Saturday, December 22, 2012

NRA - 1,000 Dead Children (in a Single Killing) Is the Threshold for Rethinking Our Positions

This is from last May (2012) in The Onion - more relevant today than it was then, which is probably why they re-posted it. Yes, it's satire, technically, but it's much more true than it should be.

NRA Sets 1,000 Killed In School Shooting As Amount It Would Take For Them To Reconsider Much Of Anything

'Yeah, Something Like 1,000 Dead Kids,' Reports Spokesperson

ISSUE 48•22 • May 25, 2012

NRA officials said the school would have to be "super, super bloody" after the shooting for the organization to question their pro-gun stance.

FAIRFAX, VA—National Rifle Association Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre said Monday that somewhere around 1,000 kids would have to die in a school shooting in order for the organization to reconsider their longstanding opposition to gun control.

"Yeah, that's probably the only way we'd reassess much of anything at this point: 1,000 dead kids, shot up pretty good, lying face down in the school auditorium or something like that," LaPierre said, noting that anything less than 1,000 dead kids would not be enough for the NRA to stop urging Congress to pass pro-gun legislation. "I mean, that's just a ballpark number, but I imagine seeing 1,000 or so body bags being wheeled out of a school and a whole town of crying parents would probably make us reflect on our values for at least a little bit."

"So yeah, more or less 1,000 dead kids," LaPierre added. "Something around there. And teachers don't count."

In his 21st year leading the right-wing lobbying group, LaPierre reiterated that "350 or 470 dead kids or some low number like that" would have no impact on the NRA's belief that there should be more firearms on college campuses or that concealed carry laws should be more lax.

In order to reconsider their position on the Brady Bill, this amount of kids multiplied by 200 would have to be shot to death in school.

In addition, LaPierre added that while 800 dead kids in one school shooting would "certainly be a little closer to the number we're talking about here," ultimately that amount would, according to the NRA, constitute more of a society issue than a gun issue.

"For us to come anywhere close to reassessing our beliefs, it's gotta be one of those deals where a ton of kids get their heads blown off in school and there is one of those big, town-wide memorial services where they read off all the names of all the dead kids and you feel like, wow, that has to be somewhere around 1,000 names," said LaPierre, adding that seeing pictures of all the dead kids in front of the "pastor or whoever is doing the eulogies or whatever" might be a sobering enough visual for the NRA to reconsider whether it should be harder, not easier, to acquire firearms. "And I think the shooter would also have to use around 30 different types of guns in the shooting in order for us to rethink what the Founding Fathers intended when they wrote the Second Amendment."

The former member of the American Conservative Union's board of directors further qualified his statement, adding that the NRA's response to 1,000 or so kids being mowed down by a school shooter would more than likely vary based on the age of the students, the school's demographics, and the extenuating circumstances of the situation as a whole.

Though he didn't offer a reason why, LaPierre said 1,000 dead 14-year-olds is "not even close to the same thing" as 1,000 dead 18-year-olds.

"If we're talking about one of those big high schools with 4,000 students then 1,000 dead ones aren't really even a drop in the bucket, you know?" LaPierre said, explaining that if an uzi-carrying 16-year-old only kills 45 percent of a school's total population, the NRA would still be more inclined to blame the shooting on poor parenting, and wouldn't consider soft gun laws to be part of the problem. "Oh, and of course, if it's a giant state university or something like that then I'd imagine we'd need to see numbers closer to 8,000 dead kids before we really even begin to talk about potentially having a conversation about changing our philosophy."

"And for argument's sake, let's say it's a situation where 999 people die and the 1,000th person is just the school shooter blowing his brains out," LaPierre continued. "Do you honestly expect me to take that seriously? To me, that seems more like an isolated incident that shouldn't really impact everyone's rights, you know?"

While some believed that LaPierre's remarks finally indicated a slight loosening of the NRA's pro-gun stance, LaPierre was forced to clarify his comments after his membership criticized him for introducing the idea that a playground full of bullet-riddled dead kids might cause the NRA to reconsider their position on gun control if even for a second.

"At the end of the day, I want to make it very clear that the NRA is in absolutely no rush to change anything," LaPierre later said in a written statement. "One thousand dead kids would have very little impact on us. Now if 50,000 kids died in a school shooting that might be a different story. Something around 50,000 to 80,000 dead kids. You know what, forget that. Maybe something closer to 250,000. Yeah, 250,000 dead kids."

Maybe It's Time - Evolutionary Psychology and More . . .

Here are more links from Bookforum's Omnivore blog. This collection begins with a series of articles from the journal, Evolutionary Psychology. It's easy to dismiss this newer field of psychology as reductionist, since their primary agenda is to understand human behavior within an evolutionary context, a move that often reduces human complexity to what Dawkins called "the selfish gene."

While there is more than that to human behavior and experience, there are also a few folks in this camp who are not completely reductionist, so there is hope for evolutionary psychology as a field of study.

Maybe it's time

DEC 21 2012 

Taking the Philosophical Pulse

Another excellent collection of links from Bookforum's Omnivore blog, this one focusing on recent philosophy material out there on the internets.

The philosophical pulse

DEC 21 2012 

  • From Avant: The Journal of the Philosophical-Interdisciplinary Vanguard, immune system, immune self: A special issue on the philosophy of immunology
  • From Figure/Ground Communication, Andrew Iliadis interviews John Searle
  • The folly of scientism: Austin L. Hughes challenges the trespassing of scientists on philosophy’s domain.
  • From 3:AM, Jessica Berry stays cool calm and collected as she pronounces Nietzsche a Pyrrhonian skeptic; Gary Gutting has his finger on the philosophical pulse, writing books and articles and writing regularly for The Stone philosophers’ blog at the New York Times to keep everyone in the know; and John Haldane is a Thomist analytic philosopher, the P Daddy of the philosophy of religion. 
  • From Arcade, William Egginton on the novel and the origins of modern philosophy
  • Anat Biletzki reviews Philosophical Delusion and its Therapy: Outline of a Philosophical Revolution by Eugen Fischer. 
  • Who’s lying, then? David Pitts on Epimenides of Crete and his infamous Liar Paradox. 
  • Between the Scylla of Russell nor the Charybdis of Wikipedia: Justin E. H. Smith on philosophometry
  • Train philosophers with Pearl and Kahneman, not Plato and Kant.

Friday, December 21, 2012

All Living Things Are Part of a System

This short excerpt is from an article by Louis W. Sander, a psychoanalyst, former Professor of Psychiatry (Boston University School of Medicine), and currently is Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus (University of Colorado School of Medicine). The article is Thinking Differently: Principles of Process in Living Systems and the Specificity of Being Known [Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 12(1):11–42, 2002].

His writings have been collected in Living Systems, Evolving Consciousness, and the Emerging Person: A Selection of Papers from the Life Work of Louis Sander (Psychoanalytic Inquiry Book Series).

I really like his perspective in this section - it has become increasingly impossible not to take a systems approach in understanding how individuals (from amoebas to human beings) interact and and participate in the "ever-ongoing exchange with its surround." He seems to be offering here another take on complex adaptive systems, from the perspective of psychoanalysis.

Life Process and Paradox

Immediately we begin to think about life and the mystery of life process, we begin to confront paradox, actually a list of paradoxes. For example, we cannot think of any organism, down to the smallest microbe, that lives without having to think of an environment within which it must be in an ever-ongoing interaction. Thus, if we begin with life, we begin not with the living organism itself, but with a “system”—the organism and its environment. But, if we begin with a system—the organism always within an ever-ongoing exchange with its surround—we are thinking of process, a continuing process with many levels of complexity occurring together. A process with many levels of complexity occurring together immediately becomes paradoxical since life process requires both ongoing continuity and ongoing change. What appears to have the stability of the material structure of the body is found to be, itself, within a flow of change. The molecules that make up the body today are not the same molecules that constructed it a month ago. This flow of change, paradoxically, must maintain the organized wholeness of the organism, while its components move through disorganization, removal, and replacement, all the while maintaining the vital coherence of the organism, essential for the continuity of its life. How can all this be done? How can continuity, discontinuity, and wholeness go on together? What we have been accustomed to thinking of as having the permanence of “structure” we now seek to understand as an ongoing process, a process “organizing complexity.” Later we will come to a way of thinking about this by taking a glimpse at chaos (or complexity) theory, but first let us return to paradox—that, by thinking of life as process, we must think of the organism actively and continuously engaged with its ecology at a complex hierarchy of levels—that is, we must think of the functioning of a system, not of life as the property of the organism alone.

Let us start with the meaning Webster gives to the word system: an assemblage of objects united by some form of regular interaction or interdependence or “a group of diverse units so combined as to form an integral whole.” For life to continue over time, the combining of diverse units to form an “integral whole” also must be continuous over time. If a coherently organized wholeness stops, life begins to fail; if process stops, life stops. We know that in living systems life does stop, but we know also that the new keeps appearing. Thus we must think of process as a flow of input and output in the system through an ever-moving, overarching, organizing process that, through ongoing interaction between organism and surround, is constantly achieving continuity in the face of discontinuity—rather than thinking of the continuity of life as having a kind of given permanence. It is process at all levels of complexity, from the molecular to our ecology within our solar system, that is required to keep the almost unimaginable diversity of parts combining to achieve the “integral whole” that the living system represents.[1]

1. Beebe and Lachmann (1996) have been on a similar search for principles of process in living systems at the human level, coming up with their “three principles of salience”: Regulation, Disruption and Repair, and Heightened Affective Moments. The experience of “heightened affective moments” provides the essential positive affects in our experiencing that accompany being “together-with” another. At the psychological level, then, events that generate the experiencing of positive affects become the source of the essential motivating impetus that pushes us to restore connection when it has become disrupted. Without something of this positive dimension as part of our framework of expectancy, we become vulnerable to a lapse into the dis-organization of depression or illness.

Dave Emerson - Yoga for Trauma Survivors

Interesting talk - I have been seeing more and more books and papers about using yoga as a healing modality for trauma. In this podcast from Safe Space Radio, Dr. Anne interviews Dave Emerson (Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute), who co-wrote, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body, about the development of “trauma-sensitive yoga.”

Yoga for Trauma Survivors

An interview with yoga teacher and author, Dave Emerson, who co-wrote, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga about the development of “trauma-sensitive yoga.” Dave begins by talking about how trauma is held in the body, and can be addressed through the body, often in conjunction with talk therapy. Dave talks about the many ways yoga teachers and therapists at the Trauma Center in Boston collaborated to modify traditional yoga to make it safer for trauma survivors. He discusses four themes that guide their work, each of which has been deeply shaken by trauma and each of which can be directly impacted by the practice of yoga: making choices based on listening to the body, present moment awareness, feeling effective and developing ways to be in rhythm with others. Lastly, Dave talks about their research showing that yoga is so effective a treatment that after two months, patients who previously had PTSD, and did trauma-sensitive yoga, no longer meet the criteria for the diagnosis!

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This show aired on December 19th, 2012

Ketamine-Like Anti-Depressant Works Within Hours

Ketamine has been shown in at least a dozen studies by now to alleviate the symptoms of treatment-resistant depression within hours, and with a couple of follow-up treatments, the person can remain free of disabling depression for weeks or months.

The only downside to this is that Ketamine is a powerful drug that can cause hallucinations, hypertension, memory deficits, and other cognitive impairment in some users (as well as analgesia, anesthesia). So researchers have been trying to come up with a chemically similar analogue that removes the side effects - seems they may have done it.

It appears that this chemical also has powerful impact on pro-social behavior in some autistic individuals [see Moskal JR, Burgdorf J, Kroes RA, Brudzynski SM, Panksepp J. (2012, Oct). A novel NMDA receptor glycine-site partial agonist, GLYX-13, has therapeutic potential for the treatment of autism. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2011 Oct;35(9):1982-8. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.06.006].

The original abstract for the paper is below - the article is behind a paywall.

New Anti-Depressant Works Within Hours 
Orion Jones on December 16, 2012, 1:30 PM

What's the Latest Development?

Researchers at Northwestern University are testing a new drug that can relieve the symptoms of depression within hours. Called GLYX-13, the new formula is similar to Ketamine, a strong sedative used in veterinary medicine and after-parties of a certain flavor. While both drugs target NMDA receptors, quickly removing symptoms of depression, GLYX-13 is hallucination-free. "Those who received the drug reported that their symptoms got better within two hours, with no significant side effects. The drug also performed significantly better than the placebo."

What's the Big Idea?

