The Mindful Hack is a Web log of Denyse O'Leary, co-author of The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (HarperOne August 2007). The Mindful Hack publishes information of interest on the relationship between the mind and the brain. O'Leary also publishes the Post-Darwinist, which keeps up with the intelligent design controversy.
Us vs. Them is not in our genes (or brains), but in ourselves
In The Chronicle Review, On the perennial subject "us vs. them," while noting significant recent books, Carlin Romano offers us "Good News From the Ancients!" (January 23, 2011):
Rethinking the Other in Antiquity, by Erich S. Gruen, out this month from Princeton University Press, like all excellent scholarship massages the mind in useful new directions. Gruen, a Berkeley professor emeritus of history and classics, wields his command of ancient sources to shake a widely shared historical belief—that ancient Greeks and Romans exuded condescension and hostility toward what European intellectuals call the "Other." For those Greeks and Romans, that largely meant peoples such as the Persians, Egyptians, and Jews. Even if Gruen doesn't wholly convince on every ground that Greeks and Romans operated like Obamas in togas, regularly reaching out to potential enemies, his careful readings of Aeschylus, Herodotus, Tacitus, and others introduce us to a kinder, gentler ancient world. His analysis confirms how even back then, tossing people into a category and then hating them en masse was a choice, not an evolutionary necessity.
Yes, it is a mental construct: Me better, you worse, as Carlin puts it - or in the version more familiar to me: Me Tarzan, you wrong.
Defensive claims of superiority pop up again and again through history, not because there is a "gene" or neural circuit for it but because the circumstances that excite the temptation keep reappearing, and all you need after that is a human brain, period.
Thus, when we hear that "they have found the brain area for prejudice," we would most wisely interpret as follows: "This is a brain area that prejudice may activate in some individuals."
Here, Dominican Br. Christopher attempts to map 13th century Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas onto modern neuroscience:
It turns out that at least one neuroscientist, Walter J Freeman of UC Berkeley, finds that Thomas’s philosophical foundation for explaining the mind-body problem is the most useful for grounding recent studies in nonlinear brain dynamics. Specifically, it is Thomas’s understanding of intentionality that fills the explanatory gap between the complementary observations of lower-level electrophysiological data and higher-level goal-directed behavior.
An interesting scheme is offered, with the following comment:
This is not, of course, a perfect one to one mapping of terms; however, this attempt at translating between the language of Thomas and neuroscience hopefully will generate dialogue between these two communities. Freeman notes that neuroscientists often don’t have a strong grasp of the philosophical questions and issues that relate to their topic of inquiry: how do we think? At the same time, philosophers generally do not have a firm understanding of the contributions modern neuroscience has made to our understanding of the workings of the brain, which certainly should influence any approach to the mind body problem.
Hey, wait a minute. The main reason, in my experience, that neuroscientists "often don't have a strong grasp" of mind-related questions is that they don't believe the mind exists. That is the starting point of their research.
While editing a book that addresses these issues recently, I was struck by the contempt for philosophers a famous neuroscientist exhibited. Had he expressed himself in such terms about any discipline whatever in science, he would certainly have been thought an ignoramus, regardless of his accomplishment in his own field, but no one questions his saying it about philosophers. Worse, even though neuroscience has a track record of zero to a zillion in explaining consciousness - the subject of his enquiry - his confidence was undiminished.
Unless that problem (proud, studied ignorance) is confronted, it is useless to ask whether Aquina's insights would be a help.
Neurosexism: Cordelia Fine's expose stays in the news
Seems Carol Tavris at the Times Literary Supplement is also interested in CordeliaFine's takedown of the supposed neuroscience behind Fred and Wilma Flintstone:
Cordelia Fine has produced a witty and meticulously researched exposé of the sloppy studies that pass for scientific evidence in so many of today's bestselling books on sex differences
- "The new neurosexism" (January 26, 2011)
The whole field has the hallmarks of bad science: The researchers wanted to find genetic or evolutionary support for beliefs that were actually their own mental constructs. They were sure to find what they were looking for because it already existed, though not, as it happens, in nature.
The risk is that exposing the bad science will trigger another feminist "bashmen". In reality, "men" are not even, in isolation, responsible for this one. Many women promoted it too.
A hopeful sign is that people aren't just letting this one go, in an era where anyone with a scanner becmes an instant prophet, it seems.
Edge Question: Which science concept would make everyone think better?
Here is the "Edge World Question Center", a leading materialist think tank, with 2011's Question:
THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER
James Flynn has defined "shorthand abstractions" (or "SHA's") as concepts drawn from science that have become part of the language and make people smarter by providing widely applicable templates ("market", "placebo", "random sample," "naturalistic fallacy," are a few of his examples). His idea is that the abstraction is available as a single cognitive chunk which can be used as an element in thinking and debate.
The Edge Question 2011
WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?
The term 'scientific"is to be understood in a broad sense as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great people in history, or the structure of DNA. A "scientific concept" may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or "in a phrase") but has broad application to understanding the world.
[Thanks to Steven Pinker for suggesting this year's Edge Question and to Daniel Kahneman for advice on its presentation.]
164 contributors, many whose names you will recognize, participated.
To a materialist, any materialist thesis about the placebo effect, no matter how inadequate, must be preferred to any non-materialist thesis.
The placebo effect is a good example of how a phenomenon can be studied from a scientific but non-materialist viewpoint.
Put simply, placebo is a relationship effect. Even if we can’t quantify the mind, we can study the relationships between mental and physical states.
Example: John has a flareup of a chronic condition, and his doctor announces that a promising new medication is available. John takes it, and begins to feel better.
The doctor forgot to inform him that the effects of the medication will only take hold about 12 hours later, at least if chemistry alone were the deciding factor.
In other words, John shouldn’t feel better now, but he does.
This is one of the best-attested facts in medicine. Indeed, one reason for double blind studies with control groups is precisely that much of the control group will feel better, as long as they believe they are the study group. Fortunately for themselves, members of control groups do tend to believe that.
We can make many assumptions, assessments, and predictions about the placebo effect and use it as needed, without knowing the exact constitution of the mind.
Ignoring the placebo effect set medicine back in certain ways, decades ago. Doctors, honestly believing that chemistry and surgery would do the trick, discounted the fact that a hospital looked and operated like a slaughterhouse.
For example, surgeons used to wear white scrubs, like butchers, but growing awareness of the placebo effect cause a switch to “surgical green".
Man demonstrates the ease of proving the existence of French fries.
Photo by James Heilman, MD
Along the lines of religion and health, a friend absolutely insists that I write about this:
From a medical perspective, an obese person has accumulated enough body fat that it can have a negative effect on their health. If a person's weight is at least 20% higher than it should be, he/she is generally considered obese. If your Body Mass Index (BMI) is between 25 and 29.9 you are considered overweight. If your BMI is 30 or over you are considered obese. The term obese can also used in a more general way to indicate someone who is overweight.
Two of the major risk factors for becoming obese according to the Mayo Clinic are poor dietary choices and inactivity, thus given the above cited Gallup research, it appears as if non-religious are more prone to becoming obese than very religious individuals. The Bible declares that gluttony is a sin. Furthermore, the Bible declares the physical body of Christians to be temples of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is not surprising that many very religious Christians would leave healthy lives.
Well, ... you heard it here first.
I hope the ID controversy won’t degenerate into a “Who’s a tub of lard?” war, a temptation to which my friend may have just possibly given way ...
At Oscillatory Thoughts, Bradley Voytek cautions against the pop science media’s simplifications of brain activity on subjects like curiosity :
How to be a neuroscientist
Written by Bradley Voytek at 12:54
In this post, I will teach you all how to be proper, skeptical neuroscientists. By the end of this post, not only will you be able to spot "neuro nonsense" statements, but you'll also be able to spot nonsense neuroscience questions.
I implore my journalist friends to take note of what I say in this post.
Much has already been said on the topic of modern neuroimaging masquerading as "new phrenology". A lot of these arguments and conversations are hidden from the lay public, however, so I'm going to expose the dirty neuroscientific underbelly here.
Well, what is it? Is it even remotely likely that one small area of the brain will govern everything from “Why does she act like she knows something I don’t” over to “Why do geese fly in a V”, and as far down as “Why do people vote for Jane Schtickle, whom I can’t stand”?
Here, Benjamin Wiker provides a working definition of the relationship between the body and the soul, by the distressing route of ... vice:
We are, to repeat, a real unity of body and soul. Consequently, what we do with either our body or our soul affects both our body and our soul. We become what we do; we are what we have done. Repeated sinful actions literally reform our body and soul according to the sin, so that the actions come to define our very nature by becoming second nature.
The development of this second nature is called a habit, and since it is destructive, a bad habit, or more compactly, a vice. As the vice becomes more engrained, we increasingly lose our freedom, our power, to act well. The vice then defines our entire being, both body and soul.
To put it in St. Augustine's concise terms, sin is its own punishment.
Thus, a woman who gambles becomes a gambler, a human being entirely defined by a particular kind of self destructive activity that has become her second nature. A man who views internet porn becomes a creature who can do nothing else, who thinks about nothing else, who is entirely defined by this self- and other-destructive activity, body and soul, mind and heart, eyes, fingers, and brain. What they originally chose to do, and what earlier on they could have much more easily chosen not to do, now becomes the master who ruthlessly in-habits them, changing every aspect of their intimate soul-body union.
I've pulled together some recent resources for mindfulness—most of them published within the last 3 years—in clinical contexts.
The resources below fall into 5 groups:
The Mindful Clinician: Training, Development, Self-Care
Articles on Mindfulness as an Intervention for Psychological and Medical Disorders
Books on Mindfulness in Therapy, Recovery, & Self-Help
Audio Resources for Mindfulness
Mindfulness means acting as if your mind exists.
You are what you eat? Yes but, in the same sense, you are also what you think.
Non-materialist neuroscientists must often deal with the claim that their work is “unscientific,” despite the fact that, for example, the placebo effect, for example, is one of the best attested effects in medicine and the fact that there Is mounting evidence for researchable psi effects. The problem arises because, as Susan Hack puts it, "scientism" enables assessors to avoid evaluating evidence in favor of evaluating whether the evidence "counts as science". Here are her six signs:
1. Using the words “science,” “scientific,” “scientifically,” “scientist,” etc., honorifically, as generic terms of epistemic praise.
And, inevitably, the honorific use of “science” encourages uncritical credulity about whatever new scientific idea comes down the pike. But the fact is that all the explanatory hypotheses that scientists come up with are, at first, highly speculative, and most are eventually found to be untenable, and abandoned. To be sure, by now there is a vast body of well-warranted scientific theory, some of it so well-warranted that it would be astonishing if new evidence were to show it to be mistaken - though even this possibility should never absolutely be ruled out.
Always remember that Ptolemy’s model of the solar system was used successfully by astronomers for 1200 years, even though it had Earth in the wrong place.
2. Adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness. Here, Hack cites the "social sciences", quite justifiably, but evolutionary psychology surely leads the pack. Can anyone serious believe, for example, that our understanding of public affairs is improved by the claim that there is such a thing as hardwired religion or evolved religion? No new light, just competing, contradictory speculation.
3. A preoccupation with demarcation, i.e., with drawing a sharp line between genuine science, the real thing, and "pseudo-scientific" imposters. The key, of course, is the preoccupation. Everyone wants real science, but a preoccupation with showing that a line of inquiry is not science, good or bad - apart from the evidence - flies in the face of "The fact is that the term “science” simply has no very clear boundaries: the reference of the term is fuzzy, indeterminate and, not least, frequently contested."
4. A corresponding preoccupation with identifying the "scientific method," presumed to explain how the sciences have been so successful. " we have yet to see anything like agreement about what, exactly, this supposed method is." Of course, one method would work for astronomy, and another for forensics. But both disciplines must reckon with evidence, to be called "science".
5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope. One thinks of Harvard cognitive scientist Steve Pinker's recent claim that science can determine morality. Obviously, whatever comes out of such a project must be the morality of those who went into it.
6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific, or the value of human activities other than inquiry, such as poetry or art. Or better yet, treating them as the equivalent of baboons howling for mates, or something. It discredits both arts and sciences.
Knockout gene study in mice prompts speculations on human behaviour #3348
Lab mice by Aaron Logan, Lightsource
In "Ma's gene does different things to pa's copy" Jessica Hamzelou (26 January 2011) reports for New Scientist on a knockout study of mice where researchers knocked out a gene called Grb10 in females and mated them with normal males.
(From the report: "Most of our genes are expressed in pairs – one copy inherited from each parent. But pairs of so-called imprinted genes have just one copy "switched on".)
What happened? The gene was expressed "only in the brain and spinal cord."* How did this influence behaviour?
Mice lacking the paternal gene groomed their mates so much that the latter lost their whiskers and fur.
So far so good. The gene helps regulate mouse behaviour. Now wait for the klunk:
Humans have the same gene, so there is a possibility that it might be influencing our own social behaviours, he adds.
"Possibility", "might" Their caution is well advised, but the question is, why bother? Humans differ from mice precisely in that we adjust our behaviour to real or perceived circumstances, and that difference greatly reduces the importance of any similarities.
If a human mother brushed her kid's hair until it fell out, she would soon be in a supervised parenting program (at least where I live).
A study author comments,
"The most interesting human parallel is Silver-Russell syndrome," says Gudrun Moore, a geneticist at University College London's Institute of Child Health. Ten per cent of people with this growth disorder have two copies of a maternal chromosome and no copies from the father. "These individuals have not been tested for overtly dominant behaviour, though they do have speech delay, learning difficulties and lower IQ," Moore says.
Ah, just the combination of traits needed by a dominant human: speech delay, learning difficulties and lower IQ ...
A real possibility, of course, is that an enterprising researcher will do a study of such persons, find "dominant behaviour" (acting out frustrations aggressively in this case), and we will soon be nearing about a new "violence gene". Book deal to follow? (Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature09651)
(*A different experimental population with the sexes reversed showed that the gene expressed itself everywhere but the brain.)
Flurry news revisited: It's one thing to dress baby girl chimps in pink, but ...
In the wake of the Marc Hauser "they talk to me" scandal around research into the inner lives of primates, a friend was asked to make agreeable noises about Frans de Waal's Our inner ape. Someone else commented,
This looks to be precisely the kind of thing Bolhuis and Wynne chided their colleagues for in an April 2009 issue of Nature. They point out that 20 years of research into purported chimp "empathy," "conflict resolution," "fairness" and sense of "equity," have lacked proper controls and amount to little more than "a flurry of anthropomorphic overinterpretation."
Here's British physicist David Tyler on the problem:
Bolhuis and Wynne provide a healthy check on these enthusiasms.
"For instance, capuchin monkeys were thought to have a sense of fairness because they reject a slice of cucumber if they see another monkey in an adjacent cage, performing the same task, rewarded with a more sought-after grape. Researchers interpreted a monkey's refusal to eat the cucumber as evidence of 'inequity aversion' prompted by seeing another monkey being more generously rewarded. Yet, closer analysis has revealed that a monkey will still refuse cucumber when a grape is placed in a nearby empty cage. This suggests that the monkeys simply reject lesser rewards when better ones are available."
Bolhuis and Wynne point out several behaviours and skills displayed by birds which have been interpreted in anthropomorphic ways when seen in apes and monkeys. They suggest that evolutionary convergence may be more important than ancestral relationships. They point out that many researchers have laboured hard at teaching apes some form of language, but "linguists generally agree that the resulting efforts made by chimps and bonobos don't qualify as language".
None of this is inconsistent with the idea that primates have some form of consciousness. The problem is the culture-driven project of mapping human aspirations attitudes, assumptions, and behaviour onto them. And theirs onto us. Think "Evolutionary Agony Aunt."