Saturday, October 02, 2010

David Weisman, M.D. - You Are Not a Unified Mind

In this post from his blog at Psychology Today, Neuro-Atheism: Grounding the soul, Dr. Weisman sets about dismantling the idea of the soul through examples from brain science.

He gives an example of brain damage, but much of what we know about mind and consciousness also reveal the multiplicity of mind - that we are multiple selves, often battling for control of consciousness (not in a dissociate identity disorder kind of way). Our brain smooths out the transitions as best as it can to create a sense of unity and cohesion.

None of this is new
- it's just that now we can use brain science and brain scans to show the same reality from different angles.
Brain tethers mind so close there is no string.

There is a common idea: our mind seems unified, so it really is. Many humans go a bit further and call that unified mind a soul. This step, from a unified self to soul, is an ancient assumption that now forms a bedrock for further religious claims, like life after death and religious morality. It is also a little god within us, mirroring and supporting the idea of a bigger God outside us. For the modern believers in the soul, let's call them soulists to avoid the opaque waters of dualism, the soul assumption appears to be the smallest of steps, so small it seems no one should question it.

Yet the soul is a claim for which there isn't any evidence, and we are right to question it. There is little evidence even for the place from which the soulists step off, the unified mind. In fact, neurology and neuroscience, working unseen over the past century, have eroded both the soul and the unified mind down to nothing. Experiences certainly do feel unified, but it is a mistake to take these feelings as reality. The way things seem isn't the way they are.

There are historical parallels. Scientists used to believe a substance called caloric made hot materials hot and flowed into colder materials to make them warmer. It seemed to be true until it turned out to be false, replaced by a better theory. Science is littered with such discredited theories with funny names like phlogiston, aether, and miasma. The soul is one of them.

Looking at the wide range of works along the axis of soulism ('Life After Death: The Evidence' by Dinesh D'Souza to ‘Absence of Mind' by Marilynne Robinson), we find little to no understanding of the brain. For example, Robinson writes, "Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM." The translation might be: Indoctrination tells us we have a soul, it feels like we are a unified little god in control of our bodies, so we are. To advance these ideas, the authors and their readers have to be almost completely unaware of twentieth century neurology and neuroscience.

If they were interested, they might learn of evidence supporting another view. Our brain creates an illusion of unity and control where there really isn't any. There are thousands of cases and experiments that demonstrate why science supports a view of the unified mind as illusion rather than reality. We'll take a single case I saw in the emergency room.

Mrs. Blanford got up from dinner with her husband, and dropped down. She could not move the left side of her body. I met Mrs. Blanford soon afterwards: her speech was normal, but she could not see objects to her left and could not move or feel her left face, arm, and leg. Mrs. Blanford was having a stroke.

An interesting thing happened when I brought her left arm up across her face so she could see it.

I ask, as I always ask such patients, "Who's arm is this?"

"That is your arm."

"Then why am I wearing your ring?" I point to her wedding band.

"That wedding band belongs on the arm of Mrs. Blanford."

"So who's arm is this?"

"That is your arm."

Some patients accuse me of stealing their rings or watches. Even if we demonstrate their arm is attached to their body, they are never convinced the arm belongs to them. At most, one is able to render them briefly confused, and then the condition reestablishes itself. The condition is called neglect and it is not at all extraordinary. Mrs. Blanford's case is not rare. When facing right brain strokes and masses the question is only what degree will the patient deny their left side.

What to make of it? How can we best explain it? Given that Mrs. Blanford had a stroke, we are best served by adopting a neurologic point of view. To do this, we need to understand a bit about how the brain works. In general, and in the broadest strokes possible, the brain is divided into two hemispheres. The left hemisphere processes speech and the motor and sensory information for the right side of the world. The right hemisphere processes nonverbal information and representations from the left side. This stroke rendered Mrs. Blanford's right hemisphere dysfunctional, no longer able to process anything from the left side of her world. It is not the left hemisphere's job to recognize the left arm, so it can't do that task. To the left brain, the left side of the body simply does not exist. The right brain has failed, not only to process arm information, but failed to let the left hemisphere know it failed (one thinks of the Bush White House).

It isn't only that her left brain can't do the right brain's task. The left hemisphere also can't recognize that there is missing data, or that there is something wrong with the data. It has to use the data it has, so the left hemisphere comes up with something called a confabulation, creating a verbal fabrication to explain missing information. In this case the confabulation becomes, "That is your arm." Although nonsense and easy to falsify, the idea is internally consistent, makes some sense of the (messed up) internal data, and feels right. The injured brain creates a confabulation to maintain unity of self and a feeling of control. We find a brain believing something that seems right, but isn't (again).

A neglect case only makes sense if you consider each hemisphere as its own separate entity. We see that when a stroke damages the brain, the mind follows--as a result. It is expected, like unplugging a mouse from the computer results in no curser movement.

Now consider yourself. Consider your own left arm. It feels perfect, under your control, a part of you, exactly where it should be. But this unified perception relies on neuronal machinery humming along under the surface. Your sense of unity, only perceptible to you, is a sheen on the surface, not a layer of reality.

Where does this leave the soul? Does the soul make any sense in the face of a brain and mind so easily fractured by ischemia? A soul is immaterial, eternal, a little god, impervious to injury, able to survive our deaths. Yet here we see one injured, tethered so close to the injured brain that there is no string. We see a hole in the brain, a hole in the soul, and through it we get a glimpse into the brain's inner workings. One part is damaged; another part falsely thinks it is whole and unified. How does the idea of a unified soul make one bit of sense in the face of this data?

The soul is an ancient hypothesis, older than caloric and just as false, falsified not only by a single case of neglect, but by the collected works of neurology and neuroscience. This leaves a distinct absence of soul, by whatever name. It does not leave the absence because of cultural biases and inertias, or because of overarching dogmas and hidden agendas and wishful thinking. It leaves an absence because neuroscientific data support it and tend to falsify everything else.

We gave Mrs. Blanford the treatment for stroke, tPA, almost one hour after symptom onset and less than 50 minutes from the time she came to the ER. It was close to my personal best treatment time. We also enrolled her into a stroke trial, and ensured that medical science took another tiny step forward. Perhaps it was because of our treatments, or perhaps because of her personal biologic fate, Mrs. Blanford did incredibly well. She walked out of our hospital about a week later, appearing nearly whole. She felt unified with her body and her mind, even though some of us know better: that reconnection isn't unification and that the way things seem isn't the way they are.

Howl: movie review (Christian Science Monitor)

I have been looking forward to this movie - but this review deflates my expectations a bit. But this is the first review I have seen, so maybe others will be more enthusiastic.

Howl: movie review

In 'Howl,' the drama centers on the obscenity trial Allen Ginsburg faced after publishing his poem by the same name.

As Allen Ginsberg, James Franco is shown in a scene from the movie 'Howl.'

By Peter Rainer, Film critic / October 2, 2010

“Howl” is a curious combination of fiction film, documentary, animation, and biopic. The famous, eponymous Allen Ginsberg poem that gives the film its title is also its centerpiece. As Ginsberg, James Franco, despite at first seeming miscast, gives a sly, freewheeling performance, and many other Beat Generation icons pass through the maelstrom, including Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and Peter Orlovski (Aaron Tveit).

The famous 1957 obscenity trial that the poem gave rise to is dramatized and reaches its bewildering climax when the chief prosecutor, played by David Strathairn, admits he doesn’t really understand what “Howl,” a neo-Whitmanesque cri de coeur that defined a generation, is all about.

The language of that poem, which periodically pours out from the screen, is the best thing in the movie. The worst thing: the interpolated animated sequences that are meant to “illustrate” the poem but which can’t begin to compete with the imagery evoked by Ginsberg’s words. Grade: B (Unrated.)

Philosopher's Zone - The Extended Mind

This is another excellent podcast from ABC Radio National (Australia) - this week they are talking about the extended mind - the idea that mind is not limited to the brain or the body and be seen to extend into culture and technology.

The classic paper on this topic is by Andy Clark and David Chalmers: The Extended Mind. There is a whole collection of papers on this subject at Philosophy Papers, a site curated by Chalmers.

Alan Saunders is the host of this show.

The Extended Mind

Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin? Some philosophers are now arguing that thoughts are not all in the head. The environment has an active role in driving cognition; cognition is sometimes made up of neural, bodily, and environmental processes. Their argument has excited a vigorous debate among philosophers and this week we discover what the fuss is about.

Show Transcript | Hide Transcript

Transcript will be published on 5 October


Richard Menary
Senior Lecturer and Programme Convenor in Philosophy at the University of Wollongong.

John Sutton
Professor in the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science

Further Information

Richard Menary's page a the University of Wollongong

John Sutton's Website


Title: The Extended Mind
Author: Edited by Richard Menary
Publisher: MIT Press (distributed in Australia by Footprint Books)
Price: $65.00


Alan Saunders

Friday, October 01, 2010

UC Television - An Evening with Werner Herzog

Cool - Werner Herzog is a genius - with the also cool Pico Iyer as interviewer..
One of the most distinctive filmmakers of our time, Werner Herzog has been called the "romantic visionary" of the New German Cinema movement. His edgy, larger-than-life films fuse the epic with the intimate, redefining the scale and scope of filmmaking to include more than 60 works shot on every continent. He appears in conversation with acclaimed author and essayist, Pico Iyer at UC Santa Barbara. Series: Voices [10/2010] [Humanities] [Arts and Music] [Show ID: 18698]

B. Alan Wallace - Purify the mind-stream with the "four remedial powers"

The Tibetan Seven-Point Mind Training
by B. Alan Wallace

Dharma Quote of the Week

The person witnessing another person's suffering has only one appropriate response: "How can I help?" When karma comes to fruition and causes suffering, the response should never be, "This is your karma. It's your destiny, so I can't help." Your own karma may very well present itself as an opportunity to help a suffering person. Misunderstanding actions and their consequences can be disastrous.

From the Buddhist perspective, the type of fortune we encounter, happiness or sorrow, is not due to somebody doing something to us. If I win the lottery, it is not because Buddha selected me for a bonus. No god or buddha is responsible for what happens to us....This does not imply that a suffering person is morally degenerate any more than suffering the consequences of eating contaminated food does. The suffering we experience is due to karma accumulated under the influence of delusion and mental afflictions. This is true for all sentient beings.

The Buddhist response to the non-virtues we all commit while strapped to the wheel of samsara can be inspiring and encouraging. The Buddhist teaching is that it is possible to neutralize negative karmic seeds embedded in the stream of consciousness. Deeds cannot be undone, but it is possible to purify one's mind-stream so that the impact of karmic seeds will be nullified.

