Saturday, March 06, 2010

Occult America by Mitch Horowitz on Changesurfer Radio


Occult America

Mitch Horowitz

Changesurfer Radio

Posted: Mar 6, 2010

Dr. J. chats with Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation. They talk about the Freemasons, theosophy, Gandhi, Edgar Cayce, the Third Reich and the New Deal, and the eventual occultification of contemporary Christianity. MP3


More on Depression - Jonah Lehrer Responds to Dr. Ron Pies

The article that initiated Jonah Lehrer's Depression's Upside article in the New York Times Magazine last week is available online.

Jonah Lehrer responded to Dr. Ron Pies criticism of the NYT article yesterday. Since I have posted Dr. Pies criticisms, I want to post Lehrer's response. The criticism I posted here from Dr. Pies was published at Psych Central, but Lehrer is responding to an article Dr. Pies put up at Psychiatric Times. Here is the beginning of that article.

Depression is a Thief, Even When You Learn From It

By Ronald W. Pies, MD, Editor-in-Chief | March 5, 2010

Writer Jonah Lehrer caused quite a stir with his recent article in the New York Times Magazine, with the unfortunate title, “Depression’s Upside.” I have a detailed rejoinder to this misleading article posted on the Psychcentral website. The fault is not entirely Mr. Lehrer’s however; his sources included a psychiatrist and a psychologist, who have recently presented a strained and dubious argument claiming that major depression has certain “adaptive” advantages. Lehrer apparently spent little or no time talking to mood disorder specialists who see thousands of severely depressed patients each year.

So much of the debate turns on what is meant by the term “depression.” A major problem with Jonah Lehrer’s original piece is that he did not fully clarify what he meant by “depression” –though it is quite clear that the paper on which Lehrer bases his evolutionary claims used the term “depression” to describe DSM-IV “major depression.”

Second, we need to distinguish 3 related yet distinct concepts and claims: (1) major depression is “instructive”; (2) major depression is “adaptive”; and (3) major depression is “conducive to significant mental health (or physical health) benefits.”

I would not deny that depression, like other challenges in life, may be “instructive” for some proportion of individuals–though probably a minority. I have very serious doubts (as do most of my colleagues) that major depression is “adaptive” in any significant way, though perhaps very brief and mild bouts of depression could confer some modest advantages in an evolutionary sense; eg, by increasing one’s empathy toward others, which could be highly adaptive in obvious ways. [cf. “A broken heart prepares man for the service of God, but dejection corrodes service.”— Rabbi Bunam of Pzysha].

You can read the rest of the article.

So in fairness, here is Lehrer's response in full, posted at his The Frontal Cortex blog.

More on Depression

Posted on: March 5, 2010 4:58 PM, by Jonah Lehrer

I thought it's worth addressing this article one last time. Dr. Ronald Pies (professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse) has written three eloquent and extremely critical blog posts about the article and the analytic-rumination hypothesis. Here's his latest riposte:

Writer Jonah Lehrer caused quite a stir with his recent article in the New York Times Magazine, with the unfortunate title, "Depression's Upside." I have a detailed rejoinder to this misleading article posted on the Psychcentral website. The fault is not entirely Mr. Lehrer's however; his sources included a psychiatrist and a psychologist, who have recently presented a strained and dubious argument claiming that major depression has certain "adaptive" advantages. Lehrer apparently spent little or no time talking to mood disorder specialists who see thousands of severely depressed patients each year.

I'd like to refute that last point. I talked to numerous working psychiatrists - several of which are quoted in the article - and, not surprisingly, got a wide range of reactions to the analytic-rumination hypothesis. Some thought it was interesting and might make sense for people with mild and moderate depression; others, like Peter Kramer, thought it was utter rubbish. (As Kramer says in the article, "It's a ladder with a series of weak rungs.") Dr. Pies implies that every psychiatrist shares his viewpoint, but that's clearly not the case. See, for instance, this recent Louis Menand review for more.

Let's take a seemingly straightforward fact that Dr. Pies has cited in all three of his critiques of the article:

I would not deny that depression, like other challenges in life, may be "instructive" for some proportion of individuals-though probably a minority. I have very serious doubts (as do most of my colleagues) that major depression is "adaptive" in any significant way, though perhaps very brief and mild bouts of depression could confer some modest advantages in an evolutionary sense; eg, by increasing one's empathy toward others, which could be highly adaptive in obvious ways. [cf. "A broken heart prepares man for the service of God, but dejection corrodes service."-- Rabbi Bunam of Pzysha].

This could be true, in theory, for more severe depression, but there, the maladaptive aspects of the illness would likely outweigh any modest advantages by a huge margin; eg, the 15% mortality rate in major depression (naturalistic studies), mostly by suicide.

Dr. Pies doesn't cite the specific study, so it's unclear what he's referring to. But it's also worth pointing out that numerous studies have found no relationship between depression and increased mortality. See here, here and here. I'm not trying to dispute the correlation between major depressive disorder and mortality, which I think is pretty clear, especially when it comes to cardiovascular illness. I'm merely trying to show that even a fact as "obvious" as the link between depression and mortality gets complicated and contested very quickly. (Things get even more complicated, of course, when the conversation turns to things like the cognitive deficits of depression.) Here's the summary of a large review on the subject:

There were 57 studies found; 29 (51%) were positive, 13 (23%) negative, and 15 (26%) mixed. Twenty-one studies (37%) ranked among the better studies on the strength of evidence scale used in this study, but there are too few comparable, well-controlled studies to provide a sound estimate of the mortality risk associated with depression. Only six studies controlled for more than one of the four major mediating factors. Suicide accounted for less than 20% of the deaths in psychiatric samples, and less than 1% in medical and community samples. Depression seems to increase the risk of death by cardiovascular disease, especially in men, but depression does not seem to increase the risk of death by cancer. Variability in methods prevents a more rigorous meta-analysis of risk.

