Saturday, October 06, 2012

Authors@Steven Johnson | "Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age"

I know Steven Johnson as the author of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life - two of his earlier books, and two areas in which I am more deeply interested.

He is also the author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter - which I suspect are his better known books.

His newest book (which he discusses here) is Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age.

"Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age"

Combining the deft social analysis of Where Good Ideas Come From with the optimistic arguments of Everything Bad Is Good For You, New York Times bestselling author Steven Johnson's Future Perfect makes the case that a new model of political change is on the rise, transforming everything from local governments to classrooms, from protest movements to health care. Johnson paints a compelling portrait of this new political worldview -- influenced by the success and interconnectedness of the Internet, but not dependent on high-tech solutions -- that breaks with the conventional categories of liberal or conservative thinking.

With his acclaimed gift for multi-disciplinary storytelling and big ideas, Johnson explores this new vision of progress through a series of fascinating narratives: from the "miracle on the Hudson" to the planning of the French railway system; from the battle against malnutrition in Vietnam to a mysterious outbreak of strange smells in downtown Manhattan; from underground music video artists to the invention of the Internet itself.

At a time when the conventional wisdom holds that the political system is hopelessly gridlocked with old ideas, Future Perfect makes the timely and inspiring case that progress is still possible, and that new solutions are on the rise. This is a hopeful, affirmative outlook for the future, from one of the most brilliant and inspiring visionaries of contemporary culture.

What the Hell Is Thing X - A New Offering from Former Staff of "The Onion"

Strange, nonsensical, subversive, irreverent . . . what else would we expect from a collection of people who helped make The Onion into "America's Best News Source"? Huffington Post is wondering as well.

'Thing X' Is The Onion's Former Staffers' Insane New Project (VIDEO)

Posted: 10/05/2012

When The Onion relocated its editorial staff to Chicago, many of its former writers stayed behind in New York City to work on a new thing. The first look at that new thing has hit YouTube, and we have absolutely no idea what it is. Here's a sneak peek of whatever the hell they're up to.

Their official launch is October 16 - I registered for their newsletter so I will keep you posted. One note of skepticism is that this Thing X is owned by Turner Broadcasting and their page is part of the Adult Swim family of online entertainment.

The Sense of an Interconnected Self - A Potential Addition to Daniel Stern's Self Model

In a post a couple of weeks ago, Daniel Stern and the Creation of Self Through Relational Experience, I outlined Stern's developmental model of the self. Rather than the usual structural model of stages, Stern proposed a layered model in which each successive stage simply adds to what was already available without subsuming the previous stage(s).

In the Introduction to the 2000 edition of the book (The Interpersonal World Of The Infant A View From Psychoanalysis And Developmental Psychology), he spends 30+ pages updating the text with new information. As part of that update, he now believes that the sense of an emergent self, the sense of a core self, the sense of a core self with another, and the sense of an intersubjective self all are present from birth. This is a serious reversal in the previous assumptions about the inner life of children.

Much of Western psychology, including integral theory, has assumed that the infant lives in an undifferentiated state of fusion with its "surround" (the surround includes the physical environment, as well as the interpersonal and intersubjective contexts), especially in its relationship to the mother (or primary caregiver). The goal of development, then, is to differentiate into a singular self from that fusion state.

Stern argues that the infant is born differentiated (although the senses of self are still primitive, what Damasio calls the "proto self") and that the goal of development is to form relationships and intersubjective connections.
In Winnicott's, Mahler's, and many other theoretical renditions, the various important experiences of being with mother are founded on the assumption that the infant cannot adequately differentiate self from other. Self/other fusion is the background state to which the infant constantly returns. This undifferentiated state is the equilibrium condition from which a separate self and other gradually emerge. In one sense, the infant is seen as totally social in this view. Subjectively, the “I” is a “we.” The infant achieves total sociability by not differentiating self from other.

In contrast to these views, the present account has stressed the very early formation of a sense of a core self and core other during the life period that other theories allot to prolonged self/other undifferentiation. Further, in the present view, experiences of being with an other are seen as active acts of integration, rather than as passive failures of differentiation. If we conceive of being-with experiences as the result of an active integration of a distinct self with a distinct other, how can we conceive of the subjective social sense of being with an other? It is now no longer a given, as it was in Mahler's undifferentiated “dual-unity.” (Stern, p. 101)
In Stern's view, and this was a revision to the original text as a result of the work of Trevarthen, there is a subjective sense of self, however crude, at birth. The task of development is then to develop a sense of self-with-other, or the experience of being with

The notion of self-with-other as a subjective reality is thus almost pervasive. This subjective sense of being-with (intrapsychically and extrapsychically) is always an active mental act of construction, however, not a passive failure of differentiation. It is not an error of maturation, nor a regression to earlier periods of undifferentiation. Seen in this way, the experiences of being-with are not something like the “delusion of dual-unity” or mergers that one needs to grow out of, dissolve, and leave behind. They are permanent, healthy parts of the mental landscape that undergo continual growth and elaboration. They are the active constitutions of a memory that encodes, integrates, and recalls experience, and thereby guides behavior. (Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant, p. 118-119)
Leaving aside the "sense of an emerging self," or proto self, that exists at birth and lasts only about eight weeks, there are three early, pre-verbal self-sense layers, and in Stern's model, two additional verbal stages (p. xxiv-xxv in the 2000 edition).

A. Sense of a core self
B. Sense of a core self with other
C. Sense of an intersubjective self

1. Verbal self
2. Narrative self
3. ??

I would like to suggest that the second layer of selves are each verbal expressions of the previous layer. For example, once we become verbal our sense of a core self is the verbal self. Likewise, our construction of a narrative self exists only in relation to a real or imagined other, which makes the narrative self (selves) essentially the verbal evolution of the sense of a core self with other.

So, if this is true, what then is the verbal layer of the sense of an intersubjective self?

I wonder if it might be an interconnected self, the experience of a "we space" from an intersubjective, interpersonal, culturally and environmentally embedded perspective?

Further, I think the next emergent path of enlightenment will be collective, not individual - some type of interpersonal spirituality. We are born to be social beings, so isolating oneself to become "enlightened" makes little sense to me. I don't know what a collective spiritual path looks like, but I suspect some of the students around Andrew Cohen are developing in that direction.

Stay tuned.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Talking Back: A New Theory of Individuality - Dr. Sarah Joan Moran at TEDxBern

Interesting TEDx talk. The introduction is in Swiss German (I think), but the talk itself is in English. Dr. Moran examines the way the media (print, visual, and so on), especially the perpetuation of stereotypes, shape our identities and inhibit social justice through their assertion of "power over."
The images, objects, and buildings crafted by human hands create ‘truth’, assert authority, and mediate our understandings of past and present, self and other, and even right and wrong.  Although most of the time we consider the stories we tell about ourselves in terms of words - words written in a book, typed on a screen, or spoken on the news - images and buildings play crucial roles in shaping our worldviews and, often, in both perpetuating and challenging inequality within dominant power structures. 

