Saturday, April 05, 2014

David Brin, "Existence" | Talks at Google

Science Fiction author David Brin has a new book called Existence (2014) in which he speculates on the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. He recently stopped by Google to talk about the book - here is a summary:
Bestselling, award-winning futurist David Brin returns to globe-spanning, high concept SF with Existence.

Gerald Livingston is an orbital garbage collector. For a hundred years, people have been abandoning things in space, and someone has to clean it up. But there’s something spinning a little bit higher than he expects, something that isn’t on the decades’ old orbital maps. An hour after he grabs it and brings it in, rumors fill Earth’s infomesh about an “alien artifact.”

Thrown into the maelstrom of worldwide shared experience, the Artifact is a game-changer. A message in a bottle; an alien capsule that wants to communicate. The world reacts as humans always do: with fear and hope and selfishness and love and violence. And insatiable curiosity.
Brin is the author of several classic sci-fi novels, including Earth (1991), The Postman (1997), and Otherness (1994).

David Brin, "Existence" | Talks at Google

Published on Apr 1, 2014

David Brin is a scientist, best-selling author and tech-futurist. His novels include Earth, The Postman (filmed in 1997) and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. A leading commentator and speaker on modern trends, his nonfiction book The Transparent Society won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.

Brin's newest novel Existence explores the ultimate question: billions of planets are ripe for life. So where is Everybody? David's main thread: how will we shape the days and years ahead -- and how will tomorrow shape us?

David's books are available on Google Play:

Father Richard Rohr - "Falling Upward"

Father Richard Rohr is the author of Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (2011), as well as Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (2003), The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (2009), Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (2013), and Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer; A New Edition of A Lever and a Place to Stand (2014).

Fr. Rohr is in the tradition of Father Thomas Keating:
Fr. Richard Rohr is a globally recognized ecumenical teacher bearing witness to the universal awakening within Christian mysticism and the Perennial Tradition. He is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation ( in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fr. Richard's teaching is grounded in the Franciscan alternative orthodoxy--practices of contemplation and lived kenosis (self-emptying), expressing itself in radical compassion, particularly for the socially marginalized.

Fr. Richard is author of numerous books, including Everything Belongs, Adam's Return, The Naked Now, Breathing Under Water, Falling Upward, and Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self.

CAC is home to the Rohr Institute where Fr. Richard is Academic Dean of the Living School for Action and Contemplation. Drawing upon Christianity's place within the Perennial Tradition, the mission of the Rohr Institute is to produce compassionate and powerfully learned individuals who will work for positive change in the world based on awareness of our common union with God and all beings.
His books are profound even for non-Christians.

Father Richard Rohr - "Falling Upward"

Uploaded on Oct 21, 2011

Contemporary theologian and best selling author Richard Rohr spoke at Texas Lutheran University on Sunday, Sept. 25th in Jackson Auditorium. Rohr spoke from the content of his latest book, "Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life."

About the book: As we begin to embark on a further journey, one that involves challenges, mistakes, loss of control, broadening horizons, and necessary suffering, we find that 'falling down' is actually the way that we move upward. Fr. Richard offers this new paradigm for understanding one of the most profound of life's mysteries: how the heartbreaks, disappointments, and first loves of life are actually stepping stones to the spiritual joys that the second half of life has in store for us. You can find more information about Richard Rohr on his website

Friday, April 04, 2014

Mark Vernon - The Evolution of Consciousness


This video comes from The Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI). Author and philosopher Mark Vernon discusses the evolution of consciousness, based in the ideas of Owen Barfield.

Mark Vernon - The Evolution of Consciousness

Published on Dec 26, 2013

Explore the concept of consciousness further in The Mind's Eye

We understand that our bodied evolve, but does consciousness? Vernon investigates the ideas of Owen Barfield.

"Thoughtful, accessible, lucid" Julian Baggini

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International Journal of Dharma Studies - Vol 1, No 5 [Open Access]

The fifth issue of the International Journal of Dharma Studies is out and available to download.

Editors in Chief

  • Rita D. Sherma, University of Southern California
  • Purushottama Bilimoria, Berkeley University / University of Melbourne
International Journal of Dharma Studies aims to (i) investigate, present, interpret, and envision the shared and distinct categories of the life-worlds of the Indic Religions, globally, in a (ii) multidisciplinary format with articles from Religious Studies, Philosophy, Ethics, Cultural Studies, Musicology, Film, Contemporary Issues, Sociology, Anthropology, and the Arts, within (iii) a structure that maintains the rigor of conventional academic discourse, but adds methodological contextualization and investigative, epistemic, hermeneutical and evaluative perspectives from these religious and cultural traditions (iv) in conversation with the world’s religions and the concerns of our time.
Springer Open Access Journal


Historical consciousness and traditional Buddhist narratives Gross, RM. International Journal of Dharma Studies 2013, 1:5 (27 January 2014)


Buddhist Universities in the United States of America Storch, T. International Journal of Dharma Studies 2013, 1:4 (12 December 2013)


Theories of knowledge and the experience of being: Jainism’s ontology of kinship Vallely, A. International Journal of Dharma Studies 2013, 1:3 (14 November 2013)


The Dharma Paradigm and Ethos Some Insights from Jainism and Vedānta Long, JD. International Journal of Dharma Studies 2013, 1:2 (14 November 2013)


Sri Aurobindo, India, and ideological discourse Banerji, D. International Journal of Dharma Studies 2013, 1:1 (14 November 2013)

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Welcome to the Oligarchy - The Roberts Court Tears Down the Facade: Wealth Controls Politics

Anyone who has been paying attention has long known that money and power go hand-in-hand in American politics. The wealthy 1% control who gets elected to the highest offices and who does not. Never before has this been more blatantly obvious than in the Roberts Court decision on the McCutcheon v. FEC case.

First there was Citizens United, which allows corporations the same rights as citizens in making donations to political campaigns, and now we have the Supreme Court of the United States of America deciding, in opposition to nearly 40 years of existing case law, that there should be no real constraints on campaign contributions for individuals. So corporations have the same rights as citizens in campaign contributions, and now wealthy citizens are permitted to make a $3.2 million aggregate contribution in each election cycle.

So much for democracy. Welcome to the Oligarchy.

From Bill Moyers' website, here are some excerpts of the minority dissent, penned by Justice Stephen Breyer. [Below that, there is an excellent list of links from the SCOTUS blog on this case, all of which are written by legal scholars.]
The court’s four-member minority issued a blistering dissent, written by Justice Stephen Breyer. He charged that the majority’s “conclusion rests upon its own, not a record-based, view of the facts.”
Its legal analysis is faulty: It misconstrues the nature of the competing constitutional interests at stake. It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.
Taken together with Citizens United, Breyer writes that McCutcheon “eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

He goes on to dissect the claims on which the court’s ruling rest. He first takes issue with the idea that the government only has an interest in preventing a direct exchange of cash for votes.

In the plurality’s view, a federal statute could not prevent an individual from writing a million dollar check to a political party (by donating to its various committees), because the rationale for any limit would “dangerously broade[n] the circumscribed definition of quid pro quo corruption articulated in our prior cases.”

This critically important definition of “corruption” is inconsistent with the Court’s prior case … and it misunderstands the constitutional importance of the interests at stake. In fact, constitutional interests—indeed, First Amendment interests—lie on both sides of the legal equation.

In reality, as the history of campaign finance reform shows and as our earlier cases on the subject have recognized, the anticorruption interest that drives Congress to regulate campaign contributions is a far broader, more important interest than the plurality acknowledges. It is an interest in maintaining the integrity of our public governmental institutions. And it is an interest rooted in the Constitution and in the First Amendment itself.

Consider at least one reason why the First Amendment protects political speech. Speech does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, political communication seeks to secure government action. A politically oriented “marketplace of ideas” seeks to form a public opinion that can and will influence elected representatives….

The First Amendment advances not only the individual’s right to engage in political speech, but also the public’s interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters.

What has this to do with corruption? It has everything to do with corruption. Corruption breaks the constitution­ally necessary “chain of communication” between the people and their representatives. It derails the essential speech-to-government-action tie. Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. Insofar as corruption cuts the link between political thought and political action, a free marketplace of political ideas loses its point. That is one reason why the Court has stressed the constitutional importance of Congress’ concern that a few large donations not drown out the voices of the many….

The “appearance of corruption” can make matters worse. It can lead the public to believe that its efforts to communicate with its representatives or to help sway public opinion have little purpose. And a cynical public can lose interest in political participation altogether.
Breyer then wonders how the conservatives could square McCutcheon’s narrow definition of “corruption” with its conclusion, in the 2003 case McConnell v. FEC, that money — and the access it purchases — has a pernicious influence on the political process.
The Court in McConnell upheld these new contribution restrictions under the First Amendment for the very reason the plurality today discounts or ignores. Namely, the Court found they thwarted a significant risk of corruption—understood not as quid pro quo bribery, but as privileged access to and pernicious influence upon elected representatives.

In reaching its conclusion in McConnell, the Court relied upon a vast record compiled in the District Court. That record consisted of over 100,000 pages of material and included testimony from more than 200 witnesses. What it showed, in detail, was the web of relationships and understandings among parties, candidates, and large donors that underlies privileged access and influence. The District Judges in McConnell made clear that the record did “not contain any evidence of bribery or vote buying in exchange for donations of nonfederal money.”

Indeed, no one had identified a “single discrete instance of quid pro quo corruption” due to soft money. But what the record did demonstrate was that enormous soft money contributions, ranging between $1 million and $5 million among the largest donors, enabled wealthy contributors to gain disproportionate “access to federal lawmakers” and the ability to “influenc[e] legislation.”

“We specifically rejected efforts to define ‘corruption’ in ways similar to those the plurality today accepts,” writes Breyer.
He then takes on the conservatives’ second rationale: that the problem the aggregate limit was supposed to address — huge donors funneling money indirectly to a candidate in order to get around the limit on contributions to a single campaign — isn’t an issue today.
The plurality is wrong…. In the absence of limits on aggregate political contributions, donors can and likely will find ways to channel millions of dollars to parties and to individual candidates, producing precisely the kind of “corruption” or “appearance of corruption” that previously led the Court to hold aggregate limits constitutional. Those opportunities for circumvention will also produce the type of corruption that concerns the plurality today. The methods for using today’s opinion to evade the law’s individual contribution limits are complex, but they are well known, or will become well known, to party fundraisers.
He offers three concrete examples of how a wealthy donor might be able to get millions of dollars to a single candidate without running afoul of the law under McCutcheon.

But perhaps the dissent’s most withering criticism of the ruling is that, as in Citizens United, it was decided according to the majority’s beliefs, rather than the factual record.

In the past, when evaluating the constitutionality of campaign finance restrictions, we have typically relied upon an evidentiary record amassed below to determine whether the law served a compelling governmental objec­tive. And, typically, that record contained testimony from Members of Congress (or state legislators) explaining why Congress (or the legislature) acted as it did….

If we are to overturn an act of Congress here, we should do so on the basis of a similar record….

Determining whether anticorruption objectives justify a particular set of contribution limits requires answering empirically based questions, and applying significant discretion and judgment. To what ex­tent will unrestricted giving lead to corruption or its appearance? What forms will any such corruption take? To what extent will a lack of regulation undermine public confidence in the democratic system? To what extent can regulation restore it?

… For another thing, a comparison of the plurality’s opinion with this dissent reveals important differences of opinion on fact-related matters. We disagree, for example, on the possibilities for circumvention of the base limits in the absence of aggregate limits. We disagree about how effectively the plurality’s “alternatives” could prevent evasion. An evidentiary proceeding would permit the parties to explore these matters, and it would permit the courts to reach a more accurate judgment. The plurality rationalizes its haste to forgo an evidentiary record by noting that “the parties have treated the question as a purely legal one.” But without a doubt, the legal question—whether the aggregate limits are closely drawn to further a compelling governmental interest—turns on factual questions about whether corruption, in the absence of such limits, is a realistic threat to our democracy….

The justification for aggregate contribution restrictions is strongly rooted in the need to assure political integrity and ultimately in the First Amendment itself. The threat to that integrity posed by the risk of special access and influence remains real. Part III, supra. Even taking the plurality on its own terms and considering solely the threat of quid pro quo corruption (i.e., money-for-votes exchanges), the aggregate limits are a necessary tool to stop circumvention. And there is no basis for finding a lack of “fit” between the threat and the means used to combat it, namely the aggregate limits.

The plurality reaches the opposite conclusion. The result, as I said at the outset, is a decision that substitutes judges’ understandings of how the political process works for the understanding of Congress; that fails to recognize the difference between influence resting upon public opinion and influence bought by money alone; that overturns key precedent; that creates huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform.
For even more coverage of this decision, and from legal scholars, here is a list of links to posts on the SCOTUS blog related to this case.

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

Docket No. Op. Below Argument Opinion Vote Author Term
12-536 D.D.C Oct 8, 2013
Apr 2, 2014 5-4 Roberts OT 2013
Issue: (1) Whether the biennial limit on contributions to non-candidate committees, 2 U.S.C. § 441a(a)(3)(B), is unconstitutional for lacking a constitutionally cognizable interest as applied to contributions to national party committees; (2) whether the biennial limits on contributions to non-candidate committees, 2 U.S.C. § 441a(a)(3)(B), are unconstitutional facially for lacking a constitutionally cognizable interest; (3) whether the biennial limits on contributions to non-candidate committees are unconstitutionally too low, as applied and facially; and (4) whether the biennial limit on contributions to candidate committees, 2 U.S.C. § 441a(a)(3)(A), is unconstitutional for lacking a constitutionally cognizable interest.

SCOTUSblog Coverage

World Thinkers 2013 - Prospect Magazine

Here is the list of top "world thinkers" from Prospect Magazine, 2013 edition. It's an interesting list of people - although I am not sure I would put Richard Dawkins in the #1 slot, or maybe event he top ten.

World Thinkers 2013

by Prospect / April 24, 2013 / 109 Comments

The results of Prospect’s world thinkers poll

Left to right: Ashraf Ghani, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker © US Embassy, Kabul © Rex Features

After more than 10,000 votes from over 100 countries, the results of Prospect’s world thinkers 2013 poll are in. Online polls often throw up curious results, but this top 10 offers a snapshot of the intellectual trends that dominate our age.


1. Richard Dawkins
When Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist, coined the term “meme” in The Selfish Gene 37 years ago, he can’t have anticipated its current popularity as a word to describe internet fads. But this is only one of the ways in which he thrives as an intellectual in the internet age. He is also prolific on Twitter, with more than half a million followers—and his success in this poll attests to his popularity online. He uses this platform to attack his old foe, religion, and to promote science and rationalism. Uncompromising as his message may be, he’s not averse to poking fun at himself: in March he made a guest appearance on The Simpsons, lending his voice to a demon version of himself.

2. Ashraf Ghani
Few academics get the chance to put their ideas into practice. But after decades of research into building states at Columbia, Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, followed by a stint at the World Bank, Ashraf Ghani returned to his native Afghanistan to do just that. He served as the country’s finance minister and advised the UN on the transfer of power to the Afghans. He is now in charge of the Afghan Transition Coordination Commission and the Institute for State Effectiveness, applying his experience in Afghanistan elsewhere. He is already looking beyond the current crisis in Syria, raising important questions about what kind of state it will eventually become.

3. Steven Pinker
Long admired for his work on language and cognition, the latest book by the Harvard professor Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was a panoramic sweep through history. Marshalling a huge range of evidence, Pinker argued that humanity has become less violent over time. As with Pinker’s previous books, it sparked fierce debate. Whether writing about evolutionary psychology, linguistics or history, what unites Pinker’s work is a fascination with human nature and an enthusiasm for sharing new discoveries in accessible, elegant prose.

4. Ali Allawi
Ali Allawi began his career in 1971 at the World Bank before moving into academia and finally politics, as Iraq’s minister of trade, finance and defence after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Since then he has written a pair of acclaimed books, most recently The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation, and he is currently a senior visiting fellow at Princeton. “His scholarly work on post-Saddam Iraq went further than anyone else has yet done in helping us understand the complex reality of that country,” says Clare Lockhart, co-author (with Ashraf Ghani) of Fixing Failed States. “His continuing work on the Iraqi economy—and that of the broader region—is meanwhile helping to illuminate its potential, as well as pathways to a more stable and productive future.”

5. Paul Krugman
As a fierce critic of the economic policies of the right, Paul Krugman has become something like the global opposition to fiscal austerity. A tireless advocate of Keynesian economics, he has been repeatedly attacked for his insistence that government spending is critical to ending the recession. But as he told Prospect last year, “we’ve just conducted what amounts to a massive experiment on pretty much the entire OECD [the industrialised world]. It’s been as slam-dunk a victory for a more or less Keynesian view as one can possibly imagine.” His New York Times columns are so widely discussed that it is easy to overlook his academic work, which has won him a Nobel prize and made him one of the world’s most cited economists.

6. Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek’s critics seem unsure whether to dismiss him as a buffoon or a villain. The New Republic has called him “the most despicable philosopher in the west,” but the Slovenian’s legion of fans continues to grow. He has been giving them plenty to chew on—in the past year alone he has produced a 1,200-page study of Hegel, a book, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, analysing the Arab Spring and other recent events, and a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. And he has done all this while occupying academic posts at universities in Slovenia, Switzerland and London. His trademark pop culture references (“If you ask me for really dangerous ideological films, I’d say Kung Fu Panda,” he told one interviewer in 2008) may have lost their novelty, but they remain a gentle entry point to his studies of Lacanian psychoanalysis and left-wing ideology.

7. Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen will turn 80 in November—making him the fourth oldest thinker on our list—but he remains one of the world’s most active public intellectuals. He rose to prominence in the early 1980s with his studies of famine. Since then he has gone on to make major contributions to developmental economics, social choice theory and political philosophy. Receiving the Nobel prize for economics in 1998, he was praised for having “restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems.” The author of Prospect’s first cover story in 1995, Sen continues to write influential essays and columns, in the past year arguing against European austerity. And he shows no sign of slowing down or narrowing his focus—his latest book (with Jean Drèze), An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, will be published in July.

8. Peter Higgs
The English physicist Peter Higgs lent his name to the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle discovered last year at Cern that gives mass to other elementary particles. Although Higgs is always quick to point out that others were involved in early work on the existence of the particle, he was central to the first descriptions of the boson in 1964. “Of the various people who contributed to that piece of theory,” Higgs told Prospect in 2011, “I was the only one who pointed to this particle as something that would be… of interest for experimentalists.” Higgs is expected to receive a Nobel prize this year for his achievements.

9. Mohamed ElBaradei
The former director general of the UN’s international atomic energy agency and winner of the 2005 Nobel peace prize, Mohamed ElBaradei has become one of the most prominent advocates of democracy in Egyptian politics over the past two years. Since December, ElBaradei has been the coordinator of the National Salvation Front, a coalition of political parties dedicated to opposing what they see as President Mohamed Morsi’s attempts to secure power for himself and impose a new constitution favouring Islamist parties. Reflecting widespread concern about Morsi’s actions, ElBaradei has accused the president of appointing himself “Egypt’s new pharaoh.”

10. Daniel Kahneman
Since the publication of Thinking, Fast and Slow in 2011, Daniel Kahneman has become an unlikely resident at the top of the bestseller lists. His face has even appeared on posters on the London Underground, with only two words of explanation: “Thinking Kahneman.” Although he is a psychologist by training, his work on our capacity for making irrational decisions helped create the field of behavioural economics, and he was awarded the Nobel prize for economics in 2002. His book has now brought these insights to a wider audience, making them more influential than ever.

Biographies by Daniel Cohen, Jay Elwes and David Wolf. Additional research by Luke Neima and Lucy Webster


11. Steven Weinberg, physicist
12. Jared Diamond, biologist
13. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author
14. Ai Weiwei, artist
15. Arundhati Roy, writer
16. Nate Silver, statistician
17. Asgar Farhadi, filmmaker
18. Ha-Joon Chang, economist
19. Martha Nussbaum, philosopher
20. Elon Musk, businessman
21. Michael Sandel, philosopher
22. Niall Ferguson, historian
23. Hans Rosling, statistician
24 = Anne Applebaum, journalist
24 = Craig Venter, biologist
26. Shinya Yamanaka, biologist
27. Jonathan Haidt, psychologist
28. George Soros, philanthropist
29. Francis Fukuyama, political scientist
30. James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, political scientist and economist
31. Mario Draghi, economist
32. Ramachandra Guha, historian
33. Hilary Mantel, novelist
34. Sebastian Thrun, computer scientist
35. Zadie Smith, novelist
36 = Hernando de Soto, economist
36 = Raghuram Rajan, economist
38. James Hansen, climate scientist
39. Christine Lagarde, economist
40. Roberto Unger, philosopher
41. Moisés Naím, political scientist
42. David Grossman, novelist
43. Andrew Solomon, writer
44. Esther Duflo, economist
45. Eric Schmidt, businessman
46. Wang Hui, political scientist
47. Fernando Savater, philosopher
48. Alexei Navalny, activist
49. Katherine Boo, journalist
50. Anne-Marie Slaughter, political scientist
51. Paul Collier, development economist
52. Margaret Chan, health policy expert
53. Sheryl Sandberg, businesswoman
54. Chen Guangcheng, activist
55. Robert Shiller, economist
56 = Ivan Krastev, political scientist
56 = Nicholas Stern, economist
58. Theda Skocpol, sociologist
59 = Carmen Reinhart, economist
59 = Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, economist
61. Jeremy Grantham, investment strategist
62. Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, economists
63. Jessica Tuchman Mathews, political scientist
64. Robert Silvers, editor
65. Jean Pisani-Ferry, economist


Only three thinkers from our 2005 top 10, Richard Dawkins, Paul Krugman and Amartya Sen, appear in this year’s top spots. The panelists who drew up the longlist of 65 gave credit for the currency of candidates’ work—their influence over the past 12 months and their continuing significance for this year’s biggest questions.

Among the new entries at the top are Peter Higgs—whose inclusion is a sign of public excitement about the discoveries emerging from the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, Cern—and Slavoj Žižek, whose critique of global capitalism has gained more urgency in the wake of the financial crisis. The appearance of Steven Pinker and Daniel Kahneman, authors of two of the most successful recent “ideas books,” further demonstrates the public appetite for serious, in-depth thinking in the age of the TED talk. The inclusion of Ashraf Ghani, Ali Allawi and Mohamed ElBaradei—from Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt, respectively—reflects the importance of their work on fostering democracies across the Muslim world in the wake of foreign interventions and the Arab Spring.

One new development was the influence of social media, with just over half of voters coming to the world thinkers homepage via Twitter or Facebook. Twitter also gave readers a chance to respond to the list and highlight notable omissions—Stephen Hawking and Noam Chomsky were popular choices.

As always, the absences are as revealing as the familiar names at the top. The failure of environmental thinkers to win many votes may be a sign of the faltering energy of the green movement. Despite the presence of climate scientists lower down the list, the movement seems to lack successors to influential public intellectuals such as Rachel Carson and James Lovelock. Serious thinkers about the internet and technology are also conspicuous by their absence. The highest-placed representative of Silicon Valley is the entrepreneur Elon Musk, but beyond journalist-critics such as Evgeny Morozov and Nicholas Carr, technology still awaits its heavyweight public intellectuals (see Thomas Meaney, £).

Most striking of all is the lack of women at the top of this year’s list. The highest-placed woman in this year’s poll, at number 15, is Arundhati Roy, who has become a prominent left-wing critic of inequalities and injustice in modern India since the publication of her novel The God of Small Things over a decade ago.

Many thanks to all those who voted. Do let us know what you make of the results.

