Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Loving Brain - Tools for Real Issues (Free Telecourse Hosted by Rick Hanson, PhD)

Rick Hanson, PhD, is hosting another free telecourse, this time through en*theos, the latest and continuously expanding project of Brian Johnson (founder of the now-defunct social-networking site, Zaadz [purchased then shut down by Gaiam]).

This particular course is called The Loving Brain: Tools for Real Issues. Rick will be speaking with Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Tara Brach, Paul Gilbert, Geneen Roth, Paul Zak, Sara Gottfried, MD, Christine Carter, and Rick Hanson.

July 15 - September 2, 2013

Join neuropsychologist Rick Hanson and 7 top-tier academics, clinicians, and teachers as they apply new research, ancient wisdom, and powerful clinical insights to the messy, high stakes issues many people face in their work, family, friendship, and romantic relationships.

Mouse over the images to learn more about each speaker and their session! (at the site, not here)

Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt
Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt
Tara Brach
Tara Brach
Paul Gilbert
Paul Gilbert
Geneen Roth
Geneen Roth
Paul Zak
Paul Zak
Sara Gottfried, MD
Sara Gottfried, MD
Christine Carter
Christine Carter
Rick Hanson
Rick Hanson


Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (coming in October 2013), Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide.

An authority on self-directed neuroplasticity, Dr. Hanson’s work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Fox Business, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and O Magazine. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin, and his weekly e-newsletter – Just One Thing – has over 73,000 subscribers, and also appears on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites. He has several audio programs with Sounds True, and his first book was Mother Nurture: A Mother’s Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships.

A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA, Dr. Hanson is a trustee of Saybrook University. He also served on the board of Spirit Rock Meditation Center for nine years, and was President of the Board of Family Works, a community agency. He began meditating in 1974, trained in several traditions, and leads a weekly meditation gathering in San Rafael, CA. He enjoys rock-climbing and taking a break from emails. He and his wife have two adult children.

For more information about Rick, please go to

Caitrin Nicol - Do Elephants Have Souls?

Here is an excellent article from The New Atlantis on the lives and too frequent deaths of elephants, one of the more remarkable creatures on the planet in terms of intelligence, emotional range, and social dynamics. This article asks if elephants have souls?

I guess that depends on how you define "soul" . . . .

Big ears” by Emmanuel Keller; altered with permission (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Do Elephants Have Souls?

Caitrin Nicol
There is mystery behind that masked gray visage, an ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires, and the sea. 
—Peter Matthiessen, The Tree Where Man Was Born
The birth of an elephant is a spectacular occasion. Grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and cousins crowd around the new arrival and its dazed mother, trumpeting and stamping and waving their trunks to welcome the floppy baby who has so recently arrived from out of the void, bursting through the border of existence to take its place in an unbroken line stretching back to the dawn of life.

After almost two years in the womb and a few minutes to stretch its legs, the calf can begin to stumble around. But its trunk, an evolutionarily unique inheritance of up to 150,000 muscles with the dexterity to pick up a pin and the strength to uproot a tree, will be a mystery to it at first, with little apparent use except to sometimes suck upon like human babies do their thumbs. Over time, with practice and guidance, it will find the potential in this appendage flailing off its face to breathe, drink, caress, thwack, probe, lift, haul, wrap, spray, sense, blast, stroke, smell, nudge, collect, bathe, toot, wave, and perform countless other functions that a person would rely on a combination of eyes, nose, hands, and strong machinery to do.

Welcome to the world: This newborn hasn’t yet stood up and stretched its legs, let alone figured out how to use its trunk.“Elephant Nature Park” by Christian Haugen (CC BY 2.0). 

Once the calf is weaned from its mother’s milk at five or whenever its next sibling is born, it will spend up to 16 hours a day eating 5 percent of its entire weight in leaves, grass, brush, bark, and basically any other kind of vegetation. It will only process about 40 percent of the nutrients in this food, however; the waste it leaves behind helps fertilize plant growth and provide accessible nutrition on the ground to smaller animals, thus making the elephant a keystone species in its habitat. From 250 pounds at birth, it will continue to grow throughout its life, to up to 7 tons for a male of the largest species or 4 tons for a female.

Of the many types of elephants and mammoths that used to roam the earth, one born today will belong to one of three surviving species: Elephas maximus in Asia, Loxodonta africana (savanna elephant) or Loxodonta cyclotis (forest elephant) in Africa. There are about 500,000 African elephants alive now (about a third of them the more reticent, less studied L. cyclotis), and only 40,000 – 50,000 Asian elephants remaining. The Swedish Elephant Encyclopedia database currently lists just under 5,000 (most of them E. maximus) living in captivity worldwide, in half as many locations — meaning that the average number of elephants per holding is less than two; many of them live without a single companion of their kind.

For the freeborn, if it is a cow, the “allomothers” who welcomed her into the world will be with her for life — a matriarchal clan led by the oldest and biggest. She in turn will be an enthusiastic caretaker and playmate to her younger cousins and siblings. When she is twelve or fourteen, she will go into heat (“estrus”) for the first time, a bewildering occurrence during which her mother will stand by and show her what to do and which male to accept. If she conceives, she will have a calf twenty-two months later, crucially aided in birthing and raising it by the more experienced older ladies. She may have another every four to five years into her fifties or sixties, but not all will survive.

If it is a bull, he will stay with his family until the age of ten or twelve, when his increasingly rough and suggestive play will cause him to be sent off. He may loosely join forces with a few other young males, or trail around after older ones he looks up to, but for the most part he will be independent from then on. Within the next few years he will start going into “musth,” a periodic state of excitation characterized by surging levels of testosterone, dribbling urine and copious secretions from his temporal glands, and extreme aggression responsive only to the presence of a bigger bull, who has an immediate dominance that the young male risks injury or death by failing to defer to. Although he reaches sexual maturity at a fairly young age, thanks to the competition he may not sire any children until he is close to thirty. (Ancient Indian poetry lauds bulls in musth for their amorous powers, even as keepers of Asian elephants have respected the phase as one highly dangerous to humans since time immemorial. Until 1976, it was widely believed in the scientific community that African elephants do not enter musth. This changed when researchers at Amboseli National Park in Kenya were dismayed to note an epidemic of “Green Penis Syndrome,” which they feared signaled some horrible venereal disease — until they realized it was nothing more nor less alarming than the very definition of a force of nature.)

Other than this primal temporary madness, elephants (when they do not feel threatened) are quite peaceable, with a gentle, loyal, highly social nature. Here is how John Donne, having seen one at a London exposition in 1612, put it:
Natures great master-peece, an Elephant,
The onely harmlesse great thing; the giant
Of beasts; who thought, no more had gone, to make one wise
But to be just, and thankfull, loth to offend,
(Yet nature hath given him no knees to bend)
Himselfe he up-props, on himselfe relies,
And foe to none, suspects no enemies.
Donne is not the first or the last to view the elephant in its stature and dignity as a synecdoche for the total grandeur of the universe, come to earth in lumpen grey form. Here he suggests that it represents a moral ideal as well. Animals are often celebrated for virtues that they seem to embody: dogs for loyalty, bears for courage, dolphins for altruism, and so on. But what does it really mean for them to model these things? When people act virtuously, we give them credit for well-chosen behavior. Animals, it is presumed, do so without choosing.

From a religious, anthropocentric perspective, it might be said that while animal virtues do not entail morality for the animals themselves, they reveal to us the goodness in creation; as the medieval theologian Johannes Scotus Eriugena wrote, “In a wonderful and inexpressible way God is created in His creatures.” From a more biological view, it might be noted that people mostly do not choose their dispositions either, that behavioral tendencies are more determined than we like to tell ourselves, and that blame and credit for such things are often misapplied in human contexts too.

But the latter idea — that humans, although capable of conscious self-direction, are as mutely carried along by the force of selection as your friendly neighborhood amoeba — simply elides the question, while the former raises many more; the tiger is as much God’s creature as the lamb. In any case, the capacity for “choosing” is a binary conceit that gestures at something much fuller, an inner realm of awareness, selfhood, and possibility. In other words, a soul.

To the ancients, soul was anima, that which animates, the living-, moving-, breathing-ness of a biological being. In this sense, not only animals but plants have souls (of different capacities appropriate to what they are). For many religions, by contrast, the soul is specifically incorporeal, perhaps immortal, and believed to be unique to human beings, who are responsible (to a point) for its condition. To modern science it is, if anything, the hard problem of consciousness, also commonly thought to be the province of just one species.

Without either choosing sides or somehow reconciling these three dueling realities with each other, it would be impossible to say what a soul is, let alone who has one. But there is a fourth sense in which when we talk about it, we all mean more or less the same thing: what it means for someone to bare it, for music to have it, for eyes to be the window to it, for it to be uplifted or depraved. Even if, religiously, we know by revelation that other people possess them for eternity, we only engage with or know anything about them at a quotidian level by way of the same cues and interactions that a more this-worldly view would take as their sum total: bright eyes, a dejected slump, a sudden manic inspiration or a confession of regret.

Also a matter of conventional wisdom is the idea that human beings are on one side of a great divide while all animals are on the other, subjects of their instincts and our necessities and pleasures. What exactly the divide is, though, is difficult to define. Various contestants have included reason, language, art, technology, religion, walking upright and the use of hands, knowledge of mortality, sin, suicide, and more. In The Explicit Animal (1991), Raymond Tallis rounds up a master list of them:
Man has called himself (among other things): the rational animal; the moral animal; the consciously choosing animal; the deliberately evil animal; the political animal; the toolmaking animal; the historical animal; the commodity-making animal; the economical animal; the foreseeing animal; the promising animal; the death-knowing animal; the art-making or aesthetic animal; the explaining animal; the cause-bearing animal; the classifying animal; the measuring animal; the counting animal; the metaphor-making animal; the talking animal; the laughing animal; the religious animal; the spiritual animal; the metaphysical animal; the wondering animal... Man, it seems, is the self-predicating animal.
As Tallis goes on to explain, any given one of those distinctions is both too narrow, in being an insufficient explanation of what makes human beings human, and too open, in being demonstrably shared to some extent by another species.

