Saturday, January 25, 2014

Rick Hanson - Mind Changing Brain Changing Mind


This is cool post from Rick Hanson's blog, and it's likely an excerpt from his new book (Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence). There are two things I really liked here - first, I liked his definition of mind:
By “mind” I mean the flow of information through the nervous system, most of which is forever unconscious. We privilege what’s in the field of awareness because that’s what we’re conscious of. But cultivating beneficial factors down in the basement of the brain, outside of conscious awareness, is actually more influential in the long run.
This definition is not too different from the one proposed by Dan Siegel ("A core aspect of the mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information").

I also like what Hanson says about the rest state of the mind:
[W]hen we are not activated, our natural resting state is characterized by the Five C's: Conscious, Calm, Contented, Caring, and Creative.
The five C's Hanson lists are similar to 8 C's of self-leadership in Internal Family Systems Therapy:
curiosity, compassion, calm, courage, clarity, confidence, creativity, and connectedness
I have not had a chance to read Hanson's new book yet, but it is high on my list.

Mind Changing Brain Changing Mind

posted on: January 24th, 2014

Mind Changing Brain Changing Mind

The knowledge of neuroscience has doubled in the last twenty years. It will probably double again in the next twenty years. I think that neuropsychology is, broadly, about where biology was a hundred years after the invention of the microscope: around 1725.

In contrast, Buddhism is a twenty-five-hundred-year-old tradition. You don’t need an EEG or MRI to sit and observe your own mind, to open your heart and practice with sincerity. I don’t think of neuropsychology as a replacement for traditional methods, but simply as a very useful way to understand why traditional methods work. This is helpful in our culture, since arguably the secular religion of the West is science. If you understand why something works in your own mind, that promotes conviction (saddhā, trust in the Buddha’s teachings). Understanding a little neuropsychology also helps you to emphasize or individualize those particular aspects of traditional practices that best suit your own brain; natural differences in the brain are a fundamental kind of diversity, and if teachers and meditation centers want to respond to the needs of their existing members and to reach out to new ones, they will have to take into account normal variations in the brain.

Breakthroughs in brain science create opportunities to develop new or refined methods of practice. As Buddhism spread through Tibet, China, and Japan, it learned from the cultures in those lands and developed new methods. Similarly, as Buddhism has come to the West and encountered what is arguably its dominant cultural force—science—it is beginning to draw on science for ways it, too, might be of use on the path of awakening. Not in any way to change the aims of practice—as the Buddha said, I teach one thing: suffering and its end— but to increase the skillful means to that end.

Immaterial experience leaves material, enduring traces behind. In the saying from the work of the psychologist, Donald Hebb: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This is a neurologically informed way to appreciate why your experience really matters, and how important it is to have a kind of mental hygiene, to really appreciate what we allow in our minds.

Perhaps your mind is running themes of threat, grievance, and loss. Or alternately, perhaps it is running heartfeltness, generosity, kindness to self and others, awakening. Whichever movie we’re running, those neurons are firing and wiring together. So learning how to use your mind to shape the wiring of your brain is a profound way to support yourself on the path of awakening.

The mind & brain co-arise co-dependently

There’s been a lot of research and clarification over the last several decades about how the brain makes the mind, and how the mind makes the brain, in a codependent, circular kind of way.

Let’s begin with some clarifications:
• By “mind” I mean the flow of information through the nervous system, most of which is forever unconscious. We privilege what’s in the field of awareness because that’s what we’re conscious of. But cultivating beneficial factors down in the basement of the brain, outside of conscious awareness, is actually more influential in the long run.

• Further, the brain is embedded in larger systems, including the nervous system as a whole, other bodily systems, and then biology, culture, and evolution. It is shaped by those systems, and also shaped by the mind itself. For simplicity I’ll just refer to the brain, but really we are talking about a vast network of interdependent causes. Much as the Buddha taught.

• There may well be transcendental factors required for the mind to exist, to operate: call those factors God, Buddhanature, the Ground, or by no name at all. Since by definition, we cannot prove the existence or non-existence of such transcendental factors either way, it is consistent with the tenets of science to acknowledge transcendental factors as a possibility. That said, and with a deep bow in their direction, we will stay within the frame of Western science.

• Within that framework, the brain is the necessary and proximally sufficient condition for the mind. (It’s only proximally sufficient because the brain is nested in a great network of causes, without which the brain could not exist.) This view, generally shared within Western science, is that every mental state is correlated with a necessary and proximally sufficient brain state.
This integration of mind and brain has three important implications. First, as your brain changes, your mind changes. Second, as your mind changes, your brain changes. Many of those changes are fleeting, as your brain changes moment to moment to support the movement of information. But many are lasting, as neurons wire together: structure builds in the brain. Mental activity is like a spring shower, leaving little traces of neural structure behind. Over time, the little tracks in the hillside draw in more water down, deepening their course. A kind of circular self-organizing dynamic gradually develops, and then the mind tends to move more and more down that channel, and soon enough you’ve got a gully.

