Saturday, December 19, 2009

Scientific American - Kool-Aid Psychology: Realism versus Optimism

There's much to like in the positive psychology movement, but its rejection of traditional therapeutic work is not one of them. I have had some serious issues with their whole ethos of focusing only on the positive, and I've mentioned that here before.

In this article, Michael Shermer (of The Skeptic) riffs on Barbara Ehrenreich's recent book that "systematically deconstructs—and then demolishes—what little science there is behind the positive-psychology movement and the allegedly salubrious effects of positive thinking." Here is the whole article.

Kool-Aid Psychology: Realism versus Optimism

How optimism trumped realism in the positive-psychology movement

By Michael Shermer

I am, by nature, an optimist. I almost always think things will turn out well, and even when they break I am confident that I can fix them. My optimism, however, has not always served me well. Twice I have been hit by cars while cycling—full-on, through-the-windshield impacts that were entirely the result of my blissful attitude that the street corners I had successfully negotiated hundreds of times before would not suddenly materialize an automobile in my path. Such high-impact, unpredictable and rare events are what author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “black swans.” Given enough time, no upward sloping trend line is immune from dramatic collapse.

A bike crash as a black swan is, in fact, an apt metaphor for what the investigative journalist and natural-born skeptic Barbara Ehrenreich believes happened to America as a result of the positive-thinking movement. In her engaging and tightly reasoned book Bright-Sided (Metropolitan Books, 2009), she shows how the positive-psychology movement was born in the halcyon days of the 1990s when the economy was soaring, housing prices were skyrocketing, and positive-thinking gurus were cashing in on the motivation business. Academic psychologists, armed with a veneer of scientific jargon, wanted in on the action.

The shallow bafflegab of such positive-thinking pioneers as Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking, 1952) and Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich, 1937) or the “prosperity gospel” preachings of such contemporary “pastorpreneurs” as Frederick “Reverend Ike” Eikerenkoetter, Robert H. Schuller and Joel Osteen are predictably data-light and anecdote-heavy. But one expects better of respected experimental psychologists such as Martin E. P. Seligman, who almost single-handedly launched the positive-psychology movement in academia that is, according to the Positive Psychology Center Web page (, “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” Ehrenreich systematically deconstructs—and then demolishes—what little science there is behind the positive-psychology movement and the allegedly salubrious effects of positive thinking. Evidence is thin. Statistical significance levels are narrow. What few robust findings there are often prove to be either nonreplicable or contradicted by later research. And correlations (between, say, happiness and health) are not causations. Seligman and his colleagues drank the positive-thinking Kool-Aid, Ehrenreich shows, but she provides the antidote.

Take Seligman’s “happiness equation” (physics envy lives!): H = S + C + V (Happiness = your Set range + the Circumstances of your life + the factors under your Voluntary control). As Ehrenreich notes, “if you’re going to add these things up you will have to have the same units [of measurement] for H (happy thoughts per day?) as for V, S, and C.” When she confronted Seligman with this problem in an interview, “his face twisted into a scowl, and he told me that I didn’t understand ‘beta weighting’ and should go home and Google it.” She did, “finding that ‘beta weights’ are the coefficients of the ‘predictors’ in a regression equation used to find statistical correlations between variables. But Seligman had presented his formula as an ordinary equation, like E = mc2, not as an oversimplified regression analysis, leaving himself open to literal-minded questions like: How do we know H is a simple sum of the variables, rather than some more complicated relationship, possibly involving ‘second order’ effects such as ... C times V?” We don’t know, thereby rendering the equation nothing more than a slogan gussied up in math.

Isn’t positive thinking better than negative thinking? All other things being equal, sure, but the alternative to being either an optimist or a pessimist is to be a realist. “Human intellectual progress, such as it has been, results from our long struggle to see things ‘as they are,’ or in the most universally comprehensible way, and not as projections of our own emotions,” Ehrenreich concludes. “What we call the Enlightenment and hold on to only tenuously, by our fingernails, is the slow-dawning understanding that the world is unfolding according to its own inner algorithms of cause and effect, probability and chance, without any regard for human feelings.”

Feelings matter, of course, but the first principle of skepticism is not to fool ourselves, and feelings—both positive and negative—too often trump reason. In the end, reality must take precedence over fantasy, regardless of how it makes us feel.

All in the Mind - Dialogue with the Dalai Lama - Part 3 of 3

Part three of the cool series is now up, but the transcript will not be available until later in the week.

Dialogue with the Dalai Lama - Part 3 of 3

His Holiness the Dalai Lama joins All in the Mind's Natasha Mitchell and leading scholars in a dialogue about science and the self. This week, founder of the field of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, and Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace consider with him what it takes to flourish...really flourish...individually and collectively.

Show Transcript | Hide Transcript

Transcripts are published by Wednesday pm. Audio is available directly after broadcast on Saturdays.


Dr B. Alan Wallace
Santa Barbara Center for Consciousness Studies

Professor Martin Seligman
Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology
Director, Positive Psychology Centre
University of Pennsylvania

Professor Marc Hauser
Professor of Psychology, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology and Biological Anthropology
Co-Director, Mind, Brain and Behavior Program
Director, Cognitive Evolution Lab
Harvard University

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Further Information

Part 1 of of this extended dialogue with the Dalai Lama ( 3 parts in total)

Part 2 of this 3 part extended dialogue with the Dalai Lama

2009 Mind and Its Potential Conference

All in the Mind blog with Natasha Mitchell
Join the discussion and add you comments to the blog, or now here on the All in the Mind website too (above). All ABC guest books and blogs are moderated. Email addresses are not made public.

