Saturday, November 10, 2012

Galen Strawson on the Sense of Self - from Philosophy Bites

From Philosophy Bites, a discussion with philosopher and literary critic Galen Strawson on the sense of self. Strawson is the author of Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics, and there are two older papers by him on the self that are available online:
  • The Self and the SESMET (Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, No. 4, 1999; pp. 99–135)
  • The Self (Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4, No. 5/6, 1997; pp. 405-28)
More on Strawson is available at Wikipedia.

Galen Strawson on the Sense of Self

Is it possible to know your self? Does everyone have a sense of their own self? These thorny questions are the focus of this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast. Galen Strawson is in conversation with Nigel Warburton. David Edmonds introduces the podcast.

Listen to Galen Strawson on the Sense of Self

Philosophy Bites is made in association with the Institute of Philosophy

Philosophers in 90 Minutes - 15 Important Philosophers

Here is a cool collection of talks (90 minutes each) written by Paul Strathern and read by Robert Whitfield (and others, I believe), based on Strathern's series of books, Philosophers in 90 Minutes. There are more books in the series than there are talks, although I was able to find an additional one by Rousseau that was not included in the post.

These videos were originally posted by at Philosophy of Science Portal.

"In 90 Minutes"...introduction to some philosophy greats

Decent introduction to fourteen philosophers by Paul Strathern.

Paul Strathern [Wikipedia]:
Paul Strathern (born 1940) is a British writer and academic. He was born in London, and studied at Trinity College, Dublin, after which he served in the Merchant Navy over a period of two years. He then lived on a Greek island. In 1966 he travelled overland to India and the Himalayas. His novel A Season in Abyssinia won a Somerset Maugham Award in 1972.

Besides five novels, he has also written numerous books on science, philosophy, history, literature, medicine and economics. He is the author of two successful series of short introductory books: Philosophers in 90 Minutes and The Big Idea: Scientists Who Changed the World. His book on the history of chemistry entitled Mendeleyev's Dream (2001) was short-listed for the Aventis Prize, and his works have been translated into over two dozen languages. He is the author of the best-selling The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance, Napoleon in Egypt, and The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior: Leonardo, Machiavelli and Borgia - a fateful collusion. His most recent work Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City came out in May 2011.

Strathern was a lecturer at Kingston University where he taught philosophy and science. He lives in London, and has three grandchildren who live in Vienna: Tristan, Julian and Opajoke.
These are all I could find though there are more available such as Bertrand Russell, Confucius, St. Augustine.

An audio presentation.















Bookforum Omnivore - Spare a Thought for Philosophy

From Bookforum's Omnivore, a new collection of links in the field of philosophy.

Spare a thought for philosophy

Nov 8 2012  

  • A new issue of The Reasoner is out. 
  • Jimmy Licon (SFSU): Sceptical Thoughts on Philosophical Expertise
  • Jonathan Head (Keele): Pessimism and Philosophy Today
  • Spare a thought for philosophy: Will Bordell interviews A.C. Grayling
  • From Figure/Ground Communication, an interview with John Lysaker on the nature of the self and human well-being. 
  • S. G. Lofts reviews The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Kant, Hegel, and Cassirer by Donald Phillip Verene. 
  • From 3:AM, Arif Ahmed is a seriously funky philosopher who has never stopped feeling the thrill; and Jerry Fodor is the sharp-shooting killer-app in the philosopher of mind, the Dirty Harry of non-universal modularity, LOT, and representational theories of the mind. 
  • Robert Guay reviews Introductions to Nietzsche, ed. Robert Pippin. 
  • Carrie Figdor interviews Jill Gordon, author of Plato’s Erotic World: From Cosmic Origins to Human Death
  • John Dupre reviews Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False
  • Will Crouch on how to be a high impact philosopher
  • George Dvorsky on 8 great philosophical questions that we’ll never solve.

Friday, November 09, 2012

NPR - What Happens When Kids Fall 'Far From The Tree'

This book sounds interesting, especially the idea about vertical vs. horizontal identities . . . the interview is also quite good. The book is Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon, who also authored the National Book Award winning The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.

As the old saying goes, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. In other words, the child takes after the parent; the son is a chip off the old block.

Of course, that's often not the case. Straight parents have gay children and vice versa; autistic children are born to parents who don't have autism; and transgender kids are born to parents who are perfectly comfortable with their gender.

That's the kind of family Andrew Solomon has written about in his new book, Far From the Tree. In it, Solomon chronicles the lives of families in which the kids are, in one way or another, different from their parents. He explores how some of those differences come to be viewed as disabilities, while others are seen as part of that child's identity.

He joins NPR's Robert Siegel to discuss how differences can sometimes serve to unite families, rather than isolate them.

Interview Highlights

On vertical and horizontal identities

"I've divided identities into two categories. There are vertical identities, which are passed down generationally — so, ethnicity is hugely a vertical identity, nationality usually is, language is, often religion is. These are things a child has in common with his parents. But there are many other ways of being that tend to occur for parents who don't anticipate them. ... You have parents who perceive themselves to be 'normal,' whatever that means, and they have a child who has a condition which they often perceive to be 'abnormal.' And those children often grow up with the sense that the way they are is really a tragedy, and it would be great if they could change and fix that. And then in adolescence, frequently — sometimes earlier, sometimes later — they discover other people who are like them in their peer group. And so I've called [that] a horizontal identity because of the way it reaches out across, sort of sideways."

On whether it's fair to compare the experiences of families whose kids are deaf with families whose kids are, say, dwarfs or prodigies

"I found as I did the research that each of these individual differences felt very isolating to the people who were experiencing [them]. But then, in fact, there was an enormous amount that the parents dealing with these things all had in common. And ultimately it seemed to me as though difference was not something that isolates people, but rather something that unites people. And I thought, if the people who were dealing with autism could understand how similar this situation is to the parents of people with remarkable gifts who are prodigies — or to gay people, or to transgender people, or to dwarfs — if they could understand how much they all have in common, a lot of the isolation of those conditions would be mitigated."

