Saturday, January 31, 2009

New Poem: Loss


We never ask for the trial,
the blood on the skin
or the darkness in our soul,

and yet it comes, seeks us
out and infuses our life
with chaos, a loss of balance

that leaves us grasping
for meaning, for any tendrils
that carry something more

than emptiness, than loneliness,
a raven in the sky, or maybe
some old oak, a sense that we

are not forsaken, not left to our own
skills, not dependent on anyone
else to fill these fragile shadowy holes

Dharma Quote of the Week - Embracing Change

Great quote this week on a topic close to my heart, impermanence.

Dharma Quote of the Week

"There is often a big disparity between the way we perceive things and the way things really are. For instance, when we see an object we think, 'Oh, this is the very same object which I saw two days ago.' This is a very crude way of talking about reality. What is actually happening here is a kind of a conflation between an image or a concept of an entity and the actual reality of the moment. In reality, the object or entity that we are perceiving has already gone through a lot of stages. It is dynamic, it is transient, it is momentary, so the object that we are perceiving now is not the same as the one we perceived a day ago or two days ago, but we have the impression that we are perceiving the very same thing because what we are doing is conflating our concept of that object and the actual object. By grasping for permanence, we cause things to appear to us differently than how they actually exist.

"It is vital to leave a lot of room for change in one's relations to another person. Change comes about in times of transition, allowing love actually to ripen and expand. Then one is able to really know the other one--to see that person with their faults and weaknesses and going through change, a human being like oneself. Only at this stage can there be true love."--The Dalai Lama

~ From Impermanence: Embracing Change by David Hodge and Hi-Jin Kang Hodge, published by Snow Lion Publications.

Discover Interview - What Makes You Uniquely "You"?

Cool interview. Gerald Edelman is an excellent author and thinker, and I highly recommend his recent book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge. While I may not always agree with him (consciousness, to me, is more than a biological function), he is fascinating, insightful, and makes me think about issues of consciousness and being human in new ways.

Discover Interview What Makes You Uniquely "You"?

Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman, your brain is one-of-a-kind in the history of the universe.

by Susan Kruglinski

published online January 16, 2009

Some of the most profound questions in science are also the least tangible. What does it mean to be sentient? What is the self? When issues become imponderable, many researchers demur, but neuro­scientist Gerald Edelman dives right in.

A physician and cell biologist who won a 1972 Nobel Prize for his work describing the structure of antibodies, Edelman is now obsessed with the enigma of human consciousness—except that he does not see it as an enigma. In Edelman’s grand theory of the mind, consciousness is a biological phenomenon and the brain develops through a process similar to natural selection. Neurons proliferate and form connections in infancy; then experience weeds out the useless from the useful, molding the adult brain in sync with its environment.

Edelman first put this model on paper in the Zurich airport in 1977 as he was killing time waiting for a flight. Since then he has written eight books on the subject, the most recent being Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge. He is chairman of neurobiology at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego and the founder and director of the Neurosciences Institute, a research center in La Jolla, California, dedicated to unconventional “high risk, high payoff” science.

In his conversation with DISCOVER contributing editor Susan Kruglinski, Edelman delves deep into this untamed territory, exploring the evolution of consciousness, the narrative power of memory, and his goal of building a humanlike artificial mind.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, and many people are talking about modern interpretations of Charles Darwin’s ideas. You have one of your own, which you call Neural Darwinism. What is it?
Many cognitive psychologists see the brain as a computer. But every single brain is absolutely individual, both in its development and in the way it encounters the world. Your brain develops depending on your individual history. What has gone on in your own brain and its consciousness over your lifetime is not repeatable, ever—not with identical twins, not even with conjoined twins. Each brain is exposed to different circumstances. It’s very likely that your brain is unique in the history of the universe. Neural Darwinism looks at this enormous variation in the brain at every level, from biochemistry to anatomy to behavior.

How does this connect to Darwin’s idea of natural selection?
If you have a vast population of animals and each one differs, then under competition certain variants will be fitter than others. Those variants will be selected, and their genes will go into the population at a higher rate. An analogous process happens in the brain. As the brain forms, starting in the early embryo, neurons that fire together wire together. So for any individual, the microconnections from neuron to neuron within the brain depend on the environmental cues that provoke the firing. We have the extraordinary variance of the brain reacting to the extraordinary variance of the environment; all of it contributes to making that baby’s brain change. And when you figure the numbers—at least 30 billion neurons in the cortex alone, a million billion connections—you have to use a selective system to maintain the connections that are needed most. The strength of the connections or the synapses can vary depending on experience. Instead of variant animals, you have variant microcircuits in the brain.

What has gone on in your own brain and its consciousness over your lifetime is not repeatable, ever—not with identical twins, not even with conjoined twins.

Before talking about how this relates to consciousness, I’d like to know how you define consciousness. It’s hard to get scientists even to agree on what it is.
William James, the great psychologist and philosopher, said consciousness has the following properties: It is a process, and it involves awareness. It’s what you lose when you fall into a deep, dreamless slumber and what you regain when you wake up. It is continuous and changing. Finally, consciousness is modulated or modified by attention, so it’s not exhaustive. Some people argue about qualia, which is a term referring to the qualitative feel of consciousness. What is it like to be a bat? Or what is it like to be you or me? That’s the problem that people have argued about endlessly, because they say, “How can it be that you can get that process—the feeling of being yourself experiencing the world—from a set of squishy neurons?”

What is the evolutionary advantage of consciousness?
The evolutionary advantage is quite clear. Consciousness allows you the capacity to plan. Let’s take a lioness ready to attack an antelope. She crouches down. She sees the prey. She’s forming an image of the size of the prey and its speed, and of course she’s planning a jump. Now suppose I have two animals: One, like our lioness, has that thing we call consciousness; the other only gets the signals. It’s just about dusk, and all of a sudden the wind shifts and there’s a whooshing sound of the sort a tiger might make when moving through the grass, and the conscious animal runs like hell but the other one doesn’t. Well, guess why? Because the animal that’s conscious has integrated the image of a tiger. The ability to consider alternative images in an explicit way is definitely evolutionarily advantageous.

I’m always surprised when neuroscientists question whether an animal like a lion or a dog is conscious.
There is every indirect indication that a dog is conscious—its anatomy and its nervous system organization are very similar to ours. It sleeps and its eyelids flutter during REM sleep. It acts as if it’s conscious, right? But there are two states of consciousness, and the one I call primary consciousness is what animals have. It’s the experience of a unitary scene in a period of seconds, at most, which I call the remembered present. If you have primary consciousness right now, your butt is feeling the seat, you’re hearing my voice, you’re smelling the air. Yet there’s no consciousness of consciousness, nor any narrative history of the past or projected future plans.

Kurt Barstow - The Difficulty of Following the Soul's Guidance

Another good article from Kurt Barstow at the LA Examiner. Here he talks about the need, and the challenge, of exploring our deepest selves in a quest for personal growth and evolution. It's never easy to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves, but all of the world's great wisdom traditions tell us that is exactly what we need to do.

The difficulty of following the soul's guidance

By Kurt Barstow

In her book on how to become a "modern mystic," Entering the Castle: An Inner Path to God and Your Soul (Free Press, 2007), Caroline Myss uses Saint Theresa of Ávila's sixteenth-century The Interior Castle to structure a meditative itinerary for gaining an understanding of the soul. She quotes Theresa's description of the soul as a "castle made of a single diamond or of a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms...and in the center and midst of them all is the chiefest mansion where the most secret things pass between God and the soul." She then goes on to say, "But you have a major obstacle to overcome in order to communicate with God: your reliance on your mind in matters of the spirit. Usually, for instance, you pray for help or guidance about everyday matters, such as your health, your career and finances, or your romantic, familial or other relationships. And you generally look, listen, feel, and think your way through the guidance: You tend to intellectualize it... The mind, as Theresa would say, is simply not strong enough to make the journey. Coming to God is the soul's task. And the awakened soul will agitate and pull at you until you wade in and begin to reach out toward the divine... You never know what you will uncover when diving into the unknown--your subconscious and soul."

In some ways, soul can be a rather difficult thing to discuss, for it is talked about under different descriptions, For some it is a thing with a specific location in the body. Some might use the heart as the organ of the body that best represents the soul. For some it is that part of us that survives the body and has an afterlife in Heaven. For others it is that part of us that survives the death of one body and is reincarnated in another. It can be thought of as something that becomes more refined as we go deeper and deeper inside, as in Theresa's imagery, or it can be seen as part of the progressive layers of energy sheaths that surround the body, the ten bodies of Kundalini Yoga (the first of which is called the Soul and relates to the root chakra, the ninth of which is called the Subtle and carries the soul when it leaves the body, and the tenth of which is called The Command Center from which all the other ten bodies are directed). In Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga it is the psychic center that is connected to the self, which coordinates the body's three sheaths of Vedanta: annamayakosha, pranayamamayakosha, and manomayakosha, which correspond to body, heart, and mind, which in turn correspond to the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the neocortex. For some it occupies a very distinct place in the developmental progression from body to mind to soul to spirit. For some its mystery and autonomy can be found especially in prerational and prepersonal phenomena like myth, while for others it is primarily transrational and transpersonal. For yet others it is a kind of emotive, expressive, creative quality that comes from the depths of one's being and transcends the normal surface qualities that we might reveal to one another. It can also be seen as a kind of perspective, a view toward a certain way of being or relating to the world, one that can even hold within it all these different accounts of soul. And, finally, from an integral perspective, although the various versions of soul might fit within a developmental scheme, they would all carry a certain amount of truth. For one thing, these are all mental constructions meant to communicate to others about something that is at once ineffable and at the same time a deeply felt aspect of our human experience.

Despite the richness and variety of different conceptualizations of soul, we have a sense of what Caroline Myss means when she says the mind can get in the way and that the "awakened soul will agitate and pull you." For we think of soul as operating at a higher level than the rational, calculating aspects or conventional thinking of mind. As soul comes into play, which it naturally does to a greater extent later in life, it can feel as if it is the most intimate part of you and yet also not of you as you have previously known yourself in a more circumscribed form. It becomes a new kind of guidance system, something which clearly challenges us to develop new capacities to meet a new perspective. But if you're like me, someone who doesn't have a single life-changing "aha" moment but rather little realizations that I can't always apply immediately to my life (which I suspect is most people), there will inevitably be conflict. Sometimes that conflict is based in my own weaknesses or even delusions about myself, but sometimes it is also based in ways I have adopted conventional thinking about any number of things that I also know don't correspond to my most deeply held beliefs (elements of superego, aspects of conventional morality, etc.) but to which I am giving the weight of soul guidance. So how does one discern? How do we know when we are congruent or in alignment with our soul? How do we determine what is a nagging doubt based in our insecurities or worry about what other people will think and a more fundamental incongruence between what we are becoming and what we have been, between a new and an old perspective? Since soul is something more individualized than spirit, which is the same in all of us, how do we know when ego and/or personality is operating in the service of soul or serving to undermine it? How might our very conceptions of soul come to bear on our understanding of ourselves in relating to the world? For example, if we are thinking about issues through the filter of a soul model that is essentially about purification, do we lessen the importance of ecstatic states that might be more in evidence as a matter of soul in a mythical model that might more comfortably include Dionysian elements? If we see soul primarily as an instrument for moral development of a puritanical nature, might we ignore or neglect parts of our life that are important to soul?

One of the reasons the soul can "agitate and pull you" is that it has to do with growth and development. Like all growth, an encounter with soul is a movement into the unknown.
Read the whole post.

Psychology Today - A Cartoon Guide to Sexual Orientation

Hilarious, and educational.

A cartoon guide to sexual orientation

Ever since we published the first genetic scan for male sexual orientation, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is "why are people gay." While I have done my best to share information about the science of sexual orientation (this blog being one example), I am not an animator so I haven't explored cartoons as an option. Fortunately, I don't have to now because a cartoon recently posted on YouTube does a fairly good job. The video tries to take on two of what I like to call "the big three arguments against gay people." If you listen to enough anti-gay rhetoric you will find it usually comes down to at least one of the following statements, "I don't believe in it, its unnatural, it's a choice." After discovering these beliefs to be the root of most anti-gay propaganda Watch the video and then let me fill in some of the details from research on sexual orientation.


The video starts out with theories about parental influences on sexual orientation, like having a distant father or overbearing mother making a man gay. In fact, this was a theory put forward by some Psychologists and Psychiatrists. It was also used to explain why some people were schizophrenic. Eventually it was disproved in both cases. For example, in the 1970 researchers at the Kinsey Institute conducted a large survey and found no support for the idea that these kinds of parental influences made children gay (Bell, Weinberg, & Hammersmith, 1981). In the 28 years since that book was published there hasn't been any credible evidence showing that any kind of parental behavior changes the sexual orientation of their children.

Being gay is natural.

Next the video tackles the question of if homosexuality is "natural." This is one of the big three. I don't believe something being "natural" is a good argument for or against it. After all, lead is natural, but that doesn't mean I want it in my drinking water. Nevertheless, the point made in the cartoon about animals is true. Many species of animals engage in same-sex behavior and some have members that exhibit primary sexual attractions to their own sex. A few very good books have addressed this topic (Bagemihl, 1999; Sommer & Vasey, 2006).

You don't decide who to love.

When Martha says "You don't just decide who to love," I think she is right. Research shows that sexual attractions emerge around the time of puberty. If you think back to puberty, do you remember making a choice of who you would be attracted to? In fact, research shows that it doesn't matter what your sexual orientation is, it tends to emerge around the time of puberty. All indications are that people don't choose their sexual orientation.

It's in our genes.

Twin research has indeed found that if one identical twin is gay the other twin is also more likely to be gay. More importantly from a scientific perspective, is the fact that identical twins are significantly more likely to have the same sexual orientation than fraternal twins (Mustanski, Chivers, & Bailey, 2002). One of the best of these studies found the heritability of sexual orientation to be 62% (Kendler, Thornton, Gilman, & Kessler, 2000). This means that 62% of why some people are gay and others are straight is due to genetic effects. The cartoon is right in saying this is higher than handedness, which has a heritability of around 25% (Medland, Duffy, Wright, Geffen, & Martin, 2006).

Older brothers.

One of the most established findings in all of developmental psychology is that each older brother increases the chance that a man will be gay. Younger brothers don't seem to have an effect and neither do sisters. In fact, siblings don't seem to be related to a women's sexual orientation at all. But among men, each older brother increases the chance of homosexuality by about 33% (Blanchard & Bogaert, 1996). It has been hypothesized that this effect is due to mothers producing antigens to male fetuses and that these antigens have effects on the developing brain (Blanchard, 2008). However, the cartoon seems to make it seem like this is a fact, when at this stage it is only a theory.

My therapist made me straight.

The video ends with a discussion of whether it is possible to change a person's sexual orientation through therapy or prayer. Conclusive research has yet to show this is possible and some very well respected doctors have said it is not possible (for a good summary of research in this area see Professor Gregory Herek's website). The video is correct in saying that all major mental health organizations have some out with statements saying that homosexuality is not a mental illness and attempts to change it are not advisable (for example, see the statement by the American Psychological Association).

I hope you enjoyed the cartoon. Share it by clicking the "Share/Email" button below and maybe if enough people watch it the statement "I don't believe in it, its unnatural, it's a choice," will become a think of the past.


Bagemihl, B. (1999). Biological exuberance : animal homosexuality and natural diversity (1st ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.

Bell, A. P., Weinberg, M. S., & Hammersmith, S. K. (1981). Sexual Preference: Its development in men and women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Blanchard, R. (2008). Review and theory of handedness, birth order, and homosexuality in men. Laterality, 13(1), 51-70.

Blanchard, R., & Bogaert, A. F. (1996). Homosexuality in men and number of older brothers. American Journal of Psychiatry, 153, 27-31.

Kendler, K. S., Thornton, L. M., Gilman, S. E., & Kessler, R. C. (2000). Sexual Orientation in a U.S. National Sample of Twin and Nontwin Sibling Pairs. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 1843-1846.

Medland, S. E., Duffy, D. L., Wright, M. J., Geffen, G. M., & Martin, N. G. (2006). Handedness in twins: joint analysis of data from 35 samples. Twin Res Hum Genet, 9(1), 46-53.

Mustanski, B. S., Chivers, M. L., & Bailey, J. M. (2002). A critical review of recent biological research on human sexual orientation. Annual Review of Sex Research, 12, 89-140.

Sommer, V., & Vasey, P. L. (2006). Homosexual behaviour in animals : an evolutionary perspective. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Shrink Rap Radio #193 - Holistic Psychotherapy with Sarah Chana Radcliffe

Interesting podcast with a therapist who uses a variety of psychotherapeutic modalities. Really, I think a lot of "in the trenches" therapist's do this - the whatever works approach - but we mostly hear about the hard-liner adherents to a specific model. In the end, it always comes down less to the therapeutic intervention than to the client-therapist relationship. No rapport, no healing. No empathic attunement, no healing.

#193 - Holistic Psychotherapy with Sarah Chana Radcliffe

photo of Sarah Chana Radcliffe

Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed., C.Psych.Assoc. is a registered Psychological Associate in Ontario, Canada. Over the past 30 years, she has counseled thousands of parents, couples and individuals in her full-time private practice in Toronto, Canada. She practices Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples, Process Experiential Psychotherapy, Energy Psychology, EMDR and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for parents. She is the author of Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice. She conducts parenting classes, keynote lectures and workshops locally and internationally. Her articles and comments appear in numerous print and on-line journals including The New York Times, The Toronto Sun, and The National Post, She can be found on YouTube answering parenting queries and on iTunes with her own bi-weekly parenting podcast. Sarah Chana has been a guest on radio and television shows in the United States and Canada. Her web site offers education and practical advice to the international community on all aspects of parenting. She was also interviewed on Shrink Rap Radio #148 as well as on my Wise Counsel Podcast.

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A psychology podcast by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

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Wildmind Meditation - The Top Ten Myths about Meditation

This is a great post from Bodhipaksa at Wildmind Meditation (from a while back, like, waaay back) that sets straight some silly misconceptions about meditation.

One that I am really on-board with is #8. Some of the people selling "technology" for meditation are just selling snake oil in my opinion. Just sit, watch your thoughts, or count breaths - it's that simple, and always has been.

Be sure to go read the whole post and then browse a bit - he's a wonderful Buddhist blogger.

The top ten myths about meditation

Bodhipaksa (May 18, 2007)

Buddhist meditation teacher Bodhipaksa debunks the ten most common meditation myths.

Even though meditation is now widely used in sports, medicine, psychiatry, and of course as part of the spiritual practice of millions of people around the world, there are still many misconceptions in circulation about what meditation actually is.

Myth #10. Meditation is relaxation

To say that some people’s conception of meditation is “Think of warm puppies, and let your mind go limp” is an exaggeration, but not much of one. Perhaps because meditation has found a home in stress management classes around the world, many people think that “letting your tensions dissolve away” is the be-all and end-all of a meditation practice. But while it’s important to let go of unnecessary effort while meditating, meditation is still a practice — that is, it involves effort. Sure, we start by letting go of tensions in the body, but that’s only the start.

Myth #9. Meditation is just self-hypnosis

Hypnosis, when used in therapy, involves a patient being guided into having experiences that he or she would have difficulty in attaining unaided — experiences as varied as being content without a cigarette in hand and remembering forgotten events from childhood. Self-hypnosis does the same thing, but the practitioner uses a remembered script or visualization to, say, increase relaxation or to experience greater confidence. There’s actually some overlap between hypnosis and meditation (although some meditation teachers, being suspicious of hypnosis, would deny this). In both disciplines we start with inducing a state of relaxation and then proceed to doing some kind of inner work. In hypnosis and in some forms of meditation that inner work involves visualization or the use of repeated phrases. But many forms of meditation (for example, Zen “just sitting” or Theravadin mindfulness meditation) make no use of such tools. The overlap between hypnosis and meditation is only partial.

Myth #8. There are technological shortcuts

“I want to relax, and I want to do it now!” is the approach taken by many goal-oriented Westerners. And that makes them suckers for promises of quick-fix technological approaches to meditating. The web is full of products that promise you that you’ll meditate like a Zen monk at the touch of a button. Just stick your headphones on and hit play, and let the magical audio technology do the rest! But like myth #10, this overlooks the fact that meditation involves effort. Sure, if you stop running around being stressed for half an hour and listen to some blandly pleasant music you’ll find you’re more relaxed. Why wouldn’t you be? But it’s a mistake to confuse this with real meditation. The “Zen monk” in these ads would surely be puzzled to think that someone listening to a CD for a few minutes had attained the depths of mindfulness and compassion that come from thousands of hours of sitting on a cushion watching your breath.

Read the rest to see the top 7 myths.

The End of Solitude

Over at The Chronicle Review, William Deresiewics argues that we are approaching the end of solitude (due to the prevalence of social media and connectivity gadgets such as the iPhone), and with it, the loss of the still small voice within.

