Saturday, January 09, 2010

Arizona Desert Images

Jami and I spent the night (wish it were the weekend, but homework calls) at a friend's ranch near Benson, AZ, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It seems that where we were is just outside the Sonoran Desert, where we live in Tucson - the land and foliage is very different.

We had no TV, no internet - it was very quiet and the starry sky was amazing (no light pollution).

Here are a few images of the land from this morning. Jami took a lot of pictures, too, of which I am sure some will end up on her Facebook page.

900 sq ft straw bale house

man-made "Douglas Pond"

a clump of cacti

Maggie, our Great Dane

beautiful scenery

lots of wind-twisted trees

All in the Mind - Dreams: the body alive! (Jungian psychoanalyst and psychotherapist Robert Bosnak)

Part one of two - interesting stuff, especially if you like dreamwork.

Dreams: the body alive! (Part 1 of 2)

Jungian psychoanalyst and psychotherapist Robert Bosnak is a dream worker. To him dreams are an ecosystem of imaginings—powerful bodily experiences populated by characters with their own intelligences. When you encounter the images of your dreaming mind do you find one Self, or many? And, next week, a leading neuroscientist probing the possible link between memory and dreaming.

Show Transcript (available Wednesday, Jan. 13)


Robert Bosnak
Psychoanalyst and psychotherapist
Sydney, Australia
Past president, International Association for the Study of Dreams
Founder of Cyberdreamwork

Further Information

All in the Mind blog - for your comments and discussion

International Association for the Study of Dreams

A global internet dream network, founded by Robert Bosnak.

Archetypal Psychology and Henry Corbin
Blog about Henry Corbin written by Dr Tom Cheetham.


Title: A Little Course in Dreams
Author: Robert Bosnak
Publisher: Shambhala, 1998
ISBN-10: 1570623864

Title: Christopher's Dreams: Dreaming and Living with AIDS
Author: Robert Bosnak
Publisher: Delta, 1997.
ISBN-10: 0385316852

Title: Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming
Author: Robert Bosnak
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 1996
ISBN-10: 0385315260

Title: Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel
Author: Robert Bosnak
Publisher: Routledge, 2007
ISBN - 10- 0-415-40434-7

Title: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi
Author: Henry Corbin
Publisher: Routledge Library Editions: Islam, 1997

Title: Mundus Imaginalis, or The Imaginary and the Imaginal
Author: Henry Corbin
Publisher: Golgonooza Press, 1976
ISBN-10: 0903880067

Title: The new neuropsychology of sleep : Implications for psychoanalysis.
Author: Mark Solms
Publisher: Journal of Neuropsychoanalysis, 1(2), 183-195, 1999.

Title: Sleep and Dreaming: Scientific Advances and Reconsiderations
Author: Edward F. Pace-Schott, Mark Solms, Mark Blagrove, and Stevan Harnad
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
ISBN-10: 0521008697


Natasha Mitchell

The Dalai Lama on Meditation


by H.H. the Dalai Lama
and Alexander Berzin


Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

While in a state of total absorption, like a tiny fish flashing about in a lucid pond and not disturbing it, intelligently inspect the self-nature of the person who is meditating.
--the First Panchen Lama, Lozang Chokyi Gyeltsen

How do we meditate here? While in a state of mind that is totally absorbed on mind, we employ a small part of that mind to inspect and scrutinize, intelligently, learnedly and discerningly, the nature of ourselves as the person or individual who is conventionally "me" and who is focusing with absorbed concentration on mere clarity and awareness. In other words, we supplement our serenely stilled and settled mind with the additional accompanying mental factors of inspection and scrutiny.

--from The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra by H.H. the Dalai Lama and Alexander Berzin, published by Snow Lion Publications

* * *

David Michie - Meditation Practice as a River

Your Starter Kit for
Inner Peace and Better Health
by David Michie

Dharma Quote of the Week

I believe that constant effort, tireless effort, pursuing clear goals with sincere effort is the only way.
--the Dalai Lama

My teacher often likens meditation practice to a river flowing through our life. In the early stages, like a mountain spring, our practice is fleeting and undeveloped. There may be a fair few leaps and crashes before we settle into a more regular rhythm. Little by little our practice continues to grow and mature until eventually it becomes like a vast river, attracting everything else to it, no longer a small trickle in our life, but the most compelling force of it. The river may still encounter obstacles, but they are of little consequence. It will simply flow over or around them, having developed a smooth, calm, but unstoppable momentum.

It's a wonderful metaphor and an entirely appropriate one, judging from both my own personal experience as well as my observation of much more advanced meditators. The question is, How do we get from the Andes Mountains to the mouth of the Amazon? How do we develop our own meditation into a calm and steady flow of unstoppable power? "Through regular practice" is the simple, unspectacular answer. As much as we might wish for a short cut to the blissful state of a mind untroubled by anything it encounters, the reality is that such a mind arises only as a result of regular practice over a long period of time.

--from Hurry Up and Meditate: Your Starter Kit for Inner Peace and Better Health by David Michie, published by Snow Lion Publications

Friday, January 08, 2010


Cool paper from the International Journal for Dialogical Science, (Fall, 2007. Vol. 2, No. 1, 51-76). I've been doing a lot of reading on the origins and development of the self, so this was fun - and a unique perspective considering the other approaches I have seen.

Andrea Garvey, American River College;
Alan Fogel, University of Utah

ABSTRACT. The present paper is grounded on the premise that emotions are an essential component of self development as they simultaneously foster a sense of connection with and differentiation from others. Emotions are viewed as holistic as they dynamically involve the whole body and emerge in dialogical contexts. Emotions involve feelings of being alive (or not) in relationships, experiences that are dynamically lived and developed over time through coregulated dialogues with others. We contend that the study of early emotions in dialogical contexts constitutes a viable avenue to study how young infants develop their sense of self. A case study of a mother-infant dyad’s co-regulated experiences is presented with the goal of illustrating the theoretical and methodological contributions of examining self and emotions as dialogically and dynamically evolving over time.

This paper examines emotions as a crucial and integral component of self development. We argue that emotions are dialogical experiences lived in bodies – bodies that co-exist in relation to other bodies, bodies that engage in alive communication with others, bodies that co-regulate their movements with the movements of others. It follows then that a productive strategy to study how infants develop their sense of self is through the examination of early emotions in the dialogical contexts infants co-created with their mothers. The theoretical underpinnings of the work presented are influenced by dynamic systems theory and the works of Henri Wallon, Mikhail Bakhtin, and David Bohm.

We start by presenting Wallon’s efforts to integrate emotions and self development, followed by a short discussion of Bakhtin’s contributions to conceptualizing selfhood as dialogical and Bohm’s view on dialogue, self and emotions. We then discuss dynamic systems principles relevant to our understanding of emotions as developing dynamically over time in dialogical contexts. Lastly, we present a case study of dialogical exchanges between a mother and her infant in the first months of life to demonstrate how a microgenetic analysis of emotions can add to our understanding of self development in infancy.