For example, if you are using neural circuits a lot, they actually become more sensitive to stimulation, for better or worse. Over time if a region is increasingly active, it gets more blood flow, more glucose, more oxygen and so forth. Existing synapses get stronger and new synapses form. Cortical layers actually get thicker as neural structures build; for example, the thickening in the part of the brain called the insula—which senses the internal state of your body—that is due to meditation, is on the order of a two-hundredth of an inch, which may not sound like much, but that’s lots and lots of new synapses.

Remarkably, synapses began forming in your brain before you were born, and your brain will keep changing up to the point of your last breath. Since neural activity continues in an increasingly disorganized way for a few minutes after the last breath, synapses may still be forming as the lights in the great mansion of the mind slowly go out.

The third implication is the practical one, and that’s where we’ll focus: you can use your mind to change your brain to benefit your whole being— and every other being whose life you touch.

Your complex, dynamic, interdependent brain

Your brain has about a hundred billion neurons in it (see the ‘Amazing Brain Facts” insert for more basic facts about your brain). In principle, the number of possible states of the brain is the number of possible combinations of a hundred billion neurons either firing or not (“on or off”). That number is really big: ten to the millionth power, which is one followed by a million zeros. To put this in perspective, the number of particles in the known universe is about ten to the eightieth power—one followed by eighty zeros versus a million zeros. The brain—your brain, right now—is the most complex object known to science. It’s more complex than an exploding star, or climate change.

The brain functions through a mixture of specialization and lots and lots of teamwork. Parts of the brain do specialized things, like the speech centers in the left temporal and frontal lobes. On the other hand, if you map the communications pathways among the regions and specialized tissues of the brain, you see that it’s highly interconnected. It’s a little bit like tracking roadways from space or information on the Internet: a very dense network. So when people talk about specialization and function in just one place, like “The amygdala is the fear part of the brain,” or “The left hemisphere is bad and the right hemisphere is good,” it’s an inaccurate simplification.

Understanding the chaotic and sometimes wacky flux of neaural activity can allow you to take it less seriously

Within the networks of the brain, there are lots of circular loops. To simplify, there is the “A” neuron connected to the “B” neuron, connected to the “C” neuron, connected to the “D” neuron, and then back to the “A” neuron. These possibilities of recursion, as a computer programmer would call it, give you the capacity—among other things—to become aware of awareness.

Neurons also share each other. To simplify again, let’s say you activate the “C” neuron in our A-B-C-D-A loop, and the “C” neuron is shared with another loop. So there you are, irritated because the faucet’s dripping in the middle of the night, and suddenly you think about the smell of your grandmother’s cookies. Why? For some reason, there was shared circuitry in the coalitions of synapses that momentarily formed. The discursive stream of consciousness is so complex that as a system it exhibits some chaotic qualities. Understanding the chaotic and some – times frankly wacky flux of all that neural activity can allow you to take it less seriously.

The Emergence of Universal Consciousness: Brendan Hughes at TEDxPretoria

Brendan is a lawyer, technology entrepreneur and author of The Simunye Hypothesis (Kindle only, $2.99), a restatement of holism that considers the emergence of universal consciousness based on new theories of particle behavior, genetic mutation, and social media.

Interesting and partial, at best.

Here is an additional short video in which Hughes talks about his philosophical model.


The Emergence of Universal Consciousness: Brendan Hughes at TEDxPretoria

Published on Jan 21, 2014

It was Aristotle who first argued that the whole is something greater than the sum of its parts. More recently, quantum physicists have argued for the existence of a unified field in which all particles and forces exist. This short but provocative talk explores whether new theories of social media, particle behavior and genetic mutation support an understanding of the universe as a complex adaptive system with emergent consciousness.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Thinking Differently: The Internet Revolution & the Human Brain - Warren Ellis, Ben Hammersley, Edie Lush

From The Institute of Arts and Ideas, this is an interesting debate on how (or if) the "internet revolution" is impacting the human brain.

Thinking Differently - Warren Ellis, Ben Hammersley, Edie Lush

Published on Jan 20, 2014

Watch more technology debates here.

Thinking Differently Ben Hammersley, Edie Lush, Warren Ellis. Paul Moss hosts.

The internet revolution is changing our lives and how culture and society function. But is it also changing how we think? Is the immediacy and sound bite character of the online world the beginnings of a bright new intellectual culture or the dawning of a dark age?
The Panel

Internet icon and comic book writer Warren Ellis, technologist and diplomat Ben Hammersley, and political analyst and broadcaster Edie Lush learn to think differently.

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The Informatics of Brain Mapping - On Our Mind

From UCTV, Arthur W. Toga, PhD, joins William Mobley, MD, PhD to discuss scientific approaches to mapping the brain and its functions.

