Saturday, December 07, 2013

Cavemen Did Not Live in Caves (from Nautilus)

The new issue of Nautilus has two interesting articles on the origins of human habitations. As recently as 400,000 years ago, we began to build crude structures, but it was not until about 15,000 years ago that humans began to build houses and villages.

Contrary to the popular narrative, human evolution likely did not center around life in caves.

For the past 20 years, Margaret Conkey and her team have been conducting open-air field research in the Ariège region, in the Central Pyrénées foothills of France. Her project, titled “Between the Caves,” concentrated on the Paleolithic era, also known as the Stone Age, before humans became sedentary. Challenging the status quo, she found that the Paleolithic people were much more than cavemen.
Both interesting articles are posted below.

In Search of the First Human Home

When did the savanna give way to the crash pad?

By Ian Tattersall | Illustration by Jon Han December 5, 2013

What is home? This is a deceptively simple question. Is it the place where you were born? Is it where you happen to live right now? Does it have to be a dwelling, or can it be a spot on the landscape, or even a state of mind?

For archaeologists tracing human origins, these are challenging questions. Yet answering them provides key insights into our evolution from hominids at the mercy of our surroundings to humans in control of them. Having a sense of home, as we understand it today, is a product of symbolic thinking, a capacity that makes us unique among animals, including our own ancestors.

Intimations of home likely began in early hominids’ need for shelter. Australopithecus species, to which the famous 3-million-year-old Lucy belonged, often sheltered in trees, where they may have sought cover under dense clumps of leaves in the way in which great apes do today when it rains. Much later, about 400,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers, probably belonging to the species Homo heidelbergensis, constructed a camp on a beach at Terra Amata, now a suburb of the French city Nice. One large hut was about 30 feet long, and consisted of an oval palisade of saplings stuck in the ground, reinforced with a ring of stones, and presumably brought together to form a roof. Just inside a break in the ring where the doorway was, a campfire had burned in a hearth.

It is hard to not think that these early humans felt at home in this basic structure. Some might even argue that the crucial element was not the shelter itself but the hearth, where the flames would have formed a center of attention and social activity. In this limited sense, feelings of home were evidently there from the very beginning.

Archaeologists begin to see proto-houses during the Ice Age, some 15,000 years ago. Hunter-gatherers at the Ukrainian site of Mezhirich built four oval-to-circular huts that ranged from 120 to 240 square feet in area, and were clad in tons of mammoth bones. Out there on the treeless tundra, their occupants would have cooperated in hunting reindeer and other grazers that migrated seasonally through the area. The Mezhirich people dug pits in the permafrost that acted as natural “freezers” to preserve their meat and let them spend several months at a time in the “village.” With so much labor invested in the construction of their houses, it is hard to imagine that the Mezhirich folk did not somehow feel “at home” there.

But if an archaeologist had to pick an example of the earliest structures that most resembled our modern idea of home, it would probably be the round houses built by the semi-sedentary Natufians, an ancient people who lived around the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea (Israel, Syria, and environs) at the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago. A typical Natufian village consisted of several circular huts each measuring about 10 to 20 feet in diameter; these villages testify to a revolutionary change in human living arrangements. Finally, people were regularly living in semi-permanent settlements, in which the houses were clearly much more than simple shelters against the elements. The Natufians were almost certainly witness to a dramatic change in society.

The end of the Ice Age was a time of transition from a hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence to an agricultural way of life. But it also involved a Faustian bargain. Adopting a fixed residence went hand-in-hand with cultivating fields and domesticating animals. It allowed families to grow, providing additional labor to till the fields. But becoming dependent on the crops they grew meant that people found themselves in opposition to the environment: The rain didn’t fall and the sun didn’t shine at the farmers’ convenience. They locked themselves into a lifestyle, and to make the field continuously productive to feed their growing families, they had to modify their landscape. Today, we carry out such modifications on a huge scale, and nature occasionally bites back, sometimes with a vengeance. Back in Natufian times, we catch a glimpse of this process in its embryonic stage.

The decision to stay in one place, at least part of the year, entailed a transfer of individual loyalty from the mobile social group to a particular place. The Natufians lived by foraging and hunting in the oak-and-pistachio woodlands in the region and probably tended wild stands of the wheat and rye that grew naturally there. They harvested these cereals with sickles made out of sharp flint blades embedded into animal bones, and stored them in pits dug into the floors of their round, single-room houses. The houses themselves were sunk into the ground, and often had central fire pits for cooking. Archaeologists have also found a scattering of domestic paraphernalia within, including stone mortars for grinding grain, and devices to straighten arrow shafts for use in the hunt.

Archeologists can tell a lot about lifestyles from these artifacts. The Natufians were biologically modern people. Interments of the dead with grave goods, both in presumably abandoned houses and nearby caves, hint at ritual and spiritual beliefs. Pendants and beads made of shell, bone, and deer teeth additionally testify to a Natufian love of personal adornment.

We don’t know if the single-room houses were occupied by nuclear families or some other kind of kin group, or whether size disparities among the houses reflected varying social status or family sizes. What we do know is that dwellings of this kind were generally grouped into “villages” that would have housed about 150 inhabitants. They would almost certainly have felt like “home” to those who occupied them. It is clear that these people were pioneering a successful transition between the nomadic hunting-and-gathering lifestyles of their predecessors and the permanently settled existences of the Neolithic peoples who succeeded them around 10 thousand years ago.

So even before early people settled down to permanent agriculture and animal husbandry, the Natufians had laid a huge amount of the physical and social groundwork necessary for a fateful economic development that literally changed the world. And in a busy Natufian village, buzzing with life, we can readily imagine that everyone had a sense of belonging, both to the village itself, and to the individual homes that sheltered them. It seems that the formation of a community was an important turning point in the evolution of human society.

The famed lexicographer Samuel Johnson, a master of verbal precision, defined the word “home” in his great Dictionary of the English Language of 1755 very concretely as “his own house … the private dwelling,” but he also included an adjectival phrase: “close to one’s own breast or affairs.” In doing so, he was reflecting what we can see as the many-layered meanings of the Natufian village, which tied the notion of place to the more abstract feeling of belonging to a social group that had anchored individual human identities in earlier times.

This abstract sense of place is part of the cognitive equipment that we bring to bear on our notions of home. Modern human beings are cognitively peculiar. Uniquely, we resolve our surroundings into a vocabulary of mental symbols. We can then reshuffle the symbols to produce abstractions that we add to the concrete world around us. We are blessed with manipulative hands that enable us to put these ideas into action. But our powers of symbolic reasoning are a newly acquired capacity, dating back to no more than about 100,000 years ago. By this reckoning, the Natufians and the inhabitants of Mezhirich would have been able to nurture complex notions of home that Lucy and the Terra Amata folks could not. However deep in human history their emotional or economic underpinnings may run, the complex and nuanced ideas about home that we cherish today are the invention of our Homo sapiens species alone.

~ Ian Tattersall is a curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. An acknowledged leader in the study of the human fossil record and the lemurs of Madagascar, Tattersall is the author of many books about human evolution, including, most recently, Masters of the Planet and (with Rob DeSalle) The Brain: Big Bangs, Behaviors, and Beliefs.

* * * * *

The Caveman’s Home Was Not a Cave

Our picture of man’s early home has been skewed by modern preconceptions.

By Jude Isabella | Illustration by Chris Buzelli December 5, 2013

It was the 18th-century scientist Carolus Linnaeus that laid the foundations for modern biological taxonomy. It was also Linnaeus who argued for the existence of Homo troglodytes, a primitive people said to inhabit the caves of an Indonesian archipelago. Although troglodyte has since been proven to be an invalid taxon, archaeological doctrine continued to describe our ancestors as cavemen. The idea fits with a particular narrative of human evolution, one that describes a steady march from the primitive to the complex: Humans descended from the trees, stumbled about the land, made homes in caves, and finally found glory in high-rises. In this narrative, progress includes living inside confined physical spaces. This thinking was especially prevalent in Western Europe, where caves yielded so much in the way of art and artifacts that archaeologists became convinced that a cave was also a home, in the modern sense of the word.