Being your own Therapist, Buddhist style
Broadcast on All in the Mind 2008

Dr Mindfulness: Science meets the Meditation boom
Broadcast on All in the Mind, 2007

Dr Mindfulness: Science meets the Meditation boom
Broadcast on All in the Mind, 2007

Meditation and the Mind: Science Meets Buddhism
Conversation with neuroscientist Richard Davidson and Buddhist monk Mattieu Ricard, Broadcast on All in the Mind, 2003

Meditation, Falling Awake
Interview with founder of the mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) technique, Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Broadcast on The Spirit of Things, ABC Radio National, 2009

Moral Minds: The Evolution of Human Morality
Broadcast on All in the Mind, 2006

The Science of Happiness
Broadcast on All in the Mind, 2008


Title: Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong
Author: Marc D. Hauser
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2006
ISBN-10: 0060780703

Title: Ancient Wisdom, Modern World
Author: The Dalai Lama
Publisher: Abacus, 1999
ISBN-10: 0349112541

Title: Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment
Author: Martin E.P Seligman
Publisher: Random House Australia, 2002
ISBN-10: 0743222970

Title: Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
Author: Martin E. P Seligman
Publisher: Random House Australia, 1990
ISBN-10: 0671019112

Title: Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism and Christianity
Author: B. Alan Wallace
Publisher: Columbia University Press, 2009
ISBN-10: 0231147309

Title: The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Author: Pico Iyer
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2009
ISBN-10: 0307267601

Title: The Art and Science of Mindfulness: Integrating Mindfulness into Psychology and the Helping Professions
Author: Shauna L. Shapiro and Linda E Carlson
Publisher: American Psychological Association, 2009
ISBN-10: 1433804654

Title: The Universe in a Single Atom The Convergence of Science and Spirituality
Author: The Dalai Lama
Publisher: Little Brown, 2005
ISBN-10: 076792066X


Natasha Mitchell

Geshe Sonam Rinchen - The fourth precept is never to give up living beings


commentary by Geshe Sonam Rinchen
translated and edited by Ruth Sonam


Dharma Quote of the Week

The fourth precept is never to give up living beings, not even a single one. If we do so, we at once lose the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment for the sake of all living beings. How can we learn never to abandon them? If we know how to transform all adverse circumstances into conditions which help us towards enlightenment, we will never be tempted to abandon anyone.

...Special care is required in our relationships with those who are close to us, those towards whom we feel an instant dislike and those to whom we have been kind and who respond ungratefully. We honor, respect and make offerings to the enlightened ones but neglect and abandon living beings although our attainment of Buddhahood depends as much on them as it does on Buddhas. In the sixth chapter of Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds Shantideva says:

The qualities of Buddhahood are gained
Through living beings and Victorious Ones alike,
Why then do we respect the Victorious Ones
And not living beings in the same way?

--from Atisha's Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, commentary by Geshe Sonam Rinchen, translated and edited by Ruth Sonam, published by Snow Lion Publications

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The Psych Files - Evolutionary Psychology – David Buss Responds to Critics (2 Parts)

Interesting discussion - evolutionary psychology has been getting a lot of flack in the past few months, mostly for its reductionism and its attempt to complex human behaviors in very simple terms. Evol psych has a lot to offer, as long as it acknowledges its own limitations. I still have issues, but it's good that they are responding to the criticisms.

In this two-part series at the Psych Files (interviews conducted by Michael Britt), David Buss (University of Texas) defends the field in which he is a leader.

There has been a lot of criticism of evolutionary psychology lately. How do researchers respond? One of the leading researchers in this field – Dr. David Buss of the University of Texas responds to these critics in part 1 of this 2 part episode. Find out how he responds to these questions: a) is evolutionary psychology sexist?, b) doesn’t evolutionary psychology just give people the ammunition they need to not take responsibility for themselves? c) theories from evolutionary psychology are not falsifiable, this it’s not scientific and d) human society is always changing – it hasn’t been stable enough long enough for any human behavior to have evolved.

Resources on Evolutionary Psychology

Part two of the discussion:

Episode 112: Evolutionary Psychology – David Buss Responds to Critics – Part 2

by Michael on December 16, 2009

In part 2 of my interview with David Buss, he responds to more criticisms of evolutionary psychology. Here’s what we cover: a) does evolutionary psychology just give criminals another reason not to take responsibility for themselves?, b) is all the research in evolutionary psychology done on American college students?, c) are evolutionary psychology theories falsifiable? We cover such topics as whether women’s mating strategies change depending on where they are in their menstrual cycle? and How does evolutionary psychology might explain homosexuality? and what does evolutionary psychology say about cultural differences in the desire for women with a low waist-hip ratio? All in this episode of The Psych Files.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Upaya Dharma Podcasts - Mindsight and Personal Transformation (Dan Siegel)

Cool, more Dan Siegel is always a good thing. I somehow missed this first time around.

Mindsight and Personal Transformation

Speaker: Daniel Siegel, MD

Psychiatrist, researcher, therapist and author Dan Siegel says there is a deep truth to the question, “Who are we?” If the brain is a social organ, as Dan’s research and clinical experience show, then what does “I” mean? It takes the practice of mindfulness to to dissolve the delusion of the “I” that separates and makes disharmony out of our experience. We can use the mind to change the brain.

Podcast: Play in new window [Play] | Download [Play]

Ciarán Benson - The Narrative Self in Cultural Psychology

I have been reading The Cultural Psychology of the Self, and I can highly recommend this book, although it is quite expensive unless you buy the Kindle version, as I did (new: $123.70, used: $104.26, Kindle: $18.86).

One of the things I really like about Cultural Psychology as a relatively new model is that it combines cognitive neuroscience with developmental stage models and interpersonal, cultural contexts to look at how the Self develops and makes sense of itself. With a few tweaks, it could be a truly integral model of psychology, at least as far as a psychology of the Self.

Another element that I really like is that Ciarán Benson spends a whole chapter in his book looking at the development and manifestations of the narrative self.

Here are a few quotes from the chapter that I found interesting (I've added some links within the citations where appropriate).
The story or stories of myself that I tell, that I hear others tell of me, that I am unable or unwilling to tell, are not independent of the self that I am: they are constitutive of me. This is a central claim of the cultural psychology of selfhood.

How much of me is in the telling? Is there a ‘me’ apart from a telling? Is the story I tell of myself or hear told of myself a record of what I am and have been or is it a fabrication or construction which can never really hit the mark? These are the sorts of question asked by philosophers and psychologists interested in narratives. The identity of an individual or of a community is the answer to the question, ‘Who did this?’. The answer comes in the form of a proper name which designates a life which is the same life from birth to death. But what justifies us in thinking that this life is ‘constant’ or the same throughout its existence? A narrative identity says Paul Ricoeur. He writes that ‘this narrative identity, constitutive of self-constancy, can include change, mutability, within the cohesion of one lifetime. The subject then appears both as a reader and the writer of its own life, as Proust would have it.’ (pg. 45-46)

One of the newer developments in psychotherapy is the use of these narratives of Self as a tool in the therapeutic process. How and what we tell of our stories says a LOT about who we are right now, especially in how we take different perspectives on how we have come to this point.
If I review my life at a certain stage in order to understand its shape over time, then I will always do so from a particular perspective, the viewpoint of that time in my life from which I choose to look back and re-view the things I have done or those that have happened to me. I am likely to think of my life in terms of a metaphor like ‘a journey’ leading eventually to some goal of fulfilment, or ‘a path’ which destiny has chosen for me much as Alan Bullock has shown to be a crucial similarity between Hitler and Stalin, or I may think of my life as wasted and of myself as the innocent victim of malign forces.3However I do it one thing is inescapable, I must make choices. I must select what to tell and what to leave unspoken and I must do so now in the particular moment of its telling. I must have a felt sense of what is relevant. As it unfolds discursively over time the tale told is the result of a rich succession of choices and selections governed and shaped by the dynamics of the many nows and ‘present thoughts’ which make up the stream of experience which is my particular life. My ‘life’ will always be an edited version.

