Saturday, September 25, 2010

Electing Obama Made the "Culture War" Even Worse, Not Better

From The American Prospect,

Should Science Have a Soul? TEDTalks Playlist

This is kind of cool - I wasn't aware the TED folks were putting together themed talks into a single post. Good idea. This is a rather interesting collect of people - Michael Specter, Billy Graham, and Sam Harris.

Should Science Have a Soul? TEDTalks Playlist

Today’s playlist is about the relationship between science and morality. These speakers question whether or not they can and should live in the same space. Their differing and provocative opinions are sure to incite thought, uncertainty, and passion.

If Michael Specter could travel through time, he would travel into the future to witness the marvels of technology and progress that inevitably lay upon the horizon. What he fears is the restriction of science and progress by a morality that believes itself to be superior to proof.

Reverend Billy Graham asserts that despite its good intentions, technology cannot solve all of our problems: namely human evil, human suffering, and death.

Sam Harris believes that scientific reasoning can provide moral compass rooted in fact, and describes the need for a standard universal morality to guarantee human well being.

Here are some other talks you might be interested in that discuss the intersection of science, technology, morality and religion:

We’d love to hear more of your favorite TEDTalks about Science and Morality. Add your suggestions to the comments below, join the conversation on Facebook, or email with the subject PLAYLIST: SCIENCE & MORALITY. (Jog your memory with the TEDTalks spreadsheet.)

Curator of this playlist: Rachel Tobias

All in the Mind - On the Couch: Perminder Sachdev and Norman Doidge

All in the Mind's Natasha Mitchell speaks with Perminder Sachdev and Norman Doidge in this week's podcast. I am not familiar with Sachdev, but I have read Doidge's book, The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from Frontiers of Brain Science. Good book.

Great discussion.

On the Couch: Perminder Sachdev and Norman Doidge

Two world renowned psychiatrists, Perminder Sachdev and Norman Doidge, join Natasha Mitchell on the All in the Mind couch, prepared to be asked anything. Are you normal? What is alien hand syndrome? The ticks of Tourette syndrome -- what causes them? Do stories of broken brains generate little more than a cabinet of neurological curiosities?

Show Transcript | Hide Transcript

Transcripts are available on Wednesdays. Audio directly after broadcast on Saturdays.


Dr Norman Doidge
Psychiatrist and author
Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research
Columbia University, New York
& Department of Psychiatry
University of Toronto, Canada

Professor Perminder Sachdev
Director of Neuropsychiatric Institute
Prince of Wales Hospital
& Scientia Professor
University of New South Wales
Sydney, Australia

Further Information

Slow TV video presentation of this forum

Melbourne Writers Festival, 2010 - details of this forum

Stem cells and brain tales
Interview with Professor Fred Gage, broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National, 2010

Part 1 of 2: The Power of Plasticity
Broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National, 2008

Part 2 of 2: The Power of Plasticity
Broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National, 2008


Title: The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from Frontiers of Brain Science
Author: Norman Doidge, M.D
Publisher: Scribe, 2007 (ISBN: 978192125827)

Title: The Yipping Tiger and other tales from the neuropsychiatric clinic
Author: Perminder Sachdev, M.D
Publisher: UNSW Press, August 2009 (ISBN: 9781742230849)


Natasha Mitchell

Friday, September 24, 2010

Big Questions Online - Is human uniqueness really nothing more than a neurological phenomenon?

This is an interesting piece by Roger Scruton, from Big Questions Online - Raymond Tallis coined the term neurotrash, a word that refers to all the neuro-[fill in the blank] things:
neuro-ethics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-art history, neuro-law, neuro-economics, neuro-politics, neuro-jurisprudence, neuro-marketing, neuro-musicology, neuro-poetics, neuro-philosophy, and even neuro-theology
None of these really mean anything, though - what little we know about neuro-anything is minimal and incomplete - we're just making stuff up from little pieces of knowledge. That's dangerous.

Against Neurotrash

Is human uniqueness really nothing more than a neurological phenomenon?

image: David Ridley/Getty Images

By Roger Scruton
Friday, September 3, 2010

Genuine science and true religion cannot conflict. Science discovers truths, religion reveals them. But no truth contradicts another, and all truths have a place in the scheme of things, bound each to each in a web of mutual implications. Pope John Paul II believed this, and made a point of emphasizing that the Church has neither the right nor the power to contradict the findings of science. Moreover, if science and religion conflict over some matter, then it is religion, not science that must give way. Of course the Church has not always obeyed that rule. But it is a rule dictated by the laws of thought.