His main point, and one with which I am in agreement (as a victim, on occasion, of this particular illness), "we become real to ourselves by being seen by others." Ouch.

What does it mean for our consciousness and self-awareness that we only know ourselves through our reflection in others?

The End of Solitude

As everyone seeks more and broader connectivity, the still, small voice speaks only in silence

What does the contemporary self want? The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge — broadband tipping the Web from text to image, social-networking sites spreading the mesh of interconnection ever wider — the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn't say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can. I was told by one of her older relatives that a teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month. That's 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes, morning, noon, and night, weekdays and weekends, class time, lunch time, homework time, and toothbrushing time. So on average, she's never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she's never alone.

I once asked my students about the place that solitude has in their lives. One of them admitted that she finds the prospect of being alone so unsettling that she'll sit with a friend even when she has a paper to write. Another said, why would anyone want to be alone?

To that remarkable question, history offers a number of answers. Man may be a social animal, but solitude has traditionally been a societal value. In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience, albeit one restricted to a self-selected few. Through the solitude of rare spirits, the collective renews its relationship with divinity. The prophet and the hermit, the sadhu and the yogi, pursue their vision quests, invite their trances, in desert or forest or cave. For the still, small voice speaks only in silence. Social life is a bustle of petty concerns, a jostle of quotidian interests, and religious institutions are no exception. You cannot hear God when people are chattering at you, and the divine word, their pretensions notwithstanding, demurs at descending on the monarch and the priest. Communal experience is the human norm, but the solitary encounter with God is the egregious act that refreshes that norm. (Egregious, for no man is a prophet in his own land. Tiresias was reviled before he was vindicated, Teresa interrogated before she was canonized.) Religious solitude is a kind of self-correcting social mechanism, a way of burning out the underbrush of moral habit and spiritual custom. The seer returns with new tablets or new dances, his face bright with the old truth.

Like other religious values, solitude was democratized by the Reformation and secularized by Romanticism. In Marilynne Robinson's interpretation, Calvinism created the modern self by focusing the soul inward, leaving it to encounter God, like a prophet of old, in "profound isolation." To her enumeration of Calvin, Marguerite de Navarre, and Milton as pioneering early-modern selves we can add Montaigne, Hamlet, and even Don Quixote. The last figure alerts us to reading's essential role in this transformation, the printing press serving an analogous function in the 16th and subsequent centuries to that of television and the Internet in our own. Reading, as Robinson puts it, "is an act of great inwardness and subjectivity." "The soul encountered itself in response to a text, first Genesis or Matthew and then Paradise Lost or Leaves of Grass." With Protestantism and printing, the quest for the divine voice became available to, even incumbent upon, everyone.

But it is with Romanticism that solitude achieved its greatest cultural salience, becoming both literal and literary. Protestant solitude is still only figurative. Rousseau and Wordsworth made it physical. The self was now encountered not in God but in Nature, and to encounter Nature one had to go to it. And go to it with a special sensibility: The poet displaced the saint as social seer and cultural model. But because Romanticism also inherited the 18th-century idea of social sympathy, Romantic solitude existed in a dialectical relationship with sociability — if less for Rousseau and still less for Thoreau, the most famous solitary of all, then certainly for Wordsworth, Melville, Whitman, and many others. For Emerson, "the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone, for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society." The Romantic practice of solitude is neatly captured by Trilling's "sincerity": the belief that the self is validated by a congruity of public appearance and private essence, one that stabilizes its relationship with both itself and others. Especially, as Emerson suggests, one beloved other. Hence the famous Romantic friendship pairs: Goethe and Schiller, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hawthorne and Melville.

Modernism decoupled this dialectic. Its notion of solitude was harsher, more adversarial, more isolating. As a model of the self and its interactions, Hume's social sympathy gave way to Pater's thick wall of personality and Freud's narcissism — the sense that the soul, self-enclosed and inaccessible to others, can't choose but be alone. With exceptions, like Woolf, the modernists fought shy of friendship. Joyce and Proust disparaged it; D.H. Lawrence was wary of it; the modernist friendship pairs — Conrad and Ford, Eliot and Pound, Hemingway and Fitzgerald — were altogether cooler than their Romantic counterparts. The world was now understood as an assault on the self, and with good reason.

The Romantic ideal of solitude developed in part as a reaction to the emergence of the modern city. In modernism, the city is not only more menacing than ever, it has become inescapable, a labyrinth: Eliot's London, Joyce's Dublin. The mob, the human mass, presses in. Hell is other people. The soul is forced back into itself — hence the development of a more austere, more embattled form of self-validation, Trilling's "authenticity," where the essential relationship is only with oneself. (Just as there are few good friendships in modernism, so are there few good marriages.) Solitude becomes, more than ever, the arena of heroic self-discovery, a voyage through interior realms made vast and terrifying by Nietzschean and Freudian insights. To achieve authenticity is to look upon these visions without flinching; Trilling's exemplar here is Kurtz. Protestant self-examination becomes Freudian analysis, and the culture hero, once a prophet of God and then a poet of Nature, is now a novelist of self — a Dostoyevsky, a Joyce, a Proust.

But we no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd.
Read the rest.

Book TV: Doris Kearns Goodwin - "Team of Rivals : The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln"

I'm pretty sure I saw this when it aired originally, but it's great even a second time.
Doris Kearns Goodwin looks at the way a leader's private life affects his public actions at the 5th Annual Abraham Lincoln Institute Symposium. Ms. Goodwin analyzes the private life of Abraham Lincoln and three other contenders for the presidency in 1860: Salmon Chase, William Seward, and Edward Bates. The event was held at The Library of Congress. Following her remarks, Ms. Goodwin took questions from the audience.

SummerFest 2008: Beethovens String Quartet in F Major

Some most excellent music, performed by the Tokyo String Quartet - Beethoven's String Quartet in F Major.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Book Review - Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?

With the increasing reliance on neurology to define human behavior, we are at a crossroads in our understanding of morality. Can there be free will, and hence, criminal action, when all behaviors are reduced to the firing of neurons? Is anyone actually responsible for their actions? Or are they merely meat sacks doing what the hardware programs them to do?

This interesting book looks at some of these issues.
Review - Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will
by Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown
Oxford University Press, 2007
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D.
Apr 22nd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 17)

I approached this book with trepidation. The authors -- one a philosopher and one a cognitive neuroscientist -- both work at the Fuller Theological Seminary, and I feared this would be an uninformed and credulous exercise in Christian apologetics. In fact the book is a lot better than that. Though there is a theological motivation, it is not allowed to blind the authors to the evidence. They aim to reconcile a robust picture of human agency with science, by way of a defense of a nonreductive physicalism. The view is physicalist in that it presupposes no laws or substances other than those that are (or ought to be) countenanced by science; it is nonreductive in that it holds that agents are themselves causes of their behavior.

Though the research strategy pursued here is a sensible one, the book is wildly over-ambitious. It seeks to develop a full account of agency, topdown causation and language, not to mention free will and mental causation, along the way defending controversial positions in metaphysics such as emergence, and taking positions on the function and nature of consciousness. Any one of these topics is fit for a book; attempting to solve them all, while laudable in one way, is rather foolhardy. Inevitably, the views defended are often sketched, rather than adequately defended, and pressing objections go unanswered. An example, almost at random: Murphy and Brown argue that we couldn't have been zombies; ie, that phenomenal consciousness plays a functional role such that any being that lacks phenomenal consciousness could not be a functional duplicate of us. This, allegedly, is because consciousness supplies us with 'second-order knowledge' -- the knowledge that we know something -- and we can and do use second-order knowledge to guide our behavior. This, they argue, is why sufferers from blindsight can use visual information to guide their actions, but cannot do so unprompted: they know but do not know that they know, and therefore cannot use the knowledge spontaneously. This is an interesting idea, but it is also clearly underdeveloped and open to apparently devastating objections. First, Murphy and Brown owe us an account of second-order knowledge such that blindsight sufferers lack it, since there is obviously a sense in which blindsight sufferers do know that they possess visual information (they have been told about their success on trials). Second, the account seems to be vulnerable to counterexamples, since there are disorders of consciousness which cause a loss of conscious but not unconscious visual information and in which sufferers can apparently guide their behavior spontaneously using this visual information (this seems to be true of Milner and Goodale's famous patient). Third, the thesis Murphy and Brown are defending apparently concerns the necessity of phenomenal consciousness for agency, not its actual function (they ask whether there could be zombies functionally indistinguishable from us). So even if their story is true, why should we think that second-order knowledge must be provided by phenomenal consciousness? Murphy and Brown respond to this question, calling the supposition incoherent: zombies couldn't know that they have first-order conscious perception, since it is false that they have first-order conscious perception. But this response misses the point: the objection is not that we could have unconscious second-order knowledge of first-order conscious knowledge, but that we could have unconscious second-order knowledge of first-order unconscious knowledge. Presumably if unconscious first-order informational states are possible (and they are) then so are unconscious second-order information states.

The kinds of sketchiness of argument epitomized above seems to characterize the entire book and its major claims, as well as its minor. It is far from clear to me that at any stage Murphy and Brown's arguments, successful or unsuccessful, actually have the upshot they claim. They aim to defend nonreductive physicalism; they do so by way of attempting to show the reality of mental causation and the existence of causal powers that are supervenient on ensembles of elements. But reductivists need not deny either mental causation or the existence of these causal powers, hence the majority of the arguments simply miss their target. Consider their claims about top-down causation. So far as I can tell, their argument comes to this: wholes which are constituted of parts have causal powers -- i.e., causally produce effects -- which their parts could not produce on their own (Murphy and Brown have no truck with exotic causal laws; the powers they claim for wholes are explicitly held to be compatible with and explicable by the same laws of physics that apply at the level of their parts). Clearly this is true: my pressing the keys on my keyboard causes letters to appear on my screen, and were my computer to be decomposed into its constituent atoms, my pressing down in their vicinity would not cause letters to appear anywhere. Just as clearly, though, no sensible reductivist would deny this claim. Yet Murphy and Brown seem to attribute it to them. They claim, for instance, that reductivists cannot explain the behavior of an ant colony, because they are committed to holding that the ants are atoms whose 'characteristics are not affected by relations within their colony' (p. 96). No reductivist would hold this. Instead, they would claim that the ways in which the behavior of ants is altered by their relations within their colony could be captured by extremely long and unwieldy equations at the level of basic physics.

This problem gets repeated unchanged in Murphy and Brown's discussion of mental causation. They argue that mental states are not reducible to the physical state upon which they supervenes because they are embedded in a broader context, which extends beyond the brain (in other words, they side with externalism, apparently on both content and location of mental states). But this would be a good argument only if mental states were required to supervene only on brain states. The obvious move, in response to externalism, is to hold that mental states supervene on (and therefore may be reducible to) brain states plus whatever elements of its broader context are relevant. Moreover, even if it were true that the informational content of mental states could not be reduced to whatever its supervenience base turned out to be, it would not follow that that informational content did any causal work.

The purpose of the book is to show that free will and moral responsibility are possible, given the truth of physicalism. The upshot of the work on mental causation and agency is a picture of human action as flexibly responsible to reasons. This is, of course, a standard kind of compatiblism (Murphy and Brown acknowledge that their view is similar to Dennett's, though also and sensibly realist about consciousness and rationality). The picture of agency here is rich and plausible. But it is far from clear that it is adequate as a picture of moral responsibility. Murphy and Brown give us an account of moral responsibility which agents like theirs appear to satisfy, but it is clearly inadequate. For them, 'one is morally responsible when one has the ability to evaluate, in light of some concept of the good, the factors that serve to shape and modify one's action' (240). This may be a satisfactory account of moral agency, but it cannot serve as an account of morally responsible action, since it fails to exclude actions that are the result of manipulation, coercion or compulsion (for a start). Indeed, almost everything that Murphy and Brown say in their chapters about moral responsibility and free will is defensible only if they are understood as presenting an account of morally evaluable action. The problem, of course, is that no major incompatibilist denies that human beings regularly engage in morally evaluable action, nor believes that such action is threatened by determinism. The free will debate has other concerns, which Murphy and Brown fail to appreciate.

The incompatibilist concern, of course, is that if our actions are necessitated by the laws of nature and past states of affairs, we lack true control over their unfolding (Murphy and Brown do briefly advert to this concern, as expressed by Peter Van Inwagen, and argue that it depends upon a 'dichotomous option' between things being up to us or not up to so, but clearly the argument would succeed just as well if we replaced 'up to us' with 'not even partially up to us', since neither the laws of nature or past states of affairs are even partially up to us). Now, it may well be, as compatibilists have often argued, that the concern is misplaced, but in the absence of an argument to that effect, arguing that agents act for reasons simply begs the question against incompatibilism.

The picture of agency presented here is one well worth pursuing. Murphy and Brown have not presented us with a view that is defensible, both because it is far too sketchy to be properly assessed, and because many of the claims made will no doubt turn out to be false. However, the general outlines of the view are plausible, and there is a rich research agenda here. Perhaps future work will see some of the details worked out, and the gaps filled.

Neil Levy, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow Program Manager, Ethical Issues in Biotechnology, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne

Edge - The Realms of Science and Religion

"Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith?"
Silly question? Science always trump faith?


Perhaps, however, they are two very different and distinct ways of knowing that may sometimes contradict each other. Perhaps religion and science form, as Stehpen Jay Gould suggests, "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA) which address two independent ways of arriving at truth?

Can we live with the ambiguity? Seems most people can't. Or won't.
We will restore science to its rightful place... We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. —Barack Obama, Inaugural Address

Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works. —Jerry Coyne


Jerry Coyne

An Edge Special Event


"The real question," writes biologist Jerry Coyne in his New Republic article "Seeing And Believing", is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?