Dr. Pies has also argued that it was irresponsible to write about this speculative theory, since it might lead people to neglect treatment. Just to be clear: Neither I, nor Dr. Thomson, ever suggest that people shouldn't seek help for depression. That's just not in the article. Dr. Thomson is critical of what he regards as the "overprescription" of anti-depressants, but that's hardly a novel criticism of modern psychiatry. In fact, one can believe that the analytic-rumination hypothesis is a deeply flawed idea - and there are many good reasons for believing so - and still believe that we're too reliant on medications that aren't better than placebos for treating mild to moderate cases of depression. (Dr. Thomson, for instance, believes that we need more therapy, just better focused on solving real life problems.) But this was not an article about how to treat depression. This was an article about a new theory that attempts to explain why a disorder that feels so goddamn awful is also so common.

As I note repeatedly in the article, this hypothesis remains entirely speculative, with no direct evidence to support it. Given the dismal history of psychiatric speculations - we have no idea, for instance, why SSRI's work, when they do work - the odds are stocked strongly against it. But let's not pretend that modern psychiatry is such a settled science that it can't tolerate a controversial new idea.
I'm guessing this discussion will continue.

Dr. Lynn Nadel - Building Brains, Making Minds

I'm not buying this view of mind, but this is an interesting presentation of the cognitive neuroscience of the brain and mind.

This is the first of six lectures from the University of Arizona Mind and Brain series, all of which will be available online in video format, and also on iTunes. The next one is this coming Tuesday, on the evolution of mind.
On February 23, 2010, Dr. Lynn Nadel, University of Arizona Regents' Professor, Psychology, presented "Building Brains, Making Minds" in the first lecture of the College of Science's Mind and Brain Lecture Series.

What does the brain do? The ancients thought it was a radiator, cooling the blood. Modern views see it as an activator, using inputs from the environment in combination with prior knowledge to generate behaviors (walking, talking, eating and drinking) and mental states (feelings, desires and beliefs). Recently the idea has emerged that the brain acts as a predictor, using inputs and stored knowledge to generate models of the world, and of the consequences of possible actions we and others might pursue. These models can predict what will happen in the next minute, hour or decade, and allow us to behave in the most adaptive way.

The Dalai Lama on His Efforts for Tibet

The Essential Life and Teachings
by His Holiness the Dalai Lama


Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

...I try to stay joyful. If we want to work effectively for freedom and justice, it is better to do so without anger or deviousness. If we ourselves feel calm, and if we act with a sincere motivation, we can accomplish many things in the 30 or 50 active years of our life. And if some positive results have already been seen from this approach, I think I can say that this is in part because of my commitment to the pacifist cause, a commitment which is motivated by a genuine belief in the brotherhood of mankind.

We are not a very large or powerful nation, but our way of life, our culture, and our spiritual tradition have helped us follow the way of peace even at times of tremendous difficulty and hardship, and have given us courage in our wish to develop love and compassion. When the time comes, the Tibetan people longs with all its heart to take responsibility for the high plateau, which is our homeland, and to transform it into a sanctuary of peace where mankind will live side by side with nature, in harmony.

--from The Dalai Lama's Little Book of Inner Peace: The Essential Life and Teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

This week's Special Announcement includes news on Tibet Uprising Day (March 10), and a link to the Dalai Lama's message. To learn more, read the latest
News from Snow Lion.

Paul W Andrews & Andy Thompson - The Bright Side of Being Blue: Depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems [UPDATED]

This is an interesting article, but as near as I can tell, it can only be read online or printed - no download. This article was the foundation for Jonah Lehrer's recent article in the New York Times Magazine on Depression's Upside. This article generated some serious discussion, including a biting response from Dr. Ron Pies, of SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse and editor of Psychiatric Times. Jonah has since responded to Dr. Pies.

It's interesting to see important people discussing important topics. These are important for the progression of the field.

For what it's worth, I'm pretty much not buying the evolutionary psychology position that we evolved depression to solve complex problems - sounds silly when you say it out loud.

* * * *

And by the way . . . . Seriously, folks, it's called Open Access - get used to it. Making people pay $15 or more (I've seen as much as $45) for a single article is both criminal and stupid. Do you want people to know about your research, or do you want it to collect dust in a university library, never to be seen again?

I'm sure it isn't the authors, but the publishers, who pull this shit - but it must stop. Open Access is here to stay, and Peer-2-Peer is the future - we will cut out the publishers entirely one day.

Psychol Rev. 2009 Jul;116(3):620-54.

The bright side of being blue: depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems

Andrews PW, Thomson JA Jr.

Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA 23298-0126, USA.