This of course assumes that ‘I’ have the necessary powers to know what is there to be selected in my life and to choose among them as I wish. But there is much psychological evidence to show that the patterns and forces at work in shaping my experiences, and my ability to know and control them, can often be more apparent to other people than they are to myself. Psychologists invoke concepts like ‘the unconscious’ to name this territory of personal ignorance. In the Freudian sense this unconscious system has a major say in shaping my subjectivity, the ways in which it feels as it does to be me. At the base of my warm personal life is a strong, often destabilising, impersonal base which in Freud’s original sense was ‘the It’ (Das Es). How then will I ever know that what I say of myself is not grossly distorted by the means by which the unconscious defences do their work in protecting ‘me’ from anxiety by censoring or twisting what I find myself thinking it is important to say? Such defences are, in cultural psychological terms, reticences about how we speak to ourselves about ourselves.4 For even this to be a consideration in my telling my story I must think it important not to deliberately or unintentionally distort my narrative. I need to be sophisticated enough to realise that there is more to ‘me’ than meets the ‘I’. (pg. 47-48)

Benson points out that the need or impulse toward reviewing our narratives often rises in response to some sort of crisis. In my forthcoming eBook on coping with crisis, I suggest the use of narrative as a way to contextualize the current struggle (whatever that may be) and to create a modicum of distance from the turmoil of the change process.
The urge explicitly to narrativise oneself in an effort to ‘take stock’ frequently occurs when people are in deep personal pain, often bereaved, and desperately seeking to re-assume control of their lives in order to start living satisfyingly again. Much psychotherapy can be understood as a process leading to a satisfactory narrative of one’s selfhood where ‘satisfactory’ means enabling the next phase of self-construction to proceed. Stuart Sutherland’s account of a disintegration in his own life, Breakdown, uses his critical tools as an experimental psychologist in an act of autobiographical writing to restore himself to a control of his own life. Similarly, Lewis Wolpert uses his skills in scientific argument to begin with his own experience of depression in MalignantSadness and to analyse contemporary understandings of that affliction, in part as a means of understanding what happened to himself. William Styron deployed his skills as a writer in Darkness Visible to offer an account of his depression. (pg 48)

In many ways, the narrative of Self incorporates the all-quadrants approach of Ken Wilber's integral theory. We are physical beings in a cultural context, with interior states and experiences, and at the influence of social dynamics.
As an autobiographer himself, Jerome Bruner is intimately aware of the complexities of autobiography as a psychological process. It is extraordinarily complex. In some ways all the strands of psychology integrate in the act of telling one’s story or, better still, the series of stories which may make up an individual human being’s life as a self. Since a cultural psychological conception favours an understanding of self as a continuously self-integrating process negotiating its stability through all the changes of location and demand that make up a human life, it should come as no surprise that this problem of achieving stability of self should present itself as a core problem for psychology.

William James formulated this with his metaphor of consciousness as a stream. How do I know I am the same self today as I was yesterday? I have after all lost consciousness for about eight hours between then and now while I slept. And what about the links between me as I am now and me as I was twenty years ago? What is the nature of that linkage? As we have seen, James thought that this had to do with each present thought appropriating its predecessor, owning it, as it were, and blending it into the ongoing flow of consciousness. In this way the stream has the subjective quality of being all of a piece, of being a single stream, my stream.

Bruner identifies this problem as lying at the heart of the psychology of autobiography. Notwithstanding what he calls the ‘robustness’ of selves over time, they also exhibit an instability when observed over extended periods. Selves change. Sameness and change must both be accounted for. The universal changes of ordinary human development (infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood and old age), the particular changes of individual lives (personal successes and failures, griefs and joys), and the structural changes of the societies to which people belong (periods of peace and stability, war and terror and dispossession, growths and collapses of economic/ moral/religious systems) must all be accounted for in an adequate psychology of autobiography.

Bruner endorses and develops William James’s idea that abilities of narration are a distinct mode of cognitive functioning. They contrast with and complement the abilities of another mode which he calls paradigmatic or logico-scientific thinking which ‘attempts to fulfill the ideal of a formal, mathematical system of description and explanation’. The way of checking whether or not an argument is true and therefore convincing in the paradigmatic mode of thinking is by appealing to established procedures which if properly applied lead to formal or empirical proof.

Narrative thinking, on the other hand, functions differently and does so to quite a different end. As Bruner puts it, if arguments are about truth, stories are about verisimilitude or life-likeness. Each involves a different kind of causality. Paradigmatic thought aspires to establishing universal truth conditions whereas narrative thought looks to likely connections between particular events. The one is concerned with verifiability and replicability within high-level abstractions of the world, the other with plausibility and convincingness within the particular worlds of living engaged individuals. Bruner argues that story making is ‘the mode of thinking and feeling that helps children (Indeed, people generally) create a version of the world in which, psychologically, they can envisage a place for themselves – a personal world.’ (pg 50-51)
Clearly then, although narratives can incorporate and encompass all quadrants, the perspective taken is inherently subjective (a 3rd-person presentation of a 1st-person experience) - ultimately, it is a personal story with an unreliable narrator (to use a term from literary criticism) in that we all have blind spots or unconscious motivations that will impact the content of the narrative. This creates issues of reliability and truth both for the narrator and the listener.

However, as a representation of the Self-system, the narrative reveals as much by what is left out as it does by what is included. In the therapeutic situation, there are times when we must question the narrative of the client as far as its truthfulness, yet we accept the story as it is, acknowledging that it may or may not be objectively true - the subjective truth of the experience, however, is generally assumed.


In psychology, we tend to talk about "owning our emotions," or "owning our lives," but this is a much more complex idea than most people recognize.

