Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Story of Science: Power, Proof and Passion

The Story of Science: Power, Proof and Passion

Cool series . . . had never seen this before.

The Story of Science: Power, Proof and Passion

For thousands of years we have wrestled with the great questions of existence. Who are we? What is the world made of? How did we get here? The quest to answer these is the story of science.

Each week, medical journalist Michael Mosley traces the often unpredictable path we have taken. From recreating a famous alchemist’s experiment, to following in Galileo’s footsteps, and putting himself in the hands of a hypnotist, Michael unpicks how science has changed the way we see ourselves, and the way we see our world.

It is a tale of courage and of fear, of hope and disaster, of persistence and success. It interweaves great forces of history – revolutions, voyages of discovery and artistic movements – with practical, ingenious inventions and the dogged determination of experimenters and scientists.

This is the story of how history made science and how science made history, and how the ideas which emerged made the modern world.

1. What Is Out There? How we came to understand our planet was not at the center of everything in the cosmos.

2. What Is The World Made Of? How atomic theories and concepts of quantum physics underpin modern technology.

3. How Did We Get Here? Michael Mosley tells how scientists came to explain the diversity of life on earth.

4. Can We Have Unlimited Power? The story of how power has been harnessed from wind, steam and from inside the atom.

5. What is the Secret of Life? Michael Moseley tells the story of how the secret of life has been unraveled through the prism of the most complex organism known – the human body.

6. Who Are We? The twin sciences of brain anatomy and psychology have offered different visions of who we are. Now these sciences are coming together and in the process have revealed some surprising and uncomfortable truths about what really shapes our thoughts, feelings and desires.

Doug Contri - Empathy and Barriers to Altruism

This article comes from The Peace and Conflict Review, a publication hosted at the headquarters of the United Nations mandated University for Peace (UPEACE) in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Contri looks at the ways in which the wealthy (affluent) experience guilt and anxiety when confronted with extreme poverty, a condition that creates "defensive distortions" that appear to be (but aren't) "rational arguments against donating generously to the extreme poor." The solution to this problem, according to Contri, is to get the affluent more in touch with their empathy.

In essence, he argues that the affluent are not bad people (hence they do not donate more to help those most in need), but rather they are conflicted with guilt and anxiety, feelings that distance them from their empathy. Rather than condemn them, thereby creating more anxiety and guilt, we should assist them in accessing their empathy. Unfortunately, he offers little insight into how we might do this.
~ Doug Contri earned his doctorate in clinical psychology from Widener University’s Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology. Since 1996 he has worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the United States, providing psychological services to inmates, and has coordinated comprehensive drug, alcohol and criminal rehabilitation programs. 

Full Citation:
Contri, D. (2012). Empathy and barriers to altruism. The Peace and Conflict Review; Vol 6, Issue 1; ISSN: 1659-3995
Doug Contri

Concerned people respond generously to local human needs, while the needs of the extreme poor are neglected.  The affluent do not contribute more due to poorly managed empathy rather than indifference.  Specifically, the plight of the poor arouses anxiety and guilt among the affluent, who deploy cognitive distortions that protect them from these uncomfortable emotions.  These defensive distortions masquerade as rational arguments against donating generously to the extreme poor.  The guilt and anxiety of the affluent can be diminished by connecting them with their empathy rather than defending against it.  This will relieve the affluent of these psychological burdens and likely increase aid to the extreme poor. 

Contri makes extensive use of cognitive theory in this piece, through which he explains, in part at least, how people might arrive at what appears from the outside to be indifference.

Quoted below is one section of the article that I find highly relevant. In this section, he mentions a series of abbreviations for ideas previously discussed, called "barrier attitudes," that prevent people from offering charity to those in need - here is a list of those five attitudes:
  • Magnitude View (MV), asserts the problems of the developing world are hopeless
  • You Can’t Help Them All (YCHA), asserts that even were one to successfully help someone, there still remain a seemingly endless number of others needing help
  • Help at Home First (HHF), asserts that we should help others in our own communities before looking beyond our borders
  • Responsibility Position (RP), asserts that it is the responsibility of the people in developing societies to solve their own problems
  • Responsibility Position (RP), asserts that it is the responsibility of the people in developing societies to solve their own problems
With that background, this will make more sense:
Analysis of empathy revealed its many effects, to include love, community, anxiety and guilt. Armed with this understanding, barrier attitudes were examined and found to contain thinking errors commonly found among criminals, errors whose chief purpose is to reduce anxiety and guilt, and which appear to be the explanation for these logically implausible postures. Barrier attitudes are one method for resolving the tension created by empathy. They allow for empathy’s positive effects of love and community while reducing its liabilities of anxiety and guilt.

Thus, the lack of ameliorative action towards the extreme poor, when expressed by the attitudes noted above, appears to be due NOT to indifference. On the contrary, it appears to be a reaction to empathy, caring if you will, a way to protect against the suffering compassion inevitably produces. So conceived, the barrier attitudes examined (MV, YCHA, HAHF, RP, LC) are a solution to an internal conflict for those who hold them; they are suffering in response to their empathy for others. While barrier attitudes are one method for resolving the tension created by empathy, these defensive cognitive distortions are not precise surgical instruments; rather they are blunt in their effects, such that their attenuation of anxiety and guilt also risks reducing connection to others generally rather than specifically. Stated plainly, though defensive cognitive processes reduce our dysphoria, they also reduce our connectedness, which is a principle foundation for happiness. They have side-effects; they are not free. For most of us there is a better solution to empathy’s conundrum.