By the 1980s, archaeologists understood that this picture was incomplete: Our ancestors were not confined to dark cavernous spaces, and their activity outside of the cave was an important part of their life. But archaeologists continued excavating caves, both because it was habitual and the techniques involved were well understood.

Then along came the American anthropological archaeologist, Margaret Conkey. Today a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, she had asked a simple question: What did cave people do all day? What if she looked at the archaeological record from the perspective of a mobile culture, like the Inuit? She decided to look outside of caves.

For the past 20 years, Conkey and her team have been conducting open-air field research in the Ariège region, in the Central Pyrénées foothills of France. Her project, titled “Between the Caves,” concentrated on the Paleolithic era, also known as the Stone Age, before humans became sedentary. Challenging the status quo, she found that the Paleolithic people were much more than cavemen.

The California-based Conkey spoke to Nautilus from Seattle, where she was, coincidently, helping her daughter re-organize her home.

Why did you launch the “Between the Caves” project? Were cave sites too crowded with other archaeologists?

Well, one might say that! In the early 1970s I was thinking about a new project. At the time, American archaeologists were developing an open-air survey methodology, where we’re out on the landscape looking for archaeological artifacts. The method wasn’t yet used in France or Spain, or other European countries. So I proposed to my French colleagues a project looking for materials out on the landscape. For Paleolithic research, those materials would be stone tools. They said, “You won’t find anything.” I said, “Why won’t I find anything?” They said, “Nobody’s really found anything or reported anything.” I said, “Has anybody looked systematically?” They said, “Well, no.” They thought I was nuts.

I don’t blame anyone for focusing on caves. Caves are constrained spatially, preservation is excellent because they’re usually limestone and very alkaline, which helps preserve bone and other materials that don’t often preserve in the open air. But caves are an unrepresentative sample of where people were and what they did. People were clearly inside caves—painting, drawing, and doing other kinds of artistic and cultural activities. But they weren’t hunting in a cave, they weren’t collecting raw materials in a cave, they weren’t collecting firewood or other things. So where were they the rest of the time, and what were they doing?

What tells an archaeologist that Paleolithic people spent less time in caves than we imagined in the past?

One big clue is seasonal occupation evidence, something archaeologists infer based on things like animal bones. For example, by looking at found animal teeth, we can tell you at what season of the year the animals were killed. Also, certain animals are only available at certain times—fish that spawn at certain seasons of the year, for example. Almost all caves are described by archaeologists as seasonal, namely as autumn or winter occupations. It’s clear that people were in caves for maybe a couple of months a year at the most.

How did you look for evidence on the landscape and what did you find?

We looked at plowed fields, because when plows churn up dirt, they expose artifacts. We surveyed 360 plowed fields—cornfields, vineyards, sunflower, soybean, sorghum, and other crops in the Central Pyrenees, Ariège region in France. We walked between rows of crops in a systematic way, looking for flint artifacts. Ideally a crop is low enough that you can walk down one row and look to the left and to the right at the same time. Right away we started finding a lot of artifacts.

Then we discovered what we think is an open-air habitation site in Peyre Blanque, also in the Ariège region, on a ridge that’s never been plowed. We found artifacts eroding out of a muddy horseback-riding trail in the woods. The horses had stirred up the mud, and exposed some stone tools; now the site has yielded hundreds of them. We started excavating and found stone slabs, which we believe is a habitation structure in the open-air, probably from the Upper Paleolithic, about 17,000 years ago. We also found yellow, black, and red pigments, meaning ochre—powdered hydrated iron oxide—that early humans used for art and body art.

We also found pieces of flint that came from sometimes 200 or more kilometers away. In some fields there were no flint sources anywhere nearby, so finding pieces of flint that are flakes, or otherwise worked, suggested that people carried flint from somewhere, used it for tools, and left it. That means that people were on the move; they were making long treks, or passing these materials to each other as they met somewhere on the landscape. The number of artifacts we found suggests a long-time use of the landscape—people were coming to this area probably 80,000 years ago and even into the Neolithic.

We found many Paleolithic sites, but we can’t determine exactly what period because we just don’t have any datable, organic materials. We’re using a typological classification system that the French perfected—we look at how the people made their tools. Neanderthals, for example, have a very distinctive technique of removing a flake from a core, called the Levallois technique.[1] We found more Neanderthal tools than anybody ever imagined were in this area!

How would you define home?

Home is a place or places on the landscape that you are somehow connected to. It’s also a conceptual and symbolic notion as to where people are from, where they relate to, and where certain important aspects of their lives take place. Home is a place where you reconnect with people or memories. We found that some of our sites were revisited for thousands of years, again and again. On the same sites, we found artifacts that are characteristic of Neanderthal populations of the Middle Paleolithic era, and artifacts that are characteristic of modern humans from the later, Upper Paleolithic era. We call these sites “Places of Many Generations.”

Interestingly, not all these locations are next to a source of flint, so people intentionally chose to use, and re-use, a location with clear evidence of previous generations, previous peoples, and maybe even previous kinds of peoples. People would recognize the stone tools of other groups, similarly to how we’d recognize this funny thing from the 1800s. We see some tools that were possibly made earlier and then reworked much later with different techniques. I think people of the landscape had social memories of the uses of the landscape, and they understood that people before them used those places too. These Places of Many Generations actually could be places of memory and memory-making. So people of the landscape created memories and, in doing so, created a home.

Would an archaeologist from a mobile culture have a different view of what home is compared to an archaeologist from a sedentary culture?

I think so. Archaeologists are influenced by their culture, not surprisingly. We can’t be totally neutral—we’d be like a blob—but it’s important to recognize what biases we bring to our work. My colleagues and I are suggesting that we have certain biases about what constitutes a “home” and that mobile people didn’t think of home as a stationary physical structure. A “homeless” archaeologist would have a different perspective. Only instead of using the term “homeless,” which in our culture has a negative connotation, I use the term “spatially ambitious.” Clearly, based on what we found, our ancestors were way more spatially ambitious than the cavemen we had thought them to be. Accepting that fact can help us recognize our modern spatially ambitious behavior—immigration, emigration, globalization—and understand what the concept of home means for modern humans

1. The Levallois technique is a distinctive type of stone knapping developed during the Palaeolithic period. It was more sophisticated than earlier methods and involving shaping a tool by flaking off pieces. Using this technique, early humans made different kinds of tools, such as blade-like flakes and triangular points. Archaeologists first discovered such tools in the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret.
~ Jude Isabella is a science writer based in Victoria, British Columbia. Her new book, Salmon, A Scientific Memoir, will be released next year.

A Neuroscientist's Radical Theory of How Networks Become Conscious (WIRED U.K.)

File:RyoanJi-Dry garden.jpg
In the Japanese art of the rock garden, the artist must be aware 
of the rocks' "ishigokoro" (‘heart,’ or ‘mind’)

Neuroscientist Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, has progressively become less hyper-rational in his understanding of consciousness and more Buddhist - and it's not clear yet if this is a good thing.

His newest pronouncement is his belief in panpsychism, defined below by Wikipedia:
In philosophy, panpsychism is the view that mind or soul (Greek: ψυχή) is a universal feature of all things, and the primordial feature from which all others are derived. The panpsychist sees him or herself as a mind in a world of minds.

Panpsychism is one of the oldest philosophical theories, and can be ascribed to philosophers like Thales, Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz and William James. Panpsychism can also be seen in eastern philosophies such as Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism. During the 19th century, Panpsychism was the default theory in philosophy of mind, but it saw a decline during the latter half of the 20th century with the rise of logical positivism.[1] The recent interest in the hard problem of consciousness has once again made panpsychism a mainstream theory.
 Says Koch, "I argue that we live in a universe of space, time, mass, energy, and consciousness arising out of complex systems." This sounds like emergence to me, and less like panpsychism, which is the belief that mind/consciousness is inherent in the universe. I'm more likely to accept emergence as an explanation of consciousness that avoids issues of duality.

See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on panpsychism for a better understanding of the arguments for and against, as well as its history in philosophy.

