Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Cure - The Only One

Ah yes, The Cure -- an old favorite. Official video for "The Only One," from MTV Italy.

Daily Om: Doing Our Best Work

This was yesterday's Daily Om.

Doing Our Best Work
Roles of Support

In the great symphony of life, we all have important parts to play. While some people are best suited to be conductors or soloists, their contributions would be diminished considerably without the individual musicians that lend their artistry to the fullness of an orchestra. The magical accents of the percussion section might sound random and out of place without the music they accompany. But any one member of an orchestra, doing less than their best at their particular part, can destroy the harmony of the whole piece, such is their importance. So although we may not receive the same amount or quality of attention as another, all of our contributions are valuable and integral to the success of the whole.

When we do our tasks well, we infuse them with our unique energy, making each act a gift. Each of our personalities and talents are suited to different roles of support. Even leaders and star performers support others in their own way. We can look around us at any moment to see that while we nurture some people with our work, others are supporting us with their gifts. Doing any job from this place within us allows us to do our part with humility and gratitude, while also learning lessons that move us steadily toward our goals.

When we can be fully present in every job that we do, we bring the fullness of our bodies, minds and spirits to the moment. Our contribution is enhanced by the infusion of our talents and abilities, and when we give them willingly, they attract the right people and circumstances into our experience. Anything we do begrudgingly limits the flow of our energy and closes us off from the good that is available to us in every situation. But by giving the best in us to make the world around us better, we open ourselves to receive the best from the universe in return.

Fitness Rsearch for May 2008

Some fitness news you can use.

May 15, 2008
Exercise ETC's Review of Exercise Related Research

Compiled by Chris Marino, MS, CSCS
Director of Education, Exercise ETC

Increased Muscularity Results in Stronger Bones

Hip fractures present one of the greatest concerns for people with Osteoporosis. The latest statistics show that 25% of women over 50 who suffer a hip fracture die within 1 year. Exercise has long been shown to help reduce the risk of hip fractures by increasing bone mineral density while improving core strength and balance.

A recent study suggests that women might also want to pack on the muscle. Researchers at the University of Iowa reported that lower-body muscle mass was a better predictor of hipbone mineral density than either strength or physical activity level.

Fifteen hundred men and women over age 50 were evaluated for quadriceps strength and lower-body muscle mass. Although hip BMD and quadricep strength were related, the relationship was not consistent. The relationship between lower-body muscle mass and Hip BMD was maintained even after age, race, and sex were accounted for.

A simple method for identifying individuals at increased risk for a hip fracture can help reduce the mortality associated with Osteoporosis. This study provides insight into such a method. In addition, exercise professionals should rethink program design for older clients to include improvements in both lower body muscle mass and strength for osteoporosis patients.

Segal, N.A. et al (2008) Muscle Mass Is More Strongly Related to Hip Bone Mineral Density Than Is Quadriceps Strength or Lower Activity Level in Adults Over Age 50 Year. Journal of Clinical Densitomitry.

Can Walnuts Help to Prevent Prostate Cancer & Heart Disease?

Walnuts are not only one of the best sources of plant protein, but are also an excellent source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Vitamin E, a fat-soluble antioxidant. Considerable research has shown the value of Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants in the prevention of many diseases. Now, researchers have found that walnuts my reduce the risk of prostate cancer and improve vascular health.

Researchers supplemented the diets of 21 older men with walnuts for 8-weeks. Levels of Vitamin E and prostate specific androgens (PSAs) were measured before and after.

Subjects consumed their typical diet with or without a 75g/day walnut supplement. Five participants completed a timed study to determine acute changes in triglyceride levels in the blood. Measurements were taken at baseline and 1, 2, 4 and 8 hours after eating 75g of walnuts.

The results showed a significant decrease in triglycerides, which may reduce the risk of heart disease and a trend towards a decrease in PSA levels, which may reduce the risk of prostate cancer.

This research also supports previous findings that walnuts may help reduce inflammation, decrease risk of certain types of cancer and reduce risk or delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

Spaccarotella, K.J. et al (2008) The effect of walnut intake on factors related to prostate and vascular health in older men. Nutrition Journal.

The Financial Burden of Obesity in the Elderly

One of the greatest challenges for America in the 21st Century will be funding healthcare for older adults who rely on Medicare and Medicaid. In fact, economists predict that at the current rate Medicare/Medicaid will be bankrupt by 2030.

By 2010 approximately 70% of the American population, many of whom will be over 65, will be overweight or obese. It is rarely disputed that the obesity epidemic has contributed to the instability of the American health care system.

A recent study examined the contribution of overweight and obesity to the current financial strain experienced by the US Healthcare System. Researchers at the University of Florida used body weight data to compare lifetime health care expenditures for older Americans over the age of 65.

Compared to normal weight men, men who were overweight or obese at age 65 up to 13% more on health care than normal weight men. Overweight or obese women had expenditures that were 11 to 17% higher than normal weight comparisons.

This research supports the initiative to reduce health care costs by making concerted behavioral such as eating a little less and exercising a little more.

Yang, Z., and Hall, A.G. (2008) The Financial Burden of Overweight and Obesity among Elderly Americans: The Dynamics of Weight, Longevity, and Health Care Cost. Health Services Research. 43(3):849-68.

Maximal Strength Training Improves Running Economy

Researchers from Norway have strengthened the ties between maximal strength training and running economy. Running economy is one of three components essential to performing well, the other two being maximal oxygen consumption and lactate threshold.

Well-trained male and female runners either participated in strength training 3 times per week for 8-weeks or served as controls. The strength training group performed 4 sets of 4 repetition maximum (RM) half-squats. Both groups completed their normal endurance training routines.

The strength training group increased their 1RM in the half-squat by 33.2%. Their rate of force development increased by 26%, their running economy improved by 5%, and their time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic speed improved by 21.3%. VO2max and bodyweight remained unchanged.

Because endurance activities are mostly dependent on aerobic metabolism it would seem to make sense to think that performance would be determined by training the aerobic energy systems. However, the ability to produce joint actions at submaximal intensities, as in running, is related to maximal strength. This study has supported the need for strength training in the runner and has also found that running does not interfere with the ability to gain strength.

Storen, O. et al (2008) Maximal Strength Training Improves Running Economy in Distance Runners. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. May 2. (ePub ahead of print)

5 Psychological Experiments That Prove Humanity is Doomed

Some good clean fun from Cracked. Well, OK, these studies are actually valid and they do suggest some not-so-positive elements of human behavior. It's really not good to make generalizations based on a single study, but it is entertaining.

A couple of these are quite famous experiments, and I read about each of these in my psych classes back in the dark ages of my college years. There are other factors to consider in human nature that don't get mentioned here (or tested), so as easy as it is to draw the conclusions suggested, they are only partial interpretations, not the whole story of who we are as human beings.

I've added links to information about the various studies within the body of the post.

5 Psychological Experiments That Prove Humanity is Doomed

article image

Psychologists know you have to be careful when you go poking around the human mind because you're never sure what you'll find there. A number of psychological experiments over the years have yielded terrifying conclusions about the subjects.

Oh, we're not talking about the occasional psychopath who turns up. No, we're talking about you. The experiments speak for themselves:

The Setup:
Solomon Asch wanted to run a series of studies that would document the power of conformity, for the purpose of depressing everyone who would ever read the results.

Subjects were told that they would be taking part in a vision test, along with a handful of people. The participants were then shown pictures, and individually asked to answer very simple and obvious questions. The catch was that everybody else in the room other than the subject was in on it, and they were were told to give obviously wrong answers. So would the subject go against the crowd, even when the crowd was clearly and retardedly wrong?

The Result:
Questions the subjects were asked were like the puzzle shown here:

All they had to do was say which line on the right matched the one on the left. As you can see, Asch wasn't exactly asking these people to design the next space station. Really, the only way you could get the line questions honestly wrong is if you took two doses of LSD that morning and rubbed them directly on your eyeballs (which would have made for an even more awesome experiment, but we're getting off the point).

Yet, sadly, 32 percent of subjects would answer incorrectly if they saw that three others in the classroom gave the same wrong answer. Even when the line was plainly off by a few inches, it didn't matter. One in three would follow the group right off the proverbial cliff.

What This Says About You:
Imagine how much that 32 percent figure inflates when the answers are less black and white. We all tend to laugh with the group even when we didn't get the joke, or doubt our opinion we realize ours is unpopular among our group. So much for those lectures you got in elementary school about peer pressure and "being brave enough to be yourself."

"Well, it's a good thing I'm a rebellious non-conformist," many of you are saying. Of course, for virtually all of you, the next step is to find out what the other non-conformists are doing ...

... and make sure you conform to it perfectly.

"Wait, you're right! Surely we must rebel against this mindless herd mentality! Let's all take to the streets!"

The Setup:
The Biblical story of the Good Samaritan, if you hadn't heard, is about a passing Samaritan helping an injured man in need, while other, self-righteous types walk right on by. Psychologists John Darley and C. Daniel Batson wanted to test if religion has any effect on helpful behavior.

Their subjects were a group of seminary students. Half of the students were given the story of the Good Samaritan and asked to perform a sermon about it in another building. The other half were told to give a sermon about job opportunities in a seminary.

As an extra twist, subjects were given different times that they had to deliver the sermon so that some would be in a hurry and others not.

Then, on the way to the building, subjects would pass a person slumped in an alleyway, who looked to be in need of help. We like to think Darley and Batson beat the crap out of some random dude to make it more realistic, but sources say otherwise.

C. Daniel Batson probably did not beat a homeless dude

The Result:
The people who had been studying the Good Samaritan story did not stop any more often than the ones preparing for a speech on job opportunities. The factor that really seemed to make a difference was how much of a hurry the students were in.

In fact, if pressed for time, only 10 percent would stop to give any aid, even when they were on their way to give a sermon about how awesome it is for people to stop and give aid. Though to be fair, if you were late for a class, did your professor ever accept, "I had to stop and help a wounded traveler" as an excuse? Probably not unless you could produce the guy's blood-stained shirt as evidence.

What This Says About You:
As much as we like to make fun of, say, anti-gay congressmen who get caught gaying it up in a men's bathroom and pointing out Al Gore's resource-hogging mansion ...

... the truth is us common folk are just as likely to be hypocrites as the politicians. After all, it's much easier to talk to a room full of people about helping strangers than, say, actually touching a smelly and bleeding homeless man. So even pointing out their hypocrisy becomes a form of hypocrisy.

And in case you thought these results were just restricted to hypocritical seminary students, turn on the news. Remember a few years ago when cameras captured at least a dozen cars refusing to stop for an injured woman laying in the road?

Just like the students, they all had to be somewhere. The drivers were presumably proud enough of themselves just for swerving to miss her, rather than squishing her like roadkill.

Which brings us to ...

The Setup:
When a woman was murdered in 1964, newspapers printed that 38 people had heard and seen the attack, but did nothing. John Darley and Bibb Latane wanted to know if the fact that these people were in a large group played any role in the reluctance to come to aid.

The two psychologists invited volunteers to take part in a discussion. They claimed that because the discussion would be extremely personal (probably asking about the size of their genitals or something) individuals would be separated in different rooms and talk to each other using an intercom.

During the conversation, one of the members would fake an epileptic seizure, which could be heard on the speakers. We're not completely sure how they conveyed over the intercom that what was happening was a seizure, but we're assuming the words "Wow this is quite an epileptic seizure I'm having" were uttered.

The Result:
When subjects believed that they were the only other person in the discussion, 85 percent were heroic enough to leave the room and seek help once the other began the fake seizure. This makes sense. Having an extremely personal conversation (again, presumably about tiny genitalia) with another person is difficult enough, but being forced to continue to carry on the conversation by yourself is just sad. But either way, 85 percent helped. So that's good, right?

Well, they weren't done. When the experiment was altered so that subjects believed four other people were in the discussion, only 31 percent went to look for help once the seizure began. The rest assumed someone else would take care of it. So the phrase, "The more, the merrier" somehow got lost in translation because the correct expression should be, "The more, the higher probability that you will die if you have a seizure."

Anyone can have epilepsy, according to this child's drawing

What This Says About You:
Obviously if there's an emergency and you're the only one around, the pressure to help out increases massively. You feel 100 percent responsible for what happens. But, when you're with 10 other people, you're only 10 percent as responsible. The problem is everybody else only feels 10 percent responsible too.

This sheds some light on our previous examples. Maybe the drivers who swerved around the injured woman in the road would have stopped if they'd been alone on a deserted highway. Then again, maybe they'd be even more likely to abandon her since they know nobody is watching (unlike the people in the experiment, who at least knew there were others around to judge their actions).

Or maybe it comes down to just how plausible an excuse we can make for ourselves. "Surely someone will come along and save the lady in the road," we say. Or, "Surely someone else will do something about the environment," or "Surely the shark will get full and stop eating that dude at some point." We just need the slightest excuse to do nothing.

The Setup:
Psychologist Philip Zimbardo wanted to find out how captivity affects authorities and inmates in prison. Sounds innocent enough. Seriously, what could go wrong?

Zimbardo transformed the Stanford Psychology Department's basement into a mock prison. Subjects volunteered by simply responding to a newspaper ad ...

Not the actual ad

... and then passing a test proving good health and high-quality mental stability, which are very important factors in deciding who goes to prison. These volunteers were all male college students who were then divided arbitrarily into 12 guards and 12 prisoners. Zimbardo himself decided that he wanted to play too, and elected himself Prison Superintendent. The simulation was planned to run for two weeks.

Yep, nothing at all can go wrong with this.

The Result:
It took about one day for every subject to suddenly go as insane as a shit-house rat. On only the second day, prisoners staged a riot in the faux detention center, with prisoners barricading their cells with their beds and taunting the guards. The guards saw this as a pretty good excuse to start squirting fire extinguishers at the insurgents because, hey, why the hell not?

From that point on, the Stanford Prison that had already gone to hell, just continued to ricochet around in hell for day after day. Some guards began forcing inmates to sleep naked on the concrete, restricting the bathroom as a privilege (one that was often denied). They forced prisoners to do humiliating exercises and had them clean toilets with their bare hands.

Incredibly, when "prisoners" were told they had a chance at parole, and then the parole was denied, it didn't occur to them to simply ask out of the damned experiment. Remember they had absolutely no legal reason to be imprisoned, it was just a damned role-playing exercise. This fact continued to escape them as they sat naked in their own filth, with bags on their heads.

Over 50 outsiders had stopped to observe the prison, but the morality of the trial was never questioned until Zimbardo's girlfriend, Christina Maslach, strongly objected. After only six days, Zimbardo put a halt to the experiment (several of the "guards" expressed disappointment at this). If you were about to applaud Maslach as the only sane person involved in this clusterfuck, you should know that she went on to marry Zimbardo, the guy who orchestrated the whole thing.

What This Says About You:
Ever been harassed by a cop who acted like a major douchebag, pushing you around for no reason? Science says that if the roles were reversed, you'd likely act the same way.

As it turns out, it's usually fear of repercussion that keeps us from torturing our fellow human beings. Give us absolute power over somebody and a blank check from our superiors, and Abu Ghraib-esque naked pyramids are sure to follow. Hey, if it can happen to a bunch of Vietnam-era hippie college students, it sure as hell could happen to you.

The Setup:
When the prosecution of the Nazis got underway at the Nuremberg Trials, many of the defendants' excuse seemed to revolve around the ideas of, "I'm not really a prick" and, "Hey man, I was just following orders." Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to test willingness of subjects to obey an authority figure. Maybe he could just, you know, ask people? Oh, hell no. That would not be nearly horrifying enough.

Instead he ran an experiment where the subject was told he was a "teacher" and that his job was to give a memory test to another subject, located in another room. The whole thing was fake and the other subject was an actor.

The subject was told that whenever the other guy gave an incorrect answer, he was to press a button that would give him an electric shock. A guy in a lab coat was there to make sure he did it (again no real shock was being delivered, but the subject of course did not know this).

The subject was told that the shocks started at 45 volts and would increase with every wrong answer. Each time they pushed the button, the actor on the other end would scream and beg for the subject to stop.

So, can you guess how this went?

The Result:
Many subjects began to feel uncomfortable after a certain point, and questioned continuing the experiment. However, each time the guy in the lab coat encouraged them to continue. Most of them did, upping the voltage, delivering shock after shock while the victim screamed. Many subjects would laugh nervously, because laughter is the best medicine when pumping electrical currents through another person's body.

Eventually the actor would start banging on the wall that separated him from the subject, pleading about his heart condition. After further shocks, all sounds from victim's room would cease, indicating he was dead or unconscious. If you had to guess, what percentage of the subjects kept delivering shocks after that point?

Five percent? Ten?

Between 61 and 66 percent of subjects would continue the experiment until it reached the maximum voltage of 450, continuing to deliver shocks after the victim had been zapped into unconsciousness or the afterlife. Repeated studies have shown the same result: Subjects will mindlessly deliver pain to an innocent stranger as long as a dude in a lab coat says it's OK.

Most subjects wouldn't begin to object until after 300-volt shocks. Zero of them asked to stop the experiment before that point (keep in mind 100 volts is enough to kill a man, in some cases).

What This Says About You:
You might like to think of yourself as a free-thinking marauder, but when it comes down to it, odds are you won't stick it to The Man because of the fear The Man will stick it right back up your ass. And this was just a guy in a lab coat--imagine if he'd had a uniform, or a badge.

Charles Sheridan and Richard King took this experiment one step further, but asked subjects to shock a puppy for every incorrect action it made. Unlike Milgram's experiment, this shock was real. Exactly 20 out of 26 subjects went to the highest voltage.

Almost 80 percent. Think about that when you're walking around the mall: Eight out of ten of those people you see would torture the shit out of a puppy if a dude in a lab coat asked them to.

Fish Wish - Josephine Gutianjo

Be careful what you wish for.
Created by Vancouver Film School student Josephine Gutianjo through the VFS Digital Character Animation program, this is an animation short titled, "Fish Wish."


Friday, May 16, 2008

Free Thinker Interviews Ophelia Benson of "Butterflies and Wheels"

Ophelia Benson's Butterflies and Wheels blog has become quite popular. Benson is co-author of Why Truth Matters and The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense, and associate editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine.

While originally focusing on relativist postmodern targets, um, topics, she also has began to address material from the religious crowd (both foreign and domestic). I suspect she may be the most famous female atheist.

You can check out some of the topics she skewers here. This page is where you find the daily postings, with this description:
Our short and pithy observations on the passing scene as it relates to the mission of Butterflies and Wheels. Woolly-headed or razor-sharp comments in the media, anti-rationalist rhetoric in books or magazines or overheard on the bus, it's all grist to our mill. And sometimes we will hold forth on the basis of no inspiration at all beyond what happens to occur to us.
Free Thinker interviews her here. Some thoughts below the quote.
The Freethinker: B&W’s tagline is “Fighting fashionable nonsense”, a reference to the anti-science, relativist thinking prevalent in academia and a certain section of the left. But half the website - and more than half of the blog - is concerned with the idiocies and contradictions of organised religion. Is this a deliberate shift of focus? Or are the two targets closely related?

Ophelia Benson: It’s not exactly a deliberate shift of focus in the sense of having been decided in advance; it was more of an evolution. I think the two targets are closely related, in various ways – they both have a willful, chosen quality that interests me. Just getting things wrong is one thing, but being deliberately credulous is another. It’s not always possible to know which is which, of course, but there are some obvious markers. Making a virtue of faith and a vice of reason is one; talking pityingly about the ‘reality-based community’ is kind of a give-away. I’m interested by people who in some sense ought to know better, deciding to believe things for no very good reason and then making careers out of defending these not very well-warranted beliefs. In that sense popes and postmodernists have a lot in common.

More specifically, I kept finding more and more material about cultural relativism and especially about the tension between cultural relativism and women’s rights, and that subject is inseparable from religion. What cultural relativism turns out to mean, nearly all the time, is being protective of religion at the expense of women’s rights. The more I bumped up against irritating sentimental blather about ‘faith communities’ when the faith communities in question seemed to consist entirely of men, the more worthwhile it seemed to point out that the truth claims that underpin ‘faith communities’ are not based on much of anything. Once I started doing that, it became something like a continuing investigation. I’m still interested – fascinated, really – by the fact that people like to claim that grown-up religions are sophisticated and reasonable, when day after day month after month the top clerics in the mainstream religions publish articles in newspapers and say things on tv and radio that are… not well reasoned. I’m still waiting to see something impressive and convincing from a priest or an imam or an apologist. I keep being surprised by how consistent it all is, how consistently thin and unargued and contorted and ad hoc and uncompelling. So – when a fresh example turns up, I tend to add it to the pile. It has a shooting fish in a barrel aspect, I suppose, but I don’t really care, because clerics do get a hell of a lot of unearned deference and attention and credence, they do get their voices heard on abortion and stem cell research and ‘family values,’ they do get seats on ethics committees despite a total lack of expertise and even ability to think clearly, they do have a wildly disproportionate ability to tell people what to do – so however easy it is to keep saying ‘Why should we believe that?’ I think it’s worth doing.

FT: Have you ever been religious, or believed “implausible things for epistemically questionable reasons” (to use your own pithy phrase)?

OB: No, not really. Not since childhood anyway, when what I did couldn’t really be called believing, I just took in what I was told (which was rather vague in any case). I detested Sunday school and wasn’t made to go for long (in my memory it seems to be no more than twice, but I’m not sure that’s right). I also loathed church, and we didn’t do that much either, and not at all after I was about 8.

I feel as if I really ought to come up with at least one implausible belief, because it seems so conceited to say no. I’ve had silly political beliefs – I used to be way too uncritical about underdog nationalism (the IRA, other separatist groups, that kind of thing), for instance – but I can’t think of any big implausible factual beliefs. That can’t be right; I must have had some; you’re welcome to assume that I’m flattering myself. But I can’t think of any. That’s not because I’m so damn clever – I think it must be more a matter of temperament. I think I’m just not much of a believer in general, by temperament. (Which perhaps means I ought to be kinder to priests and imams, who have different temperaments, which is not their fault. All very well, but they lay down the law in public, so the rest of us get to push back.) I’m a minimalist about belief, I think, so odd ones don’t tend to stick to me.

FT: How would you describe your personal philosophy?

OB: I’m not sure I really have anything as grand as a personal philosophy – I think I have more of a methodology. It could be boiled down to not wanting to be taken for a sucker, or in more philosophical language, to a dislike of bullshit. I hate dishonest manipulative language of all sorts, and I spend a lot of time sniffing it out and then making fun of it.

Read the rest of the interview.

I admire the idea of fighting against "dishonest manipulative language." A worthy pursuit that will never be exhausted, especially with the rise of blogging.

She is essentially coming from a scientific, rationalist viewpoint, and looking at the postmodern and relativist worldview on one hand, and at the mythic and religious worldview on the other hand, and rejecting both as not fully rational. But she seems to be selective in her appraisal of each (though I suspect a more blanket rejection is her overall view), picking worthy targets for her attack.

Here are a couple of examples of her views. First up, a shot at the claim by Hillary Clinton and her supporters that being First Lady qualifies her to be president.
Why is it supposed to be 'feminist' to think that being a first lady does qualify you to serve as commander-in-chief? What the hell is feminist about that? What is feminist about thinking 'I am married to an important man' is a qualification? That's not feminist, it's anti-feminist. Feminist is running on your own merits, not someone else's. Parlaying wifehood into a career is not my idea of feminist. Using family connections and second-hand fame is not my idea of feminist. Riding on coat-tails is not my idea of feminist. Clinton is doubtless qualified, but the nepotism question makes her one of the last people in the country who should have tried for this particular job. I don't feel one bit 'empowered' as a woman by the fact that another woman is trying to use her marital arrangement as an elevator to the top.
Can't say I disagree with that.

Next up, a look at "honor killings" in the Muslim "faith."

What honour is - something that makes it not only acceptable but actually praiseworthy to stamp on, suffocate, and stab to death a 17-year-old girl who is your daughter, a girl who hasn't killed anyone or hurt anyone but has simply developed an affection for a male person.

It was her first youthful infatuation and it would be her last. She died on 16 March after her father discovered she had been seen in public talking to Paul, considered to be the enemy, the invader and a Christian. Though her horrified mother, Leila Hussein, called Rand's two brothers, Hassan, 23, and Haydar, 21, to restrain Abdel-Qader as he choked her with his foot on her throat, they joined in. Her shrouded corpse was then tossed into a makeshift grave without ceremony as her uncles spat on it in disgust.

Oh, god, it's so ugly I can't stand to read it. I can't stand it I can't stand it - this world where men get together to murder women then treat them like garbage then spit on them. It's so ugly. The hatred, the contempt, the disgust - for a young girl - their own relative. It makes me crazy.

Again, she's spot on correct -- it's unbearably horrible that this happens ANYWHERE on this planet.

I've just began reading this blog, but I'm looking forward to seeing what she's about here. I'm hoping that she doesn't lump all worldviews that aren't hers into the same category -- wrong-headed -- and so far it seems she makes some distinctions.

Jon Stewart: The Change You Deserve

Gotta love Jon Stewart sometimes. His riff on Bush's decision to give up golf to honor the troops in Iraq is great. That's just the beginning of this cool segment.

Hillary Clinton - What Went Wrong?

The New Republic has an interesting article that looks at what went wrong with the Clinton campaign, and it presents the views of a dozen or so insiders. The quotes are pretty interesting -- everything from poor planning, to poor personnel, to running as an incumbent.
What Went Wrong?
The exclusive story of Hillary's fall, as told by the high-level advisors, staffers, fundraisers, and on-the-ground organizers who lived it.
Post Date Friday, May 16, 2008

Endings are rarely as joyous as beginnings--and in the case of a long, wearing, and ultimately disappointing campaign, they can be downright brutal. But they also have the potential to be educational, for participants and gawkers alike. So it is that we asked (begged, really) a range of Hillarylanders for their up-close and personal lists of "What Went Wrong?" Not everyone wanted to play. Many stubbornly pointed out that their candidate is not yet dead. But, on the condition of total anonymity, a fairly broad enough cross-section of her staff responded--more than a dozen members all told, from high-level advisors to grunt-level assistants, from money men to on-the-ground organizers.

Many answers fell into a handful of broad themes we've been hearing for months now. (She shouldn't have run as an incumbent. She should have paid more attention to caucus states. She should have kept Bill chained in the basement at Whitehaven with a case of cheese curls and a stack of dirty movies.) Others had a distinct score-settling flavor. One respondent sent in a list of Top 25 screw ups, the first three being:

1. Patti
2. Solis
3. Doyle

While from another corner came another list, reading:

1. Mark Penn
2. Mark Penn
3. Mark Penn

But whether personal or clinical, new or familiar, the critiques are all the more striking for having come directly from those neck-deep in the action. So, here it is, an elegy for Hillary '08, written by some of those who have worked tirelessly to keep it alive.
Read the article to get the lowdown of the fall and failure of the Clinton campaign.

Do I smell rats fleeing the sinking ship, and feeling just a little bit bitter about the whole thing?

The Basics of Evolutionary Spirituality

A new article at Integrative Spirituality takes a look at Evolutionary Spirituality. I'm not sure who authored this piece. It's long and makes some big assumptions, but it's interesting.

In general, I agree with the statements made below, but I sense a bit of a human-centric bias that I think is not really supported by the evidence.

Here is the beginning, which includes all of the basic premises.
The Basics of Evolutionary Spirituality ---- The Deepest Patterns, Purposes and Intentions of 14 billion Years of Evolutionary Progress and What they Mean for Your Personal Destiny and Success!

What are the Deepest Patterns, Purposes and Intentions of 14 billion Years of Evolutionary Progress?

To understand the new ideas of the evolutionary spirituality movement it is necessary to understand what are the deepest reoccurring success patterns found in evolution. In other words, what is really going o­n within the deep time natural laws and processes of the universe's 14 billion years of successful physical evolution.

Even though the following summary of those deep evolutionary "success" patterns may initially appear a bit technical or complex, it is the essential foundation to understanding the most "proven" principles, processes and spiritual implications found within the power of evolution itself as well as the Evolutionary Spirituality movement. This knowledge is the core of success in all life's endeavors...

In its deepest, most repeated and successful patterns our estimated 13.7 billion year physical evolution appears to be moving towards creating or upholding the following:

a. Expanding diversity and novelty (with a potential towards a theoretical exhaustion of all possibilities for more novelty and diversity.)

b. Expanding complexity (with a potential towards a theoretical exhaustion of
all possibilities for more complexity.)

c. Expanding adaptation/mutation/change (towards a theoretical exhaustion of all possibilities of more adaptation/mutation.) Adaptation/mutation being defined as
the potential to change/evolve/adapt/mutate to contingencies based o­n new conditions. Expanding diversity, novelty, complexity, adaptation and/or mutation from a limited field of view or perspective within the evolutionary system and can create the appearance from limited or smaller perspectives of chance, randomness, chaos or even whim.

d. Expanding energy exchanges and/or transfers (towards a theoretical exhaustion of all possibilities of more energy exchanges and/or transfers.) {Please note: Every item in bold in this section immediately below, directly or indirectly needs exchanges or transfers of energy for expanding or to become more.}

Exchanges or transfers of energy can be in the form of:

  1. increasing energy flow,

  2. decreasing or dispersal of energy flow or

  3. the creation of dynamic energy equilibriums or static energy fields. (Static energy fields are conditions where energy is in a minimal state of flow or dispersal and collects in an area as stored energy. Dynamic equilibriums can be composed of any of the relationships between individual parts, sub systems of
    the whole and/or the whole of evolution itself. These relationships are composed of, and maintained by, appropriate and balancing (needed, fair and/or just,) spiraling dynamic energy exchanges between the individual parts, the sub systems of the whole and/or the whole of evolution itself. Dynamic equilibriums allow for the continuous spiraling and expanding of the energy exchanges needed to adjust to existing and new forms of diversity, novelty, complexity, mutation and adaptation within the overall equilibrium’s individual parts, sub systems and/or the whole of evolution itself within the tolerances for the existence and sustainability of that particular dynamic equilibrium.)

    iv. the critical evolutionary juncture:
    There is a point in the creation or maintenance of dynamic equilibriums (any kind of groupings in the universe weather it be atoms, cells, molecules, solar systems, galaxies, or even marriages, families, corporations, organizations, nations etc) where if the balance of energy exchanges within the myriad of forms that energy forms can be exchanged within or between dynamic equilibriums, either fails to establish itself or goes to far out of balance. When that happens a point is reached where o­ne of two things generally happen. Those two outcomes are either evolutionary adaption and growth toward the establishment or re-establishment of either new or old dynamic equilibriums or --- breakdown, retrogression and/or extinction.

    What is most exciting about this critical evolutionary juncture is that due to the increasing intelligence, consciousness and autopoiesis (inherent creativity,) of and between the evolving individual parts, sub systems of the dynamic equilibrium and/or the whole of evolution itself the individual parts and sub systems of some existing or potentially new dynamic equilibrium can have a significant effect o­n either the establishment or reestablishment of either new or old dynamic equilibriums thus preventing evolutionary breakdown, retrogression or extinction.

e. If critical junctures are passed through successfully, the above success patterns move the individual parts and sub systems of evolution as well as the whole of evolution in a spiraling expansion toward:

  1. more dynamic equilibriums of expanding order, integration and harmony being established within individual parts and sub systems continuously re-balancing apparent chaos toward order. (Evolution at the deepest reoccurring success levels appears to proceed though cooperative win/win or lose/lose arrangements and not pure survival of fittest (win/lose) as has been popularly and grossly mischaracterized about the nature of evolution.)

  2. more self organization/autonomy/consciousness and/or freedom for more individual parts and sub systems, which is counter-balanced by the pull of more interdependency and interdependencies with even more complex larger systems seeking to establish their own dynamic equilibrium and integration of expanding order and harmony, toward...

    more sustainability: all individual parts, sub systems and the whole seeking to last for more time ---
    for more individual parts and more individual sub systems within the new larger system, moving theoretically towards the whole evolutionary system seeking an integration of all parts and sub systems into a unified sustainable dynamic equilibrium of the highest possible level of order, integration and harmony for itself.)

    An important sub-part to the spiraling process of creating more individual part and sub system self organization/autonomy/consciousness/freedom comes about through more educational experiences in which the individual parts or sub systems through some form of trial and error have the potential to experience more conflict than is comfortable or more pleasure and/or the relief of the discomfort (the inherent cause and effect rewards or punishments of their actions/choices,) or pleasure, which appears to educate/teach/evolve the individual parts or sub systems toward more adaptability by developing more intelligence/awareness and in some organisms like humankind, more self consciousness. It appears that o­ne of the greatest success deep patterns of evolution is continually creating tensional and turbulent conditions that stimulate and optimize adaptation and growth. (The philosopher Hegel proposed that the direction of life in the universe is for more and more matter to eventually become conscious.)

    What the Deep Success Patterns of our 14 billion Years of Evolutionary Progress Mean for Your Personal Destiny and Success?

    In the reoccurring deepest patterns of the 14 billion years of successful evolutionary process and progress you can see the most basic patterns and laws for success that every individual, family, organization, corporation, nation, system or thing must sooner or later acknowledge and follow--- if that dynamic equilibrium or grouping wishes to survive or thrive. Evolution “is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses and all systems must bow… Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow.” Pierre Teilhard De Chardin

    From the repetition of the deep patterns unfolds the destiny of the universe and all things in it. Any individual, grouping, organization, nation or system that acknowledges the realities of these reoccurring deep success patterns and then orders itself by their deep time truths will have an overwhelming survival advantage over individuals, groupings, organizations, nations or systems that don’t. This advantage will give them far better control over their individual and collective physical destinies.

    If you take the time at the end of this section to re-read the deep patterns again, but this time from the completely new perspective of asking yourself, how can you can apply these deep evolutionary truths to your current personal situations and the groups that you interact with, you will find real treasure. While re-reading them, take the time to notice where your life or current social groupings are resisting, denying or going directly against the flow of any of the deep patterns. Note down any new ideas that you might have about any changes you could make in your life to remedy those matter.

    The deep evolutionary patterns above relate most directly to the physical and psychological aspects of our lives and the world, but they also do relate to our spiritual lives in many new ways. For hundreds of generations before the advent of modern science, humanity has been empirically discovering some of these deep time success patterns and recording them in its sacred texts to be able teach their importance to an individual’s success and destiny.

    When you review them again with new deep time eyes you will gradually begin to see where most of our current religious commandments and social laws have come from. You also should be able to see in life-renewing ways the essential future role that your co-creative free will and your adaptive, growing consciousness (your agency) will play to interconnect, interrelate and cooperatively partner with other dynamic equilibrium groupings (your communions,) to prevent breakdown, retrogression and/or extinction. You many even embrace a new kind of “normal,” “peaceful” and healthy way of making your vital energy exchanges with the many dynamic equilibrium groupings of your life in a manner that although it looks like near continuous dynamic tension and turbulent balance, is completely appropriate to the natural evolutionary success process.

    As you continue reading the remaining sections you will also discover the spiritual wisdom o­n how the deep patterns of evolution both reflect the intentions and purposes of the universe itself, the Ever Present Origin of the Universe (it/he/she aka God/Buddha) as well as the expanded success patterns and laws of the emerging rebirth of post post-modern spirituality and religion.

    The New Spirituality implied within the Deepest Patterns of Physical Evolution and Evolutionary Progress

    In addition to how the deepest patters of evolution relate to the virtues above, there comes into view paralleling relationships between the physical patterns and trends of evolution and the evolution of Spirit and spirituality within the process of evolution. Based upon what we know about evolution and deepest patters of evolution (above):

  1. The evolutionary universe(s) can be fairly described as a single energy/matter event that inherently enfolds and/or contains the interweaving of all physical, mental and spiritual reality.

  2. The evolutionary universe(s) begin with energy that solidifies, unfolds or develops into matter.

  3. Matter eventually unfolds or develops into life.

  4. life eventually unfolds or develops into thought.

  5. Thought eventually unfolds or develops into self consciousness, And,

  6. According to classical spiritual wisdom, self consciousness eventually recognizes itself as spirit/soul, develops into spirit/soul or unfolds into spirit/soul (depending upon your particular spiritual perspective.)

  7. In its currently known final phase, the evolution of spirit/soul within the physical universe unfolds, recognizes itself as or, develops into a new consciousness of God and/or Buddha or, depending upon your particular spiritual perspective, actual additional states or presences of God and/or Buddha. These new or additional consciousnesses, states or presences God and/or Buddha that gradually unfold, self recognize or develop through the evolutionary process are not the God and/or Buddha that developed exclusively or solely out of matter and evolution. (In addition to the very infinite, absolute and transcendent God
    and/or Buddha that was fully present at and before the beginning of the evolutionary universe they are now appearing as an either partial or complete, new or additional God and/or Buddha consciousnesses, states or presences within the evolutionary universes itself.) The direction of the universe may not be just more and more matter becoming conscious as Hegel said and as the deep patterns of evolution prove, it may be more and more matter becoming God/Buddha conscious as itself. o­n o­ne level it can be said that it appears that the whole universe is turning back and looking at itself and becoming more aware of itself as an interconnected unified totality. Wow!

  8. As a creative free will act of delight, love and sharing of itself with all of creation and, to expand its own self manifestation and self realization in new ways beyond the limitations of absolute infinity and eternity, the infinite, transcendent and absolute God and/or Buddha that was fully present at and before the beginning of the evolutionary universe has creatively and intentionally involved itself into the developmental progression of the evolutionary universe. In and through the development of the evolutionary universe the infinite,
    transcendent and absolute God and/or Buddha can also experience new creative
    delight, play, adventure and satisfactions that are additive to the absolute infinity and eternity of qualities of the absolute and infinite God and/or Buddha that were fully present at and before the beginning of the evolutionary universe.

  9. The God and/or Buddha that was fully present before the beginning of the evolutionary universe is present in the evolutionary universes, but in a new and implicit (and/or multiple) form(s). Most amazingly it is by and through the evolutionary process itself that the infinite, absolute God and/or Buddha makes its divinity explicit in new and additional ways. The enfolded Divine sacredness found within the unfolding of the evolutionary process makes this great step by step new evolutionary expanding unveiling of divinity possible. This is likely the greatest of all possible spiritual adventures --- the divinization of the universe(s) through the natural evolutionary process in which we are vital partners and co-creators.

  10. The discovery of the evolutionary process by human consciousness (Darwin et
    all,) will some day be widely seen and acknowledged as o­ne of the most dramatic and important events in the spiritual advancement in human mentality because at this epic event the universe(s) folded back o­n itself through human consciousness and for the first time (and in the whole new way through science,) a creature looked nature and its Origin back and the eye and said, what exactly are you up to (as can been seen from your actual results)? This was the cross-over moment that prepared us for a whole new way to discover the enfolded, implicit, involved God and/or Buddha becoming explicit in the process of evolution within ourselves as well as within every other particle and thing
    existing within the evolutionary universe(s).

  11. Individuals (much less humankind,) awakening to the enfolded, intrinsic, involved presence of the infinite, absolute God and/or Buddha becoming fully explicit in time development or evolutionary nature was considerably more difficult than awakening to eternity or the understanding of the infinite, transcendent and absolute God and/or Buddha as an eternal presence before the universe began as it has traditionally been presented by the traditional
    religions of the world for millennia. This is again because the process of science had to first present human consciousness with an understanding of the evolutionary process itself before the enfolded involved and evolving identity, meanings and purposes of God and/or Buddha could be discovered anew and in completely new ways within the science of the evolutionary process itself.
Read the rest of this article.

Inspirational Video

This is pretty good -- give it a few minutes.

Everyone Must See This!

"The Dhamma Brothers": Documentary Explores Enlightenment Behind Bars

Found this at The Lohasian. I hope this film makes it to Tucson.

In 2002 a remarkable experiment transpired behind the cold cement walls of the Donaldson Correctional Facility just outside Birmingham Alabama - two meditation teachers Bruce Stewart and Jonathan Crowley lead a 10-day silent meditation course for a group of 36 prisoners. The experiment, and its utterly remarkable results in both inmates and the community, were all caught on tape by Jenny Phillips, a cultural anthropologist and psychotherapist, and will be released (by Balcony Releasing 04/08) as a extraordinary documentary titled "The Dhamma Brothers."

The film premiered May 9, 2008 in Los Angeles and Seattle, and will be opening in limited release in theaters nationwide. For more information on Dhamma Brothers - go to their SITE

The Trailer:

Daily Om: When Pain Comes Our Way

Yesterday's Daily Om was a good one. Since life entails suffering whether we like it or not, we can either embrace the opportunity to learn from our pain, then release it with an open heart, or we can cling to our belief that we shouldn't have to suffer and be miserable.

When Pain Comes Our Way
Honoring All Experiences

Honoring the experiences we have in our lives is an invaluable way to communicate with life, our greatest teacher. We do this when we take time at night to say what we are thankful for about our day and also when we write in a journal. Both of these acts involve consciously acknowledging the events of our lives so that they deepen our relationship to our experiences. This is important because it brings us into closer connection with life, and with the moment. Only when we acknowledge what’s happening to us can we truly benefit from life’s teachings.

It is especially important when pain comes our way to honor the experience, because our natural tendency is to push it away and move past it as quickly as possible. We tend to want to brush it under the rug. Yet, if we don’t, it reveals itself to be a great friend and teacher. As counterintuitive as it seems, we can honor pain by thanking it and by welcoming it into the space of our lives. We all know that often the more we resist something, the longer it persists. When we honor our pain, we do just the opposite of resisting it, and as a result, we create a world in which we can own the fullness of what life has to offer.

We can honor a painful experience by marking it in some way, bringing ourselves into a more conscious relationship with it. We might mark it by creating a work of art, performing a ritual, or undertaking some other significant act. Sometimes all we need to do is light a candle in honor of what we’ve gone through and what we’ve learned. No matter how small the gesture, it will be big enough to mark the ways in which our pain has transformed us, and to remind us to recognize and value all that comes our way in this life.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Mind & Brain - Decision Theory, Memory, The Not-So-Modular Brain, Mirror Neurons, and So Much More

I've been stacking up open tabs for a couple of days now. Some excellent new articles and a handful of new books. By the way, if there are topics anyone out wants to see, drop me a comment or an email and I'll try to find related articles. Enjoy!

From More Intelligent Life: MIND OVER MATTER, an article on decision theory.

The less you know, the more wisely you seem to choose. Helen Joyce rummages through the mental toolbox you use when the facts are scarce ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Spring 2008

"Set down all the Reasons, pro and con, in opposite Columns," wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1779 to his nephew, who was attempting to choose which of two women to propose to. "When you have considered them two or three days...observe what Reasons or Motives in each Column are equal in weight, one to one, one to two, two to three, or the like, and when you have struck out from both sides all the Equalities, you will see in which column remains the balance."

If you have been faced with a difficult decision--which house to buy; whether to accept a posting abroad--you may have done something similar yourself. And you may have had the following strange experience. You listed, you weighed, you calculated the answer--and, in a flash of insight, you realised it was the wrong one.

Did you omit some small but vital factor from one of your Columns? And how on earth did your subconscious get it right so fast?

The answer to these puzzles, says Gerd Gigerenzer, a German psychologist, lies in the way we make decisions, which is not how Franklin--or modern students of decision theory--think we should. Gigerenzer was one of the researchers whose studies of human cognition underpinned Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 best-seller, "Blink", which was about how snap decisions often seem to yield better results than careful analysis. In his new book, "Gut Feelings", Gigerenzer describes some of the quick-and-dirty decision-making tools our brains come fitted with--an "adaptive toolbox" of tricks that we skilfully, and usually unconsciously, pick for the task at hand.

Read more. A key quote: "Ignorance isn't random; it's systematic," says Gigerenzer. "If you know too much, it is harder to distinguish between what is important, and what is not." Dang, and I thought knowing everything was the key to life.

* * * * *

Total Recall … Or At Least the Gist
, from Miller-McCune

Our memory is like an ear of corn. At least, that's what Valerie Reyna was taught in graduate school.

Its Forrest Gumpish feel notwithstanding, the metaphor seemed scientifically sound. After all, researchers had already concluded there are two distinct types of memory: Verbatim, which allows us to recall what specifically happened at any given moment, and gist, which enables us to put the event in context and give it meaning.

"We were taught you extracted the gist from the verbatim memory," recalled Reyna, an experimental psychologist and former senior research adviser to the U.S. Department of Education. "It was like husking an ear of corn. You threw away the husk, which was the verbatim, and you kept the gist, which was the kernel of meaning."

There it was: Neat. Simple. Agrarian.

And also, as Reyna discovered over decades of subsequent research, wrong.

After conducting numerous studies with her partner, psychologist Charles Brainerd, Reyna concluded that verbatim and gist memory are separate, parallel systems. So separate, in fact, that "there is some evidence" they occupy different sections of the brain.

Reyna and Brainerd's hypothesis, which they call "fuzzy trace theory," explains how we can "remember" things that never really happened.

Read the rest.

One good question: Why did we develop two separate memory systems? And another: Did each have a correspondence to some other brain system when it arose?

* * * * *

From Michael Shermer (of The Skeptic) at Scientific American: The Brain Is Not Modular: What fMRI Really Tells Us

The atom is like a solar system, with electrons whirling around the nucleus like planets orbiting a star. No, actually, it isn’t. But as a first approximation to help us visualize something that is so invisible, that image works as a metaphor.

Science traffics in metaphors because our brains evolved to grasp intuitively a world far simpler than the counterintuitive world that science has only recently revealed. The functional activity of the brain, for example, is nearly as invisible to us as the atom, and so we employ metaphors. Over the centuries the brain has been compared to a hydraulic ma­chine (18th century), a mechanical calculator (19th century) and an electronic computer (20th century). Today a popular metaphor is that the brain is like a Swiss Army knife, with specialized modules for vision, language, facial recognition, cheating detection, risk taking, spi­rit­uality and even God.

Modularity metaphors have been fueled by a new brain-scanning technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We have all seen scans with highlighted (usually in red) areas where your brain “lights up” when thinking about X (money, sex, God, and so on). This new modularity metaphor is so seductive that I have employed it myself in several books on the evolution of religion (belief modules), morality (moral modules) and economics (money modules). There is a skeptical movement afoot to curtail abuses of the metaphor, however, and it is being driven by neuroscientists themselves. The November 11, 2007, edition of the New York Times, for example, published an opinion piece entitled “This Is Your Brain on Politics,” by neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni of the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues. The writers presented the results of their brain scans on swing voters. “When we showed subjects the words ‘Democrat,’ ‘Republican’ and ‘independent,’ they exhibited high levels of activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala, indicating anxiety,” the authors note. “The two areas in the brain associated with anxiety and disgust—the amygdala and the insula—were especially active when men viewed ‘Republican.’ But all three labels also elicited some activity in the brain area associated with reward, the ventral striatum, as well as other regions related to desire and feeling connected.” So the word “Republican” elicits anxiety and disgust, except for when it triggers feelings of desire and connectedness. The rest of the conclusions are similarly obfuscating.

In a response befitting the self-correcting nature of science, Iacoboni’s U.C.L.A. colleague Russell Poldrack and 16 other neuroscientists from labs around the world published a response three days later in the Times, explaining: “As cognitive neuroscientists who use the same brain imaging technology, we know that it is not possible to definitively determine whether a person is anxious or feeling connected simply by looking at activity in a particular brain region. This is so because brain regions are typically en­gaged by many mental states, and thus a one-to-one mapping between a brain region and a mental state is not possible.” For example, the amygdala is activated by arousal and positive emotions as well, so the key to interpreting such scans is careful experimental design that allows comparison between brain states.

Read the rest.

I've never liked the "modular theory" of brain function. It's tempting to look at fMRI images and think that we can pin-point certain brain functions (which is sometimes true) but often this is simply just not the case.

The brain seems to be much more of a neural net, with various regions of the brain involved in even the simplest functions, such as vision (which is dauntingly complex).

* * * * *

Also from Scientific American: Do Infants See Colors Differently?
How do we perceive a rainbow? And does everyone perceive a rainbow in the same way? These seemingly simple questions can reveal some interesting features of the human brain. For instance, is the “striped” appearance of the rainbow—the seven distinct bands of color that we see—a construct of our higher mental processes, or do the mechanics of human color vision determine it at a very early perceptual level? If your language does not have separate words for “blue” and “green” (and many languages, including Welsh, do not), do you perceive these shades as more similar than a speaker of English?

Searching for answers to these questions, in recent years many scientists have concluded that speakers of languages that label color in ways distinct from those used in English may see a different rainbow from that of English speakers. Recent studies have claimed that language processing is automatically involved in perceptual decisions about color in the brains of adults, even when hues are visible only briefly (100 milliseconds) or when decisions do not require participants to name colors verbally. Moreover, these effects are language-specific, so speakers of Russian or Korean show a different pattern of responses to color than speakers of English.

A recent study in PNAS by researchers at the University of Surrey challenges this view, however. It suggests an intriguing and novel account of color categorization in infants. In this study 18 English-speaking adults and 13 four-month-old infants were shown a colored target on a colored background. Adults were faster to initiate eye-movements toward the target when the target and background colors came from different color categories (for example, blue target, green background) than when both target and background were the same color (such as different shades of blue).

How Babies See Color

This discrimination advantage for different-category compared to same-category judgments is called Categorical Perception (CP). It is now clear that the effect in adults is language-driven. For instance, healthy, right-handed adults only show CP selectively when colors are presented to the right visual field. It is generally accepted that CP occurs because colors presented to the right visual field preferentially access language-processing areas located in the left hemisphere.

The authors of the new article agree with the current general consensus that CP in adults depends on privileged access to language areas in the left hemisphere. They also agree that the precise color terms that are represented in language are culturally transmitted during childhood and that there has been no “nativist,” or innate, pre-linguistic partitioning by the visual processing pathways into innate color categories in the left hemisphere. This idea fits with their data demonstrating that four-month-old infants showed no hint of CP when targets were presented in the right visual field. Because these infants have not yet acquired language, it is unsurprising that they do not show language-driven category effects in the left hemisphere.

So far, so predictable. What is striking, however, is that the same four-month-old infants did show a CP effect in the right hemisphere, exactly the reverse of the effect shown by adults. When a green target appeared on a green background in the left visual field (which has preferential access to the right hemisphere), infants were significantly slower to move their eyes toward the target than when a blue target appeared on the same green background. The authors claim that their results provide some evidence for pre-linguistic partitioning of color categories in four-month-old infants, but only from stimuli that preferentially access the right hemisphere. Such a result provides some empirical evidence for the existence of an innate pre-linguistic category boundary between blue and green.
Read the rest.

It's amazing to me sometimes how much of our perception of the world is language-based. But as this study suggests, we may have some innate grasp (perhaps too strong a word) of color distinctions. Nature vs. nurture rages on.

* * * * *

From New Scientist, How the brain detects the emotions of others
People who are good at interpreting facial expressions have "mirror neuron" systems that are more active, say researchers. The finding adds weight to the idea that these cells are crucial to helping us figure out how others are feeling.

Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire both when you do something and when you watch someone else do the same thing.

Because they allow us to mimic what others are doing, it is thought that these neurons may be responsible for why we can feel empathy, or understand others' intentions and states of mind. People with autism, for instance, show reduced mirror neuron activity during social cognition tasks.

Now Peter Enticott at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and his colleagues have found evidence supporting this theory. They asked 20 healthy adults to look at pairs of images. In one task, they had to decide if paired images of faces were the same person. In another, they had to decide if both faces were showing the same emotion.

In a separate task, volunteers watched video clips of thumb movement, a hand grasping a pen and a hand while writing, while the activity in the primary motor cortex of the brain, which contains mirror neurons, was recorded.

Read the rest.

Mirror neurons have been attributed all kinds of powers, but it seems that interpersonal interaction seems to be where they are most important and most active.

* * * * *

Now for something really geeky, from PhysOrg, First evidence of native dendritic cells in brain
In a finding that has the potential to change the way researchers think about the brain, scientists at Rockefeller University have found dendritic cells where they’ve never been seen before: among this organ’s neurons and connective cells.
The immunity-directing dendritic cell had previously been seen in the human nervous system only after brain injury or disease. But the new study, published next month in the Journal of Comparative Neurology, shows for the first time that the brain has its own, resident population of dendritic cells that may serve as a line of defense against pathogens that sneak past the blood-brain barrier.

The brain is packed with different types of microglia — cells that perform a variety of immune functions in the central nervous system. Until now, however, no one had identified dendritic cells among them. Research associate professor Karen Bulloch and her colleagues made their discovery using mice bred to have a fluorescent marker attached to a dendritic-cell specific protein.

Originally developed by Rockefeller scientists to help them visualize dendritic cells in immune tissues, Bulloch reasoned that the mice might be helpful in determining whether dendritic cells are also in the central nervous system. Bulloch, who’s spent a lot of time studying microglia, knew exactly where in the brain to look. But what she saw when she first peered through the microscope surprised her so much, she says, “I literally almost fell off my chair.”
Read the rest. Key quote: “The dendritic cells serve both as shepherds of newborn nerve cells and as gatekeepers, which police intruding molecules that may come into the brain through these pathways.”

* * * * *

Finally, some books that may be of interest.

~ A portrait of the brain - a chance to hear the author -- "In his recent book "A Portrait Of the Brain" neurologist Adam Zeman seeks to explore the brain all the way from its atoms to the soul. He does this Oliver Sacks-style, by discussing patients he has encountered, one of whom, for example, manifests psychological problems which are caused by a simple, yet devastating DNA abnormality, while another suffers physical problems (blackouts) which are actually psychological in their origin." Includes links to audio and Zeman's page.

~ The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook--What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing
by Bruce Perry with Maia Szalavitz
Basic, 2007
Review by Christian Perring
May 13th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 20)

Bruce Perry is a compassionate, insightful and thoughtful child psychiatrist who works in Texas. This collection of clinical cases focuses on the effects of trauma and abuse on children. He explains why they react as they do to their experiences, and when he can, he finds ways to help them. His approach is distinctive because of its emphasis on neuroscience and the ways in which extreme experiences affect the growth of a child's brain.

Perry starts off with the case of 7 year old Tina, who had suffered repeated sexual abuse, and now believed that she should act sexually with all men to win their approval. Her early experiences also caused her terrible stress, and affected her whole body, including her heart rate, her attention, her sleep, her fine motor control, and in her language development. Perry finds that he has only partial success in treating such profound damage caused by abuse. Other cases include a three year old girl who witnessed the murder of her mother and was alone with her mother's body for an extended period of time, children from the Branch Davidian ranch, a boy who was raised in a cage like a dog, a murderer who had been abused as a child, and children who claimed that they had abused by Satan worshippers. Through these cases, Perry sets out a great deal of scientific understanding of brain development and the importance of nurturing young children. He also points out some of the dangers of faddish theories about curing disorders in young children and of using treatments that haven't been shown to be effective. For example, he explains the enthusiasm for diagnosing Reactive Attachment Disorder and he argues that "Holding Therapy" that has been proposed and used as a cure can in fact be coercive and abusive.

Child psychiatry gets into the news with increasing frequency these days, and it is clear to all that in order to understand a child's problems you have to look not just at the child, but also his or her family.

~ Why Truth Matters
by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom
Continuum, 2007
Review by Ed Brandon
May 13th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 20)

We are surrounded by lies, and "liars in public places," as Ezra Pound said many years ago. We are inundated with varieties of fashionable nonsense. People ascribe intellectual authority to ancient scriptures or to today's clerics or snake oil salesmen. It is possible not to be concerned with these corruptions of thought, but if you are dismayed by any of them you will find that you need the simple contrast of truth and falsehood, and the somewhat more complex contrast of better or worse supported claims, even to characterize them, let alone to begin to deal with them.

There are strong pressures not to confront culpable or negligent error. People seem to think they have a right not to be mocked or simply questioned when they believe the unbelievable. People seem to think that various beliefs are too disturbing to be discussed. And many of these people will take to the streets, or picket lectures, when their prejudices are threatened. Diplomacy seems to call for a language bereft of even the possibility of stating unpalatable facts. And if all this were not enough, many intellectuals subscribe to doctrines that make our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, or better from worse supported explanations, seem impossible.Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, who run a website devoted to trashing fashionable nonsense (, provide, in Why Truth Matters, a survey of various errors, and attempt to show us why indeed truth matters, and how we can sensibly affirm it. Their hearts are, as far as I am concerned, in the right place; what worries me is that they have perhaps failed to go far enough to demonstrate the superiority of the truth as they see it. It is a common maxim in responsible criticism to take the strongest version of a position to be refuted. It is not clear to me that Benson and Strangroom (B & S henceforth) have always heeded that admonition. And when the issue in contention is broadly factual (such as with claims about an African role in Greek philosophy, or Irving's holocaust denial), it is really beyond the scope of a general discussion such as this to set out the masses of evidence that should convince an impartial inquirer. B & S can really only invoke authority, and belittle the absurdities they reject.

~ ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century by Susan Greenfield

In this short book neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, well known for her work communicating science to the general public, attempts to explain what it is about the human brain that allows it to become host to a mind, self-conscious, aware and able to reflect on its own existence and mortality.

While it is billed as “a stark warning” of the threats to individuality which arise in “the modern world” it is really an exploration of the latest thinking in neurophysiology and the physiological basis of thought, consciousness and identity.

Greenfield bases her book on an exploration of the characteristics of three different personality archetypes, “Somebody”, “Anybody” and “Nobody”, which she loosely identifies with individualism, collective fundamentalism and the blurred lack of self that results from a life lived in front of the screen. She later adds a fourth, the creative “Eureka” mindset, and ends the book with a set of policy recommendations for the education system designed to promote this creativity.