Archive for June, 2016

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

June 30, 2016

When people learn that Healthymemory (HM) is a psychologist, they frequently tell me they know about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to indicate to me that they, also, know about psychology.  What they do not realize is that they are indicating to me that they have a profound ignorance of psychology.  First of all, the developers of the MBTI, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, were not psychologists, nor did they have any psychological training.  Moreover, they developed their theory from Carl Jung’s writings in his book “Psychological Types.”  Carl Jung was psychotherapist in the early days of psychiatry.   Today, he is mainly of historical interest and his impact on current psychiatry or personality theory is small.  Psychometric tools have metrics for assessing utility.  Two standards for assessing psychometric tools are validity (does it measure what it purports to measure ) and reliability (are the measurements consistent).  The MBTI fails on both metrics having poor validity and poor reliability (It will sometimes give different results for the same person on different occasions).

Nevertheless, the MBTI is quite popular in the business sector and in government, including the intelligence agencies.  Moreover, if HM informs a client that the MBTI is garbage, they are still likely to insist on its use.  So, so-called hard nose business people would rather use something that is known and is worthless that they know about, rather than some other tool with measurable value.

When agencies are asked why they find the MBTI useful, you usually get responses such as Harry is always late responding, and now I understand why.  Or Fred does sloppy work, and now I understand why.  For some reason they think that a label implies understanding.  Frankly ,when HM worked in a group, he quickly learned who was reliable,  who was timely, and so forth, and planned his management accordingly.  HM believes that these people who think the label told them something were already aware of the idiosycrancies of their staff.

The only apparent redeeming value of the MBTI is that it has some correlation with four of the Big Five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.  These Big five traits are somewhat contentious.
One of the problems with personality traits is that individuals can exhibit different traits in different circumstances.  Moreover, these traits are not fixed, they can change.

Consequently, HM would steer you away from these Big five traits and towards Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style.  They are resilience, outlook, self awareness, social intuition, sensitivity to context, and attentional style.  HM would argue that resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity, is clearly the most important of these attributes, bu resilience is absent from many personality characterizations.

A primary advantage of Davidson’s approach is that provides a means to grow and adapt.  That is, it employs a growth mindset as opposed to the fixed mindsets provided by previous personality type characterizations.

Enter “Davidson” into the healthy memory search block to learn more about Davidson, his dimensions of emotional style, and also to find exercises to help you change you emotional style.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Stanovich and the Rational Quotient

June 28, 2016

This post is based on a paper, “The Comprehensive Assessment of Rational Thinking” in the January-March 2016 issue of the “Educational Psychologist.”  This paper constitutes the 2013 Thorndike Award Address by Stanovich.  The award was for Stonovich’s work in the areas of reasoning and reading.  Stanovich is the primary author of the Tri-Process Model of Cognition, which is an elaboration of Kahneman’s Two System View of Cognition.

Stanovich has long been of the strong opinion that the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) does not adequately capture intelligence.  He and his colleagues have been working for more than twenty years to compensate for the shortcomings of this quotient.  This work has been most fruitful and Stanovich and his colleagues now have developed a Rational Quotient (RQ).  They have developed a rational thinking assessment instrument called the Comprehensive Assessment of Rational Thinking (CART).  This research is highly technical, but the goal of this post is to provide some flavor for the RQ and to what it captures that is missed by the IQ.

Rationality is a central concept in cognitive science.  Two types of rationality are recognized:  instrumental and epistemic.  The simplest definition of instrumental rationality involves behaving in the world so that you get exactly what you most want, given the resources (physical and mental) available to you.  More technically, instrumental rationality is the optimization of the individual’s goal fulfillment.   Economists and cognitive scientist have refined the notion of optimization goal fulfillment into the technical notion of expected utility.

Epistemic rationality concerns how well beliefs map on to the actual structure of the world. In other words, how much do you really know, how accurate are your beliefs.  Mahketelow has emphasized the practicality of both types of rationality by noting that they concern two critical things:  what is true and what to do.  “For our beliefs to be rational they must correspond to the way the world is—they must be true.  Healthy Memory (HM) feels compelled to note here that our knowledge of the world should always be tentative and that this knowledge should consist of different probabilities of belief.  We only have our internal models of the world to work with, and we should be continuing to update these models based on our experiences and what we learn.  For our actions to be rational, they must be the best means to our goals—they must be the best things to do based on what we know

To be instrumentally rational, one must choose among options based on which option has the highest expected utility.  Decision situations can be broken down into three components:  possible actions, possible states of the world, and evaluations of the consequences of possible actions in each state of the world.  HM must once again make the point that in many, if not most, of the cases, this can be computationally demanding and difficult to do.  Perhaps in the near future there will be apps to help us do this.  But in the meantime, the best we can do is to satisfice.

Rational thinking subsumes critical thinking.  Critical thinking is important, but it is a type of thinking rather than a domain of knowledge.  The best way to assess critical thinking is to assess how well it fosters rationality.  “We value certain thinking dispositions because we think that they will at least aid in bringing belief  in line with the world (epistemic rationality) and in achieving our goals (instrumental rationality).  Critical thinking is important.  Assessing critical thinking along the lines of epistemic rationality and instrumental rationality seem to be good routes for both assessing and developing critical thinking.

HM hopes this post has been helpful.  Perhaps future posts will make it clearer.  The key take away is that CART and the RQ has begun.  It will mature in the future, with the hope that measures of mental ability will improve.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How Journalism Shapes Public Discourse

June 26, 2016

This post is motivated by an article by Lisa Grossman in the Features section of June 18 20016 Issue of the New Scientist.  The topic is the concern among whites that in just a few decades most people in the US won’t be white.  The article reports research done by Jennifer Richeson.  She is addressing the increasingly prevalent media narrative in the US the because a rapidly changing racial demographics, the country will become a so-called majority-minority country.  If all members of self-identified  racial ethnic groups—Asian Americans, black Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, multi-ethnic individuals, and so on, somewhere around 2045 those groups will add up to 50.1% of the population, with white people in the “minority.”  Jennifer Richeson wanted to know how people are responding to this information.

So she asked white Americans to read about the changing demographics that point to this so-called majority-minority distinction.  Control groups of white American read information about other aspects of demography.  Afterwards the first group expressed more negative attitudes to a variety of racial groups, black, Latinos, Asian American.  She asked questions like “How much do you like members of these groups and found it on measures of unconscious racial attitudes tool.  It is a robust effect.   Moreover, when whites read about these racial shifts, they were also more likely to endorse politically conservative policies that were not race related such as drilling for fossil fuel in the Alaska wildlife refuge.

It is important to understand that this response is not unique to whites.  The same type of experiment was done with black Americans, but this time it was tailored to highlight growth and the threat of the Latino population.  The same basic result was obtained including a general shift to conservatism.  So Richeson argues that the issue is not racism, but other the threat of losing status.  This is psychologically threatening and a way to cope with this is by becoming more conservative.

In follow on research Richeson did  studies reminding whites that even if they were in a numerical minority they would still have greater wealth, better jobs, and better education and so are still going to be doing well in the status hierarchy, regardless of changes in the US racial distribution.  This reduced white people’s perceived threat about what’s going to happen to them, and then they show no difference in their expression of racial bias or conservatism than participants in the control condition.

At this point Healthy Memory (HM)  will ask the question as to why this issue was raised in the first place.  Is this some conspiracy by the conservative press to elicit racial disharmony and enhance conservative attitudes?  HM does not think so.  HM thinks that the motivation of the press is to increase readers, and contentious issues such as this increases readers.

Currently in the US there is the phenomenon of Donald Trump.  Trump has earned many millions of dollars in free press coverage because of his outlandish statements and insults.  Moreover, many of his statement are contradictory, yet he thrives.

There is an explanation for this phenomenon, but first a quick overview of Kahneman’s Two Process Theory is needed.  The fast processing which we normally do and allows us to respond so quickly is called System 1.  System 1 is named Intuition. System 1 is very fast, employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. It is so fast that operations are executed, for the most part, outside conscious awareness. Emotions and feelings are also part of System 1.  System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. This is what we commonly think of as conscious thought. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for processing errors, but System 2 is slow and System 1 is fast, so errors to slip through.  (To learn more enter “Kahneman” into the healthy memory blog search block).

Our default mode is System 1.  System 2 requires thinking and mental effort.  Trump supporters do not do much System 2 processing, thinking, so little, if any, of what Trump says is evaluated.  His statements resonate with their biases so they become strong supporters.

Unfortunately for democracies to thrive, System 2 processing, thinking, is required.  The upcoming election will indicate whether there is sufficient System 2 processing for our democracy to survive and thrive.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Alzheimer’s and a Cognitive Reserve

June 21, 2016

The healthy memory blog has made frequent mention of the fact that many people have died with the defining amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles of Alzheimer’s, yet who never exhibited any behavioral or cognitive symptoms of the disease.  Although healthy memory regards this as the most important fact bearing upon Alzheimer’s, it is rarely mentioned or discussed.  The cognitive reserve is assumed to result from studies and activities which enriched the brain earlier in life.

The July/August issue of “Scientific American Mind” contained an article titled “Banking Against Alzheimer’s” by Dr. David A. Bennet.  He is the Director of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, where about 100 scientists are searching for ways to treat and prevent a range of common neurodegenerative disorders.  For almost a quarter of a century he has led two longitudinal investigations—the Religious Orders Study and the Rush Memory and Aging Project—which have enrolled more than 3200 older adults across the U.S.  These volunteers enter these studies dementia free, anywhere from their mid-50s, to their 100s and agree to hours of testing each year.  They undergo comprehensive physical examinations, detailed interviews, cognitive testing, blood draws and, in some cases, brain scans.  Most importantly, they all donate their brains after death for research.  To date tens of thousands of clinical evaluations and more han 1,350 autopsies provide an unprecedented set of data.

These autopsies have indicated that it is rare to grow old with a completely healthy brain.  Virtually every brain examined exhibits at least some of the neuron killing tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease, which is, by far, the most common cause of dementia.  In about half of the autopsies, scars of previous strokes, both big and small, are found.  In almost a fifth of the autopsies so-called Lewy bodies—abnormal protein clumps that are the mark of Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia are found.  But when they trace these laboratory finds back to each individual’s records, they can account for only about half of the cognitive changes measured on tests of memory, processing speed and the like.  In other words, the condition of someone’s brain post-mortem only partially tells how well it functioned in the years leading up to the person’s death.

So why is this the case?  What provides this cognitive reserve?  Rush epidemiologist Martha Claire has found that the so-called MIND diet—which is rich in berries, vegetables, whole grains and nuts—dramatically lowers the risk of developing the defining physical symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

But other life choices seem to actually bolster the brain’s ability to cope with the disease, helping it compensate for any loss of mental firing power.  In particular, they have found that the more engaged our volunteers stay throughout their live, socially and intellectually—the more resilient they are to dementia at its end.   Reader should note that the healthy memory blog has been sending the same message, to which healthy memory will add, having a purpose in living.  In fact, there is a Japanese word for this, “ikigai.”
Here are some tips for building a better brain.

Get a good education, a second language and music lessons.  Avoid emotional    neglect.
Engage in regular cognitive (building a growth mindset) and physical activity.
Strengthen and maintain social ties.
Get out and explore new things (growth mindset)
Chill and be happy.
Avoid people who are downers, especially close family relatives.
Be conscientious and diligent.
Spend time in activities that are meaningful and goal-directed.
Be heart-healthy:  what’s good for the the heart is good for the brain.
Eat a MIND Diet
Remember ikigai and have a purpose for living.
Professor Clive Holmes and his co-workers at the University of Southhampton in the UK found that research participants with gum disease for over the next six months was more rapid for those with gum disease.  Gum disease is associated with increased biomarkers for inflammation.  Research has shown that illnesses that cause inflammation such as chest infections, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes are linked to greater cognitive impairment.

HM would add the following items
meditate and be mindful

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Physics Killed Free Will and Time’s Flow. We Need them Back

June 19, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of an important article by physicist Nicolas Gisin the May 20, 2016 edition of the “New Scientist.”  Descartes stated, “I THINK, therefore I am.  Most humans would agree with this statement.  After all, are we active agents free to influence our thoughts and decisions, or are we just passive laundry machines through which thoughts happen to pass?.

Gisin  notes that the ability to ask the question seems to require the first interpretation, yet modern science—in particular—modern physics—almost unanimously plumps for the second.  According to modern physics in a deterministic universe, where one thing leads inevitably  to the next, any conception we have of free will is an illusion.

Gist does not buy this.  He thinks that we are missing something fundamental to our formulation of science.   “And the solution of the problem of free will is linked to another glaring deficiency  of today’s physics—its insistence that time as we know it does not exist.”

Jules Lequyer, a French philosopher of the 19th century wrote, “Without free will, the certainty  of scientific truths would become illusory.”  We need free will to decide which arguments we find convincing, and which we dismiss, which is the essence of doing science.

Gisin  wrote, “What irony, then, that the search for scientific truth seemed to kill free will.  That started with Newton and his universal law of gravitation.  Derived from observations of the solar system bodies, it speaks of a cosmos that operates like clockwork and can be described by deterministic theories. Everything that happens today was set in motion yesterday, and indeed was determined in the initial conditions of the big bang; nothing truly new ever happens.

Gisin further writes, “Things became even more inscrutable with Einstein’s relativity, which showed that there was no unique definition of simultaneous events.  To square that with a deterministic universe, a picture known as the “block universe” emerged.  Here we dispense not just with free will, but also with a flowing time.  Past, present, and future are al frozen in one big icy block.  The present in which we are free to think and be—in which exercise free will—is just as illusory as free will itself.”

And, believe it or not, philosophers of science bend over backwards to explain why we think we have free will.  They argue that we are programmed to always make choices that correspond to a predetermined necessary future.  So the feeling that our choices are free is illusory.

This presumed reasoning is obviously nonsense and it is depressing to realize that so many intelligent people buy it.

Gisin is a quantum physicist and he argues that real numbers are not real at all.  He notes that most real numbers are never ending strings of digits that can contain an infinite amount of information.  He notes that they could encode the answers to all possible questions that can be formulated in any human language, but that a finite volume of space-time can only hold a finite amount of information.  So the position of a particle, or the value of any filed or quantum state in a fine volume, cannot be a real number.  Real numbers are non-physical monsters..

Gisin notes that free will chimes with the dominant “Copenhagen” interpretation of quantum theory, made popular by Werner Heisenberg.  Making a measurement “collapses” the wave function describing a quantum system into one of a number of pre-ordained states.  Quantum theory is a random, non-deterministic theory, but it creates a determined world—and seems in no way incompatible with a common sense conception of free will.  So, God can play dice with the universe and win.  Quantum theory is frequently used in practical scientific and engineering problems.

Gisin also frees up the flow of time.  He notes that there is a time before a non-necessary event happens and there is a time after it happens, and these times are different.  This happening of a non-necessary event, like the result of a quantum measurement, is a true creation that can’t be captured by a mere evolution parameter.  He calls the sort of time this requires “creative time.”

Gisin concludes by stating that “creative time’ is extraordinarily poorly understood by today’s science, but that could change with future physics, such as quantum theories of gravity that might replace Einstein’s theories that spawned the block universe.  Time passes, and free will exists—any other way, science makes no sense.

Gisin is not the only physicist who advocates free will Roger Penrose (who healtymemory (HM) believes was on the dissertation committee of Stephen Hawking)  is a distinguished physicist, mathematician, and philosopher, who extols consciousness and the role of quantum effects in consciousness and free will.  Penrose’s book, “The Emperor’s New Mind goes into considerable detail on these topics.  He formulates the notion of Correct Quantum Gravity (CQG).  Although this book was written for the general public parts involve heavy sledding.  Nevertheless it is good to know that an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable scholar is on the same or similar train of thought.  Unfortunately, Roger is much further down these tracks than HM is.  Should healthy memory ever manage to make it further down these tracks, he will get back to you.

Outside of physics there have been many HM blog posts on consciousness and free will.  Even though we all have intimate experience with our own consciousness, there are still many who contend that this is epiphenomenal.  HM argues that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon with adaptive value.  It is essential  to effective interactions with the environment and for choosing courses of action.  Neuroscientists have stated that all mammals, some invertebrates such as the octopus, and many birds are conscious and there consciousness has adaptive value.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Good Reference on Meditation

June 18, 2016

That reference would be “How to Meditate” by Kathleen McDonald.  Should one be interested in learning more about the meditation techniques employed by the Buddhist Monks that were discussed in the post “Transforming the Emotional Mind,”  then this reference is highly recommended.  Many of the benefits from meditation can be gained just by practicing the relaxation response (see the healthy memory blog post, “An Update of the Relaxation Response Update”).  Moreover, the time demands for this type of meditation are quite reasonable.

Kathleen McDonald was born in California in 1952.  In 1973 she took her first courses in Buddhist meditation in Dharmsala, India.  Dharmsala is where the Dalai Lama resides since his exile from Tibet.  She was ordained  as a Tibetan, Buddhist in 1974.  In 1978 she moved to England to continue her higher Buddhist studies, and in 1982 helped establish the FPMT’s Dorje Pamo Monastery for Buddhist nuns in France.  From 1985 until 1987 she taught in Australia, then for a year in Nepal, followed by eleven years as resident teacher at FPMT’s Amitabh Buddhist Center in Singapore.  Since 2000 she has been teaching around the world, taking a break in mid-2005 for a year’s solitary retreat in Spain.

Ms. McDonald writes concisely and is easily understood.  She does not proselytize.  Instead she shows how other religious beliefs can be incorporated into meditations. The information provided about Buddhism is in the context of how to do the different types of meditation.

Healthy Memory is not a Buddhist, but he finds many of the ideas and practices of Buddhism promote a healthy memory.  Unlike some religions, which are anti-science and preach against evolution of global warming, the Dalai Lama’s Buddhism is pro-science and incorporates scientific findings rather than rejecting them.

Now What?

June 16, 2016

“Now What” is the title of the final chapter in Sharon Begley’s outstanding book, “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain:  How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.”   The answer to this question is that the future has arrived and that we are the beneficiaries of a revolution in the understanding of the brain and human potential.

There are three key discoveries.  One is that neurons are created until we die.
The second is neuroplasticity that the brain can rewire itself.
The third is that we can effect these changes with how with think, that is, with our minds.  Hence the title, “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.

Sometimes there are problems in the brain, and these can be corrected  by the way we think and exercises that can effectively make corrections to our neuroplastici brains.  But we can also build upon and improve our minds.  The future is virtually limitless.
Begley reviews some of the exciting research of Merzenich, which shall not be reviewed here as there shall be many future posts about the work of Merzenich.

A critical topic is that of secular ethics, a term Healthymemor believes was coined by the Dalai Lama.  The Dalai lama does not proselytize for Buddhism.  Rather he argues for a new basis for a modern ethics, one that appeals to the billions of people who adhere to different religions or to no religion, one that supports basic values such as personal responsibility, altruism, and compassion.

The problem is that a scientific literate person or anyone who gives a cursory glance at newspaper science stories may well react to that a message with some skepticism.  Modern science seems to be offering a radically different view of human responsibility.  Critics call this view neurogenetic determinism, the belief, ascendant from the early 1990s and propelled by the mystique of modern genetics, that ascribes causal power to the genres one inherent from one’s parents.  Should a reader still adhere to this view they are urged to read or reread all the posts devoted to Begleys book.  Genes are affected by the environment and, what is important, are epigenetic, which refers to what is read out from genes.  The environment has strong effects as do meditative practices.  There is a related wrong view and that is strict determinism.  We are victims to neither our genes nor to our environments.  Our minds, how we think about the world along with meditative practices, can and do effect changes.

Healthy memory shall conclude this post with the Begley’s final paragraph.  “The conscious act of thinking about one’s thoughts in a different way changes the very brain circuits that do that thinking, as studies show how psychotherapy changes the minds of people with depression show.  Such willfully induced brain changes require focus, training, and effort, but a growing number of studies show how real those changes are.  They come from within.  As discoveries of neuroplasticity, and this self-directed neuroplasticity, trickle down to clinics and schools and plain old living rooms, the ability to willfully change the brain will become a central part of our lives—and our understanding what it means to be human.”

Transforming the Emotional Mind

June 13, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of Chapter nine of Sharon Begley’s “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.”  In the 1970s, Davidson and his colleagues discovered striking differences in the patterns of brain activity that characterize people at opposite ends of the “eudaemonic scale,” which provides the spectrum of baseline happiness.  There are specific brain states that correlate with happiness.

Secondly, brain-activation patterns can change as a result of therapy and mindfulness meditation, in which people learn to think differently about their thoughts.  This has been shown in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder and with patients suffering from depression.  Mental training practice and effort can bring about changes in the function of the brain.

Given these two facts Davidson built the hypothesis that meditation or other forms of mental training can, by exploiting the brain’s neuroplasticity, produce changes, most likely in patterns of neuronal activation, but perhaps even in the structure of neural circuitry that underlie enduring happiness and other positive emotions.  Then therapists and even individuals by exploiting the brain’s potential to change its wiring can restore the brain and the mind to emotional health.

In 1992 Davidson and his colleagues found that activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, as detected by EEG, is a reflection of a person’s emotional state.  Asymmetric activation in this region corresponds to different “affective styles.”  When activity in the left prefrontal cortex is markedly and chronically higher than in the right, people report feeling alert, energized, enthusiastic, and joyous, enjoying life more and having a greater sense of  well-being.  In other words, they tend to be happier.  When there is greater activity in the right prefrontal cortex, people report feeling negative emotions including worry, anxiety, and sadness.  They express discontent with life and rarely feel elation or joy.  If the asymmetry is so extreme that activity in the right prefrontal cortex swamps that in the left, the person has a high risk of falling into clinical depression.

The Dalai Lama has noted that the most powerful influences on the mind come from within our own mind.  The findings that, in highly experienced  meditators, there is greater activity in the left frontal cortex “imply that happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain.”

Research has shown that every area of the brain that had been implicated in some aspect of emotion had also been linked to some aspect of thought:  circuitry that crackles with electrical activity  when when the mind feels an emotion and circuitry  that comes alive when the mind undergoes cognitive processing, whether it is remembering, or thinking, or planning, or calculating, are intertwined as yarn on a loom.  Neurons principally associated with thinking connect to those mostly associated with emotion, and vice versa.  This neuroanatomy is consistent with two thousand years of Buddhist thought, which holds that emotion and cognition cannot be separated.

Using fMRI Davidson measured activity in the brain’s amygdala, an area that is active during such afflictive emotions as distress, fear, anger,and anxiety.  Davidson said, “Simply by mental rehearsal of the aspiration that a person in a photo be free of suffering, people can change the strength of the signal in the amygdala.  This signal in he fear-generating amygdala can be modulated with mental training.

Eight Buddhist adepts and eight controls  with 256 electrodes glued to their scalps engaged in the form of meditation called pure compassion, in which the meditator focuses on unlimited compassion and loving-kindness toward all living beings.  This produces a state in which love and compassion permeates the whole mind, with no other considerations, reasoning, or discursive thoughts.  The brain waves that predominated were gamma waves.  Scientists  believe that brain waves of this frequency reflect the activation and recruitment of neural resources and general mental effort.  They are also a signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-found brain circuits.  In 2004 the results of this study were published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Not surprisingly the results of the monks were quite pronounced.  But it was encouraging to discover that some of the controls who received a crash crash course and only a week’s worth of compassion meditation, showed a slight but significant increase in the gamma signal.

fMRI images were also taken.  The differences between the adepts and the controls were quite interesting.  There was significantly greater activation in the right ins and caudate, a network that other research has linked to empathy and maternal love.  These differences were most pronounced in monks with more years of meditation.  Connections from the frontal regions to the brain’s emotion regions seemed to become stronger with more years practicing meditation.  It was clear that mental training that engages concentration and thought can alter connections between the thinking brain and the emotional brain.

A surprising finding was that when the monks engaged in compassion meditation, their brains showed increased activity in regions responsible for planned movement.   It appeared that the monks’ brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.  Another spot of activation in the brains of the meditating monks jumped out in  an area in the left prefrontal cortex, the site of activity association with happiness.  Activity in the left prefrontal swamped activity in the right prefrontal  to a degree never before seen from purely mental activity.

Davidson concluded, “ I believe that Buddhism has something to teach us as scientists about the possibilities of human transformation and in providing a set of methods and a road map of how to achieve that.  We can have no idea how much plasticity there really is in the human brain until we see what intense mental training, not some weekly meditation session, can accomplish.  We’ve gotten the idea in Western culture, that we can change our mental status by a once-a-week, forty-five intervention, which is completely cockamamy.  Athletes and musicians train many hours every day.  As a neuroscientist, I have to believe that engaging in compassion meditation every day for an hour each day would change your brain in important ways.  To deny that without testing it, to accept the null hypothesis, is simply bad science.”

Davidson continues, “I believe that neuroplasticity will reshape psychology in the coming years.  Much of psychology had accepted the idea of a fixed program unfolding in the brain, one that strongly shapes behavior, personality, and emotional states.  That view is shattered by the discoveries of neuroplasticity.  Neuroplasticity will be the counter to the deterministic view (that genes have behavior on a short leash).  The message I take for my own work is that I have a choice in how I react, that who I am depends on the choices I make, and that who I am is therefore my responsibility.”

Turning on Genes in the Brain

June 12, 2016

The seventh chapter of “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” by Sharon Begley explains how genes in the brain are turned on.  This chapter begins by explaining the plight of many Romanian orphans after the dictator Ceausescu was overthrown.  The terrible neglect of these orphans produced severe cognitive and emotional shortcomings, which will not be reviewed.

The single best predictor of the growth of a baby is to ask its mother, “Did you want this child?”  In 2005 scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison designed a study showing what can happen to children whose parents answer “no” to this question.  The researchers studied children who were “reared in extremely aberrant social environments where they were deprived of the kind of caregiving typical for our species.  This meant that for seven to forty-two months after their birth, the twelve girls and six boys had lived in Russian or Romanian orphanages  that the World Health Organization described as poor to appalling.  These environments were generally void of stimulation and human interaction.  The children seldom experienced the love and caring of adults who recognized and responded to their needs.

These children were adopted by American families.  Within a year, most of their medical problems—ear infections and stomach problems, malnutrition and delayed growth—vanished.  Nevertheless, due to their legacy of neglect many of the children were diagnosed with attachment disorders, an inability to form emotional bonds to those closest to them.

Animal studies have identified two brain hormones as crucial to establishing social bonds and regulating emotional behaviors.  These are oxytocin and vasopressin that are associated with the emergence of social bonding and parental care.  Oxytocin, in particular, seems to be the brain’s social hormone.  When you have warm personal contact with someone you are close to, levels rise generating a sense of security and safety that lays the foundation for you to go out and have social interactions.  So we make friends and form close emotional attachments.  Vasopressin seems to be the “Oh, it’s you!” hormone.

The scientists tracked down eighteen of the Roumanian orphans who lived in Wisconsin.  They collected two urine sample from each child, a week or two apart, soon after the children played a computer  game while sitting on the lap of their mother or one of the female scientists.  Throughout the thirty-minute game, the mother or the scientist would whisper to the child, pat him on the head, tickle him or count his fingers and let him count hers, turning the otherwise impersonal game into a bit of a cuddle session.

These orphanage children had lower levels of vasopressin, suggesting that social deprivation may inhibit the development of the vasopressin system.  The children’s level of oxytocin after playing a game with their mother or a scientist was even more depressing.  Levels of this social-bonding hormone were not expected to rise after the interactions with the stranger, and they did not, in either the orphanage children or the control children.  However, after the children born to loving families sat on their mother’s lap and cuddled, their levels of oxytocin rose.  These levels did not rise in the orphanage children.  “Oxytocin is the system that cements the bonds between children and those who love them, producing a sense of calm and comfort that provides a base from which the children and those who love them, producing a sense of calm and comfort that provides a base from which children go out and embrace the world, form childhood friendships and, eventually, deep relationships .  This system was not what it should have been in the orphanage children.

“This research suggests that the lives we lead and the behavior of those who care for us can alter the very chemistry of DNA.  Genes are not destiny.  Our genes, and thus their effects on the brain, are more plastic than we ever dreamed.”

Richie Davidson said, “This work beautifully illustrates the mechanisms by which maternal influence can occur, and that it can occur in ways that affect gene expression.  This is powerful evidence for the impact of parenting on the capacity to change the brain and raises the issue of how we can promote better parenting.”

The Dalai Lama opined, “So the key thing is a peaceful mind.  Naturally and obviously, anger, hatred, jealously, fear, these are not helpful to develop peace of mind.  Love, compassion, affection—these are the foundations of a peaceful mind.  But then the question, how to promote that?  My approach, not through Buddhist tradition, I call secular ethics.  Not talking about heaven, not of nirvana or Buddhahood, but a happy life for this world.   Irrespective of whether  there is a next life or not.  Doesn’t matter.  That’s individual business.”

Mental Activity Changes the Brain

June 11, 2016

The sixth chapter of “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” reviews how mental activity changes the brain.  The notion that the mind can act downward on the brain is a concept alien to most scientists.  The first esteemed scientist to argue that the mind cn act down on the brain was Nobel Prize—winning neuroscientist Roger Sperry who developed scientifically rigorous themes  of the position that the mind can act on the brain, which he called mentalism or emergent mentalism.  He theorized that there is a “downward control by mental events over the lower neuronal events.”  He suggested that mental states can act directly on cerebral states even effect electrochemical activity in neurons.  Healthy memory blog readers should realize that this is the position of healthy memory.  However, in the 1990s this was a radical concept. one which is still refuted by mainstream scientists in spite of ample evidence that it is correct.

Neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz is a practicing Buddhist who became intrigued with the therapeutic potential of mindfulness meditation.  Mindfulness, or mindful awareness, is the practice of observing one’s own inner experience in a way that is fully aware  but nonjudgmental.  One stands outside one’s own mind, observing the spontaneous thoughts and feeling that the brain throws up, observing all this as if it were happening to someone else.  Dr. Schwartz was treating patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  OCD sufferers are troubled by obsessions and compulsions that become all-consuming.  In most cases the intrusive thoughts and fixations  feel as if they are arising from a part of he mind that is not the real self.

According to brain imaging studies OCD is characterized by hyperactivity in two regions:  the orbital frontal cortex and the striatum.  The main job of the orbital frontal cortex seems to be to notice when something is amiss.  It is the brain’s error detector, its neurological spell checker.  In OCD patients it fires repeatedly, bombarding the rest of the brain with the crushing feeling that something is wrong.  The second overactive structure, the striatum, receives inputs from other regions, including the orbital frontal cortex  and the amygdalae that are the seat of dread.  Together, the circuit linking the orbital frontal cortex and the striatum has been dubbed “the worry circuit” or “the OCD circuit.

In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy patients learn to think about their thoughts differently.  So when an obsessive thought popped up, the patient would think, “My brain is generating another obsessive thought.  Don’t I  know it is not real but just some garbage thrown up by a faulty circuit.  This is not really an urge to do something, but rather a brain-wiring problem.”

Dr. Schwartz used the brain-imaging technique positron-emission tomography (PET).  He would show patients their PET scans emphasizing that their symptoms arose from a faulty neurological circuit.  One patient responded immediately, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD”.  Other patients responded similarly.  The week after patients started relabeling their symptoms as manifestation of pathological brain process, they reported that the disease was no longer controlling them, and they felt that they could do something about it.

In a formal research study they performed PET scans on eighteen OCD patients before and after two weeks of mindfulness-based therapy.  None of the patients took medications for their OCD, and all had moderate to severe symptoms.  Twelve patients improved significantly.  PET scans in these patients showed that activity in the orbital frontal cortex had fallen dramatically.

Dr. Schwartz concluded, “This was the first study to show that cognitive-behavioral  therapy has the power to systematically change faulty brain chemistry in a well-defined brain circuit.”  He continued that the ensuing brain changes “offered strong evidence that willful, mindful effort can alter the brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes—neuroplasticity are a genuine reality.  The mind can change the brain.”

Mindfulness-based therapy is also more effective treating depression and produces longer lasting effects that do pharmaceutical products.  In 2002, Helen Mayberg discovered that anti-depressants and inert pills—placebos have identical effects on the brains of depressed people.

Toronto scientists used PET imaging to measure activity in the brains of depressed patients.  They had fourteen depressed adults undergo fifteen to twenty sessions of cognitive-behavior (mindfulness) training. Thirteen other patients received parozetime, the generic name for an antidepressant.  Depressed patients responded differently to the two kinds of treatment.  With cognitive-behavior therapy activity in the frontal cortex was turned down, activity in the hippocampus was turned up, which was the opposite pattern of  antidepressants.  Cognitive therapy targets the core, the thinking brain reshaping how your process information and change your thinking pattern, which are key activities to defeating depression.  Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, working from the top down, keeps the depression circuit from being completed.

Yet another study involved having piano students practice playing a simple piece in their heads.  The result was that the region of the cortex that controls piano-playing fingers expanded in the brains of volunteers who merely imagined playing the piece just as it did in the brains of those who actually played it.

Even though neuroscientists do not know exactly how the mind influences the brain, neuoscientis have evidence that it somehow involves paying attention.  All participants in this research focused intently.  The chapter concludes by noting that an enormous amount of information bombards the brain, but unless that information is attended to, there is a high probability that it will be lost.

Sensory Experience Reshapes Adult Brains

June 10, 2016

The fifth chapter of “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” is concerned with how sensory experience reshapes adult brains.  Pascual-Leone and his colleagues wanted to see what would happen if sighted adults suddenly lost their vision, so they conducted a blindfold experiment.  They recruited people with normal vision and blindfolded them.  These volunteers were blindfolded all day, every day, from a Monday morning to a Friday evening.  With this sudden, new disability, these volunteers were able to get around their rooms at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center In Boston, by touch and sound with only a minimum number of bruises.

Before the enforced blindness, the visual cortices of the volunteers only showed activity when they looked at something.  However, after a mere five days of enforced unemployment, the visual cortex started taking on new tasks.  According to fMRI readings, they were handling tactile and auditory information.  When the volunteers listened to tones to determine whether their pitch was the same or different, or when they fingered Braille symbols, their “visual” cortices became active.  Pascal Leone said that five days was not long enough to establish new neuronal connections.  Pascal-Leone said, “some rudimentary somatosensory and auditory connections to the visual cortex must already be present” left over from brain development when neurons from the eyes and ears and fingers connect to many regions of the cortex rather than just the ones they’re supposed to.  Regardless of age, faced with sensory deprivation like blindness or deafness, the brain taps its power of neuroplasticity to reorganize, using the sensory inputs it it does have.

One of the more impressive examples of neuroplasticity  can be found with stroke patients.  Edward Taub developed a therapy that came to be known as constraint-induced movement therapy.  This therapy involves putting the stoke patient’s good arm in a sling and her good hand in an oven mitt so she could not use either.  So if she wanted to hold something or feed herself, get dressed, or do the laborious rehabilitation exercises through which he puts patients, she ended to use her damaged arm.  The rehab had community was united in opposition to this ideas that therapy after a stroke could reverse the neurological effects of the stroke.  The official position of the American Stroke Association was that rehab for patients with chronic stroke only increases a patient’s muscular strength and confidence, but does nothing to address brain damage.

After just ten days of therapy Taub found that patients regained significant use of an arm they thought would always hang uselessly.  They could put on a sweater, unscrew a cap on a jar, and pick up a bean on a spoon and put it into their mouth.  They could perform almost twice as many of the routines of daily living as patients who served as the controls and did not receive therapy.  This therapy worked even for patients who started the therapy more than a year after suffering their stroke.

Another study in which twenty-one patients received constraint-induced therapy showed large improvements in the quality and use of their impaired arm compared to the control group.  Two-years later, the constraint-induced group had retained their edge and were able to use their impaired arm, which was hardly impaired at this point, significantly mor and better than those who did not received this training.

One of the drawbacks of this training is that it is extremely time-consuming.   Consequently Taub and his colleagues developed what he calls AutoCITE, for automated constrain-induced therapy extension.  Research evaluating this remote system has produced favorable results.

The brain is undergoing continuous change as connections between one neuron and another are formed to establish memories.  But neuroplasticity goes beyond that.  It produces wholesale changes in the job functions of particular areas of the brain.  Cortical real estate that use to serve one purpose is reassigned and begins to do another.The brain remakes itself through life, in response to outside stimuli—to its environment and experience

As Taub sees it, neuroplasticity is evolution’s way of letting the brain break the bonds of “of its own genome,” escaping its initial organization.  The brain is neither immutable nor static, but is instead continuously remodeled by the lives we lead.  However, there is a catch.  These changes occur only when the person is paying attention to the input that causes them.  So attentional process are key to neuroplasticity.

The Neuroplasticity of Young Brains

June 9, 2016

The fourth chapter of “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain”  by Sharon Begley is concerned with the neuroplasticity of young brains.  It reviews an enormous amount of research that can best be summarized in the following paragraphs taken from the text.

“…the key sensory cortices are, for the first decade of life and perhaps longer, like a flighty new college gradate hopscotching from job to job, responding to the best offer.  No signals from the eyes arriving?  No problem; the visual cortex will handle a different sense and even a non sensory job such as language.  No transmission from the ears?  The auditory cortex will be happy to help out with peripheral vision.  By the early years of the millennium, it was clear that these structures should really be referred to as he “visual cortex” and the “auditory cortex” in quotation marks.  “Visual information is going into the auditory cortex and auditor information is going into the visual cortex,” the researcher Neville told the Dalai Lama as she ended her presentation.  “This isn’t supposed to be how our brain is wired.  But what the research has shown is that the primary visual cortex is not inherently different from the primary auditory cortex.  Brain specialization is not a function of anatomy or dictated by genes.  It is a result of experience.  Who we are and how we work comes from our perceptions and experiences.  It is the outside world that determines the functions properties of the brain’s neurons.  And that’s what our work has been about: how experience shapes the functional capabilities of the brain.”

“Usually, the pathways from the ears to the visual cortex and from the eyes to the visual cortex remain scarcely traveled if traveled at all, like back roads.  In people with normal vision and hearing, superhighways  carry signals from the eyes to the visual cortex and from the ears to he auditory cortex just fine, swamping any activity  along the back roads of he brain.   As a result, the wayward connections all away soon after birth , when the brain figures out where signals are supposed to go.  But in the absence of normal sensory input, as when neurons from the retina are unable to carry signals to the visual cortex or neurons from the ears to carry signals to the auditory cortex, the preexisting but little-used connections become unmasked and start carrying traffic.  The “visual” cortex hears, and the “auditory cortex sees, enabling the brain to hear the lightning and see the thunder.  (“In Buddhism,” Thupten Jinpa added, “there is a claim that an advanced meditator can transfer sensory functions to different organs, so that visual activity can be performed by something other  than the ears.  In this case, a meditator can read with “closed eyes.”)  In what Alvaro Pascual -Leone and colleagues call “the intrinsically plastic brain,” more permanent structural changes then kick in, as neurons grow and sprout more connections to other neurons.  This may be how the visual cortex adds higher cognitive function to its repertoire, too.”

Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis

June 8, 2016

Chapters 2 and 3 of Sharon Begley’s “Train Your MInd, Change Your Brain” cover neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.  Prior to discussing neuroplasticity, how learning takes place needs to be discussed.  To explain how learning takes place psychologist Donald Hebb conceived of cell assemblies.  He proposed that learning and memory were based on the strengthening of synapses.
Somehow either the neuron that fires first in the chain (the presynaptic neuron) or the neuron that fires next (the postsynaptic neuron), or both, change in such a way that the firing of the first is more likely to cause the firing of the second.  Learning and memory involve the firing of large assemblies of these cells.  Hence Hebb’s theory is called cell assembly theory.  Hebb’s maxim is that cells that fire together wire together.

Virtually all the research on neuroplasticity involved animals.  This is because surgery was almost always required. Sensory  or motor connections might be severed, and then observations would be made regarding the effects of these operations.  Sometimes connections were rewired so that animals would see sound or hear light. The late nineteenth psychologist William James had wondered , were scientists were able to alter neuron’s paths so that exciting the ear activates the visual cortex and exciting the eye the auditory cortex, we would be able to  “hear the lightning and see the thunder.”  So James was correct.  And all this research invalidated the longstanding dogma that the nervous system could not be rewired or rewire itself underscoring the reality that the nervous system can and does rewire itself.

The longstanding dogma that new neurons  could not be created, neurogenesis, was more difficult to disprove.   Before cells divide, they make a copy of their DNA.  As cells can’t conjure the double helix out of thin air, biochemicals snag the requisite ingredients from within the cell and assemble them.  One element of DNA, thymidine, lets a radioactive  molecules glom on to it.  When the thymidine becomes incorporated into the brand-new DNA, the DNA has a spot of radioactivity, which can be detected experimentally.  Old DNA does not have this glow.

Joseph Altman, a new neuroscientist at MIT, decided to try the new trick on brains.  By scanning neurons for tell tale glows he figured he would be able to detect newborn DNA, and newborn cells.  He found neurons of adult rats, cats,  and guinea pigs with thymidine—indicating that they had been born after Altman had injected them with the tracer.  He published these finding in three prestigious scientific journals in 1965, 1967, and 1970, yet his claims were ignored,   Altman was denied tenure at MIT and joined the faculty of Purdue University.

Research was done using nonhuman  animals with rich environments.  That is animals who lived in enriched environments with exercise wheels and novel features were compared to animals living in impoverished environments.  The formation and survival  of new neurons increased 15% in a part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyros, which is involved in learning and memory.

To this point humans had not been involved in the research, the reason being that noninvasive brain imaging could not address this issue.  Brains needed to be taken from   dead research participants.  Oncologists injected BrdU into cancer patients because is marks every newborn cell.  This allowed them to assess how many new cancer cells were developing.  The researchers were able to enlist the cooperation of oncologists and their patients.  After these patients succumbed to cancer, their brains could be examined to see if any new  noncancerous cells had been generated.  Thanks to these patients and their oncologists, new neurons, indicating neurogenesis, were found in the hippocampus.

An interesting find was that forced exercise does not promote neurogenesis.  The neuroscientist Gage explained to the Dalai Lama, “Running voluntarily increases neurogenesis and increases learning even in very, very old animals.  It seems like the effects of running on neurogenesis and on learning are dependent on volition.  It has to be a voluntary act.  It is not just the physical activity.

When the neuroscientist Fred Gage sat down with the Dalai Lama it was clear that new neurons arise from neural stem cells in the adult human brain, which persist and support ongoing neurogenesis.  This discovery expanded the possibilities for neuroplasticity.  The neural electrician is not restricted to working with existing wiring, he can run whole new cables through the brain.

In humans new neurons might do more than help with learning.  The hippocampus plays an important role in depression.  In many people suffering from depression, the dentate gyrus oaf the hippocampus  has drastically shrunk.  There is a question of cause and effect, whether another factor caused the hippocampus to shrink leading to depression, or whether depression caused the shrinkage.

New research suggests that people who are suffering from depression are unable to recognize novelty.  Gage said this to the Dalai Lama, “You hear this a lot with depressed people.  Things just look the same.  There is nothing exciting in life.”  “There is also evidence,” Gage said, “that if you can get someone with depression to exercise, his depression lifts.”  So neurogenesis might be the ultimate anti-depressant.  When it is impaired for any reason, the joy of seeing life with new eyes and finding surprises and novelty in the world vanishes.  But when it is restored the world is seen anew.

It is clear that chronic stress impairs neurogenesis, at least in mice.  Gage’s colleague, Peter Ericsson suspects that holds lessons for humans also.  “In lab animals, chronic stress dramatically decreases neurogenesis as well as spatial memory..  When people under stress experience severe memory problems—forgetting their way to work, going into the kitchen and then no remembering why they went in—it is likely that what they’re experiencing is the very negative of stress on the function of the hippocampus due to decreased neurogenesis.”

Buddhism’s Concept of Self

June 7, 2016

According to Buddhism a person can be viewed as an amalgam of five elements—the physical body, feeling or sensations, ideation or mental activity, mental formations or perceptions, and consciousness.  According to the scholar and monk Wallace, these five aggregates “are in a constant state of flux, never, never static even for a moment, and the self is simply imputed  upon the basis of these psychophysical aggregates.  Gold told the group, “The environment  and our experiences change our brain, so who you are as a person changes by virtue of he environment you live in and the experiences you have.”  The psychologist Richie Davidson called that discovery “a point of intersection with Buddhism.”

A little introspective thought should convince you of the truth of this proposition.  We are constantly changing.  Most of the time these changes are slow and incremental, but there are times when they can be large and life changing.  Epiphanies and insights can produce large changes in our thoughts.

Given that a we are constantly changing, it seems prudent to have the goal of changing for the better.  Continual learning through growth mindsets as well as continual improvement in our life processes through meditation and mindfulness capitalize on our ever changing selves.

This post is short to leave time for thought and contemplation.

The Dalai Lama, Science, and Buddhism

June 6, 2016

The Dalai Lama, whose shortened religious name is Tenzin Guyatso, is the 14th Dalai Lama.  Dalai Lamas are important monks of the Gelug school, which is the newest school of Tibetan Buddhism.  This current Dalai Lama was interested in science from a very early age, and this interest in science has grown as he has matured.  Although science and religion are often portrayed as chronic opponents and sometimes even enemies.  There is no historic antagonism between Buddhism and Science as there has been between science and the Roman Catholic Church.  The Roman Catholic Church put Copernicus’s work on the Index of forbidden books and tried Galileo by the Inquisition, found him “vehemently suspect of heresy”, forced him to recant, and to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.  Both Buddhism and science share the goal of seeking the truth, with a small t.  For science truth is, or should be, always tentative and always subject to refutation by the next experiment.  For Buddhism, especially as the Dalai Lama sees it, even core teachings can and must be overturned if science proves them wrong.  Most importantly, Buddhist training emphasizes the value of investigating reality and finding the truth of the outside world as well as the contents of one’s mind.  According to Alan Wallace, who spent years as a Buddhist monk before turning in his robes to become a Buddhist scholar and who is a long time participant in the dialogues between scientists and the Dalai Lama, “Four themes are common to Buddhism at its best:  rationality, empiricism, skepticism, and pragmatism.”

In 1983, the Dalai Lama traveled to Austria for a conference on consciousness where he met Francisco Varela, a thirty-seven-year-old Chilean born neuroscientist who had begun practicing Buddhism in 1974.  It was not surprising  that the Dalai Lama had never met an eminent neuroscientist who was also knowledgeable about Buddhism, so the young researcher and the older Buddhist hit it off immediately.   Even with his busy schedule the Dalai Lama told Varela he wished he could have such conversations more often.

The following year Varela heard about a plan that Adam Engle, an entrepreneur in California was working on.  When Engle heard from Varela about the Dalai Lama’s interest in science he decided he wanted to put some energy into making the Dala Lama’s interest in science something more than a passing fancy.

After having put a great deal of energy into the effort in October 1987, the Dalai Lama hosted the first conference of what had been named the Mind and Life Institute in Dharmsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile.  Many conferences of the Mind and Life Institute have followed.  Many parts of this book are taken directly from these meetings between scientists and Buddhist scholars in Dharmsala.

Some scientists saw the Dalai Lama as a bridge between the world of spirituality and the world of science, someone whose expertise in mental training might offer western science a perspective that has been lacking in its investigations of mind and brain.  He was invited to address the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2005, but not without controversy.  Some five hundreds members signed a petition protesting his appearance arguing that religion has no place as a scientific conference.  The Dalai Lama has offered the following answer, “Spirituality and science are different but complimentary  investigative approaches with the same greater goal of seeking truth.”  He told neuroscientists that although Eastern contemplative practices and western science arose for different reasons and with different roles, they share an over-riding purpose.  They both investigate reality.  “By gaining deeper insight into the human psyche, we might find ways of transforming our thoughts, emotions and their underlying properties so that a more wholesome and fulfilling way can be found.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

June 5, 2016

The title of this blog post is the title of a book by Sharon Begley.  Please ponder this title for a moment and consider its ramifications.

It overturns two longstanding dogmas.  One is that the brain is hardwired and fixed.  The second is that although we are conscious, this consciousness is epiphenomenal in that his consciousness cannot change the brain.

Healthy memory was pleased to learn that William James, the father of experimental psychology in the United States, first introduced the word “plasticity to the science of the brain.  In 1890 James posited that “organic matter,” especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.”As Ms. Begley notes, “But James was ‘only’ a psychologist, not a neurologist (there was no such thing as a neuroscientist a century ago) and his speculation went nowhere.”Santiago Ramon y Cajal was a great Spanish neuroanatomist who won the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906.  In 1913 near the conclusion of his treatise on the nervous system he declared, “In the adult center the nerve paths are somewhat fixed, ended and immutable, thus stating that the physiology of the brain itself could not be changed. Nevertheless, he did continue with the hope, “It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.”  Fortunately, empirical evidence that emerged in the 1990s and will be discussed in subsequent posts found that this statement is wrong.

The second dogma, that consciousness is epiphenomenal and that only the brain is made of solid stuff that science can study was never accepted by the Buddhists.  In Buddhism the mind is contra and can be used not only to influence but to change the brain.  The Dalai Lama ins very much interested in science and uses science to alter religious beliefs.  This will be discussed in the immediately following post.

As this is an important book, healthy memory shall devote many posts to it.  Even so, Healthymemory will not be able to do Sharon Begley’s book justices.  Thus, healthy memory encourages you to read the book, and Healthymemory is egotistical enough to think that there will be added value in also reading the posts.

Trump and Behavioral Economics

June 2, 2016

On the June 6 & 13, 2016 “New Yorker” Financial Page there is an article by James Surowiecki.  He is the regular “New Yorker” correspondent for economics, business, and finance.  He has also written a book that Healthymemory would highly recommend, “The Wisdom of Crowds.”  His article is titled “Losers” and it is about how behavioral economics explains the attitude of Trump supporters.  The field of behavioral economics was founded by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. There have been many, many healthy memory blog posts on this topic and about these authors.   Prospect Theory is key to behavioral economics and resulted in a Nobel Prize being awarded to Kahneman.  Unfortunately Tversky had already passed away when the award was made.

Surowiecki notes that Trump plays to one of the most powerful emotions in economic life, which is what behavioral economics call loss aversion.  The basic idea is that people feel the pain of loses much more than they feel the pleasure of gains.  Empirical studies estimate that, in general, losing is twice as painful as winning is enjoyable. Consequently, people will go to great lengths to avoid losses, and to recover what they’ve lost.

Suroweicki notes that Trump’s emphasis on losing is unusual  even in bleak times.  But he believes that it has worked for him, because it resonates with what many Republican voters already feel.  A study by the Pew Research Center last fall found that 79% of those who lean Republican believe that their side is losing politically.  A RAND survey in January found that voters who believed that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were 86.5% more likely to prefer Trump.  Trump supporters feel that they, and the country, are losing economically, too.  In the RAND survey, Trump did better  with the people who were the most dissatisfied with their economic situation, and exit polls from the Republican primaries show that almost 70% of those who voted for Trump were “very worried” about the state of the economy as compared to only forty-five % of all voters in Democratic primaries.

Surowiki notes some surprising things about all this.  The first is that, in objective terms, plenty of Trump supporters haven’t lost that much.  We’re familiar with Trump’s appeal among white working class voters, many of whom truly have seen wages stagnate and jobs dry up.  But Nate Silver has recently pointed out that the median Trump voter is actually better educated and richer than the average American.  But an important point of Kahneman and Tversky’s work is that people don’t look at their status objectively, they measure it relative to a reference point, and for many Republicans that reference point is a past time when they had more status and more economic security.  Kahneman argues that even people who simply aren’t doing as well as they expected to be doing feel a loss.  And people don’t adapt their expectations to new circumstances.  A study of loss aversion by Jack Levy concluded that, after losses, an individual will “continue” to use the status quo ex ante as her reference point.”  Suroweicki notes that Trump’s promise is precisely that he’s going to return America to the status quo ex ante.  He tells his supporters that he will will help recoup their losses and safeguard what they have.

Suroweicki goes on to say that the other surprising thing is that you might expect loss-averse voters to be leery of taking a risk on an unpredictable outsider like Trump, since loss aversion often makes people cautious:  offered the choice between five hundred dollars and a 50 % chance at a thousand dollars or nothing, most people take the sure thing.  However, loss aversion promotes caution only when people are considering gains; once people have sustained losses, impulses change dramatically.  Offered the choice between losing five hundred dollars and a 50% chance of losing a thousand dollars or nothing, most people prefer to gamble—opposite of what they did when presented with the chance to win a thousand dollars.  People are willing to run huge risks to avert or recover loses.  In the real world , this is why people hold falling stocks, hoping for a rebound rather than cutting their losses, and it’s why they double down after losing a bet.  For Trump’s voters, the Obama years have felt like a disaster.  Taking a flyer on Trump actually starts to feel sensible.

Suroweicki continues, noting that historical parallels are always tendentious, that loss aversion has been instrumental in the success of authoritarian movements around the world.   The political scientist Kurt Weyland has argued that it played a crucial role in the rise of such regimes in Latin American, where the fear of Communism drove putatively democratic societies toward the radical solution of strongman rule.  Suroweicki notes that Trump may not quite be an American Peron, but, to his his supporters, his unpredictability is a selling point rather than a flaw.

It is important to remember that the basis thesis of behavioral economics, a thesis that has ben consistently supported, is that humans do not behave or think rationally.  Rather they are driven by emotions.

Healthy memory feels compelled to note other facets of human cognition that contribute to flawed political decisions.  One is the success of the big lie and the continued persistence of these lies.  It is extremely difficult to correct these lies.

Another problem is  the fallibility of memory and how selective memory makes it difficult to correct erroneous beliefs.  Consider the Iraq war that the younger Bush took us into.  The weapons of mass destruction, on which the invasion was predicated, were never found.  France and Germany were urging Bush to delay an invasion until the inspection were completed and the existence of these weapons could have been ascertained.

It was also the case that the King of Jordan and Henry Kissinger warned Bush that an invasion would result in a broken country that would serve as a base for radical Islamist groups..  This is exactly what has happened.  So the costs of this war not just monetary, which added to the national debt, but more importantly human, produced a situation that is worse, not better, than what prevailed, before the beginning of the war.

People also seem to have forgotten the financial crisis left by the Bush administration that resulted in the very real possibility of a depression.  In spite of recalcitrant Republicans, Obama managed to prevent the depression and aid in an important economic recovery.  By most objective standards, the U.S. economy is in good shape, and the American economy is one of the best performing economies.

Healtymemory still wonders about Trump.  It is difficult for him to imagine Trump curling up with a copy of Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.”  It is also difficult imagining Trump taking consul with an expert informing him how to exploit human information processing shortcomings for political gain.  Using the word “instinct” is inappropriate here, but Trump has a flair for exploiting human information processing shortcomings so that System 2 processing is avoided and System 1 prevails resulting in emotions rather than reasoning governing their voting.

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