Henri Wallon: Self, Emotions and Relationships
French psychologist Henri Wallon (a contemporary of Jean Piaget) has long offered a perspective in which self and emotions are viewed as emerging in the context of the dialectical interchanges between the child and his/her social surroundings (Birns, 1984; Wallon, 1951). At a time when dualistic views of self-other dominated psychological discourse (that is, social others were either neglected for the sake of studying the “inner” self or were conceived of as external forces imposed upon the self), Wallon (1954) wrote about the child’s bodily, emotional and dialogical vicissitudes as being central in the development of self; also known as the “body-psycho-social” model. In Wallon’s own words:
For the first individual self awareness emerges from passionate involvements where each person distinguishes himself with difficulty from others and from the total scene in which his appetites, desires, and fears are bound up. […] The socius, or other, is the ego’s constant partner in mental life. […] All deliberation and indecision is a dialogue–sometimes a rather explicit one–between the ego and an objector (Wallon, 1946, p. 96 & 100, emphasis in original).
According to Wallon (1954, 1984), it is through emotionally charged exchanges with others that children simultaneously experience a sense of connection with and separation from others, thereby contributing to their self development. Children’s emotions are not just adaptive reactions to situations; instead, the foremost function of emotions is that of communication between self and others, including others in the family, the school system, among peers, and so on.

When Wallon (1956) describes five stages of self development, he consistently incorporates the child’s emotional and social experiences as an integral part of this developmental process. During the first stage of self development, the Impulsive Stage, Wallon contends that an infant’s sense of selfhood in the first months of life is primarily free-flowing and governed by its emotional and physiological needs that are lived and fulfilled through others. During this stage, an infant’s self is predominantly fused with others. The second stage of self development emerges by the third month of life, the Conditioned Associations Stage. Infants begin to recognize recurrent relationship patterns associated with their experiences of satisfaction and frustration. As these patterns of satisfaction/frustration emerge, infants start to associate certain bodily experiences of pleasure or displeasure with specific routines lived with others.

By six months of age, the third stage of self development takes shape, the Emotional Stage. Infants now experience and express a wide range of emotions through their affective relationships with others. This broadening in infants’ emotional repertoire is pivotal in facilitating an infant’s insight into his self contributions to these affective experiences. For instance, when playing with and smiling at their mothers, infants do not merely respond to their mothers; instead infants actively contribute to the feelings of joy as they participate in an episode of positive emotional communication with their mothers. Likewise, as infants become overwhelmed with their mothers’ intensely charged efforts to play with them, infants may attempt to disengage from their mothers by looking away from them, stretching their bodies, while maintaining a somewhat neutral facial configuration. As infants widen their repertoire of emotions through affective experiences with their primary caregivers, they also begin to develop and experience a sense that engaging (or disengaging) in communication with others may escalate (or de-escalate) the flow of that communication. Through these lived experiences, infants embark on a gradual process of differentiation from others, or what we like to refer to as a process of distinguishing their self positioning from that of others.
He [infant] begins to recognize the indications of probable success, soon located in the person of the provider. In this way, his gestures, postures, countenance, and voice enter the expressive realm, which thus has a double action: an efferent action that translates the child’s desires and an afferent one for affecting the disposition which these desires encounter or elicit in the other person (Wallon, 1946, p. 95).
The Sensorimotor/Exploratory Stage follows the stage just described. The fourth stage of self development occurs between the ages of 8 and 10 months as infants begin to more consistently explore their physical environment by manipulating various shapes and structures. While these exploratory manipulations are relatively more independent due to the infant’s newly acquired motor and postural skills (such as sitting upright and holding two objects at the same time), an infant’s experiences with others continue to be permeated by “affective contagion and confusion” (Wallon, 1956, p. 28). In other words, the power of emotions to foster a sense of connection with others continues to overshadow the power of emotions to highlight an infant’s unique contribution to the flow of these affective experiences. To put it simply, an infant’s sense of self has not been fully differentiated from that of their relationship partners (or what Wallon referred to as a child’s essential strangers).

Around the third year of life, as the Personalist Stage begins, the child now has experimented with various self-positions in playful contexts with a variety of social others. These experiences, referred to as games of alternation by Wallon, allow the child to finalize his differentiation process from his relationship partners. An important paradox is highlighted by Wallon: by becoming more fully aware of his separateness from others, the child is also reminded of the dialectical necessity (or what we refer to as dialogical necessity) of others as his position in these “games of alternation” can only be lived in the presence (physical or imaginary) of others.

In sum, Wallon (1946; 1956) suggests that emotions lived in relational contexts involving self and others create opportunities for children to not only connect with others but also to differentiate themselves from others. This is because emotions are powerfully felt experiences that orient the child toward and away from others, they enhance a child’s awareness of his unique self position in relation to others while also facilitating a sense of connection with (or disconnection from) others. It is important to highlight that the child’s sense of separateness is not to be confused with a dualist view of self and others in which the self is conceptualized as a self-contained entity. For Wallon, distinction from others is only accomplished dialectically in the midst of a child’s emotional experiences of relating with others. A classic illustration of this simultaneous experience of relating to and separating from others in the process of self development is a child’s imitation of a model, typically observed during the Personalist Stage. When imitating, a child is very selective, often choosing models to which the child feels emotionally close. In mimicking his models, the child temporarily “borrows or becomes these persons” (Wallon, 1965, p. 136), while also slightly modifying the imitated act, endowing it with emotions and making it his own.

Before proceeding to our brief discussions of Bakhtin’s view on dialogical self and Bohm’s view on dialogue, we would like to emphasize that recent research (e.g., Fogel, 2005; Rochat, 2003) on infants’ self experiences has consistently demonstrated that infants as young as 2 months of age are able to integrate sensory information from their eyes or ears, for example, with the coordinated sensations of their bodies. These cross-modal experiences are crucial in the early development of an infants’ sense of self; this sense of self rooted in an infant’s cross-modal, bodily experiences is known by infancy researchers as ecological or situated self. For instance, as infants observe their hands moving in front of them while also feeling the movements of their hands, infants also experience their bodies as situated in a unique location – a location that is different from the location occupied by others. Similarly, hearing infants recognize their own emotional vocalizations (content or distress) as their sound production is cross-modally associated with different experiences of their throat and mouth as well as the social situations in which these experiences emerge. Therefore, infancy research indicates that an infant’s cross-modal experiences contribute to the early experiences of feeling positioned in a unique location in relation to others.
When infants experience their own crying, their own touch, or experience the perfect contingency between seen and felt bodily movements (e.g., the arm crossing the field of view), they perceive something that no one but themselves can perceive. The transport of their own hand to the face, very frequent at birth and even during the last trimester of pregnancy, is a unique tactile experience, unlike any other tactile experience as it entails a ‘‘double touch’’: the hand touching the face and simultaneously the face touching the hand. (Rochat, 2003, p. 723).
While we embrace Wallon’s contributions to our studies of emotions and self development, especially his consistent efforts to integrate children’s emotions and their social experiences as part of the study of self development, we argue that an infant’s bodily experiences of differentiation from and through others can be found in earlier dialogical exchanges between mothers and her infants during the first months of life (a topic we will cover later in this paper). We now turn our attention to Bakhtin’s and Bohm’s contributions on our view of dialogue, self and emotions.

Mikhail Bakhtin and David Bohm: Self in Dialogue
Another important theoretical influence to the work presented in this paper is Mikhail Bahktin’s view of dialogical self and David Bohm’s philosophy of dialogue.
Read the whole article (PDF).

The Genomic Bodhisattva - An Interview With David Pearce

From H+ Magazine. Sounds interesting on paper, like so many transhumanist ideas, but scary in reality. Who gets this technology? The rich and powerful? The political elite? Certainly not the poor and those who need it most. I'll pass.

