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Mon, 17 Feb 2020
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Science of the Spirit

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"Positive vibes only" is toxic: The danger of New Age spiritualism

"Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them." ~ Brené Brown
new age dangers
A positive vibes only attitude is dangerous.

What we will not look at, will not feel — in ourselves, or in the world — we cannot address.

I think it's safe to say that none of us likes drama — or at least we say we don't — yet drama is part of the human condition.

When we meet the emotional reactivity in others with our own confusion and pain, pain and confusion escalate. Compassion is when we meet confusion and pain with rational thought and skillful means. It is not zoning out on our yoga mat, filling our houses with crystals, and burning sage while the world actually burns.

This is a spiritual bypass, and it is dangerous. The notion that we can simply focus on the positive and effect change is like trying to clean our bathroom blindfolded, while simultaneously convincing ourselves that it's not dirty in the first place.

Comment: See also,


Want spiritual growth? Read more fiction

3 reasons why reading, and especially reading fiction, can improve your spiritual life.

Before college, I wasn't much of a reader. C.S. Lewis was the only author I would pick up voluntarily. Even then, it was seldom his works of fiction that intrigued me. I was more interested in his theology. This was true because I thought reading books like Mere Christianity or The Problem of Pain would make me a better Christian - they might give me better reasons or arguments for believing what I do, for example.

Throughout college and most of seminary, the same principle applied. I would occasionally try to pick up fiction if I had heard a certain novel was really good, or was what "everyone" was reading at the time. But largely I stuck to theology, philosophy, and biblical studies. I had questions. I wanted answers.

Following seminary, I still read quite of bit of philosophy and theology, but not as much as I used to. That's because as I learned more, I made two life-changing discoveries. First, all the Christian intellectuals I read and respect necessarily disagree on a great number of things. So whom should I believe? Who has the answers? Even if I decided to only read the Bible, whose interpretation is correct? I began to realize this answer-hungry-enterprise was taking me to a dead end - ultimately, I could read every important Christian text on how to live well as a disciple of Jesus, including biblical texts and commentaries on them, and still not really understand.

Comment: Though not central to the point of this article, we can make at least one recommendation on the subject of biblical text:

Paul's Necessary Sin: The Experience of Liberation

Comment: Of course, and ideally, we want to read novels of some substance - as many of the classics provide - that have stood the test of time and speak to the perennial matters of the mind and heart. At the same time, there are also contemporary novels that address important issues, and that provide great value too.

Any recommendations, SOTT reader?


Gratitude helps you cooperate. Does it also make you a sucker?

© Rawpixel/Rawpixel and Ash from Modern Afflatus/Unsplash
Be grateful. That's been my science-backed mantra for a good many years. I say science-backed because unlike the rationale your parents relied on when urging you to be appreciative (though they were right!), my advice comes from more than a decade of accumulating empirical evidence showing that gratitude makes life better.

But while it can help combat stress and depression, improve your diet, and even get you to the gym, perhaps one of the most important ways gratitude improves life is through fostering cooperation — a phenomenon so integral to human existence that we would have been hard-pressed to achieve much of what we've accomplished as a species without it.

Cooperation, at base, requires people to share resources over time in order to obtain something that would have been impossible, or at least more difficult, to get on their own. Yet the benefits that arise from sharing knowledge, money, or even elbow grease come with an important caveat: you only get them if your partners are fair.

When it comes to cooperation, it takes two to tango, and if your partners regularly turn out to be cheats, your outcomes will be poor. So when I touted the benefits of gratitude, I had a worry lurking in the back of my mind that I couldn't shake. While it's certainly true that feeling grateful makes people more generous and more honest — both essential features for fostering cooperation — it might also have a downside: Was I setting people up to be suckers?

Comment: See also:


Neural and social factors contribute to ethnic differences, study finds

Racial Discrimination
The stereotype that black people have greater pain tolerance is wrong.
Scientists have found that racial discrimination literally does hurt, showing that African Americans feel more pain and have greater activity in brain areas linked to stress and trauma than other ethnic groups.

