Saturday, April 13, 2013

Breakthrough - Transparent Brain Imaging

This is a huge breakthrough in brain imaging, as reported in Nature earlier this week. The whole article is available as a PDF online. Eventually, we figure out to do this in a living body, so that we can't "real" images of the living, thinking brain.

Transparent Brain Imaging Will Accelerate Research 10 to 100 Times

APRIL 11, 2013

The world of neuroscience is abuzz with the news that a new technique has been developed to study brain anatomy in mice. By removing the brain and treating it with chemicals, researchers are able to obtain a transparent view.

This advance was made by the bioengineering lab of Dr. Karl Deisseroth at Stanford and reported in the journal Nature yesterday. "Obtaining high-resolution information from a complex system, while maintaining the global perspective needed to understand system function, represents a key challenge in biology," the scientists wrote.

Their answer to this challenge is called CLARITY, which uses chemicals to transform intact brain tissue into a form that is optically "transparent and macromolecule-permeable."

To illustrate this breakthrough, Dr. Deisseroth's team released two videos. One shows "a flythrough" of a mouse brain using a fluorescent imaging technique. The second shows a 3D view of a mouse brain's memory hub, or hippocampus.

As the scientists note, existing methods require making hundreds of thin slices to the brain, and most crucially, hinders scientists' ability to analyze intact components in relation to each other.

So how significant is this development? "It's exactly the technique everyone's been waiting for," Terry Sejnowski of the Salk Institute told the Associated Press, estimating it will speed up brain anatomy research "by 10 to 100 times."

Watch the CLARITY demo videos here:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Michael Todd - Is Our Disconnect From Nature a Disorder?

This article on the healing power of nature comes from Pacific Standard, where they have also posted articles on the benefits of biophilic design, how nature makes us nicer or improves our attention span, the rise of attention restoration theory, or even how just looking at a picture of the outdoors can blunt the harsh edges of stress.

This piece looks at the work of Richard Louv, author of 2005 bestseller, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, and most recently, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age.

Is Our Disconnect From Nature a Disorder?

It’s not in the DSM, but Richard Louv argues that being divorced from nature is a sort of disorder. More and more research backs him up.

April 5, 2013 • By Michael Todd

Somewhere during the American experience, between Teddy Roosevelt and color TV, being outdoors and maybe even working up a sweat started to lose its universal appeal. There remain those who fetishize the outdoors, from Ted Nugent to REI shoppers, and the urge to connect with nature never vanished. But as Americans became more urban and more cocooned in their cars and air conditioning, the values of nature were honored more by their absence than in their activities.

The price of this disconnect is usually tallied via our bodies, with a simple equation that a lack of outdoor activity must surely be connected with the nation’s growing waistline and obesity-related maladies like diabetes. There’s an always-growing corpus of academic work that does make that correlation, and even causation, explicit. Last month, for example, a policy brief from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research noted that in California as a whole, about a third as many kids who live near parks get in an hour of physical activity a day (the recommended daily threshold) at least five times a week compared to kids who can’t get to a park easily.

But increasingly, researchers are examining the impact of the natural world on our minds. (At Pacific Standard, for example, we’ve reported on the benefits of biophilic design, how nature makes us nicer or improves our attention span, the rise of attention restoration theory, or even how just looking at a picture of the outdoors can blunt the harsh edges of stress.)

Last week, to cite one well-publicized recent study, Scottish researchers outfitted pedestrians with mobile electroencephalographs and set them loose for 25-minute strolls in Edinburgh. Those whose paths wended through green spaces “showed evidence of lower frustration, engagement and arousal, and higher meditation” based on EEG readings, the academics wrote, adding a quantitative page to the annals of similar qualitative “restorative literature.”

These recent works add firepower to the longstanding cannonade of writer Richard Louv, who summarized the disconnect as “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2005 bestseller, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. That book and his 2011 volume,The Nature Principle, are both study-filled dialectics on why it’s important to step outside much more frequently.

Louv, who described himself as an “advocacy journalist” (he co-founded the Children & Nature Network) when we spoke last year, acknowledges that his rubric of “nature-deficit disorder” is a two-edged sword, both making the idea accessible and yet turning it into a new-agey pathology at the same time. But use the word “disorder” and it conjures the DSM and pharmaceuticals and longitudinal studies and, well, rigorous vetting.

Even people who might agree that there is a “deficit” might balk over “disorder.” When the U.K. National Trust invoked Louv’s “useful shorthand” repeatedly in a 28-page call to arms to “reverse this trend towards a sedentary, indoor childhood,” journalist Aleks Krotoski wondered if medicalizing the issue wasn’t just a sly way to commercialize it:
My problem is with the implied consequences of this ‘disorder,’ presented in a one-sided way and aimed at raising awareness among an already concerned demographic in the hope that they will reach deep into their pockets and donate their support to an institution that is promoting what is, as many accept, commonsense.
Louv acknowledges both strands—raising awareness and common sense—in his decision to use the phrase. When Last Child was published, ”I said very clearly, this is not a known medical diagnosis. This is, though, a way to look at this issue in a way that we can understand. And when I say that phrase people know exactly what it is, parents know what it is. I don’t have to write a long white paper.”

The decision to spotlight the disorder, which Louv said he initially resisted as making his book a bumper sticker—“I was an investigative journalist and all”—has paid dividends. Saying he’d endorse any phrase that keeps people’s attention on this issue, “I know that this one, to my surprise, has worked and much of that point/counter-point, much of that debate, might not be happening without that phrase in the first place.”

But maybe a little medicalization might be in order. As he’s told a gathering of the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, “If you think that writing a tongue-in-cheek, or an actually serious, prescription to ‘go outside and have some exercise,’ would do some good, then please do it.”