Andrew Solomon's 2001 book, The Noonday Demon, won the National Book Award for nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Annie Leibovitz/Courtesy of Scribner

Andrew Solomon's 2001 book, The Noonday Demon, won the National Book Award for nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

On the difference between disability and identity

"I think it's important for us to recognize that the idea of disability, and really the idea of illness, is an idea that's really very much in flux. When I was born, the wisdom was that homosexuality was an illness, that it was caused largely by somebody's mother and a distorted relationship with the mother, and that people who had it should be treated for it. And now, as I live my life — married to a husband with kids — it's an identity, for me at least. I know there are some people who are still experiencing it as an illness. Having had that experience, I recognize the fluidity of these categories. So do I think that deafness is an identity in which I would be comfortable? No, I'm very fond of my hearing. Here I am on [the] radio. But do I think there are people for whom it is primarily an identity? Yes, absolutely."

On the story of Solomon's own post-nuclear family, which begins and bookends Far From the Tree

"When I met John, who is now my husband, he told me that he had had some friends, Tammy and Laura, for whom he had been a sperm donor, and that they had a son named Oliver, of whom he was the biological father. A few years later, they asked him to be a sperm donor again, and they produced a daughter, Lucy. A good friend of mine from college had gone through a divorce and said that she really longed to be a mother, and I said how much I would love to be the father of her child. And so we decided to produce a child through an IVF process. John and I then wanted to have a child who would live with us all the time, and we decided to use an egg donor, and Laura, the lesbian who had carried Oliver and Lucy, offered to be our surrogate as a way of thanking John for providing her with a family. So the shorthand is: five parents of four children in three states. ...

"I'll tell you that we recently had a friend to dinner who said to me after dinner, 'I'm sure there should be a name for this relationship, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed talking to the daughter of the partner of the mother of your daughter.' And I said, 'We've had a lot of relationships for which there are no words.' "

On whether he believes his own children will fall far from the tree when it comes to their sexual orientation

"My assumption is that they will be heterosexual. I've certainly seen no evidence to the contrary, and there's no evidence that children of gay parents are more likely to be gay. And I don't particularly want them to be gay, though I certainly wouldn't mind if they turned out to be gay. A lot of people said to me, 'Gosh, you decided to have children in the middle of writing this book about all of these terrible situations?' And I really felt that I was looking at these terrible situations and thinking, here are all of these parents, they're dealing with so many challenges and so much difficulty, and yet they love their children, and almost none of them regret having had children — very few of them anyway do. And I thought if all of these people could love all of these children, then I think I'll be able to love mine whoever they are."
Here is an excerpt from Chapter One of the book.

Chapter One: Son

There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production, and the widespread use of the word reproduction for this activity, with its implication that two people are but braiding themselves together, is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads. In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children's faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.

Yet blood, in modern as in ancient societies, is thicker than water. Little is more gratifying than successful and devoted children, and few situations are worse than filial failure or rejection. Our children are not us: they carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right from the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control. And yet we are our children; the reality of being a parent never leaves those who have braved the metamorphosis. The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott once said, "There is no such thing as a baby — meaning that if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone but is essentially part of a relationship." Insofar as our children resemble us, they are our most precious admirers, and insofar as they differ, they can be our most vehement detractors. From the beginning, we tempt them into imitation of us and long for what may be life's most profound compliment: their choosing to live according to our own system of values. Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.

Because of the transmission of identity from one generation to the next, most children share at least some traits with their parents. These are vertical identities. Attributes and values are passed down from parent to child across the generations not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms. Ethnicity, for example, is a vertical identity. Children of color are in general born to parents of color; the genetic fact of skin pigmentation is transmitted across generations along with a self-image as a person of color, even though that self-image may be subject to generational flux. Language is usually vertical, since most people who speak Greek raise their children to speak Greek, too, even if they inflect it differently or speak another language much of the time. Religion is moderately vertical: Catholic parents will tend to bring up Catholic children, though the children may turn irreligious or convert to another faith. Nationality is vertical, except for immigrants. Blondness and myopia are often transmitted from parent to child, but in most cases do not form a significant basis for identity — blondness because it is fairly insignificant, and myopia because it is easily corrected.

Often, however, someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. This is a horizontal identity. Such horizontal identities may reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors. Being gay is a horizontal identity; most gay kids are born to straight parents, and while their sexuality is not determined by their peers, they learn gay identity by observing and participating in a subculture outside the family. Physical disability tends to be horizontal, as does genius. Psychopathy, too, is often horizontal; most criminals are not raised by mobsters and must invent their own treachery. So are conditions such as autism and intellectual disability. A child conceived in rape is born into emotional challenges that his own mother cannot know, even though they spring from her trauma.


In 1993, I was assigned to investigate Deaf culture for the New YorkTimes. My assumption about deafness was that it was a deficit and nothing more. Over the months that followed, I found myself drawn into the Deaf world. Most deaf children are born to hearing parents, and those parents frequently prioritize functioning in the hearing world, expending enormous energy on oral speech and lipreading. Doing so, they can neglect other areas of their children's education. While some deaf people are good at lipreading and produce comprehensible speech, many do not have that skill, and years go by as they sit endlessly with audiologists and speech pathologists instead of learning history and mathematics and philosophy. Many stumble upon Deaf identity in adolescence, and it comes as a great liberation. They move into a world that validates Sign as a language and discover themselves. Some hearing parents accept this powerful new development; others struggle against it.