Depression is the primary emotional condition for which help is sought. Depressed people often report persistent rumination, which involves analysis, and complex social problems in their lives. Analysis is often a useful approach for solving complex problems, but it requires slow, sustained processing, so disruption would interfere with problem solving. The analytical rumination hypothesis proposes that depression is an evolved response to complex problems, whose function is to minimize disruption and sustain analysis of those problems by (a) giving the triggering problem prioritized access to processing resources, (b) reducing the desire to engage in distracting activities (anhedonia), and (c) producing psychomotor changes that reduce exposure to distracting stimuli. As processing resources are limited, sustained analysis of the triggering problem reduces the ability to concentrate on other things. The hypothesis is supported by evidence from many levels-genes, neurotransmitters and their receptors, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, neuroenergetics, pharmacology, cognition, behavior, and efficacy of treatments. In addition, the hypothesis provides explanations for puzzling findings in the depression literature, challenges the belief that serotonin transmission is low in depression, and has implications for treatment. Copyright (c) 2009 APA, all rights reserved.

PMID: 19618990 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
You can read the whole article online in Google Docs.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Hokai Sobol - Emergent Dharma: By Any Upaya Necessary

I'm really liking the new articles being posted at Buddhist Geeks - and this one is of particular interest to me as I seek a postmodern Buddhism.

Emergent Dharma: By Any Upaya Necessary

Posted 02. Mar, 2010 by Hokai Sobol

“When in doubt, bow.”

– anonymous master

Emergent Dharma: By Any Upaya Necessary

Now we are conscious evolutionary beings, an evolving intelligence becoming aware of its own potential to go beyond present limitations. This very well applies to the way we go about Dharma. Living Dharma is about discovering the radical, indestructible, dynamic continuity, and then serving it fully, by best means available, for the benefit of everyone.

A Project for the New Buddhist Century

The days of initial immigrant Dharma are gone, but mainstream Buddhists still tend to frame a lot of their thinking in East/West terms, so the most frequently made threefold division isn’t View, Meditation, and Action, or even Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, but instead it’s Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and Vipassana. Perhaps it’s due to marketplace pressure and the ubiquitous brand™ management, that influence our classifications. Or perhaps it’s an attempt to create an impossible diversity, for these three modes of the tradition have never co-existed alongside, their historical forms never touching in any manner whatsoever. What will come of them in a shared timespace remains to be seen. Meanwhile, we also have a number of Buddhisms known by their national designation, including Korean, Chinese, but also American Buddhism.

A different distinction, however, needs to be made. What we ought to discern at this point is the three horizons, invisible to classical teachings, within which all previous threefold divisions, including the Zen-Tibetan-Vipassana, can be approached, practiced and interpreted: the strongly felt but often unnamed traditional, modern, and postmodern frameworks.

Because these frameworks include worldviews, identities, values, needs, and self-evident truths, they exert huge influence on the way Dharma in any form is understood, practiced, organized, and promoted. Typically they produce fundamentalist, rationalist, and relativist approaches to every aspect of Sangha, of Dharma, and of Buddha.

In terms of historical development, traditional precedes modern which precedes postmodern. There’s an undeniable organic continuity between them. Nonetheless, because of a dialectic tension, the three are notorious for deep mutual distrust, known at large as culture war. Such behavior is somewhat tragicomical, being reminiscent of actions by three generations in a dysfunctional family. As Frederick Jackson Turner wrote, “The evolutionarily later always subsumes and includes the evolutionarily earlier.”

Whether our practice is in the Vipassana, Zen, Tibetan, or any other stream of Dharma with headquarters in either East or West, we may go about it in any of the three ways. And any of these three ways has moderate and extreme manifestations. Traditional brings many values to the table, but can also produce rigidity and dogmatism. Modern approaches will emphasize pragmatism and critical inquiry, while often sliding into rationalism and reductionism. Postmodern approaches will assert the need for sensitivity and inclusion, and yet discard the many virtues of tradition and rationality as oppressive and limiting, while unwittingly paving the way for extreme relativism.

Now, the way to go forward is to develop and sustain objectivity in relation to all these, because we need their healthy aspects to establish a robust Dharma for the 21st century. To midwife a relevant, emergent Buddhadharma, we need what’s best in traditional, modern, and postmodern stages of psychological, cultural, and institutional unfolding, in addition to the unhindered ultimate realization, however defined, measured, or tested. In the words of the Integral philosopher Ken Wilber, we must “transcend and include.” That, in short, is the basis for a new Buddhist century.
Read the whole post.

Hokai Sobol has contributed 3 posts on Buddhist Geeks.

Hokai Sobol is a pathfinder, commited to the formulation of an authentic, no-nonsense spirituality for the 21st century. Teaching with groups and individuals, contributing actively online and offline, he is fostering the emergence and propagation of a non-sectarian, real world, 'post-eastwest' Dharma. Living in Rijeka, Croatia, with friends and partners in Europe, United States and Japan.


Dharma Quote - Examine All Misunderstandings

by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen
edited by Khenmo Trinlay Chodron

Dharma Quote of the Week

The activities of this degenerate age are like a madman's performance of dance.
No matter what we do, there is no way to please others.
Think about what is essential.
This is my heart's advice.
--Bhande Dharmaradza

In any group of people, there is always some misunderstanding. You cannot satisfy everyone, no matter what you do. The Bodhicaryavatara says that every individual has a different way of thinking. Thus, it is very difficult to please everyone. Even the Buddha could not do it, so how can we? Instead of trying to please others, please yourself by applying yourself fully to bodhicitta.

