Saturday, January 02, 2010

Short Film - Neil Gaiman's "Statuesque"

Discovered through my friend Karen on Facebook.
A man falls for a living statue .. with unusual consequences!

Robert Masters - Thaw Until Raw - Denumb!
["Numb" by Infinite705]

A new essay from Robert Masters in his January newsletter, The Crucible of Awakening. Interestingly, this article offers the antidote to the "culture of optimism" problem in the previous article (below). We need to stop settling for positive thoughts and actually live positive, fully awake lives. We need to stop finding ways to numb ourselves. We need to denumb.

I can't resist posting this key passage here at the top, in hope that more people will see it.
So what to do?


Cease distracting yourself from your pain. If doing so breaks your heart, you are on the right path, even if you are on your hands and knees. Let your heart break open enough to become whole, expanding to include more and more, with no dilution of its depth and bare care. Befriend your grief, giving it full-blooded expression, letting it carry you into and through your deepest woundedness, not so as to get stuck there, but to allow a healing that brings you into the present with enough power and presence to shake up what needs shaking not only in your world, but the world at large.

Denumb. Thaw until you are raw. Cease numbing yourself to your numbness.
Now read the whole article.

The future is far from what it once was. Its once rosy, reassuringly distant horizons have become something far less pleasant, something too close for comfort, something right in our collective face. Tomorrow is closing in on us with accelerating intensity; and time itself seems more and more compressed, leaving us in one hell of a squeezeplay.

It is literally crunch time.

Having the precipice within sight takes the fun out of looking ahead; and having the mess we’ve made looming up right behind us takes the fun out of looking back. So as we back away from both the future and the past, we find ourselves squeezed into a very shaky present, shrinkwrapped and disoriented, with very little solid ground and an abundance of psychic distortion from all the freaking pressure.

No wonder so many are enamored of teachings that extol and promise ascension, upliftingness, consoling spiritual popups. No wonder so many are eager to find immunity from such dark uncertainty, such instability and relentless compression. It doesn’t matter if the lemmings are
thinking positive thoughts or asserting that they are all one as they go over the cliff. The future doesn’t appear to have much of a future.

We’ve arrived at the edge and most of us know it, but all too many of us continue numbing ourselves to that knowing, reducing it to just more information, more cognitive cud, more data to scan and file and gather electronic dust in the unlit outbacks of our mind, even as we engage
(however passively) in various potently stimulating activities that numb us to our numbness, dumbing us down on our way up.

Like those who build their village on the slopes of a recently active volcano and get used to (or comfortably numb with) the fact that a massive eruption is never really that far away, we have gotten used to being at the edge (at least conceptually), making our stay there as comfortable as possible, with plenty of perks for the tiny minority who have the majority of the money.

But we can’t buy our way out of this one, though we can deny it, lie about it, minimize and marginalize it, reframe and intellectualize it, projecting it way into the future, outfitting ourselves with the latest accessories, surgically reconstructing not just our dying flesh but also our horizons, dewrinkling and recoloring them, pushing them away from us, thereby creating the illusion that we are not really in danger, not really in crisis, since the edge appears to be so far away, somewhere past that oh so distant and dreamy horizon.

So what to do?


Cease distracting yourself from your pain. If doing so breaks your heart, you are on the right path, even if you are on your hands and knees. Let your heart break open enough to become whole, expanding to include more and more, with no dilution of its depth and bare care. Befriend your grief, giving it full-blooded expression, letting it carry you into and through your deepest woundedness, not so as to get stuck there, but to allow a healing that brings you into the present with enough power and presence to shake up what needs shaking not only in your world, but the world at large.

Denumb. Thaw until you are raw. Cease numbing yourself to your numbness. Journey into and through that frozenness, that wasteland, that aching loneliness, recovering your capacity for transparency and integrity and deep feeling. You may feel as though you have awakened from a semi-narcotic dream populated by dysfunctional aspects of you.

Denumb. Feel the suddenly crisp, invigorating air swiftly and dynamically circulating through your whole body as you inhale as deeply as possible. Feel your belly loosening, widening, softening, energetically connecting your torso with your pelvis and legs. Feel your heart cracking and stretching open, radiating out more and more. Feel your entire body taking a stand, stepping forward with such electric presence that you can feel the micromovements generated by each step.

Tomorrow’s jaws may be snapping at us, and yesterday’s fears may be hounding us, but we’ve got a deeper today to give ourselves to, a today seeded with evolutionary imperatives that resonate with who and what we truly are.

Denumb. Thaw all the way. Let your heart remain raw. Stop expecting sex to make you feel better. Stop expecting anything to make you feel better. Such expectancy keeps us neurotically dependent, marooned from the kind of autonomy that plugs us into our true authority. Get in touch with your out-of-touchness. Get comfortable with your discomfort.

Denumb, thaw, unravel the knots, don’t just settle for positive thoughts. The stakes are very high, perhaps the highest they have ever been for us. So let us do what it takes, both together and alone. We are worth it.

Seeking a Cure for Optimism (On Barbara Ehrenreich)

I like positive thinking and I think people need feel that they are worthwhile human beings. However, when either of these is pasted over a negative sense of self-worth, or depression, or any number of other less-than-healthy feelings, they can much more harm than good.

Optimism is the natural outflow of a healthy system, but not too many are really healthy - so the seemingly positive culture of optimism that Barbara Ehrenreich is rejecting really is not so good, and she is doing us a favor in exposing it.

The author of the article also speaks to Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of the Positive Psychology movement, and he is not pleased with Ehrenreich at all. I think Seligman has done a great service for psychology in trying to offer a more hopeful look at human beings, but I also fear that those who are attempting to use his approach are simply throwing a fresh, pretty coat of paint on cracked walls and a shaky foundation.

We have known for years that depressed and anxious people tend to have a better grasp of reality than those who are not suffering those feelings. This has posed a paradox for treatment models, since it is also well-known that depressives have a very unrealistic self-concept. So they tend to have more realism about the outside world, and less realism about themselves.

On the other hand, I have clients who use "positive thinking" and "looking on the bright side" as ways to avoid their pain. I think this has become a common issue among "spiritual but not religious" type people. But that is just my assessment and I have not read the book yet to see where Ehrenreich comes down on why this is happening.

Seeking a Cure for Optimism

Susana Raab for The New York Times
The author Barbara Ehrenreich argues that positive thinking may actually do some harm.

Published: Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 5:12 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 5:12 a.m.

AMERICANS are an optimistic, can-do lot. We subscribe to the belief that we have a right to not just pursue happiness, but to be happy. No matter how grim the last year has been, no matter how rotten the economy or one’s own setbacks, people believe it can all change with the flip of the calendar: all you need do is look on the bright side.

Happiness is not just our birthright, it is a growth industry. Beyond the perpetually positive Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins and the thinking-makes-it-so gurus behind “The Secret,” the Internet offers many new programs for self-improvement. was created in the fall with promises of “scientific solutions for real improvement.” LiveHappy, a $9.99 a month “mobile happiness boosting program,” is based on the book “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, who says that activities like “envisioning your best possible self” are “scientifically shown” to make people happier.

Is any of this true? Can an optimistic attitude and a will to happiness lead to a better you in the new year?

Recently, a number of writers and researchers have questioned the notion that looking on the bright side — often through conscious effort — makes much of a difference. One of the most prominent skeptics is Barbara Ehrenreich, whose best-selling book “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” published in the fall, maintains that thinking positively does little good in the long run, and can, in fact, do harm.

“Happiness is great, joy is great, but positive thinking reduces the spontaneity of human interactions,” Ms. Ehrenreich said. “If everyone has that fixed social smile all the time, how do you know when anyone really likes you?”

A study published in the November-December issue of Australasian Science found that people in a negative mood are more critical of, and pay more attention to, their surroundings than happier people, who are more likely to believe anything they are told.

“Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world,” Joseph P. Forgas, a professor of social psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, wrote in the study.

Psychologists and others who try to study happiness scientifically often focus on the connection between positive thinking and better health. In the September 2007 issue of the journal Cancer, Dr. David Spiegel at Stanford University School of Medicine reported his efforts to replicate the findings of a 1989 study in which he had found that women with metastatic breast cancer who were assigned to a support group lived an average 18 months longer than those who did not get such support. But in his updated research, Dr. Spiegel found that although group therapy may help women cope with their illness better, positive thinking did not significantly prolong their lives.

Ms. Ehrenreich, who was urged to think positively after receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer several years ago, was surprised by how many readers shared her visceral resistance to that mantra. She created a forum on her Web site for people to vent about positive thinking, and many have. “I get so many people saying ‘thank you,’ people who go back to work after their mother has died and are told, ‘What’s the matter?’ “ she said. Likewise, there are “corporate victims who have been critics or driven out of jobs for being ‘too negative.’ “

Such criticism has annoyed those in the burgeoning academic field of positive psychology, which traces to 1998 when the president of the American Psychological Association at the time, Martin Seligman, sought out good scientific research on positive emotion. He found hundreds of studies showing the health benefits of thinking positively. While it is impossible to change one’s inherent temperament, Dr. Seligman said, “it’s certain you can change pessimism into optimism in a lasting way.”

Dr. Seligman, who now runs the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and makes a rather unflattering appearance in “Bright-Sided,” is not pleased with Ms. Ehrenreich’s book. In a posting on a positive psychology list serve, he accused “Barbara I Hate Hope Ehrenreich” of “cherry picking” studies to suit her purpose.

“Where Ehrenreich and I agree — we’re both trying to separate wheat from chaff,” he said in an interview. “We just differ on what we think is wheat and what we think is chaff.”

Many experts have come to question the connection between optimism and health. “Being optimistic is secondary to having health and resources,” said James C. Coyne, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who conducted a study on positive thinking and cancer and found no correlation between optimism and improved outcomes. “Ranges of cross-studies have found this,” he said.

“It’s easy to show an association between optimism and subsequent health,” he said, “but if you introduce appropriate statistical controls — if you take into account baseline health and material resources — then the effect largely goes away.”

Other experts are less definitive. Barbara L. Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been exploring the function of positive emotions since the early 1990s. Dr. Fredrickson, whose book “Positivity” was published this year, differentiates between positive thinking and positive emotion. “Positive thinking can sometimes lead to positive emotion, but it won’t always,” she said. “It’s like the difference between wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Life is Good’ and actually feeling deep in your bones grateful for your current circumstances.”

With that in mind, she cautions that the idea of “fake it till you make it” can actually be harmful to one’s health. “What my research shows is that those insincere positive emotions — telling yourself ‘I feel good’ when you don’t — is toxic and actually more harmful than negative emotions. We need to become more sophisticated about what is real and what is fake within people’s attempts to be positive.”

Ruth Rossoff, 79, of Philadelphia, said that she has felt tyrannized by the agents of positivity. In September, she said, her husband, who had been ill for some time and had realized he would never again live the kind of life he had been used to, decided he was ready to die. “After seeing all the people who mattered to him and discussing his decision with me and our adult children, he made his wishes known to the people caring for him in the hospital,” Ms. Rossoff said.

Then a doctor who was covering for her husband’s physician stopped by. “This young man came in and proceeded to tell him about his own mother’s miraculous recovery from some illness by sheer willpower and pushed him to try harder to get better,” Ms. Rossoff said. Her husband, energized, lived a few weeks longer. “I was livid,” Ms. Rossoff said. “My husband suffered a few extra weeks with the same end result by listening to the pep talk.”

As for Ms. Ehrenreich, she believes that negative thinking is just as delusional as unquestioned positive thinking. She hopes to see a day when corporate employees “walk out when the motivational speakers start talking,” she said. “It’s all about control and money.” Her goal? To encourage realism, “trying to see the world not colored by our wishes or fears, but by reality.”