The Informatics of Brain Mapping - On Our Mind

Published on Jan 20, 2014
University of California Television

Can the secrets of the brain be decoded? Learn how finding meaningful patterns using big data is leading the way to big discoveries. Arthur W. Toga, PhD, joins William Mobley, MD, PhD to discuss scientific approaches to mapping the brain and its functions. Series: "The Brain Channel"

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Kelly McGonigal: How to Make Stress Your Friend

Kelly McGonigal is the author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It and is a popular TED speaker when she is not teaching at Stanford University.

Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend

Filmed Jun 2013 • Posted Sep 2013 • TEDGlobal 2013

Stress. It makes your heart pound, your breathing quicken and your forehead sweat. But while stress has been made into a public health enemy, new research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as a positive, and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others.

Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal is a leader in the growing field of “science-help.” Through books, articles, courses and workshops, McGonigal works to help us understand and implement the latest scientific findings in psychology, neuroscience and medicine.

Straddling the worlds of research and practice, McGonigal holds positions in both the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the School of Medicine. Her most recent book, The Willpower Instinct, explores the latest research on motivation, temptation and procrastination, as well as what it takes to transform habits, persevere at challenges and make a successful change.

She is now researching a new book about the "upside of stress," which will look at both why stress is good for us, and what makes us good at stress. In her words: "The old understanding of stress as a unhelpful relic of our animal instincts is being replaced by the understanding that stress actually makes us socially smart -- it's what allows us to be fully human."

The Self - A Scientific Idea Ready for Retirement (EDGE Question 2014)

The 2014 EDGE Question is out and all 176 contributors (174 responses) can be reviewed and pondered at the EDGE site. This year's question is a good one (they are always interesting) in that it provided many respondents an opportunity to question some of the basic tenets of scientific belief.
Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?


Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?
Among this years respondents are the usual who's who of science, as well as a lot of people I have never heard of but who contribute excellent responses.

One of the cool responses this year is from Bruce Hood, who is still arguing that we might do well to be done with the notion of the self. His book, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (2012), conceptualized the self as the product of our relationships and interactions with others, a thing that exists only in our brains. Hood argues, however, that though the self is an illusion, it is one that humans cannot live without. As a scientific concept, it has become useless in its traditional understanding.

NOTE: I disagree with Hood that we must do away with free will when we discard the scientific notion of the self - the two things are not identical.

The Self

Bruce Hood
Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol; Author, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity

It seems almost redundant to call for the retirement of the free willing self as the idea is neither scientific nor is this the first time that the concept has been dismissed for lacking empirical support. The self did not have to be discovered as it is the default assumption that most of us experience, so it was not really revealed by methods of scientific enquiry. Challenging the notion of a self is also not new. Freud's unconscious ego has been dismissed for lacking empirical support since the cognitive revolution of the 1950s.

Yet, the self, like a conceptual zombie, refuses to die. It crops up again and again in recent theories of decision-making as an entity with free will that can be depleted. It re-appears as an interpreter in cognitive neuroscience as capable on integrating parallel streams of information arising from separable neural substrates. Even if these appearances of the self are understood to be convenient ways of discussing the emergent output of multiple parallel processes, students of the mind continue to implicitly endorse that there is a decision-maker, an experiencer, a point of origin.

We know that the self is constructed because it can be so easily deconstructed through damage, disease and drugs. It must be an emergent property of a parallel system processing input, output and internal representations. It is an illusion because it feels so real, but that experience is not what it seems. The same is true for free will. Although we can experience the mental anguish of making a decision, our free will cannot be some kind of King Solomon in our mind weighing up the pros and cons as this would present the problem of logical infinite regress (who is inside their head and so on?). The choices and decisions we make are based on situations that impose on us. We do not have the free will to choose the experiences that have shaped our decisions.

Should we really care about the self? After all, trying to live without the self is challenging and not how we think. By experiencing, evoking and talking about the self, we are conveniently addressing a phenomenology that we can all relate to. Defaulting to the self in explanations of human behavior enables us to draw an abrupt stop in the chain of causality when trying to understand thoughts and actions. How notable that we do this all so easily when talking about humans but as soon as we apply the same approach to animals, one gets accused of anthropomorphism!

By abandoning the free willing self, we are forced to re-examine the factors that are really behind our thoughts and behavior and the way they interact, balance, over-ride and cancel out. Only then we will begin to make progress in understanding how we really operate.

Max Tegmark - How to See Yourself in a World Where Only Math Is Real

You (we) are little more than very elaborate braids in spacetime. Not sure what that means? Read this article from Nautilus and it will make a lot more sense.

Life is a Braid in Spacetime

How to see yourself in a world where only math is real,

By Max Tegmark
Illustration by Chad Hagen January 9, 2014

Excuse me, but what’s the time?” I’m guessing that you, like me, are guilty of having asked this question, as if it were obvious that there is such a thing as the time. Yet you’ve probably never approached a stranger and asked “Excuse me, but what’s the place?”. If you were hopelessly lost, you’d probably instead have said something like “Excuse me, but where am I?” thereby acknowledging that you’re not asking about a property of space, but rather about a property of yourself. Similarly, when you ask for the time, you’re not really asking about a property of time, but rather about your location in time.