Chimpanzees and other large primates, for instance, are so intelligent and personable that they blur many of these boundaries. But since we are so closely connected evolutionarily, it is easy to tacitly view them as way stations toward the human apex, impoverished versions of ourselves rather than somebody in their own right. There is, however, nothing else remotely like an elephant. (Its closest living relatives are sea cows — dugongs and manatees — and the hyrax, an African shrewmouse about the size of a rabbit.) As such, it presents the perfect opportunity for thoughtful reconsideration of the human difference, and how much that difference really matters.
Read the whole, long article, which is very worth your time.

Consciousness: The Missing Link by Radhanath Swami, Talks at Google

Not really my view on consciousness, but who knows, at this point, what consciousness really is or how it works . . . and why?

His book is The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami (2010). Here is a little article from Radhanath Swami's site:

Three Planes of Consciousness

April 30, 2013

Essentially there are three planes of consciousness: enjoyment, renunciation and devotion.

1. Enjoyment

In order to survive, the environment is geared towards exploitation. Why? Because of selfishness. We put ourselves in the center and this results in conflict as everyone has a different center.

2. Renunciation

It is taught that there can be no peace in this material existence because everything is temporary and there is so much conflict. To renounce everything and have a deep dreamless sleep – no more pain and suffering, everything is just peaceful! Yet death is not the end, so the problem is that you are going to be reborn according to your karma.

3. Devotion

This path recognizes that the highest of all solutions is to understand who we are, who is our origin and to live in harmony with that. We are meant to serve and to be selfless. To put God in the center and eternally be connected to Him. Harmony is there because we have a common interest.

The path of devotion transforms the material world to the spiritual world through consciousness. We need to find the spiritual world within ourselves – to find the love, peace, compassion within ourselves and to be instruments of that within the world - Radhanath Swami

Consciousness: The Missing Link by Radhanath Swami, Talks at Google

Published on Jun 28, 2013

Despite decades of advancement in science and technology, we are somehow facing increasingly complex problems to solve -- both individual and collective -- even in the most affluent nations: identity issues, high divorce rates, unexpected violence, high school dropouts, teenage pregnancy, environmental crisis, energy shortage, unemployment rates, unstable economy, rising healthcare costs, etc. Why and where is the disconnect ?

The Vedic model of consciousness that's described in the ancient Sanskrit texts of India provides dramatically fresh insights into the root cause of these problems -- and their solutions -- in the most unexpected way. In this talk, Radhanath Swami will explore the inner workings of consciousness based on this model and discuss its application in the modern day context.

Speaker's Bio:
Radhanath Swami is a renowned Vedic scholar, a highly respected bhakti-yoga teacher and author. As a counter-cultural young American teenager, he left a promising career behind 40 years ago and hitchhiked all the way across the world in search of deeper meaning of life. Convinced from his world travels that the fundamental problems of the society are simply caused by basic human frailties irrespective of race, nationality, sex or economic status, he dedicated his life to the exploration of solutions to the world's problems through advancement of human consciousness. He is currently based in New York and travels frequently giving presentations and workshops at universities, corporate venues, community, yoga and cultural centers.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Brainwashed: Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (

Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (2013) has recieved excellent reviews from a lot of major publications, including the Wall Street Journal and New York Times (from David Brooks, who moderates the discussion below).

Here are a couple of the blurbs:
The New Scientist“The intrepid outsider needs expert guidance through this rocky terrain – and there's no better place to start than Brainwashed by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld. Satel, a practising psychiatrist, and Lilienfeld, a clinical psychologist, are terrific sherpas. They are clear-sighted, considered and forgiving of the novice's ignorance” 
Nature“Satel and Lilienfeld provide an engaging overview of the technical and conceptual factors that complicate the interpretation of brain scans obtained by functional magnetic resonance imaging and other techniques…. Brainwashed offers much to bolster popular understanding of what brain imaging can and cannot achieve.”
And here is the publisher's summary of the book:
What can’t neuroscience tell us about ourselves? Since fMRI—functional magnetic resonance imaging—was introduced in the early 1990s, brain scans have been used to help politicians understand and manipulate voters, determine guilt in court cases, and make sense of everything from musical aptitude to romantic love. But although brain scans and other neurotechnologies have provided groundbreaking insights into the workings of the human brain, the increasingly fashionable idea that they are the most important means of answering the enduring mysteries of psychology is misguided—and potentially dangerous. 
In Brainwashed, psychiatrist and AEI scholar Sally Satel and psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld reveal how many of the real-world applications of human neuroscience gloss over its limitations and intricacies, at times obscuring—rather than clarifying—the myriad factors that shape our behavior and identities. Brain scans, Satel and Lilienfeld show, are useful but often ambiguous representations of a highly complex system. Each region of the brain participates in a host of experiences and interacts with other regions, so seeing one area light up on an fMRI in response to a stimulus doesn’t automatically indicate a particular sensation or capture the higher cognitive functions that come from those interactions. The narrow focus on the brain’s physical processes also assumes that our subjective experiences can be explained away by biology alone. As Satel and Lilienfeld explain, this “neurocentric” view of the mind risks undermining our most deeply held ideas about selfhood, free will, and personal responsibility, putting us at risk of making harmful mistakes, whether in the courtroom, interrogation room, or addiction treatment clinic.

A provocative account of our obsession with neuroscience, Brainwashed brilliantly illuminates what contemporary neuroscience and brain imaging can and cannot tell us about ourselves, providing a much-needed reminder about the many factors that make us who we are.
The fact that one of the authors of this book has been writing books for the American Enterprize Institute (a conservative policy organization), and has co-written a book with the conservative Christina Hoff Sommers, makes me a little skeptical about ulterior motives for this book.

This is why I am skeptical, from the above text about the book:
Satel and Lilienfeld explain, this “neurocentric” view of the mind risks undermining our most deeply held ideas about selfhood, free will, and personal responsibility, putting us at risk of making harmful mistakes, whether in the courtroom, interrogation room, or addiction treatment clinic.
Personal responsibility and free will are essential to the conservative agenda, especially in the legal realm. We can't have people being acquitted of crimes due to brain defects resulting from abuse, neglect, or other traumas. We can't stop putting addicts in jail simply because they had little control over their tendency toward addiction and the environmental factors that made drugs seem like a useful copiung strategy.

Hell, if we took those things into account, our prisons would be empty and the legal system . . . yadda, yadda, yadda.

Brainwashed: Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience
from American Enterprise Institute on

Brainwashed: Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

Partner: American Enterprise Institute
Location: American Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.
Event Date: 06.17.13


"Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience" (Basic Books, June 2013), by psychiatrist and AEI scholar Sally Satel and Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, follows the migration of brain science - and brain imaging in particular - out of the lab and into the public sphere.

Join New York Times columnist David Brooks as he engages the authors in a discussion of popular neuroscience (both the mindless and the mindful), of biological explanations of human behavior and their implications, and of the centrality of the concept of the mind in an age of neuroscience. Books will be available for purchase at the event.


David Brooks has been an op-ed columnist for The New York Times since 2003. Previously, he was an editor at The Wall Street Journal, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, and a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic. Currently a commentator on PBS’s “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” Brooks is also the author, most recently, of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character. His earlier books are Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. He has contributed essays and articles to many publications, including The New Yorker, Forbes, The Public Interest, The New Republic, and Commentary. He is a frequent commentator on NPR, CNN’s “Late Edition,” and “The Diane Rehm Show.”

Scott Lilienfeld is a clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. Scott earned his bachelor's degree in psychology from Cornell University and his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. His principal areas of research are personality disorders, psychiatric classification and diagnosis, evidence-based practices in psychology, and the challenges posed by pseudo-science to clinical psychology. Scott received the 1998 David Shakow Award for Early Career Contributions to Clinical Psychology, is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and is a past president of the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology. He is the co-author of Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology and Psychology: From Inquiry to Understanding.

Sally Satel, M.D., a practicing psychiatrist and lecturer at the Yale University School of Medicine, examines mental health policy as well as political trends in medicine. Her publications include PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine (Basic Books, 2001); The Health Disparities Myth (AEI Press, 2006); When Altruism Isn't Enough: The Case for Compensating Organ Donors (AEI Press, 2009); and One Nation under Therapy (St. Martin's Press, 2005), co-authored with Christina Hoff Sommers.

Svenja Matusall - Social Behavior in the “Age of Empathy”?

From Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Svenja Matusall offers the perspective of a social scientist on social behavior in the "Age of Empathy." Interesting article.

Full Citation: 
Matusall, S. (2013). Social behavior in the “Age of Empathy”?—A social scientist's perspective on current trends in the behavioral sciences. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience; 7:236. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00236

Social behavior in the “Age of Empathy”?—A social scientist's perspective on current trends in the behavioral sciences

Svenja Matusall
  • MINDLab and Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark

Recently, several behavioral sciences became increasingly interested in investigating biological and evolutionary foundations of (human) social behavior. In this light, prosocial behavior is seen as a core element of human nature. A central role within this perspective plays the “social brain” that is not only able to communicate with the environment but rather to interact directly with other brains via neuronal mind reading capacities such as empathy. From the perspective of a sociologist, this paper investigates what “social” means in contemporary behavioral and particularly brain sciences. It will be discussed what “social” means in the light of social neuroscience and a glance into the history of social psychology and the brain sciences will show that two thought traditions come together in social neuroscience, combining an individualistic and an evolutionary notion of the “social.” The paper concludes by situating current research on prosocial behavior in broader social discourses about sociality and society, suggesting that to naturalize prosocial aspects in human life is a current trend in today's behavioral sciences and beyond.


Recently, several behavioral sciences, for instance neuroeconomics (e.g.,Fehr and Fischbacher, 2003), primatology (e.g., De Waal, 2009) and social neuroscience (e.g., Frith and Frith, 2010), became increasingly interested in investigating biological and evolutionary foundations of (human) social behavior. Scholars from these fields argue that the biology of humans is itself much more prosocial than previously thought. Prosocial behavior is a core element of human nature. It is rooted in each individual, has evolved during the course of evolution, is located in the brain, its genes, functions, hormones and neurotransmitters and is embedded in an environment. A central concept of this new perspective on human nature is the “social brain” (Brothers, 1990) that is not only able to communicate with the environment but rather to interact directly with other brains via neuronal mind reading capacities such as empathy (see Young, 2012a).

Taking social neuroscience as an example, this paper explores the notion of “social” in contemporary behavioral sciences and how a new concept of human nature emerges. At the core of this new concept is the notion that default human behavior is prosocial. The paper sets out to investigate what “social” means in social neuroscience. (1), the research field is introduced before a glance in the history of the social sciences shows that “social” is by no means an unambiguous term (2). The historical roots of the social brain are explored (3) and the paper concludes (4) by situating current research on social behavior in broader discourses about sociality and society, suggesting that the trend to look for prosocial aspects in human life, culture and society also takes place in other spheres of society.

What is Social Neuroscience?

Social neuroscience is much more diverse than this brief perspective paper could picture and hence this paper's aim can only be to outline general trends within the field. The term “social neuroscience” was first coined by social psychologists Gary Berntson and John Cacioppo in 1992 (Cacioppo and Berntson, 1992). They propose a cooperation between social psychology and neuroscience in order to avoid the pitfalls of reductionism by adding multiple perspectives to given problems. But it took another decade before a field with research groups, professorships, university courses, textbooks, conferences, societies, and journals emerged that calls itself social neuroscience (Matusall et al., 2011). In this process, a second important impetus came from a paper by Ochsner and Lieberman (2001), who should also be named among the founding figures of the field.

Many of social neuroscience's topics of interest fall into the realm of classic social psychology, for instance the study attitudes, prejudices and stereotypes (Matusall, 2012). Interestingly, however, is the field's new focus on emotion, empathy and altruism (cf. Decety and Ickes, 2009;Singer and Lamm, 2009). Recently, prosocial behavior moved into the center of attention, not only in social neuroscience but also in other behavioral sciences such as primatology and anthropology (cf. De Waal, 2009; Tomasello, 2009).

What does Social Mean in Social Neurosciences?

In social neuroscience, prosocial behavior is sought in genes, brains and evolutionary past. “Social” is simultaneously understood as a capacity of the organism's brain to cope with the environment and as an evolutionary advantage of the species. This perspective on the social differs fundamentally from sociology's perspective, where the social can be anything from the sum of individual actions to power relations or social structures. The list of phenomena having been defined to be social in the course of the history of the social sciences is rather long and diverse as (Greenwood, 1997, p. 3) points out by giving a random collection of those phenomena: “states, families, armies, religious organizations, literary societies, mobs, street brawls, people chatting on a street corner, the Roman Catholic Church, the Renaissance, insect communication, dominance hierarchies among primates, language, financial instruments, and traffic flow in a city.” Thus, “social” is by no means an unambiguous term and for understanding social neuroscience's notion of “social,” it is crucial to look into the history of experimental social psychology, which is one of social neuroscience's intellectual parent disciplines. Looking at the questions social neuroscientists tackle in their research, it soon becomes evident that they focus on the way social stimuli are perceived and processed in the brain—no matter whether they study empathy, attitudes toward out-group members or voters' behavior. This individual-centered approach may be self-evident for social neuroscientists, yet it is a historically contingent approach as will be shown in the next section.

Genealogy of a Concept

The individualistic perspective on the social has a long tradition in experimental social psychology: since its emergence in the 1920's, this discipline has understood itself as a branch of individual psychology (Allport, 1924), investigating whether and how the perception and processing of social stimuli differed from the perception and processing of non-social stimuli. In order to apply experimental methods to such questions, social psychologists had to frame their objects of investigation as statistically measurable. In this process, the social was redefined as a quality of countable entities. This perspective differed from theories in 19th century social psychology that connected the social with morality and religion, respectively with institutionalized power (Danziger, 1997). Moreover, the individualist notion of the social had a crucial role in defining and defending the individualistic American Way of Life against collectivist notions of society and the individual (Rose, 1998). The political background of its emergence seems all but forgotten by those employing this notion of social today as a variable investigated by experimental methods. Most social neuroscientists are trained in social psychology and most positions are located in psychology departments. Their research questions and their argumentation stand in the tradition of experimental social psychology. By relocating the “social” in the individual's brain and neurobiology, social neuroscientists are in line with their predecessors in treating it as an individual capacity. 

Perspectives from Sociology

Looking with the eyes of a sociologist, investigating problems in small pieces, such as brain activation, entails the risk of losing the perspective on the broader picture and taking the small piece for the whole problem (Star, 1983). The experimental design of “social” in social neuroscience research requires rendering research in a quantitative fashion.1 This does not necessarily imply a reduction of complexity in the stimuli presented but in the questions asked. If complex issues such as voters' emotional reactions to election outcomes or empathy with members of an “out-group” are measured by quantitative tools, it has to be assumed that complex phenomenona can be split up into several problems and thus are not more than the sum of their parts. This approach differs fundamentally from hermeneutic approaches towards complex phenomena, which are more interested in meaning than in mechanisms and which are dominant in humanities and non-quantifying social sciences.

To some extent, social neuroscientists seem to be aware of this and pay credit to the problem of complexity by drawing on the notion of levels (Cacioppo and Berntson, 1992; Ochsner and Lieberman, 2001). Cacioppo and Berntson (1992) maintain that although the brain is an essential component of all social beings, brain, behavior and society are each too complex to be reduced to one another. Hence, social neuroscience aims to combine data generated on different levels to reach a better comprehension of social behavior. Yet, knowledge from other disciplines can only be integrated if compatible with the standards of quantifying sciences and qualitative knowledge is difficult to incorporate in such paradigms.

History of the Social Brain2

Not only in social psychology, also in the brain sciences, questions about the “social” have a long tradition. The relationship between the brain and the social has been an issue of hot debate ever since the emergence of modern brain science in the late 18th century. In these debates, the pendulum has been swinging happily back and forth between seeing either nature or nurture as responsible for human behavior. Early 19th century's phrenologists, for instance, defined a cerebral faculty for each human property and thus saw a clear causal direction from brain to behavior, while psychiatrists in the second half of the 19th century made harmful social conditions responsible for psychiatric disorders and thus reversed causal directions (Hagner, 2007). Theories of evolution were central to 19th and early 20th century's concepts of the brain and the social. These theories were associated with a hierarchical organization of brain areas: the younger, more evolved parts such as intellectual capacities or morality controlled older parts such as drives and emotions (e.g., Jackson, 1884).

Not least as a reaction to the role medicine and biological sciences played in Nazi ideology, after the Second World War research in the West was dominated by behaviorism, cybernetics and cognitive science (Hagner, 2007). During that time questions about human interactions did not play a role in mainstream neuroscience and psychology. This began to change slowly in the 1980's and with even more force in the 1990's when the social brain returned to the debate in three independent theories about the relationship between brain and social: the social brain hypothesis, thesomatic marker hypothesis and the mirror neuron theory, which will be discussed in next section. 

The Social Brain Since the 1990's

The social brain hypothesis suggests that the size of the neocortex and the group size of mammals living in social groups correlate (Brothers, 1990;Dunbar, 1998). The bigger the group, the more complex the social situations which the brain has to process. Certain cognitive skills evolved to cope with social complexity. Consequently, the way we act in social interactions is determined by evolutionary heritage. The social brain hypothesis does not explicitly discuss the impact of history, culture, society, or life experiences on social cognition abilities in an individual or a group. Only in an evolutionary time frame these factors may have an impact on how future generations may engage with each other (Matusall, 2012). Nor does it answer the “hen and egg” question of whether the complex social groups or the cerebral capacities for processing them was first; or whether both evolved together. What it does is providing an evolutionary explanation for both, human sociality and the species' big brains.

The second theory, the somatic marker hypothesis was introduced by neuropsychiatrist Antonio Damasio and it suggests that positive experiences are connected with positive memories leaving a positive somatic marker, i.e., an incentive for deciding in favor of similar actions in future decision-making processes while negative experiences are connected with negative memories leaving negative a somatic marker, i.e., an alarm bell, leading to deciding against similar actions in future decision-making processes. These markers are acquired during socialization not only through experienced events but also by incorporating norms and rules and can change throughout life if new experiences occur (Damasio et al., 1991). This means a crucial shift in thinking about the social and the brain, which is later taken up by social neurosciences and related disciplines (Cacioppo and Berntson, 2005; Glimcher et al., 2009; Ariely and Berns, 2010). The somatic marker hypothesis couples biology with cultural and social environments. Somatic markers and thus the ability to act socially is part of the biological make-up with which humans are born, yet the way this sociality takes shape depends on the particular beliefs and values of the society one is born into (Damasio, 1994).

Around the same time when Damasio developed his somatic marker hypothesis, in Italy a team of neuroscientists reported to have found a neural basis of the capacity of primates to engage with others (di Pellegrino et al., 1992). It followed an ever-increasing interest in these neurons, which were soon named mirror neurons, and their hypothesized function included a growing number of areas of social life (e.g., Gallese, 2003). This theory did not only seem to explain human social behavior, development and learning but also how we participate, for example, in another person's joy and distress automatically, by biological default. Yet, after the first excitement faded away, mirror neurons became contested (see for instance Hickok, 2008; Gallese et al., 2011) and it is too early to decide whether the mirror neuron theory will become canonical knowledge in the attempt of how mind and brain work. Like other such theories such as the concept of brain plasticity, mirror neuron theory enjoys a broad popularity outside the scientific community—perhaps not least because it provides a biology based on prosociality. The idea of biologically automatic responses to other people's behavior and even emotions is alluring, since it seems to argue in favor of a prosocial default of human nature. Even though feeling does not automatically lead to acting, being able to empathize may lay a foundation for prosocial action.

These three theories and their focus on social aspects of the human condition differ from preceding notions of human nature in one fundamental respect: Homo sapiens are understood as a social and empathic species rather than an individualistic one. Contrary to older models, it is now suggested that it comes quite naturally to humans to act prosocially. Evidence for the prosocial nature of humankind is found in humans' evolutionary history and the neurobiological and hormonal substrate of the brain. By looking at social behavior from this perspective, it appears that cooperation and altruism are beneficial. Working together, so the argument goes, made life easier and increased the chances of survival of the group's offspring (see e.g., Brothers, 1990 and Dunbar, 1998). 

Future Perspectives

Evolutionary reasoning about prosociality can be summarized as follows: since Homo sapiens are a social species, organized in communities, individuals, who are able to decipher social stimuli and to act in prosocial ways had better chances of reproduction and hence, social brains evolved.3This evolutionary heritage equips contemporary humans with the tools for coping with the complexity of social organizations and to engage in social relationships. Not everyone acts prosocially all the time, but every healthy person bears in themselves the potential to do so and has the option to act on that potential. This perspective on sociality means a shift in the conceptual framework of what it is the norm and what needs explanation. While protagonists of this new version of human nature do not deny that aggression is as much part of human nature as is empathy, it now becomes marked as the other, the trait which needs to be explained and this also provides a new perspective on pathologies such as psychopathy or autism, which are now defined by their lack of empathy (e.g., Baron-Cohen, 2011;Blair, 2011). But not only pathologies, even everyday behavior such as envy is interpreted in terms of empathy, respectively the lack thereof (e.g., Shamay-Tsoory, 2009). This does not mean that antisocial behavior is no longer a part of this paradigm. Yet, it becomes the other, the non-normal, which needs to be explained.

In social neuroscience, the individualistic notion of social rooting in American social psychology and the more collectivist notion of the social rooting in anthropology come together and thus in this framework, social relations are intelligibly investigated within the individual. The focus is not on structures, institutions, power relations, all things that can potentially be changed, but on the social as a biological category—nature—that cannot be changed. Sociality becomes a naturalized, innate quality and thus every “normal” individual is capable of behaving prosocially. At a time when responsibility for social cohesion is de-centralized, the neural capacity for prosociality is found.


Social neuroscience's notion of social relates to a new notion of what human beings are and how they normally act, in short a new version of a biologically based human nature. In this narrative, sociality is the driving force behind human evolution.

The notion of “social” employed in social neuroscience research is located in the individual brain, its ability to decode a certain kind of stimuli and to interact with others. It is a noteworthy historical concomitance that the investigation of social interactions via social structures or collective processes is replaced by the investigation of processes that take place within individuals at the same time when, in a broader societal setting, collectivist solutions have been replaced by more individual solution (e.g., in welfare, see for instance Sennett, 2006; Lessenich, 2008). Rabinow (1999) described this development as the transformation towards a “biosociality”—social structures become less important while identities are more and more based on individual (i.e., genetic) attributes than on social or group attributes. Investigating the social via communal genetic make-up or individuals' brains is rather different from studying the external conditions for a social structure. In this approach, prosocial behavior becomes something innate and thus every normal individual is capable of behaving prosocially.


Social neuroscience is an interdisciplinary endeavor aiming to investigate sociality. Taking its methods from social psychology and cognitive neuroscience and its explanatory frame from evolutionary anthropology, it defines the social as both a feature of Homo sapiens' environment and an inherent human capacity to cope and survive. Doing so, it contributes to a new, prosocial notion of human nature. The lens through which social behavior is studied, has changed.

Yet, at the moment, both its focus on quantitative methods and reservations from many arts and social sciences exclude qualitatively operating social science from participating in this endeavor. A methodological and epistemological openness on both sides would be desirable because this could really increase knowledge about social conditions of human nature. Examples for such openness and collaborations can for instance be found in projects on “neurofeminism” (Bluhm et al., 2012; Dussauge and Kaiser, 2012; Einstein, 2012; Matusall, in press). These projects experiment with collaborations bridging the gap between qualitative and quantitative disciplines. 

Conflict of Interest Statement

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

The research was in part funded by ESF grant number 2423, SNF grant number 100011-116725/1 and MINDLab.


^On the potential dangers of the “mereological fallacy”, see Bennett and Hacker, 2003 and also Krüger, 2010.

^For more detailed historical analyses of discourses on the social brain and its relationship to society, see the recent work by anthropologist Allan Young: Young, 2011, 2012a,b. For a philosophical perspective on prosociality in neuroeconomics, and particularly a critical examination of the notion of altruistic punishment, see e.g., Klein, 2012.
^The relationship between prosociality, cooperation, and altruism is complex and by no means uncontested in evolutionary psychology and other behavioral sciences. For overviews over the debate see e.g.,Henrich and Henrich, 2006; Boyd and Richerson, 2009.


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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Levevei - Episode 78: When the Past Is Present w/ David Richo

James Alexander Arnfinsen (editor of the Levevei podcast series) recently posted an excellent conversation with American author and psychotherapist, David Richo. Infusing his books with Jungian psychology, spirituality (including Buddhism), and poetry, Richo is the author of How to Be an Adult in Love: Letting Love in Safely and Showing It Recklessly (2013), When the Past Is Present: Healing the Emotional Wounds that Sabotage our Relationships (2008), and Shadow Dance: Liberating the Power & Creativity of Your Dark Side (1999), among many, many other books.

Episode 78: When the past is present

Posted by James Alexander Arnfinsen × June 25, 2013

Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 48:21 — 44.3MB)

In this episode I have delight of connecting with psychotherapist and author David Richo from California, USA. In our conversation we explore the different ways in which transference plays a part in our daily lives, especially in intimate relationships. Why is it that our experiences from early life are carried over into the present? How come it´s so challenging to be fully present to the people we share our lives with? How can we address our unfinished business (such as unmet needs and emotional wounds from childhood) and resolve these issues as they arise in our daily life? These are just some of the topics covered in our dialogue, and David goes on to describe a relational practice called “safe conversations” that can support healing and growth in the midst of our relationships. Towards the end David shares his perspectives on the connections between psychological work and spiritual practice. 
If you feel inspired or provoked by our conversation feel free to add your comments after the interview. You can also send in a written piece of work and get it published together with this episode. Further details can be found here

Episode links:

Bob Holmes - Tracing the Roots of Human Morality in Animals

Over at New Scientist, Bob Holmes recently (well, okay, in May) reviewed new books from Frans de Waal and Barbara King on morality in animals and on how animals grieve. While Holmes enjoyed de Waal's scientific approach to understanding how morality develops in animals (especially primates), he much less keen on King's anecdotal account of greiving in animals.

The books under review are The Bonobo and the Atheist: In search of humanism among the primates by Frans de Waal and How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King.

Tracing the roots of human morality in animals

21 May 2013 by Bob Holmes
Magazine issue 2917

The Bonobo and the Atheist and How Animals Grieve show that we must be careful when studying animals to learn about the origins of human traits and behaviours

Bonobos are more likely than chimps to have concern for each other 
(Image: ZSSD/Minden Pictures/FLPA)

Book information

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In search of humanism among the primates by Frans de WaalPublished by: NortonPrice: $27.95  ($20.15 at Amazon)
How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. KingPublished by: University of Chicago PressPrice: $25.00 ($18.14 at Amazon)

WHERE does morality come from? Throughout the history of Western civilisation, thinkers have usually answered either that it comes from God, or else through the application of reason.

But in The Bonobo and the Atheist, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that there's another answer that fits the data better: morality comes from our evolutionary past as a social primate. Like our closest relatives the apes, humans evolved in small, tightly knit, cooperative groups. As a result, again like the apes, we are exquisitely sensitive to one another's moods, needs and intentions.

This well-developed empathy provided the trellis on which morality later flowered. De Waal, who is based at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, has been making this case eloquently for many years and over several books, notably in Good Natured back in 1997, and in Primates and Philosophers, 12 years later.

In his new work, he bolsters the argument by drawing on a lot of new research, carefully footnoted for those who want to dig deeper. De Waal distinguishes two degrees of morality. The first he calls "one-on-one morality", which governs how an individual can expect to be treated, and the second "community concern", a larger, more abstract concept that extends to the harmony of the group as a whole.

Chimps and bonobos certainly have the former – they respect ownership, for example, and expect to be treated according to their place in the hierarchy. But de Waal presents several examples – such as a chimp stepping in to stop a fight between two others – that suggest that they also have a rudimentary form of the latter.

The book's title, incidentally, draws on bonobos because they are more likely than chimps to behave morally, to have concern for each other, to value harmony and so on. This, imagines, de Waal, is something morally inclined atheists would want to emulate.

If humans inherited morality from our ancestors, though, what are we to make of religion? Here de Waal moves into territory he has not explored before. Clearly, religion must do something important, since every human culture has it. But instead of religion giving us morality, de Waal turns the tables. Morality, he argues, probably gave us religion as a way of reinforcing the pre-existing community concern.

If he's right, then there may be no absolute code of right and wrong out there to be discovered. Instead, each individual's evolved sense of empathy and concern for the group may help shape the group's consensus on what kind of behaviour is appropriate. In short, says de Waal, morality may be something we all have to work out together. It's a persuasive argument, and de Waal's cautious and evidence-based approach is one that many New Scientist readers are sure to find congenial.

That careful approach is less evident in another book covering some of the same ground. In How Animals Grieve, anthropologist Barbara King sets out to explore the question of whether non-human animals grieve for their dead. It's an intriguing question, but unfortunately King's book is largely a succession of anecdotes: the cat who roams the house, crying, in search of its dead litter mate; the dog who waits daily at the train station for its dead master; a dolphin trying to keep her dead calf afloat for days.

Some of these stories make a persuasive case for some animals – especially apes, elephants and cetaceans – sometimes grieving. No surprises there: I suspect most readers would have conceded that ground right from the start.

But King makes little effort to dig any deeper by exploring, for example, the neural machinery and cognitive skills an animal needs in order to be capable of grief. After all, solitary species such as cats have less need for empathy – and its corollary, grief – than social animals, and small-brained creatures such as turtles may simply lack the brainpower or not form lasting pair bonds.

To his credit, de Waal takes full note of such distinctions; King, not so much.

This article appeared in print under the headline "The making of morality"