Averro√ęs and Aquinas wrote of faith and reason, rather than religion and science. But their concern was essentially the same: to reconcile human discovery and divine revelation. This concern has been central to Western civilization from its beginnings in the city-states of Greece. We are shocked by Plato, when he defends the “noble lie,” inviting us to propagate unbelievable myths for the sake of social order. We are shocked by Dostoevsky, when he writes that “if I must choose between Christ and Truth, it is Christ that I shall choose.” We are shocked by the person who protects his sacred texts from scientific examination, lest their status as “revelations” be put in doubt. We accept that there are falsehoods that it might be dangerous or impolitic to question. But we hope always for another and purer kind of religion, purged of superstition and pious fairy tales.

Since the Enlightenment, science has been capturing territory from religion, explaining the cosmos and our tiny corner of it in ways that make no mention of a supernatural plan. And for two centuries religion has been gradually giving way, accepting that now this feature of our world, now that one, could be accounted for without reference to God’s purpose. But our situation has begun to change. In recent years a new kind of science has arisen, one with a more aggressive face. It wishes to seize territory in advance of any negotiation, and which often lays waste to the place that it conquers.

I am thinking of the science that for a while described itself as “sociobiology” before changing its name to “evolutionary psychology” and joining forces with that ubiquitous thing called “neuroscience.” Quite suddenly it seems as though the whole remaining territory of religion has been confiscated. Free choice? Just a story we tell ourselves, after the brain has “set things in motion.” Neighbor-love? Just an “evolutionally stable strategy,” no different in principle from the altruism of ants and bears. The moral imperative? Just the voice of “group selection” resounding in our genes. Beauty? Just the call of sexual selection, the wonder of the peahen at the peacock’s ludicrous tail. Take any feature of the human condition that has suggested our special significance in the eyes of God, dress it up as an “adaptation,” and if possible do a few fMRI scans so as to locate it in some region of the brain and — Hey! Presto! — what looked like a revelation of the supernatural is turned into a piece of neural circuitry.

So great has been the excitement generated by this trick that whole new disciplines have arisen, incorporating the prefix “neuro” in their names, and offering to explore the real truth of the human being by making pictures of his brain. We now have neuro-ethics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-art history and neuro-law; we have neuro-economics, neuro-politics, neuro-jurisprudence and neuro-marketing. There is neuro-musicology, neuro-poetics, neuro-philosophy and even neuro-theology, a marvelous discipline that parachutes itself right into the enemy camp, in order to explain away our religious illusions by locating the place in the hypothalamus that pumps them out.

This neurotrash, as the philosopher and neurosurgeon Raymond Tallis calls it, feeds into the “selfish gene” philosophy that has caused such a stir since Richard Dawkins’s book of that title. The Selfish Gene excited people for the same reason as the new disciplines excite them, namely, because it seemed to “bring us down to size,” to rewrite the human condition as nothing special, and to lift the great moral burden that arises from the thought that we are the goal of creation, and that our lives will be judged. Unlike the theories of Dawkins, however, which are serious and vindicated science, the neuro-theories are essentially improvised. Explanandum and explanans are both described in question-begging terms, the one as a form of behavior that could be exhibited as well by a baboon as by a person, the other as a neural process that can be picked up, after the event, by a brain scan. This “science without theory” and “observation without concepts” has little or nothing in common with the patient collecting of evidence, and the tentative formulation of causal laws, that we observe in the work of Darwin. And the result is seized upon precisely because it seems to shoot us forward to a predetermined goal, which is that of reducing the human being to a biological computer.

Brain science is undeniably making important discoveries, as it maps the workings of the mind onto the wrinkles of the cortex. The problem is not with the science, but with its hasty and motivated application. The brain is an important part of the human being, but it is not the whole human being. And it is not the part that we relate to, when we address each other I to I. Religion arose from the attempt to make sense of our condition as responsible and self-conscious individuals: it claimed the territory of human relations and built its great castles there, in the open terrain of rational dialogue. Neurotrash has invaded that terrain and knocked down the castles. But it has also laid waste the land. What it tells us about the terrain of thought and emotion is not more true than religion but less true.

Take the case of erotic love. The Bible succinctly explains the deep significance for each other of Adam and Eve. What it tells us is beautifully amplified by Milton in Paradise Lost. But the truths so finely discerned by Milton and by the author of Genesis are not captured by brain science. That science has made great progress in understanding the mechanism of pair-bonding, induced by the release of oxytocin into the cortex during intercourse. The theory shows what is common to people and laboratory rats. But it says nothing about what distinguishes them, which is the I-to-I relation of lovers, as revealed in the smile and the kiss. That is why the conflict between religion and science endures, even now, when biology has dispelled so many of the mysteries of the human condition. People hold on to their religion because it protects and endorses the belief that science might appear to steal from us, but which it can never steal in fact: the belief in human uniqueness.

Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher living in England. His many books include Beauty and The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope. Learn more about him at

Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche - Whatever meditation experience arises, you must continue

by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
foreword by the Dalai Lama
introduction by Lama Tashi Namgyal


Dharma Quote of the Week

If you continue to practice meditation, then your experience will gradually increase and there will be greater and greater stability and greater and greater lucidity. However, the experiences that can arise in meditation can take various different forms. And in spite of the fact that the person has a real recognition of the mind's nature, there is still the possibility or probability of fluctuation in experience even after that.

Sometimes you may feel that you have amazing, tremendous meditation, and at other times you may feel that you have no meditation at all. This characterizes meditation experience, which fluctuates a great deal. Realization, which is distinct from experience, does not change, but experiences can fluctuate a great deal or alternate between good and bad. There will still be times when you will have what you regard as good experiences and, in contrast, what you regard as bad experiences. When that occurs, just keep on looking. Don't get distracted or sidetracked by the experience. Whatever meditation experience arises, you should recognize that it is transitory. As is said, "meditation experience is like mist, it will surely vanish."

Experiences are different from the actual fact of the recognition itself. Because they are ephemeral experiences, they aren't worth investing in. So if you have a bad meditation experience, do not be alarmed, because it too will vanish. If you have a good meditation experience, you need to continue; if you have a bad meditation experience, you need to continue. In either case, you simply need to continue to rest in this recognition of the mind's nature.

--from Pointing Out the Dharmakaya by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, foreword by the Dalai Lama, introduction by Lama Tashi Namgyal, published by Snow Lion Publications

Pointing Out the Dharmakaya • Now at 5O% off
(Good through October 1st).

Emory University in Atlanta Georgia is hosting the first
International Conference on Tibetan Buddhism
October 18-20, 2010

Participants include: H.H. the Dalai Lama, Ganden Tri Rizong Rinpoche, Sogyal Rinpoche, Gehlek Rinpoche, Thupten Jinpa, Matthieu Ricard, and 34 other notable participants.
For more information and registration please visit
Article on the Conference

Big Think- Antonio Damasio and Siri Hustvedt Discuss the Mysteries of the Brain

Excellent - Antonio Damasio is one of my favorite neuroscience authors. This is a great discussion - Damasio makes complex ideas easier to grasp.

Antonio Damasio and Siri Hustvedt Discuss the Mysteries of the Brain


In a special Big Think conversation arranged by Discover magazine and published online today, Dr. Antonio Damasio, a behavioral neurobiologist at the University of Southern California speaks with novelist Siri Hustvedt about various topics in neurology, from how the brain arranges our consciousness and coordination, to how it constructs our memories and processes emotion.

"The process of consciousness is the process that allows us to run our lives personally and in society the way we do," says Damasio to Hustvedt. "It’s the thing that gives us access to high thinking and high decision making and very high qualities of reasoning."

One of the major topics the two discuss is whether there is a biological basis for believing that humans have free will. Hustvedt wonders whether free will has to be a fully conscious action, saying: "If you’re thirsty and you get a glass of water you don’t necessarily have full, subjective linguistic consciousness of getting a glass of water, right, so but also I think you might want to refine this notion of the degree to which a finding like that does not tell us that we have no free will." According to Damasio: "We do have a measure of control, but it is not true that we have full control and it is not true that when we are executing an action we are necessarily controlling it at that moment consciously."

They also spoke about the mechanisms by which the brain records a memory, one of Damasio's major fields of study. Damasio explained his concept of convergence/divergence zones, where the brain stores bits and pieces of individual memories in various parts of the brain. What we know as a specific memory is a reconstruction of a moment in a convergence zone—"a sort of internal testimony of the simultaneous occurrence of certain things at a certain point," says Damasio. This allows the brain to have a certain economy, remembering things that are necessary and stringing particular details together when necessary—but not remembering an entire "filmic" representation of a scene verbatim. This is what accounts of lapses in memory and mistaken memories.

One factor that can make memories less accurate is emotion. When a memory is filtered through a particularly intense emotional experience, it can be distorted and altered in major ways. Damasio and Hustvedt talked about how emotions affect memory, and also about how study of the neurology behind emotion evolved out of behaviorism. Over time, scientists were able to understand human emotion by studying people whose brains had been damaged or otherwise impaired in specific ways. The classic example of this is the odd case of Phineas Gage, a young railroad foreman in the mid-19th Century who lost his ability to feel emotions after a railroad spike was driven into a specific part of his brain.

Thanks to Discover for arranging the discussion between Damasio and Hustvedt. An edited transcript of their discussion can be found in the October, 2010, issue of Discover magazine.

The transcript is available at the Big Think site.

Mary Midgley - The Solitary Self

Very cool talk from the folks at RSA.

Britain's leading moral philosopher, Mary Midgley, visits the RSA to challenge the idea that we are self-directed individuals at the mercy of our 'selfish genes'

Thursday, September 23, 2010

[Article removed] Personality disorders as disorganisation of attachment and affect regulation

The original post has been altered to removed the material quoted from Sarkar and Adshead. They have requested a public apology for sharing their paper with people who otherwise would have never seen their work or heard of them.

So, here it is:

I publicly apologize for sharing their research and writing without their permission and exposing them to a wider audience.

It's called Creative Commons, people - and it's the future.

* * * * *

Affect regulation is generally a function of attachment - good (secure) attachment = good affect regulation; poor (insecure) attachment = poor affect regulation. We also know that insecure attachment and/or poor affect regulation in childhood are linked to personality disorders later in life. If you want to know more about this topic, the man to read in Allan Schore - he has three incredibly dense and heavily cited books on affect regulation (Affect Regulation).

Journal Reference:
Sarkar, J. & Adshead, G. (2006). Personality disorders as disorganization of attachment and affect regulation. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment; 12(4): 297-305.
Several of the articles in the references section are free online - very cool. I highly recommend them - this is an important topic that even the CDC and NIMH are finally funding in their research programs, especially as affect/emotional regulation relates to public health issues.

Traditionally, personality disorders have been considered untreatable - if you have one, the best you can hope for is to be more functional and less dysfunctional. What a hopeless perspective. Many of us do not believe this need be true.

Dan Siegel, Allan Schore, Diane Fosha, Marco Iacoboni, Stephen Porges, Pat Ogden, Diana Fosha, Louis Cozolino, and many others have launched the new field of interpersonal neurobiology - and one of the beautiful things about this is that Siegel has figured out how to "re-attach" those of us who had insecure attachment in one way or another.


Douglas LaBier - An Inside-Out Life: Protection From "Social Psychosis"

A good two-part post (well, actually three posts, so far) from Douglas LaBier (of the Center for Progressive Development) at Huffington Post - he looks at our "social psychosis," which he defines as "a constellation of growing, shared delusions; a political-social backlash to the highly interconnected and diverse world that now exists. The delusions include political, economic and anti-science-based decisions and policies that appear likely to predominate for some time."

What he (and others) are describing is the apparently pathological response to the emergence of postmodernism in mainstream culture and, with Obama and Clinton, in the federal government.

I say apparent because, really, those who exhibit the "social psychosis" are really quite sane when seen from within their own worldview and values system - to them, we are the psychotics.

An Inside-Out Life: Protection From the Growing Backlash -- Part 1

Douglas LaBier, Director, Center for Progressive Development

I think we're living in an era of increasing "social psychosis." I use that term deliberately to highlight a constellation of growing, shared delusions; a political-social backlash to the highly interconnected and diverse world that now exists. The delusions include political, economic and anti-science-based decisions and policies that appear likely to predominate for some time, as Paul Krugman and others have argued. And, they're likely to contribute to more social dysfunction and damage to individual lives, including psychological and physical health.

Because this backlash of false beliefs and harmful actions are likely to be with us for some time, it's important to build some immunity to their destructive impact on your life. In this post I describe a way that helps you do that. It also describes new criteria of a psychologically healthy life within today's increasingly interdependent and unpredictable world. I call it the "Inside-Out" solution.

By way of context, in a future post I'll explain why our "social psychosis" is likely to strengthen for some time, but will not last. That's because evidence from research, survey and demographic studies reveals massive shifts building within our society in this direction: A rising desire to subordinate purely self-interest motives in personal life and social/political policy to actions and policies that serve the larger common good.

