Saturday, March 09, 2013

Upaya Conversations - Evan Thompson & Joanna Harcourt-Smith: A Deeper, Organic Embeddedness

Upaya Conversations is a new series of interviews from Upaya Institute and Zen Center, hosted by Joanna Harcourt-Smith. Their first guest is philosopher Evan Thompson, a regular guest at Upaya for their various series on Buddhism, neuroscience, and psychology.

Here is a bio statement from Thompson's website:
I am a philosopher who works in the fields of cognitive science, Phenomenology, and cross-cultural philosophy, especially Asian philosophy and contemporary Buddhist philosophy in dialogue with Western philosophy and science. I am currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. As of July 1, 2013, I will be Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. I am the author of Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy (Columbia University Press, forthcoming).
This is good stuff, and I look forward to future episodes of what promises to be a very excellent addition to the offerings from the Upaya Institute.

Evan Thompson & Joanna Harcourt-Smith: A Deeper, Organic Embeddedness

Speakers: Evan Thompson & Joanna Harcourt-Smith
Recorded: Friday Mar 8, 2013

Upaya Conversations
We are launching a new podcast series (Upaya Conversations), that’s a collaboration with different outstanding teachers, scholars, visionaries, thought leaders, or organizations in Buddhism and other fields of human development. Joanna Harcourt-Smith of Future Primitive will be hosting this monthly series of conversations with Upaya’s collaborators. 
We begin this series with scholars from Neuroscience/Neuropsychology … The first guest is Evan Thompson.
Evan is a philosopher who works in the fields of cognitive science, Phenomenology, and cross-cultural philosophy, especially Asian philosophy and contemporary Buddhist philosophy in dialogue with Western philosophy and science. He is the author of “Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy” (Columbia University Press, forthcoming) and of Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Harvard University Press, 2007). He is also the co-author of The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (MIT Press, 1991; new expanded edition, 2014).

Evan speaks with Joanna about his forthcoming book “Waking, Dreaming, Being…”: how consciousness and the sense of self shift in different waking states, lucid dreaming…through the twin perspectives of neuroscience of consciousness and meditative experience and philosophy; lucid dreaming in a contemplative context; being a philosopher in a post-modern world; autopoiesis: life creates its own ends; love and the web of life: this deeper, organic embeddedness; embodied mind, gender and aging; sitting & movement: complementary contemplative practices; science and meditation: the primacy of mind as direct experience.

The Bilocated Mind: New Perspectives on Self-Localization and Self-Identification

This is an intriguing article from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience on how the human mind allows for the experience of feeling as though one is occupying two distinct locations at the same time. While this is interesting in terms of consciousness, it helps me understand how some clients who dissociate can feel as though they are in two places at once.

The bilocated mind: new perspectives on self-localization and self-identification

Tiziano Furlanetto1, Cesare Bertone1,2 and Cristina Becchio1*
1Dipartimento di Psicologia, Centro di Scienza Cognitiva, Università di Torino, Torino, Italia
2Centro di Ontologia Teorica e Applicata, Università di Torino, Torino, Italia
Does the human mind allow for self-locating at more than one place at a time? Evidence from neurology, cognitive neuroscience, and experimental psychology suggests that mental bilocation is a complex, but genuine experience, occurring more frequently than commonly thought. In this article, we distinguish between different components of bilocated self-representation: self-localization in two different places at the same time,self-identification with another body, reduplication of first-person perspective. We argue that different forms of mental bilocation may result from the combination of these components. To illustrate this, we discuss evidence of mental bilocation in pathological conditions such as heautoscopy, during immersion in virtual environments, and in everyday life, during social interaction. Finally, we consider the conditions for mental bilocation and speculate on the possible role of mental bilocation in the context of social interaction, suggesting that self-localization at two places at the same time may prove advantageous for the construction of a shared space.

Full Citation: 
Furlanetto T, Bertone C and Becchio C (2013) The bilocated mind: new perspectives on self-localization and self-identification. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7:71. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00071


In daily life the self is typically tied to one place at a given point in time and this place coincides with the body. As Husserl puts it: “I do not have the possibility of distancing myself from my body, nor it from me” (Husserl, 1952/1989). Self-experience, however, is not always constrained by the body: empirical research into self-related disorders and full-body illusions demonstrates that the spatial unity between body and self can be temporarily suspended. For seconds, and more seldom minutes, neurological and psychiatric patients may experience themselves to be localized at, and to see from, a location outside their physical body (Blanke and Mohr, 2005). A similar experience might be experimentally induced in healthy subjects using mirrors or simple virtual reality devices (Lenggenhager et al., 2007, 2009).

Where does the self localize during such experiences? Out-side the bodily borders? At the location of the physical body? Does the human mind allow for locating at more than one place at the same time? In this paper we focus on this latter question, and consider the spatial and temporal dynamics of the self-localization process. In particular, we discuss the possibility that the self might be distributed over two spatially distinct places at the same time.

Based on the concept of “minimal phenomenal selfhood” (MPS; Blanke and Metzinger, 2009), our contention is that mental bilocation, i.e., localization of the self at two distinct places at the same time, is not a single perceptual experience but can be broken down into different components: self-localization in two different places at the same time, self-identification with another body, and reduplication of first-person perspective. Different forms of mental bilocation may result from the combination of these components. In this article we will discuss three instances of mental bilocation in which the above mentioned components appear differentially present: heautoscopy, virtual presence, and perspective taking (see Table1). Although mental bilocation in its complete form is only experienced during heautoscopy, incomplete forms of mental bilocation may be experienced during immersion in virtual reality, and in everyday life, during spatial perspective taking.


Table 1. Instances of mental bilocation in which the three MPS components are differentially present.

Incidences of bilocation are reported in many different cultures at many times. We propose that these reports are rooted in the complex experience of being mentally at two places at the same time, an experience which—we argue—is more frequent than commonly thought and might play an important role in the construction of a shared space.
Read the whole article.

George Dvorsky on the Anthropic Principle at io9

Over at io9, George Dvorsky has posted an interesting and well-done article on the anthropic principle. This topic is of special interest to me because it's one of the issues that bothers me about Buddhism, integral theory, and various other theories that posit a universe with consciousness as an essential element of its existence.

Theories of emergence make a lot more sense to me without the need for panpsychism as an explanatory feature for the existence of consciousness.

How does the Anthropic Principle change the meaning of the universe?

George Dvorsky
March 8, 2013

One of the more extraordinary things about the universe is that it has produced beings who can observe it — namely, us. Its laws and constants are so precise that, if they were even slightly modified, no human would be here to see it. Many cosmologists and philosophers have wondered if we should read anything into all this preciseness: Are the finely-tuned physical laws that surround us mere coincidence, or does it imply that we are somehow meant to be here? That's where the Anthropic Principle comes into play.

The Anthropic Principle (AP) is that hazy grey area where philosophy meets science. And in fact, many scientists loathe it for this very reason. It's untestable, they argue, and tautological — a skewed form of reasoning in which the principle is basically being used to prove itself.

And indeed, the AP does seem like a strange concept at first. It essentially states that we will only find ourselves in a universe that's capable of giving rise to us. Put another way, observations of the universe must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it.

It's a principle that makes perfect sense — and for some, no sense at all. But like so many things in science and philosophy, the devil is in the details.

The AP forces us to take a giant step back and evaluate the conditions of the universe in consideration of our presence within it. For scientists, it's a kind of ‘40 foot perspective' that can help illuminate — and even possibly explain — some of the more surprising aspects of cosmology. And at the very least, it serves as a constant reality check to remind us that we will always be subject to observational selectional effects; no matter where we go, we will always be there.

A good thought experiment in this regard comes from the Canadian philosopher John Leslie. In his book, Universes, he asks us to imagine a man facing a firing squad of fifty expert marksman. After aiming and firing, the executioners miss their mark.

Now, there are two ways in which we can evaluate this surprising outcome. We can either shrug our shoulders and point to the obvious, that they they simply missed. Or we can come up with some explanations as to why they all missed. This latter point is very much at the heart of anthropic reasoning.


The AP has been around for quite some time, though it only really took on its modern form in the last forty years.

Early efforts to come to grips with observational effects were expressed in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and Kant's ideas about how our experience of the world is formulated by our sensory and intellectual faculties. Back in the 1920s, James Jeans observed that, "the physical conditions under which life is possible form only a tiny fraction of the range of physical conditions which prevail in the universe as a whole." Likewise, his contemporary, Arthur Eddington, speculated about "selective subjectivism," the idea that the laws of nature are indirectly imposed by the human mind, which in turn determines (and constrains) what we know about the universe.

More recently, some scientists have used it to explain the series of bizarre "large-number coincidences" in physics and cosmology. These are the surprisingly large order-of-magnitude connections that exist between (apparently) unrelated physical constants and cosmological parameters.

For example, the electromagnetic force is 39 orders of magnitude stronger than gravity. If it was any closer in strength, stars would have collapsed long before life could emerge. Or, the universe's vacuum energy density is about 120 orders of magnitude lower than some theoretical estimates, which, if any higher, would have blown the universe apart. And the neutron is heavier than the proton — but not so heavy that neutrons cannot be bound in nuclei where conservation of energy prevents the neutrons from decaying. Without neutrons, we wouldn't have the heavier elements needed for building complex life. There are many other examples, each one pointing to extreme specificity.

In 1961, Robert. H. Dickie used a prototypical version of the AP to explain away these coincidences, saying that physicists were reading too much into it. These large numbers, he argued, are a necessary coincidence (or prerequisite) for the presence of intelligent beings. If these parameters were not so, life would not have arisen. And in turn, we wouldn't be here to marvel at the ‘surprisingness' of these physical constants and laws.
Read the whole interesting article.

Friday, March 08, 2013

God, the Universe, and Everything Else: Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Arthur C. Clarke Talk in Conversation

io9 posted this cool video of Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Arthur C. Clarke having a conversation about the Big Bang theory, the connection between science and science fiction, the rise of computer science, extraterrestrial intelligence, and the puzzle that is human existence (among other things).


Imagine Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Arthur C. Clarke together in conversation. It happened.

George Dvorsky
March 6, 2013

Back in 1988, Magnus Magnusson (best name ever) somehow managed to bring three of the 20th Century's most fascinating personalities together to discuss God, the Universe, and Everything Else. In the hour-long program, the three talked about the Big Bang theory, the connection between science and scifi, the rise of computer science, extraterrestrial intelligence, and the puzzle that is human existence.

The remarkable program featured a spry 46 year-old Stephen Hawking who was already having to rely on his speech synthesizer — but his wit and deadpan humor was firmly established. Carl Sagan, who appeared via satellite, passed away only eight years later, with scifi author Arthur C. Clarke dying in 2008.

We were alerted to this video by Open Culture, who writes:
With minds like these, you can rest assured that the conversation won't stray far from what Sagan calls "the fundamental questions," nor will it come untethered from established human knowledge and float into the realms of wild speculation and wishful thinking. And of course, in such conversations, a sense of humor like Hawking's — a man who, not expected to reach age thirty, would nevertheless live to see more advancement in human knowledge than anyone else on the broadcast — never goes amiss.
Magnusson was the longtime host of BBC's Mastermind program. Props to him for putting this together back in the day.

On Tripping, Delirium, and Other Mind-Expanding Experiences: Jane Thrailkill at TEDxUNC

Cool. It always strikes me as funny when authors (and other figures) use an image for the personal or professional page that is much younger than their true age. Ken Wilber had been doing this for years, and I see it quite often with others as well.

Be that as it may, this is an interesting TEDx talk.

Jane Thrailkill on "Tripping, Delirium, and Other Mind-Expanding Experiences"

Published on Mar 6, 2013

Jane F. Thrailkill is Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Associate Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. She teaches American literature, critical theory, and medical humanities in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, where she also serves as Director of Graduate Admissions for English. Her first book, Affecting Fictions: Mind, Body, and Emotion in American Literary Realism (Harvard UP, 2007), examines the influence of modern neurology on the nineteenth-century novel. Her articles on the intersections of science, philosophy, medicine, and literature have appeared in Neurology and Modernity, English Literary History, Journal of Narrative Theory, American Literature, and Poetics Today. Currently, she is collaborating with faculty in Anthropology, Journalism, and Social Medicine to create interdisciplinary courses for a new graduate program in Literature, Medicine, and Culture at UNC.

The Physics of Skipping Stones

When I was a wee lad, I could spend hours skipping rocks across still spots in a creek, or better, from the shore of a lake. I never thought much about the physics, but I knew the rock had to be roundish or oval, relatively flat, and not too light, but not too heavy either. And then the angle of the throw made all of the difference - a good stone could be wasted by throwing it from the wrong angle.

Turns out, I still enjoy skipping. When the washes here have water in them (a few days each year, at most), we take our dogs to walk along the flowing water and I end up stuck in one spot skipping stones until I can't find anymore stones to throw.

Fun stuff.

This amazing video reveals the physics of skipping rocks

Robert T. Gonzalez
March 6, 2013

Scientists at BYU's "Splash Lab" study the fluid dynamics of skipping rocks, which — judging from the water tanks and high-speed camera setups featured in this video — is every bit as awesome as it sounds.

Here, professor Tadd Truscott gives us a rundown on some of the basics of rock skipping, while Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics parses out the details on a couple of common skipping techniques:
In a conventional side-arm-launched skip, the rock's impact creates a cavity, whose edge the rock rides. This pitches the rock upward, creating a lifting force that launches the rock back up for another skip. Alternatively, you can launch a rock overhand with a strong backspin. The rock will go under the surface, but if there's enough spin on it, there will be sufficient circulation to create lift that brings the rock back up.

[BYU Splash Lab via Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics]

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Hugo Chavez - Both Despot and Savior?

The reaction to the death of Hugo Chavez has generated praise for his progressive politics and condemnation for his authoritarianism. Like all socialist leaders who espouse Marxist ideals, he never saw fit to truly give power to the people - absolute power is addictive.

This article from Vice is one of the more balanced assessments I have seen.


By Bhaskar Sunkara

Everyone else seems to be either mourning at or dancing on Hugo Chavez's grave, but I’m feeling decidedly unmoved. And not out of some deep apathy. It’s just that the Chavez being invoked by both supporters and enemies can't be dead because that man never existed.

One dead Chavez was a despot. Democratically elected over and over again, popularly reinstated after a 2002 coup, but still some sort of Stalin or mini Pol Pot. (They both had that irresistible smile.) The other dead Chavez was a saint. Some demigod sent from above to massage away our earthly suffering and sing us tender bedtime songs afterward. He could do no wrong.

These narratives are utterly incompatible, setting the showdown for a month's worth of heated Twitter sparring and inane web-comment dueling. Now, there's nothing I like more than a good fight, but I'm not picking a side. Or I guess I'm picking both.

In its 14 years in power, Chavez's administration was at once authoritarian and democratic, crudely demagogic and genuinely participatory. History is messy like that.

El Presidente was part of a long line of Latin American populists, the left-wing variety of which has always attracted cheering fanboys. And for good reason: it's the fiery rhetoric of Italian fascism tempered by the warm and fuzzy egalitarian core of Scandinavian socialism. And Chavez lived up to some of those socialist ambitions: He was more committed to redistributing wealth and power than just about any Latin American leader who came before him. His government reduced extreme poverty by 70 percent. Millions got reliable healthcare and a decent education for the first time, and attempts were made to construct community councils and other organs of direct democracy.

Fittingly for a Caudillo, Chavez's early life had a folkloric quality. Born in a mud hut in the rural state of Barinas in 1954, his family was of mixed Amerindian, Afro-Venezuelan, and European descent—a perfect reflection of Venezuela's racial mosaic. Though he was introduced to leftist ideas in his school years from a family friend, Chavez's decision to join the military was mostly borne of a desire for social advancement. Poor village kids in Venezuela didn't have many options. Grabbing a gun seemed as good a choice as any.

And even if he wanted to follow his political passions, there wasn't much to rally around. The country's leftist forces were in disarray by the 1970s. Communists—a major opposition group at the time—were part of a broad coalition opposing the military dictatorship that then ruled the country until 1958. But after the dictator was toppled, a compact between mainstream parties in the country edged independents out. Frustrated young radicals decided to follow Che's example and take to the Venezuelan countryside. They died like him, too. The Communist Party lost all influence in the country’s political life.

Without existing radical forces whose coattails he could ride to power, Chavez had to be more resourceful than future allies like Brazil's Lula or Bolivia's Morales. He aligned himself with a group of left-nationalist soldiers, gathering with them to read a mix of socialist classics and eccentric volumes like Muammar Gaddafi's inaneGreen Book. Under Chavez's leadership, the soldiers organized themselves into what they called the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario.

The masses weren't ready to shake things up. They needed a push. The group tried to provide one in a 1992 coup d'état following a period of popular protest in Caracas against free-market reforms. Chavez intended to use the military as a vehicle of progressive change, a shortcut to impose reforms of his own. But his coup failed stupendously. Chavez had the support of less than 10 percent of Venezuela's military forces and his crew’s prerecorded radio broadcast intended to spur the masses to action never went out. His comrades took some key towns elsewhere, but Chavez's own forces remained held up in the Caracas Military Museum, unable to advance. They soon gave themselves up to the police and armed forces, and they all were sent to prison.

But in defeat, Chavez showed some of the savvy that would make him a political survivor. If he had been totally outmatched in armed battle, the following media war was his. As a condition of his surrender, Chavez was allowed to give an impassioned address to the Venezuelan public, saying that he had lost "for now."

And he was serious. Chavez became something of a celebrity. When he was pardoned and released from prison in 1994, he quickly moved to turn his once-illegal movement into a national election campaign. In response, the American ambassador in Venezuela told his colleagues in Washington to "watch what Chavez does, not what he says." But what he did was modest. Behind his bombastic slogans and eccentric campaign antics was a pretty generic political platform. Chavez ran as a centrist, promising an alternative to Venezuela's corrupt mainstream parties, modest constitutional reform, and some new social programs. At first, it wasn't that the people loved him—they just hated the other bastards more. And enough Venezuelans registered their protest at the ballot box. Chavez was elected president in 1999.

Everything that happened after that was unexpected, perhaps even by Chávez himself. Corporate interests, with American support and the backing of the country's private media outlets, launched their own military coupagainst Chavez in April 2002. The Venezuelan elite was too comfortable to even consider subjecting themselves to mild reforms. They wanted a government of the rich and were unabashed about it—they even immediately appointed Venezuela's Chamber of Commerce leader Pedro Carmona as interim president.

But like Perón's descamisados did in Argentina in the 1940s, a mass of Venezuelan workers rallied to support Chavez. Hundreds of thousands of people arrived outside the Miraflores Palace, and Chavez loyalists within the military seized control on the inside and resisted the putsch. Within a couple days, Chavez and the rest of his elected government were restored.

Opponents tried an oil lockout after that, which also wasn't able to unseat Chavez. With his foes discredited and riding a wave of popular support, the Bolivarian Revolution deepened. A reformed state-oil company poured money into social programs, and new experiments in participatory democracy were expanded. Abroad, Chávez pushed for Latin American unity and ramped up his anti-imperialist rhetoric.

But Chavez’s success wasn’t simply the result of the fact that he’d been freed up to pursue his every whim for a decade without effective opposition. Whatever the conservative depiction of it, Chavismo—Chavez’s political approach—wasn’t just a top-down form of patronage that gave poor voters a piece of the pie from the country’s booming crude-oil market. Change might have been sparked from on high, but Chavez was saved by mass protests in 2002 and was continually radicalized by currents on the ground. The people made Chavez, not the other way around.

Take the Communal Councils. Initially formed by the central government to oversee local social-welfare projects, they quickly turned into sites of real democratic debate, electing delegates and empowering people who previously didn’t have any say over the decisions that structured their lives.

Some "revolutionary" aspects of the Bolivarian Revolution turned out to be something of a bust, too. Labor cooperatives encouraged by the government, for example, have done little more than institutionalize underground-economy work without improving conditions. Poverty has been cut in half, but crime soars, prison conditions are deplorable, and inflation eats away at the wages and savings of ordinary Venezuelans.

But it's the extraordinary Venezuelans—not the regular Joes—who always found Chavez unbearable, and when he died yesterday, they probably all let out a collective cheer. Yet he was—and will likely continue to be—an example to his supporters of an inspiring thorn in the side of the rich. Under Chavez’s administration, the dispossessed may not have become wealthy, but they became more possessed: aspiring for more out of their lives, blaming the privileged for their lot, and building organizations to challenge their power.

When his cancer came to light two years ago, and as his health declined, many sought to make a movement that was largely dependent on Chavez's personality into something more sustainable. It may have worked. Right now, tens of thousands of his supporters are carrying his coffin on the street in a funeral procession. Few doubt, friends or foes, that Chavez's legacy won't influence the region for years. The "Che vive" graffiti scribbled on walls across Latin America will soon have company.

More on Chavez from VICE:

Issues in the Metaphysics of Science - Bookforum Omnivore

From Bookforum's Omnivore blog, a collection recent links examining the metaphysics of science, from the meaning of a "second," to whether or not science is beautiful or must be elegant, to reality as a mathematical structure.

Issues in the metaphysics of science

26 2013 

Barry McGuinness - THE MOST IMPORTANT CONVERSATION OF OUR TIME! A Ken Wilber / Andrew Cohen Dialogue

This is funny as a parody. But it's also a nice critique of what were once meaningful conversations when they began, but are now little more than self-congratulatory, mentally numbing, meta-masturbation sessions. Although that may be a little harsh.

Thanks to Albert Klamt and Robin Lincoln Wood for the heads up on this.

A Ken Wilber / Andrew Cohen Dialogue

I used to be a great fan of Ken Wilber's. His synthesis of multiple perspectives on psychology, spirituality and consciousness was right up my street.

A number of things, however, have given me reason to adopt a slightly more critical stance to his work. I could and maybe should write a whole article explaining what I mean, but for now let me just point out a few things.

First, the fact that someone once referred to him as "the Einstein of consciousness theory" -- this was going way too far and possibly it went to Wilber's head. I think it would be more appropriate to call him the David Bowie of consciousness theory -- someone who (as Bowie himself puts it) cleverly puts together other people's ideas.

Second, why all the cool branding nonsense? Why the pop star packaging? Come to think of it, maybe he already sees himself as a kind of David Bowie figure. His website ( is so self-consciously cool and state-of-the-art that it hurts. Maybe it's not Wilber's fault; maybe it's just his agent or his publishers or his, er, fan club. Whoever it is, someone is keen to push his bald, bespectacled visage as a modern icon.

Third, the teaming up with Andrew Cohen and their "radical dialogues" in What Is Enlightenment? magazine (now published online only). Just look at how these dialogues are described:
Many of the most significant leaps in human development have been achieved by those rare individuals--creative men and women--who have dared to step beyond the confines of the status quo to create something novel, uplifting, and extraordinary. Less renowned, perhaps, are the evolutionary advances that have been achieved by a creative duo--a pair of individuals working together, comrades and colleagues, who are driven by a shared passion to change the world for the better. 
Andrew Cohen, spiritual teacher, and Ken Wilber, spiritual philosopher, are such a team. Mapping the evolving edge of human potential and exploring the states and stages of consciousness, they function like a spiritualized fusion of Watson & Crick and Lewis & Clark, seeking to discern the deepest structures of human nature while continually pressing forward into new and uncharted terrain.
Each conversation between Wilber and Cohen is on a different topic, but the underlying theme is always the same: "People need to evolve NOW, and it is up to us two, the most evolved people on the planet, to show the way. The future of consciousness depends upon us." One time when I read one of these conversations, I really thought it was a spoof. Sadly, it wasn't.
Read the whole post, including the creative spoof of a Wilber-Cohen dialogue.

David Pearce - Interview: On the Nature of Consciousness and Mind

This is an interesting interview - Pearce has some good and important ideas, but I have serious reservations about the idea of eliminating "all forms of unpleasant experience." Then how would we learn and grow? The deepest most profound learning in life often comes from deep and often disturbing suffering. No suffering, no real growth in wisdom and compassion.

This comes from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology (IEET).

David Pearce - Interview: On the nature of consciousness and mind

David Pearce

BY Adam Ford
Posted: Mar 6, 2013

David Pearce is a British utilitarian philosopher. He believes and promotes the idea that there exists a strong ethical imperative for humans to work towards the abolition of suffering in all sentient life. His book-length internet manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, pharmacology, and neurosurgery could potentially converge to eliminate all forms of unpleasant experience among human and non-human animals, replacing suffering with gradients of well-being, a project he refers to as “paradise engineering”. A transhumanist and a vegan, Pearce believes that we (or our future posthuman descendants) have a responsibility not only to avoid cruelty to animals within human society but also to alleviate the suffering of animals in the wild.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Frances Egan - How to Think about Mental Content

Frances Egan teaches philosophy at Rutgers University. Here is a slightly tweaked bio statement from her faculty webpage.
She is interested in the nature of psychological explanation, both scientific and commonsense, and the relation between the two. Her recent work has focused on computational models of our cognitive capacities, developing an account of the role of representational content in such models. She also has research interests in perception in general, and the theory of vision in particular, including the history of vision, and in computational neuroscience.
You can find a few of her papers here. This is a short but cool video talk on her computational model of mental content (and I am not a computational adherent, but her take is interesting).

Connectome Project Releases Brain Data

The Human Connectome Project (HCP) consortium is led by David C. Van Essen, PhD (Washington University School of Medicine), and Kamil Ugurbil, PhD, (University of Minnesota). They have released some new brain data including brain imaging scans and behavioral information -- individual differences in personality, cognitive capabilities, emotional characteristics and perceptual function -- obtained from 68 healthy adult volunteers.

Very cool - and all of their data is freely available, including a full package of 3 terabytes of data (for the cost of the storage device on which they send it to you).

Connectome Project Releases Brain Data

A map of average “functional connectivity” in human cerebral cortex (including subcortical gray matter). Regions in yellow are functionally connected to a “seed” location in the parietal lobe of the right hemisphere, whereas regions in red and orange are weakly connected or not connected at all. (Credit: Image courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis)

Mar. 5, 2013 — The Human Connectome Project, a five-year endeavor to link brain connectivity to human behavior, has released a set of high-quality imaging and behavioral data to the scientific community. The project has two major goals: to collect vast amounts of data using advanced brain imaging methods on a large population of healthy adults, and to make the data freely available so that scientists worldwide can make further discoveries about brain circuitry.

The initial data release includes brain imaging scans plus behavioral information -- individual differences in personality, cognitive capabilities, emotional characteristics and perceptual function -- obtained from 68 healthy adult volunteers. Over the next several years, the number of subjects studied will increase steadily to a final target of 1,200. The initial release is an important milestone because the new data have much higher resolution in space and time than data obtained by conventional brain scans.

The Human Connectome Project (HCP) consortium is led by David C. Van Essen, PhD, Alumni Endowed Professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and Kamil Ugurbil, PhD, Director of the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research and the McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair Professor at the University of Minnesota.

"By making this unique data set available now, and continuing with regular data releases every quarter, the Human Connectome Project is enabling the scientific community to immediately begin exploring relationships between brain circuits and individual behavior," says Van Essen. "The HCP will have a major impact on our understanding of the healthy adult human brain, and it will set the stage for future projects that examine changes in brain circuits underlying the wide variety of brain disorders afflicting humankind."

The consortium includes more than 100 investigators and technical staff at 10 institutions in the United States and Europe. It is funded by 16 components of the National Institutes of Health via the Blueprint for Neuroscience Research.

"The high quality of the data being made available in this release reflects an intensive, multiyear effort to improve the data acquisition and analysis methods by this dedicated international team of investigators," says Ugurbil.

The data set includes information about brain connectivity in each individual, using two distinct magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) approaches. One, called resting-state functional connectivity, is based on spontaneous fluctuations in functional MRI signals that occur in a complex pattern in space and time throughout the gray matter of the brain. Another, called diffusion imaging, provides information about the long-distance "wiring" -- the anatomical pathways traversing the brain's white matter. Each method has its own limitations, and analyses of both functional connectivity and structural connectivity in each subject should allow deeper insight than by either method alone.

Each subject is also scanned while performing a variety of tasks within the scanner, thereby providing extensive information about "Task-fMRI" brain activation patterns. Behavioral data using a variety of tests performed outside the scanner are being released along with the scan data for each subject. The subjects are drawn from families that include siblings, some of whom are twins. This will enable studies of the heritability of brain circuits.

The imaging data set released by the HCP takes up about two terabytes (2 trillion bytes) of computer memory -- the equivalent of more than 400 DVDs -- and is stored in a customized database called "ConnectomeDB."

"ConnectomeDB is the next-generation neuroinformatics software for data sharing and data mining. It's a convenient and user-friendly way for scientists to explore the available HCP data and to download data of interest for their research," says Daniel S. Marcus, PhD, assistant professor of radiology and director of the Neuroinformatics Research Group at Washington University School of Medicine. "The Human Connectome Project represents a major advance in sharing brain imaging data in ways that will accelerate the pace of discovery about the human brain in health and disease."

Further information:

How To Create A Mind: Ray Kurzweil at TEDxSiliconAlley

I've been reading Kurzweil's new book, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed in between Thomas Nagel's new book and a couple of older books (by Stuart Kauffman and Terence Deacon). While I disagree with Kurzweil's general thesis, I deeply admire his mind and depth of knowledge. Maybe you will, too.

Here is a description of the book - there was no description for the video.
Ray Kurzweil is arguably today’s most influential—and often controversial—futurist. In How to Create a Mind, Kurzweil presents a provocative exploration of the most important project in human-machine civilization—reverse engineering the brain to understand precisely how it works and using that knowledge to create even more intelligent machines. 
Kurzweil discusses how the brain functions, how the mind emerges from the brain, and the implications of vastly increasing the powers of our intelligence in addressing the world’s problems. He thoughtfully examines emotional and moral intelligence and the origins of consciousness and envisions the radical possibilities of our merging with the intelligent technology we are creating. 
Certain to be one of the most widely discussed and debated science books of the year, How to Create a Mind is sure to take its place alongside Kurzweil’s previous classics which include The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology and The Age of Spiritual Machines.
And now, on to the main event.

How To Create A Mind: Ray Kurzweil at TEDxSiliconAlley

Published on Mar 5, 2013

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Toward Research on Real-World Effects of Meditation

The Mind and Life Institute has announced its winners for the Mind and Life 1440 Awards supporting research into the "real world" effects of meditation. From my perspective, this looks like a deserving series of proposed studies.

Toward Research on Real-World Effects of Meditation
MARCH 4, 2013

As many of our colleagues are aware, the Mind & Life Institute has been a long-time supporter of research in contemplative science. Since 2004, we have been awarding small grants to advance rigorous research in the field through our Francisco J. Varela Awards program. Over the last decade, we have funded over 120 Varela Awards, and are encouraged to see how much impact these grants have had on both the growth of a new field of scientific study, and also the career development of many young researchers who share an interest and commitment to examining the mind through contemplative practice.

Despite these successes, more can be done to gain a deeper understand of the effects of meditation in our daily lives. To date, research on contemplative practice has focused largely on exploring the effects of meditation on the body and mind in a laboratory setting. Common themes have focused on questions such as: How do contemplative practices affect biological and psychological systems in the practitioner? Are there consistent, measurable changes that lead to positive outcomes (e.g., reduced stress, brain changes, personality changes)? While this stage is a necessary first step to begin to understand the mechanisms underlying meditation, the real work lies in applying this knowledge outside the lab, in everyday life. Thus, the next step is moving toward applied, real-world science: How can contemplative practices be used to increase our awareness of ourselves and others in the midst of our modern world? What practices lead to healthier relationships and more compassionate interactions, and how can we measure this?

Mind and Life recently joined with the 1440 Foundation to design a program in the hopes of advancing contemplative science into this next phase of investigation. Stemming from this collaboration, we were excited to hold the first cycle of the Mind and Life 1440 Awards for Real-world Contemplative Research last fall. These grants of $15,000 – $25,000 are specifically geared towards the investigation of real-world (as opposed to lab-based) outcomes of contemplative practice. Specifically, the 1440 Awards are intended to promote research that evaluates whether and how contemplative practice can promote inner well-being and healthy relationships, as well as the development of new methods to assess these outcomes in everyday life.

After a very competitive funding cycle, we are thrilled to announce the first Mind and Life 1440 Awardees:
  • Carrie Adair, West Virginia University: Mindfulness in interpersonal judgments and relationships in daily life
  • Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, Northeastern University: Short and long-term behavioral, physiological, and brain changes resulting from compassion meditation training as an intervention for stress due to difficult interpersonal relationships
  • Paul Condon, Florida State University: Contemplative practice, emotional well-being, and the transformation of hostility in the lab and real world
  • Eric Garland and Amber Kelly, Florida State University: Trauma-informed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction to promote intra- and interpersonal flourishing among survivors of traumatic violence
Congratulations to our winners, and we wish you great success in your studies. By enabling high-level research in the area of social and relational outcomes of contemplative practice, it is our hope that the 1440 Awards will expand the applications and impact of contemplative practices in the world.

William Grassie - The Great Matrix of Being: Understanding Natural Hierarchies

In recent post featuring Trevor Malkinson's - Rhizomatic for the People: Notes on Networks and Decentralization, I suggested that the rhizomatic philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, in many ways, overturns some of the basic tenets of integral theory - a model that is completely hierarchical, chronological, and highly organized. Rhizomes reject hierarchies and they resist chronology and organization. Rhizomes are decentralized, organized by connections and associations and not by systems, and they seek a unification that is inherently multiple.

This is not to say, however, that hierarchies must be tossed to the dustbin of history. In fact, nature is filled with hierarchies, as are human bodies and human relationships. Most obviously, we have bodies composed of organs that are composed of cells that are compose of molecules that are composed of protons and neutrons, that are composed of quarks, and which may be composed of one-dimensional strings (if string theory turns out to be true).

Talk about a hierarchy! Ken Wilber's AQAL version of integral theory assigns these hierarchies to a quadrant model of interior vs exterior and individual vs. collective. But his model seriously neglects that rhizomatic reality of many systems, both human and otherwise.

Anyway, I often place a lot of emphasis on relational, intersubjective and rhizomatic models here, but this is largely to fill the gap in integral theory that has neglected these models. But as I said, hierarchies are also very natural and important, as William Grassie shows in this article from MetaNexus.

The Great Matrix of Being

February 26, 2013
By William Grassie

Understanding Natural Hierarchies

Our European ancestors once understood the universe to be a Great Chain of Being. All the entities of the world -- animal, vegetable, mineral -- were hierarchically organized. At the bottom were metals, precious metals, and precious stones. Then came plants and trees, followed by wild animals and domesticated animals. Humans were also hierarchically ordered from children to women to men and further into the different ranks of commoners, nobility, princes, and kings. The Great Chain of Being continued up into the celestial realm -- moon, stars, angels, and archangels -- to the very top where God presides over the entire creation. This scala naturae provided humans with a natural order, which they also understood to be a natural human order that structured their societies.

Retorica Christiana, written by Didacus Valdes in 1579, Source: Wiki Media

Science, or so the story goes, disrupted this view of the universe and ourselves. Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler broke the crystalline spheres of Ptolemy and demoted Earth from the center of the universe to an insignificant periphery. Darwin understood plants and animals, including the human animal, to be evolving from common ancestors all the way back into the proverbial primordial slime. Freud showed that rational man was really an unconscious mess and hardly aware of, let alone in control of, his own thoughts and passions.

The Great Chain of Being was rendered a tangled web of happenstance in an enormous universe devoid of transcendence and meaning. God was rendered an unnecessary or incompetent creator. The new existentialists and Stoics argued that the universe was indifferent, that humans were insignificant, that our consciousness was epiphenomenal, and that our evolution merely accidental.

This turns out to be quite a distortion of the actual science and history. For while there is no Great Chain of Being, as the medievals understood it, there is most definitely a Great Matrix to which all beings belong.

Everything that exists in the universe, every process that science has discovered, every power of nature that humanity has harnessed, all that constitutes our human bodies and brains, our histories and cultures--all this and more--can be located within a number of natural hierarchies. These hierarchies define the Great Matrix of Being, and are measured in:
1) chronology
2) size
3) energy flows
4) electromagnetic radiation
5) thresholds of emergent complexity
Let's take a look at each in turn:

1. Chronology: The universe has a scale of time measured in billions of years down to the nanosecond vibrations of cesium in atomic clocks. Our best calculations suggest that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old, that humans are 200,000 years old, and that the drama of human civilization began some 12,000 years ago. Today, we call this chronological understanding of the universe and ourselves "Big History." There are currently a number of initiatives seeking to promote this curriculum in education. Chronology, however, is only one dimension of the Matrix.

Image: Big History Project Timeline uses a logarithmic scale

2. Size: The universe also has a size scale. The smallest unit is the Planck scale -- 1.616252 x 10-35 m. The concepts of size and distance break down at this scale as quantum indeterminacy becomes absolute. The most distant thing that we observationally know of in the universe is the background radiation from the big bang, which is 13.7 billion light-years away from Earth (13.7 x 109) x (3 x 109 meters/second). When we talk about the very fast, the very dense, and the very hot, these concepts of space and time become elastic, but in between these extremes, size matters. And curiously, the human scale--measured in centimeters and meters--exists about halfway between the very small and the very large and is the only scale where certain types of complexity could exist.

We tend to focus on how puny we are in the scale of hundreds of billions of galaxies, but we should also remember how enormous we are when compared with the atomic and subatomic levels. Space-time is a continuum in relativity theory, but for human purposes we normally treat them separately. Chronology and size are the x and y axes that establish the Matrix in two dimensions.

3. Energy: The intensity of energy flows is another axis in the Matrix. There is no uniform measurement of energy because energy comes in so many different flavors, including heat, electrical, chemical, nuclear, and kinetic. Physicists calculate the energy of the universe at the moment of the big bang as 1019 GeV (billion electron volts). At the opposite end is absolute zero or minus 273.15 degrees Celsius (minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit). At both extremes, matter exhibits strange behaviors.

All complex phenomena in the universe can be characterized by energy gradients, which we can measure in ergs per second per gram. It is counter-intuitive, but when normalized for mass, a photosynthesizing plant has about 2,000 times the energy density flow of the sun. A mammalian body has about 20,000 times the energy density flow of the sun. The human brain, consisting of about 2 percent of our body weight but consuming about 20 percent of our food energy, has an energy density flow about 150,000 times greater than the sun. And if we include all of the energy consumed outside of our bodies in our global civilization, then many humans today achieve energy density flows millions of times greater than the sun.

4. Electromagnetic Radiation: Electromagnetism governs almost all of the phenomena that we encounter in daily life. Negatively charged electrons are bound by electromagnetic waves into orbitals around positively charged atomic nuclei. Atoms combine into complex molecules through electromagnetic geometries and preferences. All chemistry, and therefore all biology, is governed by electromagnetic forces. The ATP molecules in your cells, the neurons in your brain, the gasoline burning in your car, the food you eat, and all the electronic devices in your life--from the light bulb to the Internet--are electromagnetic.

The entire spectrum of electromagnetic radiation goes from radio waves at one end, through microwave, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, and x-ray to gamma radiation at the other end, but our human eyes have evolved to see only a small range of visible light.

Electromagnetic radiation is central to all of the prosthetic "seeing" devices of science and technology -- from radio telescopes to electron microscopes. The tools by which we see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and understand the universe of the very small and the very big, the very hot and the very cold, the very fast and the very slow, all utilize the electromagnetic effect in their technologies of perception. The spectrum of electromagnetic radiation is the fourth axis in the Great Matrix of Being.

Image: Electromagnetic Spectrum Wiki Media

5. Emergent Complexity: Here we need to appeal to informed intuition and induction, rather than some discreet, measurable qualia in nature.

The epic narrative of Big History typically orients around eight thresholds of emergent complexity. For instance, the creation of the heavy elements in the stellar foundries from which we derive the elements of the periodic table was a threshold of emergent complexity necessary for complex chemistry to later evolve. When complex chemistry catalyzed life, we saw again something new and different. And when the evolution of plants and animals gave rise to species with a central nervous system, complex brains, oppositional thumbs, vocal chords, language, tool-making, and collective learning, something new emerged again in the universe, at least on one small planet.

It is important to emphasize that emergent complexity requires lower levels of complexity to exist and function. Higher orders of complexity are built bottom-up, though emergent properties cannot be fully explained from below. With thresholds of emergent complexity, the Matrix is not simply a coordinate system of reality, but now also an epic narrative of becoming.

Image: Big History Project Timeline with Thresholds of Emergent Complexity on Top.

The four dimensions in the Great Matrix of Being give us four ways of measuring reality -- by time, by scale, by energy density flow, and by thresholds of emergent complexity. All phenomena can be located within this Matrix.

But we might postulate another axis in the Matrix: a hierarchy of consciousness. The brain-mind is an emergent phenomena and potentially scalable. A roundworm in a neuroscience lab might have only a few hundred nerve cells, while a human brain has hundreds of billions of nerve cells. Surely, there are objective differences in brain-mind complexity throughout the animal kingdom. Counting nerve cells alone, however, does not really give us an adequate measure of brain-minds because brain-minds require bodies and metabolism, vocal chords and oppositional thumbs, and an enriching social and natural environment, in order to realize their potentials. Perhaps someday we may have a robust measure of consciousness that will allow us to compare dogs with cuttlefish, elephants with birds, and smart phones with smart people.

What is important to note about the Matrix is that humans are not at the top of the hierarchies, but somewhere in the middle. Complexity thrives when it is not too hot and not too cold, not too big and not too small. Different entities have different Goldilocks niches within the Matrix. The human niche is particularly favored in the Matrix for the time being--each of us a nexus of causal relationships (physical, biological, social, economic, psychological, mental), realizing extraordinary energy density flows, intensities of experience, and accelerating transformations in the modern period.

In our drive toward specialization and division of labors, we rarely reflect on these natural hierarchies and what they might mean for our understanding of science, self, and the sacred. Any concept of God adequate for modern science, for instance, must also be reconstructed in light of the Great Matrix of Being. An anthropomorphic monarch sitting on heavenly thrones no longer make sense.

"We exist in a bizarre combination of Stone Age emotions, medieval beliefs, and god-like technology," observed E.O. Wilson. To understand this schizophrenic state of affairs and transform it into something more wholesome, we need to understand how the Matrix actually works on different scales and perspectives. We need to see the emergent complexity of chemistry and cell biology. We need to understand the ubiquity of electromagnetism. We need to take account of the energy that flows through our daily lives. It is by consciously doing so that we extend our own being to the furthest edges of the universe and realize our fullest potential.

The bio-social-physical You and Me are never outside the Matrix, but in this scientific and philosophical exercise we seem to stand away, looking down on the Matrix from above. So far as we know, no other entity in the universe has achieved this capacity, and it is in this domain that humans are no longer middling creatures of the Matrix. Our self-transcendence, realized especially through the progress in science, is a super and completely natural emergent phenomena. We come to understand the Matrix from the inside out, though the Matrix knows nothing of us.

~ This article was originally published on Huffington Post Religion on 2/26/2013

Simon Winchester | "Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley's Curious Collection" Authors at Google

Strange, interesting, fascinating . . . . In this talk from Google, Simon Winchester talks about his newest book, completed with photographer Nick Mann, Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley's Curious Collection.

Simon Winchester | "Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley's Curious Collection" Authors at Google 
Published on Mar 4, 2013

Skulls is a beautiful spellbinding exploration of more than 300 different animal skulls­—amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles—written by New York Times bestselling author, Simon Winchester and produced in collaboration with Theodore Gray and Touch Press, the geniuses behind The Elements and Solar System. 

In Skulls, best-selling author Simon Winchester (author of The Professor and the Madman; Atlantic: A Biography of the Ocean; Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded; and others) tells the rich and fascinating story of skulls, both human and animal, from every perspective imaginable: historical, biographical, cultural, and iconographic. Presenting details about the parts of the skull (including the cranium, the mandible, the shape and positioning of the eye sockets, and species-specific features like horns, teeth, beaks and bills), information about the science and pseudoscience of skulls, and a look at skulls in religion, art and popular culture, his stories and information are riveting and enlightening.

At the center of Skulls is a stunning, never-before-seen-in-any-capacity, visual array of the skulls of more than 300 animals that walk, swim, and fly. The skulls are from the collection of Alan Dudley, a British collector and owner of what is probably the largest and most complete private collection of skulls in the world. Every skull is beautifully photographed to show several angles and to give the reader the most intimate view possible. Each includes a short explanatory paragraph and a data box with information on the animal's taxonomy, behavior, and diet.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Ethan Watters: We Aren't the World - Cultural Differences in Values and Perceptions

In this excellent article by Ethan Watters in Pacific Standard, a variety of assumptions made by Western psychologists and economists about human behavior (based on studies of Western populations) are revealed to be misguided and false when other cultures are assessed.

The article is very long, and worth the time to read it, but I am only posting a section of it here (what would be considered the second section). Follow the title link below to read the whole interesting piece.

We Aren’t the World

Joe Henrich and his colleagues are shaking the foundations of psychology and economics—and hoping to change the way social scientists think about human behavior and culture.


February 25, 2013 • By Ethan Watters

* * * * *
A MODERN LIBERAL ARTS education gives lots of lip service to the idea of cultural diversity. It’s generally agreed that all of us see the world in ways that are sometimes socially and culturally constructed, that pluralism is good, and that ethnocentrism is bad. But beyond that the ideas get muddy. That we should welcome and celebrate people of all backgrounds seems obvious, but the implied corollary—that people from different ethno-cultural origins have particular attributes that add spice to the body politic—becomes more problematic. To avoid stereotyping, it is rarely stated bluntly just exactly what those culturally derived qualities might be. Challenge liberal arts graduates on their appreciation of cultural diversity and you’ll often find them retreating to the anodyne notion that under the skin everyone is really alike.

If you take a broad look at the social science curriculum of the last few decades, it becomes a little more clear why modern graduates are so unmoored. The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors, albeit in different ways. Many anthropologists took to the navel gazing of postmodernism and swore off attempts at rationality and science, which were disparaged as weapons of cultural imperialism.

Economists and psychologists, for their part, did an end run around the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.

Henrich’s work with the ultimatum game was an example of a small but growing countertrend in the social sciences, one in which researchers look straight at the question of how deeply culture shapes human cognition. His new colleagues in the psychology department, Heine and Norenzayan, were also part of this trend. Heine focused on the different ways people in Western and Eastern cultures perceived the world, reasoned, and understood themselves in relationship to others. Norenzayan’s research focused on the ways religious belief influenced bonding and behavior. The three began to compile examples of cross-cultural research that, like Henrich’s work with the Machiguenga, challenged long-held assumptions of human psychological universality.

Some of that research went back a generation. It was in the 1960s, for instance, that researchers discovered that aspects of visual perception were different from place to place. One of the classics of the literature, theMüller-Lyer illusion, showed that where you grew up would determine to what degree you would fall prey to the illusion that these two lines are different in length:

Researchers found that Americans perceive the line with the ends feathered outward (B) as being longer than the line with the arrow tips (A). San foragers of the Kalahari, on the other hand, were more likely to see the lines as they are: equal in length. Subjects from more than a dozen cultures were tested, and Americans were at the far end of the distribution—seeing the illusion more dramatically than all others.

More recently psychologists had challenged the universality of research done in the 1950s by pioneering social psychologist Solomon Asch. Asch had discovered that test subjects were often willing to make incorrect judgments on simple perception tests to conform with group pressure. When the test was performed across 17 societies, however, it turned out that group pressure had a range of influence. Americans were again at the far end of the scale, in this case showing the least tendency to conform to group belief.

As Heine, Norenzayan, and Henrich furthered their search, they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains. Rather, Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries that had been refined and handed down through thousands of generations in ever more complex market economies. When people are constantly doing business with strangers, it helps when they have the desire to go out of their way (with a lawsuit, a call to the Better Business Bureau, or a bad Yelp review) when they feel cheated. Because Machiguengan culture had a different history, their gut feeling about what was fair was distinctly their own. In the small-scale societies with a strong culture of gift-giving, yet another conception of fairness prevailed. There, generous financial offers were turned down because people’s minds had been shaped by a cultural norm that taught them that the acceptance of generous gifts brought burdensome obligations. Our economies hadn’t been shaped by our sense of fairness; it was the other way around.

The growing body of cross-cultural research that the three researchers were compiling suggested that the mind’s capacity to mold itself to cultural and environmental settings was far greater than had been assumed. The most interesting thing about cultures may not be in the observable things they do—the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like—but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception.

For instance, the different ways people perceive the Müller-Lyer illusion likely reflects lifetimes spent in different physical environments. American children, for the most part, grow up in box-shaped rooms of varying dimensions. Surrounded by carpentered corners, visual perception adapts to this strange new environment (strange and new in terms of human history, that is) by learning to perceive converging lines in three dimensions.

When unconsciously translated in three dimensions, the line with the outward-feathered ends (C) appears farther away and the brain therefore judges it to be longer. The more time one spends in natural environments, where there are no carpentered corners, the less one sees the illusion.

As the three continued their work, they noticed something else that was remarkable: again and again one group of people appeared to be particularly unusual when compared to other populations—with perceptions, behaviors, and motivations that were almost always sliding down one end of the human bell curve.

In the end they titled their paper “The Weirdest People in the World?”(pdf) By “weird” they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”

Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.
Read the whole article.