Saturday, March 17, 2012

Awareness-in-Action: Daniel O'Connor - A Critical Integralism for the Challenges of Our Time

Daniel O'Connor is the mastermind behind Catallaxis! - one of the first generation of integral blogs still around on the web. In his most recent post, A Critical Integralism for the Challenges of Our Time, Daniel (also of Integral Ventures, LLC)is making available a free, creative commons licensed, e-book on critical integral theory.

Awareness-in-Action: A Critical Integralism for the Challenges of Our Time

Daniel O'Connor | Integral Ventures, LLC
Awareness-in-Action DownloadThis work represents an inquiry into the essential nature of human action in all its forms and fields. By human action, I mean to suggest a rather comprehensive scope of inquiry into anything and everything people do, regardless of how conscious or subconscious, purposeful or spontaneous, independent or interdependent these actions might seem. The myriad forms of this human doing—from writing, speaking, and conversing to giving, taking, and trading, to working, playing, and creating to learning, developing, and evolving—serve as creative expressions of, and logical complements to, the equally comprehensive notion of human being. In short, human action encompasses what we do, how we do, why we do, and ultimately who we are as we do.

My approach to the philosophy of human action, or praxiology, might be best described as a process of integral reconstruction. As a reconstruction, my intent is to clarify and formalize the tacit knowledge and intuitive competencies that must, logically, be presupposed by all people in order for them to act in any situation. To whatever extent such universal presuppositions might be validated, these would, logically, serve as necessary premises for all subsequent inquiries into, and hypotheses about, the many fields of human action, from economics and business to politics and governance to sociology and social work to journalism and activism. Thus, my focus of inquiry is that intuitive knowledge without which people could not act as they really do and, correspondingly, those essential premises without which we cannot know what human action really is.

As a distinctively integral reconstruction, my intent is to emphasize those essential premises necessary for a philosophy of human action that honors the full potential and variety of the human experience, which necessarily includes our experience of the worlds beyond humanity. Just as the adjective integral offers us two complementary definitions—comprehensive or essential—so too does the process of integral theorizing offer us two complementary approaches with two corresponding results.  In contrast to a comprehensivist approach to integralism characterized by the construction of an inspiring, encyclopedic meta-narrative, I prefer an essentialist approach characterized by the distillation of a compelling, universal meta-paradigm. Nevertheless, by focusing deeply on the quintessential features of all human action in real-world contexts, I propose in this work the broad contours of a meta-paradigm—an integral aperspectival-apractical meta-paradigm, to be precise—with the potential to enact a seemingly infinite plurality of differential perspectival-practical narratives at least suggestive of a meta-narrative, the specifics of which are by definition beyond anyone’s sole capacity to articulate. It is therefore so much the better that I, at least, won’t be enticed to try.

Therefore, this work actually represents two interdependent lines of inquiry into the possibility of an integral philosophy of human action and an action-oriented integral philosophy. In pursuing these lines of inquiry, I gratefully incorporate and, where necessary, reformulate the extraordinary insights of three primary theorists—Chris Argyris, Jürgen Habermas, and Ken Wilber—whose collective body of work already contains much of the content needed for such a reconstructive inquiry. Having engaged with this collective body of work since 1994, both in theory and in practice, I bring to this effort a commitment to help fulfill what I see as the latent potential in each of their brilliant philosophical programs. Granted, in my preliminary effort to articulate a form of integralism that is as realistic as it is idealistic and as fallibilistic as it is humanistic, with a pragmatic focus on the way people can, should, and already do act in the world, my contribution may be little more than a clarification of my own novel vision of the nexus between Argyris’s action science, Habermas’s critical theory, and Wilber’s integral theory. Nevertheless, the logic of this vision and its demonstrated capacity to reconstruct established views within these fields should justify the effort required of you, the reader. More to the point, the real promise of the critical integral praxis I call Awareness-in-Action is in its potential to define the common core of all the various forms and fields of human action, so that those of us concerned with such matters might learn how to respond more effectively to the interdependent economic, political, social, and ecological challenges of our time.

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Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of our Nature

This is a nice video of Steven Pinker talking about his most recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. I don't often agree with Pinker (I tend to disagree with most evolutionary psychologists), but in this case there is some solid support for his thesis. People like Franz de Waal, Dacher Keltner, Jeremy Rifkin, and Brené Brown have all explored either the evolution of empathy and compassion or the ways our nature tends to be founded in these interpersonal skills.

I have also included a more recent video at the bottom from Harvard, featuring Pinker and fellow author Joshua Goldstein with professors Monica Toft and Stephen Walt - moderated by Professor Joseph Nye.

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of our Nature

Are we moving increasingly closer towards a benevolent society?

With images of global conflict and atrocity broadcast around the clock, it seems obscene to speculate if violence is actually on the decline.

In this Ri talk to accompany his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker shows that violence within and between societies – for both murder and warfare – has actually declined from prehistory to today.

Moving between subjects as diverse as art and religion, trade and table manners, Pinker shows how life has changed across the centuries and around the world - not simply through the huge benefits of organized government, but also because of the extraordinary power of progressive ideas.

Why has this come about? And what does it tell us about ourselves? Pinker brings his huge breadth of knowledge to reveal a new historical perspective and, ultimately, our true natures.

Is War on the Way Out?
Joshua Goldstein, author of "Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide," and Steven Pinker, author of "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," discuss the meaning and implications of their latest releases with HKS professors Monica Toft (author of "God's Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics") and Stephen Walt. Both Goldstein and Pinker, from distinct vantage points, argue for the counter-intuitive notion that violence, among both individuals and states, is on a downward trajectory. Both the supporting data and reasoning behind this positive shift is hotly debated. Professor Joseph Nye moderates the discussion.

Date: Jan 30, 2012

The Role of Emotions in Decision Making

There is an interesting article from Jonah Lehrer over at Wired. He looks at a recent study that asked subjects to predict outcomes for 8 different events - those who people who trusted their feelings were more likely to predict the outcomes.

There are piles of studies showing that people who lack emotions are unable to make decisions. For example, Antoine Bechara (2004) found that people who have lesions in the ventromedial (which includes the orbitofrontal) area of the prefrontal cortex (the prefrontal cortex is widely understood to be a center for decision-making and long-term planning) suffer from impaired processing of ‘‘somatic’’ or emotional signals with little or no impact on basic cognitive functions (this is his "somatic-marker hypothesis" in decision-making). Bechara found that these people had impaired decision-making skills that compromised the decision quality in their daily lives.

In another paper, Nasir Naqvi, Baba Shiv, and Antoine Bechara (2006) published an overview of the "somatic-marker hypothesis" - here is the abstract:
Decision making often occurs in the face of uncertainty about whether one’s choices will lead to benefit or harm. The somatic-marker hypothesis is a neurobiological theory of how decisions are made in the face of uncertain outcome. This theory holds that such decisions are aided by emotions, in the form of bodily states, that are elicited during the deliberation of future consequences and that mark different options for behavior as being advantageous or disadvantageous. This process involves an interplay between neural systems that elicit emotional/bodily states and neural systems that map these emotional/bodily states.
For a good overview of the role of emotions in decision making, see Decision Making, by Seunghee Han and Jennifer S. Lerner in Oxford Companion to the Affective Sciences (Oxford University Press, 2009). The Harvard Emotion and Decision Making Group has made most or all of their papers available online as PDFs (open access).

These studies, and many others, offer a little background for the article from Lehrer. References for the two studies above are at the bottom of the page.

Are Emotions Prophetic?

For thousands of years, human beings have looked down on their emotions. We’ve seen them as primitive passions, the unfortunate legacy of our animal past. When we do stupid things – say, eating too much cake, or sleeping with the wrong person, or taking out a subprime mortgage – we usually blame our short-sighted feelings. People commit crimes of passion. There are no crimes of rationality.

This bias against feeling has led people to assume that reason is always best. When faced with a difficult dilemma, most of us believe that it’s best to carefully assess our options and spend a few moments consciously deliberating the information. Then, we should choose the alternative that best fits our preferences. This is how we maximize utility; rationality is our Promethean gift.

But what if this is all backwards? What if our emotions know more than we know? What if our feelings are smarter than us?

While there is an extensive literature on the potential wisdom of human emotion – David Hume was a prescient guy – it’s only in the last few years that researchers have demonstrated that the emotional system (aka Type 1 thinking) might excel at complex decisions, or those involving lots of variables. If true, this would suggest that the unconscious is better suited for difficult cognitive tasks than the conscious brain, that the very thought process we’ve long disregarded as irrational and impulsive might actually be more intelligent, at least in some conditions.

The latest demonstration of this effect comes from the lab of Michael Pham at Columbia Business School. The study involved asking undergraduates to make predictions about eight different outcomes, from the Democratic presidential primary of 2008 to the finalists of American Idol. They forecast the Dow Jones and picked the winner of the BCS championship game. They even made predictions about the weather.

Here’s the strange part: although these predictions concerned a vast range of events, the results were consistent across every trial: people who were more likely to trust their feelings were also more likely to accurately predict the outcome. Pham’s catchy name for this phenomenon is the emotional oracle effect.

Consider the results from the American Idol quiz: while high-trust-in-feelings subjects correctly predicted the winner 41 percent of the time, those who distrusted their emotions were only right 24 percent of the time. The same lesson applied to the stock market, that classic example of a random walk: those emotional souls made predictions that were 25 percent more accurate than those who aspired to Spock-like cognition.

What explains these paradoxical results? The answer involves processing power. In recent years, it’s become clear that the unconscious brain is able to process vast amounts of information in parallel, thus allowing it to analyze large data sets without getting overwhelmed. (Human reason, in contrast, has a very strict bottleneck and can only process about four bits of data at any given moment.) But this raises the obvious question: how do we gain access to all this analysis, which by definition is taking place outside of conscious awareness?

Here’s where emotions come in handy. Every feeling is like a summary of data, a quick encapsulation of all the information processing that we don’t have access to. (As Pham puts it, emotions are like a “privileged window” into the subterranean mind.) When it comes to making predictions about complex events, this extra information is often essential. It represents the difference between an informed guess and random chance.

How might this work in everyday life? Let’s say, for example, that you’re given lots of information about how twenty different stocks have performed over a period of time. (The various share prices are displayed on a ticker tape at the bottom of a television screen, just as they appear on CNBC.) You’ll soon discover that you have difficulty remembering all the financial data. If somebody asks you which stocks performed the best, you’ll probably be unable to give a good answer. You can’t process all the information. However, if you’re asked which stocks trigger the best feelings – your emotions are now being quizzed – you will suddenly be able to identify the best stocks. According to Tilmann Betsch, the psychologist who performed this clever little experiment, your feelings will “reveal a remarkable degree of sensitivity” to the actual performance of all of the different securities. The investments that rose in value will be associated with the most positive emotions, while the shares that went down in value will trigger a vague sense of unease.

But this doesn’t meant we can simply rely on every fleeting whim. The subjects had to absorb all that ticker-tape data, just as Pham’s volunteers seemed to only benefit from the emotional oracle effect when they had some knowledge of the subject. If they weren’t following college football, then their feelings weren’t helpful predictors of the BCS championship game.

The larger lesson, then, is that our emotions are neither stupid nor omniscient. They are imperfect oracles. Nevertheless, a strong emotion is a reminder that, even when we think we know nothing, our brain knows something. That’s what the feeling is trying to tell us.
Papers cited:

Bechara, A. (2004, Jan 29). The role of emotion in decision-making: Evidence from neurological patients with orbitofrontal damage. Brain and Cognition, 55: 30–40. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2003.04.001

Naqvi, N., Shiv, B., and Bechara, A. (2006). The role of emotion in decision making. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5): 260-264.

The Social Construction of Hallucinations and Their Meaning

Cris Campbell is the blogger behind the interesting Genealogy of Religion blog. In a recent post he looked at the cultural construction of hallucinations - Encultured Hallucinations - what they are and that they mean. He notes that in American culture, we only acknowledge two forms of hallucinations, "the psychotropic fun kind and the psychotic horrifying kind." His post was riffing on a 2011 article:
Work under review:
Luhrmann, T. (2011, Jun 14). Hallucinations and Sensory Overrides. Annual Review of Anthropology, 40, 71-85. doi: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-081309-145819
Campbell looks at the work of Stanford professor Tanya Luhrmann (2011; cited above) whose research seeks to identify and understand "the social construction of sensory experiences in general and 'non-rational' hallucinations in particular." She looks to the anthropological literature to understand what so many cultures do not see "visions" as pathological but as possibly divinely inspired.
I argue that the ethnographic literature suggests that the local theory of mind—the features of perception, intention, and inference that the community treats as important—and local practices of mental cultivation will affect both the kinds of unusual sensory experiences that individuals report and the frequency of those experiences. Hallucinations feel unwilled. They are experienced as spontaneous and uncontrolled. But hallucinations are not the meaningless biological phenomena they are understood to be in much of the psychiatric literature. They are shaped by explicit and implicit learning around the ways that people pay attention with their senses. This is an important anthropological finding because it demonstrates that cultural ideas and practices can affect mental experience so deeply that they lead to the override of ordinary sense perception. That is a powerful impact.  
Luhrmann identifies three types of hallucinations:
  • Sensory Override: "[P]eople experience a sensation in the absence of a source to be sensed.” The classic example is hearing voices.
  • Psychosis: This "pattern is associated with psychosis, the psychiatric condition in which someone has an impaired ability to distinguish between the real and the unreal." We tend to think of these when we think of hallucinations.
  • Joan of Arc: Some people experience "unusual sensory experiences as often as do people who can be diagnosed with schizophrenia, yet without the intense distress psychosis carries in its wake or without any of its other symptoms—delusions, cognitive difficulties, emotional flatness." Campbell suggests that this category might be more aptly called Prophet
More interesting to me than the kinds of hallucinations, although these are relevant, are how they are deemed pathological or scared, prophetic or debilitating. Luhrmann makes a good case for how these are socially and culturally constructed.
Within these bodily or temperamental constraints, what we can call the “cultural invitation” shapes a good deal about whether people experience hallucinations and the way they experience them. We have known for a long time that the conditions under which someone is expected to experience a vision are socially specific: fasting versus not fasting, prior to the hunt or after the hunt, and so forth. Among Plains Indians, the expected conditions varied from group to group (Benedict 1922).