Talking Back: A New Theory of Individuality - Dr. Sarah Joan Moran
TEDxBern - Interactive news media is changing the global conversation. During this talk, Dr. Sarah Joan Moran (personal site) presents the potential of these platforms for breaking down stereotypes and fostering a sense of global social justice.

Dr. Moran is a historian of early modern visual culture at the University of Bern's Institute for Art History, She researches how power structures have worked to create and perpetuate inequality, and of the roles played by visual and textual communication within those beliefs and structures.

Compassion Meditation May Boost Neural Basis of Empathy

"May" boost neural basis of empathy? And a bear "may" sh!t in the woods. There is considerable evidence of this already, but in America more is always better.

For this study, they are using Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, a technique developed with the assistance of Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership, and based in traditional Tibetan Buddhist practices.

Here is some info on CBCT from the Tibet-Emory page:

Cognitive-Based Compassion Training (CBCT)

There are doubtless many methods one could employ to enhance compassion beyond the biological level to an impartial altruism, and in fact many religious traditions contain methods for such cultivation. In our studies, we use a protocol for the cultivation of compassion developed by Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, drawn from the lojong tradition of Tibetan Buddhism but rendered into secular form for use by individuals of any, or no, religious inclination. The term lojong means "mind training" or "thought transformation" and refers to a systematic practice of gradually training the mind in compassion until altruism becomes spontaneous. 

Lojong is based on the view that self-centered thinking and behavior cause suffering for oneself and others, while other-centered, altruistic thoughts, emotions, and behaviors ultimately benefit both oneself and others. Compassion is the heartfelt wish that others be free from suffering and the readiness to act on their behalf. It arises from a deep sense of endearment for others, coupled with empathy for and sensitivity to their pain. This empathy arises both from a sense of closeness or connectedness to others as well as a recognition of the causes of their and one’s own suffering. 

The CBCT program therefore aims to help practitioners progressively cultivate other-centered thoughts and behaviors while overcoming maladaptive, self-focused thoughts and behaviors by moving systematically through eight sequential steps. These are: (1) developing attention and stability of mind through focused attention training; (2) cultivating insight into the nature of mental experience; (3) cultivating self-compassion; (4) developing equanimity; (5) developing appreciation and gratitude; (6) developing affection and empathy; (7) realizing aspirational compassion; and (8) realizing active compassion. The adult CBCT program is an 8-week intervention that meets for two hours a week. Each session contains pedagogical material presented by the instructors, a guided meditation of around twenty to thirty minutes, and group discussion, with subjects being asked to meditate daily for the duration of the program using guided meditation recordings. Our team has expertise in adapting CBCT to meet the needs of diverse populations, including elementary schoolchildren, adolescents in foster care and survivors of trauma. Visit our Research page for more information about our ongoing projects.
Senior author on this study Charles Raison is now at the University of Arizona. I am hoping that the agency I work for can partner with him to help us teach CBCT to our clients as part of a research project. I can't imagine another population more in need of this practice.

Here is a short video of Dr. Raison talking about compassion at TEDxAtlanta:

Journal Reference:
J. S. Mascaro, J. K. Rilling, L. Tenzin Negi, C. L. Raison. Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2012; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nss095

Compassion Meditation May Boost Neural Basis of Empathy, Study Finds

ScienceDaily (Oct. 4, 2012) — A compassion-based meditation program can significantly improve a person's ability to read the facial expressions of others, finds a study published by Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. This boost in empathic accuracy was detected through both behavioral testing of the study participants and through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of their brain activity.

"It's an intriguing result, suggesting that a behavioral intervention could enhance a key aspect of empathy," says lead author Jennifer Mascaro, a post-doctoral fellow in anthropology at Emory University. "Previous research has shown that both children and adults who are better at reading the emotional expressions of others have better relationships."

The meditation protocol, known as Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, or CBCT, was developed at Emory by study co-author Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership. Although derived from ancient Tibetan Buddhist practices, the CBCT program is secular in content and presentation.

The research team also included senior author Charles Raison, formerly a psychiatrist at Emory's School of Medicine and currently at the University of Arizona, and Emory anthropologist James Rilling.

When most people think of meditation, they think of a style known as "mindfulness," in which practitioners seek to improve their ability to concentrate and to be non-judgmentally aware of their thoughts and feelings. While CBCT includes these mindfulness elements, the practice focuses more specifically on training people to analyze and reinterpret their relationships with others.

"The idea is that the feelings we have about people can be trained in optimal ways," Negi explains. "CBCT aims to condition one's mind to recognize how we are all inter-dependent, and that everybody desires to be happy and free from suffering at a deep level."

Study participants were healthy adults without prior meditation experience. Thirteen participants randomized to CBCT meditation completed regular weekly training sessions and at-home practice for eight weeks. Eight randomized control subjects did not meditate, but instead completed health discussion classes that covered mind-body subjects like the effects of exercise and stress on well-being.

To test empathic accuracy before and following CBCT, all participants received fMRI brain scans while completing a modified version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET). The RMET consists of black-and-white photographs that show just the eye region of people making various expressions. Those being tested must judge what the person in the photograph is thinking or feeling.

Eight out of the 13 participants in the CBCT meditation group improved their RMET scores by an average of 4.6 percent, while the control participants showed no increase, and in the majority of cases, a decrease in correct answers for the RMET.

The meditators, in comparison to those in the control group, also had significant increases in neural activity in areas of the brain important for empathy, including the inferior frontal gyrus and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. These changes in brain activity accounted for changes in the empathic accuracy scores of the participants.

"These findings raise the intriguing possibility that CBCT may have enhanced empathic abilities by increasing activity in parts of the brain that are of central importance for our ability to recognize the emotional states of others," Raison says. "An important next step will be to evaluate the effects of CBCT on diverse populations that may particularly benefit from enhanced empathic accuracy, such as those suffering from high-functioning autism or severe depression."

Findings from the current study add to a growing database indicating that the CBCT style of meditation may have physical and emotional effects relevant to health and well-being. For example, previous research at Emory found that practicing CBCT reduced emotional distress and enhanced physical resilience in response to stress in both healthy young adults and in high-risk adolescents in foster care.

Film Junk - Tarantino, Scorsese and Other Directors Reveal Their Top 10 Movies of All Time

Very interesting selections by these directors - with only a handful of titles showing more than once or twice, including Raging Bull (Scorsese), The Apartment (Wilder), and 8 1/2 (Fellini).

I'm sharing the directors who I admire - a few of them I have never heard of or seen before. See all of the selections at the link below.