The method used to purify the mind-stream is the "four remedial powers" [remorse, reliance, resolve, and purification]. The metaphor for the effectiveness of the four remedial powers is that of burning a seed. Karma, like a seed, can be scorched in the fire of purification so that it will not sprout. The seed won't vanish, but it will not sprout.

--from Buddhism with an Attitude: The Tibetan Seven-Point Mind Training by B. Alan Wallace, published by Snow Lion Publications

Buddhism with an Attitude • Now at 5O% off
(Good through October 8th).

Alan Wallace
is currently teaching an 8-week Shamatha retreat entitled
"Live from Phuket!"

Podcasts of this retreat are available at:
Alan Wallace Shamatha Teachings Fall 2010

Listen to or download his past audio teachings at:

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Philosophy TV - Eric Schwitzgebel and Brie Gertler on Self Knowledge

I love this site - interesting discussions that provoke and challenge my perceptions. How cool is that? Watch the video discussion at the title link below, or download the video with the link at the end.

Eric is fairly dismissive of the importance of qualia (subjective experience) while Brie is more optimistic of its importance.

Eric Schwitzgebel and Brie Gertler

Eric Schwitzgebel (left) and Brie Gertler (right) on introspection.

How well do we know our own minds? According to an optimistic view associated with Descartes and Locke, introspection is a reliable and profoundly special source of self-knowledge. According to a pessimistic view associated with Wittgenstein and Ryle, introspection is like ordinary perception: a confluence of fallible processes, and therefore not especially trustworthy. In this conversation, Gertler defends a version of the optimistic view, while Schwitzgebel defends a version of the pessimistic view.

Related works

by Gertler:
Self-Knowledge (2010)
Introspecting Phenomenal States” (2001)

by Schwitzgebel:
Introspection, What?” (forthcoming)
The Unreliability of Naive Introspection” (2008)
Blog: The Splintered Mind

More video:
Tamar Gendler and Eric Schwitzgebel (PTV)

Noam Chomsky: Rebel Without a Pause

Cool little film honoring the work of Chomsky:

Noam Chomsky: Rebel Without a Pause (2003) 74 min

A timely, must-see film that explores the truths and myths about the most important intellectual of our time.

Called “the most important intellectual alive” by The New York Times, and “a rebel without a pause” by rock-star Bono, Noam Chomsky is one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century and the world’s leading voice of dissent.

In a post 9-11 world, Noam Chomsky speaks openly about the U.S. war on terrorism, media manipulation, and social activism to intimate seminar groups and crowded venues. Chomsky analyzes the roots of anti-American sentiment, defines terrorism in the new millennium, and examines the after-effects of 9-11 in honest and forthright terms, providing a critical voice that many audiences feel is missing in the world today.

Featuring candid interviews with his wife and tour manager, Carol Chomsky, as well as activists, fans, and critics REBEL WITHOUT A PAUSE is a timely, must-see film that offers an alternative voice and explores the truths and myths about the most important intellectual of our time.

Here is a short preview - the whole film can be seen by following the links.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Deborah Mattinson - Talking to a Brick Wall - Why We Need a New Politics

Nice lecture from the folks at RSA.

Talking to a Brick Wall - Why We Need a New Politics

06 Jul 2010

Leading political pollster Deborah Mattinson discusses democratic renewal and citizen engagement with Polly Toynbee and Tessa Jowell.

Download video for iPod (MP4)

The Beautiful Brain - The Mystery of Qualia, with Dr. V.S. Ramachandran

Cool video - ipark at The Beautiful Brain posted this one. Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD, discusses consciousness, qualia, and self - talking with Charlie Rose.

The Mystery of Qualia

September 30, 2010 | ipark

One of the largest philosophical mystery of the science of sensation and perception begins with the idea of “qualia.” Qualia is defined as the qualities of a conscious experience. When you see a striking painting, you may notice its vibrant colors, its beautiful brush strokes, or even the smell of aging canvas. These are all qualia. In the following video, Dr. V.S. Ramachandra delves into the idea of qualia and how it relates to consciousness.

The mystery arises when you consider the mechanism of sensation and perception. Do we need an ineffable, subjective experience to sense and to perceive a film, a song, or a painting? If not, why do we have qualia? And even more puzzling, where does it come from? As your grade school teacher might have once said, “there are no right answers.” But as is the nature of science, perhaps the proper adage is “there are no right answers yet.”

Spiritual Gains by Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk (An Interview with Philosopher Charles Taylor)

This is an interesting interview with Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher. He is the author, most recently, of A Secular Age (2007), and the seminal (in my opinion) Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989) - a cogent defense of Modernism that also accounts for cultural construction of the self. He is connected to Catholicism, but he remains an important philosopher.

Here is some brief overview from Wikipedia on his philosophical views:

In order to understand his views it is helpful to understand his philosophical background, especially his writings on Hegel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Taylor rejects naturalism and formalist epistemologies.

In his essay To Follow a Rule, Taylor explores why people can fail to follow rules, and what kind of knowledge is it that allows a person to successfully follow a rule, such as the arrow on a sign. The intellectualist tradition presupposes that to follow directions we must know a set of propositions and premises about how to follow directions. But how do we know whether or not the directions are adequate?

Taylor argues that Wittgenstein's solution is that all interpretation of rules draws upon a tacit background. This background is not more rules or premises, but what Wittgenstein calls "forms of life." More specifically, Wittgenstein says in the Philosophical Investigations that "Obeying a rule is a practice." Taylor situates the interpretation of rules within the practices that are incorporated into our bodies in the form of habits, dispositions, and tendencies.

Following Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Michael Polanyi, and Wittgenstein, Taylor argues that it is mistaken to presuppose that our understanding of the world is primarily mediated by representations. It is only against an unarticulated background that representations can make sense to us. On occasion we do follow rules, but Taylor reminds us that rules do not contain the principles of their own application.

There are also some videos of him speaking floating around the internet, including this one from on the future of the secular:

With that foundation, here is the interview from The Utopian:
Spiritual Gains

by Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk
Charles Taylor in conversation with The Utopian.

Is it possible to be religious in today’s world?

What did Aquinas say? From being to possibility? I think I am religious, so it might be possible. Now, that’s perhaps not the sense in which the question was meant. But in almost any sense, yes, it is possible. Now, some people may be in a situation — both in their own evolution and in what surrounds them — where they have a sense of the Immanent Frame as absolutely unbreakable. So you can also have local points where you might find it absolutely impossible. But then you also have other local points, like the Bible Belt and so on, where it is almost impossible to be the opposite.

But in general in our great society we have all kinds.

But you believe that the Immanent Frame somehow limits the mode in which we can be religious?

If you’re living in this Western modern construction of which the Immanent Frame is a part, your whole understanding of what it means to be religious is going to be different than if you’re living in 15th century Tuscany, say, or even some parts of 20th century rural Mexico, or 21s century Benares. The thing is: the more you study this, the more you see how fantastically different what we call religious can be, and how many different situations and different openings and different possibilities there are.

“There are very few transitions in history where I feel it’s obvious that it’s all downhill, or all uphill.”

It is one thing to say it is different. It is another thing to ask how, as a believer, you evaluate this. Is there a way in which it was once possible to envisage belief, but is no longer possible?

It’s not unambiguous and easy to say if it was better or worse. But you can say two things. Number one: we couldn’t be like that. We couldn’t be like the Aztecs, etc.

Number two: most of the time I want to say that there are gains and losses. There are very few transitions in history where I feel it’s obvious that it’s all downhill, or all uphill. It’s not all anything.

That’s the interesting thing about the human condition — that you have these different cultural constellations that open up parts of people’s minds but close others. So the interesting normative issue that arises from all this is how to maximally develop, and make as full as possible the things that are good in this country — while somehow seeing whether we can’t recuperate some of the losses.

You know, this is not an invention of mine. This is what underlies a great deal of the Romantic period — of Romantic poetry, and so on. I mean, some Enlightenment boosters think that this means totally looking backward. In reality most of the great Romantic poets were taking some very important features of the Enlightenment, but they were also saying something about loss. Now, we can argue a lot about what are the gains and what are the losses. We won’t agree on that. But this is the only sensible way of talking. The idea that it’s all uphill or downhill is so incredibly implausible in virtue of the nature of human beings and their cultures, that these positions should just be thrown out before we start talking. And yet they are actually very common positions.

So one way of formulating the political upshot of A Secular Age is to say that by learning to appreciate again the values we have lost, we may actually be able to incorporate some of them into the present world. Do you have an example of how that might be possible, and of how politics might help us do that?

The book may have political consequences, but it’s not something that you could necessarily produce by political action. For example: we develop this tremendous tendency to see the world in terms of instrumental reason, all the time. But when we look back to earlier kinds of culture, we see that for big swathes of life this was not at all the case. If you go back far enough, you find Aborigines in Australia, for whom particular elements of the landscape hold a different kind of meaning. If you go back less far, you find other ways in which the way we organized our social life was also not seen as instrumentally, rationally justified. So there are certain gains here. We have greater power, we can develop these big societies like nations where you can have some degree of control over things since you share a common cultural identity. So you can see the positive side. But you also see the incredible amount of loss of sensitivity to what nature is like around us, which is something that it’s worth rediscovering.

Now, this is not something for which I have a political program for recovery. But I do note that it has political consequences. People who are activated by this kind of desire are more likely to be militants in the ecological movement, or vote for the Greens, than people who are entirely into the instrumental stance.

“For someone who has a hammer all problems look like nails. The same is true of someone who has an instrumentally rational view of the world.”

Do you think of any particular mode of thought as a particular intellectual adversary to your way of thinking?

Yes. There is a combination between the instrumental, rational stance and attempts to understand human life totally in terms of the mechanistic category — without the categories of purpose, teleology, intentionality, and so on. The mechanistic view and pure instrumentalism go very well together because, from the very beginning, the kind of post-Baconian, Galilean science that is paradigmatic for such people has been a science of, if you like, efficient causation, linked ideologically with control over nature. The point is not to have a beautiful view of the order of the universe that will inflate our ego, but to improve the condition of humankind.

For someone who has a hammer all problems look like nails. The same is true of someone who has an instrumentally rational view of the world. All problems will look like nails to him. So you get an absurd overreliance on certain kinds of explanations and interventions. People think that all psychological problems can be cured by changing body chemistry, taking some Prozac, and so on. These attitudes and explanatory hypotheses all share a certain affinity. It’s not that it isn’t logically possible to break with one and stick with the other, but there is a certain affinity between them.

So that whole complex I’ve always seen as my primary enemy.

“Ecumenicism as a real desire to learn from the other — and this extends to atheists as well — to learn from the other why their position so deeply appeals to them…”

So let’s talk about these political consequences. If you jettison something like the mechanistic worldview, and perhaps substitute it with a more holistic religion that makes more claims of authority during our time on earth — wouldn’t one of the consequences be that it would be very difficult for many such religions to co-exist? Is the liberal part of your soul worried about the societal clashes that might result?

That sort of thing is possible, but it’s not inevitable. Religions can be lived in very many different ways. One of the big things that started happening in the 20th century is ecumenicism. I don’t just mean: let’s get together, let’s be nice to each other. (Laughs) I mean, I’m all for that.

But there’s something else which is much more subtle. This is ecumenicism as a real desire to learn from the other — and this extends to atheists as well — to learn from the other why their position so deeply appeals to them. There is a great deal of exchange operating at this level. It both presupposes but also builds initial respect and friendship. Again, you could say that this all corresponds to a new upheaval for people, who find it very difficult to flip back to the old way. So people argue that it, too, has downsides. I’m not sure about that, but it certainly has upsides. For instance, it frees in a plural-religious situation — where the other is a real possibility — certain kinds of ecumenicism that have traditionally existed in more despotically ordered societies. For instance, where the Greek Christians and the Armenian Christians and the Turkish Muslims all co-existed and nobody expected anyone to look at each other.

But in situations where one can move around, there is an easy tendency to defend yourself against any doubts about whether you should become an atheist, or whether an atheist should become a Christian, by supremely deprecatory views of the other. “I mean, I could change my mind, but their view is so ridiculous,” or horrifying or whatever. So the side of all this that clears away the deprecatory images is very important to one’s spiritual development — but it’s more than that. It’s a sense that (one is tempted to use one’s own language, naturally, so let me use the Christian language) you can see the Spirit moving in all these different lives, and that is something both very inspiring and furthering of one’s own spiritual development. I think a lot of that is coming to exist.

And you can see it in Vatican II. It’s not an accident that Vatican II adopted a very new stance to ecumenicism on the part of the Catholic clergy. There are still a number of holdouts. The current pope clearly doesn’t know what he thinks about ecumenicism. So one of the downsides is that we have tremendous fights about this within each confession, perhaps. Nevertheless, it opens up the possibility of the co-existence of people who are not lukewarm about their faith, yet don’t see a reason to rush out and start fighting with others.

Read the whole interview.

Music Interlude - Robert Plant And Band Of Joy, Live In Concert

I've always been a fan of Robert Plants voice and especially when he is doing blues, such as Led Zeppelin I and II. Much of his work in the last ten years has bridged the country-blues territory and, in my opinion, is some of his best singing - thinking particularly of his work with Alison Krauss.

This concert is posted at NPR's All Songs Considered - an hour of Zep classics and blues covers.

Band Of Joy; credit: Diana Wong for NPR
Diana Wong for NPR

Robert Plant and Band Of Joy perform live at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City.

Set List

This is an edited version of a full concert performed live at the Bowery Ballroom on Sept. 12, 2010.

  • Monkey
  • House Of Cards
  • Please Read The Letter
  • Misty Mountain Hop
  • Move Up
  • Satan
  • Angel Dance
  • Houses Of The Holy
  • Down To The Sea
  • Gallows Pole

This was a show full of surprises. First off, Band of Joy wasn't just backing Robert Plant. It's a band that happens to have Plant as a member. Sometimes multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott sung lead while Plant played harmonica. At other times, singer-songwriter Patty Griffin or country artist Buddy Miller took center stage. Sure, Plant was the main reason fans turned out at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. But this was a remarkable band giving a stunning performance.

Another surprise was Plant's demeanor. He never cut loose. Even on a song like the Led Zeppelin track "Gallows' Pole," there was no crazy wailing. In fact, all of the Zeppelin tunes were beautifully restrained.

That led to another surprise: I never missed Plant's Zeppelin histrionics. His restraint was exactly what this setting called for. The show was still a memorable treat: Amazing players applying their craft to great American blues and old timey tunes, along with some good old rock 'n' roll.

The final surprise was that I liked the covers as much as the Led Zeppelin songs. It's safe to say that everyone smiled a little more when Band of Joy launched into "Misty Mountain Hop," "Houses of the Holy," "Gallows Pole" and "Rock and Roll." But truth be told, traditional songs and cover tunes such as the Los Lobos cut "Angel Dance," a gospel medley that included "12 Gates to the City" and Richard Thompson's "House of Cards," are what ultimately made this night a perfect delight.

The show was recorded at the Bowery Ballroom by Edward Haber, Irene Trudel, George Wellington and Mike Poole. It was mixed at WNYC's Jerome L. Greene Performance Space by Mike Poole and Edward Haber.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Exposing Rhonda Byrne's Pseudoscience Nonsense

Entertaining . . . I love a good take-down.

Fight ‘The Power’

Published: September 24, 2010

Here is a lengthy section from the review, with all the relevant points you will need to dismiss this crap.

The law of attraction states that whatever you experience in life is a direct result of your thoughts. It really is that simple. If you think about being fat, you will get fatter. If you think about thin people, you will become thin yourself. If you think about your bills, you will get more bills, but if you think about checks instead, your mailbox will overflow with them. According to “The Secret” and “The Power,” your thoughts and feelings have magnetic properties and “frequencies.” They “vibrate” and resonate with the “universe,” somehow attracting events that share those frequencies back to their thinker.

“The Secret” and “The Power” deliver their wisdom in an ex cathedra voice reminiscent of the “Saturday Night Live” segment “Deep Thoughts.” And Byrne offers no scientific evidence for the absurd physics behind the law of attraction. But that doesn’t mean her books don’t take advantage of up-to-the-minute science. The problem is, it’s not the science she thinks it is.

The law of attraction has been around for millenniums; Byrne cites Plato, Galileo, Beethoven, Edison, Carnegie, Einstein and even Jesus himself as adepts. Just in the past century, it has been repeatedly expressed in essentially the same form as Byrne’s version by Wallace Wattles (“The Science of Getting Rich”), Napoleon Hill (“Think and Grow Rich”) and many other writers. Byrne’s idea of “the universe” plays the same role as Wattles’s “intelligent substance” or Hill’s “infinite intelligence” — a godlike agent that provides whatever we desire. Why is this particular pseudoscientific concept so persistent?

The message of “The Power” and “The Secret” might best be understood as an advanced meme — a sort of intellectual virus — whose structure has evolved throughout history to optimally exploit a suite of weaknesses in the design of the human mind. Had Byrne and the other purveyors of “The Secret” (including Oprah Winfrey, who repeatedly plugged it on her show) set out to reap huge profits by manipulating cognitive biases wired into the brain, they could hardly have done a better job. More likely, they caught the virus themselves and are unwittingly spreading it as far as they can.

The first trick they use is what psychologists call “social proof.” People like to do things other people are doing because it seems to prove the value of their own actions. That is why QVC displays a running count of how many viewers have bought each item for sale, and why advice seems more credible if it appears to come from many different people rather than one. “The Secret” is peppered with quotations from a group of about 20 “teachers” or “avatars,” many of whom are themselves popular self-help gurus. In “The Power,” Byrne also quotes sages like Thoreau, Gandhi and St. Augustine. This ploy, an example of a related logical fallacy called the argument from authority, taps our intuitive beliefs so forcefully that we psychology professors spend time training our introductory students to actively resist it.

Byrne also activates what might be called the illusion of potential, our readiness to believe that we have a vast reservoir of untapped abilities just waiting to be released. This illusion helps explain the popularity of products like “Baby Mozart” and video games that “train your brain” and entertain you at the same time. Unfortunately, rigorous empirical studies have repeatedly shown that none of these things bring about any meaningful improvement in intelligence.

“The Power” and “The Secret” are larded with references to magnets, energy and quantum mechanics. This last is a dead giveaway: whenever you hear someone appeal to impenetrable physics to explain the workings of the mind, run away — we already have disciplines called “psychology” and “neuroscience” to deal with those questions. Byrne’s onslaught of pseudoscientific jargon serves mostly to establish an “illusion of knowledge,” as social scientists call our tendency to believe we understand something much better than we really do. In one clever experiment by the psychologist Rebecca Lawson, people who claimed to have a good understanding of how bicycles work (and who ride them every day) proved unable to draw the chain and pedals in the correct location.

Read the whole article.

Christopher Badcock - Psychosis and the Female/Maternal Brain: new research confirms the diametric model

If I understand Badcock correctly (and this is not just his theory), the extreme "male" brain suffers from Asperger's Syndrome and the extreme "female" brain suffers from psychosis. Well, maybe, but what if one does not believe, as for example Cordelia Fine, that there is a "male brain" and a "female brain" in the ways those terms are commonly used?

In my opinion, naming systematic thinking masculine and empathic thinking feminine simply perpetuates the cultural stereotypes about what is male and what is female. Those skills exist in both men and women, and there is no reason that both sexes cannot embody them as facets of their gender roles and identities, except that we still socialize girls to be empathic and boys to be systematic.

I'm not saying that there is no neurological bias, but we are no longer confined to what we are born with - the brain is malleable, and it can learn skills that are biologically weaker at birth. I did not learn empathy until into my adult years, and now it seems to be a dominant trait/skill.

In terms of brain abnormalities like Asperger's - sure, there is probably an element of the male brain that it makes it more likely in men (the statistics bears this out). I'm not as convinced about the psychosis argument, since this is not something apparent at birth or early childhood - I would need to see more proof.

This article comes from his The Imprinted Brain blog at Psychology Today.

by Christopher Badcock Ph.D.

Hyper-mentalism/hyper-empathizing correlates with psychosis in normal females

It is always gratifying to have your theory confirmed, but more satisfying still when it is endorsed using someone else's approach and terminology—particularly if its author has specifically ruled out what your theory proposes!

The extreme male brain theory of autism was originally out-lined by Asperger and later developed by Simon Baron-Cohen. It suggests that autism represents a pathological over-development of typical male cognitive tendencies.

According to Baron-Cohen's systemizing/empathizing model of cognition illustrated in the diagram, males averagely are Type S, with systemizing better than empathizing. Females are generally the other way round: Type E, with empathizing skills superior to their systemizing ability. Autistics take the male tendency even further: Extreme Type S, with major deficits in empathizing and over-development of systemizing. However, the paradigm suggests that an Extreme Type E also exists with the opposite cognitive configuration: a candidate for an extreme female brain equivalent of autism.

Baron-Cohen explicitly rejected the idea that psychosis might be to the female brain what autism is to the male one in his book, The Essential Difference. Nevertheless, a paper soon to be published in Personality and Individual Differences (Volume 49, Issue 7, November 2010, Pages 738-742) by Mark Brosnan, Chris Ashwin, Ian Walker, and Joseph Donaghue asks if an "Extreme Female Brain" (EFB) "can be characterized in terms of psychosis?" These authors equally explicitly answer that it can.

The study investigated the relationship between levels of empathizing and systemizing, as well as self-report measures of psychosis, depression and anxiety, in 70 healthy female undergraduates. The findings showed that what Baron-Cohen calls hyper-empathizing was positively correlated with higher psychosis, but was not associated with measures of depression or anxiety. Furthermore, the two psychotic items that correlated most significantly with hyper-empathizing were mania (feeling elated) and paranoia (feeling others are against you). The researchers point out that "these findings are consistent with Crespi and Badcock's theory linking the EFB to psychosis spectrum disorders, and in particular paranoia and ‘positive symptoms'." Indeed, they add that their findings show that hyper-empathizing in a non-clinical female sample is "associated with higher psychosis scores, providing empirical support for the autism-psychosis model and suggesting hyper-empathising may be consistent with a pathological profile of EFB."

They also comment that "Hyper-empathising may constitute a case where people attribute intentionality when it is not there," and add that such people "might attempt to use social-emotional explanations to explain non-social elements of the world around them." This epitomizes what I would call hyper-mentalism because it clearly goes far beyond mere empathizing, and in my book I devote the first two chapters to explaining why, despite a strong desire to do so, I was unable to subscribe to Baron-Cohen's view of autism as representing excessive systemizing and defective empathizing.

As I argue at length there, autistic savantism—the epitome of autistic cognitive style—is not so much systematic as mechanistic, and autistics cannot be seen as simply deficient in empathy (even if empathic deficits are a part of the disorder). In the next two chapters I argue the case for seeing psychotic symptoms as not just the opposites of those of autism, but as instances of hyper-mentalism.

Finally, I show how the diametric model is explained by genetic conflict and in passing point out that autism is not so much an extreme male brain disorder as an extreme paternal brain one. This immediately explains why females can be autistic because people of both sexes have paternal brains (the limbic system in the main: so called because it is built by paternally-active genes). And an obvious deduction is that, if psychosis is the diametric opposite of autism, it should be associated with an extreme maternal brain (mainly the frontal cerebral cortex and underlying striatum, where maternal genes are predominantly expressed).

Researchers who start out with a particular theory's paradigm and terminology in mind and then find themselves confirming it can sometimes arouse suspicions of having been biased in the theory's favour. Clearly, no such suspicions attach to this particular study. On the contrary, these researchers had little choice but to use existing measures of autistic and psychotic cognition based on Baron-Cohen's model simply because alternatives derived from the diametric mentalistic/mechanistic model have not yet been developed. Indeed, if you hadn't done your homework and read this paper without sufficient care, you might almost get the impression that it was Baron-Cohen and not Badcock and Crespi who had been vindicated by this remarkable research!

(With acknowledgements and thanks to Marco Del Giudice for bringing this to my attention.)

Buddhist Geeks #189: The Tao of Twitter (Lama Surya Das)

Lama Surya Das is an excellent teacher, able to make traditional Tibetan Buddhism accessible to the West.

Buddhist Geeks #189: The Tao of Twitter

BG 189: The Tao of Twitter

28. Sep, 2010
by Lama Surya Das

Episode Description:

When it comes to leveraging the technologies of our time, Lama Surya Das is one of the most active American Buddhists around. He blogs, tweets, skypes, hosts webinars, and participates in virtual retreats. And yet he acknowledges that if it were completely up to him, he’d be leading meditation retreats in-person and writing books.

We speak with Surya Das on why he has decided to engage these technologies, as opposed to treating them merely as distractions or as “necessary evils,” as so many teachers do. We explore both the upsides and downsides of what he refers to as, “beaming, streaming media.” As he points out during the interview, he feels he has two feet firmly planted in the old tradition, and two feet firmly planted in the new. What happens when someone is immersed in both?

This is part 1 of a two-part series.

Episode Links:


Brain Science Podcast - Pop Psychology Myths with Scott Lilienfeld (BSP 70)

Dr. Ginger Campbell's Brain Science Podcast is back from its summer vacation - thankfully. She returns with an interview of Scott Lilienfeld, author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior.

Pop Psychology Myths with Scott Lilienfeld (BSP 70)

by Ginger Campbell, MD on September 27, 2010

The latest Brain Science Podcast (BSP 70) is an interview with Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, co-author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior. This episode was recorded live at Dragon*Con 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. We focused our conversation on the fact scientific reasoning and critical thinking do NOT come naturally. Instead, we all tend to make similar errors, such as mistaking correlation for causation. Dr. Lilienfeld shared his experiences and a extensive question and answer session with the live audience allowed him to explore additional examples.

listen-to-audio Listen to Episode 70

Episode Transcript (Download PDF)

Subscribe to the Brain Science Podcast: itunes-badge-30 zunelogo-70 feed-icon32x32 mail-sticker-tiny

Detailed Show Notes:
This episode includes an extensive Q and A between Dr. Lilienfeld and the live audience. Here is a list of some of the questions:
  1. A mother asked for advice for being pressured to have her child subjected to treatment approaches that may not be evidence based
  2. Is hypnosis an effective treatment?
  3. Another woman asks for Dr. Lillienfeld to give some examples of practices that were popular in the 90′s which caused him concern (see page 21 of transcript to correct?)
  4. Myths about anger management
  5. Problems with validity of self-evalutions
  6. Claims about changing your brain and bringing it into balance esp with regards to elementary education
  7. Problems with staff in mental health institutions believing in pseudoscience
  8. Problems with portrayal of psychological issues in movies and TV
  9. What about IQ tests and theories of Multiple intelligence?
  • 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, Barry L. Beyerstein
  • What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought by Keith E. Stanovich
  • Rotton, J, & Kelly, I. W. (1985). Much ado about the full moon: A meta-analysis of lunary-lunacy research. Psychological Bulletin, 97, 286-306.
  • Dunning, D., Heath, C., & Suls, J.M. (2004) Flawed Self-Assessment: Implications for Health, Education, and the Workplace. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, (5.3) 69-106.
  • Delmonico, L.M., & Romancyzk, R.G. (1995). Facilitated Communication: A critique. Behavior Therapist, 18, 27-30.
  • Jacobson, J.W., Mullick, J.A., & Schwarz, A.A. (1995) A history of facilitated communication: Science, pseudoscience, and antiscience. American Psychologist, 50,750-765.


  • Starting this month the Brain Science Podcast will come out every other month.
  • Don’t forget to check out my other podcast Books and Ideas. There will be a new episode in October.
  • For more science podcasts go to

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sissela Bok - Human Kind: Is selflessness in our nature?

Cool article from The American Scholar, a review of The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, by Oren Harman. Price seems to have been approaching an integral understanding of altruism and natural selection before his religious conversion and subsequent decline: "natural selection works at different levels at the same time, whether among genes, cells, individuals, families, groups, or even species."

The story of George Price's life sounds interesting and sad - but it sounds as though this book doesn't quite work.

Human Kind

Is selflessness in our nature?

From Aesop’s fables to those of La Fontaine, talking animals—monkeys, wolves in sheep’s clothing, grasshoppers, ants—have exposed human foibles and vices and occasional virtues. In so doing, they challenge all rigid boundaries between humans and other species as well as the common view of human wrong­­­­­­­doing as “bestial” in nature—a term Erasmus de­clared deeply unfair to animals, given the scale of violence and deceit practiced by human beings.

Charles Darwin’s words, near the end of The Descent of Man, might have echoed Erasmus: “I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper . . . as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.”

In his engaging book The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, Oren Harman, a professor of the history of science at Bar Ilan University in Israel, presents a wealth of scientific research bearing on forms of cooperation, helpfulness, even self-sacrifice among many species. Altruism was “an anomalous thorn in Darwin’s side,” Harman argues, a conundrum that Darwinians would need to solve, given their view of the ruthless struggle among living beings for survival:

Why do amoebas build stalks from their own bodies, sacrificing themselves in the process, so that some may climb up and be carried away from dearth to plenty on the legs of an innocent insect or the wings of a felicitous wind? Why do vampire bats share blood, mouth to mouth, at the end of a night of prey with members of the colony who were less successful in the hunt?. . . And what do all of these have to do with morality in humans: Is there, in fact, a natural origin to our own acts of kindness?

Harman offers vivid accounts of the lives and writings of a number of evolutionary biologists who have sought answers to such questions, showing how they have intersected with the remarkable career of one man who took questions about altruism to heart as few others have: “the forgotten American genius George Price, atheist-chemist and drifter turned religious evolutionary–mathematician and derelict.” Born in 1922, Price earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Chicago, even as he worked on uranium enrichment in the Manhattan Project. He went on to do research at Bell Labs, then at the Radioisotope Lab at the Minnesota Veterans Administration Hospital, and later at IBM, while engaging in often vehement controversies about topics such as extrasensory perception and U.S.-Soviet relations. It was only in 1967, after he moved to London and was appointed to a position at the Galton Laboratory, that he focused ever more intensely on problems of altruism.

In titling his book The Price of Altruism, Harman points to the central part that George Price has come to play in the scientific study of the subject. Exchanges with biologists such as John Maynard Smith and W. D. Hamilton were crucial for Price as he perfected what is now known as the “Price equation.” Harman describes (with three appendices that set forth and elucidate the stages of the equation itself in the context of related ones) how Price arrived at his equation, aiming to explain how natural selection works at different levels at the same time, whether among genes, cells, individuals, families, groups, or even species.

The book’s title also bespeaks the personal cost for Price himself of his struggles during the London years. In 1970, he converted from being a fiercely outspoken atheist to an evangelical Christian on unusual grounds. He felt that there were just too many coincidences in his life to be mathematically possible. They had to have been intended by God, who must have chosen him not only to convert others but also to continue with his research. How did he square his scientific views about evolution with the creation story in Genesis? Providentially, perhaps, he had concluded that God had commanded him not to sign on to belief in that story.

A second conversion experience led him to feel that God wanted him to express his love for others without concern for his own well-being. In a vision, Jesus whispered to him that he should give to all who asked of him and never ask those who took anything from him to return it. He sought out alcoholics and homeless persons, sharing what money and possessions he had, inviting some to share his living quarters. His health deteriorating, hungry and emaciated, sometimes homeless himself, he came to despair of knowing what God meant for him to do or be. In January 1975 he cut a gash in his throat and bled to death on the floor of a desolate squat. Among the notes he left, one read: “To Whom It May Concern: I guess I’ve had it. George.”

Read the rest.