And . . .
More generally, the religious system in which people are embedded will shape what is possible in their experience (see Morgan 2010). One of the bluntest examples of this phenomenon is that unusual sensory experience is more common in shamanism than in possession. Indeed, in some basic sense, unusual sensory experience is basic to shamanism: The shaman leaves his or her body to experience other worlds, and the sensory experience of those other worlds proves the realness of those worlds every time he travels. By contrast, those who are possessed by spirits cede their bodies to other agents. They themselves do not so much experience as perform, and they generally do not see or hear the supernatural on a regular basis (Bourguignon 1970, p. 185).

She continues through developing her idea that "the particular dimensions of the way mind is imagined in any society—what one might call that society’s 'theory of mind'—will shape the incidence and modality of sensory overrides and psychotic hallucinations."

The Single-Dimensional View of Hallucinations in Modern Psychiatry

All of this brings me to the real issue for me as a counselor: I have heard of several clients diagnosed with "pathological hallucinations" who, according to their therapists were not psychotic but experiencing some form of "Joan of Arc" experience (although the terminology used by the counselors ranged from psychic visions to shamanic experiences). Their voices were benevolent, positive, and tended to be a positive influence in their lives.

There was no paranoia, no command hallucinations (toward self-harm or otherwise), and no substance abuse. In each case the therapist was over-ruled by the psychiatrists who put these folks on hard-core atypical anti-psychotics (usually Risperidone and Quetiapine or something equally powerful), which made them obese, lethargic, and mentally dull/slow.

From my perspective, this is a serious problem. I know perfectly healthy people who sometimes hear a voice (or voices) that provides insight, or new information, or an image that reveals information not otherwise available. Are these people psychotic, or are they experiencing a benign or even a helpful hallucination?

We need a model like the one Luhrmann proposes - a model that can distinguish between pathological hallucinations and helpful or benevolent hallucinations. The single-dimensional model we currently suffer with is detrimental to clients and philosophically flawed.

I hope that papers like this one can cause a shift in the current state of psychiatry.

Friday, March 16, 2012

TED Talk - Brené Brown: Listening to Shame and a Q & A Session

Since her first TED Talk more than a year (at TEDxHouston near the end of 2010), The Power of Vulnerability (this video has more then 3.5 million views), Brené Brown has become a favorite of the TED crowd. For TED 2012, she was invited to speak again, this time her subject is Listening to Shame.

One of her lessons that came up after her first TED talk, when she felt so vulnerable that scared her, is that vulnerability is NOT weakness. She asks the crowd how many of them feel that being vulnerable is being weak, and most raised their hands. She ten asked how many of them saw vulnerability on stage at the TED conference as pure courage, and most of them did. The lesson is that we see vulnerability in others as strength or courage, but as weakness in ourselves.

I see this in my clients every day.

Brené Brown: Listening to Shame 
Shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behavior. Brené Brown, whose earlier talk on vulnerability became a viral hit, explores what can happen when people confront their shame head-on. Her own humor, humanity and vulnerability shine through every word.

Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. She spent the first five years of her decade-long study focusing on shame and empathy, and is now using that work to explore a concept that she calls Wholeheartedness. She poses the questions:
  • How do we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness? 
  • How do we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to recognize that we are enough – that we are worthy of love, belonging, and joy?

The TED Blog also posted a question and answer session with Brown.

Being vulnerable about vulnerability: Q&A with Brené Brown

At the end of 2010, a reseacher named Brené Brown gave a talk at her local TEDx event, TEDxHouston. That talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” has since become a web-video phenomenon — viewed and shared by millions of people, who write us to say that her words — on shame, vulnerability and honesty — moved them, inspired them, helped them make change in their own lives. (It has also inspired at least two tattoos.) When we invited Dr. Brown to speak at TED2012, she shared the impact her new fame has had on her own life and how putting her words on this big stage has caused her to reexamine what she knows about vulnerability. Before she spoke, our own Roxanne Hai sat down with Dr. Brown to ask her a few questions about the nature of vulnerability.

What’s the greatest lesson you have learned in your own life?

When you get to a place where you understand that love and belonging, your worthiness, is a birthright and not something you have to earn, anything is possible. Keep worthiness off the table. Your raise can be on the table, your promotion can be on the table, your title can be on the table, your grades can be on the table. But keep your worthiness for love and belonging off the table. And then ironically everything else just takes care of itself.

How has your own journey in vulnerability and authenticity changed as you’ve become more well known and your work has become more well known?

Oh, it’s been hard. I call 2010 the year of the vulnerability talk and 2011 the year of walking the talk, because I was very unprepared. I so believe everything I said, and I really am trying to live that way, but I’ve become very clear in the last year that it is more complicated and more difficult than I thought.

One of the things I did when I discovered this huge importance of being vulnerable is very happily moved away from the shame research, because that’s such a downer, and people hate that topic. It’s not that vulnerability is the upside, but it’s better than shame, I guess. And what I realized over the last year is, if you don’t understand shame and you don’t have some shame resilience and awareness, then you cannot be vulnerable.

How did you come to realize that you needed to understand shame to be vulnerable?

It has been a great year, tons of support, tons of people saying, “God, I’m with you, thank you,” and then also really hardcore mean-spirited, cruel attacks. Which are just part of the process, right? And I think the reason I’m still standing is not because the word got out there that I was vulnerable, but I’m still standing because I understand shame.

I was very careful not to attach my worthiness to how well that talk did, because when you do that, then those comments are devastating. It’s not that they’re not devastating anyway — they hurt your feelings. I would argue more than ever that vulnerability is still just absolutely essential. That we can’t know things like love and belonging and creativity and joy without vulnerability, but in this culture of reflexive cynicism you better also really have an understanding of shame if you’re going to put yourself out there.

You mentioned you have received attacks and negative feedback from your vulnerability work. Can you talk about those?

I got a lot of feedback that was constructive and hard to hear, things like: “You shouldn’t be talking about vulnerability unless you’re going to talk about the construct of trust, and what do you think about trust?” And the truth is, I don’t understand it well enough to talk about it yet. I’m really still researching. And “What about this image that you used, I think it was hurtful.” It’s been a great debate. And I’m not afraid of that. You’ve been a faculty person for thirteen years, you’re used to some horrendous discussion and debate. I love that.

But the stuff which was really the most hurtful was just the mean-spirited stuff like, “If I looked like you, I would embrace imperfection too.” Or “Good mothers don’t unravel, and I feel sorry for your kids.” Just really mean-spirited cruelty, which is rampant and is really a part of our culture right now.
One of the things that I’ve learned, that I didn’t know before that [TEDxHouston] talk exploded, is how hard I’d been working to keep my career small. And that was a little bit heartbreaking for me, because I usually thought of myself as being pissed off because I couldn’t get my work out there enough. But really I think I was engineering that, because I was afraid of these things that actually happened, like the personal attacks.

For people to look at other folks who are trying to come up and share their work with the world, or their art, their ideas, their writing, their poetry, whatever, and say “You can’t care what other people think” is bullshit. When you lose your capacity to care what other people think, you’ve lost your ability to connect. But when you’re defined by it, you’ve lost your ability to be vulnerable. That tightrope is what my talk is about, and I think that balance bar we carry is shame resilience. I think it’s the thing that keeps us steady. If we can understand that: I’m not the best comment, I’m not the best accolade I’ve received, and I’m not the worst. This is my work.

What have you learned from the critics?

One thing that they’ve taught me, that I’m grateful for, is that at the end of every day, and at the end of every week, and at the end of my life, I want to be able to say I contributed more than I criticized. So they’ve taught me that I’m still standing.

What’s the one thing you really want to share, that didn’t make it into your talk?

I wish I could talk more about what I see going on in schools and corporations and families and churches and organizations. I wish I could talk more about why and how we’re losing people. The whole measurement idea of good parenting versus bad parenting, good employees versus bad employees — I don’t think it’s helpful and I don’t think it’s illuminating. I think the best way to look at things is: Are people engaged? Are people engaged parents, engaged employees, engaged leaders?

And I don’t think engagement can happen without vulnerability, and I definitely don’t think it can happen in the midst of shame. If you think dealing with issues like worthiness and authenticity and vulnerability are not worthwhile because there are more pressing issues, like the bottom line or attendance or standardized test scores, you are sadly, sadly mistaken. It underpins everything.

There’s not a talk that I’ve seen since I’ve been here — and I’ve been in all the sessions, and I saw the TED Fellows talks — there’s not a talk I’ve seen where people really touch lives and made a huge difference where they were not excruciatingly vulnerable. The results that we see at TED, and the innovation, and the incredible music and the art is an expected outcome, in my opinion, of human potential when people are willing to be brave and vulnerable. The reason why this is so rare is not because of the human potential that’s here. It’s because of the willingness of the people who are here to be brave and vulnerable. We all have this capacity; it’s a bravery conference. There’s no one who’s up there, including myself, who hasn’t failed. And I seriously doubt there’s many people up there who haven’t been the subject of major, heartbreaking criticism.

What group of people do you feel has been most impacted by your talk?

Across the board, I would say. If you want to ask me who needs it the most, I think we all need it. But the people who are really grappling with it the most are in the corporate sector. Veterans are a population that I’m really interested in, and police officers and firefighters, and people who we basically pay to be invulnerable. Then, when they return back to their lives, whether it’s at night when they come home or when they come back from a tour, they have no capacity for vulnerability and their lives are falling apart. We’ve seen a lot of research showing that for the veterans coming back from the Middle East right now, they’re more likely to die when they get home than over there, because of drugs, alcohol and violence. So I think all of us need this lesson, and all of us need this work. It’s not easy for any of us.

I asked my girlfriends (who are also big fans of your work) what they would ask you if they had the chance, and they all came back with this: What advice would you give to someone who feels like they are not [blank] enough to go about living more authentically and vulnerably?

Well, the idea of “I’m never enough” — beautiful enough, successful enough, thin enough, popular enough, loved enough, worthy enough — that’s shame and scarcity, and I’ve seen people overcome that every single day. I’ve gone through the process myself. I’ve interviewed people over the course of four years who’ve done a lot of this work. You have to understand shame. You have to understand where the message comes from, what drove it, how has it protected you in the past, and are you willing to look it in the eye and say, “Thanks, I appreciate it, but I’m not subscribing anymore. I’ve got a new way of doing things, and maybe you kept me safe and small in the past, but I’m not doing that.” The answer is absolutely that I’m not enough. You can overcome that, but you can’t overcome it without an understanding of shame. If you are not willing to have that conversation, there’s no way to the other side of it. You have to know what shame is.

How has understanding shame and vulnerability changed you as a parent?

Oh, it’s changed everything. My husband’s a pediatrician, so he and I talk about parenting all the time. You can’t raise children who have more shame resilience than you do. Because even if you don’t shame them, and even if you are actively trying to raise them feeling good about who they are, they’re never going to treat themselves better than you treat yourself. So that’s the bad news and the good news, but mostly the sucky news. If you want to raise a daughter with a really healthy body image, you better love your body as a mother, because that counts way more than looking at your daughter and saying “You’re beautiful and your body is beautiful.” All that matters to her is how she sees you acting with your own body. Which sucks. We can’t give children what we don’t have. We just have to be the adults we hope they grow up to be.

Therapeutic Narrative and the Metaphor of Counselor Identity

I wrote this paper for class a few months ago. A conversation on Facebook around metaphors for one's therapeutic practice brought this to mind. I might try to expand it into a real paper now that I have more time.

If you are a psychotherapist, or even a coach, what is your metaphor for your practice? Have you thought about it? Would it help orient your work to think more about it?
Therapeutic Narrative and the Metaphor of Counselor Identity

At the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association in1961, Bernard Kaplan claimed that all language is metaphorical (Kaplan, 1981).  Traditionally, metaphor has been understood as a function of language, but not every day language—it’s poetic language.  George Lakoff, however, has spent most of last thirty years working to revise our understanding of metaphor as the foundation of cognition.  He argues that metaphor is more than a form of poetic language unique from everyday language but, rather, “it is a system of metaphor that structures our everyday conceptual system, including most abstract concepts, and that lies behind much of everyday language” (Lakoff, 1992, p. 3).  He defines primary metaphor as a function of embodied cognition:
We acquire a large system of primary metaphors automatically and unconsciously simply by functioning in the most ordinary of ways in the everyday world from our earliest years. We have no choice in this. Because of the way neural connections are formed during the period of conflation, we all naturally think using hundreds of primary metaphors. (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, Kindle locations 626-628) 
Lakoff has further argued that most (if not all) metaphors are constructed in relation to the human body, thus the idea of embodied metaphor.  His work has overturned some of the theories first proposed by Noam Chomsky, but they are also changing the foundational beliefs of Western philosophy.
For example, the very common and structurally simple class of bodily projections uses in front of and in back of, phrases that rely on the spatial position of the body.
We have inherent fronts and backs. We see from the front, normally move in the direction the front faces, and interact with objects and other people at our fronts. Our backs are opposite our fronts; we don't directly perceive our own backs, we normally don't move backwards, and we don't typically interact with objects and people at our hacks. (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, Kindle locations 466-468)

