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Fri, 22 Nov 2019
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


Life, liberty, and the pursuit of....what exactly?

smiley face
© Jason Leung / Unsplash
On June 28, the morning after her eyebrow-raising theatrics at the second Democratic debate, New Age high priestess-cum-presidential aspirant Marianne Williamson retweeted this:

While Williamson's candidacy is itself certain to disperse into nothingness, legible between the lines of the guru's flakiness is a profound insight about the most misunderstood and misguided totem in American life: the idea that positive and/or happy thoughts foster positive and/or happy outcomes. The same belief in "mind power" that elicits groans and derision when rendered in 280 characters is woven through the fabric of American life. American culture has evolved a unique view of the mind's relationship to the external world; not in the sense of an esoteric disquisition on the nature of consciousness, but rather in the sense of spoon-bending — a view of life wherein positive thinking enables us to bend life to our respective desires. Ergo:
  • The attitude is the action.
  • The belief is the behavior.
  • A happy outlook begets happiness.

Comment: See also:


The comforting dreams and visions of the dying

dreams of the those who passed
A New York Times article from 2016, "A New Vision for Dreams of the Dying," came to my attention recently through a Facebook post. It details the research into deathbed visions (primarily dreams) conducted at Hospice Buffalo under the direction of Dr. Christopher Kerr. (It appears that Hospice Buffalo is now known as the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care.)

The article is long and includes quite a few interesting stories. As they say, "read the whole thing." I'll just offer a couple of excerpts.
I was laying in bed and people were walking very slowly by me. The right-hand side I didn't know, but they were all very friendly and they touched my arm and my hand as they went by. But the other side were people that I knew — my mom and dad were there, my uncle. Everybody I knew that was dead was there. The only thing was, my husband wasn't there, nor was my dog, and I knew that I would be seeing them. — Jeanne Faber, 75, months before her death from ovarian cancer.
Another article offers a fuller version of this story:
"It was a good dream," she told the researcher ... "I know that was my mom and dad and uncle and my brother-in-law." Seeing her mother in that and other recent dreams was "wonderful," she said.

"I can't say that my mother and I got along all those years," Jeanne said, tearing up in a video recording. "But we made up for it at the end."


Understanding and appreciating science can actually boost faith in spirituality and God

man and sky
© Shutterstock/Triff
While science and religion are considered to be conflicting subjects by most Americans, a new study from Arizona State University (ASU) suggests that an understanding of science can actually promote faith and religion. The researchers found that scientific facts can create a feeling of awe, which leads to belief in more abstract views of God.

"There are many ways of thinking about God. Some see God in DNA, some think of God as the universe, and others think of God in Biblical, personified terms," said study lead author Professor Kathryn Johnson. "We wanted to know if scientific engagement influenced beliefs about the existence or nature of God."

Study co-author and graduate student Jordan Moon explained that, even though science is often thought of in terms of data and experiments, it may mean more to some people.

The research team examined two types of scientific engagement - logical thinking or experiencing the feeling of awe - to get a better understanding of how they may affect an individual's religious beliefs.


Cow hugging: More people are turning to a variety of animals for mental health

cow cuddling
© Shane Lavalette for The New York Times
Cow cuddling, as the practice is called, invites interaction with the farm animals via brushing, petting or heartfelt chats.
The best therapists for silly human problems don't say a word.

Even without a psychology degree, Bella's natural talents made her an excellent therapist: She is calm and accommodating of a range of personalities, with the patience to listen to endless problems without so much as a judgmental moo.

From a lush, secluded pasture on the Mountain Horse Farm, a 33-acre bed-and-breakfast in the Finger Lakes region of New York, 3-year-old Bella and 2-year-old Bonnie are the highlander-angus crossbred cows that provide animal-based therapy.

Cow cuddling, as the practice is called, invites interaction with the farm animals via brushing, petting or heartfelt chats with the bovines. The experience is similar to equine therapy, with one game-changing difference: Horses tend to stand, but cows spontaneously lie down in the grass while chewing their cud, allowing humans to get even more up close and personal by joining on the ground and offering a warm embrace.