This theme reflects a growing recognition that we're one world; that all of our lives are like organs of the same body. As President Obama recently put it, "...we rise or we fall together as one nation -- one people -- all of us vested in one another."

That relates to what I mean by the "Inside-Out" solution.
Read the rest of this post before moving on to part two.

How to Live an 'Inside-Out' Life

Douglas LaBier, Director, Center for Progressive Development

Posted: September 13

In Part I of this post I wrote of a rising "social psychosis" in our culture. That is, a growing number of people actively promote, accept or are increasingly receptive to beliefs and policies contrary to fact; that either deny or oppose actions for creating a secure, growth-oriented, healthy society and planet.

I'll expand on that in a future post, but here I want to emphasize that this growing social psychosis will likely increase societal and individual dysfunction for some time, until it runs it course. And it will: Demographic, survey and research data reveal a steady, growing shift in behavior, values and attitudes in several areas that will trump the current backlash.

But meanwhile, it's important to find pathways for maintaining psychological health and resilience during these times -- through what I call the "Inside-Out" life. In Part one I explained what I mean by the "inner" and "outer" dimensions of life, and how they differ. A strong inner life is the core of psychological health. It helps inoculate you against the current backlash we're living through. But it also defines the psychological criteria for success and well being, post-backlash, as we face the impact of interconnection, heightened diversity and constant flux in today's world.

In Part 2 I highlight some specific practices that strengthen your inner life; that make it the driver of your decisions, choices and actions within your outer life, now and in the future.

Read the rest of this post.

And then read the third part (so far) of this on-going series.

Redirect Your Life Towards Sanity in Today's Turbulent World

Douglas LaBier, Director, Center for Progressive Development

Posted: September 21

There's an old saying: If you want to see into your future, just look into a mirror. It's how you live your life each day -- through your choices, values and behavior -- that steadily shapes and determines who you will become in the future.

Many people today don't like what they see when they look into that mirror. They see themselves trying to make it through the day when so much feels out of control or dead-ended: Economic decline, with no end in sight. Social and political shifts that are frightening, maybe dangerous. Career uncertainties that no one is immune to. Relationships that unravel under stress. Ever-increasing climate disasters that politicians deny or ignore. The list goes on.

All of these realities of life today impact your mental health and overall well being. Research and survey data show that emotional, physical and social symptoms are rising: Depression and anxiety; obesity; demagoguery from commentators like Glen Beck; emotional disturbances and violence in the workplace.

All of this can make you feel confused and uncertain, not knowing which way to go. How can you navigate through it in a psychologically healthy way? And how to best deal with a cultural and political environment that treats self-serving, shortsighted behavior as a virtue? In my posts I've been addressing the impact of living in our new world of "social psychosis" upon our psychological and societal health. In this one I describe three ways that help refocus and redirect your life in positive ways.

1. Wake Up!

Common lore is that it's harmful to wake up a person who's sleepwalking, but that's not true. And when you're been sleepwalking in your life it's especially crucial to wake up to some important truths about yourself. That's one resource for health, today. Those truths include what really drives your life, your values, your beliefs and your conflicts; what lies behind the denials, rationalizations and social fictions you've created or bought into along the way.

We all have hidden drivers. That's part of growing up as a human. Waking up to them means facing and working at rectifying whatever's been unexamined or unresolved in your life. Those drivers are mostly unconscious and usually products of old childhood and family-based conflicts. People tend to repeat and reenact them through adulthood. As Faulkner put it, "The past is never dead -- in fact, it's not even past."

In addition to old traumas are the consequences of having taken a wrong path in life. Perhaps a decision that you now regret, or one that was based on fear. Those can also keep you locked in place and uncertain about how to handle new challenges.

Waking up to painful truths can feel frightening or humiliating. But it's a step along the road to restarting a sense of direction and self-directing your evolution. Examples include confronting feelings of deep self-loathing, or recognizing shame about expressing your needs, perhaps because your parents affirmed only the desires they approved of. It might mean facing up to a character trait you've been blind to, like arrogance or contempt. Therapy can be very helpful with these issues. But you can also practice honest self-examination on your own, through reflection, journal-keeping, meditation or prayer.

Read more.

Do Religious Beliefs/Practices Impact Our Attentional Preferences?,0.jpg

From the always cool [epiphenom] blog, Tom Rees looks at some old research on how culture impacts whether we are Big Picture people, or details people - and a new study that looks at the impact of religion in this same context.

Here are the studies Rees looks at the article:

Colzato LS, Beest I, van den Wildenberg WP, Scorolli C, Dorchin S, Meiran N, Borghi AM, & Hommel B (2010). God: Do I have your attention? Cognition, 117 (1), 87-94 PMID: 20674890

Lorenza S. Colzato, Bernhard Hommel, Wery Van Den Wildenberg, & Shulan Hsieh (2010). Buddha as an eye opener: A link between prosocial attitude and attentional control Frontiers in Cognition : 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00156

Seeing the big picture

Are you a big-picture person, or do you tune into the detail? Surprisingly, the culture in which you were raised - including your religion (or lack of it) can shape this fundamental aspect of your personality.

A decade ago, researchers found that while westerners were relatively faster at picking out the component parts of a picture, Asians were relatively quicker to see the global, holistic components. They reckoned this was an effect of cultural differences - the individualistic Westerners versus the collective, community-oriented Asians.

In a new series of studies, Lorenza Colzato, a cognitive psychologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and colleagues has shown that, within both of these culture, religion can affect where attention is focussed. Remarkably, it seems that the type of religion, not religion itself, is the critical factor.

The tests use something called a global-local task. Essentially, the subjects are shown either a square or a rectangle, which are themselves made up of smaller squares and rectangles. The task is to spot the shape of either the 'big' picture or its components.

Pretty much everyone is faster at identifying the big shape. Asians, however, are even faster than Westerners - but at the cost of slower identification of the smaller component shapes.
This reminds me of a story Ken Gergen relates in his Relational Being about a foreign aid worker in Africa showing a film about optimal planting and harvesting to the folks with whom they are working. Following the film, the workers ask the villagers about what they had seen, and one them replied, "The chicken, the chicken." The aid workers were confused - the film was about planting crops, not chickens - there was no chicken in the film.

But all the villagers insisted on the chicken, so the aid workers returned the film and watched closely. They were surprised to notice that in an important segment of the film, there was a chicken wandering around in what for the aid workers was the meaningless background.

Different cultures privilege different elements of a scene.

So in the new study, Lorenza Colzato and her colleagues show that within a culture, religious beliefs can alter attentional focus.
Colzato compared a group of Dutch Calvinist Christian Students with a similar group who were raised as atheists. The Calvinists turned out to be 'detail' people, at least when compared with the atheists. This bias to the detail was evident even in those whose faith had lapsed, indicating that whatever is causing it must happen during childhood.

Then they swapped countries and religions - Roman Catholics in Italy and Jews in Israel. Here the effect was reversed. In these countries the religious were less detail-oriented, and more focussed on the big picture, than the non religious

In the ultimate test of their theory, they teamed up with Shulan Hsieh, at the National Cheng Keng University in Taiwan, one of the least individualistic countries in the world. They found that local Buddhists were more likely to be 'big picture' people than were the local atheists.

Colzato thinks that the different religious cultures are affecting the way their subjects look at the world. Dutch Calvinism is highly individualistic, and so children must (so the theory goes) be rewarded for 'correct' behaviour - for focussing on the local, and ignoring the wider environment.

Catholicism and Judaism, on the other hand, emphasize collective, social responsibility. Children growing up in that environment are learn to pay more attention to the wider picture, and less on individual responsibility.

Buddhism is very different. However, according to Colzato, it emphasizes the physical and social context in which the practitioner lives. Since meditation is not a particular feature of Taiwanese Buddhism, it's unlikely that meditation caused the effects they saw.
Interesting findings - the impact of our culture and our beliefs shapes the ways in which our brains function in terms of attention. This is amounts to further support for at least some of the assertions of the social constructionist model of how we build our understanding of the world.

Sallie Jiko Tisdale - As If There is Nothing to Lose

This is some nice little dharma teaching from Sallie Jiko Tisdale at Tricycle on giving and it's source in gratitude.

As If There is Nothing to Lose

How giving comes from gratitude.

By Sallie Jiko Tisdale

Sustenance 104 by Neeta Madahar

Once I was young and poor—and generous. I shared an old house with several people and slept on the porch and owned nothing more valuable than my bicycle. I volunteered many hours every week at community organizations. One day, when I had only five dollars, I treated a friend to dinner, and afterward we laughed about my now total poverty. It was easy to give away what I had; I never doubted that the world would somehow provide for me in turn.

Now I have a house and a car and a savings account, and I am not so generous. I do give—my money, my time, my attention— but sometimes I give reluctantly, with a little worry. Sometimes I want a nicer house, a newer car. I wonder if I have enough money saved. I want more time to myself. It is not just a matter of youth and age. I have many more things now, and that means I have more things to lose.