Friday, January 01, 2010

Donald F. Padelford - Consciousness in Evolution: Sketch for a New Model – A Speculation

There are two basic assumptions is current evolutionary theory - (1) natural selection, in conjunction with heritable variation and resource limitation, is the principal driver of evolution, and (2) evolution is a product of natural selection. This is known as the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis. A more expansive version of this theory is as follows:

The modern synthesis bridged the gap between experimental geneticists and naturalists, and between both and palaeontologists. It states that:[3][4][5]

  1. All evolutionary phenomena can be explained in a way consistent with known genetic mechanisms and the observational evidence of naturalists.
  2. Evolution is gradual: small genetic changes, recombination ordered by natural selection. Discontinuities amongst species (or other taxa) are explained as originating gradually through geographical separation and extinction (not saltation).
  3. Selection is overwhelmingly the main mechanism of change; even slight advantages are important when continued. The object of selection is the phenotype in its surrounding environment. The role of genetic drift is equivocal; though strongly supported initially by Dobzhansky, it was downgraded later as results from ecological genetics were obtained.
  4. The primacy of population thinking: the genetic diversity carried in natural populations is a key factor in evolution. The strength of natural selection in the wild was greater than expected; the effect of ecological factors such as niche occupation and the significance of barriers to gene flow are all important.
  5. In palaeontology, the ability to explain historical observations by extrapolation from microevolution to macroevolution is proposed. Historical contingency means explanations at different levels may exist. Gradualism does not mean constant rate of change.
The idea that speciation occurs after populations are reproductively isolated has been much debated.
This theory will no doubt be soon amended to include the findings of epigenetics, which shows that evolution is also influenced by environmental factors within a singled generation to produce adaptations.
In biology, the term epigenetics refers to changes in phenotype (appearance) or gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence, hence the name epi- (Greek: over; above) -genetics. These changes may remain through cell divisions for the remainder of the cell's life and may also last for multiple generations. However, there is no change in the underlying DNA sequence of the organism;[1] instead, non-genetic factors cause the organism's genes to behave (or "express themselves") differently.[2]
Notice anything missing from any of these explanations of evolution?

How about consciousness?

Let's backtrack for a moment. In July I review B Alan Wallace's Hidden Dimensions for Wildmind Buddhist Meditation. In this book, Wallace argued that consciousness played a crucial role in the formation and evolution of the universe:
The notion of an observer necessarily implies the presence of consciousness, without which no observation ever takes place, and … consciousness, far from being an insignificant by-product of brain activity, plays a crucial role in the formation and evolution of the universe. (109)
I gladly acknowledge that consciousness now plays a role in the evolution of life on Earth, and maybe even in the universe - but I objected then (and now) to the notion that it played a role in the formation of the universe:
Aside from the fact that the universe existed quite well without human consciousness, or any consciousness, for about 14.5 billion years, the essential flaw here is that it does not require consciousness, human or otherwise, to impact the outcome of a measurement. It simply requires the act of measurement, which only requires another electron, and contrary to popular understanding, that measurement effect is fully reversible.
Some Buddhist readers of that review objected to my position. My response is that consciousness is an emergent property - essentially, that is could not have been predicted by an observation of the material universe prior to its arrival. Here is the best definition of emergent properties (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):
Emergent properties are systemic features of complex systems which could not be predicted (practically speaking; or for any finite knower; or for even an ideal knower) from the standpoint of a pre-emergent stage, despite a thorough knowledge of the features of, and laws governing, their parts. (Epistemological Emergence)
There is also an Ontological Emergence approach, which I think also applied to the nature of consciousness in the universe:
Ontological emergentists see the physical world as entirely constituted by physical structures, simple or composite. But composites are not (always) mere aggregates of the simples. There are layered strata, or levels, of objects, based on increasing complexity. Each new layer is a consequence of the appearance of an interacting range of ‘novel qualities.’ Their novelty is not merely temporal (such as the first instance of a particular geometric configuration), nor the first instance of a particular determinate of a familiar determinable (such as the first instance of mass 157.6819 kg in a contiguous hunk of matter). Instead, it is a novel, fundamental type of property altogether. We might say that it is ‘nonstructural,’ in that the occurrence of the property is not in any sense constituted by the occurrence of more fundamental properties and relations of the object's parts. Further, newness of property, in this sense, entails new primitive causal powers, reflected in laws which connect complex physical structures to the emergent features. (Broad's trans-ordinal laws are laws of this sort.)
Consciousness is precisely this kind of novel property of matter - "not in any sense constituted by the occurrence of more fundamental properties and relations of [its] parts."

This is not my idea - it is one of many attempts to explain consciousness without resorting to dualism. Here, also from the Standford Encyclopedia, is how some conceptualize this approach:
Some metaphysicians and philosophers of mind contend that there are strong first-person, introspective grounds for supposing that consciousness, intentionality, and/or human agency are ontologically emergent. The intrinsic qualitative and intentional properties of our experience, they suggest, appear to be of a fundamentally distinct character from the properties described by the physical and biological sciences.[12] And our experience of our own deliberate agency suggests a form of ‘direct’, macroscopic control over the general parameters of our behavior that cannot be reduced to the summation of individual causal interchanges of relevant portions of the cerebral and motor cortex.[13]
One important point needs to be made here - I do not limit the emergence of consciousness to the structures of the brain. Rather, with Antonio Damasio, I believe that consciousness and "mind" are emergent properties of the entire body. Consciousness, like emotions and the sense of self, is an embodied, emergent property.

All of this is to set-up an excellent and interesting new article in the current issue of the Integral Review, by Donald F. Padelford, Consciousness in Evolution: Sketch for a New Model – A Speculation. Unfortunately, my sense is that Padelford sides with Wallace, not with the emergent model. Still, it's a good read.

Here are a few brief passages:
The most basic assumption underlying orthodox science is that the stuff of the universe is, well, stuff. It may be quarks, or super-strings, or something else, but it is something, some unit of matter and/or energy and/or space-time or something (some thing). This stuff then somehow combined and somewhere around 14 billion years after the Big Bang produced consciousness. The so-called “hard problem” of consciousness studies is How does it do this? That it does it, that matter/energy produces “your joy, your sorrow, your memories, your ambition, your personal identity” is not at issue. Whether it’s via a “vast assembly of nerve cells” (Crick), or a 40 hertz collapse of quantum waves in the micro-tubules within those nerve cells (Stuart Hameroff) or something else – however it happens, the general idea is that you start with matter/energy and end up with consciousness. To most contemporary researchers this is so obvious that it doesn’t rate a second glance. But it is exactly these “doesn’t rate a second glance” issues that rate not just a second glance, but a good, hard second, or even third, look. It is exactly these issues that constitute our underlying assumptions and need to be put on the table, since if they are faulty, then everything that follows from them is also faulty, or at least incomplete. (pg. 228)
And his refutation of this model begins as follows:
It’s certainly possible that a few hundred years hence our descendants will look at the universeas-machine model we have constructed with the same kind of bemused incredulity. In any event for the present I merely want to point out that this basic assumption—the stuff of the universe is stuff—has not been shared by a very long-standing tradition of both Eastern contemplation and Western mysticism, including some prominent practitioners of quantum physics. Within these traditions the basic stuff of the universe is not stuff, but rather consciousness, or mind:
There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force… We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.
– Max Planck

The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.
– Sir James Jeans
This tradition, that of Idealism and its cousins, runs counter to our contemporary “common sense” view that the universe is made up of matter (or matter/energy). While it is off the main path of argument here, I would like to note one thing in passing. Namely “Mind creates the universe” is a nearly identical statement to “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” Especially if God is consciousness.

Also in passing: Any universe we know, or can know, has a knower, an observer in it. Any fully objective universe, one which has no such an observer and therefore is devoid of subjectivity, while it may (or may have) exist (existed) is purely conjectural. And if consciousness is to any extent non-local, to be explained later, then this condition is impossible. Rerunning Descartes’ query, What can we know for absolute certain?, the contemporary answer, it seems to me, is Consciousness of stuff exists. So the universe we know has a conscious observer, and we know that this observer has observer affects via quantum physics (on which more later). Therefore the known universe is, in part, subjective. What we see is partly an effect of our seeing it. And even if that part may be a very small one, it also may, via the “butterfly effect,” leverage up into macroscopic effects of real consequence, or even (as we will touch on later) have calibrated the parameters of the pre Big Bang universe in such a way as to allow organized matter, life, and consciousness, to have come into existence in the first place. (pg. 229)
Of interest - one last long quote - are Padelford's 20 Tenets of Evolution:
Tenets of a New Model of Evolution

What follows are twenty tenets, broad organizing principles, of the model. These are the model’s bare bones, which I will subsequently flesh out a bit. In reading these one should bear in mind that, per hypothesis, they operate via the information/probability (IP) field effect, mentioned earlier.

1. Evolution is a phenomenon that takes place in hierarchically negentropic systems in general, and in life forms in particular.

2. Hierarchically negentropic systems are negentropic systems made up of, or constituted from, negentropic sub-systems, which themselves are made up of negentropic sub-subsystems, etc.

3. Hierarchically negentropic systems are characterized by interiority.

4. Interiority is that aspect of hierarchically negentropic systems which, if concentrated sufficiently, results in consciousness.

5. Thus matter does not create consciousness. Rather highly evolved hierarchically negentropic systems (i.e., advanced life forms) manifest consciousness.

6. The tendency of hierarchically negentropic systems to become more negentropic, with more layers of hierarchy over time constitutes evolution as seen from “outside.”

7. As seen from “inside,” interiority seeks to increase itself, which is to say, to become conscious, or more conscious.

8. Interiority is, to some extent, non-local.

9. In particular similar (or identical) hierarchically negentropic systems share a degree of interiority. This is the view from “inside” such systems.

10. The view from “outside” is that hierarchically negentropic systems probabilistically tend to adopt, or conform to, solutions found or chanced upon by similar systems.

11. The partial non-locality of hierarchically negentropic systems exists in terms of both time and space.

12. The deeper the hierarchy in hierarchically negentropic systems, the more non-locality is evident.

13. Lower levels of the hierarchy in hierarchically negentropic systems have causal effects on higher levels and vice versa.

14. Also, causal effects operate from exterior to interior and interior to exterior.

15. As reductionism only fully recognizes the former effects (lower to higher and exterior to interior), it is wrong, or at least incomplete.

16. Idealism, while not a major force in today’s world, makes the opposite mistake.

17. Up-to-down and in-to-out causality are, to some extent, the same thing, since systems with deeper levels of hierarchical negentropy embody greater degrees of interiority.

18. Likewise down-to-up causality is, to some extent, the same thing as out-to-in causality.

19. Taken to its logical end point, the ultimate hierarchically negentropic system would theoretically be totally non-local as to time and space and share an interiority common to all such systems lower in the hierarchy, including all life forms. The overlap between such an ultimate hierarchically negentropic system and what the religiously inclined call “God” is reasonably evident.

20. Because life continues to evolve, such an ultimate hierarchically negentropic system would logically also continue to evolve.
And here is his argument:
What I am attempting to do is to weave together the findings of various researchers such as Robert Jahn, Dean Radin, Rupert Sheldrake, Johnjoe McFadden and others, and apply my synthesis of these findings to the subject of evolution. Except where I express reservations, I accept their findings as valid. Those readers who want to make their own determination about such validity will need to study the work of these researchers as I don’t spend any time in persuasion or in countering critics, who are definitely out there. Those readers who have read and are unpersuaded by the work of these researchers are likewise unlikely to be persuaded by my analysis.

Some thinkers who, either by implication or explicitly, do not generally accept the finding of the above researchers, and to whom I situate the theory here in contrast, include the philosophers Evan Thompson, John Searle, and Dan Dennett, as well as the scientists Stuart Kauffman and Richard Dawkins. My disagreement with these gentlemen varies from partial to near-total as the narrative will disclose. The essay includes a section detailing my divergence from Kauffman and Thompson.
I am actually a fan of Evan Thompson, especially as he is carrying on the work of Francisco J. Varela in the realm of embodied consciousness -
that human cognition and consciousness can only be understood in terms of the enactive structures in which they arise, namely the body (understood both as a biological system and as personally, phenomenogically experienced) and the physical world with which the body interacts.
Essentially, Varela and Thompson hold to some form of "consciousness as an emergent property" approach, which is no doubt why Padelford disagrees with Thompson. Their theory is known as the "enactive approach," a nice introduction to which can be found in "The Feeling Body: Toward an Enactive Approach to Emotion," by Giovanna Colombetti and Evan Thompson:
The name “the enactive approach” and the associated concept of enaction were introduced by Varela and colleagues (1991) in order to describe and unify under one heading several related ideas. The First idea is that living beings are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain their identities, and thereby enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains. An autonomous system, instead of processing preexisting information “out there” brings forth or enacts information in continuous reciprocal interactions with its environment. “Inner” and “outer” are not separate spheres, connected only through a representational interface, but mutually specifying domains enacted in and through the structural coupling of the system and its environment.

The second idea is that the nervous system does not process information in the computationalist sense. Information does not flow through a sequence of processing steps in a hierarchically organized architecture (typically divided into a perceptual, a cognitive and a motor layer). Rather, the nervous system is an autonomous system. It actively generates and maintains its own coherent and meaningful patterns of activity according to its operation as a circular and reentrant sensorimotor network of interacting neurons.

The third idea is that cognition is a form of embodied action. Cognitive structures and processes emerge from recurrent sensorimotor patterns of perception and action. Sensorimotor coupling between organism and environment modulates, but does not determine, the formation of endogenous and dynamic patterns of neural activity. This activity, in turn, informs sensorimotor coupling, so that the whole embodied organism can be seen as a self-organized autonomous system that creates meaning.

The fourth idea is that a cognitive being’s world is not a prespecified, external realm, represented internally by its brain, but a relational domain enacted or brought forth by that being’s autonomous agency and mode of coupling with the environment. This idea links the enactive approach to phenomenological philosophy, for both maintain that cognition bears a constitutive relation to its objects. Stated in a classical phenomenological way, the idea is that the object, in the precise sense of that which is given to and experienced by the subject, is conditioned by the mental activity of the subject. Stated in a more existential, phenomenological way, the idea is that a cognitive being’s world—whatever that being is able to experience, know, and practically handle—is conditioned by that being’s form or structure. Such “constitution” on the part of our subjectivity or being-in-the-world is not subjectively apparent to us in everyday life, but requires systematic analysis—scientific and phenomenological—to disclose.

This is point brings us to the fifth and last idea, which is that experience is not an epiphenomenal side issue, but central to any understanding of the mind, and needs to be investigated in a careful, phenomenological manner. For this reason, the enactive approach has from its inception maintained that cognitive science and phenomenology need to be pursued in a complementary and mutually informing way (for detailed discussion of this point, see "Thompson, in press).

In summary, according to the enactive approach, the human mind is embodied in our entire organism and embedded in the world, and hence is not reducible to structures inside the head. Meaning and experience are created by, or enacted through, the continuous reciprocal interaction of the brain, the body, and the world. (pg. 55-56)
This is the theory that feels most "correct" to me, which is why I have become such a fan of Cultural Psychology - it also holds that consciousness is embodied in the relationship between the organism (as a whole) and its cultural/environmental context.

Anyway, I didn't mean to get this involved in the debate - I was just going to post a few quotes and a link to Donald F. Padelford's Consciousness in Evolution: Sketch for a New Model – A Speculation. Go read the article, but be open to the different perspective I have tried to offer. We don't which is correct, only which one feels "right" to our unique experience.

However, Padelford claim he has offered a way to falsify his theory, which is crucial to any approach that stands so far outside of the mainstream.

Bonnie Weiss - Giving Permission (IFS Therapy)

When we allow and encourage people to be themselves, we create a space for them to "show up" in their wholeness. Too often we have expectations or limited perspectives on who someone is, so that is who shows up, a "part" of the person but not the whole person.

But, as this brief article from the Internal Family Systems blog suggests, we can give the people in our lives permission to show up in all their complexity.

Lately, I have been watching the tremendous impact that giving someone permission can have. I have just started working with a devoted mom who came to see me because of mild feelings of depression, a lack of energy, and a loss of purpose in her life. In our first session I gave her homework to stop at each decision-making juncture of her day and ask, “What do I want to do?” She was amazed to find that this simple practice lifted her heaviness. Her sense of vitality returned. She had been so focused on the needs of her family that she had stopped even thinking about her own desires. My giving her permission to tune into herself completely changed how she viewed day. She said, “I didn’t actually go to the movies any afternoon, but it was amazing to know that I could.”

We can appreciate those parts of us that keep us on track and focused our responsibilities, (Perfectionists and Taskmasters) but when they become dominant and critical, they can suck the life out of activities that would otherwise give us pleasure. They keep us from relaxing into a moments of satisfaction and enjoying our accomplishments.

These are inner critic parts that block the juice of playfulness, fun, and creativity. All it might take is someone on the outside to challenge this existing structure, by giving permission and, like a crack in the ice, the stream flows.

As therapists, or even friends, we often think that we have to come up with pearls of wisdom that enlighten or clarify things for people. Sometimes just giving people permission to tune into themselves is all that is needed to open a long-closed door.

Here’s a daily practice for the new year: Set the intention giving someone in your life permission each day to be more of themselves….whoever that is.

Therese J. Borchard - The Future of Psychiatry: 5 Reasons for Optimism

Hmmm . . . as a future therapist, I am not so comfortable with the medical model that the psychiatrists so dearly love - and that they are pushing on the rest of us in the new version of the DSM-V, due out in 2013.

After reading the last chapter of the book, Demystifying Psychiatry, I felt so much better about where psychiatry might be when my kids are my age. Perhaps, if either is ever diagnosed with a mental illnesses, there will be more targeted treatments, and more optimism for a speedy recovery.

Here are a few reasons we can be optimistic about the future of psychiatry:

1. Interdisciplinary Studies

Over the next 50 to 100 years, neuroscience research will lead scientists to understand in exquisite detail how humans process information, express and regulate emotions, and motivate themselves to achieve specific goals. This information will affect many clinical and scientific disciplines, including neurology, psychology, biomedical engineering, and computer sciences, but it will likely pay its greatest dividends in psychiatry. Interdisciplinary studies involving genetics, cognitive psychology, neuroimaging, and cellular and systems neuroscience offer great hope for understanding the mechanisms that contribute to psychiatric dysfunction and for finding new and innovative ways to treat mental illness.

2. Brain Plasticity

The ability of humans to learn, remember, and adapt is directly related to the changeableness (plasticity) of the human brain. Whenever we learn new information, the connections between nerve cells in the brain are modified. The activity of some connections (called synapses) increases, while the activity of other synapses decreases. The initial changes involve local chemical alterations in the way synapses transmit and receive information from other neurons. These initial chemical changes eventually lead to structural changes in the brain; that is, more connections and more complex connections form. The longer lasting of these changes require the turning on and turning off of specific genes; therefore, learning involves gene expression. Changes in synaptic connections represent a major way by which memories are formed. But as we all know, some memories fade, and it is likely that the newly formed connections must be reinforced by ongoing brain activity in order for these connections to survive. The important points to remember are that learning alters the actual structure of the brain and that genes are involved in learning.

3. Neurogenesis and Psychiatry

The story about neurogenesis (the formation of new nerve cells in the adult brain) is really part of the larger story about brain plasticity. Put another way, neurogenesis reflects the amazing resilience and plasticity of our brains. Expanding upon observations initially made years ago about birds, it has become clear that certain parts of the human brain are capable of generating new neurons throughout life, even during old age. Not all regions of the brain appear to have this ability to grow new nerve cells, but two regions, the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus and the areas near the lateral ventricles in the olfactory system (which is involved in the sense of smell), are really good at it. The dentate gyrus plays a key role in the function of the hippocampus, the region that is so critical for memory processing. It is likely that a thousand or more new neurons are born in this region each day and can be incorporated into the circuitry of the hippocampus where they help enhance certain types of learning. These new neurons may be particularly important for processing new information.

4. Biomedical Research

One of the strongest reasons we are optimistic about the future of psychiatry is the recent rate of progress in all of biomedical research. We have alluded to the major advances in genetics, molecular biology, neurobiology, and cognitive sciences that have taken place since the late 1980s. Psychiatry is especially well positioned to take advantage of these advances and to build on them. If we learned anything during the 20th century, it is that the capabilities of research involving both fundamental basic science and applied technologies have been amazing. Now, in the early 21st century, scientists have the ability to do things that were unimaginable even 30 years ago.

5. New Vistas in Diagnosis and Treatment

Today, it is easy to envision a future where psychiatric diagnosis is based on understanding fundamental defects in thinking, emotional processing, and motivational systems. In such a world, our traditional categories of psychotic disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, cognitive disorders, and even personality disorders may need to be completely revised. In such a world, treatments might be much more based on underlying mechanisms, and there might be enhanced opportunities for early identification and even prevention of the disorders. In addition to the work on dementias, current research on the biology of syndromes associated with mental retardation is a great example of the potential opportunities.

The above excerpts are reprinted with permission from the book, Demystifying Psychiatry: A Resource for Patients and Families by Charles F. Zorumski and Eugene H. Rubin, published by Oxford University Press, Inc. © 2010, Oxford University Press.

Maureen Healy - On the threshold - What is calling you forward?

Nice article for the first day of the New Year.

We crossed a threshold last night, from one year into the next. Such a crossing is always a sacred event according to Mircea Eliade, the great historian of religion.

...This annual expulsion of sins, diseases, and demons is basically an attempt to restore - if only momentarily - mythical and primordial time, "pure" time, the time of the "instant" of the Creation. Every New Year is a resumption of time from the beginning, that is, a repetition of the cosmogony. The ritual combats between two groups of actors, the presence of the dead, the Saturnalia, and the orgies are so many elements which ...denote that at the end of the year and in the expectation of the New Year there is a repetition of the mythical moment of the passage from chaos to cosmos.

...In each of these systems we find the same central idea of the yearly return to chaos, followed by a new creation. [Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, 1954]

In essence, we begin each new year in the primordial state of chaos (having purged the previous year's sins and transgressions) and can then reshape and renew our lives as though it were the first year. We have lost touch with this element of time in our (post)modern world. On the other hand, we have transcended and included this worldview and can access it to add depth to our conception of the new year.

Nice thought that has nothing to do with this article from Psychology Today.
What is calling you forward?

Maureen Healy

To acknowledge and cross a new threshold is always a challenge. It demands courage and also a sense of trust in whatever is emerging.

- John O' Donohue

Each of us is always on a threshold of change. Especially as we usher out the old, and ring in the New Year - it marks a clear change in our western calendars and emotional landscape. A new year is often filled with hope, optimism and a positive outlook no matter what situation you are facing. It's as if the fates give us a blank canvas or so it feels.

I find myself on an interesting threshold that never before have I crossed. My first parenting book, 365 Perfect Things to Say to Your Kids, is being released on January 1st on Amazon. It brings with it the complexity of emotion that O' Donohue refers to in his book, To Bless the Space Between Us, about change being exciting, hopeful, frightful, joyful and uncertain.