Investigate your situation carefully, according to the Dharma. For us, it is more important to know what is best than to know how to please everyone. Know what is right, and on the basis of your own wisdom and skill, just do it. Don't expect that other people will be pleased with you or that they will be happy about what you do. Rather, do what's best, what's helpful for yourself and for others. If they are happy about it, that's fine. If they are not happy, what can you do?

--from A Complete Guide to the Buddhist Path by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen, edited by Khenmo Trinlay Chodron, published by Snow Lion Publications

This week's Special Announcement includes news on Tibet Uprising Day (March 10), and a link to the Dalai Lama's message. To learn more, read the latest
News from Snow Lion.

Personality Disorders Disappearing? - Laura L. Smith, Ph.D.

Anxiety  and OCD Exposed

One of the suggestions for the DSM-V revisions is to do away with Axis II diagnoses, which, if you ask me, is insane. There were, and are, good reasons to maintain the personality disorders, including many of those being dropped (especially Narcissistic Personality Disorder).

This post from Dr. Laura Smith at the Anxiety & OCD Exposed looks at the issue.

Personality Disorders Disappearing?

By Laura L. Smith, Ph.D.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM IV), a book that defines and describes the symptoms of emotional problems, has been in the revision process for years. Health professionals (and insurance companies) routinely use the manual to guide diagnosis and treatment. Recently, considerable attention has been given to the proposed changes in preparation for the fifth edition of the book (to be released in 2013). The possible changes to the section on personality disorders will certainly generate much discussion and controversy.

Personality (oversimplified) refers to the patterns of behavior, emotional responses, and characteristics that tend to be stable for a long period of time. Personality disorders, as previously defined in the DSM IV, were patterns of behavior and experience that were inflexible, pervasive, stable, and led to distress and impairment. Ten personality disorders were identified. Since the DSM IV was first published in 1994, the diagnosis of personality disorders has been fraught with problems. For example, personality by definition was supposed to be stable, yet people diagnosed with one personality disorder tended to lose that diagnosis or switch to another diagnosis over time. That didn’t make sense.

Another problem with the diagnosis was that if someone had one personality disorder it was quite likely that he or she would also have another personality disorder. And finally, the DSM IV suggested that personality disorders were all or none—for example, someone with Borderline Personality Disorder had five out of nine symptoms. So, if a person only had 4, she wouldn’t “qualify” for the diagnosis. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the most common diagnosis given by mental health practitioners is Personality Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (301.9 Personality Disorder NOS).

The revision of the DSM hopes to address these problems by eliminating a number of diagnoses that were not strongly supported as reliable and valid. The current plan is to eliminate simple symptom checklists and provide a narrative description of traits for each personality disorder. The diagnosis will be made by assigning ratings indicating degree of severity.

We look forward to these developments and especially appreciate the emphasis on severity ratings as opposed to the previous all or none approach to assigning such diagnoses. (In other words, you either had one or you didn’t rather than having a small to a large amount of it.) See our earlier blog post What’s the Difference between Swine Flu, Depression, and Pregnancy?

The categories that were retained include:

  • Borderline Personality Disorder (emotionally volatile, fearful of abandonment, and impulsive)
  • Schizotypal (eccentric, odd, and detached)
  • Antisocial/psychopathic (disregard for others, lack empathy, and break rules)
  • Avoidant (hypersensitive to evaluation, fearful, and feelings of inadequacy)
  • Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (cold, rule bound, perfectionistic, orderly)

In the meantime, we can all say goodbye to the following personality disorders as they will no longer appear in DSM V:

  • Paranoid Personality Disorder (highly distrusting and suspicious)
  • Schizoid Personality Disorder (detached and emotionless)
  • Histrionic Personality Disorder (dramatic and attention seeking)
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder (self aggrandizing and lack of empathy)
  • Dependent Personality Disorder (clingy and submissively helpless)

Does anyone know where they went?

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of adults and children with obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as personality disorders, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and learning disorders. Dr. Smith is a widely published author of articles and books to the profession and the public, including: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies, Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies, Depression For Dummies, Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies, Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth, and Why Can’t I Be the Parent I Want to Be?

Moral Intuitions, Reliability, and Disagreement

Geeky, interesting philosophy stuff.

Moral Intuitions, Reliability, and Disagreement

by David Killoren

There is an ancient, yet still lively, debate in moral epistemology about the epistemic significance of disagreement. One of the important questions in that debate is whether, and to what extent, the prevalence and persistence of disagreement between our moral intuitions causes problems for those who seek to rely on intuitions in order to make moral decisions, issue moral judgments, and craft moral theories. Meanwhile, in general epistemology, there is a relatively young, and very lively, debate about the epistemic significance of disagreement. A central question in that debate concerns peer disagreement: When I am confronted with an epistemic peer with whom I disagree, how should my confidence in my beliefs change (if at all)? The disagreement debate in moral epistemology has not been brought into much contact with the disagreement debate in general epistemology (though McGrath [2007] is an important exception). A purpose of this paper is to increase the area of contact between these two debates. In Section 1, I try to clarify the question I want to ask in this paper – this is the question whether we have any reasons to believe what I shall call “anti-intuitivism.” In Section 2, I argue that anti-intuitivism cannot be supported solely by investigating the mechanisms that produce our intuitions. In Section 3, I discuss an anti-intuitivist argument from disagreement which relies on the so-called “Equal Weight View.” In Section 4, I pause to clarify the notion of epistemic parity and to explain how it ought to be understood in the epistemology of moral intuition. In Section 5, I return to the anti-intuitivist argument from disagreement and explain how an apparently-vulnerable premise of that argument may be quite resilient. In Section 6, I introduce a novel objection against the Equal Weight View in order to show how I think we can successfully resist the anti-intuitivist argument from disagreement.

Download Article PDF

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Cole Bitting - Furies! - The Struggle For Growth [e-book]

My online friend Cole, he of the Fable blog, has just released a new e-book, Furies! - The Struggle For Growth. If you remember my recent e-book (over on the side bar), change and growth are topics in which I am interested.

Cole's new book is a great introduction to the struggles we face and how we might learn to grow from them. Some of the material has appeared on his blog, so if you have been reading him for any time, you know what he is about.

The Furies download page. It's free!

Here is a little snip from the book, to give you a sense of what you get in this fine book:
Bad things happen to good people. They are unable to control the events and are rendered helpless. They are sad more for themselves than for their loss. They struggle to accommodate violations to their core beliefs and self-concepts and suffer trauma. If we see the suffering, how do we respond? If we have no response, we turn away. We are at least apathetic, indifferent to our empathy, or perhaps somewhat psychopathic, without empathy.

If we respond with rage, we turn against. We demand that others stop suffering and atone for the pain they cause us. We hold them in contempt. We are mad at their madness. We are cruel, egotistic and perhaps narcissistic. Rage at helplessness is the negation of empathy.

What if we turn towards the victim and also towards our own empathy?

Pity and compassion are behaviors and emotions evoked by the suffering of others. The difference between the two is the way we practice our response. If we respond with sadness, we risk offering only pity. If instead, we respond with generosity and love (joy in a sense), then we offer compassion. Do we respond to their helplessness with helplessness or with caring action? Do we respond with rigid prescription or empathic coaching? With egotistic defense or with unguarded attunement?

We can offer pity to individuals, families, groups, cities, societies, etc. We can only offer compassion to one person at a time. For compassion to be compassion, the person suffering must feel felt and we must suffer with them. If we defend against our internal experience of their pain, we compromise our practice of compassion.

And what if we defend against our own emotional pain?
Bad things do happen. When we cannot control events. We fail, disappoint, err. Some of our crises become trauma.
Chris Brewin et al.:4
Trauma generally involves a violation of basic assumptions [knowledge] connected with survival as a member [achievement] of a social group [social relationships]. These include assumptions (not necessarily conscious ones) about personal invulnerability from death or disease [achievement], status in a social hierarchy [social relationships], the ability to meet internal moral standards and achieve major life goals [achievement], the continued availability and reliability of attachment figures [social relationships], and the existence of an orderly relation between actions and outcomes [knowledge].

A traumatic event is a violation of primal assumptions - a knowledge wound. It overwhelms our life-concepts: self-concept, concepts of others, and our understanding of the world. It's a kind of existential terror, like awe in a way.

Awe is a knowledge emotion (as are curiosity, wonder, foolishness or cluelessness) and tremendously potent. Awe is a positive emotion, and terror is its negative counterpart. These emotions weaken our attachments to our life-concepts and our sense of self. (p. 8-10)
Cole brings together mind science, spiritual practice, and daily wisdom to his explication of how we handle emotional pain (or fail to) and how we can grow from the hardest experiences in our lives.

Owen Flanagan - The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Eudaimonia

An old but interesting podcast from Owen Flanagan on the philosophy of Buddhism. I'm not sure I agree with his version of Buddhism, and Loden Jinpa certainly doesn't (see below).

Podcast: Owen Flanagan
The Bodhisattva’s Brain:
Eudaimonia - Buddhist Style

Philosophers call theories that promote happiness "eudaimonistic." Aristotle and J.S. Mill are eudaimonistic philosophers. Kant, who famously said "it is one thing to be happy another to be good," is non-eudaimonistic. Is Buddhism eudaimonistic?

In the following lecture, the philosopher Owen Flanagan explores whether Buddhism is eudaimonistic. In so doing, he presents some interpretive points about the general structure of Buddhist ethics, and the plausibility of empirical claims about Buddhism and happiness.

This podcast was produced by the Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy. To find out more about the CSCP, and our lecture series,
please visit our website.

Flanagan_headshot100x100Download Audio Podcast

Read paper

Mind & Reality Keynote Video

I'm currently reading Flanagan's The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them and will have some things to say about it in a future post.

Here is the response to the podcast from Loden Jinpa (Clark Scott):

I finally got around to listening to the second hour of this podcast.

In the second half I found myself less enthusiastic about Owen’s presentation. I find it hard to hear someone present fiction as fact…I can understand how someone not a belonging to a tradition can speak for that tradition. He even suggested that the Dalai Lama doesn’t believe in rebirth! I love thought provoking discussions, I mean to did link to this podcast in the first place but, I was disappointed by the second Question and answer section.

If you are into philosophy this podcast is worth a listen. Owen is thought provoking. There are some assertions he puts forward as Buddhist theories that are simply incorrect and this is a shame.

Minute 10.35 At one point his says that Buddhist ethics is rich although.

