Saturday, July 23, 2011

NPR - Gomo Tulku: The Rapping Lama

Interesting - another Tibetan lama has left the monastery for a more secular life - and there is not much that is more opposite of monastic life than life as a rapper. Admittedly, he was an American by birth, until being recognized at age 6 as the reincarnation of his grandfather, the high Tibetan Buddhist lama Goma Rimpoche.

Audio for this story from Weekend Edition Saturday will be available at approx. 12:00 p.m. ET

Gomo Tulku, on the set of the music video for "Photograph."
Enlarge Courtesy of the artist

Gomo Tulku, on the set of the music video for "Photograph."

July 23, 2011

Weekend Edition once did a story on a 6-year-old boy in Utah who was about to embark on a remarkable journey. Here's how that story began:

Among the rows of small cornsilk-blond and haystack-brown heads squirming through reading lessons in Mrs. Bigler's first-grade class at the Oak Hills Elementary School in Bountiful, Utah, one small boy stands out among all the Ashleys, Cassies, Laurens and Chrises.
Tenzin Dhongha's hair is as black as coal. His eyes are Asian. But in all important respects, he is one with his classmates, fidgeting if the classroom clock ticks too slowly towards recess.
But Tenzin Dhongha draws occasional visitors to Bountiful because he has been proclaimed by Tibet's spiritual and temporal leader, the Dalai Lama himself, as a tulku, a miracle being — the reincarnation of his grandfather, the high Tibetan Buddhist lama Goma Rimpoche.

That was 16 years ago. Tenzin Dhongha had just learned that he would soon be sent to a monastery in India to study and fulfill his destiny to become a Tibetan spiritual leader. Tenzin became a monk — Gomo Tulku, as he is now known — and settled in Italy among a community of his followers. He spent 12 years in a monastery, and finished the equivalent of a bachelor's degree.

But now, there's been a detour in Gomo Tulku's spiritual journey. He's about to release his first rap recording.

The single "Photograph" comes out this month. Gomo Tulku sat down with Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon — whom he has no recollection of meeting 16 years ago — to talk about his new career.

"I decided to follow a different route," Tulku says. "Definitely, I have my religious side in me, and my whole — my past influence. But that's something personal, you know. And then I have this thing that I'm doing as a musician — or you can call it a business, you know."

Heroes Not Zombies Reviews "The Empathic Brain"

Over at the Heroes Not Zombies blog, bobleckridge has posted a nice review of The Empathic Brain (only available as a $2.99 Kindle book from Amazon), the 2009 book from Christian Keysers, which is a publication of the Dana Foundation, a leader in the publication of brain science and research.

I am he as you as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

We’re still in the midst of a highly atomistic society, as Mary Midgley describes so clearly in books like “Science and Poetry” and “The Myths We Live By”. The thrust of human thought has been to separate, divide and reduce. Consequently there’s a popular conception that we are all separate – that there is a “me” inside my head. We have a sense that each of us are as separate as billiard balls. We might bump into each other, impact on each other, but we don’t spill over into each other.

But it’s all changing. There’s a new paradigm, a new way of thinking on the block, and it’s gaining ground fast.

That new paradigm is the irreducibility of reality, the importance of understanding connections, interactions, complexity. There’s a shift in focus from separate entities to between-ness.

“The Empathic Brain” by Christian Keysers [1932594515] gives an interesting insight into how the discovery of mirror neurons has shown us just how wrong the idea of completely separate, skull-bound minds is. Keysers is one of the pioneer researchers working on the discovery and understanding of mirror neurons.

Here are just two points from his book which might change the way you think about the mind, the self and your relationships.

Firstly, Keysers and others have shown that mirror neurons are involved in producing a phenomenon where the pre-motor strip in our brain becomes active in specific ways. When we see someone carrying out an action, our brain prepares to make our bodies carry out the same action. This might even follow through into the action itself. Have you ever noticed how two people well connected in conversation often mirror each others postures or body movements? Little things like touching one ear, or scratching their nose, where one person does it, and the other immediately mimics the same action. If you ask the people concerned about it, it’s likely they’re not even aware that it’s happening. It’s not that the one thinks “Oh she’s scratching the tip of her nose, I think I’ll scratch mine”!

Secondly, an area of the brain known as the “insula” becomes activated when we empathically respond to another’s emotion. This explains why some people can become quite overwhelmed by another’s emotion. In fact we’re not all the same in this regard. The insula of the most highly empathic people becomes much more active than that of the less empathic. Again this isn’t something we consciously, rationally choose. The activation of the insula by others’ emotions doesn’t seem to be under our control.

Here are a couple of passages from “The Empathic Brain” -

Imagining actions also increases brain activity in the premotor regions involved in executing similar actions……Thus, during both observation and imagination, our brain uses the premotor cortex to mentally re-enact an action without actually moving the body.


If we interpret the actions of other individuals through our own motor programs, our own motor programs will have a very strong impact on our perception of other individuals.


Empathic people activate their insula very strongly and may be overwhelmed by the vicarious emotions that movies trigger in them. Other people activate their insula only weakly, needing much stronger stimuli to trigger their own feelings.


Through shared circuits, the people around us, their actions and their emotions, permeate into many areas of our brain that were formerly the safe harbours of our identity: our motor system and our feelings. The border between individuals becomes permeable, and the social world and the private world intermix. Emotions and actions are contagious. Invisible strings of shared circuits tie our minds together, creating the fabric of an organic system that goes beyond the individual.

The concepts of the mind as embodied and extended seem very helpful to me. This work on mirror neurons, interestingly, touches on both of these.