In the study, GLYX-13 or a placebo was given to 116 patients with depression that did not respond to other kinds of treatment. Scientists reckon that the new drug works by boosting either the strength or number of connections between neurons, although it is not yet clear why this improves symptoms. "Gerard Sanacora at Yale School of Medicine thinks that people with depression may experience a slump in activity in the frontal cortex of the brain, and that the drug might reverse this." Northwestern scientists want to help the drug to market by 2016.
Here is the abstract, hosted by Nature.

GLYX-13, an NMDA Receptor Glycine-Site Functional Partial Agonist, Induces Antidepressant-Like Effects Without Ketamine-Like Side Effects

Jeffrey Burgdorf, Xiao-lei Zhang, Katherine L Nicholson, Robert L Balster, J David Leander, Patric K Stanton, Amanda L Gross, Roger A Kroes and Joseph R Moskal


Recent human clinical studies with the NMDA receptor (NMDAR) antagonist ketamine have revealed profound and long-lasting antidepressant effects with rapid onset in several clinical trials, but antidepressant effects were preceded by dissociative side effects. Here we show that GLYX-13, a novel NMDA receptor glycine-site functional partial agonist, produces an antidepressant-like effect in the Porsolt, novelty induced hypophagia, and learned helplessness tests in rats without exhibiting substance abuse-related, gating, and sedative side effects of ketamine in the drug discrimination, conditioned place preference, pre-pulse inhibition and open field tests. Like ketamine, the GLYX-13-induced antidepressant-like effects required AMPA/ kainate receptor activation as evidenced by the ability of NBQX to abolish the antidepressant-like effect. Both GLYX-13 and ketamine persistently (24 hr) enhanced the induction of long-term potentiation of synaptic transmission and the magnitude of NMDAR-NR2B conductance at rat Schaffer collateral-CA1 synapses in vitro. Cell surface biotinylation studies showed that both GLYX-13 and ketamine led to increases in both NR2B and GluR1 protein levels as measured by Western analysis, whereas no changes were seen in mRNA expression (microarray and qRT-PCR). GLYX-13, unlike ketamine, produced its antidepressant-like effect when injected directly into the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). These results suggest that GLYX-13 produces an antidepressant-like effect without the side effects seen with ketamine at least in part by directly modulating NR2B-containing NMDARs in the MPFC. Furthermore, the enhancement of ‘metaplasticity’ by both GLYX-13 and ketamine may help explain the long-lasting antidepressant effects of these NMDAR modulators. GLYX-13 is currently in a Phase II clinical development program for treatment-resistant depression.

Full Citation:
Burgdorf, J, Zhang, X, Nicholson, KL, Balster, RL, Leander, JD, Stanton, PK, Gross, AL, Kroes, RA, and Moskal, JR. (2012, Dec 3). GLYX-13, an NMDA Receptor Glycine-Site Functional Partial Agonist, Induces Antidepressant-Like Effects Without Ketamine-Like Side Effects. Neuropsychopharmacology, doi:10.1038/npp.2012.246

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wade Davis - The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

Interesting talk about the loss of knowledge as we progressively destroy the few remaining indigenous cultures around the planet. This is one of several videos being pout up online from the Creative Innovation 2012 conference in Australia.

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Wade Davis

Wade Davis is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. An ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. In this talk at the Creative Innovation 2012 conference, Davis speaks about the world's at-risk indigenous cultures, and the vast archive and knowledge and expertise that they represent, and how we can learn from them. November 2012.

Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky, Marvin Minsky, and Others Discuss the Roots of Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Science, and Neuroscience

Excellent and educational discussion, part of the MIT150 celebration of symposia in 2011, honoring the past and looking to the future, and organized by MIT scholars around topics of interest to them and others in their academic or research communities.

Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky, Marvin Minsky, and Others Discuss the Roots of Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Science, and Neuroscience
Moderator: Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology, Harvard University

* Emilio Bizzi, MIT Institute Professor; Founding Member, McGovern Institute for Brain Research
* Sydney Brenner, Senior Distinguished Fellow, Crick-Jacobs Center, Salk Institute
 for Biological Studies
* Noam Chomsky, MIT Institute Professor, Emeritus; Department of Linguistics and Philosophy
* Marvin Minsky, Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, Emeritus, MIT

* Barbara H. Partee PhD '65, Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Linguistics and Philosophy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

* Patrick H. Winston '65 SM '67 PhD '70, Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science, MIT
; Principal Investigator, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; Chairman and Co-founder, Ascent Technology

Alva Noë - Science And The Allure Of 'Nothing But'

In this recent post at NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, Alva Noë takes on the topic of reductionism, especially as it applies to consciousness studies, and being a philosopher, he has a stake in this on-going debate.

In part this is a reply to Francis Crick's notion that you are your brain. Noë disagrees:
You are not your brain. You are a brain, in a body, situated in an environment, an environment that includes other people, artifacts, as well as mere physical stuff. And when you are living, then you are in continuous interaction and transaction with the surrounding world.
No matter where you look in the "tree of life," from humans down to single cell organisms, all living things are embedded in an environment with which they interact at all times and on which their life depends. In intersubjective developmental theory, it's called the "surround," meaning the physical environment, the biological systems, the interpersonal space, and so on, none of which can be removed without compromising the living creature.

You are much more than your brain.

Science And The Allure Of 'Nothing But'

December 16, 2012

A car cannot be reduced to an engine, just as a person cannot be reduced to a brain.
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Science has yet to produce any robust theory of how neural activity gives rise to thought, feeling, emotion, personality, conscious experience.

Indeed, at the present time, we don't even have a good sketch of what such a brain-based theory would look like.

This not a controversial claim.

And yet it counts as one of the dogmas of our time that, in Francis Crick's words, you are your brain.

This proposition — that personality, thought, feeling, our very consciousness, are nothing but modes of neural activity — is not something we have learned, or discovered. At best, it is an article of faith.

I suspect it may also be a straight jacket that stands in the way of real understanding.

The thought that you are your brain is a little like the thought that your automobile is its engine. There's a grain of truth here, to be sure. The engine is critical for the working of the vehicle. No engine, no working automobile. At the same time, I think it is clear, it would be plain silly to suggest that the car just is the engine, or that the performance of the car — how it handles, what it is like to drive — is fixed by the engine alone. How well would your car drive without a steering wheel, or with no seats or no breaks?

Once you start to think about it, you realize that your car's performance depends on its whole, integrated design.