A neuroscientist's radical theory of how networks become conscious

15 November 13
by Brandon Keim

A map of neural circuits in the human brain - Human Connectome Project

It's a question that's perplexed philosophers for centuries and scientists for decades: where does consciousness come from? We know it exists, at least in ourselves. But how it arises from chemistry and electricity in our brains is an unsolved mystery.

Neuroscientist Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, thinks he might know the answer. According to Koch, consciousness arises within any sufficiently complex, information-processing system. All animals, from humans on down to earthworms, are conscious; even the internet could be. That's just the way the universe works.

"The electric charge of an electron doesn't arise out of more elemental properties. It simply has a charge," says Koch. "Likewise, I argue that we live in a universe of space, time, mass, energy, and consciousness arising out of complex systems."

What Koch proposes is a scientifically refined version of an ancient philosophical doctrine called panpsychism -- and, coming from someone else, it might sound more like spirituality than science. But Koch has devoted the last three decades to studying the neurological basis of consciousness. His work at the Allen Institute now puts him at the forefront of the BRAIN Initiative, the massive new effort to understand how brains work, which will begin next year.

Koch's insights have been detailed in dozens of scientific articles and a series of books, including last year's Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Wired talked to Koch about his understanding of this age-old question.

Wired: How did you come to believe in panpsychism?

Christof Koch: I grew up Roman Catholic, and also grew up with a dog. And what bothered me was the idea that, while humans had souls and could go to heaven, dogs were not supposed to have souls. Intuitively I felt that either humans and animals alike had souls, or none did. Then I encountered Buddhism, with its emphasis on the universal nature of the conscious mind. You find this idea in philosophy, too, espoused by Plato and Spinoza and Schopenhauer, that psyche -- consciousness -- is everywhere. I find that to be the most satisfying explanation for the universe, for three reasons: biological, metaphysical and computational.

Wired: What do you mean?

Koch: My consciousness is an undeniable fact. One can only infer facts about the universe, such as physics, indirectly, but the one thing I'm utterly certain of is that I'm conscious. I might be confused about the state of my consciousness, but I'm not confused about having it. Then, looking at the biology, all animals have complex physiology, not just humans. And at the level of a grain of brain matter, there's nothing exceptional about human brains.

Only experts can tell, under a microscope, whether a chunk of brain matter is mouse or monkey or human -- and animals have very complicated behaviours. Even honeybees recognise individual faces, communicate the quality and location of food sources via waggle dances, and navigate complex mazes with the aid of cues stored in their short-term memory. If you blow a scent into their hive, they return to where they've previously encountered the odor. That's associative memory. What is the simplest explanation for it? That consciousness extends to all these creatures, that it's an imminent property of highly organised pieces of matter, such as brains.

Wired: That's pretty fuzzy. How does consciousness arise? How can you quantify it?

Koch: There's a theory, called Integrated Information Theory, developed by Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin, that assigns to any one brain, or any complex system, a number -- denoted by the Greek symbol of Φ -- that tells you how integrated a system is, how much more the system is than the union of its parts. Φ gives you an information-theoretical measure of consciousness. Any system with integrated information different from zero has consciousness. Any integration feels like something

It's not that any physical system has consciousness. A black hole, a heap of sand, a bunch of isolated neurons in a dish, they're not integrated. They have no consciousness. But complex systems do. And how much consciousness they have depends on how many connections they have and how they're wired up.

Wired: Ecosystems are interconnected. Can a forest be conscious?

Koch: In the case of the brain, it's the whole system that's conscious, not the individual nerve cells. For any one ecosystem, it's a question of how richly the individual components, such as the trees in a forest, are integrated within themselves as compared to causal interactions between trees.

The philosopher John Searle, in his review of Consciousness, asked, "Why isn't America conscious?" After all, there are 300 million Americans, interacting in very complicated ways. Why doesn't consciousness extend to all of America? It's because integrated information theory postulates that consciousness is a local maximum. You and me, for example: we're interacting right now, but vastly less than the cells in my brain interact with each other. While you and I are conscious as individuals, there's no conscious Übermind that unites us in a single entity. You and I are not collectively conscious. It's the same thing with ecosystems. In each case, it's a question of the degree and extent of causal interactions among all components making up the system.

Wired: The internet is integrated. Could it be conscious?

Koch: It's difficult to say right now. But consider this. The internet contains about 10 billion computers, with each computer itself having a couple of billion transistors in its CPU. So the internet has at least 10^19 transistors, compared to the roughly 1000 trillion (or quadrillion) synapses in the human brain. That's about 10,000 times more transistors than synapses. But is the internet more complex than the human brain? It depends on the degree of integration of the internet.
For instance, our brains are connected all the time. On the internet, computers are packet-switching. They're not connected permanently, but rapidly switch from one to another. But according to my version of panpsychism, it feels like something to be the internet -- and if the internet were down, it wouldn't feel like anything anymore. And that is, in principle, not different from the way I feel when I'm in a deep, dreamless sleep.

Wired: Internet aside, what does a human consciousness share with animal consciousness? Are certain features going to be the same?

Koch: It depends on the sensorium [the scope of our sensory perception -ed.] and the interconnections. For a mouse, this is easy to say. They have a cortex similar to ours, but not a well-developed prefrontal cortex. So it probably doesn't have self-consciousness, or understand symbols like we do, but it sees and hears things similarly.

In every case, you have to look at the underlying neural mechanisms that give rise to the sensory apparatus, and to how they're implemented. There's no universal answer.

Wired: Does a lack of self-consciousness mean an animal has no sense of itself?

Koch: Many mammals don't pass the mirror self-recognition test, including dogs. But I suspect dogs have an olfactory form of self-recognition. You notice that dogs smell other dog's poop a lot, but they don't smell their own so much. So they probably have some sense of their own smell, a primitive form of self-consciousness. Now, I have no evidence to suggest that a dog sits there and reflects upon itself; I don't think dogs have that level of complexity. But I think dogs can see, and smell, and hear sounds, and be happy and excited, just like children and some adults.

Self-consciousness is something that humans have excessively, and that other animals have much less of, though apes have it to some extent. We have a hugely developed prefrontal cortex. We can ponder.

Wired: How can a creature be happy without self-consciousness?

Koch: When I'm climbing a mountain or a wall, my inner voice is totally silent. Instead, I'm hyperaware of the world around me. I don't worry too much about a fight with my wife, or about a tax return. I can't afford to get lost in my inner self. I'll fall. Same thing if I'm traveling at high speed on a bike. It's not like I have no sense of self in that situation, but it's certainly reduced. And I can be very happy.

Wired: I've read that you don't kill insects if you can avoid it.

Koch: That's true. They're fellow travelers on the road, bookended by eternity on both sides.

Wired: How do you square what you believe about animal consciousness with how they're used in experiments?

Koch: There are two things to put in perspective. First, there are vastly more animals being eaten at McDonald's every day. The number of animals used in research pales in comparison to the number used for flesh. And we need basic brain research to understand the brain's mechanisms. My father died from Parkinson's. One of my daughters died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. To prevent these brain diseases, we need to understand the brain -- and that, I think, can be the only true justification for animal research. That in the long run, it leads to a reduction in suffering for all of us. But in the short term, you have to do it in a way that minimises their pain and discomfort, with an awareness that these animals are conscious creatures.

Wired: Getting back to the theory, is your version of panpsychism truly scientific rather than metaphysical? How can it be tested?

Koch: In principle, in all sorts of ways. One implication is that you can build two systems, each with the same input and output -- but one, because of its internal structure, has integrated information. One system would be conscious, and the other not. It's not the input-output behavior that makes a system conscious, but rather the internal wiring.

The theory also says you can have simple systems that are conscious, and complex systems that are not. The cerebellum should not give rise to consciousness because of the simplicity of its connections. Theoretically you could compute that, and see if that's the case, though we can't do that right now. There are millions of details we still don't know. Human brain imaging is too crude. It doesn't get you to the cellular level.

The more relevant question, to me as a scientist, is how can I disprove the theory today. That's more difficult. Tononi's group has built a device to perturb the brain and assess the extent to which severely brain-injured patients -- think of Terri Schiavo -- are truly unconscious, or whether they do feel pain and distress but are unable to communicate to their loved ones. And it may be possible that some other theories of consciousness would fit these facts.

Wired: I still can't shake the feeling that consciousness arising through integrated information is -- arbitrary, somehow. Like an assertion of faith.

Koch: If you think about any explanation of anything, how far back does it go? We're confronted with this in physics. Take quantum mechanics, which is the theory that provides the best description we have of the universe at microscopic scales. Quantum mechanics allows us to design MRI and other useful machines and instruments. But why should quantum mechanics hold in our universe? It seems arbitrary! Can we imagine a universe without it, a universe where Planck's constant has a different value? Ultimately, there's a point beyond which there's no further regress. We live in a universe where, for reasons we don't understand, quantum physics simply is the reigning explanation.

With consciousness, it's ultimately going to be like that. We live in a universe where organised bits of matter give rise to consciousness. And with that, we can ultimately derive all sorts of interesting things: the answer to when a fetus or a baby first becomes conscious, whether a brain-injured patient is conscious, pathologies of consciousness such as schizophrenia, or consciousness in animals. And most people will say, that's a good explanation.

If I can predict the universe, and predict things I see around me, and manipulate them with my explanation, that's what it means to explain. Same thing with consciousness. Why we should live in such a universe is a good question, but I don't see how that can be answered now.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Omnivore - Can You Have Religion Without God?

From Bookforum's Omnivore blog, a collection of links on all things religious - from Satan to Jesus, and from evolution to a religious worldview for secularists. A particularly good read is an article from Scientific American, The Psychological Power of Satan.

Can you have religion without God?

Dec 5 2013

Thursday, December 05, 2013

An Introduction to Mindset Agency Theory

In this paper, Yolles and Fink assemble a mindset theory not at all related to that of Carol Dweck's popular model. Rather, these authors build off of the work of personality modelling approaches which were broadly described as classificational, relational, or dynamic/causational.
Jung’s, Bandura’s and Piaget’s theories are all causational; MBTI and FFM are classificational; and Maruyma’s Mindscape theory is relational. Because of its epistemological and relational basis, we found that Maruyama’s Mindscape theory has a better potential capacity to explore cognitive patterns of personality than MBTI and FFM. However, Maruyama’s Mindscape theory does not have the generative transparency of MBTI. To improve on the generative transparency of Mindscape theory, Boje’s had introduced three “real traits”. However, Boje’s approach remained qualitative without the immediate possibility of empirical support, and is thereby not improving the potential for broader use of Mindscape theory.
The result is an interesting values frame and a multi-perspectival model of mindsets.

An Introduction to Mindset Theory

  • Maurice Yolles: John Moores University - Centre for the Creation of Coherent Change and Knowledge (C4K)
  • Gerhard Fink: IACCM International Association for Cross Cultural Competence and Management
November 1, 2013


The plural agency is a self-referential, self-regulating, self-organizing, adaptive, pro-active and culturally stable collective, having a normative personality belonging to a psychosocial framework of the "collective mind." The agency can be characterized by Mindset types, a derivative of Maruyama’s Mindscape meta-theory -- a little known but powerful epistemic approach that can anticipate an agency’s patterns of behavior and demands. A Mindscape is a construct from which coherent sets of behavioral mind-sets can emerge. However, Mindscape theory lacks generative transparency, and the Mindset theory we develop changes this. Mindset Theory is based on the Sagiv-Schwartz (2007) cultural values study from which eight Mindset types are generated that individually or in combination can characterize personality and anticipate behavior.


This paper is interested in two aspects of personality: a theory of personality that indicates its nature, how it functions, and an identification of variables that might represent its major characteristics, and personality assessment through an ability to identify and evaluate these variables. Our purpose in this paper covers both of these attributes. In respect of the first, we aim at creating a dynamic socio-cognitive theory of human agency having as its core a normative personality.

When we refer to normative personality, we do not mean this within the context of the ambient normative social influences that exist during the formation of personalities and that mould them (Mroczek & Little, 2006). Rather, the term is being used to refer to the norms in a collective that may together coalesce into a unitary cognitive structure such that a collective mind can be inferred, and from which an emergent normative personality arises. To explain this further, consider that a potentially durable collective develops a dominant culture within which shared beliefs arise in relation to its capacity to produce desired operative outcomes. Cultural anchors arise which enable the development of formal and informal norms to which patterns of behaviour, modes of conduct and expression, forms of thought, attitudes, and values are more or less adhered to by those that compose the plural agency. When the norms refer to formal behaviours, then where the members of the collective contravene them, they are deemed to be engaging in illegitimate behaviour which, if discovered, may result in formal retribution - the severity of which is determined from the agency’s ideological and ethical positioning. This occurs with the rise of collective cognitive processes that start with information inputs and through communication and decision processes result in orientation towards action; and it does this with a sense of the collective mind and self. It is a short step to recognise that the collective mind has associated with it a normative personality. Where a normative personality is deemed to exist, it does not necessarily mean that individual members of the collective will all conform to all aspects of the normative processes: they may only do so “more or less.” According to Yolles (2009), as long as a plural agency has a durable culture to which participants more or less conform through its norms, a “collective mind” is implied that operates through meaningful dialogue and agreement. As such the plural agency may appear to behave more or less like a singular cognitive agency. While the plural agency is ultimately composed of singular agencies, they are similar, can suffer from related pathologies that include: dysfunctions, neuroses, feelings of guilt, adopt and maintain collective psychological defences that reduce pain through denial and cover-up, and operate through processes of power that might be unproductive (Kets de Vries, 1991).

In the same way that singular agencies learn, so do plural agencies. We represent this capacity of the normative personality through cognitive learning theory (e.g., Miller & Dollard, 1941; Miller et al., 1960; Piaget, 1950; Vygotsky, 1978; Argyris & Schön, 1978; Bandura, 1991; Nobre, 2003; Argote & Todorova, 2007), where “learning is seen in terms of the acquisition or reorganization of the cognitive structures through which agencies process and store information” (Good and Brophy, 1990, pp. 187). Set within cognitive information process theory, the collective mind is seen as an information system that operates through a set of logical mental rules, and strategies (e.g., Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968; Bowlby, 1980; Novak, 1993; Wang, 2007).

In this paper we adopt a theoretical approach intended to represent the personality through a set of traits, and we develop Mindset theory as a means by which normative personalities can be assessed. Mindset theory is a derivative of Mindscape theory, a little known approach for reasons that likely include its lack of generative transparency. In order to correct this we will create Mindset theory by adopting the cybernetic trait model of Yolles, Fink & Dauber (2011). Then, to facilitate assessment we connect this with the extensive empirical study by Shalom Schwartz (e.g., Sagiv-Schwarz, 2007) on epistemic cultural values. In particular we shall show that normative personalities can take Mindscape types which can be transparently generated from combinations of bi-polar traits that arise from Sagiv-Schwartz theory.

Having referred to traits, it is useful to consider something more about them. A trait is usually seen as a distinguishing feature, characteristic or quality of a personality style. It creates a predisposition for a personality to respond in a particular way to a broad range of situations (Allport, 1961). Traits are also described as enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself that are exhibited in a wide range of social and personal contexts. They constitute habitual patterns of thought, emotion and stable clusters of behaviour. They are therefore better seen as constructs that reflect different sets of values and attitudes. There may be a variety of traits, but we can also identify super-traits (Bandura, 1999) or global traits (Van Egeren, 2009) which play a formative role in the development of personality. These formative traits are constituted as self-regulatory propensities or styles that affect how individuals characteristically pursue their goals (Van Egeren, 2009). In this paper when we refer to traits, we shall mean formative traits. These operate as continuous variables that together are indicative of personality, and are subject to small degrees of continuous variation. Traits may take scalar values that for Eysenck (1957) determine personality type. As an illustration, the Five Factor Method (FFM1 or the Big Five) is an empirically based classificatory trait approach where the traits take on single pole and bi-polar values (Cattel, 1945; Goldberg, 1993; Costa & McCrae 1992).