~ David Wolf


Do public intellectuals matter? asks AC Grayling

The XX factor: Jessica Abrahams looks at the women on the list

Follow Prospect on Facebook and Twitter

Map Of The Developing Human Brain Shows Where Problems Begin (NPR)

Our ability to image the brain is becoming quite extraordinary. How we use those images and the agenda of which they are a piece are, however, somewhat concerning. It's wonderful to see how the brain can go wrong in development, but it's FAR more important to understand WHY the brain goes wrong - and the single greatest factor, far more important than genetics, is adverse childhood experience, especially neglect, abuse, and incest.

If we could put an end to those three experiences, the rates of mental illness would be a fraction of the current numbers.

Map Of The Developing Human Brain Shows Where Problems Begin

by Jon Hamilton
April 02, 2014
3 min 53 sec

Play the story

Images of the developing fetal brain show connections among brain regions. Allen Institute for Brain Science

A high-resolution map of the human brain in utero is providing hints about the origins of brain disorders including schizophrenia and autism.

The map shows where genes are turned on and off throughout the entire brain at about the midpoint of pregnancy, a time when critical structures are taking shape, researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"It's a pretty big leap," says Ed Lein, an investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle who played a central role in creating the map. "Basically, there was no information of this sort prior to this project."

Having a map like this is important because many psychiatric and behavioral problems appear to begin before birth, "even though they may not manifest until teenage years or even the early 20s," says Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institutes of Mental Health.

The human brain is often called the most complex object in the universe. Yet its basic architecture is created in just nine months, when it grows from a single cell to more than 80 billion cells organized in a way that will eventually let us think and feel and remember.

"We're talking about a remarkable process," a process controlled by our genes, Lein says. So he and a large team of researchers decided to use genetic techniques to create a map that would help reveal this process. Funding came from the 2009 federal stimulus package. The project is part of the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Brain.

The massive effort required tens of thousands of brain tissue samples so small that they had to be cut out with a laser. Researchers used brain tissue from aborted fetuses, which the Obama administration has authorized over the objections of abortion opponents.

Researchers tested each sample to see which genes were turned on and off in each tiny bit of brain. This helped the team figure out which types cells were present at specific points in the brain and what those cells were doing, Lein says.

The resulting map, which is available to anyone who wants to use it, has already led to at least two important findings, Lein says. "The first is that many genes that are associated with brain disorders are turned on early in development, which suggests that these disorders may have their origin from these very early time points."

And the map tells researchers who study these disorders where in the brain they should be looking for signs of trouble, Lein says.

For example, the map shows that genes associated with autism appear to be acting on a specific type of brain cell in a part of the brain called the neocortex. That suggests "we should be looking at this particular type of cell in the neocortex, and furthermore that we should probably be looking very early in the prenatal stages for the origin of autism," Lein says.

The second important finding from the mapping project, Lein says, is that the human brain is different from a mouse brain in ways researchers didn't know before. These differences could explain why a number of brain drugs that work well in mice have failed badly in people.

The map also reveals just how little scientists had known about the brain of a fetus.

"It's an enormous surprise to us that the genes that get expressed in the fetal brain don't look anything like what we would have expected from the adult brain," Insel says. "It's almost as if the fetal brain is a different organ altogether."

That realization is already helping to explain the complex role that genes often play in brain disorders, Insel says.

For example, researchers have been puzzled by some of the genes that appear to be involved in autism and schizophrenia because their function in the adult brain didn't seem to have anything to do with the disorders.

"But when you look at these new maps we have of what's happening in the fetal brain," Insel says, suddenly much of this begins to make sense."

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Understanding Human Nature with Steven Pinker - Conversations with History

Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker visited UC Berkeley back in February as a part of the Conversations with History lecture series. In this talk he focused on the development of his understanding of human nature, including some discussion of his most recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Understanding Human Nature with Steven Pinker - Conversations with History

Published on Apr 1, 2014 

Conversations host Harry Kreisler welcomes Harvard's Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, for a discussion of his intellectual journey. Pinker discusses the origins and evolution of his thinking on human nature. Topics include: growing up in Montreal in a Jewish family, the impact of the 1960's, his education, and the trajectory of his research interests. He explains his early work in linguistics and how he came to write his recent work, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In the conversation, Pinker describes the importance of interdisciplinary research and analyzes creativity. He concludes with a discussion of how science can contribute to the humanities and offers advice to students on how to prepare for the future.

Recorded on 02/04/2014. Series: "Conversations with History" [4/2014]

Integral Leadership Review, April – June 2014

A new issue of the Integral Leadership Review is online now, the first installment of the April through June edition. Table of contents is below.


April-June 2014
Table of Contents

Leading Comments
4/1 – April-June 2014 Issue
Mark McCaslin
Leadership Quote
4/1 Leadership Quote
Russ Volckmann
Leadership Coaching Tips
4/1 – Leaders Who Can Be Led, Truly Lead
Rajkumari Neogy
Fresh Perspective
Forthcoming: Ralph H. Kilmann Awakening Society, Systems and Souls
Russ Volckmann
Feature Articles
4/1 – Foundation For Integral Self-Management: A ‘Working Hypothesis’
4/1 – Insights on 3-D Leadership Development and Enactment
4/1 – Leadership and Complexity
4/1 – The Adventures of Integral Consciousness in Russia: An Interview with Eugene Pustoshkin
4/1 – The Transdisciplinary Meme
Forthcoming: Ed Kelly on Warren Buffett, Part 3
4/1 – Reflections on the Complexity of Integral Theorizing: Towards an Agenda for Self-reflection
Alfonso Montuori
Notes from the Field
4/1 – Tim Winton’s PatternDynamics
Russ Volckmann
4/1 –Coming Events
Leadership Emerging
4/1 – Dana Ardi, The Fall of the Alphas
4/1 – Kai Hammerich and Richard D. Lewis Fish Can’t See Water: How National Cultures can Make or Break Your Corporate Strategy.

Parsing the Ludicrous Details of Noah's Ark

It's amusing that so many modern humans take a story that was likely meant as a parable and try to make it factual. With the release of the new David Aronofsky film, Noah, starring Russell Crowe, the flood myth and the idea of an arc are back in the news.

Even this headline from Live Science is deceptive - of course it's not true. But with a headline like that, you'll get more hits to your site.

The Ark: Could Noah's Tale Be True?

Benjamin Radford, Live Science Contributor | March 28, 2014

Mount Agri (also called Mount Ararat) is the highest mountain in Turkey, and some believe that Noah's Ark is there. Credit: Mount Ararat photo via Shutterstock

The new film "Noah" stars Russell Crowe as the man chosen by God to collect pairs of Earth's animals on a massive ark to save them from a global flood. The film, which opened March 28, is sizing up to be a Biblical blockbuster, replete with star power and stunning special effects. But how realistic is it?

While many people consider the story of Noah's Ark merely an instructive myth or parable about God's punishment for man's wickedness, others believe that the story is historically accurate. To them, Noah's tale describes events that really happened only a few thousand years ago.

A plausible ark?

Henry Morris, author of "The Biblical Basis for Modern Science" (Baker House, 1984), a creationist text, states that "The ark was to be essentially a huge box designed essentially for stability in the waters of the Flood rather than for movement through the waters. ... The ark was taller than a normal three-story building and about one and a half times as long as a football field. The total volumetric capacity was equal to 1,396,000 cubic feet [39,500 cubic meters] ... equivalent to 522 standard railroad stock cars, far more than enough space to carry two of every known kind of animal, living or extinct." 

The flaws in Morris's calculations become evident when you consider that, according to many creationists, Noah's Ark included hundreds of dinosaurs. That would mean, for example, the brachiosaurus (two of them, of course), each of which weighed about 50 tons and reached 85 feet (26 meters) long. Even if two representatives all of Earth's animals could somehow fit on the ark, enough space would be needed for drinking water and food for an entire year.

Furthermore, contrary to many depictions of the ark, God actually asked Noah to collect not one but seven pairs of "clean" animals and one pair of "unclean" animals (Genesis 7:2-3) — resulting, in some cases, in fourteen of many animals. There simply would not be nearly enough space for all of them.

There's also the problem of collecting all those animals in the first place, anthropology professor Ken Feder notes in his book "The Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology" (Greenwood, 2010).