Rather than deploying defensive cognitive distortions, most of us would be better off embracing our empathy in all of its ramifications. Of course, fully embracing empathy carries risks. However, it also carries enormous benefits. Recall that empathy is the basis for love and community, and that its expansion carries the possibility of deepening these experiences. Often, exposure to the extreme poor, and others in need, gives rise to greater connection and satisfaction than would have otherwise been attained.

Emotions, Thoughts, and Health - UCSF Osher Mini Medical School for the Public

Interesting video from the University of California, San Francisco's series: Osher Mini Medical School for the Public. Wendy Berry Mendes, UCSF Department of Psychiatry, explores how emotions, thoughts, and intentions are experienced in the body and how bodily responses shape and influence thoughts, behavior and emotions.

Emotions, Decisions, and Behavior Across the Life Span: Surprises from Social Psychology

Friday, April 20, 2012

Tami Simon Speaks with Dr. Kelly McGonigal - The Neuroscience of Change

Awesome - on this week's Insights at the Edge, Sounds True founder Tami Simon speaks with Dr. Kelly McGonigal about the neuroscience of change. Her book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It (which can also be found, I believe, as Maximum Willpower).

The Neuroscience of Change

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Tami Simon speaks with Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, award-winning lecturer at Stanford University, and leading expert on the mind-body relationship. Dr. McGonigal is the author of The Willpower Instinct and Yoga for Pain Relief, and with Sounds True she has created an audio learning program called The Neuroscience of Change. In this episode, Tami speaks with Dr. McGonigal about how we can consciously change the “default settings” of our brain, what we can do to tune into ourselves at a physiological level during difficult emotional situations, and how self-criticism can hinder our attempts to change our behavior. Dr. McGonigal also shares a practice of cultivating self-compassion. (57 minutes)


more from Kelly McGonigal

Here is the product information for Dr. McGonigal's The Neuroscience of Change (I get nada for promoting this - but I only promote stuff I believe in):

Personal Transformation Based on Mindfulness and Self-Compassion
What's your most important goal? Why does it matter so deeply? How will you overcome the obstacles? Answer these questions with sincerity, proceed with mindfulness and compassion, and you have just set in motion a revolutionary method for personal change that is supported by both the latest science and traditional wisdom. On The Neuroscience of Change, psychologist and award-winning Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal presents six sessions of breakthrough ideas, guided practices, and real-world exercises for making self-awareness and kindness the basis for meaningful transformation.
Practical Methods to Retrain Your Brain to Support Your Goals
Our understanding of the incredible power of the human brain is at an all-time high, with the emerging fields of neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and psychophysiology opening new possibilities for greater health, happiness, and freedom from suffering. Drawing on her training as a research scientist and longtime practitioner of meditation and yoga, Dr. McGonigal reveals these startling findings-including the clinically supported methods for training the mind away from default states and negativity that no longer serve us, and establishing behaviors and attitudes aligned with our highest values and aspirations.
The First Rule of Change: It's Already Happening
As the world's wisdom traditions teach and science is now verifying, our lives are in fact defined by constant change. Whether you're looking to change a behavior, improve your health or other circumstances, or simply for a way to bring hope and resilience into your life as it is, The Neuroscience of Change will help you trust yourself and unfold your true capacities for personal transformation.

  • Willingness, self-awareness, and surrender—how to nourish the seeds of change
  • Focusing on the process, not the outcome
  • How to overcome the “trigger-to-instinct” reaction
  • The proven benefits of meditation—and how to start practicing yourself
  • How to transform self-criticism into self-compassion
  • Why your mind creates habits-and how to consciously create new ones
  • Making values-driven commitments
  • Visualization and the principle of “encoding prospective memories”
  • The power of the vow
  • “Deep activation” and the danger of rejecting what is
  • Working with inner experiences as the key to making outward change
  • Six hours of breakthrough science, practical wisdom, guided exercises, and mindfulness meditations for making positive change that lasts

Product Details

CD: Contents 6 CDs (6 hours, 25 minutes)
Date Published May 01, 2012

Audio Download: Contents Audio download (6 hours, 25 minutes)
Date Published May 01, 2012

io9 - 10 of the Most Surprising Findings from Psychological Studies

A fun list from io9 on psychological studies that might be surprising to a lot of people. I know all of these studies, so I'd be curious to hear which ones are surprising to you?

10 of the Most Surprising Findings from Psychological Studies

Salon - Gorillas Made Me Do It

Salon's speaks with Dario Maestripieri about his new book, Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships. Maestripieri looks at routine human social interactions as models of deeply embedded behaviors from our genetic forebears - in other words, evolutionary psychology. Take it for what it's worth.

Gorillas made me do it: From dating to elevator riding, our social interactions are a lot like primate game play. An expert explains. 

You walk into an elevator and push the button for your desired floor. The button lights up. The elevator stops at the next floor and another person enters. He or she pushes the same button that’s already lit up.

According to Dario Maestripieri’s new book, “Games Primates Play,” that elevator ride represents a game of dominance — similar to those exhibited by other primates. The University of Chicago professor argues that our social relationships have analogs in nature, especially within groups of primates. While we may not go up and grab our supervisor’s genitals as a sign of respect, we engage in similar acts that help us figure out where we fit in groups.

