July 26, 2012
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The other day I posted a brief essay (of sorts) that continued my investigation into this notion that many of us have about our ‘self’… For over five years now I have been fortunate (or, some may say, unfortunate) enough to stumble upon many ‘seemingly’ unusual and/or socially counter-intuitive views to many Westernised ways or styles of thinking about things… These alternatives, being anything but wrong, from my perspective, have pushed my boat out way beyond what much of Western psychology and philosophy has ‘reasonably’ presumed about the universe in which we live… As well as how we, as sentient beings, relate to it. These ideas have – to say the least – drastically challenged my own personalised philosophies and ideas about what reality might actually be, as well as how I choose to live my life… Not to mention they have changed the way I think about nearly everything I thought I knew anything about i.e. social etiquette, certain scientific knowledge, logical reasoning, etc… doing so to the point that most of the certainties that I had stubbornly held on to over the years have now shown themselves to be – on the whole – nothing more than delusions that are about just as uncertain and biased towards their (or even my) own ends as Russell’s and Whitehead’s “Principia Mathematica” might have been theirs when set aside Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorems”.
Be it known… It has certainly never been my intention to undermine any of our Westernised ways of thinking, or any of our socially acceptable habits of being and/or notions of perceiving the world around us. Rather, my aim has always been to challenge any dogmatic certainties that we might have held cradled a bit to close to our psyches (much like Linus’ security/comfort blanket in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strips) and/or any overly cherished ‘certainties‘ that we may harbour in our ever-changing mind-streams while going about our busy daily lives on the surface of this planet… A jewel of a planet that ‘floats’ – almost miraculously – in an inky black void amidst a cornucopia of never ending universal changes (stars and galaxies being born and then die). Certainly the universe around us never rests for one second. It always resides in a continual state of unending change. Nothing… And I mean nothing, ever remains the same for very long, let alone for ever. So why should we hold on to any certainties… ? Or live clinging to securities that one day the universe will snatch away from us?
Within this state of perpetual change there lies the natural ebb and flow of chaotic patterns that intermingle, interrelate and feedback upon each other, allowing more complex systems to evolve and/or arise within the non-linear tapestry of atomic inter-reactivity, instability and the resulting conjoined possibilities. These biological frames of living matter (that we call our bodies) are a testament to this natural arising of life and, as such, I have searched both high and low to formulate a clearer sort of reasoning/understanding (at least for my ‘self‘) so as to better understand/perceive the natural order of things (regardless of what the generalised consensus might be), as well as to be able to better to relate to this experience of being a so-called ‘living’ entity.
I am humbled to say that, during this search, I have found many other philosophies and understandings that closely relate to my own, all with minor variations that procure a sort of diversity and, yet, still point towards a sort of perennial philosophy. From these various ‘schools of thought’ I have learnt many pertinent things, as well as been afforded a chance to develop and attune further my own understanding and attitude toward life. As Douglas Hofstadter pointed out in his cryptic lecture “Analogy As The Core Of Cognition“, I continually found my ‘self’ observing a type of affine universal self-similarity between these various ways of thinking… Something that kept reminding me of what some have kept calling “God’s Thumb Print“… Which has allowed me to see a part of the infinite whole and realise that it is all interrelated and interconnected to everything… And it was this interrelatedness that eventually brought me into contact with some highly perceptive and well developed philosophies concerning the natural order of things, the mind and how we perceive things, as seen in “Taoism” and “Buddhism”.
For me, Buddhism has been the most fascinating of all the philosophies that I have learnt about. It’s central doctrines all highlight the most important – and sometimes much overlooked – aspects of living i.e. everything changes – nothing stays the same (impermanence), everything is interconnected to everything else – we are interdependent to everything else (interdependence), mind is all pervasive – our states of mind have a very powerful effect on the way in which we perceive the world around us i.e. the power of mind can do some very ‘supernatural’ things, like changing the shape of the brain, affecting the subtle energy channels within the body to produce highly unusual results and, not least, Thích Quảng Đức, who was the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death without any display of pain or suffering at a busy Saigon road intersection on 11 June 1963 in protest to the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Roman Catholic government… As well as developing awareness, especially to our states of mind as they arise and subside, which is the key to finding a balanced and holistic way of living, one that propagates the most well being for all and one’s ‘self’.
As such, I still come back to Buddhism everyday to find new (though they are, in actual fact, near on 2,600 years old) and highly relevant teachings (and/or parallels) about how to understand and relate to this experience of living for positive effect. Many of the Buddhist philosophies that I have learnt about very much mirror some of the scientific philosophies that have recently surface (or have been re-discovered) and, as such, I find a great source of wisdom and inspiration within its bountiful depths. As a sort of testament to Buddhism’s universal usefulness there seems to be a sort of general acceptance within the NHS that Buddhist techniques can actually help people, especially when dealing with much of the anxiety and depression we find in the modern world. This can be clearly seen by the fact that the NHS – here in the UK – now offers mindfulness training, which really seems to helping people cultivate and develop better awareness in their lives, surroundings and ways of being… But, despite this adoption of Buddhist practises by the UK’s health service, a lot of the most important parts to mindfulness training seem to have been skirted over and simply ignored…
Why is this? Well… For starters, many of the eminent Masters who have practised meditation and mindfulness for many “lifetimes” (reincarnation being a subject that I will broach in a coming post) just don’t seem to be included in the scientific equation… No doubt some already are being included, but many are not… Though more importantly, the NHS are not contacting those who are properly educated in mindfulness to seek their advise on how best to implement a course that teaches mindfulness. Perhaps the ‘solid’ scientific background that seems to confidently back-up modern medicine with facts and figures just doesn’t hold the Karmapa or Dali Lama in high regard as contemporaries who were formally trained in their own self-accredited universities of reason and knowledge and, thus, lack the relevant degrees to substantiate passing on their knowledge and wisdom to those in modern Westernised academia… ? Or maybe the deliberate shrouding of many Buddhist practises by the monks and Lamas themselves only adds to the stigma of religious mysticism that already surrounds Buddhism here in the West… ? Either way, the only way to dispel this somewhat ignorant (maybe even arrogant) outlook that the West has about Buddhism is to mention that, what many people fail to understand is, both the Karmapa and Dali Lama have trained harder and longer in these ancient techniques of mindfulness and awareness than any graduate or PhD would or could have done in their respective fields over the course of their lives, making them by far the foremost teachers in their unique disciplines of mindfulness and awareness training. Neither is Buddhism a religion in the traditional sense… Rather, I would say that it is a highly developed philosophy and science of mind, one that has been crafted from years of practise, whereby each exponent has experimented with many techniques until those that work (in developing mindfulness) are recorded and practised diligently by further lineages, all that directly stem back to the Gautama Buddha.
Until this is clearly grasped by many of us, for me, the NHS beginning to train people in mindfulness without proper guidance is a bit like a novice (who has no formal training in the subject) teaching student something that they are not really qualified to teach. Imagine someone – who has no formal training in science whatsoever – however they note that quantum physics actually shows us a lot about the way in which the world works around us (on a mechanical level) – and, yet, then goes on to ignore most of the relevant details behind it, only using snippets of information that seem to suite their own ends i.e. like showing the Double-Slit Experiment and then stating to a student that this clearly demonstrates the fundamentally probabilistic nature of quantum mechanical phenomena, and then awarding them a degree. Okay… But what happened to the rest of the data that those researching and studying quantum physical events in proper academia have discovered over many years of research, all of which helps the student develop a deeply penetrating idea that leads to a more coherent and complete picture of the whole of quantum mechanics, so that they can continue the complicated and arduous research at the cutting edge of discovery to help as many others as is possible? For sure, people have to start somewhere… But I strongly feel that they should start as they mean to go on i.e. learn from the people who know what they are talking about.
On a less critical note… At least the NHS is beginning to realise that the mind is a powerful tool that can help heal itself without the need for medical or pharmacological intervention most of the time. Perhaps this will be akin to modern medicine taking the first steps in a philosophy where the patient might well be better and more equipped to treat themselves rather than a doctor (in many instances), especially if given the right teachings and practises to perform… ?
As part of this lifetime journey with Buddhism, I will continue to write entries in this website about what I find and discover along the way. Certainly there is no other aim to this practise other that to arrange and present my thoughts to another who might be interested in reading about what I have to say. As such, I must stress that, while I do my best to make sure that the information provided within these pages is as correct and accurate (from my own perspective) as can be, I am nonetheless a novice. And, so, I would never use anything that I have written here as fact without checking it out for yourself and finding what you really think and feel about it first. Most who have been following the entries in this website for sometime already know my wariness of anything procuring ultimate fact or certainty. As Lord Byron was once noted to have said, “If I be a fool, it is, at least, that I be a doubting one; for I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom…” And as Einstein once said about mathematics, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” As such, I find myself resigned to a continual modification of what I think I know, turning it continually around so as to be able to view it from every possible angle in order to see whether there are any gaps in it… And, as I trawl through the mountains of research that comes my way, I find snippets that offer a ‘possible’ insight, or fit, for some of those gaps… Still, there will always be gaps… Just like with the length of Britain’s coastline being dependent on its length, so too will there be gaps in our understanding that will always somehow leave the puzzle of consciousness, at least for myself, never quite answered entirely… Slightly clearer it may seem than what most of us originally started with… But never complete. Only direct experience will bring about completion.
So, until total, completely pure, immersive and direct experience is achieved, one that can transcend dualistic thought altogether… I continue with my conceptualised trains of thought and make the following offering that might shed a tiny bit of light on how and why the notion of a “self” could come about, one that perhaps evolved (and was naturally selected for) over time in the cellular infrastructure of our brains.
Just the other month, as I was thinking about some of the other unusual aspects about the ‘self’ (of which I will write more about in future posts), while painting the BIG green doors outside, I came across the following New Scientist article that was stuck to the bottom of my paint can, covered in gently arcing streaks of sticky green paint. It was the word “consciousness” that caught my eye… So, prising it gently from the base of the tin, the article’s front page slowly began to reveal itself. Once it was free from the can’s underside, most of the article was still obscured by vibrant rounded strips of summery Buckingham Green, most of which obscured enough of the article to make it unreadable. Thus I took it to the kitchen table and gently wiped it clean with a spirit soaked rag. As the thick streaks of paint slowly spread across the page, covering some of the clean text, the whole became more legible… The green was becoming so thinned that anything printed underneath could now be clearly seen. Once I could read most of the text, I set it aside in the bright heat of the sun and left its wet, soft pulp to dry into a manageable form as I painted another coat of green onto the old barn’s doors.
Not too long after finishing the last over coat, the page was ready to finger… And so I set about to my usual morning ritual of having a cup of tea in the cool morning breeze while taking cover under the waning shade of the granary’s hulking form, as I set about reading the somewhat shabby pea green, but now legible, article that had been rescued from certain doom… And this is what I read…
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Are These The Brain Cells That Give Us Consciousness?
The brainiest creatures share a secret – an odd kind of brain cell involved in emotions and empathy that may have accidentally made us conscious
THE origin of consciousness has to be one of the biggest mysteries of all time, occupying philosophers and scientists for generations. So it is strange to think that a little-known neuroscientist called Constantin von Economo might have unearthed an important clue nearly 90 years ago.
When he peered down the lens of his microscope in 1926, von Economo saw a handful of brain cells that were long, spindly and much larger than those around them. In fact, they looked so out of place that at first he thought they were a sign of some kind of disease. But the more brains he looked at, the more of these peculiar cells he found – and always in the same two small areas that evolved to process smells and flavours.
Von Economo briefly pondered what these “rod and corkscrew cells”, as he called them, might be doing, but without the technology to delve much deeper he soon moved on to more promising lines of enquiry.
Little more was said about these neurons until nearly 80 years later when, Esther Nimchinsky and Patrick Hof at Mount Sinai University in New York also stumbled across clusters of these strange-looking neurons. Now, after more than a decade of functional imaging and post-mortem studies, we are beginning to piece together their story. Certain lines of evidence hint that they may help build the rich inner life we call consciousness, including emotions, our sense of self, empathy and our ability to navigate social relationships.
Many other big-brained, social animals also seem to share these cells, in the same spots as the human brain. A greater understanding of the way these paths converged could therefore tell us much about the evolution of the mind.
Admittedly, to the untrained eye these giant brain cells, now known as von Economo neurons (VENs), don’t look particularly exciting. But to a neuroscientist they stand out like a sore thumb. For one thing, VENs are at least 50 per cent, and sometimes up to 200 per cent, larger than typical human neurons. And while most neurons have a pyramid-shaped body with a finely branched tree of connections called dendrites at each end of the cell, VENs have a longer, spindly cell body with a single projection at each end with very few branches (see diagram below). Perhaps they escaped attention for so long because they are so rare, making up just 1 per cent of the neurons in the two small areas of the human brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the fronto-insular (FI) cortex.
Their location in those regions suggests that VENs may be a central part of our mental machinery, since the ACC and FI are heavily involved in many of the more advanced aspects of our inner lives. Both areas kick into action when we see socially relevant cues, be it a frowning face, a grimace of pain or simply the voice of someone we love. When a mother hears a baby crying, both regions respond strongly. They also light up when we experience emotions such as love, lust, anger and grief. For John Allman, a neuroanatomist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, this adds up to a kind of “social monitoring network” that keeps track of social cues and allows us to alter our behaviour accordingly (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol 1225, p 59).
The two brain areas also seem to play a key role in the “salience” network, which keeps a subconscious tally of what is going on around us and directs our attention to the most pressing events, as well as monitoring sensations from the body to detect any changes (Brain Structure and Function, DOI: 10.1007/s00429-012-0382-9).
What’s more, both regions are active when a person recognises their reflection in the mirror, suggesting that these parts of the brain underlie our sense of self – a key component of consciousness. “It is the sense of self at every possible level – so the sense of identity, this is me, and the sense of identity of others and how you understand others. That goes to the concept of empathy and theory of mind,” says Hof.
To Bud Craig, a neuroanatomist at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, it all amounts to a continually updated sense of “how I feel now”: the ACC and FI take inputs from the body and tie them together with social cues, thoughts and emotions to quickly and efficiently alter our behaviour (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol 10, p 59).
This constantly shifting picture of how we feel may contribute to the way we perceive the passage of time. When something emotionally important is happening, Craig proposes, there is more to process, and because of this time seems to speed up. Conversely, when less is going on we update our view of the world less frequently, so time seems to pass more slowly.
VENs are probably important in all this, though we can only infer their role through circumstantial evidence. That’s because locating these cells, and then measuring their activity in a living brain hasn’t yet been possible. But their unusual appearance is a signal that they probably aren’t just sitting there doing nothing. “They stand out anatomically,” says Allman, “And a general proposition is that anything that’s so distinctive looking must have a distinct function.”
In the brain, big usually means fast, so Allman suggests that VENs could be acting as a fast relay system – a kind of social superhighway – which allows the gist of the situation to move quickly through the brain, enabling us to react intuitively on the hop, a crucial survival skill in a social species like ours. “That’s what all of civilisation is based on: our ability to communicate socially, efficiently,” adds Craig.
A particularly distressing form of dementia that can strike people as early as their 30s supports this idea. People who develop fronto-temporal dementia lose large numbers of VENs in the ACC and FI early in the disease, when the main symptom is a complete loss of social awareness, empathy and self-control. “They don’t have normal empathic responses to situations that would normally make you disgusted or sad,” says Hof. “You can show them horrible pictures of an accident and they just don’t blink. They will say ‘oh, yes, it’s an accident’.”
Post-mortem examinations of the brains of people with autism also bolster the idea that VENs lie at the heart of our emotions and empathy. According to one recent study, people with autism may fall into two groups: some have too few VENs, perhaps meaning that they don’t have the necessary wiring to process social cues, while others have far too many (Acta Neuropathologica, vol 118, p 673). The latter group would seem to fit with one recent theory of autism, which proposes that the symptoms may arise from an over-wiring of the brain. Perhaps having too many VENs makes emotional systems fire too intensely, causing people with autism to feel overwhelmed, as many say they do.
Another recent study found that people with schizophrenia who committed suicide had significantly more VENs in their ACC than schizophrenics who died of other causes. The researchers suggest that the over-abundance of VENs might create an overactive emotional system that leaves them prone to negative self-assessment and feelings of guilt and hopelessness (PLoS One, vol 6, p e20936).
VENs in other animals provide some clues, too. When these neurons were first identified, there was the glimmer of hope that we might have found one of the key evolutionary changes, unique to humankind, that could explain our social intelligence. But the earliest studies put paid to that kind of thinking, when VENs turned up in chimpanzees and gorillas. In recent years, they have also been found in elephants and some whales and dolphins.
Like us, many of these species live in big social groups and show signs of the same kind of advanced behaviour associated with VENs in people. Elephants, for instance, display something that looks a lot like empathy: they work together to help injured, lost or trapped elephants, for example. They even seem to show signs of grief at elephant “graveyards” (Biology Letters, vol 2, p 26). What’s more, many of these species can recognise themselves in the mirror, which is usually taken as a rudimentary measure of consciousness. When researchers daub paint on an elephant’s face, for instance, it will notice the mark in the mirror and try to feel the spot with its trunk. This has led Allman and others to speculate that von Economo neurons might be a vital adaptation in large brains for keeping track of social situations – and that the sense of self may be a consequence of this ability.
Yet VENs also crop up in manatees, hippos and giraffes – not renowned for their busy social lives. The cells have also been spotted in macaques, which don’t reliably pass the mirror test, although they are social animals. Although this seems to put a major spanner in the works for those who claim that the cells are crucial for advanced cognition, it could also be that these creatures are showing the precursors of the finely tuned cells found in highly social species. “I think that there are homologues of VENs in all mammals,” says Allman. “That’s not to say they’re shaped the same way but they are located in an analogous bit of cortex and they are expressing the same genes.”
It would make sense, after all, that whales and primates might both have recycled, and refined, older machinery present in a common ancestor rather than independently evolving the same mechanism. Much more research is needed, however, to work out the anatomical differences and the functions of these cells in the different animals.
That work might even help us understand how these neurons evolved in the first place. Allman already has some ideas about where they came from. Our VENs reside in a region of the brain that evolved to integrate taste and smell, so he suggests that many of the traits now associated with the FI evolved from the simple act of deciding whether food is good to eat or likely to make your ill. When reaching that decision, he says, the quicker the “gut” reaction kicks in the better. And if you can detect this process in others, so much the better.
“One of the important functions that seems to reside in the FI has to do with empathy,” he says. “My take on this is that empathy arose in the context of shared food – it’s very important to observe if members of your social group are becoming ill as a result of eating something.” The basic feeding circuity, including the rudimentary VENs, may then have been co-opted by some species to work in other situations that involve a decision, like working out if a person is trustworthy or to be avoided. “So when we have a feeling, whether it be about a foodstuff or situation or another person, I think that engages the circuitry in the fronto-insular cortex and the VENS are one of the outputs of that circuitry,” says Allman.
Allman’s genetics work suggests he may be on to something. His team found that VENs in one part of the FI are expressing the genes for hormones that regulate appetite. There are also a lot of studies showing links between smell and taste and the feelings of strong emotions. Our physical reaction to something we find morally disgusting, for example, is more or less identical to our reaction to a bitter taste, suggesting they may share common brain wiring (Science, vol 323, p 1222). Other work has shown that judging a morally questionable act, such as theft, while smelling something disgusting leads to harsher moral judgements (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 34, p 1096). What’s more, Allman points out that our language is loaded with analogies – we might find an experience “delicious”, say, or a person “nauseating”. This is no accident, he says.
However, it is only in highly social animals that VENs live exclusively in the scent and taste regions. In the others, like giraffes and hippos, VENs seem to be sprinkled all over the brain. Allman, however, points out that these findings may be a red herring, since without understanding the genes they express, or their function, we can’t even be sure how closely these cells relate to human VENs. They may even be a different kind of cell that just looks similar.
Based on the evidence so far, however, Hof thinks that the ancestral VENs would have been more widespread, as seen in the hippo brain, and that over the course of evolution they then migrated to the ACC and FI in some animals, but not others – though he admits to having no idea why that might be. He suspects the pressures that shaped the primate brain may have been very different to those that drove the evolution of whales and dolphins.
Craig has hit upon one possibility that would seem to fit all of these big-brained animals. He points out that the bigger the brain, the more energy it takes to run, so it is crucial that it operates as efficiently as possible. A system that continually monitors the environment and the people or animals in it would therefore be an asset, allowing you to adapt quickly to a situation to save as much energy as possible. “Evolution produced an energy calculation system that incorporated not just the sensory inputs from the body but the sensory inputs from the brain,” Craig says. And the fact that we are constantly updating this picture of “how I feel now” has an interesting and very useful by-product: we have a concept that there is an “I” to do the feeling. “Evolution produced a very efficient moment-by-moment calculation of energy utilisation and that had an epiphenomenon, a by-product that provided a subjective representation of my feelings.”
If he’s right – and there is a long way to go before we can be sure – it raises a very humbling possibility: that far from being the pinnacle of brain evolution, consciousness might have been a big, and very successful accident.
This article has been edited since it was first posted
Caroline Williams is a writer based in Surrey, UK
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To find out where I sourced the New Scientist article from, please click here.
OR to learn a bit more about the author, please visit her LinkedIn profile page by clicking here.
September 8, 2010
Last night I had a dream… A spiralling coil of color unfolded its serpentine and slithering body before my mind’s inner eye. Patterns danced in such an orchestrated synchronicity, so as to complect into a delicate and balanced interplay of form and function, all actions and reactions – though it was hard to tell which were which anymore, because of the temporal passage that had clouded all the previous causes to things – feeding back into the source, creating new snaking forms of colorful displays… Never ending, never repeating exactly, so interdependent on everything else around them, looking for nourishment and inspiration in themselves and those around them, every part of it guided by a wild and beating leviathan heart, a heart that was run by the only certainty I could ever find… That of uncertainty… That of chaos… An open ended function that was the only pure motivation for all universal being and which itself, alone, could only describe and create such a miraculous and highly dynamical order… “I” was a part of it… And in reflecting all of what “I” saw unraveling around me, this rhythm of chaotic movement began to shine through my very Being, allowing me to try to define myself in self-similar patterns… Patterns similar to those that “I” witnessed going on around me, allowing me a vain hope to understand what “I” is… While providing me with all I needed to partake in this dance of joyous wonderment before me; understandings were nothing more that rippling imaginations that carelessly skittered over and through the patterns of consciousness… Shape that had been fluxing within my brain’s complex and structured form… And still, I could only try to understand why, like almost everyone else, “I” tried to find similar reasons for Being in the ocean of delusion that swelled and sank around me… It was the only way “I” had known how to be throughout my entire life… And this was how the wonder twisted through my living, convoluting flow… A pattern that embraced every aspect of our Being, clutching “my” particle-like body into the blossom of its infinite totality….
Perhaps this was what many people before me had decided to call “God…” Mainly because they hadn’t properly understood its essence and nature… After, the wise mystics of the East followed the way of this unspeakable, indescribable beast. The Tao, they called it. “The Way.” And still it remains the only way to be, to dream and to live in harmony with all under heaven. Riddled with self-similarity, it writhed and pulsed to various rhythms running through its Being, all running inside and outside of each other, layering into and out of itself, fluxing with such precision that it might have been a silken fabric so finely woven, that the very threads we but atomic braids of molecular chains, of which any movement could upset the natural order and cause a mighty ripple to undulate throughout itself.
In all honesty I can’t remember how long this phantasm of interconnected geometry lasted… All I know is that I woke with a sudden jolt to find myself in bed with the covers strewn half on me and half on the floor. In someways I was relieved to find myself back home… But also I had a distinct sense of underlying melancholy that seemed to underpin my sleepy head… Sort of like when one departs the company of good friends. Slowly as my mind came back into focus, I found myself thinking of M. C. Escher‘s work. The seeming parallels that ran through my mind joined my dream up with Escher’s precise visions of nature’s “natural” symmetry. These in turn linked up with my own personal first hand experiences with mescaline, psilocybin, DMT and LSD… I haven’t tripped in a long, long time now. And I doubt I will need to ever again. What I had to learn from these powerful allies of the plant world, I did. They have kindly shown me all that I need to see. Within their own tapestries of mind, from the altered states of consciousness that they seem to so gracefully and naturally induce, I found myself faced with patterns as complex as those that I had seen on the Alhambra.
Yes… That’s it. That’s what all this reminds me of… The Moorish architecture of the Alhambra… There is so much of divine Moorish masonry to be found in Granada… And funnily enough it’s almost a year ago to the day that I arrived back from there… Perhaps, this is where my dream came from… Parallels in our orbit around our star, echoing through the structure of my brain. Perhaps I should provide a brief setting for this slight tangent… Between 710 and 713 A.D., Spain had been overrun by the Moors (populations of Berber, Black African and Arab peoples from Northern Africa), and these Islamic conquerors naturally introduced the ornate Moorish, or Moresque or Hispano-Moresque, style of design to the Iberian Peninsula, and is especially noted in the architecture of Southern Spain, which is centred and personified in the Alhambra, located in the city of Granada.
The Moors were not entirely driven out of the Southern provinces until 1610, but in the nine hundred years intervening, the Moresque style flourished sporadically throughout many portions of Spain. And one can see why… The splendour of this mode of design brought nearly everyone who saw it closer to a true sense of wonder regarding the creation of all things than anything else at the time. During the Romanesque period a large part of the country was still under Moorish rule… Here the balanced European form mingled with Islamic sensibilities, producing wondrous Romanesque structures laced with Moresque imagery and pattern. This marriage of form inspired the late M. C. Escher so much during his first visit in 1922, that he is reportedly to have said, “I have never before seen such concentrated inspiration in all the world!” After this his works of art began to take a very different turn. From the Italian country side sketches and etchings, he slowly incorporated this Moorish symmetry into his designs. While the Moors we forbidden to use any human or animal forms in their art – mainly because humans and animals were considered to be the divine and perfect work of Allah, and any human representation could only ever be an imperfect representation of the creator’s master work, and thus a blaspheme – Escher began to break this mould and used images of animals and plants in tessellations of wondrous cunning. These tessellations began to feature predominantly throughout most of the work of his later life. And rather than limiting them to just the snug, tightly fitting geometries of mathematical sensibilities… He opened them up with his imagination into metamorphosing consternations. It was almost as if Escher had seen the key to the universe, and had unlocked the door, through which it began to speak through him.
I know… I know… Sounds like a sort of far fetched fantasy derived from a dream I had… However, I’m going to present an idea in the form of an article that I found on the Twitter vine not too long ago. It is entitled “Uncoiling The Spiral: Math And Hallucinations” and was written by Marianne Freiberger.
Uncoiling The Spiral: Math And Hallucinations
Think drug-induced hallucinations, and the whirly, spirally, tunnel-vision-like patterns of psychedelic imagery immediately spring to mind. But it’s not just hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, cannabis or mescaline that conjure up these geometric structures. People have reported seeing them in near-death experiences, as a result of disorders like epilepsy and schizophrenia, following sensory deprivation, or even just after applying pressure to the eyeballs. So common are these geometric hallucinations, that in the last century scientists began asking themselves if they couldn’t tell us something fundamental about how our brains are wired up. And it seems that they can.
Geometric hallucinations were first studied systematically in the 1920s by the German-American psychologist Heinrich Klüver. Klüver’s interest in visual perception had led him to experiment with peyote, that cactus made famous by Carlos Castaneda, whose psychoactive ingredient mescaline played an important role in the shamanistic rituals of many central American tribes. Mescaline was well-known for inducing striking visual hallucinations. Popping peyote buttons with his assistant in the laboratory, Klüver noticed the repeating geometric shapes in mescaline-induced hallucinations and classified them into four types, which he called form constants: tunnels and funnels, spirals, lattices including honeycombs and triangles, and cobwebs.
In the 1970s the mathematicians Jack D. Cowan and G. Bard Ermentrout used Klüver’s classification to build a theory describing what is going on in our brain when it tricks us into believing that we are seeing geometric patterns. Their theory has since been elaborated by other scientists, including Paul Bressloff, Professor of Mathematical and Computational Neuroscience at the newly established Oxford Centre for Collaborative Applied Mathematics.
How The Cortex Got Its Stripes…
In humans and mammals the first area of the visual cortex to process visual information is known as V1. Experimental evidence, for example from fMRI scans, suggests that Klüver’s patterns, too, originate largely in V1, rather than later on in the visual system. Like the rest of the brain, V1 has a complex, crinkly, folded-up structure, but there’s a surprisingly straight-forward way of translating what we see in our visual field to neural activity in V1. “If you imagine unfolding [V1],” says Bressloff, “You can think of it as neural tissue a few millimetres thick with various layers of neurons. To a first approximation, the neurons through the depth of the cortex behave in a similar way, so if you compress those neurons together, you can think of V1 as a two-dimensional sheet.”
An object or scene in the visual world is projected as a two-dimensional image on the retina of each eye, so what we see can also be treated as flat sheet: the visual field. Every point on this sheet can be pin-pointed by two coordinates, just like a point on a map, or a point on the flat model of V1. The alternating regions of light and dark that make up a geometric hallucination are caused by alternating regions of high and low neural activity in V1 — regions where the neurons are firing very rapidly and regions where they are not firing rapidly. To translate visual patterns to neural activity, what is needed is a coordinate map, a rule which links each point in the visual field to a point on the flat model of V1. In the 1970s scientists including Cowan came up with just such a map, based on anatomical knowledge of how neurons in the retina communicate with neurons in V1 (see the box on the right for more detail). For each light or dark region in the visual field, the map identifies a region of high or low neural activity in V1.
So how does this retino-cortical map transform Klüver’s geometric patterns? It turns out that hallucinations comprising spirals, circles, and rays that emanate from the centre correspond to stripes of neural activity in V1 that are inclined at given angles. Lattices like honeycombs or chequer-boards correspond to hexagonal activity patterns in V1. This in itself might not have appeared particularly exciting, but there was a precedent: stripes and hexagons are exactly what scientists had seen when modelling other instances of pattern formation, for example convection in fluids, or, more strikingly, the emergence of spots and stripes in animal coats. The mathematics that drives this pattern formation was well known, and it now suggested a mechanism for modelling the workings of the visual cortex too.
…And How The Leopard Got Its Spots
The first model of pattern formation in animal coats goes back to Alan Turing, better known as the father of modern computer science and Bletchley Park code breaker. Turing was interested in how a spatially homogeneous system, such as a uniform ball of cells making up an animal embryo, can generate a spatially inhomogeneous but static pattern, such as the stripes of a zebra.
Turing hypothesised that these animal patterns are a result of a reaction-diffusion process. Imagine an animal embryo which has two chemicals living in its skin. One of the two chemicals is an inhibitor, which suppresses the production of both itself and the other chemical. The other, an activator, promotes the production of both.
Initially, at time zero in Turing’s model, the two chemicals exactly balance each other — they are in equilibrium, and their concentrations at the various points on the embryo do not change over time. But now imagine that, for some reason or other, the concentration of activator increases slightly at one point. This small perturbation sets the system into action. The higher local concentration of activator means that more activator and inhibitor are produced there — this is a reaction. But both chemicals also diffuse through the embryo skin, inhibiting or activating production elsewhere.
For example, if the inhibitor diffuses faster than the activator, then it quickly spreads around the point of perturbation and decreases the concentration of activator there. So you end up with a region of high activator concentration bordered by high inhibitor concentration — in other words, you have a spot of activator on a background of inhibitor. Depending on the rates at which the two chemicals diffuse, it is possible that such a spotty pattern arises all over the skin of the embryo, and eventually stabilises. If the activator also promotes the generation of a pigment in the skin of the animal, then this pattern can be made visible. (See the Plus article How the leopard got its spots for more detail.)
Turing wrote down a set of differential equations which describe the competition between the two chemicals (see the box on the right), and which you can let evolve over time, to see if any patterns emerge. The equations depend on parameters capturing the rate at which the two chemicals diffuse: if you choose them correctly, the system will eventually stabilise on a particular pattern, and you can vary the pattern by varying the parameters. Here is an applet (kindly provided by Chris Jennings) which allows you to play with different parameters and see the patterns form.
Patterns In The Brain
Neural activity in the brain isn’t a reaction-diffusion process, but there are analogies to Turing’s model. “Neurons send signals to each other via their output lines called axons,” says Bressloff. Neurons respond to each other’s signals, so we have a reaction. “[The signals] propagate so quickly relative to the process of pattern formation, that you can think of them as instantaneous interactions.” So rather than diffusion, which is a local process, we have instantaneous interaction at a distance in this case. The roles of activator and inhibitor are played by two different classes of neurons. “There are neurons which are excitatory — they make other neurons more likely to become active — and there are inhibitory neurons, which make other neurons less likely to become active,” says Bressloff. “The competition between the two classes of neurons is the analogue of the activator-inhibitor mechanism in Turing’s model.”
Inspired by the analogies to Turing’s process, Cowan and Ermentrout constructed a model of neural activity in V1, using a set of equations that had been formulated by Cowan and Hugh Wilson. Although the equations are more complicated than Turing’s, you can still play the same game, letting the system evolve over time and see if patterns in neural activity evolve. “You find that, under certain circumstances, if you turn up a parameter which represents, for example, the effect of a drug on the cortex, then this leads to a growth of periodic patterns,” says Bressloff.
Cowan and Ermentrout’s model suggests that geometric hallucinations are a result of an instability in V1: something, for example the presence of a drug, throws the neural network off its equilibrium, kicking into action a snowballing interaction between excitatory and inhibitory neurons, which then stabilises in a stripy or hexagonal pattern of neural activity in V1. In the visual field we then “see” this pattern in the shape of the geometric structures described by Klüver.
Symmetries In The Brain
In reality, things aren’t quite as simple as in Cowan and Ermentrout’s model, because neurons don’t only respond to light and dark images. Through the thickness of V1, neurons are arranged in collections of columns, known as hypercolumns, with each hypercolumn roughly responding to a small region of the visual field. But the neurons in a hypercolumn aren’t all the same: apart from detecting light and dark regions, each neuron specialises in detecting local edges — the separation lines between light and dark regions in a part of an image — of a particular orientation. Some detect horizontal edges, others detect vertical edges, others edges that are inclined at a 45° angle, and so on. Each hypercolumn contains columns of neurons of all orientation preferences, so that a hypercolumn can respond to edges of all orientations from a particular region of the visual field. It is the lay-out of hypercolumns and orientation preferences that enables us to detect contours, surfaces and textures in the visual world.
Over recent years, much anatomical evidence has accumulated showing just how neurons with various orientation preferences interact. Within their own hypercolumn, neurons tend to interact with most other neurons, regardless of their orientation preference. But when it comes to neurons in other hypercolumns they are more selective, only interacting with those of similar orientations and in a way which ensures that we can detect continuous contours in the visual world.
Bressloff, in collaboration with Cowan, the mathematician Martin Golubitsky and others, has generalised Cowan and Ermentrout’s original model to take account of this new anatomical evidence. They again used the plane as the basis for a model of V1: each hypercolumn is represented by a point (x, y) on the plane, while each point (x, y) in turn corresponds to a hypercolumn. Neurons with a given orientation preference Θ (where Θ is an angle between 0 and π) are represented by the location (x, y) of the hypercolumn they’re in, together with the angle Θ, that is, they are represented by three bits of information, (x, y, Θ). So in this model V1 is not just a plane, but a plane together with a full set of orientations for each point.
In keeping with anatomical evidence, Bressloff and his colleagues assumed that a neuron represented by (x0, y0, Θ0) interacts with all other neurons in the same hypercolumn (x0, y0). But it only interacts with neurons in other hypercolumns, if these hypercolumns lie in their preferred direction Θ0: on the plane, draw a line through (x0, y0) of inclination Θ0. Then the neurons represented by (x0, y0, Θ0) interact only with neurons in hypercolumns that lie on this line, and which have the same preferred orientation Θ0.
This interaction pattern is highly symmetric. For example, the pattern doesn’t appear any different if you shift the plane along in a given direction by a given distance: if two elements (x0, y0, Θ0) and (s0, t0, ϕ0) interact, then the elements you get to by shifting along, that is (x0 + a, y0 + b, Θ0) and (s0 + t, y0 + b, ϕ0) for some and , interact in the same way. In a similar way, the pattern is also invariant under rotations and reflections of the plane.
Bressloff and his colleagues used a generalised version of the equations from the original model to let the system evolve. The result was a model that is not only more accurate in terms of the anatomy of V1, but can also generate geometric patterns in the visual field that the original model was unable to produce. These include lattice tunnels, honeycombs and cobwebs that are better characterised in terms of the orientation of contours within them, than in terms of contrasting regions of light and dark.
What’s more, the model is sensitive to the symmetries in the interaction patterns between neurons: the mathematics shows that it is these symmetries that drive the formation of periodic patterns of neural activity. So the model suggests that it is the lay-out of hypercolumns and orientation preferences, in other words the mechanisms that enable us to detect edges, contours, surfaces and textures in the visual world, that generate the hallucinations. It is when these mechanism become unstable, for example due to the influence of a drug, that patterns of neural activity arise, which in turn translate to the visual hallucinations.
Bressloff’s model does not only provide insight into the mechanisms that drive visual hallucinations, but also gives clues about brain architecture in a wider sense. In collaboration with his wife, an experimental neuroscientist, Bressloff has looked at the connection circuits between hypercolumns in normal vision, to see how visual images are processed. “People used to think that neurons in V1 just detect local edges, and that you have to go to higher levels in the brain to put these edges together to detect more complicated features like contours and surfaces. But the work I have done with my wife shows that these structures in V1 actually allow the earlier visual cortex to detect contours and do more global processing. It used to be thought that you process more and more complex aspects of an image as you go higher up in the brain. But now it’s realised that there is a huge amount of feedback between higher and lower cortical areas. It’s not a simple hierarchical process, but an incredibly complicated and active system it will take many years to understand.”
Practical applications of this work include computer vision — computer scientists are already building the inter-connectivity structures that Bressloff and his colleagues played around with into their models, with the aim of teaching computers to detect contours and textures. On a more speculative note, Bressloff’s research may also one day help to restore vision to visually impaired people. “The question here is if you can somehow stimulate part of the visual cortex, [bypassing the eye], and use that to guide a blind person,” says Bressloff. “If one can understand how the cortex is wired up and responds to stimulation, perhaps one would then have a better way of stimulating it in the right way.”
There are even applications that have nothing at all to do with the brain. Bressloff applied the insights from this work to other situations in which objects are located in space and also have an orientation, for example fibroblast cells found in human and animal tissue. He showed that under certain circumstances these interacting cells and molecules can line up and form patterns analogous to those that arise in V1.
People have reported seeing visual hallucinations since the dawn of time and in almost all human cultures — hallucinatory images have even been found in petroglyphs and cave paintings. In shamanistic traditions around the world they have been regarded as messages from the spirit world. Few neuroscientists today would agree that spirits have anything to do with it, but as messengers from a hidden world — this time the hidden world of our brain — these hallucinations seem to have lost none of their potency.
by Marianne Freiberger
For me that article just magically linked up some seemingly random dots that had been lingering in my mind… Ones that were loosely drifting around on a plane of understanding that seemed to – only at the best of times – be based on flights of fancy and mathematical musings of divine symmetry… Could the reason why I, and others, are so drawn to these tapestries of geometrical wonder be because this pattern is naturally residing in the brain’s architecture? Could the key to our modes of perception regarding the surrounding universe be found – amazingly enough – in the roots of our minds? Is the mysticism lying behind the Alhambra’s amazing architecture linked to the patterns locked deep within the brains structure? Is that where our notions of God and the divine come from i.e. the imagery of divine knowing and interrelatedness that came to haunt my dream last night?
For me there is no doubt that there is a strong link between the spiritual ecstasy that I have experienced in altered states of consciousness and while viewing Escher’s works of art… Perhaps those followers of Allah, who invaded the Iberian Peninsula and left their indelible mark on the Spanish people’s cities and towns, saw a similar connection too. Certainly it is mentioned that the prophet Muhammad experienced visions while meditating within a cave for several weeks every year. It is here in this cave on Mount Hira, near Mecca, that he apparently experienced a direct countenance with the angel Gabriel who revealed many things to him. Certainly adherents and prophets of other religions also recount similar marvels and revelatory experiences (see Aldous Huxley‘s “The Perennial Philosophy”).
While I am not religious… I am aware of a pattern of mind that links these spiritual experiences into a similar and all encompassing perennial philosophy. Perhaps the key to this insight lies within ourselves through direct experience, rather than in notions and metaphors of an omniscient and omnipotent god/group of gods. Perhaps it’s time we forgot our differences and looked for the key to understanding our experiences through consciousness itself… Where we relate to one another through our patterns of mind and body… A view that would be free from delusion and ‘self’ impossed egocentric understandings… ? Perhaps psychedelics are a type of direct key to seeing this pattern of the divine… ? And perhaps our notions of an eternal creator is nothing more than the same patterns we see springing forth in the mind in altered states of consciousness… Perhaps this direct experience of the divine is so powerful that it leaves us reeling with a deep feeling of connect… Mainly because it is what we really are at base… And thus we dedicate such intricate, beautiful and inspiring architecture – a testament to the divine nature of our being – to those ideals of God that many of us hold so high. Perhaps this is why some many of us find the Mandelbrot set so mesmerising… Perhaps Escher knew this deep down… ?
If you would like to see where I sourced the article, entitled “Uncoiling The Spiral: Maths And Hallucinations,” from, please click here.
If you’d like to learn more about Marianne Freiberger, then please click here.
Or if you’d like to learn more about M. C. Escher and his life’s work, please click here.
Well… It’s a fact. I’m a “green” minded individual. Green, eco-friendly, CO2 aware, tree hugging, peace loving, vegetable growing, tea-bag/egg shell composting, memes have riddled my mind and are hard at work doing their best to propagate – through my actions – a harmonious, utopian society whereby we can all live in balance with mother nature, without ever letting the total human population exceed 2.5 billion (don’t ask me why I choose 2.5 billion) at any one time, and where we all grow our own food, generate our own power, and have totally given up our maddening “crack/heroin” like addiction to oil… Along with all the resulting ‘fantastic plastic’ that comes with it. Yes… I know, it’s pretty “out there” what goes on in my mind sometimes.
And as I sit here and write about my journeys into understanding what We, as human beings, in actual fact are… Thinking about how we might better modify our ways of living to adapt to the limited resources of a single planet, mainly through changing our perception about the ‘human condition,’ so as to provide a better, more developed understanding, about how We all – that is, ALL Life here on Earth – are interconnected into one big web of a complex interdependent biological system, all set within a stupendously delicate eco-system based on the surface of a planet that we call home… I couldn’t help but begin to think about all the energy I was using to power my computer, where that energy was coming from, along with all the resulting CO2 that was being generated in the process.
To be fair, I spend about 8 hours a week maintaining, researching and writing the articles for this website… And on top of that I spend about another 6-12 hours over a five day week in front of our studio computer, editing and composing soundscapes. So my energy consumption goes up markedly for one person. Thus I’ve been busy doing my best to balance my carbon footprint with other countering behavioural patterns… I planted two apple trees the other year, and presently grow many of my own vegetables in my front yard… Not to mention I avoid almost all plastic packaging and have even given up my car… Yes. I gave up my car a few months ago. Total bummer in some ways… But now I’m cycling everywhere, and I’ve got to say it’s really forced me to plan my journey’s more effectively so as to do several things all at once rather than simply jumping in the car every time I need a pint of soya milk down the corner shop… And thus I have found that I’ve got a lot more spare time on my hands… !? Plus I’ve noticed I’m getting fitter!
But all that aside… I couldn’t help but wonder about all the people who couldn’t do this, simply because of time or financial restraints, their remote geographical location, or even because they didn’t have a garden to grow things in. I mean, was there anything out there to help them offset their carbon outputs?
While pondering this, I clicked onto a a friend’s blog in order to find some inspiration… And there it was, in the top right hand corner of the webpage!
Seems that Ixpo, a British manufacturing company that specialises in retail sign manufacture, has decided to donate part of their profits every year to the American National Forest Foundation, in order to offset/cover the CO2 generated through their manufacturing processes. And, for all those of you who don’t have the space, the time, the finances or even the inclination to grow a tree yourself, so as to offset your own carbon footprints from your web-surfing and other internet habits… Ixpo operates a policy where by, if you mention their initiative on your website or blog, they will plant a tree for you… And do so at no cost what-so-ever to you! No doubt, it doesn’t really matter where the trees are grown, whether here in the UK or in the USA, etc… as there is only one atmosphere on this planet… One which we are all sharing with every breath!
So if you’re a blogger and feel like you should be doing something about offsetting the CO2 generated by blogging or web-surfing habits, then click this link below and send Ixpo and E-mail… As much of a cliché as it is… Every little helps!
To find out more about the National Forest Foundation please click here.
Or to find out more about Vanessa Procter’s “Eco-Strip Down” blog, please click here.
Or to find out about how you can cut reduce your CO2 emissions, and offset them, please click here.
A really interesting book just hit my table… Literally. “SLAP!!!” it went about ten minutes ago, as someone I know popped his head around the corner, raving like a madman that he’s just read something incredible. So, a few minutes later, here I am writing this blog… Because if my friend’s description of it is anything to go by, I’m going to launch into it in a moment and possibly find a first hand scientific description/analogy of what consciousness is and how enlightenment provides clarity over the muddled Western habit of mind.
To be fair… I am a bit reserved… And a tad skeptical. But, who wouldn’t be. It’s a bit like being presented with a series of photographs of a cup, and then the person who gave the photos to you suddenly tells you that they are of THE Holy Grail itself… The original, one and only, Holy Grail! Yeap… That’s definitely what it feels like…
Saying that… I trust my friend. Mainly because whenever he’s brought an idea, book, film, article, etc… to my attention in the past, he’s always been pretty spot on with regards to describing it’s content… And very rarely does he bring things to my attention. So I am pretty sure there’s something here. Thus I present the book in question, without having read it (!?!?), in order that I may bring it to your own attention.
Aldous Huxley called humankind’s basic trend toward spiritual growth the “perennial philosophy.” In the view of James Austin, the trend implies a “perennial psychophysiology”—because awakening, or enlightenment, occurs only when the human brain undergoes substantial changes. What are the peak experiences of enlightenment? How could these states profoundly enhance, and yet simplify, the workings of the brain? Zen and the Brain presents the latest evidence.
In this book Zen Buddhism becomes the opening wedge for an extraordinarily wide-ranging exploration of consciousness. In order to understand which brain mechanisms produce Zen states, one needs some understanding of the anatomy, physiology, and chemistry of the brain. Austin, both a neurologist and a Zen practitioner, interweaves the most recent brain research with the personal narrative of his Zen experiences. The science is both inclusive and rigorous; the Zen sections are clear and evocative. Along the way, Austin examines such topics as similar states in other disciplines and religions, sleep and dreams, mental illness, consciousness-altering drugs, and the social consequences of the advanced stage of ongoing enlightenment.
A bit about James H. Austin M.D.:
ames H. Austin is Clinical Professor of Neurology, University of Missouri Health Science Center, and Emeritus Professor of Neurology, University of Colorado Health Science Center. Austin is the author of his well known book Zen and the Brain, which aims to establish links between the neurological workings of the human brain and meditation. Austin has recently written a sequel to it, Zen-Brain Reflections, published in February, 2006. He was student of the late Rinzai roshi Kobori Nanrei Sohaku.
Austin is also a practicing Zen Buddhist. After a number of years of Zen meditation, Austin claims to have spontaneously experienced what Zen practice calls “enlightenment” on a subway platform in London. The chief characteristic of his experience seems to be a loss of the sense of “self” which is central to human identity, and a corresponding feeling of union with the outer world. Austin speculates as to what might be going on in the brain when the “self” module goes offline, and also discusses the seeing timelessness of the experience in the context of the brain’s internal clock mechanisms. In Austin’s own words:
“It strikes unexpectedly at 9 am on the surface platform of the London subway system. (Due to a mistake)… I wind up at a station where I have never been before… The view is the dingy interior of the station, some grimy buildings, a bit of open sky. Instantly the entire view acquires three qualities: Absolute Reality, Intrinsic Rightness, Ultimate Reflection. With no transition, it is all complete… Yes, there is the paradox of this extraordinary viewing. But there is no viewer. The scene is utterly empty, stripped of every last extension of an I-Me-Mine (his name for ego-self). Vanished in one split second is the familiar sensation that this person is viewing a city scene. The new viewing proceeds impersonally, not pausing to register the paradox that there is no human subject “doing” it. Three insights penetrate the experient, each conveying Total Understanding at depths far beyond simple knowledge: This is the eternal state of affairs. There is nothing more to do. There is nothing whatever to fear.”
Austin claims that the experience represented ‘objective reality’ in that his subjective self did not exist to form biased interpretations. Thus he claims that there is little conflict between Zen Buddhism and scientific rigor.
To order this book from Amazon, please click here.
OR to search through some of it online, please click here.
April 18, 2010
Just the other day I was having a discussion with someone in a recording studio – they know who they are – about why I was a vegetarian. And during this Q & A session, which felt more like a grilling about why I didn’t eat meat anymore, I seemed to detect a general lack of any consideration towards animals in general, and whether they really had any of their own feelings – just as we do – and whether they were conscious, as sentient beings tend to be. After much debate, my “adversary” – for want of a better word – proclaimed that animals just “didn’t have feelings like we, as human beings, did.” The blatant proclamation of this apparent ‘fact‘ somewhat took me aback and left me pondering about what the great Taoist, Chaung Tzu, once wrote concerning the happiness of fish…
On The Happiness Of Fish
Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the dam of the Hao Waterfall when Zhuangzi said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!”
Huizi said, “You’re not a fish — how do you know what fish enjoy?”
Zhuangzi said, “You’re not me, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”
Huizi said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish — so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!”
Zhuangzi said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy — so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.”
After I asked the individual in question what exactly made them say this with such certainty – a certainty that was almost as though it had been experienced first hand on some direct level – they replied that it was obvious from the way in which animals reacted in general to everyday situations. It was at that point that I relayed my own experience with just how the bizarre and egocentric view that human beings have on the world can allow them to make errors beyond recourse, and how this usually arises from their general lack of ability to accurately place themselves in another sentient beings “hooves,” let alone another human’s shoes. In fact, I went so far as to give them a link to a website called “Choose Veg!” so that they could see some of the types of treatment/slaughter/culling that deprive the animals of their lives and gave mankind their much treasured meat for their plates.
While it’s certainly not a pleasant site/sight… And there is no doubt that a scare mongering of sorts is going on here… I still know that the images are not too far from the truth of the matter. Having seen this “rant” about animal cruelty, I felt obliged to write a comment upon the website that had directed me to this shrine for our malicious, greedy murder for flesh…
Thankfully the types of farms that treat animals this way are rarely found in the UK now, if at all. Big up the British Farming Standards! But still, there “might” be a few around… Especially when it comes to battery chickens. So you never really know.
Thus… If you’re concerned – and can’t give up meat – you can always choose to buy your meat from private farms that look after their animals a lot better i.e. they keep smaller numbers of animals and so can leave them “free-range”, as well as provide them with better, more humane care because they look after them on a more intimate “one on one” basis… Many of the animals on private also have names, like you might give to your pet cats, dogs, horses, gerbils, etc… Still the images within “Choose Veg!” speak volumes about mankind’s detached and cruel treatment of animals for the meat industry! Having worked in an abattoir myself for just under two weeks – back in 1994, in between leaving school and going off to uni – I got a taste for what murder was like. And boy did it freak me… I simply couldn’t dig the thought of working in the meat trade after seeing the way animals were slaughtered (not killed, but slaughtered) for our food. So i quit 10 days after starting, which meant I wouldn’t get paid a penny for the hours I’d worked, as you had to be there for a month at least in order to get your first pay cheque. But after what I saw, that didn’t bothered me in the slightest…
While I didn’t become a vegetarian immediately, it planted certain seeds of awareness into my mind about where the meat on my plate came from… Not to mention, it made me rethink completely about what I was putting into my body i.e. meat laced with adrenaline and other stress steroids… But it wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that I became a fully fledged vegetarian. Then, meat went right off my agenda. After all, you are what you eat! And I certainly wasn’t cruel…
Having said all that, if you can work in an abattoir and still eat meat – and there are many who can – then fair play to you. But please do be aware, death is still death. In old hunter gatherer times, people used to have a very different relationship with their food i.e. they used to hunt them and, thus, respected their prey’s cunning and stealth during the hunt. One was almost intimately entwined with their food, either growing it directly or hunting it in the forests and on the planes of mother Earth. Our ancestors treated their kill with respect and decency… In some ways, it was a fair game to play back then i.e. either catch/kill your food or it got away and you starved. But as we’ve lost contact with our ancestor’s ways, so we’ve forgotten what and who our food really is… And so we no longer see their alive, awakened bodies writhe with the taught sinews of their lives as we equal their own desire to live and exist while hunting them… And so what these animals means to us presently, as well as where they came from, beleaguers our own narrow “windows view” of the world through man’s own egocentricity. Many of us who understand our deep connection to these fenced in “creatures,” who are passive and so easily subdued in their fenced in fields, see them as nothing more than animals to fill our gut. But there are many, many more who don’t even connect the languidly grazing cows in a summer British pasture with the meat that goes on their plates, let alone the processes that kill them…
To be honest, I certainly can’t see that the methods being employed to kill animals in abattoirs getting any better in the near future, that’s one thing for sure i.e. a shot of morphine to knock them out before hand? Erm, not a chance!!! So if you’re going to carry on eating meat, then why not do so conscientiously, and at least ensure that the animals you’re eating have had as happy and healthy a Life as they can here on Earth i.e. they’re free to roam fields, they get some loving from the farmers to whom they belong (even the ability for a sentient being to belong to someone reminds me of the slave-trade that we abolished), they’re well looked after (they have easy access to animal health care i.e. a vet), they’re fed well and naturally i.e. not force fed like Foie gras OR Veal… RATHER than living in cramped, over crowded barns, with under nourished diets and a strong dose of drugs to get them up to weight… Again, this all too readily reminds me of the appalling conditions from the “concentration camps” that the persecuted had to endure before being killed during the second world war. Nobody dug those, i can tell you!!!
But if you’re the type of person who cannot speculate about the death of the animals you munch on for nourishment without feeling sick to your stomach… Or cannot talk about such cruelty without feeling repulsed and disgusted about the way your meat might have been treated… OR if you couldn’t kill, let alone catch, prey… Well… In my humble opinion then you probably shouldn’t really be eating their flesh now, should you… Food for thought, eh?
Despite what I’ve just written about… I’m a realist. I know there will be people who still will eat meat. So for the UK meat eaters reading this blog who might want to know more about how they can ensure that the flesh that they buy comes from “properly” – see above – treated animals, then please see below for some handy sites to visit. After all, if you choose to buy your meat ONLY from farms that look after their animals i.e. “farm assured produce”, then you’re effectively using your pound/dollar/euro to vote for better animal welfare. Now there’s a comforting thought, eh?
British Farming Standards info:
2) Red Tractor
However, if you’re already off meat and wondering what else you can do to stop animals from being exploited by their human “masters,” – chortle – then why not consider quitting all dairy products? There are plenty of milk alternatives, such as oat milk, rice milk, almond milk, or the common soya milk.
Either way… I don’t condone animal exploitation. For me, animals are sentient beings. They all have their own type of awareness and intelligence. Who are we to say whether they have feelings or not? We have already seen within the pages of these here blogs how “blinkered” our own points of view can sometimes be… AND just how prone we all are to optical, audible and other perceptive illusions. I mean, if we’re this prone to making errors about perceiving our own environment, then how certain can someone be about whether animals have feelings or not!? Surely if you find disturbing the idea of a highly advanced alien culture – who have levels of awareness that seem to stretch majestically beyond our own perceptive abilities – coming down from outer-space and milking humans for some nutrient in their blood, keeping them trapped in cages, riddled with wires and pacified like we do many animals… Justifying their cause on the simple fact that We – as humans – are apparently not sentient enough OR capable of the types of intelligence that our alien counterparts are… Well, then I would like to recommend that you should seriously reconsider the relationship you have with the meat that you eat.
I remember a rhyming verse I heard recently when someone was telling me about the Haitians and their current plight in Haiti after the earthquake:
“Human beings are part of a whole,
Of one essence and one soul
If one is afflicted with pain,
The others will be uneasy and feel the same,
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
Then the title ‘human’ you cannot claim.”
When I initially heard this I saw the deep truth behind its simple facade. And just recently, having read an article on mirror neurones that human beings have in their brains i.e. the areas for compassion and understanding one another’s emotions and actions, I wondered… Surely it would be equally as fit to replace the italicised word “human” for “animal?” This is lest we aim to truly become the autistic Life forms of evolution’s algorithm here on mother Earth…
But perhaps you see evolution as the driving force for life. Survival of the fittest, using the weak for their own needs and gain… Natural selection kills of the weak and leaves only the strong. And perhaps you feel that if advanced aliens did come down from outer-space to “milk” our human bodies of their nutrients… Well, this is again survival of the fittest and, so, is perfectly acceptable. But if this is all there is to Life i.e. use and enslave, then why do we as human beings hold the ideal of freedom above all others?
If you’re still somewhat having difficulty seeing how similar we are to other sentient beings… And thus are at a loss as to what I mean… And perhaps you feel that you want to know more on the subject… Then there is a gentleman who has thought long and hard about all of this. In fact he has written several deeply penetrating and insightful books on the subject, all of which I would highly recommend anyone and everyone reads at some point in their lives. His name is Dr Jonathan Balcombe.
Animal pain and stress, once controversial, are now acknowledged by legislation in many countries, but there is no formal recognition of animals’ ability to feel pleasure. Jonathan Balcombe — his books and his writings — debunk the popular perception that life for most is a continuous, grim struggle for survival and the avoidance of pain. Instead he suggests that creatures from birds to baboons feel good thanks to play, sex, touch, food, anticipation, comfort, aesthetics, and more.
Combining rigorous evidence, elegant argument and amusing anecdotes, leading animal behavior researcher Jonathan Balcombe proposes that the possibility of positive feelings in creatures other than humans has important ethical ramifications for both science and society.
Danger-junkie orangutans in Borneo climb dead trees and destabilize them until they begin to fall. They scream with excitement as they cling to the falling tree. Just before the tree hits the ground the orangs leap to another tree or vine, narrowly escaping death. Researchers call this peculiar behavior snag-riding and liken it to bungee jumping for monkeys. While no one can ask orangutans if they enjoy the same adrenaline rush as a person playing an extreme sport, one animal behaviorist sees this monkey fun as a bit of harmless thrill-seeking.
A growing number of scientists agree that animals are conscious and capable of experiencing basic emotions, such as happiness, sadness, boredom or depression. A few scientists even see the possibility for higher animal emotions like love, jealousy and spite.
Scientific literature, dating back to Charles Darwin, is dotted with examples of animals loving life, but rarely does the scientific community allow such musings. In fact, only one scientist is looking at the eat-or-be-eaten animal kingdom as a place where fun and mischief define the in-the-moment lifestyle of most animals.
To quote Dr Balcombe directly…
“I do feel very strongly that our current relationship with animals represents what the Hopi Indians would call koyaanisqatsi: life out of balance.”
And it is here that I would like to present an enlightened interview with Dr Jonathan Balcombe, which touches pertinently on animal rights, animal welfare and aspects of human consciousness and some of the various perceptive stances that We – as human beings – have about the world around us. I believe that once we can begin to see through our own deeply egocentric view of the Earth, We will be able to move forwards into new realms of behaviour that allow us to become “Shepherds” of the Earth, rather than plunderers and usurpers of this treasure that we call Life.
To find out more about Dr Jonathan Balcombe’s important work regarding animal rights, please visit his website by clicking here.
AND to find out where I sourced this interview from, please click here.
FOR more information about animal rights, please click here.
EVEN to read more about the ethics behind animal rights, please visit the BBC’s home page regarding animal welfare by clicking here.
PLUS… If you’d like to read about how science is trying to “grade” the facial expressions of mice while they are subjected to pain, in order to see if there is a common/universal language for mammalian expression, then please click here.
Just the other day I sent a tweet on Twitter regarding 38 Degree’s proposed billboard action against the BBC cut backs, which seem to be threatening the wider ethnic community of broadcast programming here in the UK – you know, as you do – when one Tweet in particular from Peter Russell‘s steam jumped out at me… And lingered in my mind like the melody of catchy song does.
I had been meaning to check this out sooner rather than later… But, alas, due to my most busy schedule of late, I have had to postpone investigating the link… Until this morning, that is… And despite my initial apprehensions about listening to the first audio file I could find on the website, I have been thoroughly engrossed in the interesting talk that was given by Craig Hamilton about the evolution of consciousness and spirituality, which proposes ways about how we might go about letting go of our old memetic programming and replacing any “evolutionary aspirations” that we might have, to get past the little body mind consciousness in order to truly evolve into new ways of Being and Seeing the world and our relation to it. I must say, of late, what with a busy schedule surrounding work and training, I had almost placed the quest for developing a better understanding about our position within the universal dynamic on the back burner… But since having listened to this talk, I have found much inspiration and been exposed to some interesting ideas that have rekindled my aim to evolve my perceptive stand point beyond what so many of us take for granted in this everyday media driven world.
I have discussed the core aspect of this talk within previous pages of this blog a few times before, offering mainly a more scientific explanation for our present modes of Being and Understanding, so that we might observe a truth that is centered on empirical evidence – rather than vague and sketchy “hearsay” – with the main aim of demonstrating the natural patterns of mind that we are all subject to, no matter how different we perceive ourselves to be. And, in many ways, I am very glad to find others making bigger waves in getting this idea out there to reach thousands, if not millions, of people around the globe about this most important and pressing matter.
As many of you may no doubt be aware, it’s certainly not a new idea in itself, and has been discussed from many different angles by various luminaries, scientists, philosophers and even spiritual leaders alike i.e. Dr Albert Hofmann, Matthew Taylor, Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Rifkin, Luang Por Chah, Carl Jung, George Monbiot, David Bohm, Elizabeth Culotta, Spinoza, Beau Lotto, Edward R. Murrow, Toporek, Dr Bruce Lipton, Jill Bolte Taylor, Christopher deCharms, Peter Russell, Dennis Genpo Merzel, William Blake and even (but not surprisingly) His Holiness the Dalai Lama. But regardless of this recurrent theme, I feel this talk in particular provides a somewhat new dimension to the core idea facing humanity as a whole i.e. the idea of evolving and understanding Life, via a more centered mode of scientific enlightenment, that melds with modern day Life and society in way that may posit in future a very healthy human conduct.
Thus I would like to highly recommend this talk to anyone who has an interest in what enlightenment, evolution and spirituality mean.
Join Integral Enlightenment founder Craig Hamilton for an in-depth look at the core shifts that have the power to propel us beyond the confines of the separate ego and into a life of wholehearted engagement with the evolutionary process. Includes an overview of the Integral Enlightenment approach to transformation, and a description of the Integral Enlightenment 9-week Telecourse.
To find out more about Craig and his interesting story, please visit his website by clicking here.
OR to investigate some of the other audio posts from Craig’s “Integral Enlightenment” website, please click here.
April 10, 2010
What a great TED talk! Questions of good and evil, right and wrong are commonly thought unanswerable by science. But Sam Harris argues that science can — and should — be an authority on moral issues, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life.
About Sam Harris:
Sam Harris has been identified as one of the “Four Horsemen of Atheism” — company he shares with Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. An outspoken proponent of skepticism and science, his two books — The End of Faith and its follow-up Letter to a Christian Nation — have become best-sellers.
In The End of Faith, Harris showed “a harrowing glimpse of mankind’s willingness to suspend reason in favor of religious beliefs, even when these beliefs inspire the worst of human atrocities.” After receiving thousands of angry letters in response, he wrote Letter to a Christian Nation, which centered on religious controversies in the United States: stem cell research, “intelligent design,” and links between religion and violence.
Harris received a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. He is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.
“Read Sam Harris and wake up.” Richard Dawkins
To find out more about Sam Harris, please visit his home page by clicking here.
OR to find out where I originally sourced this TED Talk from, please click here.
AND to find out more about “Project Reason” please click here.
February 19, 2010
I read this New Scientist article the other day… And it kind of summed up everything I’ve been thinking about over the last two years i.e. mankind, Life and the Universe. I had never heard of Jeremy Rifkin till now but, having read this article, I have just bought his book, entitled “The Empathic Civilization,” off Amazon.
No doubt, as many of you may have already noticed, the purpose of this blog is to develop a modification about the way we understand ourselves in the context of Life, the Universe and patterns… With the ultimate purpose being to free us from the old memetic drives of needless religious indoctrination, blind base animal instincts, and psychological control that feeds-back through the media into modes of normalisation, so that we might ultimately find the notion of what we have sought throughout history to ascribe as “God,” and thus replace it with a more healthy Spinozist view of “God, or Nature…” Once there, we can truly accept responsibility for our actions, become more compassionate so that we may open our minds and hearts to one another with honesty and truth, and thereby see the patterns of natural discourse that ripple through the cosmic chaos in ordered and structured flows of symmetrical design. From this we will be able to posit a new light in our minds about “why” we are here… A light that will change the structure of our grey matter for the better allowing us greater chances of survival.
If we make it that far, it will be like a shedding of old, dry and tight skin – just as snake sheds their old skin in order to grow – allowing us more flexible movement into new ways of being, so that we can tread more carefully into ecological habits that will develop into deeply connected modes of humanity, Life and Earth, leading us to the truth behind the Buddhist theory of “Interdependent Origination.”
Thus, I would advise anyone who might take this goal of understanding ourselves better in relation to the cosmos seriously, to buy this book and heed its astute and perceptive stance on humanity… Because this is bigger than climate change… This is a battle to redefine humanity!
In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin argues that before we can save ourselves from climate change we have to break a vicious circle and embrace a new model of society based on scientists’ new understanding of human nature. I asked him how we can do it.
What is the premise of The Empathic Civilization?
My sense is that we’re nearing an endgame for the modern age. I think we had two singular events in the last 18 months that signal the end. First, in July 2008 the price of oil hit $147/barrel. Food riots broke out in 30 countries, the price of basic items shot up and purchasing power plummeted. That was the earthquake; the market crash 60 days later was the aftershock. It signaled the beginning of the endgame of a great industrial era based on fossil fuels. The second event, in December 2009, was the breakdown in Copenhagen, when world leaders tried to deal with our entropy problem and failed.
That’s the context of the book. Why couldn’t our world leaders anticipate or respond to the global meltdown of the industrial revolution? And why can’t they deal with climate change when scientists have been telling us that it may be the greatest threat our species has ever faced?
What do you think the problem is?
My sense is that the failure runs very deep. The problem is that those leaders are using 18th century Enlightenment ideas to address 20th century challenges. I advise a number of heads of state in Europe and over and over again I see how these old ideas about human nature and the meaning of life continue to cloak public policy. The Enlightenment view is that human beings are rational, detached agents that pursue our own self-interests and our nation states reflect that view. How are we going to address the needs of 7 billion people and heal the biosphere if we really are dispassionate, disinterested agents pursuing our own self-interest?
A lot of interesting new discoveries in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, child development, anthropology and more suggest that human nature might not be what Enlightenment philosophers suggested. For instance, the discovery of mirror neurons suggests that we are not wired for autonomy or utility but for empathic distress; we are a social species.
If we begin to change our ideas about human nature and, as you say in the book, view history through an empathic lens, what new things do we discover?
We can see how consciousness, which is wired for empathy and social engagement, changes over history. Obviously consciousness has changed over history–a Paleolithic hunter is wired differently than a medieval serf or a modern human. My belief is that when energy and communications revolutions converge it creates new economic eras and changes consciousness dramatically by shifting our temporal and spatial boundaries, causing empathy to expand.
For instance, wherever there were hydraulic agricultural societies based on large-scale irrigation systems, humans independently created writing. That’s fascinating to me. Writing made it possible to manage a complex energy regime. It also changed consciousness–transforming the mythological consciousness of oral cultures into a theological one. In the process, empathy evolves. The range of oral communication is limited–you can’t extend empathy beyond kin and blood ties. With script you could empathize further with associational ties, you broaden your frame of reference.
In the 19th century the printing press communications revolution converged with new energies: coal and steam. This led to the introduction of public schools and mass literacy across Europe and America. Theological consciousness became ideological consciousness. The same shift occurred in the 20th century with the Second Industrial Revolution, the electronics revolution, which gave rise to psychological consciousness.
Each convergence of energy and communications technology changed our consciousness, extended our social networks and in turn expanded our empathy.
But all of that happens at the expense of the environment?
It’s the conundrum of history that these more complex civilizations that use greater energy flow-through allow us to bring more people together, but they create more entropy in the process. If we are going to ward off the extreme dangers posed by climate change we need to find a way to increase empathy while decreasing entropy. The question is, how do you do that? How do you break the paradox?
In the book you argue that we can break the paradox by shifting from geopolitical consciousness to biosphere consciousness.
We need to implement reglobalization from the bottom-up in order to achieve a more sustainable global economy. Geopolitics is an extension of the Enlightenment view of human nature, the idea that we pursue our utilitarian pleasures and individual self-interests. In geopolitics, the nation-state becomes a macro view of that. Nations deal with nations by being rational, detached and calculating, pursuing self-interests, excercising power and acquiring more capital and wealth. That’s why Copenhagen failed. The world leaders weren’t thinking biosphere, they were thinking geopolitics. Everyone was looking out for their nation’s self-interest.
What we need to do is attempt biosphere politics. Governing units are going to change–I think there’s going to be a shift toward continentalization. The EU is a first attempt at organizing a new frame of reference across continents, but it’s a transitional governing form. The Asian Union, African Union and South American Union are in their early stages.
The global economy didn’t work in its first stage. And that’s because the economics and the technology raced ahead of our changing consciousness. A global economy requires social trust; you need biosphere consciousness, not geopolitics. You’re never going to get globalization until empathy extends to the whole species.
As I said in the book, I think we need to rethink economic policies and make thermodynamics the basis of economic theory. The price of energy is embedded in every product we make. At the same time, the effects of climate change are already eroding economies in many parts of the world as extreme weather events destroy ecosystems and agricultural infrastructure. The Third Industrial Revolution will be driven in part by the need to mitigate the entropic impact of the first two industrial revolutions.
A lot of business people would say that you can’t be empathic in the market. But the market is a secondary institution–it’s an extension of culture. The real invisible hand of the market is trust, which is the result of empathic engagement. The only way you can have a market is if you have a shared narrative. The market is not a utilitarian frame of reference, it only exists by the social trust that allows people to engage in anonymous settings and believe that their engagements will be honored. When that trust fails, markets collapse and that’s what is happening now.
What will the Third Industrial Revolution look like? When will it happen?
I think we’re on the verge. I had the privilege to help design the European Union’s Third Industrial Revolution economic stability game plan, which was endorsed by the European Parliament in 2007. What we noticed is that in the last 10 or 15 years we’ve had a very powerful communication revolution with the internet, and the key word is that it’s distributed. What’s beginning to happen now is that the distributed ICT [information and communication technologies] revolution is beginning to converge with a new energy regime: distributed renewable energy. When they do converge, it’s likely to change consciousness once again.
Distributed ICT will organize distributed energies. Renewables like wind, solar, geothermal and biomass are found in some proportion everywhere, in people’s backyards. As people begin to harvest these renewable energies they can share electricity peer-to-peer across an internet-like smart energy grid that extends across nations and even continents. We see buildings as the new power plants. Buildings are the number one source of C02 emmissions, but they might also be the solution if they can harness renewables to produce their own energy on site. People will also need new energy storage technologies like hydrogen. The EU has committed 8 billion Euros to hydrogen storage technologies. Those technologies will give us dependable distributed energy.
I founded the Third Industrial Revolution Global CEO Business Roundtable, which is comprised of 100 leading companies from renewable energy to utilities to architectural firms. We’re starting to lay out plans.
How will the Third Industrial Revolution change our consciousness?
It extends it in a distributed fashion, with everyone taking responsibility for their swath of the biosphere and then sharing their energy across continents. We have to take responsibility where we are but we have to share across the world for it to work. That would allow us to think biosphere politics not geopolitics and extend empathy in that regard. That gives us a possibility of breaking the empathy/entropy paradox. Will we actually do it? If I were a betting person…well, I wouldn’t even want to make a bet. But it’s our best shot.
It’s a tough challenge. What I’m saying is so difficult. But what
encourages me is the empathy we are already seeing resulting from technology.
After the Iranian elections a young college student was gunned down in the street by an Iranian militiaman for protesting, and someone took a cell phone video. The world instantly empathized. Then there was the earthquake in Haiti. There was an immediate response. That’s new–we’re thinking as a human race. We still have our xenophobia and our prejudices but I think we’re catching a glimpse of something new, and we’re going to have to if the possibility of our own extinction depends on it.
I think the question hasn’t been asked yet, what is the point of this exercise in connecting the human race in this way? Up to now, most people’s reasons for supporting it is more information, quicker information, better entertainment, improved commerce and trade, etc. What I’m suggesting is that that is not enough. When Henry David Thoreau saw the telegraph, he said, “Well, now Maine can talk to Texas, but does Maine really have anything to say to Texas?” If we can’t have a global discussion of the transcendent purpose of this connectivity, I don’t think entertainment and information are going to be enough to justify the Third Industrial revolution. We have to think deeper, to think as a human family, to take responsibility for the biosphere and our fellow creatures.
If human nature is Homo empathicus, as scientists are suggesting, if that’s our true nature, then we can begin to create new institutions–parenting styles, education, business models–that reflect our core nature. Then I can see how this Third Industrial Revolution will happen.
Perhaps we are too cynical for these ideas. Do some people see an empathic global society as an idealistic dream?
If you know my past work you know I’m not utopian. But empathy isn’t about utopia. It’s about knowing how damn tough it is to be alive. We empathize with others because we smell the whiff of death in their vulnerabilities and so we celebrate their life. There’s no such thing as empathy in heaven because there’s no mortality, no suffering. Empathy is about encouraging another person’s struggle to be. It’s a tough feeling to have. In utopia there’s no struggle, there’s nothing to empathize with. Empathy is more than just, “I feel your pain”. We root for each other’s struggle to live out this mystery of life.
I was struck by the vast number of fields you explore in your book. Do you think there’s a need for more cross-disciplinary scholarship?
Absolutely. Education is a total mess. Our educational model is based on Enlightenment ideas and progressive ideas of the 20th century–if human nature is autonomous, calculating and self-interested and if the market is the way we fulfill those interests, our education reflects that. We are taught that knowledge is a personal asset to achieve one’s aims in the world–knowledge is power. If you share your knowledge, that’s cheating.
It limits us to a more vocational idea of what life is about. We all become little drones. And as we go through education it grows narrower and narrower. But what’s happening with the internet is that young folks are growing up believing that information is something you share, not hoard. That thinking is a collaborative exercise, not an autonomous one, and that spaces ought to be commons. That’s completely alien to the Enlightenment ideas I grew up on.
I’m a big fan of interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching. If you’re studying evolutionary biology, let a philosopher come in and talk about the way our concept of nature has changed over history. Allow young people to have so many frames of reference so they can be more open and more synthetic in their thinking. If we are a social animal and we live by our stories, then our stories are only made richer with more points of view.
Sharing knowledge is considered cheating, yet collaboration has been shown to improve critical thinking if it’s done in a disciplined way. There was a doctor at UCL medical college in the 1950s who realized that if he brought all of his interns to a patient’s bedside at the same time, the collaborative response got to a diagnosis quicker than if only one intern was there.
Education has to be completely reformed to reflect the new era of distributed knowledge. I’m currently in deep private discussions with some major educational associations in the US who want to put together a team of people to begin rethinking this.
We still don’t know how to grade people in a collaborative model. But if we’re moving from Homo sapien to Homo empathicus, we have to rethink all of this.
You’ve also said we need to rethink the scientific method.
The scientific method reflects Enlightenment thinking. You have to be detached, rational and value-free; you can’t be connected or use empathic imagination. But we’re seeing that you need both. If the scientific method is the way kids learn, how do they grow up to form an empathic connection to the world?
There are scientists who are practicing a different kind of science, a not-too-close, not-too-far empathic engagement. Jane Goodall is a great example. I told Jane, what you did was so amazing because it’s a new approach to science, and she said she had never thought about it that way. She began to empathize with the chimpanzees she was studying, imagining their experience as if it were her own. What she learned about chimpanzee behaviour was massively more than what people had previously learned by studying them in a completely detached way.
Goethe understood this a couple hundred years ago–he disagreed with Francis Bacon’s approach. He argued that we understand nature by participating, not by standing back and observing with dispassionate neutrality. Especially in the ecological sciences and climate science, you need to be engaged, interactive and interdisciplinary, because you’re dealing with systems thinking.
Empathic science is a good balance between the traditional scientific method on the one hand and something that wouldn’t be science at all on the other. Empathy requires that you not be too close or too far away. You have to be close enough to feel the experiences biologically as if they are your own but far enough to use your cognitive abilities to rationally respond.
I hope scholars will take these ideas much further. I’m hoping a younger generation can do that.
I found it interesting that you correlate the expansion of empathy throughout human history with a growing sense of self. I would naively think that they would have an inverse relationship.
Empathy goes hand-in-hand with selfhood; if you know you’re a self you can see yourself in relation to the other. People hear “empathy” and they think socialism or something–that’s completely missing the point. Increasing individuation and selfhood is critical to increasing empathy.
We are wired for empathic distress. If you put a bunch of babies in a nursery and one starts crying, the others start crying but they don’t know why. Real empathy – empathic expression–doesn’t occur until children develop a sense of self and recognize themselves as being separate from others; when they can recognize themselves in a mirror, for instance. When kids learn about birth and death they think, uh oh, now I know I have a history, I’m finite. Realizing their own vulnerability allows them to feel another’s vulnerability. The more advanced your selfhood, the more you can feel another’s fragility and empathize. Empathy is the invisible social glue that allows a complex individuated society to remain integrated.
You said that people hear “empathy” and think “socialism”. How does capitalism survive an empathic society?
Market capitalism will be transformed into “distributed capitalism”. Just as the internet led to the democratization of information, the Third Industrial Revolution will lead to the democratization of energy. The required changes to infrastructure are going to create massive amounts of jobs and a whole new economy. But when you have peer-to-peer sharing of energy across an intelligent grid system, you no longer have the top-down, centralized economic system. Distributed energy requires distributed capitalism, and that relies on the opposite view of human nature than that of market capitalism. But the politics isn’t right or left–its centralized, top-down versus collaborative commons. You don’t hear people say, I’m going onto a social networking space because I’m a socialist–it’s just a different frame of reference.
At over 600 pages, The Empathic Civilization is a long book! How long did it take you to write it?
I didn’t mean for it to be a long book, but my wife says the older I get, the longer my books get. It took over five years. I got so deep into the research; I read about 400 books and maybe 3,000 articles. The actual writing took about a year and a half. My wife has made me promise no more books!
by Amanda Gefter
About Jeremy Rifkin:
Jeremy Rifkin is an advisor to the European Union and heads of state around the world. He is a senior lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania where he instructs CEOs and corporate management on new trends in science, technology, the economy and society. He is the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C. His book The Empathic Civilization was published by Penguin in December 2009.
To find out more about Jeremy Rifkin, please click here.
OR to find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.