Archive for February, 2020


February 29, 2020

Be true to the thought of the moment and avoid distraction. Other than continuing to exert yourself, enter into nothing else, but go to the extent of living single thought by single thought.”

—Yamamoto Tsunetomo (c. 1710)

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a book by Rowan Hooper titled Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of our Capacity. Michael Easterman is a cofounder of the Boston Attention and Learning Lab at Boston University. He says, “The science shows that when people are motivated, either intrinsically, i.e., they love it; or extrinsically, i.e., they will get a prize, they’re better able to maintain consistent brain activity, and maintain readiness for the readiness for the unexpected.” Motivation means this consistency doesn’t fall off over time.

In one experiment, participants were shown a random sequence of photographs of cities and mountain scenes, one every 800 milliseconds, while in an fMRI brain scanner. They needed to press a button whenever they saw a city scene (which occurred 90% of the time) and avoid pressing the button when a mountain scene appeared (the remaining 10%). Sometimes the trials were rewarded, In these cases participants earned 1 cent for each city scene they responded to, and 10 cents for not responding to a mountain scene. They were also penalized for getting it wrong. Other trials had no reward or penalty. The results of their brain activity showed that without the motivation of reward, the participants acted as “cognitive misers”: they didn’t bother engaging the brain’s attentional resources until their performance had dipped. [‘cognitive miser] is a term that has been used many times in this blog; enter “cognitive miser” into the search block at to see how many times and where] Until, in other words, they had dropped out of the zone. When they were motivated by reward, however, the participants were “cognitive investors,” happy to engage their brain and concentrate in order to stay focused on the task.

In 2015, Yi-Yuan Tang, Michael Posner at the University of Oregon, and Britta Holzel at the Technical University of Munich published a review of the evidence in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. They concluded that more than twenty years of research into meditation supports the idea that it is beneficial for physical and mental health, and that it improves cognitive performance. Basically, it improves brain power.

Joshua Grant at the University of Montreal scanned the brains of Zen practioners who had racked up more than a thousand hours of practice. These seasoned meditators show less activity in a few areas of the the brain than non meditators: in the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. These are areas are respectively concerned with (among other things) awareness of pain, the processing of emotions such as fear, and memory storage. But some parts of the brain process pain were thicker in the meditators. There is no contradiction here: meditators process the pain but let it bother them less.

Meditative practice leads to changes in the structure of the brain. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the insula, a deep fold in the cerebral cortex, two areas of the brain known to be key to our ability to focus attention, both grow in people who meditate. These regions, along with parts of the front midline of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus, are activated during cognitive tasks. For example, the ACC aids in the maintenance of focus by preventing other systems of the brain from barging in and demanding attention. Hooper writes, “When we are performing tasks that have been practiced over and over such as adjusting the sails on a trimaran or changing gears in a racing car, the autonomic nervous system plays a big part in carrying them out. That’s the part of the nervous system that acts automatically, performing functions such as regulating the heart rate and digestion. When we are in an effortless state of flow this occurs below the level of conscious awareness, and the ACC and the insula together help the autonomic nervous system achieve it.

There is a very large number of posts on meditation in the healthy memory blog. Just enter “meditation” into the search block at It might be a good idea to first enter “relaxation response” as the relaxation response provides the entry into more advanced meditation techniques.


February 28, 2020

Memory is the title of a chapter in a book by Rowan Hooper titled Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of our Capacity.