WHILE SOME MIGHT BRIDLE at the quasi-science of nature-deficit disorder or quail at cherry-picking research, many putative Aldo Leopolds have traded in what might charitably be called mysticism over the years. His evidence-based approach is necessary tonic, Louv says, in an arena he calls “terribly understudied.” The historic dearth of such scholarship, he believes, “says a lot about the priorities of science:” Since nature studies are unlikely to produce a profitable product, they get short shrift.

Of late, the last dozen years of so, Louv says he’s seen an increasing number of researchers and policy wonks studying humans and nature. Still, he finds many in academe have a “blind spot” about how natural environments might shape behavior and brain architecture, pointing out how many animal studies in medicine and psychology take place in unnatural environments for the animals, which may or may not stress out the beasts and affect the study outcomes.

Some of the nature research that does take place is revelatory, but much of it reinforces the maternal injunction to go outside and play; it’s good for you.

“There are no new ideas, really,” Louv suggests, but there is new evidence. Citing the spate of park building in the early 1900s, he notes, “They didn’t have a lot of science to back up the idea that parks were good for people and that nature, [even] urban nature, was restorative. Those parks, including Central Park, were supported by industrialists who wanted healthier and more productive workers. So again this isn’t new knowledge. … In a sense, it’s lost information, forgotten information, whether it’s urban design or how families conduct themselves.”

About Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business. Follow him @MTodd_PSMag

Barbara J King - When Animals Mourn: Seeing That Grief Is Not Uniquely Human

From NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, Barbara J. King does a little self-promotion for her new book, How Animals GrieveThis looks like a fascinating book, especially for any hard-core animal lovers, or those who do not believe that many mammals and some birds experience a sense of self/other and have emotional lives.

When Animals Mourn: Seeing That Grief Is Not Uniquely Human


April 11, 2013

An elephant at the Emmen, Netherlands, zoo stands at the edge of a ditch in 2009, a day after another elephant fell into the ditch and died. Olaf Kraak/AFP/Getty Images

Eleanor was the matriarch of an elephant family called the First Ladies. One day, elephant researchers in Kenya's Samburu National Reserve saw that Eleanor was bruised and dragging her trunk on the ground. Soon, she collapsed.

Within minutes, Grace, the matriarch of another elephant family, came near. Using her trunk, she pushed Eleanor back up to a standing position. When Eleanor, greatly weakened now, thudded once again to the ground, Grace became visibly distressed: she vocalized, pushed at the body and refused to leave Eleanor's side.

When Eleanor died, a female called Maui, from a third elephant family, hovered over her body, pulling on and rocking over it. During the next week, elephants from five different families came to the body. Some individuals seemed motivated only by curiosity. But the behavior of others, including Grace and Maui, clearly involved grief.

The breadth and depth of animal grief is the topic of my book How Animals Grieve, just published. Writing this book often moved me profoundly; through reading the science literature and conducting interviews with experienced animal caretakers, I came to understand at a new, visceral level just how extensively animals feel their lives. Elephants grieve. Great apes (think chimpanzees, bonobos) and cetaceans (such as dolphins) grieve. So do horses and rabbits, cats and dogs, even some birds.

Here at 13.7, I often write about science books. So it's gratifying to write now about my own, especially this week when it's the focal point of a story in Time Magazine called "The Mystery of Animal Grief."

The Time article includes the story of Eleanor. It mentions also the keening grief of the Siamese cat Willa for her sister Carson, which I described in one of my first posts for 13.7, back in 2011.

In my work, I define grief as some visible response to death that goes beyond curiosity or exploration to include altered daily routines plus signs of emotional distress. Horses who merely nudge or sniff at the body of a dead companion, for example, can't be said to be grieving. Horses who stand vigil in a hushed circle, for many hours, at the fresh grave of a lost friend may well be grieving. A horse who refuses food and companionship, becomes listless and won't follow normal routines for days when her friend dies? Why wouldn't we see this as grief? (These examples are explained in detail in the book.)

As I've mentioned, it's not only the big-brained "usual suspects" — the apes, elephants and dolphins — who grieve. In this brief video produced at The College of William and Mary (where I teach), I describe what happened when one duck named Harper, rescued by and living contentedly at Farm Sanctuary, witnesses the necessary euthanasia of his best duck friend Kohl. Emotionally, Harper simply cannot recover from his loss.

In our own lives, when it hits hard, grief can be a wild and terrible force. In another post to come, I will outline some ways in which I think human mourning and thinking about death differs from the grief of other animals.

For now, I'll conclude with the same words with which I close my book:
It won't ease our deepest grief to know that animals love and grieve too. But when our mourning becomes a little less raw... may it bring genuine comfort to know how much we share with other animals? I find hope and solace in [these] stories. May you find hope and solace in them as well.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Jim & Jamie Dutcher: The Hidden Life of Wolves

Jim And Jamie Dutcher have spent six years of their lives living with and studying wolves. Their book about this incredible adventure is The Hidden Life of Wolves. They were interviewed on the Diane Rehm show earlier this year, which is where I first heard about them.

Now there is also a 30-minute documentary about their lives with the wolves and the work that went into their book. Fascinating stuff.

Jim & Jamie Dutcher: The Hidden Life of Wolves from National Geographic Live on

Jim & Jamie Dutcher: The Hidden Life of Wolves

Partner: National Geographic Live 
Location: National Geographic, Washington, D.C. 
Event Date: 02.08.13 
Speakers: Jim DutcherJamie Dutcher

This husband-and-wife team, Jim and Jamie Dutcher, spent six years living alongside a pack of wolves in order to reveal the majestic, social, and intelligent nature of these long-misunderstood animals.