The Genomic Bodhisattva

An Interview With David Pearce

Written By: James Kent
Date Published: September 16, 2009

Genomic bodhisattva

David Pearce wants to end your suffering. His manifesto “The Hedonistic Imperative” promises a future where humans live in high-functioning superhappy states devoid of pain and anxiety. For Pearce, the great shift to a hedonic society will come about by genetic intervention: “Gene therapy will be targeted both on somatic cells and, with even greater forethought, the germline. If cunningly applied, a combination of the cellular enlargement of the mesolimbic dopamine system, selectively enhanced metabolic function of key intra-cellular sub-types of opioidergic and serotonergic pathways, and the disablement of several countervailing inhibitory feedback processes will put in place the biomolecular architecture for a major transition in human evolution.…”

Pearce’s intellectual embrace of paradise engineering places him on the cusp of a modern philosophical movement that eschews Darwinian fatalism and looks to a post-Darwinian future where humans are freed from the cynical bonds of genetic expression and natural selection. In a post-Darwinian future where we are empowered by technology to live however we choose, how will we choose to live? According to Pearce, when all is said and done we will simply choose to be happy.

A prolific writer who admits to typing with one finger, Pearce is a reserved man with precise and delicate sensibilities. As a third-generation vegetarian and an animal rights activist he seems like a man who literally wouldn’t harm a fly, and might even go out of his way to make sure the fly is having a good day. His intimate knowledge of cognitive theory, designer pharmacology, and genetic engineering make him a perfect candidate for a comic book supervillain, but his intentions are those of a living bodhisattva. And while Pearce can write at length about his philosophy and the future of the human race, he is very reserved and protected when it comes to talking about himself. One gets the sense that his genius and passion to abolish suffering comes from a place of deep personal sadness, but if that is the case he’s not letting on. The anguish of David Pearce, the man, is not important. But the words of David Pearce, the philosopher, make him the closest thing we have to a 21st century Buddha.

h+: Your philosophy of bringing an end to suffering echoes the goals of the Buddha. What provoked you to take the Buddha’s philosophy to the most extreme interpretation?

DAVID PEARCE: “May all that have life be delivered from suffering,” said Gautama Buddha. But is this scientifically feasible?

As a teenager, I read The Selfish Gene. Suffering exists only because it helps our DNA leave more copies of itself. I also stumbled across the electrode studies of Olds and Milner on the reward centers of the brain. Uniquely, the experience of pure pleasure shows no physiological tolerance: an important clue. Yet a whole civilization based on intracranial self-stimulation doesn’t seem sociologically feasible. Only two other options struck me as viable: pharmacology and genetic engineering. It’s hard to see how therapeutic drugs could abolish mental and physical pain altogether unless we’re willing to medicate our children from birth. By contrast, germline gene-therapy can potentially deliver a cure.

Study of the genetics of mood disorders convinced me that we could edit our source code to recalibrate the hedonic treadmill. In principle, postgenomic medicine can genetically alter our “hedonic set-point” so we enjoy life-long mental health based on gradients of intelligent bliss. A new system of motivation may emerge. More practically, the imminent reproductive revolution of designer babies is likely to exert immense selection pressure in favor of “happy” genotypes.

Of course transhumanists have more ambitious goals than abolishing suffering. Thus I predict our super-intelligent descendants will be fired by gradients of bliss orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences every moment of their quasi-immortal lives. But getting rid of all (involuntary) suffering strikes me as the basis of any future civilization. I can’t conceive anything more morally urgent.

Toddler Expressing Excitementh+: Growing up, what was the most intense suffering you had to endure, and would you retroactively erase the trauma of those memories if you could?

DP: Sadness can be very personal. So I’m going to be boringly tight-lipped. Sorry. I’ll just say that in the future I think all bad memories will be selectively erased, or at least emotionally defanged after any valuable lessons have been drawn. Actually, I think all mediocre memories will be erasable too — and that includes everything from the Darwinian era. Memories of today’s peak experiences will seem banal compared to the textures of everyday life centuries hence. Improved neuroscanning technology will shortly enable us to identify the molecular signature(s) of pure bliss and genetically “over-express” its substrates. Neuroscientists are already homing in on the twin cubic-millimetre sized “hedonic hotspots” in the ventral pallidum and nucleus accumbens of the rodent brain. The equivalent hedonic hotspots in humans may be as large as a cubic centimeter. I suspect they hold the gene expression profile of what makes life seem worth living. If so, there is scope for refinement and intelligent amplification. Our uglier Darwinian emotions can be abolished. Then we can lead lives truly worth remembering.

h+: Isn’t the goal of cessation of pain and suffering a bit wimpy? Shouldn’t every organism be resilient enough to take some pain and suffering over a normal lifetime?

DP: Intuitively, one might indeed suppose that lifelong bliss would make us weak. Contrast, for instance, the Eloi with the Morlocks in H.G. Well’s The Time Machine. In practice, the opposite is true. “That which does not crush me makes me stronger,” said Nietzsche, but the best way to make ourselves stronger short of becoming cyborgs is to amplify our pleasure circuitry and enhance our capacity to anticipate reward. Experimentally, it can be shown that enhancing mesolimbic dopamine function doesn’t just make us happier: it also enriches willpower and motivation. This is how novel antidepressants are tested: if effective, they reverse learned helplessness and behavioral despair of clinical depression, the plight of hundreds of millions of people in the world today. Regrettably, low mood is bound up with psychological and physical weakness, just as popular stereotype suggests. Superhappiness confers superhuman resilience. So enriching our reward circuitry promises to enhance our capacity to cope with stress and adversity even as their incidence and severity diminish. Biotech can empower us to become supermen — not in the callous sense of Nietzschean Übermenschen, since our enhanced empathetic capacity can extend to all sentient beings, but in the sense of an indomitable strength of mind. Sadly, millions of people today feel hopelessly crushed by life.

h+: How do you think the Buddha would feel about using technology like drugs or genetic engineering as a means towards ending human suffering?

DP: It’s hard to reconstruct the psychology of a guy who has been dead for 2500 years. Yet Gautama Buddha’s interest clearly lay in finding the most effective techniques to end suffering, not in delivering some God-given truth. Buddhism isn’t like revealed religion. Gautama Buddha seems to have been pragmatic. Let’s try what works. If presented with contemporary biotechnology, I doubt he’d insist we go though the traumas of thousands of rounds of rebirth. I think he’d embrace genetic medicine as a priceless gift and urge us to extend its use to ensure the welfare of all sentient beings, not just ourselves.

Sign that says Stop Eating Animalsh+: You’re an animal rights activist and a vegan. How do you think protein should be supplied in the future?

DP: Jewish Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer described life for factory-farmed animals as “an eternal Treblinka”: a world of concentration camps extermination camps and industrialized mass-killing. Strip away our ingrained anthropocentric bias, and what we do to other sentient beings is barbaric. Combating great evil justifies heroic personal sacrifice; going vegan entails mild personal inconvenience. The non-human animals we factory-farm and kill are functionally akin to human babies and toddlers. Babies and toddlers need looking after, not liberating. As the master species we have a duty of care to lesser beings, just as we have a duty of care to vulnerable and handicapped humans. As our mastery of technology matures, I think we need to build a cross-species global analogue of the welfare state.

Tentatively, I predict that next century and beyond “natural” meat will be reckoned no more legally or socially acceptable than a diet based on human flesh. Most people with a taste for the stuff may eat in vitro gourmet steaks and the like — cultured meat that will taste richer in flavor and texture than flesh from our butchered cousins. Genetically-engineered vatfood doesn’t sound appetizing under that description. But when “vegetarian meat” is properly branded and marketed, who will deliberately choose the bloodstained option if cheaper and tastier cruelty-free products are available? Estimating timescales for any worldwide changeover to a civilized diet is obviously tricky. Currently tissue scientists can’t culture anything tastier than mincemeat. Yet in theory mankind could make the transition to veganism mid-century or so as the switch to cheaper, healthier, mass-produced cultured meat gathers pace. I’m cynical enough to believe the cost issue will be critical, but I also believe (naively?) that moral awareness may play a small but significant role. Fortunately, the technology should prove scalable. In the meantime, anyone who wants to help accelerate the global transition to a cruelty-free diet might like to support New Harvest, the world’s first nonprofit research organization working to develop cultured meat.

h+: For some people, pain is their most intense form of pleasure, and in a world without suffering pain may become the ultimate taboo designer experience. By abolishing suffering, don’t we risk accidentally rebranding it as something trendy and desirable?

DP: Masochists don’t enjoy the raw pain of getting their fingers caught in the door any more than you or me. However, certain ritualized forms of dominant and submissive behavior can trigger endogenous opioid release that is acutely pleasurable. In the future, masochists and others who relish such “painful” activities can enrich the quality of their experience by editing out the nasty bits and enhancing the most rewarding. Nothing valuable need be lost. I don’t normally dwell on modes of post-human sensualism because I fear doing so risks undermining the moral seriousness of the abolitionist project. For what it’s worth, I think future sexuality will make today’s wildest eroticism seem like light foreplay.

h+: You use MDMA consciousness as a benchmark for bliss and empathy. But like alcohol intoxication, I’ve seen people on MDMA being very dismissive to people with real problems while thinking they were being empathetic and compassionate. Couldn’t being too happy in the face of real problems be considered a form of shallowness or self-delusion?

Ecstasy Pills (MDMA)DP: Taking MDMA (Ecstasy) may be little better than glue-sniffing compared to mental health in an era of mature postgenomic medicine. But “empathogens” like MDMA are a reminder that not all euphoriants promote selfish behavior. Ethically, it’s (presumably) preferable to seek heightened empathy and sometimes fail rather than not bother to empathize at all. MDMA-induced intensity of emotional release also stands in contrast to the shallowness induced by “psychic anaesthetizers” like the ill-named SSRI antidepressants. Alas, you’re right to point out how the rose-colored spectacles of Ecstasy users don’t guarantee acuity of insight or accuracy of social perception. The “penicillin of the soul” is no magic bullet. Getting “loved up” is good for communing with other loved up users, but it’s not a recipe for solving the deeper problems of non-users... or life on Monday morning. Even when safe and sustainable empathogens can be developed, pure compassion won’t cure cancer, solve the AIDS crisis or reverse the ravages of aging. Such complex, multi-faceted medical problems need rigorous scientific research. To say this isn’t to devalue the “magic” of MDMA. In a better world, the rose-colored spectacles induced by MDMA-like states may be as socially perceptive as the most hard-edged “depressive realism” of contemporary cynics. In the meantime, Darwinian consciousness is prudent for a Darwinian world.

h+: Humans have violent predatory instincts wired into the pleasure/ reward center that civilization no longer finds useful. We repress these instincts through behavioral conditioning but they still present themselves as pathologies in mentally unstable people. Would you support proactive gene modification to abolish these predatory instincts to make humans more docile?

DP: Proactive gene-modification to enrich our capacity for empathy strikes me as morally admirable. “Docile” is a loaded word; if you’d said “pacific” instead, I’d agree. In an era of weapons of mass destruction and bioterrorism, human survival may even depend on it. Until humans establish self-sustaining bases beyond the Earth on the Moon and Mars, the extinction of intelligent life itself is a non-negligible possibility. Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, estimates the probability of human extinction before the year 2100 is around 50 percent! The world’s predators aren’t confined to violent criminals or the mentally ill: they include “statesmen” holding senior positions of political and military power. The genetic source of most human predatory behavior has been identified: the Y chromosome. However, this is one risk factor we’re probably stuck with for a long time to come. Competitive alpha male dominance behavior is perhaps the greatest underlying threat to what we call civilization. Human history to date attests to the gruesome effects of testosterone-driven male behavior. Socialization — on its own — seems inadequate.

Scenarios of pro-social genetic modification may or may not work; but they aren’t purely hypothetical. Humanity is on the brink of a reproductive revolution. Within the next few decades, prospective parents will increasingly choose the genetic design-specifications of their future children via preimplantation diagnosis. In the absence of a regulatory framework, one may hope most parents will choose genotypes for loving, empathetic children and decline to choose “sociopathic” alleles, e.g. the less active “warrior gene” variant of monoamine oxidase A, which is associated with anti-social and violent behavior. A lot of our nastier alleles/allelic combinations were genetically adaptive in the ancestral environment. They may exert a potentially catastrophic influence now. At the risk of sounding like some crude genetic determinist, it may eventually be possible to edit out some of our more sinister code and enhance the expression of the pro-social. One example here would be oxytocin, the “trust hormone,” recently shown to be copiously released by taking MDMA. Enriching long-term oxytocin function could make us naturally more honest with each other — not just more trusting but more trustworthy. Unfortunately, indiscriminate amplification of oxytocin function would only work if it were universal. Its use would make a powerful instrument of social control and an ideal tool for predators. Today, sadly, we often have good reason to be suspicious of governments and of each other. So yes, pro-social drugs and gene therapies have numerous pitfalls. But somehow we need to bootstrap our way into becoming civilized.

h+: Pleasure pathways are primed by high risk/reward behaviors. As suffering decreases this risk/reward instinct becomes less of a motivator. This means humans will be progressively less likely to take big risks to reap greater rewards. Is this a positive shift in human behavior, and in this shift are we losing something uniquely adventurous and impulsive about the human spirit?

DP: We live in an era when advanced technology poses existential and global catastrophic risks. Any interventions that promise to reduce our propensity to risk-taking should be seriously evaluated. As you note, however, there are subtler risks to the future of humanity than the apocalyptic scenarios well-known futurists discuss. Some kind of botched paradise engineering might lock humanity into a second-rate utopia of the sort you describe. A stagnant world of soma-like contentment is very different from a world animated by heritable gradients of bliss. How can humanity guard against inadvertently creating some other kind of Brave New World that blocks the fullest expression of life in the universe?

One possible answer is that postgenomic medicine will let us choose not just our normal baseline of happiness, but also our baseline of “adventurousness.” Thus both dopaminergic and opioid enhancement can be pleasurable, but amplifying mesolimbic dopamine function leads to increased exploratory behavior, whereas long-term enhancement of mu opioid function alone leads to greater quiescence. Gaining full control of our own reward circuitry allows a choice of what kind of person one wants to be — an adventurous extrovert or thoughtful introvert, for instance. I’m not really satisfied with this answer because it’s unclear whether temperamental “adventurousness” can be adequately distinguished from recklessness. I’d simply argue that no one should be forced to suffer as now for the sake of an abstraction like “the human spirit.”

h+: There’s an old saying that Utopia is ultimately unattainable because no matter how perfect things are, people will always find something to complain about. How do we modify human behavior to trim back the complainers?