But we realize more than that. What makes the design effective, if it is effective, is that it allows the car to integrate appropriately with the environment. The car requires gas and oil and water to run, and it will only run if environmental circumstances are just right. It won't drive under water, for example. To understand your car, we need to look to the way that whole vehicle is situated in an appropriate environment.

No matter what is going on inside the car, it won't drive if the streets are flooded!

And so with the brain! You are not your brain. You are a brain, in a body, situated in an environment, an environment that includes other people, artifacts, as well as mere physical stuff. And when you are living, then you are in continuous interaction and transaction with the surrounding world.

The really interesting question is: how could one ever have failed to realize this? Why would we ever come up with the idea that a person is a brain?

I suspect this is a species of magical thinking, alive and well among us. (Among us! We materialist naturalist level-headed lovers of science!)

It is hard not to be struck that it is scientists who find themselves relying on what may be a conception of the self that is no more naturalistic than the belief in an immortal soul.

Or maybe it is a fetish. A fetish for a style of pretend explanation. We — all of us — thrill to appeal to the powerful "nothing but," as in, you are nothing but a collection of neurons, and this table you sit at is nothing but a congeries of particles separated by vast regions of space.

But these Nothing Buts are nothing but an empty gesture.

So the question is: why do we find just this gesture so very alluring? What does this tell us about ourselves?

~ You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tom Bartlett - This Is Not a Profile of Nassim Taleb

This is from a couple of days ago at the The Chronicle Review, a sort of but not really interview with noted risk engineering specialist and anti-academician Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility" and his new book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.

Taleb is a bit of a curmudgeon, which is not a bad trait in an author who seems to hate more things than he likes - but there are some things more than others:
editors who "overedit," when what they should really do is hunt for typos; unctuous, fawning travel assistants; "bourgeois bohemian bonus earners"; meetings of any kind; appointments of any kind; doctors; Paul Krugman; Thomas Friedman; nerds; bureaucrats; air conditioning; television; soccer moms; smooth surfaces; Harvard Business School; business schools in general; bankers at the Federal Reserve; bankers in general; economists; sissies; fakes; "bureaucrato-journalistic" talk; Robert Rubin; Google News; marketing; neckties; "the inexorable disloyalty of Mother Nature"; regular shoes.
I guess we'll have to read the book to know why these things and people made the list.

This Is Not a Profile of Nassim Taleb

By Tom Bartlett

This is a pretty long and interesting article, so here is only a section of it. Follow the link in the title above to see the whole piece.
Taleb is in the university but not of it. He spent the first couple decades of his career as a derivatives trader before turning to scholarship and essay writing in his mid-40s. Taleb is a professor of risk engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. Despite his wall of degrees (he has an M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and a doctorate from the University of Paris), he believes that universities propagate "touristification," another term he coined, a phenomenon that occurs when what should be an exciting exploration turns into a programmatic exercise. It's better to be an adventurer than a tourist. Education isn't the only result of this modern sin; gym machines and "the electronic calendar" fall short as well.

Taleb has a low opinion of most professors. He titles one section of the new book "The Charlatan, the Academic, and the Showman." In a chart, Taleb divides professions into three categories: fragile, robust, and antifragile. It's bad to be fragile, better to be robust, best to be antifragile. Artists and writers are antifragile. Postal employees and truck drivers are robust. Academics, bureaucrats, and the pope are fragile. Benedict, beware.

Most of Taleb's ire is directed at business schools, specifically the one at Harvard. At Harvard they "lecture birds to fly," then arrogantly claim credit when the fledglings become airborne. He rails against the "Soviet-Harvard delusion," linking an institution that's graduated thousands with a state that killed millions. What is the delusion, exactly? It is a belief in a top-down system that tries to control and protect, purportedly for mankind's benefit, thereby eliminating the natural stressors and necessary randomness that create strength and encourage enterprise. Dekulakization and course catalogs are symptoms of the same ailment.

Taleb has no patience for so-called structured learning. "Only the autodidacts are free," he writes in the book. He pursued his real education in his spare time, doing only as much as was required to pass his courses. At 13, he set himself a goal of reading for 30 to 60 hours a week, pretty much a full-time job. To prove that he hit the books with enthusiasm, Taleb ticks off the names of more than 30 great writers he has read. We don't learn much about what he gleaned from this ardent page-turning or which authors influenced his own style. He does give the following assessment of the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig: "didn't like."

Actually, Antifragile feels like a compendium of people and things Taleb doesn't like. He is, for instance, annoyed by editors who "overedit," when what they should really do is hunt for typos; unctuous, fawning travel assistants; "bourgeois bohemian bonus earners"; meetings of any kind; appointments of any kind; doctors; Paul Krugman; Thomas Friedman; nerds; bureaucrats; air conditioning; television; soccer moms; smooth surfaces; Harvard Business School; business schools in general; bankers at the Federal Reserve; bankers in general; economists; sissies; fakes; "bureaucrato-journalistic" talk; Robert Rubin; Google News; marketing; neckties; "the inexorable disloyalty of Mother Nature"; regular shoes.

The social sciences make the list, too. He contrasts them with "smart" sciences, like physics. He mocks social scientists as mired in "petty obsessions, envy, and icy-cold hatreds," contrasting the small-mindedness of academe with the joie de vivre of the business world. "My experience is that money and transactions purify relations," he writes. "Ideas and abstract matters like 'recognition' and 'credit' warp them, creating an atmosphere of perpetual rivalry." In our interview, he went even further, saying he would "shut down" the social sciences. "Those guys are living in their own world," he said. "That is the truth. You don't need them."

I pointed out that he praises some psychologists, like Daniel Kahneman, and regularly refers to psychological concepts in Antifragile. Would he padlock the psych labs, too? No, he told me. "Psychology is more empirical," he clarified. Sociologists, on the other hand, would presumably be better off delivering mail.

He saves his iciest hate for economists. Taleb has no use for the "charlatanic" field, comparing economic research to medieval medicine. Economists are, in his estimation, weak, ignorant, fearful, and generally pathetic. At one point he fantasizes about beating up an economist in public.

Taleb singles out his least-favorite economists, including Robert C. Merton, a professor of finance at MIT, formerly of Harvard, and Myron Scholes, a professor emeritus of finance at Stanford, who jointly received the Nobel Prize in 1997 for their model of valuing derivatives that's designed to hedge against risk. Merton is "serious, mechanistic, boring," according to Taleb, and the two used "fictional mathematics" in their research. He calls this "unsettling" in a footnote, though in the earlier draft he sent me he used a harsher word. I'd wager that punch may have been pulled by Random House's legal department. Merton didn't return my messages, and Scholes politely declined to comment.

