Saturday, May 25, 2013

Steven Hassan at MIT speaking about the Psychology of Cult Formation (5-2-13)

Steven Hassan is the man behind the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, and he is the author of Combatting Cult Mind Control: A Guide to Protection, Rescue and Recovery from Destructive Cults (paper 1990, hardback 1988) and Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults and Beliefs (2012).

He has recently found Marc Gafni on his radar and will likely be developing a page for him at his resources (Information) page. You can offer your own experience of Gafni or other abusive, manipulative, and purveyers of destructive control/power drives.

I highly recommend his article, Spiritual Responsibility: Avoiding Abuses and Pitfalls Along the Path.

The video cannot be embedded, so follow the link to watch the talk.

Steven Hassan at MIT speaking about the Psychology of Cult Formation 5-2-13

This talk was sponsored by The Secular Society of MIT as the last one in a series ( and was scheduled months before the Boston Marathon Bombings.

The speakers before me in the series were:
  • Steve Pinker on the evolutionary psychology of religion 
  • Jonathan Lane on early childhood perceptions of the supernatural 
  • Catherin Caldwell-Harris on the psychology of nonbelief 
  • Monroe Butler on the neurology of religiosity 
When the two bombers were identified, people who knew Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were in total disbelief that he could be involved in such a despicable terrorist act as they knew him to be a kind, intelligent, warm, socially connected person. He was Captain of the wrestling team, graduate of Cambridge Ridge and Latin High School, who liked to party and had many friends. The big question in the media was: whether or not he could have been brainwashed. Immediately the suspicion was that his 7 yr older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who had converted and became a more religious Muslim might have exercised undue influence over not only his brother but Katherine Russell, the woman he married. She dropped out of college, abandoned her life goals, converted to Islam and reportedly worked 70-80 hours to support Tamerlan and their young child.

I appeared on CNN, FOX PBS, NPR and other shows to discuss the possibility that maybe Tamerlan had been the subject of radicalization through undue influence tactics, and then influenced his brother and wife. Due to the lack of facts, my comments were based solely on my own cult experience in the 1970s and my 36 years of experience dealing with people who have experienced radical personality change due to mind control techniques described in the BITE model. The students and faculty present were particularly interested in me describing recruitment and indoctrination techniques.

I Love ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ And You Should, Too

This article (by Rob Hoerburger at the New York Times) pretty much sums up my affection for The Big Bang Theory, the only network show I have been hooked on in recent years (with the ocassional exception of Criminal Minds - profiling serial killers is so much fun!).

The Big Bang Theory, despite its brilliance in acting and writing (some of the most sophisticated humor I have ever seen on television, which is juxtaposed with some of the base humor one expects for a Chuck Lorre show [he is responsible for Two and Half Men]), has never really been embraced by the society as a whole - not the way have Seinfeld or, currently, Modern Family.

Viewers who love the show, however, spread the word to friends, family, acquaintences who might also like the show. The word-of-mouth approach has moved the show into the top 20 in the ratings wars. Deservedly.

I Love ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ And You Should, Too

Illustration by Tom Gauld

Published: May 24, 2013

There is probably no more grievous transgression in the current culture wars than being a late adopter, missing the boat, signing on to something that the rest of the plugged-in world absorbed, analyzed, digitized and deleted last year, last month, five minutes ago. Even though the avalanche of movies, TV shows, music, e-books, apps, social media, gadgets, etc., has made it impossible for anyone to be a prescient expert on everything — even everything good.

Such a surplus of options can lead to a kind of cultural snobbery, the denigration of an artist or art form simply because you missed it the first time around. More than one prominent music critic, for instance, didn’t anticipate the fireball that was Adele in 2011 and then, several platinum certifications later, wrote begrudging mea culpas that basically said, “I guess she’s O.K.”

I was guilty of this kind of critical elitism. Until a year and a half ago, I had never seen an episode of “The Big Bang Theory.” Yes, that “Big Bang Theory.”

The show, which seemed to be a fairly traditional sitcom about four scientists at a Pasadena university and their quest to navigate the world from a book-smart yet socially addled perspective, with the help of their street-smart waitress-actress neighbor, had been on the air for four years, and my avoidance of it was textbook snob. It was a prime-time network show, and I hadn’t been beholden to anything prime-time and network since “Seinfeld” ended its run in 1998. And “The Big Bang Theory” was on CBS, long seen as “the old-people network.” Moreover, one of its creators was Chuck Lorre, who was partly responsible for another CBS sitcom, “Two and a Half Men,” that seemed one-jokey and never really held my attention for more than two and a half minutes. When “The Big Bang Theory” appeared in 2007 alongside “Two and a Half Men,” I figured it would be a cheap grab at ratings from the undiscerning set.

Even when Jim Parsons, who plays the Nobel-craving, coitus-avoiding, Purell-packing, sarcasm-challenged, boy-man genius Sheldon Cooper, won an Emmy after the third season, the show still wasn’t generating much buzz in any of the oh-so-hip Web forums I visited or at my weekly happy hour, where more than half the discussion is usually about TV. In the back of my mind I was thinking, Eh, it’s O.K., even though I still had not seen a single episode.

Then Parsons won a second Emmy. The ratings steadily ticked up to the Top 20 from No. 68 in the first season. The show was moved to Thursday night, where it proved stiff competition for “American Idol.” Somebody, or rather, lots of somebodies, knew something was going on. In the fall of 2011, with the show now in inescapable syndication, I decided to actually watch an episode.

It took roughly a week of nightly viewing before I realized how impoverished my life had been for the four years that I was oblivious to “The Big Bang Theory.”

The touchstone, the lodestar, the flypaper for me at first was, predictably, Parsons. In his dervishy nerdiness, he seemed to evoke any number of classic TV neurotics or fussbudgets: Paul Lynde, Tony Randall, Pee-wee Herman. Watching Parsons’s every twitch, wiggle, full-body smirk or social paroxysm — his O.C.D. knocking on friends’ doors (three knocks/name, three knocks/name, three knocks/name), his recurring line about “I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested,” his litany of his “61 mortal enemies,” his continued rebuffing of the advances of his girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) — is alone worth any half-hour spent on the show.

But as the weeks went by, the show’s many other virtues unfurled (by the end of 2011, I had seen almost all the older episodes more than once and started collecting the DVDs; some nights I would wake up after midnight just to watch the most recent episode as soon as it became available on demand). Here was a popular prime-time sitcom in which five of the seven main characters were Ph.D.’s and another had “only” a master’s from M.I.T., a hit show that regularly referenced bosons and derivatives and string theory, a show in which there were running gags about Madame Curie and Schrödinger’s cat.

The real behind-the-scenes heroes, though, are not the science advisers but the geek experts. The accuracy of the nerd oeuvre — the obsession with superheroes, “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” (before their umpteenth viewing of the movie, Howard, the M.I.T. engineer, says to Sheldon, “If we don’t start soon, George Lucas is going to change it again”), comic books and video games — is sometimes so eerie that I feel as if I’m watching a high- (or low-) light reel of my own life. In one episode, Sheldon goes to a computer store and is soon being asked for advice from tech-illiterate customers, to the point where he hacks into the store’s mainframe to check on the availability of an item. (“O.K., we don’t have that in stock,” he says to a customer, “but I can special-order it for you.”) He stops only when a real salesclerk reminds him that he doesn’t actually work there. Change the date to 1971, the computer store to a record store and the item in question to Judy Collins’s version of “Amazing Grace,” and that could have been me.

Beyond any navel-gazing thrill for me or other current or former nerds, the masterminds of the show — Lorre, Bill Prady, the showrunner Steven Molaro and others — have dared to produce a TV program that plays not a whit to the aspirations of its audience. You might laugh at the characters, pity them or love them, but you don’t want to be them (especially because you might already be them). There are a good amount of pre- and postcoital scenes, but they’re not especially sexy. These are not especially pretty people. A friend of mine who’s also a recent convert to the show says that she has a problem with Howard (Simon Helberg), the gnomish, dickie-sporting mama’s boy. “I can’t look at him,” she says. Even Penny (Kaley Cuoco), the bombshell across the hall, often appears rumpled or with a bottle of cheap wine hanging from her like an extra limb.

By the end of the sixth season, which wrapped last week, the characters had started to mature, while remaining true to their essence. Howard has been somewhat redeemed by living the ultimate nerd fantasy — becoming an astronaut — but even more by the love of a good woman, Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), whose oft-remarked-upon “ample bosom” is overshadowed by the fact that she’s smarter than he is and makes more money. Raj (Kunal Nayyar) finally seemed on the verge of a real relationship with a new character named Lucy (until she dumped him in the season finale last week), even as his sublimated love for Howard continues to surface in spontaneous belches. (In Raj and Amy, “The Big Bang Theory” could very well have two bona fide bisexuals among its characters.) Sheldon appears headed for some kind of revelation — either a Nobel-worthy discovery, his first real sexual experience or a nervous breakdown. The on-again-off-again (currently on) romance between Penny and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) may reach some resolution, but it almost certainly won’t have the fairy-tale ending of Ross and Rachel on “Friends” or Carrie and Big on “Sex and the City.” If they ever do marry, Leonard will most likely have one hand on his asthma inhaler at the ceremony and Penny will have one hand on a bottle of chardonnay. (Or a basic physics text; one roadblock to their relationship has been her concern that she’s not smart enough for him.)

The main direction that all of these characters continue to head in, though, is toward one another. With their social “shields” down (as one character puts it), they have direct access to their own and one another’s feelings — and buttons, especially when formulating the perfect insult. The intimacy that they achieve, and the chemistry among the actors, is certainly on a par with that of long-running sitcoms like “Cheers” or “Will and Grace” and is approaching the territory of maybe the greatest TV ensemble cast of all time, from the show about the Minneapolis TV-news producer and her coterie of kooky, lovable friends and co-workers, people whom you didn’t necessarily want to be but whom you always wanted to be around.

Unlike “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (29 Emmys in its seven years on the air), “The Big Bang Theory” is a bit underdecorated. Parsons has his two Emmys, but he should have easily won a third for his work in the fifth season, if for nothing else than playing the bongos and singing about the subjunctive mood. Galecki and Bialik have received single Emmy nominations, but the show has never won for best comedy series, and its writing and directing have never even been nominated, having most recently run up against the awards juggernaut of “Modern Family,” an altogether hipper, sexier (if not necessarily funnier or smarter) show.

And while my own proselytizing about “The Big Bang Theory” has earned it a few new fans, many of my would-be converts remain unconvinced. When at one happy hour I lauded the guest appearances of Christine Baranski as Leonard’s mother, one of my buddies sneered, “She’s too good for that show.” When I praised the show in passing in a previous column, one of my editors strongly urged me to reconsider (“Replace it with anything else,” he said). And this from my haircutter: “But isn’t it about . . . nerds?” (She eventually came around.) So even though the show has lately been earning its highest ratings (20 million viewers for one episode in January) and has been regularly finishing at No. 1 on the Nielsen list, it has remained something of a guilty pleasure, an affection that you don’t broadcast too loudly. It’s still a little lonely at the top.

For me, though, true validation came last summer when I was on vacation, walking up a darkened hill in the kind of resort town where the smart TV talk veers toward shows like “Girls” and “Mad Men.” I was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “bazinga,” Sheldon’s self-satisfied exclamation whenever he thinks he’s got the better of one of his pals. A car crept toward me, a window rolled down and my shields went up: Uh-oh, I thought, here comes some snarky comment. Instead the driver just said the word, Sheldon-like, quietly but rascally: “ba-ZING-a,” and then moved on. It was an acknowledgment of a shared secret, a coded utterance of the sentence that some people wait a lifetime to hear: How cool are we!

Twenty million nerds can’t be wrong.

A version of this article appeared in print on May 26, 2013, on page MM44 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: ‘Somebody, or Rather, Lots of Somebodies, Knew Something Was Going On’.

Neuroanthropolgy: What is it and WHY should You Care? (Brain Science Podcast 97)

Very cool episode of the Brain Science Podcast. Dr. Ginger Campbell speaks with  Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey about neuroanthropology in general, and about their 2012 book, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology, in particular.

Neuroanthropolgy: What is it and WHY should You Care? (BSP 97)

May 24, 2013

You may be tired of seeing the prefix "neuro" used to describe every new fad, but The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology [2012] edited by Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey makes an impassioned argument for why neuroscience and anthropology should be working together to unravel the ongoing mystery of how our brains make us who we are. The latest Brain Science Podcast (BSP 97) is a thought-provoking conversation with Downey and Lende. After explaining that anthropology can offer neuroscience field data about "brains in the wild," we explore two case studies that demonstrate the promise of this new partnership.

Listen to BSP 97 (or download mp3)

Download the FREE Episode Transcript.
Subscribe to the Brain Science Podcast or listen on the BSP Mobile app.

References and Links:

*Please see the FREE transcript for additional references.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Annalee Newitz - What Will Human Cultures Be Like in 100 Years?

From io9, futurist Jamais Cascio offers some ideas on what human culture might look like in 100 years. Interesting stuff . . . and some of the other futurists in this article also have intriguing notions of the future.

What Will Human Cultures Be Like in 100 Years?

Get ready for etiquette books on when it's OK to reboot your sinuses in public, and the teenager-ization of senior citizens. Here are some predictions from the experts on how human cultures will transform over the next hundred years.

You hear a lot about "next gen" science and technology, but not so much about will happen to human societies and cultures in the future. To fill the gap, we asked three futurists and one science fiction writer what social changes we should expect to see in the next century.

Burning Man vs. Walking Dead

One of the biggest questions is whether human civilization will even be around in a hundred years. As futurist Jamais Cascio put it, we may be facing a Walking Dead future full of blasted cities and zombie pandemics. But if we manage to survive plagues, nuclear destruction, famine and environmental collapse, our social landscape might look like something ripped from the annual desert art festival Burning Man.

Cascio told io9 via email that the Burning Man future is often the "default" scenario for tomorrow's culture among many futurists. It's one of "expanded rights," with mainstream acceptance for everything from gay marriage and group marriage, to human-robot romances and even more unusual relationships. It would also involve "acceptance of cultural experimentation, and the dominance of the leisure society [where] robots do all of the work [and] humans get to play/make art/take drugs/have sex." In some ways, this vision hasn't changed much since Aldous Huxley wrote about a hedonistic pseudo-Utopia in his 1932 novel, Brave New World. Freed from necessity, humans can experiment with new kinds of social arrangements and turn life into a game.

But now it's time for us to update our visions of the future.