But that is not how we usually think about it. Our language reveals how differently we think of space and time: The first as a static stage, and the second as something flowing. Despite our intuition, however, the flow of time is an illusion. Einstein taught us that there are two equivalent ways of thinking about our physical reality: Either as a three-dimensional place called space, where things change over time, or as a four-dimensional place called spacetime that simply exists, unchanging, never created, and never destroyed.

I think of the two viewpoints as the different perspectives on reality that a frog and a bird might take. The bird surveys the landscape of reality from high “above,” akin to a physicist studying the mathematical structure of spacetime as described by the equations of physics. The frog, on the other hand, lives inside the landscape surveyed by the bird. Looking up at the moon over time, the frog sees something like the right panel in the figure, “The Moon’s Orbit”: Five snapshots of space with the Moon in different positions each time. But the bird sees an unchanging spiral shape in spacetime, as shown in the left panel.

The Moon’s Orbit: We can equivalently think of the moon as a position in space that changes over time (right), or as an unchanging spiral shape in spacetime (left), corresponding to a mathematical structure. The snapshots of space (right) are simply horizontal slices of spacetime (left). To keep things legible, I’ve drawn the orbit much smaller than to scale and made several simplifications. To get snapshots of space (right) from spacetime (left), you simply make horizontal slices through spacetime at the times you’re interested in.Max Tegmark

For the bird—and the physicist—there is no objective definition of past or future. As Einstein put it, “The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” When we think about the present, we mean the time slice through spacetime corresponding to the time when we’re having that thought. We refer to the future and past as the parts of spacetime above and below this slice.

This is analogous to your use of the terms here, in front of me, and behind me to refer to different parts of spacetime relative to your present position. The part that’s in front of you is clearly no less real than the part behind you—indeed, if you’re walking forward, some of what’s presently in front of you will be behind you in the future, and is presently behind various other people. Analogously, in spacetime, the future is just as real as the past—parts of spacetime that are presently in your future will, in your future, be in your past. Since spacetime is static and unchanging, no parts of it can change their reality status, and all parts must be equally real.

The idea of spacetime does more than teach us to rethink the meaning of past and future. It also introduces us to the idea of a mathematical universe. Spacetime is a purely mathematical structure in the sense that it has no properties at all except mathematical properties, for example the number four, its number of dimensions. In my book Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, I argue that not only spacetime, but indeed our entire external physical reality, is a mathematical structure, which is by definition an abstract, immutable entity existing outside of space and time.

What does this actually mean? It means, for one thing, a universe that can be beautifully described by mathematics. That this is true for our universe has become increasingly clear over the centuries, with evidence piling up ever more rapidly. The latest triumph in this area is the discovery of the Higgs boson, which, just like the planet Neptune and the radio wave, was first predicted with a pencil, using mathematical equations.

That our universe is approximately described by mathematics means that some but not all of its properties are mathematical. That it is mathematical means that all of its properties are mathematical; that it has no properties at all except mathematical ones. If I’m right and this is true, then it’s good news for physics, because all properties of our universe can in principle be understood if we are intelligent and creative enough. It also implies that our reality is vastly larger than we thought, containing a diverse collection of universes obeying all mathematically possible laws of physics.

This novel way of viewing both spacetime and the stuff in it implies a novel way of viewing ourselves. Our thoughts, our emotions, our self-awareness, and that deep existential feeling “I am”—none of this feels the least bit mathematical to me. Yet we too are made of the same kinds of elementary particles that make up everything else in our physical world, which I’ve argued is purely mathematical. How can we reconcile these two perspectives?

Chad Hagen

The first step is to consider how we look as a spacetime structure. The cosmology pioneer George Gamow entitled his autobiography My World Line, a phrase also used by Einstein to refer to paths through spacetime. However, your own world line strictly speaking isn’t a line: It has a non-zero thickness and it’s not straight. The roughly 1029 elementary particles (quarks and electrons) that your body is made of form a tube-like shape through spacetime, analogous to the spiral shape of the Moon’s orbit (“The Moon’s Orbit”) but more complicated. If you’re swimming laps in a pool, that part of your spacetime tube has a zig-zag shape, and if you’re using a playground swing, that part of your spacetime tube has a serpentine shape.

However, the most interesting property of your spacetime tube isn’t its bulk shape, but its internal structure, which is remarkably complex. Whereas the particles that constitute the Moon are stuck together in a rather static arrangement, many of your particles are in constant motion relative to one another. Consider, for example, the particles that make up your red blood cells. As your blood circulates through your body to deliver the oxygen you need, each red blood cell traces out its own unique tube shape through spacetime, corresponding to a complex itinerary though your arteries, capillaries, and veins with regular returns to your heart and lungs. These spacetime tubes of different red blood cells are intertwined to form a braid pattern as seen in the figure “Complexity and Life” which is more elaborate than anything you’ll ever see in a hair salon: Whereas a classic braid consists of three strands with perhaps thirty thousand hairs each, intertwined in a simple repeating pattern, this spacetime braid consists of trillions of strands (one for each red blood cell), each composed of trillions of hair-like elementary-particle trajectories, intertwined in a complex pattern that never repeats. In other words, if you imagine spending a year giving a friend a truly crazy hairdo, braiding the hair by separately intertwining all their individual hairs, the pattern you’d get would still be very simple in comparison.