The work of Lakoff, with and without Mark Johnson, has over the past several years (1980, 1987, 1992, 1999) served to document the various classes in which metaphors are classified.   Lakoff rejects the classical, objectivist view of human cognition, that it exists in an abstract space that may or may not be embodied in a machine, a human brain, or in other living creatures (1987, p. xi).  In his model, and that of constructivist psychology and linguistics, “our bodily experience and the way we use imaginative mechanisms are central to how we construct categories to make sense of experience” (Lakoff, p. xii).
Berlin, Olson, Cano, and Engel (1991) fin inspiration in the work of Lakoff and Johnson, building upon the experiential realism model (Lackoff, 1987, p. xv) for understanding human conceptual systems essential to their work on metaphor and psychotherapy (Berlin, et al, p. 360).  The conceptual categories approach allows them to identify several metaphors used to describe the therapeutic process.  These authors believe that if therapists make an effort to understand how their organizing metaphor of the therapeutic process (which may be unconscious) shapes their work with clients that they will “be more attuned to ways in which metaphors they use highlight certain therapeutic issues and obscure others” (Berlin, et al, 361). 
As a developing counselor, I have been looking at the metaphor that guides my work with clients during this first internship period.  None of the metaphors mentioned by Berlin and his co-authors seem to fit the model that guides my work, the organizing principles that inform my therapeutic process and shape my experience of the client and my understanding of the work we do.  A large part of this process is to understand and take as an object of awareness the narrative in which I make sense of my experience to date.

Jerome Bruner has written several essays on the narrative element of our lives (1995, 1996, 1999, 2004), in fact arguing that narrative is the format that shapes our mind, “recipes for structuring experience”:

I believe that the ways of telling and the ways of conceptualizing that go with them become so habitual that they finally become recipes for structuring experience itself, for laying down routes into memory, for not only guiding the life narrative up to the present but directing it into the future. I have argued that a life as led is inseparable from a life as told—or more bluntly, a life is not "how it was" but how it is interpreted and reinterpreted, told and retold: Freud's psychic reality. (Bruner, 2004, p. 708)

Likewise, the narratives we hold about being counselors and working with our clients can also become an organizing structure for our experience with clients.  We see the client’s symptoms, presentation, and our own experience of the client through the lens of that therapeutic metaphor.  However, when we fail to be aware of those metaphors that shape our thinking and expectations of the therapeutic process, “situations arise in which different viewpoints occur that are not resolvable by discussion of facts since the important differences involve the metaphorical assumptions” (Berlin, et al, p. 360; Engle, 1988).

Discovering My Own Metaphor

As I looked at the metaphors outlined by Berlin and his co-authors, none of their mechanical models seemed to fit my own internal narrative for the work I try to do with clients.  The authors used generative metaphors in their examples, a specific kind of metaphor that “generates” new perspective for framing a problem and conceptualizing solutions. 

When a generative metaphor is created, situations that may at first have seemed complex and uncertain become clearer; the diagnosis of the problem and the solutions seem obvious. The new metaphor creates a new logic for solving the problem, new meanings, and ideas for new actions. However, generative metaphors may be totally inappropriate and can obscure important features of what is being described. (Berlin, et al, p. 360)

It’s critical to understand that a seemingly useful metaphor, even a generative metaphor, once it is adopted, limits one’s perceptions to a specific framing of the world, of the idea of therapy, or of the client, as well as of the work we do with our clients.  The metaphors they examine, which are likely less common now than they were in the 1980s, include the following (Berlin, et al, 361-364): 
  • psychotherapy is war (this is based mostly in Freud and some of his early follows), including ideas such as defenses, depression as an enemy, conflict, character armor, powerful allies, and panic attacks, to name only a few
  • the mind is a brittle object (an idea that comes from Kohut and Self Psychology), including a focus on the fragility of the mind rather than Freud’s martial metaphors, with words such as breakdown, fragmentation of the self, emotionally disintegrating, feeling shattered, “empathy becomes the glue that repairs the fragmented self” (p. 362)
  • somatic metaphors (from the work of Mark Johnson), including themes of balance, embodiment, an unbalanced mind, living out of balance, feeling weighed down, overburdened by life, brilliant observations, visualizations, new perspectives, etc.
  • the steam engine metaphor (one of the mechanistic metaphor categories, of which there are undoubtedly others), including simmering anger, anger wells up, feelings boil over, rage erupts, we explode when under too much pressure, and likewise we blow off steam, release the  pressure, hold in our feelings, or put the lid on anger
  • the conduit metaphor (from the objectivist philosophy that Lakoff rejects), based on three premises, “(1) ideas, meanings, or feelings are objects; (2) linguistic expressions are containers; (3) communication is sending” (p. 363), and including phrases such as put my feelings into words, your feelings are getting through to me, what comes across, unload your feelings in words, uncover the meaning, get into my head, and so on
Of the five metaphors they detail, the conduit metaphor has the deepest implications for the therapeutic relationship.  The conduit model describes a world that resides outside the minds of the client and counselor, a world that is expressed and experienced as stable and external with thoughts and ideas that are as physically tangible as a rocking horse or a chair.  The assumption is that the words can mirror the world precisely as it is. 

As I read all of this material, I began to explore my own perspective.  I come into this process already possessing a pretty clear sense of who I am as a person and who I want to be as a therapist, based partly in my Buddhist practice and partly in my own work in therapy and personal growth.  I have no doubt that my views were shaped in part by my early exposure to the Collected Works of Carl Jung (1980) and then to Vedanta-influenced integral philosophy of Ken Wilber (1973, 1980, 1995, 1996, 2000).  Both of these authors take a perspective on human beings that conceives of them as essentially good and that dysfunction is matter of wounding and suffering, not of original sin, drives for sex and violence, or inherent flaws.  And yet, I hold these views lightly, as guiding principles and not as a topographical map of the therapeutic territory.

The Buddhist approach, as well as the Vedanta in the Hindu model, understands human being as always already perfect at a soul level, or more accurately, as possessing buddhanature.  Our dysfunction is seen as a result of our attachments (to things, negative emotions, people, and so on), our emotional and psychological wounding—especially in the Tibetan tradition taught by Pema Chodron (1997, 2005)—and our inability to stay with our feelings when they come up because we are afraid, we don’t know how, or are do not even have much experience of our emotions.  All of these are learned behaviors that “cover up” our buddhanature, our inherent psychological and emotional wellness.