The whole situation felt arrestingly familiar to me because I am gay. Gay people usually grow up under the purview of straight parents who feel that their children would be better off straight and sometimes torment them by pressing them to conform. Those gay people often discover gay identity in adolescence or afterward, finding great relief there. When I started writing about the deaf, the cochlear implant, which can provide some facsimile of hearing, was a recent innovation. It had been hailed by its progenitors as a miraculous cure for a terrible defect and was deplored by the Deaf community as a genocidal attack on a vibrant community. Both sides have since moderated their rhetoric, but the issue is complicated by the fact that cochlear implants are most effective when they are surgically implanted early — in infants, ideally — so the decision is often made by parents before the child can possibly have or express an informed opinion. Watching the debate, I knew that my own parents would gamely have consented to a parallel early procedure to ensure that I would be straight, had one existed. I do not doubt that the advent of such a thing even now could wipe out most of gay culture. I am saddened by the idea of such a threat, and yet as my understanding of Deaf culture deepened, I realized that the attitudes I had found benighted in my parents resembled my own likely response to producing a deaf child. My first impulse would have been to do whatever I could to fix the abnormality.

Then a friend had a daughter who was a dwarf. She wondered whether she should bring up her daughter to consider herself just like everyone else, only shorter; whether she should make sure her daughter had dwarf role models; or whether she should investigate surgical limb-lengthening. As she narrated her bafflement, I saw a familiar pattern. I had been startled to note my common ground with the Deaf, and now I was identifying with a dwarf; I wondered who else was out there waiting to join our gladsome throng. I thought that if gayness, an identity, could grow out of homosexuality, an illness, and Deafness, an identity, could grow out of deafness, an illness, and if dwarfism as an identity could emerge from an apparent disability, then there must be many other categories in this awkward interstitial territory. It was a radicalizing insight. Having always imagined myself in a fairly slim minority, I suddenly saw that I was in a vast company. Difference unites us. While each of these experiences can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.

Excerpted from Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. Copyright 2012 by Andrew Solomon. Excerpted with permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Classic Charles Mingus Performance on Belgian Television, 1964

Here is a little classic jazz from Charles Mingus for a cool, rainy, autumn morning (at least here in Tucson). Mingus was one of the legends, and this is a cool 30+ minutes of his brilliance.

Classic Charles Mingus Performance on Belgian Television, 1964

November 6th, 2012

In early 1964 Charles Mingus put together one of the great combos in jazz history. The sextet was composed of Mingus on bass, Dannie Richmond on drums, Jaki Byard on piano, Johnny Coles on trumpet, Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone and the extraordinary multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy on alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet. Mingus called his experimental group The Jazz Workshop.
In April of that year Mingus and his band embarked on a three-week tour of Europe, much of which is recorded on film and audiotape. The tour is remembered as one of the high-water marks in Mingus’s career. As Rob Bowman writes in the liner notes to the Jazz Icons DVD Charles Mingus Live in ’64:

The tour effectively introduced two new compositions, “Meditations On Integration” and “So Long Eric”, while the band walked a fine line between Mingus’s usual amalgam of bop, swing and New Orleans jazz and the free-jazz leanings of the cataclysmic Dolphy. The result, of course, was something that could only be called Mingus Music–a galvanizing, high-energy sonic stew that, while the product of the kinetic interplay of six musicians, could only have been conjured up with Mingus as the master of ceremonies.

The performance above is from Charles Mingus Live in ’64. It was recorded by Belgian television on Sunday, April 19, 1964 at the Palais des Congrés in Liège, Belgium. The band had unexpectedly been reduced to a quintet two nights earlier, when Coles collapsed onstage in Paris and was rushed to the hospital with what was later diagnosed as an ulcer. In the Belgian TV broadcast, pianist Byard makes up for the missing trumpet parts as the band plays three Mingus compositions:
  1. So Long Eric
  2. Peggy’s Blue Skylight
  3. Meditations on Integration
“So Long Eric” was originally called “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” but Mingus renamed the tune in honor of Dolphy, who had announced before the band left America that he would remain in Europe when the tour was over. Sadly, Dolphy fell into a diabetic coma in Germany and died just two months after finishing the tour. Mingus would later call the song “Praying With Eric.”

Related content:

Documentary - Secular Morality

This is an interesting 3-part series (45 mins. total) on secular morality from Qualia Soup. Part one is Good Without Gods, part two is Not-So-Good Books, and part three is Of Objectivity and Oughtness.

Secular Morality

Secular MoralitySome say that if we live in a godless universe there’s no basis for morality, that is principles concerned with the distinction between right from wrong, or good and bad behavior, or character.

However for many others religion is the problem. Their rejection of religion, far from being motivated by which to escape moral accountability that some claim, reflects a conviction that it’s only through abandoning certain widespread religious ideas the progress towards a truly just and consistent morality is possible.

This video series highlight some of the flaws in popular religious moral arguments and teachings and offers a moral outlook that makes no use of god concepts and is thus available to theists and a atheists alike, refuting the profound misconception that gods are needed for morality. So on what do we base morality?

We know it’s not power. The one with a gun might have the means to impose their wishes but this tells us nothing about their principles.

We know it’s not majority preference. If the spectacle of human sacrifices is the preferred entertainment of the majority this doesn’t make human sacrifice right.

We know it’s not tradition. The fact that a practice might have endured for generations tells us nothing about its virtue, and although what’s written in law may largely reflect what the society thinks about right or wrong.

We know lord doesn’t determine morality. Laws can be unjust. When asking this question it can be useful to consider how we go about assessing moral problems.

Watch the full documentary now (playlist – 45 minutes)

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Integral Leadership Review - October 2012 Table of Contents

Now online and free to read . . . There are some good articles, as always, in this new edition. Be sure to check out Russ Volckmann's conversation with Jeff Klein on conscious capitalism, conscious business, conscious leadership. Also be sure to read Marilyn Hamilton's "Leadership to the Power of 8: Leading Self, Others, Organization, System and Supra-System."

