Saturday, July 20, 2013

Envision the World in 11 Dimensions: A TED-Ed Lesson to Blow Your 3D Mind

This is pretty cool. Enjoy!

Envision the world in 11 dimensions: A TED-Ed lesson to blow your 3D mind

Posted by: Morton Bast
July 18, 2013

In our three-dimensional world, all we can experience is length, width and height. Unless one of your friends is a hypercube, it’s hard to imagine just what it would look like to live beyond the 3D. Would you like it? Would you understand it? Would you even believe it was real?

In this spunky TED-Ed lesson, Alex Rosenthal and George Zaidan lead us into a mathematical playland and test the very limits of our imagination. Inspired by Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novella, Flatland, they offer one way to conceive of a fourth, fifth or 11th dimension, and challenge us to open our eyes to a world outside what we’re built to perceive.

AV Horwitz and JC Wakefield - All We Have to Fear: Psychiatry’s Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders

Over at Evolutionary Psychology (a journal), Dieneke Hubbeling (Consultant Psychiatrist, and Wandsworth Crisis and Home Treatment Team, South West London) reviews the newish book from AV Horwitz and JC Wakefield, All We Have to Fear: Psychiatry’s Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders (2012).

These passages offer a bit of a nutshell synopsis of the book, although the review itself is very interesting and the book, despite its flaws, seems to be a move in the right direction.
All We Have to Fear is an interesting book and, at times, shocking findings are presented, such as the problems Rind and co-authors experienced after suggesting that childhood sexual abuse did not always have dramatic consequences. The authors also make clear how the incidence of anxiety disorders increased because of watered down criteria. However, the fact that many people are suffering from a disease is not as such a reason to change criteria. The chance of experiencing a common cold at least once during one’s life is higher than 50% in certain climates, but people still call it a disease and the authors do not address this issue. 
The main weakness of the book in my view is that the authors present a very simplified version of evolutionary theory. The authors mention as uncontroversial that the snapping of a septuagenarian’s femur is a disorder because femurs are biologically designed to support movement (p. 29). However, evolutionary processes are selected for a particular life-span. There is not much point in designing organs which can function for a thousand years if an organism is likely to be eaten beforehand (Kirkwood and Austad, 2000).
And with that, on to the review . . . .

Book Review: Is Fear Good for You?

A review of A. V. Horwitz and J. C. Wakefield, All We Have to Fear: Psychiatry’s Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders. Oxford University Press: New York, 2012, 304 pp., US$29.95, ISBN # 978-0-19-979375-4 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Dieneke Hubbeling, Consultant Psychiatrist, Wandsworth Crisis and Home Treatment Team, South West London and St. George’s Mental Health NHS Trust, Email:

Evolutionary Psychology – 2013. 11(2): 436-441 

After writing the highly acclaimed The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder (2007), Horwitz and Wakefield have now written a book about anxiety disorders with a similar theme, namely that anxiety symptoms are too often classified as a disorder or disease and that referring to evolutionary theory is useful for rectifying this. The authors describe anxiety as a naturally designed emotion (p. ix), which enhanced survival in ancestors. Feeling anxious is often a healthy response to a difficult situation and not a sign that there is something wrong in one’s brain. This is not particularly controversial, but it is far more complicated to use evolutionary theory for establishing the difference between disorder and normal functioning than the authors assume, as I will explain in this review.

The authors introduce the topic in chapter 1, The Puzzle of Anxiety Disorders. They explain how, according to the literature, the incidence of anxiety disorders has increased dramatically from an estimated 2-4% in 1980 to an empirically established 49.5% in 2010. This increase is at least partially explained by the different methodology in epidemiological studies. Most studies asked what kind of problems people had in the past and then between 25% and 33% of the population reported symptoms of an anxiety disorder from memory. In a prospective study, whereby participants were assessed every three years, the incidence increased to 49.5% (Moffitt et al., 2010). However, broad criteria for anxiety disorder are used in these studies and Horwitz and Wakefield question this. In the rest of the chapter the authors’ signpost to their main argument that feeling anxious is often an appropriate response and not a disorder.

One of the authors, Wakefield, developed a definition of disorder years ago. According to him a disorder is a harmful failure of mechanisms to perform the functions they were biologically designed to do (Wakefield, 1992). In order to be suffering from a disorder, two requirements have to be fulfilled: The condition has to be harmful and the condition has to be caused by the breakdown of a function, which has been selected for in the past. The rationale behind this definition is clarified in Chapter 2, An Evolutionary Approach to Normal and Pathological Anxiety. The authors start with ruling out various alternatives to Wakefield’s definition. Differences in brain functioning as demonstrated by, for example, fMRI-scans cannot be a criterion for disorder because there is no difference in fMRI-scans between pathological and normal anxiety, i.e., a level of anxiety appropriate to the circumstances. Everybody should get anxious standing in front of a dangerous snake. Similarly, both normal and pathological anxiety can be learned, both normal and pathological anxiety can be constructed by societies as negative events, both normal and pathological anxiety can be outside the normal statistical range, and both normal and pathological anxiety can cause social impairment.

Wakefield and Horwitz argued that there can only be a disorder if an individual’s internal processes are not performing the functions they were biologically designed to perform. We are no longer living in the EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptedness) and there are many things we no longer need to avoid such as spiders, darkness, open spaces, etc. If we are becoming anxious in those conditions, there is no disorder or illness, as our brains are performing a function they were selected for. The authors also mention that there are cultural and individual differences in anxiety and these differences have at least partially been selected for. Different levels of anxiety can be equally adaptive as people can find different niches, and it can also be advantageous for a population to have variation in anxiety proneness because a different level of anxiety might be more adaptive in the future.

In Chapter 3, Normal, Pathological and Mismatched Anxiousness, the authors further explore the differences between normal and pathological anxiety. They emphasized that the boundary between normal and pathological is not always clear, like there is no clear boundary between child and adult. The authors repeated that mismatched anxiety is not a disorder and mentioned the analogy with taste preferences for fat and sugar. This taste preference has been selected for and can cause obesity and early death in societies with plenty of sweets available, but it is not a disorder according to Wakefield’s definition. The authors further explain that anxiety can even be not pathological in situations when there is no danger either currently or in the EEA, because anxiety functions according to the smoke detector principle. Similar to a smoke detector, it is better to give a number of false alarms than not to notice something dangerous once (Nesse, 2005).

In Chapter 4, A Short History of Anxiety and its Disorders, the authors explain that anxiety as a phenomenon was recognized at least since the ancient Greek civilization, but it was not considered a separate disorder. Maudsley, for example, classified phobias as a subtype of melancholic disorders. Freud made a distinction between realistic anxiety and anxiety neurosis, whereby realistic anxiety could be divided into primary anxiety (in which somebody experiences fear because of the actual situation) and signal anxiety (in which something threatening might happen in the future). The authors are following Freud in thinking that both realistic and neurotic anxiety can have the same symptoms and the same amount of distress. The context has to be taken into account, if one wants to make the distinction between disorder and normal experience. Horwitz and Wakefield explained that classification systems in psychiatry have tried to clarify whether symptoms are contextually appropriate or not. The Feigner criteria used patients’ own beliefs about reasonableness as the distinction between normal and pathological anxiety. The American classification system DSM mentioned objective contextual standards as well.

How to classify anxiety disorders is further discussed in Chapter 5, The Validity of the DSM Diagnostic Criteria for Anxiety Disorders. The authors mention various attempts to delineate pathological anxiety from normal anxiety, with specific phobias, social phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder as examples. Attempts in terms of intensity, number, and duration of symptoms were unsuccessful and one tried to add criteria as unreasonableness given the context or clinical significance. The authors claim that the current threshold for disorder is far too low and that too many people are considered suffering from an anxiety disorder. They suggest some improvements, such as narrowing role impairment to dysfunction in activities that have been selected for. For example, social phobia is a disorder if it stops somebody having intimate relationships, but it should not be a disorder if somebody only has difficulties with speaking in public.

In chapter 6, Fear and Anxiety in the Community, the authors explain how the criteria from the DSM-IV and other classification systems which were already too broad were also applied in rather loose way, for example by using a scale designed as a first stage screening instrument as a stand-alone assessment. Horwitz and Wakefield are particularly critical of asking people whether they were anxious when they were young. According to the authors, many anxieties in childhood disappear and one should not call them disorders. The authors also disapprove of using screening instruments after disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, because screening scales measure symptoms and do not take the context into account. On page 167 they state “ the attempt to create a scientific approach to psychiatric disorder, psychiatry is instead coming perilously close to transforming itself into a pseudoscience that has rendered its own domain of mental disorder meaninglessly broad.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder only entered official psychiatric classification systems after 1980 as the authors explain in Chapter 7, PTSD, but nowadays many people claim to be suffering from it and health professionals specialize in treating PTSD. Horwitz and Wakefield argued that during evolution humans must have dealt with horrific and shocking experiences. They must have learnt to avoid them, if possible. Having intrusive memories – one of the key symptoms of PTSD – might well have been helpful in doing this. The authors express again their worry that many normal responses might well have been labeled pathological.

PTSD entered the DSM classification system under the pressure of Vietnam veterans and it seems to be a diagnosis people like to have, unlike most other conditions. The authors also described the meta-analysis by Rind, Tromovitch and Bauserman (1998), who found that child sexual abuse did not always have such detrimental effects as generally assumed and how these authors were severely criticized because of the outcome of their study. Horwitz and Wakefield rightly remark that this is very worrying and that psychiatry and psychology as a science should be open to new facts, even if they go against lay opinion and current scientific views.

Nowadays more people are treated for anxiety than for depression, unlike the 1950s and 1960s. The authors explain this change in chapter 8, The Transformation of Anxiety into Depression. any people started to have health insurance, and just “being anxious” was not sufficient to have treatment costs reimbursed. Patients had to suffer from a specific disorder. Anxiety disorders were defined more restrictively than depression; for example, the duration of anxiety disorders had to be at least 6 months, and they came lower in the DSM-III hierarchy. Also for anxiety there was at least some attempt to rule out normal anxiety by stating that the fear had to be irrational, whereas with depression only recent bereavement was accepted as an exception.

In Chapter 9, Setting Boundaries between Natural Fears and Anxiety Disorders, the difficulty in establishing the presence of a disorder is reiterated and the authors emphasize the importance of using dysfunction of activities that have been selected for as an essential condition for disorder. However, the authors also state that there is a lack of knowledge of evolutionary theory and that nobody currently knows whether treatment results differ between pathological anxiety and mismatched anxiety. The authors also mention that sometimes treatment can still be useful, even if there is no disorder according to their definition.

All We Have to Fear is an interesting book and, at times, shocking findings are presented, such as the problems Rind and co-authors experienced after suggesting that childhood sexual abuse did not always have dramatic consequences. The authors also make clear how the incidence of anxiety disorders increased because of watered down criteria. However, the fact that many people are suffering from a disease is not as such a reason to change criteria. The chance of experiencing a common cold at least once during one’s life is higher than 50% in certain climates, but people still call it a disease and the authors do not address this issue.

The main weakness of the book in my view is that the authors present a very simplified version of evolutionary theory. The authors mention as uncontroversial that the snapping of a septuagenarian’s femur is a disorder because femurs are biologically designed to support movement (p. 29). However, evolutionary processes are selected for a particular life-span. There is not much point in designing organs which can function for a thousand years if an organism is likely to be eaten beforehand (Kirkwood and Austad, 2000).

The authors mention that different levels of anxiety have been selected for, because one can find different niches. However, there might be no niche available and there is frequency dependent selection. The authors would probably classify this as a kind of mismatch, because the current environment has too many people with the same level of anxiety, but they do not clearly state this.

There are different forms of anxiety, namely anxiety for a specific stimulus (phobias) and also general anxiety. An idea from evolutionary psychology is that in a dangerous environment it might be better to have a low threshold for all forms of anxiety and in a less dangerous environment it might be evolutionarily advantageous to be only anxious for specific stimuli (Bateson, Brilot, and Nettle, 2011). If this is true, the view of Horwitz and Wakefield would become even more complicated, namely that not only can somebody have a disorder because of a mismatch between current environment and environment of evolutionary adaptedness, but people can also have the wrong type of anxiety response.

If one wants to use malfunctioning of an activity that has been selected for as criterion for disorder, it is unlikely that one can easily find empirical evidence. One needs to determine not only what has been selected for, but also whether it is a mismatch with the environment, either in general or the wrong type of disorder, whether it is a quick response because of the smoke-detector principle, whether it is frequency dependent selection, etc. However, the problems are even bigger. Wakefield and Horwitz do not mention treatability as a possible criterion in Chapter 2 and they are very explicit in Chapter 9 that sometimes conditions, which are not disorders, should still be treated. One of the problems of a broad definition of anxiety disorders is that treatment costs are very high and that costs of people not being able to work are probably even higher. However, it is very counterintuitive to offer insurance-reimbursed treatment to people who are anxious because of some biological dysfunction and not to others because of a mismatch, even if they are equally dysfunctional in their social environment. Wakefield stated in another publication that using treatability as a criterion was getting things backwards (Wakefield, 1999), but this seems to be incorrect. Evolution does not really play a role in deciding whether the treatment of a patient should be paid for out of public funds (Bolton, 2008). In the rationing of health care funds, in-vitro fertilization is seen as something one can do without and cancer treatment not, but from an evolutionary perspective it would be the opposite.

At the time of writing this review, Nature published a news item about the health problems of local residents after the Fukushima disaster (Brumfiel, 2013). Many local residents suffer from anxiety and nobody can really predict the effects of radiation for particular persons in the next decades, and the argument was made for further psychological support. One could argue that it is normal to feel anxious under those circumstances, but it does influence people’s life and, if they want help for psychological difficulties, why not? Fear is not always good for you and can be extremely unpleasant.

  • Bateson, M., Brilot, B., and Nettle, D. (2011). Anxiety: An evolutionary approach. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56, 707-715.
  • Bolton, D. (2008). What is mental disorder? An essay in philosophy, science, and values. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Brumfiel, G. (2013). Fallout of fear. Nature, 493, 290-293.
  • Horwitz, A. V., and Wakefield, J. C. (2007). The loss of sadness. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kirkwood, T. B. L., and Austad, S. N. (2000). Why do we age? Nature, 408, 233-238.
  • Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Taylor, A., Kokaua, J., Milne, B. J., Polanczyk, G., and Poulton, R. (2010). How common are common mental disorders? Evidence that lifetime prevalence rates are doubled by prospective versus retrospective ascertainment. Psychological Medicine, 40, 899-909.
  • Nesse, R. M. (2005). Natural selection and the regulation of defenses: A signal detection analysis of the smoke detector principle. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26, 88-105.
  • Rind, B., Tromovitch, P., and Bauserman, R. (1998). A meta-analytic examination of assumed properties of child sexual abuse using college samples. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 22-53.
  • Wakefield, J. C. (1992). The concept of mental disorder on the boundary between biological facts and social values. American Psychologist, 47, 373-388.
  • Wakefield, J. C. (1999). Mental disorder as a black box essentialist concept. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 108, 465-472.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Dr. Anne E. Cress Named Interim Director of University of Arizona Cancer Center

I want to give a shout out and congratulations to my friend and personal training client, Dr. Anne Cress, the new Interim Director of the University of Arizona Cancer Center. They are lucky to have her wisdom, intelligence, creativity, and dedication to integrity - traits I have enjoyed in her for more than six years.

She is without doubt one of my most dedicated and hard-working clients - and she makes me laugh and think, sometimes simultaneously, in every session.

Deep bow of respect.

Anne E. Cress Named Interim Director of UA Cancer Center

By Sara Hammond, University of Arizona Cancer Center | July 19, 2013

Cress succeeds Dr. David S. Alberts, who served as cancer center director for more than eight years until his recent retirement

Anne E. Cress, professor of cellular and molecular medicine and radiation oncology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, has been named interim director of the University of Arizona Cancer Center. The appointment was made by Dr. Joe G.N. "Skip" Garcia, incoming UA senior vice president for health sciences, and Dr. Steve Goldschmid, dean of the UA College of Medicine.

Cress, who also is deputy dean for research affairs at the UA College of Medicine, succeeds Dr. David S. Alberts, who served as cancer center director for more than eight years until his recent retirement. Alberts remains at the UA Cancer Center to conduct research.

Cress was named a research associate in 1980 and became a research assistant professor in 1981, both in the UA's division of radiation oncology. She was named an associate professor in 1990 and attained full professorship with tenure in 1996. She was appointed professor of cell biology and anatomy (now cellular and molecular medicine) in 1999. She has been a UACC member since 1987. She also served as the College of Medicine's associate dean for research and academic affairs for six years. Her research has continuously been supported since 1981 by extramural research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and the American Cancer Society.

"Anne Cress is one of the top cancer biology scientists in the world," said Garcia. "Her breadth of knowledge about translational approaches to cancer will be crucial as she leads the UA's comprehensive cancer center through this time of transition."

Goldschmid added: "Dr. Cress's service to the University of Arizona, especially within the College of Medicine, is unparalled. Between her extensive research credentials and her administrative leadership, she is unquestionably the right person to take the reins of our cancer center at this critical time."

Cress's research is focused on stopping tumor cells "in their tracks" and preventing tumor metastasis. She is examining how cell surface molecules, called integrins, behave abnormally in tumor cells, enabling their transit along vessels and nerves to their final destination in bone.

Through her collaborative research, Cress is helping to design strategies that will prevent these harmful and painful processes from occurring and at the same time providing new ways for physicians to determine if a patient's cancer is likely to spread.

Cress has a 30-year history of contributions to interdisciplinary science through more than 100 original research publications, several major federal and foundation grant and patent awards, and national study section service chairmanships, including those organized by the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, and the American Cancer Society.

She received her bachelor of science in microbiology/chemistry and a doctorate in biochemistry/molecular biology from the UA. She completed postdoctoral work in cancer biology at the UA and served as a visiting professor in biochemistry at Stanford University, and completed visiting scholar sabbaticals at the Drug Development and Design Center in Brisbane, Australia, and with the Developmental Biology Group at Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam.

Her awards and honors include: Outstanding Research Investigator Award, Moffitt Cancer Center, 1999; Arizona Health Sciences Center Founder's Day Award, 2005; Elkin Award for Cancer Biology Research, Emory University, 2005; UA Cancer Center's Sydney E. Salmon, MD, Senior Investigator Award, 2008.

Steven Pinker: Human Nature in 2013

As part of the The World in . . . Festival (2013 version), Harvard psychologist is interviewed by Lane Greene from The Economist, sponsors of the event. Here is a little summary of the Festival:
Every year, the World in… Festival is timed with the release of The Economist’s annual World in… publication, a collection of trends and predictions about the year ahead. 
Now in its 27th year, The World in… provides readers with a unique global perspective on the upcoming year, across the spheres of business, finance and economics, technology, sport, media, arts, culture and beyond. Through a series of lively discussions, performances and debates with Economist editors and distinguished guests, The World in 2013 Festival brings the publication to life. 
The World in... Festival is a multi-day experience, including an evening of intellectual entertainment (Thursday) and a full-day programme (Saturday). The wide range of topics reflect the depth and breadth of The Economist and The World In…publication, as well as the themes most relevant to the upcoming year. The World in… Festival is our reader event and is designed for anyone who enjoys the analysis and prognostications found in The Economist

Steven Pinker: Human Nature in 2013

Published on Dec 12, 2012

What is cutting-edge research likely to reveal about our human nature in 2013? Steven Pinker, professor at Harvard University, gives his predictions in an interview with The Economist's Lane Greene at The Economist's World in 2013 Festival on December 8th 2012.

Bethany Brookshire - Dopamine Is _________ Is it Love? Gambling? Reward? Addiction?

This article by Bethany Brookshire, which appeared recently at Slate, takes a look at all of the proclamations being made in the press about what dopamine (one of the primary neurotransmitters) does in the brain and how it affects our personalities.

As the article points out at the front:
Dopamine is loveDopamine is lustDopamine is adulteryDopamine is motivationDopamine is attentionDopamine is feminismDopamine is addiction.
WOW. Who knew dopamine was so central to all of these functions or behaviors? Well, actually, it's not - but the media discussion of neuroscience research is often ignorant at best and flat wrong at worst.

The reality, as Brookshire points out, is that dopamine has to do with addiction, lust and love, movement, motivation, attention, and psychosis. Dopamine does play a role in each of these brain functions, BUT it is not any of them. We cannot reduce any of these qualities or functions to a single brain chemical - and we shouldn't allow the media to misrepresent the science.

Dopamine Is _________

Is it love? Gambling? Reward? Addiction?

By Bethany Brookshire | Posted Wednesday, July 3, 2013 

An MRI scan of the human brain - Photo by Katie Nesling/Thinkstock

In a brain that people love to describe as “awash with chemicals,” one chemical always seems to stand out. Dopamine: the molecule behind all our most sinful behaviors and secret cravings. Dopamine is love. Dopamine is lust. Dopamine is adultery. Dopamine is motivation. Dopamine is attention. Dopamine is feminism. Dopamine is addiction.

My, dopamine’s been busy.

Dopamine is the one neurotransmitter that everyone seems to know about. Vaughn Bell once called it the Kim Kardashian of molecules, but I don’t think that’s fair to dopamine. Suffice it to say, dopamine’s big. And every week or so, you’ll see a new article come out all about dopamine.

So is dopamine your cupcake addiction? Your gambling? Your alcoholism? Your sex life? The reality is dopamine has something to do with all of these. But it is none of them. Dopamine is a chemical in your body. That’s all. But that doesn’t make it simple.

What is dopamine? Dopamine is one of the chemical signals that pass information from one neuron to the next in the tiny spaces between them. When it is released from the first neuron, it floats into the space (the synapse) between the two neurons, and it bumps against receptors for it on the other side that then send a signal down the receiving neuron. That sounds very simple, but when you scale it up from a single pair of neurons to the vast networks in your brain, it quickly becomes complex. The effects of dopamine release depend on where it’s coming from, where the receiving neurons are going and what type of neurons they are, what receptors are binding the dopamine (there are five known types), and what role both the releasing and receiving neurons are playing.

And dopamine is busy! It’s involved in many different important pathways. But when most people talk about dopamine, particularly when they talk about motivation, addiction, attention, or lust, they are talking about the dopamine pathway known as the mesolimbic pathway, which starts with cells in the ventral tegmental area, buried deep in the middle of the brain, which send their projections out to places like the nucleus accumbens and the cortex. Increases in dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens occur in response to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And dopamine signaling in this area is changed during the course of drug addiction. All abused drugs, from alcohol to cocaine to heroin, increase dopamine in this area in one way or another, and many people like to describe a spike in dopamine as “motivation” or “pleasure.” But that’s not quite it. Really, dopamine is signaling feedback for predicted rewards. If you, say, have learned to associate a cue (like a crack pipe) with a hit of crack, you will start getting increases in dopamine in the nucleus accumbens in response to the sight of the pipe, as your brain predicts the reward. But if you then don’t get your hit, well, then dopamine can decrease, and that’s not a good feeling. So you’d think that maybe dopamine predicts reward. But again, it gets more complex. For example, dopamine can increase in the nucleus accumbens in people with post-traumatic stress disorder when they are experiencing heightened vigilance and paranoia. So you might say, in this brain area at least, dopamine isn’t addiction or reward or fear. Instead, it’s what we call salience. Salience is more than attention: It’s a sign of something that needs to be paid attention to, something that stands out. This may be part of the mesolimbic role in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and also a part of its role in addiction.

But dopamine itself? It’s not salience. It has far more roles in the brain to play. For example, dopamine plays a big role in starting movement, and the destruction of dopamine neurons in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra is what produces the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine also plays an important role as a hormone, inhibiting prolactin to stop the release of breast milk. Back in the mesolimbic pathway, dopamine can play a role in psychosis, and many antipsychotics for treatment of schizophrenia target dopamine. Dopamine is involved in the frontal cortex in executive functions like attention. In the rest of the body, dopamine is involved in nausea, in kidney function, and in heart function.

With all of these wonderful, interesting things that dopamine does, it gets my goat to see dopamine simplified to things like “attention” or “addiction.” After all, it’s so easy to say “dopamine is X” and call it a day. It’s comforting. You feel like you know the truth at some fundamental biological level, and that’s that. And there are always enough studies out there showing the role of dopamine in X to leave you convinced. But simplifying dopamine, or any chemical in the brain, down to a single action or result gives people a false picture of what it is and what it does. If you think that dopamine is motivation, then more must be better, right? Not necessarily! Because if dopamine is also “pleasure” or “high,” then too much is far too much of a good thing. If you think of dopamine as only being about pleasure or only being about attention, you’ll end up with a false idea of some of the problems involving dopamine, like drug addiction or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and you’ll end up with false ideas of how to fix them.

The other reason I don’t like the “dopamine is” craze is because the simplification takes away the wonder of dopamine. If you believe “dopamine is,” then you’d think that we’ve got it all figured out. You begin to wonder why we haven’t solved this addiction problem yet. Complexity means that the diseases associated with dopamine (or with any other chemical or part of the brain, for that matter) are often difficult to understand and even more difficult to treat.

By emphasizing dopamine’s complexity, it might feel like I’m taking away some of the glamour, the sexiness, of dopamine. But I don’t think so. The complexity of how a neurotransmitter behaves is what makes it wonderful. The simplicity of a single molecule and its receptors is what makes dopamine so flexible and what allows the resulting systems to be so complex. And it’s not just dopamine. While dopamine has just five receptor type, another neurotransmitter, serotonin, has 14 currently known and even more that are thought to exist. Other neurotransmitters have receptors with different subtypes, all expressed in different places, and where each combination can produce a different result. There are many types of neurons, and they make billions and billions of connections. And all of this so you can walk, talk, eat, fall in love, get married, get divorced, get addicted to cocaine, and come out on top of your addiction some day. When you think of the sheer number of connections required simply for you to read and understand this sentence—from eyes to brain, to processing, to understanding, to movement as your fingers scroll down the page—you begin to feel a sense of awe. Our brain does all this, even while it makes us think about pepperoni pizza and what that text your crush sent really means. Complexity makes the brain the fascinating and mind-boggling thing that it is.

So dopamine has to do with addiction, whether to cupcakes or cocaine. It has to do with lust and love. It has to do with milk. It has to do with movement, motivation, attention, psychosis. Dopamine plays a role in all of these. But it is none of them, and we shouldn’t want it to be. Its complexity is what makes it great. It shows us what, with a single molecule, the brain can do.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Physical Wounds of Seniors Healed Faster If They Wrote About Their Traumatic Life Experiences

I always enjoy reporting on research that supports the inseparability (the singularity) of body-mind, and if it demonstrates the power emotions can have on the body, so much the better.

So it's nice to share this article on how encouraging otherwise healthy seniors to write about their most traumatic experiences helps their physical wounds to heal more quickly, even if the writing occurred prior to the injury!

In essence, the better we are at processing emotions and feelings and not keeping them bottled up or choked down, the better our bodies can handle and heal stress of any kind, including physical injuries. This is the nature of resilience.

Study: Emotional writing heals physical wounds

Research reveals senior citizens who chronicle their most traumatic experiences tend to heal more quickly


This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

For anyone still doubting the notion that our emotions—and whether we express or repress them—impact our physical health, a new study from New Zealand should settle the matter. It reports that the physical wounds of healthy seniors healed more quickly if they wrote about their most traumatic experiences.

This confirms the results of a 2010 study, and extends those findings to cover older adults—a group that is prone to suffer wounds (as from surgery), and one with less access to other ways of lowering tension (such as exercise).

Writing in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, a research team led by the University of Auckland’s Elizabeth Broadbent describes a study featuring 49 healthy adults ranging in age from 64 to 97. They were assigned to write for 20 minutes per day for three consecutive days.

Half were asked to “write about the most traumatic/upsetting experience in their life, delving into their deepest thoughts, feelings, and emotions about the event, ideally not previously shared with others.” The others were asked to “write about their daily activities for tomorrow, without mentioning emotions, opinions or beliefs.”

Two weeks later, all participants received a standard 4mm skin biopsy on their inner arm. The resultant wounds were photographed regularly over the following days to determine the rate at which they healed.

On the 11th day after the biopsy, the wounds were completely healed on 76.2 percent of those who had done the expressive writing. That was true of only 42.1 percent of those who had written about everyday activities.

“The biological and psychological mechanisms behind this effect remain unclear,” the researchers write, noting that those who had done the expressive writing did not report lower stress levels or fewer depressive symptoms than those in the control group.

Even if they weren’t consciously aware of feeling more relaxed or positive, however, the expressive writing appears to have triggered some sort of bodily reaction—presumably involving their immune systems—that hastened their recovery.

Psychologists often talk of healing emotional wounds. This study provides additional evidence that implementing their insights can help heal physical ones as well.

Tania Lombrozo - Human Emotions Explained In 60 Short Interviews

From NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, this is a cool story about a project to explain human emotions through videos from experts in the field.

You're welcome.

Human Emotions Explained In 60 Short Interviews

July 15, 2013

In some sense we're all experts in emotion. We experience emotion every day, all the time. We constantly observe the emotional responses of others, and we often make decisions based on anticipated emotions: we pursue something because we think it will make us happy, or avoid something because we worry it will anger someone else.

Despite living intimately with emotion, there's a lot we don't know. Sometimes we're baffled by our own emotional responses, or those of others. Sometimes we wish we could change our emotions, but don't know how.

And then there are all the questions — beyond these — that occupy psychologists and other scientists. Are emotions universal, or do they vary across individuals and cultures? Do we have unconscious emotions? How do emotions affect judgment? How do emotions change throughout the lifespan?

Let's face it, emotions are complex and the human mind and body don't exactly come with an owner's manual.

That's one reason people are often fascinated by the scientific study of emotion, and one motivation behind a new resource led by June Gruber, assistant professor of psychology at Yale University. The series, available on YouTube, offers over 60 interviews with leading experts in the field of emotion. Gruber introduces the series in this short video:

I asked Gruber what prompted her to start the Experts in Emotion Series, which is both a supplement to a lecture course she teaches at Yale as well as a stand-alone resource for anyone interested in emotion. Here's what she said:
Emotions affect us all, and touch our lives every single day. So we often wonder what are emotions, why do we have them in the first place, and how they shape other aspects of our mental lives. Scientists spend countless hours working on these same questions. Yet often there's a gap between our everyday curiosities and the scientific inquiry about emotion. I wanted to find a way to close this gap – the series is meant to be a bridge between the public and the scientists behind the scenes, to hear not only what experts see as the most pressing questions they tackle in their work, but also where they see the future headed and what got them into doing what they study in the first place.
The participants are a diverse bunch, including some well-known psychology popularizers and writers (such as Steven Pinker discussing emotion and violence and Dan Gilbert on happiness), as well as experts across a range of psychological disciplines. Topics vary from crying and embarrassment to sex and laughter, with quite a bit in between.

I've only had a chance to watch a few videos so far, but here are a few highlights.

In a video on measuring emotion, Dr. Iris Mauss, a colleague here at UC Berkeley, discusses some paradoxical effects of seeking happiness:
The more people value happiness, the more they strive to be happy, the less happy they are. ... One hypothesis here is that the more you want to be happy the more you're setting yourself up for disappointment and discontent.
Fortunately, Mauss's research points to a potential way out of this conundrum:
If people pursue happiness in a less "self-focused" and a more "other-focused" way they may be able to circumvent the paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. 
I don't think we need to just give up and be miserable. I think the pursuit of happiness is a good and important thing, but it shouldn't be unqualified.
In a video on whether other animals think and feel like us, Dr. Laurie Santos of Yale University discusses some fascinating research on monkey cognition and shares some cool recent findings concerning dogs: they're not only better than most studied primates when it comes to understanding humans' behavioral cues, they're also surprisingly good at understanding human language and perhaps even responding to human emotion.

I was also intrigued by a video on emotion in social media with Arturo Bejar, Engineering Director at Facebook, who discusses the development of tools that can successfully communicate emotion.

I asked Gruber what she found most surprising in her interviews with experts in emotion:
I was most surprised to hear that many experts in the field didn't have a master plan that got them from point A to point B. Most came into it by chance or luck. But once they stumbled into the field of emotion, they were gripped!
Finally, I asked Gruber what she hoped viewers would get from the series:
I hope the viewers gain a new appreciation for just how fascinating and complex the scientific study of emotion is, despite how familiar and common emotions themselves are. It would be great to see viewers sharing what they learned with others, as well as incorporate the science of emotion into their daily lives, whether at work or at home to improve relationships with their friends and partners and enhance their own emotional well-being and happiness.
Gruber's next steps include the creation of a publicly-available digital resource for people to engage with the study of emotion, including not only the interviews conducted so far, but also on-line courses in emotion, links to items in the news or other media that bear on emotion, and links to accessible discussions of research on emotion, such as blog posts by professors on recent research. Gruber notes:
I'm eager to communicate both with the public and scientists to ask what they would like to see in such a website.
Take that as an invitation to comment!

You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter.

Robert Burton: "A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind", Talks at Google

Robert Burton, author of On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not (2009), has a new book, A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves, and he recently spoke about the book at Google.

As a bonus, you can also catch his discussion of his previous book, On Being Certain, at Authors at Google, June 9, 2008 [see below].

Robert Burton: "A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind", Talks at Google

Published on Jul 15, 2013

Despite 2500 years of contemplation by the world's greatest minds and the more recent phenomenal advances in basic neuroscience, neither neuroscientists nor philosophers have a decent understanding of what the mind is or how it works. Nevertheless, with powerful new tools such as the fMRI scan, neuroscience has become the de facto mode of explanation of behavior.

In A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind, Robert Burton brings together clinical observations, practical thought experiments, personal anecdotes, and cutting-edge neuroscience to decipher what neuroscience can tell us about ourselves-- and where it falls woefully short. At the same time, he offers a new vision of how to think about what the mind might be and how it works.

A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind is a critical, startling, and expansive journey into the mysteries of the brain and what makes us human.

About the Author: 

Robert Burton, M.D. graduated from Yale University and University of California at San Francisco medical school, where he also completed his neurology residency. At age 33, he was appointed chief of the Division of Neurology at Mt. Zion-UCSF Hospital, where he subsequently became Associate Chief of the Department of Neurosciences. His non-neurology writing career includes three critically acclaimed novels and On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. He lives in Sausalito, California.

* * * * * * *

Authors@Google: Robert Burton - On Being Certain

Uploaded on Jun 11, 2008

Dr. Robert Burton visits Google's Mountain View, CA headquarters to discuss his book "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not." This event took place on June 9, 2008, as part of the Authors@Google series.

In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges the notions of how we think about what we know. He shows that the feeling of certainty we have when we "know" something comes from sources beyond our control and knowledge. In fact, certainty is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. Because this "feeling of knowing" seems like confirmation of knowledge, we tend to think of it as a product of reason. But an increasing body of evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain, and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. The feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen.

Robert Burton, M.D. graduated from Yale University and University of California at San Francisco medical school, where he also completed his neurology residency. At age 33, he was appointed chief of the Division of Neurology at Mt. Zion-UCSF Hospital, where he subsequently became Associate Chief of the Department of Neurosciences. His non-neurology writing career includes three critically acclaimed novels. He lives in Sausalito, California. Visit his website at

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Exaptations - Many Evolutionary Innovations May Have Non-Adaptive Origins.

An exaptation is a shift in the function of a trait during evolution. Traits can evolve because they serve one particular function, but subsequently they may come to serve another. Exaptations are common in both anatomy and behavior. Here are a few from Wikipedia:
A classic example is how feathers, which initially evolved for heat regulation, were co-opted for display, and later co-opted for use in bird flight. Another example is the lungs of many basal fish, which evolved into the lungs of terrestrial vertebrates but also underwent exaptation to become the gas bladder, a buoyancy control organ, in derived fish.[3]

A behavioural example pertains to subdominant wolves licking the mouths of alpha wolves as a sign of submissiveness. (Similarly, dogs, which are wolves who through a long process were domesticated, lick the faces of their human owners.) This trait can be explained as an exaptation of wolf pups licking the faces of adults to encourage them to regurgitate food.[4]

Another more recent and controversial example posits that the human ability to use logic and reason originally evolved to win arguments and convince others, as opposed to its putatively exapted purpose of seeking truth. This idea, called the argumentative theory of reasoning, attempts to explain why many cognitive heuristics which should help to solve problems instead bias decisions, instead of framing those biases as adaptations developed to help win arguments.[5]
In the report below, Santa Fe Institute External Professor Andreas Wagner and colleague Aditya Barve, both evolutionary biologists at the University of Zurich, studied E. coli bacteria in order to get a better understanding on how traits originate by studying all the chemical reactions taking place in the organism’s metabolism as conditions are changed.

Wagner says, "Our work shows that exaptations exceed adaptations several-fold."

There is an interview with Wagner from The Scientist below this article summary from the SFI.

I find this idea interesting in that it seems to be another way of understanding Gary Marcus's idea of the Kludge in brain development. A kludge (or kluge) is a workaround, "a quick-and-dirty solution, a clumsy, inelegant, difficult to extend, hard to maintain yet effective and quick solution to a problem, and a rough synonym to the terms 'jury rig' or 'Jugaad.' This term is used in diverse fields such as computer science, aerospace engineering, internet slang, and evolutionary neuroscience" (see Gary Marcus, Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind, 2009).

Evolution has created some quick-and-dirty solutions to immediate problems, and some of them have downsides (for example, the same group of genes associated with creativity and genius are also linked to schizophrenia), but others, such as language, no doubt arose for the immediate needs of coordinating hunting or child-rearing, but have also created great poetry and literature.

Great exaptations: Most traits emerge for no crucial reason

July 15, 2013

Exactly how new traits emerge is a question that has long puzzled evolutionary biologists. While some adaptations develop to address a specific need, others (called “exaptations”) develop as a by-product of another feature with minor or no function, and may acquire more or greater uses later. Feathers, for example, did not originate for flight but may have helped insulate or waterproof dinosaurs before helping birds fly.

How common such pre-adaptive traits are in relation to adaptive traits is unclear. SFI External Professor Andreas Wagner and colleague Aditya Barve, both evolutionary biologists at the University of Zurich, decided to get a systematic handle on how traits originate by studying all the chemical reactions taking place in an organism’s metabolism.

Starting with the metabolism of an E. coli that can survive on glucose as its sole carbon source, they subjected the complex metabolic chemical process to a "random walk" through the set of all possible metabolisms, adding one reaction and deleting another from it with each step. They kept constant the total number of reactions and the bacterium’s ability to survive on glucose alone, but allowed everything else to change. Every few thousand steps they analyzed the altered metabolism’s reactions.

They found that most metabolisms were viable on about five other carbon sources – sugars, building blocks of DNA or RNA, or proteins – that are naturally common but chemically distinct compounds. To be certain that viability on these other carbon sources wasn’t a natural consequence of viability on glucose, they tested metabolisms starting with viability on 49 other carbon sources, and each time found that exaptations emerged allowing the metabolism to survive on any one of several other carbon sources alone.


Image caption: In this network diagram of E. coli metabolism combinations, the color of each node corresponds to the combination of carbon sources the network is viable on. There are 247 different phenotypes in this graph, that is, different combinations of carbon sources the networks are viable on. Networks viable on glucose alone are black. Two nodes are connected if they are both viable on the same carbon source, while the size of a node is representative of the number of other nodes it is connected to. The figure shows that the majority of networks (96 percent) are viable on many different carbon sources. The figures were generated using the Gephi software.


“We observed an incredible abundance of viability on carbon sources that these metabolisms were never even required to use,” Wagner says.

By varying the number of reactions in a metabolic system, the team also found a relationship between the system’s complexity (determined by number of reactions) and the extent of the exaptations, with larger networks having more of them.

The findings underscore the idea that traits we see now – even complex ones, like color vision – may have had neutral origins that sat latent for generations before spreading through populations, Wagner says.

"Our work shows that exaptations exceed adaptations several-fold," he says.

If exaptations are pervasive in evolution, he adds, it becomes difficult to distinguish adaptation from exaptation, and it could change the way evolutionary biologists think about selective advantage as the primary driver of natural selection.

Their work was published July 14 in the online edition of Nature.

Read their paper in Nature (June 14, 2013) [Behind a paywall]

Read a Q&A with Andreas Wagner in The Scientist (June 14, 2013) [BELOW]

* * * * * * *

Q & A: Evolution Makes Do

Evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner argues that many evolutionary innovations may have non-adaptive origins

By Chris Palmer | July 14, 2013


Traits that initially confer a selective advantage often later become beneficial in some unrelated—and often surprising—way. A classic example of a so-called pre-adaptive trait, or exaptation, is the feather, which originated for a purpose other than flight. Although numerous anecdotal examples of exaptations litter the evolutionary biology literature, it is unclear how commonplace they are. Research published today (July 14) on simulated metabolic networks, however, suggests that exaptations may in fact outnumber adaptations several-fold.

“The paper is an important effort to characterize the frequency of exaptation as an evolutionary mechanism,” Richard Blob, an evolutionary biologist at Clemson University who was not involved in the study, said in an email. “The authors have identified an effective system to begin approaching this question in a systematic way.”

Leading the research was Andreas Wagner, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Zurich, who studies evolutionary innovation across many levels of biological organization, from genes to organisms to communities. Publishing in Nature with coauthor Aditya Barve, Wagner described the ubiquity of exaptations in metabolism, one of the most critical—and ancient—systems common to all multicellular organisms. To address this question, Wagner created sophisticated simulations of thousands of metabolic networks, each with a set of chemical reactions that allow for the synthesis of biomass from one of 50 different carbon sources—glucose, for example. Reflecting real-life metabolic networks, the simulated networks were also endowed with a modest number of random chemical reactions. Wagner found that all of the networks showed exaptations for the ability to utilize other carbon sources—as many as 20 different sources in some networks.

The Scientist chatted with Wagner about exaptations, their apparent ubiquity, and what they mean for the study of evolutionary biology.

The Scientist: Where did the notion of exaptations come from?

Andreas Wagner: Stephen Jay Gould first coined the term to describe traits that may be simple by-products of other traits. Also, Darwin said in his Origin of the Species back in 1859 that organs that serve a particular purpose may have originated for a completely different purpose. So even Darwin was aware that exaptations exist, although they didn’t have that word at the time.

TS: What are your favorite examples of exaptation?

AW: The origin of feathers, which help with stabilization during flight. But they probably originated for completely different reasons such as thermal insulation or waterproofing. There are also these fascinating proteins in our eye lens called crystallins, which originated from metabolic enzymes. At high concentrations they retain transparency, allowing nature to build lenses with high refractive indices, which are well suited to focus light.

TS: How did you become interested in the transition from pre-adaptive to adaptive traits?

AW: I consider this to be the last frontier in evolutionary biology. Natural selection we’ve known about for more than 150 years. So, we know a lot about how evolutionary innovations spread through populations, but we know very little about how they originate.

TS: Can all adaptive traits be traced to an exaptive origin?

AW: I would say the answer is yes. Gould argued very much in favor that [exaptive traits are] very frequent. And he was attacked from all sides because the common wisdom was that all traits originated for the same reason that they are still being kept around today. Nowadays, most people agree that exaptations occur and are fairly frequent, but we didn’t know whether they are more frequent than regular adaptations.

TS: What conclusions can you draw from your simulations of metabolic networks?

AW: Our work shows that exaptations exceed adaptations several-fold. Mere examples of exaptations [could not] address this question. You really need this kind of systematic approach where you study a sample of all possible metabolisms and what typical properties they have.

TS: So, evolution creates a pool of possible adaptations, only a few of which are expressed at a time?

AW: Exactly. Imagine we find a novel microbe that is able to survive on some carbon source, say citrate. Reflexively, a microbiologist would say, because citrate is an important carbon source in the microbe’s environment, that this ability is an adaptation. What our work tells us is this need not be the case. This could simply be the by-product of the ability to live on some other carbon source that we may not even have identified yet.

TS: What does this mean for the field of evolutionary biology?

AW: This opens a huge can of worms for evolutionary biologists because it becomes very hard to distinguish adaptation from exaptation.

TS: Why does it matter to have a clear delineation?

AW: If exaptations are pervasive, then natural selection—which few doubt is critical for the preservation and spreading of traits—may not be that important for the origin of innovations in life’s history.

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz - NPR's On Point

This week's On Point features guest host Jane Clayson speaking with author and practicing psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, about his new book The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves.

Sounds like it could be an interesting read.

The Examined Life’

With Jane Clayson in for Tom Ashbrook
July 15, 2013

The examined life, and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it, with psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz


A psychoanalyst listens to a patient digging into her past at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute Treatment Center in New York, April 25, 1956. (Bob Wands/AP)

A woman who ignores her husband’s affair. A commitment-phobe. A man who bores loved ones on purpose. These are just some of the patients that psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz has treated in his 25 year career.

Now, he’s turned 50,000 hours of therapy into a slim book of parables, “The Examined Life.” Free of psychological jargon, but chock-full of scenes from the couch both heart-wrenching and funny, Grosz questions why we make the same bad decisions over and over again, and how we change.

This hour, On Point: deep into the mind with “The Examined Life.”

Guest: Stephen Grosz, practicing psychoanalyst and author of “The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves.”

Book Excerpt

Selections reprinted from “The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves” by Stephen Grosz. Copyright © 2013 by Stephen Grosz. First American Edition 2013. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


For the past twenty-five years, I’ve worked as a psychoanalyst. I’ve treated patients in psychiatric hospitals, psychotherapy and forensic psychotherapy clinics, child and adolescent units, and private practice. I’ve seen children, adolescents and adults for consultation, referral and once-a-week psychotherapy. Most of my work, however, has been with adults in psycho-analysis – meeting with one person for fifty minutes, four or five times a week, over a number of years. I have spent more than 50,000 hours with patients. The substance of that work is the substance of this book.

What follows are tales drawn from day-to-day practice. These stories are true, but I’ve altered all identifying details in the interest of confidentiality.

At one time or another, most of us have felt trapped by things we find ourselves thinking or doing, caught by our own impulses or foolish choices; ensnared in some unhappiness or fear; imprisoned by our own history. We feel unable to go forward and yet we believe that there must be a way. ‘I want to change, but not if it means changing,’ a patient once said to me in complete innocence. Because my work is about helping people to change, this book is about change. And because change and loss are deeply connected – there cannot be change without loss – loss haunts this book.

The philosopher Simone Weil describes how two prisoners in adjoining cells learn, over a very long period of time, to talk to each other by tapping on the wall. ‘The wall is the thing which separates them, but it is also their means of communication,’ she writes. ‘Every separation is a link.’

This book is about that wall. It’s about our desire to talk, to understand and be understood. It’s also about listening to each other, not just the words but the gaps in between. What I’m describing here isn’t a magical process. It’s something that is a part of our everyday lives – we tap, we listen.

On the recovery of lost feelings

When she was six years old, Emma F. fell in love with her Year 2 teacher, Miss King. Miss King wore shiny hoop earrings and bright red nail polish. She and Emma shared a fascination with fossils. Once, Emma told Miss King that she was reading Charlotte’s Web all over again, and Miss King squeezed Emma’s hand – it was one of her favourite books too.

Before breakfast, on the last Saturday of the school year, Emma sat down at the kitchen table to make a thank-you card for Miss King. She drew a picture of an ammonite on the front, then opened the card and wrote: ‘Dear Miss King, you are the best teacher ever. Thank you for being my teacher. I will miss you next year. I love you more than anyone even Mummy. Love, Emma xxxxx’

When her father sat down, Emma showed him the card. ‘You can’t say that you love Miss King more than you love Mummy,’ he told her. ‘It’s not true.’ Emma took a pink rubber from her pencil case and began to erase the last sentence of her note. Her father stopped her. ‘I can still read what you wrote,’ he said. ‘You need to make a new card.’ And it was because of this – because he didn’t want any trace of her words to remain – that Emma knew she’d done something truly wrong.

Emma soon forgot about her card and the exchange with her father. But twenty-three years later, she remembered it, during a psychoanalytic session.

That morning, Emma had been late to meet her boyfriend, Mark, for coffee. Soon after she arrived, they got into an argument about Emma’s relationship with her friend Phoebe. Mark insisted it made no sense for Emma to keep seeing her friend; Phoebe always made her feel bad about herself.

‘He doesn’t understand why I like her,’ she told me later. ‘He says I’m always down after I see her.’

‘Are you?’ I asked.

‘Mark says I am.’

‘I’m not asking what Mark thinks you feel. I’m trying to figure out with you what you feel.’

‘He must be right – why would he lie?’

And it was then, when I didn’t immediately answer, that she remembered Miss King.

I’d been treating Emma for almost a year. She’d first come to see me because she’d become acutely depressed after beginning a PhD. She’d been prescribed antidepressants. Her psychiatrist asked me to see her after she told him that she was longing to talk to someone – ‘to break through the wall that keeps me from living’.

In our first sessions, Emma described her childhood as normal, happy. But slowly, over the following months, another story surfaced. Emma’s father was frequently away for work; her mother was insecure, unsure of herself. They quarrelled frequently. Just before Emma’s sister was born, Emma was sent to Scotland, to her grandmother’s, where she stayed for six or seven months. Without emotion Emma described returning to her parents and new baby sister, and how she missed her grandmother and cried for her at night, ‘My parents have this funny story about how, when I came home, I insisted on calling my mum “lady” – I wouldn’t call her “Mummy”.’

As best I could tell, Emma’s parents’ self-esteem, their emotional equilibrium, seemed dependent on Emma behaving, achieving.

Events in Emma’s early life that would ordinarily have caused a child anxiety – the first day of nursery, being forgotten outside school at pick-up time, getting lost in a department store – seemed not to have bothered her at all. My suspicion was that Emma feared being sent away again if she allowed herself to feel her own feelings. And while Emma’s skill in fitting in with her parents’ wishes did not prevent the development of her substantial intellectual abilities, it did stop her emotional development.

When Emma’s PhD supervisor asked her to choose between two different areas of research, to tell him which area she wished to pursue and why – Emma broke down. Having to choose a direction, she had no compass, she was lost.

In the quiet of the consulting room, Emma asked, ‘Why do you think I’m remembering Miss King’s card now?’

‘Why do you think?’

‘I don’t know. The conversation with my dad was like the conversation with Mark – both were telling me what I really feel, or should feel.’

Emma said that she didn’t understand how people knew what they really felt. ‘Most of the time, I don’t know what I feel. I figure out what I should feel and then just act that way.’

I started to point out to Emma that she did know where to look: her own memories, dreams, actions. Her memory of her father came to mind as we were talking about her argument with Mark – the two events felt similar to her. And in telling me that she was late again to meet Mark, she was signalling to us both her lack of enthusiasm for seeing him. But as I tried to explain my thoughts, Emma began to cry.

‘Miss King,’ she said, sobbing. ‘Miss King.’

Later Emma would tell me that she didn’t know why remembering that morning in the kitchen had made her so upset, so overemotional. ‘Mum hates self-pity,’ she said. I told her that I didn’t think it was self-pity; it was sadness. She seemed to be crying for the self she’d lost, grieving for the little girl who wasn’t allowed to have her feelings.

James Hughes - Who Are the Technoprogressives?

From the IEET (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology), James Hughes reveals the results of a recent poll of IEET readers, over 400 of whom completed the survey (including me), and around 48% identified as technoprogressives (among other labels - we could choose more than one).

Here is one of the more interesting demographic stat collections:
Demographically, as we usually find in surveys of the transhumanist and Left movements, the technoprogressives are overwhelmingly (91%) white/European and (91%) male, although not as straight as the population at large – 17% are GLBT. Fully half (50%) have a masters, doctorate or professional degree, while another third (34%) have a bachelors degree. Most (60%) identify as atheists or agnostic, but there are technoprogressives among the respondents with every religious persuasion we asked about – "spiritual" (17%), Buddhist (13%), Unitarian Universalist (6%), Pantheist (4%), Catholic (4%), Protestant (4%), Pagan (3%), LDS (2%), Jewish (2%), Muslim (1%), and Hindu (1%).
Interesting to me, I identify as a technoprogressive, but I do not embrace many of the ideas that seem commonplace to this crowd, such as uploading consciousness into a computer to escape death (not even nearly possible, now and maybe ever), cryogenics (why the hell . . . ?), near immortality (who the hell wants to be alive for hundreds of years? have we learned nothing from vampire shows?), allowing parents to clone children, or to pick their child's basic biological traits (there goes genetic diversity), and several others.

Still, this is an interesting read . . . .

Who are the Technoprogressives?

J. Hughes
Ethical Technology

Posted: Jul 14, 2013

When we started promoting the term “technoprogressive” as the IEET’s ideological position back in 2006 it helped us move beyond being the left wing of transhumanism to being part of a broader, deeper and older political current with roots in the Enlightenment. Our recent survey of the IEET audience helps us continue to flesh out what kinds of people are responding to the technoprogressive political project.

More than 400 of you took the time to respond to the IEET survey, and half (48%) of you identified as "technoprogressive." (In later analyses of the survey I'll dig into the opinions of all the respondents, including those who didn't identify with the term "technoprogressive.")

"Technoprogressive" was one of the multiple political labels the survey provided, and most of you chose more than one to describe yourself. Of those almost all of the technoprogressives also chose political labels associated with left-wing politics, ranging from "liberal," "progressive," "anti-racist," and "Green," to various shades of radical left politics such as "libertarian socialist" and "anarchist." Surprisingly however – since the technoprogressive label was originally defined as a critique of libertarian transhumanism - some "technoprogressives" also identified as "libertarians," and a quarter (26%) of you identified as "upwingers or advocates of a future political system," as well as moderates, Euro-Liberals and Christian Democrats, and even conservatives. 
Political Identities of Technoprogressives in the 2013 IEET Survey
Liberal/Social Democratic
Libertarian Right
US-style "liberal"
Social democrat
Democratic socialist
Market socialist
Other Identities

Upwinger/advocate of a future political system
New Left
European Liberal
Religious socialist
Socialist feminist
Christian Democrat
Far right
Radical Left
Libertarian socialist
Not political
Socialist internationalist
Revolutionary socialist

Clearly, the technoprogressive label, like the term "progressive," has had a broader appeal than just to people on the Left.

We also asked about your support for a variety of movements. Among the self-described "technoprogressives" support for "transhumanism" garnered the most enthusiasm, with about two thirds (65%) of technoprogressives saying they strongly supported it. There were however some technoprogressives who were hostile or indifferent to the transhumanist movement. There was also almost complete support (above 80% on support or strongly support) among the technoprogressives for abortion rights, environmentalism, dignity in dying, disability rights, secular humanism and drug legalization. After these movements though there was a more mixed opinion about "animal rights" (70% support), "singularitarianism" (63% support), "great ape rights" (62%), trade unions (56%), vegetarianism (48%) and world federalism (46%).

Among the agree-disagree statements there were nine statements that stood out as having far more support from technoprogressives than from those who did not identify as technoprogressives. Technoprogressives were more supportive of uploading, cryonics, personhood rights for robots, cloning, radical life extension, designer babies, uplifting, GMO crops and – not surprisingly – technoprogress. 
Percent Agreeing
Non TPs
I would have my mind copied to computers if it was the only way I could continue as a conscious person.
I would consider being frozen and re-animated later if it was the only way I could continue living.
Robots that think and feel like human beings, and aren't a threat to human beings, should be granted human rights.
Parents should be able to have children through cloning once the technology is safe.
It would be a good thing if people could live in good health for hundreds of years or longer.
Parents should be able to choose the sex, intelligence and other characteristics of their children.
It would be ethical to genetically modify apes and dolphins to be able to think and communicate more like human beings.
Genetically-modified crops present an opportunity to improve agriculture and nutrition, and should be actively developed.
Through science and reason, human progress is limitless.

Demographically, as we usually find in surveys of the transhumanist and Left movements, the technoprogressives are overwhelmingly (91%) white/European and (91%) male, although not as straight as the population at large – 17% are GLBT. Fully half (50%) have a masters, doctorate or professional degree, while another third (34%) have a bachelors degree. Most (60%) identify as atheists or agnostic, but there are technoprogressives among the respondents with every religious persuasion we asked about – "spiritual" (17%), Buddhist (13%), Unitarian Universalist (6%), Pantheist (4%), Catholic (4%), Protestant (4%), Pagan (3%), LDS (2%), Jewish (2%), Muslim (1%), and Hindu (1%).

Overall, the survey results show that our small political tendency has attracted a very diverse constituency of very well-educated people who are mostly secular left-leaning transhumanists, but who include religious people, non-transhumanists and people not on the Left. As we knew we have a lot of work to do to broaden our appeal beyond the male white/European base, which will happen naturally as technoprogressivism continues to evolve beyond its narrow subcultural community to build alliances with the diverse movements that it has strong resonances with. In addition to organizations like Humanity+, which a third (32%) of the technoprogressives belonged to, and support for transhumanist-identified projects like SENS (18%), technoprogressives also participate in political parties (27%), religious denominations (15%), political nonprofit groups and professional associations. Raising the flag for a technoprogressive point of view in these myriad arenas is the work ahead of us.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut USA, where he teaches health policy and serves as Director of Institutional Research and Planning. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. He produces a syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)