"How would koala bears from Australia, llamas from South America and penguins from Antarctica have managed the trip to the ark's location in the Middle East?" Feder writes. "And how would their human caretakers have looked after this vast menagerie of animals? Noah, his wife, and his three sons and their wives (that's only eight people) providing food and water to the animals would have been an impossible task. What (or who) would the carnivores, living in close quarters with all those delicious herbivores, have eaten?"

Since the ark's purpose was merely to float (and not necessarily go anywhere), it would have had no means of propulsion (such as a sail) or even steering. According to Morris, "As far as navigation was concerned, God Himself evidently steered the ship, keeping its occupants reasonably comfortable inside while the storms and waves raged outside."

Of course, this rather begs the question, because if God created the global flood and divinely steered the ark, then presumably He could have done any other miracle to assure the success of Noah's mission, from temporarily shrinking all the animals to the size of rats or even allowing them all to live for a year without food or water. Once a supernatural miracle is invoked to explain one thing, it can be used to explain everything.

A closer look

Another problem with the Ark story arises because there is no evidence for a global flood. Creation stories from many different religions and cultures include flood stories, and Feder notes that if a worldwide flood had occurred, "The archaeological record of 5,000 years ago would be replete with Pompeii-style ruins — the remains of thousands of towns, villages and cities, all wiped out by flood waters, simultaneously. ... It would appear that the near annihilation of the human race, if it happened, left no imprint on the archaeological record anywhere."

The lack of physical evidence of the great flood hasn't stopped modern believers from searching for Noah's Ark itself. But the boat is conspicuously missing. It has never been found despite repeated claims to the contrary. Forty years ago, Violet M. Cummings, author of "Noah's Ark: Fable or Fact?" (Creation-Science Research Center, 1973) claimed that the Ark had been found on Mount Ararat in Turkey, exactly as described in Genesis 8:4, which states, "and on the 17th day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat."

In February 1993, CBS aired a two-hour prime-time special titled, "The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark." It included the riveting testimony of a man who claimed not only to have personally seen the Ark on Ararat, but also to have recovered a piece of it. The claims were later revealed to be a hoax. In March 2006, researchers found a rock formation on Mount Ararat that resembled a huge ark, but nothing came of that claim.

A few months later, a team of archaeologists from a Christian organization found yet another rock formation that might be Noah's Ark — not on Mt. Ararat but instead in the Elburz Mountains of Iran. That sensational discovery fizzled out, too. In 2012, "Baywatch" actress Donna D'Errico was injured on Mount Ararat while on a quest to find Noah's Ark. She said she had been inspired to search for the Ark ever since she saw a movie about it as a child.

The fact that Noah's Ark has been "discovered" so many times yet remains lost is something of a mystery in itself. Whether "Noah" floats or sinks at the box office this weekend, it notably doesn't include the tagline "Based on a true story."

Editor's Recommendations

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Impact of Environmental Factors in Severe Psychiatric Disorders


This article has been out for almost two months, but I just discovered it. Good timing, too, since I am currently writing an article refuting the new mandate from the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) that dictates an essentially bio-genetic approach to understanding mental illness - and that will reject funding for projects that do not fit that agenda.

Certainly, there are some organic brain diseases, as discussed below (most of which are influenced in some way by the environment, through toxins, stress, injury, and other pathways). However, and this is the BIG however, the majority of the mental illness we encounter in the therapy room is sourced in relational dysfunction: abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, verbal), neglect (both physical and emotional), and other more subtle forms of relational trauma, that if consistent enough, result in anxiety, depression, poor self-image, and/or debilitating core beliefs about themselves and the world.

Until we admit these primary causes of mental illness into the research agenda, we are condemned to continue search for the mythical magic bullet medicine that will cure us of our pain.

Full Citation:
Schmitt, A, Malchow, B, Hasan, A, and Falkai, P. (2014, Feb 11). The impact of environmental factors in severe psychiatric disorders. Frontiers in Neuroscience: Systems Biology. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2014.00019

The impact of environmental factors in severe psychiatric disorders

Andrea Schmitt [1,2], Berend Malchow [1], Alkomiet Hasan [1], and Peter Falkai [1]
1. Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, LMU Munich, Munich, Germany
2. Laboratory of Neuroscience (LIM27), Institute of Psychiatry, University of Sao Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil

During the last decades, schizophrenia has been regarded as a developmental disorder. The neurodevelopmental hypothesis proposes schizophrenia to be related to genetic and environmental factors leading to abnormal brain development during the pre- or postnatal period. First disease symptoms appear in early adulthood during the synaptic pruning and myelination process. Meta-analyses of structural MRI studies revealing hippocampal volume deficits in first-episode patients and in the longitudinal disease course confirm this hypothesis. Apart from the influence of risk genes in severe psychiatric disorders, environmental factors may also impact brain development during the perinatal period. Several environmental factors such as antenatal maternal virus infections, obstetric complications entailing hypoxia as common factor or stress during neurodevelopment have been identified to play a role in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, possibly contributing to smaller hippocampal volumes. In major depression, psychosocial stress during the perinatal period or in adulthood is an important trigger. In animal studies, chronic stress or repeated administration of glucocorticoids have been shown to induce degeneration of glucocorticoid-sensitive hippocampal neurons and may contribute to the pathophysiology of affective disorders. Epigenetic mechanisms altering the chromatin structure such as histone acetylation and DNA methylation may mediate effects of environmental factors to transcriptional regulation of specific genes and be a prominent factor in gene-environmental interaction. In animal models, gene-environmental interaction should be investigated more intensely to unravel pathophysiological mechanisms. These findings may lead to new therapeutic strategies influencing epigenetic targets in severe psychiatric disorders.


Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder starting at young adulthood (Kendler et al., 1996) with a prevalence of about 1% (Jablensky, 1995; McGrath et al., 2008). Each patient suffers from an individual combination of positive, negative, and affective symptoms as well as cognitive deficits, while the severity of these symptoms can change over time depending on the disease stage. Schizophrenia is characterized by prodromal phases with rather unspecific negative and cognitive symptoms, followed by the acute illness with prevailing positive symptoms (Falkai et al., 2011). Remission of psychosis is often incomplete with negative symptoms or even persisting positive symptoms being present in 30% of the sufferers (Hasan et al., 2012) and increasing to 60% in consideration of functionality (Gaebel et al., 2006). Positive symptoms consist of mainly acoustic hallucinations, delusions, disorganized speech, and disorganized behavior as well as thought disorder. The negative symptoms comprise blunted affect, avolition, anhedonia, asociality, and alogia (Crow, 1980; Andreasen et al., 1995). Apart from affective symptoms (e.g., anxiety, depressive mood, and suicidality), another domain refers to cognitive deficits with diminished episodic memory, executive function, and attention (Hoff et al., 1996, 2005; Heinrichs and Zakzanis, 1998; Albus et al., 2002, 2006), which represent a core feature of the disease and are main predictors for poor social-functioning outcome (Green, 1996).

Affective disorders, including major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder with manic episodes, belong to the most prevalent psychiatric diseases. Being among the severe psychiatric diseases (Alsuwaidan et al., 2009), Major depressive disorder has a lifetime prevalence between 16 and 20% (Williams et al., 2007) while lifetime prevalence of bipolar disorder is around 3% in the general population (Merikangas et al., 2007). According to DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) symptoms include loss of energy, social withdrawal, and melancholia in depressive episodes of both major depression and bipolar disorder, and elation, irritability, increased energy with hyperactivity, racing thoughts, pressured rapid speech, decreased need for sleep and an increased involvement of pleasured activities in manic episodes of bipolar disorder. In bipolar disorder, instability of mood is one of the core symptoms, whereas melancholia is the most common sign of depressive episodes (Meyer and Hautzinger, 2003). Furthermore, apart from affective symptoms, both types of affective disorders display impaired cognitive performance, mainly in attention, memory, and executive tasks (Torres et al., 2007). However, because of the individuality of patient's symptoms, current psychiatric diagnostic manuals are not always valid and major psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression are considered as a continuum with different severity of cognitive deficits as common trait (Hill et al., 2013).

In schizophrenia, twin studies show a heritability of about 60–80% (Sullivan et al., 2003), whereas in bipolar disorder and major depression heritability has been estimated to be 6–80 and 32%, respectively (Wray and Gottesman, 2012). Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) revealed a multitude of genetic risk variants (single nucleotide polymorphisms, SNP) with low effect (Schwab and Wildenauer, 2013). New risk SNPs with high significance are located in genes for Zinc finger protein (ZNF804a), transcription factor 4 (TCF4), micro-RNA 137 (Mir137), the L-type voltage-gated calcium channel (CACNA1C), and CACNB2, Inter-alpha globulin inhibitor H3 and H5 (ITIH3-ITIH4) as well as ankyrin3 (Ank3) with mostly unknown neurobiological consequences (Schwab and Wildenauer, 2013). Ank3 and CACNA1C are also relevant for bipolar disorder (Ferreira et al., 2008) and CACNB2 has been found to be associated with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression (Cross-Disorder Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium et al., 2013). In a new GWAS study, Ripke et al. (2013) estimated that in schizophrenia about 8.300 SNPs contribute to a common risk of 32%, suggesting that environmental factors interacting with the genetic background contribute to the pathophysiology (Manolio et al., 2009). In schizophrenia, environmental factors are proposed to play a role up to 60% (Benros et al., 2011) (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Interacting risk genes and environmental factors contribute to increase the risk of schizophrenia. The figure shows the estimated heritability risk to develop schizophrenia as a factor of grade of next of kin. The right side illustrates the contribution of different environmental factors such as infections, obstetric complications, stress periods, and cannabis abuse.

Neurodevelopment and Psychiatric Disorders

During the last decades, schizophrenia has been regarded as a neurodevelopmental disorder. Defective genes and environmental factors may interact to induce symptoms of the disease. The so-called “neurodevelopmental hypothesis” proposes schizophrenia to be related to adverse conditions leading to abnormal brain development during the perinatal period, whereas symptoms of the disease appear in early adulthood after the synaptic pruning process (Weinberger, 1996). In the “two-hit” model, early perinatal insults (genetic background and/or environmental factors) may lead to dysfunction of neuronal circuits and vulnerability to the disease, while a second “hit” during a critical brain development period in adolescence may induce the onset of the disease (Keshavan and Hogarty, 1999). The early perinatal period has been shown to be critical for proper brain development and more specifically the late first and second trimester have been implicated in the pathophysiology of the disease (Fatemi and Folsom, 2009). During adolescence, a synaptic pruning process with excessive elimination of synapses and loss of synaptic plasticity may lead to exacerbation of symptoms in the predisposed brain (Keshavan and Hogarty, 1999; Schmitt et al., 2011a). Additionally, myelination of the heteromodal association cortex like the prefrontal cortex occur during this period (Peters et al., 2012) and decreased fractional anisotropy which corresponds to deficits in myelination has consistently been reported in schizophrenia, suggesting disturbances in fronto-limbic connections (Yao et al., 2013). The prefrontal cortex is highly connected with the hippocampus and this neuronal network has been shown to be disturbed in schizophrenia, mainly due to neurodevelopmental disturbances (Bullmore et al., 1997; Peters et al., 2012; Rapoport et al., 2012). Accordingly, in animal models, perinatal hippocampal lesions induced dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex in adulthood (Lipska, 2004). The disconnection of the hippocampus during brain development alters prefrontal cortical circuitry, function and neurocognition such as prepulse inhibition of acoustic startle response and represents a potent neurodevelopmental animal model for schizophrenia.

Meta-analyses of structural magnetic resonance imaging studies revealed decreased hippocampal volumes and increased ventricles in first-episode schizophrenia patients, confirming the presence of neuropathology before diagnosis is possible (Steen et al., 2006; Vita et al., 2006; Adriano et al., 2012). Even in patients with ultrahigh risk to develop schizophrenia, diminished gray matter of prefrontal and hippocampal regions has been detected compared to healthy controls and in patients experiencing later transition to schizophrenia these volume deficits were yet more pronounced (Witthaus et al., 2009, 2010; Wood et al., 2010). In a comparative analysis, both schizophrenia patients and patients with treatment-resistant major depressive disorder exhibited reduced hippocampal volumes (Maller et al., 2012). Reduced hippocampal volume has also been confirmed in patients with recurrent and chronic depression (Cole et al., 2011). Shape analysis revealed deformations in subfields in the tail of the right hippocampus as well as bilateral volume reductions in patients with first-episode depression (Cole et al., 2010; Meisenzahl et al., 2010), while during the course of the disease further reductions have only been detected in schizophrenia. The presence of alterations in first-episode depression is consistent with a neurodevelopmental hypothesis of early stress experience, especially since the hippocampus plays a major role in inhibiting stress response (McEwen and Magarinos, 2001), providing inhibitory feedback to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (Fanselow, 2000).

Stress During Neurodevelopment

Potential stress-inducing factors are migration and urbanicity, which both have been related to schizophrenia. Meta-analyses show an association with urban environment after controlling for minority status (van Os et al., 2010). Individuals living in a higher degree of urbanization had a higher risk to develop schizophrenia than people living in rural areas with a dose-dependent relationship (Pedersen and Mortensen, 2001). In healthy controls, city living was associated with increased amygdala activity, whereas urban upbringing affected the anterior cingulate cortex, affective, and stress response (Lederbogen et al., 2011). In first- and second-generation migrants as well as in minority groups across all cultures, psychotic symptoms have been shown to be increased (Rapoport et al., 2012). According to the “social defeat hypothesis” it has been assumed that social status and degree, e.g., occupying a minority position or experiencing social exclusion, promotes the development of schizophrenia (van Os et al., 2010).

Maltreated children suffer more likely from severe psychiatric disorders such as major depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and schizophrenia. Childhood maltreatment has been associated with reduced hippocampal volume and amygdala hyperreactivity and also predicts poor treatment outcome (Teicher and Samson, 2013). To date, apart from a genetic vulnerability, stress is widely accepted as risk factor for depression. The stress sensitization hypothesis describes that the first episode of depression sensitizes an individual to stress for which reason subsequent episodes require less stress to be triggered (Shapero et al., 2014). In extension of this hypothesis, early adverse childhood experiences including emotional abuse, physical, and sexual abuse or neglect have been shown to predict depressive symptoms in adulthood (Shapero et al., 2014). Indicating a gene-environment interaction, genetic factors such as polymorphisms in the serotonin transporter or methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase have been reported to interact with developmental stress to increase the risk for depression (Karg et al., 2011; Lok et al., 2013). However, individual genetic background influences the incidence of depression in response to stress and only a part of the persons experiencing stressors develops depression (Keers and Uher, 2012). Moreover, childhood abuse is known to induce psychotic symptoms and suicidal behavior in patients with major depression and bipolar disorder (Arseneault et al., 2011; Tunnard et al., 2014). Early psychotic symptoms represent a risk for developing schizophrenia. In a meta-analysis of 18 case-control studies, Varese et al. (2012) filtered adverse experiences in childhood to significantly increase the risk to develop psychosis and schizophrenia. The neurobiological consequence of stress sensitization involves dysregulation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, contributing to dopamine sensitization in mesolimbic areas and increased stress-induced striatal dopamine release (van Winkel et al., 2008).

The major stress system of the body is the HPA axis, a neuroendocrine system involved in the production of the stress hormone cortisol by adrenal glands. In a subset of patients with major depression, but also in patients with severe psychiatric disorder across phenotypic diagnosis, a dysfunction of the HPA axis has been detected (MacKenzie et al., 2007; Kapur et al., 2012). Depressed patients with a history of childhood abuse have enhanced HPA axis response to psychosocial stress and attenuated cortisol response to application of the synthetic corticosteroid dexamethasone (Heim et al., 2000). In animal models, acute or chronic stress decreased BDNF levels in the hippocampus inclusive the dentate gyrus (Neto et al., 2011). Along with this hypothesis, stress is known to reduce hippocampal dendrites (Magarinos et al., 2011). It additionally increases plasma and adrenal corticosterone levels and application of this hormone reduced hippocampal BDNF levels, mimicking stress reaction (Neto et al., 2011). Chronic stress or repeated administration of glucocorticoids results in degeneration of hippocampal neurons with decreased soma size and atrophy of dendrites (Sapolsky et al., 1990; Watanabe et al., 1992). Thus, volume loss in vulnerable brain regions like the hippocampus as reported for affective disorders may indeed be mediated by stress-induced glucocorticoid neurotoxicity (Arango et al., 2001; Frodl and O'Keane, 2013). In an animal model of depression, the learned helplessness paradigm, inescapable stress induces downregulation of stem cell proliferation (neurogenesis) in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus (Malberg and Duman, 2003). Stress is additionally known to influence synaptic plasticity in the prefrontal cortex (Rajkowska, 2000). Mediating gene-environmental interactions, epigenetic mechanisms altering chromatin structure such as histone acetylation and DNA methylation may link effects of environmental factors such as stress to transcriptional regulation of specific genes. Depression-like behavior and antidepressant action have been found to be regulated by epigenetic mechanisms (Sun et al., 2013). For example, stress is known to increase histone methylation at the corresponding promoters of the BDNF gene.

Maternal stress during the prenatal period has been related to schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety (Markham and Koenig, 2011), which also applies to autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Class et al., 2014). It includes maternal psychological stress exposure e.g., due to bereavement, unwantedness of a pregnancy, natural disaster or war experience (Brown, 2002; Spauwen et al., 2004; Sullivan, 2005; Meli et al., 2012). Children of mothers who experienced e.g., death of relatives or other serious life events developed schizophrenia to a higher degree (Khashan et al., 2008). War experience e.g., during world war II or Israel's Six-Day-War has also been regarded as a critical factor (van Os and Selten, 1998; Malaspina et al., 2008). Especially during the first or second trimester of pregnancy, a vulnerable brain development period may exist for those stress factors. Beside schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety are consequences of exposure to gestational stress (Torrey et al., 1996; Watson et al., 1999; Brown et al., 2000). Prenatal stress is known to influence function of the HPA axis and secretion of glucocorticoid hormones as well protective capacity of the placenta (Owen et al., 2005; Weinstock, 2005, 2008). In addition to effects on stress hormones, prenatal stress influences the fetal transcriptome through microRNA (miRNA) regulation as an epigenetic mechanism, which links environmental factors to altered gene expression in the pathophysiology of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (Zucchi et al., 2013). Among 435 miRNAs, 19% exhibited reduced expression in the prefrontal cortex in schizophrenia, or more pronounced in bipolar disorder (Moreau et al., 2011). While 18 miRNAs have been found to be differentially expressed, the miRNA miR-497 and miR-29c have been validated to be overexpressed in exosomes of the prefrontal cortex of patients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (Banigan et al., 2013). Moreover, methylation or hydroxymethylation of specific genes or promotors regulates gene expression (Akbarian, 2010). Hypermethylation of sex-determining region Y-box 10 (SOX10) has been reported in schizophrenia, whereas in bipolar disorder hypomethylation of HLA complex group 9 (HCG9), ST6 (alpha-N-acetyl-neuranminyl-2,3-beta-galactosyl-1,3)-N-acetylgalactosaminide alpha-2,6-sialyltransferase (ST6GALNAC), and hypermethylation of the serotonin transporter SLCA4 and proline rich membrane anchor 1 (PRIMA1) has been observed (Kato and Iwamoto, 2014). In the frontal cortex of schizophrenia patients, genome-wide methylation analysis revealed differential methylation of 817 genes in promotor regions, among them genes which previously have been associated with schizophrenia (Wockner et al., 2014). Histone modification of chromatin is another epigenetic mechanism to influence gene expression (Peter and Akbarian, 2011). In schizophrenia, altered histone methyltransferases have been detected in the parietal cortex and represent potential future targets for novel treatment strategies (Chase et al., 2013). After prenatal stress in mice, abnormalities in DNA methylation have been described in GABAergic neurons and been related to a schizophrenia-like behavioral phenotype (Matrisciano et al., 2013).

Altered expressions of glucocorticoid receptors and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) in the hippocampus and amygdala have been reported to result from prenatal stress and may be related to increased anxiety and depression-related behavior (Markham and Koenig, 2011). Cognitive deficits of working memory, spatial memory and novel object recognition, related to dysfunctions of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, have repeatedly been associated with prenatal stress in animal models and implicate its relationship to severe psychiatric disorders (Markham and Koenig, 2011). Other behavioral consequences are increased locomotor activity and deficits in prepulse inhibition of acoustic startle response (PPI) (Koenig et al., 2005). Increased subcortical and decreased prefrontal dopamine activity after prenatal stress interestingly corresponds to neurotransmitter hypotheses of schizophrenia (Carboni et al., 2010). As a correlate of negative symptoms, social interaction has been reported to be decreased in animals with experience of prenatal stress (Lee et al., 2007). Investigating gene-environmental interaction, a social deficit has been revealed in SNAP-25 knockout mice, which represents a synaptic protein involved in neurotransmitter release, combined with prenatal stress paradigm (Oliver and Davies, 2009).

Some retrospective studies investigated consequences of prenatal food starvation during the “Dutch hunger winter 1944–1945” (Susser et al., 1996; Hoek et al., 1998) and Chinese famine during 1959–1961 (St Clair et al., 2005; Xu et al., 2009). In these investigations, famine episodes of mothers were related to increased risk for schizophrenia in the offspring. Exposure to famine has also been associated with mood disorders and antisocial behavior (Lumey et al., 2011) However, these data are based on ecological inquiries and other factors such as prenatal stress, inflammation, obstetric complications, and toxic substances are not controlled for. Despite these limitations, animal studies revealed effects for protein restriction, choline and vitamin D deficiency on dopamine-related behavior such as locomotor activity and sensorimotor gating, cognition and anxiety, or depression-related behaviors (Markham and Koenig, 2011).

Birth and Obstetric Complications

Several meta-analyses have shown an association between complications of pregnancy and delivery and schizophrenia. This applies to obstetric complications of preeclampsia, bleeding, rhesus incompatibility and diabetes, asphyxia, uterine atony, emergency Ceasarian section, and fetal abnormalities such as low birth weight, congenital malformations, and small head circumference. Effect sizes have been estimated between two and three with the highest effect showing emergency Caesarian section, placental abruption, and low birth weight (Cannon et al., 2002a). Schizophrenia has been associated with boys which were small for gestational age at birth (odds ratio 3.2) (Hultman et al., 1999). Children who experienced fetal hypoxia and later developed schizophrenia or affective disorders had basically lower birth weights, indicating that birth weight is a general marker of viability of the intrauterine environment (Fineberg et al., 2013). An odds ratio of 2.0 has been detected by a meta-analysis of Geddes and Lawrie (1995). The same group investigated another meta-analysis of different obstetric complications and found associations between schizophrenia and use of incubator, prematurity and premature rupture of membranes, while low birthweight and use of forceps during delivery were less consistently related to the disorder (Geddes et al., 1999). Maternal bleeding during pregnancy has been found to be associated with schizophrenia with an odds ratio of 3.5 (Hultman et al., 1999). Interestingly, in individuals at high risk for psychosis, those who de facto converted into psychosis had more obstetric complications than non-converting individuals (Mittal et al., 2009). A common factor of all these complications is perinatal hypoxia (Zornberg et al., 2000), which in rats induced a deficit in prepulse inhibition of acoustic startle response (PPI) in adulthood. This behavioral correlate to schizophrenia responded to treatment with the atypical antipsychotic clozapine (Schmitt et al., 2007; Fendt et al., 2008).

The PPI paradigm reflects function of a specific network of brain regions, among them the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, striatum, and nucleus accumbens (Swerdlow et al., 2001). Especially the hippocampus and basal ganglia are vulnerable to hypoxia-ischemia in the neonate (Morales et al., 2011). Bilateral hippocampal atrophy has been detected in adolescents with a history of perinatal asphyxia diagnosed as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, along with worse verbal long-term memory (Maneru et al., 2003). In schizophrenia, patients with obstetric complications have shown reduced hippocampal volumes (McNeil et al., 2000; Van Erp et al., 2002; Schulze et al., 2003; Ebner et al., 2008), while no effects have been observed in volumes of basal ganglia (Haukvik et al., 2010). However, effects of antipsychotic medication have to be taken into consideration when investigating brain regions (Lieberman et al., 2005). In patients, fetal hypoxia has been related to increased ventricular size and reduced cortical gray matter (McNeil et al., 2000; Cannon et al., 2002b; Falkai et al., 2003), but results are not consistent (Haukvik et al., 2009). Assessment of the two-dimensional gyrification index (GI) revealed no relationship between obstetric complications and cortical folding (Falkai et al., 2007), but after application of a three-dimensional local GI calculation cortical gyrification has been observed to be reduced in the Broca's area in patients and healthy controls with obstetric complication (Haukvik et al., 2012). Since early stages of gyrification take place during gestational week 16 with a rapid increase in the third trimester (Armstrong et al., 1995), this possibly reflects neurodevelopmental disturbances.

In a meta-analysis of 22 studies, the pooled odds ratio for exposure to obstetric complications and subsequent development of bipolar disorder was 1.01 and for development of major depression 0.61, not supporting the association with affective disorder (Scott et al., 2006). However, in a national register study of 1.3 million Swedes, preterm birth has been significantly associated with affective disorders: those with less than 32 weeks gestation had a 2.9-fold higher risk to develop major depression and 7.4% more likely to have bipolar disorder (Nosarti et al., 2012). In a structural MRI study of 79 patients with bipolar disorder and 140 healthy controls from a Norwegion registry, perinatal asphyxia including a hypoxic state lead to smaller amygdala volumes in the bipolar group with perinatal asphyxia, while the non-psychotic group had an association with smaller hippocampal volumes (Haukvik et al., 2013). This is important for the pathophysiology of bipolar disorder, since meta-analyses have revealed smaller amygdala and hippocampus volumes in lithium-naïve patients with bipolar disorder (Hallahan et al., 2011; Hajek et al., 2012).

The consequences of fetal hypoxia comprise neuronal death, white matter damage with impaired myelination and reduced growth of dendrites with more profound effects at mid than late gestation (Rees et al., 2008). Apart from axonal degeneration, especially oligodendrocytes and periventricular white matter are sensible for the influence of oxygen restriction (Kaur et al., 2006). Additionally, an excess of glutamate via hypofunction of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor, which has been proposed to play a major role in the pathophysiology of schizophrenia (Hashimoto et al., 2013; Weickert et al., 2013), may damage oligodendroglia and myelin and influence oligodendrocyte differentiation (Mitterauer and Kofler-Westergren, 2011; Cavaliere et al., 2013). Thereby, contributing to cognitive deficits, increased glutamate levels may induce a synaptic imbalance between axons and oligodendroglia, affecting the glial network (syncytium) which is composed of oligodendrocytes and astrocytes (Mitterauer, 2011). In schizophrenia, decreased oligodendrocyte number has been detected in CA4 of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (Hof et al., 2003; Schmitt et al., 2009). Although no astrocytosis has been found in schizophrenia (Schmitt et al., 2009), dysfunction of astrocytes may be present in psychiatric disorders (Mitterauer, 2011). At the paranodal junctions between axons and terminal loops of oligodendrocytes, contactin-associated protein is expressed and has been reported to be downregulated in schizophrenia, thus modulating glia-neuronal interaction (Schmitt et al., 2012). In addition to these glial networks, microglia is known to be activated by hypoxic periods and may mediate cell damage via production of nitric oxide synthase, linking neonatal hypoxia to inflammatory processes (Kaur et al., 2006). In the rat model of perinatal hypoxia, cDNA microarray derived analysis revealed synaptic genes like complexin 1, syntaxin 1A, SNAP 25, neuropeptide Y, and neurexin 1 to be deregulated in several cortical regions and striatum during adulthood. In this study, clozapine treatment had effects on gene expression (Sommer et al., 2010). These findings are relevant to schizophrenia, which has been described as a disease of dysconnectivity on the synaptic and systematic level (Schmitt et al., 2011a, 2012).

Inflammation During Pregnancy

As to offspring of mothers exposed to influenza, several epidemiological studies have demonstrated an increased risk for schizophrenia. However, infections with other viruses such as measles, rubella, varicella-zoster, polio, and herpes as well as bacteria and parasites (Toxoplasma gondii) also confer an increased risk of schizophrenia (Hagberg et al., 2012). Moreover, maternal infections and subsequent inflammatory processes and brain injury during pregnancy are known to be associated with preterm labor, especially at <30 weeks of gestation (Dammann et al., 2002; Goldenberg et al., 2008). These complications are known to affect white matter structures such as corpus callosum or other major white matter tracts and may be associated with neurodevelopmental injury of oligodendrocytes in schizophrenia (Chew et al., 2013). In fact, decreased numbers of oligodendrocytes have been detected in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex in post-mortem brains of schizophrenia patients and may affect subsequent myelination (Hof et al., 2002; Schmitt et al., 2009). Pro-inflammatory cytokine release has been described as common mechanism of infectious processes (Brown, 2012; Garbett et al., 2012). In the prefrontal cortex of schizophrenia patients, gene expression analysis revealed increased expression of inflammatory genes along with activation of microglia (Beumer et al., 2012; Fillman et al., 2013), but results in the superior temporal cortex also point to the reduced expression of immune-related genes (Schmitt et al., 2011b). In which manner these post-mortem findings are related to perinatal insults is not yet resolved. In animal studies, maternal infection induced behavioral abnormalities in early adulthood comparable to schizophrenia such as deficits in PPI, social interaction and working memory (Meyer and Feldon, 2009).

Challenging Future Investigations: Gene-Environmental Interaction

Many efforts have been made to unravel the genetic background of severe psychiatric disorders. Recent GWAS point toward a partial overlap in susceptibility between schizophrenia and affective disorders (Cross-Disorder Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium et al., 2013). For example, the risk variant of the alpha 1C subunit of the L-type voltage-gated calcium channel (CACNA1C) gene is associated with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression (Green et al., 2010). This genotype has been shown to influence hippocampal activation during episodic memory encoding and retrieval (Krug et al., 2013). However, effect sizes for common genetic variants so far were small (Brown, 2011; Réthelyi et al., 2013). Environmental factors, especially those affecting molecular and structural processes in relevant brain regions during neurodevelopment, are supposed to interact with genetic factors to induce severe psychiatric disorders (Harrison and Weinberger, 2005). For example, a large number of schizophrenia candidate genes are known to be regulated by hypoxia (Fatemi and Folsom, 2009; Schmidt-Kastner et al., 2012). In transgenic animal models of schizophrenia, stressful events have been induced to reinforce the behavioral phenotype (Haque et al., 2012; Hida et al., 2013). Future animal studies should combine risk variants of susceptibility genes with several environmental factors such as perinatal infection, stress and hypoxia to develop valid models of severe psychiatric disorders. These models could be useful to understand pathophysiological brain mechanisms and to develop new treatment strategies aiming at risk-based therapy and prevention of symptoms of severe psychiatric disorders.

Conflict of Interest Statement

Berend Malchow declares no conflicts of interest. Alkomiet Hasan has been invited to scientific conferences by Janssen Cilag, Pfizer, and Lundbeck. He received paid speakership by Desitin and is member of the Roche advisory board. Andrea Schmitt was honorary speaker for TAD Pharma and Roche and has been member of the Roche advisory board. Peter Falkai until 12/2011 has been member of the advisory boards of Janssen-Cilag, BMS, Lundback, Pfizer, Lilly, and AstraZeneca and received an educational grant from AstraZeneca and honoraria as lecturer from Janssen-Cilag, BMS, Lundbeck, Pfizer, Lilly, and AstraZeneca.

References are available at the Frontiers site.