October 2012 Table of Contents


Leading Comments

  • Russ Volckmann - Check out ilrParticles


Leadership Coaching Tips

  • Getting to the Next Level of Greatness… - Judith E. Glaser
  • How to Idiot-Proof Excellence - Amiel Handelsman


Fresh Perspective

  • Russ Volckmann - Integral Consulting with Michael McElhenie
  • Russ Volckmann - Jeff Klein and Conscious Capitalism, Conscious Business. Conscious Leadership


Feature Articles

  • Nick Ross - Epoch of Transformation: Towards a Practice of Interpersonal Leadership: Part 2
  • Oliver Ngodo - Expanding the Boundaries of Our Capacities through Working toward Experiencing Transformative Learning in Service
  • Martina Danilova - Integral Coaching as a Tool for Transformational Change
  • Marilyn Hamilton - Leadership to the Power of 8: Leading Self, Others, Organization, System and Supra-System
  • Nancy Southern Sylvia Gafney and Bernice Moore - Leaning into Complexity: Supporting Leaders Through Transformative Learning
  • John Renesch - The Conscious Organization: Workplaces for the Self-Transcended
  • Marc Gafni - Three Steps to the Democratization of Enlightenment
  • Kenton Hyatt and Cheryl De Ciantis - Values Driven Leadership
  • Michel Saloff-Coste - Why “DESIGN ME A PLANET”
  • Tom Christensen - “Game is Over. You are Enlightened.”


Book Reviews

  • Michael McElhenie - SQ21: The Twenty-One Skills of Spiritual intelligence by Cindy Wigglesworth
  • Keith Bellamy - The God Problem by Howard Bloom



  • Lisa Norton - Integral Design Leadership: “Envisioning Pure Land @Taiwan”
  • Mark McCaslin - Integral North: Dispelling the Leader Myth
  • Alfonso Montuori - Transdsciplinary Reflections: Transdisciplinarity as Play and Transformation


Notes from the Field

  • Jeff Klein - A Brief Review of the 2012 Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit
  • Rafael Nasser - Don Beck and the New Face of Philanthropy
  • Giorgio Piacenza Cabrera - Emerging Integral Thinking South of the Border
  • Marilyn Hamilton - Integral City EXPO & eLaboratory
  • Jon Freeman - SDi Confab: Are you an app?
  • Sergej van Middendorp Kazuma Matoba and Barton Buechner - SIETAR Forum 2012+38 in Berlin
  • Russ Volckmann - Spiral Dynamics in Action: the Momentous Leap: The Confab 13, 9/6-9
  • Michael Stern and Michael Pergola - Working with the Deeper Field of Evolutionary Potential – A Week of Events with Stephen Busby


Learner Papers

  • Giorgio Piacenza Cabrera - Inca Wisdom and Integral Theory
  • Diane Meyer - Interpreting Along the Deckled Edge: The Artist’s Place in Leadership

Leadership Emerging

  • Barbara Maria Stafford, Ed. Bridging the Humanities-Neuroscience Divide: A Field Guide to a New Meta-Field.
  • Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek. Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations.
  • Ryan Caradonna and Jake Caines. Debunking the Leadership Myth: The Story of Conscious Leadership.
  • Stephen Brookes and Keith Grint, Eds. - The New Public Leadership Challenge.
  • Thomas E. Cronin and Michael A. Genovese - Leadership Matters: Unleashing the Power of Paradox.
  • Howard J. Leonhardt - Top 10 Takeaways from Conscious Capitalism Summit


  • Russ Volckmann - Health, Poverty and More

Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism in Psychology

Defining Compassion, Empathy & Altruism Scientific, Economic, Philosophical & Contemplative Perspectives (March 4-5, 2009), was part of a conference hosted by Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). The videos below focus on Empathy, Compassion and Altruism in Psychology.

The speakers for this session were: James Doty, MD, Thupten Jinpa, PhD, Jeanne Tsai, PhD., Paul Ekman, PhD., Tracy Spinrad, PhD., and Robert Sapolsky, PhD. There are six full presentations (one for each speaker) in this embedded video - Enjoy!

Defining Compassion, Empathy & Altruism, Economic, Philosophical & Contemplative Perspectives

The Secret Micro Universe: The Cell

Awesome . . . or maybe I am just a science geek. This is "the life story of a single epithelial lung cell on the front line of the longest war in history, waged across the most alien universe imaginable: our battle against viral infection."

The Secret Micro Universe: The Cell

There is a battle playing out inside your body right now. It started billions of years ago and it is still being fought in every one of us every minute of every day. It is the story of a viral infection – the battle for the cell.

This film reveals the exquisite machinery of the human cell system from within the inner world of the cell itself – from the frenetic membrane surface that acts as a security system for everything passing in and out of the cell, the dynamic highways that transport cargo across the cell and the remarkable turbines that power the whole cellular world to the amazing nucleus housing DNA and the construction of thousands of different proteins all with unique tasks. The virus intends to commandeer this system to one selfish end: to make more viruses. And they will stop at nothing to achieve their goal.

Exploring the very latest ideas about the evolution of life on earth and the bio-chemical processes at the heart of every one of us, and revealing a world smaller than it is possible to comprehend, in a story large enough to fill the biggest imaginations. With contributions from Professor Bonnie L Bassler of Princeton University, Dr Nick Lane and Professor Steve Jones of University College London and Cambridge University’s Susanna Bidgood.

Narrated by David Tennant, this is the story of a battle that has been raging for billions of years and is being fought inside every one of us right now. Swept up in a timeless drama – the fight between man and virus – viewers will see an exciting frontier of biology come alive and be introduced to the complex biochemical processes at the heart of all of us.

The programme features contributions from Professor Bonnie L Bassler of Princeton University, Dr Nick Lane and Professor Steve Jones of UCL, and Cambridge University’s Susanna Bidgood. It is the life story of a single epithelial lung cell on the front line of the longest war in history, waged across the most alien universe imaginable: our battle against viral infection.