Complexity and Life: The motion of an object corresponds to a pattern in spacetime. An inanimate clump of 10 accelerating particles constitutes a simple pattern (left), while the particles that make up a living organism constitute a complex pattern (middle), corresponding to the complex motions that accomplish information processing and other vital processes. When a living organism dies, it eventually disintegrates and its particles separate from each other (right). These crude illustrations show merely 10 particles; your own spacetime pattern involves about 1029 particles and is mind-blowingly complex.Max Tegmark

Yet the complexity of all this pales in comparison to the patterns of information processing in your brain. Your roughly 100 billion neurons are constantly generating electrical signals (“firing”), which involves shuffling around billions of trillions of atoms, notably sodium, potassium, and calcium ions. The trajectories of these atoms form an extremely elaborate braid through spacetime, whose complex intertwining corresponds to storing and processing information in a way that somehow gives rise to our familiar sensation of self-awareness. There’s broad consensus in the scientific community that we still don’t understand how this works, so it’s fair to say that we humans don’t yet fully understand what we are. However, in broad brush, we might say this: You’re a pattern in spacetime. A mathematical pattern. Specifically, you’re a braid in spacetime—indeed, one of the most elaborate braids known.

Some people find it emotionally displeasing to think of themselves as a collection of particles. I got a good laugh back in my 20s when my friend Emil addressed my friend Mats as an “atomhög,” Swedish for “atom heap,” in an attempt to insult him. However, if someone says “I can’t believe I’m just a heap of atoms!’’ I object to the use of the word “just”: the elaborate spacetime braid that corresponds to their mind is hands down the most beautifully complex type of pattern we’ve ever encountered in our universe. The world’s fastest computer, the Grand Canyon or even the Sun—their spacetime patterns are all simple in comparison.

AT BOTH ENDS of your spacetime braid, corresponding to your birth and death, all the threads gradually separate, corresponding to all your particles joining, interacting and finally going their own separate ways (As seen in the right panel of “Complexity and Life”). This makes the spacetime structure of your entire life resemble a tree: At the bottom, corresponding to early times, is an elaborate system of roots corresponding to the spacetime trajectories of many particles, which gradually merge into thicker strands and culminate in a single tube-like trunk corresponding to your current body (with a remarkable braid-like pattern inside as we described above). At the top, corresponding to late times, the trunk splits into ever finer branches, corresponding to your particles going their own separate ways once your life is over. In other words, the pattern of life has only a finite extent along the time dimension, with the braid coming apart into frizz at both ends.1

This view of ourselves as mathematical braid patterns in spacetime challenges the assumption that we can never understand consciousness. It optimistically suggests that consciousness can one day be understood as a form of matter, a derivative of the most beautifully complex spacetime structure in our universe. Such understanding would enlighten our approaches to animals, unresponsive patients, and future ultra-intelligent machines, with wide-ranging ethical, legal, and technological implications.

This is how I see it. However, although this idea of an unchanging reality is venerable and dates back to Einstein, it remains controversial and subject to vibrant scientific debate, with scientists I greatly respect expressing a spectrum of views. For example, in his book The Hidden Reality, Brian Greene expresses unease toward letting go of the notions change and creation as fundamental, writing “I’m partial to there being a process, however tentative [...] that we can imagine generating the multiverse.” Lee Smolin goes further in his book Time Reborn, arguing that not only is change real, but that time may be the only thing that’s real. At the other end of the spectrum, Julian Barbour argues in his book The End of Time not only that change is illusory, but that one can even describe physical reality without introducing the concept of time at all.

If we discover the ultimate nature of time, this will answer many of the most exciting open questions facing physics today. Did time have some sort of beginning before our Big Bang? Will it ultimately end? Did it emerge out of some sort of timeless quantum fuzz into which it will eventually dissolve? We physicists haven’t found the mathematical theory of quantum gravity required to convincingly answer these questions, but whatever this “theory of everything” turns out to be, time will be the key to unlocking its mysteries.

~ Max Tegmark is an MIT physics professor who has authored more than 200 technical papers. Known as “Mad Max” for his unorthodox ideas and passion for adventure, his scientific interests range from precision cosmology to the ultimate nature of reality, all explored in his new popular science book Our Mathematical Universe.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Wright Show - Robert Wright Speaks with Joseph Goldstein

This week's The Wright Show featured Robert Wright in conversation with Buddhist teacher and author Joseph Goldstein, whose latest book is Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (2013).

The Wright Show

Recorded: Dec 29 Posted: Jan 19, 2014

Robert Wright ( and Joseph Goldstein (Insight Meditation Society, Mindfulness)


Robert Wright
Joseph Goldstein

Download: wmv | mp4 | mp3 | fast mp3

Links Mentioned

Eleanor Longden - Why I Thank the Voices in My Head - Video, Essay, and Responses


I posted this video of Eleanor Longden talking about her experience hearing voices when it first showed up as a TEDx Talk. Her talk was the subject of a TED Weekends edition on Huffington Post.

Along with her original TEDx talk, there is an accompanying essay by Longden and 10 responses from other mental health professionals and neuroscientists.

I want to post the TED video and her new essay, then I will offer links and introductory paragraphs to the 10 responses posted at Huffington Post.

Why I Thank the Voices in My Head

A New Voice In Mental Illness

Eleanor Longden
Posted: 08/23/2013

A few months ago, a colleague of mine brandished an article in front of me with a rather bemused expression. "Read this!" he said, "I'd never have believed it." It was a piece about a man who hears voices. Intrigued, I began to read:

"The voice is identified as Ruah... the Old Testament word for Spirit of God. It speaks in a feminine voice and tends to express statements regarding the Messianic expectation... It has spoken to me sporadically since I was in high school. I expect that if a crisis arises it will say something again. It's very economical... It limits itself to a few very terse, succinct sentences... I have to be very receptive to hear it. It sounds as though it's coming from millions of miles away."

The reason for my colleague's surprise wasn't so much the content (he's a psychologist and is well accustomed to accounts from people who hear things no one else can). Rather, it was who was relating their encounter with this "tutelary spirit" that surprised him. Because this wasn't a report from a distressed, disorientated psychiatric patient; they were the words of award-winning, visionary author Philip K. Dick whose works, amongst others, inspired the movies Blade Runner and Total Recall. To me, this wasn't particularly surprising; why shouldn't someone of accomplishment and renown also happen to be a voice-hearer? But to my colleague it seemed to present a puzzling, almost unsettling, dissonance. And, to an extent, I can empathize with his surprise. After all, voice hearing is closely entwined with schizophrenia (with all the sinister connotations that this controversial diagnosis implies). And in the popular imagination, voices are commonly linked with derangement, madness, and mental corruption. As such, many contemporary voice-hearers inhabit hostile territory -- it's an experience that is literally marinated with fear, suspicion, and mistrust.

Yet despite these florid associations, psychiatry has long recognized that voice hearing features in a range of non-psychotic mental health difficulties, particularly trauma-based conditions like post-traumatic stress and the dissociative disorders. Perhaps more unexpectedly, research also suggests that approximately 13 percent of people with no record of psychiatric problems may also report voice hearing at some point in their lives. In itself voice hearing is an absorbing topic -- conjuring the nuances of perception and the nature of self -- and has alternatively been feared, reviled, celebrated, and consecrated, and forensically scrutinized within such diverse specialties as psychology, neurology, anthropology, theology, medical humanities, and cultural studies. Furthermore, accounts of voice hearing have been documented throughout human history: recounted by a wide array of pioneers, geniuses, rebels, and innovators that span across the centuries -- and also by normal, unexceptionable people like myself. You see, I'm a voice-hearer too.

It was the delirious, frenzied depths and exhilarating rewards of my own voice hearing voyage that would eventually take me to the Long Beach stage for TED 2013. Over the years, my voices have changed, multiplied, terrorized, inspired, and encouraged. Today they are an intrinsic, valued part of my identity, but there was also a time when their presence drove me to delirious extremes of misery, desperation, and despair. They brought me cringing and rocking to a psychiatric ward and pulled me down into the bleakest depths of madness; yet they would also lift me up to help me pass my University exams and ultimately elevate me to discover fundamental, healing truths about myself. The evolution of this understanding -- and the remarkable privileges and terrible penalties it incurred -- form the basis of my talk and accompanying TED book, Learning From the Voices in My Head.

Sharing my experiences so publicly could have felt overwhelming, but at every step the solidarity of friends and colleagues in the International Hearing Voices Movement fortified and sustained me. This organization has taken huge strides to reclaim voice hearing as a meaningful human experience; one which, for many of us, embodies figurative, emotional metaphors that communicate compelling information about pain and conflicts in our lives. This is not about pathologizing voices as symptoms; rather it is about understanding, accepting, and reclaiming them. In my own pilgrimage to recovery, it was learning to see the voices in more respectful, compassionate ways -- as adaptations, survival strategies, and representations of emotional pain - that made my healing possible. After years of shame, horror, and heartbreak, I finally made peace with my voices which, fundamentally, meant making peace with myself. And it was this framework that empowered me to take to the TED stage; not as an ex-psychiatric patient with a 'bad brain,' but as a proud and maddened survivor with an assortment of valuable and valued voices. In fact, at the end of my talk June Cohen, one of the conference's wonderful co-hosts, came onto the stage and asked me, with a respectful interest, whether I still hear voices. For a split second I hesitated, wondering whether to feign 'normal' and play it down with an airy "oh, not all that much now." Instead I opted for the truth: "All the time," I said cheerfully, "In fact I heard them while I did the talk... they were reminding me what to say!" Pride, empowerment, and the support to listen to one's voices without distress should, I believe, be a natural right of everyone who hears voices. So too, the right to freedom, dignity, respect, and a voice that can be heard.
 * * * * *

Here are the 10 responses, in no particular order.

'Learning' Our Way to Mental Healing

Patric K. Stanton  

Watching and hearing Eleanor Longden talk about her experiences of hearing voices may, for many of us, feel both odd and familiar. I am a neuroscientist, but first, I am a person living my own human experience. So I found myself thinking how often, in the course of life, these things we call thoughts and emotions appear, unbidden, from some recess of our minds and make themselves known to us, as if "we" are not quite the same as everything going on in our "conscious" and "unconscious" brains. Many of us, at some time or other, may even have had the experience of hearing a distinct voice, a parent or coach, speaking to us. Eleanor's voices seemed more coherent and more separate, but might they not be on a continuum of states of mind that we all have? When should society (namely us) view this form of internal experience as a disease, instead of a rare, but acceptable, part of life?

* * *

Madness, Revolution, and Making Peace

Ron Unger

While some will frame Eleanor's story, told in her awesome TED video, as the triumph of an individual struggling against "mental illness," I believe the story might better be seen as a refutation of the whole "illness of the mind" metaphor, and as an indication of a desperate need for a new paradigm.

When human experiences like hearing voices are framed as "illness," the strategy of attempting to eradicate them naturally follows. When Eleanor was first hospitalized, she was trained in this model, which directly led to what she describes as her engagement in a "psychic civil war," where the voices multiplied and became overwhelmingly nasty. Unfortunately, this is not unusual: research shows that fearing experiences, and attempting to avoid and/or suppressing them, often predicts the escalation of difficulties.
* * * 

Listening to the Soul

Mark Rubinstein
As a novelist and psychiatrist, I listened to Eleanor Longden's lyrical presentation with a mixture of awe, admiration and humility.

She hauntingly described the "toxic, tormenting sense of helplessness" accompanying severe mental disturbance. "My voices were a meaningful response to traumatic life events. Each voice was related to aspects of myself... that I'd never had an opportunity to process or resolve, memories of sexual trauma and abuse, of anger, shame, guilt, low self-worth." I found these statements deeply insightful.

I was particularly impressed when she said the voices "represented the parts of me that had been hurt most profoundly."

* * * 

Eleanor Longden's TEDTalk: "The Voices In My Head"

Lloyd I. Sederer, MD

Damage is not destiny. That is Eleanor Longden's lived experience and the message delivered in her warm, poignant and illuminating TED talk.

She casts a striking figure, statuesque in the beam of the TED lights with her long, golden blond hair and crystal clear blue eyes, telling a story about psychosis -- her own. I watched, mesmerized, and saw both her confidence and her fragility as she revealed how what started as benign voices commenting on her behavior escalated to sinister, accusatory and demoralizing demons. She was told she had schizophrenia, a severe and persistent mental illness. Like many people in a psychotic state she was given medication that -- while generally necessary -- left her feeling more "drugged and discarded" than having assisted her in overcoming a serious illness.

* * *

Mind Wide Open: Listening to Disturbing Voices, Thoughts and Feelings

Dr. Gary Trosclair
"Is that crazy?" my patients sometimes ask me when they've told me something they're feeling or thinking that they're worried about. "No, it's not crazy," I say, "but I get that it can be crazy-making." I understand that while their feelings or thoughts don't necessarily qualify them for a trip to the hospital, they can be very disturbing. But I've also come to learn that while what comes up inside can be distressing, it may well also have meaning. And while the experience that psychologist Eleanor Longden describes in her TEDTalk is far more dramatic than what most of us go through, her talk shows the way to a more informed and fulfilling way of living; we should all listen to our voices.

* * *

Psychiatry and Recovery: Finding Common Ground And Joining Forces

Allen Frances
Eleanor Langdon is an extraordinary woman who has shown remarkable grit and creativity in transforming her disturbing symptoms into useful tools. Hats off to her for finding such a fruitful path to personal recovery and for sharing her techniques and inspiring story so that others may benefit from what she has learned. 

There are many precious lessons we can draw from this tape- never give up hope; never forget the person who is ill by focusing only on the illness; normalize the experience of mental illness rather than stigmatizing it; and use the symptoms as a way of gaining self understanding and self acceptance.
* * *

The Hope Within

Ashley L. Smith
Eleanor Longden's TEDTalk, "The Voices in My Head," provided insight into a world I know all too much about -- living with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia can be characterized by irrational thoughts, bizarre behavior, hallucinations, delusions, and psychosis, or lack of understanding of reality. Hallucinations can come in all five bodily senses -- sight, hearing, feeling, taste, and smell. Despite popular belief, not all people with this type of mental illness experience hallucinations. Sometimes people with different mental illnesses including bipolar disorder, depression, and schizoaffective disorder experience hallucinations too.

Eleanor's experiences seemed to parallel some of my own which helped me identify with her even more than simply sharing diagnoses.
* * *

Why Mental Health Is Losing Its Soul

Jeffrey Rubin, Ph.D.
Many years ago I worked with a man in his early 30s, who was sent to me by a psychiatrist because he suffered from "delusions of persecution." Short and slight, "Roger" believed rays were being beamed into the bus he was on.

Schizophrenics are supposedly people who are crazy and "out of touch with reality."

At the end of our first session, Roger leaned forward and asked if I would treat him using only intensive psychotherapy, without forcing him to take drugs and become a "zombie."

"Let's try it and be honest about how it goes," I said.

* * *

The Real Dangers of Self-Stigmatization

Katy Gray
Being sectioned and locked in a hospital ward wasn't on my bucket list, but it's something that has happened to me twice. The first time, I was 20 and in the middle of my studies at university. I had been hearing a voice for two years, a voice I believed was the devil. He made me do many harmful things to myself, but his latest command was even more extreme. He commanded me to stop eating, and for two weeks, I obeyed him. I was physically and mentally exhausted after this fortnight, but being sectioned still managed to take my breath away.

Around ten minutes after being sectioned, I was told I was being prescribed an antipsychotic.

"Wait, an antipsychotic? Does this mean I'm psychotic?" I thought.

* * *

Realize Your Mind's Intrinsic Power 

Marie Pasinski, M.D.

Holding a human brain for the first time was a powerful moment. Cradling the fragile organ in my hands, I had this overwhelming realization that every thought, every emotion, every experience and every dream this person ever had was coded within. As a neurologist, my awe for this miraculous structure intensifies with every new breakthrough in neuroscience and each personal triumph that I encounter. Eleanor Longden's talk, "The Voices in My Head" is a testament to the intrinsic power of the human brain and its ability to redesign itself. 

Only recently have we begun to understand that thoughts are structurally encoded within the brain. Every time you think a specific thought, certain pathways of neurons fire up. With repetition, these pathways are strengthened.

Utah Provides Free Apartments for the Homeless - Can End Homelessness by 2015

Brilliant and compassionate. Homeless people get a free home and a social worker to help them become self-sufficient. Even if they fail to become self-sufficient, they keep the apartment. Utah. Who would have thought.

Utah Is Ending Homelessness by Giving People Homes

Earlier this month, Hawaii State representative Tom Bower (D) began walking the streets of his Waikiki district with a sledgehammer, and smashing shopping carts used by homeless people. “Disgusted” by the city’s chronic homelessness problem, Bower decided to take matters into his own hands — literally. He also took to rousing homeless people if he saw them sleeping at bus stops during the day.


Bower’s tactics were over the top, and so unpopular that he quickly declared “Mission accomplished,” and retired his sledgehammer. But Bower’s frustration with his city’s homelessness problem is just an extreme example of the frustration that has led cities to pass measures that effective deal with the homeless by criminalizing homelessness.
  • City council members in Columbia, South Carolina, concerned that the city was becoming a “magnet for homeless people,” passed an ordinance giving the homeless the option to either relocate or get arrested. The council later rescinded the ordinance, after backlash from police officers, city workers, and advocates.
  • Last year, Tampa, Florida — which had the most homeless people for a mid-sized city — passed an ordinance allowing police officers to arrest anyone they saw sleeping in public, or “storing personal property in public.” The city followed up with a ban on panhandling downtown, and other locations around the city.
  • Philadelphia took a somewhat different approach, with a law banning the feeding of homeless people on city parkland. Religious groups objected to the ban, and announced that they would not obey it.
  • Raleigh, North Carolina took the step of asking religious groups to stop their longstanding practice of feeding the homeless in a downtown park on weekends. Religious leaders announced that they would risk arrest rather than stop.
This trend makes Utah’s accomplishment even more noteworthy. In eight years, Utah has quietly reduced homelessness by 78 percent, and is on track to end homelessness by 2015.

How did Utah accomplish this? Simple. Utah solved homelessness by giving people homes. In 2005, Utah figured out that the annual cost of E.R. visits and jail says for homeless people was about $16,670 per person, compared to $11,000 to provide each homeless person with an apartment and a social worker. So, the state began giving away apartments, with no strings attached. Each participant in Utah’s Housing First program also gets a caseworker to help them become self-sufficient, but the keep the apartment even if they fail. The program has been so successful that other states are hoping to achieve similar results with programs modeled on Utah’s.

It sounds like Utah borrowed a page from Homes Not Handcuffs, the 2009 report by The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless. Using a 2004 survey and anecdotal evidence from activists, the report concluded that permanent housing for the homeless is cheaper than criminalization. Housing is not only more human, it’s economical.

This happened in a Republican state! Republicans in Congress would probably have required the homeless to take a drug test before getting an apartment, denied apartments to homeless people with criminal records, and evicted those who failed to become self-sufficient after five years or so. But Utah’s results show that even conservative states can solve problems like homelessness with decidedly progressive solutions.