. . .

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 FunctionDOI: 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.”

Fast thinking

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.

Red herring

However, it is only in highly social animals that VENs live exclusively in the scent and taste regions. In the others, like giraffes and hippos, VENs seem to be sprinkled all over the brain. Allman, however, points out that these findings may be a red herring, since without understanding the genes they express, or their function, we can’t even be sure how closely these cells relate to human VENs. They may even be a different kind of cell that just looks similar.

Based on the evidence so far, however, Hof thinks that the ancestral VENs would have been more widespread, as seen in the hippo brain, and that over the course of evolution they then migrated to the ACC and FI in some animals, but not others – though he admits to having no idea why that might be. He suspects the pressures that shaped the primate brain may have been very different to those that drove the evolution of whales and dolphins.

Craig has hit upon one possibility that would seem to fit all of these big-brained animals. He points out that the bigger the brain, the more energy it takes to run, so it is crucial that it operates as efficiently as possible. A system that continually monitors the environment and the people or animals in it would therefore be an asset, allowing you to adapt quickly to a situation to save as much energy as possible. “Evolution produced an energy calculation system that incorporated not just the sensory inputs from the body but the sensory inputs from the brain,” Craig says. And the fact that we are constantly updating this picture of “how I feel now” has an interesting and very useful by-product: we have a concept that there is an “I” to do the feeling. “Evolution produced a very efficient moment-by-moment calculation of energy utilisation and that had an epiphenomenon, a by-product that provided a subjective representation of my feelings.”

If he’s right – and there is a long way to go before we can be sure – it raises a very humbling possibility: that far from being the pinnacle of brain evolution, consciousness might have been a big, and very successful accident.

This article has been edited since it was first posted

Caroline Williams is a writer based in Surrey, UK

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To find out where I sourced the New Scientist article from, please click here.

OR to learn a bit more about the author, please visit her LinkedIn profile page by clicking here.

The other week I was pondering over the immensely complex notion of Karma… Over the last year or so I have spoken to several well versed Buddhist practitioners about what Karma is exactly… And during our discussions I couldn’t help but notice one comment that cropped up time and again with each of them. Usually I wouldn’t have thought that much about it if they had known each other… Or even if they had had the same teacher… However, each of these practitioners were from very different Buddhist “schools” and did not even share any of the same teachers. Thus, when they said what they said, I knew that it was something to heed, to take note of…

What they said was this… “If you think, at any time, that you understand what Karma is… Then the chances are that you don’t.” This important point stuck with me… Leaving me somewhat humbled in my unenlightened state of mind, and I became very cautious about using basic concepts to describe something that was probably unfathomable to someone like myself… Either that, or it shifted so subtly, but surely, from one situation to the next, that never could it become a definite, text-book like certitude, let alone a conceptual understanding. While turning this over and over again in my mind, I found myself remembering how chaos once seemed when I first came across it earlier in the Lorenz attractor… A sort of knowledge that some system existed within certain parameters, and yet, one could never quite predict exactly what it was going to do next… Or in the case of Karma, one could perhaps never quite discern the outcome – probably due to the inherent complexity of all the factors within the dynamics of the system – of life.

Whether or not I will ever get a deeply intuitive grasp of Karma – one that is devoid of any conceptual “boxing-in” or limiting notions – has yet to be seen. However, just the other week I stumbled across this article in the New Scientist magazine… And I felt that somewhere in there, one could see how the nature of mind – via a type of memetic understanding – might allow/explain how such a notion as Karma might unfold and affect individuals within a social group OR a social dynamic. Perhaps having read some of the earlier blogs contained within the pages of this website, it might well be seen that human beings, on the whole, are easily be swayed into doing things that are untoward to their fellow sentient beings here on Earth. And here, in the marmot case study, we can again see that even animals are prone to inheriting social behaviour from one other, just like humans seem to copy their actions from each other… Spreading memes from one to another.

Another thing that the Buddhist practitioners whom I spoke with mentioned, was that we all had a chance to change our Karma. Perhaps this is what We – as human beings – now need to address, especially as our excuse for predation pressure no longer really applies to our present state of cultural existence. Once we wholly grasp that what we do to others is, in a way, memetically programming others – predisposing them to perform similar type actions within their social groupings – then perhaps we might well see that a wholesome evolution lies with mindful awareness of how unique each social situation really is… And how we should be so aware of every action that we perform in front of anyone else. Then, with this mindful sense of interconnectedness, perhaps we can begin to evolve beyond the old scores of “tit-for-tat” i.e. such as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and weave a new dream of open hearted connection that inspires balance and peace, free from violence and a need to be avenged… Making the notions of war, self-centred importance and greed obsolete. Then we can side-step any problems that might be looming in the supposed end game.

The Primitive Social Network: Bullying Required

Someone gets bullied in every society. It’s bad luck on the victims, but in primitive social groups they might do best to put up with it. If the advantages of group living outweigh the costs of being bullied, evolution might leave some animals resigned to their victim status, thus stabilising the group.

To find out if this is so, Daniel Blumstein of the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues studied a population of yellow-bellied marmots living in the Rocky mountains in Colorado. These large rodents have a primitive society: they live in fixed groups, but do not cooperate in the way that many primates and other highly social animals do.

Facebook For Marmots

Blumstein’s team monitored them between 2003 and 2008, keeping records of who interacted with whom and so building up a social network for the group. They also mapped the marmots’ family relationships. By putting the two datasets together, they worked out whether the marmots inherited their social behaviour and positions from their parents.

To their surprise, they found that marmots did not inherit social behaviours that they performed themselves, but they did inherit actions that others performed towards them. “The things they do to others are not inherited, but the things that others do to them are,” Blumstein says. In particular, “the tendency to be victimised is inherited”.

What’s more, well-connected marmots lived longer and reproduced more, even if their social connections put them on the receiving end of aggression. “Interacting with others is valuable, even if the interactions are nasty,” Blumstein says.

Inherited Victimisation

“It’s a surprising result, and I’m not entirely sure how to explain it,” says Julia Lehmann of Roehampton University in London, who was not involved in the study.

Lehmann thinks that animals form groups because sticking together reduces the risk from predators. “As long as the predation pressure keeps up, the group stays together,” she says.

As a result, low-ranking marmots might evolve to cope with being victimised, because it’s better than being eaten. “Staying alive is the most important thing,” Lehmann says.

Blumstein thinks researchers have focused too much on friendly interactions when they study how groups evolved. “We need to think more about the role of aggression,” he says.

by Michael Marshall

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1009882107

To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.

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Following on from a previous post entitled “Psychology Beyond The Brain“, my aim here is to further dissociate the strong, almost surreal, connection that many of us humans have with the notion that our brains are at the centre of our psychological drives… No point falling into a “Milgram Experiment” doze/stupor i.e. do and think as the man in the white lab coat says… Here, while doing our best to understand exactly what we are, we need to think outside of the box and use everything that has been scientifically proven, OR either shown to be fact, and build the picture, from the ground up, free from the confines of ‘normalised’ thinking.

So… In this somewhat patchy, but non the less fascinating TED talk, Heribert Watzke – a food scientist – shows us something quite bizarre… That we all have functioning neurones in our intestines… Yes… That’s right… Neurones in our intestines. About a hundred million of them, to be exact… Obviously it’s nothing like what the brain has i.e. 100 billion neurones that are all connected at about 100 trillion points… But still, we have these thinking cells in our gut too… !?

So what the hell are they for??? I remember when I used to think that we only thought from the brain… Many moons ago… But, as is shown here, Watzke tells us about the “hidden brain” in our gut and the surprising things it makes us feel…

To see where I sourced this talk from, please click here.

Or to find out more about where Heribert Watzke works i.e. at the Nestlé Research Center, please click here.

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

To read more articles from Adam Waytz, please click here.

Or to find out more about the author of this article, please click here.

To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.

Well… It’s come up before, in The Human Ape, just how similar we all are to our primate brothers/cousins. However, I am still always surprised at how many of my fellow human beings seem to want to remain in denial about this striking fact.

Just the other day I was speaking to a friend about how similar we are to the great apes, and possibly even some of the small monkey species, here on Earth. However, she stopped me there, pointing out that the only real similarity was the striking resemblance of our morphologies… But that was about as far as it went. So, bearing in mind this was a lady who had worked in zoos for several years at a time, and been on several safaris too, and thus having more than several monkey experiences under her belt, I quit blabbing and listened to her point of view… The main issue that set us apart was that we were obviously a lot more clever than any monkeys were i.e. our neural nets operated in very different ways to theirs… Sure we might have some very strikingly similar behavioural patterns as one another, but wouldn’t any species that shared similar bodily structures? And I couldn’t help but agree… After all, when given two legs and two hands, a torso and a head, with the potential that their bodies could stand upright… You’d expect the being endowed with these physical attributes to utilise them and grab things, maybe even trying to stand up at some point and walk while carrying these things in their hands. But all further similarities ended there.

So sat there… With furrows of concern that what I had just heard went against what I had recently seen on a TED talk… Something that had politely pointed out that we were even more similar than this simple body parity i.e. we even shared very similar behavioural traits… So I mentioned that I had to disagree with her. To which she asked me to prove my point.

So here I am, writing this entry with an eye to pick out something that can only be deemed to be as abstract and infuriatingly human as “economics” and then demonstrate that the similarity between bodily structure of our distant familiars – one which can only yield certain movements due the the constraints of joints and other bio-mechanical limitations i.e. we can’t bend our knees forward, etc… – also apply to our limbic system too… Well, I won’t… But Laurie Santos will. While the lemurs, capuchin monkeys and other primates that Santos has been studying are only shown to operate on a ‘one-on-one’ level, we need to be reminded that the only two things that really seem to set us apart – and not even that far apart – from our distant relatives, are our ‘ability’ to share resources fairly and work together as a team… As a unit… And build communities, cities and develop technologies… As well as effectively communicate and exchange detailed information with one another.

So, bearing this in mind, shouldn’t we expect to observe very similar traits to our primate brothers/sisters/cousins in the way that we operate within our own man made social constructs and communities… For example, similarities in the way we manage risk assessment in ‘economical’ terms… ? And, as Santos points out, we certainly do…

For those of us who still like to think that we’re really something special in comparison to our monkey see, monkey do relations, I beg they take 20 minutes out of their schedule and watch the some interesting facts that Laurie Santos has recently brought to light, demonstrating that all of ‘Us’ primates have very similar behavioural mechanisms at work – probably based on the neural net’s structural similarities – within the patterns our brain/mind continuum.

A Monkey Economy As Irrational As Ours

Laurie Santos looks for the roots of human irrationality by watching the way our primate relatives make decisions. A clever series of experiments in “monkeynomics” shows that some of the silly choices we make, monkeys make too.

To find out more about Laurie Santos and her interesting work, please click here.

Or to read an interview with her in Discover magazine, please click here.

And to find out where I sourced this video from, please click here.

Manager of Cognitive Computing, IBM Almaden Research Center

I have often wondered what parts of the brain interact with each other… Are there areas in the neural net that only directly link to others via hardwired links through neurone structures i.e. via axion and dendrite structural linkages, while indirectly effecting the overall patterns of other physically unconnected areas, via the release the of chemical signals? Do some areas remain completely independent of one another and operate as distinct control areas that regulate other critical functions of the Central Nervous System (CNS)? I mean, I’ve already proposed an idea as to how our brains might well use fractal/chaotic dynamics to modify behavioural patterns within our minds – so as to ensure survival of our biological bodies – by smashing through predefined, repetitive modes of behaviour, thus elucidating a fairly erratic and highly unusual modified behaviour. But, to date, this has only been based on observations and insinuations about behavioural modifications noted by other scientists.

But just the other day I Stumbled over this amazing article… One that seems to suggest that answering the questions I have been pondering over these last few years, while in various states of meditation, psychedelic inebriation, metaphysical wondering and simply while walking around Dunorlan Park most evenings, are closer to hand than I had previously thought.

IBM Scientists Create Most Comprehensive Map Of The Brain’s Network

The Mandala of the Mind: The long-distance network of the Macaque monkey brain, spanning the cortex, thalamus, and basal ganglia, showing 6,602 long-distance connections between 383 brain regions. (PNAS)

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published Tuesday a landmark paper entitled “Network architecture of the long-distance pathways in the macaque brain” (an open-access paper) by Dharmendra S. Modha (IBM Almaden) and Raghavendra Singh (IBM Research-India) with major implications for reverse-engineering the brain and developing a network of cognitive-computing chips.

“We have successfully uncovered and mapped the most comprehensive long-distance network of the Macaque monkey brain, which is essential for understanding the brain’s behavior, complexity, dynamics and computation,” Dr. Modha says. “We can now gain unprecedented insight into how information travels and is processed across the brain.

“We have collated a comprehensive, consistent, concise, coherent, and colossal network spanning the entire brain and grounded in anatomical tracing studies that is a stepping stone to both fundamental and applied research in neuroscience and cognitive computing.”

The scientists focused on the long-distance network of 383 brain regions and 6,602 long-distance brain connections that travel through the brain’s white matter, which are like the “interstate highways” between far-flung brain regions, he explained, while short-distance gray matter connections (based on neurons) constitute “local roads” within a brain region and its sub-structures.

Their research builds upon a publicly available database called Collation of Connectivity data on the Macaque brain (CoCoMac), which compiles anatomical tracing data from over 400 scientific reports from neuroanatomists published over the last half-century.

“We studied four times the number of brain regions and have compiled nearly three times the number of connections when compared to the largest previous endeavor,” he pointed out. “Our data may open up entirely new ways of analyzing, understanding, and, eventually, imitating the network architecture of the brain, which according to Marian C. Diamond and Arnold B. Scheibel is “the most complex mass of protoplasm on earth—perhaps even in our galaxy.”

The center of higher cognition and consciousness?

Core subnetwork (PNAS)

The brain network they found contains a “tightly integrated core that might be at the heart of higher cognition and even consciousness … and may be a key to the age-old question of how the mind arises from the brain.” The core spans parts of premotor cortex, prefrontal cortex, temporal lobe, parietal lobe, thalamus, basal ganglia, cingulate cortex, insula, and visual cortex.

Prefrontal cortex: integrator-distributor of information

By ranking brain regions (similar to how search engines rank web pages), they found evidence that the prefrontal cortex, while physically located in the front of the brain, is a functionally central part of the brain that might act as an integrator and distributor of information. Think of it as a switchboard.

As they stated in the PNAS paper, “The network opens the door to the application of large-scale network-theoretic analysis that has been so successful in understanding the Internet, metabolic networks, protein interaction networks, various social networks, and in searching the world-wide web. The network will be an indispensable foundation for clinical, systems, cognitive, and computational neurosciences as well as cognitive computing.”

The findings will also help them design the routing architecture for a network of cognitive computing chips, they suggest.

The research was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Defense Sciences Office, Program: Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics.

Dr. Modha presented the exciting findings of this study in a talk I attended at the Toward A Science Of Consciousness conference in Tucson in April, but he asked us to hold off on covering this until the formal paper appeared in a peer-reviewed journal.

A detailed Powerpoint slide show with voice narration (60 slides, ~52 minutes, ~50 MB) is downloadable here.

by Amara D. Angelica

I like the author’s comparison to the “Mandala Of The Mind.” Could this reference be a coincidental incident relating to the Sanskrit word Mandala, which means circle? Certainly the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung saw the mandala as “a representation of the unconscious self,” and believed his paintings of mandalas, which he made after patient contact, enabled him to identify emotional disorders within his subject and work towards developing a wholeness in their personality. But could these “scientific” studies demonstrate a clarity of understanding that allows mankind to understand his/her own basic behavioural tendencies in relation to the way we perceive reality?

This is something I will discuss further when I come to discussing what I have uncovered while studying the idea of the “Self.”

To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.

To find out more about the author of this article, please click here

Or to follow Amara D. Angelica, the author, on Facebook or Twitter, please click respectively here and/or here.

And to read more about Dharmendra S. Modha’s amazing work on mapping of our primate neural net, please click here.

The Undiscovered Self

June 24, 2010

. . . . . . . .

Not nature, but the “genius of mankind,” has knotted the hangman’s noose with which it can execute itself at any moment.

by Carl G. Jung (1952)

. . . . . . . .

The great events of world history are, at bottom, profoundly unimportant. In the last analysis, the essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations first take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately spring as a gigantic summation from there hidden sources in individuals. In our most private and most subjective lives we are not only the passive witnesses of our age, and its sufferers, but also its makers. We make our own epoch.

by Carl G. Jung (1934)

. . . . . . . .

Another classic book from Dr Carl Gustav Jung. This is must read for anyone searching for a better understanding about who and what they really are… And how to better relate to others in the social sea of diverse personality types that are found here, and abound here, on Earth.

Most people confuse “self-knowledge” with knowledge of their conscious ego personalities. Anyone who has any ego-consciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself. But the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents. People measure their self-knowledge by what the average person in their social environment knows of himself, but not by the real psychic facts which are for the most part hidden from them. In this respect the psyche behaves like the body with psychological and anatomical structure, of which the average person knows very little too. Although he lives in it and with it, most of it is totally unknown to the layman, and specific knowledge is needed to acquaint consciousness with what is known of the body, not to speak of all that is not known, which also exists.

What is commonly called “self-knowledge” is therefore a very limited knowledge, most of it dependent on social factors, of what goes on in the human psyche. Hence one is always coming up against the prejudice that such and such a thing does happen “with us” or “in our family” or among friends and acquaintances, and on the other hand. one meets with equally illusory assumptions about the alleged presence of qualities which merely serve to cover up the true facts of the case.

In this broad belt of unconsciousness, which is immune to conscious criticism and control, we stand defenceless, one to all kinds of influences and psychic infections. As with all dangers, we can guard against the risk of psychic infection only when we know what is attacking us, and how, where and when the attack will come. Since self-knowledge is a matter of getting to know the individual facts, theories help very little in this respect. For the more a theory lays claim to universal validity, the less capable it is of doing justice to the individual facts. And theory based on experience is necessarily statistical; that is to say, it formulates an ideal average which abolishes all exceptions at either end of the scale and replaces them by an abstract mean. This mean is quite valid, though it need not necessarily occur in reality. Despite this it figures in the theory as an unassailable fundamental fact. The exceptions at either extreme, though equally factual, do not appear in the final result at all, since they cancel each other out. If, for instance, I determine the weight of each stone in a bed of pebbles and get an average weight of 145 grams, this tells me very little about the real nature of the pebbles. Anyone who thought, on the basis of these findings, that he could pick up a pebble of 145 grams at the first try would be in for a serious disappointment. Indeed, it might well happen that however long he searched he would not find a single pebble weighing exactly 145 grams.

The statistical method shows the facts in the light of the ideal average but does not give us a picture of their empirical reality. While reflecting an indisputable aspect of reality, it can falsify the actual truth in a most misleading way. This is particularly true of theories which are based on statistics. The distinctive thing about real facts, however, is their individuality. Not to put too fine a point on it, one could say that the real picture consists of nothing but exceptions to the rule, and that, in consequence, absolute reality has predominantly the character of irregularity.

taken from “The Undiscovered Self” by Carl G. Jung

To learn more about Carl Gustav Jung, please click here for a BBC radio documentary about his life and work.

OR to view a most informative video concerning his life’s work, with rare interview footage of Jung himself, please click here.

AND… The first three people to send me an E-mail will receive a free copy of this book. All you have to do is click here and enter the address you’d like the book to be delivered to… And it should be with you in about two weeks time!

What a pertinent New Scientist article… Especially after everything that’s been posted recently here at polynomial.me.uk… I’ve said as much in as many ways as I could… And I’m just presently glad to see others saying the same thing now. We certainly need to understand that truths are nothing more than personalised beliefs that suite our own schemas and memetic make ups. Until we grasp this simple principle, and let the importance of our ‘self’ dissipate in varied stances of shifting perception – shifting like the sand dunes of the Sahara, with new daily landscapes uncoiling in the dry desert winds of reason – where we will be afforded many varied and compassionate mindscapes of egoless wonder, we will only grasp at delusions of self imposed, rigid and taught/taut modes of discourse.

As Bertrand Russell once wrote, “Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.” Here, within this ‘certain’ construct of human education a sort of deluded Hollywood romanticism is appearing… A romanticism that seems to allow people to understand their educational upbringing is not subject to modification or reinterpretation. In my humble opinion, it is this un-dynamic view of knowledge that cripples the very essence of all our scientific endeavours, as well as science’s educational system itself… If we encourage this fallacy, it will only cause us to scream at every eventuality that we were not prepared for and distrust all we have learnt, rather than simply updating our Operating Systems, as any good computer ‘bod’ will know to do regularly to keep things running smoothly. I know it’s not easy to never be certain of anything. But as Kung Fu Tzu once said, “A scholar who loves comfort is not fit to be called a scholar.” Without this continual updating of our mental schemas and memetic constructs – where we ‘weed’ those erroneous ideas and/or modify them to fit better what we see/observe in actual fact – we can never hope to find that greater perspective that every Taoist sees writhing in the world around us… A perspective of uncertainty; one that complements the natural and inbuilt chaos/nonlinear dynamics inherent within this universal flow… For without this perspective, we can never truly live harmoniously through the Tao.

Just bear in mind one thing before reading this article… Do yourself a favour and don’t get bogged down with Dorothy’s placing hope in the scientific truths we will come to know — after she says that we can never arrive at a truth. This means exactly what it means… Science will show us many aspects of our world, mainly via understanding the patterns unfolding within our dynamic universe… These patterns, while they change and evolve over time, will be repeatable and will show us a functional truth behind their unfolding, one that we can use to understand the world in which we live better. But to ultimately devise a single truth from these patterns – a truth that can only ever satisfy your own schema and memetic self-centred world view – is to lie to yourself. This is not a contradiction… One must see this important point, or we will lose sight of what logic is, and misuse it to trip ourselves up.

Liar, Liar: Why Deception Is Our Way Of Life

How did we get ourselves into this mess? Continual wars and conflicts, climate change and economic crisis loom at the international level, while as individuals we continue, generation after generation, to inflict pain and suffering not only on other people but on ourselves. Why do we have such difficulty in learning what we most need to know to mitigate our most destructive behaviours?

Throughout history there have been a few individuals whose insight into what goes on inside us is as clear as their understanding of what goes on around them, yet with what looks like self-induced stupidity most of us have been wholly unable to learn what they have been telling us.

Take the Stoic Greek philosopher Epictetus. He commented on human behaviour this way: “It is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things.” In other words, it is not what happens to us that determines our behaviour but how we interpret what happens to us. Thus, when facing a disaster, one person might interpret it as a challenge to be mastered, another as a certain defeat, while a third might see it as the punishment he or she deserves. Crucially, the decisions about what to do follow from the interpretation each person has made.

For me, this uncertainty lies at the heart of what we need to know if we are to understand ourselves and behave differently. And yet throughout history we have denied this truth because what it tells us about ourselves is that, while we are not responsible for most of what happens to us, we are always responsible for how we interpret it. And we seem to dislike taking responsibility for ourselves as much as we dislike uncertainty.

Over the last 20 years or so, neuroscientists have shown that Epictetus was right – and given us important clues about our neuropsychology. They have found that our brain functions in such a way that we cannot see “reality” directly. All we can ever know are the guesses or interpretations our mind creates about what is going on. To create these guesses, we can only draw on basic human neuroanatomy and on our past experience. Since no two people ever have exactly the same neuroanatomy or experience, no two people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way.

This is frightening. It means that each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. Moreover, if everything we know is a guess, an approximation, events can, and often will, invalidate our ideas.

“Each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. This is frightening…”

Can you bear to remember that time in your life when you were going along feeling secure and thinking, “This is me, this is my world, that was my past, this will be my future,” when suddenly you found that you had made a major error of judgement? When you realised that many of the ideas underpinning your whole sense of being a person – that sense of “I”, “me”, “myself” – had been invalidated by events?

Have you ever had the sensation of falling through infinite space, shattering, crumbling, of being about to disappear like a raindrop into the ocean? Perhaps you knew that what was falling apart was not your sense of self but some of your ideas. You knew that you now had to go through a period of uncertainty until new ideas emerged.

But if you did not know this, you would have been utterly terrified, so terrified that you would do anything never to go through such an experience again.

Psychiatrists and psychologists have either ignored this experience, maximised its significance as a full-scale “breakdown”, or minimised it as a “panic disorder”. Yet this feeling of falling apart is an essential part of our lives and of most of our narratives. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy and her companions emerge wiser and strong from the invalidation of their idea that the wizard could solve their problems, while paradoxically Othello is destroyed by the invalidation of his belief that his wife Desdemona had been unfaithful.

We first experience the terror of being invalidated when we are small children, but by the time we are 3 or 4 we have learned a way of avoiding it: we have learned how to lie. From then on, whenever we glimpse the faintest possibility that our “selves” might be threatened with annihilation, we lie.

First of all, we lie to ourselves. Why? Because we fear that we do not have the strength and courage to face the truth of our situation. We even lie about lying, preferring to call our lies anything but a lie. We say: “He’s in denial” or “She’s being economical with the truth”.

We lie in our private and work lives, to friends, family and colleagues. Often we tell them what we call “white lies”. Some of us do so because we need people to like us: our greatest fear is of being abandoned and rejected. Others tell white lies to avoid the chaotic feelings they get from seeing other people being upset by the truth: they know the world is a chaotic place, and to survive in it they need a personal island of clarity, order and control.

At a public level, we lie about nearly everything, from the true level of corporate wealth to expenses and evidence that humans are responsible for changing the climate.

When it comes to such global-level events, you might think finding out what is true would be a top priority, especially as we start out neurologically blindfolded. But it is not. For all of us there is something more important than finding the truth. We are too frightened to confront the facts because doing so means confronting the danger that most of what supports our sense of who we are could disappear.

Unlike lies, truths require evidence to support them. But no matter how much evidence we accumulate, our truths will always be approximations and absolute certainty will exist only in our fantasies. Lying gives us the temporary delusion that our personal and social worlds are intact, that we are loved, that we are safe, and above all, that we are not likely to overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in living in a world we can never truly know.

We can never escape uncertainty: it is part of our very being. Scientists struggle daily to accept uncertainty, and still search for “evidence”. In our personal, professional and collective social lives it looks as if we may have no choice but to confront uncertainty if we are to survive – and survive well.

So we will need to be very careful in future about choosing the situations in which we lie. All lies have networks of consequences we did not expect or intend. The lies we tell may well protect us and our personal – or collective – sense of self in the short term, but in the long term and in a linked-up, complex world, the consequences can be truly disastrous. After all, when we lie to ourselves and to others, we multiply a thousandfold the inherent difficulties we have trying to determine what is actually going on inside us and around us.

One day, neuroscientists may be able to describe the damage we do to our brains when we lie to ourselves and to others, when we create confusion about knowing something that we deny we know. Let’s hope that by then we can start to believe – and to use – the scientific truths we will be telling ourselves.

by Dorothy Rowe

To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.

Or to learn more about Dorothy Rowe, please click here and here.

I’ve spoken about it before… Patterns reside at all levels of life, whether we see them or not. Patterning is everywhere within and without of ourselves. We like to think we can grasp it and change its functionality, desiring to know what it’ll do next… But to control something so sensitive and so fickle is pure delusion upon our part. Rather we are set adrift on a sea of chance, which is so sensitive, that to even think about it seems to change the essence of what it actually is and how it behaves.

Lao Tzu once wrote about “the mysterious quality of the Tao…” For he must have glimpsed at man’s never ending and intrinsic need to understand nature’s flow and design… Why would man want to do this? So as to control and utilise – perhaps even exploit – the essence of all things under heaven… And possibly even within heaven itself. Certainly nothing is held sacred anymore… For understanding seems to explain away any mystical edge that the unknown might have held. Even chaos, while the principles behind its essence certainly are being developed and refined in clearer modes of understanding, still can never be predicted exactly with so many sensitive variables housed within its delicate and susceptible mechanism. Still, from this vague understanding of “God, or Nature’s” ways, our morality seems to disregard this untouchable divinity and aims to solely tighten mankind’s own egocentric and self-imposed purpose here on Earth. If only we could connect with the Tao… How soft and yielding we would all learn to be.

“The Tao produces all things and nourishes them; it produces them and does not claim them as its own; it does all, and yet does not boast of it; it presides over all, and yet does not control them. This is what is called ‘the mysterious Quality’ of the Tao.”

Here I feel Lao Tzu essentially tapped into the essence of what modern science came to know as “chaos…” And where chaos begins, classical science seems to have trouble with its own steadfast footing. To understand concepts behind something which is practically impossible to predict, let alone control, is fair play… But to desire to control something which is unpredictable is dim-witted idiocy. Lao Tzu knew that the unpredictable nature of all things was the essence of that which created and gave life to all things. It does not obviously present itself to any investigator, as Edward Lorenz discovered while using differential equations to create a virtual weather system. And thus, with its hidden and subtle being, it does not boast of its own wonder… As we now know, nonlinear dynamical systems are found literally everywhere in nature and the universe. The chaos within these dynamical systems “presides over all…” Yet the flexibility of these modes of interaction between all discrete units can never yield to, nor allow, any predictable control. Why? For all the subtle, minuscule, almost indiscernible changes made within the system, give rise to eddies that writhe and bubble over the edge of certainty and thus can never be forecast with any indubitable conviction. Here in lies the essence of the Tao… Of chaos itself.

No doubt some of you have realised by now that the main theme running through this website is centred around aspects of chaos and nonlinear dynamics – what one perceptive philosopher, namely Baruch Spinoza, termed to be “God, or Nature.” The end aim of this is to demonstrate how the complexity of our universal experience and of universal being, which look at notions of who and what we really we are, all interlink into one vastly complex, and almost unknowable picture of order woven out of a fabric of disorder. As if this essence was what man’s notions of God were developing into. Or if if we were to look at it all more rationally, then to somewhat summarise this long chain of interlinking events, the Buddhists chose to call this majestic tapestry “Interdependent Origination.”

Chaos admittedly has notions of disorder and irregularity running through out its rough and irregular flow… But it is this disorder that acts as an amazingly complex function of universal discourse, providing order and consistency at congruent levels of flexibility, thus generating immense diversity… In my humble opinion it is this juxtaposition of order and disroder that allows a stability within a mode of suppleness which feeds-back into itself, allowing us to learn within standards of conformity, and yet evolve, over time, into ever modifying manners of new understanding and functionality. For example, our perception of the passing of time is directly associated with the dynamical discharge of our neural net. We are limited to states of temporal regularity through the mechanisms of our own bodily designs. We only have to try to swat a fly to see this.

Evolution is occurring within – and upon – all levels of dynamical interaction, whether these are social discourses within society or mental arrangements of schemas within our minds… OR even if they are atomic and molecular interactions within chemical systems, such as goes on within our brains and bodies… These processes even stretch to encompass vast expanses of gaseous shapes that are being tugged and pulled by gravitational forces of moving/shifting suns, solar systems and black holes within nebulous areas of space… Change, no matter how sharp or quick, ever so softly folds back onto itself into new renditions of behavioural patterning. No doubt we will be hard pressed to see all these levels if we know nothing about chaos theory OR the Tao.

Some might well ask why we should even bother to try to see these elusive processes… And yet all of these processes deeply penetrate our society’s totality, affecting us in ways that are far too subtle to mention with our rudimentary understand of things… Only a Buddha could possibly ‘see’ them clearly enough to understand them truly, without corrupting the purity of their nature with society’s own crass and cumbersome perception of things. We, as human beings – who are made from this algorithm of Life: a vast interacting net of chaotic flow – rely upon the “mystery” of the Tao’s essence to function. So profound and all pervading is it, that it operates on – and across – so many levels of energetic continuity, all of which are intertwined in a complexity that only “God, or Nature” could ever truly become self-aware of… And yet I feel we need to see this, even if it is only in part. Especially because of our present extremely self-centred and heavy modes of living and being i.e. pollution of the environment, destruction of forests, etc… When we see the interconnectedness of everything we will notice that these levels of universal interplay are so ethereal and disarming that, when understood with the patterns within ourselves, we will find it easier to truly open ourselves up to the universe in a way that will shed light on understanding why so many human beings choose to do such seemingly silly things with their lives i.e. believe in a deity of some kind, etc… Once we become familiar with these chaotic ebbs and flows, we may see anew through cleansed insight, so as to understand why altruistic behaviour has naturally been selected for (religions, whether you like it or not, do possess the marks of altruistic behaviour)… And why, as Susan Blackmore discusses in her book entitled “The Meme Machine,” altruism spreads more altruism.

So, before we get to the point of this blog, let’s look at what Susan Blackmore wrote about Altruism in her book, “The Meme Machine.”

The Altruism Trick

In today’s world I am going to assume that we can ignore meme-gene coevolution. This might be an oversimplification, because as long as there are two replicators they will interact with one each other. However, the pace of memetic evolution is now so fast, relative to that of genetic evolution, that we can safely ignore the latter for most purposes. The genes cannot keep up. What we cannot ignore is the legacy left by the long process of coevolution. The brains we have are the big and clever brains created by meme-gene coevolution. The way we think and feel is a product of that evolutionary process, and now determines which memes do well and which do not. We like sex, so sex memes get a head start: different ones for men and for women. We like food and we like power and excitement. We find maths hard, and so mathematical memes need a lot of encouragement. The structure of our language affects which memes are more easily passed on. The theories and myths we have created affect the way we deal with new memes. And so on.

Note that sociobiology has made a different simplifying assumption and has ignored the role of memes. For many purposes this has been an adequate approach, and we can use many of the findings of sociobiology to provide insight into the brains we have and the ideas and behaviours that come easily, but it cannot provide the whole picture. Our concern now will be what happens when vast numbers of memes compete to get into, and stay in, limited numbers of increasingly educated and overworked brains.

We must resume the meme’s eye view; remembering that all that counts in the life of a meme is whether or not it survives and replicates. I shall find myself saying that memes ‘want,’ ‘need,’ or ‘try to do’ something. But we must remember that this is only shorthand for saying that the ‘something’ will improve the chances of the meme’s being copied. Memes do not have conscious intentions; nor do they actually strive to do anything at all. They are simply (by definition) capable of being copied, and all their apparent striving and intentionality comes from this. When anything can be copied it can end up having few or many copies made. Memes may be successfully copied because they are good, true, useful or beautiful – but they may be successful for other reasons too. It is those reasons I now wish to explore.

A meme that gets into a meme-fountain will do better than one that only gets into meme-sinks. We can guess who the meme-fountains are. Indeed, many experiments in social psychology show who is most often emulated. Powerful people (and people who dress in the trappings of power), people perceived as experts, and people in authority are all examples of ‘imitate-the-successful.’ All these people are more likely to get others to do what they say or to accept their ideas; as salesmen, advertisers and politicians have long known. In discussing the ‘power button’ Brodie (1996) suggests that TV shows use large cars, guns and flashy clothes to gain more air time and so promote their kinds of memes. Fames spreads memes, as when television and film stars are watched by millions of viewers, so changing the fashions in clothes, speech, smoking or drinking, cars, food and lifestyle. But not everyone is powerful, and there are other kinds of meme-fountain. For example, we are more likely to be persuaded by someone we perceive as similar to ourselves, and a clever sales trick is to mirror the actions of the potential buyer or to pretend to having similar beliefs or hobbies (Cialdini 1994).

I have already suggested that one way to spread memes is to behave altruistically, and I now want to consider some of the consequences of this less obvious way of becoming a meme-fountain. First, altruistic behaviour spreads copies of itself – so making us more altruistic. Second altruism helps to spread other memes – so providing a trick that memes can use to get themselves copied.

Altruism spreads altruism

Let us consider first the copying of altruistic behaviour itself. Imagine two different memes (or sets of memes). One is a set of memes for helping your friend when she is in trouble – whether it is giving her a lift when her car breaks down or listening to her troubles when her boyfriend leaves her. The other is a set of memes for ignoring what your friend needs. These are behaviours that can be copied from one person to another and so they must be memes. Note that I uese the phrase ‘a meme for something.’ This is potentially dangerous because it might be taken to imply that there is a particular instruction explicitly stored somewhere in a brain which tells the person to help their friend – and this can easily be made to look ridiculous. This interpretation is not necessary, however. All that is necessary is to assume that people imitate aspects of each other’s behaviour and that when they do so something is passed on from one to the other. We do not need to agonise about what that something is. The simple fact is that if imitation happens (as it surely does) then something has been passed on and that something is what we call the meme. So when I say a ‘meme for helping your friend’ I only mean that some aspect of helping behaviour has been passed on by one person copying the other.

Now we can ask the important question: which of these two memes will do better? The first meme will – it will make your friend like you more and want to spend more time with you. She will therefore become more helpful to her other friends, and so the meme will gradually spread. The same simple logic applies to any meme which helps its carrier to become more popular. The people who pick up these memes are not aware of what they are doing, they just find themselves wanting to be more like the nice people, not the nasty ones. They find they want to help and be kind and feel bad if they do not. Just as many of our human emotions serve the genes, so these ones serve the memes – and they are no less noble for that.

Does this mean that everyone will become nicer and nicer and nicer without limit? Of course not. The main reason why not is that being kind and generous and altruistic is expensive in terms of time and money. There are always pressures acting against altruism, and there are always other strategies for memes to use. However, in general it means that people will be more altruistic than they would be if they were incapable of imitation.

This is an example of meme-driven altruism in a modern context (and note that this is different from the memetic driving of genes for altruism which I considered at the end of the previous chapter). In this kind of meme-driven altruism, actions that are costly and done for someone else come about through memetic competition. Because these actions are driven by memes and not genes they need not necessarily be in the person’s genetic interest. These cases, in which the genes do not benefit and the memes do, provide test cases for a memetic explanation. People who devote their entire lives to charitable work or to the caring professions while having no children of their own are examples. Their sacrifice cannot easily be explained in terms of genetic advantage, but can be simply explained in terms of memetics.

In principle, meme-driven altruism ought to be able to produce the most pure and selfless generosity. Indeed, it may occasionally do so. However, altruism not only works to spread itself but also acts to spread other memes as well. This provides a mechanism open to exploitation by other memes. This, I suggest, is exactly what happens. I shall describe several ways in which memes can exploit the process of meme-driven altruism. These are all versions of what I shall call the ‘altruism trick.’

The altruism trick depends on the simple idea that a meme that gets into an altruistic or likeable person (like Kevin) is more likely to be copied than one that gets into a meany (like Gavin). So what kinds of meme (other than memes for altruism) can get into the altruist?

First, some memes look like altruism even if they are not, and so they can fit easily in an already altruistic person, and second, memes can group together into memeplexes that use various tricks to get into altruists.

Looking like altruism

The first is an obvious trick, to look like altruism. A meme that makes a person appear to be kinder and more generous will increase the chances of that person being imitated and so of that meme being spread, without incurring great costs. There are many examples of this kind of behaviour. We smile at people a lot, and we smile back at people who smile at us first. We say kind and polite things to them – ‘How are you?’ ‘I do hope your parents are well’ ‘Have a nice time at the party’ ‘How may I help you?’ ‘Have a good day’ ‘Happy New Year.’ With all these common memes we give the impression of caring about the other person, even if we do not. That is why they are successful memes. Our ordinary everyday conversation is full of such memes.

Closely related to this is the sort of meme that sneaks easily into an altruist. Memes do not exist in isolation. All memes, at least at some phases of their lives, are stored in human brains, and humans are complicated creatures who strive to maintain some kind of consistency to their ideas. This ‘consistency principle’ is crucial in understanding a lot of human thought and action. If a given person tends to be altruistic, whether because of a genetic tendency to act that way, or because he has picked up lots of altruistic memes during his/her lifetime (or most likely because of both), then other altruism memes are more likely to gain a foothold there.

Let us suppose a new meme comes along in the lives of Kevin and Gavin; suppose they both hear a plea to save their used stamps and send them to some charity. This new meme is far more likely to be accepted and acted on by Kevin than Gavin. It fits well with his other behaviour. He thinks of himself as a caring person and so on. If he refused to take part he would suffer ‘cognitive dissonance,’ the unpleasant consequence of holding two incompatible views – in this case, his idea of himself as a caring person and refusal to help with the stamps. Many psychological studies have shown that people will work to reduce dissonance between incompatible ideas, and also that consistency itself is generally admired and emulated (Cialdini 1994; Festinger 1957). This idea is less likely to take hold of Gavin. He would suffer no cognitive dissonance by refusing to help in this or any other way.

The need for consistency and the avoidance of dissonance provide the context in which memes club together in different people. Once someone is committed to a particular set of memes, other memes are more or less likely to find a safe home in that person’s repertoire of arguments, beliefs, and behaviours. We find this kind of generalisation of memes in all sorts of contexts. You might think it is just common sense that nice people do nice things and nasty people do nasty things but memetics puts this common-sense fact in a slightly different light. Memes can succeed or fail because of the genetic propensity of the people they come across, also because of the memes already present in those people.

The situation is all the more complex because of changing fashions. The memes which are acceptable will shift as the whole meme pool changes. At one time, certain types of charitable giving will seem appropriate, but a few years later, completely different kinds will take over. But this complexity should not cloud the basic principle. Once meme-driven altruism has got going it will generalise. Memes for all sorts of kind and generous acts can take hold more easily in people who are already infected with altruistic memes and who have invested in a particular view of themselves. These people are copied more than other people and so these memes spread more widely.

This process can be used to understand all sorts of otherwise rather baffling actions. Let us take kindness to animals, Many people go out of their way to help animals in distress. There are homes for dogs and cats, and refuges for sick donkeys and injured wildlife. There are game parks and great international attempts to save species from extinction. There are ‘Save the Animals’ charity shops, and greetings cards that support wildlife organisations.

I say this is baffling because there is no easy explanation of all this inter-species kindness in terms of rational self-interest, genetic advantage, or evolutionary psychology. Rescuing an injured tiger would not benefit a hunter-gatherer. Animals were not domesticated until about ten thousand years ago in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ to the east of the Mediterranean, as recently as one thousand years ago in America, and not at all in some parts of the world (Diamond 1997). Therefore during most of our evolutionary past, the animal around us have mostly been either been potential prey for eating or predators trying to eat us. Saving them from death makes no genetic sense; nor does working to relieve their suffering. I have never come across a sociobiological explanation of kindness to animals, although I can think of several possibilities. Animals cannot, on the whole, pay back the favours; so direct reciprocal altruism is no explanation. However, a possible argument is that reciprocal altruism has given us the emotions that drive this behaviour. We feel empathy with suffering animals and want to relieve it; we feel guilt if we do not, and so on. Another possibility is that we raise our status in the reciprocal altruism stakes by appearing kind. I am not convinced that this makes sense, because of the high potential costs of such behaviour. Surely, natural selection would have weeded out any tendencies to be too kind to animals, especially wild and dangerous. These theories are also hard to test.

Why do we do it then? I suggest that kindness to animals can easily take hold because it fits well in people who are already infected with altruism memes. They see themselves as kind people and have an investment in continuing to be so. The way they behave makes them more likely to be imitated, and so kindness to animals spreads.

Exactly the same argument applies to the increasingly widespread practise of refusing to eat meat. Humans were clearly designed to eat a certain amount of meat. Meat is high in protein and fat, and was probably necessary to feed the increasingly large brain of our far ancestors. Yet now many people, myself included, do not eat meat. Some argue that they feel better on a vegetarian diet and a few do not like meat, but most say they are affected by the suffering of the animals bred and killed for food. I suggest that vegetarianism succeeds as a meme because we all want to be like the nice people who care about animals, and so we copy them. Not everyone will get infected by this meme; some like meat too much and others have sets of memes that are not very compatible with this one. Nevertheless, it does quite well. Vegetarianism is a mimetically spread altruistic fashion.

If this is right we should expect to be able to trace the historical origins of such memes as they gradually appear and take hold of whole populations. We should not expect to find such actions in societies with little communication and few ways for memes to spread. We would expect them to be most common in societies in which people have plenty of resources to spare and plenty of opportunities for picking up new memes. We should not necessarily expect people to brag about being kind to animals, but simply to find themselves wanting to be so.

Note that it is not necessary that the superficially kind actions should actually help the animals in question. An injured animal that is rescued is helped in the short term, and a potential battery hen that is never hatched is almost certainly better off for never having existed. But the long-term prospects are dubious, especially when it comes to schemes for saving whole habitats or species. The memetic approach makes it easy to understand why particular behaviours spread even when they do not achieve what they are supposed to achieve. It is not just that people make mistakes in their reasoning, which we know all too well, but that they are especially likely to make certain sorts of mistakes – in this case copying behaviours that look altruistic.

A final example of this kind is recycling waste. Recycling is certainly a meme – that is, a behaviour that people pick up by copying other people, whether they read about it, see it on television or discover that all their neighbours are doing it. Many people put a great deal of effort into separating different kinds of waste, storing them in their house or garage, taking them to recycling points, and buying recyclable goods. The recycling meme has been an enormously successful one, spreading far and wide in the developed world an driving a massive amount of human activity. Some experts argue that the energy thus used is far more than would be needed if the materials were simply dumped and new ones made. I have no idea whether this is true, but from the memetic point of view it does not matter. We would expect these kinds of behaviour to spread because they are easily picked up by people who already do all kinds of generous, caring ‘green’ activities, who are therefore seen as altruistic and are therefore copied. The whole ‘green-movement,’ and the effort put into it, is just what you would expect of meme-driven altruism in action.

Memeplexes and the altruism trick

Memes which have nothing to do with altruism can benefit from ‘copy-the-altruist’ by just tagging along for free. Like Kev the caveman’s flashy blue-feathered arrows, some memes may just by luck happen to be carried by more altruistic people, but this luck is not a memetic process that can be relied on. Instead, we can expect memes to have devised strategies for getting into altruistic people without actually being altruism memes themselves (or more accurately – memes that happened to have such strategies should have survived better than those without, and we should be able to observe them around us). Are there such examples?

Yes. They range from little groups of co-memes to very complicated memeplexes. Remember that the essence of any memeplex is that the memes inside it can replicate better as part of the group than they can on their own. Some simple ones will show the principle. For the first type we need to assume that people want to be liked. This part of the principle I have been following that people imitate people they like more than people they do not. Imitating people you like should be a good way to become liked yourself and being liked should ensure that people are nicer to you.

Now, let us take some actions a parent might try to persuade a child to do, such as clean, say please and thank you to Auntie Dawn, or stay a virgin until after marriage. Why should children obey the instructions? They might obey out of fear or coercion, but a common trick is to turn the instruction into ‘Good children keep their clothes clean,’ ‘Nice people say people and thank you,’ or ‘Good girls don’t have sex before marriage.’ These simple memeplexes consist of just two parts; the instruction and the idea of being good. ‘People won’t like you if do that’ is another, as are hints that nice people vote conservative, people like us eat dinner at eight, or kind people go to church.

More complicated memeplexes can build up around the kinds of altruism I considered before, such as kindness to animals and recycling, and lots of other memes can jump on board. The recycling symbol is a little scrap of information that has been successfully copied around the world. The names and logos of all the charities are other examples, as are collecting boxes that are rattled in the street, the practises of having charity shops, of distributing special bags to collect goods in, and many other activities that thrive in the world of charitable giving. As memeplexes evolve and become more complicated, new niches are created in which new kinds of meme can thrive. In the examples I have given here, the spread of charitable giving opens up niches for all sorts of other memes to thrive.

You can even sell music and fashion using altruism. Bob Geldof really did give money to the starving in Africa but he sold millions of record at the same time. Princess Diana’s memorial fund really is funding her charities but it is spreading millions of Diana memes in the process – pictures, stories, personal reminiscences, speculations and scandals, videos of her life and times, not to mention the words and tune of Candle in the Wind.

These are simple examples, but they are sufficient to show that meme-driven altruism is an obvious meme-trick read for exploitation. It should not, therefore, surprise us to find that many of the most powerful and widespread memeplexes use it in various forms. Pre-eminent are the religions. One of the mechanisms is simple, once you think about it memetically. a religion which persuades its follows to be more altruistic will spread because of the altruism trick.

I once was cycling in the park in Bristol when my bicycle chain fell off. Before I could jump off to put it back two young men raced up to me, politely offered help, expertly put the chain back on, and stood smiling kindly at me. ‘Thank you very much,’ I said, feeling a little bewildered. For I had never seen them before and I was not a ravishing sight in my Felix-the-cat bike helmet. God was soon on their lips, quickly followed by Joseph Smith and Salt Lake City. The Mormon faith is ably and deliberately spread by the altruism trick. It doesn’t work on everyone, but it works well enough to keep the memes alive.

The altruism trick works like this. Take a political party, a religious sect, a cult, a local benevolent society, or any complex belief system. Incorporate within it the idea that its follower should do good works. These good works will then make the followers more likeable and so people will copy them – copying in the process all the other memesin the belief system. Of course, this mechanism does involve actual ‘good works,’ as did Geldof and Diana. Others only give the appearance of doing good, or just persuade their followers to think they are doing good. Others exploit the sense of obligation induced by giving gifts – the proselyte does you a good turn, now feel obligated to him/her, and the obvious way to repay this obligation is to do what he wants, that is, to take on his memes (or at least give the appearance of doing so). There are many variations on this basic ‘altruism trick.’ I will consider how some of them work, as well as further implications of Allison’s (1992) beneficent norms, when dealing in more detail with religions.

Note that this trick effectively makes people work for the memes they carry. People who join the cults or adopt the ideologies give away their possessions, do good works, or help others, because this helps copy the memes that have infected them. Other people then copy them and they also begin to work for the memes. This is one reason why memeplexes that use this trick have survived in the past and why there are so many of them around now. This is the second time we have met the idea of people working for their memes (the first was in relation to sex and spreading memes rather than genes) and we will meet it again. In this sense we can say that the memes are driving human behaviour.

If this seems frightening then we need to ask ourselves why. What does drive human behaviour? Much of the antagonism towards Darwinism, sociobiology, and indeed any science of human behaviour, stems from an apparent desire to see ourselves as magical autonomous agents in charge of our own destinies. I shall tackle the basis of this view later, but for now just say that yes, memetics does undermine this view. We can describe any behaviour in numerous different ways for different purposes, but underneath them all lies the competition between replicators. Memes provide the driving force behind what we do, and the tools with which we do it. Just as the design of our bodies can be understood only in terms of natural selection, so the design of our minds can be understood only in terms of memetic selection.

Debts, obligations and bartering

Can the theory of memetic altruism be tested? One approach would be to test the basic assumptions on which it rests. the main assumption is that people preferentially copy people they like. I have assumed this because there are substantial hints in the literature that this is so. In his widely cited book on the psychology of persuasion, the American psychologist, Robert Cialdini (1994) reviews the evidence that people are more easily influenced by, and more likely to agree to a request or buy a product from people they like. Tupperware parties work because the host/hostess invited friends who like them and therefore more likely to buy products they do not want. Successful car dealers charm their intended purchasers by complimenting them, appearing to be similar to them, giving away small concessions or appearing to take their part against the boss, all of which increases their client’s liking for the dealers and hence the ease with which the victims can be separated from their money. The major factors that increase liking include physical attractiveness, similarity, cooperativeness, and the belief that the other person likes you. One record-breaking salesman even used to send out thirteen thousand cards a month to his clients saying ‘I like you’ – and presumably he was not wasting his money.

What is not so clear is whether liking leads directly to imitation. This has not been much studied by social psychologists, perhaps, because the importance of imitation per se has not been emphasised. If it does, the other consequences should follow; that people buy more products from, are persuaded to change their minds by, and often agree with people they like. In other words, the social psychological findings described above may be a consequence of a deeper underlying tendency to want to copy people we like. The experiments that need to be done, therefore, should look more closely at the imitation of actions carried out by likeable and unlikeable people. For example, we might ask people to watch ‘liked’ and ‘disliked’ models of carrying out a task in different ways, and then do the task themselves. Experiments could then go on to find out just how best to manipulate liking so as to produce the most effective imitation. If the same manipulations affect simple imitation of actions as well as persuasion and agreement with beliefs, this would be suggestive that a similar process is going on in both. I have also assumed altruistic behaviour makes people more likeable. This may seem too obvious to need testing, but we could use similar experiments to test the main consequence of this – that is, that acting altruistically will induce people to imitate you. If these predictions were not born out of the entire basis of this kind of meme-drive altruism would be undermined.

The outcome of such experiments might be complicated by the effects of the ‘reciprocal rule.’ It is well known in social psychology that people obliged to repay any kindness shown to them, and feel obligated if they do not (Cialdini 1995). This tendency is culturally widespread and probably related to the fact that aid from rich to poor countries is not always well received (Moghaddam et al. 1993). Presumably, reciprocity stems from our evolved use of reciprocal altruism. Now, if an observer in one of our experiments has a kindness done to them they may feel obligated to the model – an unpleasant feeling which might disincline them to like the model and so complicate the issue. The most interesting outcome from the memetic point of view would be if imitating the altruist (i.e. taking on their memes) acted as a kind of reciprocation. By this I mean that one person could ‘pay back’ a kindness by taking on the other person’s ideas.

This effect can be seen to follow from a combination of the ‘reciprocation rule’ which derives from reciprocal altruism, and Allison’s beneficent norm ‘Be good to those who imitate you.’ According to this rule, if A imitates B, B should now feel obliged to A. So, for example, not only does the professor want to be nice to her students but all of us should be kinder to people who agree with us, or take on our ideas, or imitate us in other ways. If the process works both ways then if C gives D a gift, D will feel obliged to C and may pay back the obligation by agreeing with C (or taking on her memes in some other way). In ordinary life we may be seeing this in the tendency of guests to agree with their host’s ideas, or of people in subordinate positions to agree with those who have power over them, or in the tricks used by religions that I discussed above. Finally, this could lead to people trading off their obligations by bartering goods against imitation in all possible combinations. So, for example, the guest who brings a fine present should feel under less obligation to agree with the host than the one who does not.

If the idea of exchanging goods for taking on memes seems unfamiliar, we might think of the bartering of memes that goes on all around us. We are used to the idea of paying for the information we want, by buying books or newspapers, paying our TV licence, or buying tickets to the cinema, but if people want to impose their ideas on us then they should have to pay to get our attention, like advertisers and politicians do. I shall return to this in considering the way information is put onto the Internet at the cost of the provider, not the user.

All these exchanges could be investigated. Imagine an experiment in which James expresses some unpopular idea, or solicits people to join his organisation, or whatever. Among a group of people present, Greg gets up and publicly agrees with James. Now James should feel obliged to Greg and so be more likely to act generously towards him than to the others. Such experiments could find out whether exchanging memes could become a kind of currency like exchanging goods.

Other experiments might bring together people of opposed view points, or people who disagree about the right way to do something, and find out what methods they actually use to change one another’s minds. Studies of attitude change have often been done where material gain is at stake, such as in advertising and political persuasion, but this theory predicts that people will, if given the chance, be more generous to people who already agree with you, nor to those whom you judge as being beyond conversion. The greatest altruism should be shown to those who are capable of being convinced (Rose 1997).

The effects of reciprocation are a little more complex, however. Imagine the following experiment. Just two people are involved (though in practice we would need to repeat it with many pairs). Janet is asked to express her opinion on some controversial topic while Meg listens in silence. Janet now acts generously in some way towards Meg (perhaps by buying her a coffee or offering to help with something). Meg is then asked to say how much she like Janet. We should obviously expect that Meg will express greater liking for Janet when she has been generous towards her than when she was not. Now we give Meg the chance to say what she thinks about the controversial topic and again measure her liking for Janet. The theory makes two predictions. The first is more obvious, that Meg is more likely to express agreement when Janet has given her something. The second is less so, that expressing agreement acts as a kind of repayment of the kindness. so we should predict that if Meg now publicly agrees with Janet (whether that is really her opinion or not) she will now like Janet more than if she does not. In other words, Meg likes Janet not only because she was kind to Meg, but because Meg has paid off her debt by agreeing and so need no longer feel under any obligation to Janet.

This is an extremely artificial situation but I have tried to keep it simple. More realistic ways of taking on someone’s memes might be to copy their actions in some more concrete way, to agree to pass on information to someone else, to write down what they say, to join a group they belong to, and so on, but I hope the principle is clear – that liking for a generous model would be increased if the subject were given the chance to imitate her, because the sense of obligation was reduced. This is, I suggest, a counter-intuitive outcome that could not readily be predicted or explained on any other theory.

If these predictions are correct they suggest that memes and resources can be bartered against each other in all sorts of ways. We should be able to pay people to accept or ideas, agree with people to pay of debts, and force people into agreement by what appears to be generous actions. There are interesting implications here for the power of money to coerce people into agreement. Some of the predictions are fundamental to the processes underlying meme-driven altruism and therefore, if they do not work out, my theory is wrong.

by Susan Blackmore

Also… I’d like to present Blackmore’s take on religions as memeplexes, as I feel – combined with an understanding that religions originate in the ways that either Elizabeth Culotta describes in “On The Origin Of Religion” and/or Matthew Taylor discusses in “God On My Mind” – it uses memetics as a truly revolutionary tool for understanding why we are so prone to producing delusions of reality and then forget not to take them with “a pinch of salt,” showing us why and how these beliefs are prone natural selection for their altruistic properties, which ensure a better survival mechanism of our species.

Religions As Memeplexes

Like it or not, we are surrounded by religions. The ‘Great Faiths’ of the world have lasted thousands of years and affect our calendars and holidays, our education and upbringing, our beliefs and our morality. All over the world people spend vast amounts of time and money worshipping their gods and building glorious monuments in which to do it. We cannot get away from religions, but using memetics we can understand how and why they have such power.

All the great religions of the world began as small-scale cults, usually with a charismatic leader, and over the years a few of them spread to take in billions of people all across the planet. Imagine just how many small cults there must have been in the history of the world. The question is why did these few survive to become great faiths, while the vast majority simply died out with the death of their leader or the dispersal of their few adherents?

Dawkins was the first to give memetic answers (Dawkins 1986, 1993, 1996b), although his ideas on religion have frequently been criticised (Bowker 1995; Gatherer 1998). He took Roman Catholicism as an example. The memes of Catholicism include the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient God, the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God, born of the virgin Mary, risen from the dead after his crucifixion and now (and for ever) able to hear our prayers. In addition, Catholics believe that their priests can absolve them from their sins after confession, the Pope literally speaks the word of God, and when priests administer the mass, the bread and wine literally change into the flesh and blood of Christ.

To anyone uninfected with any Christian memes these ideas must seem bizarre in the extreme. How can an invisible God be both omnipotent and omniscient? Why should we believe a two-thousand-year-old story that a virgin gave birth? What could it possibly mean to say that the wine ‘literally’ becomes the blood of Christ? How could someone have died for our sins when we were not even born? How could he rise from the dead, and where is he now? How could a prayer, said silently to yourself, really work?

There are many claims for the efficacy of prayer in healing the sick, and even little experimental evidence (Benor 1994; Dossey 1993), but few of the experiments have controlled adequately for placebo effects, expectation, and spontaneous recovery, and some have shown that people with the strongest religious faith were less likely to recover from acute illness (Kind et al. 1994). Against the claims are hundreds of years of people praying for the health of their royal families or heads of state with no apparent effect, and the inability of modern-day religious healers to make any obvious difference in hospitals. Then there are all those countless wars in which both sides routinely pray for God to help their side and kill the enemy. Yet millions of people all over the world profess themselves Catholics and pray to Jesus, his mother Mary, and God the Father. They spend vast amounts of their valuable time and money supporting and spreading the faith to others, and the Catholic Church is among the richest institutions in the world. Dawkins (1993) explains how religious memes, even if they are not true, can be successful.

The Catholic God is watching at all times and will punish people who disobey His commandments with most terrible punishments. – burning forever in hell, for example. These threats cannot easily be tested because God and hell are invisible, and the fear is inculcated from early childhood. A friend of mine showed me a book he once treasured as a child. It had pictures of a little good boy and a little bad boy. You could open up the flaps of their blazers and inside the good boy find a white and shinning heart, while the bad boy had a black spot for every sin he had committed. Imagine the the power of that image when you cannot see inside your own body and must only imagine the little black spots piling up and piling up – when you talk in class or cheat in a test, when you take your sister’s toy or steal a chocolate biscuit, when you think a bad thought, or doubt God’s truth and goodness… every one a black spot.

Having raised the fear, Catholicism reduces it again. If you turn to Christ you will be forgiven. If you honestly repent of your sins, bring up your children as Catholics, and go regularly to mass, then, even though you are unworthy and sinful, God will forgive you. God’s love is always available but at a price, and that price is often overlooked completely because it is paid so willingly. It is the price of investing massive amounts of time, energy and money in your religion – in other words, working for their memes. As Dawkins pointed out, Catholics work hard to spread their Catholicism.

I previously described several meme tricks that New Age memeplexes use. All these can be found in religions too. First, like alien abduction and near-death experience memes, religions serve a real function. They supply answers to all sorts of age-old human questions such as: Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where do we go when we die? Why is the world full of suffering? The religious answers may be false but at least they are answers. Religious commitment may give people a sense of belonging, and has been shown to improve social integration in the elderly (Johnson 1995). Religions may also incorporate useful rules for living, such as the dietary laws of Judaism or rules about cleanliness and hygiene which may once have protected people from disease. These useful functions help carry other memes along.

The truth trick is liberally used. In many religions, God and Truth are virtually synonymous. Rejecting faith means turning away from Truth; converting others mean giving them the gift of the true faith. This may seem odd when so many religious claims are clearly false, but there are many reasons why it works. For example, people who have a profound experience in a religious context are inclined to take on the memes of that religion; people who like or admire someone may believe their truth claims without question. At the extreme, people will even tell lies for God and manage to convince themselves and others that they do so in the name of truth – as when when ‘Creation Scientists’ proclaim ‘The Truth’ that the early earth is only six thousand years old, and back it up with denials of the fossil record, or claims that the speed of light has slowed since the creation so as to give the illusion of a vast universe and an ancient planet (Plimer 1994).

I’d like to add a foot note here regarding an aspect of Buddhism. Within Buddhist doctrine there is the comprehension of rebirth i.e. reincarnation of ourselves OR our ‘souls’/’selves’ into new future lives. Having read several books and watched several films concerning the this phenomena of reincarnation, my instinct is still dubious about whether this aspect of Buddhist belief is really an actual fact… Or whether it is really a convenient ‘myth,’ designed with the ultimate intention of spreading as much good will and compassion between as many human beings as possible, as soon as possible, while we are here on Earth. I mean… If I became an enlightened being, with great compassion and love guiding my every action toward all fellow sentient beings, then I would ultimately realise that not all human beings would be ready to give up their existence in Saṃsāra. I would also clearly see that not all beings would be willing to develop and become compassionate to their fellow men and women, let alone other sentient beings… The main reason being is that the “delusion of consciousness” would be way too deeply ingrained in our very essence for the majority to give up in an instant. And, while I would be aware that ‘change’ will take time, especially in a world where people try to instil consistency and homogeneity into their lives, blanking any distressing chances that may occur… My ultimate goal – to prevent/minimise the suffering of all living beings here in Saṃsāra – should be achieved as quickly as possible to minimise the amount of suffering endure in this moment. Thus, due to the inertia of delusion within the fabric of society, along with all of our self-centred tendencies created at the dawn of time – and Life – here on Earth, as the ultimate survival mechanism powered by the process of natural selection… I would need some serious leverage to get people to believe and understand that selflessness, sacrifice, material asceticism, along with unbiased generosity and diverse altruistic behaviour towards all sentient beings, were the only way to minimise OR prevent the totality of all suffering. And, as I would be well aware of how easily the unenlightened mind might grasp to false understandings and delusions about its present reality, I would be very well inclined to develop a meme that would get all of humanity to contemplate their own social impact upon all others within this and future times. In preparing this meme, I would certainly devise a strategy that would exploit every aspect of our human traits of selfishness and self-centred tendencies, thus provoking people to consider their future lives and their future suffering in terms of how well they perform here, in the present. Because of the inertia of these tendencies, the majority of human beings who listened to this meme would primarily act out of selfish, evolutionary driven concern their own happiness. However, somewhere along the way they might well develop a genuine compassionate stance towards all Life here on Earth, and thus awake from self-centred tendencies and delusions to see the interconnectedness of all reality and being.

Beauty inspires the faithful and brings them closer to God. Some of the most beautiful buildings in the world have been constructed in the name of Buddha, Jesus Christ, or Mohammed. Then there are the beautiful statues and alluring stories in Hinduism; stained glass, inspiring paintings, and illustrated manuscripts; uplifting music sung by tremulous choir boys and vast choirs, or played on great organs. Deep emotions are inspired to the point of religious ecstasy or rapture which then cries out for – and receives – an explanation. The ecstasy is real enough, but from the memes’ point of view, beauty is another trick to help the reproduce.

The altruism trick permeates religious teachings. Many believers are truly good people. In the name of their faith they help their neighbours, give money to the poor, and try to live honest and moral lives. If they are successful then generally people come to lie and admire them and so are more inclined to imitate them. In this way not only does good and honest behaviour spread, but the religious memes that were linked to that behaviour spread too. Alongside this comes merely the semblance of good behaviour. Hypocrisy can flourish when goodness is defined not only as kind and altruistic behaviour, but as sticking to the rules and obligations of the faith. Much of the money donated to churches, temples, or synagogues is not used for the poor or needy, but to perpetuate the religion’s memes by erecting beautiful buildings or paying for clergy. Activities that spread memes are also defined as ‘good’ even though their benefit is questionable, such as saying prayers at specified times, saying grace at every meal, and keeping one day of the week as a day of worship. In this way huge chunks of every believer’s time are willingly devoted to maintaining and spreading the faith.

Many people think of Mother Teresa as a saint. Indeed, she may soon be officially canonised by the Catholic Church. She is many people’s idea of the truly selfless and altruistic heroine. But what did she actually do? Some of the inhabitants of Calcutta accuse her of diverting attention from the real needs of the city’s poor, giving Calcutta a bad name and of helping only those who were prepared to take on Catholic teachings. Certainly, she was fiercely anti-abortion and anti-birth control. Many of the people she helped were young women with no access to contraceptives, little ability to avoid being raped, and almost no access to health care if they became pregnant. Yet she steadfastly maintained her Catholic opposition to the one thing that would have helped them most of all – control over their reproductive lives. Whatever we may think about how much she really helped the starving people of Calcutta there is no doubt that her behaviour effectively spread Catholic memes by using the altruism tick.

Even evil and cruelty can be redefined as good. The Koran states that it is good to give hundreds of lashes to an adulteress and to have no pity on her. You might well think that Muslim women can avoid this by not committing adultery, but Warraq (1995) explains in unpleasant detail what life can be like in countries that adhere strictly to Islamic law. Women may be powerless to resist sexual abuse, and afterwards must take the punishment while the men who abused them them get off free. Since women are objects of disgust, a man is supposed to not to touch a women he does not have rights over. Women are routinely locked away and, if they are allowed out, must walk behind the man and suitably covered – which in many countries means being covered head to toes in a smothering garment with just a tiny little grille to look out of. Obeying such rules to the letter makes a Muslim ‘good,’ regardless of the misery it creates.

Returning to more honest uses of goodness and altruism, Allison’s (1992) theory of ‘beneficent norms’ applies especially well to religions One of his general rules is ‘Be good to your close cultural relatives’; the memetic equivalent of kin selection. But how do you know who they are? This rule tracks biological kinship in cultures with predominantly vertical transmission, since in these cultures you acquire most of your memes from biological relatives, but with horizontal transmission other means of recognition are needed. One is ‘Be good to those who act like you.’ It works like this. If you see someone else who acts the same way as you do, it is likely that you both have cultural ancestors in common. If you now help him you make it more likely that he will be successful, and hence that he will pass on his memes, including the rule ‘Be good to those who act like you.’ Allison calls this a ‘marker scheme.’ He gives the examples of wearing a turban or abstaining from certain foods, but we might add supporting Manchester United or listening to hip-hop, as well as genuflecting or wearing a little portrait of your guru round your neck. He adds that markers that are costly or difficult to learn can deter exploitation by outsiders. Apart from languages, a good example is religious rituals. Many of these require years to learn and others, such as ritual circumcision, are certainly costly for an adult.

The result of this kind of altruism is that people are kind and generous to the in-group and not to outsiders. This boosts the well-being of the group’s members and hence makes them more likely to be imitated, and so pass on the faith. This is exactly what we see in many of the world’s greatest religions. Although the instruction to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ is commonly taken to mean ‘love everyone,’ in a tribal context in which it was first written it may have been meant more literally – in other words love your own tribe, and your own family, but not everybody else (Hartung 1995). Even the admonition not to kill may originally have applied only to the in-group. Hartung points out that the rabbis of the Talmud used to hold an Israelite guilty of murder if he intentionally killed another Israelite, but killing other people did not count.

Some religions positively encourage murder and war against people of other faiths. Islam has fatwas and jihads to justify killing unbelievers, and especially those who harm or renounce the faith. In February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini delivered his famous fatwa on the author Salman Rushdie. This is a direct call to all Muslims to murder Rushdie for daring to blaspheme against the holy Koran in his book Satanic Verses. When the punishment for renouncing or criticising a religion is so severe, the memes are very ably protected.

Hindus, Muslims, and Christians alike have gone to war again and again in the name of God. When a few hundred Spaniards murdered thousands of Incas, leading to the destruction of an entire civilisation, they did it for the glory of God and the holy Catholic Faith. In a subtler way religious missionaries are still destroying ancient cultures even today. People have been tortured, burned alive, and shot because they believed the wrong thing. Religions teach that God wants you to spread his True understanding to all the world and it is therefore good maim, rape, pillage, steal and murder.

We see how the conspiracy theory protects UFO memes; similar mechanisms protect religious memes. As Dawkins (1993) points out, good Catholics have faith; they do not need proof. Indeed, it is a measure of how spiritual and religious you are that you have faith enough to believe in completely impossible things without asking questions, such as that the wine is really turned into blood. This assertion cannot be tested because the liquid in the cup still tastes, looks and smells like wine – you must just have faith that it is really Christ’s blood. If you are tempted by doubt, you must resist. Not only is God invisible but he ‘moves in mysterious ways.’ The mystery is part of the whole package and to be admired in its own right. This untestability protects the memes from rejection.

Religious memes are stored, and thus given improved longevity, in the great religious texts. The theologian Hugh Pyper (1998) describes the Bible as one of the most successful texts ever produced. ‘If “survival of the fittest” has any validity as a slogan, then the bible seems a fair candidate for the accolade of the fittest of texts.’ (p.70) It has been translated into over two thousand languages, exists in many different versions within some of those languages, and even in a country like Japan, where only one or two per cent of the population are Christians, more than a quarter of all households possess a copy. Pyper argues that Western culture is the Bible’s way of making more Bibles. And why is it so successful? Because it alters its environment in a way that increases the chances of its being copied. It does this, for example, by including within itself many instructions to pass it on, and by describing itself as indispensable to the people who read it. It is extremely adaptable, and since much of its content is self-contradictory it can be used to justify more or less any action or moral stance.

When we look at religions from a meme’s eye view we can understand why they have been so successful. These religious memes did not set out with an intention to succeed. They were just behaviours, ideas and stories that were copied from one person to another in a long history of human attempts to understand the world. They were successful because they happened to come together into mutually supportive gangs that included all the right tricks to keep them safely stored in millions of brains, books and buildings, and repeatedly passed on to more. They evoked strong emotions and strange experiences (see William Sargant’s “Battle For The Mind”). They provided myths to answer real questions and the myths were protected by untestability, threats, and promises. They created and then reduced fear to create compliance, and they used the beauty, truth and altruism tricks to help their spread. That is why they are still with us, and why millions of people’s behaviour is routinely controlled by ideas that are either false or completely untestable.

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No one designed these great faiths with all their clever tricks. Rather, they evolved gradually by memetic selection. But nowadays people deliberately use memetic tricks to spread religions and make money. Their techniques of memetic engineering are derived from long experience and research, and are similar to those used in propaganda and marketing; with radio, television and the Internet, their memes can spread far further and faster than ever before.

by Susan Blackmore

Here I am going to make a bit of an assumption. One that, for me, has proven to be – on the whole – a fact. When it comes to ultimate truths and emotional happiness, these two aspects of choice in modern day human life are very interchangeable with one another. Over the last few years I have noticed that people tend to prefer, and thus, gravitate towards, agreeable circumstances in which they can flourish socially and personally, rather than seek out ultimate and/or painful truths/realisations/understandings. No doubt, believing is certainly easier than thinking. Especially when some incentives are thrown in to prevent thinking, as Blackmore discusses above in “Religions As Memeplexes” i.e. death, social outcasting, etc… We all crave some form of social contact, and to be outcast from a social tribe that we belong to can be almost as destructive as death. As Adolf Hitler once said, “What luck for rulers, that men do not think.” And from this warped basis of being the second World War came about. Either way, many choose agreeable circumstances in which to flourish, over disagreeable circumstances. As Barbara L. Fredrickson and Marcial F. Losada discuss in their paper entitled “Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing,” positive affect plays a major role in people’s lives, bringing contentment, good health – and thus longevity and greater chances to spread their genes – as well as increased creativity and output… All of which I think we can call ‘good’ things for natural selection.

What predicts whether people will flourish or languish? Are the predictors similar for individuals, relation- ships, and larger groups? Drawing together existing theory and research on affect and nonlinear dynamic systems, we propose that a key predictor of flourishing is the ratio of positive to negative affect.

Over time, and in both private and social contexts, people experience a range of pleasant and unpleasant emo- tions and moods, and they express a variety of positive and negative evaluative sentiments or attitudes. We use affect to represent this spectrum of valenced feeling states and attitudes, with positive affect and positivity interchangeably representing the pleasant end (e.g., feeling grateful, upbeat; expressing appreciation, liking) and negative affect and negativity representing the unpleasant end (e.g., feeling contemptuous, irritable; expressing disdain, disliking). The affective texture of a person’s life—or of a given relation- ship or group—can be represented by its positivity ratio, the ratio of pleasant feelings and sentiments to unpleasant ones over time. Past research has shown that for individu- als, this ratio predicts subjective well-being (Diener, 2000; Kahneman, 1999). Pushing further, we hypothesize that— for individuals, relationships, and teams—positivity ratios that meet or exceed a certain threshold characterize human flourishing. Although both negative and positive affect can produce adaptive and maladaptive outcomes, a review of the benefits of positive affect provides a particularly useful backdrop for our theorizing.

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Benefits of Positive Affect: Empirical Evidence

A wide spectrum of empirical evidence documents the adaptive value of positive affect (for a review, see Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, in press). Beyond their pleasant subjective feel, positive emotions, positive moods, and positive sentiments carry multiple, interrelated benefits. First, these good feelings alter people’s mindsets: Experiments have shown that induced positive affect widens the scope of attention (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005; Rowe, Hirsch, & Anderson, 2005), broadens behavioral repertoires (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005), and increases intuition (Bolte, Goschkey, & Kuhl, 2003) and creativity (Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987). Second, good feelings alter people’s bodily systems: Experiments have shown that induced positive affect speeds recovery from the cardiovascular aftereffects of negative affect (Fredrickson, Mancuso, Branigan, & Tugade, 2000), alters frontal brain asymmetry (Davidson et al., 2003), and increases immune function (Davidson et al., 2003). Third, good feelings predict salubrious mental and physical health outcomes: Prospective studies have shown that frequent positive affect predicts (a) resilience to adversity (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003), (b) increased happiness (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002), (c) psychological growth (Fredrickson et al., 2003), (d) lower levels of cortisol (Steptoe, Wardle, & Marmot, 2005), (e) reduced inflammatory responses to stress (Steptoe et al., 2005), (f) reductions in subsequent-day physical pain (Gil et al., 2004), (g) resistance to rhinoviruses (Cohen, Doyle, Turner, Alper, & Skoner, 2003), and (h) reductions in stroke (Ostir, Markides, Peek, & Goodwin, 2001). And fourth, perhaps reflecting these effects in combination, good feelings predict how long people live: Several well-controlled longitudinal studies document a clear link between frequent positive affect and longevity (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001; Levy, Slade, Kunkel, & Kasl, 2002; Moskowitz, 2003; Ostir, Markides, Black, & Goodwin, 2000).

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The Broaden-and-Build Theory

The varied good outcomes empirically linked with positive affect support the broaden-and-build theory, which asserts that positive emotions are evolved psychological adaptations that increased human ancestors’ odds of survival and reproduction (Fredrickson, 1998). The theory holds that unlike negative emotions, which narrow people’s behavioral urges toward specific actions that were life-preserving for human ancestors (e.g., fight, flight), positive emotions widen the array of thoughts and actions called forth (e.g., play, explore), facilitating generativity and behavioral flexibility. Laboratory experiments support these claims, showing that relative to neutral states, induced negative emotions narrow people’s momentary thought–action repertoires, whereas induced positive emotions broaden these same repertoires (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005).

The theory holds that in contrast with the benefits of negative emotions—which are direct and immediately adaptive in life-threatening situations—the benefits of broadened thought–action repertoires emerge over time. Specifically, broadened mindsets carry indirect and longterm adaptive value because broadening builds enduring personal resources, like social connections, coping strate- gies, and environmental knowledge. As an illustration, consider the link between interest and exploration. Re- search shows that initially positive attitudes—like interest and curiosity—produce more accurate subsequent knowl- edge than do initially negative attitudes—like boredom and cynicism. Positivity, by prompting approach and exploration, creates experiential learning opportunities that con- firm or correct initial expectations. By contrast, because negativity promotes avoidance, opportunities to correct false impressions are passed by (Fazio, Eiser, & Shook, 2004). These findings suggest that positive affect—by broadening exploratory behavior in the moment—over time builds more accurate cognitive maps of what is good and bad in the environment. This greater knowledge be- comes a lasting personal resource.

Although positive affect is transient, the personal re- sources accrued across moments of positivity are durable. As these resources accumulate, they function as reserves that can be drawn on to manage future threats and increase odds of survival. So experiences of positive affect, al- though fleeting, can spark dynamic processes with down- stream repercussions for growth and resilience.

Whereas traditional perspectives hold that positive affect marks or signals current health and well-being (Die- ner, 2000; Kahneman, 1999), the broaden-and-build theory goes further to suggest that positive affect also produces future health and well-being (Fredrickson, 2001). Put dif- ferently, because the broaden-and-build effects of positive affect accumulate and compound over time, positivity can transform individuals for the better, making them healthier, more socially integrated, knowledgeable, effective, and resilient. Supporting this view, prospective studies by Fredrickson and colleagues have shown that positive affect at initial assessment predicts increases in well-being sev- eral weeks later, in part by broadening people’s mindsets (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002) and building their psycholog- ical resources (Fredrickson, Brown, Cohn, Conway, & Mikels, 2005). This evidence motivates our prediction that positive affect is a critical ingredient within flourishing mental health.

by Barbara L. Fredrickson & Marcial F. Losada

I doubt we really have to go into why “negative emotions tend to bring about a malaise in health”. Any one who has suffered from depression will know how negative states of mind can radically alter one’s life in its unfolding. Bearing in mind the crippling nature of negative emotions, on the whole, natural selection will tend to favour those of us who are experiencing more positive emotional states. Certainly we can all notice within ourselves that we will tend to gravitate towards favourable conditions which fit with our schemas and memetic dispositions… We seek out good will and fun times… Nearly all of us love a laugh and joke every now and then… And the majority of us prefer them more often than not.

Somewhere in this understanding, it is my belief that religions provided – and probably still does provide – a sort of “broaden-and-build” aspect for positive emotions that broaden’s one’s awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts or actions. While religions on the whole are a tough meme to deviate from nowadays, they no doubt provided our earlier ancestors – who were more prone to barbaric idiosyncrasies, which could easily cause negative repercussions within any social dynamic i.e. war, death, loss, starvation, etc… – with a means of social bonding with other men and women by way of similar belief systems, regardless of personality type, tribal stature, and/or ethnic origin. Thus, in my humble opinion, religion probably propagated one of the first type of truly universal social dynamics between multicultural races and creeds, thereby opening up cultural barriers and clearing obstacles of language and social fear.

While we know some zealots use religion to prevent this dissolution of cultural barriers – whatever their reasons are i.e. memetic pride, ego-centric righteousness, etc… – we shouldn’t think of religions as negative. These obsessives hijack the essence of the constructive memeplex and destroy any modicum of goodwill left in their sanctuary. We should be aware that religions were probably the evolutionary mechanism that brought about our present global society to the state of functionality that it presently resides in. Thus it was an important factor within our history’s social fabric. Everywhere we look, religion was the reason why trade and social harmony blossomed… And why wars devastated nations. Within social circles of religious pragmatism, human beings were able to flourish and transcend petty disputes and fears. Who cares that they were not based on real veritable and empirical facts… They, on the whole, provided a basis for good health and positive affect within everyone’s social dynamic. This in turn provided our ancestors – and us indirectly – with a basis for better adaptive evolutionary forms and modes of being and behaving towards one another.

Despite the advantages that religious follower were endowed with… We might well have forgotten in our hearts how deeply interconnected to mother Earth we all are. No doubt capitalism and religious decree in this “Battle For The Mind” has loosened our understanding of how we link to the Tao… To chaos itself. But we will be reminded of them when we fall from grace by taking any capitalist or religious motive too literally and/or seriously. If we do not awake from this literal delusion of self-supporting corporate enterprise that can apparently exist and create solutions that go beyond mother nature’s natural ways to provide us with all we need independently within Earth’s limited biosphere, wars might well destroy many of us, or changes in the Earth’s delicate balance will ensure that climatic repercussions will dwarf anything seen before, as well as occurring more quickly than anything that our ancestors might have known, breaking the habits of our developed nations. We will need to understand these aspects that lie behind religious and group memetics before any catastrophic events occur… Mainly because our survival will depend upon them once again.

Certainly Blackmore’s ideas regarding the ‘Altruism Trick’ are most interesting and somewhat familiar, and I have, without a doubt, noticed many similar pressures for memetic agreements within social exchanges, most of which have been posited from altruistic donations between people within my ‘circle’ of friends. All of these memetic agreements seem to yield to a similar dynamical flow that allows us all to interact and relate to one another across varying levels of social collaboration. Only one person that I know seems to hold back from any such yielding to others… While I find this trait endearing on many levels within her character, I have noticed that her seemingly unshakable preserve toward her own memetic ideals/schemata sometimes becomes inverted, mainly when she deliberately chooses to agree to disagree with everyone else, especially when placed under any pressure to conform, even if it is to conform to her already professed memetic make-up!? Saying that, I am very aware of the reasons behind her remaining independent of the ‘pack,’ and cannot fault her for doing so.

If one remains mindful to one’s own mental processing while undergoing social exchanges between their friends, family, colleagues and even complete strangers – noting in particular the reasons as to why we might sometimes agree with presented ideals that might otherwise countermand one’s own basic principles and intuition, I feel Blackmore’s theory on altruism – presented above – will satisfy some of the criteria for these ‘slips-of-mind’ rather succinctly.

But regardless of whether Blackmore’s theory is really correct or not, there lies an even deeper process that allows us to understanding how we make these decisions… As we all know, we are “attracted” to acts of kindness shown towards ourselves and others, and might even be disposed to allow our own views to temporarily disseminate while we repay of a debt of kindness acceding to a donor’s meme (see William Sargant’s “Battle For The Mind”).

A Nonlinear Dynamic Systems Perspective

We favor a nonlinear dynamic systems approach to positive affect for several reasons. First, theory and research on affective phenomena have already established that emotions are multicomponent systems that simultaneously alter patterns of thinking, behavior, subjective experience, verbal and nonverbal communication, and physiological activity. Second, such multicomponent affect systems are dynamic: They change over time as the various components within the affect system mutually influence one another. For instance, just as positive thinking and positive actions can trigger pleasant feeling states, so too can pleasant feeling states trigger positive thinking and positive actions (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002).

by Barbara L. Fredrickson & Marcial F. Losada

This process of choosing to perform an altruistic act – this behaviour of selecting – utilises the disorder of ordering chaos. Thus I feel that Barbara L. Fredrickson and Marcial F. Losada’s suggestion that a nonlinear dynamical systems perspective best fits a psychological model for understanding the complex dynamics of human flourishing is right on the money. Surely it is obvious that the behavioural net of our brain/mind continuum has a naturally selective and highly dynamic method for choosing and selecting appropriate methods for optimal habitual survival mechanisms. And this chaotic mental continuum of ours is one which has been naturally selected for as the best collective survival mechanism that posits a ‘healthy’ type social flourishing for our species within any given environment here on Earth. No doubt I have already written about observations that suggest that this chaotic mechanism of neuronal behaviour exists – see “Self-Similarity ~ Fractals, fractals everywhere…” But having been given the chance to read this amazing paper (thanks to a ‘happyseaurchin’), entitled “Positive Affect And The Complex Dynamics Of Human Flourishing,” which discussed the notions and processes surrounding how we choose “up-beat” behaviour over “down-cast, just plodding through life” behaviour made deep intuitive sense in a way that I hadn’t felt before. Seems that the same basins of attraction found within Earth’s weather systems also present their familiar ‘lemniscate’ shapes within our patterns of selective mind.

So I ask… Is there a tendency for chaos to be built into naturally successful dynamical systems? If so… Why would this be the case? Could it be because this nonlinear complexity yields truly amazing adaptive qualities within the systems that utilise its open-ended modus operandi, and thus, because of its robust and varied behavioural patterning, overcomes nearly all obstacles/threats to its survival and so becomes naturally selected for? Thus… Could we reason that altruistic behaviour spawned from the sea of chaos inherent within our own being… Allowing us to develop in a multi-cultural and – on the whole – peaceful society??? After all, a ratio of 2.9 from ‘positive affect’ over ‘negative affect’ is apparently the key to human flourishing.

I ask these questions because – while on an intuitive level I am certain these notions will point us in the right direction to understanding the essence of our Being – I do not want to be presumptuous about whether they are in actual fact correct. That I will leave up to the scientists who might happen upon this this page and feel inspired enough to test this hypothesis.

To find out more about Susan Blackmore, please click here.

Or to read more about positive affect and health, please click here.

Just a moment ago a friend sent me a link to an article in Scientific American entitled “The Neuroscience of Distance and Desire.” As I’m particularly interested in delusions that spring forth from varied perceptive stances, or illusions that stem from blind spots within biomechanical processes within the mind, as well as illusions i.e. optical illusions and perceptual distortions, I’m posting this article here, as I feel it pertinently stands to remind us all about how something can sometimes seem greater than it actually is… Or closer than it really might be… Or even stranger than it really is.

Take a look at the cup of coffee in front of you. Think of how badly you want it. Think of the warmth it will bring as it slips past your pursed lips and reaches through your body’s core. The inviting astringency that lingers on your tastebuds, and that can only be abated by another sip. Once you have worked yourself into a caffeine-deprived frenzy, reach out your hand and try and grasp your liquid gold. New research conducted by Emily Balcetis and David Dunning and published in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Sciencesuggests that you might not reach far enough. The coffee cup appears closer than it really is.

This may sound absurd to those of us who believe we see the natural world as it is. How far away am I from my coffee mug? Why, as far away as it looks! The authors’ argument, however, rests on the idea that the way we see the world can be distorted by the way we feel and think about it. Their research is part of an emerging body of work supporting this idea. For example,researchers have found that hills appear steeper and distances longer when people are fatigued or carrying heavy loads. The difficulty of the task distorts our perception of distance. This will ring true for any post-holiday jogger who might at first be astonished at how long a mile appears with the weight of turkey, stuffing and cheesecake dangling from his sides. But as the pounds drip away, the mile marker doesn’t look quite so distant. Anyone who has been tasked with exceedingly tedious administrative work probably has an intimate understanding of this well. As I grade student exams, the more tedious the work, the less of an impact I seem to be making in that tall stack of papers in front of me. Haven’t I been doing this for two hours already?

Balcetis and Dunning wondered whether the desirability of an object might also influence perception, causing us to distort our proximity to objects we crave. In other words, do objects that we want or like appear closer to us than they actually are? In a series of clever experiments Balcetis and Dunning varied the desirability of target objects and asked for participants’ estimates of their physical proximity to these objects. For example, participants who had just eaten pretzels perceived a water bottle as significantly closer to them relative to participants who had just drank as much water as they wanted. In other words, those who desired the water more, perceived it as more easily attainable. A $100 bill that participants had the possibility of winning appeared closer to participants than a $100 bill that belonged to the experimenter. The results of surveys that provided participants with positive social feedback (you have an “above average” sense of humor) were perceived as closer than surveys that provided negative feedback (you have a “below average” sense of humor).

These perceptual distortions manifested in physical actions towards desirable or undesirable objects as well. Participants who were asked to toss a beanbag towards a desirable object (a $25 gift card) came up significantly shorter than participants who tossed the bag towards a neutral object (a gift card worth $0), perceiving it to be closer than it actually was.

Finally, participants were asked to stand opposite a wall upon which experimenters had placed two strips of tape exactly 90 inches away from each other. Beneath one of the pieces of tape was either a bag of chocolates or a bag of what experimenters described as a “freshly collected sample of dog feces” – two things most of us can, hopefully, agree are desirable and undesirable. Participants were asked to move towards the object until their distance equaled the distance between the pieces of tape. Participants, overestimating their proximity to the desirable object, moved significantly closer to the feces than the chocolate. Street-walkers everywhere beware: dog poop is closer than it may appear.

Though these findings may conjure up images of moving in for kisses that land short or attempted caresses that only glance the tip of your target’s nose, the authors argue that these types of distortions are an important part of social life. They help motivate us to pursue those goals that are particularly desirable, and encourage us to not pursue those goals that might be particularly difficult to attain. The logic here is simply that energy is a limited resource, and over evolutionary time the individuals who have been most successful have been those who directed their energy towards goals that would either benefit them the most or that would not come at too high a risk.

The closer an object appears, the more obtainable it seems. The more obtainable it seems, the more likely we are to go for it. Likewise, the more challenging a goal appears (a mile run when you’re out of shape) the more distant it will seem. The more distant it seems, the less likely you are to lace up your sneakers and the more likely you are to hit up those sweat pants and leftovers. This may seem counter-intuitive – after all, running is good for our health, so how could a perceptual bias that makes us less likely to do it be helpful? While it may be disconcerting to know that your eyes conspire against your waistline, the “impossible is nothing” mentality of our exercise culture, though it will certainly help you look great in a swimsuit, was probably not a terrific strategy over evolutionary time. That chasm over there? Impossible to jump across. How about that growling bear? It’s impossible to physically subdue. There would have been goals that were impossible or, at least, very difficult or unlikely for an individual to achieve, and having the perceptual system guide us in the right direction (e.g. by making the chasm look wider than it actually is, and the bear perhaps a bit larger and meaner) would have been extremely important.

In sum, the things that we want will be perceived as relatively closer and more obtainable and energize action geared towards their acquisition. This perhaps explains why that cute bartender you’ve been eyeing recently appears to lean in tantalizingly close when pouring your drink. But beware of how your eyes may deceive you. Though you may desire the barkeep’s affections, those dexterous hands may be farther away than you think. What appears to be within reach might, in fact, not be so. Indeed, these findings suggest that Morrissey’s musings on the effects of unrequited love need revision. While he may be right that the “the more you ignore me, the closer I get”, it may be equally true that the more you ignore me, the closer you get.

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