Such change is one of my own making. It does however continue to demand "courage and also a sense of trust" in sharing something that at first felt so private and now is so completely public (open to scrutiny, praise, practical application). I guess this is part of the life of an author that gets more familiar with time.

So as I cross this threshold full of possibilities and promise - I invite you to consider what individual threshold you are facing? What is beckoning you forward? What do you wish to leave behind? Is it in your role as a parent, teacher, clinician, husband, wife, partner or other? It may be something very subtle or unmistakable - whatever it is I wish you fortitude and grace in courageously moving into the next best iteration of you.

Happy New Year!

(And please enjoy a small excerpt from my upcoming book below).


365 Perfect Things to Say to Your Kids
By Maureen Healy

Book Excerpt Below (first page of Introduction)


Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.


Words have wounded us and healed our hearts. They have empowered us or dashed our dreams. Lives have been lost and saved over simple sayings. The power of words is impossible to fully understand, and no one is more influenced by words than a growing child.

Children feel and experience this world so deeply. Listening to our words is a powerful part of their growing story. Every child begins to see him or her self through the words of an adult. It is such words that begin to shape a child's sense of worth, and often influences the path of their life.

Being able to harness the power of words, I believe, is an essential component of positive parenting. It is parenting with awareness. Every word spoken to your child has the awesome ability to pave a positive pathway in his or her brain. Words or sayings needn't be perfect but ideally are spoken with great enthusiasm, meaning and repetition so they become a true force for good.

And since children are developing at such an incredibly rapid pace - every word counts!

Consider Austin, age 3, who still talks to me about his friend calling him stupid. It rocked him to his core. Or Amy, age 6, who smiled ear-to-ear when her mother praised her painted plate. It fully encouraged Amy's creativity! Or Kai, age 11, who cried after his father said, "Guess, we don't have Picasso here!" His Dad surely didn't intend to squelch the boy's lifelong creativity, but those weren't the right words.

Saying the right words isn't always easy. It takes a bit of awareness. It doesn't necessarily come naturally. The good news is that everyone can learn how to use words as powerful tools to propel their child's best life.

© Copyright by Maureen Healy, author

Book Link

Book Video

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Acute Stress Leaves Epigenetic Marks on the Hippocampus

Yesterday I posted two long articles of PTSD (PTSD and the Military and The Science of PSTD and its Future as a DSM-V Diagnosis), and in the second, in talking about the science, I mentioned that one of the features is shrinking of hippocampus while the amygdala tends to enlarge.

So, of course, today Science Daily posts an article on new research that shows the impact of acute stress on the hippocampus is mediated by epigenetics. It's interesting that a single 30-minute exposure caused such drastic changes, and more so that the brains did not adapt to the stress over a 21-day period of chronic stress.

And once again, anti-depressants like Prozac (fluoxetine) show an ability to mitigate the damage not through serotonin channels, as the drug companies have promoted, but through reversing some of the methylation effects caused by chronic stress.

Other studies have shown fluoxetine's ability (paroxetine [paxil] appears to do the same thing, in PTSD specifically) to generate neurogenesis in the hippocampus. The mounting evidence that these drugs are effective pieces of the treatment puzzle, but also that they appear to increase hippocampal volume in non-PTSD brains suggests a possible prophylactic use for those who are going into acute or chronic stress situations.

Acute Stress Leaves Epigenetic Marks on the Hippocampus

ScienceDaily (Dec. 31, 2009) — In trying to explain psychiatric disorders, genes simply cannot tell the whole story. The real answers are in the interaction of genes and the environment. Post-traumatic stress disorder requires some trauma, for instance, and people, for the most part, aren't born depressed. Now research has revealed one mechanism by which a stressful experience changes the way that genes are expressed in the rat brain. The discovery of "epigenetic" regulation of genes in the brain is helping change the way scientists think about psychiatric disorders and could open new avenues to treatment.

Richard Hunter, a postdoc in Rockefeller University's Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology, found that a single 30-minute episode of acute stress causes a rapid chemical change in DNA packaging proteins called histones in the rat hippocampus, which is a brain region known to be especially susceptible to the effects of stress in both rodents and humans.

The chemical change Hunter examined, called methylation, can either increase or decrease the expression of genes that are packaged by the histones, depending on the location of the methylation. He looked for methylation on three regions of histone H3 that have been shown to actively regulate gene expression. In experiments published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he shows that methylation of one mark, H3K9 trimethyl, roughly doubled in the hippocampus. Methylation of a second mark, H3K27 trimethyl, dropped by about 50 percent in the same area. Changes associated with the third mark were minor.

"The hippocampus is involved in episodic memory, so you would expect it to be sensitive to episodic experiments like this, more so than the motor regions, for instance," says Hunter, who worked on the project with Rockefeller scientists Bruce S. McEwen and Donald W. Pfaff. "But what is surprising is the magnitude and regional specificity of these patterns." The sheer size of the change in histone methylation suggests that it is important to the brain's response to acute stress, although its exact role remains a mystery. The two methyl marks that changed are both thought to repress gene expression usually, but methylation increased in one and decreased in the other.

Hunter also checked for similar changes as a result of chronic stress -- exposure to a 30-minute stress each day for 21 days. He did not find a major effect, which could reflect the animals' adjusting to the stress. However, when he treated the rats with fluoxetine, the generic form of the popular antidepressant Prozac, he reversed some methylation effects associated with chronic stress.

It's becoming increasingly evident, Hunter says, that the epigenetic changes like the methyl marks he observed and others, such as acetylation and phosphorylation, could play a significant role in the brain's response to stress and the treatment of stress related diseases, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

"There was a thought that the genome project would reveal all in neuropsychiatric disease, but that has proven not to be the case," he says. "Epigenetics has become much more interesting because it allows us to look at how gene expression is changed by environmental events, explainable in part by histone modifications."