This is one of the quotes at the beginning the chapter:
“I’m more than my brain but my memories are what makes me, so if I don’t remember then who am I?…I don’t know when to say goodbye
-Nicola Wilson, Plaques and Tangles (2015)

This poor man is suffering from Alzheimer’s. One can infer this from the title, Plaques and Tangles, as amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles are the defining features of Alzheimer’s. Even though these are the defining features, many have died who have had autopsies showing this defining evidence of the disease, but who never experienced andy of the cognitive or behavioral symptoms of the disease. The explanation is that these individuals had developed a cognitive reserve to protect them. The Healthymemory blog is dedicated to providing advice and content to help people develop cognitive reserve. Staying cognitively active throughout one’s life is important. Engaging in Kahneman’s System 2 processing, more commonly referred to as critical thinking is important. There are many posts on this topic including growth mindsets. This is a matter of growing your memory learning skills and topics throughout one’s lifetime. Meditation and mindfulness are helpful. And using mnemonic techniques to be discussed next provide for healthy memories. There is an entire category of posts for mnemonic techniques.

Memory champions are able to accomplish astounding features. There are annual World Memory Championships. The 2016 world champion was the first person to memorize in under 20 seconds the order of a deck of shuffled playing cards, and the first to memorize more than 3,000 single-digit numbers in one hour.

Joshua Foer won the 2006 World Memory Championships. Enter “Moonwalking with Einstein: the Bottom Line” in the search block at
to read about these memory contest and what true mnemonists are able to accomplish. There is also an entire category of posts on this topic under the category Mnemonic Techniques

Martin Dressler of the Donders Institute of Brain, Cognition and Behavior at Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands has shown that anyone can use the techniques of memory athletes through a function magnetic resonance image (fMRI) scanner.

When Dressler put volunteers who were new to memory training through six weeks of instruction on the memory palace technique he found that they typically doubled their ability to remember words from a random list. Plus the activity patterns of their brains had started to converge with that seen in the champion memorizers.

People with Highly Successful Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) are also discussed in the chapter. There have been many previous HM blog posts on this topic. These are people who seem to be able to recall what they did and what happened when given da date such as 14 July 1996. The actress Marilu Henner has this ability, and she has found this ability to be helpful in her acting career. She is the only example that HM knows of that has used this exceptional capability in their careers.

The chapter covers the important category of eyewitness testimony. Unfortunately, the courts have put a high level of credibility on eyewitness testimony, but eyewitness testimony is extremely unreliable. Some have the misconception that this unreliability is restricted to people of different races. This is wrong. Eyewitness testimony is poor across the board.

HM is fascinated when watching crime shows and the police try to get information from witnesses. Even when these eyewitnesses are trying to help, their memories are more likely than not to be wrong. HM marvels that the police are able to solve crimes.

Felipe De Brigard says that memory isn’t just for remembering. He argues that misremembering is so common it shouldn’t be seen all the time as a malfunction. In his view, many cases can help us construct scenarios of past events that might have happened, so as to better simulate possible events in the future, An unreliable memory may also destabilize your personality. Although you may think that your personality is something unchangeably intrinsic to you, a study in 2016 that measure personality traits over a sixty-year period showed they can profoundly alter over a lifetime.

Felipe De Brigard’s view of memory is similar to that expressed in the healthy memory blog. Memory is for time travel so that we can travel back in time to what we’ve learned an experienced, to travel into the future to assess what types of action are required to deal with these new situations.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2020. 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.


February 27, 2020

This post is inspired by a book by Rowan Hooper titled Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of our Capacity, but very little, if any, is taken from the chapter in that book titled Intelligence.

Unfortunately, intelligence is a much abused concept. Some of that abuse stems from trying to divide intelligence into genetic and learned components, that is nature vs. nurture. It is true that statisticians can break the IQ into genetic and nurtured components, but what people don’t realize is that this is a mathematical abstraction. It does not exist in the real world. Nature and nurture are always inextricably intertwined. This confound has been further magnified with the development of the field of epigenetic. Epigenetics is the study of how the genome is read out, and this readout is a function of interactions with the real world.

The IQ test itself has been used to segregate people into different groups of intelligence. This results in a bias in the effort that goes into educating lower IQ groups. One might think that greater attention should be given to these groups, but the usual result is that the quality of education is lower and teachers can end up spending less effort on low IQ groups.

What is worse yet, is that people can use the results of these tests to define themselves, and to limit the avenues they explore.

The basic problem, then, is not in the IQ test itself, but in how it is used. Nevertheless, the abilities tested by the IQ test should be expanded to better capture the future potential of the child or adult.

The goal of education should be to try to achieve the maximum potential of each child. So initial testing can indicate an initial level of achievement, but the effort should be to try to increase that level of achievement. The Flynn effect is the substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores that were measured in many parts of the world over the 20th century. So not only can IQ increase, but it has been increasing over time. Some theorists argue that this is the result of advancing technology.

The argument here is not that every individual has unlimited potential, but that there should be no preconceptions about intelligence.

When difficulty is reached at a certain stage, the child can be moved into different areas of achievement. The goal should be to use technology to its best advantage in developing human beings for their own self-fulfillment and to benefit society as a whole.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2020. 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.

Before Science, Meditation

February 26, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Hannah Natanson in the Metro Section of the 23 Feb 2020 issue of the Washington Post. The benefits of meditation and mindfulness are a common theme in the healthy memory blog. And, as the title indicates, meditation and mindfulness is highly beneficial in the schools. Self-reflective exercises such as meditation give students tools to handle stressful situations. If children can expend less energy to stay calm, they’ll have more gusto for learning.

Teachers report, “You can see the change in kids: They cool down, they relax, and they’re just a little bit more open to learning. Meditation and especially mindfulness exercises reduce behavioral problems in the classroom. Kids become kinder. After meditation students offer to help one another with assignments unprompted, tease their peers less and say “please” and “thank you” more often. Some even request good-morning hugs.

Other research has found that sometimes these meditation and mindfulness exercises in the classroom find their way back into their homes and interactions at home are less-stressed, happier and more beneficial.

There is also rigorous research showing that these activities are effective and beneficial to learning. Brain imaging research has found evidence for this in changes in the brains. So the evidence comes not only from behavioral science, but also from neuroscience.

Unfortunately, over the past five years some Christian conservative groups have begun speaking out against practices such as meditation in the schools. These activists argue mindfulness programs violate the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state because they expose students to Buddhists or Hindu ideologies.

This assertion is blatantly false. Although these practices emerged from Buddhist and Hindu ideologies, none of the teachings or beliefs of these ideologies are involved. The benefits of these practices are briefly outlined above. If these Christian groups have any practices that might have beneficial effects to education that have been documented in science, then they should offer them for evaluation.

It is useful to consider Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman’s Two System View of Cognition here. This was reviewed in the immediately preceding post and has been reviewed many times in previous healthy memory blog posts. System 1 is fast and involves little, if any, mental effort. System 2 is slow, requires mental effort, and is commonly referred to as thinking. Thinking requires mental effort and many people, and these protesting conservative Christians in particular, do not like thinking. Believing is much easier. Unfortunately, these conservative Christians prefer believing, as it requires virtually no mental effort. They do not appreciate that God gave them brains for thinking and that he wants them to use them. Unfortunately, too many religious leaders do not like their members thinking. They want them to believe what they tell them to believe.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2020. 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.

The Cult of Trump

February 24, 2020

The Cult of Trump is the first part of a title of a highly pertinent book by Steven Hassan. The remainder of the title is A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control. He has written three previous books on cults: Combating Cult Mind Control, Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves, Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leaving Controlling People, Cults and Beliefs.

What makes Hassan’s book especially compelling is that he is a former Moonie in Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. So he is a former true believer, one who is intimately knowledgeable and proficient in the mind control techniques expounded by the Reverend Moon and other cults. He managed to free himself from Reverend Moon’s mind control, and, as his books indicate, works in freeing others from these cults.

Before proceeding further, there is a need to justify the title of this post. Justification can be found in the followers of Trump, the most dangerous being the Republican Party, who refused to recognize the overwhelming evidence made in support of the impeachment amendments, and convict the worst president this country has ever suffered. It is a president who places the future of this constitutional democracy at risk.

The most obvious point is that Trump is no Republican in the traditional sense. Indeed, his candidacy has transformed the Grand Old Party into a monstrosity that ignores the Constitution and could well lead to a free country becoming a de facto authoritarian dictatorship.

What makes Hassan’s thesis so compelling is that Trump, and the Russians, are employing the same techniques used by the Reverend Moon and other cult leaders. Assertions are made, regardless of the truth, by Trump and blindly followed. His record of lies is truly astounding, but what is even more astounding is that people believe these lies.

“Thinking Fast and Slow” is a best selling book by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman makes an important distinction between two types of mental processing. Not surprisingly, he names them System 1 and System 2. System 1 is our default mode of processing. It is the fast system we use for conversation and for mastered activities. This speed of processing comes at a cost. That cost is the thinking that is necessary to ascertain if a message is true or makes any sense. System 2 is what we commonly mean when we say, “let me think about that.”

Cults basically force their adherents not to think, to believe, and believe the assertions approved by the cult. Thinking is hard; believing is much easier. There is also a certainty in these beliefs so no thinking is necessary. Should there be any questions about what is true, it is what the cult leader, Trump, tells them to believe. Trump has repeatedly asserted that he is the source of truth and the only one to be believed.

Hassan goes into detail explaining how the same techniques are used by Trump that were used by the Moonies. He goes into detail about how Trump’s rallies follow the book of the Reverend Moon.

Hassan works to free cult followers from their cults and to think independently and critically. He explains how he broke himself from the Moonies. His technique was critical thinking. He was able to think of inconsistencies and how they indicated that the Moonie doctrine was a fraud. This took time and critical thinking.

Today he works deprogramming cult followers. This is slow painful work. Telling them that they are wrong does not work. First he needs to develop feelings of empathy with those he is trying to convert. He listens quietly as they expound upon their beliefs. Once empathy is established, he can raise points that are inconsistent with these beliefs. If the subject does not perceive the inconsistency, Hassan lets it go, until later another question can be raised.

Hassan argues that the cult member must convince himself that these inconsistencies are problematic. Only when he convinces himself, will he be able to leave the cult and transition back of a normal life.

Conclusion of The Plot to Betray America

February 23, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the first part of a title of a book by Malcom Nance. The remainder of the title is How Team Trump Embraced Our Enemies, Compromised Our Security, and How we Can Fix It. This is his third book on how Trump is destroying democracy. Nance writes, “I have written numerous books on intelligence tradecraft, counterterrorism, the rise and fall of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, and the fundamentals of the Russian plot to hack the American elections. However, nothing done by the worst terrorists filled me with more horror than realizing that Alexander Hamilton’s “unprincipled man”—the American-grown autocrat that the founding fathers had warned the nation about some two hundred years earlier—had finally cheated his way into the Oval Office with the assistance of an ex-KGB officer. This was not only an insult to all Americans living in a democracy but to all of us who have served in America’s military and public service to defend her.” Nance continues, “The worst part of the story is how easily one-third of the nation has been brainwashed into backing a man who thought the pinnacle achievement of his life would be to construct a building emblazoned with the word Trump in Moscow, the capital of our enemy. This American story is a shameful, sorrowful tale the likes of which we should be seriously embarrassed about.”

It also appears that General Ulysses S. Grant had a certain prescience regarding the future of the United States: “If we are to have a contest in the near future of our natural existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s but between patriotism and intelligence on one side and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.”

Being less prescient than Grant, George Washington wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette about the separation of powers under the Constitution: “The general Government is arranged that it can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an Aristocracy, or any other despotic or oppressive form so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the People.” It is clear that there is no virtue in Trump or the Republican Party. How much virtue remains in the body of the people awaits judgment.

Nance notes that Trump has seemed hell-bent on destroying the pillars of national security while acting as if he was increasing them. Russia has been so pleased with Trump’s work that Alexander Dugin, Vladimir Putin’s extremist philosopher, claimed that “the peak of American dominance is behind us.” Nance writes, that “it would appear that Trump sought to ensure that this was made a reality.

In Helsinki Trump forbade the presence of any staff and once again met Putin for two hours privately with only their interpreters present. Trump took the notes of the interpreter and forbid her to reveal what was discussed.

Trump attacked and continues to attack the FBI and the world’s best intelligence agencies that have documented the support Russia provided to Trump. The Russians not only supported Trump but also fomented discontent among different groups in the United States. When not only the size, but also the sophistication of their campaigns is considered, it is clear that Trump would not have won (and remember he did not win the popular vote) without their aid. It is also clear that he is shutting down our intelligence agencies so that the Russians will have a free hand in his re-election.

Even if the Democrats manage to overcome this interference and manage to win the election, Trump will likely declare fraud and refuse to leave the White House. Shortly thereafter he will likely declare himself president for life. Remember all the charges and lawsuits he is subject to if he does leave office. Perhaps there will be negotiations for the dropping of all pending and future charges, so he will leave the White House for his own dacha in Russia.

So what measures might be deployed to prevent this disaster? Russian disinformation expert Nina Jankowicz wrote in her article The Disinformation Vaccination, “What we need is something familiar to many who have worked in foreign assistance: capacity building. But rather than mounting such an effort abroad, we should pursue it for our own people. It’s a harder, longer process, but one that seeks to move beyond band-aids and vaccinate against the virus, prioritizing the citizens who fall victim to disinformation.”

Finland has successfully deployed the following digital literacy solutions:
*Equip every citizen with digital skills and educate them in digital literacy.
*Strengthen and support an independent media and fact checkers.
*Adapt electoral laws that are sensitive and adaptive to the digital era.

Nance writes, “There can be only one solution when a tyrant like Trump raises his hand: Impeachment.” Unfortunately impeachment is insufficient. The Republican Senate, in spite of overwhelming evidence, refused to convict.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2020. 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.

Going On A Cruise

February 7, 2020

HM is going on a cruise with his wife. Consequently, there will be a hiatus in blog posts until he returns and recovers from the cruise. But there is more than enough content to engage readers in his absence. Go to to see what is available. Use the search blog to find posts of interest.

Here are some suggestions:
Myth of Alzheimer’s
Myth of Cognitive Decline
cognitive reserve
growth mindsets
relaxation response

The website is strongly recommended

The healthy memory blog will return!

True Human Machine Symbiosis

February 6, 2020

A mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups: a perfect mother and daughter symbiosis. This is a definition of symbiosis plus an example. The concept of symbiosis and a slight enhancement of symbiosis, neo-symbiosis has occurred in previous healthymemory posts. This particular post was inspired by the Conclusions chapter in a book by Rowan Hooper titled Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of our Capacity.

Hooper writes that in 2016 and 2017 there were unprecedented breakthroughs in the understanding of the ancient game of Go. An artificial intelligence (AI) called AlphaGo competed against the world’s top human players, and crushed them. It played moves that had never been seen before in the game’s three-thousand-year history. The best humans in the world at this game upped their game. Lee Sodol of South Korea, and Ke Jie of China changed and improved the way they played because of what they had learned from AlphaGo. Jie said, ”After my match against AlphaGo, I fundamentally reconsidered the game, and now can see that this reflection has helped me greatly. Although I lost, I discovered that the possibilities of Go are immense and that the game has continued to progress.” Jie then went on a twenty-two-game winning streak.”

Dennis Hassabas the cofounder of Google DeepMind, the London-based lab that developed AlphaGo, and its even more impressive successor AlphaZero said that the response of Jie and Sodol shows want AI can do for humanity. We fear that AI will take our jobs, but this is misplaced. AI show us who we can be.  Hassabas says that human ingenuity augmented by AI will unlock our true potential.

We should examine what AI can tell us about other realms of endeavor besides games like this.

New York has the Nation’s Lowest Suicide Rate

February 5, 2020

This post is based on an article by Michelle Andrews in the Health & Science section of the 4 February 2020 issue of the Washington Post. To be more precise, it is the entire state of New York, not just New York City.

Compared with the national rate of 14 suicides per 100,000 people in 2017, New York’s was just 8.1, the lowest suicide rate in the nation. Many are surprised that New York has the lowest suicide rate. New York City is all hustle and stress, tiny apartments and crowds of strangers. Upstate New York is often portrayed as bleak and cold.

Although there are a number of factors contributing to this result, the most conspicuous being access to guns. Low rates of gun ownership are likely key. According to the Annals of Internal Medicine guns are used in about half of suicide deaths, and having access to a gun triples the risk that someone will die by suicide . Someone who attempts suicide with a gun will succeed about 85% of the time, compared with a 2% fatality rated if some opt for pills, according to a study by researchers at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Catherine Barber who co-wrote the study and is a senior researcher at the Harvard Center wrote, “The scientific evidence is pretty darn good that having easy access to guns makes the difference whether a suicidal crisis ends up being a fatal or nonfatal event.” New York as some of the strongest gun control laws in the country.

People who own guns to protect themselves should consider the reality of the situation. Unfortunately, their reality is colored by what they see on television. There is a virtual guarantee that someone killed by gun violence will make the news. Add to this all the police shows and all the shooting that occurs on these police shows.

The reality is that the majority of police retire without ever having fired their weapons in the course of their duty. There are more suicides by guns than murders. As for intruders, it is likely that some innocent party or family member is being shot.

So except for a few extreme, unfortunate cases, personal safety does not provide justification for owning a gun. So people who own guns for this reason are not just fools, they are damn fools.

It is possible that people own guns and like hunting and shooting competitions. The United States is a free county so why should there be prohibitions against owning guns?

One argument is personal safety. Guns are lethal weapons. HM has previously related this incident which occurred in a friend’s family. On New Year’s Eve his son and a friend were playing around with a gun in the house. The friend of his son accidentally shot his son and killed him. My friend, who was a politician, said he was sure that justice would be done. HM asks, what justice? His son was dead and his son’s friend has to live the remainder of his life knowing that he killed his friend. There was no justice here, only stupidity. HM is sure that his friend instructed his progeny on gun safety and kept guns locked up.

Should HM ever decide that it was time to cast off his mortal coil, he will use a gun, as that is by far the most effective means of committing suicide. He will write a letter to the NRA thanking them for their efforts that allowed him to destroy himself. He will also send copies of this letter to the Washington Post and post this letter on his blog.

Evaluating the Evidence

February 4, 2020

The evidence being evaluated is the evidence found in the War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki. Saki writes, “At various times scientific texts confirmed that the sun revolved around the earth, atoms were the smallest particles in the universe, and the human soul could be located in the pineal gland. The scientific method allowed all of these “facts” to be overwritten as the truth came to light. It’s this dynamism, and the humility that must accompany it, that gives science its power. Science is not a set of facts, but a process of predicting, testing, and rethinking. It is alive.

Zaki continues, “In this book, I review scientific evidence about the forces that strengthen and weaken human empathy and kindness. Most of this evidence comes from the field of psychology. Over the past several years, some high-profile psychological findings have proven less robust than they had seemed. Similar doubts have arisen in political science, economics, biology, and medical research. We psychologists have used this as an opportunity to strengthen our methods, be more transparent about our research process, and clarify exactly what we do and do not know.”

So Zaki and his associates have rated their confidence in the findings presented i this book. They used a 1 to 5 scale where 1 is the weakest and 5 is the strongest. HM is presents all the findings rated 4 or 5, and occasionally findings rated 3 for which HM feels he can add in his opinion.

Claim 0.1: Empathy is related to kindness and prosociality. 5
Sometimes it might appear that science is documenting the obvious. Nevertheless this is necessary, as there frequently are times where the obvious is wrong.

Claim 0.2.: Evolution favors empathy, through selective advantages for prosocial organisms. 5

Claim 0.3: Empathic individuals excel professionally. 4

Claim 0.4: Empathic individuals experience greater subjective well-being. 4

Claim 0.5: It is easier to empathize with one person than many people. 4

Claim 0.6: “Mirroring” in the brain is associated with empathy. 5

Claim 1.1: IQ/intelligence can change with experience. 5

Claim 1.2: Empathy is, in part, genetically determined. 5 (Put emphasis on “in part.” Virtually everyone can increase their empathy)

Claim 1.3: Children’s environments impact their levels of empathy. 4

Claim 1.4: People who carry out necessary evils (such as giving bad news) experience reduced empathy. 4

Claim 2.1: We have the ability to control and regulate our emotions. 5

Claim 2.3: People empathize to help bolster their moral self-image. 4

Claim 2.4: When people think emphasizing will be painful, they avoid it. 4

Claim 2.6 When people believe empathy is a valued norm, they empathize more. 4

Claim 2.7: Purposely cultivating empathy alters the brain. 3
Zaki writes “Several well-conducted studies indicate that empathy and compassion training lead to corresponding changes in the brain. However, almost all of this work focuses on brain changes resulting from contemplative practice, such as loving-kindness meditation. (There are many healthy memory blog post on loving-kindness meditation). These studies should be augmented by additional research examining the neural effects of other empathy-building practices.

Claim 3.1: People naturally empathize more with member of their in-groups , as compared with outsiders. 5

Claim 3.2: We fail to empathize—and often experience antipathy—in competitive contexts. 5

Claim 3.3: Contact generally increases empathy for outsiders. 5

Claim 3.4: Contact can bolster empathy for outsiders amid conflict or competition. 5

Claim 4.1: Theater grows empathy. 3
Depending upon the nature of the play, theater provides a good opportunity to understand the feeling and thinking of others.

Claim 4.2: Literature grows empathy. 4

Claim 4.4 Narrative art can reduce intergroup conflict 4

Claim 5.1 Compassion fatigue is prevalent among caring professionals and detrimental to them. 5

Claim 5.2 Provider empathy has salutary consequences for patient outcomes. 5

Claim 5.4 Social support buffers against burnout. 5

Claim 5.5 Mindfulness reduces burnout for caregivers. 5

Claim 5.6 Mindfulness increases caregiver empathy. 4
(There are many healthy memory blog posts on both mindfulness and meditation)

Claim 6.1 Social norms influence our thoughts and actions. 5

Claim 6.2. People conform to perceived norms and often overestimate the prevalence of extreme positions. 5

Claim 6.3 Empathy begets empathy: Positive and empathic norms spread. 4

Claim 6.6 Social and Emotional Learning programs lead to many benefits (particularly for young children). 5
(There are healthy memory blog posts on social and emotional learning.)

Claim 7.2 Internet anonymity encourages cyberbullying. 4

Claim 7.3 Internet echo chambers encourage and reward extreme and emotional views. 4

Claim 7.4 Virtual reality experiences can decrease stereotyping and discrimination. 4

Claim 7.5: Virtual reality can build empathy. 4

Claim 7.6: Online communities can provide meaningful and helpful support to their members. 4

Claim 7.7: Giving to others helps the helper, making them happier or more fulfilled. 5

Zaki writes that if you want more information, you can find a spreadsheet containing the research that went into vetting each claim at

Working at Empathy, One Piece at a Time

February 3, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in the War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki. Zaki writes that this book focuses on rebuilding empathy when it’s eroded. By pinpointing different pieces of empathy researchers are able to diagnose what has gone wrong and helps them find the most effective solutions.

Callousness can come from thoughtlessness: we discount the suffering of a homeless person because we don’t consider their experiences. In this case, interventions might focus on mentalizing through perspective-taking exercises on virtual reality.

When faced with conflict, we might think a great deal about our enemies, but not care about their well-being. We might even hope for them to suffer. Contact, and especially friendships across group lines, can change that. For instance, burnout among medical professionals—often is the result of too much experience sharing. Contemplative techniques can help people shift themselves toward concern instead. Zaki concludes that in all these cases, understanding what to do with empathy requires first understanding exactly what it is.

Splits and Connections

February 2, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in the War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki. Zaki writes, “Experience sharing, mentalizing, and concern split apart in all sorts of interesting ways. For instance, mentalizing is most useful when we don’t share another’s experiences. To know why a fan of a team you don’t follow just climbed up a signpost, you must understand differences between their emotional landscape and yours. When we fail to understand each other, it’s often because we falsely assume our own knowledge or priorities will map onto someone else’s.”

Zaki continues, Empathic processes activate different brain systems and are useful at different moments. Poker and boxing require keen mentalizing—What does your opponent do? What is his next move?—but are ill-served by concern.” Saki notes that parenting can be the opposite. You might never understand why your toddler is upset, but you can still do what you can to help her. Zaki notes that people can also differ in their empathic landscapes. An emergency room physician probably feels great concern for her patients, but she cannot do her job if she is also taking on their pain. Although individuals with autism spectrum disorder sometimes struggle at mentalizing, they still share and care about others’ feelings. Psychopaths are just the opposite. They are perfectly able to tell what others feel but are unaffected by their pain.

Empathic pieces are also deeply intertwined. Sharing someone else’s emotion draws our attention to what they feel, and thinking about them reliably increases our concern for their well-being. All three empathic processes promote kindness, but in distinct ways. The primatologist Frans de Waal developed what he terms his “Russian Doll Model” of empathy. The primitive process of experience sharing is at the core—turning someone else’s pain into our own creates an impulse to stop it. Newer, more complex forms of empathy are layered on top of that, generating broader sorts of kindness. Through mentalizing, we develop a fine-grained picture of not just what someone else feels, but why they feel it, and—more important—what might make them feel better. This spurs a deeper concern, a response focused not only on our own discomfort but truly on someone else. The global kindness Peter Singer describes in The Expanding Circle is a further extension of concern—pointed not at any one individual, but at people as a whole.


February 1, 2020

This post is based on the War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki. Thinking is one of the three components of empathy, the other two being sharing and caring. Thinking is the active part of the theory of mind. We need to try to figure out what another person, or even species, is thinking about and planning to do. To answer these questions we need to think like a detective, gathering evidence from the behavior and situation to deduce how that individual feels. This cognitive piece of empathy is referred to as “mentalizing,” or explicitly considering someone else’s perspective. Mentalizing is like an everyday form of mind reading and it’s more sophisticated than experience sharing. It requires cognitive firepower that most, but not all, animals don’t have. So mentalizing arrived later in evolution. Though children pick up experience sharing early, it takes them a long time to sharpen their mentalizing skills.

Mentalizing is an extremely important skill, one that good salespeople need. And mentalizing is a skill, like many skills, that can be used for good or evil. Effective confidence men need to be highly skilled at mentalizing, so that they can con and defraud people.

HM saw a documentary film about Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple computer. When Jobs was in high school he made many visits to a Zen Buddhist Priest. Mindfulness, which obviously involves mentalizing, is an important part of Buddhism and their meditations. According to the documentary, Jobs was considering becoming a Buddhist priest. This priest wisely discouraged Jobs from pursuing this career.

HM thinks that Jobs was good at mentalizing, and that this might account for part of his success. Jobs was good at manipulating people to his own ends. His mentalizing skills helped him do this, but the result was that the lives and marriages of these people were ruined so that Jobs could pursue his ends. Jobs would travel to Japan to meditate in Buddhist monasteries, but he stayed at five star hotels during these visits.

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