DP: Discontented people have arguably been the motor of human development. This is one reason why it may be prudent to recalibrate our hedonic treadmill rather than dismantle it altogether. When we enjoy gradients of lifelong bliss, the functional analogues of discontent can drive (post)human progress. Maybe getting rid of suffering isn’t the culmination of civilization, just the start.

James Kent is the former publisher of Psychedelic Illuminations and Trip Magazine. He currently edits, a drug blog featuring news, humor and commentary.

American Scientist - ON THE ORIGIN OF STORIES: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction - by Brian Boyd

Interesting review of what seems to be an interesting book (I'm lately intrigued by narrative and cognition and how they relate). The history of stories is the history of an inherently social creature.

The Play’s the Thing

Michael Bérubé

ON THE ORIGIN OF STORIES: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Brian Boyd. xiv + 540 pp. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. $35.

Let me explain a thing or two about humanists like me. There are legions of us who reach for our guns when we hear the word genome. That’s because we’re all too familiar with the history of eugenics, and we flinch whenever someone attempts an “evolutionary” explanation of Why Society Is the Way It Is; we suspect them, with good reason, of trying to justify some outrageous social injustice on the grounds that it’s only natural. Likewise, there are legions of us who clap our hands over our ears when we hear the term evolutionary psychology. That’s because we’re all too familiar with the follies of sociobiology, and we’ve suffered through lectures claiming that our species is hardwired for middle-aged guys dumping their wives for young secretaries and students (I sat through that lecture myself) or that men run the world because women have wide hips for childbearing, whereas men can rotate three-dimensional shapes in their heads (okay, that one is a mash-up of two different lectures).

Brian Boyd is here to change all that. On the Origin of Stories attempts an evolutionary explanation of the appearance of art—and, more specifically, of the utility of fiction. From its title (with its obvious echo of Darwin) to its readings of The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who!, Boyd’s book argues that the evolution of the brain (itself a development of some significance to the world) has slowly and fitfully managed to produce a species of primate whose members habitually try to entertain and edify one another by making stuff up.

If this sounds reductive, don’t worry: Boyd patiently explains that this isn’t your father’s sociobiology or your great-grandfather’s eugenics. To say that something is genetic is not, despite decades of bad science followed by decades of bad popularizations of bad science, to say that it is genetically determined, if “determined” means (as it usually does) “inevitably fated.” Boyd expresses some exasperation at the idea of genetic determinism, arguing that

the notion that genes shape us is less deterministic than the notion that we are the product of our environment, since the complexity and randomness of genetic recombination in sexual reproduction means that we are each the result of an unpredictably generated variation unique to each of us rather than of anything imposed from without.

Thus, writes Boyd, “we should see genes less as constraints than as enablers,” just as “we should see genes not as deniers of the role of the environment but as devices for extracting information from the environment.” Boyd acknowledges that “those uneasy about applying evolution to human behavior often assume that doing so must require stressing selfishness and competition at the expense of altruism and cooperation,” but notes that it ain’t necessarily so: “[Richard] Dawkins points out that he could with equal validity, though with less impact, have called his famous first book not The Selfish Gene but The Cooperative Gene.” Well, that’s nice to know after all these years, now that three decades of popular-science enthusiasts have convinced themselves that Nature herself speaks in the language of Ayn Rand. One hopes the word will get around.

Indeed, one of the virtues of On the Origin of Stories is that its author is up to speed on recent work in neurology, genetics and evolutionary theory. He is therefore ideally positioned to persuade his fellow humanists that a “biocultural” approach to art and literature doesn’t entail any Just So stories about how humans came to love Just So stories, or any triumphant tales of how self-replicating molecules persevered over a few billion years until they reached the telos of existence, at which point they were capable of producing Everybody Loves Raymond. For as Darwin insisted, evolution doesn’t have a telos. It consists of a series of open-ended experiments with no final end in sight: “A Darwinian system . . . remains open, unpredictable, and free. It cannot presuppose a best option, an ideal fit, a goal that can be precisely determined beforehand.”

Regrettably, Boyd stumbles out of the gate, working himself into a nasty and unnecessary self-contradiction in the first chapter, where he argues that “the cultural constructionist’s view of the mind as a blank slate is ‘a dictator’s dream,’ [quoting Steven Pinker],” for “if we were entirely socially constructed, our ‘society’ could mold us into slaves and masters, and there would be no reason to object.” This is a shallow conception of social constructionism (admittedly, a conception often promulgated by social constructionists), in which saying that “X is socially constructed” is tantamount to saying “X can be changed at will.” But what makes Boyd’s critique so unfortunate (and self-contradictory) is that he immediately proceeds to insist that, unlike social constructionism, “an evolutionary view allows for informed social change.” He goes on to note that “Owen Jones compares the law to a lever to change human behavior, and an informed knowledge of human nature to the fulcrum the lever needs to exert its force.” I’m sorry, but I think I might have missed something here. How is this evolutionary view of how to change human behavior not a dictator’s dream?

Once we get past that little tangle, however, the first half of On the Origin of Stories is exhilarating. Boyd rehearses the history of the rapid growth in hominin brain size over the past couple of million years, showing that with the development of the neocortex we’ve been endowed with all kinds of cleverness to compensate for the fact that we’re slow, weak, flat-toothed and clawless. We are thoroughly social creatures, and when we work together we can be formidable predators; accordingly, we’ve evolved various attributes that enable mutualism, such as shared attention, mirror neurons and theory of mind. The latter allows us access to something no other animal seems aware of, namely, the notion that other members of our species might have false beliefs. The survival value of art, then, is that it hones and enhances those functions of mind that in turn enhance our capacity for social interaction and exploration: “Art develops in us habits of imaginative exploration, so that we take the world as not closed and given, but open and to be shaped on our own terms.”

By refining and strengthening our sociality, by making us readier to use the resources of the imagination, and by raising our confidence in shaping life on our own terms, art fundamentally alters our relation to the world. The survival consequences may be difficult to tabulate, but they are profound. We have long felt that art matters to us. It does, objectively as well as subjectively. By focusing our attention away from the given to a world of shared, humanly created possibility, art makes all the difference.

This is rousing stuff. Not only does it reassure us that all our museum-brochure rhetoric is telling the truth, it also confirms that Friedrich Schiller was right to propose, in On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), that humans possess a “play-drive” that leads us to create and be amazed by art:

For, to declare it once and for all, Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only wholly Man when he is playing. This proposition . . . will, I promise you, support the whole fabric of aesthetic art, and the still more difficult art of living.

It is no slight to Boyd, surely, to say that On the Origin of Stories sometimes reads like Schiller combined with a few graduate courses in neuroscience. Whether one prefers to say, with Emily Dickinson, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” or, with Boyd, “Neurons in the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental areas of the brain secrete dopamine in reaction to the surprising but not to the expected,” is surely a matter of taste.

The second half of the book, however, probably won’t go over as well with the humanists Boyd is trying to reach. He opens that half by assuring us that “a biocultural approach to literature simply requires that we take seriously that evolution has powerfully shaped not just our bodies but also our minds and behavior.” This much is incontrovertible, and I share Boyd’s hope that someday our fellow humanists will be less averse to thinking in terms of the species-wide universals we’ve inherited as part of the legacy of life on Earth. But Boyd’s application of the principle seems to me to have two weaknesses.