New Kinds of Tribalism

A more realistic scenario than blissed-out free love cities involves people coalescing into communities that have never existed before. These communities might be like internet forums writ large: groups of like-minded people who come together because of shared interests rather than shared geographical spaces, religions, or ethnicities. If we assume that humanity progresses toward civilizations of abundance, then these groups might be able to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. But they wouldn't have to do it by building an island or setting up an underground city. They might do it using information filtering technology.

Cascio suggests that super-advanced versions of Google Glasses might allow "reality manipulation" of the everyday world. He said:
Imagine a city street where not one of the hundred people around you sees the same version of reality, the interface systems translating the physical and social environment into something interesting and/or culturally acceptable. (This would also be a remarkable tool for mind control in a totalitarian regime.)
So you might share a physical space with a bunch of people whom you never see. Instead, you'd only see your fellow robot enthusiasts, or frog worshipers, or members of your gaming guild. With brain implants that tweak our senses, we could even manipulate the smell and feel of the world to be acceptable to different groups. A building that feels dry and warm to one person could feel cool and damp to another.

Science fiction writer Maureen McHugh, author of After the Apocalypse, added that such a scenario doesn't necessarily mean people will never experience diversity. She told io9:
In some ways we can become more insular — libertarians will talk only to libertarians, for example. On the other hand it puts us in constant contact with people outside our same background. I might only be listening to liberals, but some of them are Korean Americans. Their politics may be similar, but there are other differences. They are of my tribe when it comes to issues that are important in one way, but not of my tribe in ways that I have to adjust for. I may start excusing ways that they are not of my tribe because I'm so interested in the ways they are.
In a sense, these new, isolated communities based on shared interests might help eradicate painful differences that have caused friction between groups in the past. People who band together because they only want to eat raw food may learn to overcome racist feelings about people in their tribe who are of different races. But McHugh warns that this is far from a Utopian scenario. "We end up denying a lot of differences and doing the same thing we've always done: ignore everything that makes us uncomfortable."

The new tribalism won't be a great moment in human togetherness. It will just allow us to create new kinds of communities that thrive only because we've agreed to ignore each other's differences.

New Brains and New Etiquette

We'll still be the same old clannish monkeys, but what if we start modifying our bodies with technological implants and biological tweaks? Human culture will have to change if Cascio is right about a scenario where wearable computers can change our perception of reality. And University of Oxford futurist Anders Sandberg has suggested that humans might even rewire our brains to make ourselves feel more love and altruism for each other.

McHugh is dubious that rewiring our brains will really change us all that much. "We've been screwing with our brains since the beginning of time," she scoffed. "I use my forefinger to tap out letters when I send a text. People who grew up using consoles use their thumbs. They have more neurons mapped to their thumbs and I have more mapped to my forefingers — our brains are that much different. It's small but real." Our brains are plastic, but our basic goals for ourselves not. The more we alter ourselves, she continued, the more "we'll reinforce a lot of who we are tribally." She believes that people won't want to change our brains so that we're more willing to accept outsiders. "We won't like that idea," she asserted.

Still, we may have to change our etiquette a lot as our bodies become more and more packed with technology. Cascio said:
By 2113 we'll have gone through a dozen or so technosocial-fashion generations. Smartphones give way to tablets to phablets to wearables to implantables to swallowables to replaceable eyeballs to neo-sinus body-nanofab systems (using mucous as a raw material) to brain-webs to body-rentals . . . and those are increasingly considered "so 2110." And with all of these (or whatever really emerges), there are shifting behavioral norms. Don't look at your phone at the dinner table. Don't replace your eyeball in public. Don't reboot your neo-sinus in church . . .
We may become cyborgs, but we're still going to care about behaving politely in public. In some ways, this idea dovetails with what McHugh said about clinging to our tribal ways even when we have the opportunity to engineer ourselves to be less clannish. The main reason we have rules of politeness is to govern social interactions between people who are not part of our immediate group. If everybody shares the same social assumptions you don't need to watch your behavior and use your inside voice.

Sinus rebooting etiquette is only necessary in a world where you expect to be in church with people who don't really like the idea of mucus-based technology. Your tribe may be OK with it, but when you're out in public you have to mind your manners.

The Teenager-ization of Old People

One thing seems certain about the future. There will be a lot more people in it who are over the age of 70, and probably over 100, too. Futurist and Carnegie-Mellon University public policy researcher Denise Caruso believes there will have to be a radical shift in the way elderly people live. She told io9 "there will need to be some kind of movement for a new social arrangement at least, a new kind of retirement planning maybe, that provides a way for groups of people to pool their resources and create their own "assisted living" homes." Caruso talked about how one of her friends wants to rally a bunch of older people to do this right now by taking over a Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge. They'd fill the entire place with seniors who love the cheap rates, the cleaning services, the affordable restaurant, and the company of other retirees like themselves.

This Howard Johnsons idea sounds a lot like a boarding school or a college dorm, and that's the point. As more people are living long past their childrearing and working years, they're going to be like teens again. They'll have less money, but more time — and probably more energy for mischief than any previous generation of retirees. What will we call this new group of people who live like college students but have a lifetime of experiences? Maybe centurions. Or oldagers.

Caruso is pragmatic about how oldagers will create their new communities:
I don't expect we will get the government to support any of this, but I can imagine that some clever and compassionate baby-boomer financial types will find some loopholes in the tax code that will support these kinds of group living arrangements. Kind of a tenants-in-common thing, but on a large scale and maybe protected by nonprofit-type laws or something. I'm envisioning that people get some big tax break if they create their communities when they're, say, 50-ish. Then they're established, and they can get all the systems set up. Where my mom lives, for example, there's a really good doctor who comes every two weeks to check up on all the residents. You could do the same thing with shopping, too.

Transhumanist philosopher Natasha Vita-More thinks these oldagers are going to be even weirder than tomorrow's eyeball-removing teenagers. They'll be backing their brains up onto computers all the time, so they will exist simultaneously in the real world and in digital simulation space. She told io9 that in a century, this kind of backup technology will put us in the strange position of being able to choose to die when we want — or to die for just a little while, like taking a much-needed vacation:
All indicators are pointing toward people living well past 100 years, and in good health and vitality. Aging is slowing down and will be reversed to a large degree . . . And during this timeframe, it will be not only customary but highly consequential to back up our brains on a moment-to-moment basis. Further, transferring and/or copying a person’s brain, including consciousness and mind, onto computational systems will become a trend. At this juncture, it will be optimal for a person to co-exist in real time (the physical world) and within simulations (virtual environments, for example). 
In light of these changes, the very notion of death will be redefined to include new criteria for death, including a person who wants to drop out of society for a span of a year or tens of years and then reenter life. The very notion of time will be changed and become less linear and more exponential. This particular change – the change of the human predetermined biological and genetically programed life span – will be a major shift in consciousness for all humanity . . . A person could select to live longer or not. That will be an individual choice.
We won't banish death, we'll just choose it. Though I'm not sure why anybody would want to die when you could just hang out with a bunch of oldagers and play videogames all day with your sinus implants.

Top image by carlos castilla via Shutterstock. Burning Man photo by Keith Carlsen via Getty. Shiny human upload image by Steven A. Johnson.

You can read Cascio's full comments to me on IEET.

The Compassionate Mind: Science Shows Why it’s Healthy and How it Spreads

From the Association for Psychological Science's Observer Magazine, this article was the cover story for the May/June issue, and it offers a great overview of the state of the science on compassion. Definitely a good resource article, as well as being a good overview in general.

The Compassionate Mind

Science shows why it’s healthy and how it spreads

By Emma Seppala

At a GlanceGathering Empirical Evidence About Compassion
  • Michael Tomasello and other scientists at the Max Planck Institute have found that infants and chimpanzees spontaneously engage in helpful behavior and will even overcome obstacles to do so.
  • Steve Cole at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Barbara L. Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found in a study that people who are happy because they live a life of purpose or meaning had low levels of the cellular inflammation associated with many diseases, including cancer.
  • A brain-imaging study headed by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health showed that the “pleasure centers” in the brain, i.e., the parts of the brain that are active when we experience pleasure (like dessert, money, and sex), are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves.

Decades of clinical research has focused and shed light on the psychology of human suffering. That suffering, as unpleasant as it is, often also has a bright side to which research has paid less attention: compassion. Human suffering is often accompanied by beautiful acts of compassion by others wishing to help relieve it. What led 26.5 percent of Americans to volunteer in 2012 (according to statistics from the US Department of Labor)? What propels someone to serve food at a homeless shelter, pull over on the highway in the rain to help someone with a broken down vehicle, or feed a stray cat?

What is Compassion?

What is compassion and how is it different from empathy or altruism? The definition of compassion is often confused with that of empathy. Empathy, as defined by researchers, is the visceral or emotional experience of another person’s feelings. It is, in a sense, an automatic mirroring of another’s emotion, like tearing up at a friend’s sadness. Altruism is an action that benefits someone else. It may or may not be accompanied by empathy or compassion, for example in the case of making a donation for tax purposes. Although these terms are related to compassion, they are not identical. Compassion often does, of course, involve an empathic response and an altruistic behavior. However, compassion is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.

Is Compassion Natural or Learned?

Though economists have long argued the contrary, a growing body of evidence suggests that, at our core, both animals and human beings have what APS Fellow Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, coins a “compassionate instinct.” In other words, compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival. Research by APS Fellow Jean Decety, at the University of Chicago, showed that even rats are driven to empathize with another suffering rat and to go out of their way to help it out of its quandary. Studies with chimpanzees and human infants too young to have learned the rules of politeness, also back up these claims. Michael Tomasello and other scientists at the Max Planck Institute, in Germany, have found that infants and chimpanzees spontaneously engage in helpful behavior and will even overcome obstacles to do so. They apparently do so from intrinsic motivation without expectation of reward. A recent study they ran indicated that infants’ pupil diameters (a measure of attention) decrease both when they help and when they see someone else helping, suggesting that they are not simply helping because helping feels rewarding. It appears to be the alleviation of suffering that brings reward — whether or not they engage in the helping behavior themselves. Recent research by David Rand at Harvard University shows that adults’ and children’s first impulse is to help others. Research by APS Fellow Dale Miller at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business suggests that this is also the case of adults, however, worrying that others will think they are acting out of self-interest can stop them from this impulse to help.

It is not surprising that compassion is a natural tendency since it is essential for human survival. As has been brought to light by Keltner, the term “survival of the fittest,” often attributed to Charles Darwin, was actually coined by Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinists who wished to justify class and race superiority. A lesser known fact is that Darwin’s work is best described with the phrase “survival of the kindest.” Indeed in The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex, Darwin argued for “the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive.” In another passage, he comments that “communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Compassion may indeed be a naturally evolved and adaptive trait. Without it, the survival and flourishing of our species would have been unlikely.

One more sign that suggests that compassion is an adaptively evolved trait is that it makes us more attractive to potential mates. A study examining the trait most highly valued in potential romantic partners suggests that both men and women agree that “kindness” is one of the most highly desirable traits.

Compassion’s Surprising Benefits for Physical and Psychological Health

Compassion may have ensured our survival because of its tremendous benefits for both physical and mental health and overall well-being. Research by APS William James Fellow Ed Diener, a leading researcher in positive psychology, and APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Martin Seligman, a pioneer of the psychology of happiness and human flourishing, suggests that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical health and speeds up recovery from disease; furthermore, research by Stephanie Brown, at Stony Brook University, and Sara Konrath, at the University of Michigan, has shown that it may even lengthen our life spans.

The reason a compassionate lifestyle leads to greater psychological well-being may be explained by the fact that the act of giving appears to be as pleasurable, if not more so, as the act of receiving. A brain-imaging study headed by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health showed that the “pleasure centers” in the brain, i.e., the parts of the brain that are active when we experience pleasure (like dessert, money, and sex), are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves! Giving to others even increases well-being above and beyond what we experience when we spend money on ourselves. In a revealing experiment by Elizabeth Dunn, at the University of British Columbia, participants received a sum of money and half of the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves; the other half was told to spend the money on others. At the end of the study, which was published in the academic journal Science, participants who had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent money on themselves.

This is true even for infants. A study by Lara Aknin and colleagues at the University of British Columbia shows that even in children as young as two, giving treats to others increases the givers’ happiness more than receiving treats themselves. Even more surprisingly, the fact that giving makes us happier than receiving is true across the world, regardless of whether countries are rich or poor. A new study by Aknin, now at Simon Fraser University, shows that the amount of money spent on others (rather than for personal benefit) and personal well-being were highly correlated, regardless of income, social support, perceived freedom, and perceived national corruption.

Why is Compassion Good For Us?

Why does compassion lead to health benefits in particular? A clue to this question rests in a fascinating new study by Steve Cole at the University of California, Los Angeles, and APS Fellow Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The results were reported at Stanford Medical School’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education’s (CCARE) inaugural Science of Compassion conference in 2012. Their study evaluated the levels of cellular inflammation in people who describe themselves as “very happy.” Inflammation is at the root of cancer and other diseases and is generally high in people who live under a lot of stress. We might expect that inflammation would be lower for people with higher levels of happiness. Cole and Fredrickson found that this was only the case for certain “very happy” people. They found that people who were happy because they lived the “good life” (sometimes also know as “hedonic happiness”) had high inflammation levels but that, on the other hand, people who were happy because they lived a life of purpose or meaning (sometimes also known as “eudaimonic happiness”) had low inflammation levels. A life of meaning and purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. It is a life rich in compassion, altruism, and greater meaning.

Another way in which a compassionate lifestyle may improve longevity is that it may serve as a buffer against stress. A new study conducted on a large population (more than 800 people) and spearheaded by the University at Buffalo’s Michael Poulin found that stress did not predict mortality in those who helped others, but that it did in those who did not. One of the reasons that compassion may protect against stress is the very fact that it is so pleasurable. Motivation, however, seems to play an important role in predicting whether a compassionate lifestyle exerts a beneficial impact on health. Sara Konrath, at the University of Michigan, discovered that people who engaged in volunteerism lived longer than their non-volunteering peers — but only if their reasons for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving.

Another reason compassion may boost our well-being is that it can help broaden our perspective beyond ourselves. Research shows that depression and anxiety are linked to a state of self-focus, a preoccupation with “me, myself, and I.” When you do something for someone else, however, that state of self-focus shifts to a state of other-focus. If you recall a time you were feeling blue and suddenly a close friend or relative calls you for urgent help with a problem, you may remember that as your attention shifts to helping them, your mood lifts. Rather than feeling blue, you may have felt energized to help; before you knew it, you may even have felt better and gained some perspective on your own situation as well.

Finally, one additional way in which compassion may boost our well-being is by increasing a sense of connection to others. One telling study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. On the flip side, strong social connection leads to a 50 percent increased chance of longevity. Social connection strengthens our immune system (research by Cole shows that genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation), helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life. People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show that they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. Social connectedness therefore generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true for those who lack social connectedness. Low social connection has been generally associated with declines in physical and psychological health, as well as a higher propensity for antisocial behavior that leads to further isolation. Adopting a compassionate lifestyle or cultivating compassion may help boost social connection and improve physical and psychological health.

Why Compassion Really Does Have the Ability to Change the World

Why are the lives of people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu so inspiring? Research by APS Fellow Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia suggests that seeing someone helping another person creates a state of “elevation.” Have you ever been moved to tears by seeing someone’s loving and compassionate behavior? Haidt’s data suggest that elevation then inspires us to help others — and it may just be the force behind a chain reaction of giving. Haidt has shown that corporate leaders who engage in self-sacrificing behavior and elicit “elevation” in their employees, also yield greater influence among their employees — who become more committed and in turn may act with more compassion in the workplace. Indeed, compassion is contagious. Social scientists James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard demonstrated that helping is contagious: acts of generosity and kindness beget more generosity in a chain reaction of goodness. You may have seen one of the news reports about chain reactions that occur when someone pays for the coffee of the drivers behind them at a drive-through restaurant or at a highway tollbooth. People keep the generous behavior going for hours. Our acts of compassion uplift others and make them happy. We may not know it, but by uplifting others we are also helping ourselves; research by Fowler and Christakis has shown that happiness spreads and that if the people around us are happy, we, in turn become happier.

Cultivating Compassion

Although compassion appears to be a naturally evolved instinct, it sometimes helps to receive some training. A number of studies have now shown that a variety of compassion and “loving-kindness” meditation practices, mostly derived out of traditional Buddhist practices, may help cultivate compassion. Cultivating compassion does not require years of study and can be elicited quite rapidly. In a study Cendri Hutcherson, at the California Institute of Technology, and I conducted in 2008 with APS Fellow James Gross at Stanford, we found that a seven-minute intervention was enough to increase feelings of closeness and connection to the target of meditation on both explicit measures, but also on implicit measures that participants could not voluntarily control; this suggests that their sense of connection had changed on a deep-seated level. Fredrickson tested a nine-week loving-kindness meditation intervention and found that the participants who went through the intervention experienced increased daily positive emotions, reduced depressive symptoms, and increased life satisfaction. A group led by Sheethal Reddy at Emory with foster children showed that a compassion intervention increased hopefulness in the children. Overall, research on compassion interventions show improvements in psychological well-being, compassion, and social connection.

In addition to questionnaire measures, researchers are finding that compassion interventions also impact behavior. APS Fellow Tania Singer and her team at the Max Planck Institute conducted a study that looked at the effects of compassion training on prosocial behavior. These researchers developed the Zurich Prosocial Game, which has the ability to measure an individual’s prosocial behavior multiple times, unlike many other prosocial tasks that only measure prosocial behavior in individuals once. Singer found that daylong compassion training did in fact increase prosocial behavior on the game. Interestingly, the type of meditation seems to matter less than just the act of meditation itself. Condon, Miller, Desbordes, and DeSteno (in press) found that eight-week meditation trainings led participants to act more compassionately toward a person who is suffering (give up their chair to someone in crutches) — regardless of the type of meditation that they did (mindfulness or compassion).

More research is needed to understand exactly how compassion training improves well-being and promotes altruistic behavior. Research by Antoine Lutz and APS William James Fellow Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that, during meditation, participants display enhanced emotional processing in brain regions linked to empathy in response to emotion-evoking cries. A study led by Gaëlle Desbordes at Massachusetts General Hospital indicated that both compassion and a mindfulness meditation training decreased activity in the amygdala in response to emotional images; this suggests that meditation in general can help improve emotion regulation. However, compassion meditation did not reduce activity for images of human suffering, suggesting that the compassion meditation increased a person’s responsiveness to suffering.

In collaboration with Thupten Jinpa, personal translator to the Dalai Lama, as well as several Stanford psychologists, CCARE has developed a secular compassion training program known as the Compassion Cultivation Training Program. Preliminary research spearheaded by Stanford’s Philippe Goldin suggests that it is helpful in reducing ailments such as social anxiety and that it elevates different compassion measures. In addition to having taught hundreds of community members and Stanford students who have expressed interest, we have also developed a teacher-training program currently under way.

Given the importance of compassion in our world today, and a growing body of evidence about the benefits of compassion for health and well-being, this field is bound to generate more interest and hopefully impact our community at large. CCARE envisions a world in which, thanks to rigorous research studies on the benefits of compassion, the practice of compassion is understood to be as important for health as physical exercise and a healthful diet; empirically validated techniques for cultivating compassion are widely accessible; and the practice of compassion is taught and applied in schools, hospitals, prisons, the military, and other community settings.

Establishing A Compassion Center at Stanford University School of Medicine

The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University School of Medicine was founded in 2008 with the explicit goal of promoting, supporting, and conducting rigorous scientific studies on compassion and altruistic behavior. In 2005, His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke at Stanford University before 5,000 people. During his visit, he shared the stage with a number of prominent neuroscientists and psychologists in a dialogue about the brain and emotions. James Doty, clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University, was so inspired by the event that he created an informal research group of scientists to pursue research on compassion. He called this group “Project Compassion.”

In 2008, following a meeting with the Dalai Lama during which an invitation was extended to again visit Stanford to speak on compassion, His Holiness made a spontaneous donation to CCARE — the largest he has ever given to a non-Tibetan cause. Following that visit and on the receipt of two other significant donations, “Project Compassion” was formally integrated into the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences as “The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.”

Founded and directed by Doty, CCARE is established within the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences. CCARE has collaborated with a number of prominent neuroscientists, behavioral scientists, geneticists, and biomedical researchers to closely examine the physiological and psychological correlates of compassion and altruism. The center has also developed a secular compassion education program with Thupten Jinpa, Buddhist scholar and personal translator to the Dalai Lama.

Doty has a longstanding interest in the fundamental motivations of individuals to do good. This interest stemmed out of personal experience. A neurosurgeon with a background that involved poverty, hopelessness, and neglect as the child of an invalid mother and alcoholic father, Doty is no stranger to suffering. Through a series of acts of compassion by and love from strangers, however, he found his life transformed.

Despite the emotional challenges and financial difficulties of his life as a child and young adult, Doty was able not only to attend college but to complete medical school, a long-standing dream, and to go on to become a successful neurosurgeon, entrepreneur, inventor, philanthropist, and father of three. Deeply inspired by the compassion he received as a child, Doty now devotes much of his time to promoting compassion in society through research, education, events, and writing.

“I have received the greatest gift in my life and that is seeing the power of compassion to result in transformation,” Doty says.

References and Further Reading:

Aknin, L. B., Hamlin, J., & Dunn, E. W. (2012). Giving leads to happiness in young children. PLOS ONE, 7.

Aknin, L. B., Barrington-Leigh, C. P., Dunn, E. W., Helliwell, J. F., Burns, J., Biswas-Diener, R., Kemeza, I., Nyende, P., Ashton-James, C. E., & Norton, M. I. (in press). Prosocial spending and well-being: Cross-cultural evidence for a psychological universal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Algoe, S. B., & Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: The ‘other-praising’ emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 105–127.

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529.

Brown, S. L., Nesse, R. M., Vinokur, A. D., & Smith, D. M. (2003). Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it: Results from a prospective study of mortality. Psychological Science, 14, 320–327.

Burton, N. (2011, May). Romance report: Most men and women believe in the enduring power of attraction. Retrieved from

Cole, S. W., Hawkley, L. C., Arevalo, J. M., Sung, C. Y., Rose, R. M., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2007). Social regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes. Genome Biology, 8, R189.

Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W., & DeSteno, D. (in press). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science.

Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 1–31.

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319, 1687–1688.

Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2010). Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks. Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America, 107, 5334–5338.

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLOS Med 7, e1000316.

House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (2003). Social relationships and health. In P. Salovey, A. J. Rothman (Eds.), Social Psychology of Health (pp. 218–226). New York, NY, US: Psychology Press.

Konrath, S., Fuhrel-Forbis, A., Lou, A., & Brown, S. (2012). Motives for volunteering are associated with mortality risk in older adults. Health Psychology, 31, 87–96.

Lee, R. M., Draper, M., & Lee, S. (2001). Social connectedness, dysfunctional interpersonal behaviors, and psychological distress: Testing a mediator model. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 48, 310–318.

Leiberg, S., Klimecki, O., & Singer, T. (2011). Short-term compassion training increases prosocial behavior in a newly developed prosocial game. PLOS ONE, 6: e17798.

Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., Davidson, R. J. (2008). Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: Effects of meditative expertise. PLOS ONE, 3: e1897.

Miller, D. T. (1999). The norm of self-interest. American Psychologist, 54, 1053–1060.

Moll, J., Krueger, F., Zahn, R., Pardini, M., de Oliveira-Souza, R., & Grafman, J. (2006). Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation. Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America, 103, 15623–15628.

Poulin, M. J., Brown, S. L., Dillard, A. J., & Smith, D. M. (2013). Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. American Journal of Public Health. e-View Ahead of Print. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2012.300876

Pressman, S. D., Cohen, S., Miller, G. E., Barkin, A., Rabin, B. S., & Treanor, J. J. (2005). Loneliness, social network size, and immune response to influenza vaccination in college freshmen. Health Psychology, 24, 297–306.

Rand, D. G., Greene, G. D., & Nowak, M. A. (2013). Spontaneous giving and calculated greed. Nature, 489, 227–430.

Vianello, M., Galliani, E. M., & Haidt, J. (2010). Elevation at work: The organizational effects of leaders’ moral excellence. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 390–411.

Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science, 311, 1301–1003.

Observer Vol.26, No.5 May/June, 2013

Thursday, May 23, 2013

We Can Train Our Brains to Be More Compassionate

A new study published in Psychological Science, and reported at Science Daily, shows that the brain can be taught to be more compassionate. The study (conducted at Richard Davidson's lab), conducted by researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shows that adults can be trained to be more compassionate.

Full Citation:
H. Y. Weng, A. S. Fox, A. J. Shackman, D. E. Stodola, J. Z. K. Caldwell, M. C. Olson, G. M. Rogers, R. J. Davidson. Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612469537

Brain Can Be Trained in Compassion, Study Shows

May 22, 2013 — Until now, little was scientifically known about the human potential to cultivate compassion -- the emotional state of caring for people who are suffering in a way that motivates altruistic behavior.

A new study by researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that adults can be trained to be more compassionate. The report, published Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, investigates whether training adults in compassion can result in greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion.

"Our fundamental question was, 'Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?'" says Helen Weng, lead author of the study and a graduate student in clinical psychology. "Our evidence points to yes."

In the study, the investigators trained young adults to engage in compassion meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering. In the meditation, participants envisioned a time when someone has suffered and then practiced wishing that his or her suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases to help them focus on compassion such as, "May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease."

Participants practiced with different categories of people, first starting with a loved one, someone whom they easily felt compassion for, like a friend or family member. Then, they practiced compassion for themselves and, then, a stranger. Finally, they practiced compassion for someone they actively had conflict with called the "difficult person," such as a troublesome coworker or roommate.

"It's kind of like weight training," Weng says. "Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion 'muscle' and respond to others' suffering with care and a desire to help."

Compassion training was compared to a control group that learned cognitive reappraisal, a technique where people learn to reframe their thoughts to feel less negative. Both groups listened to guided audio instructions over the Internet for 30 minutes per day for two weeks. "We wanted to investigate whether people could begin to change their emotional habits in a relatively short period of time," says Weng.

The real test of whether compassion could be trained was to see if people would be willing to be more altruistic -- even helping people they had never met. The research tested this by asking the participants to play a game in which they were given the opportunity to spend their own money to respond to someone in need (called the "Redistribution Game"). They played the game over the Internet with two anonymous players, the "Dictator" and the "Victim." They watched as the Dictator shared an unfair amount of money (only $1 out of $10) with the Victim. They then decided how much of their own money to spend (out of $5) in order to equalize the unfair split and redistribute funds from the Dictator to the Victim.

"We found that people trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly than those who were trained in cognitive reappraisal," Weng says.

"We wanted to see what changed inside the brains of people who gave more to someone in need. How are they responding to suffering differently now?" asks Weng. The study measured changes in brain responses using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after training. In the MRI scanner, participants viewed images depicting human suffering, such as a crying child or a burn victim, and generated feelings of compassion towards the people using their practiced skills. The control group was exposed to the same images, and asked to recast them in a more positive light as in reappraisal.

The researchers measured how much brain activity had changed from the beginning to the end of the training, and found that the people who were the most altruistic after compassion training were the ones who showed the most brain changes when viewing human suffering. They found that activity was increased in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others. Compassion training also increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the extent to which it communicated with the nucleus accumbens, brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions.

"People seem to become more sensitive to other people's suffering, but this is challenging emotionally. They learn to regulate their emotions so that they approach people's suffering with caring and wanting to help rather than turning away," explains Weng.

Compassion, like physical and academic skills, appears to be something that is not fixed, but rather can be enhanced with training and practice. "The fact that alterations in brain function were observed after just a total of seven hours of training is remarkable," explains UW-Madison psychology and psychiatry professor Richard J. Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and senior author of the article.

"There are many possible applications of this type of training," Davidson says. "Compassion and kindness training in schools can help children learn to be attuned to their own emotions as well as those of others, which may decrease bullying. Compassion training also may benefit people who have social challenges such as social anxiety or antisocial behavior."

Weng is also excited about how compassion training can help the general population. "We studied the effects of this training with healthy participants, which demonstrated that this can help the average person. I would love for more people to access the training and try it for a week or two -- what changes do they see in their own lives?"

Both compassion and reappraisal trainings are available on the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds' website. "I think we are only scratching the surface of how compassion can transform people's lives," says Weng.

Other authors on the paper were Andrew S. Fox, Alexander J. Shackman, Diane E. Stodola, Jessica Z. K. Caldwell, Matthew C. Olson, and Gregory M. Rogers.

The work was supported by funds from the National Institutes of Health; a Hertz Award to the UW-Madison Department of Psychology; the Fetzer Institute; The John Templeton Foundation; the Impact Foundation; the J. W. Kluge Foundation; the Mental Insight Foundation; the Mind and Life Institute; and gifts from Bryant Wanguard, Ralph Robinson, and Keith and Arlene Bronstein.

Jay Watts - Freudian Slips

In this cool article from Aeon Magazine, Jay Watts looks at the history and clinical usefulness of the Freudian slip. Her primary point, for me, is that "language, rather than being merely descriptive, is ultimately constitutive of our sense of self."

Good stuff.

Freudian Slips

Verbal gaffes can profoundly challenge our sense of self, offering insight into our idiosyncrasies and desires

by Jay Watts 

Freudian slips often have something of the explicit or prohibited in them.
~ Jay Watts is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and academic based in London. She tweets @Shrink_at_Large.
I have been interested in Freudian slips for as long as I can remember. Where I grew up, etiquette was everything. My mother spent considerable time doing ‘meals on wheels’ for the elderly, helping local disabled youngsters, and was much admired for these virtues. She never had a cross word for anyone, and always dressed immaculately. One Christmas, she took us to a neighbour’s party who, local gossip had it, was envious of my mum. As the party drew to a close, my mother went up to the hostess and thanked her ‘for her hostility’. Despite my mother’s mortification, this small bungle meant something. Knowledge had leaked through the slip and we could all stop holding our breath for a second, and laugh.

A similar reaction of unchecked laughter was the response when the presenter James Naughtie somewhat unfortunately renamed the politician Jeremy Hunt on BBC’s Radio 4 in December 2010. Naughtie spent much of the next 10 minutes in giggles, poorly masked as a cough. As is often the case, such camouflage only served to underline what was actually going on.

Freudian slips often have something of the prohibited in them — a reference to a rude word or contempt. Sigmund Freud called them Fehlleistungen (literally, ‘faulty actions’) in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), though his editor favoured the term parapraxes (a minor error). For Freud, slips were almost invariably a result of an unconscious thought, wish or desire. What we want most is forbidden and therefore provokes anxiety. We make slips because a suppressed element ‘always strives to assert itself elsewhere’. Slips, like dreams, are royal roads to the unconscious: they both hide and reveal that which drives us.

The technique of ‘free association’ was introduced to explore these ‘errors’ of speech, memory or action. If we listen closely enough, Freud argued, ‘the accidental utterances and fancies of the patient… though striving for concealment, nevertheless intentionally betrays’ that which is suppressed. By examining the chain of associations we emphasise the extra word, the wrong word, the missing word, and ask ‘Why?’ What is being kept out of the conscious mind?

Such a way of understanding the human experience has saturated the cultural world. Think of all the films — from Cruel Intentions (1999) to The Twilight Saga series — in which a geeky teenager's clumsy awkwardness suddenly disappears after their first kiss. Scriptwriters seem to suggest that there is no longer any need to stumble, drop or fall, once repressed sexuality has been expressed. In psychoanalysis, we welcome these parapraxes: in them lies a clue to the inner world of our unconscious. Through the careful work of unpacking condensed and disguised references within slips, we can find a nexus of forgotten material and distress that can then be untangled.

Despite this cultural recognition of Freudian slips, today Freud’s theories are seen as outdated and irrelevant by proponents of cognitive psychology and many in psychoanalytic circles. Cognitive psychologists argue that how we produce speech is so complicated that there are bound to be gaffes. Consider how speech occurs. We must generate the intention to relate a particular idea with a word. We formulate a pre-verbal message, part of which involves a serious competition between a number of words, before we select the most relevant ones. Then we consider the form. There needs to be grammar. We need to encode how words are uttered. Naturally, our brains use shortcuts, going for the quickest, most efficient solution, tending to pick words we have used before. All of this happens through super-quick, preconscious processes, or we’d go quite mad.

Given the complexity of this process, things can go wrong. We might mix up parts of words: for example, ‘the self-destruct instruction’ can become ‘the self-instruct destruction’. Or we might anticipate part of a later word too early in a sentence — ‘the reading list’ becomes ‘a leading list’. Similarly, words gain meaning only within the organisation of a sentence. In this way, for cognitive psychologists, these gaffes are simply a misfiring of the shortcuts that brain-processing relies on.

But popular culture suggest otherwise. Consider an episode of the American sitcom Friends (1998). At the altar, Ross is due to marry a woman who is not the woman, Rachel, who has haunted him for years. Though the woman in front of him is Emily, the name that leaves his lips is Rachel. The TV congregation, both women, and the entire watching audience know what this means instantly: that his true desire is elsewhere. His slip has the same dignity as Portia’s Freudian slip to Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice: ‘One half of me is yours, the other half yours.’ Desire leaks and insists through language.

Much has been made of a recent study by Howard Shevrin, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, which appeared to prove that the words relevant to an unconscious conflict are actively inhibited, or repressed, in anxious patients (cue headlines such as this in the Daily Mail last June: ‘Couldn't come quick enough: Theory behind the Freudian slip is finally proven after 111 years, new research claims’). However, Freud had already predicted many of the critiques that would be offered by cognitive psychologists. He stressed how ‘favourable circumstances’ such as ‘exhaustion, circulatory disturbances and intoxication’ can make slips more likely. To identify these favourable circumstances as the cause of a slip would be like going to a police station and blaming the theft of one’s purse on the isolated part of the city one found oneself in, Freud argued. There must also be a thief. And the thief is a desire that tries to burst through.

In certain psychoanalytic circles, a focus on the slipperiness of language has been eclipsed by a focus on the relational — a shift from the purely psychoanalytical to the psychodynamic. The focus now is on what type of relationship is repeated by the patient within the therapeutic relationship. A classic example from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life demonstrates this shift. Freud describes meeting a young man who bemoaned how useless his generation was. He tried to muster a famous Latin proverb to clinch his argument, but missed out the key word aliquis (meaning someone or something) and couldn’t recall it. Having accused Freud of gloating, he then requested an analysis of his slip. Freud instructed him to associate to the missing word, which led to the sequence: a liquid, liquefying, fluidity, fluid, relics… saint’s relics, St Simon, St Benedict, St Augustine and St Januarius. The man then identified St Januarius as both a calendar saint and one who performed the ‘miracle of the blood’. He then half-started a sentence, before cutting himself off. Freud commented on the pause, and the youngster revealed an anxiety that a certain young lady — perhaps not from the best family — might very soon have news that she had missed her period. The slip allowed the young man to make conscious a fear he had tried to repress — that he might have made this girl pregnant, and that this would bring shame upon his family. The young man began to articulate something of what bothered him for the first time.

Had the young man been in a modern consulting room, the process of association might have been cut off in favour of a discussion of the young man’s transference (unconscious relationship) to Freud as an authority figure. The focus would be on a pattern of relating, as opposed to delving into his unconscious associations. A similar limitation is found in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is often employed in situations where there is a pressure to achieve the same outcomes for each patient as quickly as possible. In CBT, if a patient’s surface symptoms seem stuck, one searches for the patient’s ‘core beliefs’ about the world by getting them to reveal how they would end the sentences ‘I am…’, ‘People are…’, or ‘The world is…’ Most patients will complete the propositions with the words ‘worthless’, ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘unfair’. The problem with this formula is that the individual’s internal world risks being reduced to one not dissimilar from the bloke in the consulting room next door. Psychology professionals do their patients a disservice if they focus on broad brushstrokes rather than the detailed and singular tapestry of a person’s life — which slips help to reveal.

By contrast, communications technology means that Freudian slips are increasingly unforgettable within our culture. If you Google ‘Freudian slip’, you’ll find multiple compilations of slips from politicians and celebrities. If we film celebrities for long enough, something other than the performance managed by media training, publicity agents and the celebrities’ own ideas of themselves emerges. We relish these eruptions, especially when they come from ‘the great and the good’. George H W Bush’s famous slip is a good example: ‘For seven and a half years, I've worked alongside President Reagan, and I'm proud to have been his partner. We've had triumphs. We've made some mistakes. We've had some sex — setbacks.’ Many sites include instructions to watch Bush’s chest during the replay as he ‘looks like he’s having a minor heart attack after the slip’ — an example of the glee we often find when discussing celebrity slips. Slips become great power equalisers. ‘You are not what you would have us believe you are,’ we say, laughing.

Curiously, when slips are shared in cyberspace, there is nearly always a swift framing of their meaning, often with some libidinal thrill — a rush to pin down the slip to the known and certain. But this is often a way to foreclose something more enigmatic and anxiety-provoking in us. It’s why we still need a Freudian theory of the unconscious to understand the hide and seek of language. By putting a quick exclamation mark on an explanation of what a slip might mean, we negate the fact that slips open up questions rather than closing them.

When patients come to therapy they often fear that once their story has been told — the 'big events' of their life — nothing will be left to say. Yet by exploring the ruptures in our language, there is always more to say, always more that is unknown. My mother’s slip signalled to us the underlying violent emotions that were foreclosed in our Stepford neighbourhood. It was a relief to hear the unconscious speak.

Language, rather than being merely descriptive, is ultimately constitutive of our sense of self. If we allow them to be, our day-to-day verbal slips, mishearings and bungled actions can be a welcome clue to the mysterious, flawed, contradictory, crazed idiosyncrasies of our own character and history. They can challenge and change us. In locating a ‘something more’ inside us, we keep desire alive, rather than mortified in the illusion that we could ever be masters of ourselves and our image.

Published on 22 May 2013

Daniel Dennett: Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

Philosopher Daniel Dennett has a new book, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, Daniel C. Dennett is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University and the author of numerous books including Breaking the SpellDarwin's Dangerous Idea, and Consciousness Explained. And for the record, naming a book "consciousness explained" is more than a little arrogant, and ignorant. He explains nothing, and I am not sure he even understands what consciousness is . . . but I am biased against his materialist dogmatism.

Daniel Dennett: Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

Published on May 22, 2013

Professor Dennett comes to Google to talk about his new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. Dennett deploys his thinking tools to gain traction on these thorny issues while offering readers insight into how and why each tool was built. Alongside well-known favorites like Occam's Razor and reductio ad absurdum lie thrilling descriptions of Dennett's own creations: Trapped in the Robot Control Room, Beware of the Prime Mammal, and The Wandering Two-Bitser. Ranging across disciplines as diverse as psychology, biology, computer science, and physics, Dennett's tools embrace in equal measure light-heartedness and accessibility as they welcome uninitiated and seasoned readers alike. As always, his goal remains to teach you how to "think reliably and even gracefully about really hard questions." 

Here is some bonus material for your reading pleasure, via Open Culture.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett Presents Seven Tools For Critical Thinking

May 21st, 2013

Love him or hate him, many of our readers may know enough about Daniel C. Dennett to have formed some opinion of his work. While Dennett can be a soft-spoken, jovial presence, he doesn’t suffer fuzzy thinking or banal platitudes— what he calls “deepities”—lightly. Whether he’s explaining (or explaining away) consciousness, religion, or free will, Dennett’s materialist philosophy leaves little-to-no room for mystical speculation or sentimentalism. So it should come as no surprise that his latest book, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, is a hard-headed how-to for cutting through common cognitive biases and logical fallacies.

In a recent Guardian article, Dennett excerpts seven tools for thinking from the new book. Having taught critical thinking and argumentation to undergraduates for years, I can say that his advice is pretty much standard fare of critical reasoning. But Dennett’s formulations are uniquely—and bluntly—his own. Below is a brief summary of his seven tools.

1. Use Your Mistakes

Dennett’s first tool recommends rigorous intellectual honesty, self-scrutiny, and trial and error. In typical fashion, he puts it this way: “when you make a mistake, you should learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth and then examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can manage.” This tool is a close relative of the scientific method, in which every error offers an opportunity to learn, rather than a chance to mope and grumble.

2. Respect Your Opponent

Often known as reading in “good faith” or “being charitable,” this second point is as much a rhetorical as a logical tool, since the essence of persuasion involves getting people to actually listen to you. And they won’t if you’re overly nitpicky, pedantic, mean-spirited, hasty, or unfair. As Dennett puts it, “your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment.”

3. The “Surely” Klaxon

A “Klaxon” is a loud, electric horn—such as a car horn—an urgent warning. In this point, Dennett asks us to treat the word “surely” as a rhetorical warning sign that an author of an argumentative essay has stated an “ill-examined ‘truism’” without offering sufficient reason or evidence, hoping the reader will quickly agree and move on. While this is not always the case, writes Dennett, such verbiage often signals a weak point in an argument, since these words would not be necessary if the author, and reader, really could be “sure.”

4. Answer Rhetorical Questions

Like the use of “surely,” a rhetorical question can be a substitute for thinking. While rhetorical questions depend on the sense that “the answer is so obvious that you’d be embarrassed to answer it,” Dennett recommends doing so anyway. He illustrates the point with a Peanuts cartoon: “Charlie Brown had just asked, rhetorically: ‘Who’s to say what is right and wrong here?’ and Lucy responded, in the next panel: ‘I will.’” Lucy’s answer “surely” caught Charlie Brown off-guard. And if he were engaged in genuine philosophical debate, it would force him to re-examine his assumptions.

5. Employ Occam’s Razor

The 14th-century English philosopher William of Occam lent his name to this principle, which previously went by the name of lex parsimonious, or the law of parsimony. Dennett summarizes it this way: “The idea is straightforward: don’t concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you’ve got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well.”

6. Don’t Waste Your Time on Rubbish

Displaying characteristic gruffness in his summary, Dennett’s sixth point expounds “Sturgeon’s law,” which states that roughly “90% of everything is crap.” While he concedes this may be an exaggeration, the point is that there’s no point in wasting your time on arguments that simply aren’t any good, even, or especially, for the sake of ideological axe-grinding.

7. Beware of Deepities

Dennett saves for last one of his favorite boogeymen, the “deepity,” a term he takes from computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum. A deepity is “a proposition that seems both important and true—and profound—but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous.” Here is where Dennett’s devotion to clarity at all costs tends to split his readers into two camps. Some think his drive for precision is an admirable analytic ethic; some think he manifests an unfair bias against the language of metaphysicians, mystics, theologians, continental and post-modern philosophers, and maybe even poets. Who am I to decide? (Don’t answer that).

You’ll have to make up your own mind about whether Dennett’s last rule applies in all cases, but his first six can’t be beat when it comes to critically vetting the myriad claims routinely vying for our attention and agreement.

via Mefi

Related Content:

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness