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Wed, 16 Aug 2017
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit

Book 2

An anthropologist's theory on shamanism and the origins of knowledge completely rewrites our understanding of DNA

The shaman's world is one of allegory, symbolism, metaphor and transcendence into the realms of energy and spirit. Their understanding of the universe and the abundant sentient beings which inhabit it is wildly foreign to the mind of the material scientist. Our best chance, therefore, at bridging the gap between science and spirit may lie in the anthropological study of those tribal cultures whose operating systems permit them to move freely in the metaphysical realms with the assistance of natural hallucinogenic substances.

The shamanic explanation of the origins of life and of the intelligent nature of the plants and animals which inhabit the rainforest are quite unbelievable to most, but a rational approach to understanding their perspective lends extraordinary insight into some of the greatest mysteries of human consciousness.



Why skeptics will never accept the existence of psi

I had been thinking about writing this post for awhile, and I begin to fight my standard inertia bit more when I saw this article on Slate, dated May 17, 2017: "Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real. Which means science is broken."

Then, in the comments on this blog, Leo MacDonald referred to a related post on NEUROLOGICAblog: "Follow Up on Bem's Psi Research."

We'll be talking about these in a moment, but first my thesis:

Skeptics will never be compelled to accept the existence of psi because laboratory research involves difficult statistics that can be argued about ad infinitum, and exceptional individual cases of psi can be dismissed as "anecdotes" one by one.

Let's look at both of these issues in turn.

Comment: The thing is, skeptic fundamentalists are probably a tiny minority: a collection of tenured, out-of-touch eggheads who don't get around much with actual people. Actual people are more open minded (sometimes too open minded, but still). And for those who are on the fence, there will always be people like journalist Leslie Kean to give them their first glimpse. Kean is the author of the 2017 book Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife, which covers a lot of the evidence, in the lab and out of it. Don't let the skeptics get you down: they're losers.


Do we all need a little time simply to sit and think?

© Aeon
Not busy-work, ticking off to-do lists or keeping-up-with-stuff. Just sitting. And thinking. Is it so hard?

Pop-up philosophy. Stop, sit down and just think. That's what I wrote on a whiteboard - then I took it outside and propped it next to a small folding chair near the entrance to my office at City, University of London.

For a week, I had been traveling around London with two folding deckchairs and a whiteboard. My quarry was stupidity-intensive spots. I had set up outside the London Stock Exchange, a large bank that had been bailed out by the taxpayer, the Houses of Parliament, Oxford Street, St Paul's Cathedral and the BBC. Now it was time to reflect on the stupidities closest to home. So I set up my deckchairs outside my own university.

Students and faculty came and went, saw the deckchairs, looked at me, read my sign. Some seemed surprised. Others took a photo with their smartphones. Many laughed. A few sat down and joined me in a few minutes of quiet contemplation.


The understated nature of fatherly affection

Men may not be from Mars, but - compared to women - they do communicate in very different ways.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the relationships of fathers and sons. Outwardly, many father and son pairs may appear distant and disengaged. A guy who wouldn't think twice about hugging and kissing his mom might offer his father only a stilted handshake. Dads who shower their daughters with affection may go years without telling their sons they love them. Men are often chided by their wives or mothers for not being willing to show more affection to their dads or their sons.

Such criticisms overlook a larger truth, one that I've spent years exploring as a communication researcher: Often for men, showing affection is more about what they do than what they say. Their ways of communicating love can be subtle. And while to outside observers they may seem like weak substitutes for genuine affection, to many fathers and sons they're every bit as meaningful as words, kisses and hugs.


How brain circuits govern hunger and cravings

© Anna Beyeler and Praneeth Namburi
The urge to satisfy hunger is a primal one, but -- as any dieter knows -- choices about when and what to eat can be influenced by cues in the environment, not just how long it's been since breakfast. The fact that food-associated visual cues in television commercials and on highway signs can contribute to overeating is well-documented. But how exactly do these external signals trigger cravings and influence behavior?

By developing a new approach to imaging and manipulating particular groups of neurons in the mouse brain, scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) have identified a pathway by which neurons that drive hunger influence distant neurons involved in the decision of whether or not to react to food-related cues. Their findings could open the door to targeted therapies that dampen food cue-evoked cravings in people with obesity. The research was published online today in the journal Nature.
"The main question we were asking is: how do evolutionarily ancient hunger-promoting neurons at the base of the brain, in the hypothalamus, influence 'cognitive' brain areas to help us find and eat calorie-rich foods in a complex and changing world?"
said co-corresponding author Mark Andermann, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism at BIDMC and Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School (HMS).
"To put it simply, when you're hungry, the picture of a cheeseburger may be extremely appealing and effective in influencing your behavior," explained lead author Yoav Livneh, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at BIDMC. "But if your belly is full after eating a big meal, the same cheeseburger picture will be unappealing. We think that the pathway we discovered from hunger-promoting neurons to a region of the brain called the insular cortex plays an important role here."


Therapeutic benefits of mindfulness practices for mood disorders

Thoughts become things.

This isn't just some hippie-dippy, crunchy-granola, new-age construct (and don't get me wrong, I live for all things hippie-dippy). This is scientifically validated fact, well established in the peer-reviewed literature.

Mindset is instrumental to healing, since our thoughts influence our tendency towards inflammation, our propensity to develop pathology, the density of our brain matter, and our attainment of allostasis—the adaptive activation of neural, neuroendocrine and neuroendocrine immune mechanisms to maintain stability in the face of stressful challenges (McEwen, 1998). A meta-analysis of over three hundred articles by Segerstrom and Miller (2004) elucidated that physiological reactions to acute stressors serve adaptive functions, whereas chronic stress perturbs the finely orchestrated balance in the immune system and down-regulates both cellular and humoral (antibody-mediated) immune measures (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004).

Specifically, perceived stress increases hyper-coagulability and adhesion molecule expression making blood more 'sticky', creating a pro-atherogenic, pro-inflammatory environment conducive to the development of cardiovascular disease, immune imbalance, and a depressive mental state. In contrast, these pathophysiological changes are reversed by increased perception of uplifts (Jain, Mills, von Kanel, Hong, & Dimsdale, 2007).


Different cultures lie in different ways

People's language changes when they lie, depending on their cultural background, psychologists have discovered. The researchers asked participants of Black African, South Asian, White European and White British ethnicity to complete a Catch-the-Liar task in which they provided genuine and false statements.

They found the statements of Western liars tend to include fewer first-person "I" pronouns than the statements of truth-tellers. This is a common finding and believed to be due to the liar trying to distance themselves from the lie.

Professor Paul Taylor of Lancaster University in the UK said:
"Science has long known that people's use of language changes when they lie. Our research shows that prevalent beliefs about what those changes look like are not true for all cultures."
However, the researchers did not find the difference when examining the lies of Black African and South Asian participants. Instead, these participants increased their use of first person pronoun and decreased their third person "he/she" pronouns—they sought to distance their social group rather than them self from the lie.


Habits versus goals: The benefits of a systemic approach to life

Nothing will change your future trajectory like habits.

We all have goals, big or small things which we want to achieve within a certain time frame. Some people want to make a million dollars by the time they turn 30. Some want to lose 20lb before summer. Some want to write a book in the next 6 months. When we begin to chase an intangible or vague concept (success, wealth, health, happiness) making a tangible goal is often the first step.

Habits are processes operating in the background that powers our lives. Good habits help us reach our goals. Bad ones hinder us. Either way habits powerfully influence our automatic behavior.

The difference between habits and goals is not semantic. Each requires different forms of action. For example:
  • We want to learn a new language. We could decide we want to be fluent in 6 months (goal), or we could commit to 30-minutes of practice each day (habit.)
  • We want to read more books. We could set the goal to read 50 books by the end of the year, or we could decide to always carry one (habit.)
  • We want to spend more time with family. We could plan to spend 7 hours a week with family (goal), or we could choose to eat dinner with them each night (habit.)

Comment: Research-based ways to form positive habits and make them last


Note to parents: Safe spaces are for babies

For human potential, few things are more dangerous than a "safe space." A flourishing life requires what Nassim Taleb calls "antifragility": the adaptive capacity to self-improve in response to challenge and adversity.

When young people are artificially insulated from the trials of life, they are deprived of the opportunity to develop this vital virtue: to become antifragile. The prolonged fragility that results is often used as an excuse by parents for extending dependence, which only prolongs fragility still further.

The campus "safe spaces" that college students have loudly demanded are political in nature. Critics justifiably worry that such safe spaces are danger zones for free speech, open discourse, mutual understanding, and intellectual growth. However, what is far less recognized is that colleges long ago became "safe spaces" in an even more dangerous sense.

This was brought home for me recently when I attended a college graduation. The commencement address, delivered by a student elected to the honor by his classmates, was not very political, yet it was positively dripping with the "safe space" ethos.

Better Earth

Brain scans differentiate two forms of empathy

Using brain scans, researchers have discovered that empathic care and empathic distress have distinct patterns of brain activity that remain remarkably consistent across individuals.

Writing in Neuron, researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and colleagues describe how they developed brain markers that could predict the intensity of the two forms of empathy in volunteers as they listened to true accounts of human suffering.

They also found that the brain markers for empathic care and empathic distress link differently to eight other feelings.

In their study paper, the team explains how there has been much debate on the distinction between empathic distress and empathic care.