2010-01BREVBerubeFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe first, upon which some reviewers have already remarked, is that the resulting readings of The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who! don’t appear to be entirely worth the journey. Much of Boyd’s approach consists of explaining how Homer and Dr. Seuss manage to win and keep our attention, and Boyd castigates contemporary literary criticism for failing to attend to this important matter. But might it not be that “Homer organized the poem in this way so as to win and keep your attention” is the kind of thing that, in literary criticism, literally goes without saying? Similarly, readers for almost three millennia have recognized that Odysseus is one crafty fellow, and that one indication of his craftiness is that he does not act on impulse; even when he’s trapped in a cave with a one-eyed giant eating his men, he takes a deep breath and comes up with a well-considered plan. Boyd explains precisely what this means in neurological terms: “Rapid-fire reactions have to be inhibited (in the orbitofrontal cortex) so that there is time to formulate and assess new options (in the dorsolateral cortex) before acting on them.” Personally, I am tremendously pleased that my species has gotten to the point at which it understands things like this. But how much is added to the history of criticism, finally, by the realization that Odysseus was doing his crafty plotting in his dorsolateral cortex?

I mean this as a real and not a rhetorical question. Boyd closes On the Origin of Stories by remarking that “evocriticism” will have to make its way by devising compelling and convincing readings of works of literature, attending not only to the universal features of human minds but also to the cultural and historical particularities of time and place. On one hand, this school of criticism will provide a desperately needed justification for literary study: “If storytelling sharpens our social cognition, prompts us to reconsider human experience, and spurs our creativity in the way that comes most naturally to us”—as it surely does—“then literary studies need not apologize.” On the other hand, evocriticism comes bearing not only a rationale but also a sword: As Boyd remarks time and again, the enemy to be vanquished is Theory,

which cuts literature off from life by emphasizing human thought and ideas as the product of only language, convention, and ideology—although Theory then tries to compensate for severing literature from three-dimensional life by insisting that it is always political or ideological.

Well, Theory-bashing can be good fun, I suppose, and some forms of theory deserve it. But it is odd to suggest that stressing “language, convention, and ideology” somehow cuts one off from “life.” And it’s even odder to note that “a fine work of art not only expresses creativity but also inspires it in those who enjoy it” but fail to consider that “theoretical” readings of language and literature caught on in the 1970s and 1980s because they were, back in the day, compelling and creative. Everyone who, like Boyd, believes that Alan Sokal killed theory dead really should go back and read Barbara Johnson on Melville’s “Billy Budd” or Paul de Man on the famous rhetorical (or is it real?) question that closes Yeats’s “Among School Children.” Even though I’ve never been a card-carrying deconstructionist myself, I was fascinated by those readings because they taught me that Melville’s novella was even more extraordinary than I’d thought, and that when you’re trying to determine whether a question is real or rhetorical, even an utterance like “Eh, what’s the difference?” can open onto a hall of mirrors. Boyd never stops to consider that maybe, just maybe, the clever human minds responsible for literature are the same clever human minds responsible for literary theory; if he had, he might have been able to say, more plausibly, that theory started (as do all our endeavors) in the impulse to play and create, and only became routine and stultifying after many weary iterations. At which point, after the 350th New Historicist reading of The Tempest, neurons in the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental areas of the brain stopped secreting dopamine.

More important, Boyd is sometimes reluctant to give culture and history their due. He scoffs, for example, at the idea that romantic love was invented at some point in the 12th century, because “cross-cultural, neurological, and cross-species studies have demonstrated the workings of romantic love across societies and even species.” This just won’t wash. Other species might court and mate for life, but they do not engage in romantic love in the sense that humanists employ the term, save perhaps for the cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew. “Romantic love” does not mean “mammals doing it like mammals”; it refers to the conventions of courtly love, which were indeed invented in the European middle ages and cannot be found in ancient literatures or cultures. Those conventions are culturally and historically specific variations on our underlying (and polymorphous) biological imperatives, just as the institution of the Bridezilla and the $25,000 wedding is specific to our own addled time and place. Nothing about the evolutionary record, from amoebas to Homo sapiens sapiens, is denied or contravened in acknowledging this.

On the Origin of Stories is a fascinating book, even a necessary book. At its best, evocriticism can help to reorient the arts and humanities, renewing (or, in some benighted quarters, sparking) our appreciation for the creative works of human minds and hands, and leading humanists to take a fresh look at the rich evolutionary record. But it will accomplish this, I suspect, only if it is complementary to, and not sweepingly dismissive of, the intellectual traditions humans have devised for the study of human cultures.

Michael Bérubé is the Paterno Family Professor in English Literature and Science, Technology, and Society at Penn State University. He is the author of, among other books, Rhetorical Occasions: Humans and the Humanities (University of North Carolina Press, 2006) and The Left at War (New York University Press, 2009).

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Why I Side with William James and Not Sam Harris

In his famous book on The Varieties of Religious Experiences (James, 1902/2002) William James has been quoted as saying:
[T]o study religion from a psychological point of view the best one can do is to study the most religious man in his most religious moments.
I can't find the actual quote in the text, though it does seem many people have cited it (including Jerome Bruner).

Let's start with James' definition of religious experience:
Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow. In these lectures, however, as I have already said, the immediate personal experiences will amply fill our time, and we shall hardly consider theology or ecclesiasticism at all. (pg. 29-30)
This is crucial. James distinguishes religious experience from the secondary structures (i.e., religions) that are built upon the subjective experience. He is clear that the subject of his interest is the subjective experience of the mystic while s/he is experiencing the divine.

This is not a distinction that people such as Sam Harris (see The God Fraud, 2010), despite his dabbling in meditation, would generally make - and one that Dan Dennet (Consciousness Explained, 1992) would never make in that he rejects the validity of qualia (subjective experiences).

Much later in the book, in his Conclusions, James does make the following statements:
Summing up in the broadest possible way the characteristics of the religious life, as we have found them, it includes the following beliefs: —

1. That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;
2. That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end;
3. That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof — be that spirit “God” or “law” — is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.

Religion includes also the following psychological characteristics:

4. A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism.
5. An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections. (pg. 375)
A short time later he makes the following statements, of which the unverified quote I began with might be seen as a summary:
I reply that I took these extremer examples as yielding the profounder information. To learn the secrets of any science, we go to expert specialists, even though they may be eccentric persons, and not to commonplace pupils. We combine what they tell us with the rest of our wisdom, and form our final judgment independently. Even so with religion. We who have pursued such radical expressions of it may now be sure that we know its secrets as authentically as any one can know them who learns them from another; and we have next to answer, each of us for himself, the practical question: what are the dangers in this element of life? and in what proportion may it need to be restrained by other elements, to give the proper balance?

But this question suggests another one which I will answer immediately and get it out of the way, for it has more than once already vexed us.1 Ought it to be assumed that in all men the mixture of religion with other elements should be identical? Ought it, indeed, to be assumed that the lives of all men should show identical religious elements? In other words, is the existence of so many religious types and sects and creeds regrettable?

To these questions I answer “No” emphatically. (pg. 376)
Item #3 in the list above reads as equivalent to the idea of involution.

In integral thought, involution is the process by which the Divine manifests the cosmos. The process by which the creation rises to higher states and states of consciousness is the evolution. Involution prepares the universe for the Big Bang; evolution continues from that point forward. The term involution comes from the idea that the divine involves itself in creation. After the creation, the Divine (i.e. the Absolute, Brahman, God) is both the One (the Creator) and the Many (that which was created).

This process continues as a part of the evolutionary process through the attainment of religious experience and mystical states. Involution is a purely subjective experience that can never demonstrate objective proof - each is of different experiential realms.

In defining the mystical states of experience, however, James gives us something we can begin to look for in the experience of others, the exhibition of which would be objectively indicative of a truly religious experience.
I will do what I did in the case of the word “religion,” and simply propose to you four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical for the purpose of the present lectures. In this way we shall save verbal disputation, and the recriminations that generally go therewith.

1. Ineffability. — The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment.

2. Noetic quality. — Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.

These two characters will entitle any state to be called mystical, in the sense in which I use the word. Two other qualities are less sharply marked, but are usually found. These are: —

3. Transiency. — Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day. Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.

4. Passivity. — Although the oncoming of mystical states may be, facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. This latter peculiarity connects mystical states with certain definite phenomena of secondary or alternative personality, such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance. When these latter conditions are well pronounced, however, there may be no recollection whatever of the phenomenon, and it may have no significance for the subject’s usual inner life, to which, as it were, it makes a mere interruption. Mystical states, strictly so called, are never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence. Sharp divisions in this region are, however, difficult to make, and we find all sorts of gradations and mixtures.

These four characteristics are sufficient to mark out a group of states of consciousness peculiar enough to deserve a special name and to call for careful study. Let it then be called the mystical group. (pg. 294-296)
In looking at mysticism, James is looking at "the most religious man in his most religious moments," essentially looking at the ways in which religious experience is positive, transformative, and compassionate in nature.

On the other hand, Harris, Dennet, Dawkins, and Hitchens (The Four Horsemen of Atheism) are looking at the most fundamentalist expressions of institutionalized religion, not at the nature of religious experience itself. They are condemning all religious experience and expression by looking at the worst of religion on its worst days.

Is that fair? Many people would say YES! absolutely, because on religion's worst days, thousands of people may be killed in the name of some form of dogmatism.

However, it might be an equivalent approach to condemn ALL science because some science has been used to create nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, various poisons that kill people and pollute nature, powerful guns that can penetrate any form of armor, and on and on. The history of science might be viewed, if one were so inclined (and I am not, just to be clear), as the endless progression of new and more efficient ways to kill human beings. The examples of horrible things created by science, and the deaths that have resulted, could fill many volumes.

Yet no one (well, almost no one) will want to end all science because of these creations - yet the atheists want to do away with all religion because of the violent few, or because of their generally harmless magical thinking (harmless, that is, until imposed on others against their will).

To quote my mother, the new atheists want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Silly.

I'll stick with my buddy, William James.

Sharp Brains - Daniel Goleman: Yes, You Can Build Willpower (meditate on neuroplasticity!)

Another older article (from this summer) that I somehow missed the first time around, posted at Sharp Brains, a very good psychology blog. [More info is available from the National Association of Scholars, where I found the image, on neuroplasticity.]

Daniel Goleman: Yes, You Can Build Willpower (meditate on neuroplasticity!)

(Editor’s note: Daniel Goleman is now conducting a series of audio interviews including a great one with Richard Davidson on Training the Brain. We are honored to bring you this guest post by Daniel Goleman, thanks to our collaboration with Greater Good Magazine.)

Yes, You Can:

New research suggests we can build our willpower

– By Daniel Goleman

Those of us who struggle to resist junk foods or otherwise suffer a lack of willpower will be heartened by some good news from neuroscience. But there’s some bad news, too.

First, the bad news. A slew of studies suggest that we each have a fixed neural reservoir of willpower, and that if we use it on one thing, we have less for others. Tasks that demand some self-control make it harder for us to do the next thing that takes willpower.

In a typical experiment on this effect, one group of people was made to watch a video of a boring scene; another was not. Then both groups had to circle every “e” in a long passage of writing. The result? The people who had to first sit through the boring video gave up faster. The same loss of persistence has been found when people try to resist tempting foods, suppress emotional reactions, or even make the effort to try to impress someone.

This all suggests we have a fixed willpower budget, one we should be careful in spending. Some neuroscientists suspect that self-control consumes blood sugar, which takes a while to build up again; thus, the depletion effect.

But the good news is that we can grow our willpower; like a muscle, the more we use it, the more it gradually increases over time. But doing this takes, of all things, willpower.

As the muscle of will grows, the larger our reservoir of self-discipline becomes. So people who are able to stick to a diet or an exercise program for a few months, or who complete money-management classes, also reduce their impulse-buying, junk food consumption, and alcohol intake. They watch less TV and do more housework. And this ability to delay grasping at gratification, much data shows, predicts greater career success.

This round-up of thinking on willpower comes courtesy of Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, whose recent book, Welcome to Your Brain, details the evidence about willpower. But, writing in The New York Times, the duo poses a puzzle: While it’s clear that willpower has limits, what brain mechanisms let us build it up?

That question brought to mind a recent conversation I had with Richard Davidson, the director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. Davidson’s research these days focuses on neuroplasticity—how our experience shapes the brain throughout life. One surprise: though most of us learned that we have a fixed number of brain cells when we are born, and that we lose them steadily until we die, brain science now tells us the brain makes about 10,000 new cells every day, and that they migrate to where they are needed. Once there, each cell makes around 10,000 connections to other brain cells over the successive four months.

Davidson’s research finds that the left prefrontal cortex—the brain’s executive center located just behind the forehead—is a key site for helping us build willpower. Our plans and goals hatch here, and impulses are executed via this zone. There is a neural circuit in the prefrontal cortex that inhibits emotional impulse, and can be strengthened by a range of methods.

One of these methods, Davidson explained to me, is mindfulness training, a secular form of meditation widely used in settings from businesses to outpatient clinics. This is confirmed by a great deal of research. My own doctoral dissertation found (as have many others since) that the practice of meditation seems to speed the rate of physiological recovery from a stressful event. A string of studies have now established that more experienced meditators recover more quickly from stress-induced physiological arousal than do novices.

Research shows that other kinds of training can have similar effects, and the more time we devote to any of these trainings, the greater the result in the targeted areas of the brain. Brain imaging studies show that the spatial areas of London taxi drivers’ brains become enhanced during the first six months they spend driving around that city’s winding streets; likewise, the area for thumb movement in the motor cortex becomes more robust in violinists as they continue to practice over many months. A seminal 2004 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that, compared to novices, highly adept meditators generated far more high-amplitude gamma wave activity—which reflects finely focused attention—in areas of the prefrontal cortex while meditating.

And so it makes perfect sense that we can build our willpower over time if we are committed to doing so, a process that changes our brains right down to the cellular level. Simply being consistently self-disciplined seems to help—going to the gym every day for months, or completing projects you begin—and so does mindfulness meditation. There are ways, it seems, to make it easier to “just say no” when we need to.

– Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., is the author of the bestsellers Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence. His website is Goleman’s full conversation with Richard Davidson can be heard as part of the audio series Wired to Connect: Dialogues on Social Intelligence, available through More than Sound Productions.

We bring you this post thanks to our collaboration with Greater Good Magazine, a UC-Berkeley-based quarterly magazine that highlights ground breaking scientific research into the roots of compassion and altruism.