Jim Dutcher  Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and cinematographer Jim Dutcher began producing documentary films in the 1960s. His early adventures with a camera were spent underwater, part of a Florida coast childhood. In 1985, Water, Birth, the Planet Earth, his first television film, initiated a career spent with animals that range from tiny hatching sea turtles to one of the top-ranking predators on the continent, the wolf. Jim's extraordinary camerawork and the trust he gains from his subjects have led audiences into places never before filmed: inside beaver lodges, down burrows to peek at wolf pups, and into the secret life of a mother mountain lion as she cares for her newborn kittens. His work includes the National Geographic special A Rocky Mountain Beaver Pond and ABC World of Discovery's two highest-rated films, Cougar: Ghost of the Rockies and Wolf: Return of a Legend. In 1991 Jim received the extremely prestigious Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame for his documentary Cougar: Ghost of the Rockies. Jim's intense personal involvement with the details of his subjects' lives and his eye for the beauty of the natural world have placed his work in a category all its own. In 1995, the Governor of Idaho appointed Jim as an ex officio member of the Idaho Wolf Management Committee, a position he served in until 2001.

Jamie Dutcher  Jamie Dutcher, Jim's wife and co-producer, made her mark on the world of film when she won an Emmy Award for sound recording with her carefully collected vocalizations of the Sawtooth wolves. A former employee in the animal hospital of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Jamie brought to Jim's projects a knowledge of animal husbandry and medical care. Combined with her gentle instinct, these skills enabled Jamie to quickly gain access to the sensitive and secret inner lives of wolves. Her photographs complement the Dutchers' three books on The Sawtooth Pack. Together, Jim and Jamie Dutcher have been nominated for five Emmy Awards and have won three. Jointly, they created the Discovery Channel's most successful wildlife documentary, Wolves at Our Door, and have been interviewed extensively on numerous television and radio programs and in print articles, in both the United States and Europe. Their most recent film and book, Living with Wolves, continues the story of the Sawtooth wolf pack that became a part of their lives. The Dutchers have brought the story of wolves to hundreds of millions of television viewers, radio listeners and readers in media such as: The Today Show, NBC Good Morning America, ABC Dateline, NBC 48 Hours, CBS National Public Radio BBC People Magazine New York Times San Francisco Chronicle Washington Post and countless others Jim and Jamie live in Ketchum, Idaho, in a log home at the edge of a wild pond with ducks, flying squirrels, elk, deer, owls, coyotes and a mischievous black bear for neighbors.

Mindfulness: Observing Without Questioning (from Big Think)

From Sam McNerney at Big Think, this is an interesting article on mindfulness and self-knowledge.

Mindfulness: Observing Without Questioning

MARCH 29, 2013

The story of discovery goes something like this: the inventor investigates what he knows (the properties of stapholycocci) and uncovers something else (penicillin), which changes the world. The scientific method is one hallmark of the modern era, but sometimes we put too much faith in it. The amateur scientist believes that he knows what he is looking for and with evidence he can confirm his hunch. The sagacious scientist, in contrast, frequently abandons his inklings and partialities, knowing that after a certain point observation and luck will be his closest allies.

An unfortunate aspect of our mental life is how unscientific it is. When we have an intuition – an idea about how the world works and how we behave in it – we act like the amateur scientist; we don’t investigate opposing ideas but automatically seek out confirming evidence. We’re elaborate story weavers, and we selfishly cast ourselves as the infallible protagonist who lives in a world of idiots. To paraphrase the satirical cartoonist Tim Krieder, we spend most of our mental lives winning imaginary arguments that are never actually going to take place. In other words, we exist in an epistemic matrix with a willful prescription to the blue pill.

Here’s the other problem: introspection doesn’t offer an escape. In fact, we have little access to the cognitive processes that underpin our behaviors and decisions. Consider the following study. Researcher presented participants with eight by ten inch photographs of different women’s faces and asked them (heterosexual men in this instance) to rank the attractiveness of each photo. Unbeknownst to the men, in half the photos the eyes of the women were dilated. It was a small alteration that turned out to have a sizeable effect. The men consistently ranked the women with dilated eyes as more attractive, and when the researchers asked them to explain their decisions, none of them mentioned the enlarged pupils. Instead, they simply felt more attracted to some photos for reasons outside their conscious awareness.

If motivational and cognitive barriers hinder self-knowledge, then are we trapped in this epistemic matrix? Not exactly. Despite limitations, humans often correct inaccurate beliefs and improve judgment. The question is if there are strategies to think more like the sagacious scientist and avoid the self-validating story telling.

This brings me to a recently published paper by Erika N. Carlson, a PhD candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. Carlson proposes that mindfulness, defined as “paying attention to one’s current experience in a nonevaluative way,” may provide an effective means for acquiring self-knowledge. The “mindful” individual, as opposed to his introspective peer, does not analyze or interpret nor does he ask questions that lend themselves to intricate narratives that confirm his intuitions. As Carlson puts it, “[mindfulness] involves noticing thoughts and emotions as they arise without elaboration or rumination. This kind of detached observation… allows people to experience fairly aversive thoughts and emotions as temporary events rather than experiences that require a response or an explanation.”

How can we achieve mindfulness? Carlson mentions two strategies that both stress observation over questioning and introspection. The first is nonevalution observation, which encourages people to consider information even if it threatens the ego. Carlson cites a study that primed participants with morbid thoughts about their death. The researchers noted that the typical response to “mortality salience” is to hunker down, bolster self-esteem, and defend your worldview. However, individuals who scored higher on tests of mindfulness “defended their worldviews less, thought about death longer, and suppressed negative thoughts about death less.” An observant ego, in sum, is a healthy ego.

Second, we should pay attention to all the available information in a given moment (i.e., all thoughts, feelings, and behaviors). If this sounds obvious consider that compared to untrained individuals, people with mindfulness training preform better on conflict monitoring tasks, orientation tasks, standardized tests and working memory tasks.* Like impartial spectators, they consider all of the facts and avoid jumping to conclusions.

