Bursting the Neuro-Utopian Bubble - NYTimes.com

An interesting article in the New York Times by Benjamin Y. Fong, a Harper Fellow at the University of Chicago, who is working on a manuscript on psychoanalysis and critical theory.

By humbly claiming ignorance about the “causes” of mental problems, and thus the need for a project like the Brain Initiative, neuroscientists unconsciously repress all that we know about the alienating, unequal, and dissatisfying world in which we live and the harmful effects it has on the psyche, thus unwittingly foreclosing the kind of communicative work that could alleviate mental disorder.

via opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com

Some thoughts on the neurobiology of activism and social change

I got a link to a journal article this morning that inspired me to make note of some ideas about activism and social change that I've been exploring. Here's the abstract:

Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world

Cognition materializes in an interpersonal space. The emergence of complex behaviors requires the coordination of actions among individuals according to a shared set of rules. Despite the central role of other individuals in shaping one's mind, most cognitive studies focus on processes that occur within a single individual. We call for a shift from a single-brain to a multi-brain frame of reference. We argue that in many cases the neural processes in one brain are coupled to the neural processes in another brain via the transmission of a signal through the environment. Brain-to-brain coupling constrains and shapes the actions of each individual in a social network, leading to complex joint behaviors that could not have emerged in isolation.

via www.sciencedirect.com

I first became aware of the notion of interacting human brains in the late 1990's when I read Allan Schore's Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development (1994). Schore's thesis here was that our early social environment, mediated by our caregivers, directly influences the evolution brain structure that is responsible for our future socio-emotional development (p. 62). Since then, Schore and others have developed such ideas extensively, and in 2012 many practitioners are learning to apply this knowledge in their clinical work.

In one sense I found Schore's book intimidating: 600+ pages, heavily referenced, and almost seeming to be written in code (at that time, my interest in neuroscience at this depth was just emerging). But in many places throughout these pages, my recognition and understanding of the profound nature of these ideas was intuitive. I embraced them, and have remained supercharged to explore them further.

I've especially been interested in how this idea pops up in multiple disciplines of knowledge, and how that information eventually gets translated for a multidisciplinary audience, i.e. how this idea has evolved, and how it is (or is not) being integrated into the practice of conscious evolution. More recently my focus has been on how neuroscience might inform the work of activists in social, racial, economic and environmental justice as they encounter the common spaces of their own emotional development and the emotional life of groups, organizations, and nations. In my own experience as an activist, I have found reflection on neurobiological underpinnings of human affective and cognitive systems to be invaluable.

As I see it, this is but one arena of human life in which the idea that "the neural processes in one brain are coupled to the neural processes in another brain" might have significant consequences for our success at creating a society that is just for all of its members, and simultaneously supports the evolutionary process of the living systems of Earth as a whole.

A big question in these challenging times is this: will the multi-brained human collective choose to take an evolutionary leap that reverses the course of destruction we've imposed on our Earth-home, or will we choose a devolutionary path that could well end the existence of our species on this planet? Nature itself teaches us that when an ecological system is stressed, greater cooperation among species improves the chances for sustainable conditions for life. Human beings have an option of making cooperation more conscious and intentional. If brain-to-brain coupling among humans indeed shapes the actions of individuals in social networks and leads to complex emergent behaviors, that's important to explore.

The bulk of the article by Hasson, et. al., digs way down into details of brain-to-brain coupling mechanisms. However, their conclusion expands outward to broader territories of possibility that were stimulated within me just reading their abstract. The call of the authors for "a shift from a single-brain to a multi-brain frame of reference" would, (in many fields, I think) serve our species (and others) well as we decide our collective direction at this evolutionary crossroads.


Pinker on Reason and Morality - NYTimes.com

I loved Gary Gutting's analysis of Pinker at The Stone yesterday:

Steven Pinker’s impressive new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” has been much reviewed and discussed since its publication last month—a rare occurrence for a book of ideas. The two key empirical claims that Pinker puts forward are suggested in the title:  that the level of human violence (war, murder, etc.) has been decreasing over the centuries and that the human ability to reason has been correspondingly increasing.   He goes on to explain the first claim by the second.  Our ability to reason causes us to be less violent: “A smarter [more rational] world,” he says, “is a less violent world.”

In a book awash with empirical data and analysis, it is remarkable that Pinker’s capstone explanation (developed on pp. 647-650) is not based solely on empirical facts.  It also depends on a philosophical argument that rationality logically implies a moral rejection of violence.  Historians and psychologists will scrutinize Pinker’s empirical claims.  Here I discuss his crucial philosophical argument, which I think faces some serious problems.

Read the rest of the article at opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com


What Happened to Obama’s Passion? - NYTimes.com

Drew Westen's latest article in the New York Times is well worth reading -- so good that I even tweeted it to @WhiteHouse:

When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.

In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety.

via www.nytimes.com

Westen is a professor of psychology at Emory University and the author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.”

After reading Westen's OpEd today, I found it interesting to review these articles from 2007, the year The Political Brain was published:

Book Review: Drew Westen's "The Political Brain" (Daily Kos)

Stop Making Sense (David Brooks)

Dissecting the Political Brain of David Brooks (Drew Westen in response to a review by David Brooks)


Resistance to Change: a key from cognitive neuroscience (and psychoanalysis!)

I got some links from Joe Brewer at Cognitive Policy Works today that included this video presentation on what needs to happen in order to bring about change in behaviors that are harming people and nature. Joe focuses on some key ideas from cognitive neuroscience that I'll be weaving in with whatever I write about my earth and psyche research project. I decided to post this so I can link back to it in future posts.

Joe's video is brief but has some really fundamental info that, sooner or later, activists, healers, policy makers and just about everybody else I can think of will need to be aware of:


Cross-posted from Earth and Psyche

Speaker and Listener: a tale of mutual brain work

Cross-posted from my Speaking blog:

Many years ago when I first read Alan Schore's Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, one of the ideas that blew some new doors open for me was the idea that the brains of infant and mother work together in a mutual project of creating a self. This idea has profound implications for all kinds of relationships and can inform our work toward personal and planetary healing and transformation.

Here's an excerpt from the abstract of a study that looked at nuerological detailed of mutual brain work:
Verbal communication is a joint activity; however, speech production and comprehension have primarily been analyzed as independent processes within the boundaries of individual brains. Here, we applied fMRI to record brain activity from both speakers and listeners during natural verbal communication.

via www.pnas.org

The paper in filed at PNAS as open access. You can download the full text pdf here.

Further note on Schore's work: I found this first volume in Schore's now voluminous work almost overwhelming, primarily because of extensive references to studies at that time. He since has written several updated books that are much less packed and much less expensive. The page for the book linked above has links to several other of his books as well.

Some of his papers are also available online. If you are intrigued but not familiar with his work, you may want to start here and check out some of the Google search results.

Thanks to Norm Holland on the PsyArt listserv for the heads-up on the PNAS paper by Stephens, et al.

Psyche, Brain, Culture

I spent some time updating the blog roll for In Hawk Space (see the "Hawk's Brain" typelist in the sidebar), and thought I'd write a blurb about two of them: Bill Benzon's New Savanna, and Neuroanthropology, a blog with several contributors for whom the primary contact for blog purposes is Greg Downey.

Like me, all of these writers are interested in the brain.

Here's how Bill describes New Savanna:

Humankind got its start on the African savannas some hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years ago. At various times in our cultural history we’ve moved to distinctly new cultural ground, as it were. And so we are moving now, and have been for the past half century. This blog, mostly intellectual, but not entirely so, is how I see that move. Intellectually, I'm broadly interested in culture and the brain. Within that compass, anything could show up here (but most likely won't). Literature and films (including animation), certainly, music as well, and graffiti. But, other things may show up as well. It's a blog, don't you know, it moves.

I connected with New Savanna more strongly earlier this month when I began reading his 5-part series entitled Mode and Behavior. You can read the first one and find links to the others here.

I found Neuroanthropology through this post that linked to a YouTube video, Matthew Taylor on human psychology and political change.

I very much appreciate the writers at both blogs for their very different explorations of a common interest: human culture and the human brain. Check them out and see what you think.

Your Brain Unleashed – Outdoors and Out of Reach « Neuroanthropology

Here's an clip from interesting post that challenges some of the ideas in the New York Times article linked in my previous entry (read the whole article here):

Ah, rafting the San Juan River in southern Utah, camping and hiking for a week – for most people, a vacation. But for a select group of brain researchers, and some accompanying journalists, it was “serious work.”

It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.

The whole technology vs. nature theme is a hit, as the NY Times article, Your Brain on Computers: Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain, is the most popular article there right now. But that dichotomy of technology as bad and nature as good is a false one. Worse, the prism of the brain proves to be dangerous rapids rather than a river of explanation.

via neuroanthropology.net