One way we can take ownership of our lives is through the creation and telling of our personal narratives. In some very real sense, the most important element of the therapeutic relationship is in the telling of one's story, but also that there is a listener, someone who hears our story and reflects back to us the truth (such at it is) of our experiences. In this relationship, ownership of our experience becomes much more real by its telling in social context (this, in part, also explains the incredible effectiveness of group support in the therapeutic process).
To think about your self and about your life as the way in which you have become yourself is a creative act. What it creates is your self and its life. Bruner’s conclusion that ‘autobiography is life construction through “text” construction’ follows from the identification of narrative abilities as a natural mode of human thinking, albeit much neglected until recently by psychologists. Cognitive neuroscience’s ideas on a ‘left brain interpreter’, as we have seen, support this idea of a distinctive form of narrative thinking.

It is the application of this type of thinking to one’s own life that ensures its sense of being continuous as the story of my life. Both these ideas, that of ‘story’ and that of possessing, as in ‘my story’, need further comment. Let me take the idea of ownership first and acknowledge a debt to Nicholas Humphrey’s perceptive discussion of its nature and primitive origins.

The everyday concept of ownership is social and involves the idea of a ‘right’. Owning something means having the right to do with it as one wishes including allowing someone else to use it, or giving it away. Humphrey extends this idea by suggesting that the idea of owning private property is a metaphorical extension of the sense of ‘my body’. Owning my body is my primary sense and sphere of ownership. The violation of this sense is one reason why slavery is so abhorrent. How does this basic sense of ownership arise? Humphrey argues that what I as a voluntary agent indubitably own are my volitions. I come to own my body to the extent that I come to control it. My limbs are mine because I can move them when I wish. Even if I were motorically paralysed, but not I think sensorily paralysed, I may still own them if Humphrey is right in arguing that sensation is a form of activity. On this view control, either by way of socially legitimated rights or by way of more foundational acts of coming to own one’s own body in infancy, is a key part of ownership.

The manner in which a narrative becomes ‘my story’ will itself be a history of control, as will the struggle over the rights to history-making of any group or community wishing to be the tellers of ‘their own story’. One way in which Bruner addresses this issue is via his use of the category of metacognition of which meta-narrative is an instance. In everyday language this has to do with the ways in which a person comes to reflect upon why her life or some aspect of it has come to be as it is. It also has to do with the resources available to her to pull the diverse accounts of segments of her life together under the umbrella of a single story, the story of her life. (pg. 51-52)

One last quote (although I could easily post many more).
What Bruner does to support his view that we are the stories we tell of ourselves is to draw out the analogy between the structure of a typical story, on the one hand, and the criteria we use to identify the presence of a self in any human activity on the other.

First the structure of a story. His simplified account of the structure of a narrative is this:

An Actor with some degrees of freedom;
An Act upon which he has embarked, with
A Goal to whose attainment he is committed;
Resources to be deployed in the above, with
A presupposition of Legitimacy,
Whose violation has placed things in Jeopardy.

The other part of this analogy is the answer to this question: When we listen to other people talk about themselves, or when we read what they write about their lives, what are the signs we look for to establish the presence of a self? The following are the ‘indicators of self’ which we use to answer the question: An agent with some freedom to choose, who shows commitment to a line of action (rather than just reactiveness to momentary demands), who has resources to further this commitment, who refers socially to other people in the process, who can evaluate how things are progressing, who feels (qualia) and has a personal subjective sense of the situation, who can reflect (metacognition) on himself and the context, who positions himself in the social order, and who integrates all the relevant elements of his life into some sort of coherence.

Bruner notes a striking similarity between the elements that compose the core of a narrative and those indicators which identify the presence of a self. They seem to be isomorphic or homologous. Are they convertible into one another? Is self actually a narrative? Bruner’s view is that it is. With Kalmar he writes: ‘Self, then, is a narrative construction, and as such, operates under the same constraints as narrative constructions in general.’19 This is a view that would, I think, find support from other thinkers who have seriously addressed the complexities of ‘self’ as a psychological problem. When Rom Harré speaks of self as a ‘theory’ and the development of self as the process by which the theory that is self is acquired he would be happy, I think, to have Bruner’s concept of self as story in mind. For Harré autobiographical skills are a crucial element in the construction and maintenance of self. Ken Gergen would similarly find much to agree with in Bruner’s arguments, as does Charles Taylor whose work I will introduce in the next chapter. (pg. 52-53)
In the end, because the Self is always in process, the narrative is always tentative and subject to revision. This brings me to an important tangent.

In Buddhism, the Self is a fiction that we construct to make sense of our worlds. More than 2,500 years ago, the Buddha and his followers came to some of the same conclusions about the nature of the Self that psychologists are just now beginning to fathom. It's no wonder some elements of Buddhism are finding their way into psychotherapy, such as mindfulness or the concept of not-self (generally referred to as no-self, but many people prefer not-self as a more accurate translation).

The "left brain interpreter" mentioned above is tasked (by the brain) with creating a coherent sense of self, and one of the most powerful ways of doing that is to create a narrative. But when we meditate and get to know our minds, it becomes increasingly harder to find a Self amid the thoughts and feelings we experience. This does not mean we have dismantled or transcended the Self, but rather, we have shown it to be what it has always been, a "construct" of the rational mind, not "a real thing" in any absolute sense.

Here is how Caroline Brazier describes the Self, from an Amida Buddhist and practicing psychotherapist (from Buddhism on the Couch):
Buddhist psychology shows how people are constantly recreating themselves out of the patterns of reaction into which they fall. It shows how these patterns are self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. Although psychologists refer to the self as if it were an entity, in fact this use of language reifies a process that does not result in anything substantial at all. Rather, the self is collection of experiences that constantly forms and re-forms. Like a flock of birds or ripples on a pond, it creates patterns and shapes that often repeat, giving an impression of substance, but it is ultimately non-substantial or empty. (pg. 39)
With this quote in mind, does that mean everything I have already posted here is pointless? Not at all.

Knowing that the Self is a fiction we compose to make sense of experience, that it is merely an evolutionary "kluge" that the brain has developed to ensure its survival and the survival of our individual genes, is important to understanding how we might "undo" this process.

Buddhism suggests, rather convincingly, that much of our suffering is due to the belief that this notion of the Self is real and the corresponding attachment to the things it wants (both to have and to avoid). And it offers meditation practices (the various yogas) to dissolve this illusion. However, as Brazier's quote shows, and as one can learn from Dan Siegel's new work on "mindsight," Western psychology is beginning to catch up with what Buddhism has long known.

For me, Cultural Psychology is also an important step in the right direction, but from a much more integrated perspective. It includes the neuroscience and interpersonal elements that Siegel is working with, and it goes further into how we create our sense of self not only from the wiring in our brains, nor only from our interpersonal context, nor from our interior subjective experience, but also from social forces and other environmental factors (our bodies as objects in space - the self/not-self polarity is equated with the here/there polarity, as well as the inside/outside polarity).

More to come on this great book as I get further along.

Antero Alli - Sex and the Eight-Circuit Brain: Polymorphous Sexuality in Circuitland

Another excerpt from the recent book by Antero Alli, posted at Reality Sandwich. This is an interesting developmental model, and using it to look at sexual expression is useful in many ways. If I remember correctly, the eight-circuit model is based on the work of Timothy Leary.

Sex and the Eight-Circuit Brain: Polymorphous Sexuality in Circuitland

Antero Alli

The following is excerpted from The Eight-Circuit Brain: Navigational Strategies for the Energetic Body (Vertical Pool Publishing).

The eight-circuit grid can be used to track, read, and otherwise discover the great variety of human sexual response. As long as we remember that sex, like Life itself, is messy at best -- and will never conform to any mental construct we impose upon it -- we are free to speculate. As we examine the first four survival-oriented circuits, we'll see how our sexuality has been, and can be, experienced physically, emotionally, conceptually, and socially -- in isolation and in conjunction with each other. When we envision the second four post-survival circuits, we can imagine and maybe experience how sexuality might act as a vehicle for higher consciousness and unfathomable realities beyond our wildest fantasies in and out of our bodies!

The Four Survival Circuits and How They're Integrated

C-1 Physio-Biological Intelligence; the will to survive
How it’s integrated: degree of confidence earned and maintained to assure physical survival

C-2 Emotional-Territorial Intelligence; the will to power
How it’s integrated: degree of emotional confidence earned
and maintained to assure personal worth

C-3 Symbolic-Conceptual Intelligence; the will to reason
How it’s integrated: degree of mental confidence earned
and maintained to assure peace of mind

C-4 Social-Moral Intelligence; the will to socialize
How it’s integrated: degree of social confidence earned
and maintained to assure sense of belonging

The Four Post-Survival Circuits and Their Sources

C-5 Somatic Intelligence of Body Wisdom and Five Senses
Sources: whatever triggers the experience of rapture, communion with nature, tantra (yoga, meditation, ritual), charisma, second wind, falling in love (endorphins) and the expanding presence of being here now. The Shocks of Ecstasy and Bliss (absence of suffering)

C-6 Intuitive-Psychic Intelligence of the Brain, Spine, & CNS
Sources: whatever triggers the experience of the energetic body or aura, the second attention, intuition, clairvoyance and other psychic abilities, ritual magick, reality selection, direct perception of a relative nature of reality. The Shocks of Uncertainty and Freedom (absence of false assumptions, certitudes and dogmas)

C-7 Mytho-Genetic Intelligence of DNA and the Planetary Entity
Sources: whatever triggers the experience of ancestral and past life memories, autonomous archetypes, synchronicity, planetary (Gaia) mind, cosmic consciousness.
The Shocks of Indivisibility and Cosmic Unity (absence of dualistic consciousness)

C-8 Quantum-Nonlocal Intelligence of Subatomic interactions
Sources: whatever triggers the experience of near death, out of body states, the dreambody and dreamtime, lucid dreaming, communion with Void, the mystery of singularity. The Shocks of Death and Impermanence (absence of ego identification).

C-1 Visceral Sex

Picking up the invisible, subtle scent of sex pheromones in others, we can elicit instantaneous reactions of visceral sexual attraction. This can happen so swiftly, literally under our noses, that we have no time to moralize (C-4), think (C-3), or have feelings (C-2) about it. Acting on the scent of pheromones alone, without considering circuits two, three, or four, can drive us into the heat of impulsive, spontaneous visceral sex. As these impulses gain momentum in action they can accelerate and combust into explosive, volatile, and even violent sex. Some male homosexuals may know more about sexual violence than heterosexual men. In researching his book, You Are Going To Prison (Loompanics Press, 1994), Jim Hogshire discovered that twice as many men are raped inside American prisons each year than women are raped on the outside. C-1 sex is hard-wired to our most basic life and death survival instincts -- self-preservation, aggression, "going into heat" and procreation.

The growth hormone testosterone exists in both men and women, yet testosterone levels are twice as high in most men than in women. Researcher June Reinisch of Rutgers University discovered that increased testosterone levels in the body produce immediate aggression. Physiologist Julian Davidson performed a study on males with low sex drives. When given more testosterone, all showed an increase in sexual fantasy and desire leading Davidson to conclude that testosterone is "the biological substrate of desire, at least in men." Consistent overemphasis in C-1 sexuality alone, without incorporating the other circuits, can be dangerous and even fatal.

C-2 Emotional Sex

In those sexual encounters where we are left feeling attached to the lover, C-2 has been engaged. Emotions express a powerful animistic force not always subject to the comprehension of C-3 intellect or the approval of C-4 morality. When emotions are stirred, they mobilize and travel into the lover's astral body, just like spirits. If this sounds like voodoo love that's because emo-sex can be like that. It puts you on pins and needles. Emo-sex always comes with emotional investment whether we want it or not. Emotional sex can satisfy unmet needs for status, security, power, and loyalty. Emotions dwell in our body until they're aroused by another body showing profound receptivity to ours. If you're physically absent from somebody that you are emotionally attached to you may find yourself pining -- irrationally longing for them -- when, in fact, it may be the spirits of your own displaced emotions you're missing. Emotions have a life of their own and don't usually bend to the dictates of C-3 reasoning or C-4 ethical considerations.

Emotional sex can also serve the purpose of establishing an attachment to someone, regardless of romantic ideals or images regarding the "perfect partner" or "dream lover", if only to feel needed. Emo-sex can hide a desperate attempt to establish meaningful connection with someone as a coping mechanism for enduring an otherwise meaningless life -- you may not want the attachment but you may need it. C-2 sex can also fuel a mutual dynamic of sadomasochism and bondage resulting in creative or destructive outcomes, depending on how consciously the master/slave roles are played out, and how much care and attention is paid to each other's limitations and needs. Being tied up and physically immobilized can produce a profound sense of internal security to those whose early infantile needs were never met, given that these power rituals are performed in a climate of total mutual trust. In this way, conscious C-2 Power Sex can also enable greater emotional honesty and intimacy.

Heavy emotional involvement can produce an assumed familiarity with the lover, as if we've known him/her for a long time, though we may have only recently met. For some, this assumed familiarity can feel invasive or annoying, leading to boundary problems. Emo-sex can also excite the taboo-laden incestual lust of sibling love, a kind of familial romance with someone who feels like our big brother, or little sister, or the nurturing mother, or the good father. Incestual love, not to be confused with literal incest, can also trigger the negative emotions of animosity, sibling rivalry, and other C-2 territorial power struggles. These kinds of infantile passions can make lunatics of us all if personal boundaries are overlooked and traded down for the loss of oneself in the other. Losing self-respect can corrode even the most strident confessions of love. Significant emotional bonds also develop without warning between lovers shouldering traumas together -- miscarriage or abortion, extramarital affairs, domestic violence, divorce, death of parents, etc. -- and between soldiers at war or with police officers bonding amidst criminal adversity and danger.

C-3 Mental Sex

Sexual experiences that leave you chatty, by either talking to yourself or chewing the ears off lovers who'll listen, have activated C-3 conceptual intelligence. Watch for a lot of phone. A propensity towards mental sex suggests that you may need more communication before you are sexually turned on. C-3 dualistic intellect can be attracted to sexual ambiguities, a quality some may interpret as bisexuality. Ambiguity, however, is not a bisexual condition but a human condition regardless of sexual orientation. If you're aroused by ambiguity or androgyny, the promise of confounding complexity may arouse you. Those who find ambiguity erotic may naturally shy away from commitment in lieu of staying open to the options of their fickle fancy.

C-3 mental sex can also mean that thinking, talking, and fantasizing about sex can be more scintillating than the actual experience. The tease and the chase may prove a greater turn-on than actually getting caught and nailed. Sometimes talking about sex can also act as a protective measure to inhibit the lovers from engaging in "dead sex" when their relations have gone underground and become temporarily stagnant. Without sexual heat, it may be wiser to read in bed together or take in a movie. Talking about sexual fantasies, writing erotic stories, and engaging in phone sex are all obvious examples of C-3 mental sex.

C-3 sex represents the sexual polarity of exhibitionism and voyeurism: the thrill of physical distance, strong visual stimulus, and being seen or seeing another engaged in a sexual act. If you are turned on by the reality or the fantasy of watching someone else enjoying sex with him/herself or with another, you are aroused by voyeuristic passions. If you are turned on by the reality or the fantasy of others watching you having sex with yourself or with another, you are feeling exhibitionistic passions. Both sides of this C-3 mental sex polarity ­­- being seen and seeing -- act on the body in erotic ways. When the sense of sight plays such a clearly dominant role, the C-3 mind drives the sexual drama.

C-4 Sexual Tribes and Customs

The most commonly used terms for sexuality -- heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, pansexual, asexual, transsexual -- act as sociopolitical labels to categorize and organize personal and tribal needs for security, status, sociopolitical identity, and a sense of belonging. Each of these sociopolitical labels represents a different sexual tribe claiming its own distinct customs, rituals, fetishes, icons, codes, and overall force of culture, subculture, and micro culture. As most people are openly heterosexual, they form the dominator sexual culture around which all other sexual tribes compete and struggle for autonomy and equality for legal rights taken for granted by heterosexuals, i.e. marriage, welfare, child rearing, etc.

Sexual orientation holds no prerequisite for tribal identity.
Read the whole article.

One-quarter of bipolar I disorder patients experience cycling episodes

Interesting research summary from Psychiatry Matters. It might be time to revise the bipolar section of the DSM in the new 5th Edition (due out in 2013 now).

One-quarter of bipolar I disorder patients experience cycling episodes


Researchers have found that cycling episodes constitute a quarter of all episodes in bipolar I disorder, suggesting that such a classification should be added to current diagnostic criteria.

MedWire News: Researchers have found that cycling episodes constitute a quarter of all episodes in bipolar I disorder, suggesting that such a classification should be added to current diagnostic criteria.

Currently, alternating syndromes with no intervening period of recovery are classified as separate mood episodes that may wrongly be treated independently.

“This issue is important because it has a direct impact on diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis,” David Solomon (Rhode Island Hospital, Providence, USA) and colleagues explain.

Using data from the ongoing US National Institute of Mental Health Collaborative Program on the Psychobiology of Depression, the team identified 219 individuals diagnosed with bipolar I disorder who had been followed-up for a mean of 17.3 years.

The researchers identified a total of 1208 recurrent mood episodes, with a mean of 5.5 episodes observed per participant. Episodes consisting of a single pole of psychopathology comprised 75% of all mood episodes.

Classification of mood episodes showed that major depression (30.9%) occurred most commonly, followed by mania (20.4%), cycling (17.3%), minor depression (13.0%), hypomania (10.4%), cycling plus mixed state (7.8%), and mixed episodes (0.2%). Overall, cycling episodes constituted 25.1% of all episodes.

Further analysis showed that in the 153 cycling episodes that began with depression, the depressive state was followed by an immediate switch to mood elevation or a mixed state in 64% of cases.

In the 143 cycling episodes that began with mood elevation, the elevated state was followed by an immediate switch to depression or a mixed state in 56%.

When the team examined somatic therapy received during the 1208 mood episodes, they found that 85% were treated with a mood stabilizer and/or an antidepressant for at least 1 week during prospective follow-up.

Furthermore, 40% major depressive episodes, 39% of minor depressive episodes, 12% of manic episodes, and 24% of hypomanic episodes were not treated with a mood stabilizer. In total, 28% of 471 depressive episodes were treated with an antidepressant in the absence of a mood stabilizer.

Writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the researchers conclude: “Work groups revising the International Classification of Diseases-10 and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV should add a category for bipolar I cycling episode.”

Br J Psychiatry 2009; 195: 525–530

Why the human race has needed religion to survive

An evol psych perspective on religion as crucial to human evolution. Partial truth, but on the right track. Sounds like an interesting book.

An evolutionary biologist on religion

Spirit level

Dec 17th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Why the human race has needed religion to survive

The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures. By Nicholas Wade. Penguin Press; 310 pages; $25.95. Buy from

WHEREVER their investigations lead, all analysts of religion begin somewhere. And in the final lines of his densely but skilfully packed account of faith from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, Nicholas Wade recalls the place where he first felt sanctity: Eton College chapel.

The “beauty of holiness” in a British private school is a far cry from the sort of religion that later came to interest him as a science journalist at Nature magazine and then the New York Times. To examine the roots of religion, he says, it is important to look at human beginnings. The customs of hunter-gatherer peoples who survived into modern times give an idea of religion’s first forms: the ecstasy of dusk-to-dawn tribal dances, for example.

Charles Darwin, whose idea of the sacred also came from an English private school, witnessed religion at its most primordial when he went to Australia in 1836. He found it horrifying: “nearly naked figures, viewed by the light of blazing fires, all moving in hideous harmony…”

Whatever Darwin’s personal sensibilities, Mr Wade is convinced that a Darwinian approach offers the key to understanding religion. In other words, he sides with those who think man’s propensity for religion has some adaptive function. According to this view, faith would not have persisted over thousands of generations if it had not helped the human race to survive. Among evolutionary biologists, this idea is contested. Critics of religion, like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, suggest that faith is a useless (or worse) by-product of other human characteristics.

And that controversy leads to another one. Does Darwinian selection take place at the level only of individuals, or of groups as well? As Mr Wade makes clear, the notion of religion as an “adaptive” phenomenon makes better sense if one accepts the idea of group selection. Groups which practised religion effectively and enjoyed its benefits were likely to prevail over those which lacked these advantages.

Of course, the picture is muddied by the vast changes that religion went through in the journey from tribal dancing to Anglican hymns. The advent of settled, agricultural societies, at least 10,000 years ago, led to a new division of labour, in which priestly castes tried to monopolise access to the divine, and the authorities sought to control sacred ecstasy.

Still, the modifications that religion has undergone should not, in Mr Wade’s view, distract from the study of faith’s basic functions. In what way, then, does religion enhance a group’s survival? Above all, by promoting moral rules and cementing cohesion, in a way that makes people ready to sacrifice themselves for the group and to deal ruthlessly with outsiders. These arguments are well made. Mr Wade has a clear mind and limpid prose style which guides the reader almost effortlessly through 200 years of intellectual history. Perhaps, though, he oversimplifies the link between morality, in the sense of obedience to rules, and group solidarity based on common participation in ecstatic rites.

All religion is concerned in varying degrees with metaphysical ideas, moral norms and mystical experience. But in the great religions, the moral and the mystical have often been in tension. The more a religion stresses ecstasy, the less it seems hidebound by rules—especially rules of public behaviour, as opposed to purely religious norms. And religious movements (from the “Deuteronomists” of ancient Israel to the English Puritans) that emphasise moral norms tend to eschew the ecstatic.

Max Weber, one of the fathers of religious sociology, contrasted the transcendental feelings enjoyed by Catholic mass-goers with the Protestant obsession with behaviour. In Imperial Russia, Peter the Great tried to pull the Russian Orthodox church from the former extreme to the latter: to curb its love of rite and mystery and make it more of a moral agency like the Lutheran churches of northern Europe. He failed. Russians liked things mystical, and they didn’t like being told what to do.

As well as giving an elegant summary of modern thinking about religion, Mr Wade also offers a brief, provocative history of monotheism. He endorses the radical view that the story of the Jews’ flight from Egypt is myth, rather than history. He sympathises with daring ideas about Islam’s beginnings: so daring that many of its proponents work under false names. In their view, Islam is more likely to have emerged from dissident Christian sects in the Levant than to have “burst out of Arabia”, as the Muslim version of sacred history teaches.

At times, the book stumbles. In describing the interplay between Hellenic and Hebrew culture at the dawning of Christianity, Mr Wade makes exaggerated claims. He says there is no basis for a mother-and-child cult in the religion of Israel. In fact there are many references in the Hebrew scriptures to the Messiah and his mother; the Dead Sea Scrolls have made this even clearer. And his micro-history of Christian theology is inaccurate in places.

These objections aside, this is a masterly book. It lays the basis for a rich dialogue between biology, social science and religious history. It also helps explain a quest for collective ecstasy that can take myriad forms. Perhaps his brief autobiographical reference to Eton should have noted the bonding effect not only of chapel, but also of songs like “Jolly Boating Weather”.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Matthieu Ricard - Change your Mind, Change your Brain: The Inner Conditions for Authentic Happiness

Google Tech Talks, March 15, 2007

If happiness is an inner state, influenced by external conditions but not dependent on them, how can we achieve it? Ricard will examine the inner and outer factors that increase or diminish our sense of well-being, dissect the underlying mechanisms of happiness, and lead us to a way of looking at the mind itself based on his book, Happiness: A Guide to Life's Most Important Skill and from the research in neuroscience on the effect of mind-training on the brain.

Speaker Bio: Matthieu Ricard, a gifted scientist turned Buddhist monk, is a best selling author, translator, and photographer. He has lived and studied in the Himalayas for the last 35 years where he currently works on humanitarian projects. He is an active participant in the current scientific research on meditation and the brain.

We May Be Born With an Urge to Help

Another article looking at the research supporting the idea that we are basically born good, wanting to be helpful and caring about others - I guess they've never had a three-year-old. Still, the research shows we are not born bad, as some religions might have us thunk.

We May Be Born With an Urge to Help

Sylvio Tuepke

LENDING A HAND In research, a child helps an adult find an object dropped through a hole in a box. The evolutionary roots of altruism are complex.

Published: November 30, 2009

What is the essence of human nature? Flawed, say many theologians. Vicious and addicted to warfare, wrote Hobbes. Selfish and in need of considerable improvement, think many parents.

But biologists are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind. Their conclusions are derived in part from testing very young children, and partly from comparing human children with those of chimpanzees, hoping that the differences will point to what is distinctively human.

The somewhat surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.

When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help, Michael Tomasello writes in “Why We Cooperate,” a book published in October. Dr. Tomasello, a developmental psychologist, is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The helping behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite behavior.

“It’s probably safe to assume that they haven’t been explicitly and directly taught to do this,” said Elizabeth Spelke, a developmental psychologist at Harvard. “On the other hand, they’ve had lots of opportunities to experience acts of helping by others. I think the jury is out on the innateness question.”

But Dr. Tomasello finds the helping is not enhanced by rewards, suggesting that it is not influenced by training. It seems to occur across cultures that have different timetables for teaching social rules. And helping behavior can even be seen in infant chimpanzees under the right experimental conditions. For all these reasons, Dr. Tomasello concludes that helping is a natural inclination, not something imposed by parents or culture.

Infants will help with information, as well as in practical ways. From the age of 12 months they will point at objects that an adult pretends to have lost. Chimpanzees, by contrast, never point at things for each other, and when they point for people, it seems to be as a command to go fetch something rather than to share information.

For parents who may think their children somehow skipped the cooperative phase, Dr. Tomasello offers the reassuring advice that children are often more cooperative outside the home, which is why parents may be surprised to hear from a teacher or coach how nice their child is. “In families, the competitive element is in ascendancy,” he said.

As children grow older, they become more selective in their helpfulness. Starting around age 3, they will share more generously with a child who was previously nice to them. Another behavior that emerges at the same age is a sense of social norms. “Most social norms are about being nice to other people,” Dr. Tomasello said in an interview, “so children learn social norms because they want to be part of the group.”

Children not only feel they should obey these rules themselves, but also that they should make others in the group do the same. Even 3-year-olds are willing to enforce social norms. If they are shown how to play a game, and a puppet then joins in with its own idea of the rules, the children will object, some of them vociferously.

Where do they get this idea of group rules, the sense of “we who do it this way”? Dr. Tomasello believes children develop what he calls “shared intentionality,” a notion of what others expect to happen and hence a sense of a group “we.” It is from this shared intentionality that children derive their sense of norms and of expecting others to obey them.

Shared intentionality, in Dr. Tomasello’s view, is close to the essence of what distinguishes people from chimpanzees. A group of human children will use all kinds of words and gestures to form goals and coordinate activities, but young chimps seem to have little interest in what may be their companions’ minds.

If children are naturally helpful and sociable, what system of child-rearing best takes advantage of this surprising propensity? Dr. Tomasello says that the approach known as inductive parenting works best because it reinforces the child’s natural propensity to cooperate with others. Inductive parenting is simply communicating with children about the effect of their actions on others and emphasizing the logic of social cooperation.

“Children are altruistic by nature,” he writes, and though they are also naturally selfish, all parents need do is try to tip the balance toward social behavior.

The shared intentionality lies at the basis of human society, Dr. Tomasello argues. From it flow ideas of norms, of punishing those who violate the norms and of shame and guilt for punishing oneself. Shared intentionality evolved very early in the human lineage, he believes, and its probable purpose was for cooperation in gathering food. Anthropologists report that when men cooperate in hunting, they can take down large game, which single hunters generally cannot do. Chimpanzees gather to hunt colobus monkeys, but Dr. Tomasello argues this is far less of a cooperative endeavor because the participants act on an ad hoc basis and do not really share their catch.

An interesting bodily reflection of humans’ shared intentionality is the sclera, or whites, of the eyes. All 200 or so species of primates have dark eyes and a barely visible sclera. All, that is, except humans, whose sclera is three times as large, a feature that makes it much easier to follow the direction of someone else’s gaze. Chimps will follow a person’s gaze, but by looking at his head, even if his eyes are closed. Babies follow a person’s eyes, even if the experimenter keeps his head still.

Advertising what one is looking at could be a risk. Dr. Tomasello argues that the behavior evolved “in cooperative social groups in which monitoring one another’s focus was to everyone’s benefit in completing joint tasks.”

This could have happened at some point early in human evolution, when in order to survive, people were forced to cooperate in hunting game or gathering fruit. The path to obligatory cooperation — one that other primates did not take — led to social rules and their enforcement, to human altruism and to language.

“Humans putting their heads together in shared cooperative activities are thus the originators of human culture,” Dr. Tomasello writes.

A similar conclusion has been reached independently by Hillard S. Kaplan, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico. Modern humans have lived for most of their existence as hunter gatherers, so much of human nature has presumably been shaped for survival in such conditions. From study of existing hunter gatherer peoples, Dr. Kaplan has found evidence of cooperation woven into many levels of human activity.

The division of labor between men and women — men gather 68 percent of the calories in foraging societies — requires cooperation between the sexes. Young people in these societies consume more than they produce until age 20, which in turn requires cooperation between the generations. This long period of dependency was needed to develop the special skills required for the hunter gatherer way of life.

The structure of early human societies, including their “high levels of cooperation between kin and nonkin,” was thus an adaptation to the “specialized foraging niche” of food resources that were too difficult for other primates to capture, Dr. Kaplan and colleagues wrote recently in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. We evolved to be nice to each other, in other words, because there was no alternative.

Much the same conclusion is reached by Frans de Waal in another book published in October, “The Age of Empathy.” Dr. de Waal, a primatologist, has long studied the cooperative side of primate behavior and believes that aggression, which he has also studied, is often overrated as a human motivation.

“We’re preprogrammed to reach out,” Dr. de Waal writes. “Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.” The only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths.

Indeed, it is in our biological nature, not our political institutions, that we should put our trust, in his view. Our empathy is innate and cannot be changed or long suppressed. “In fact,” Dr. de Waal writes, “I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”

The basic sociability of human nature does not mean, of course, that people are nice to each other all the time. Social structure requires that things be done to maintain it, some of which involve negative attitudes toward others. The instinct for enforcing norms is powerful, as is the instinct for fairness. Experiments have shown that people will reject unfair distributions of money even it means they receive nothing.

“Humans clearly evolved the ability to detect inequities, control immediate desires, foresee the virtues of norm following and gain the personal, emotional rewards that come from seeing another punished,” write three Harvard biologists, Marc Hauser, Katherine McAuliffe and Peter R. Blake, in reviewing their experiments with tamarin monkeys and young children.

If people do bad things to others in their group, they can behave even worse to those outside it. Indeed the human capacity for cooperation “seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the local group,” Dr. Tomasello writes.

Sociality, the binding together of members of a group, is the first requirement of defense, since without it people will not put the group’s interests ahead of their own or be willing to sacrifice their lives in battle. Lawrence H. Keeley, an anthropologist who has traced aggression among early peoples, writes in his book “War Before Civilization” that, “Warfare is ultimately not a denial of the human capacity for cooperation, but merely the most destructive expression of it.”

The roots of human cooperation may lie in human aggression. We are selfish by nature, yet also follow rules requiring us to be nice to others.

“That’s why we have moral dilemmas,” Dr. Tomasello said, “because we are both selfish and altruistic at the same time.”

Huston Smith - Islamic Mysticism: The Sufi Way

Another cool video, this time on Sufism, and The World's Religions author, Huston Smith, offers his commentary.

Islamic Mysticism: The Sufi Way

Islamic Mysticism: The Sufi Way

Release Year: 1980

Duration: 24 min

Availability: Worldwide

Related: History, International, Life & Culture

Shot in magnificent Islamic architectural settings from Morocco to Turkey to India, Islamic Mysticism: The Sufi Way provides a window into the rigorous Sufi schedule of prayer, fasting and study.

Professor Huston Smith, renowned scholar of world religions and author of A History of Man, adds commentary as the camera takes an in-depth look at this gentle, mystical branch of Islam.

It is said that while a Muslim prays five times a day, the Sufi prays without ceasing. This film, shot by Elda Hartley, captures the Sufi quest for deeper meaning in all things, and includes exquisite footage of Whirling Dervishes, endlessly circling in search of God.