Journal Reference:

  1. Hunter et al. Regulation of hippocampal H3 histone methylation by acute and chronic stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009; 106 (49): 20912 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0911143106

Working Through Grief: It's Different For Everyone

More and more, the old K├╝bler-Ross Model of grief that was so long taken for granted, is being dismantled. While it is true that some people do go through the five stages (below) in order, many more people do not.

Stages of Grief

  1. Denial"I feel fine."; "This can't be happening, not to me."
    Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of situations and individuals that will be left behind after death.[1]
  2. Anger"Why me? It's not fair!"; "How can this happen to me?"; "Who is to blame?"
    Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Any individual that symbolizes life or energy is subject to projected resentment and jealousy.[1]
  3. Bargaining"Just let me live to see my children graduate."; "I'll do anything for a few more years."; "I will give my life savings if..."
    The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, "I understand I will die, but if I could just have more time..."[1]
  4. Depression"I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"; "I'm going to die . . . What's the point?"; "I miss my loved one, why go on?"
    During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect oneself from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.[1]
  5. Acceptance"It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it."
    This final stage comes with peace and understanding of the death that is approaching. Generally, the person in the fifth stage will want to be left alone. Additionally, feelings and physical pain may be non-existent. This stage has also been described as the end of the dying struggle.[1]
It helps to know the stages, and then toss them out the window. Everyone grieves in their own way, as this new article from Medical News Today makes clear. The article offers some good advice for working through the grieving process.

Working Through Grief: It's Different For Everyone

A death of a loved one, a job loss, the end of a marriage, an illness or disability. Everyone faces losses and grief, but the toll that grief can take on the mind and body can catch many people by surprise.

The December issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource provides an overview of grief -- a normal reaction to loss. In years past, grief often was described as following a certain pattern or orderly progression from one feeling to another.

But there is no one way to grieve. People who are grieving experience many different emotions in any number of combinations. They may include denial, sadness, anger, confusion, despair and even guilt. Physical reactions can include sleeping problems, changes in appetite, a drop in energy level, body aches and pain or the development or worsening of an illness.

Time spent grieving varies, too. Some people take months to fully accept or adapt to a loss. For others, the process may take years. To help cope with grief:

-- Express feelings: Suppressing thoughts and emotions may prevent working through grief. Friends, family or members of the religious community often can be a source of support and comfort. Other options are support groups or grief counselors.

-- Delay any major decisions or changes: Decisions that affect life and lifestyle, such as housing changes or new ways of handling finances, should wait a while. Advice from a trusted family member or friend, financial adviser or attorney may be helpful.

-- Take care of personal health: Eating right, getting adequate sleep and limiting alcohol are important. Regular exercise can relieve stress and anxiety.

-- Be patient: Expecting to simply "get over" grief is unrealistic. Ups and downs may last for weeks or months following a loss. Though some feelings of loss may never fully go away, the most intense signs and symptoms of grief typically diminish over time, within six months or so. Grief that is prolonged and debilitating may be a sign of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. A doctor should be consulted for treatment options.

Source: Mayo Clinic
If you would like a more in-depth approach, one that offers tools for many different types of people, my new book, Essential10 Behaviors for Coping with a Crisis (Dealing with Change) is designed to help people find the growth opportunities hidden in these life crises we all face.

Yes, a shameless plug my book - it's only $2.99 (for either a PDF or a Kindle version) for 45 pages of information.

Stephen and Martine Batchelor - Godless Religion or Devout Atheism? (Parts 10 - 14)

Here are the final five parts of this cool series from Upaya Zen Center.

Godless Religion or Devout Atheism? Part 10 of 14 – Dharma Talk on Buddhahood & Awakening

Speaker: Martine Batchelor

Martine begins the talk urging us to look at our motivation for awakening. Is it done with wisdom and compassion or perhaps with the goal to escape from the world? She discusses sudden vs. gradual awakening and working with bad habits. She goes on to discuss the role of insight in our lives and how we can use it to change ourselves and the world. When we sit, we should work on de-grasping so that we can let go in our everyday lives.

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

Godless Religion or Devout Atheism? Part 11 of 14 – Session 5

Speaker: Stephen Batchelor

The theme of this seminar is the title of the retreat, “Godless Religion or Devout Atheism?” Stephen tells of how Brahman or God was understood at the time of the Buddha, and how the Buddha rejected this notion. The Buddha, says Stephen, was deeply rooted in the phenomenal world and instructed his followers to pay attention to this world. As Buddhism developed in time and cultures, it added superstructure that looked religious, which we often find today.

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

Godless Religion or Devout Atheism? Part 12 of 14 – Discussion and Q & A

Speakers: Stephen & Martine Batchelor

Stephen begins the Q & A by taking a question on the Tibetan people’s relationship with their land and culture. Other topics include art, impermanence and aesthetics and our relationship to the world; the Buddha’s perspective on ritual; the Buddha as atheist or agnostic; finding mystery in everyday life; music as meditation; choosing the kind of meditation one should do; and “no self” further explained.

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

Godless Religion or Devout Atheism? Part 13 of 14 – Dharma Talk on Love & Compassion

Speaker: Martine Batchelor

How can we cultivate creative, wise love without grasping? One aspect of this kind of love, says Martine, is to create relationships outside of the primary love relationship. Another aspect is not to make assumptions in relationship, but to ask ourselves, “How can I creatively engage with others?” Meditation helps us to open up to others and to such questions, thus making ourselves less self-absorbed. At the root of compassion is deep listening, which sometimes is the most we can do in a difficult situation.

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

Godless Religion or Devout Atheism? Part 14 of 14 – Session 6

Speaker: Stephen Batchelor

The Buddha’s teaching was dialogic: interactive and responsive to the present circumstances. Stephen asks us to find the foundation beneath the superstructure of culture in order to understand the Buddha’s teaching. Stephen goes on to discuss what the Buddha meant by “entering the stream,” including three things that fall away for the stream enterer. He ends the seminar and the retreat by noting principles that are distinctly the Buddha’s, and not found in the superstructure of the Buddha’s time.

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