The finding has a tragic and conflicted backstory, with stereotypic views abounding that black people have greater pain tolerance than whites, while scientific evidence routinely shows the reverse to be true.

Despite the science, studies have found that black patients, including children, typically get less pain relief in hospital than non-black patients.

The researchers, led by neuroscientist Tor Wager from Dartmouth College in the US, wanted to find out what might be upping the pain levels felt by African Americans.

There are, they explain in a paper published in Nature Human Behaviour, two main suspects.

First, innate biology could play a role, with some evidence African Americans have genetic changes that tweak the workings of the body's inner pain killers, the endogenous opioids.

But social factors also drive pain; perceived discrimination and a heightened sense of threat have been linked to greater pain perception in African Americans.

To untangle these effects the team used MRI brain imaging to examine pain responses in 88 adult Americans of African, Hispanic and non-Hispanic White background.

The pain source was a coin-sized heat disc applied to the inside of the forearm at steadily increasing temperature, from 45 to 47 and finally 49 degrees Celsius.


Text Mining Analysis Study gets up close with near-death experiences

Words from near death experience
Those who momentarily shuffled off this mortal coil returned with positive perceptions of what they discovered on the other side - a finding that encourages researchers to dig deeper into the ways people describe near-death experiences, according to a joint study between Western and the University of Liège (Belgium).

In their written testaments of the great beyond, individuals who had a near-death experience offered positive-toned words like 'see' and 'light' far more frequently than negative-toned ones like 'fear' and 'dead,' according to the study. Researchers are celebrating this quantitative scientific proof that most people respond positively to near death experiences

The study, "Characterization of near death experiences using text mining analyses: A preliminary study", was published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Humans are hardwired to dismiss facts that don't fit their worldview, no matter their political orientation

People watching TV
© AP Photo/John Raoux
The same facts will sound different to people depending on what they already believe.
Something is rotten in the state of American political life. The U.S. (among other nations) is increasingly characterized by highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying their own factual universes.

Comment: We agree to a certain extent. Things are certainly rotten. As has been seen with the Russiagate and Ukrainegate hoaxes, Trump impeachment and the snowflake and PC progressive, authoritarian culture being nurtured on the Left, especially in the university system, and trying to be pushed on all people, those moving toward the far left are certainly 'informationally insulated ideological communities.' You can toss the majority of mainstream media into this group, though it can be suspected that at least some of the media personalities and likely those that own and call the shots at the top of the news organizations know exactly what they are doing and pushing out via their various media mediums. The Right also has this issue, as was shown by the reaction of many Trump supporters and the Right in general to the assassination of the Iranian General Suleimani in Iraq by the US, and the topic of Iran in general.

All of this doesn't happen in isolation though. Things don't just become rotten on their own. People don't just divide and start fighting against each other for no good reason and without some influence of some kind. Machiavelli was writing about divide and conquer as a strategy of powerful groups or interests to gain and maintain power over 400 years ago...

Comment: Readers interested in the wider implications of the topics highlighted in this article may find Laura Knight-Jadczyk's 'Comets and the Horns of Moses' of interest and this passage from it:

The Social Contract Theory of Human Society?

One theory of human society is that of the 'social contract', which posits that a group of individuals get together and draw up an agreement to their mutual advantage by which they will all abide, and a 'society' is thus formed. The problem with this theory is that it relies on circular reasoning. It presupposes the very thing it purports to explain already exists: that human beings are already constrained by some values that allow them to get together to draw up this alleged contract. Such a group must already be able to conceptualize a situation in the future where they will benefit from being bound to these other people in a contract. Ernest Gellner outlines the basic theory of anthropology regarding how societies are formed. He writes:
The way in which you restrain people from doing a wide variety of things, not compatible with the social order of which they are members, is that you subject them to ritual. The process is simple: you make them dance round a totem pole until they are wild with excitement and become jellies in the hysteria of collective frenzy; you enhance their emotional state by any device, by all the locally available audio-visual aids, drugs, dance, music and so on; and once they are really high, you stamp upon their minds the type of concept or notion to which they subsequently become enslaved. Next morning, the savage wakes up with a bad hangover and a deeply internalized concept. The idea is that the central feature of religion is ritual, and the central role of ritual is the endowment of individuals with compulsive concepts which simultaneously define their social and natural world and restrain and control their perceptions and comportment, in mutually reinforcing ways. These deeply internalized notions henceforth oblige them to act within the range of prescribed limits. Each concept has a normative binding content, as well as a kind of organizational descriptive content. The conceptual system maps out social order and required conduct, and inhibits inclinations to thought or conduct which would transgress its limits.

I can see no other explanation concerning how social and conceptual order and homogeneity are maintained within societies which, at the same time, are so astonishingly diverse when compared with each other. One species has somehow escaped the authority of nature, and is no longer genetically programmed to remain within a relatively narrow range of conduct, so it needs new constraints. The fantastic range of genetically possible conduct is constrained in any one particular herd, and obliged to respect socially marked bounds. This can only be achieved by means of conceptual constraint, and that in turn must somehow be instilled. Somehow, semantic, culturally transmitted limits are imposed on men ...
As Gellner must have known quite well, this theory of how to control human beings was understood in pretty much this exact way many thousands of years ago. In the course of my reading, I once came across a passage translated from a Hittite tablet found at an archaeological dig where the king wrote that the priesthood needed the king to establish their religious authority and the king needed the priests to establish his right to rule. This control comes sharply into view in the falsification of history. History, itself, becomes part of the control. After all, control of daily information is just history in the making. As to how this process works on the individual level, a passage in Barbara Oakley's Evil Genes describes what 'dancing around the totem pole with ones social group' does to the human brain - including scientists and true believers, both of whom have very strong attachments to their belief systems:
'Ratings of perceived contradictions in statements. Democrats readily identified the contradictions in Bush's statements but not Kerry's, whereas Republicans readily identified the contradictions in Kerry's statements but not Bush's.'

A recent imaging study by psychologist Drew Westen and his colleagues at Emory University provides firm support for the existence of emotional reasoning. Just prior to the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential elections, two groups of subjects were recruited - fifteen ardent Democrats and fifteen ardent Republicans. Each was presented with conflicting and seemingly damaging statements about their candidate, as well as about more neutral targets such as actor Tom Hanks (who, it appears, is a likable guy for people of all political persuasions). Unsurprisingly, when the participants were asked to draw a logical conclusion about a candidate from the other - 'wrong' - political party, the participants found a way to arrive at a conclusion that made the candidate look bad, even though logic should have mitigated the particular circumstances and allowed them to reach a different conclusion. Here's where it gets interesting.

When this 'emote control' began to occur, parts of the brain normally involved in reasoning were not activated. Instead, a constellation of activations occurred in the same areas of the brain where punishment, pain, and negative emotions are experienced (that is, in the left insula, lateral frontal cortex, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex). Once a way was found to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted, the neural punishment areas turned off, and the participant received a blast of activation in the circuits involving rewards - akin to the high an addict receives when getting his fix.

In essence, the participants were not about to let facts get in the way of their hot-button decision making and quick buzz of reward. 'None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,' says Westen. 'Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones' ...

Ultimately, Westen and his colleagues believe that 'emotionally biased reasoning leads to the "stamping in" or reinforcement of a defensive belief, associating the participant's "revisionist" account of the data with positive emotion or relief and elimination of distress. The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data,' Westen says. Westen's remarkable study showed that neural information processing related to what he terms 'motivated reasoning' ... appears to be qualitatively different from reasoning when a person has no strong emotional stake in the conclusions to be reached.

The study is thus the first to describe the neural processes that underlie political judgment and decision making, as well as to describe processes involving emote control, psychological defense, confirmatory bias, and some forms of cognitive dissonance. The significance of these findings ranges beyond the study of politics: 'Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally biased judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret "the facts."'


New study claims near death phenomenon is a positive experience

NDE Experience
A new study using text mining and artificial intelligence from Western University and University of Liège (Belgium) provides quantitative scientific proof that most people respond positively to near death experiences (NDEs).

This innovative data strategy provides an objective, unbiased approach to understanding human consciousness following these life-altering encounters that are predominantly studied elsewhere as subjective, individual phenomenon.

Andrea Soddu, a member of Western's renowned Brain and Mind Institute, collaborated with pioneering Belgian neurologist Steven Laureys and colleagues at Western and ULiège for the study, which was published today in the high impact journal PLOS ONE.

Traditionally, NDEs are explored using standardized questionnaires like the Greyson scale, which includes queries like "Did you have a feeling of peace and pleasantness?" or "Did you feel separated from your body?" This is a potentially biased approach, which may skew recollections and subsequent discoveries.


Today I learned that not everyone has an internal monologue and it has ruined my day

brain graphic illustration
My day was completely ruined yesterday when I stumbled upon a fun fact that absolutely obliterated my mind. I saw this tweet yesterday that said that not everyone has an internal monologue in their head. All my life, I could hear my voice in my head and speak in full sentences as if I was talking out loud. I thought everyone experienced this, so I did not believe that it could be true at that time.

internal narrative tweet

Comment: This difference between those who have internal monologues and those who don't was the original inspiration for the NPC meme when it was suggested on 4chan that those who didn't have an internal monologue were essentially robots. Whether or not this is true remains open.

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Want to change your personality? It may not be easy to do alone

It's not true that people never change, but it's very hard to change an aspect of your personality simply because you want to, research suggests.
personality change
Most people have an aspect of their personality they'd like to change, but without help it may be difficult to do so, according to a study led by a University of Arizona researcher and published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

Contrary to the once-popular idea that people's personalities are more or less set in stone, research has proven that personalities do change throughout the lifespan, often in line with major life events. For example, there is evidence that people tend to be more agreeable and conscientious in college, less extroverted after they get married and more agreeable in their retirement years.

While it's well-established that personalities can change in response to life circumstances, researcher Erica Baranski wondered if people can actively and intentionally change aspects of their personalities at any given point simply because they desire to do so.

She and her colleagues studied two groups of people: approximately 500 members of the general population who ranged in age from 19 to 82 and participated in the research online; and approximately 360 college students.

Comment: The Truth Perspective: 5 Easy Pieces: How the Big 5 Personality Traits Impact Who We Are, and Who We Can Become


Babies are aware of bilingualism from birth — if not before


In a fascinating study of the bilingual brain, Albert Costa explains exactly what is going on when we switch effortlessly from one language to another.

Probably most of the world is bilingual, or more than bilingual. It is common in many countries to speak a national language alongside an international lingua franca such as Arabic, Spanish or English. On top of that, there may be a mother tongue that is not the same as a national language. A Nigerian, for instance, may be at once one of the million speakers of Berom, one of the 64 million speakers of Hausa and one of the 1.13 billion speakers of English. The same pattern is repeated across the globe.

In my experience, one of the best places to observe a wide variety of bilingual or multilingual individuals is Geneva, where a stable Francophone society is thickly overlaid with an international society, bringing their own mother tongues and the universally accepted lingua franca of English. In this setting, the linguistic grounding of children can be dauntingly complex. One friend, Italian by birth, has a child of five who switches between Italian, French and English, the syntactic structures still sometimes a little strange. Another set of children have a Danish father and a Bosnian mother; the conversation at lunch flows impressively from Danish to English, French and Bosnian, with German somewhere in reserve too.

Comment: See also: