regina L. Leckie, Kevin Barry, Angela Ciccia, Abraham Snyder. fMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains. NeuroImage, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.10.061

When the brain fires up the network of neurons that allows us to empathize, it suppresses the network used for analysis, new research shows. (Credit: © peshkova / Fotolia)

Empathy Represses Analytic Thought, and Vice Versa: Brain Physiology Limts Simultaneous Use of Both Networks

ScienceDaily (Oct. 30, 2012) — New research shows a simple reason why even the most intelligent, complex brains can be taken by a swindler's story -- one that upon a second look offers clues it was false.

When the brain fires up the network of neurons that allows us to empathize, it suppresses the network used for analysis, a pivotal study led by a Case Western Reserve University researcher shows.
How could a CEO be so blind to the public relations fiasco his cost-cutting decision has made?
When the analytic network is engaged, our ability to appreciate the human cost of our action is repressed.

At rest, our brains cycle between the social and analytical networks. But when presented with a task, healthy adults engage the appropriate neural pathway, the researchers found.

The study shows for the first time that we have a built-in neural constraint on our ability to be both empathetic and analytic at the same time.

The work suggests that established theories about two competing networks within the brain must be revised. More, it provides insights into the operation of a healthy mind versus those of the mentally ill or developmentally disabled.

"This is the cognitive structure we've evolved," said Anthony Jack, an assistant professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve and lead author of the new study. "Empathetic and analytic thinking are, at least to some extent, mutually exclusive in the brain."

The research is published in the current online issue of NeuroImage.

A number of earlier studies showed that two large scale brain networks are in tension in the brain, one which is known as the default mode network and a second known as the task positive network. But other researchers have suggested that different mechanisms drive this tension:
  • One theory says that we have one network for engaging in goal directed tasks. This theory posits that our second network allows the mind to wander.
  • The other theory says that one network is for external attention, and the second network is for internal attention.
The new study shows that adults presented with social or analytical problems -- all external stimuli -- consistently engaged the appropriate neural pathway to solve the problem, while repressing the other pathway. The see-sawing brain activity was recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Jack worked with former Case Western Reserve undergraduates Abigail Dawson, now a graduate student at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand; Katelyn Begany, now a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley; and Kevin P. Barry, now a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Other co-authors are, from Case Western Reserve: former research assistant, Regina L. Leckie and Angela H. Ciccia, an assistant professor of psychological sciences; and Abraham Z. Snyder, MD, a professor of radiology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Jack said that a philosophical question inspired the study design: "The most persistent question in the philosophy of mind is the problem of consciousness. Why can we describe the workings of a brain, but that doesn't tell us what it's like to be that person?"

"The disconnect between experiential understanding and scientific understanding is known as the explanatory gap," Jack said. "In 2006, the philosopher Philip Robbins and I got together and we came up with a pretty crazy, bold hypothesis: that the explanatory gap is driven by our neural structure. I was genuinely surprised to see how powerfully these findings fit that theory." Philip Robbins is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri.

These findings suggest the same neural phenomenon drives the explanatory gap as occurs when we look at a visual illusion such as the duck-rabbit, he continued. The drawing of the head of the animal can be seen as a duck facing one direction or a rabbit facing the other, but you can't see both at once.

"That is called perceptual rivalry, and it occurs because of neural inhibition between the two representations," Jack said. "What we see in this study is similar, but much more wide-scale. We see neural inhibition between the entire brain network we use to socially, emotionally and morally engage with others, and the entire network we use for scientific, mathematical and logical reasoning.

"This shows scientific accounts really do leave something out -- the human touch. A major challenge for the science of the mind is how we can better translate between the cold and distant mechanical descriptions that neuroscience produces, and the emotionally engaged intuitive understanding which allows us to relate to one another as people."

The researchers recruited 45 healthy college students, and asked each to take five 10-minute turns inside a magnetic resonance imager. Meanwhile, the researchers randomly presented them with 20 written and 20 video problems that required them to think about how others might feel and with 20 written and 20 video problems that required physics to solve.

After reading the text or viewing the video, the students had to provide an answer to a yes-no question within seven seconds. Each student's session in the MRI included twenty 27-second rest periods, as well as variable delays between trials lasting 1, 3 or 5 seconds. Students were told to look at a red cross on the screen in front of them and relax during the rests.

The MRI images showed that social problems deactivated brain regions associated with analysis, and activated the social network. This finding held true whether the questions came via video or print. Meanwhile, the physics questions deactivated the brain regions associated with empathizing and activated the analytical network.

"When subjects are lying in a scanner with nothing to do, which we call the resting state, they naturally cycle between the two networks," Jack said. "This tells us that it's the structure of the adult brain that is driving this, that it's a physiological constraint on cognition."

The finding has bearings on a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders, from anxiety, depression and ADHD to schizophrenia -- all of which are characterized by social dysfunction of some sort, Jack said. "Treatment needs to target a balance between these two networks. At present most rehabilitation, and more broadly most educational efforts of any sort, focus on tuning up the analytic network. Yet, we found more cortex dedicated to the social network."

Perhaps most clearly, the theory makes sense in regards to developmental disabilities such as autism and Williams syndrome. Autism is often characterized by a strong ability to solve visuospatial problems, such as mentally manipulating two and three-dimensional figures, but poor social skills. People with Williams syndrome are very warm and friendly, but perform poorly on visuospatial tests.

But, even healthy adults can rely too much on one network, Jack said. A look at newspaper business pages offers some examples.

"You want the CEO of a company to be highly analytical in order to run a company efficiently, otherwise it will go out of business," he said. "But, you can lose your moral compass if you get stuck in an analytic way of thinking."

"You'll never get by without both networks," Jack continued. "You don't want to favor one, but cycle efficiently between them, and employ the right network at the right time."

The researchers continue to test the theory, studying whether brains will shift from the social network to the analytical when students in the MRI see people depicted in a dehumanizing way, that is, as animals or objects. The group is also studying whether disgust and social stereotyping confound our moral compass by recruiting the analytical network and depressing social network activity.

All in the Mind - How Language Shapes Thought

The notion that the language we live and speak (and with which we think) shapes our thinking and our perception is not new, and it is still widely debated among linguists, philosophers, and neuroscientists (among others). However, Lera Boroditsky, of Stanford University, offers new proof that this idea is more than a notion - it's a reality.

Here are a couple of Boroditsky's papers from the popular press (more at her site):
Enjoy the discussion.

How language shapes thought

Broadcast: Sunday 28 October 2012
It’s been controversial for centuries but new empirical research suggests that language has a powerful influence over the way we think and perceive the world. Lera Boroditsky from Stanford University suggests that Japanese and Spanish speakers have a different sense of blame, and some Indigenous Australians have a different sense of spaceall because of the language they speak.



Presenter: Lynne Malcolm

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

What would Halloween be without the Linus and the Great Pumpkin, Snoopy's happy dance with a falling leaf, Lucy pulling away the football from Charlie Brown, and on and on.

Somehow, even at 45 years of age, the holidays are empty without the classic Charlie Brown cartoons. I guess I'm nostalgic for the world the Charles Schulz imagined.

Watch Nosferatu Online - The Perfect Halloween Vampire Film

Nosferatu is one of my favorite horror films - ever - and also one of the greatest silent films ever made. You can watch it online for free this Halloween.

Watch the Quintessential Vampire Film Nosferatu Free Online as Halloween Approaches

October 26th, 2012

What, you haven’t seen Nosferatu yet? But you’re in luck: not only do you still have a few days left to fit this seminal classic of vampiric cinema into your Halloween viewing rotation, but when the 31st comes, you can watch it free online yet again. An inspiration for countless vampire films that would follow over the next ninety years, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent feature adapts Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but just loosely enough so that it could put its own stamp on the myth and not actually have to pay for rights to the novel. Jonathan and Mina Harker? Now Thomas and Ellen Hutter. Jonathan’s boss Renfield? Now a fellow named Knock. Count Dracula, to whose vast and crumbling estate Renfield sends the hapless Jonathan? Now Count Orlok — and unforgettably so. We can post no more relevant endorsement of Nosferatu‘s enduring value than to say that it remains scary, or at least eerie, to this day. I defy any sophisticated modern viewer to spend All Hallows’ eve with this picture and not come away feeling faintly unsettled.

Part of it has to do with sheer age: while some visual effects haven’t held up — get a load of Orlok escaping his coffin in the ship’s cargo hold, employing a technique trusted by every nine-year-old with a video camera — the deeply worn look and feel seems, at moments, to mark the film as coming from a distant past when aristocratic blood-sucking living corpses may as well have existed. This same process has, over four decades, imbued with a patina of menace every horror film made in the seventies. Fans of the 1979 Werner Herzog-Klaus Kinski collaboration Nosferatu the Vampyre, a companion piece obviously worth viewing in any case, can attest to this. You might also consider incorporating in your Halloween night viewing E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, a satire of the 1920s film industry’s collision of eccentric old-world craftsmanship and savage commercial buffoonery which imagines Orlok as having been played by a geniune vampire. As for Francis Ford Coppola’s rights-having 1992 adaptation Bram Stoker’s Dracula… well, its chief point of interest is still Gary Oldman’s hairstyle.

You can always find Nosferatu listed in our collection of 500 Free Movies Online.

Related content:

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.