Tarantino, Scorsese and Other Directors Reveal Their Top 10 Movies of All Time

Posted by Sean on August 6th, 2012

There was plenty of discussion across the movie blogosphere following last week’s announcement that Vertigo had dethroned Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time according to Sight & Sound’s decennial poll. In addition to revealing the top 50 as determined by critics, they also provided a top 10 based on a separate poll for directors only. In the print version of the magazine, they have taken it a step further by reprinting some of the individual top 10 lists from the filmmakers who participated, and we now have some of them here for your perusal.

Among them, we have lists from legends like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino, but there are also some unexpected newcomers who took part including Richard Ayoade (Submarine), Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) and Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene). Some of these lists aren’t all that surprising (both Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright have given versions of their top 10s before), but hey, who knew that Michael Mann liked both Avatar and Biutiful so much? There’s plenty to chew on here, so check out the lists after the jump and then tell us who is on point and who is simply off their rocker.

Woody Allen

  • Bicycle Thieves (1948, dir. Vittorio De Sica)
  • The Seventh Seal (1957, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
  • Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles)
  • Amarcord (1973, dir. Federico Fellini)
  • 8 1/2 (1963, dir. Federico Fellini)
  • The 400 Blows (1959, dir. Francois Truffaut)
  • Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
  • La Grande Illusion (1937, dir. Jean Renoir)
  • The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, dir. Luis Bunuel)
  • Paths of Glory (1957, dir. Stanley Kubrick) 

Bong Joon-Ho

  • A City of Sadness (1989, dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien)
  • Cure (1997, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
  • The Housemaid (1960, dir. Kim Ki-young)
  • Fargo (1996, dir. the Coen Brothers)
  • Psycho (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
  • Raging Bull (1980, dir. Martin Scorsese)
  • Touch of Evil (1958, dir. Orson Welles)
  • Vengeance Is Mine (1973, dir. Shohei Imamura)
  • The Wages of Fear (1953, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot)
  • Zodiac (2007, dir. David Fincher)

Francis Ford Coppola

  • Ashes and Diamonds (1958, dir. Andrzej Wajda)
  • The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, dir William Wyler)
  • I Vitteloni (1953, dir. Federico Fellini)
  • The Bad Sleep Well (1960, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
  • Yojimbo (1961, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
  • Singin’ in the Rain (1952, dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly)
  • The King of Comedy (1983, dir Martin Scorsese)
  • Raging Bull (1980, dir. Martin Scorsese)
  • The Apartment (1960s, dir. Billy Wilder)
  • Sunrise (1927, dir. F.W. Murnau)

Guillermo Del Toro

  • Frankenstein (1931, dir. James Whale)
  • Freaks (1932, dir. Todd Browning)
  • Shadow of a Doubt (1943, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
  • Greed (1925, dir. Erich Von Stroheim)
  • Modern Times (1936, dir. Charlie Chaplin)
  • La Belle Et La Bete (1946, dir. Jean Cocteau)
  • Goodfellas (1990, dir. Martin Scorsese)
  • Los Olvidados (1950, dir. Luis Bunuel)
  • Nosferatu (1922, dir. F.W. Murnau)
  • 8 1/2 (1963, dir. Federico Fellini)

Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know)

  • Blind (1987, dir. Frederick Wiseman)
  • Smooth Talk (1985, dir. Joyce Chopra)
  • Vertigo (1958, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
  • After Life (1998, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
  • Somewhere in Time (1980, dir. Jeannot Szwarc)
  • Cheese (2007, dir. Mika Rottenberg)
  • Punch Drunk Love (2002, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
  • The Red Balloon (1956, dir. Albert Lamorisse)
  • A Room With a View (1985, dir. James Ivory)
  • Fish Tank (2009, dir. Andrea Arnold)

Mike Leigh

  • American Madness (1932, dir. Frank Capra)
  • Andrei Rublev (1966, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
  • I Am Cuba (1964, dir. Mikhai Kalatozov)
  • The Emigrants (1971, dir. Jan Troell)
  • How a Mosquito Operates (1912, dir. Winsor McCay)
  • Jules Et Jim (1962, dir. Francois Truffaut)
  • Radio Days (1987, dir. Woody Allen)
  • Songs From the Second Floor (2000, dir. Roy Andersson)
  • Tokyo Story (1953, dir. Yasujiro Ozu)

Michael Mann

  • Apocalypse Now (1979, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
  • Battleship Potemkin (1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein)
  • Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles)
  • Avatar (2009, dir. James Cameron)
  • Dr. Strangelove (1964, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
  • Biutiful (2010, dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
  • My Darling Clementine (1946, dir. John Ford)
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, dir. Carl theodor Dreyer)
  • Raging Bull (1980, dir. Martin Scorsese)
  • The Wild Bunch (1969, dir. Sam Peckinpah)

Steve McQueen (Shame)

  • The Battle of Algiers (1966, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo)
  • Zero de Conduite (1933, dir. Jean Vigo)
  • La Regle du Jeu (1939, dir. Jean Renoir)
  • Tokyo Story (1953, dir. Yasujiro Ozu)
  • Couch (1964, dir. Andy Warhol)
  • Le Mepris (1963, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
  • Beau Travail (1998, dir. Claire Denis)
  • Once Upon a Time in America (1984, dir. Sergio Leone)
  • The Wages of Fear (1953, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot)
  • Do the Right Thing (1989, dir. Spike Lee)

Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter)

  • Cool Hand Luke (1967, dir. Stuart Rosenberg)
  • Badlands (1973, dir. Terrence Malick)
  • Hud (1963, dir. Martin Ritt)
  • The Hustler (1961, dir. Robert Rossen)
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962, dir. David Lean)
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, dir. George Roy Hill)
  • Jaws (1975, dir. Steven Spielberg)
  • North By Northwest (1959, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
  • Stagecoach (1939, dir. John Ford)
  • Fletch (1985, dir. Michael Ritchie)

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Pick Your Pill Out of a Hat - "Bad Pharma" by Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre's new book, Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients, hasn't been released in the U.S. yet (due out January 8, 2013 according to Amazon), but it's getting a lot of attention in England. This is important stuff. Big Pharma has been lying to us and killing us (for our own good) for far too long - and with the FDA's tacit approval.

In his first book, Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks, Goldacre went on the attack against fringe health practices such as homeopathy, ear candles, Reiki, and various other non-scientific healing approaches (more kindly known as alternative medicine).

Pick your pill out of a hat

They might do you some good, with luck
Bad Pharma. By Ben Goldacre. Fourth Estate; 430 pages; £13.99. To be published in America in January by Faber and Faber; $28. 

DOCTORS like to project an air of authority when making their clinical decisions. Patients like it too, for it is reassuring to think that one’s health is in the hands of an expert. It would be unsettling if, upon prescribing you a drug, your doctor admitted that the scientific research about what exactly the drug did, and how effective it was at doing it, was patchy and distorted, sometimes to the point where nobody has any real idea of what effects the drugs they are prescribing are likely to have on their patients.

But that is the reality described in “Bad Pharma”, Ben Goldacre’s new book. A British doctor and science writer, he made his name in 2008 with “Bad Science”, in which he filleted the credulous coverage given in the popular press to the claims of homeopaths, reiki therapists, Hopi ear-candlers and other purveyors of ceremonious placebos. Now he has taken aim at a much bigger and more important target: the $600-billion pharmaceutical industry that develops and produces the drugs prescribed by real doctors the world over.

The book is slightly technical, eminently readable, consistently shocking, occasionally hectoring and unapologetically polemical. “Medicine is broken,” it declares on its first page, and “the people you should have been able to trust to fix [its] problems have failed you.” Dr Goldacre describes the routine corruption of what is supposed to be an objective scientific process designed to assess whether new drugs work, whether they are better than drugs already on the market and whether their side effects are a price worth paying for any benefits they might convey. The result is that doctors, and the patients they treat, are hobbled by needless ignorance.

So, for instance, pharmaceutical companies bury clinical trials which show bad results for a drug and publish only those that show a benefit. The trials are often run on small numbers of unrepresentative patients, and the statistical analyses are massaged to give as rosy a picture as possible. Entire clinical trials are run not as trials at all, but as under-the-counter advertising campaigns designed to persuade doctors to prescribe a company’s drug.

The bad behaviour extends far beyond the industry itself. Drug regulators, who do get access to some of the hidden results, often guard them jealously, even from academic researchers, seeming to serve the interests of the firms whose products they are supposed to police. Medical journals frequently fail to perform basic checks on the papers they print, so all sorts of sharp practice goes uncorrected. Many published studies are not written by the academics whose names they bear, but by commercial ghostwriters paid by drug firms. Doctors are bombarded with advertising encouraging them to prescribe certain drugs.

The danger with a book like this is that it ends up lost in abstract discussion of difficult subjects. But Dr Goldacre illustrates his points with a plethora of real-world stories and examples. Some seem almost too breathtaking to be true—but every claim is referenced and backed up by links to research and primary documents. In scenes that could have come straight from a spy farce, the French journal Prescrire applied to Europe’s drug regulator for information on the diet drug rimonabant. The regulator sent back 68 pages in which virtually every sentence was blacked out.

And of course, the upshot of all this is anything but abstract: doctors are left ignorant about the drugs they are prescribing, and which will make their patients sick or get well, or even live or die. Statins, for instance, lower the risk of heart attacks, and are prescribed to millions of adults all over the world. But there are several different sorts of statin. Because there is little commercial advantage to be gained by comparing the efficacy of the different varieties, no studies have done so in a useful way.

Bereft of guidance, doctors must therefore prescribe specific statins on the basis of little more than hunches or personal prejudice. As Dr Goldacre points out, if one drug is even a shade more effective than its competitors, then thousands of people prescribed the inferior ones are dying needlessly every year for want of a bit of simple research. That is a scandal. Worse, the bias and distortions that brought it about are repeated across the entire medical industry. This is a book that deserves to be widely read, because anyone who does read it cannot help feeling both uncomfortable and angry.

"Mind in Life" with Evan Thompson (Brain Science Podcast 89)

The new episode of the Brain Science Podcast features Dr. Ginger Campbell in conversation with neuroscientist Evan Thompson, discussing his newest book on embodied cognition, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind.

"Mind in Life" with Evan Thompson (BSP 89)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012 
Evan Thompson, PhDEmbodied Cognition is a movement within cognitive science that argues that the mind is inseparable from the fact that the brain is embedded in a physical body. This means that everything that the brain does, from the simplest perception to complex decision-making, relies on the interaction of the body with its environment.  Evan Thompson's book Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind is an in depth look at what he calls the "enactive" approach to embodied cognition. The enactive approach was pioneered by Thompson's mentor Francisco Varela and it emphasizes the importance of the body's active engagement with its environment.

In a recent interview (BSP 89) I talked with Thompson about some of the key ideas in Mind in Life. Unlike most episodes of the Brain Science Podcast, this is not really a stand-alone episode. It is part of my ongoing exploration of both embodied cognition and the controverial topic of emergence. It is also intended as a follow-up to my recent interview with Terrence Deacon.

Episode Transcript (Free PDF)

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


    Related Episodes: 

    • BSP 5: A bried introduction to philosphy of mind
    • BSP 25: Embodied Intelligence with Rolf Pfeifer
    • BSP 36: Art Glenberg on Embodied Cognition
    • BSP 53: Discussion of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? (emergence and free will)
    • BSP 62: Warren Brown, co-author of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?
    • BSP 73: Lawrence Shapiro, author of Embodied Cognition.
    • Books and Ideas #47: Terrence Deacon, author of Incomplete Nature. 


      CEUs for Psychologists

      Alice Walker: “Go to the Places That Scare You”

      From Yes! Magazine - an excellent interview with author, poet, activist, and multiple award winning novelist Alice Walker, an American icon. She is known for her magic realism, but more important perhaps is her commitment to social justice.

      Alice Walker: “Go to the Places That Scare You”

      The acclaimed novelist on why a life worth living is a life worth fighting for. 
      Alice Walker photo by Harley Soltes
      Photo by Harley Soltes.
      Alice Walker is a poet, essayist, and commentator, but she’s best known for her prodigious accomplishments as a writer of literary fiction. Her novel The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1983 and quickly became a classic of world literature. Set in an African-American community in the rural South during the decades before World War II, the novel is told in letters written by Celie, a woman who survives oppression and abuse with her spirit not only intact, but transcendent.

      Walker’s writing is characterized by an ever-present awareness of injustice and inequality. But whether describing political struggle—as in Meridian, which deals with the civil rights movement—or meditating on the human relationship to nature and animals, as in her latest book, The Chicken Chronicles, her work conveys the possibility of change. In Walker’s vision, grace is available through love and a deep connection to the beauty of the world.
      Walker was born in the segregated South, the eighth child in a family who made their living as sharecroppers in Georgia. She came of age during the civil rights movement, and emerged early in her career as a defining voice in feminism and an advocate for African-American women writers. She is a prominent activist who has worked, marched, traveled, and spoken out to support the causes of justice, peace, and the welfare of the earth.

      Alice Walker spoke to YES! about the challenges of working for change, and the possibility of living with awareness—and joy.

      Valerie Schloredt: Over the past few days I’ve been immersed in your work, and I’ve been wondering how you do it. Being able to move someone to tears with a few words on a page is extraordinary to me.

      Alice Walker: I want very much for you to feel for whoever I’m talking about, or whatever I’m talking about. Because it is only by empathy being aroused that we change. That is the power of writing. I’ve experienced exactly what you’re saying, reading other writers. I remember the book I first had that experience with was Jane Eyre, being right there with Jane, and understanding, yes, we have to change these horrible institutions where they abuse children. Today, I’m the supporter of an orphanage in Kenya. And one of the reasons comes from having been so moved by reading about Jane at Lowood.