He goes on to say the practice of compassion and loving-kindness for all beings might be way too demanding but it is nonetheless ethically rich.

This shows me that he really doesn’t get the process of transformation presented in Buddhist meditation. Yet he says at the very start of the lecture that he is a skeptic in regards to whether Buddhist meditation can produce eudaimonistic.Is this tantamount to not believing in modern physics just because the experiments were not done by you the individual? I NOTsaying that he should just accept Buddhist theories on the production on eudaimonistic or what Buddhist yogis would call the bliss of meditation. What I am saying is it is not good science to dismiss them outright without first doing the tests.

He also over simplifies the Buddhist theory of emptiness. Minute 9.40 His description of the self as a psychologically continuous and connected being is classic Sautrantika’s view of selflessness and this is not emptiness. It is not the final view of the Buddha nor that of Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti or Tsong Khapa.

Also he says that Jay Garfield says that the Dalai Lama is pandering to Westerners by presenting Buddhadharma as a path to happiness. Because the Buddha first teaching was about removing suffering.

I think that there is something in that statement that is worth looking at.

Happiness for the sake of happiness, or put another way, happiness as the goal is not a Buddhist practice. However it is a byproduct of the path and to suggest otherwise is simply silly.

Having said all that, I really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Postmodern Man - The second generation is here

This looks like it might be a very interesting book, especially for those who are interested in the breakdown of traditional narrative in the postmodern novel - from The Smart Set. Shields is a very good novelist, but here he assembles a post-modern mash-up of his texts and those of others, and sources none of them.

Postmodern Man

The second generation is here, and boy does it feel right.
By Morgan Meis

It's been more than 30 years since Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard closed the historical door on Modernism. It was 1979, to be exact, when Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Rumors of the death of Modernism had been swirling for years. But death comes in stages, especially when the mortally wounded is a "movement" or an "age." Lyotard's book managed to tie all those rumors together and then package the result as "Postmodernism," the new next thing.

Lyotard focused on the idea of narratives. Past periods, Modernism in particular, had been fond of what he called "meta-narratives," all-inclusive narrative frameworks that explained everything, more or less. Think, for instance, of Marxism and the way that class struggle drives every other part of the story. Look at the objects around you, the way you're dressed, current politics, movements in the arts. Strip away the details, any good Marxist will tell you, and lurking beneath you will find the class struggle. That bottle of water you're drinking is, in its essence, a natural resource owned by someone who then employs laborers hiring themselves out to work at a price determined by the market. This central relationship between wage-earners and owners of the means of production determines political structures, ideas on morality, even the dynamics of the family. For the Marxist, class struggle is the meta-narrative overarching all the other stories that fit inside.

Lyotard called the new age Postmodern because he thought that such meta-narratives no longer captured the complexity of late-20th-century existence. The fragmentation of identity brought about by modernization and globalization was too profound. At best, any narrative was going to tell only a small part of the story. Meta-narratives had blown apart into an endless chaos of micro-narratives.

All of this probably sounds roughly plausible, if not downright obvious. The only real difficulty comes in listening to Lyotard himself talking about Postmodernism:

The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.

Need I even take the time to point out how old-fashioned-sounding are these sentences from Mr. Lyotard? They're like a parody of hip academic prose. As turgid as anything written by a Modernist thinker, they manage also to be pointlessly obscure. This fascination with "putting forward the unpresentable in presentation itself" was a bugbear amongst French theorists of all stripes in the ’70s. America had Five Easy Pieces; the French had Maurice Blanchot and the insight that, "To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking — and since it cannot, in order to become its echo I have, in a way, to silence it."

That kind of jargon-madness was shared by many in the first generation of Postmodernity, French and non-French alike. They were like Modernists unhinged. They wanted to gallop off into the absolute freedom of their micro-narratives but they'd all been raised on the heavy gruel of Modernist cant. Those fattened bellies could never get off the ground. Lyotard followed up The Postmodern Condition with The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, in which he attempted to answer the crucial question, "How can the reality of the referent be subordinated to the effectuation of verification procedures, or even to the instructions that allow anyone who so wishes to effectuate those procedures?" The answer, of course, is, "It can't." Luckily for the rest of us, it turns out that it doesn't matter. But it has taken 30 years or so to become fully confident about that fact. Only now, after living in the Postmodern condition for a full generation, have we stopped worrying about the reality of the referent and moved on to the simple act of referring.

This has taken a fair bit of learning: learning how to be, how to talk, how to think again. It has meant, at the very least, developing a new language, a new style. That style ought to personify much of what Lyotard was talking about while dropping his way of talking about it. It also means giving up the theoretical worries. Lyotard was always twisting himself into rhetorical pretzels trying to prove to the Modernist that Postmodernism is real. Second-generation Postmodernists are perfectly, perhaps painfully aware that Postmodernism is real. They want to know how to live in that reality, how to grasp it.

This brings us, finally, to David Shields' new book, Reality Hunger. It is a book of fragmentary thoughts and insights numbered 1 to 617 and divided into chapters with titles like "books for people who find television too slow." Shields calls it "A Manifesto." That's a little in-joke on his part since there couldn't be anything more Modernist than a manifesto, what with all the high-sounding pronouncements and meta-narratives kicking about. But Shields has written a 21st-century Manifesto, a manifesto in the minor key that follows the tone of one of the opening quotes by Graham Greene, "When we are not sure, we are alive." That aliveness and not-sureness are what Shields means by reality. It is that for which he hungers.