Gary Pisano, however, was willing to talk. Pisano, a professor of business administration at Harvard, is singled out in the book for his "dangerous" thinking; Taleb hammers him for supposedly misunderstanding the market for biotechnology. Pisano told me Taleb didn't know what he was talking about. "His argument is about these rare events that generate huge returns," he said. "That doesn't happen in biotech." The specifics of that debate aside, Pisano shrugged off the criticism and said he had enjoyed Taleb's work in the past: "I think he writes some very interesting and provocative things, but I think it gets a little lost in the manner."

The idea that Taleb's insights are sometimes overwhelmed by his belligerence is a longstanding criticism. Articles published in the American Statistician soon after The Black Swan appeared chastised him for his alleged ignorance of "entire subfields of statistics," committing mathematical errors, and lobbing "gratuitous insults" at statisticians. The opprobrium was mixed with gratitude that, whatever his faults, Taleb had managed to shine a bright light on an arcane topic. Still, you got the sense that statisticians were smarting. Taleb's fans—and there are many of them—see his abrasiveness as proof that he doesn't tolerate nonsense. They show up in droves to hear him speak, leave rapturous reviews on Amazon, and praise his television appearances. One YouTube commenter put it succinctly: "He's so awesome."

While Taleb dislikes the university system and doesn't respect career academics, he's not against education per se. Studying mathematics is fine for its own sake. And it's worthwhile to read the classics. But modern scholarship is bewitched by novel findings—what Taleb dubs "neomania"—and researchers are driven by their need to publish, perverting their efforts and tainting the outcome. "How can knowledge be something you do for professional advancement?" he asked. But, you might counter, Taleb is a professor at a university who publishes in journals. It would be one thing if he were blogging from a cabin somewhere, but isn't he part of the problem he's identified?

Ah, but he doesn't publish papers to advance his career. They are technical addenda to his popular books. "I ban myself from publishing anything outside of these footnotes," he writes in Antifragile. Because of his success, he is not beholden to deans and committees or anyone else, for that matter. "You cannot rely on external confirmation and have a happy life," he told me. "I don't rely on external confirmation, and I have a happy life."
Read the whole article.

Dr. Jennifer Howard Speaks with Andrew Harvey - Today at 4 pm EST

Dr. Jennifer Howard is host of  "A Conscious Life," a weekly podcast that is part of the Co-Creator Radio Network. On this week's show, at 4 pm EST/1 pm PST, she is speaking with spiritual teacher and author, Andrew Harvey. I have read some of his work, particularly the translations of Rumi, but I am not very familiar with his work as a whole - seems a little woo to me, but then I am a skeptic.

Date: December 19
Andrew Harvey

Andrew Harvey is an internationally acclaimed poet, novelist, translator, mystical scholar, and spiritual teacher. Harvey has published over 20 books including The Hope a Guide to Sacred Activism (Hay House) and Heart Yoga the Sacred Marriage of Yoga and Mysticism (North Atlantic Books). Harvey is a Fellow of All Souls College Oxford from (1972-1986) and has taught at Oxford University, Cornell University, The California Institute of Integral Studies, and the University of Creation Spirituality, as well as various spiritual centers throughout the United States. He was the subject of the 1993 BBC film documentary The Making of a Modern Mystic. He is the Founder of the Institute for Sacred Activism in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lives. His website is
You can listen to the show at the A Conscious Life page from the Co-Creator Radio Network.

Here is a little ad copy about Dr. Howard's A Conscious Life podcast.
In “A Conscious Life,” internationally known psychotherapist, life and business coach, energy healer, and speaker, Dr Jennifer Howard, Ph.D., and her guests, will explore what it means to be awake and conscious in your daily life, in your relationships, in your spirituality, in relationship to your health and wellness, and in your work and financial life. Dr. Howard’s guests will encompass interdisciplinary perspectives and multi-faith, and a wide range of modalities, from psychology and spirituality to medicine and wellness to quantum physics science and social activism – plus much more.

“A Conscious Life” is an invitation to take charge of your life, to identify and change what is getting in the way of you reaching your full potential. Even if you’re pretty happy with your life, the reward of living consciously is a continually deepening sense of wholeness, and satisfaction with life. The goal, here, isn’t perfection, but progress—greater awareness, steady growth, and lasting change.

Oliver Sacks - Seeing God in the Third Millennium

From The Atlantic, Dr. Oliver Sacks, author of Hallucinations, takes on Dr. Eben Alexander, who describes, in his recent book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, his belief not only in an afterlife, but in a Biblically coherent heaven. There is probably no one more qualified than Sacks to debunk Alexander's claims:
"To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific -- it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states."
I agree.

Seeing God in the Third Millennium

DEC 12 2012

How the brain creates out-of-body experiences and religious epiphanies

There are many carefully documented accounts in the medical literature of intense, life-altering religious experience in epileptic seizures. Hallucinations of overwhelming intensity, sometimes accompanied by a sense of bliss and a strong feeling of the numinous, can occur especially with the so-called "ecstatic" seizures that may occur in temporal lobe epilepsy. Though such seizures may be brief, they can lead to a fundamental reorientation, a metanoia, in one's life. Fyodor Dostoevsky was prone to such seizures and described many of them, including this:
The air was filled with a big noise and I tried to move. I felt the heaven was going down upon the earth and that it engulfed me. I have really touched God. He came into me myself, yes God exists, I cried, and I don't remember anything else. You all, healthy people ... can't imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit. ... I don't know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, for all the joys that life may bring, I would not exchange this one.
A century later, Kenneth Dewhurst and A. W. Beard published a detailed report in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry of a bus conductor who had a sudden feeling of elation while collecting fares. They wrote:
He was suddenly overcome with a feeling of bliss. He felt he was literally in Heaven. He collected the fares correctly, telling his passengers at the same time how pleased he was to be in Heaven. ... He remained in this state of exaltation, hearing divine and angelic voices, for two days. Afterwards he was able to recall these experiences and he continued to believe in their validity. [Three years later] following three seizures on three successive days, he became elated again. He stated that his mind had "cleared." ... During this episode he lost his faith.
He now no longer believed in heaven and hell, in an afterlife, or in the divinity of Christ. This second conversion -- to atheism -- carried the same excitement and revelatory quality as the original religious conversion.

More recently, Orrin Devinsky and his colleagues have been able to make video EEG recordings in patients who are having such seizures, and have observed an exact synchronization of the epiphany with a spike in epileptic activity in the temporal lobes (more commonly the right temporal lobe).

Ecstatic seizures are rare -- they only occur in something like 1 or 2 percent of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy. But the last half century has seen an enormous increase in the prevalence of other states sometimes permeated by religious joy and awe, "heavenly" visions and voices, and, not infrequently, religious conversion or metanoia. Among these are out-of-body experiences (OBEs), which are more common now that more patients can be brought back to life from serious cardiac arrests and the like -- and much more elaborate and numinous experiences called near-death experiences (NDEs).

Both OBEs and NDEs, which occur in waking but often profoundly altered states of consciousness, cause hallucinations so vivid and compelling that those who experience them may deny the term hallucination, and insist on their reality. And the fact that there are marked similarities in individual descriptions is taken by some to indicate their objective "reality."

EEG with epileptic waveforms [Wikimedia Commons]

But the fundamental reason that hallucinations -- whatever their cause or modality -- seem so real is that they deploy the very same systems in the brain that actual perceptions do. When one hallucinates voices, the auditory pathways are activated; when one hallucinates a face, the fusiform face area, normally used to perceive and identify faces in the environment, is stimulated.

In OBEs, subjects feel that they have left their bodies -- they seem to be floating in midair, or in a corner of the room, looking down on their vacated bodies from a distance. The experience may be felt as blissful, terrifying, or neutral. But its extraordinary nature -- the apparent separation of "spirit" from body, imprints it indelibly on the mind and may be taken by some people as evidence of an immaterial soul -- proof that consciousness, personality, and identity can exist independently of the body and even survive bodily death.

Neurologically, OBEs are a form of bodily illusion arising from a temporary dissociation of visual and proprioceptive representations -- normally these are coordinated, so that one views the world, including one's body, from the perspective of one's own eyes, one's head. OBEs, as Henrik Ehrsson and his fellow researchers in Stockholm have elegantly shown, can be produced experimentally, by using simple equipment -- video goggles, mannequins, rubber arms, etc. -- to confuse one's visual input and one's proprioceptive input and create an uncanny sense of disembodiedness.

A number of medical conditions can lead to OBEs -- cardiac arrest or arrhythmias, or a sudden lowering of blood pressure or blood sugar, often combined with anxiety or illness. I know of some patients who have experienced OBEs during difficult childbirths, and others who have had them in association with narcolepsy or sleep paralysis. Fighter pilots subjected to high G-forces in flight (or sometimes in training centrifuges) have reported OBEs as well as much more elaborate states of consciousness that resemble the near-death experience.

The near-death experience usually goes through a sequence of characteristic stages. One seems to be moving effortlessly and blissfully along a dark corridor or tunnel towards a wonderful "living" light -- often interpreted as Heaven or the boundary between life and death. There may be a vision of friends and relatives welcoming one to the other side, and there may be a a rapid yet extremely detailed series of memories of one's life -- a lightning autobiography. The return to one's body may be abrupt, as when, for example, the beat is restored to an arrested heart. Or it may be more gradual, as when one emerges from a coma.

Not infrequently, an OBE turns into an NDE -- as happened with Tony Cicoria, a surgeon who told me how he had been struck by lightning. He gave me a vivid account of what then followed, as I wrote in Musicophilia:
"I was flying forwards. Bewildered. I looked around. I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, 'Oh shit, I'm dead.' I saw people converging on the body. I saw a woman -- she had been standing waiting to use the phone right behind me -- position herself over my body, give it CPR. . . . I floated up the stairs -- my consciousness came with me. I saw my kids, had the realization that they would be okay. Then I was surrounded by a bluish-white light . . . an enormous feeling of well-being and peace. The highest and lowest points of my life raced by me . . . pure thought, pure ecstasy. I had the perception of accelerating, being drawn up . . . there was speed and direction. Then, as I was saying to myself, 'This is the most glorious feeling I have ever had' -- SLAM! I was back."
Dr. Cicoria had some memory problems for a month or so after this, but he was able to resume his practice as an orthopedic surgeon. Yet he was, as he put it, "a changed man." Previously he had no particular interest in music, but now he was seized by an overwhelming desire to listen to classical music, especially Chopin. He bought a piano and started to play obsessively and to compose. He was convinced that the entire episode -- being struck by lightning, having a transcendent vision, then being resuscitated and gifted so that he could bring music to the world, was part of a divine plan.

Cicoria has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and he also felt that his sudden accession of spirituality and musicality must have gone with changes in his brain -- changes which we might be able to clarify, perhaps, with neuroimaging. He saw no contradiction between religion and neurology -- if God works on a man, or in a man, Cicoria felt, He would do so via the nervous system, via parts of the brain specialized, or potentially specializable, for spiritual feeling and belief.

shutterstock_97460153.jpgDr. Alexander's October 2012 Newsweek cover article
Cicoria's reasonable and (one might say) scientific attitude to his own spiritual conversion is in marked contrast to that of another surgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, who describes, in his recent book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, a detailed and complex NDE which occurred while he spent seven days in a coma caused by meningitis. During his NDE, he writes, he passed through the bright light -- the boundary between life and death -- to find himself in an idyllic and beautiful meadow (which he realized was Heaven) where he met a beautiful but unknown woman who conveyed various messages to him telepathically. Advancing farther into the afterlife, he felt the ever-more-embracing presence of God. Following this experience, Alexander became something of an evangelist, wanting to spread the good news, that heaven really exists.

Alexander makes much of his experience as a neurosurgeon and an expert on the workings of the brain. He provides an appendix to his book detailing "Neuroscientific Hypotheses I considered to explain my experience" -- but all of these he dismisses as inapplicable in his own case because, he insists, his cerebral cortex was completely shut down during the coma, precluding the possibility of any conscious experience.

Yet his NDE was rich in visual and auditory detail, as many such hallucinations are. He is puzzled by this, since such sensory details are normally produced by the cortex. Nonetheless, his consciousness had journeyed into the blissful, ineffable realm of the afterlife--a journey which he felt lasted for most of the time he lay in coma. Thus, he proposes, his essential self, his "soul," did not need a cerebral cortex, or indeed any material basis whatever.