When I had little, everything I had was important. If I found a sweater I liked at the Goodwill, it felt like my birthday. In a way, having nothing meant everything in the world was mine. Even a sandwich was cause for celebration, and nothing distracted me from enjoying it. Every gift was a delight, and I was grateful for everything I had.

Gratitude, the simple and profound feeling of being thankful, is the foundation of all generosity. I am generous when I believe that right now, right here, in this form and this place, I am myself being given what I need. Generosity requires that we relinquish something, and this is impossible if we are not glad for what we have. Otherwise the giving hand closes into a fist and won’t let go.

This generosity, arising from abundance, is natural. We see it in the world around us all the time. Haya Akegarasu loved spring. “Young grasses,” he wrote, “I can’t help it—I want to kiss you.” To him the spring grasses were great teachers, because they made a “whole effort” to simply live their lives. “Their growth is a long, wide tongue that covers the whole world,” he said. I see a fearless generosity in the flowers and trees, in the way birds sing out at dawn, in the steady drumming of the rain. As I grew older and found I had things to protect, I forgot. I completely forgot that I had always had enough in the first place. Now I am trying to learn this once again—total abundance, nothing begrudged.

Sallie Jiko Tisdale is a dharma teacher at Dharma Rain Zen Center, in Portland, Oregon. Her most recent book is “Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom.”

Photograph by Neeta Madahar, “Sustenance 104” Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

NPR - Human Connections Start With A Friendly Touch

I heard this story from NPR's Morning Edition on the way to work yesterday morning, or the day before, or something. Anyway, I thought it was cool.

We'd be much happier and healthier people if we weren't so touch-phobic and physically isolated. I used to be very uncomfortable with touch, now it seems so important (ah, the wonders of therapy).

Too bad, speaking of therapy, that there is so much fear of sexual harassment charges or misunderstanding of intent in simply hugging or touching a client on the arm in therapy - a little contact can be so healing - and because we are so touch-phobic, so easily misunderstood.

Maybe we should all follow the example of the hugging saint or the free hugs people.

Handholding causes levels of the stress hormone cortisol to drop.
Enlarge Gregory Bull/AP

Hand-holding causes levels of the stress hormone cortisol to drop, says Matt Hertenstein, an experimental psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana. This couple joined hands while protesting offshore oil drilling in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill during a Hands Across the Sand event in Gulfport, Miss.

Social scientists have shown in many studies over the years that supportive touch can have good outcomes in a number of different realms. Consider the following examples: If a teacher touches a student on the back or arm, that student is more likely to participate in class. The more athletes high-five or hug their teammates, the better their game. A touch can make patients like their doctors more. If you touch a bus driver, he's more likely to let you on for free. If a waitress touches the arm or shoulder of a customer, she may get a larger tip.

But why does a friendly or supportive touch have such universal and positive effects? What's happening in our brains and bodies that accounts for this magic?

Skin Deep?

To understand this, we'll start on the outside — with the skin. It's our largest organ, covering about 20 square feet, which is about the size of a twin mattress.

If somebody touches you, there's pressure pushing on your skin at the point of contact. And just under the skin are pressure receptors called "Pacinian corpuscles," says Tiffany Field, one of the world's leading touch researchers and the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami in Florida.

"They receive pressure stimulation," Field says, "and the pressure receptors send a signal to the brain."

The Pacinian corpuscles' signals go directly to an important nerve bundle deep in the brain called the vagus nerve. The vagus sometimes is called "the wanderer" because it has branches that wander throughout the body to several internal organs, including the heart. And it's the vagus nerve that then slows the heart down and decreases blood pressure.

Field describes studies in which subjects were asked to perform something stressful, like public speaking or taking a timed math test. The subjects' partners were also part of the experiment, hugging or holding hands with the subjects when the researchers told them to.

"They found that, in fact, people who were given this stressful task, if they'd been holding hands or being hugged, they would have a lower blood pressure and lower heart rate, suggesting that they were less stressed," Field says.

Impact On Stress

Hand-holding or hugging also results in a decrease of the stress hormone cortisol, says Matt Hertenstein, an experimental psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana.

"Having this friendly touch, just somebody simply touching our arm and holding it, buffers the physiological consequences of this stressful response," Hertenstein says.

In addition to calming us down and reducing our stress response, a friendly touch also increases release of the oxytocin — also called the "cuddle hormone" — which affects trust behaviors.

"Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, which basically promotes feelings of devotion, trust and bonding," Hertenstein says.

Oxytocin levels go up with holding hands, hugging — and especially with therapeutic massage. The cuddle hormone makes us feel close to one another.

"It really lays the biological foundation and structure for connecting to other people," Hertenstein says.

Just Like Chocolate

Besides engendering feelings of closeness, being touched is also pleasant. We usually want more. So what's going on in the brain that accounts for these feelings?

Hertenstein says recent studies from England pinpointed an area in the brain that becomes highly activated in response to friendly touch. It's a region called the orbital frontal cortex located just above your eyes. It's the same area that responds to sweet tastes and pleasing smells.

"A soft touch on the arm makes the orbital frontal cortex light up, just like those other rewarding stimuli," Hertenstein says. "So, touch is a very powerful rewarding stimulus — just like your chocolate that you find in your cupboard at home."

The surging of oxytocin makes you feel more trusting and connected. And the cascade of electrical impulses slows your heart and lowers your blood pressure, making you feel less stressed and more soothed. Remarkably, this complex surge of events in the brain and body are all initiated by a simple, supportive touch.

Nature News - Why some memories stick

A look at how memories get encoded into neural circuits - take home: "People find it easier to recall things if material is presented repeatedly at well-spaced intervals rather than all at once." At the neural level, "items are better remembered when they activate the same neural patterns with each exposure."


Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.457 | Published online 9 September 2010

Why some memories stick

Repetitive neural responses may enhance recall of faces and words.

Brain scan. Coloured Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan through a human head, showing a healthy brain in side view. The face is seen in profile at left. Tissues of the mouth, nasal cavity, and central nervous system are visibleFaces that activate the same regions of the brain again and again are more likely to be remembered.

Practice makes perfect when it comes to remembering things, but exactly how that works has long been a mystery. A study published in Science this week1 indicates that reactivating neural patterns over and over again may etch items into the memory.

People find it easier to recall things if material is presented repeatedly at well-spaced intervals rather than all at once. For example, you're more likely to remember a face that you've seen on multiple occasions over a few days than one that you've seen once in one long period. One reason that a face linked to many different contexts — such as school, work and home — is easier to recognize than one that is associated with just one setting, such as a party, could be that there are multiple ways to access the memory. This idea, called the encoding variability hypothesis, was proposed by psychologists about 40 years ago2.

Each different context or setting activates a distinct set of brain regions; the hypothesis suggests that it is these differing neural responses that improve the memory. But neuroimaging research led by Russell Poldrack, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Texas, Austin, now suggests that the opposite is true — items are better remembered when they activate the same neural patterns with each exposure.

Neural rehearsal

Poldrack's team measured brain activity in 24 people using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The subjects saw 120 unfamiliar faces, each one repeated four times at varying intervals during the fMRI scan. One hour later, they were shown the faces again, mixed with 120 new ones, and asked to rate the familiarity of each.

The researchers then looked at the brain responses that had been recorded when the subjects were first shown the faces, focusing on 20 brain regions associated with visual perception and memory. Faces that were later recognized evoked similar activation patterns at each repetition in nine of the regions, particularly those associated with object and face perception; faces that were later forgotten did not evoke such pattern to the same extent.

In a separate experiment, subjects in the fMRI scanner were shown 180 words, each repeated three times. Six hours later, they performed two memory tests. The remembered words elicited similar patterns at each repetition in 15 of the 20 brain regions that the researchers examined.

Explaining the brain

But Marvin Chun, a cognitive neuroscientist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, says that the results do not invalidate the encoding variability hypothesis because Poldrack and his team were at a different type of situation. To directly test the hypothesis, the authors should have presented items in different contexts, he says.

What's more, attention-grabbing words or faces may elicit more reproducible patterns of activation when they are presented multiple times than do less striking items, says Rik Henson, a cognitive neuroscientist at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK. This effect could explain the results without refuting the encoding variability hypothesis, he adds.

"We can't rule that out," Poldrack says. To address this concern, he would have to further analyse subjects' brain responses to individual items. "It may well be the case that there is a version of the encoding variability hypothesis that is compatible with these data."

"If we push the theorists to think a little harder, and to try to incorporate neuroscience data into these theories, then I think that is a good thing, regardless of whether the encoding variability theory turns out to be right," he adds.


1. Xue, G. et al. Science doi:10.1126/science.1193125 (2010).
2. Martin, E. Psych. Rev. 75, 421-441 (1968). | Article | OpenURL