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Tue, 19 Feb 2019
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


The meaning of monstrosity has morphed dramatically over the course of history

© Courtesy Amherst College Archives
A Colossal Octopus [Pierre Denys de Montfort] (1828-40) by Orra White Hitchcock, who was one of the first female scientific illustrators in the US.
In 2003, a team of scientists in China managed to create embryos containing a mix of rabbit and human DNA. Most of the biological matter was human, while the rabbit DNA was present only in the mitochondria, the energy-generators of the cells. The aim was to try to find new ways of growing and harvesting the stem cells present in early human development, which were (and are) a promising avenue for medical study and treatment.

It wasn't long, however, before controversy erupted over these so-called 'chimeras', as they were dubbed by some researchers. Were they human? What would happen if they were allowed to develop? Soon activists mobilized to restrict or quash the research. In 2005, the US outlawed patents on human embryos; in 2007, the Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act was proposed in Congress (although ultimately it failed to pass into law). According to the bill, research into hybrids was said to compromise 'human dignity and the integrity of the human species'. Pig heart transplants or the administration of animal-based insulin were acceptable, but the threat of potentially viable, cellular hybrids was too strong, despite the myriad social benefits it could yield.

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

man cliff landscape
Every single individual varies along a range of five personality traits. We don't know why, or how, only that we do. Agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness: these five traits, and the variations within them, capture the range of human personality, and they do it quite well. They capture differences between men and women, between liberals and conservatives, between emotionally unstable artists and hard-working manager types, and everyone in between.

Not only do the traits help us know ourselves a bit better - like what careers or environments are best suited to our personality and what aspects of our personality are most likely to bring us into conflict with others - they help us gain a better understand of just how different other people can be from us, and why. And they point out the aspects of our personality that might need some work: like when to be more assertive, harder-working, kinder, cautious, or adventurous.

Today on the Truth Perspective we discuss all this and more, with reference to Jordan Peterson's Big 5 personality test: Understand Myself.

Running Time: 01:17:45

Download: OGG, MP3

Listen live, chat, and call in to future shows on the SOTT Radio Network!


Soundscape: The importance of sound and silence

Sound and silence have a direct, powerful influence on emotions. We seldom acknowledge this fact, yet it is self-evident - we become anxious when we hear sirens or people arguing, sleepy when we hear a lullaby, focused by the hypnotic repetition of chanting.

Most people are unaware of the effects of sound and silence on the body and mind, even in the midst of the noise pollution so characteristic of cities. It is vital for your emotional health to take control of the soundscape that surrounds you. If you cannot escape disturbing sounds, the new technology of noise cancellation gives you a way to protect yourself from them. Noise-canceling headphones detect environmental noise with built-in microphones and generate signals that neutralize it; they are readily available and affordable.

Comment: Noisy busyness and the disappearance of silence


Shamans: 'Astronauts of inner space'

© Kevin Frayer/Getty
A Mongolian shaman or böö sits with his child before a fire ritual during the summer solstice in June 2018 outside Ulaanbaatar. Banned under communist rule, shamanism has seen a resurgence in Mongolia since 1992, when the ancient practice became protected by the country's Constitution.
The trances and healing powers of shamans are so widespread that they can be counted a human universal. Why did they evolve?

Shamanism is as varied as those who practice it. Its practitioners range from indigenous lineages who have passed down their craft over thousands of years to the modern 'plastic shamans', who represent no specific culture but have adapted shamanism to meet the demands of metropolitan markets. However, there is a common theme to shamanism wherever it is practised: the use of spiritual (or shamanic) trance to facilitate journeys to a non-ordinary reality. Here, in this non-ordinary reality, the shamans do their work. According to the historian of religion Mircea Eliade writing in 1951, shamanism is the 'technique of ecstasy', involving the purposeful invocation and use of dreams and visions to solve problems.

By this definition, shamanism is the landscape of the spirit-journey, populated by good and evil spirits and the souls of the deceased and yet-to-be-born. It is the place where mountains speak and Grandmother Skeleton points out which plants to eat when the dry season lasts too long. In this form, shamanism is everywhere in the old ways of humans. Every tribal culture - alive or dead - has some broker of spiritual capital. The Indonesian Mentawai have their sikerei. The Inuit have their angakok. The Columbian Desana have their paye. The Mongolian Buryat have their böö. The American Sioux have their heyoka.


New study on schadenfreude sheds light on darker side of humanity

Schadenfreude cartoon
© Torodo
'Dehumanization appears to be at the core of schadenfreude'

Schadenfreude, the sense of pleasure people derive from the misfortune of others, is a familiar feeling to many -- perhaps especially during these times of pervasive social media.

This common, yet poorly understood, emotion may provide a valuable window into the darker side of humanity, finds a review article by psychologists at Emory University.