The first generation of postmodernists, Baudrillard for instance, were constantly at pains to show us that the new reality was manufactured and therefore, in a funny sense, not really real. Baudrillard called it the simulacrum. Reality had become simulation all the way through. To look for the underlying reality on which the simulation was based was to miss the point. Second-generation Postmodernists like Shields find such concerns boring. Here is Shields talking about what he calls the "American reality":

It stupefies, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is constantly outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.

Notice the subtle but profound shift in attitude. We have gone from worrying whether there is any reality at all to being overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the reality we face. Shields is impatient simply to get out there into the swirling mess of the world. He dismisses the fumbly navel gazing of first-generation Postmodernists with a wave of the hand. "Don't waste your time," he says, "get to the real thing. Sure, what's 'real'? Still, try to get to it." Taking up the insights of Andy Warhol (a second-generation Postmodernist born far ahead of his time), Shields says, "Marilyn and Elvis are just as much a part of the natural world as the ocean and a Greek God are." That is the terrain of the new natural, the new reality. Shields defines it in one succinct line: "There's nothing and everything going on."

These are some of the claims Shields makes in Reality Hunger and they're satisfying as far as claims go. They jibe reasonably well with what Lyotard was talking about in his Postmodern Condition. The real excitement of Reality Hunger is in the way Shields talks about our relationship to reality, the language he uses. When it comes to Postmodernity, the prose is finally starting to match up with the condition. First-generation Postmodernists always wrote like they were standing outside Postmodernism looking in. The sentences came falling to Earth like bombs. And nobody likes getting bombed. David Shields isn't bombing anyone — he's here on Earth with the rest of us working from the inside. Your standard first-generation Postmodernist was a fan of collage, bricolage, and the rest, but tended to exhibit the stuff in a professorial manner. We were given theories of collage, beaten over the head with concepts. Shields makes the same point by saying, simply, "I am quite content to go down in posterity as a scissors-and-paste man." The entire book is a giant word collage, but not in the overly self-conscious look-what-I'm-doing sort of way. Most of the time, he just does it.

The success of Reality Hunger is in how often it lays out ideas you’re already inhabiting. It's a loose-fitting coat of thinking and behaving that we've all been gently slipping over our shoulders for the last two decades. Every once in a while, Shields will spend a paragraph simply blurting out a list of works:

David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster. Leonard Michaels's Shuffle. Simon Gray's Smoking Dialogues, which dwarf his plays. Zadie Smith's Fail Better. The prologue to Slaughter-House-Five is the best thing Vonnegut ever wrote. Jean Stafford's A Mother in History. Samuel Pelang's The Motion of Light in Water. Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

He doesn't need to say anything else. That's the confidence in the language and the mood of Reality Hunger. You read that list and you simply nod your head...yep. Anyone who doesn't get that list simply isn't playing the game. Shields has started a new list with this book. It goes like this:

Reality Hunger. • 18 February 2010

Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. Hehas written for The Believer, Harper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. He can be reached at

Our Brains React Almost Instantaneously to Statements that Challenge Our Moral Values

That title explains an awful lot about American politics. I somehow missed this when it came out, but it's not surprising - much of what we think we have chosen as far as beliefs are little more than our rationalizations for choices we make totally outside of consciousness.

Five Words In and You’ve Decided

New research suggests our brains react almost instantaneously to statements that challenge our moral values.

By: Tom Jacobs | August 21, 2009

As the recent footage of contentious town hall meetings reminds us, it is difficult to have a reasoned discussion about our political differences — particularly when the issues at stake touch upon our moral values. New research suggests that part of the problem is the way we process information in the brain.

According to a paper recently published in the journal Psychological Science, the brain takes a mere quarter of a second to react to statements that contradict or challenge our ethical belief system. That nearly instantaneous neural response colors the way the rest of the sentence — and thus, the rest of the thought — is interpreted.

The research suggests that if you feel abortion is repugnant, reading the statement “I think abortion is appropriate in some cases because it means fewer unwanted, unloved children” is a two-stage process. The phrase “I think abortion is appropriate” sets off neural alarm bells in the brain, which may cause you to read the rest of the sentence — which contains the reasons behind the belief — with an attitude of skepticism or hostility.

“The first word indicating that a statement clashes with the reader’s value system elicits a very rapid and characteristic neural response,” the researchers write. They add that “strong disagreement rapidly influences the ongoing analysis of meaning.”

The research team, led by psychologist Jos J.A. Van Berkum of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Amsterdam, examined the brain function of two groups of people: Twenty-one members of “a relatively strict Christian party” and 22 self-described non-religious voters.

Working from party platforms, the researchers created a series of 158 statements members of the two groups would be expected to disagree over.

Statements included: “I think euthanasia is an acceptable course of action,” “I think the increasing emancipation of women is a positive development,” and “If my child were homosexual, I’d find this hard to accept.” Participants indicated their agreement or disagreement with each statement on a four-point scale.

As the study participants read the statements, their brain activity was monitored using an electroencephalograph. The researchers found that statements conflicting with the individual participant’s moral values increased the amplitude of two types of brain waves: one known as LPP, or late positive potential, and another called the N400 component.

The LPP “is elicited by stimuli with emotional content,” while the N400 “reflects neural processes involved in relating the meaning of a word to its context.” The latter result “suggests that people briefly experience difficulty making sense of an unfolding statement that strongly clashes with their personal values.”

The research has its limitations, including the fact that all the study participants were men. But it provides evidence that our unconscious reaction to statements challenging our beliefs occurs literally in milliseconds. So if you’re trying to influence someone’s opinion on a moral-values issue, it might be more effective to start with neutral language and build up to the morally controversial conclusion.

People will always disagree, but a sentence structured in such a way to avoid an instantaneous negative response, such as, “Since we don’t want to add to the already too-large number of unwanted children, I think abortion is appropriate,” might be a better starting point for a discussion.

TED Talks - Daniel Kahneman: The riddle of experience vs. memory

Good stuff. Kahneman offers some interesting thoughts on the current obsession with happiness in psychology research - it's not so easy to find as some might suggest.

About this talk

Using examples from vacations to colonoscopies, Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman reveals how our "experiencing selves" and our "remembering selves" perceive happiness differently. This new insight has profound implications for economics, public policy -- and our own self-awareness.

Daniel Kahneman is an eminence grise for the Freakonomics crowd. In the mid-1970s, with his collaborator Amos Tversky, he was among the first academics to pick apart exactly why we make "wrong" decisions. In their 1979 paper on prospect theory, Kahneman and Tversky examined a simple problem of economic risk. And rather than stating the optimal, rational answer, as an economist of the time might have, they quantified how most real people, consistently, make a less-rational choice. Their work treated economics not as a perfect or self-correcting machine, but as a system prey to quirks of human perception. The field of behavioral economics was born.

Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Memorial prize in 2002 for his work with Tversky, who died before the award was bestowed. In a lovely passage in his Nobel biography, Kahneman looks back on his deep collaboration with Tversky and calls for a new form of academic cooperation, marked not by turf battles but by "adversarial collaboration," a good-faith effort by unlike minds to conduct joint research, critiquing each other in the service of an ideal of truth to which both can contribute.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Is America a "Socially Just" Nation?

My first answer would be NO - we deny equal rights to one minority group (GLBT) based on archaic religious values, while other minority groups are overtly given equal rights (as though they are ours [white folks] to give) but are covertly discriminated against in jobs, education, and even housing, and 51% of the population (women) earn less than men simply because they are women.

We have some work to do to become a socially just culture/nation.

Here are few definitions of social justice - do you think these are valid, and if so, is America living up to these values? More importantly, does our mental health system manifest these values?
Smith (2003) defines a socially just world as having access to:
Adequate food, sleep, wages, education, safety, opportunity, institutional support, health care, child care, and loving relationships. “Adequate” means enough to allow [participation]in the world . . . without starving, or feeling economically trapped or uncompensated, continually exploited, terrorized, devalued, battered, chonically exhausted, or virtually enslaved (and for some reason, still, actually enslaved). (p. 167).
Bell (1997) states that the goal of social justice is:
Full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure. (p. 3)
Given these broad descriptions, we propose a working definition of social justice counseling/therapy:
Social justice counseling/therapy is an active philosophy and approach aimed at producing conditions that allow for equal access and opportunity; reducing or eliminating disparities in education, health care, employment, and other areas that lower the quality of life for affected populations; encouraging mental health professionals to consider micro, meso, and macro levels in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of client and client systems; and broadening the role of the helping professional to include not only counselor/therapist but advocate, consultant, psychoeducator, change agent, community worker, etc. (Sue & Sue, 2008, 292-293)
I like these definitions. The problem we see in training therapists, as Sue & Sue point out, is that we do not place any real value on reaching out to those groups that do not receive equal and fair treatment in our society.
Becoming culturally competent requires not only changes at an individual practice level, but also changes associated with how we define our helping role. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of mental health practitioners desire to enter direct clinical service, especially counseling and psychotherapy (Shullman, Celeste, & Strickland, 2006). The mental health profession has implicitly or explicitly glamorized and defined the clinician as one who conducts his or her trade—working with individuals—in an office environment. While the development of individual intervention skills has been the main focus in many graduate training programs, little emphasis is given to other roles, activities, or settings (Toporek & McNally, 2006). Thus, not only might therapists be lacking in systemsintervention knowledge and skills, but they may also become unaccustomed to, and uncomfortable about, leaving their offices. Yet work with racial/ethnic minority groups and immigrant populations suggests that out-of-office sites/activities (client homes, churches, volunteer organizations, etc.) and alternative helping roles (ombudsman, advocates, consultants, organizational change agents, facilitators of indigenous healing systems, etc.) may prove more therapeutic and effective (Atkinson et al., 1993; Warren & Constantine, 2007). Social justice counseling with marginalized groups in our society is most enhanced when mental health professionals (1) can understand how individual and systemic worldviews shape clinical practice and (2) when they are equipped with organizational and systemic knowledge, expertise, and skills.
The authors offer a nice model for understanding worldviews, but this is where a more complex model (such as Clare Graves, via Beck & Cowan's Spiral Dynamics, or Jean Gebser) might be very useful. Even more useful might be the newer work in cultural psychology (see The Cultural Psychology of Self: Place, Morality and Art in Human Worlds).

Counseling the Culturally Diverse (2008), by Sue & Sue, is one of the best textbooks we have had so far. Highly recommended.