My own model, my own generative metaphor, relies on the concept of uncovering, or retrieval.  For example, some common phrases I have noted coming from my mouth in sessions includes the following: reclaiming the self, unearthing the past, finding the exiles, seeking balance, looking for answers, seeking meaning, uncovering the wounds, discovering the selves, and looking for meaning.  I’m sure if I worked at it I could come up with many, many more—all of which seeming to rely on the verb actions of uncovering or retrieving.

How the Metaphor Impacts Counseling

I try to approach each new client as a human being who is fully capable of mental health and happiness, and who, no matter the challenges, has a deep hope for happiness and wellness (Sharot, 2011).  I would like to believe that this perspective is sensed by the client in my language and use of metaphors regarding dysfunctions.  Part of this approach is to normalize symptoms whenever possible and appropriate to reduce their own sense of being broken or damaged.

The use of intersubjectivity theory as a groundwork for the therapeutic alliance allows me to feel more empathy and affective attunement for their situation.  This allows me to be nonjudgmental and to seek alignment with their needs and fears.  Whatever the modality of therapy (as an integral psychotherapist, I use many modalities and tools, depending on the needs of the client and the situation), I always attempt to be in tune with the client and to convey the sense that we are on a journey of discovery.  I have even gone so far as to call the work we do “soul retrieval” with clients who are open to that interpretation.

In the end, I am still learning my craft and how to work with clients most effectively.  As I grow as a therapist/counselor, I hope to remain open to the position that my clients are not flawed, only wounded and in need of healing—a healing that always already resided within them and simply needs to be brought forward into their lives.

  • Berlin, R.M., Olson, M.E., Cano, C.E., and Engel, S. (1991, July). Metaphor and psychotherapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. XLV, No. 3: 359-367.
  • Bruner, J. (1995). The autobiographical process. Current Sociology, 43, 161-177.
  • Bruner, J. (1996). A narrative model of self construction. Psyche & Logos, 17(1), 154-170.
  • Bruner, J. (1999). Narratives of aging. Journal of Aging Studies, 13(1), 7-9.
  • Bruner, J. (2004, Fall). Life as narrative. Social Research, Vol 71, No 3: 691-710.
  • Chödrön, P. (1997). When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times. Boston: Shambhala.
  • Chödrön, P. (2005). Start where you are: How to accept yourself and others. Boston: Shambhala.
  • Engel, S. (1988). Metaphors: How are they different for the poet, the child, and the everyday adult. New Ideas in Psychology, 6:333-41.
  • Jung, C.G., with Adler, Gerhard, Fordham, Michael, Read, Herbert, and McGuire, (editors). (1980). Collected works of C.G. Jung: 21 volume hardcover set. Bollingen. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lakoff, G. (1992). The contemporary theory of metaphor. In Metaphor and thought (2nd edition), Ortony, Andrew (ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought (Kindle ed.). Retrieved from
  • Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias: A tour of the irrationally positive brain. NY: Pantheon.
  • Wilber, K. (1973). The spectrum of consciousness. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.
  • Wilber, K. (1980). The atman project: A transpersonal view of human development. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical.
  • Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, ecology, and spirituality: The spirit of evolution. Boston: Shambhala.
  • Wilber, K. (1996). Up from Eden: A transpersonal view of human development. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
  • Wilber, K. (2000). Integral psychology: Consciousness, spirit, psychology, therapy. Boston: Shambhala.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

De Been and Taekema - What Piece of Work is Man? Frans De Waal and Pragmatist Naturalism

In this open access article posted at the Social Science Research Network, Wouter De Been and Sanne Taekema (both of Erasmus University Rotterdam [EUR] - Erasmus School of Law) examine the research of primatologist Frans De Waal on the inherent goodness of primates (including, of course, human beings) and how this could and should impact the law.

However, they reject De Waal's stance that we embrace Adam Smith’s moral theory (focused on sympathy and empathy) and argue that a return to pragmatism is more suitable to adjusting the legal system to fit with De Waal's research. Following Jesse Prinz, they believe that moral goodness is as much (likely more) socially constructed as it is a natural element of our nature, thus the rejection of Smith and the move toward pragmatism (John Dewey and others).

Erasmus University Rotterdam, Erasmus School of Law,
Department of Jurisprudence/Department of Socio-Legal Studies and

Erasmus Working Paper Series on Jurisprudence and Socio-Legal Studies
No. 12-01: February 23, 2012, Version: 1.0

Frans de Waal has questioned a central premise of liberal theory, i.e. that human beings are primarily defined by selfishness and rationality. This premise does not conform to what we know from research about our primate origins - namely that primates are gregarious and guided by sympathy and empathy. De Waal argues we should return to Adam Smith’s moral theory and his focus on sympathy and empathy. We believe a return to pragmatism would be more appropriate. Pragmatism largely conforms to the view of human nature that De Waal’s research now supports. We argue that pragmatism can provide a more sophisticated framework to integrate recent insights about primate sociality into political and legal theory. Moreover, we think the pragmatist approach can enrich the hermeneutic strain in De Waal’s research.

The intelligent acknowledgment of the continuity of nature, man and society will alone secure a growth of morals which will be serious without being fanatical, aspiring without sentimentality, adapted to reality without conventionality, sensible without taking the form of calculation of profits, idealistic without being romantic.
~ John Dewey (1983 (1922), p. 13)

Citation: De Been, W. and Taekema, S. (February 20, 2012). What Piece of Work is Man? Frans De Waal and Pragmatist Naturalism. Erasmus Working Paper No. 12-01. Available at SSRN:

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the Introduction that outline the arc of their article and arguments.

In this article we will bring De Waal and pragmatism together. We believe both these bodies of work can reap benefits from such a confrontation. For De Waal, pragmatism offers a more robust and comprehensive philosophical framework. Smith’s moral theory can provide inspiration, but it is too much a product of the 18th century to account for all the things we have learned about human beings since. Pragmatism provides a more current perspective on the issues that concern De Waal. For pragmatism, in turn, De Waal can contribute much more sophisticated insights into primate and social behavior. His research presents a strong case for the innate gregariousness and natural social virtue of human beings, things that the classical pragmatists assumed without much empirical evidence. As a result, they can flesh out pragmatism with a more robust substantive conception of life in groups. This could make a considerable contribution to pragmatism as a substantive theory. Pragmatism has been criticized for being banal, for merely providing a framework for research and understanding, but leaving everything as it is and lacking any substantive content (Rorty 1991). What De Waal shows is that the naturalism of pragmatism provides much more of a substantive theory than just an acceptance of contingency.
The article consists of three parts. To begin with, we will describe De Waal’s recent critique of the contract tradition and the view of human beings implicit in it. Secondly, we will describe the continuities of his work with classical pragmatism and suggest how De Waal’s critique can be subsumed in a pragmatic framework. Finally, we will address some of the theoretical consequences of bringing together classical pragmatism with De Waal’s insights. Three themes will be discussed in this final section. First, the consequences of replacing selfishness and individualism as basic premises of legal and political theory will be elaborated upon. If methodological individualism is replaced with a broader understanding of human nature that embraces such notions as sympathy, kindness, and need for companionship, then this will obviously militate against the formulation of a single, coherent ideal theory. Moreover, it will raise the question of the scope of our moral obligation to others. If the basic assumption is that people pursue their self-interest, the scope is clear. In the end people just fend for themselves. If the basic assumption is that people act out of sympathy and fellow feeling, this raises the question of how far this sympathy extends and what the scope of our obligations is. Second, both De Waal’s work and pragmatism seem to turn on the rejection of such dichotomies as the one between nature and culture, or fact and value. Again this favors the substitution of the transcendental style of theorizing characteristic of contract theory, with a more hermeneutic, comparative approach rooted in reality. The third and last theme is what pragmatism has to offer De Waal. Tracing the methodological similarities between De Waal and pragmatism raises the question how close De Waal’s primatology is to the naturalist methodology of the pragmatists. Combining nature and culture the way De Waal does also calls for reflection on the proper methodology to study the combination. Here, a pragmatist hermeneutics may provide an closer link between De Waal and the humanities and social sciences.

Diane Rehmn Show - Richard Davidson, Sharon Begley: "The Emotional Life of Your Brain"

I just received a review copy of the book from Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley,
The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live-and How You Can Change Them. I am looking forward to reading this, even more so after listening to this discussion (or at least some of it) on my way between jobs yesterday.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Collage created using two overlayed images, one of a cactus, the other of a real MRI of a brain, from the top of the skull - RightBrainPhotography via Flickr: http:/
Collage created using two overlayed images, one of a cactus, 
the other of a real MRI of a brain, from the top of the skull  
RightBrainPhotography via Flickr:

Neuropsychologist Richard Davidson and science writer Sharon Begley explain how your brain chemistry affects the way you think, feel and live - and whether you can change your emotional style. Many neuroscientists used to believe that thinking and emotions run on separate brain circuitry. But new studies using neuroimaging have challenged conventional notions about the brain's role in emotions. Davidson has identified distinct emotional styles and their connection to patterns of activity throughout the brain. Locating the bases of emotion partly in the brain's seat of reason implies people have a greater ability to change than was once thought. In their new book, Davidson and Begley argue that we can retrain our brains so that we can become more resilient, less negative and, possibly, happier. The science behind emotions.


Sharon Begley
Senior health and science correspondent, Reuters; author of "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain"; and the co-author (with Jeffrey Schwartz) of "The Mind and the Brain."

Richard Davidson
Professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Take A Quiz From "The Emotional Life Of Your Brain:"

Depending on whom we are interacting with and in what circumstances, there are different rules and expectations—for interactions with close friends, people you know only slightly, family members, coworkers, or superiors. Noth­ing good can come of treating your boss like a child, or of treating the cop who just pulled you over like a drinking buddy, let alone treating a coworker like a lover. Sensitivity to the rules of social engagement and the capacity to regulate our emotions and behavior accordingly varies enormously among people. You can think of the Sensitivity to Context dimension of Emotional Style as the outer-directed version of the Self-Awareness style: Just as the latter reflects how attuned you are to your own physiological and emotional cues, so Sensi­tivity to Context reflects how attuned you are to the social environment.

In the lab, we measure this dimension by determining how emotional be­havior varies with social context. For example, toddlers tend to be wary in unfamiliar circumstances such as a lab but not in a familiar environment. A toddler who seems perpetually wary at home is therefore probably insensitive to context. For adults, we test Sensitivity to Context by conducting the first round of tests in one room and then a second round in a different room. By determining to what extent emotional responses vary by the environment in which testing occurs, we can infer how keenly someone perceives and feels the effects of context. We also make brain measurements: The hippocampus ap­pears to play an especially important role in apprehending context, so we measure hippocampal function and structure with MRI.

To get a sense of where you fall on the Sensitivity to Context spectrum, answer True or False to these questions:
  1. I have been told by someone close to me that I am unusually sensitive to other people’s feelings.
  2. I have occasionally been told that I behaved in a socially inap­propriate way, which surprised me.
  3. I have sometimes suffered a setback at work or had a falling-out with a friend because I was too chummy with a superior or too jovial when a good friend was distraught.
  4. When I speak with people, they sometimes move back to in­crease the distance between us.
  5. I often find myself censoring what I was about to say because I’ve sensed something in the situation that would make it inap­propriate (e.g., before I respond to, “Honey, do these jeans make me look fat?”).
  6. When I am in a public setting like a restaurant, I am especially aware of modulating how loudly I speak.
  7. I have frequently been reminded when in public to avoid men­tioning the names of people who might be around.
  8. I am almost always aware of whether I have been someplace before, even if it is a highway that I last drove many years ago.
  9. I notice when someone is acting in a way that seems out of place, such as behaving too casually at work.
  10. I’ve been told by those close to me that I show good manners with strangers and in new situations.
Give yourself one point for each True answer to questions 1, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10; score one point for each False answer to questions 2, 3, 4, and 7. Score zero for each False answer to 1, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10, and for each True answer to 2, 3, 4, and 7. If you scored below three, you fall at the Tuned Out end of the spectrum, while a score of eight or above indicates you are very Tuned In to context.

Adapted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., and Sharon Begley. Copyright 2012 by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., and Sharon Begley.

Documentary - America Before Columbus

Separating the myth of the pre-European Americas from the what the evidence actually shows - certainly not the history I learned in high school, or even college.

America Before Columbus

History books traditionally depict the pre-Columbus Americas as a pristine wilderness where small native villages lived in harmony with nature.

But scientific evidence tells a very different story: When Columbus stepped ashore in 1492, millions of people were already living there. America wasn’t exactly a New World, but a very old one whose inhabitants had built a vast infrastructure of cities, orchards, canals and causeways.

The English brought honeybees to the Americas for honey, but the bees pollinated orchards along the East Coast. Thanks to the feral honeybees, many of the plants the Europeans brought, like apples and peaches, proliferated. Some 12,000 years ago, North American mammoths, ancient horses, and other large mammals vanished. The first horses in America since the Pleistocene era arrived with Columbus in 1493.

Settlers in the Americas told of rivers that had more fish than water. The South American potato helped spark a population explosion in Europe. In 1491, the Americas had few domesticated animals, and used the llama as their beast of burden.

In 1491, more people lived in the Americas than in Europe. The first conquistadors were sailors and adventurers. In 1492, the Americas were not a pristine wilderness but a crowded and managed landscape. The now barren Chaco Canyon was once covered with vegetation. Along with crops like wheat, weeds like dandelion were brought to America by Europeans.