It is not so easy, however, to dismiss neurological processes. Dr. Alexander presents himself as emerging from his coma suddenly: "My eyes opened ... my brain ... had just kicked back to life." But one almost always emerges gradually from coma; there are intermediate stages of consciousness. It is in these transitional stages, where consciousness of a sort has returned, but not yet fully lucid consciousness, that NDEs tend to occur.

Alexander insists that his journey, which subjectively lasted for days, could not have occurred except while he was deep in coma. But we know from the experience of Tony Cicoria and many others, that a hallucinatory journey to the bright light and beyond, a full-blown NDE, can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer. Subjectively, during such a crisis, the very concept of time may seem variable or meaningless. The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander's case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.

To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific -- it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.

Kevin Nelson, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky, has studied the neural basis of NDEs and other forms of "deep" hallucinating for many decades. In 2011, he published a wise and careful book about his research, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience.

Nelson feels that the "dark tunnel" described in most NDEs represents constriction of the visual fields due to compromised blood pressure in the eyes, and the "bright light" represents a flow of visual excitation from the brainstem, through visual relay stations, to the visual cortex (the so-called pons-geniculate-occipital or PGO pathway).

Simpler perceptual hallucinations -- of patterns, animals, people, landscapes, music, etc. -- as one may get in a variety of conditions (blindness, deafness, epilepsy, migraine, sensory deprivation, etc.) do not usually involve profound changes in consciousness, and while very startling, are nearly always recognized as hallucinations. It is different with the very complex hallucinations of ecstatic seizures or NDEs -- which are often taken to be veridical, truth-telling and often life-transforming revelations of a spiritual universe, and perhaps of a spiritual destiny or mission.

The tendency to spiritual feeling and religious belief lies deep in human nature and seems to have its own neurological basis, though it may be very strong in some people and less developed in others. For those who are religiously inclined, an NDE may seem to offer "proof of heaven," as Eben Alexander puts it.

Some religious people come to experience their proof of heaven by another route -- the route of prayer, as the anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann has explored in her book When God Talks Back. The very essence of divinity, of God, is immaterial. God cannot be seen, felt, or heard in the ordinary way. Luhrmann wondered how, in the face of this lack of evidence, God becomes a real, intimate presence in the lives of so many evangelicals and other people of faith.

She joined an evangelical community as a participant-observer, immersing herself in particular in their disciplines of prayer and visualization -- imagining in ever-richer, more concrete detail the figures and events depicted in the Bible. Congregants, she writes:
Practice seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching in the mind's eye. They give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events. What they are able to imagine becomes more real to them.
Sooner or later, with this intensive practice, for some of the congregants, the mind may leap from imagination to hallucination, and the congregant hears God, sees God, feels God walking beside them. These yearned-for voices and visions have the reality of perception, and this is because they activate the perceptual systems of the brain, as all hallucinations do. These visions, voices, and feelings of "presence" are accompanied by intense emotion -- emotions of joy, peace, awe, revelation. Some evangelicals may have many such experiences; others only a single one -- but even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith. (For those who are not religiously inclined, such experiences may occur with meditation or intense concentration on an artistic or intellectual or emotional plane, whether this is falling in love or listening to Bach, observing the intricacies of a fern, or cracking a scientific problem.)

Nonetheless, researchers have been able to demonstrate physiological changes not only in pathological states like seizures, OBEs, and NDEs, but also in positive states like prayer and meditation. Typically these changes are quite widespread, involving not only primary sensory areas in the brain, but limbic (emotional) systems, hippocampal (memory) systems, and the prefrontal cortex, where intentionality and judgement reside.In the last decade or two, there has been increasingly active research in the field of "spiritual neurosciences." There are special difficulties in this research, for religious experiences cannot be summoned at will; they come, if at all, in their own time and way -- the religious would say in God's time and way.

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience. This is not to say that they cannot play a part in the spiritual life, or have great meaning for an individual. Yet while it is understandable that one might attribute value, ground beliefs, or construct narratives from them, hallucinations cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain's power to create them.

ADDICTION: A Spiritual Search? - Jeff Foster

When I was in my 20s, a friend/mentor told me that all addictions are pale substitutes for a sense of the sacred. There is some overlap in this perspective from 20+ years ago and Jeff Foster's perspective that we are all addicts in that we are seeking ways to numb ourselves from pain, from anger, from ourselves being present to our feelings in the present moment.

Sounds True has published Foster's newest book, The Deepest Acceptance: Radical Awakening in Ordinary Life.

ADDICTION: A Spiritual Search? - Jeff Foster

Jeff Foster offers an alternative perspective on addiction. He suggests that all human beings are 'addicts' to some extent - we are all trying to escape or distract ourselves from the present moment in various ways - through drugs, through shopping, through alcohol, through work, even through spirituality - seeking contentment outside of ourselves, seeking wholeness in the future. What goes to the core of all our addictions is our addiction to "me", our misidentification as a separate wave in the vast ocean of life, and the ensuing search for That which we already are. Addiction is a war with the present moment, and discovering deep acceptance - the acceptance that you are in your essence - is where this war can end. We simply stop seeking contentment outside of ourselves.... Jeff's new book The Deepest Acceptance: Radical Awakening in Ordinary Life is published by Sounds True. 
For more:
Here is the publisher's information about the book (from
How can we bring an effortless yes to this moment? How do we stop running from "the mess of life"-our predicaments, our frustrations, even our search for liberation-and start flowing with all of it? 
In small venues throughout the UK and Europe, a young teacher named Jeff Foster is quietly awakening a new generation of spiritual inquirers to the experience of abiding presence and peace in our ever-shifting world. His informal gatherings, blogs, and "kitchen-table video posts" have created a rising tide of interest in his teachings. 
With The Deepest Acceptance, Jeff Foster invites us to discover the ocean of who we are: an awareness that has already allowed every wave of emotion and experience to arrive. 
While Jeff delightfully admits the irony of writing a book to convey something that is beyond words to teach, here he confirms his ability to guide us in unexpected new ways to a space of absolute acceptance and joy, no matter what's happening in our lives. 
Candid, thoughtful, humorous-and deeply compassionate toward those searching for a way out of suffering-this refreshing new luminary inspires us to stop trying to "do" acceptance . and start falling in love with "what has already been allowed." 
Jeff Foster writes and speaks from his own awakened experience to help show the way out of seeking fulfillment in the future and into the acceptance of "all this, here and now." He studied astrophysics at Cambridge University. Following a period of depression and physical illness, he embarked on an intensive spiritual search that came to an end with the discovery that life itself was what he had always been seeking. 
"Just as the ocean accepts every wave, so too has our awareness already allowed and accepted what is here."-Jeff Foster

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Miles Davis and His ‘Second Great Quintet,’ Filmed Live in Europe, 1967

For lovers of jazz, these two live clips of Miles Davis and his quintet, featuring Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums.

