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Mon, 18 Nov 2019
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


Science as we know it can't explain consciousness

MRI scan of the brain
© MRIman
MRI scan of the brain.
Explaining how something as complex as consciousness can emerge from a grey, jelly-like lump of tissue in the head is arguably the greatest scientific challenge of our time. The brain is an extraordinarily complex organ, consisting of almost 100 billion cells - known as neurons - each connected to 10,000 others, yielding some ten trillion nerve connections.

We have made a great deal of progress in understanding brain activity, and how it contributes to human behaviour. But what no one has so far managed to explain is how all of this results in feelings, emotions and experiences. How does the passing around of electrical and chemical signals between neurons result in a feeling of pain or an experience of red?

There is growing suspicion that conventional scientific methods will never be able answer these questions. Luckily, there is an alternative approach that may ultimately be able to crack the mystery.

For much of the 20th century, there was a great taboo against querying the mysterious inner world of consciousness - it was not taken to be a fitting topic for "serious science". Things have changed a lot, and there is now broad agreement that the problem of consciousness is a serious scientific issue. But many consciousness researchers underestimate the depth of the challenge, believing that we just need to continue examining the physical structures of the brain to work out how they produce consciousness.

The problem of consciousness, however, is radically unlike any other scientific problem. One reason is that consciousness is unobservable. You can't look inside someone's head and see their feelings and experiences. If we were just going off what we can observe from a third-person perspective, we would have no grounds for postulating consciousness at all.

Light Saber

How smart people neutralize the effects of difficult people

toxic people

To deal with toxic people effectively, you need an approach that enables you, across the board, to control what you can and eliminate what you can’t. The important thing to remember is that you are in control of far more than you realize.
Toxic people defy logic. Some are blissfully unaware of the negative impact that they have on those around them, and others seem to derive satisfaction from creating chaos and pushing other people's buttons. Either way, they create unnecessary complexity, strife, and worst of all stress.

Studies have long shown that stress can have a lasting, negative impact on the brain. Exposure to even a few days of stress compromises the effectiveness of neurons in the hippocampus — an important brain area responsible for reasoning and memory. Weeks of stress cause reversible damage to neuronal dendrites (the small "arms" that brain cells use to communicate with each other), and months of stress can permanently destroy neurons. Stress is a formidable threat to your success — when stress gets out of control, your brain and your performance suffer.

Most sources of stress at work are easy to identify. If your non-profit is working to land a grant that your organization needs to function, you're bound to feel stress and likely know how to manage it. It's the unexpected sources of stress that take you by surprise and harm you the most.

Research from the Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany found that exposure to stimuli that cause strong negative emotions — the same kind of exposure you get when dealing with toxic people — caused subjects' brains to have a massive stress response. Whether it's negativity, cruelty, the victim syndrome, or just plain craziness, toxic people drive your brain into a stressed-out state that should be avoided at all costs.

Comment: Saving your sanity and career: Six toxic relationships to avoid like the plague

Snakes in Suits

Smooth-talking charmers: Why psychopaths can be so attractive to the unsuspecting

psychopaths dating
© JSTOCK/Shutterstock
Young men with stronger psychopathic traits tend to have higher social intelligence and more relaxed attitudes towards casual sex.
The old cliché of psychopaths being smooth-talking charmers might not be far wrong, at least according to a new study.

The study carried out by psychologists from Brock University and Carleton University in Canada claims that young women are more attracted to men with stronger psychopathic personality traits, despite these prospective partners having little interest in a committed relationship.

Reporting in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science, the researchers wanted to follow up on "reports" that psychopathic traits were attractive in potential romantic partners, despite the known pitfalls of entering interpersonal relationships with psychopaths.

For the first part of their study, the researchers recruited 46 men, aged 17 to 25, and gauged psychopathy and social intelligence using a filmed fake date scenario with a female research assistant for about 2 minutes. According to the study, the majority of the male participants (89 percent) self-reported as heterosexual.

Comment: Psychopaths are masters at wearing a mask to disarm their prey - it behooves everyone to learn how to spot these 'intraspecies predators':


Brain takes just less than 300 milliseconds to recognize familiar music

vinyl record lp

The human brain can recognise a familiar song within 100 to 300 milliseconds, highlighting the deep hold favourite tunes have on our memory, a UCL study finds.
Anecdotally the ability to recall popular songs is exemplified in game shows such as 'Name That Tune', where contestants can often identify a piece of music in just a few seconds.

For this study, published in Scientific Reports, researchers at the UCL Ear Institute wanted to find out exactly how fast the brain responded to familiar music, as well as the temporal profile of processes in the brain which allow for this.

The main participant group consisted of five men and five women who had each provided five songs, which were very familiar to them. For each participant researchers then chose one of the familiar songs and matched this to a tune, which was similar (in tempo, melody, harmony, vocals and instrumentation) but which was known to be unfamiliar to the participant.

Comment: See also:


The brain has distinct areas for all manner of ideas, research suggests

MRI Brain Scans
Brain scans can tell more than we thought about our thoughts and feelings, research suggests.
Researchers have deciphered the abstract concepts people are thinking about - for example justice, truth and forgiveness - merely by analysing their brain scans.

Until now, this type of "thought decoding" has been largely confined to concrete concepts such as apple and hammer. The new findings, however, suggest slippery ideas that are not of the physical world also inhabit distinct parts of the brain.

The study is the work of psychologist Marcel Just and graduate student Robert Vargas from Carnegie Mellon University in the US.

It makes intuitive sense, they say, that physical or "concrete" objects, such as hammers and apples, will be represented in the brain similarly between people. Trade tools and fruit are, by nature, unambiguous.

It's a contention born out in the science of neural decoding, where patterns of activity on brain scans are used to work out what someone is thinking.

Just, for example, has used brain scans to predict when a person is reading sentences that refer to concrete things, such as "the flood damaged the hospital".

But given the fuzziness of abstract ideas like justice and ethics, intuitions cut the other way - could we really share common brain space for them too?

To find out, Vargas and Just put nine people in an MRI scanner and flashed an array of 28 abstract concepts at them, shown as words.


Thinking about death: High neural activity is linked to shorter lifespans

the thinker
© Flickr/Todd Martin
If there's one thing that humans can't stop thinking about, it's death. But new research published in the journal Nature suggests that all that thinking might be the very thing that brings death on.

More precisely, researchers discovered that higher neural activity has a negative effect on longevity. Neural activity refers to the constant flow of electricity and signals throughout the brain, and excessive activity could be expressed in many ways; a sudden change in mood, a facial twitch, and so on.

"An exciting future area of research will be to determine how these findings relate to such higher-order human brain functions," said professor of genetics and study co-author Bruce Yankner. While it's probably not the case that thinking a thought reduces your lifespan in the same way smoking a cigarette does, the study didn't determine whether actual thinking had an impact on lifespan — just neural activity in general.

Life Preserver

Discovering Wholeness and Healing after Trauma

Healing Trauma
Dr. James Gordon is a Harvard-educated psychiatrist who uses self-care strategies and group support to help patients heal from psychological trauma. In this interview, he shares some of those strategies, which are also detailed in his book "The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma."

Gordon is also the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM) in Washington, D.C., and is a clinical professor at Georgetown Medical School. During his presidency, President Bill Clinton appointed Gordon chairman of the National Advisory Council to the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine.


Ian Stevenson's case for reincarnation: Are we skeptics really just cynics?

Dr. Ian Steveson
© University of Virginia School of Medicine
Dr. Ian Stevenson
If you're anything like me, with eyes that roll over to the back of your head whenever you hear words like "reincarnation" or "parapsychology," if you suffer great paroxysms of despair for human intelligence whenever you catch a glimpse of that dandelion-colored cover of Heaven Is For Real or other such books, and become angry when hearing about an overly Botoxed charlatan telling a poor grieving mother how her daughter's spirit is standing behind her, then keep reading, because you're precisely the type of person who should be aware of the late Professor Ian Stevenson's research on children's memories of previous lives.

Stevenson, who died in 2007, was a psychiatrist by training — and a prominent one at that. In 1957, at the still academically tender age of 38, he'd been named Chair of psychiatry at the University of Virginia. After arriving in Charlottesville, however, his hobbyhorse in the paranormal began turning into a full-grown steed. As you can imagine, investigating apparitions and reincarnation is not something the college administrators were expecting of the head of their mental health program. But in 1968, Chester Carlson, the wealthy inventor of the Xerox copying process who'd been introduced to Stevenson's interests in reincarnation by his spiritualist wife, dropped dead of a heart attack in a Manhattan movie theatre, leaving a million dollars to UVA on the condition it be used to fund Stevenson's paranormal investigations. That money enabled Stevenson to devote himself full-time to studying the minds of the dead, and over the next four decades, Stevenson's discoveries as a parapsychologist served to sway more than a few skeptics and to lead his blushing acolytes to compare him to the likes of Darwin and Galileo.

Comment: For more on reincarnation and Dr. Stevenson's work, see:


The geography of sorrow: Interview with Francis Weller

sorrow, sadness, melancholy
For a man who specializes in grief and sorrow, psychotherapist Francis Weller certainly seems joyful. When I arrived at his cabin in Forestville, California, he emerged with a smile and embraced me. His wife, Judith, headed off to garden while Francis led me into their home among the redwoods to talk.

I had wanted to interview Weller ever since the publisher I work for, North Atlantic Books, had agreed to publish his new book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. Over the previous few years my father, grandfather, grandmother, father-in-law, and sister-in-law had all died, and I'd also moved across the country and was missing the friends and community I'd left behind. I'd been living with a free-floating state of unease, but I'd largely sidestepped direct encounters with my losses.

In his book Weller invites us to view grief as a visitor to be welcomed, not shunned. He reminds us that, in addition to feeling pain over the loss of loved ones, we harbor sorrows stemming from the state of the world, the cultural maladies we inherit, and the misunderstood parts of ourselves. He says grief comes in many forms, and when it is not expressed, it tends to harden the once-vibrant parts of us.

Weller's own experience with grief began at the age of fifteen, when his father suffered a massive, disabling stroke, dying eight years later. The long process of dealing with his sorrow eventually led Weller to his current vocation. Today, at fifty-nine, he uses what he learned whenever he sits down with a client in his psychotherapy practice or facilitates one of the grief retreats he organizes. Having been a therapist for more than thirty years, Weller says, "I sometimes think my work is simply to let people feel their losses."



A dog's size and head shape predicts its temperament

© SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
The old saying goes that you can't judge a book by its cover, suggesting that first impressions based upon the look of something don't give you much information. However a recent study suggests that for dogs, their appearance (in terms of their size and their head shape), may well give you a lot of information about the personality and behavioral characteristics of the dog.

Although the initial domestication of dogs may have occurred 14,000 years or more in the past, humans have continued to transform dogs to fulfill many different functions associated with guarding, herding, hunting, or simply companionship. Our selective breeding of dogs has modified their size and their shape dramatically so that the more than 400 recorded breeds of dogs are easily recognizable based on their physical characteristics. It also appears that there is some correlation between a dog's head shape and the functions that they perform for humans; for example the sighthounds (who pursue game over open ground) tend to have long narrow heads, while many of the guarding breeds tend to have more square shaped heads.