And this brings me back to the scientific method. The amateur scientist begins by asking a question and looking for evidence. Yet Alexander Fleming showed us that observation might be the best starting point. We can learn from this. Our introspecting narrative-weaving mind is literally self-serving: one half agrees to ask all the questions, but in return the other half provides the desired answers. This is the epistemic matrix in action, and it thrives on questions. Despite this reality I’m optimistic about our frontal lobes. If Carlson is correct, mindfulness offers a way out. We simply need to observe ourselves, free of judgment, and question less.

There is an oddity running throughout all of this, eloquently stated by Jason Chin and two colleagues in a chapter from The Handbook of Self-Knowledge.
In a world filled with mysteries, one might hope to take solace in there being at least one thing we can know with certainty, namely, ourselves. While the privileged knowledge of the existence of our own experience may well represent a critical foundation for constructing an understanding of reality, alas, even this apparent epistemological stronghold has its weakness.
If this sounds pessimistic, the good news is that self-knowledge is an emerging domain in cognitive science. Last June, editors Simine Vazire and Timothy Wilson published The Handbook of Self-Knowledge, a collection of chapters on the subject. In it, the two psychologists observe that self-knowledge is not a cohesive area of research even though many psychologists are studying it. Vazire and Wilson encourage more domains of psychology and neuroscience to communicate with each other in order to “define a new interdisciplinary area in psychology.”

I find it odd that this domain does not exist given the sine qua non topic of psychology is the self. Moreover, ever since the Greeks carved in stone at Delphi that the unexamined life is not worth living some 2,500 years ago, the role of self-knowledge has been central to Western thought. Alas, modern psychology appears late to the game. However, we should welcome the empirical data that emerges out of this new area of research. Hopefully with more information, and a bit of observation, we can shake our addiction to the blue pill and step outside the epistemic matrix.

~ Image via Shuttershock/Mark William Penny

*Their minds also wanders less – an important trait given that a wandering mind is usually an unhappy one, as Matthew Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert found in a study published in Science a few years ago.

Is the Human Mind Unique? - Entering the Soul Niche; An Evolved and Creative Mind; Humor

This is an excellent video presentation from UCTV (UC San Diego), featuring Nicholas Humphrey (Darwin College, Cambridge) on Entering the "Soul Niche", Steven Mithen (Univ of Reading) on An Evolved and Creative Mind, and Daniel Dennett (Tufts Univ) on Humor.

CARTA: Is the Human Mind Unique? - Entering the Soul Niche; An Evolved and Creative Mind; Humor

Published on Apr 11, 2013

Cognitive abilities often regarded as unique to humans include humor, morality, symbolism, creativity, and preoccupation with the minds of others. In these compelling talks, emphasis is placed on the functional uniqueness of these attributes, as opposed to the anatomical uniqueness, and whether these attributes are indeed quantitatively or qualitatively unique to humans.
  • Nicholas Humphrey (Darwin College, Cambridge) - Entering the "Soul Niche" 
  • Steven Mithen (Univ of Reading) - An Evolved and Creative Mind
  • Daniel Dennett (Tufts Univ) - Humor 

Series: "CARTA - Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny" [4/2013]

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Connie Barlow - Ritualizing Big History (via Metanexus)

From Metanexus, this is an interesting article on the 13.7 billion year epic narrative of cosmic, planetary, life, and cultural evolution.
It is not only scientifically profound. It can be told as a sacred story in ways that bridge mainstream science and diverse religious traditions. When skillfully told, it makes the science memorable and meaningful, even while enriching one’s religious faith (or secular outlook).
The idea is to create practices around the profound experience of being alive in a 13.7 billion year old universe. There are many ways to tell the sacred story and design practices, and in this article Connie Barlow offers an overview of them. This presentation is a little more "human" than the more scientifically focused field called Big History.

I have somehow missed this whole movement, aside from being familiar with some of the primary figures from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Not sure what to think of it - I like the idea of creating embodied practices for scientific events and/or discoveries, ways of bringing the science into experience and not merely cognition. Seems like the ideal foundation for a secular faith.

Ritualizing Big History

Connie Barlow

March 14, 2013

Big History is the 13.7 billion year epic narrative of cosmic, planetary, life, and cultural evolution. It is not only scientifically profound. It can be told as a sacred story in ways that bridge mainstream science and diverse religious traditions. When skillfully told, it makes the science memorable and meaningful, even while enriching one’s religious faith (or secular outlook).

In the early through mid twentieth century, the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin promulgated a Christian version of the story, while Julian Huxley (biologist), Aldo Leopold (ecologist), and Loren Eiseley (anthropologist) wrote eloquent tomes from what could be called a “religious naturalist” perspective. But it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that the intellectual and literary expressions began to be celebrated in ceremony and rituals in what was called the "Epic of Evolution."

The first ritual expressions were associated with the Deep Ecology work practiced and promoted by Joanna Macy (California) and John Seed (Australia). Although “The Council of All Beings” is the most familiar of their productions, Macy and Seed (as well as Jean Houston, New York) created solemn processes and guided meditations that helped participants connect with their primate, reptilian, and fish heritage.

The cosmic walk

In the early 1980s, Sister Miriam Terese MacGillis of New Jersey, a student of Thomas Berry who founded Genesis Farm, created “the cosmic walk,” which has become perhaps the most common way in which the Epic of Evolution is celebrated in ritual format. A rope or pathway is laid out in a spiral on the ground, with stations representing major evolutionary events, scaled (arithmetically or geometrically) to actual time of occurrence. Thus 14 billion years of evolution is represented along the length of the spiral. Those who take the walk begin their journey at the center of the spiral, at the birth of the known universe, and then advance toward the present as they walk the spiral outward. Scientists refer to this beginning as the Big Bang, but Epic practitioners prefer more sacred terms, such as “Great Radiance” (a term from Philemon Sturges) or “Primordial Flaring Forth” (drawing from Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry). Variations of MacGillis’s initial walk are still in use, as well as completely new texts, though still using the spiral format. Many examples of such ritualizing are available on the internet, which is a good place to track the evolution of such spirituality and ritual processes. Catholic retreat centers are increasingly building permanent outdoor cosmic walks on their grounds.