By exploring our social lives through the lens of an evolutionary biologist, Maestripieri breaks down the most routine of social interactions into deeply embedded behaviors from our genetic forebears. Just like humans, other primates grapple with questions of dominance, reciprocation, nepotism and fidelity. He demonstrates how his own life, the lives of celebrities, and corporate success strategies all derive from a single, primal need to find our place in a group.

Salon spoke with Maestripieri about the primal instincts we exhibit in our emails, whether altruism exists, how nepotism is natural, and why it matters to study our everyday nature.

Why are primates such good indicators for understanding human behavior?

Because humans are primates. We are closely related to them, so we are very similar in many things. Our anatomy, morphology, behavior — we also live in pretty similar environments. We’re confronted with most of the same problems, and sometimes we come up with the same solutions.

You call these “games,” but reading the book, with topics like establishing dominance, where a primate might just rip off another’s testicles, it all seems very serious. How are these considered games?

The title was inspired by the bestselling book from the 1960s called “Games People Play,” which was about human relationships, and the idea was that there are patterns that tend to recur in human relationships. It’s not true that every relationship is unique and different from all the others — there are underlying rules, and patterns, and things that recur. In my book I try to question what these patterns are, what are these rules that we use, where they come from, why they exist, and whether they’re good or bad for us. They’re not necessarily games in the traditional sense, but we tend to do these things like “tit for tat,” reciprocation, altruism, punishment — and there’s a lot of similarities to what a primate does, definitely some of the same patterns.

And sometimes they really are like a real game. I use game theory to explain the way we behave.

You talk about a whole world of competition that is done in the dark, how we’ll take advantage of others when we know we won’t get caught. Is there such a thing as altruism, or is that a fallacy?

We look at trends of behavior. I try to explain how, on average, people behave in certain situations. I don’t try to explain the behavior of all individuals. Every statement that scientists make is about the average behavior. Even during the 1977 blackout in New York City, there were people who were amazingly good and helpful and didn’t commit crimes. Still, a lot of people did. You can explain that on average, when it’s dark, when you can commit a crime and not get caught, more people have a tendency to commit crime. But not everyone. Altruism is the same thing. Many people behave altruistically without any compensation, without any reward or benefit. But, on average, more people are willing to commit a crime. Altruism becomes something that can be reciprocated if you use it to gain a reputation, something like that. It’s not random, and there are trends, but not everybody has to behave that way. Not everyone has to commit a crime.

How does this correspond to popular movements, like protests or upheavals?

I don’t know. There are other disciplines like sociology to explain things on that large scale. I’m not that interested in explaining mass movements. I’m more interested in discussing relationships. Primates do form complex societies, but they don’t organize themselves into movements like humans do.

Do we create these group structures — the office, the academy — because we’re part of this evolutionary chain of group-oriented animals?

We live in a society that is incredibly structured. It has very rigid dynamics, so that if you want to be successful, you can’t do it on your own. You have to make friends and protect yourself from the enemy. You’ll have family members help you. This is an integral part of human life. Imagine politics. You can’t be successful in politics unless you make friends, alliances, engage in games of reciprocation, of favors, like “You do this for me, I’ll do this for you.” It’s inevitable. Whenever we form groups, whether it’s teams or companies, dominance hierarchies will develop within each group because that’s human nature. When people are naturally competitive, they’ll be the dominators. I like to explain why it is that when you put people in a group, they immediately form a hierarchy. Why when you put two people together, one has to be dominant and one has to be subordinate. There can’t be a romantic relationship between two people where there’s no dominant one. It’s impossible. I’d like to challenge someone to show me how two people can be together and not have a dominance relationship where one is in charge and the other isn’t. I explain why dominance is such a pervasive part of human relationships.

You make an argument in favor of the naturalness of nepotism.

It’s natural. But the problem with human nepotism is that when it’s implemented, then rules are broken, laws are broken, and crimes are committed. So because we have a social charter and rules we’ve established that regulate our societies, nepotism can become criminal. The fact that something is natural doesn’t make it acceptable ethically, legally or socially. In nature, there is no morality. Nepotism just is. Nepotism exists in society, but we decide that it’s morally and legally wrong. So it becomes a big issue.

You use personal anecdotes to prove some of your points. When did you realize your life was something that mirrored the animals you studied? Has behavior always been a fascination?

It has been from the very beginning of my life. I became interested in studying animal behavior and evolutionary biology because I wanted to explain my own behavior, and the behavior of people around me, and when I began studying primates, I suddenly realized there were all these similarities.
There are all these other scientific approaches to the study of behavior, and I think they only explain general patterns, very broad trends. Why are young women attracted to older men with a lot of money? What men and women want, and what they do. But what I try to do in this book is show that you can explain scientifically even very fine details of behavior, of everyday situations. The way you act in an elevator, the way you act in the workplace, the way you act with your boss, at home with your partner, with your kids. You can have science explain even small details of everyday behavior. Things that trouble people can be explained by biology — which is one of my goals.

You write that you can look at someone’s emails and tell whether they’ll succeed or not, based on primate behavior. How much of our life is dictated by primal urges? Doesn’t self-awareness change everything?

“Dictated” is not the right word. The right word is “tendency.” We have tendencies, propensities, so whenever we confront particular problems, we have a tendency to act a certain way. One of the points I try to make is that human nature, our primal heritage, mostly appears in our social behavior. So there are things that humans do, like engaging in complex thought, abstract thinking, the arts, human morality — these are things we’re able to do because of our cognitive abilities. You can’t find parallels in the animal world. But when it comes to basic things, like being afraid of strangers, or being worried that your partner is going to cheat on you — these are problems that are not recent. Animals, especially primates, have been dealing with these problems for millions of years. We haven’t come up with any new solutions to these problems — any solutions that have worked, anyway. We have some preprogrammed tendencies to solve these problems. We could always choose not to solve them a certain way. People can choose whatever they want. But we’re being pushed in a certain direction by human nature.

How, by understanding “human nature,” can we improve our actions? Or are we just destined to do these things?

One thing that I always try to make very clear is that biology isn’t destiny. The fact that we have biological propensities to act a certain way doesn’t mean we have to do it that way. We can change our environment. We can choose to be whatever we want. Knowledge of these propensities is helpful. If you want to modify behavior, though, you have to understand it first. To be happy, you have to understand what it is that makes people happy and why people behave in certain ways.

If everything was random, there’d be no roles, and everything would be different. But there are roles; there are reasons why people behave the way they do. So understanding this behavior is very helpful.

You use a lot of examples from popular culture, of celebrities, to help explain some of your research. How is that helpful for explaining these concepts?

The lives of celebrities are very public. We can all relate to them. That’s why we’re so interested. We can always relate to the issues of marriage, and divorce, and having kids. Everybody knows about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. You can use science to explain why a friend of mine got divorced, but no one would know him. So obviously it makes sense to explain the behavior of people better known.

It seems like every facet of life is mirrored by the primates. What isn’t? What is original to humans? Was there some point where you said, “This is just something really weird that humans do.” 

Of course! There’s a lot I left out. I focused on social behavior and relationships. I did a book on relationships, but they’re not everything. Humans might choose to live a solitary life where you have no relationships and still be a good human being. I don’t try to explain everything. People doing things that are intellectual, their art, people who sacrifice themselves — human life is very complex. I focus on human relationships. Relationships are a crucial part of our lives. As I explain in the book, one universal thing about human life is that you see some of the same people every day of your life. Whether it’s friends, co-workers, enemies, there are recurring problems. How do you make friends, how do you keep them, how do you find a partner, how do you keep in touch with relatives — these are the things I focus on. Evolutionary biology and economics can help explain them, because these problems are nothing new.

Because you’ve brought your study into the world of your own personal interactions, how has your awareness of the world changed? Do friends ask you to stop studying them when they’re just trying to have a pleasant conversation?

I’ve always been like this. I’ve always been curious about people’s behaviors. That’s why I entered the profession. Writing this book hasn’t changed the way I live my life, but I understand things much better than before. Everything can be studied. Behavior is a legitimate subject for scientific inquiry, just like everything else. Some people have issues with this idea because they feel that behavior is just a product of free will. The way you behave is the product of your conscious decisions. How can you explain scientifically what people do? They think behavior is arbitrary. But it isn’t! If you observe primates, you see there’s shared behavior across all different types of species. Behavior is fascinating because we’re all different, but at the same time, we’re not so different. So we like to think we’re different, but, not all that much.

Max Rivlin-Nadler is an editorial fellow at Salon. More Max Rivlin-Nadler.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Al Kaszniak - Emotion Regulation in Long-term Meditators

Professor Al Kaszniak's presentation on the development of emotion regulation skills in long-term meditators, given to the AZ Meditation Research Interest Group on 3/21/12.

The Body in Mindfulness Meditation

Two recent podcasts from the Dharma Seed collection dealt with the body in mindfulness meditation. Eugene Cash speaks on staying connected to the body in meditation, and Will Kabat-Zinn speaks on mindfulness of the body as a gateway to freedom. Both talks were given at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

Mindfulness of the Body

Duration: 59:09, posted 2012-04-11

The purpose and usefulness of embodied meditation: How to stay connected to the body.

Eugene Cash

I am intrigued by how we can live the 'holy life' as lay people. How do we erase the imaginary line between formal sitting practice and the rest of our lives? How can we bring full engagement to formal and informal practice? Is it possible to embody, in our lives, the understanding and insight that comes with intensive training? And can we live our lives in a way that expresses and continues to deepen our realization? These questions fuel my practice and my teaching. 

* * * * * * *

The Mind is a Magician

Recorded: 2012-04-14

Download, Stream, Order 

Spirit Rock Meditation Center: Finding Freedom in the Body: Mindfulness of the Body as a Gateway to Liberation 

Will Kabat-Zinn

Will Kabat-Zinn has practiced Vipassana meditation intensively in the U.S. and in Burma for over ten years. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches regularly at SF Insight, Spirit Rock, and at meditation centers around the country. For eight years Will taught meditation and awareness practices to incarcerated youth in New York City and Oakland. In addition to sharing the Dharma, Will is an MFT Intern in private practice in San Francisco and Oakland. He completed four years of teacher training with Jack Kornfield.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Time 100 Most Influential People in thew World - Full List

It's that time of year when Time Magazine tells us who the people are who shape our world - the 100 most influential people in the world. Honestly, as plugged in as I sometimes like to think I am, I do not know who the majority of these people are, aside from a few athletes, politicians, and entertainers.

Of all the people on this list, Tim Tebow is one of the most intriguing to me. He was one of the best college football quarterbacks ever - and this was what made him a star - and he is, statistically, one of the worst pro football quarterbacks ever, yet he wins games. He is WAY larger than football player/athlete - he has somehow become a cultural rockstar (and with that, he also has his haters). He is not hesitant to share his deep Christian faith with anyone who will listen, and when gave an Easter Day sermon (he preaches too?) nearly 15,000 people showed up to hear him.

Maybe it is his Christian faith, and the unusual willingness to share his time and monetary blessings that make him such an icon. Yet, I did not know about this side of him until ESPN's Rick Reilly wrote about it:
Every week, Tebow picks out someone who is suffering, or who is dying, or who is injured. He flies these people and their families to the Broncos game, rents them a car, puts them up in a nice hotel, buys them dinner (usually at a Dave & Buster's), gets them and their families pregame passes, visits with them just before kickoff (!), gets them 30-yard-line tickets down low, visits with them after the game (sometimes for an hour), has them walk him to his car, and sends them off with a basket of gifts.

Home or road, win or lose, hero or goat.

Remember last week, when the world was pulling its hair out in the hour after Tebow had stunned the Pittsburgh Steelers with an 80-yard OT touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in the playoffs? And Twitter was exploding with 9,420 tweets about Tebow per second? When an ESPN poll was naming him the most popular athlete in America?

Tebow was spending that hour talking to 16-year-old Bailey Knaub about her 73 surgeries so far and what TV shows she likes.
This is definitely something to admire in a world where most athletes only care about stats and money.

Here is the introduction for Time, from the New York Knicks Jeremy Lin, who also made the list of 100.

Watching Tim Tebow play football, you can observe many things about his character. You see his fierce competitiveness, his strong work ethic and how he is a leader that his teammates trust and respect.

But it is the qualities that Tim, 24, embodies in his life off the field that truly set him apart. He is unashamed of his convictions and faith, and he lives a life that consistently reflects his values, day in and day out. Through his foundation, he constantly reaches out to people and communities in need of hope. He realizes what he has been blessed with and seeks to help those who are worse off. As athletes, we pour our hearts into winning games. Tim is a reminder that life is about much more than that.

The 100 Most Influential People in the World

They are the people who inspire us, entertain us, challenge us and change our world. Meet the breakouts, pioneers, moguls, leaders and icons who make up this year's TIME 100.

PLoS Blogs - Should Chimpanzees Have Moral Standing? An Interview with Frans de Waal

A week ago I posted a TED Talk by Frans de Waal - Moral Behavior in Animals - in which he discussed the higher morality of animals. In this interview with de Waal from PLoS Blogs, he argues that chimps should not be subject to any experiments that we do not run on humans. He also published an article in PLoS Biology,Research Chimpanzees May Get a Break,” in which he evaluated a recent Institute of Medicine report, commissioned by the National Institutes of Health to evaluate the scientific need for using chimpanzees in biomedical research.

Should Chimpanzees Have Moral Standing? An Interview with Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal (Photo: Catherine Marin)

Whether from hubris or insecurity, humans like to view our species as the crown of creation, beings beyond compare in the animal kingdom, as if our advanced cognitive and behavioral skills appeared de novo with the emergence of the Homo lineage. Few have done more to demonstrate the folly of such an anthropocentric view than Frans de Waal.

For nearly 40 years, de Waal has studied the evolutionary origins of social intelligence in primates, from capuchin monkeys to chimpanzees, eviscerating the notion that only humans are capable of empathy, emotions, altruism, and morality, and of transmitting social mores and culture. Likewise, he argues, we can’t blame nature “red in tooth and claw” for our history of violence, warfare, and male dominance.

A lifelong student of animal behavior, de Waal is C.H. Candler Professor of Psychology and director of the Living Links Center for the Advanced Study of Ape and Human Evolution at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University. He started studying chimpanzees in 1975, and was the first to show that chimpanzees engage in coalition “politics” and practice reconciliation and conflict resolution. De Waal has explored the evidence and implications of other species’ cognitive capacities in nine books, including The Age of Empathy, which incorporates his most recent work on the evolutionary origins of morality, empathy, and emotions.

In a new article published in PLoS Biology,Research Chimpanzees May Get a Break,” de Waal considers a recent Institute of Medicine report, commissioned by the National Institutes of Health to evaluate the scientific need for using chimpanzees in biomedical research. Given what we know about the cognitive, social, emotional, and cultural attributes of chimpanzees, de Waal argues, the question is fundamentally an ethical one. And for de Waal, the answer is clear: the sort of experiments that can ethically be done on human volunteers are okay to do on chimpanzees.

I spoke with him in Vancouver at AAAS, the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, after his plenary talk, “Good Natured: From Primate Social Instincts to Morality.”

Gross: Your research has repeatedly drawn parallels between nonhuman primate and human cognition and behavior. In explaining your research focus, you’ve said, “For me, there is nothing more logical than to look at human society through the lens of animal behavior.” What can animal behavior tell us about human behavior?

De Waal: I’ve always looked at humans as animals and I’ve always looked at animals as having emotions and so on, and sharing cognition with humans. So for me it’s really not a contradiction. People often say, “Well, we are not animals.” That’s not something that a biologist understands actually. If we’re not animals what are we? We’re certainly not plants.

Gross: What would you say to those who argue that there are huge gaps in cognition between monkeys and apes and humans?

De Waal: Over the years the dividing line between humans, certainly between humans and the apes, has sort of become fuzzy under the influence of field work, such as the work by Jane Goodall, Toshisada Nishida, and others, and under the influence of experimental work on cognition, which has shown all sorts of capacities that we had not suspected in the apes.

Also, neuroscience has not really helped maintain the dividing line because the brain of a human doesn’t contain any parts that the brain of an ape doesn’t have. The human brain is much bigger than, let’s say, the chimpanzee brain. It’s three times bigger. But there’s nothing in there as far as we can tell that is not in a chimpanzee brain. At the microscopic level there are a few differences and they’re probably interesting, but you would think if humans are so dramatically different, as different as the philosophers have often assumed, that you would find something in the human brain that is absolutely unique and that you would say, “Well, there’s a part there that no one else has,” but we have never found it.

Gross: What are some of the seminal experiments that revealed similarities in cognitive or behavioral traits between apes and humans, suggesting we’re not in fact unique, as many like to think?

De Waal: There are many. For example, tool use used to be considered uniquely human. And then when it was found in captivity by Köhler, this is in the 1920s, people would say, “Well, but at least in the wild they never do it.” And then it was found in the wild, and then they would say, “Well, at least they don’t make tools.” And then it was found that they actually also make tools.

So tool use was one of those dividing lines. Mirror self-recognition is a key experiment that was first conducted on the apes. The language experiments, even though we now doubt what the apes do is actually what we would call “language,” they certainly put a dent in that whole claim that symbolic communication is uniquely human.

My own studies on, let’s call it “politics,” and reconciliation behavior and pro-social behavior have put a dent in things. And so I think over the years every postulate of difference between humans and apes has been at least questioned, if not knocked over. As a result, we are now in a situation that most of the differences are considered gradual rather than qualitative.

And the same is true, let’s say, between a chimp and a monkey. There are many differences between chimps and monkeys in cognitive capacities, but we consider them mostly gradual differences.

The more we look at it, even if you take the difference between, let’s say, a human and a snake or a fish, yes, between those species the differences are very radical and huge, but even these species rely on some of the learning processes and reactions that we also know of in humans.

Gross: In your PLoS Biology commentary, you note that the Institute of Medicine committee lacked expertise in key areas. What was the biggest oversight, in your opinion?

De Waal: The NIH made the curious request that ethics was going to be kept out of the discussion, which is strange since the whole reason we are discussing chimpanzees and not rats or mice is the ethical issue of why would we use the chimpanzee, which is a close [human] relative and shows so many emotions and cognitions that humans have as well. Is it justified to use chimpanzees?

To try to keep the ethics question out was, I think, a misjudgment on the part of NIH. But the IOM then put a bioethicist in charge so their response was more or less we cannot keep ethics out, let’s talk about it.

The report is very interesting because it was written by people who are not experts in chimpanzees but who listened to many experts, so they had hearings at which we spoke, for example. They were open about that and talked with us, and the resulting report is actually quite balanced.

The report basically argues that except maybe for one exception there is no urgent reason to keep using chimpanzees for biomedical studies. Their main conclusion is that the justification to keep using chimpanzees for this purpose is actually not that strong.

Gross: Yet they’ve left the door open to continue some research.

De Waal: Yes, they have left the door open for prophylactic hepatitis C vaccine testing. Normally that kind of testing would require large numbers because you want statistical power. Now, the NIH owns less than 1,000 chimps, which can certainly not all be used for that kind of testing, so we’re talking about a small sample of a couple of hundred that could potentially be used, which is not sufficient to do anything dramatic. So I don’t see it as a viable option. They have mentioned that that’s the one area in which chimps could still be extremely useful. But I’m not sure we can fill this particular need at this point.

Gross: What if there were sufficient numbers of chimps to provide the appropriate statistical power?

De Waal: Even if we had the numbers I would have questions like, Is this the best use for an animal that we consider ethically problematic to be used, because you’re going to be virally infecting them, which is something that I would want to avoid at this point. Rodent models are coming up very fast, and are likely to take the place of the apes. So even if we had the numbers, I’m questioning whether we should be doing it and whether we haven’t reached the point now in the discussion where we say let’s draw a line and say it’s over as far as chimps are concerned for biomedical research.

Gross: What in your view is the most compelling reason to stop invasive research on chimpanzees?

De Waal: The most compelling reason would be an ethical one. I myself have never done any invasive studies in chimps for exactly that reason. I don’t want to do that kind of thing on the chimpanzee because they are so mentally and psychologically close to us. Most people of my generation and younger who work with this species share this feeling. It’s almost like you’re working with humans, you know, they are very closely related to us.

It’s very easy to extend the moral qualms we would have with experiments on humans to chimpanzees. It’s much easier to extend them to chimpanzees than to, let’s say, rats or mice which are so much more distant from us.

Gross: What criteria should we use to decide what type of research on chimpanzees would be morally acceptable?

De Waal: I think we should keep doing non-invasive studies on chimpanzees, such as behavioral studies or comparative genomics, maybe non-invasive neuroscience. It’s hard to do the same imaging studies as we do on humans at the moment, but it’s going to happen, I think, one day.

For me, non-invasive would be defined as research that I would not mind doing on a human. And it does require a different mindset at NIH and maybe other funding agencies because sometimes if you submit proposals to them that include chimpanzees, they still will argue, “Well, you’re using animals, why don’t you go into the brain and manipulate it this way or that to enhance your study?”

The science community needs to change that mindset and treat chimpanzee studies basically the way they treat human studies. There’s a lot of things we cannot do on humans, and that we will not do on humans, and that will be the situation for chimpanzee research, I think, where we say, “Well, we can do all the same things that we do on humans, but that’s about it.”

Gross: In your commentary, you point out that the United States shares the distinction with Gabon of being the only nations in the world to hold chimpanzees in biomedical facilities. That’s surprising.

De Waal: The movement to remove chimpanzees out of research laboratories started to get teeth about ten years ago. The movement existed probably earlier but at least ten years ago certain countries like Japan and the Netherlands had chimpanzees in labs and said they stopped this kind of research for ethical reasons, it was very explicitly for ethical reasons.

And I think the U.S. is going to join the other countries, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but it will happen because the whole trajectory – and that’s what’s pointed out in the IOM report – is in this direction. And my argument is why not get ahead of that trajectory, and why not do it now rather than wait a couple of years.

Gross: What should be done with chimpanzees that would be retired?

De Waal: There is a bit of a desire on the part of existing facilities to keep the chimpanzees there and turn the facilities into sanctuaries. But actually most existing research facilities are not particularly suited for that, because they were built for research, for shifting chimpanzees around, for having them in small groups so that you could easily work with them. They’re not optimal facilities for keeping them around. Whereas there are certain sanctuaries that have a lot of space, that have forests available for them, and I think that’s the way we should retire them. We should retire them in large social groups and hopefully still in environments in which some limited, non-invasive studies, like behavioral studies, can still be done.

I think the whole retirement issue needs to be rethought. Some money will need to be put into it. This cannot be done on the cheap, and if you look at the Netherlands and Japan, they invested quite large sums of money in the retirement of research chimpanzees.

Gross: You recently wrote a commentary called What Is an Animal Emotion?, a subject that was long considered off limits for study. Why has there been such resistance to studying emotions?

De Waal: The view of emotions in the field of animal behavior has been quite negative under the influence of the behaviorists. Skinner would say that if animals have emotions – he would put “emotions” always in quotation marks because he really didn’t believe in them – but if they have them, they’re largely irrelevant and have nothing to do with behavior.

So the view used to be very negative. And then, of course, with the cognitive revolution human emotions became a major issue. Human emotions were recognized, but the behaviorists kept a taboo on animal emotions.

That is completely changing. Not so much under the influence of behavioral scientists such as myself, even though we do our best, it has changed mostly under the influence of neuroscience. If neuroscientists test fear in humans, they see that it activates the amygdala in the brain, then they take rats and they stimulate the amygdala and they get fear responses, and they say, “Well, if the same part of the brain is involved in the same sort of responses, we should use the same terminology for the two responses so we’re going to call it fear in humans as well as in rats.”

And so the neuroscientists are much less reluctant to talk about fear, aggression, love even, affection – they use all these emotional terms because they see the correspondence between what happens in the monkey brain or the rat brain and the human brain.

As a result, the taboo on animal emotions is crumbling very rapidly and I think the behavioral scientists who are still reluctant, they need to catch up with what is happening. My feeling has always been that it’s very hard to find an emotion that humans have that a chimpanzee cannot have.

I sometimes think of guilt and shame as the only ones that are maybe left. But even for those I could make the argument that they are not as uniquely human as we often think.

But all the rest, definitely, like jealousy and affection and anger, all these kind of emotions, the physiological and behavioral signs are there and increasingly also the neurological signs, so I see no reason to keep that completely separate between human and animal.

Gross: Do you see any applications for our current understanding of this cognition continuum for animals? Are there any policy recommendations aside from the Institute of Medicine report on chimpanzees that you can see coming out of our deeper appreciation of animal capacities in cognition and behavior?

De Waal: I’m not sure that what happened with chimps is going to happen to all species because people don’t worry much about rodents. For example, when we have rodents in the home we try to get rid of them, and so I’m not sure that people are going to apply the same concern that they have for chimps or elephants to other animals.

But I do feel there is a general trend in society, in the public, and scientists need to pay attention to that, of taking animals more seriously than we used to.

And this may also have an effect in the agricultural industry, on how we treat agricultural animals, which is a much larger number than research animals, actually, and so it may have effects everywhere, effects on the ethics of how we treat animals, and this will probably also affect the biomedical community.

It doesn’t mean that we will stop doing what we’re doing but we may start doing it differently. That’s my understanding of the movement, that we will increasingly think twice before we do certain procedures on animals.

Gross: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the IOM report?

De Waal: I found the report to be quite solid. It was well-written and balanced and I was also glad to see that the NIH took it seriously. They immediately put a stop on all the research to reflect on their position. I don’t know what the outcome of their deliberations is going to be, but their reaction was a sign of the times, because society is taking the issue increasingly seriously.

Liza Gross is Senior Science Writer/Editor for PLoS Biology. You can find her on Twitter as @lizabio (views her own!).

Tim Desmond - The Fascinating Buddhist Approach to Low Self-Esteem

Dr. Kristin Neff (author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind) has been arguing for quite some time that we need to move away from self-esteem as a measure of mental health toward a less ego-centered model of self-compassion. In this article from Psychotherapy Networker magazine, Tim Desmond makes a similar argument.

The Fascinating Buddhist Approach to Low Self-Esteem

One of the main goals of Buddhist meditation is cultivating compassion and love, and several techniques focus on developing these qualities toward oneself. 

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

While many therapists have begun to incorporate mindfulness into their work, additional Buddhist practices hold potential for helping clients, particularly those suffering from low self-esteem. One of the main goals of Buddhist meditation is cultivating compassion and love, and several techniques focus on developing these qualities toward oneself.

For example, Joseph, a young software engineer, came to see me to work on disarming his fierce inner critic. As he and I entered the resource-building phase of therapy, I taught him a form of metta (loving-kindness) meditation. This practice dates back more than 2,500 years, and, next to mindfulness, it’s one of the most commonly taught forms of Buddhist meditation.

When I use metta practice with clients, I generally begin by asking them to identify an image that easily inspires feelings of love, compassion, and warmth in them. Traditionally, this practice begins with using oneself as the first object of compassion, but for clients with low self-esteem, that can sometimes be too difficult. Many clients have an easier time picturing a baby, an animal, a religious figure, or a benefactor for this first step. The important thing is finding someone or something that naturally inspires uncomplicated and unambivalent feelings of compassion and love. With help, most clients can find an image that works, and can engage with the process.

Joseph chose his 1-year-old niece, and I asked him to picture her and allow feelings of love and compassion to arise naturally. I had him remain focused on this step for about three minutes, encouraging him to deepen into the experience by repeating the phrases “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe.” The purpose of these phrases, which are integral to the way metta practice is traditionally taught, is to help the client connect with an experience of a specific form of unselfish love. Love and compassion can mean many different things in our culture, but the type of love this exercise aims at is a deep feeling of acceptance and support.

After some practice, Joseph was able to get in touch with strong feelings of warmth and care toward his niece. Once we’d accomplished this, the next step was to help him direct some of those positive feelings inward. I sometimes think of this practice in terms of fighting a fire: at this point, the client knows how to open the faucet; now it’s time to learn how to aim the hose.

Helping clients with low self-esteem direct warmth and compassion inward is often a tricky process. I’ve found that different interventions work for different clients. For Joseph, we began by having him get in touch with strong feelings of love toward his niece and then turn that love toward himself while saying the phrases, “May I be happy,” and so forth. As soon as we started this, however, he was immediately overwhelmed by his inner critic. This is a common occurrence with clients who suffer from low self-esteem.

I asked him to tell me what his critic was saying. He said it was saying things like, “How could you ever deserve love? You’re despicable.” Rather than trying to argue with this voice or ignore it, we did exactly what this type of meditation traditionally recommends in cases like this: we made the inner critic the object of Joseph’s love and compassion. This tactic is a departure from how many therapists have been trained to deal with self-criticism, but I believe that it can be an incredibly useful tool.

In Buddhism, it’s said that true compassion and true love are impossible without understanding, so when I help a client shift the focus of compassion to an inner critic, I always start by asking the critic a few questions to create a foundation for the compassion. With Joseph, I said, “I want to understand that self-critical part of you more deeply, so I’ll be asking it some questions. I’d like for you to just listen to how it responds and tell me.”

In most styles of Buddhist meditation, connecting with the body is important for connecting with feelings. To transform a feeling, we start by bringing it up and sensing it in the body. Once it’s present in our awareness, we begin to inquire into its nature. There are many ways to do this, but with therapy clients, I’ve found that asking questions or offering sentence completions can be highly effective. The skill of asking the right question or offering the right sentence completion takes a great deal of practice, but from a Buddhist perspective, the most important thing about the exploration process is that you’re coming from a place of compassion toward that feeling.

I started with the question, “Is there anywhere in your body that you feel that inner critic?”
Joseph said he felt it in his chest.

Once he was present with his feeling, I said, “Now, I’d like you to ask that part of you, that critical voice in your chest, ‘How are you trying to help me?’”

Joseph was quiet for a moment, and then reported, “It says, ‘I’m protecting you from Mom.’”
I praised him and prompted him to ask it, “How do you protect me from Mom?” He answered, “If I feel good about myself, Mom will attack me. If I hate myself, I’ll be safe.”

Asking questions that assume the feeling has a positive purpose is part of inquiring with compassion. Before this, I’d learned that Joseph’s mother had been diagnosed bipolar and had been highly emotionally unstable; however, I didn’t fully understand exactly how that fit together with his self-criticism. I asked Joseph if there were any specific memories coming up for him, and he told me about a time when he was 5 or 6 years old, when he’d proudly showed his mother a good report card, and had been ridiculed by her. His mother said he thought he was better than everyone else. I empathized with Joseph, and we then spent some time just sitting with all of the feelings coming up in him.

Once he felt ready to move on, I asked him to get back in touch with the self-critical voice in his chest. When he said he could feel it, I asked him to try saying, “Thank you for trying to keep me safe from Mom. I know you’re trying to help me.” He immediately started crying, and said he felt a huge relief. He talked about feeling reunited with a part of himself that had been cut off. I suggested that, between sessions, every time he noticed the self-critical voice, he express this kind of gratitude for its desire to protect him.

As we continued therapy, we’d spend time each week with this practice. He’d begin sending love to his niece, and then shift to himself. When his inner critic flared up, he’d say, “Thank you for wanting to protect me from Mom,” and after just a few minutes of repeating this phrase and listening for any response, it would fade. Then he’d return to sending love to himself. Over time, he became adept at using compassion to disarm his inner critic, and had a much easier time loving himself.

Metta practice is an important and helpful part of the way I work with clients. Observing its potential to help clients move through problems that had appeared intractable has convinced me that the practice of offering love and compassion to problematic inner parts could be a significant contribution to the way we conduct therapy, both for our clients and ourselves.

~ Tim Desmond, L.M.F.T., is a Buddhist scholar, a therapist in private practice, and the director of a mental health day-treatment center for children. He was ordained into the Order of Interbeing by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 2005, and offers training and consultation to therapists around the world. Contact: