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Thu, 27 Apr 2017
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit
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Descartes was wrong: 'a person is a person through other persons'

© Phillips collection/Wikipedia
Detail from Young Moe (1938) by Paul Klee.
According to Ubuntu philosophy, which has its origins in ancient Africa, a newborn baby is not a person. People are born without 'ena', or selfhood, and instead must acquire it through interactions and experiences over time. So the 'self'/'other' distinction that's axiomatic in Western philosophy is much blurrier in Ubuntu thought. As the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti put it in African Religions and Philosophy (1975): 'I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.'

We know from everyday experience that a person is partly forged in the crucible of community. Relationships inform self-understanding. Who I am depends on many 'others': my family, my friends, my culture, my work colleagues. The self I take grocery shopping, say, differs in her actions and behaviours from the self that talks to my PhD supervisor. Even my most private and personal reflections are entangled with the perspectives and voices of different people, be it those who agree with me, those who criticise, or those who praise me.

Boat

The virtue of despair


Out of such abysses, from such severe sickness one returns newborn, having shed one's skin, more ticklish and malicious, with a more delicate taste for joy, with a more tender tongue for all good things, with merrier senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more childhood and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever seen before. — Friedrich Nietzsche


Like most writers and artists, I sometimes feel the dark knight of the soul. I felt it tonight, struggling to express the ideas I wanted to express, to flesh out the outline that once seemed so clear. I've experienced this feeling enough now to know that it is a necessity to creative birth. Indeed, despair allows the opportunity for rebirth. When one has hit rock bottom, the only thing that remains is possibility.

People 2

Primates and the evolution of empathy

© Frans de Waal
An example of consolation among chimpanzees: A juvenile puts an arm around a screaming adult male, who has just been defeated in a fight with his rival. Consolation probably reflects empathy, as the objective of the consoler seems to be to alleviate the distress of the other.
Once upon a time, the United States had a president known for a peculiar facial display. In an act of controlled emotion, he would bite his lower lip and tell his audience, "I feel your pain."

Whether the display was sincere is not the issue here; how we are affected by another's predicament is. Empathy is second nature to us, so much so that anyone devoid of it strikes us as dangerous or mentally ill.

At the movies, we can't help but get inside the skin of the characters on the screen. We despair when their gigantic ship sinks; we exult when they finally stare into the eyes of a long-lost lover.

We are so used to empathy that we take it for granted, yet it is essential to human society as we know it. Our morality depends on it: How could anyone be expected to follow the golden rule without the capacity to mentally trade places with a fellow human being? It is logical to assume that this capacity came first, giving rise to the golden rule itself. The act of perspective-taking is summed up by one of the most enduring definitions of empathy that we have, formulated by Adam Smith as "changing places in fancy with the sufferer."

Brain

New study says your breath is your brain's remote control

For centuries, yogis have been expressing the incredible benefits meditation can provide. More recently, meditation has become a more mainstream means of treating anxiety and stress, as deep breathing has been proven to calm the nervous system and reduce our heart rate. Avid meditators or individuals who practice breathing techniques typically report that such practices have the ability to silence or slow down the mind. This begs the question: How exactly does meditation and controlled breathing affect our brain?

We've all heard the saying "take a deep breath," and there's actually some merit to that. A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that there's a direct link between nasal breathing and our cognitive function.

Comment: Deep Breathing Exercises Can Improve Your Life


Frog

Reconnecting with nature makes us healthier & happier

© The Mind Well
Over 100 studies have shown that being in nature—or even watching it in videos—benefits our brains, bodies, feelings, thought processes, and social interactions.

Humans have long intuited that being in nature is good for the mind and body. From indigenous adolescents completing rites of passage in the wild to modern East Asian cultures taking "forest baths," many have looked to nature as a place for healing and personal growth.

Why nature? No one knows for sure; but one hypothesis derived from evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson's "biophilia" theory suggests that there are evolutionary reasons people seek out nature experiences. We may have preferences to be in beautiful, natural spaces because they are resource-rich environments—ones that provide optimal food, shelter, and comfort. These evolutionary needs may explain why children are drawn to natural environments and why we prefer nature to be part of our architecture.

Now, a large body of research is documenting the positive impacts of nature on human flourishing—our social, psychological, and emotional life. Over 100 studies have shown that being in nature, living near nature, or even viewing nature in paintings and videos can have positive impacts on our brains, bodies, feelings, thought processes, and social interactions. In particular, viewing nature seems to be inherently rewarding, producing a cascade of positive emotions and calming our nervous systems. These in turn help us to cultivate greater openness, creativity, connection, generosity, and resilience.

Comment: Researchers find that walking in a forest optimizes natural immunity


Brain

'The Tell-Tale Brain': Interview with neurologist V.S. Ramachandran

© Mads Abildgaard/iStockphoto.com

Our next guest, V.M.(ph) Ramachandran, is known for thinking about the mysteries of the human brain in creative ways. In his new book, for example, he seeks to understand why a man in the hospital with a brain injury could speak to his father on the telephone, but was unable to recognize him or speak when his father entered the room.

Ramachandran's research combines modern advances in neuroscience with low-tech, common-sense approaches, as you'll soon hear. His new book looks at unusual cases of brain dysfunction for clues about how the brain works, and he explores evolutionary explorations for the brain's complex wiring in what he calls a quest for what makes us human.

V.M. Ramachandran is the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and distinguished professor with the psychology department and neurosciences program at the University of California San Diego. He's the author of "Phantoms in the Brain." His new book is called "The Tell-Tale Brain."

Well, V.S. Ramachandran, welcome to Fresh Air. Let's begin by talking about some of this amazing work you've done with mirror visual feedback, and this involves people who have had an amputation, but who feel a phantom limb. First of all, explain that phenomenon, what happens to people sometimes - when they're sometimes missing a limb and they feel these things.


Comment: Mind Reading: Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran on 'Unlearning' Pain


People 2

The link between patience, willpower and imagination

How often do you act impulsively without considering the consequences? What if you could learn how to be more patient?

By using functional MRI (fMRI) to look inside the brain, neuroscientists Adrianna Jenkins, a UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher, and Ming Hsu, an associate professor of marketing and neuroscience at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, found that imagination is a pathway toward patience. Imagining an outcome before acting upon an impulse may help increase patience without relying on increased willpower.

Scientists call this technique, "framing effects," or making small changes to how options are presented or framed. And the method may increase a person's ability to exercise patience.

The findings can be found in Jenkins and Hsu's study, "Dissociable contributions of imagination and willpower to the malleability of human patience," forthcoming in Psychological Science.

Magic Wand

Beyond spirituality: Meditation for mental health

© Tezatrataz/Phra Ajan Jerapunyo Abbot of Watkungtaphao
Long-term meditators have larger sections of the brain responsible for regulating emotion.
Meditation has traditionally been associated with Eastern mysticism but science is beginning to show that cultivating a "heightened" state of consciousness can have a major impact on our brain, the way our bodies function and our levels of resilience.

Clinicians are increasingly looking for effective, preventative, non-pharmacological options to treat mental illness. And meditation techniques - such as quietening the mind, understanding the self and exercising control - show promise as an alternative tool to regulate emotions, mood and stress.

Comment: Read more about Reshaping your brain with meditation
  • Brain Scans Prove Meditation "Effective in Curing Mental Illness"
  • The Éiriú Eolas Stress Control, Healing and Rejuvenation Program is a form of breathing and meditation techniques designed to be both informative, effective and life changing! Interested in learning more about the numerous benefits of a breathing and meditation program like Éiriú Eolas? Check out the program here and try it today!



Brain

Guts, brains, and hormones: The role of inflammation in depression

When a woman experiences fatigue, brain clouding, flat mood, PMS, and constipation, we call it anxiety or stress and we stick her on an antidepressant that she will likely take for the rest of her life. Where in this protocol have we investigated why she is feeling that way? How have we personalized the treatment to her unique biochemistry? What is the plan for side effects including new and different psychiatric symptoms resulting from this prescription? We haven't. We've applied a one-size-fits all treatment to mask symptoms without consideration for the cause.

The Immune System and Depression

Psychiatry has known about the role of the immune system in certain presentations of depression for the better part of the last century, and more recently, pioneering thinkers like Maes, Raison, and Miller have written about the role of altered immune set points and inflammation in models of depression. Our immune systems are largely housed in the gut and the interplay between the gut and the brain is a complex and profoundly important relationship to appreciate.

We all recognize that anxiety or nervousness can impact our guts - most of us have had butterflies before a date or even diarrhea with extreme performance anxiety? We are just learning that this relationship is bidirectional; however, and that the gut can also communicate its state of calm or alarm to the nervous system. We think that the vagus nerve is a primary conduit of information and that inflammatory markers are the vehicles traveling this highway. Scientists have studied the "protective effects" of severing this nerve when animals are exposed to gut-related toxins that normally cause depressive symptoms. We are getting ahead of ourselves; however, because we need to better elucidate why inflammation matters, where it comes from, and why it is the universal driver of chronic illness.

Clipboard

How writing about negative experiences helps you move past them

James Pennebaker, a distinguished professor at the University of Texas, got married right out of college in the early 70s. Three years after his marriage, he and his wife started to question their relationship, and Pennebaker, confused and unsettled, sank into a depression. He ate less, drank more, and started smoking. Embarrassed by what he saw as emotional weakness, he became more and more isolated.

One morning about a month into this decline, Pennebaker climbed out of bed and sat down at a typewriter. He stared at the machine for a moment, then started writing freely and frankly about his marriage, his parents, his sexuality, his career, and even death.

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