Miles Davis and His ‘Second Great Quintet,’ Filmed Live in Europe, 1967
December 12th, 2012

In the mid 1960s Miles Davis responded to the form-breaking influence of free jazz by surrounding himself with a group of brilliant young musicians and encouraging them to push him in new directions.

The group was Davis’s last with all acoustic instruments, and came to be known as his “second great quintet.” It featured Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. Between 1964 and 1968 the quintet recorded a string of innovative albums, including E.S.P., Sorcerer and the transitional Miles in the Sky, in which Hancock introduces the electric Fender Rhodes piano.

For Guardian jazz critic John Fordham, the second great quintet was Davis’s best group ever. “Their solos were fresh and original, and their individual styles fused with a spontaneous fluency that was simply astonishing,” writes Fordham in a 2010 article. “The quintet’s method came to be dubbed ‘time, no changes’ because of their emphasis on strong rhythmic grooves without the dictatorial patterns of song-form chords. At times they veered close to free-improvisation, but the pieces were as thrilling and hypnotically sensuous as anything the band’s open-minded leader had recorded before.”

You can hear for yourself in these two concerts, shown back-to-back, recorded for television during the quintet’s 1967 tour of Europe. The first concert was recorded on October 31, 1967 at the Konserthuset in Stockholm, Sweden. Here’s the set list:
Agitation (Miles Davis)
Footprints (Wayne Shorter)
‘Round Midnight (Thelonius Monk)
Gingerbread Boy (Jimmy Heath)
Theme (Miles Davis)
The next concert was recorded one week later, on November 7, 1967, at the Stadhalle in Karlsruhe, Germany:
Agitation (Miles Davis)
Footprints (Wayne Shorter)
I Fall in Love Too Easily (Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne)
Walkin’ (Richard Carpenter)
Gingerbread Boy (Jimmy Heath)
Theme (Miles Davis)
Related content:

Eric G. Wilson - Poetry Makes You Weird

In this article from The Chronicle Review, Eric Wilson recounts his first adventure as a recruiter for the English department he was in, and how that experience became a positive influence in how he views his profession.

As a former English major, minor expert in 20th Century American poetry, and a one-time poet myself, I can assure you this is true.

Poetry Makes You Weird

By Eric G. Wilson
December 10, 2012

Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle Review

In my first semester as a tenure-track English professor, my chairman asked me to represent our department at a weekend recruiting fair for high-school seniors. My job would be to court prospective majors. Knowing that "yes" was the right pre-tenure answer, I agreed, and so found myself that next Saturday morning standing behind a folding table, cheap brochures littered on its brown surface. I was irritable, hung over, and resentful.

A father and son immediately appeared, in virginal Wake Forest T-shirts and blond crew cuts. They smiled at me as if I had just praised their promptness. The younger looked up at dad, and father nodded to son, and son blurted: "Sell me the English major!" Through my brain's murk, I searched for the hype. Failing to find it, I confessed: "It makes you weird."

After a confused "OK," the two looked down, backed away, and were gone. They shouldn't have been so hasty. I had revealed to them, though I didn't know it then, the great payoff of literary study: It estranges us from our normal habits of thought and perception, nullifies old conceptual maps, and so propels us into uncharted regions, outlandish and bracing, where we must create, if we are to thrive, coordinates more capacious, more sublime than the ones we already know. The uncanny—not truth, beauty, or goodness—is literature's boon.

Like most English professors, I endure the grumbling of undergraduates subjected to literature requirements. "What's the use?" they ask. "Why must I study complicated, densely worded fictions that have little to do with the real world?" In the past, I had my elevated answers ready. What Aristotle says of poetry is true of all great literature. It is "more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular." Wordsworth believes that the literary—which is mainly, for him, verse—also invigorates our emotions, issuing from the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," thus arousing us from "savage torpor." He would have heartily concurred with Matthew Arnold: Poetry teaches us "how to live."

The students I pelted with this rhetoric would squint into the "I'm thinking" expression, and, brown-nosing, say, "I see." If they'd read Plato, they could have countered that poetry is an irrational fomenting of lies. Or they could have invoked Auden, who admitted that poetry "makes nothing happen."

But I now no longer unleash the literary giants. I simply tell my disgruntled students about the first time I read, as an undergraduate, these lines:

There's a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons—

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes—

I had often witnessed beams of dull December light with a melancholy I didn't understand. Dickinson's flash clarified my feelings: In the impoverished glow of the cold time were heavy reminders of brightness I desired but couldn't possess. But this affliction had fever, intimations of future heat that was luminous, like hymns.

Dickinson's verse spelled out the abstruse, made the strange familiar. In this new intimacy, however, was a novel astonishment: The chilly light from that day onward exposed the enigmas of longing, both tormenting and radiant. Her poetry left me amazed—caught in wonderment as well as labyrinth.

Other epiphanies followed. What I had taken for granted was shattered; the marvelous erupted amid the fragments. In Whitman I saw ordinary grass morph into the "uncut hair of graves." In Eliot's "Prufrock," I watched twilight transmogrify into "a patient etherized upon a table." The grass, the evening—in these metaphors, they grew more lucid than before, and more cryptic.

Shelley articulates literature's invigorating disorientation: "Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar." But the result of that alienation is not only an aesthetic rush; it is also a moral life. In shocking us into awareness, poetry urges us to relate to the world in fresh ways. The problem is, How do I connect my own mind, relatively familiar, with what is before me, enticingly bizarre?

Shelley answers: Imagine what it's like to be what you perceive. To accomplish that connection requires "a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own." I take that to mean that the more distinctly we imagine the plight of another, the more empathy we feel, and the more beauty we appreciate. As Shelley put it, "The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause."
Go read the second half of the article.