As more people are turning to a variety of animals — dogs, ducks, alligators — for their mental health, states are cracking down on how and when therapy animals can be used. But cows? You can't take them with you.


Meditation: Wisdom in the silence

© Goalcast
We all need a little peace, stillness, and balance to get us through life. Sadly, this doesn't jive with the social mold we're supposed to fit into. We're supposed to be good workers who value productivity above all else. This makes us incessantly tired, stressed, and anxious as we try to get through each day.

We have no time for rest, but deep down, most of us want nothing more than to stop and relax. We'd be happy to take a break even for just a day. Most of us can't, but we can all retreat into a calm inner space - one in which our thoughts, fears, and stresses fade away - whenever we want.

Meditation can be our vacation from everything in life that drains us. We can't pin it down to any specific practice; there are so many forms that it's best to find one that works for you. Whether traditional or new and radical, a meditation practice will leave you feeling like life doesn't have to be so harsh.

Comment: Additional information on Meditation and Its Benefits:


Mindfulness meditation training may help people unlearn fearful responses

© 4frame group
Mindfulness meditation programs have shown promise for the treatment of anxiety. Now, new research may help explain why. According to a study published in Biological Psychiatry, mindfulness meditation appears to help extinguish fearful associations.

"Mindfulness interventions have been shown to reduce stress and improve emotion regulation skills in numerous studies, however the neural mechanisms are still largely unknown," said study author Gunes Sevinc, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

"One of the proposed mechanisms is based on the idea that mindfulness meditation provides a context similar to exposure therapy. During exposure therapy, individuals are exposed to otherwise avoided stimuli in a safe environment and gradually learn that these stimuli are no longer threatening."

Comment: See also:

2 + 2 = 4

Latest study shows trigger warnings might actually make things worse

warning tigger
© Slate
"Trigger warnings just don't help," Payton Jones, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Harvard, tweeted alongside a preprint of his new paper. He further explained that the paper actually suggests that trigger warnings might even be harmful.

When I saw the tweet, my gut reaction was that Jones was wrong. I have been for trigger warnings even before the Year of the Trigger Warning, which according to Slate, was 2013. Opponents of trigger warnings tend to argue that they are an unnecessary concession that only serves to further coddle already sheltered college students. I figure they might be a good way to help people with mental injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder stay safer as they move around the world, the same way that a person with a broken leg uses crutches. But after considering Jones' paper, and chatting with him, I've been convinced that we'd do better to save the minimal effort it takes to affix trigger warnings to college reading assignments or put up signs outside of theater productions and apply it to more effective efforts to care for one another.

Research that trigger warnings might not be all that helpful has been mounting over a few studies, including the one that Jones and his colleagues published last year titled "Trigger Warning: Empirical Evidence Ahead." Yes, that title is trollish, but here is what they did: They had a few hundred participants read several passages, some of which were potentially disturbing. Half received no heads up before the passages, and half got a label ahead of the iffy ones that read: "TRIGGER WARNING: The passage you are about to read contains disturbing content and may trigger an anxiety response, especially in those who have a history of trauma." The results suggested that trigger warnings could actually help generate anxiety, thus making them counterproductive. But there was a major limitation in that study: It didn't focus on people who had experienced trauma. Two studies written up in the New York Times in March had similar limitations (those both concluded that trigger warnings didn't do anything, good or bad).

Comment: This should have been obvious, simply for the fact that such a warning is a prime. It prepares the reader to become anxious. It would make more sense to write: "reading the following may make you calm and clear-headed."

Comment: Trigger warnings are discussed at length in Lukianoff and Haidt's latest book, The Coddling of the American Mind. See SOTT's recent discussion of the book here: MindMatters: How Universities Are Destroying Young Minds With Pathological Thinking

Mr. Potato

More anti-free will idiocy from Darwinist Jerry Coyne

© Jan Genge on Unsplash.
It's hard to discern the main point of William Edwards's article The Academic Quarrel over Determinism, as his argument is discursive, confusing, contradictory, and sometimes misleading. In a first reading you may dimly perceive that he has a problem with determinism, and sees the negation of determinism as evidence for free will.