NPR On the Media - The Art of Diagnosis (on the DSM-V)

I found this by accident, and it's from 2008, but since there is so much secrecy surrounding the revision of the DSM (form IV-TR to V), due now in 2013 (to allow more time to work through the issues), the info is still interesting and useful.

I've included some of the transcript, as well as the audio.

The Art of Diagnosis

December 26, 2008

Does very severe PMS constitute a mental disorder? That's one of many questions facing psychiatrists as they work to revise the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM, the definitive compendium of our psychic maladies. Because the DSM influences not just doctors and patients but medical research, insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, advertising and the culture at large, controversy surrounding its new edition abounds. Brooke looks at this powerful book.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s a saying that goes, “A good book is the best of friends, the same today and forever.” But books that are periodically revised can be even better. Consider the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, the catalog of mind-based maladies designated by the American Psychiatric Association.

Plagued by fears or fantasies, bad thoughts or bad behaviors? If the problem’s in your head, it’s in the DSM, charting your psychic pain since 1952.

The next edition, the fifth in 60 years, isn't due out until 2012, but now’s the time when new disorders are debated, tested and prepped for their debuts in the

DSM-V. The world consults this book. This is a very big deal -

DR. DARREL REGIER: - because the disorder definitions that we provide are used by the FDA to determine whether or not new medication might have an indication for treatment.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. Darrel Regier is the vice-chair of the DSM-V Task Force.

DR. DARREL REGIER: It’s used by the NIH to assess the type of disorder that somebody is asking to research. It’s also used by Medicare, Medicaid and insurance companies to identify the condition that somebody is requesting payment of treatment for.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Most important, it’s used by doctors to define what’s normal and what’s not. It was the DSM that officially declared homosexuality a mental disorder, and then in 1973 officially undeclared it.

It’s defined an ever-expanding range of phobias and addictions that we're still arguing about, but this time, demands for more transparency aim to crack open the window on DSM-V deliberations so interested parties can weigh in before they are enshrined – because once they are, the FDA approves drugs to treat them, and any further debate is drowned out in the flood of direct-to-consumer ads.



WOMAN: If you are one of the many who suffer from overwhelming anxiety and intense fear of social situations with unfamiliar people -

MAN: You know when you’re not feeling like yourself. You’re tired all the time. You may feel sad, hopeless, and lose interest in things you once loved. You may feel anxious.

WOMAN: You can feel it in so many ways. Cymbalta can help. Cymbalta is a prescription medication that treats many symptoms of depression.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: One controversial diagnosis up for inclusion is gender identity disorder. For social conservatives and some religious groups, this is a definite thumbs-up for inclusion in the DSM. If you think you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body or vice versa, you have a disorder.

But Dr. Michael First, who worked on the last two editions of the DSM, says that for those in the transgender community it’s not so simple.

DR. MICHAEL FIRST: People who want sex reassignment surgery, who are transgendered so much so that they feel like they have to go all the way and actually change their gender - they need to view this as a disorder in order to qualify for the surgery.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean to get insurance to cover it.

DR. MICHAEL FIRST: Insurance, and also social acceptance. The people who are against it are people who see being transgendered as a lifestyle choice and part of the normal variation, and they just see the stigma.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Similarly, feminists stand on both sides of the debate over a form of PMS affecting five percent of menstruating women that is so severe it impairs their ability to function. It’s called PMDD, or -


WOMAN: Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a distinct medical condition. It causes intense mood and physical symptoms right before your period. Doctors can now treat PMDD with Sarafem, the first and only prescription medication for PMDD.


STEF PROSE: When the Sarafem commercials came out was when I got, you know, the ah-ha!

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Stef Prose was being treated for depression, even though she rejected that diagnosis and felt stigmatized by it. When she saw the Sarafem ad depicting her debilitating mood swings, her rages and her guilt, she finally felt she had a real diagnosis and was deeply relieved and grateful.

STEF PROSE: Somebody knows actually what I'm talking about. And immediately I called my doctor and said, this is what I have. I want depression [LAUGHS] taken off the record.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like so much in the DSM, diagnosis is a judgment call, but Stef Prose, who now blogs about PMDD at, has no trouble passing judgment on whether it should be in the DSM.

STEF PROSE: My answer is yes. Trying to go to work every day and getting the energy to do it, it does, it affects you every single day. And to me, that is a disorder.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: PMDD has languished in the appendix of the DSM, signifying that the jury is still out. It is a hot-button issue because, you know, this one’s just for the ladies, and it could be used against them – all of them.

But the political ramifications don't worry Stef Prose.

STEF PROSE: I hadn't really thought about it. I guess the way I look at it is, it is kind of a sexist disease. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sarafem, just Prozac in pink, is still available, but the FDA demanded that Eli Lilly pull the ads because they described the symptoms of PMDD so broadly they were virtually indistinguishable from what most women experience as PMS, a condition not currently up for inclusion in the DSM.

DR. JONATHAN METZL: If we are in the business of treating PMS with psychiatric drugs, in part what we're saying is that there is a level of insanity to the suffering of [LAUGHS] PMS.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jonathan Metzl, psychiatrist and author of Prozac on the Couch: Prescribing Gender in the Era of Wonder Drugs.

DR. JONATHAN METZL: Historically speaking, psychiatric drugs have been used to convey the message that if you’re not just suffering from an illness but if you’re not a good mother, if you are not a good wife, these are all conditions that can be treated with psychiatric medications.

And I can say that historically the blurriness of that line has gotten psychiatry into a lot of trouble. The “mother’s little helper” phenomenon in the '70s is one example of that.


DR. JONATHAN METZL: Correct. We know that when the industry drives diagnosis, there’s a process that happens that Peter Kramer, in Listening to Prozac, beautifully described as “diagnostic bracket creep.” People start to come into doctor’s offices and say, I know this drug is indicated for a particular illness, but I've kind of got that. And the doctor says, that sounds good enough. We'll give you this medication.

And what happens over time is that the diagnostic boundaries expand and expand and expand so that a drug that was indicated for a very small subset of people over time becomes indicated and used for a much wider category.

CHRISTOPHER LANE: Fifty percent of the population defines itself as shy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Christopher Lane is the author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness.

CHRISTOPHER LANE: An enormous number of people have a profound dislike of speaking in public but that doesn't mean they suffer from a psychiatric condition. And the effort on the part of these psychiatrists and the APA to broaden the net and include Internet addiction and compulsive buying disorder and apathy disorder, relational disorder, all of these are basically codes for everyday experiences and fears and anxieties that should not be represented in a psychiatric bible.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lane says the media compound the problem by reporting only the upper range of the estimate of those who may suffer from a potential disorder and by failing to report the size of the field studies, which often are quite small.

CHRISTOPHER LANE: I mean, one of the studies – it was a telephone survey to 526 urban Canadians – came out with self-reported accounts of social anxiety that ranged from 1.9 percent to 18.7 percent, but only the higher figure was reported in the subsequent media literature.

And what happens is then the public reads that, or hears it on the radio, and decides this is potentially a problem, certainly with social anxiety disorder because the drug maker in question, GlaxoSmithKline, spent over 94 million dollars on what it called a “public awareness campaign” for the disorder in question.

It wanted people basically to rethink whether they were suffering from just shyness and to ask themselves whether it might be something more serious, like social anxiety disorder.

DR. MICHAEL FIRST: The issue with all mental disorders is they're defined in terms of symptoms that we all experience every day as part of normal living.

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