Shifting perspective

In his book, The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos, cosmologist Brian Swimme selects several components of the Epic of Evolution and offers practices for bodily awareness of these: (1) how to experience the Earth turning rather than the sun “setting”; (2) how to experience the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. To experience Earth turning, Swimme suggests going out at sunset and envisioning oneself “standing on the back of something like a cosmic whale, one that is slowly rotating its great bulk on the surface of an unseen ocean” (p. 27). To experience the center of our galaxy, Swimme invites us to lie on our backs under the night sky, to gaze at the constellation Sagittarius (which aligns with the center of the galaxy), and then to imagine the stars not as “up” but “down.” Earth’s gravity is the only thing that holds the viewer from falling “down” into the gravitational attraction at the center of the Milky Way. “You hover in space, gazing down into the vault of the stars, suspended there in your bond with Earth” (p. 52).

Great Story beads

Around the turn of the millennium, several people in the United States independently originated a way to experience the Epic of Evolution in a new and very personal way: through the stringing of beads into “Great Story Beads,” “Universe Story beads,” or a “Cosmic Rosary.” Beads are purchased (or made from sculpey clay) and strung in a loop to signify major moments of transformation (“grace moments”) in the long journey of evolution. Unlike the public “Cosmic Walk”, these loops or necklaces of beads enable individuals to personalize the story: choosing which events are most meaningful to them, and including significant events in their own life story as beads in the loop as well. Instructions for creating Great Story Beads, including a suggested timeline, are available online to facilitate this process.

Cosmic Communion

Seasonal celebrations are yet to develop for the Epic of Evolution.* The creation of the chemical elements (carbon, oxygen, iron, gold, etc.) inside of stars that lived and died before our sun swirled into existence is beginning to be celebrated at the winter solstice. But it is such an alluring aspect of the epic that it is celebrated also throughout the year. In a sort of “Cosmic Communion” (which has been performed at Sunday services of Unitarian Universalist churches), participants are anointed with “stardust” (glitter) to signify, as Carl Sagan pointed out in the 1980s, that we are quite literally “made of stardust.” Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd (whose “The Great Story” website details the stardust ritual) have brought the Cosmic Communion into Unitarian churches and spiritual retreat centers, along with an experiential process to “celebrate your cosmic age.” Barlow also emphasizes how one can see the constellation Orion in a new way: the Red Giant star Betelgeuse, in Orion’s right arm, is fusing helium into carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen right now (all are elements that we breathe in and out). The blue-white star Rigel (in Orion’s left leg) is fusing carbon and helium into silicon, calcium, potassium, and will one day forge silver and gold when it expires in a brilliant supernova explosion.

Coming home

Other forms of Epic Ritual, still evolving, are designed to keep the memory alive, and thus honor, extinct organisms — from dinosaurs to passenger pigeons. One example is the “Coming Home to North America” ritual, designed by Connie Barlow (and now available over the internet), which leads participants through a playful and reverential re-enactment of the comings and goings of plants and animals in North America for the last 65 million years, since the extinction of the dinosaurs. In it, participants learn that camels and horses originated in North America 50 million years ago, and were isolated on this continent until spreading into Asia and Africa just 3 to 5 million years ago, and then going extinct in their land of origin just 13,000 years ago.

Evolutionary parables

In 2001, epic enthusiasts began writing “evolutionary parables” for teaching values congruent with ecological/evolutionary awareness. In these, a major moment of transformation (such as vertebrates venturing onto land) is rendered into an engaging story and scripts for acting out. Although ancestral creatures may be depicted in dialogue, and thus anthropomorphized, the science underlying the narratives is accurate and up-to-date. Because the Epic of Evolution is “the story of the changing story,” as new advances occur in the sciences, these parables, rituals, and other experiential forms will necessarily evolve.

*Seasonal celebrations based on the Epic of Evolution are now available. See “Deep Time Map” by Jon Cleland Host in the files section of the Naturalistic Paganism yahoo group.
This article first appeared online at Epic of Evolution Ritual, by Connie Barlow, for the 2004 Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, edited by Bron Taylor (used with permission)

John Gray - The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths

From The RSA, British philosopher John Gray discusses his newest book, The Silence of Animals. This is a shorter video of the event - but there is a link below to the whole talk, including audience questions.

Here is a brief summary of the book from Amazon:
A searching, captivating look at the persistence of myth in our modern world

“By nature volatile and discordant, the human animal looks to silence for relief from being itself while other creatures enjoy silence as their birthright.”

In a book by turns chilling and beautiful, John Gray continues the thinking that made his Straw Dogs such a cult classic.

Gray draws on an extraordinary array of memoirs, poems, fiction, and philosophy to reimagine our place in the world. Writers as varied as Ballard, Borges, Freud, and Conrad have been mesmerized by forms of human extremity—experiences on the outer edge of the possible or that tip into fantasy and myth. What happens to us when we starve, when we fight, when we are imprisoned? And how do our imaginations leap into worlds way beyond our real experience?

The Silence of Animals is consistently fascinating, filled with unforgettable images and a delight in the conundrum of our existence—an existence that we decorate with countless myths and ideas, where we twist and turn to avoid acknowledging that we too are animals, separated from the others perhaps only by our self-conceit. In the Babel we have created for ourselves, it is the silence of animals that both reproaches and bewitches us.
And now, our feature presentation . . . .

The Silence of Animals: On progress and other modern myths

Published on Apr 9, 2013

John Gray, one of Britain's most provocative and stimulating philosophers, visits the RSA to discuss the ideas raised in The Silence of Animals - the much-anticipated sequel to the best-selling Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.

Chair: Jonathan Derbyshire, culture editor, New Statesman

Listen to the podcast of the full event including audience Q&A.

Our events are made possible with the support of our Fellowship. Support us by donating or applying to become a Fellow.

Become a Fellow:

Glenn Wilson: Mind Over Matter (Psychosomatics)

From (originally - I retrieved the full lecture from the Gresham College website), this lecture by Glenn Wilson looks at the placebo effect, and it's role in "charlatan" cures and treatments, and it goes much deeper - into the realm of psychosomatics, an emerging field that examines the intersection of social, psychological, and behavioral factors in health. Wilson is the author of Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation, CQ: Learn the Secret of Lasting Love, and Psychology for Performing Artists.

Glenn Wilson: Mind Over Matter

Charlatan "cures" and "alternative" treatments are widespread and popular. Despite lacking any credible rationale, people often seem to benefit from them. The power of suggestion and "placebos" is impressive. What accounts for miracle cures and phenomena like stigmata? Are certain personality types prone to particular illness? How does stress affect our immune system? Psychosomatics is a fascinating branch of psychology with many issues yet to be settled. This is a part of Glenn Wilson's series of lectures as Visiting Professor of Psychology, 2012/13. For more information on this lecture, please visit its page on the Gresham College website.

As well as being one of Britain's best-known psychologists, Glenn Wilson is the Visiting Gresham Professor of Psychology. He has appeared on numerous television and radio programs and has published more than 150 scientific articles and 33 books.

He is an expert on individual differences; social and political attitudes; sexual behavior, deviation and dysfunction; and psychology applied to the performing arts. Not one to shy away from contention, his most recent books include: Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex OrientationCQ: Learn the Secret of Lasting Love, and Psychology for Performing Artists. He has lectured widely abroad, having been a guest of the Italian Cultural Association, and a visiting professor at California State University, Los Angeles, San Francisco State University, Stanford University, the University of Nevada, Reno and Sierra Nevada College.

Apart from being a professional psychologist, Dr. Wilson trained as an opera singer at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and still undertakes professional engagements as an actor, singer, and director.

Extra lecture materials

Transcript for "Mind over Matter"
PowerPoint Presentation for "Mind over Matter"

This is a part of Glenn Wilson's series of lectures as Visiting Professor of Psychology, 2012/13. The other lectures are as follows:

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

How 86 Journalists in 46 Countries Worked Together to Expose Tax Shelters of Politicians, Fundraisers. and Celebrities from Over 170 Countries

This is amazingly cool - I look forward to reading what this data mining reveals about the insane amount of money hidden in off-shore, untaxed accounts.

This excellent summary of the work that went into exposing this information comes from the Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.

Intercontinental collaboration: How 86 journalists in 46 countries can work on a single investigation

Over 2.5 million files analyzed by a global team of journalists reveal financial information about politicians, fundraisers. and celebrities from over 170 different countries.

By Caroline O’Donovan

On Thursday morning, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists— a project of the Center for Public Integrity — will begin releasing detailed reports on the workings of offshore tax havens. A little over a year ago, 260 gigabytes of data were leaked to ICIJ executive dIrector Gerard Ryle; they contained information about the finances of individuals in over 170 countries.

Ryle was a media executive in Australia at the time he received the data, says deputy director Marina Walker Guevara. “He came with the story under his arm.” Walker Guevara says the ICIJ was surprised Ryle wanted a job in their small office in Washington, but soon realized that it was only through their international scope and experience with cross border reporting that the Offshore Project could be executed. The result is a major international collaboration that has to be one of the largest in journalism history.

“It was a huge step. As reporters and journalists, the first thing you think is not ‘Let me see how I can share this with the world.’ You think: ‘How can I scoop everyone else?’ The thinking here was different.” Walker Guevara says the ICIJ seriously considered keeping the team to a core five or six members, but ultimately decided to go with the “most risky” approach when they realized the enormous scope of the project: Journalists from around the world were given lists of names to identify and, if they found interesting connections, were given access to Interdata, the secure, searchable, online database built by the ICIJ.

Just as the rise of information technology has allowed new competition for the attention of audiences, it’s also enabled traditional news organizations to partner in what can sometimes seem like dizzyingly complex relationships. The ICIJ says this is the largest collaborative journalism project they have ever organized, with the most comparable involving a team of 25 cross border journalists.

In the end, the Offshore Project brings together 86 journalists from 46 countries into an ongoing reporting collaboration. German and Canadian news outlets (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, and the CBC) will be among the first to report their findings this week, with The Washington Post beginning their report on April 7, just in time for Tax Day. Reporters from more than 30 other publications also contributed, including Le Monde, the BBC and The Guardian. (The ICIJ actually published some preliminary findings in conjunction with the U.K. publications as a teaser back in November.)

“The natural step wasn’t to sit in Washington and try to figure out who is this person and why this matters in Azerbaijan or Romania,” Walker Guevara said, “but to go to our members there — or a good reporter if we didn’t have a member — give them the names, invite them into the project, see if the name mattered, and involve them in the process.”

Defining names that matter was a learning experience for the leaders of the Offshore Project. Writes Duncan Campbell, an ICIJ founder and current data journalism manager:
ICIJ’s fundamental lesson from the Offshore Project data has been patience and perseverance. Many members started by feeding in lists of names of politicians, tycoons, suspected or convicted fraudsters and the like, hoping that bank accounts and scam plots would just pop out. It was a frustrating road to follow. The data was not like that.
The data was, in fact, very messy and unstructured. Between a bevy of spreadsheets, emails, PDFs without OCR, and pictures of passports, the ICIJ still hasn’t finished mining all the data from the raw files. Campbell details the complicated process of cleaning the data and sorting it into a searchable database. Using NUIX software licenses granted to the ICIJ for free, it took a British programmer two weeks to build a secure database that would allow all of the far-flung journalists not only to safely search and download the documents, but also to communicate with one another through an online forum.

“Once we went to these places and gathered these reporters, we needed to give them the tools to function as a team,” Walker Guevara said.

Even so, some were so overwhelmed by the amount of information available, and so unaccustomed to hunting for stories in a database, that the ICIJ ultimately hired a research manager to do searches for reporters and send them the documents via email. “We do have places like Pakistan where the reporters didn’t have much Internet access, so it was a hassle for him,” says Walker Guevara, adding that there were also security concerns. “We asked him to take precautions and all that, and he was nervous, so I understand.”

They also had to explain to each of the reporting teams that they weren’t simply on the lookout for politicians hiding money and people who had broken the law. “First, you try the name of your president. Then, your biggest politician, former presidents — everybody has to go through that,” Walker Guevara says. While a few headline names did eventually appear — Imelda Marcos, Robert Mugabe — she says some of the most surprising stories came from observing broader trends.

“Alongside many usual suspects, there were hundreds of thousands of regular people — doctors and dentists from the U.S.,” she says, “It made us understand a system that is a lot more used than what you think. It’s not just people breaking the law or politicians hiding money, but a lot of people who may feel insecure in their own countries. Or hiding money from their spouses. We’re actually writing some stories about divorce.”

In the 2 million records they accessed, ICIJ reporters began to get an understanding of the methods account holders use to avoid association with these accounts. Many use “nominee directors,” a process which Campbell says is similar to registering a car in the name of a stranger. But in their post about the Offshore Project, the ICIJ team acknowledges that, to a great extent, most of the money being channeled through offshore accounts and shell companies is actually not being used for illegal transactions. Defenders of the offshore banks say they “allow companies and individuals to diversify their investments, forge commercial alliances across national borders, and do business in entrepreneur-friendly zones that eschew the heavy rules and red tape of the onshore world.”

Walker Guevara says that, while that can be true, the “parallel set of rules” that governs the offshore world so disproportionately favor the elite, wealthy few as to be unethical. “Regulations, bureaucracy, and red tape are bothersome,” she says, “but that’s how democracy works.”

Perhaps the most interesting question surrounding the Offshore Project, however, is how do you get traditional shoe-leather journalists up to speed on an international story that involves intensive data crunching. Walker Guevara says it’s all about recognizing when the numbers cease to be interesting on their own and putting them in global context. Ultimately, while it’s rewarding to be able to trace dozens of shell companies to a man accused of stealing $5 billion from a Russian bank, someone has to be able to connect the dots.

“This is not a data story. It was based on a huge amount of data, but once you have the name and you look at your documents, you can’t just sit there and write a story,” says Walker Guevara. “That’s why we needed reporters on the ground. We needed people checking courthouse records. We needed people going and talking to experts in the field.”

All of the stories that result from the Offshore Project — some of which could take up to a year to be published — will live on a central project page at The team is also considering creating a web app that will allow users to explore some (though probably not all) of the data. In terms of the unique tools they built, Walker Guevara says most are easily replicable by anyone using NUIX or dtSearch software, but they won’t be open sourced. Other lessons from the project, like the inherent vulnerability of PGP encryption and “other complex cryptographic systems popular with computer hackers,” will endure.

“I think one of the most fascinating things about the project was that you couldn’t isolate yourself. It was a big temptation — the data was very addictive,” Walker Guevara says. “But the story worked because there was a whole other level of traditional reporting that was going and checking public records, going and seeing — going places.”

Photo by Aaron Shumaker used under a Creative Commons license.

Smoothing Transitions - 10 Steps to Making Change Easier

From Tuesday's Daily Om, a list of ten steps to smooth transitions - to make change easier and less daunting. There's nothing much to disagree with here, although I would probably add number 11. Take a walk in the woods, along a creek or river, in the mountains, or in a desert, but get out into nature. Doing so helps us put our own struggles in perspective.

Smoothing Transitions

10 Steps to Making Change Easier

by Madisyn Taylor

Change can be hard for anyone, following these ideas below can make it a little less stressful.

1. Begin by making small changes or break up large-scale changes into more manageable increments. This can make you feel better about handling the changes you are about to make while making you more comfortable with change in general.

2. Mentally link changes to established daily rituals. This can make changes like taking on a new habit, starting a new job, or adapting to a new home happen much more smoothly. For example, if you want to begin meditating at home, try weaving it into your morning routine.

3. Going with the flow can help you accept change instead of resisting it. If you stay flexible, you will be able to ride out change without too much turbulence.

4. When a change feels most stressful, relief can often be found in finding the good that it brings. An illness, a financial loss, or a broken relationship can seem like the end of the world, yet they also can be blessings in disguise.

5. Remember that all change involves a degree of learning. If you find change particularly stressful, try to keep in mind that after this period of transformation has passed, you will be a wiser person for it.

6. Remember that upheaval and confusion are often natural parts of change. While we can anticipate certain elements that a change might bring, it is impossible to know everything that will happen in advance. Be prepared for unexpected surprises, and the winds of change won’t easily knock you over.

7. Don’t feel like you have to cope with changing circumstances or the stress of making a change on your own. Talk about what’s going on for you with a friend or write about it in a journal. Sharing your feelings can give you a sense of relief while helping you find the strength to carry on.

8. Give yourself time to accept any changes that you face. And as change happens, recognize that you may need time to adjust to your new situation. Allow yourself a period of time to reconcile your feelings. This can make big changes feel less extreme.

9. No matter how large or difficult a change is, you will eventually adapt to these new circumstances. Remember that regardless of how great the change, all the new that it brings will eventually weave itself into the right places in your life.

10. If you’re trying to change a pattern of behavior or navigate your way through a life change, don’t assume that it has to be easy. Wanting to cry or being moody during a period of change is natural. Then again, don’t assume that making a change needs to be hard. Sometimes, changes are meant to be that easy.

What do you think?
Discuss this article and share your opinion

The World According to John Coltrane: His Life & Music Revealed in Heartfelt 1990 Documentary

This is another excellent find from Open Culture, especially for lovers of classic jazz. If you are a fan of John Coltrane's experimental and innovative approach to jazz, or if you simply want to know he is held in such high esteem, despite his early death from liver cancer (age 40), then this is the perfect documentary.

Below the video post, I am including the list of interviewees and tracks played in the film.

The World According to John Coltrane: His Life & Music Revealed in Heartfelt 1990 Documentary

April 8th, 2013

In his short life, John Coltrane continually pushed the boundaries of music. From swing to bebop to free jazz, Coltrane was a restless seeker of new sounds. Inspired by the hypnotic, trance-inducing traditional music of North Africa and Asia, Coltrane created a new kind of music that fused jazz and Eastern spirituality.

The World According to John Coltrane tells the story of Coltrane’s quest, from his childhood in a deeply religious household in North Carolina to his early days playing saxophone in the Navy, to his apprenticeship with Miles Davis in the 1950s and his emergence as a bandleader and innovator in the 1960s. Most of the one-hour film is devoted to Coltrane’s later period, when he came into his own. The film is not a biography, in the traditional sense. There is very little about Coltrane’s personal life–his marriages, children, drug problems and declining health. Director Robert Palmer focuses instead on Coltrane’s journey as a musician.

The World According to John Coltrane was made in 1990, and includes interviews with Coltrane’s second wife, pianist Alice Coltrane, and a number of other musicians who knew Coltrane and played with him, including saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Rashied Ali, and Pianist Tommy Flanagan. It provides some excellent insights into one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians.

via metafilter

Related Content:

Additional information:

Musicians interviewed include:
  • Roscoe Mitchell (saxophonist)
  • Rashied Ali (drummer)
  • Tommy Flanagan (pianist)
  • Jimmy Heath (saxophonist)
  • Wayne Shorter (saxophonist)
  • La Monte Young (composer)
  • Alice Coltrane (wife, pianist, harpist)

1 - A Love Supreme
2 - Alabama
3 - Blue Monk
4 - Dahomey Dance
5 - Dear Lord
6 - Eight Miles High
7 - Giant Steps
8 - Gospel Song 1
9 - Gospel Song 2
10 - Hot House
11 - Impressions
12 - Impressions 2
13 - India
14 - Koko
15 - Moroccan Folk Song
16 - My Favorite Things
17 - My Favorite Things 2
18 - Naima
19 - Number One
20 - Raga Bhimpalisi
21 - Roscoe In Morocco
22 - Round Midnight
23 - So What
24 - Things To Come

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Transitioning to Integrative Medicine

From Emory University, this is a useful talk on how we can move toward an integrative medicine model.

Transitioning to Integrative Medicine
Published on Apr 3, 2013

Dr. Yoon Hang John Kim talks about integrative medicine, a healing-oriented approach that takes account of the whole person (body, emotion, and spirit) including all aspects of lifestyle (March 26, 2013). Integrative medicine emphasizes the healing relationship and makes use of all appropriate therapies, both conventional and alternative, including:
  • Conventional Medicine
  • Homeopathy
  • Acupuncture & Chinese Herbs
  • Energy Healing
  • Nutrition - Food As Medicine, Anti-inflammatory Foods, Low Glycemic Foods, and Hypoallergenic Food Choices
  • Naturopathy
  • Mind-Body Medicine
His talk was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Human Health (CSHH), which was established to centralize and organize Emory's rich resource base of opportunities in health-related studies. The Center provides a home for unique interdisciplinary undergraduate curricula, as well as a functional unit where an interdisciplinary faculty-based consortium can develop path-breaking programs and research.

Jacques Lacan’s Psychology - The Partially Examined Life, Episode 74

According to Wikipedia,
Jacques Marie Émile Lacan (French: [ʒak lakɑ̃]; 13 April 1901 – 9 September 1981) was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who made prominent contributions to psychoanalysis and philosophy, and has been called "the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud".[2] Lacan's post-structuralist theory rejected the belief that reality can be captured in language.[3]

Giving yearly seminars in Paris from 1953 to 1981, Lacan influenced France's intellectuals in the 1960s and the 1970s, especially the post-structuralist philosophers. His interdisciplinary work was as a "self-proclaimed Freudian....'It is up to you to be Lacanians if you wish. I am a Freudian';"[4] and featured the unconscious, the castration complex, the ego, identification, and language as subjective perception. His ideas have had a significant impact on critical theory, literary theory, 20th-century French philosophy, sociology, feminist theory, film theory and clinical psychoanalysis.
In this lengthy podcast from The Partially Examined Life, your four hosts try to make sense of one of the more intentionally obtuse psychoanalysts of the last century.

Episode 74: Jacques Lacan’s Psychology
Posted by Mark Linsenmayer on April 3, 2013

Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 2:14:47 — 123.5MB)

On Bruce Fink’s The Lacanian Subject (1996) and Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” (1949).

What is the self? Is that the same as the experiencing subject? Lacan says no: while the self (the ego) is an imaginative creation, cemented by language, the subject is something else, something split (at least initially) between consciousness and the unconscious. Lacan mixes this Freudian picture with semiotics–an emphasis on systems of linguistic symbols–using this to both create his picture of the psyche and explain how psychological disorders arise.

The regular PEL foursome (with Wes acting much like a guest due to his formal study of psychoanalysis) try to make sense of this complex picture as presented by American psychoanalyst Fink and complain about Lacan’s language as they wade into the nearly impenetrable writing of the Frenchman himself. Featuring the alienation of language! Eruptions into consciousness! Undifferentiated needs! “The Real” opposing “reality!” A baby preening in front of a mirror! Castration! And introducing the mysterious “object a!” Read more about the topic and get the texts.

End song: “Something Else” by Madison Lint, recorded mostly in late 2002 with vocals added just now; written by Jim Low and Mark Linsenmayer.

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