But what does he mean by "free will"? He's not explicit about it. Since he contrasts it with determinism, it appears that for Edwards free will means our physically uncaused ability to change our decisions so that, at a given moment, we could have done something other than what we did.

And what does Edwards mean by "determinism"? He seems fixated on biological determinism — the view that all our actions are coded in our genes, a "DNA-driven view of the social world," as well as a vision that "our future...is written in our DNA." Edwards sees little or no influence of the environment on our actions: "Our trials and triumphs...are encoded in our DNA sequence." But no biologist is a determinist in this sense, as all of us accept that the environment has a huge effect on our actions.

In fact, philosophical determinists — who reject free will because there's no mechanism for "decision" that is free of the physical substance of our brain — base their determinism not on DNA but on the laws of physics. Our brains are made of molecules; those molecules must obey the laws of physics; our decisions derive from brain activity; ergo, our decisions are subject not to an alterable "will" but to physical law. QED: no free will.

Comment: QED? There's no reason to believe the premises that our decisions derive from brain activity or that everything is reducible to physical law. That's scientistic nonsense.

And you needn't believe in pure physical determinism to reject free will. Much of the physical world, and what we deal with in everyday life, does follow the deterministic laws of classical mechanics, but there's also true indeterminism in quantum mechanics. Yet even if there were quantum effects affecting our actions — and we have no evidence this is the case — that still doesn't give us the kind of agency we want for free will. We can't use our will to move electrons. Physical determinism is better described as "naturalism": the view that the cosmos is completely governed by natural laws, including probabilistic ones like quantum mechanics.

Comment: We can't use our will to move electrons? What does Coyne think he's doing every time he tells his fingers to type one letter, word, or sentence, instead of another? Coyne is too much of an ideologically obsessed and possessed idiot to accept it, but there is another point of evidence humans can do such a thing: psychokinesis.


Swearing when hurt actually works, using F-word improves pain tolerance

© Getty
It's official - swearing DOES help us tolerate pain, according to scientific research.

A study found using the F-word when pain strikes, increases pain tolerance by up to a third.

A panel of experts including Keele University's senior lecturer in psychology, Dr Richard Stephens; language expert and author, Dr Emma Byrne; and acclaimed lexicographer Jonathon Green, explored how effective real and new, made-up swear words are in helping to increase pain tolerance and threshold.

The research was built on Dr Richard Stephen's original 2009 study which discovered that swearing can increase pain tolerance in the short term.


Why we see what we want to see: The neuropsychology of motivated perception

sight of eye
Obi-Wan Kenobi once advised Luke Skywalker to not trust his eyes, because "your eyes can deceive you." Most of us can recall an instance from our own non-Jedi lives when these words rang true. Think of a time when your eyes saw what they wished to see: a person you were thinking about in a busy street, a heart-shaped pebble you were looking for on the beach.

This phenomenon, called motivated perception, has been explored in psychological research for decades. Indeed, the world as we conceive it in our awareness is not exactly an accurate representation of what it truly is. Our perception is often biased, selective, and malleable.

Even our desires can affect what we see by impacting the way we process visual information. For example, when presented with an ambiguous figure that could be interpreted either as the letter B or the number 13, participants in one study were more likely to report seeing that which aligned with desirable outcomes over less desirable ones (in this case, drinking orange juice if they saw a letter or drinking a foul-smelling smoothie if they saw a number).

In an earlier study from 1954, when students from rival universities watched the same football game, controversy and disagreement ensued, since the students reported seeing more fouls committed by the other team.

Why are we prone to seeing what we want to see? Recent research published in Nature Human Behavior demonstrates how our motivations and desires can give rise to two biases: a perceptual bias (when our motivations have a top-down influence on our perceptions) and a response bias (when we report seeing what we wish to see). The study, led by researchers from Stanford University, explores how these biases affect our perceptions. It proposes underlying neurocomputational mechanisms that guide these judgments.