We no longer have President George W. Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Senator John McCain announcing in August 2006 their support for teaching Intelligent Design in pubic schools. That was a mobilizing moment for the champions of rational thinking such as Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and P.Z. Myers to mount an unrelenting campaign against superstition, supernaturalism, and ignorance. The dilemma as Coyne notes is that against the backdrop of scientific knowledge available to us today, these three words are applicable not only to the texts that inform literal fundamentalists but also to the rarefied theological mumbo-jumbo of the most refined, liberal theologians.

On inauguration day, President Obama announced the goal of "restoring science to its rightful place" while, in the same speech, acknowledging that nonbelievers are citizens of this nation in the same way as followers of religion. In light of the growing tendency of scientists to speak out about their lack of faith, isn't it now time to ask a few questions? Is "belief in belief" as defined by Dennett a good thing? Is there merit in the late Stephen Jay Gould's assertion that religion and science form "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA) which address two independent ways of arriving at truth?
Isn't it now time for an honest discussion about whether science and belief are indeed compatible?

But as Coyne points out:

Would that it were that easy! True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic? The incessant stream of books dealing with this question suggests that the answer is not straightforward."

In the next few days, Edge plans to publish a series of brief responses by selected contributors addressing these issues.

John Brockman

JERRY A. COYNE is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. His new book is Why Evolution Is True.

Jerry Coyne's Edge Bio page

THE REALITY CLUB: Lawrence Krauss, Howard Gardner, Lisa Randall, Patrick Bateson, Daniel Everett,Daniel C. Dennett , Lee Smolin

Here is the beginning of Coyne's original essay (disguised as a book review) from The New Republic.
Seeing and Believing

The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail.

Jerry A. Coyne, The New Republic Published: Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution
By Karl W. Giberson
(HarperOne, 248 pp., $24.95)

Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul
By Kenneth R. Miller
(Viking, 244 pp., $25.95)


Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809--the same day as Abraham Lincoln--and published his magnum opus, On the Origin of Species, fifty years later. Every half century, then, a Darwin Year comes around: an occasion to honor his theory of evolution by natural selection, which is surely the most important concept in biology, and perhaps the most revolutionary scientific idea in history. 2009 is such a year, and we biologists are preparing to fan out across the land, giving talks and attending a multitude of DarwinFests. The melancholy part is that we will be speaking more to other scientists than to the American public. For in this country, Darwin is a man of low repute. The ideas that made Darwin's theory so revolutionary are precisely the ones that repel much of religious America, for they imply that, far from having a divinely scripted role in the drama of life, our species is the accidental and contingent result of a purely natural process.

And so the culture wars continue between science and religion. On one side we have a scientific establishment and a court system determined to let children learn evolution rather than religious mythology, and on the other side the many Americans who passionately resist those efforts. It is a depressing fact that while 74 percent of Americans believe that angels exist, only 25 percent accept that we evolved from apelike ancestors. Just one in eight of us think that evolution should be taught in the biology classroom without including a creationist alternative. Among thirty-four Western countries surveyed for the acceptance of evolution, the United States ranked a dismal thirty-third, just above Turkey. Throughout our country, school boards are trying to water down the teaching of evolution or sneak creationism in beside it. And the opponents of Darwinism are not limited to snake-handlers from the Bible Belt; they include some people you know. As Karl Giberson notes in Saving Darwin, "Most people in America have a neighbor who thinks the Earth is ten thousand years old."

The cultural polarization of America has been aggravated by attacks on religion from the "new atheists," writers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who are die-hard Darwinists. Outraged religious leaders, associating evolutionary biology with atheism, counterattacked. This schism has distressed liberal theologians and religious scientists, who have renewed their efforts to reconcile religion and science. The "science" is nearly always evolutionary biology, which is far more controversial than any area of chemistry or physics. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, wrote The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief; the philosopher Michael Ruse produced Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? (his answer is yes); and there are high-profile books by theologians such as John Haught and John Polkinghorne. The Templeton Foundation gives sizeable grants to projects for reconciling science and religion, and awards a yearly prize of two million dollars to a philosopher or scientist whose work highlights the "spiritual dimension of scientific progress." The National Academy of Sciences, America's most prestigious scientific body, issued a pamphlet assuring us that we can have our faith and Darwin, too:

Science and religion address separate aspects of human experience. Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies of biological evolution have enhanced rather than lessened their religious faith. And many religious people and denominations accept the scientific evidence for evolution.

Would that it were that easy! True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic? The incessant stream of books dealing with this question suggests that the answer is not straightforward.

The easiest way to harmonize science and religion is simply to re-define one so that it includes the other. We may claim, for example, that "God" is simply the name we give to the order and harmony of the universe, the laws of physics and chemistry, the beauty of nature, and so on. This is the naturalistic pantheism of Spinoza. Its most famous advocate was Einstein, often (and wrongly) described as believing in a personal God:

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.

But the big problem with this "reconciliation," in which science does not marry religion so much as digest it, is that it leaves out God completely--or at least the God of the monotheistic faiths, who has an interest in the universe. And this is unacceptable to most religious people. Look at the numbers: 90 percent of Americans believe in a personal God who interacts with the world, 79 percent believe in miracles, 75 percent in heaven, and 72 percent in the divinity of Jesus. In his first popular book, Finding Darwin's God, Kenneth Miller attacked pantheism because it "dilutes religion to the point of meaninglessness." He was right.

A meaningful effort to reconcile science and faith must start by recognizing them as they are actually understood and practiced by human beings. You cannot re-define science so that it includes the supernatural, as Kansas's board of education did in 2005. Nor can you take "religion" to be the philosophy of liberal theologians, which, frowning on a personal God, is often just a hairsbreadth away from pantheism. After all, the goal is not to turn the faithful into liberal theologians, but to show them a way to align their actual beliefs with scientific truths. Theologians sometimes suggest a reconciliation by means of naturalistic deism, the idea that the creation of the universe--and perhaps the laws of physics--was the direct handiwork of a deity who then left things alone as they unfolded, never interfering in nature or history again. For the faithful, this has been even more problematic than pantheism: it not only denies miracles, virgin births, answered prayers, and the entire cosmological apparatus of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and much of Buddhism, but also raises the question of where God came from in the first place.

No, a proper solution must harmonize science with theism: the concept of a transcendent and eternal god who nonetheless engages the world directly and pays special attention to the real object of divine creation, Homo sapiens. And so we have Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller, theistic scientists and engaging writers, both demolishing what they see as a false reconciliation--the theory of intelligent design--and offering their own solutions. Giberson is a professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College, a Christian school, and has written three books on the tension between science and religion. He is the former editor of Science and Spirit, a magazine published by the Templeton Foundation. (Saving Darwin was also financed by Templeton.) Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University, is one of the most ardent and articulate defenders of evolution against creationism. He is also an observant Catholic. Miller's new book, Only a Theory, is an update of Finding Darwin's God. Both books offer not only a withering critique of intelligent design, but also a search for God in the evolutionary process.

Together, Saving Darwin and Only a Theory provide an edifying summary of the tenets and the flaws of modern creationism, the former dealing mainly with its history and the latter with its specious claims. If these books stopped there, they would raise a valuable alarm about the dangers facing American science and culture. But in the end their sincere but tortuous efforts to find the hand of God in evolution lead them to solutions that are barely distinguishable from the creationism that they deplore.

Read the rest of this long article.

Extreme Psychology - Therapy on the Front Lines of Human Nature

There are a few brave and compassionate therapists who specialize in disaster situations - the actual front line of trauma work. Not only is the work itself challenging, but their clients can sometimes be difficult to feel compassion for - war criminals, for example.
Extreme Psychology

For a small band of shrinks, intervening in catastrophic situations is an everyday event. But their experience at the edge has deep consequences for us all: It is altering our understanding of the true nature of human nature.

By: Joann Ellison Rodgers

Those who tend to the human psyche are experts in our internal dramas, which are generally invisible to the naked eye. They give us tools to subdue our anxieties, lift plummeting moods and mop up our quotidian emotional messes.

A rare few populate therapeutic realms inhabited exclusively by men and women who are thrust against the very limits of human adaptability. These professionals deal with people whose dramas are enough to make front-page news.

Call them extreme psychologists. Psychology Today tracked down five whose work takes them into often-uncharted depths of human nature. Most are rewriting the textbook of human behavior as they go.

One examines American soldiers who acted unspeakably in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Another helps cult members break free. Yet another probes the memories of people whose experience has been almost literally out of this world. Still another has found the secret that allows victims of terrorism and catastrophes to emerge stronger than ever. And one plucks couples from the abyss of marital dissolution. By working at the margins of human experience, they illuminate the most basic psychological needs of us all.

Out of This World but Not Out of Their Minds

Susan Clancy's close encounters with the third kind began a decade ago, by proxy. A psychology fellow at Harvard, she was searching to find a verifiable way to study the conditions under which people do—or do not—create fake memories. What she found was how far people go to make sense of experience.

In 1996, she had begun work with women who had repressed and "recovered" vivid memories of sexual abuse, applying well-known tests designed to show if some were more prone to re-create memories. She tested subjects and control groups who said they were either never sexually abused or had never forgotten their abuse. All were asked to study, memorize and then recite back a list of semantically related words, such as those having to do with the word sweet. On the list were candy, sugar, cookie and brownie, for example, but never actually the word sweet.

Everybody had a tendency to think that the "nonpresent critical word"—sweet—was on the list. "But the women who claimed to have recovered memories of sex abuse were significantly more likely than the control groups to be very, very confident that the critical word sweet was on that list," Clancy found. "The bottom line is that they created a false memory and not only believed it, but were very confident in their belief." The research set off a firestorm. "All I said was that if women were more prone to create false memories in the lab, it was also a possibility they had outside the lab, too. I was accused of protecting pedophiles."

Ultimately, there was no workable way to corroborate the abuse stories. She needed "a better, safer 'mouse'" to study in the lab. Clancy turned to alien abductees. "Here were intelligent, high-functioning, nonreligious people, free of brain damage or major trauma, yet with vivid memories of something that to a high degree of certainty did not happen."

The same tests yielded the same results. The only big difference between abductees who created false memories in hypnosis, those who said they were abducted but had no memory of it, and a control group who had never thought they were abducted was that the false-memory group scored higher in fantasy proneness. The "recovered-memory" abductees overall were far more likely to remember sweet with complete certainty and to believe false memories that were suggested or imagined in detail with the help of testers.

Few abductees remembered the abduction itself. Most just believed it on the basis of symptoms, Clancy says. "They would say 'I woke up and couldn't move for 30 seconds,' or they discovered a strange pattern of moles on their skin. Then they would conclude that they 'feel different now.'" But instead of telling themselves they had a bad dream, a physical ailment, sleep problems or just a coincidental set of symptoms, they attributed the phenomena to an abduction.

Initially, the abductees sought therapy for the psychological and physical trauma they "experienced." But once past the pain and terror, Clancy found, "they felt special, that something chose them and they were important, and they felt that scientists 'don't know everything.'"

False as the abductions may be, they play a real role in the psychological lives of those who believe in them. Further, they expose a universal need. "It's human for people to seek psychological explanations for why they feel alone, sad, lost or put down," Clancy observes. "We don't all choose alien abductions that focus on trauma, anal probes and all the creepy stuff, but we all seek some kind of explanation for what we experience. Being abducted is culturally available; aliens are all over the media. My child at age two could identify an alien on TV."

Clancy recognized in abductees the same need you and I have to believe in something bigger than ourselves. "They want meaning. And don't we all? Their experience makes them human, not weird." Therapists called upon to treat anyone for postabduction trauma would do well to respect that, she notes. Then abductees can be helped to understand themselves and their lives, even if the memory of what happened to them isn't valid.

The Evil Within—and Without

In charge of the night shift in a part of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison known as the "hard site," Ivan "Chip" Frederick could have stopped the abuse that famous night in 2003, he later admitted. But the 38-year-old former staff sergeant, whose 12-year sentence is on appeal, took part instead, forcing prisoners to masturbate and punching one man so hard he needed medical help. He also hooked wires to the hands of a detainee, who was told he would be electrocuted if he fell off a box.

Philip Zimbardo was called to consult on Frederick's defense. "Most of us have a self-serving illusion," says the Stanford University psychologist, whose 1971 landmark study of prison society famously demonstrated the power of circumstance to hijack morality. "We say we'd be good guards or heroic prisoners, that we can't imagine how guards at Abu Ghraib did this." But he can.

Zimbardo grew up in the South Bronx—"a skinny, sickly kid with a funny, big nose, picked on by other kids." Survival meant using his brains to learn the "psychology of street smarts," becoming an "intuitive personality theorist who sized up other kids very fast to figure out who was a friend and who was dangerous." That led to "understanding the dynamics of power, which kid had it and how to make it work for me and not against me."

With a Ph.D. in psychology from Yale, and his mean-streets training, Zimbardo found himself exploring how ordinarily decent people could do evil. "This was not a philosophical question for me," he says of the experiment in which he put college students into a prisonlike setting, some as guards, some as inmates. He watched as shifts in power and circumstances messed with personal identities, distorting and overwhelming deeply held values and moral codes.

The Sun - Wendell Berry On Small Farms, Local Wisdom, And The Folly Of Greed

I like Wendell Berry quite a bit - this is a great interview article with him from one of the best "little magazines" around, The Sun.
Digging In

Wendell Berry On Small Farms, Local Wisdom, And The Folly Of Greed

by Jeff Fearnside

For more than forty years, Wendell Berry has worked his family farm in Kentucky the old-fashioned way, using horses as much as possible and producing much of his own food. And he has published more than forty books, writing by hand in the daylight to reduce his reliance on electricity derived from strip-mined coal. Berry has been called a “prophet” by the New York Times, and his Jeffersonian values are so old they can appear startlingly new. His strong pro-environment position has made him something of a cult hero on the Left, as have his antiwar sentiments, which have grown sharper over the years. His 1987 essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” published in Harper’s, led some to accuse him of being antitechnology, a Luddite. For his part, Berry has criticized environmentalists for not working to protect farms as well as wilderness. His stout self-reliance and unabashed use of moral and religious language in his writing have endeared him to a number of conservatives, even as his stance against corporate globalization has drawn criticism from others. But these apparent contradictions don’t seem to bother Berry one whit.

Born in 1934 in Henry County, Kentucky, Berry published his first book, the novel Nathan Coulter (North Point Press), in 1960. A steady stream of publications in various genres followed, along with honors from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Poet Wallace Stegner once noted, “It is hard to say whether I like [Berry] better as a poet, an essayist, or a novelist. He is all three, at a high level.” Some of Berry’s better-known titles include A Place on Earth (Counterpoint), which the New York Times Book Review called “a masterpiece”; Collected Poems 1957–1982 (North Point Press); Another Turn of the Crank (Counterpoint); and The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Sierra Club Books). The rural Kentucky of his fiction has often been compared to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Like Faulkner, Berry has an ear for local language and a feel for place.

Berry taught for more than two decades at Stanford University, New York University, and the University of Kentucky, but he has now quit teaching. Since 1965 he has lived and worked on the 125-acre Lanes Landing Farm in the county of his birth. It was there that my wife and I visited him one Sunday afternoon. He was exactly what I would expect a gentleman farmer to be: tall, rangy in both body and mind, sagacious, and gracious. He and Tanya, his wife of fifty years, were impeccable hosts, making sure that we were seated comfortably on the porch and that our glasses of lemonade remained full. Earlier in the week, I had heard Berry speak to the Sierra Club in Louisville. Despite his busy schedule, he answered my questions in a thoughtful and deliberate manner reminiscent of his prose. The conversation touched on all the primary themes in his tremendous body of work: the importance of place, sustainability, and — above all — community.

Fearnside: Stopping by a local eatery on the way here, I asked people what they might want to ask you. Henry County is small, they noted, and farming isn’t very profitable anymore. So, why did you stay when you could have left for, as one waitress put it, “glitz and glamour” elsewhere?

Berry: I just happen to have no appetite for glitz and glamour. I like it here. This place has furnished its quota of people who’ve helped each other, cared for each other, and tried to be fair. I have known some of them, living and dead, whom I’ve loved deeply, and being here reminds me of them. This has given my days a quality that they wouldn’t have had if I’d moved away.

There have been some good farmers here. The way of farming that I grew up with was conservative in the best sense. I learned a lot from people in Henry County. Probably all my most influential teachers lived here, when you get right down to it. I owe big debts to teachers in universities, to literary influences, and so on. But it’s the people you listened to as a child whose influence is immeasurable — especially your grandparents, your parents, your older friends. I’ve paid a lot of attention to older people. Of course, not a lot of people here are older than I am anymore, but some are, and I still love to listen to them, to my immense improvement and pleasure.

Fearnside: What are some of the things that they say?

Berry: They tell stories. They talk about relationships. They talk about events that have stuck in their minds. The most important thing is not what they say, but the way they talk. We had a local pattern of speech at one time. Now we’re running out of people who speak it. But there were once people here whose speech was uninfluenced by the media, and it had an immediacy, a loveliness when it was intelligently used, and a great capacity for humor.

Fearnside: A good friend of mine told me that she knows people from Kentucky who have trained themselves not to speak like Kentuckians.

Berry: That was the main goal of the school system: to stop you from talking like a “hick” and get you to speak standard American.

Fearnside: When you speak of what the elders here in Henry County discuss, it reminds me of a line from Barry Lopez’s short-story collection Winter Count: “That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”

Berry: I don’t think we’re just stories — we’re living souls, too — but we’d be nothing without stories. Of course, stories that belong to a landscape are different from stories that don’t. In Arctic Dreams Lopez talks about how the Eskimos, the native Alaskan people, have a cultural landscape — the landscape as they know it — that is always a little different from the actual landscape, which nobody ever will fully know.

In a functioning culture the landscape is full of stories. Stories adhere to it. And they’re most interesting when they’re told within the landscape. If, say, an oral-history project records somebody’s story and puts it in the university archives, then it’s a different story. It’s become isolated, misplaced, displaced.

Fearnside: You’re a well-known advocate for local economies, yet you write for a much-wider-than-local audience, which means you must rely on the machinery of the corporate world to get your message out. Is there a contradiction in this, or is it simply an inescapable paradox that you must be pragmatic about?

Berry: There are contradictions in it, no doubt about that. There’s an absolutely lethal contradiction in my driving and flying around to talk about conservation and local economies. But you have to live in the world the way it is. You can’t declare yourself too good for it and move away. You have to carry the effort wherever you can take it. You’ve got to have allies. The thought of the Committees of Correspondence in the American Revolution is never very far from my mind. People have to stay in touch somehow. They have to meet and talk. They have to support each other. But that’s a network, not a community.

Fearnside: I was fortunate once to participate in a barn raising in Idaho. It was an incredible experience of community. With the help of friends and neighbors, using mostly hand-held tools, a couple raised a barn in a day and a half.

Berry: The Amish do it in a day. They belong to a traditional culture that, for a long time, has steadfastly put the community first.

Fearnside: I’ve noticed that the Amish seem less self-conscious than most Americans. Why do you think this is so?

Berry: I’d say that in their community, honesty is the norm. One of the most striking things about the Amish is that their countenances are open. We pity Muslim women for wearing veils, yet almost every face in this country is veiled by suspicion and fear. You can’t walk down a city street and get anybody to look at you. People’s countenances are undercover operations here.

Fearnside: While traveling in the Xinjiang Province of China — which is predominantly Uyghur, a traditional Muslim culture — I was struck by the people’s openness. In particular, the children radiated gaiety and health, just as Amish children do.

Berry: The Amish children are raised at home by two parents. They’re given little jobs to do from the time they’re able to walk, and they’re important to the family economy. They have rules. They’re secure. There are things that they’re not allowed to do. There’s something pitiful about American children who are left to invent a childhood on their own with one parent or none, no community, no relatives, and nothing useful to do. They don’t even go into the woods and hunt.

Fearnside: I fear that my generation may be the last to grow up outdoors. I used to roam for hours, hiking through the fields and woods or bicycling down country roads, completely unsupervised, which is unheard of today. Nowadays a kid is going to grow up sitting in front of a computer screen or listening to an iPod, not climbing trees or even playing ball in the street.

Berry: Young people around here don’t come to the river to swim or fish anymore. Of course, an alarming percentage of Kentucky streams aren’t fit for swimming or fishing.

Fearnside: It seems that we’ve been separated from our local communities by radio, television, and now the Internet. Because these forces come from outside the communities, they often don’t reflect the communities’ values. How can we stay plugged in to information and yet preserve our local connections?

Berry: I don’t know. There’s not much you can do, unless you want to disconnect yourself from those electronic gadgets. I pretty much do. Tanya and I haven’t had a television for a long time; people used to give tv sets to our children, because they felt sorry for us. I think we were given three over the years. I listen to the radio some. I don’t have a computer, and I almost never see a movie. To me this isolation is necessary. It keeps my language available to me in a way that I don’t think it would be if I were full of that public information all the time.

Read the whole interview.