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.
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February 25, 2012
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Be it known… This entry was written as a complement to one that was posted earlier last week, entitled “Beyond Environment: Falling Back In Love With Mother Earth.”
Someone once said, “The trouble with weather forecasting is that it’s right too often for us to ignore it and wrong too often for us to rely on it.” But ever since I read this, I’ve been looking at my local weather forecasts everyday now for nearly two years straight… And I’ve got to say, looking one day ahead, the MET Office seem to get it near on 95% right every time… Seriously, you don’t have to take my word on this. Just check it out for yourselves. Saying, I noticed that when the MET Office begin to make general forecasts that are five days in to the future, their accuracy falls quite substantially. On the whole – while I haven’t been taking as much notice of these 5 day forecasts – I’d say they tend to get them near on 60% right. Now that, in my books, is definitely good predicting. How do they do it? Well, they’ve been using some of the world’s biggest and best super computers to crunch all the raw numerical data that is gathered from a vast array of sources (both manual and remote sensing data posts), of which they literately have thousands: on military air fields, to all the way out at sea. The gathering of this diverse spread of data gives them a really unique (and very accurate) perspective on weather patterns here in the UK, demonstrating how temperature, wind, sun, rain, cloud and other meteorological phenomena all feedback into each other to create the daily weather patterns that we observe in our daily lives.
But is it really a clear cut and easy to understand science when trying to understand how these individual phenomena affect each other? As some of you may already know, Edward Lorenz pretty much made a big discovery back in 1961 when looking at weather systems while studying computer simulations. He basically noticed the unexpected unfolding of a weather simulation as the result of a shortcut that he took by entering data to only three decimal places rather than six. As a result, this sensitivity to initial conditions was something that has been well studied over the last 50 years, being called Chaos Theory. The MET know a lot about how non-linear dynamics operate within weather systems here on Earth… In fact they’re presently doing a lot research into the sensitivity of the Earth’s weather system and how human activities affect it. If you ask me whether mankind is seriously affecting the environment in which he lives through his activities… I’d tell you a very big, “YES!” Just as Lorenz saw huge unexpected variances in his computer simulations, one’s that occurred from simply varying miniscule amounts in the data that was being entered at the beginning, so too will mankind see even bigger changes in the weather systems that we expect to see here on Earth. It’s not joke… Mankind isn’t varying the environment by minuscule amounts anymore, as we might have done 2000 years ago… We’re slashing the environment to pieces by whacking great asphalt cities down all over the Earth, by burning 400 years worth of energy stored by plants from the sun, by building dams to regulate the earth’s natural water flow, by turning ancient forests into agricultural land, etc…
On the whole I try to be as optimistic as possible through my general outlook on everything we as human being do. Saying that, I was never the type of person who would adorn an overly positive outlook about something just because being positive would make the situation better. To me, that’s a bit like thinking that you can fly and then throwing yourself off the top of a building, expecting to be able navigate the air currents safely back down to earth. Not my style. If you want to be that positive, then try taking off from the ground first. At least then you’ll know whether or not your positivity and belief in your ability is justified. So, that’s it. I suppose I’d rather get my facts straight and look at whatever situation I was in from as open minded a view as possible, regardless of what it was going to elucidate. I mean, I can play a bit of guitar and some very basic piano, but can’t read music off a staved sheet very well at all. So perhaps I wouldn’t remain positive about the fact that I could proficiently play Debussy’s Arabesque #1 after only one week of solitary practice with nothing more than a musical score to guide me… But I could perhaps muster a half decent attempt after one week of tuition with a good teacher and with access to a audible version of the music too.
And that’s my point here… There are different variables within certain parameters of any given situation that, when viewed by an observer, define whether or not one could feel positive about obtaining a particular outcome for that given situation. If some of the most obvious parameters for success are not present, masked over by a general optimistic view that things will work out, so whey bother trying too hard… After which one still feels exceedingly positive about obtaining a result… Well, my common sense would either tell me to lower my positive outlook about the outcome of events, or pull my finger out and get on with working out a way to succeed.
Nina Fedoroff was recently quoted saying, “We are sliding back into a dark era, and there seems little we can do about it.” During a conference last week, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) confessed that she was “scared to death” by the anti-science movement that was spreading, uncontrolled, across the US and the rest of the western world. While I feel that this statement might be a little too strong for my own stance on this general “head in the sand” tactic, I do empathise with Fedoroff because her natural survival instinct – the one that watches a friend get eaten by a tiger, so that when she’s sees another tiger she runs, rather than stroking the rather large and cuddly cat – is obviously telling her that a lot of folk out there do not share her concern for where we, as a civilization on a planet, are heading. Many have no real desire to understand too much about what sustainability actually is, let alone steer their lives into modes of minimizing capitalist consumption by growing their own food, managing their own woodlands for fire wood, insulating their homes, giving up their cars, etc…
For me, this is a bit like the case of thinking one can fly and going straight to the top floor of the Empire State building and launching themselves off the top parapet. Yes, they might think that they’re flying as they SWOOSH past floor after floor, hurtling towards the solid asphalt below at breakneck speed. But is it really flying? I mean, can they sustain the period of time that they’re in the air for without the sudden SPLAT at the end? I mean… Can we sustain even half the number of human beings at our present rates of consumption? Can we sustain this huge spurt of uncontrolled growth that mankind is witnessing in the 21st century? In fact… Just how many people do you think the earth can support?
You see… When one of the world’s most distinguished agricultural scientists tells me that she’s “scared to death” by what she sees going on around her… Doing so at one of the most well known annual scientific meetings. Well… My commonsense tells me to at least oblige this lady and have a listen to what she has to say. “We are sliding back into a dark era,” Fedoroff said. “And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.”
Would you believe… Just like the MET Office studies weather patterns in order to forecast the coming day’s weather, so to are there people looking at today’s and yesterday’s global patterns of human growth and resource consumption, who are making predictions about what the future might hold for us. And I’ve got to say, while these studies might not be as detailed or as developed as some of the weather studies that the MET Office are conducting… The ones that have come to light certainly show us something that we should be heeding.
Like I said… I’m quite an optimistic person. But I still read and/or listen to the weather forecasts every morning… And if there’s a chance that it’ll be a rainy, cold, wet and windy day, I won’t remain optimistic that the weather might suddenly change to something better and wear nothing by my shorts and a T-shirt. I mean, I already know from observation how accurate the MET Office’s weather forecasting can be… For them to be able to make these predictions, the observations come from which their science was built from, along with their forecasts, must be quite accurate and sound. I mean 95% accuracy for one day ahead is near on great. Thus I base my actions for the coming day on this forecast, like whether I should take umbrella with me, or wear shorts and sunglasses, etc… The way the professionals do their stuff down at the MET Office instils in me an air of confidence about what they do and how they do it… So I listen to them when the advise us on the weather.