New Ideas in Psychology published the review, which drew upon evidence from three decades of social, developmental, personality and clinical research to devise a novel framework to systematically explain schadenfreude. The authors propose that schadenfreude comprises three separable but interrelated subforms -- aggression, rivalry and justice -- which have distinct developmental origins and personality correlates.


Loneliness is bad for the brain

Loneliness is bad for the brain
© RawPixel/iStock
Mice yanked out of their community and held in solitary isolation show signs of brain damage.

After a month of being alone, the mice had smaller nerve cells in certain parts of the brain. Other brain changes followed, scientists reported at a news briefing November 4 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

It's not known whether similar damage happens in the brains of isolated humans. If so, the results have implications for the health of people who spend much of their time alone, including the estimated tens of thousands of inmates in solitary confinement in the United States and elderly people in institutionalized care facilities.

The new results, along with other recent brain studies, clearly show that for social species, isolation is damaging, says neurobiologist Huda Akil of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "There is no question that this is changing the basic architecture of the brain," Akil says.

Comment: See also:


The 'hard problem' of consciousness - Could consciousness all come down to the way things vibrate?

© agsandrew/Shutterstock
What do synchronized vibrations add to the mind/body question?
Why is my awareness here, while yours is over there? Why is the universe split in two for each of us, into a subject and an infinity of objects? How is each of us our own center of experience, receiving information about the rest of the world out there? Why are some things conscious and others apparently not? Is a rat conscious? A gnat? A bacterium?

These questions are all aspects of the ancient "mind-body problem," which asks, essentially: What is the relationship between mind and matter? It's resisted a generally satisfying conclusion for thousands of years.

The mind-body problem enjoyed a major rebranding over the last two decades. Now it's generally known as the "hard problem" of consciousness, after philosopher David Chalmers coined this term in a now classic paper and further explored it in his 1996 book, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory.

Chalmers thought the mind-body problem should be called "hard" in comparison to what, with tongue in cheek, he called the "easy" problems of neuroscience: How do neurons and the brain work at the physical level? Of course they're not actually easy at all. But his point was that they're relatively easy compared to the truly difficult problem of explaining how consciousness relates to matter.

Over the last decade, my colleague, University of California, Santa Barbara psychology professor Jonathan Schooler and I have developed what we call a "resonance theory of consciousness." We suggest that resonance - another word for synchronized vibrations - is at the heart of not only human consciousness but also animal consciousness and of physical reality more generally. It sounds like something the hippies might have dreamed up - it's all vibrations, man! - but stick with me.


Vacation is a poor substitute for leisure


For many of us, rest in the historical sense—the active version—is only imaginable after a lifetime of work, in retirement.
More than two thousand years ago, the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca wrote a letter to his friend Paulinus, urging against a certain type of rest:
I do not summon you to slothful or idle inaction, or to drown all your native energy in slumbers and the pleasures that are dear to the crowd.

That is not to rest;
To the stoics rest and leisure were active pursuits. Rest did not mean, as it often does today, vacation, days off, or a day or two spent catching up on sleep.

For many of us, rest in the historical sense-the active version-is only imaginable after a lifetime of work, in retirement. And even then, many who retire and find themselves filled with the anxiety that they must "do something" and may only slowly discover the type of contemplation, leisure, and mindfulness that was the accepted definition of rest for centuries.


What is that weird head sensation called ASMR?

© 123vid
Many people experience Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), a relaxing sensation often triggered by gentle whispering which creates a "low-grade euphoria" characterized by "a combination of positive feelings and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin. We are finally working out what it is and that it can be good for you.

The phenomenon first came to people's attention in 2007, in an online forum thread titled "weird sensation feels good". Many names were suggested, notably "attention-induced head orgasm" -- a misnomer because the feeling is not as sudden or short-lived as an orgasm, and is distinct from sexual arousal.

The term that stuck was coined in 2010 by cybersecurity expert Jennifer Allen: "autonomous sensory meridian response", or ASMR. She wanted something that represented the key elements of the sensation, but that sounded scientific, so people wouldn't be embarrassed to talk about it. It worked: those who experience the phenomenon are now a thriving online community. For instance, the ASMR subreddit has about 165,000 subscribers. The sensation has been popularised by pharmacologist Craig Richard of Shenandoah University in Virginia, who set up the website ASMR University.

"A lot of people said 'woah, I thought I was the only one who experienced this'"


Feeling lonely and depressed? Decrease your use of social media

subway passengers
© Reuters / Lucas Jackson
A University of Pennsylvania study has proven that reducing social media use to 10 minutes a day (like that's even possible) can help reduce depression and loneliness.

Feeling depressed, lonely, disconnected? A new study from the University of Pennsylvania suggests prolonged exposure to social media might be the cause - which for some will come as little surprise, even though it seems to be the exact opposite of what social networks are supposed to do.

While similar studies have been conducted in the past, the researchers at Penn say that none have attempted to show in such a comprehensive and realistic way how social media use can actively harm a user's well-being. The study entitled "No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression" was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

Comment: See also: