Science of the Spirit


What good is thinking about death?

© Jacques-Louis David
Scene depicting the death of Seneca.
We're all going to die and we all know it. This can be both a burden and a blessing.

In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it's haunting nonetheless.

The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. "What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?" he wrote in his Discourses.

Some might say Epictetus was an a**hole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.



Stoic indifference is a personal power

© Raymond Depardon/Magnum
As legions of warriors and prisoners can attest, Stoicism is not grim resolve but a way to wrest happiness from adversity

We do this to our philosophies. We redraft their contours based on projected shadows, or give them a cartoonish shape like a caricaturist emphasising all the wrong features. This is how Buddhism becomes, in the popular imagination, a doctrine of passivity and even laziness, while Existentialism becomes synonymous with apathy and futile despair. Something similar has happened to Stoicism, which is considered - when considered at all - a philosophy of grim endurance, of carrying on rather than getting over, of tolerating rather than transcending life's agonies and adversities.

No wonder it's not more popular. No wonder the Stoic sage, in Western culture, has never obtained the popularity of the Zen master. Even though Stoicism is far more accessible, not only does it lack the exotic mystique of Eastern practice; it's also regarded as a philosophy of merely breaking even while remaining determinedly impassive. What this attitude ignores is the promise proffered by Stoicism of lasting transcendence and imperturbable tranquility.

It ignores gratitude, too. This is part of the tranquility, because it's what makes the tranquility possible. Stoicism is, as much as anything, a philosophy of gratitude - and a gratitude, moreover, rugged enough to endure anything. Philosophers who pine for supreme psychological liberation have often failed to realise that they belong to a confederacy that includes the Stoics. 'According to nature you want to live?' Friedrich Nietzsche taunts the Stoics in Beyond Good and Evil (1886):
O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power - how could you live according to this indifference? Living - is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living - estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? And supposing your imperative 'live according to nature' meant at bottom as much as 'live according to life' - how could you not do that? Why make a principle of what you yourself are and must be?
This is pretty good, as denunciations of Stoicism go, seductive in its articulateness and energy, and therefore effective, however uninformed.


The Tetris effect: How video game images leak into real life

This past spring I had to uninstall Dots on my phone because it was devastating my battery life and my pride.

It's a ludicrously simple game. The objective is to make as many squares as you can in a minute by connecting like-colored dots on a grid. I got really good at it. So good I was ashamed. If I noticed a person on the subway looking over my shoulder as I played Dots, I would tone down my fiendish thumbwork, purposely throw the game, pretend to be bored, open The New Yorker app, stare at the words and think about Dots. At night, when I was in that weird state between wakefulness and sleep, I would see pastel-colored dots falling into place on the back of my eyelids. I could feel the movement of making a square, and the satisfying little vibration each time one was complete. I couldn't control it, and it made me feel a little crazy. So, I put the question to my friends.

Did they feel lingering effects from video games, too?

Comment: The Tetris effect or the game transfer phenomenon does seem indicative of gaming addiction. Playing a game so much that it bleeds into real life and alters one's perspective of reality is worrying.


Mental maps: Spacial learning changes brain structure

Findings Establish Critical Link Between Structural and Functional Brain Changes During Learning
Fifteen years ago, a study showed that the brains of London cab drivers had an enlargement in the hippocampus, a brain area associated with navigation. But questions remained: Did the experience of navigating London's complex system of streets change their brains, or did only the people with larger hippocampi succeed in becoming cab drivers?

Now, Carnegie Mellon University scientists have determined that learning detailed navigation information causes the hippocampal brain changes. Published in NeuroImage, Tim Keller and Marcel Just show for the first time that brief navigation training changes a person's brain tissue and improves how that changed tissue communicates with other brain areas involved with navigation. The findings establish a critical link between structural and functional brain alterations that happen during spatial learning. They also illustrate that the changes are related to how neural activity synchronizes - or communicates - between the hippocampus and other regions that are important for navigation understanding and learning.

"The hippocampus has long been known to be involved in spatial learning, but only recently has it been possible to measure changes in human brain tissues as synapses become modified during learning," said Keller, a senior research scientist in CMU's Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging (CCBI). "Our findings provide a better understanding of what causes the hippocampal changes and how they are related to communication across a network of areas involved in learning and representing cognitive maps of the world around us."

To examine how the hippocampus changes, Keller and Just recruited 28 young adults with little experience playing action video games. For 45 minutes, the participants played a driving simulation game. One group practiced maneuvering along the same route 20 times. The control group drove for the same amount of time, but along 20 different routes. Before and after each training session, each participant's brain was scanned using diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI),which measures water molecule movement in the brain,and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which analyzes brain activity.

Comment: See also: Obsessive practice isn't the key to success - Here's why


Relieving poverty significantly improves mental health

Giving money to people diagnosed with severe mental health issues can significantly improve depression and anxiety. A new study, published in the October issue of the Journal of Community Mental Health, found that giving about $73 US dollars per month for recreational spending can also reduce social isolation and strengthen a sense of self.

"This study, as well as other studies, of how people with SMI ["severe mental illnesses"] were affected by and dealt with their difficult financial situation underlines the importance of widening the focus of psychiatry to include people's social context in professional assessments and in the aggregate knowledge base," the study authors conclude. "Such a change of perspective would entail viewing some of the difficulties these persons face in the community no longer as individual symptoms and failures alone, but also as a consequence of the actual circumstances in which they live."

Comment: Anxiety Disorders in Poor Moms Likely to Result from Poverty, Not Mental Illness, Study Suggests
Economic Downturn Taking Toll on Americans' Mental Health

Magic Wand

Boost brain power: Memory improvement tips

© neurologues
Have you ever imagined how life would be without long-term memory? Not remembering your phone number, your friend's name, where you live, or what to say in speech class can be quite embarrassing, not to mention a little bit scary.

The truth, however, is that memory loss can happen to anyone and at any point in life. There was a time when memory loss was often linked to aging but things have changed. Nowadays, due to the combination of busy schedules, workplace stress, unhealthy diets, and large consumption of alcohol, memory loss is now a common problem.


Sidetracked by Dabrowski: An introduction to the Theory of Positive Disintegration

© Fintrvlr
I have been fascinated by Kazimierz Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration since first being introduced to it almost 20 years ago. Dabrowski, a clinical psychologist and psychiatrist, developed the theory to explain why and how some people are driven toward personal growth and self-chosen ideals, and the role that disintegration—falling apart—plays in this growth.

Dabrowski's theory is richly layered and not easy to unpack, and I learn something new with each revisitation. This post is the first in a series about the Theory of Positive Disintegration (hereafter TPD), my current in-progress understanding of it, and why the theory is particularly useful today.

Dabrowski's 1967 book, Personality-Shaping Through Positive Disintegration, has been recently published in a new edition by Red Pill Press. The book is more accessible to a general reader than many of his other writings, and for this reason and because it is easily available as both a paperback and an ebook, I will use Personality-Shaping as the basis for this blog series in case anyone wants to follow along by reading the book (all quotations from Dabrowski otherwise unattributed will be from this new 2015 edition).

Comment: It's a shame Dabrowski's TPD isn't better known today. So it's great to see more awareness of his work, which is probably more important and relevant today than ever. TPD makes pretty much every other psychological theory look like child's play.


Interrupted sleep impacts mood more than lack of sleep, study finds

© Medical News Today
Researchers say interrupted sleep is more likely to lead to poor mood than lack of sleep.
After a bad night's sleep, you are unlikely to be in the best of moods. But according to a new study, your bad mood may be down to lack of quality sleep, rather than lack of quantity.

Published in the journal Sleep, the study found that people whose sleep was frequently interrupted for 3 consecutive nights reported significantly worse mood than those who had less sleep due to later bedtimes.

Lead study author Patrick Finan, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD, and colleagues say their findings indicate sleep interruption is more detrimental to mood than lack of sleep, which may shed light on the association between depression and insomnia.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults aged 18-64 should aim to get around 7-9 hours of sleep each night, while those aged 65 and older should get around 7-8 hours of sleep nightly. The Foundation say getting enough sleep can help boost the immune system, productivity and mood.

But increasingly, studies are showing that the quality of sleep is just as important as duration of sleep. "When your sleep is disrupted throughout the night, you don't have the opportunity to progress through the sleep stages to get the amount of slow-wave sleep that is key to the feeling of restoration," notes Finan.


Infants find meaning in beeping signals

© MNStudio / Fotolia
Six month old baby girl. The researchers set out to discover whether infants could learn that a novel sound was a "communicative signal" and, if so, whether it would confer the same advantages for their learning as does speech.
Researchers have long known that adults can flexibly find new ways to communicate, for example, using smoke signals or Morse code to communicate at a distance, but a new Northwestern University study is the first to show that this same communicative flexibility is evident even in 6-month-olds.

The researchers set out to discover whether infants could learn that a novel sound was a "communicative signal" and, if so, whether it would confer the same advantages for their learning as does speech.

To do so, they had infants watch a short video in which two people had a conversation -- one speaking in English and the other responding in beep sounds. Infants were then tested on whether these novel beep sounds would facilitate their learning about a novel object category, a fundamental cognitive process known to be influenced by speech. Could the beeps, once communicative, have the same effect? Indeed, the researchers found that after seeing the beeps used to communicate, the infants linked beep sounds to categorization just as if they were speech.

People 2

Jon Kabat-Zinn: 'McMindfulness is no panacea'

© Alamy
‘Some worry that a sort of ‘McMindfulness’ is taking over which ignores the foundations of the meditative practices from which mindfulness emerged.’
Britain's robust cross-party parliamentary report on the benefits of mindfulness is a model to legislators across the developed world: this 'way of being' is no quick fix.

Mindfulness is rapidly becoming a global phenomenon, supported by increasingly rigorous scientific research, and driven in part by a longing for new practices that might help us to better apprehend and solve the challenges that threaten our health.

Comment: The shadow side of the McMindfulness craze