      Schloredt: It’s interesting to hear about what you read as a child, because some of your best-known work, like The Color Purple, draws on the stories of your ancestors and your family and aspects of the world you knew as a child.

      Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth
      Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth
      A new documentary on how the poet, activist, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author 
      has changed the world with her words.

      Walker: I think the foundation of everything in my life is wonder. We were way out in the country, and why wouldn’t you just absolutely wonder at the splendor of nature? It’s true I had various sufferings, but nothing really compares to understanding that you live in a place that, moment by moment, is incredible. That your mother could say, “I think we’ll have tea tonight,” pull up a sassafras root, take it home, boil it, and you have sassafras tea. I mean, it’s such a miraculous universe. For a child, this magic is something that supports us, even through the hard times.

      Schloredt: Do you go back to your childhood home?

      Walker: It doesn’t exist.

      Schloredt: No?

      Walker: No. And there were many of them. We lived in shacks. Each year the people who owned the land (that they had stolen from the Indians), after they had taken the labor for the year, forced us to another shack. How could people do that, to people that they recognized as people? They did this to babies, they did this to small children, they could look at the people they were exploiting and actually see that they were working them into ill health and early death. It didn’t stop them.
      The most beautiful parts of the area that I lived in are now an enclave of upper-class white housing tracts with a huge golf course. They built a road that went right through the front yard of our church. Most of the people moved to cities, they moved to projects. So, it doesn’t exist.

      Schloredt: Something I wanted to ask after listening to you talk last night [at the YES! celebration in Seattle], is the idea that some people don’t experience empathy, and don’t have a conscience that bothers them when they’re treating people extremely badly. Where can progressives go with that idea? How do we relate to knowing that?

      Walker: You relate to it by being honest. We’re sitting back thinking that every single person has a conscience, if you could just reach it. Why should we believe that? I mean, what would make you actually believe that? Certainly not the history of the world as we know it. So it’s about trying to understand the history of the world, how it’s been shaped, and by whom, and for what purposes.

      Understanding trumps compassion at this point. When people are forcing you out of your home, starving your children, destroying your planet—you should bring understanding of them to bear. Not everybody is loving of children, not everybody cares about the ocean. I think if we collectively decide that we are going to confront this, we have a chance. Because humanity is very smart, and we’d like to survive. And we’re not going to survive the way we’re going. I think we know that.

      Schloredt: Your novels are among those books that cause people to say, “This book changed my life,” or “This book changed my way of thinking.” For me the book of yours that really did something to my way of thinking was Meridian.

      That is a very powerful book. One thing that really affected me was the description of the cost of racism to the psyche, what a struggle it is to fight such embedded injustice. I think I saw you as the character Meridian. Are you—have you got some Meridian in you?

      Walker: I think all people who struggle at the risk of their lives have some Meridian in them. It’s an acceptance of a kind of suffering. You hope that something will come of it, but there’s no way of knowing. What I didn’t realize was so close to me was how Meridian gets really sick as she encounters various struggles. She’s using every ounce of her will, her intelligence, her heart, her soul. It often leaves her debilitated. And that has certainly been true in my life. And it’s something that I have to accept.
      In Jackson, Mississippi, during the civil rights movement, the mayor had a tank that the town bought just to use against us. So there’s the possibility of the tank running over you, and you have to stand there. So I understood that, well, this is probably going to mean a few weeks of just being immobilized. And then you figure out ways to recuperate.

      It’s learning to accept that the cost is great. It would have to be, because we’re talking about emotional intelligence and growth and stretching yourself, reaching for the sun, kind of as if you were a plant. It’s a difficult thing to change the world, your neighborhood, your family, your self.

      Schloredt: Not only is Meridian risking her life, like the other civil rights activists in the South, but there’s also internal oppression, an inner struggle the characters deal with.

      Walker: The inner struggle is extremely difficult for all of us, because we all have faults, severe ones, that we will struggle with forever. One of the things that I like about Meridian is that it is about how we like to have almost a stereotype about leaders and revolutionaries and world-changers, that they are always whole. It’s wise to accept that [human faults] are inevitable. Factor that in and keep going.

      Schloredt: I love the passage where Meridian visits a black church after the assassination of Martin Luther King and finds that they’ve incorporated his rhetoric into the sermon.

      Walker: This is the segment where B.B. King is in the stained-glass window with a sword—where the people needed to incorporate, as far as I was concerned at the time, a bit more militancy. More awareness of what you’re up against, and confronting that with real clarity. In some ways it’s the same issue that we’re talking about. You have to go to the places that scare you so that you can see: What do you really believe? Who are you really? Are you prepared to take this all the way to wherever the truth leads you and accept that you have to figure out different ways of confronting reality?

      Schloredt: I wanted to ask you about Occupy and uprisings in the Middle East. You’ve been politically active over your lifetime. Is there advice that you would give to people who are organizing now in the United States?

      Walker: If you want to have a life that is worth living, a life that expresses your deepest feelings and emotions, and cares and dreams, you have to fight for it. You have to go wherever you need to go, and you have to be wherever you need to be, and place yourself there against the forces that would distort you and destroy you.

      I love the uprisings, I love the Occupy movement, and I think the young people especially are doing something that is very natural. It is natural to want to have a future. It is very natural to want to live in peace and joy. What is lovely about this time is the awareness that is sweeping the planet. People are just waking up, every moment.

      Schloredt: One thing that I worry about for progressives is that we are often distracted from effective direct action by the project of improving ourselves, of being good.

      Walker: And also, “good” in that sense can sometimes be very facile. And a good cover, you know, “I’m doing good, so I don’t have to change very much.” But I think for most Americans, the change that’s required is huge.

      Schloredt: How do we make that change happen?

      Walker: Well, you know, you’re doing it. I think YES! Magazine is part of what’s changing people’s consciousness. And I think the spread of Buddhism—the retreat centers, the meditation practice—has had a huge impact on people’s consciousness. Americans learning Buddhist tradition has helped a lot of people understand that they actually have a power that is theirs. They have their own mind. It’s not somebody else’s mind, and it’s not controllable, unless you permit it. That’s a foundation for huge change.

      Schloredt: Your writing has, I’m sure, also changed consciousnesses. How does it feel to know that your work has in some way changed the world?

      Walker: Well, it’s a gift the universe has permitted you to achieve—but it’s not just dropped in your lap, you have to really work for it. For instance, years ago when I wrote Possessing the Secret of Joy, the campaign against female genital mutilation [FGM] was a dangerous subject. There was a great deal of flak about my wanting to address it.
      I wrote the book, and then Pratibha Parmar and I made the film [Warrior Marks, a documentary about FGM], and lugged it around Africa, and London, New York, all over. It allowed women who had no voice about FGM to speak. Progress is slow, and sometimes it’s discouraging. It’s like knocking on doors in the South asking people to vote, and they’re terrified of voting. And then seeing over the course of years that people started understanding that they had a right to reject the practice of FGM, that they had a voice. I feel grateful that I could be an instrument to stop any kind of suffering. I mean, what a joy.

      Schloredt: In your novels you describe profound suffering and pain, but there is also often the potential for reconciliation and healing. If you could create healing and reconciliation for something that’s happening in our country today, what would it be?

      Walker: I think the War on Terror is really absurd, especially coming from a country that is founded on terrorism. The hypocrisy of that is corrosive, and we should not accept it. There is no way to stop terrorism if you insist on making enemies of most of the people on the planet. Why should they care about you? All they feel is fear.

      So I would stop the War on Terror, and I would start making peace with the peoples of the planet by trying to understand them. I would like us to be able to say, “If that happened to me, I would feel exactly the way you do. And what can we do from here, from this understanding? What can we do together?” 

      Valerie Schloredt interviewed Alice Walker for It's Your Body, the Fall 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Valerie is associate editor of YES! Magazine.

      Brain and Neuroscience in the News

      Here are a few recent articles that I have not had time to post individually, but these deserve some attention. I'm offering a taste of each one and I hope you seek out and explore the ones that interest you - follow the link in the title to see the whole article.

      Weak Brain Connections Found in People with Anxiety Disorder

      By Associate News Editor
      Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on September 5, 2012 
      Weak Brain Connections Found in People with Generalized Anxiety Disorder 
      The brains of people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) have weaker connections between a brain region in charge of emotional response and the amygdala.  

      This suggests that the brain’s “panic button” may be chronically pushed down due to lack of regulation, according to a new University of Wisconsin-Madison imaging study.

      GAD, which is characterized by excessive, uncontrollable worry, affects nearly 6 percent of the population.

      The findings support the hypothesis that reduced communications between parts of the brain result in the extreme anxiety felt by people with GAD, said lead author Jack Nitschke, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry.
       * * * * *

      Neuroscience: Idle minds

      Neuroscientists are trying to work out why the brain does so much when it seems to be doing nothing at all.
      For volunteers, a brain-scanning experiment can be pretty demanding. Researchers generally ask participants to do something — solve mathematics problems, search a scene for faces or think about their favoured political leaders — while their brains are being imaged.

      But over the past few years, some researchers have been adding a bit of down time to their study protocols. While subjects are still lying in the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners, the researchers ask them to try to empty their minds. The aim is to find out what happens when the brain simply idles. And the answer is: quite a lot.
      Some circuits must remain active; they control automatic functions such as breathing and heart rate. But much of the rest of the brain continues to chug away as the mind naturally wanders through grocery lists, rehashes conversations and just generally daydreams. This activity has been dubbed the resting state. And neuroscientists have seen evidence that the networks it engages look a lot like those that are active during tasks.

      Resting-state activity is important, if the amount of energy devoted to it is any indication. Blood flow to the brain during rest is typically just 5–10% lower than during task-based experiments1. And studying the brain at rest should help to show how the active brain works. Research on resting-state networks is helping to map the brain's intrinsic connections by showing, for example, which areas of the brain prefer to talk to which other areas, and how those patterns might differ in disease.

      But what is all this activity for? Ask neuroscientists — even those who study the resting state — and many will sigh or shrug. “We're really at the very beginning. It's mostly hypotheses,” says Amir Shmuel, a brain-imaging specialist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Resting activity might be keeping the brain's connections running when they are not in use. Or it could be helping to prime the brain to respond to future stimuli, or to maintain relationships between areas that often work together to perform tasks. It may even consolidate memories or information absorbed during normal activity.

      * * * * * 

      Beyond the Brain

      by Tanya Marie Luhrmann 
      In the 1990s, scientists declared that schizophrenia and other psychiatric illnesses were pure brain disorders that would eventually yield to drugs. Now they are recognizing that social factors are among the causes, and must be part of the cure.

      By the time I met her, Susan was a success story. She was a student at the local community college. She had her own apartment, and she kept it in reasonable shape. She did not drink, at least not much, and she did not use drugs, if you did not count marijuana. She was a big, imposing black woman who defended herself aggressively on the street, but she had not been jailed for years. All this was striking because Susan clearly met criteria for a diagnosis of schizophrenia, the most severe and debilitating of psychiatric disorders. She thought that people listened to her through the heating pipes in her apartment. She heard them muttering mean remarks. Sometimes she thought she was part of a government experiment that was beaming rays on black people, a kind of technological Tuskegee. She felt those rays pressing down so hard on her head that it hurt. Yet she had not been hospitalized since she got her own apartment, even though she took no medication and saw no psychiatrists. That apartment was the most effective antipsychotic she had ever taken.

      Twenty years ago, most psychiatrists would have agreed that Susan had a brain disorder for which the only reasonable treatment was medication. They had learned to reject the old psychoanalytic ideas about schizophrenia, and for good reasons. When psychoanalysis dominated American psychiatry, in the mid-20th century, clinicians believed that this terrible illness, with its characteristic combination of hallucinations (usually auditory), delusions, and deterioration in work and social life, arose from the patient’s own emotional conflict. Such patients were unable to reconcile their intense longing for intimacy with their fear of closeness. The science mostly blamed the mother. She was “schizophrenogenic.” She delivered conflicting messages of hope and rejection, and her ambivalence drove her child, unable to know what was real, into the paralyzed world of madness. It became standard practice in American psychiatry to regard the mother as the cause of the child’s psychosis, and standard practice to treat schizophrenia with psychoanalysis to counteract her grim influence. The standard practice often failed.

      The 1980s saw a revolution in psychiatric science, and it brought enormous excitement about what the new biomedical approach to serious psychiatric illness could offer to patients like Susan. To signal how much psychiatry had changed since its tweedy psychoanalytic days, the National Institute of Mental Health designated the 1990s as the “decade of the brain.” Psychoanalysis and even psychotherapy were said to be on their way out. Psychiatry would focus on real disease, and psychiatric researchers would pinpoint the biochemical causes of illness and neatly design drugs to target them.

      Schizophrenia became a poster child for the new approach, for it was the illness the psychoanalysis of the previous era had most spectacularly failed to cure. Psychiatrists came to see the assignment of blame to the schizophrenogenic mother as an unforgivable sin. Such mothers, they realized, had not only been forced to struggle with losing a child to madness, but with the self-denigration and doubt that came from being told that they had caused the misery in the first place. The pain of this mistake still reverberates through the profession. In psychiatry it is now considered not only incorrect but morally wrong to see the parents as responsible for their child’s illness. I remember talking to a young psychiatrist in the late 1990s, back when I was doing an anthropological study of psychiatric training. I asked him what he would want non-psychiatrists to know about psychiatry. “Tell them,” he said, “that schizophrenia is no one’s fault.” 
      It is now clear that the simple biomedical approach to serious psychiatric illnesses has failed in turn. At least, the bold dream that these maladies would be understood as brain disorders with clearly identifiable genetic causes and clear, targeted pharmacological interventions (what some researchers call the bio-bio-bio model, for brain lesion, genetic cause, and pharmacological cure) has faded into the mist. To be sure, it would be too strong to say that we should no longer think of schizophrenia as a brain disease. One often has a profound sense, when confronted with a person diagnosed with schizophrenia, that something has gone badly wrong with the brain.

      * * * * *

      The Creativity of the Wandering Mind

      New research suggests engaging in simple tasks that allow the mind to wander facilitates creative thinking.

      Do you have a numbingly dull job, one so monotonous that you frequently find your mind wandering? Well, congratulations: without realizing it, you have boosted your creative potential.

      Mindless tasks that allow our thoughts to roam can be catalysts for innovation. That’s the conclusion of a research team led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s META Lab (which focuses on Memory, Emotion, Thought and Awareness).

      Their research, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests putting a difficult problem in the back of your mind won’t, by itself, lead to creative thinking. The key seems to be performing some simple chore while it’s lodged there.

      Baird and his colleagues describe an experiment featuring 135 people, ages 19 to 35. Their creativity was measured by performance on the classic Unusual Uses Task, in which each participant is given two minutes to come up with as many uses as possible for a specific item, such as a brick. Besides the sheer number of responses, their answers are judged on originality, flexibility, and level of detail.

      All the participants began by tackling two such problems. One-quarter of them then spent 12 minutes on an intellectually demanding task, which demanded constant attention. Another quarter spent that same amount of time on an undemanding task, which only required them to provide “infrequent responses.” Another quarter was instructed to rest for 12 minutes, while the rest went directly to the next task without a break.

      All then tackled four additional rounds of the Unusual Uses Task. Two were repeats of the tests they performed earlier, and two featured objects that were new to them.

      Those who had performed the undemanding task in the interim had significantly higher scores than those in any of the other categories (including the people who had simply rested for 12 minutes). However, this jump in creativity occurred only for the items they were tackling for a second time. They did not score any better than the others when presented with a new object.

      This suggests their success in coming up with creative solutions “resulted from an incubation process” which was “characterized by high levels of mind wandering,” the researchers write.
       * * * * *

      Neuroscience mapping brain connections

      Discoveries could yield an understanding of and treatments for disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, depression and Parkinson's disease.

      Brain scan
      A brain scan of white matter fibers, color-coded by direction. (Courtesy of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA and Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH / September 5, 2012)

      Inside the human skull lies a 3-pound mystery. The brain — a command center composed of tens of billions of branching neurons — controls who we are, what we do and how we feel.

      "It's the most amazing information structure anybody has ever been able to imagine," says Dr. Walter Koroshetz, deputy director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Md.

      For centuries, the brain's inner workings remained largely unexplored. But all that is changing. With the help of new tools, researchers are delving deeper into this complex organ than ever before. We're in a brainy age of discovery that could change our understanding of how the brain works and why, in some cases, it fails to do its job.

      Scientists already have an intimate knowledge of brain anatomy, from the hippocampus to the amygdala. "We've mapped these in exquisite detail," says Arthur Toga, director of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA.

      But those maps don't show how the regions connect. And it's this connectivity that enables the complex behaviors our brains perform so seamlessly.

      Wednesday, October 03, 2012

      Will We Ever Really Understand Kafka?

      In the Times Literary Supplement (UK), Gabriel Josipovici reviews several recent books about Franz Kafka, one of the singularly great Modernist authors of the 20th Century. Those of us who have read his fiction (and most students read "The Metamorphosis" at some point in high school or college), know that his writing is challenging - and it seems that the life of the author is as well. Despite the growing body of work about his writing and his life, he remains somewhat of an enigma.

      As it should be.

      Why we don’t understand Kafka

      Gabriel Josipovici

      June O. Leavitt
      Theosophy, Cabala, and the modern spiritual revival
      212pp. Oxford University Press. £40 (US $65).
      978 0 19 982783 1

      Stanley Corngold and Ruth V. Gross, editors
      286pp. Camden House. $75.
      978 1 57113 482 0

      Stanley Corngold and Benno Wagner
      The ghosts in the machine
      273pp. Northwestern University Press. $34.95.
      978 0 8101 2769 2

      David Suchoff
      The hidden openness of tradition
      267pp. University of Pennsylvania Press. $65.
      978 0 8122 4371 0

      Shachar M. Pinsker
      The making of modernist Hebrew fiction in Europe
      487pp. Stanford University Press. $60.
      978 0 8047 7064 4

      Published: 5 September 2012
      Franz Kafka by Andy Warhol (detail), 1980
      On September 23 it will be 100 years exactly since Franz Kafka wrote his breakthrough story, “The Judgement”. We are probably no nearer to understanding that or any other of his works today than his first readers were, nor should we expect to be. These books help to show us why. 

      Eighteen months earlier, on March 26, 1911, Kafka noted in his diary: “Theosophical lectures by Dr Rudolf Steiner, Berlin”. After commenting on Steiner’s rhetorical strategy of giving full weight to the views of his opponents, so that “the listener now considers any refutation to be completely impossible and is more than satisfied with a cursory description of the possibility of a defence”, he goes on:
      “Continual looking at the palm of the extended hand. – Omission of the period. In general, the spoken sentence starts off from the speaker with its initial capital letter, curves in its course, as far as it can, out to the audience, and returns with the period to the speaker. But if the period is omitted then the sentence, no longer held in check, falls upon the listener immediately with full force.” 

      Only Kafka could experience language with such intensity and express his response in such a strange and striking way. Two days later he comes back to Steiner in his diary, either to another or to the same lecture, which he proceeds to paraphrase in deadpan fashion, interspersing this with comments about his neighbour: 
      “Dr Steiner is so very much taken up with his absent disciples. At the lecture the dead press so about him. Hunger for knowledge? But do they really need it? . . . Löwy Simon, soap dealer on Quai Moncey, Paris, got the best business advice from him . . . . The wife of the Hofrat therefore has in her notebook, How does One Achieve Knowledge of the Higher Worlds? At S. Löwy’s in Paris.”
      (How Does One Achieve Knowledge of the Higher Worlds? was the tantalizing title of one of Steiner’s books.) Yet Kafka is sufficiently impressed to make an appointment to see Steiner in his hotel. “In his room I try to show my humility, which I cannot feel, by seeking out a ridiculous place for my hat. I lay it down on a small wooden stand for lacing boots.” Steiner is gracious, however, and tries to put the young man at his ease by asking if he has been interested in theosophy long. Kafka pushes on with his prepared speech: A great part of his being seems to be striving towards theosophy, while at the same time he greatly fears it. “I have, to be sure, experienced states (not many) which in my opinion correspond very closely to the clairvoyant states described by you, Herr Doktor.” However, he is also aware that in those states he did not write at his best, and since “my happiness, my abilities, and every possibility of being useful in any way have always been in the literary field”, he is terribly torn.

      We never hear how Steiner responds to what Kafka has told him. Instead, this:
      “He listened very attentively without apparently looking at me at all, entirely devoted to my words. He nodded from time to time, which he seems to consider an aid to strict concentration. At first a quiet head cold disturbed him, his nose ran, he kept working his handkerchief deep into his nose, one finger in each nostril.”
      And with that Steiner disappears from the diaries.

      June O. Leavitt, who begins her book with this episode, describes Kafka here as “ridiculing” Steiner’s claims and “satirizing” his psychic powers and self-appointed mission of enlightening humanity, describing the last paragraph as “facetious”. However, she argues, “Kafka’s yearning for transcendental mind continued despite his disappointing meeting with Steiner”. Throughout his life, she maintains, Kafka was torn between his desire to write and his experience of out-of-body states, which he longed for yet dreaded.

      This brings out well how even the most learned and well-meaning critics, if they are not very careful, will start with a slight misreading and end in the further reaches of absurdity. For Kafka’s description of Steiner’s lecture and of their meeting follows the same pattern as everything else in the diary: he notes everything he sees and that happens to him with puzzled and scrupulous detachment. Pace Leavitt, he is not satirizing Steiner or the Frau Hofrat (or himself for the comedy with the hat), but merely noting it all, as though trying to pierce a mystery which is immediately comprehensible to everyone but himself.

      Leavitt is surely right to remind us of the enormous popularity of theosophy and related notions in the European fin de siècle. Not only Steiner but Mme Blavatsky seemed, for many thinking people in the West, who had lost faith in organized religion, to provide the answer to their spiritual yearnings. W. B. Yeats, Maurice Maeterlinck, Vassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian were all adepts and excited proselytizers at one time or another, and T. S. Eliot introduced a “famous clairvoyante” into The Waste Land. It’s not at all surprising that Kafka should have been interested in and knowledgeable about theosophy, and Leavitt is right to suggest that his apparent fascination with Jewish mysticism, which scholars have made much of in recent decades, probably came to him via Christian (and debased) sources. Eliot’s take on Mme Sosostris was, of course, at the opposite pole from Yeats’s or Kandinsky’s. Where does Kafka stand? He was, we know, a notorious faddist, solemnly subjecting himself to nature therapy, raw food diets and gymnastics, Mazdazanism, Fletcherism and the rest. But what of his writing, which is surely the important thing? Leavitt trawls his oeuvre to find examples of mystical experiences and out-of-body states, but her insensitivity to context and nuance grows more pronounced with every page.

      She examines in detail the long, abandoned story, “Description of a Struggle”, written around 1904. The narrator here seems able merely to wish something for it to happen: “So I happily spread out my arms in order to fully enjoy the moon. And by making swimming movements with my weary arms it was easy for me to advance without pain or difficulty . . . . My head lay in the cool air”. This indeed seems to be an example of levitation, and Leavitt, enlisting Steiner and Blavatsky, explains that we are in the presence of an “ether-body”, which is the true body, not the physical body we carry around with us. Now this may be theosophical doctrine. But one wonders if the main reason why Kafka abandoned the work was that it was too easy to do this sort of thing in fiction: if you can make the body fly merely by wishing it, you can do anything – but by the same token you have done nothing. Kafka was looking for a form of art that would be true to all our desires – including the desire to escape the body – but would also be ready to examine these desires. That is why when he did finally agree to let Max Brod find a publisher for his early work he ignored the long and complex but ultimately unsatisfactory “Description of a Struggle” and selected instead tiny fragments that seemed to him more “true”.

      Later Leavitt examines one of Kafka’s last stories, “The Bucket Rider”, written when he had finally escaped Prague and gone to Berlin with Dora Diamant, to endure there a terrible winter of freezing conditions and dreadful food scarcity. “To grasp the inverted perspective of ‘The Bucket Rider’”, says Leavitt, “it is necessary to penetrate the narrative façade, which Kafka critics have not done.” These kinds of sentences usually herald a total misreading, and this is indeed what we get here. “Coal all spent, the bucket empty; the shovel useless; the stove breathing out cold, the room freezing; I must have coal; I cannot freeze to death; behind me is the pitiless stove, before me the pitiless sky.” This is a terrifying evocation of human destitution and desperation. The narrator goes on: “So I ride off on the bucket. Seated on the bucket, my hands on the handle, the simplest kind of bridle, I propel myself with difficulty down the stairs; but once downstairs, my bucket ascends . . . . And at last I float an extraordinary height above the vaulted cellar of the dealer”. 

      Alerted by the idea of flying, Leavitt is away: “Mystical logic allows expansion of perspective beyond the conceptual framework of time and space. I claim that the narrator has already frozen to death; he is a disembodied spirit. The narrative concerns a soul in crisis”. The story ends: “And with that I ascend into the regions of the ice Mountains and am lost forever”. Leavitt fastens on the expression Nimmerwiedersehen, literally “never to be seen again”, and concludes: “This bucket rider has relinquished his craving for materiality to migrate to a higher world”. All the pain of the story’s realism is dissolved into a cosy mysticism which may bring comfort to some but does a gross disservice to a painfully honest writer.

      The book grows more dotty as it progresses. The pity is that Leavitt has a good though modest point: that Kafka’s interest in theosophy and other forms of fin-de-siècle religiosity aligns him with a great many of the major artists of the period, and that dismissing this as due to personal fads, or placing an exclusive emphasis on Jewish mysticism, distort the picture. But as so often in Kafka studies, an initial insight is ruined by insensitivity to the way language works in the texts and to the overall evidence of the diaries, the letters and the rest of the fiction. 

      Stanley Corngold seems to have established himself as the doyen of American Kafkaists. Ruth V. Gross’s preface to Kafka for the Twenty-First Century, co-edited with Corngold, sets the tone. The idea, she explains, was “to assemble a number of distinguished Kafka researchers from North America and Europe to examine together the ways in which this extraordinary writer, who so decisively shaped our conception of the twentieth century, might suggest fruitful strategies for coping with the twenty-first”. But who ever imagined that writers should give us “fruitful strategies for coping”? They have quite enough on their plates trying to say what they feel they have it in them to say. She goes on: “How do we compose a complete and coherent account of a personality with so many often contradictory aspects?”. Again, this sounds good, but what on earth would a “complete and coherent account” of anything be like? Should we even aim for that?
      Read the rest of the lengthy review.