The Dalai Lama - Seeking a Place of Refuge

by H.H. the Dalai Lama,
edited and translated by Glenn H. Mullin

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

Seeking a Place of Refuge.
A spiritual aspirant requires a model, something he or she can look up to as an ideal and thus find guidance and inspiration. In Buddhism this is the Triple Gem, or the Three Jewels of Refuge: the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha.

When we think of the fully enlightened Buddhas--the beings who have purified their minds of all stains and obscurations and who have expanded their wisdom to the limits of existence--we feel very attracted and awed; but somehow there always seems to be a great distance between the Buddhas and us. Therefore, there is the refuge of Sangha, the community of spiritual aspirants, the assembly of practitioners dwelling in the various stages of practice and attainment.

These beings provide us with a perspective on the path. We have to look up to the Sangha, but not as far as to the Buddhas. The Sangha make us think, "This person is not that far ahead of me. If I just make a bit more effort...." They give us confidence for spiritual practice. Sometimes they make us feel like we can even race them to enlightenment. These are the Sangha of spiritual friends.

Thoughts of the Buddhas make us numb with admiration; thoughts of the Sangha cause us to jump to it and to apply ourselves with zeal to the spiritual path. This path and the methods for traversing it are the third Jewel of Refuge, the Dharma. This is the collection of teachings to be practiced and the realizations to be attained. (p.97)

--from The Path to Enlightenment by H.H. the Dalai Lama, edited and translated by Glenn H. Mullin, published by Snow Lion Publications

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(Good until July 29th).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Alva Noë - Social By Nature (on Sex Differences)

In his most recent 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog post, philosopher Alva Noë looks at the evidence for cognitively significant differences between men and women. Notice the title says "sex" differences, not gender - sex is biological, gender is social. Many of the differences discussed here are inborn, or quite possibly epigenetic (for example, women get PTSD more often and worse than men, but men are more likely to be ADHD or autistic). But then he goes back to his original thesis, that the largest differences are social and cultural - gender roles - not neurobiological.

This is a follow-up to an earlier post - Gender Is Dead! Long Live Gender! - in which he looked at the
known cognitive and psychological differences between men and women. But here he warns:

The question we need to take seriously is: Do the known sex differences in neurobiology go any way toward explaining the known cognitive and psychological differences that find expression in the lives of men and women?

The answer to this is a resounding no. This is so, even if it turns out, as work by Jacobs suggests, that female sex hormones modulate neurotransmitters that play a role in cognition.

You're looking in the wrong place if you look to the brain for an understanding of what makes us different.

What makes us different? We do. We don't just happen to be boys and girls, men and women; we identify with ourselves as such, and we shape ourselves to conform to the rigid matrix of ideas and values that make up our conception of what it is to be male and female.

Gender differences are partly based in sex differences, there is no escaping this, but there are also incredibly powerful cultural forces that force into gender boxes, through unconscious acculturation, social learning, shame, and even violence.
CIRCA 1950s:  Husband serving wife dinner.
Enlarge George Marks/Getty Images

Are there cognitively significant neurobiological differences between men and women? According to the best cognitive science, as I have suggested in recent posts, the answer is clearly no.

I've received a fair bit of friendly criticism from smart neuroscientists about this.

As a community, neuroscientists are a pretty progressive lot; they like the idea that there is no biological justification for gender stereotyping that has tended to be harmful to women. At the same time, they are rightly wary of letting this sort of political consideration obscure what is an undeniable fact: there are widespread and substantial differences between male and female brains.

The neural differences show up all over the place and go way beyond the effects on brain chemistry of estrous and menstrual cycles (effects which are not small). As UC Irvine's Larry Cahill explains, there are sex differences not only in the incidence but also the nature of a large number of diseases of the central nervous system, including, e.g. Alzheimer's, PTSD and other anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, stroke, multiple sclerosis, autism, addiction, fibromylagia, attention deficit disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, Tourette's syndrome, and eating disorders.

There may well be cognitively significant differences, too.

As neuroscientist Emily Jacobs (now at Harvard, then at Berkeley) has shown, there is reason to think estrogen may have a positive effect on neural activity in prefrontal cortex, an effect that translates directly into an improvement in working memory. Her research, and that of others, points in the direction that differences in male/female neurobiology may advantage women!

I agree one-hundred percent that we don't get to pick our findings to support our political beliefs. But I reject the idea that it might somehow be politically dangerous to admit that there are biological differences between men and women. After all, we know that there are such neurobiological differences (see above). Moreover, as I stressed in my first post, we know that there are cognitive and psychological differences between men and women, differences that show up in testing and performance.

The question we need to take seriously is: Do the known sex differences in neurobiology go any way toward explaining the known cognitive and psychological differences that find expression in the lives of men and women?

The answer to this is a resounding no. This is so, even if it turns out, as work by Jacobs suggests, that female sex hormones modulate neurotransmitters that play a role in cognition.

You're looking in the wrong place if you look to the brain for an understanding of what makes us different.

What makes us different? We do. We don't just happen to be boys and girls, men and women; we identify with ourselves as such, and we shape ourselves to conform to the rigid matrix of ideas and values that make up our conception of what it is to be male and female.

Why do girls do less well than boys on math tests? Because they understand that they are supposed to do less well. As the studies described earlier show, if you screen out gender by priming girls to self-identify not as girls but as, say, students at elite colleges, performance improves, just as if you prime boys for thinking of themselves as boys, rather than students, their performance on verbal tests drops.

Gender is real. People are men and women. And this makes a difference not only to how they live, to how much they earn, to how well they perform, but also to how they experience themselves, their bodies and their lives.

But gender doesn't happen in the brain, whatever sex differences on the brain there are. Gender, rather, is something we enact together in a social and political realm.

It is important to realize that this does not make it any less real or less natural for all that.

To understand human nature, we need to expand our conception of what the natural is.

Sugar in the Body and Brain

Here are a few videos from UC Berkeley on the biochemistry of sugar - from obesity to addiction to the high that sugar creates in the brain.

Sugar Highs and Lows: Sugar on the Brain

Kent Berridge, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, discusses his lab's research into fundamental question about the brain and behavior. He discusses how food pleasure is generated in the brain, the neural bases of wanting and liking, and how fear and stress relate to desire. Series: "UCSF Center for Obesity, Assessment, Study and Treatment" [7/2011]

Food and Addiction: Sugar Addiction - Proof of Concept

Nicole Avena of the University of Florida researches abnormal eating behaviors to understand brain mechanisms that contribute to overeating of sugars and fats. She and her colleagues find that rats maintained on a diet schedule that induces binge eating of sugar can result in several behaviors and changes in the dopamine and opioid brain systems that resemble an "addiction." Series: Food and Addiction: Environmental, Psychological and Biological Perspectives [5/2010]

Sugar: The Bitter Truth

Robert H. Lustig, MD, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology, explores the damage caused by sugary foods. He argues that fructose (too much) and fiber (not enough) appear to be cornerstones of the obesity epidemic through their effects on insulin. Series: UCSF Mini Medical School for the Public [7/2009]

Dharma Quote: The true nature of bodhichitta rejoices in others' enlightenment

A Guide to the
Dzogchen Preliminary Practices
compiled, translated, and introduced by
Cortland Dahl


Dharma Quote of the Week

Suppose there is this religious group building thousands of childcare facilities and hospices.... Although these religious workers are doing a lot of caring work, there is no wish to enlighten sentient beings. Their aim is just to provide food and education. At the same time, imagine there is one hermit living somewhere in the mountains of the Himalayas who is doing none of this. In fact, within close range of him, there are a lot of babies dying, yet outwardly he is doing nothing about it. Inwardly, however, he is actually meditating, "May all sentient beings be enlightened!" and he continues to do this every day. Purely because of the enlightenment aspect, this person is worthier of homage than the first group. Why? Because it is so difficult to truly and genuinely wish for the enlightenment of others. It is much easier to give people food and educate them.

Most of us don't really appreciate this fact. We have never before genuinely wished for someone else to achieve enlightenment. Likewise, if someone were to come over and say to us: "Here you go, you have a ticket for enlightenment. There is only one ticket." I don't think we would even think about giving it to someone else! We'd grab it and go for it. Enlightenment is such a valuable thing.

Actually, enlightenment is much too large a subject, so let's not take that as an example. Instead, let's say someone comes along with a potion that promises you clairvoyance or omniscience. We would drink it ourselves, not even sharing half of it with others!

Just think how often we are jealous when someone is a better practitioner. How often do we get jealous when someone receives a better or a higher teaching than we do? If you have genuine bodhichitta, you should be happy, shouldn't you? After all, isn't that what you wished for? Their getting enlightenment means your wish is at last coming true. Their receiving higher teachings, or becoming better practitioners, means that your aspiration is finally being fulfilled! But we don't feel this way, instead we feel jealous or envious. Some of us may be so-so Dharma practitioners, so we don't really feel jealous or envious, but we still feel left behind. Who cares? If you are a genuine bodhisattva, you shouldn't care about these things. (p.123)

--from Entrance to the Great Perfection: A Guide to the Dzogchen Preliminary Practices compiled, translated, and introduced by Cortland Dahl, published by Snow Lion Publications

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dr. Kathleen Young - Can Complex PTSD Be Cured?

This is a topic I am studying of late, so I thought I might share this article by Dr. Young. I totally agree with her that the relationship is the most important element in healing complex PTSD.

Can Complex PTSD Be Cured?

Recently a reader asked a version of this question in response to my post about Complex PTSD:

…I have been told by many doctors, therapists, psychitrists, and psychologists that I will always have PTSD. I have only found one person willing to help with complex ptsd. I am starting to feel angry that I have to live with the consiquences of someones distructive behaviors. I am starting to feel like their is little hope of ever having this cptsd to stop.

I would like to know the length of therapy that is expected for Cptsd.
I wish I could feel normal again and not relieve tramatic events, have issues with relationships, abandoment issues, and mental health issues….

My short answer to this question of cure is a resounding “Yes!”

My longer answer involves first mentioning that I am not a fan of the word “cure”, as I feel it is important to understand Complex PTSD not as an illness or even a disorder (despite the D) but as the natural, understandable result of repeated, prolonged trauma at the hands of trusted caretakers. That clarified, do I believe that healing and repair of the wounding take place? Yes indeed! Can those with complex PTSD live rich and satisfying lives? Yes! And in response to the commenter’s specific concerns, this can indeed include no longer relieving traumatic material and the ability to create and sustain healthy relationships.

This therapy work takes more than processing trauma, brief therapy techniques, or medication, although all my be useful at some point. As I have described in several prior posts, healing from complex trauma requires the development of skills and capacities such as affect-regulation, staying present with feelings vs. dissociating, self-soothing, and the ability to love oneself.

What makes this level of healing possible? A therapeutic alliance.

Healing complex trauma requires connection, attachment. The skills that are missing are missing because things went terribly wrong in early relationships, thus a different kind of relationship is required to master them now. The neglect, abuse, betrayal and just plain ineffective environment of your earliest relationships have caused you to develop complex PTSD. It is in the context of a different kind of relationship that you can identify, understand and ultimately heal the impact of your early experiences.

This different kind of relationship happens with the development over time of a good-enough therapeutic alliance. A good-enough alliance is not perfect (no relationship is), but it is strong enough to withstand the inevitable empathic breaks and ruptures. It is a relationship in which repair of the same takes place. Over and over again as needed.

Questions regarding the length of therapy are so common and understandable! When we are talking about depth work of the sort described above I believe it is important to prepare for a marathon rather than a sprint. I know that “it takes as long as it takes” is a very unsatisfying answer, and yet I know it to be true.

If your mental health professionals tell you complex PTSD is incurable or untreatable it is time to seek new providers! Find someone who understands the nature of this work and has the expertise you need. Pick a therapist who feels like a good fit and commit to talking about the relationship rather than fleeing when the going gets tough. Then prepare to hang in there for the long haul. You deserve it and it is possible!

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

The Stanford Prison Experiment 40 Years Later

Lining Up the Prisoners

The Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Philip Zimbardo in August of 1971 at Standford University, is one of the most discussed - and most notorious - research projects in modern psychology. Forty years after the fact, Stanford Magazine talks to some of the key figures in the project about their memories and experience.

Here is a brief summary of the study from the website (linked to above):

Welcome to the Stanford Prison Experiment web site, which features an extensive slide show and information about this classic psychology experiment, including parallels with the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? These are some of the questions we posed in this dramatic simulation of prison life conducted in the summer of 1971 at Stanford University.

How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. Please join me on a slide tour describing this experiment and uncovering what it tells us about the nature of human nature.

- Philip G. Zimbardo
With that background, here is the article from Stanford Magazine:

The Menace Within

What happened in the basement of the psych building 40 years ago shocked the world. How do the guards, prisoners and researchers in the Stanford Prison Experiment feel about it now?

By Romesh Ratnesar

Stanford Prison Experiment

It began with an ad in the classifieds.

Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks. More than 70 people volunteered to take part in the study, to be conducted in a fake prison housed inside Jordan Hall, on Stanford's Main Quad. The leader of the study was 38-year-old psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. He and his fellow researchers selected 24 applicants and randomly assigned each to be a prisoner or a guard.

Zimbardo encouraged the guards to think of themselves as actual guards in a real prison. He made clear that prisoners could not be physically harmed, but said the guards should try to create an atmosphere in which the prisoners felt "powerless."

The study began on Sunday, August 17, 1971. But no one knew what, exactly, they were getting into.

Forty years later, the Stanford Prison Experiment remains among the most notable—and notorious—research projects ever carried out at the University. For six days, half the study's participants endured cruel and dehumanizing abuse at the hands of their peers. At various times, they were taunted, stripped naked, deprived of sleep and forced to use plastic buckets as toilets. Some of them rebelled violently; others became hysterical or withdrew into despair. As the situation descended into chaos, the researchers stood by and watched—until one of their colleagues finally spoke out.

The public's fascination with the SPE and its implications—the notion, as Zimbardo says, "that these ordinary college students could do such terrible things when caught in that situation" —brought Zimbardo international renown. It also provoked criticism from other researchers, who questioned the ethics of subjecting student volunteers to such extreme emotional trauma. The study had been approved by Stanford's Human Subjects Research Committee, and Zimbardo says that "neither they nor we could have imagined" that the guards would treat the prisoners so inhumanely.

In 1973, an investigation by the American Psychological Association concluded that the prison study had satisfied the profession's existing ethical standards. But in subsequent years, those guidelines were revised to prohibit human-subject simulations modeled on the SPE. "No behavioral research that puts people in that kind of setting can ever be done again in America," Zimbardo says.

The Stanford Prison Experiment became the subject of numerous books and documentaries, a feature film and the name of at least one punk band. In the last decade, after the revelations of abuses committed by U.S. military and intelligence personnel at prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, the SPE provided lessons in how good people placed in adverse conditions can act barbarically.

The experiment is still a source of controversy and contention—even among those who took part in it. Here, in their own words, some of the key players in the drama reflect on their roles and how those six days in August changed their lives.

The Superintendent

Phil Zimbardo
Zimbardo joined Stanford's psychology department in 1968 and taught there until his retirement in 2007.

The study was focused originally on how individuals adapt to being in a relatively powerless situation. I was interested in prisoners and was not really interested in the guards. It was really meant to be a single, dramatic demonstration of the power of the situation on human behavior. We expected that we would write some articles about it and move on.

Phil Zimbardo

After the end of the first day, I said, "There's nothing here. Nothing's happening." The guards had this antiauthority mentality. They felt awkward in their uniforms. They didn't get into the guard mentality until the prisoners started to revolt. Throughout the experiment, there was this conspiracy of denial—everyone involved was in effect denying that this was an experiment and agreeing that this is a prison run by psychologists.

There was zero time for reflection. We had to feed the prisoners three meals a day, deal with the prisoner breakdowns, deal with their parents, run a parole board. By the third day I was sleeping in my office. I had become the superintendent of the Stanford county jail. That was who I was: I'm not the researcher at all. Even my posture changes—when I walk through the prison yard, I'm walking with my hands behind my back, which I never in my life do, the way generals walk when they're inspecting troops.

We had arranged for everyone involved—the prisoners, guards and staff—to be interviewed on Friday by other faculty members and graduate students who had not been involved in the study. Christina Maslach, who had just finished her PhD, came down the night before. She's standing outside the guard quarters and watches the guards line up the prisoners for the 10 o'clock toilet run. The prisoners come out, and the guards put bags over their heads, chain their feet together and make them put their hands on each other's shoulders, like a chain gang. They're yelling and cursing at them. Christina starts tearing up. She said, "I can't look at this."

I ran after her and we had this argument outside Jordan Hall. She said, "It's terrible what you're doing to these boys. How can you see what I saw and not care about the suffering?" But I didn't see what she saw. And I suddenly began to feel ashamed. This is when I realized I had been transformed by the prison study to become the prison administrator. At that point I said, "You're right. We've got to end the study."

[As the study was underway], there was an escape attempt at San Quentin prison and [former Black Panther] George Jackson was shot and killed. Three weeks after that, there's the Attica prison riot [in New York]. Suddenly, prisons are hot. Two government investigative committees start hearings and I'm flown out to Washington to present to a congressional subcommittee on the nature of prisons. I went from knowing nothing firsthand about prisons to being an expert. But I worked hard to learn more. I visited a number of correctional facilities all over the country. I organized a program for Stanford students to teach a course at a prison. For years I had an active correspondence with at least 20 different prisoners.

It wasn't a formal experiment. My colleagues probably never thought much of it. But as a result of the prison study, I really became more aware of the central role of power in our lives. I became more aware of the power I have as a teacher. I started consciously doing things to minimize the negative use of power in the classroom. I encouraged students to challenge me.

I think I became more self-reflective. I'm more generous and more open because of that experience. I think it made me a better person.

There is much more from other principles in the experiment, but I want to include one of the prisoners (they only spoke to one for this article):

The Prisoner

Richard Yacco
A community college student at the time, Yacco helped instigate a revolt against conditions in Zimbardo's prison. He was released one day early from the study after exhibiting signs of depression. After working in radio and television production, he now teaches at a public high school in Oakland.

At the time I was debating: If I were drafted to fight in Vietnam, what would I do? Would I be willing to go to jail? Since that was one of the considerations, I thought, well, a prison experiment would give me some insight into what that would be like.

The first thing that really threw me off was the sleep deprivation. When they woke us up the first time, I had no idea it was after only four hours of sleep. It was only after they got us up and we did some exercises and then they let us go back to bed that I realized they were messing with our sleep cycles. That was kind of a surprise from the first night.

Toni Gauthier

I don't recall exactly when the prisoners started rebelling. I do remember resisting what one guard was telling me to do and being willing to go into solitary confinement. As prisoners, we developed solidarity—we realized that we could join together and do passive resistance and cause some problems. It was that era. I had been willing to go on marches against the Vietnam war, I went on marches for civil rights, and was trying to figure out what I would do to resist even going into the service. So in a way I was testing some of my own ways of rebelling or standing up for what I thought was right.

My parents came on visitors' night. They were really concerned with the way I looked. I told them that they're breaking up our sleep, that we weren't having the chance to take showers. My appearance really concerned both of my parents, my mother especially.

When I asked [Zimbardo's team] what I could do if I wanted to quit, I was told, "You can't quit—you agreed to be here for the full experiment." That made me feel like a prisoner at that point. I realized I had made a commitment to something that I now could not change. I had made myself a prisoner.

I ended up being paroled by the "parole board." They released me Thursday night. That's when they told me they were going to end the experiment the next day. What I learned later is that the reason they chose me [to parole] is because they thought I'd be the next guy to break down. I was surprised, because I never thought I was going through any kind of depression or anything like that.

PARENTAL GUIDANCE: Zimbardo met with parents of the prisoners to address concerns about conditions and the prisoners' mental states. Stanford Prison Experiment

One thing that I thought was interesting about the experiment was whether, if you believe society has assigned you a role, do you then assume the characteristics of that role? I teach at an inner city high school in Oakland. These kids don't have to go through experiments to witness horrible things. But what frustrates my colleagues and me is that we are creating great opportunities for these kids, we offer great support for them, why are they not taking advantage of it? Why are they dropping out of school? Why are they coming to school unprepared? I think a big reason is what the prison study shows—they fall into the role their society has made for them.

Participating in the Stanford Prison Experiment is something I can use and share with students. This was one week of my life when I was a teenager and yet here it is, 40 years later, and it's still something that had enough of an impact on society that people are still interested in it. You never know what you're going to get involved in that will turn out to be a defining moment in your life.

Rob Horning - Love in the Age of Self-Consciousness

From The New Inquiry, Rob Horning looks at the state of love in our postmodern world of self-conscious identities. In a sense, Horning is examining the ways in which we commodify ourselves in the world of social media, eliminating the unique identities that once were the basis for authentic love. We are frequently encouraged to be brands, not individuals.

Love in the Age of Self-Consciousness

(via Kumi Yamashita)

If our identities are only self-conscious creations, where does that leave us? Where does that leave love?

By Rob Horning

In Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, an influential Renaissance-era attempt to define the perfect gentleman through a series of dialogues, one of the aristocratic speakers offers this advice for a courtier in love: “When the courtier wishes to declare his love he should do so by his actions rather than by speech, for a man’s feelings are sometimes more clearly revealed by a sigh, a gesture of respect or a certain shyness than by volumes of words.” Words are too easily employed by “cunning” men who are skilled in the art of contriving “false demonstrations of love” — men who seem “quite ready to cry when they really want to burst out laughing.” The lover should instead “use his eyes to carry faithfully the message written in his heart, because they communicate hidden feelings more effectively than anything else, including the tongue and the written word.”

But this distinction between words and actions is troublesome. In order to know he is in love — true love, the kind figured as a sort of divine visitation rather than a convenient decision on the lover’s part — the prospective lover must understand the “message written in his heart” as genuine, uncontrived, spontaneous feeling. But then he must articulate that message with his eyes, transforming the authentic awkwardness that first made him aware of his love into a signifying pretense. That which is supposed to make a lover know his love is sincere is subsequently made to serve as a dubious performance of sincerity. The lover must govern the representation of feelings that, if sincere, would be beyond governance, and at the same time, he must also recognize sincerity in feelings he know can be contrived and deployed strategically. How then can he ever know whether his feelings really are sincere if he must always stage-manage their expression?

This is the sort of annihilating reflexivity that, according to sociologist Anthony Giddens, is one of the defining characteristics of modernity. In Giddens’s view, tenacious self-consciousness stems from our having been uprooted from local conditions and circumstances that once stabilized identity. The sorts of cosmopolitan problems once reserved for Renaissance aristocrats now afflict nearly all of us. Like Castiglione’s courtiers, we are obliged to imagine that we can perfect ourselves in accordance with a social ideal generated in the abstract.

In a sense, the Renaissance court may have functioned as an early example of a nonplace, Marc Augé’s term for those artificial social environments that deny the contingencies of nature. These could be understood as spaces in which our identity is entirely determined by abstract social relations — where identity becomes, in effect, entirely political. In contemporary urban life, we pass seamlessly through such spaces, our identity is no longer fixed by a set of local traditions. Instead our local practices are linked to globalized social relations through widely disseminated discourses and procedures, through generalized nonplaces and brands. We use ATMs; we eat at McDonald’s; we shop at supermarkets and H&M — the stores are more comforting and familiar than the people around us, who more often than not are indifferent strangers who signal their benevolence by studiously ignoring us.

We no longer count on a community to provide the context in which we can be recognized; we can be anywhere and continue to act like ourselves. Whereas the horizons of local familiarity once limited what we could imagine for ourselves, modern life has situated us in broader “abstract systems” — standardized ways of doing things and ubiquitous cultural reference points, universally recognized procedures and authorities. Tradition — “how things are done here” — has been fatally disrupted. We can enter an elevator in any city or an Italian restaurant in any American town and understand what to expect and what to do. And thanks to the universality of money and the pervasive norms of capitalist market exchange, we trust we don’t need a personal relationship with a pub owner to get a pint.

Individuals are free to ascribe personal reasons for routines that were once “simply what is done.” We come to believe that we can control who we are to a far greater extent, so we try to master the social processes that shape us, dictating their outcome by administering carefully what we feed into them. Modern identity, then, is born of the alienation of auto-surveillance, which makes the self seem a discrete thing we manipulate from behind the curtain of publicity. But this only serves to accelerate those processes and make them more unpredictable. “The point is not that there is no stable social world to know,” Giddens claims, “but that knowledge of that world contributes to its unstable or mutable character.” By wanting to know about social processes, we set in motion the means by which they mutate incomprehensibly. Reflexivity generates stultifying angst even as it makes self-cultivation possible.

In “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” sociologist Georg Simmel claims that the complexity of modern city life brings about a rise in time-consciousness and the death of spontaneity. “Punctuality, calculability and exactness” lead to “the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign human traits and impulses which originally seek to determine the form of life from within” — like the sort of sincere love that can be a “message written on the heart.” You would think the advent of mobile phones would reverse this, affording us the freedom to live more provisionally and seize upon the random opportunities city life can spontaneously supply. But such spontaneity runs counter to the deep emotionality Simmel associates with the premodern, “organic” way of life, with its slow pace and its strong, irrevocable ties. Spontaneity in that world was an unstudied responsiveness, the ability to fully inhabit one’s emotional responses within the relative security of small, sheltered world. Now the urban blasé attitude characterizes spontaneity in the form of “keeping options open.”

Is it possible to monitor and deploy one’s feelings and still actually feel them? This brings us back to Castiglione’s courtiers and their love problems. Considering the precariousness of courtiers’ status at court, dependent as it was on the ebb and flow of personal relationships and access to superiors, and the degree to which the negotiation of those relations relied on deliberate self-presentation as a mode of diplomacy, we might regard them as our psychosocial forebearers. Their work was also their leisure, as ours is becoming, and their uncertain place in the social hierarchy means they knew no “ontological security” — that is, as Giddens defines it, “the confidence most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action.”

For Castiglione, self-monitoring is not a problem at all but rather a ramification of that elusive ideal quality of sprezzatura, the “certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry,” which is supposed to be the surest mark of a true gentleman, the essence of the courtier’s social capital. Underlying sprezzatura is the idea that the value of an action is in how it is received rather than in any essential quality of the action itself. Deeds themselves become arbitrary, which in The Book of the Courtier leads to the ludicrous equivalence of disparate practices: for instance, how one appears on the battlefield and how one appears at a masked ball are judged by the same criteria, which have nothing to do with why one fights or why one dances. They are merely occasions for sprezzatura. How the courtier appears when in love, too, is evaluated according to criteria that abrogates the emotions presumably involved. Castiglione’s description of the ideal courtier in love renders the actual feelings of love superfluous.

Those actual feelings are precisely those awkward sorts of emotions that the doctrine of sprezzatura intends to suppress. Because feelings are arbitrary within the sprezzatura system, whether one genuinely loves is irrelevant, as insignificant as the reasons one goes to the masked ball. One simply goes because one’s presence is required. One loves because a gentleman wouldn’t be complete without it. In the ideal universe of perfect sprezzatura, men and women apparently interact with one another without requiring any understanding of why.

But supplanting love with sprezzatura, making a virtue of a courtier’s vigilant reflexivity, seems to spite the otherwise governing definition of love as beyond personal will and control. Implicit in that ideal of love as an uncontrollable force rather than a choice is a yearning for a social experience beyond strategy. Such a love could serve as an ontological anchor, providing a basis by which they could know who they “really” were in the midst of all the calculated self-presentation.

In modernity, we have come to rely on similar hopes for our own ontological security. To ease the anxieties of self-consciousness, Giddens argues in The Consequences of Modernity that the open-ended nature of modern identity means we have a constant need to have trust refreshed. We get some of this from the continuity of the social world — the familiarity of the buyosphere from one town to the next. But ultimately this is unsatisfactory:

The routines which are integrated with abstract systems are central to ontological security in conditions of modernity. Yet this situation also creates novel forms of psychological vulnerability, and trust in abstract systems is not psychologically rewarding in the way in which trust in persons is.

We need to draw basic trust from reciprocal friendship, yet the ground for such relationships continues to be eroded by modernity’s technological advances, which systematize friendship into social networks for our convenience. Companies like Facebook promise us the ability to manage the intimacy and intensity of our ability to love, but the ability to manage it renders it suspect.

Thus an intimacy deficit widens, and we expect more of personal relationships in order to close the gap without knowing how to get it.

Most of the speakers in The Book of the Courtier seem to experience this deficit, too, and yearn for the joys of certainty that they are loved. One explains that “no other satisfaction” equals that of knowing his lady “returned [his] love from her heart and had given … her soul.” Another agrees that “the greatest happiness” is to share “a single will” with his beloved. The Magnifico asserts that “the feeling that one is loved himself” is that which most “stirs” the heart. Such hopes would seem to betray a deep-seated uneasiness with the deception that sprezzatura requires, revealing a wish for a relationship that would be a haven from perpetual contrivances.

But since the postures of love are more valuable as an appurtenance for courtiers rather than an essential truth, mutual love becomes impossible, and mutual suspicion inevitable. Not surprisingly, then, love must be defined away from the mutuality that Castiglione’s players seem to long for. The Book of the Courtier concludes with a rhapsodic account of ideal neo-Platonic love, that proposes to make sincere communication between lovers unnecessary, rendering the beloved’s actions as irrelevant as sprezzatura renders the courtier’s. Love, as described in these concluding passages, is “a certain longing to possess beauty” rather than something experienced with another person. A lover must remember that “the body is something altogether distinct from beauty,” and though an individual may be beautiful, that individual’s behavior has nothing to do with it. So when an attractive woman grants her lover a kiss, the lover finds it pleasurable not because it reveals shared desire but because the lover’s “soul” is thereby “transported by divine love to the contemplation of celestial beauty.” The soul “turns to contemplate its own substance” and “perceives in itself a ray of that light which is the true image of the angelic beauty that has been transmitted to it.” The beloved becomes a mere springboard for the lover’s contemplation of the divine in himself.

That kind of love doubles down on reflexivity and self-consciousness rather than absolving it. In contemporary times, we may have devised a similarly solipsistic solution to our conundrums of love and insecurity: smart phones and social media, which let us live in constant communication with our networks on our terms while preserving our own kind of sprezzatura, the noncommittal openness, flexibility and responsiveness to rapidly changing circumstances, which also happen to be qualities highly desired by employers.

Shared experience is no longer local phenomenon but something that happens in virtual communities, where identity is a perpetual work in progress, a striving to reach a home that is not a particular place but a state of mind, a realization of some ideal community that nurtures an ideal self. But it may be an unrealizable fiction.

Our genuine individual idiosyncrasies — the sorts of things that might have allowed the kind of mutual love that cherishes the uniqueness of the particular individuals involved to flower — are replaced with efforts at coming up with contrived ones. Because modern city life is so impersonal and objective, Simmel claims, individuals try extra hard to be unique in whatever ways remain open and haven’t been legislated or subordinated to economic efficiency. “Extremities and peculiarities and individualizations must be produced and they must be over-exaggerated merely to be brought into the awareness even of the individual himself.” The internet is an extension of the metropolis as Simmel saw it. It has made that condition more acute, automating stimulation, bringing ever more content before our eyes, giving us an endless stream of novelty and taxing the limits of our attention span.

Social media becomes the site where autonomy struggles with anonymity, where social recognition struggles to remain uncommodifed. The Internet Metropolis strips away opportunities for individuation and gives us commodities and geegaws and such to compensate for it, keep us distracted. It prompts us to package ourselves in an effort to stand out amid the chaos, even to ourselves, so that we ourselves can recognize ourselves as even having a identity. Renaissance sprezzatura let courtiers in a highly competitive hothouse environment interact with one another with benign deference, as though it were a hermetic realm of polite decorum. Our mediated version in social networks lets us play potlatch while we build our brands in plain sight.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Source of Empathy in the Brain?

Hmmmm . . . interesting, and a little scary. If we can pinpoint it in the brain, someone is going to make a pill to increase it or create a way to remove it from soldiers. By the way, one of the supervising (I think) researchers on this study was Hanna Damasio, a frequent research partner of Antonio Damasio (the couple that works together stays together?).

[Image is from a different study.]

Source of Empathy in the Brain?

ScienceDaily (July 17, 2011) — Your brain works hard to help understand your fellow person -- no matter how different they may be. According to a new study from USC, even failing to possess a full complement of limbs will not stop your brain from understanding what it is like for someone else to experience pain in one of them. It may, however, change the way your brain does so.

In a paper published online by Cerebral Cortex, USC researcher Lisa Aziz-Zadeh furthered her ongoing work in mapping out the way the brain generates empathy, even for those who differ physically from themselves.

According to Aziz-Zadeh's findings, empathy for someone to whom you can directly relate -- or example, because they are experiencing pain in a limb that you possess -- is mostly generated by the intuitive, sensory-motor parts of the brain. However, empathy for someone to whom you cannot directly relate relies more on the rationalizing part of the brain.

Though they are engaged to differing degrees depending on the circumstance, it appears that both the intuitive and rationalizing parts of the brain work in tandem to create the sensation of empathy, said Aziz-Zadeh, assistant professor at USC's Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.

"People do it automatically," she said.

In an experiment, Aziz-Zadeh and a team from USC showed videos of tasks being performed by hands, feet, and a mouth to a woman who had been born without arms or legs and also to a group of 13 typically developed women. Videos showed activities such as a mouth eating and a hand grasping an object.

Researchers also showed videos of pain, in the form of an injection, being inflicted on parts of the body.

While the participants watched the videos, their brains were scanned using functional magnetic imaging (fMRI), and then those scans were compared, revealing the differing sources of empathy.

In an additional finding, Aziz-Zadeh discovered that when the congenital amputee viewed videos of tasks being performed that she could also perform but using body parts that she did not have, the sensory-motor parts of her brain were still strongly engaged. For example, the participant can hold objects, but uses a stump in conjunction with her chin to do so rather than a hand.

If the goal of the action was impossible for her, then another set of brain regions involved in deductive reasoning were also activated.

Aziz-Zadeh's research was funded by The Brain and Creativity Institute; The Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at USC; National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship; USC Provost's PhD Fellowship.

Journal Reference:

L. Aziz-Zadeh, T. Sheng, S.-L. Liew, H. Damasio. Understanding Otherness: The Neural Bases of Action Comprehension and Pain Empathy in a Congenital Amputee. Cerebral Cortex, 2011; DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhr139

Dialectics of Mindfulness: Implications for Western Medicine

This is an interesting article from Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine (2011, 6:10, doi:10.1186/1747-5341-6-10). It's open access, which is always cool. Here is a brief thesis summary:
A number of practical conclusions may be drawn from the five forms of dialectics of mindfulness: (1) activity vs. passivity, (2) wanting vs. non-wanting, (3) changing vs. non-changing, (4) non-judging vs. non-reacting, and (5) active acceptance vs. passive acceptance, as presented in this paper.
Good stuff.

Dialectics of mindfulness: implications for western medicine

Sebastian Sauer1,2, Siobhan Lynch4,3, Harald Walach6,5 and Niko Kohls6,1,2

Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 2011, 6:10 doi:10.1186/1747-5341-6-10

© 2011 Sauer et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Mindfulness as a clinical and nonclinical intervention for a variety of symptoms has recently received a substantial amount of interest. Although the application of mindfulness appears straightforward and its effectiveness is well supported, the concept may easily be misunderstood. This misunderstanding may severely limit the benefit of mindfulness-based interventions. It is therefore necessary to understand that the characteristics of mindfulness are based on a set of seemingly paradoxical structures. This article discusses the underlying paradox by disentangling it into five dialectical positions - activity vs. passivity, wanting vs. non-wanting, changing vs. non-changing, non-judging vs. non-reacting, and active acceptance vs. passive acceptance, respectively. Finally, the practical implications for the medical professional as well as potential caveats are discussed.


In the last two to three decades, the concept of mindfulness has received increasing attention, particularly in the health sciences. Mindfulness is about being aware of actual experiences from one moment to the next with gentle acceptance [1-3]. This concept has been proposed to contribute to the coping and recovery process in many health conditions.

Both clinical as well as basic science researchers have devoted a significant amount of study to this topic [4]. Moreover, with rapidly mounting evidence regarding the therapeutic capacities of mindfulness practice, medical professionals are increasingly incorporating such techniques into their clinical repertoire. Probably the best known and evaluated mindfulness-based treatment is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) that is used in many clinical settings in the US and Canada and evermore, in Europe [4].

Yet, integrating mindfulness into existing therapeutic concepts may challenge medical professionals' usual practices for number of reasons. First and foremost, mindfulness approaches do not aim at symptom reduction. Fundamentally, mindfulness is not intended to explicitly eradicate pain, distress, or unwanted emotions. However, philosophically and practically, medical professionals endeavor to reduce suffering. If mindfulness does not aim at reducing symptoms, then how can it be helpful? In this essay, we argue that while mindfulness is not meant to actively reduce symptoms, it may passively modify their impact by changing an individual's perceptions and mindset. Mindfulness is a set of practices, if not a "way of being" that may incur salutogenic (i.e., health-promoting) effects. This may lead to a misconception of what mindfulness is, and how it works. We believe that some of the apparently contradictory aspects of mindfulness can be best understood by taking a dialectical approach. It is not a new idea to explain psychological health-related processes through the use of paradoxical or dialectical approaches [5]. Indeed, we propose that the dialectical structure of mindfulness hallmarks its essence, which may easily be misunderstood in clinical practice.

The dialectical approach is quite different from the conventional approach of symptom evaluation. The conventional approach uses the current logic: a symptom is either good or bad; present or absent; relevant or not. The dialectical approach stresses that each thesis also has to be considered in the light of its opposite (the antithesis), and only both facets together (the synthesis) yield a full picture. In this light, depression might be a sign of a disorder that should be mitigated. But at the same time, it must be acknowledged that there are inner experiences that cannot be controlled or altered "at will". Hence, although the phenomenal quality of going through depression may not be altered, a patient's relation towards relevant inner states relevant to depression may be changed due to mindfulness or other forms of spiritual exercise [6,7].

Herein, we first elaborate on the dialectical structure of mindfulness by providing an overview of 1) the theoretical foundation of the construct, 2) evidence of the clinical effectiveness, and 3) putative neurobiological correlates of mindfulness. We then introduce five dialectical positions that we believe are useful for resolving the apparent paradox associated with mindfulness and its relevant mechanisms of action. Finally, on the basis of this discussion, we derive the utility and implications of mindfulness for medicine, and address potential caveats.

Read the whole article.