David McNab, creative director of Wide-Eyed Entertainment Ltd, commented: “This programme would never have been possible without the guidance, enthusiasm and financial support of the Wellcome Trust. It is the kind of cutting-edge, complex science that needs ambitious visuals to make it accessible to a general audience.

“It has been a privilege to bring to life the work of so many brilliant and dedicated scientists and to reveal a scientific frontier that is both important and genuinely awe-inspiring. I sincerely hope it becomes an inspiration to a new generation of scientists and film-makers.”

Clare Matterson, director of Medical Humanities and Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, says: “‘Secret Universe’ will reveal a world that few people will have seen before, presenting scientifically accurate molecular biology in a gripping visual manner – perfect Sunday night viewing. It is a wonderful example of science programming at its best.”

Wellcome Trust broadcast grants offer support for projects and programmes that engage an audience with issues in biomedical science in an innovative, entertaining and accessible way. Previous programmes funded through the scheme include ‘The Great Sperm Race’ and ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’.

Proof of Heaven? . . . Heaven Help Us

Eben Alexander III is a neurosurgeon (which has little to do with understanding how the brain functions, the later being the domain of neuroscience) who fell into a coma as a result of bacterial meningitis, during which time his "entire cortex" was "shut down." During this presumed (by him, though not by people who understand how the brain actually works) brain death, he saw and met God, and apparently it was pretty damn cool. He tells all about it in his book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife.

Let's be clear - he was already a Christian looking for faith when this happened, so although he claims to be a scientific skeptic, yeah, not so much. And, this is crucial, the cortex can go offline and the rest of the brain can function quite well. What this means is that the limbic system (emotions, memories) is still active, the brain stem is still active (source of dreams, by the way), and other regions of the reptilian and mammalian brain are still active.

The simplest answer is generally the best - and most accurate - answer. And there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of answers more simple and plausible than I died and met God in heaven.

This excellent review from Slate takes the hot air out of his sails, and does so with a biting sense of humor.

Heaven Help Us: Another “Harvard brain scientist” finds faith and tells the world

Depiction of heaven at the State Hall of the Austrian National Library, finished in 1730 
By Alex Eben Meyer

Newsweek is dead. The 80-year-old magazine will cease publication at the end of the year, a teary-eyed Tina Brown said last Thursday. Before we sink too deeply into grief, let's all remember what lies beyond these earthly, stapled pages. Newsweek may have passed away, its paper turned to dust, but the Newsweek spirit carries on, not as matter or material, but in a state of pure electron flux, a ghostly form that rides the WiFi waves around us. Its words will rise off the printing press and be transformed into an energy that's everywhere at once, but also nowhere. The magazine will become an online angel—a Web-based publication that penetrates our minds with truth and light. In death, it will be reborn and find everlasting life. …

Sorry, I'm getting all mixed up. I've been having a little trouble focusing since I read Newsweek's cover story from Oct. 15—the one with a picture of a hand reaching up into the clouds and a headline promising that "Heaven Is Real." It's a personal account of meeting God, excerpted from a memoir published this week, called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into the Afterlife. A neurosurgeon? More than that! The author, Eben Alexander III, makes a point of saying that he's a skeptic and a scientist, a skeptical scientist who happens to have spent some time (did he mention?) at a little school in Boston called Harvard University. This science-minded Harvard skeptic never thought he'd find the truth of Jesus Christ. But the facts are just the facts: Alexander has been graced with the divine, and he'll share that grace with us. He's become a neuro-prophet.

This experiment in out-of-body consciousness began in fall of 2008, when a case of bacterial meningitis put Alexander in a coma and "shut down" his “entire cortex.” What he means by that is never clear—you might think this state would be synonymous with death, which is sort of what Alexander claims, even though he's now alive and writing books. But it's a waste of time to quibble over details, since according to the author, the fact of his brain's inactivation is the only thing that could possibly explain what happened next. While Alexander was in the coma, and his brain was “totally off-line” he drifted from this world of Harvard neuroscience into a land of pink and puffy clouds, and chanting flocks of angels, and a glowing orb that speaks telepathically, and a blue-eyed lady-friend, and lots and lots of butterflies. You would not believe how many butterflies there are in Heaven.

"I've spent decades as a neurosurgeon at some of the most prestigious medical institutions in our country," Alexander writes, reminding us that he's no sap. "I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loved us unconditionally. In fact, I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself." He was just like you and me, you see, at least until he fell into a coma—and flew into the sky, and entered the mind of an earthworm, was forced to reconsider all his Harvard science skepticism about the loving Lord above.

Is it even worth rebutting this interpretation? Even before it was published, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeons Journey Into the Afterlife has reached the Top 10 of the Amazon best-seller list, so we may as well prepare ourselves for the out-of-mind publicity that's sure to follow. For starters, Alexander says it took him "months to come to terms with what happened," as if he'd had to reconstruct the ultra-real experience after his recovery. One might timidly suggest that the story is confabulated—that is to say, his wounded brain filled in the gaps in time with a holy flight of fancy. (Perhaps his experience of "flying" came from memories of skydiving while a student at University of North Carolina?) It also seems at least half-plausible that Alexander's dreamy chit-chat with Jehovah happened in his head, as he was emerging from his coma, and during a time in which the author says he suffered from what's called "ICU psychosis." In the book—which I've had the great displeasure of perusing—he describes waking up to "a strange and exhausting paranoid universe" in which "Internet messages" showed up wherever he looked, and a "grinding, monotonous, anti-melodious chanting" filled his head. "Some of the dreams I had during this period were stunningly and frighteningly vivid," he says.