It’s believed that the domestication of the turkey began in pre-Columbian Mexico, and did not exist in Europe in 1491. By 1500, European settlers and their plants and animals had altered much of the Americas’ landscape. While beans, potatoes, and maize from the Americas became major crops in continental Europe.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Michael Stone - Awake In the World - On Samskaras and the Bodhisattva Vow

I'm not sure how I found this, but it's an interesting talk, especially for the Buddhist crowd. Michael Stone is a yoga teacher and Buddhist teacher. He travels internationally teaching about the intersection of Yoga, Buddhism and mental health. He has written four books with Shambhala Publications on ethics, yoga's subtle body, inner/outer pilgrimages, and the sometimes uneasy blend of social engagement and Buddhism. Please check out the website at He is also a contributor at Elephant Journal.

shared by ianmackenz

The practice of yoga is a practice of intimacy. The process of reaching into the physical, psychological and other interdependent sheaths of the postures wakes us up to the intelligence of life.
Through becoming intimate with the breathing patterns, bandhas and stillness of meditative awareness we wake to our lives and realize the possibility of serving others. Yoga Philosophy and practice, juxtaposed with Buddhism and western Psychology gives us the tools for personal healing and social action.

Learn more about Michael Stone
"Michael Stone - Awake In the World - On Samskaras and the Bodhisattva Vow" by ianmackenz is licensed under a Creative Commons License

Research: Oxytocin and mutual communication in mother-infant bonding

Attachment theory has become one of the dominant models for understanding the etiology of mental illness. More and more, we are finding that the caregiver-infant bond is crucial in the later mental health of the child. There are many factors that influence this bonding, including the attachment wounds of the caregiver, environment, genetics, and a host of other factors, including the biology of child and caregiver.

One of the primary biological factors (which also is determined by many other variables) is oxytocin. This new study looks at the role of oxytocin in bonding, which we know to be crucial while not yet understanding the mechanisms involved.

The article is open access, from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Oxytocin and mutual communication in mother-infant bonding

Miho Nagasawa, Shota Okabe, Kazutaka Mogi and Takefumi Kikusui*
  • Department of Animal Science and Biotechnology, Azabu University, Sagamihara, Kanagawa-ken, Japan
Mother-infant bonding is universal to all mammalian species. In this review, we describe the manner in which reciprocal communication between the mother and infant leads to mother-infant bonding in rodents. In rats and mice, mother-infant bond formation is reinforced by various social stimuli, such as tactile stimuli and ultrasonic vocalizations (USVs) from the pups to the mother, and feeding and tactile stimulation from the mother to the pups. Some evidence suggests that mother and infant can develop a cross-modal sensory recognition of their counterpart during this bonding process. Neurochemically, oxytocin in the neural system plays a pivotal role in each side of the mother-infant bonding process, although the mechanisms underlying bond formation in the brains of infants has not yet been clarified. Impairment of mother-infant bonding, that is, deprivation of social stimuli from the mother, strongly influences offspring sociality, including maternal behavior toward their own offspring in their adulthood, implying a “non-genomic transmission of maternal environment,” even in rodents. The comparative understanding of cognitive functions between mother and infants, and the biological mechanisms involved in mother-infant bonding may help us understand psychiatric disorders associated with mother-infant relationships.

Citation: Nagasawa M, Okabe S, Mogi K and Kikusui T. (2012). Oxytocin and mutual communication in mother-infant bonding. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6: 31. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00031

I am including the introduction to entice you to go read the whole article.


“Sympathy is much strengthened by habit. In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring” (Charles Darwin, “Descent of Man,” 1871).

During the process of mammalian evolution, animals developed sympathetic neural and behavioral systems, in which for example, weak and helpless member of individuals are protected and nurtured by other group members. This phenomenon is mostly clearly observed in mother-infant relationship, such as mother infant bonding (Broad et al., 2006).

Social bonds like mother-infant bonding are hypothetical constructs and cannot be measured directly. However, there are several behavioral and physiological measures that have been used as indices of social bonding, including increased physical proximity (Hennessy, 1997), behavioral distress, or elevated corticosteroid levels following separation from the bonding partner (Ziegler et al., 1995; Norcross and Newman, 1999). Social bonding has not yet been clearly defined, but it has been proposed that social bonding can be distinguished neurochemically from social affiliation, in which corticosteroid elevation does not occur following separation (DeVries, 2002). Moreover, subsequent reunion with conspecific animals ameliorates separation distress or aversive experiences. This phenomenon is termed as “social buffering” (Kikusui et al., 2006); its effect depends on the degree of affiliation with the partner and is strongest with the bonding partner, such as that seen in the dyad of mother-infant.

Mother-infant bonding is unique with respect to its influence on the offspring's future. This idea was first suggested in humans by Bowlby's attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969). Subsequently, many psychological and animal research studies have reported that child abuse or childhood neglect are correlated with severe, deleterious long-term effects on the child's cognitive, socio-emotional, and behavioral development (Hildyard and Wolfe, 2002). The developmental effects of mother-infant bonding have also been indicated experimentally in non-human primates. For example, in a study by Winslow et al. (2003), mother-reared and human nursery-reared monkeys were subjected to a novel environment with or without a cage mate. The monkeys reared by their mothers exhibited a reduced cortisol response when a social partner was available, whereas nursery-reared monkeys did not. In nursery-reared monkeys, social contact, such as allogrooming and inter-male mounting, was drastically reduced. These findings suggest that the social buffering effect is impaired as nursery-reared monkeys had experienced less social contact in a novel environment. Thus, impairment of mother-infant bonding strongly influences offspring sociality in human and non-human primates (Agid et al., 1999; Heim and Nemeroff, 2001), although details of the underlying mechanisms are not yet fully understood. Additionally, because the bonding formation is established during the process of social communication between mother and infants, social cognition has a pivotal influence on the bonding process (Ross and Young, 2009). However, little information has been obtained regarding the role of each social cue in the formation of bonds.

In the present review, we describe the manner in which mutual communication between mother and infant leads to mother-infant bonding in rodents. We emphasize the significance of the conserved oxytocin neural system in mother-infant bond information, with several studies having shown that oxytocin plays a fundamental role in establishing this bond (Kendrick, 2000; Young et al., 2001; Wang and Aragona, 2004; Young and Wang, 2004). Other neurotransmitters that regulated social bonding, such as opioids and dopamine are also important, however, we would concede these issues in other articles. We also review the effects of deprivation of mother-infant bonding, by studying the consequences of early weaning on neurobehavioral development in rodent offspring. Intensive maternal care has evolved and has been preserved, uniquely in mammals, and it is highly probable that mother-infant bonding is universal to all mammalian species. These comparative points of view provide insights into the biological significance of mother-infant bonding in mammals; a comparative understanding of the developmental consequences of this bonding and its underlying mechanisms, even in rodents, may help in our treatment or prevention of disorders associated with child abuse or childhood neglect (Agid et al., 1999; Heim and Nemeroff, 2001).