Likewise, having studied a scientific discipline myself at university, one that looked at methods for detecting illnesses within the human body, I know that there is great accuracy in these methods. They are used time and again to catch people with cancer, bacterial infections, etc… And they do so with near on 85% accuracy. So, on the whole, I have great respect for the discipline of scientific study… And I have a great respect for many of those involved in the areas of science. Don’t get me wrong… We’re not perfect. Just like the MET Office only get 95% of the coming days’ forecasts right, other areas of science don’t get it right all the time either. But should those scientist be branded with that lousy 5% margin of error? In my humble opinion, I’d rather reap the benefits of that 95% accuracy than let the 5% error bother me. So when some other professionals/scientists say something that I see to be important for all our future well fair here on Earth, I usually give it at least a once over before I decide whether to ignore it or not… At least a once over!
So I’ll finish here by saying… If most of you want us all to jump off the building because you think you can fly, there is no way on Earth (or in the air) that I’m gonna keep quiet and pretend that I can sustain this ‘flight’ while I’m hurtling past the windows of the building that we’ve all just jumped off from, just to keep the majority of you lot happy. Like I said… It’s not my style. My survival instinct is telling me that I want to survive, regardless of whether you do or not. And if I’m falling down – rather than flying down – with the rest of you, I’m gonna engage in some chit-chat on the way down about how to survive this fall.
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Forty years ago, a highly controversial study warned that we had to curb growth or risk global meltdown. Was it right?
AT THE beginning of the 1970s, a group of young scientists set out to explore our future. Their findings shook a generation and may be even more relevant than ever today.
The question the group set out to answer was: what would happen if the world’s population and industry continued to grow rapidly? Could growth continue indefinitely or would we start to hit limits at some point? In those days, few believed that there were any limits to growth – some economists still don’t. Even those who accepted that on a finite planet there must be some limits usually assumed that growth would merely level off as we approached them.
These notions, however, were based on little more than speculation and ideology. The young scientists tried to take a more rigorous approach: using a computer model to explore possible futures. What was shocking was that their simulations, far from showing growth continuing forever, or even levelling out, suggested that it was most likely that boom would be followed by bust: a sharp decline in industrial output, food production and population. In other words, the collapse of global civilisation.
These explosive conclusions were published in 1972 in a slim paperback called The Limits to Growth. It became a bestseller – and provoked a furious backlash that has obscured what it actually said. For instance, it is widely believed that Limits predicted collapse by 2000, yet in fact it made no such claim. So what did it say? And 40 years on, how do its projections compare with reality so far?
The first thing you might ask is, why look back at a model devised in the days when computers were bigger than your fridge but less powerful than your phone? Surely we now have far more advanced models? In fact, in many ways we have yet to improve on World3, the relatively simple model on which Limits was based. “When you think of the change in both scientific and computational capabilities since 1972, it is astounding there has been so little effort to improve upon their work,” says Yaneer Bar-Yam, head of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It hasn’t happened in part because of the storm of controversy the book provoked. “Researchers lost their appetite for global modelling,” says Robert Hoffman of company WhatIf Technologies in Ottawa, Canada, which models resources for companies and governments. “Now, with peak oil, climate change and the failure of conventional economics, there is a renewed interest.”
The other problem is that as models get bigger, it becomes harder to see why they produce certain outcomes and whether they are too sensitive to particular inputs, especially with complex systems. Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who studies global systems and has used World3, thinks it may have been the best possible compromise between over-simplification and unmanageable complexity. But Hoffman and Bar-Yam’s groups are now trying to do better.
World3 was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The team took what was known about the global population, industry and resources from 1900 to 1972 and used it to develop a set of equations describing how these parameters affected each other. Based on various adjustable assumptions, such as the amount of non-renewable resources, the model projected what would happen over the next century.
The team compares their work to exploring what happens to a ball thrown upwards. World3 was meant to reveal the general behaviour that results – in the case of a ball, going up and then falling down – not to make precise predictions, such as exactly how high the ball would go, or where and when it would fall. “None of these computer outputs is a prediction,” the book warned repeatedly.
Assuming that business continued as usual, World3 projected that population and industry would grow exponentially at first. Eventually, however, growth would begin to slow and would soon stop altogether as resources grew scarce, pollution soared and food became limited. “The Limits to Growth said that the human ecological footprint cannot continue to grow indefinitely, because planet Earth is physically limited,” says Jørgen Randers of the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo, one of the book’s original authors.
What’s more, instead of stabilising at the peak levels, or oscillating around them, in almost all model runs population and industry go into a sharp decline once they peak. “If present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years. The most probable result will be a sudden and rather uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity,” the book warned.
This was unexpected and shocking. Why should the world’s economy collapse rather than stabilise? In World3, it happened because of the complex feedbacks between different global subsystems such as industry, health and agriculture. More industrial output meant more money to spend on agriculture and healthcare, but also more pollution, which could damage health and food production.
And most importantly, says Randers, in the real world there are delays before limits are understood, institutions act or remedies take effect. These delayed responses were programmed into World3. The model crashed because its hypothetical people did not respond to the mounting problems before underlying support systems, such as farmland and ecosystems, had been damaged.
Instead, they carried on consuming and polluting past the point the model world could sustain. The result was what economists call a bubble and Limits called overshoot. The impact of these response delays was “the fundamental scientific message” of the study, says Randers. Critics, and even fans of the study, he says, didn’t get this point.
The other message missed was that Limits was about how catastrophe could be averted. It did not say that humanity was doomed. In model runs where growth of population and industry were constrained, growth did level out rather than collapse – the stabilised scenario (see graph).
Yet few saw it this way. Instead, the book came under fire from all sides. Scientists didn’t like Limits because the authors, anxious to publicise their findings, put it out before it was peer reviewed. The political right rejected its warning about the dangers of growth. The left rejected it for betraying the aspirations of workers. The Catholic church rejected its plea for birth control.
The most strident criticisms came from economists, who claimed Limits underestimated the power of the technological fixes humans would surely invent. As resources ran low, for instance, we would discover more or develop alternatives.
Yet the Limits team had tested this. In some runs, they gave World3 unlimited, non-polluting nuclear energy – which allowed extensive substitution and recycling of limited materials – and a doubling in the reserves of nonrenewables that could be economically exploited. All the same, the population crashed when industrial pollution soared. Then fourfold pollution reductions were added as well: this time, the crash came when there was no more farmland.
Adding in higher farm yields and better birth control helped in this case. But then soil erosion and pollution struck, driven by the continuing rise of industry. Whatever the researchers did to eke out resources or stave off pollution, exponential growth was simply prolonged, until it eventually swamped the remedies. Only when the growth of population and industry were constrained, and all the technological fixes applied, did it stabilise in relative prosperity.
The crucial point is that overshoot and collapse usually happened sooner or later in World3 even if very optimistic assumptions were made about, say, oil reserves. “The general behaviour of overshoot and collapse persists, even when large changes to numerous parameters are made,” says Graham Turner of the CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences lab in Crace, Australia.
This did not convince those who thought technology could fix every problem. And with so much criticism, the idea took hold that Limits had been disproved. That mantra has been repeated so often that it became the received wisdom, says Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence in Italy, author of a recent book about Limits. “The common perception is that the work was discredited scientifically. I heard it again at a meeting last April,” says Homer-Dixon. “It wasn’t.”
It wasn’t just confusion. “Misunderstanding was enhanced by a media campaign very similar to the one that has been recently directed against climate science,” says Bardi.
One of the most common myths is that Limits predicted collapse by 2000. Yet as a brief glance at the “standard run” shows, it didn’t (see graph). The book does mention a 1970 estimate by the US Bureau of Mines that the world had 31 years of oil left. The bureau calculated this by dividing known reserves by the current rate of consumption. Rates of consumption, however, were increasing exponentially, so Limits pointed out that in fact oil had only 20 years left if nothing changed. But this calculation was made to illustrate the effects of exponential growth, not to predict that there were only 20 years of oil left.
When Matthew Simmons, a leading oil-industry banker, finally read Limits in the 1990s, he was surprised to find none of the false predictions he had heard about. On the contrary, he concluded, population and energy growth largely matched the basic simulation. He felt Limits got so much attention, then lost it, partly because the oil shock of 1973 focused minds on resource shortages that were then largely resolved.
There have been other recent re-appraisals of the book. In 2008, for instance, Turner did a detailed statistical analysis of how real growth compares to the scenarios in Limits. He concluded that reality so far closely matches the standard run of World3.
Does that mean we face industrial collapse and widespread death? Not necessarily. A glance at Turner’s curves shows we haven’t yet reached the stage of the standard run, later this century, when such events are predicted.
In the model, overshoot and collapse are preceded by exponential growth. Exponential growth starts out looking just like linear growth, says Bar-Yam: only later does the exponential curve start heading skywards. After only 40 years, we can’t yet say whether growth is linear or exponential.
We already know the future will be different from the standard run in one respect, says Bar-Yam. Although the actual world population up to 2000 has been similar, in the scenario the rate of population growth increases with time – one of the exponential drivers of collapse. Although Limits took account of the fact that birth rates fall as prosperity rises, in reality they have fallen much faster than was expected when the book was written. “It is reasonable to be concerned about resource limitations in fifty years,” Bar-Yam says, “but the population is not even close to growing [the way Limits projected in 1972].”
The book itself may be partly responsible. Bar-Yam thinks some of the efforts in the 1970s to cut population growth were at least partly due to Limits. “If it helped do that, it bought us more time, and it’s a very important work in the history of humanity,” he says.
Yet World3 still suggests we’ll hit the buffers eventually. The original Limits team put out an updated study using World3 in 2005, which included faster-falling birth rates. Except in the stabilising scenario, World3 still collapsed.
Otherwise, the team didn’t analyse the correspondence between the real world and their 1972 scenarios in detail – noting only that they generally match. “Does this correspondence with history prove our model was true? No, of course not,” they wrote. “But it does indicate that [our] assumptions and conclusions still warrant consideration today.”
This remains the case. Forty years on from its publication, it is still not clear whether Limits was right, but it hasn’t been proved wrong either. And while the model was too pessimistic about birth and death rates, it was too optimistic about the future impact of pollution. We now know that overshoot – the delayed response to problems that makes the effects so much worse – will eventually be especially catastrophic for climate change, because the full effects of greenhouse gases will not be apparent for centuries.
There will be no more sequels based on World3, though. The model can no longer serve its purpose, which was to show us how to avoid collapse. Starting from the current conditions, no plausible assumptions produce any result but overshoot. “There is no sense in only describing a series of collapse scenarios,” says Dennis Meadows, another of the original authors of Limits.
Randers, meanwhile, is editing a book called The Next Forty Years, about what we can do when limits start to bite. “I don’t like the resulting future, but it should be described, particularly because it would have been so easy to make a much better future,” he says.
The only hope is that we can invent our way out of trouble. Our ingenuity has allowed us to overcome many limits, says Homer-Dixon, and we can’t predict what revolutionary technological innovations humanity might come up with. Yet he is pessimistic: “The question is, can we deliver ingenuity at an increasing rate indefinitely.” Because that is what we’ll need to do if growth continues.
Instead of declaring we are doomed, or proclaiming that technology will save us, we should explore the future more rigorously, says Bar-Yam. We need better models. “If you think the scientific basis of those conclusions can be challenged, then the answer is more science,” he says. “We need a much better understanding of global dynamics.”
We need to apply that knowledge, too. The most important message of Limits was that the longer we ignore the problems caused by growth, the harder they are to overcome. As we pump out more CO2, it is clear this is a lesson we have yet to learn.
by Debora MacKenzie (who is a consultant for New Scientist based in Brussels, Belgium)
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August 24, 2011
In some ways it’s amazing… But in other ways, I wonder if I’m really surprised… ? I’ve been observing fractal patterns now for quite a few years in what many refer to as seemingly unrelated fields of occurrence i.e. hearing them in reverb simulations that I build within Max/MSP, OR while observing the patterns with which the Penicillium fungi grows on the bread that I want to avoid using in the toaster most mornings, through to markets and their ever shifting price-scapes… They’re everywhere. Yes… Everywhere.
They’ve even managed to naturally find their way into the experiential textures of my mind’s dynamic… Textures that the brain seems to weave together through strange attractor like eddies that occur between various nodes and hierarchical synaptic electrical discharges that fire so readily between various clusters within the brain’s overall structure… This in turn allows a type of consciousness to form i.e. myself, to perceive the material ‘aspects’ of the environment that I presently find myself in… ‘Aspects’ that are continually changing/moving/shifting. Most of these transformations are commonly seen as material changes i.e. day to night OR hot water turning into cold water… Changes that are forged from the same principles and materials i.e. atomic debris/fabric of the universe, that ‘I’ find myself a result of.
It’s amazing that ‘my’ five senses can somehow distinguish between these multifarious ‘aspects’ simply by observing the ever changing environmental interplay that unfolds in the world around me – and within me – allowing my body to cross-reference these abstractions (such as smell, sight, touch, taste, sound, etc…) into a functional braid of linear temporal registers that are plied together into a complex feedback loop of conscious awareness that correlates all of them into the fabric of experience. Through the natural evolution of this holographic image of universal dynamics – one that has been naturally selected for in most living organisms here on Earth in some manner or another – it’s pretty obvious that memetic evolution has given rise to – and certainly has benefited from – these unfolding fractal patterns of the mind, brain, body and environmental continuum… And, thus, so have I allowed myself – through much diligent study – to hang a myriad of meanings and socially accepted constructs onto the continuous flow of this biochemically experiential unfolding.
When I sit with this feeling, it seems very natural for everything to be just as it is… For us to be the way we are… Mortal, soft, delicate and changing… Prone to aging and death… Giving way to new progeny in an evolving loop of atomic re-awakening… And environmental readjustment/realignment… Suddenly it becomes okay to accept that one day I will die… And that my patterns of behavior will continue to ripple through the surrounding people I have met and the environment I once lived in, slowly being diluted, intermingling with other people’s activities, every evolving… Ever changing. Perhaps we don’t ever really die… ! Then I see that ‘I’ am not as free as many might imagine we are… Rather we are more willfully able to do whatever it is we choose to with the time we have here, acting within defined parameters of being… Operating to prolong our activities. I find acceptance in these limited modes… And I find true freedom in the limitless possibilities within my imagination. Just as chaos is limitless, and as the brain’s basis for functional ordering uses chaos to operate from… So I find myself not really being surprised that the universe ‘may’ have a fractal structure. When is see my lungs on a X-ray that had recently, there they are again… When I look at my arm closely and see the veins of blood flowing under my skin, fractal shapes come into focus… And I’m just amazed at the beauty of these patterns as they release their energetic uncoiling of potential energy into kinetic displays of wonder and marvel, spreading out over various timings into the delicately interconnected chaos of universal change.
So what I thought was originally surprise… Has in fact turned out to be more of a sense of discovery… A rediscovery of my connectedness… My roots… My interlinked existence to everything – absolutely everything – around me. In many ways it has been an important rediscovery for me because this feeling of interconnectedness seems to have been masked over, obscured from obvious sight, by the daily meanderings of advertising, fictional drivel (mainly in the form of film and pulp fiction), political discussion, religious debate, scientific enquiry and general distraction, all of which seem to come from the supposed “perks” of Western modern day living…
But, thankfully, while immersing myself in this tangled mess of experiential twine – mainly by reading many, many scientific journals/publications over the last fifteen or so years, ones that concern themselves with how universal structure and function came into being (whether on the astrological and/or microscopic levels OR within the dynamics of the mind, brain, body, environmental continuum) – I’ve been unwittingly reconnecting myself with this feeling of interdependence. While closely keeping my eye on how the present theories (yes, theories, in the plural, because there are many of them out there) are continually evolving and changing… I’ve been unintentionally observing another form of natural selection at work… Much like Darwin did. One that is occurring within our minds. And, on the whole, it’s doing exactly what any good evolving form/system does i.e. works through the plethora of memetic constructs that are being formulated from experience by scrubbing the obviously impractical and blatantly cumbersome theories, revealing only the ones that best fit the observations. Then, while subjecting these selected few to yet more stringent tests, each idea/theory is further developed… OR revealed to be a fraud. Eventually one idea/theory in particular is found… One that fits better than all the rest. One that can generate self-similar observed data by repeating the experiments over and over again. This idea/theory then becomes a sort of fact… One that can be expounded further into more developed and concise levels of understanding… Where each idea/theory can interconnect and interrelate to other seemingly unrelated areas of scientific inquiry. Time and again, further cross-referencing and testing ensues, scrutinizing each novel idea/theory/notion… If one doesn’t fit, it is then modified, tweaked, or reconfigured to work into the overall account produced thus far… OR EVEN, if an idea is so obvious, then the other areas might find themselves being revised. This continues ad-infinitum, moving even onwards into finer details… Heading towards the vanishing point of a complexity that knows no bounds… A sort tailor made fitting for a more concise scientific understanding that will never be found.
In fact… So to does the evolution of animal form work in much the same way… As Professor Armand Marie Leroi states, “Species give rise to other species, and as they do so, they change. The changes are minute and subtle, but given enough time, the results could be spectacular. And so they are!” So to do our mind streams change and evolve over time… Allowing us to see more clearly whatever it is we are looking at.
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What Darwin didn’t Know
Documentary which tells the story of evolution theory since Darwin postulated it in 1859 in ‘On the Origin of Species’.
The theory of evolution by natural selection is now scientific orthodoxy, but when it was unveiled it caused a storm of controversy, from fellow scientists as well as religious people. They criticised it for being short on evidence and long on assertion and Darwin, being the honest scientist that he was, agreed with them. He knew that his theory was riddled with ‘difficulties’, but he entrusted future generations to complete his work and prove the essential truth of his vision, which is what scientists have been doing for the past 150 years.
Evolutionary biologist Professor Armand Marie Leroi charts the scientific endeavour that brought about the triumphant renaissance of Darwin’s theory. He argues that, with the new science of evolutionary developmental biology (evo devo), it may be possible to take that theory to a new level – to do more than explain what has evolved in the past, and start to predict what might evolve in the future.
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As time has gone on, I’ve been fortunate enough to rediscover how similar basic patterns permeate almost every single aspect of our lives as human beings… This rediscovery – for me at least – occurred because I had the fortunate experience of studying many dynamical systems for musical analogy… That is, I studied them over and over again, looking at how to translate these natural never-ending patterns into sonic textures for art’s sake. When you see them, though, you begin to spot them everywhere you care to look. It’s almost like it’s so obvious that they’re there, just staring us in the face, that because of it, we just haven’t noticed them… They’ve always been there… In plain sight. So why would we notice them? In some ways it’s just like when the astronauts of Apollo 11 landed to the moon for the first time… When they got there, they couldn’t see any trace of the Earth around them anymore. Their home of a planet was now just a beautiful jewel hanging in the moon’s inky black sky, just out of their reach. Everything that they had taken for granted i.e. an abundance of air, all the trees, plants, life, all the oceans of water, our homes, the people they loved, movies, the abundance of food, animals, clouds, rain, wind, etc… They just weren’t there around them anymore… And it stood out like a soar thumb as to how fortunate they were to live on a planet that had all those things… Things that were so common on Earth. This voyage to the moon profoundly changed the way they i.e Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr and pilot Michael Collins saw the Earth afterwards. In fact it changed ever astronaut who ever went to the moon’s perspective… So that when they returned, they couldn’t help but wonder why people couldn’t see what they now could see so clearly i.e. how precious the Earth is and all the beings that live on it… How connected we all are to one another… To everything around us… How much we need our planet… And how futile all our wars and disagreements are in the greater scheme of everything.
Something similar is going on in science now… Over the last year or so I’ve been coming across many publications wherein scientists are seemingly wanting to let go of some of their earlier preconceptions about how the textbook ideals – one’s which their contemporaries wrote down with absolute certitude for their students to learn from – concerning universal flow and other areas of scientific interest, don’t really quite fit with what these students are actually observing in the “real world…” And along with how they are having to “pull-out-of-the-hat” seemingly bizarre concepts, such as dark matter, in order to balance their predecessors equations… Many are beginning to feel that it’s time to evolve again. Thus it can be noticed that many of the new generation of scientists are looking for novel ideas to re-evaluated what they have learned… And as the models get more and more complex, so to do we see that complexity needs to be better understood… Revealing many types of fractal structures and all sorts of non-linear dynamics residing within the natural flow of universal unfolding.
As I have mentioned before in several blogs contained in this website… Until fractal/chaotic dynamics are properly introduced and included into the equations of physicists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, etc… There will always be a thin vale of mist that detaches their efforts from discovering the true order of things. For, until this time, discrepancies and vague approximations on how universal flow actually functions will cloud the depth of understanding that lies waiting to be seen beneath this mist.
Saying that… There are those who are already daring to go beyond… As Francesco Sylos Labini clearly demonstrates with his intuitive proposition below… The universe may have a fractal structure…
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Largest Cosmic Structures ‘Too Big’ For Theories
Space is festooned with vast “hyperclusters” of galaxies, a new cosmic map suggests. It could mean that gravity or dark energy – or perhaps something completely unknown – is behaving very strangely indeed.
We know that the universe was smooth just after its birth. Measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), the light emitted 370,000 years after the big bang, reveal only very slight variations in density from place to place. Gravity then took hold and amplified these variations into today’s galaxies and galaxy clusters, which in turn are arranged into big strings and knots called superclusters, with relatively empty voids in between.
On even larger scales, though, cosmological models say that the expansion of the universe should trump the clumping effect of gravity. That means there should be very little structure on scales larger than a few hundred million light years across.
But the universe, it seems, did not get the memo. Shaun Thomas of University College London (UCL), and colleagues have found aggregations of galaxies stretching for more than 3 billion light years. The hyperclusters are not very sharply defined, with only a couple of per cent variation in density from place to place, but even that density contrast is twice what theory predicts.
“This is a challenging result for the standard cosmological models,” saysFrancesco Sylos Labini of the University of Rome, Italy, who was not involved in the work.
The clumpiness emerges from an enormous catalogue of galaxies called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, compiled with a telescope at Apache Point, New Mexico. The survey plots the 2D positions of galaxies across a quarter of the sky. “Before this survey people were looking at smaller areas,” says Thomas. “As you look at more of the sky, you start to see larger structures.”
A 2D picture of the sky cannot reveal the true large-scale structure in the universe. To get the full picture, Thomas and his colleagues also used the colour of galaxies recorded in the survey.
More distant galaxies look redder than nearby ones because their light has been stretched to longer wavelengths while travelling through an expanding universe. By selecting a variety of bright, old elliptical galaxies whose natural colour is well known, the team calculated approximate distances to more than 700,000 objects. The upshot is a rough 3D map of one quadrant of the universe, showing the hazy outlines of some enormous structures.
Coagulating dark energy
The result hints at some profound new physical phenomenon, perhaps involving dark energy – the mysterious entity that is accelerating the expansion of space. Dark energy is usually assumed to be uniform across the cosmos. If instead it can pool in some areas, then its repulsive force could push away nearby matter, creating these giant patterns.
Alternatively, we may need to extend our understanding of gravity beyond Einstein’s general theory of relativity. “It could be that we need an even more general theory to explain how gravity works on very large scales,” says Thomas.
A more mundane answer might yet emerge. Using colour to find distance is very sensitive to observational error, says David Spergel of Princeton University. Dust and stars in our own galaxy could confuse the dataset, for example. Although the UCL team have run some checks for these sources of error, Thomas admits that the result might turn out to be the effect of foreground stars either masking or mimicking distant galaxies.
“It will be essential to confirm this with another technique,” says Spergel. The best solution would be to get detailed spectra of a large number of galaxies. Researchers would be able to work out their distances from Earth much more precisely, since they would know how much their light has been stretched, or red-shifted, by the expansion of space.
Sylos Labini has made such a map using a subset of Sloan data. It reveals clumpiness on unexpectedly large scales – though not as vast as these. He believes that the universe may have a fractal structure, looking similar at all scales.
A comprehensive catalogue of spectra for Sloan galaxies is being assembled in a project called the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey. Meanwhile, the Dark Energy Survey will use a telescope in Chile to measure the colours of even more galaxies than Sloan, beginning in October. Such maps might bring hyperclusters out of the haze – or consign them to the status of monstrous mirage.
by Stephen Battersby
Journal reference: Physical Review Letters, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.106.241301
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For some continued viewing on the subject, please watch the following BBC documentary entitled, “The Secret Life Of Chaos”.
The Secret Life Of Chaos
Chaos theory has a bad name, conjuring up images of unpredictable weather, economic crashes and science gone wrong. But there is a fascinating and hidden side to Chaos, one that scientists are only now beginning to understand.
It turns out that chaos theory answers a question that mankind has asked for millennia – how did we get here?
In this documentary, Professor Jim Al-Khalili sets out to uncover one of the great mysteries of science – how does a universe that starts off as dust end up with intelligent life? How does order emerge from disorder?
It’s a mindbending, counterintuitive and – for many people – a deeply troubling idea. But Professor Al-Khalili reveals the science behind much of beauty and structure in the natural world and discovers that far from it being magic or an act of God, it is in fact an intrinsic part of the laws of physics. Amazingly, it turns out that the mathematics of chaos can explain how and why the universe creates exquisite order and pattern.
And the best thing is that one doesn’t need to be a scientist to understand it. The natural world is full of awe-inspiring examples of the way nature transforms simplicity into complexity. From trees to clouds to humans – after watching this film you’ll never be able to look at the world in the same way again.
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To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
I like articles like these… Ones that subtly push clues about just how rare a chance we’ve all been given i.e. to be standing here on Earth, experiencing what we do, today… And every day, for that matter… In this perfectly present moment. In someways, the more I look around me, the more obvious it all becomes… About how we all got here… Chaos is a wonderful thing. In fact, chaos played more of a hand in our fate than many might care to admit. And, in many ways, chaos has now become a friend… An all pervading ally that allows all of us to operate uniquely and interdependently to one another… To function… To live… And to evolve.
But despite its nurturing hand in all events, chaos is a very unstable and unpredictable tangle of cause and effect… One where even if you were to nudge the slightest of atomic arrangements off-course by a couple of nanometers or so, and then separate and let the two ‘slightly’ different systems run onwards for hundreds of thousands of millions of years… And compare the end results… They ‘might’ be so different from one another… Or from what one might expect… That many just wouldn’t believe such a small difference could produced such a pronounced discongruity…
Bearing this in mind… I get a rough feeling of how fortunate we all are to be standing here, with the solid earth underfoot, in some sembling stability of a planetary ecosystem, all residing within our solar system presently. I know… I find myself taking it all for granted frequently… But, would you believe, the stability of the Solar System is a subject of much inquiry in astronomy? Though the planets have been stable historically, and will be in the ‘short-term,’ their weak gravitational effects on one another can add up in unpredictable ways. For this reason (among others) the Solar System is chaotic, and even the most precise long-term models for the orbital motion of the Solar System are not valid over more than a few tens of millions of years.
But then again… This complexity is something that I’ve mentioned several times before here in this blog… Science cannot foretell the future. Rather it can only offer sketches of what could probably happen… Providing, at best, several different arrays of what might possibly come about within a dynamical system, gauged against what is known presently about/within the system.
Still, I feel this article gives one a good feel for the unexpected… And allows one to grasp – if they can imagine the fragility of their world without too much discomfort – just how improbable it is that the Earth resides here, where it does today, in a chaotic solar system (or universe) of chance, that is interconnected to all things through a myriad of strange attractions.
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What Would Happen If Earth and Mars Switched Places?
Last Saturday, at a workshop organized by theFoundation Questions Institute, Nobel laureate physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft gave a few informal remarks on the deep nature of reality. Searching for an analogy to the symmetries of basic physics, he asked the attendees to imagine what would happen to our solar system if you suddenly swapped Earth and Mars. He went on to discuss his ideas for explaining quantum mechanics, but I couldn’t get my mind off his question. What would happen?
Obviously, Martians would be delighted with the new arrangement. A fairly modest increase in Mars’s temperature would melt the polar caps and liberate gases from the soil, flipping the Martian climate into a new, cozier state nearly as warm as Earth. In an article for us in 1999, planetary scientist Chris McKay envisioned terraforming Mars by building factories to pump out greenhouse gases—proving that one man’s poison is another’s elixir—but moving the planet closer to the sun would certainly do the trick, too. Earthlings would get the short end of the deal. Sunlight would be half as intense and the planet would freeze over. On the plus side, we’d instantly be half as many years old.
In grand scheme of things, though, you might think that nothing would change. According to Kepler’s laws, the mass of a planet has almost no effect on its orbit; the mass of the sun is what controls things. Even though Earth is 10 times heavier than Mars, it would still trundle along Mars’s old path. Both Mars and Earth are perpetually falling toward the sun, and all falling bodies fall at the same rate.
But Kepler’s laws don’t account for the subtle gravitational perturbations that planets exert on one another. By rearranging the planets, you perturb these perturbations, and it’s not obvious what would happen. So I posed the question to planetary physicist Renu Malhotra of the University of Arizona, who was one of the first scientists to recognize that the planets migrated around early in the history of the solar system. Her initial guess was that Earth’s proximity would thin out the asteroid belt, but that the planets’ orbits would not be destabilized, at least not right away. She offered to run a computer simulation to check.
The results are a bit surprising. The planetary switch-a-roo makes the inner solar system strongly chaotic. Although none of the inner planets gets flung out of the solar system within the first 10 million years, all undergo large variations in their orbital distances. On occasion, Mars dips inward to become the second rock from the sun. To capture these variations, Malhotra found that she had to use a smaller time increment in the simulations than she had predicted, and consequently each computer run took nearly a day to complete.
To speed things up, she tried ignoring the planet Mercury—standard practice in perturbative calculations, on the assumption that Mercury is so piddling that its gravity is immaterial. Not in this case, though. Without Mercury, the other three inner planets went haywire in a few million years. Mars shot off into deep space. The sensitivity to Mercury’s absence is further proof that the altered system would be strongly chaotic.
These results support the emerging view, discussed in our pages by Doug Lin several years ago, that the solar system lives on the edge of chaos. It was probably unstable in its formative years. Planets got reshuffled or ejected until the survivors’ orbits were sufficiently well spaced. Any major change would push the system over the edge again. It’s analogous to a coffee cup. If you see a cup that is filled exactly to the rim, you can reasonably conclude that some coffee got spilled over the side, and anything you do to the cup would probably spill some more.
Malhotra has supported this viewpoint in the past, but cautions that the solar system is more stable than its age might imply, so the whole question remains unresolved. “Isn’t it interesting?” she wrote me. “This kind of thing is what attracted me to planetary dynamics.”
by George Musser
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I will be using this example later, among others, to demonstrate that what the Buddhist’s refer to as the “Four Limitless Contemplations” is actually a very obvious and balanced way of viewing our existence… But more on that later.
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May 5, 2011
I remember a very long time ago i.e. 25 years or so, I read a vivid work of science fiction by Issac Asimov while I was at school. It was called “I Robot” and was a collection of several short stories about the moral interactions between humans and robots along with resulting conundrums that would manifest. It was a particularly good read, I seem to remember, and enjoyed the ideas it presented in hindsight. In fact it made me think quite a bit about artificial intelligence (AI)… Though I was still rather unversed in what AI actually was… In fact, for that matter, I was even unversed in understanding what and who this “I” was at that time.
I mean… For me to even produce a list of functions that a robot would have to fulfill in order to become “human-like” was a daunting task… Especially when I began doing so on my then novelty of a computer, the ZX Spectrum. To be honest, the games that came with the machine i.e. Hungry Horace, Horace Goes Skiing, Horace and the Spiders, etc… left me somewhat wondering whether computers/robots would ever get as far as biological organisms had done. But that was then… And this is now.
So when articles pop up regarding artificial intelligence, talking about the way in which robots develop their behaviour, I jump at the opportunity to digest these insights and ponder on whether they i.e. robots, might well one day surpass most biological organisms here on Earth in both form, function and intelligence. In fact, I have already noted several interesting pointers that sufficiently demonstrate that our mechanoid counterparts are already well on the way to developing an artificial intelligence all of their own (see “TED Talks – Henry Markram Builds A Brain In A Supercomputer” and “Self-Organized Adaptation Of A Simple Neural Circuit Enables Complex Robot Behavior“)… So would it surprise if we one saw natural selection cleaning up robotic behavior into ever more refined modes of altruism? In fact… Would it be so surprising, even, if one day we saw robots evolving too? Well… Apparently, it’s already happening.
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Robots Evolve To Look Out For Their Own
A robot must protect its own existence.
This mid-20th-century dictate to the robotic clade from science fiction author and biochemist Isaac Asimov seems cleanly in step with Darwinian theory and the biological world of survival of the fittest.
But as scientists continue to witness animals and other organisms habitually sacrificing themselves for the greater good of their colony or kin, the picture of self-interested behavior in the natural world has become murkier. Might robots also learn to cooperate for the betterment of their own kind?
They already have. Meet the Alice bots. Some robots have been programmed to help each other out, but these automatons have “evolved” over generations to be more helpful—that is, to like robots.
The version of this behavior in animals is known as Hamilton’s rule of kin selection. Put forth by biologist W. D. Hamilton in the 1960s, it aimed to explain why organisms—from ants to humans—would sometimes help others at their own expense. This altruistic impulse—to spend time, energy and resources on others—is thought to be especially strong toward those who might help pass along our own genes. But just how close of kin does a person have to be for us to be compelled, under Hamilton’s rule, to help out?
Given the complexity of animal environments and actions and their relatively slow evolution, it’s been difficult to actually demonstrate Hamilton’s rule in organisms.
Cue the robots.
Researchers in Switzerland developed a band of small, rolling robots equipped with sensors and their own “genetic code”—a unique string of 33 1′s and 0′s functioning as individual “neurons” to determine sensor use and behavior—and tasked with foraging for small “food” objects and pushing them to a designated area. Those robots that failed to collect the objects were weeded out of the “gene pool” by the research team, whereas those that were successful could choose whether to collect the food object for themselves or share it with another robot.
“Over hundreds of generations,” the researchers concluded, “we show that Hamilton’s rule always accurately predicts the minimum relatedness necessary for altruism to evolve,” they wrote in a new paper describing the results, published online May 3 in PLoS Biology. The levels of relatedness that the researchers tested included full clones as well as the digital equivalent of siblings, cousins and non-kin.
“This study mirrors Hamilton’s rule remarkably well to explain when an altruistic gene is passed on from one generation to the next, and when one is not,” Laurent Keller, a biologist at the University of Lausanne and co-author of the new study, said in a prepared statement.
Each test consisted of 500 generations of eight robots. To mimic what might happen in nature, the successful robots from each generation were “randomly assorted and subjected to crossovers and mutations…forming the next generation,” the researchers explained. And although the 33 “genes” were randomly distributed at first, “the robots’ performance rapidly increased over the 500 generations of selection,” the researchers noted. And along with acuity at collecting the food, “the level of altruism also rapidly changed over generations,” with those robots around more closely “related” individuals becoming the most altruistic.
Aside from demonstrating Hamilton’s rule in a quantifiable—if artificial—system, the work also shows that “kin selection does not require specific genes devoted to encode altruism or sophisticated cognitive abilities, as the neuronal network of our robots comprised only 33 neurons,” the researchers noted in their paper.
“We have been able to take this experiment and extract an algorithm that we can use to evolve cooperation in any type of robot,” Dario Floreano, a robotics professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and co-author of the new study, said in a prepared statement. Any type of robot? Does that mean it’s time to run for the hills?
Nope—should the bots decide to discard the other two of Asimov’s laws for robots (obeying humans and not harming them), they’ll surely be able to find us there. “We are using this altruism algorithm to improve the control system of our flying robots, and we see that it allows them to effectively collaborate and fly in swarm formation more successfully.”
by Katherine Harmon
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To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
Or to read other articles that Katherine Harmon has writen, please click here.
And to find out more about the British evolutionary biologist, William Hamilton, please click here.
Plus… To find out how we can test for his rule on evolutionary altruism, please click here.
April 4, 2011
March 22, 2011
I’ve always wondered what it must be like to become a Buddha. And no doubt, whenever I’ve vocalised this interest, I’ve usually been told that pondering over such things is a waste of one’s time and effort… Being comparable to a frog who has only seen a pond, and then tries to imagine (or even romanticise about) what an ocean must be like, having only been told by a friend who has seen it how it looks… I mean… How can one’s hemmed in, limited memetic view break free from the shackles of narrow mindedness, so as to truly see what lies beyond all description… Pure experience, devoid of any imposed, thought out, cognisant meaning… What might even be aptly described as perfect ‘omniscience?’
Well I’ve looked into the Mandelbrot set‘s wondrous coiling rhythm on many late night journeys… Zooming into it’s infinite boundary, confined in a finite space… And I feel that there is some resonance with how a Buddha must feel and/or see everything i.e. knowing perfectly all the chains of cause and effect as they stretch into the past and future. To see so clearly interdependence, and to be free of the limiting notion of time, must allow for such great wisdom… Especially if the right type of universal compassion is generated to guide one’s efforts here on Earth… For, we’ve already seen how easy it is for one to slip into self-justified views of understanding that seem to only protect our own vested, self-important interests (see “Manufacturing Consent“).
But, I digress… Because what I’m really interested in here is… How can/could a Buddha see into the future… ? I mean, if it really can be done, then surely there would be some type of hint at how this process might well become a reality for those of us who are Buddhas? Well, apparently, now there is some evidence coming through that suggests as much… Although, it might well need more understanding and processing before it can be properly taken as a real process.
Is This Evidence That We Can See The Future?
Extraordinary claims don’t come much more extraordinary than this: events that haven’t yet happened can influence our behaviour.
Parapsychologists have made outlandish claims about precognition – knowledge of unpredictable future events – for years. But the fringe phenomenon is about to get a mainstream airing: a paper providing evidence for its existence has been accepted for publication by the leading social psychology journal.
What’s more, sceptical psychologists who have pored over a preprint of the paper say they can’t find any significant flaws. “My personal view is that this is ridiculous and can’t be true,” says Joachim Krueger of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who has blogged about the work on thePsychology Today website. “Going after the methodology and the experimental design is the first line of attack. But frankly, I didn’t see anything. Everything seemed to be in good order.”
The paper, due to appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology before the end of the year, is the culmination of eight years’ work by Daryl Bem of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “I purposely waited until I thought there was a critical mass that wasn’t a statistical fluke,” he says.
It describes a series of experiments involving more than 1000 student volunteers. In most of the tests, Bem took well-studied psychological phenomena and simply reversed the sequence, so that the event generally interpreted as the cause happened after the tested behaviour rather than before it.
In one experiment, students were shown a list of words and then asked to recall words from it, after which they were told to type words that were randomly selected from the same list. Spookily, the students were better at recalling words that they would later type.
In another study, Bem adapted research on “priming” – the effect of a subliminally presented word on a person’s response to an image. For instance, if someone is momentarily flashed the word “ugly”, it will take them longer to decide that a picture of a kitten is pleasant than if “beautiful” had been flashed. Running the experiment back-to-front, Bem found that the priming effect seemed to work backwards in time as well as forwards.
‘Stroke Of Genius’
Exploring time-reversed versions of established psychological phenomena was “a stroke of genius”, says the sceptical Krueger. Previous research in parapsychology has used idiosyncratic set-ups such as Ganzfeld experiments, in which volunteers listen to white noise and are presented with a uniform visual field to create a state allegedly conducive to effects including clairvoyance and telepathy. By contrast, Bem set out to provide tests that mainstream psychologists could readily evaluate.
The effects he recorded were small but statistically significant. In another test, for instance, volunteers were told that an erotic image was going to appear on a computer screen in one of two positions, and asked to guess in advance which position that would be. The image’s eventual position was selected at random, but volunteers guessed correctly 53.1 per cent of the time.
That may sound unimpressive – truly random guesses would have been right 50 per cent of the time, after all. But well-established phenomena such as the ability of low-dose aspirin to prevent heart attacks are based on similarly small effects, notes Melissa Burkley of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, who has also blogged about Bem’s work at Psychology Today.
Respect For A Maverick
So far, the paper has held up to scrutiny. “This paper went through a series of reviews from some of our most trusted reviewers,” says Charles Judd of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who heads the section of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology editorial board that handled the paper.
Indeed, although Bem is a self-described “maverick” with a long-standing interest in paranormal phenomena, he is also a respected psychologist with a reputation for running careful experiments. He is best known for the theory ofself-perception, which argues that people infer their attitudes from their own behaviour in much the same way as they assess the attitudes of others.
Bem says his paper was reviewed by four experts who proposed amendments, but still recommended publication. Still, the journal will publish a sceptical editorial commentary alongside the paper, says Judd. “We hope it spurs people to try to replicate these effects.”
One failed attempt at replication has already been posted online. In this study, Jeff Galak of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Leif Nelson of the University of California, Berkeley, employed an online panel called Consumer Behavior Lab in an effort to repeat Bem’s findings on the recall of words.
Bem argues that online surveys are inconclusive, because it’s impossible to know whether volunteers have paid sufficient attention to the task. Galak concedes that this is a limitation of the initial study, but says he is now planning a follow-up involving student volunteers that will more closely repeat the design of Bem’s word-recall experiment.
This seems certain to be just the first exchange in a lively debate: Bem says that dozens of researchers have already contacted him requesting details of the work.
by Peter Aldhous
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February 23, 2011
October 3, 2010
The other day I read an interesting article in Scientific American magazine… One that aptly demonstrates that our psychology is not simply centred around the brain alone – as psychology has presumed for many years – but rather is dependent on the way the brain and body work together as a single unit.
Thus I am posting it here, so as to bring it to the attention of any readers who might be following this present thread, as it will be called into reference when I discuss the origins of ‘self’ in a future blog, where I will be using a concept that I have termed to be the “mind/brain/body/environment continuum” to show how ‘self’ comes about. I will not say anymore on this matter for the moment, as I feel this article sufficiently lays down the basis for introducing this idea.
What scientists are discovering by measuring the beating of the heart…
The brain has long enjoyed a privileged status as psychology’s favorite body organ. This is, of course, unsurprising given that the brain instantiates virtually all mental operations, from understanding language, to learning that fire is dangerous, to recalling the name of one’s kindergarten teacher, to categorizing fruits and vegetables, to predicting the future. Arguing for the importance of the brain in psychology is like arguing for the importance of money in economics.
More surprising, however, is the role of the entire body in psychology and the capacity for body parts inside and out to influence and regulate the most intimate operations of emotional and social life. The stomach’s gastric activity , for example, corresponds to how intensely people experience feelings such as happiness and disgust. The hands’ manipulation of objects that vary in temperature and texture influences judgments of how “warm” or “rough” people are. And the ovaries and testes’ production of progesterone and testosterone shapes behavior ranging from financial risk-taking to shopping preferences.
Psychology’s recognition of the body’s influence on the mind coincides with a recent focus on the role of the heart in our social psychology. It turns out that the heart is not only critical for survival, but also for how people related to one another. In particular, heart rate variability (HRV), variation in the heart’s beat-to-beat interval, plays a key role in social behaviors ranging from decision-making, regulating one’s emotions, coping with stress, and even academic engagement. Decreased HRV appears to be related to depression and autism and may be linked to thinking about information deliberately. Increased HRV, on the other hand, is associated with greater social skills such as recognizing other people’s emotions and helps people cope with socially stressful situations, such as thinking about giving a public speech or being evaluated by someone of another race. This diverse array of findings reflects a burgeoning interest across clinical psychology, neuroscience, social psychology, and developmental psychology in studying the role of the heart in social life.
A key moment for the field came in 1995, when Stephen Porges, currently a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, put forth Polyvagal Theory, a theory that emphasized the role of the heart in social behavior. The theory states that the vagus nerve, a nerve likely found only in mammals, provides input to the heart to guide behavior as complex as forming relationships with other people as well as disengaging from others. A distinguishing feature of Polyvagal theory is that it places importance not on heart rate per se, but rather on the variability of the heart rate, previously thought to be an uninteresting variable or mere noise.
Since 1995, a broad spectrum of research emerged in support of Polyvagal theory and has demonstrated the importance of the heart in social functioning. In 2001, Porges and his colleagues monitored infants when they engaged in a social interaction with the experimenter (cooing, talking, and smiling at them) and when they encountered the experimenter simply making a still face—a frozen expression—toward them. Infants’ HRV not only increased during the social interaction, but also increases in HRV predicted positive engagement (greater attention and active participation by the infants) during this interaction. In adults as well, HRV appears to be associated with success in regulating one’s emotions during social interaction, extraversion, and general positive mood.
A number of recent findings converge on the role of heart rate variability in adaptive social functioning as well. One study by Bethany Kok and Barbara Frederickson, psychologists at the University of North Carolina, asked 52 adults to report how often they experienced positive emotions like happiness, awe, and gratitude and how socially connected they felt in their social interactions every day for a period of nine weeks. The researchers also measured the HRV of each individual at the beginning and end of the study by measuring heart rate during a two-minute session of normal breathing. HRV at the beginning of the study predicted how quickly people developed positive feelings and experiences of social connectedness throughout the nine-week period. In addition, experiences of social connectedness predicted increases in HRV at the end of the study, demonstrating a reciprocal relationship between heart rate and having satisfying social experiences.
Although high heart rate variability seems to have largely positive effects on people’s emotional state and their ability to adapt to their social environment, the story may soon become more complicated. For example, in unpublished research, Katrina Koslov and Wendy Berry Mendes at Harvard University have recently found that people’s capacity to alter—and in a sense regulate—HRV predicts theirsocial skills. In three studies, Koslov and Mendes measured this capacity to alter HRV during a task involving tracking the location of shapes on a computer screen (completely unrelated to anything social), and demonstrated that people’s capacity to alter HRV during this task subsequently predicted both their ability to judge others’ emotions accurately and their sensitivity to social feedback (how much they responded positively to positive feedback and negatively to negative feedback). These findings suggest that although high HRV at rest may be adaptive for social engagement, the capacity to modulate HRV also promotes social sensitivity.
Writers from Ovid to Stevie Wonder have used the heart as a convenient metaphor to convey emotional responses toward others. Emerging research suggests, however, that this metaphor is an oversimplification. The heart has complex interactions with how we treat and evaluate others, how we cope with social stress, and how we manage our emotions, and research has only begun to explore the relationship between cardiovascular processes and social life. Although philosopher Blaise Pascal noted, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know,” it is clear that psychological research is beginning to illuminate this mystery.
written by Adam Waytz
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