It was only later on that he worked out the fine points of his astral projection, in part by using a commercial meditation aid called "Hemi-Sync"—a $12 music CD that purports to mimic psychedelics and expand the mind with alternating beats. "Hemi-Sync potentially offered a means of inactivating the filtering function of the physical brain by globally synchronizing my neocortical electrical activity, just as my meningitis might have done, to liberate my out-of-body consciousness," he explains, as only a Harvard neurosurgeon can. Scientists who are a bit more skeptical have described these claims as silly.

Alexander claims to have been waffling on the matter of his faith before the meningitis. But the book reveals that he's always been a devout or at least a searching Christian. Long before he found himself in the "God-soaked and love-filled darkness" of his coma, Alexander took his family to church and made his children pray every night before they went to bed. His story of enlightenment is suffused with the most conventional evangelism: He was lost and now is found; he has "good news" to share with all. According to the memoir, Alexander was abandoned as a baby, spent Christmas as an orphan, and later on became a depressive alcoholic. Then he goes to a meeting in Jerusalem and finds the spot where Jesus ate his final meal, and while he's there (through some celestial stroke of luck), he contracts the deadly bug that will restore his faith and change his life and put him in a coma for a very biblical duration of seven days and seven nights.

Now, by grace of God, he's scheduled to appear on Nightline, Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and Fox & Friends. His book is almost guaranteed to be a huge success, a work of neuro-prophecy that hauls in massive neuro-profits. There's no doubt that Alexander's publisher is looking back with greedy eyes at another publishing sensation from three years ago, by the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor. That one, called My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, was also based on the rather dubious idea that we might draw a deeper understanding of the universe from debilitating brain damage. Bolte Taylor's rise to fame and neuro-guru-status began not with meningitis but with a cerebral hemorrhage, one that taught her how to find nirvana by allowing her "life-force power" to "flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria."

There are some minor differences between Alexander and Bolte Taylor. For one thing, he's the better stylist. (Perhaps he availed himself of a holy-ghost writer?) For another, his spirituality is tilted more toward Christianity. Though he likes to use a generic, oriental name (Om) for the God he finds inside his head, his story ends at the altar of a church, tears running down his cheeks as he takes communion. Bolte Taylor, for her part, started doing neuroscience to understand why her schizophrenic brother thought that he could talk to Jesus Christ. (Presumably it wasn't because he had meningitis.) Her own sense of the beyond leans away from Western monotheism, and relies instead on a pseudo-secular, tech-inflected mysticism. At the end of her famous TED talk, which has now been viewed almost 10 million times, she breaks down in what must be crocodile tears while promising a universe of connected consciousness, one of compassion and of peace.

But the similarities between their stories, and their public presentations, are far more striking. Like Alexander, Bolte Taylor makes a point of credentialing herself as a Harvard scientist, and a brain specialist to boot. It's this priestly status that makes their nutty stories of enlightenment seem like something more profound—brain-based facts. Bolte Taylor frames her insight in the witless mumbo-jumbo of left-brain/right-brain pseudoscience; Alexander needs the magic of his "inactivated" cortex. Either way, a fuzzy bit of neuroscience is brandished as a notary seal to authenticate some metaphors about quantum physics or other science-y illumination.

If only insight were so easy! As it happens, Bolte Taylor isn't quite a "brain scientist," in the sense of being someone who is actively engaged in research. She has a Ph.D., and did complete a post-doc in a Harvard lab, but she stopped writing research papers early in her career and never took a tenure-track position. She's more a performer and an educator than a scientist, giving public lectures and singing songs about biology with her guitar. That's not to say that public education is not a splendid and important task, but only that it might be wise to study the credentials of those who claim their membership in the holy neuro-priesthood.

The same goes for Alexander, whose long list of scientific publications is almost exclusively devoted to the technique of neurosurgery. In other words, he hasn't spent much time in formal research on the function of the brain, let alone the deeper questions of cognition or higher consciousness. And while he did spent many years working at Harvard hospitals, I'm not sure what that says about his status as a "brain scientist," or if that designation would mean anything at all.

Even if these two were on the faculty of Harvard, or if they'd won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, what platform would they have for expounding on the secrets of the universe? We've now grown so enamored of the brain that the mere mention of the thing eliminates the need for further clarity. The blinding power of neuroscience has been invoked in recent years by marketers and pollsters, by trial lawyers and self-help authors, and now our faith- in brain-based explanation has reached its logical conclusion. It's become its own religion. In the middle of her TED talk, Bolte Taylor hoisted up a hunk of pickled neural tissue and waited for the audience to respond with oohs and aahs. She worked it in her hands like a charismatic preacher would, while the spinal cord dangled like a snake.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Travis Riddle - What Makes Your Brain Susceptible to Truthiness?

"Truthiness" is a term created by comedian Stephen Colbert and Merriam-Webster’s 2006 word of the year: “the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition…without regard to logic [or] factual evidence.” Now science is figuring out how to make statements seeming truer than they are, such as including images or charts - so it's only a matter of time before this filters into marketing and political ads (I suspect marketers are way ahead of the psychologists on this one).

Scientists Dissect the Psychology of "Truthiness"

Researchers find a simple way to make statements seem truer

psychology, truthiness, campaign, debate, politics, presidential elections  
Trust but verify Image: iStock/zmina

After each of the presidential debates, the media has scrambled to decide, among other things, which of the two candidates was more truthful. The fact-checkers worked hard, attempting to establish if anything President Obama or Governor Romney said was inaccurate. However, it isn’t as if the rest of us waited for the morning paper to make our own judgments. Whether watching the debates, viewing the commercials, or reading campaign literature, we always have a sense for how truthful a politician candidate is. Where does this sense come from?

Late-night television satirist Stephen Colbert urges his audience to rely on their gut for what he has dubbed a feeling of “truthiness.” Truthiness, Merriam-Webster’s 2006 word of the year, is “the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition…without regard to logic [or] factual evidence.” Although Colbert deserves credit for coining the word, psychologists have long known that people rely on their feelings to draw all sorts of conclusions, and a recent paper clarifies one situation that seems to lead us to strong feelings of truthiness – the presence of additional related (but irrelevant) information.

The research finds that a statement in the presence of images or other additional information enhances people’s feelings of truthiness, even when they don’t provide any evidence the statement is true. This is especially important in the context of political campaigns, as it suggests that that the mere presence of a picture next to a candidate’s written claims could lead people to be more likely to believe them. And the work is another demonstration of the ease with which our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors can be manipulated through relatively innocuous means.

The authors, researchers from Victoria University of Wellington, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and University of Victoria, performed four experiments. In the first three studies, participants viewed names of celebrities, displayed one at a time. Some of the names also had a picture or a short verbal description attached. Finally, half of the participants judged the truth of the statement “this famous person is alive,” while the rest judged the truth of, “this famous person is dead.” The participants were more likely to judge a statement as true when it was accompanied by a picture or by a short description, regardless of whether the statement was that the individual was alive, or that the individual was dead. The effect was stronger for less familiar celebrities.

In a related experiment, the researchers showed the effect was not particular to celebrities. Participants viewed trivia statements, some of which were accompanied by related photos which provided no evidence of the truth of the statement, and indicated whether they thought the statement was true or false. For example, next to the statement “macadamia nuts are in the same evolutionary family as peaches,” a participant might see a picture of macadamia nuts. The photos increased the bias toward rating statements as true.

The fact that irrelevant pictures alter our perceptions of truth is related to a general principle about the way our minds work. Our judgments are based on not only the information we’re considering, but the way in which that information is processed and organized. The ease with which information is processed has long been known to lead to specific biases. The reasoning works as follows: when considering some piece of new information, an individual will attempt to remember other bits of consistent information. The more easily these bits of information are retrieved, the more likely the new information is going to be tagged as true. So, if you are told, “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than it’s brain,” you will attempt to recall all the information you know about ostriches, eyes, and brains. The easier you bring this information to mind, the more likely you are to decide that the statement is true (spoiler: it’s true).

This ease-of-recall is known as fluency, and the effect of fluency is extremely wide-ranging. While the present paper shows that we judge fluent information as more true, previous work has shown that fluently processed faces are judged to be more attractive, and fluently processed names more frequent. In fact, the Nobel prize was awarded to Daniel Kahneman 2002 for work which showed, among other things, that the ease with which we can bring information to mind leads to an assortment of biases in decision making.

Though the authors believe that this fluency explanation is the most likely one, it is impossible at this stage to rule out other explanations. The authors speculate that it is possible, for example, that the pictures or text could lead people to preferentially look for evidence consistent with the statement. For example, if presented with a photo of a celebrity, and the statement, “This famous person is alive,” one might seek out elements of the picture which provide support for the statement that he or she is alive, and ignore those elements of the picture which might suggest that he or she is not alive, like signs the picture comes from a previous decade. Further work should be able to disentangle which explanation is more correct.

With profound apologies to Colbert, these findings suggest we would all be wise to be more critical of our feelings of truthiness. Is that health claim on your cereal box accompanied by a picture? Do the safety claims of the car ad in your magazine appear alongside other information about the vehicle? Does the assertion of a fact on a website appear next to a photo of the writer? Given that we will live with the consequences of this presidential elections for the next four years, we should pay close attention not only to the information presented by the candidates, but also the manner in which they present that information. There are many instances in which trusting the truth which comes from your gut could mean that you’re subscribing to something less than the truth. In other words: if it feels good, question it.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT or Twitter @garethideas.


Travis Riddle is a doctoral student in the psychology department at Columbia University.  His work in the Sparrow Lab focuses on the sense of control people have over their thoughts and actions, and the perceptual and self-regulatory consequences of this sense of control.

Paul Kiritsis - Let’s Pretend and See What Comes Out: Subpersonalities

Followers of this blog know that I have long been a fan of shadow work with subpersonalities. It's a been a while since I have posted anything, but this is a good introductory article by Dr. Paul Kiritsis from his blog, Down the Rabbit Hole.

At a more fundamental level, we are all multiple selves. Whether we call them parts (Internal Family Systems), ego states (Watkins and Watkins), complexes (Jung), or subpersonalities (Psychosynthesis, Voice Dialogue, and others), we all have various selves that are only present under certain conditions, and these parts generally act as coping mechanisms to keep the self-system safe from trauma, fear, and other issues.

Let’s Pretend and See What Comes Out: Subpersonalities

Subpersonalities (2011) by Chris Stamboulakis

Do you know what a subpersonality is? It’s essentially a part of you or any part which can be personified. It can be the envy you feel when a peer gets the business promotion you were expecting, or the lust you feel when a beautiful stranger happens to brush past you on the sidewalk. It can be the doubt that has plagued you about your ability to perform at competition level or the athlete himself. Alternatively it could be a dogged and persistent phobia such as the fear of heights, a physical condition such as a migraine headache, an idiosyncrasy like sleeping in the nude, a desire, a temperamental quality such as shyness, or the lamentable loss of a beloved partner. A subpersonality can also be a particular doubt or worry that has been plaguing you of late, or the narcissistic fancy you feel when you catch glimpses of your terrific self in a full-length mirror. It can be a specific emotion like anger or love for a particular person, or a detrimental habit like smoking, drinking, binge eating, and gambling that has been with you since God knows when. Fascinatingly, it can even be the intangible inner sphere recognized as the real self by humanistic psychology, the soul by Jungian philosophy, and the spirit by mysticism.

Subpersonalities are usually defined by their propensity to operate on a much more rudimentary, microscopic, and simpleminded level than the individual who might express and give voice to them. The sum of innumerable subpersonalities obviously forms the psychological impulses that we perceive as our personal identity though in and of themselves they are little more than a drop of water falling into the vast and desolate breadth of the Pacific Ocean. These are in fact the same little entities that acquire a level of sentience in acute psychosis and act out independently of the total personality. (We have looked at such phenomena in detail in an earlier post on madness and hallucinations.) All these parts have a story to tell and all too often the story that they tell is one of imperfection, deficiency, imbalance, misery, and lack of insight. This is where they practice of psychotherapy comes in handy. With respect to their efficacy, subpersonalities only pose problems when they remain latent in the psyche. When one draws them out of the darkness and into the light through a conscious dialogue of some sort the subpersonality either thaws out into oblivion or it transforms into a positive and colourful sentiment able to work with the mental ego in creative and constructive ways. Psychotherapy works to disarming these little monsters by giving them a concrete and tangible form. In psychology this is known as concretization, and it allows a personal intellect unfamiliar with boundless qualities and forms to recognize their existence and begin conscious negotiations with them. Over the last century there have been many techniques pioneered to bring one into conscious communion with their subpersonalities: psychosynthesis, Voice Dialogue, fantasy play involving figurines and dolls, sand therapy, active imagination, and two-chair work.

Generally speaking, methods of inviting the unconscious into dialogue are typically broad and vary from therapist to therapist depending on the psychological school to which they adhere, though it appears their similarities far outnumber their differences because nearly all use a form of guided fantasy to inaugurate the fantastical experience. Natural settings are also vital components of the process. With respect to the latter, two of these–the ever-popular active imagination, a technique pioneered by Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), and two-chair work–even adopt special rituals intended to prepare and prime the individual for inner work involving the conscious appropriation of imaginal contents. Even if it’s just imagined or suggested, the physical ritual of dressing in ritualistic garb and paraphernalia or carrying a specific talisman of choice every time one enters into their own inner world for mythical experience binds the whole endeavour to the earthbound realm of everyday life. In this way the individual or client involved knows that the experience is real and that it actually transpired on the physical plane.

Inducing a meeting with a chosen subpersonality of choice is not as difficult as it might sound. Firstly, set up two comfortable armchairs equipped with airy and bulbous pillows so that they’re facing one another. One is for you; the other for one of your subpersonalities. If you wish to conjure an earthier, homely, and more personal atmosphere, you might wish to strategically position a small coffee table between the two chairs. Once you have finished setting up, recline yourself onto one of the chairs and start taking deep, oxygen-rich breaths. Ensure that you are completely relaxed and that all the weighty and hefty commitments that keep your mind chained to ironclad problems and worries during the day have spontaneously evaporated like water vapours. Contents gravitating about the unconscious are much more likely to rise to the surface of one’s mind when sentiments inhibiting sensory transaction between the tiers of consciousness like worry, nervousness, angst, and anxiety are completely absent. Allow your chosen subpersonality to come to mind; try visualizing it by giving it some concrete form. Enmity, for instance, might be visualized as a little red demon with a long, forked tail, reptilian skin, ambient red eyes, crooked teeth and stumpy horns. Narcissism might be a handsome blue-eyed youth with blond curls hanging to his shoulders or an animate and lifelike version of Michelangelo’s David. On the other hand grief and loss might be personified as a haggard and ravaged old crone with red puffy eyes and fairly rigid facial expressions that denote withdrawal from conscious participation in the game of life. My own preference is to materialize a physical replica of myself and imbue it with the requisite characteristics of the subpersonality I wish to converse. It tends to work well if you’ve been doing it for a while but for beginners who have little to no experience with this psychotherapeutic technique visualization of one’s entire physiognomy rouses inhibition because image and sentiment are incongruent.

Perhaps the most effective way of initiating a session is to put forth questions like, “I sense that you’re my anger”, “I feel completely disenchanted with you”, or “Why are you the one that’s sitting on the chair and not anyone else?” Naturally the style and manner of the prompts depend entirely on what the circumstances call for. Don’t try to force the dialogue; let it come out naturally as it would if you were speaking to an old friend or colleague. After the dynamic of the situation becomes crystal-clear, invert the process by clambering over to the other chair and usurping it from your subpersonality. Now imagine that you are that inferior personality. Without any inhibitions or reservations, respond to the question or questions posed by your total personality or self. Do it actively, spontaneously, and with little thought. Allow a lengthy dialogue to unfold between your total self and its subordinate personality by moving back and forth between them. Pay close attention to specific gesticulations; facial expressions; the pitch, amplitude, and quality of the voice; and any other physiognomic cues that help form a comprehensive picture of what that subpersonality is about. If you enact the exercise correctly, you should be able to discern an acute contrast between the higher entity which is the integrated “you” and the subpersonality under scrutiny.

There are many things to like about this form of psychotherapy. The technique provides voluntary entrance into an active-passive mode of being recognized as a higher state of consciousness by many religious and philosophical traditions around the world. If the theoretical fruits put forth by practicing transpersonal psychotherapists are to be believed, the insights that become apparent in this state can be used in a practical manner to enrich one’s life. Moreover the gamut of consciousness that experience of this sort is likely to garner tutors mediating therapists in the scientific art of phenomenological objectivity. How exactly might that be? Practicing psychotherapists usually have a wide scope of past experiences and practices they reflect upon in discerning the etiology of problems and neuroses. As helpful as these may be, they become a trap when religiously and rigidly heeded to.  In practice, the psychotherapist must always remember that the psychic anatomy of each individual is unique; a therapeutic technique that works on one individual might not necessarily work on another with identical circumstances. By taking note of to the impermanence of everything and the wisdom of insecurity, the psychotherapist’s chance of making diagnostic blunders and mistakes is reduced drastically. Engaging inner work with subpersonalities cultivates a deeper, wiser, and comprehensive form of scientific objectivity.
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