Normally, type theory is useful in personality assessment since they represent conditions of a personality that can be associated with a set of characteristics or properties that establish a penchant towards certain patterns of behaviour. There are schemas (models that may or may not be developed into or be connected with full theories) that explore types, though sometimes as in the MBTI (Myers, 2000) schema the traits are inferred as existing virtually, and unspecified. While explicitly defined traits take on identifiable personality control functions, virtual traits also take on control functions, but in this case they would be implicit and unidentified (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990).

While traits constitute useful variables for the characterisation of personality, there is some confusion in the literature in the way that types are defined. Some authors (e.g. Eysenck, 1957) find that simple distinguishing marks may qualify single traits as types, while Myers-Briggs when referring to types means meta-types, i.e. a determinable collection of types (Myers, 2000). Following Eysenck, types can be defined through a trait that can characterize a system. If more than a single trait is needed to characterize a system, then types may occur as some composite of several traits with certain distinguishing marks. Thus for instance consider the case of the extreme poles of bi-polar traits. The number of types (z) to be generated from bi-polar traits depends on the number of traits (n) that constitute a system: z = 2n. In a case where three states of a trait (e.g., the extremes and a range in the middle) constitute a system, then z = 3n. We have already referred to MBTI as a “personality type” approach with virtual traits, and which operates as a classificatory system that was created from Jung’s (1923) bi-polar temperament personality theory. From 4 bi-polar virtual traits, a system of 16 personality types was created by Myers-Briggs (Myers & McCaulley, 1985; Myers, McCaulley, Quenk & Hammer, 1998).

While personality traits create a potential for the generation of descriptive clusters of behaviour, many consider them to represent the ultimate causes of patterns of behaviour. However, if such a view is to be sustainable, then additional theory is needed that ties trait schemas that simply classify personalities to one type or another, to dynamic schemas that involve causative processes and allow for personality shifts, as for instance through: (a) Piaget’s (1950) concepts of child development and Bandura’s (2006) psychology of the human agency that would allow traits to take a role that is significantly beyond their use as classification systems; and (b) Piaget’s ideas of intelligent behaviour and Bandura’s interest in efficacy and performance that establish ideas of change in behaviour through learning that existing trait theories are unable to currently represent. It may be possible for trait theory to embrace such concepts by seeing them as enduring patterns of cognitive schemas that arise from such phenomena as perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself, i.e., they condition decision making processes in some way. Action then emerges from the major processes of cognition, motivation, affect, effectiveness recognition, and selection of available patterns of behaviour.
Moving on from the Introduction, I wanted to share a pretty large section of this paper because I believe it offers an unique and useful model for making sense of values frames in both individual and cultures.
In contrast to MBTI, Maruyama developed his socio-cognitive personality type theory through a schema of epistemological meta-types, which he called Mindscape theory. This schema permits personal determinants to operate dynamically within causal structures. Meta-types are combinations of epistemic values (which we call enantiomers) which are constituted as elements of human culture, material objects, or human practice (Maruyama, 1988). Mindscape analysis, Maruyama claims, is particularly suitable for complex and multifaceted environments, and can be used to explore the interrelations among seemingly unrelated aspects of human activities. While Mindscape theory is represented as an epistemological typology, its purpose and use lie in interrelating seemingly separate aspects of human activities (Maruyama, 1988, p.311). While Mindscape modes are numerous and vary from individual to individual, they cumulate into at least four common and stable types that may be partly innate and partly learned.

Social collectives have a normative collective cognitive ability (Thompson, Leigh and Gary Alan Fine, 1999), and as such they also have what we shall call a normative personality - a principle also supported by, for instance, Bridges (1992), Kets de Vries (1991) and Yolles (2006), and already implicitly embedded in Mindscape theory and MBTI. Hence, Mindscape theory can apply to social personality and individual personality contexts. Within the context of the social personality "one of the [personality] types becomes powerful for historical or political reasons, and utilizes, ignores or suppresses individuals of other types" (Maruyama, 2002, p167; cited by Boje, 2004). Following Maruyama (1988; 2001; 2008) and Boje (2004), four types of Mindscapes always exist in any culture, though their percentage distribution varies across cultures3. Available data on cross-cultural migrants indicate that some aspects of Mindscapes are formative in childhood and become irreversible at the age of around ten, approximately corresponding to the child’s formative years. An agency with one Mindscape mode may "learn" to "understand" by some intellectual process a figurative structure that is conceptualized in other Mindscapes, but the results of such attempts are likely to be highly distorted or psychologically artificial. This becomes clearer, for example, when an agency is a human activity group that holds a particular paradigm in science (Kuhn, 1970).

Gammack (2002), in his discussion of Mindscape theory, noted Maruyama’s rejection of the common simple-minded typologies in favour of a “relationology” that goes further than temperamental classifications of individual qualities. Rather it specifies an epistemological basis from which communicative and behavioural styles result. Cultures are seen to be epistemologically heterogeneous, and a number of canonical Mindscape modes exist that are each represented within them in some proportion. These epistemological modes are seen to be prior to, and transcendent of, nationality and culture (Maruyama, 1988; 2001). Indeed, as indicated by Maruyama (1974) these epistemological types are directly related to personality characteristics and cultural backgrounds. An epistemic description of each of these Mindscapes has been proposed by Dockens (2004) (adapted from Maruyama, 1980) as shown in Table 2. Here the epistemic categories cover, for Dockens, a typology of knowledge that constitutes the basis of the Mindscape types. The names given to each of the mindscape types while having there origin in Maruyama (1974), arise from Boje (2004).

Mindscape types were perceived by Maruyama (1988) to be quite different from the Jungian psychological typologies. They provide a link between seemingly separate activities such as decision process, criteria of beauty, and choice of science theories. They do not line up on a single scale, nor do they fit in a two-by-two table. Rather, Maruyama considered, they are more like the four corners of a tetrahedron. Mindscape theory is not a classificational typology (like that of Myers, 2000) since its purpose and use “lie in interrelating seemingly separate aspects of human activities such as organizational structure, policy formulation, decision process, architectural design, criteria of beauty, choice of theories, cosmology, etc.” (Maruyama, 1988:2). Maruyama assumed that it has a relational basis.

Maruyama’s (2002, p167) argument has already been noted that a social system develops an affinity for one personality meta-type over another for historical or political reasons, and ignores or suppresses individuals of other types. This perception is in contrast to Jung (1923), Schwartz (1990) and to Tamis-LeMonda et al (2007). Maruyama settles on the ‘opposing view’ perception of alternate poles.

Using Mindscape theory provides a broad and potentially dynamic capacity to describe agencies, and thereby can generate explanations about situations in which they were involved, or expectations about their potential behaviour in anticipated situations.

Creating Eight Mindset Types from the Sagiv-Schwartz Trait Basis

Following an interest in characterising societal culture, Schwartz (1999, 2004) undertook an extensive study (60,000 respondents) to explore the dimensionality of cultural orientations. It derived cultural orientations from a priori theorizing (unlike previous approaches such as: Hofstede, 1980, 2001; House, Javidan, & Dorfman, 2001; Inglehart & Baker, 2000) rather than post hoc examination of data. The measuring instrument Schwartz used a designated set of a priori value items to serve as markers for each orientation. These items were tested for cross-cultural equivalence of meaning. The items were demonstrated to cover the range of values recognized cross-culturally. In addition, it specified how the cultural orientations are organized into a coherent system of related dimensions and verified this organization, rather than assuming that orthogonal dimensions best capture cultural reality. Finally, it brought empirical evidence that the order of national cultures on each of the orientations is robust across different types of samples from many countries around the world.
Sagiv and Schwartz (2007) identified three bipolar dimensions of culture that represent alternate resolutions to each of three challenges that confront all societies. In the context of the agency, these bipolar dimensions constitute enantiomer pairs that (like Boje’s (2004) conceptions where he formulated a set of Foucaultian based traits to create a Mindscape space) can be assigned to some originating trait, the names of which have been influenced by Piaget’s (1950) theory of human commonalities. These traits with paired enantiomers are: cognitive (embeddedness, autonomy), figurative (hierarchy, egalitarianism) and operative (mastery, harmony). These are explained briefly in Table 3.

(1) Cognitive Trait Enantiomers

Embedded cultures are consistent with a collectivistic view, where meaning in life can be found largely through social relationships, identifying with the group, participating in a shared way of life, and the adoption of shared goals. Values like social order, respect for tradition, security, and wisdom are important. There tends to be a conservative attitude in that support is provided for the status quo and restraining actions against inclinations towards the possible disruption of in-group solidarity or the traditional order.

Autonomy cultures are consistent with an individualistic view, where meaning is found in the uniqueness of the individual that is encouraged to express internal attributes (preferences, traits, feelings, motives). Two classes of cultural autonomy arise: Intellectual and Affective Autonomy. Intellectual autonomy presumes that individuals are encouraged to pursue their own ideas and intellectual directions independently (important values: curiosity, broadmindedness, creativity), while in affective autonomy individuals are encouraged to pursue affectively positive experience for themselves. The values are: exciting life, enjoying live, varied life, pleasure, and self-indulgence. At this point it is important to note that there are notable reasons why Shalom Schwartz has kept affective autonomy separately from intellectual autonomy. Affective autonomy is also positively correlated with Mastery, and it is granting that those who achieve high efficacy through mastery also can enjoy the benefits of their efforts. These two facets of the enantiomer constitute an important element of individualism and are in contrast to harmony.

(2) Figurative Trait Enantiomers 

Mastery promotes the view that active self-assertion is needed in order to master, direct, and change the natural and social environment to attain group or personal goals (values: ambition, success, daring, competence). Mastery organizations tend to be dynamic, competitive, and oriented to achievement and success, and are likely to develop and use technology to manipulate and change the environment to achieve goals.

Harmony promotes the view that the world should be accepted as it is, with attempts to understand and appreciate rather than to change, direct, or exploit. There is an emphasis on fitting harmoniously into the environment (values: unity with nature, protecting the environment, world at peace). In harmony organisations, there is an expectation that they will fit into the surrounding social and natural world. Leaders that adopt this type try to understand the social and environmental implications of organizational actions, and seek non-exploitative ways to work toward their goals.

(3) Operative Trait Enantiomers

Hierarchy supports the ascription of roles for individuals to ensure responsible, productive behavior. Unequal distribution of power, roles, and resources are seen to be legitimate (values: social power, authority, humility, wealth). The hierarchical distribution of roles is taken for granted and to comply with the obligations and rules attached to their roles.
Egalitarianism promotes the view that people recognize one another as moral equals who share basic interests. There is an internalisation of a commitment towards cooperation, and to feelings of concern for everyone's welfare. There is an expectation that people will act for the benefit of others as a matter of choice (values: equality, social justice, responsibility, honesty).

These traits and their enantiomer characteristics are summarised in Table 3 together with a listing of keywords that are relevant to the types. Setting the cultural-level Sagiv-Schwartz enantiomers into a trait space thereby enables the generation of what we call a set of Sagiv-Schwartz Mindset Types (Table 5). As explained earlier, while they come from a similar frame of reference to that of Maruyama, their epistemology arises differently.

For the formation of Sagiv-Schwartz Mindset Types we use the Schwartz (1994) set of values and formation of value dimensions (Table 3). Using the same epistemic mapping technique as adopted by Maruyama to compare his Mindscapes with Harvey, we compared the Maruyama constructs with those derived from Sagiv and Schwartz (2007). For Sagiv-Schwartz Mindset Types, we have found better comparability with the Maruyama Mindscape types when, from the Schwartz value inventory, we closely relate ‘affective autonomy’ to ‘mastery’ and form a composite epistemic bi-polar trait (Mastery & Affective Autonomy vs. Harmony).

When comparing the values and attitudes of the Maruyama Mindscape types with the Sagiv & Schwartz value dimensions in an epistemological mapping, we easily find values/items of the Schwartz universe which fit part of the respective Maruyama Mindscape types as shown below.

The H type contains numerous items which are similar or can be related to notions of embeddedness and hierarchy of the Schwartz system: hierarchical, homogenist (conventionalist), classification (neat categories), universalist, sequential, competitive, one truth, eternal, unity by similarity, ethics to dominate the weak, ingroup, self-stereotyping, group bounded, prone to collectivism.

The I type contains numerous items which are similar or can be related to notions of intellectual autonomy, affective autonomy and mastery of the Schwartz system: independent, heterogenistic, unconventionalist, individualistic, uniqueness, separation, caprice, subjectivity, isolationist, temporary, no order, identity, specialization, indifference, poverty self-inflicted, prone to individualism.

As a reflection of the ‘mutualists Mindscape types’ mentioned previously and arising from Maruyama (1974), we find similarities to the notions egalitarianism and harmony of the Schwartz system: heterogenistic, interactive, mutualizing, relating, simultaneous, positive-sum, poly-ocularity, absorption, contextual, non-hierarchical. The consequent differentiation between the G type and the S type apparently is influenced by a slightly stronger orientation towards intellectual autonomy of the G type and towards embeddedness of the S type. Considering the Schwartz value universe (Figure 1) which was produced with the Co-Plot [4] technique of Raveh (2000), we find that Maruyama intuitively discovered that neighbouring ‘value fields’, i.e. combinations of positively correlated values, form the basis of emergent behavioural types. In terms of the Schwartz value universe: ‘hierarchists’ have a preference for hierarchy and embeddeness, ‘indivudualists’ have a preference for autonomy and mastery, and ‘mutualists’ have a preference for egalitarianism and harmony.

Now, we can note that the route suggested by Boje (2004) can be further pursued with a more differentiated system of 8 types derived from Sagiv-Schwartz (2007) traits. To do this we initially formulate a labelling code as shown in Table 4. These arise from epistemic cross-comparison deriving from the traits poles (the enantiomers), and permit choices to be made for labels from the options available.

As a result we can formulate the Mindset types against the enantiomers and their epistemic values as shown in Table 5. The type numbers do not imply trait importance, but simply are counting the number of types.

Graphically, the relations between the eight Mindset cognitive types shown in the Mindset Space of Figure 2 are extreme types. Four pairs of Mindset types can be seen that are in diametric contrast. However, the 8 types can be multiplied since balances between the types can also develop, which is something that we shall return to in due course. Four of these eight Mindset Types correspond to the four Maryuama Mindscape Types. With this it is possible to fill a gap indicated by Boje (2004) and identify four additional Mindset Types.

For further analysis beyond contrasting Mindset types, where all three alternate enantiomer poles are different, we may also take a look at variation, where two enantiomers are the same and only one is varied. In the Sagiv-Schwartz value universe six options arise, which are presented in Table 7. We begin with Harmony and move clockwise around the Schwartz value universe (Figure 1). We present variations, where two central pairs of constructs are kept constant. In the Sagiv-Schwartz universe these pairs are located next to each other, because these constructs are correlated to each other.

Now, one remaining open issue is whether the number of types is appropriate to characterize variety within and between social systems? Apparently, any number of types could be created from any number of traits. Once, in an interview Geert Hofstede said to one of the authors: “Values - you can have as many as you want. The issue is, whether you have a sufficiently large number, for differentiation, and a sufficiently small number to be remembered by the audience.” The number of traits quickly increases when several states of a trait are considered to be type forming. In Figure 2 we illustrate 8 types which emerge from the alternate poles of 3 traits: 8=23. In a case where three states of a trait (e.g. the extremes and a range in the middle) constitute a system, then z=3n. E.g. one could assume that the upper and lower third of a trait represent the two poles of a trait, and the middle third represents a balanced attitude. In that case we would end up with 27 possible types: 27=33.

Lee Billings, "Five Billion Years of Solitude" | Talks at Google

Lee Billings is the author of Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars (2013), "an intimate history of Earth and the quest for life beyond the solar system.
For 4.6 billion years our living planet has been alone in a vast and silent universe. But soon, Earth’s isolation could come to an end. Over the past two decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars. Some of these exoplanets may be mirror images of our own world. And more are being found all the time.

Yet as the pace of discovery quickens, an answer to the universe’s greatest riddle still remains just out of reach: Is the great silence and emptiness of the cosmos a sign that we and our world are somehow singular, special, and profoundly alone, or does it just mean that we’re looking for life in all the wrong places? As star-gazing scientists come closer to learning the truth, their insights are proving ever more crucial to understanding life’s intricate mysteries and possibilities right here on Earth.

Science journalist Lee Billings explores the past and future of the “exoplanet boom” through in-depth reporting and interviews with the astronomers and planetary scientists at its forefront. He recounts the stories behind their world-changing discoveries and captures the pivotal moments that drove them forward in their historic search for the fi rst habitable planets beyond our solar system. Billings brings readers close to a wide range of fascinating characters, such as:

FRANK DRAKE, a pioneer who has used the world’s greatest radio telescopes to conduct the first searches for extraterrestrial intelligence and to transmit a message to the stars so powerful that it briefly outshone our Sun.
JIM KASTING, a mild-mannered former NASA scientist whose research into the Earth’s atmosphere and climate reveals the deepest foundations of life on our planet, foretells the end of life on Earth in the distant future, and guides the planet hunters in their search for alien life.

SARA SEAGER, a visionary and iron-willed MIT professor who dreams of escaping the solar system and building the giant space telescopes required to discover and study life-bearing planets around hundreds of the Sun’s neighboring stars.
Through these and other captivating tales, Billings traces the triumphs, tragedies, and betrayals of the extraordinary men and women seeking life among the stars. In spite of insu cient funding, clashing opinions, and the failings of some of our world’s most prominent and powerful scientifi c organizations, these planet hunters will not rest until they fi nd the meaning of life in the infi nite depths of space. Billings emphasizes that the heroic quest for other Earth-like planets is not only a scientifi c pursuit, but also a refl ection of our own culture’s timeless hopes and fears.
Billings discussed his new book a few days ago at Google.

Lee Billings, "Five Billion Years of Solitude" | Talks at Google

Published on Dec 3, 2013

Since its formation nearly five billion years ago, our planet has been the sole living world in a vast and silent universe. Now, Earth's isolation is coming to an end. Over the past two decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of "exoplanets" orbiting other stars, including some that could be similar to our own world. Studying those distant planets for signs of life will be crucial to understanding life's intricate mysteries right here on Earth.

In a firsthand account of this unfolding revolution, Lee Billings draws on interviews with top researchers. He reveals how the search for other Earth-like planets is not only a scientific pursuit, but also a reflection of our culture's timeless hopes, dreams, and fears.

Rick Doblin [MAPS] - 10 Best Answers to Questions About Using Psychedelics

Recently, Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) answered questions on reddit on MDMA, LSD, and other psychoactive drugs. Here is his introduction to the Q and A:
Hey reddit! I am Rick Doblin, Ph.D., Founder and Executive Director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Founded in 1986, MAPS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit research and educational organization that develops medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana.
The staff of MAPS and I are here to answer your questions about:
  • Scientific research into MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, ibogaine, and marijuana
  • The role of psychedelics and marijuana in science, medicine, therapy, spirituality, culture, and policy
  • Reducing the risks associated with the non-medical use of various drugs by providing education and harm reduction services
  • How to effectively communicate about psychedelics at your dinner table
  • and anything else!
Our currently most promising research focuses on treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.
This is who we have participating today from MAPS:
  • Rick Doblin, Ph.D., Founder and Executive Director
  • Brad Burge, Director of Communications and Marketing
  • Amy Emerson, Director of Clinical Research
  • Virginia Wright, Director of Development
  • Brian Brown, Communications and Marketing Associate
  • Kynthia Brunette, Operations Associate
  • Tess Goodwin, Development Assistant
  • Ilsa Jerome, Ph.D., Research and Information Specialist
  • Bryce Montgomery, Web and Multimedia Associate
  • Linnae Ponté, Zendo Project Harm Reduction Coordinator
  • Berra Yazar-Klosinski, Ph.D., Lead Clinical Research Associate
Alternet collected 10 of the most interesting questions for your entertainment.

10 Best Answers to Questions About Using Psychedelics

December 4, 2013 | By April M. Short

"LSD is like dreaming—it’s not uniform content, it’s a way of processing content," and other fascinating insights came out of this "Ask Me Anything" session.

Photo Credit:

Rick Doblin—founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), appeared on Reddit’s AMA feature (Ask Me Anything) to openly answer questions along with a team of 10 from MAPS on December 3.

For those who are unfamiliar, AMA is like the town hall meeting of the digital age, providing a chance for anyone to ask about anything and, if the comment is promoted by other users to the top of the pile, they will receive a response. When President Obama made a surprise AMA appearance as part of his 2012 campaign efforts, he was bombarded with so many questions the flood of traffic momentarily took down the site.

In Doblin’s introduction to the AMA session he described MAPS as a 501(c)(3) non-profit research and educational organization that develops medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana. Then, he noted that the staff could answer any questions about:
• Scientific research into MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, ibogaine, and marijuana;
• The role of psychedelics and marijuana in science, medicine, therapy, spirituality, culture, and policy;
• Reducing the risks associated with the non-medical use of various drugs by providing education and harm reduction services;
• How to effectively communicate about psychedelics at your dinner table;
• and anything else!
Doblin also noted that currently the most promising research at MAPS focuses on treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.

The MAPS team was inundated with more than 2,000 questions and had responded to more than 75 by publishing time (2:30pm, December 4).

According to Brad Burge, director of communications and marketing for MAPS, the team will continue to answer questions through the end of the week as long as there is interest—and they may even decide to continue answering questions indefinitely.

"Educating the public honestly about psychedelics and marijuana is a core part of our mission," he said. "This is one of the most exciting and inspiring parts of what we do: interacting with people who are actively trying to broaden their perspective about the risks and therapeutic benefits of psychedelics and marijuana.“

Here are ten of the most fascinating questions and answers to come out of the AMA:

1. Question from luttnugs: Is it possible for people to have completely different reactions/symptoms from the same psychedelic? Say hypothetically I eat mushrooms and my friend eats the same amount of said mushrooms. Should we experience similar symptoms or is it possible that genetics could lead to completely different reactions?

Answer from Rick Doblin:

Yes. The beauty of psychedelics is that we don’t have psychedelic experiences; we have experiences of ourselves catalyzed by psychedelics. Stan Grof has said that LSD is a “non-specific amplifier of the unconscious,” so that what we experience depends on who we are.

LSD is like dreaming—it’s not uniform content, it’s a way of processing content.

2. Question from SkittleSkitzo: How bad is marijuana for the lungs? Also, is it actually possible to "re-trip" (where you hallucinate years later because its in your spinal fluid) on acid?

Answer from Rick Doblin:

Marijuana does not cause lung cancer, nor does it cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The cannabinoids in marijuana have anti-tumor properties; however, people who smoke marijuana can sometimes get colds and respiratory infections. I think unbiased risk/benefit analysis by the FDA could result in marijuana in smoked form becoming an approved prescription medicine.

LSD is not stored in the spinal fluid and it is not possible to “re-trip” years later. That is entirely a drug war fabrication.

3. Question from Quasarstoquarks: Do you believe that spiritual drug experiences (such as shamanistic rituals involved with ayahuasca) will ever have a place in modern medicine?

Answer from Rick Doblin:

MAPS recently sponsored a study of ayahuasca in the treatment of addiction in British Columbia. Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, took LSD in the 1950s and felt it could play a major role in the treatment of addiction. The spiritual experiences help people to accept themselves, and give people strength. So spiritual experiences will have a place in modern medicine, such as research into LSD for people with anxiety associated with the end of life. Earlier LSD research in the 1960s for cancer patients showed that spiritual experiences were correlated with therapeutic outcomes. Spiritual experiences can occur in a hospital setting as well as in a shamanistic ritual. I think modern psychiatric medicine will increasingly combine psychotherapeutic and spiritual experiences.

4. Question from MDMA_Throw_Away:  My wife and I tried MDMA for the first and only time (so far...) earlier this year. It was the best experience I've ever had on any drug. We expected to be sexing like rabbits but much to my surprise we had a late night of chatting, laughing, and even airing grievances with each other in a way that we both could just accept and talk through. We cried together over things that we routinely did that were hurtful to the other. We had a whole night of connecting with each other like we never had before.

It was downright therapeutic.

I think this would be such an incredible drug for couples that need refocused on each other. What kind of work is being done to make MDMA legal for responsible adults?

Answer from Berra Yazar-Klosinski, Ph.D., lead clinical research associate:

Couples therapy was actually the most common therapeutic use for MDMA before it was placed on Schedule 1 in 1985. However, at present the most effective way to study the risks and benefits of MDMA is to study it as a treatment for a clinically diagnosable psychiatric disorder. After medical use becomes more accepted, it may become possible for additional uses of the medication to be studied.

Here is a related article from a 2011 issue of Elle magazine that you might find interesting.

Answer from Rick Doblin: 

We were recently contacted by a group of European researchers who want to start a study of couples therapy. They are seeking a government grant to complete the study. If accepted, this will be a remarkable study.

As Berra said, we are focused on turning psychedelics into medicine. Relationships aren't diseases. We definitely hope to see this research expand.

Medicine will increasingly combine psychotherapeutic and spiritual experiences.

5. Question fromOceanMan7: I know from experience that a bad trip on psychedelics can be extremely scary and traumatizing. How do you guarantee that your patients have a positive experience?

Answer from Ben Shechet, cilinical study assistant:

There is no guarantee that a psychedelic experience will be 'positive'--in fact, since most of our research subjects are dealing with significant psychological issues in their lives, their experiences can be quite difficult. We make sure that our subjects feel safe and well cared-for within the therapeutic space, and focus on building a strong working alliance between the therapists and subjects. But we also view difficult experiences as moments that carry great potential for healing and growth, and encourage our subjects to enter into those experiences willingly, as they are often the very things that need to be experienced fully in order for the individual to move forward in their life.

6. Question from dennisb230980: What is your opinion about [T]im [L]eary in terms of psycedelic scientific research[?]

Answer from Rick Doblin:

Tim Leary, when he was at Harvard, did incredibly valuable scientific research. The Good Friday Experiment for which he was a faculty sponsor was the first study of psychedelics in spiritual experiences ever conducted. My undergraduate thesis was a 25-year follow-up study to Leary’s study. It was a key to my understanding of the 1960s. The people I interviewed who participated in the original Good Friday Experiment told me that the mystical experience of oneness had important political implications in their lives in that it inspired them to see our commonality more so than our differences, and motivated them to work for social change. When I look back on the 1960s, the backlash from society was more about psychedelics going right and motivating people to challenge the status quo than it was about psychedelic experiences going wrong, though that happened as well. The Good Friday Experiment has motivated almost all of the current psychedelic researchers.

Leary’s Concord Prison Experiment was exceptionally idealistic in trying to show that psychedelic mystical experiences could produce measurable reductions in recidivism. Where I’m not comfortable with Tim Leary is that once he left Harvard he exaggerated the results of the Concord Prison Experiment and ended up sharing false information.

I believe there’s something holy and spiritual about science, and that the results of research need to be shared with the greatest of integrity. I admire Tim, but also feel that he became what he was objecting to: Propaganda against psychedelics in his mind justified propaganda for psychedelics. MAPS is trying to be a leader in research into both the benefits and the risks of psychedelics, and reporting them honestly.

7. Question from Rack3m: What do you see as the next big hurdle for publicly funded research grants?

Answer from Rick Doblin:

NIMH has not funded psychedelic research since the mid-1960s, but we hope that will change over the next few years. We are currently developing a research grant proposal to send to the NIMH in order to move forward with our PTSD research.

We are also in discussion with the VA and DOD about the concept of treating veterans suffering from PTSD with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. It may take several more years before we engage in a collaborative study and receive government funding.

Currently, all of our research is funded through donations.

8. Question from musicisbelieving85: With the current MDMA research, once that is finished is the expected result to get FDA to approve MDMA psychotherapy or is the plan to do even more research? What's the current expected timetable for making this available for basically anyone that needs help in this way?

Answer from Amy Emerson, director of clinical research:

We are currently in Phase 2 of our clinical trials, this phase gathers preliminary information on the safety and efficacy of the drug to treat the condition under investigation in populations of 12 to 200 subjects. Phase 3 trials gather conclusive evidence regarding efficacy and safety in larger populations of 250 to 2000 subjects. At least two Phase 3 studies are typically required to prove safety and efficacy before permission for prescription use can be approved.

While we are working to complete the Phase 2 studies, Phase 3 planning will start including work to identify a GMP (good manufacturing process) manufacturer of MDMA as well as large scale training of Phase 3 investigators. We anticipate completing the primary end points in our Phase 2 studies in late 2015. We plan to have our End of Phase 2 meeting with FDA in early 2016 and apply for programs to accelerate development. By the end of phase 2 we will know if we have been accepted to any accelerated development programs and will finalize our Phase 3 strategy with FDA.

We estimate we will need to do 2 Phase 3 studies with 200-250 subjects per study across multiple sites, the studies will be conducted in a staggered fashion from 2016-2020. In parallel with this, MAPS will request FDA permission to conduct Expanded Access (Compassionate Use) studies with cost recovery for people who do not qualify for the Phase 3 program. If a drug proves to be safe and efficacious in two Phase 3 studies, the sponsor of the studies submits a New Drug Application (NDA) to the FDA and/or the European Medicines Agency (EMEA), which review the application for possible approval as a prescription medicine. We anticipate the decision regarding MDMA as a prescription medication would occur in 2021.

9. Question from Pipken:  A very recent study by Taurah et al. indicates that MDMA use results in widespread behavioral deficits when compared to other drug users, and that alarmingly, these deficits did not go away even after a prolonged period of abstinence. When taken together with evidence in animal models that any substantial MDMA usage causes irreparable damage of serotonergic neurons, it appears that MDMA use can result in the selective yet permanent death of these neurons even in humans.

What methods have you utilized to minimize the damage and maximize the benefits of these psychedelics in your research trials?

Answer from Ilsa Jerome, Ph.D., clinical research and information specialist:

We have examined the literature on MDMA toxicity over time; there are sections on the matter in our Investigator's Brochure, which is periodically updated.

The recent study features a large sample but is still retrospective (meaning people are measured after they start taking ecstasy) and compares between groups. This makes it similar to 99% of most studies of ecstasy users, and the problem with this is that the method makes it hard to eliminate the other potential points of causation; it's essentially a fancy correlational study with multiple groups. Drug use is poorly matched in this sample.

MAPS studies involve a couple of administration of known MDMA in a therapeutic setting, and so are different from unsupervised use of "ecstasy" in various settings.

We examined cognitive function in our first study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in people with PTSD, and we did not find any indicate that receiving MDMA as compared with inactive placebo reduced performance on these tests.

The animal models have long been in question since they are based on interspecies scaling, and this model is not suitable for compounds with nonlinear pharmacokinetics (meaning, a higher dose has a greater effect than expected), and MDMA has nonlinear pharmacokinetics. Hence most rodent and monkey toxicity studies use inappropriately high doses.

We still inform people of the potential risks of toxicity before they take part in MDMA studies, and we leave three to five weeks between each dose.

10. Question from entropicoWhat is the single most challenging anti-psychedelic argument used and how do you deal with it?

Answer from Brad Burge:

The single most challenging rational argument against psychedelic research is the claim that by investigating the beneficial potential of these drugs and engaging in public education about the results of that research, we are also encouraging the irresponsible use of the drugs by leading people to believe that they are safe.

There are two simple responses to this question that we have found to be useful: (1) We do not claim that psychedelics, or any drugs, are safe, only that in defined situations their benefits can outweigh their risks; and (2) ultimately, we do encourage the responsible use of psychedelics, though we acknowledge that current prohibitionist and anti-harm reduction policies make those responsible uses more difficult to engage in.

The main resistance encountered by psychedelic research, however, is not rational, but deeply emotional. Decades of cultural paranoia surrounding the use of psychedelics, combined with the suppression of scientific research into their benefits until recently, have traumatized our culture and conditioned many people to fear them. As a result, our main challenge as we work to increase public awareness about the risks and benefits of psychedelics is to find a way through these fears. When you talk to others about psychedelic research or what they can do, remember that they might be afraid. When it comes to communicating about psychedelics, compassion is key.

For more information about scientific research into the medical potential of psychedelics and marijuana, please visit