Dissolving the ego

Feb 24 2018


In 1969, the British writer Philip Pullman was walking down the Charing Cross Road in London, when his consciousness abruptly shifted. It appeared to him that ‘everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes’. The author of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials (1995-2000) wasn’t on drugs, although he had been reading a lot of books on Renaissance magic. But he told me he believes that his insight was valid, and that ‘my consciousness was temporarily altered, so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of routine ordinary perception’. He had a deep sense that the Universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose’. He says: ‘Everything I’ve written has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement.’

What does one call such an experience? Pullman refers to it as ‘transcendent’. The philosopher and psychologist William James called them ‘religious experiences’ – although Pullman, who wrote a fictionalised biography of Jesus, would insist that God was not involved. Other psychologists call such moments spiritual, mystical, anomalous or out-of-the-ordinary. My preferred term is ‘ecstatic’. Today, we think of ecstasy as meaning the drug MDMA or the state of being ‘very happy’, but originally it meant ekstasis – a moment when you stand outside your ordinary self, and feel a connection to something bigger than you. Such moments can be euphoric, but also terrifying.

Over the past five centuries, Western culture has gradually marginalised and pathologised ecstasy. That’s partly a result of our shift from a supernatural or animist worldview to a disenchanted and materialist one. In most cultures, ecstasy is a connection to the spirit world. In our culture, since the 17th century, if you suggest you’re connected to the spirit world, you’re likely to be considered ignorant, eccentric or unwell. Ecstasy has been labelled as various mental disorders: enthusiasm, hysteria, psychosis. It’s been condemned as a threat to secular government. We’ve become a more controlled, regulated and disciplinarian society, in which one’s standing as a good citizen relies on one’s ability to control one’s emotions, be polite, and do one’s job. The autonomous self has become our highest ideal,  and the idea of surrendering the self is seen as dangerous.

Yet ecstatic experiences are surprisingly common, we just don’t talk about them. The polling company Gallup has, since the 1960s, measured the frequency of mystical experiences in the United States. In 1960, only 20 per cent of the population said they’d had one or more. Now, it’s around 50 per cent. In a survey I did in 2016, 84 per cent of respondents said they’d had an experience where they went beyond their ordinary self, and felt connected to something greater than them. But 75 per cent agreed there was a taboo around such experiences.

There’s even a database of more than 6,000 such experiences, amassed by the biologist Sir Alister Hardy in the 1960s and now mouldering in storage in Wales. They make for a strangely beautiful read, a sort of crowdsourced Bible. Here is entry number 208: ‘I was out walking one night in busy streets of Glasgow when, with slow majesty, at a corner where the pedestrians were hurrying by and the city traffic was hurtling on its way, the air was filled with heavenly music, and an all-encompassing light, that moved in waves of luminous colour, outshone the brightness of the lighted streets. I stood still, filled with a strange peace and joy … until I found myself in the everyday world again with a strange access of gladness and of love.’

The most common word used when describing such experiences is ‘connection’ – we briefly shift beyond our separate self-absorbed egos, and feel deeply connected to other beings, or to all things. Some interpret these moments as an encounter with the divine, but not all do. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, also had a ‘mystic moment’ when he suddenly felt filled with love for people on a London street. The experience didn’t turn him into a Christian, but it did turn him into a life-long pacifist.

I became interested in ecstatic experiences when I was 24 and had a near-death experience. I fell off a mountain while skiing, dropped 30 feet, and broke my leg and back. As I lay there, I felt immersed in love and light. I’d been suffering from emotional problems for six years, and feared my ego was permanently damaged. In that moment, I knew that I was OK, I was loved, that there was something in me that could not be damaged, call it ‘the soul’, ‘the self’, ‘pure consciousness’ or what-have-you. The experience was hugely healing. But was it just luck, or grace? Can one seek ecstasy?

Pullman thinks not. He says: ‘Seeking this sort of thing doesn’t work. It is far too self-centred. Things like my experience are by-products, not goals. To make them the aim of your life is an act of monumental and self-deceiving egotism.’

I disagree. It seems to me that humans have always sought ecstasy. The earliest human artefacts – the cave paintings of Lascaux – are records of Homo sapiens’ attempt to get out of our heads. We have always sought ways to ‘unself’, as the writer Iris Murdoch called it, because the ego is an anxious, claustrophobic, lonely and boring place to be stuck. As the author Aldous Huxley wrote, humans have ‘a deep-seated urge to self-transcendence’. However, we can get out of our ordinary selves in good and bad ways – what Huxley called ‘healthy and toxic transcendence’.

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How can we seek ecstasy in a healthy way? In its most common-garden variety, we can seek what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called ‘flow’. By this he meant moments where we become so absorbed in an activity that we forget ourselves and lose track of time. We could lose ourselves in a good book, for example, or a computer game. The author Geoff Dyer, who’s written extensively on ‘peak experiences’, says: ‘If you asked me when I’m most in the zone, obviously it would be playing tennis. That absorption in the moment, I just love it.’ Others shift their consciousness by going for a walk in nature, where they find what the poet William Wordsworth called ‘the quiet stream of self-forgetfulness’. Or we turn to sex, which the feminist Susan Sontag called the ‘oldest resource which human beings have available to them for blowing their mind’.

Such everyday moments might seem a long way from the mystical ecstasy of St Teresa of Ávila, but I would suggest that there is a continuum from moments of light absorption and ego-loss to much deeper and more dramatic ego-dissolution. Csikszentmihalyi agrees, saying that moments of flow are ‘the kind of experience which culminates in ecstasy’. You don’t expect a full-on ecstatic experience every time you go to a concert, museum, mountain or date. But you know that, on a good day, you might just be transported.

And then there are the deeper moments of ego-loss that one might term a ‘mystical experience’. Can we seek them? Certainly. That’s what humans have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, through various ecstatic techniques such as strenuous dancing, chanting, fasting, self-inflicted pain, sensory deprivation or mind-altering drugs.

‘Modern psychiatric dismissal of altered states is due to the Western psychiatric mental-illnesses model of the mind’

Take psychedelic drugs, an ancient technique for getting out of our heads. In the past few years, academic research into psychedelics has re-started after a 40-year hiatus. Researchers have discovered that one dose of psychedelics reliably triggers ‘mystical experiences’ – moments where people report a sense of ego-dissolution and connection to all things, including to spirit beings or God. On the whole, people in research trials find such a trip one of the most meaningful, satisfying and healing moments in their lives. In a series of separate trials recently by Imperial College London, New York University and Johns Hopkins Medical School, one dose of psilocybin helped to reduce chronic depression and addiction, and also significantly reduced the fear of death in patients with cancer.

Another way in which humans have traditionally sought ego-transcendence is through contemplation. Western culture abandoned its own contemplative traditions during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, but in the past 50 years Eastern contemplative practices have flooded in to fill the vacuum. Around 9 per cent of adult Americans meditate, and 15 per cent practise yoga.

For most people, contemplation is a way to take a break from the chattering ego-mind. But occasionally people have more powerful experiences of ego-dissolution, especially on retreats. A 1979 study by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield in California found that 40 per cent of participants on a two-week meditation retreat reported unusual experiences such as rapture and visions (including hellish visions). Kornfield writes: ‘From our data it seems clear that the modern psychiatric dismissal of these so-called “mystical” and altered states as psychopathology … is simply due to the limitations of the traditional Western psychiatric mental-illnesses oriented model of the mind.’

A third way that people seek ecstasy today is through religious worship. In his classic text Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James noted that surrendering to a higher power often triggered deep psychological healing and growth. One example James gives is of Bill Wilson, who after decades of struggling with alcohol dependence finally surrendered to a God he barely believed in: ‘Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up in an ecstasy which there are no words to describe … it burst upon me that I was a free man.’

Wilson set up Alcoholics Anonymous as a mechanism to help other people find transcendence through ‘surrender to a higher power’, even if they aren’t sure what that means. Ecstatic religious movements such as Sufism and Pentecostalism offer similar healing through surrender. I spent a year exploring the world of charismatic Christianity, including the globally renowned Alpha course, and eventually succumbed to the ecstasy myself. It happened in a church in Pembrokeshire filled with Pentecostal pensioners. Suddenly, I felt filled with a force that knocked me back and took my breath away. It felt like proof. The preacher asked if anyone wanted to commit their life to Jesus and, at the back of the church, I raised my hand. The next week, I announced my conversion on my newsletter, and around a third of my subscribers immediately unsubscribed.

A few weeks later, however, the high passed, and the doubts came back. There were still basic tenets of Christianity that I couldn’t accept, particularly the idea that the only way to God is through faith in Jesus. So what had happened? Had I been hypnotised by the preacher, the ritual and the crowd emotion? Yes, probably. But that doesn’t mean it was unhealthy or unspiritual.

Nicky Gumbel, the Anglican priest who developed the Alpha course, says that ecstatic experiences – what he calls ‘encounters with the Holy Spirit’ – could be God, or could be simply human psychology. What matters is the fruit. Does it lead to healing and good works, or not? This is remarkably close to James’s attitude. He thought that faith-healing could be the subconscious, or could be access to an actual spiritual dimension. We can’t know for sure. But we can look at the fruits. Most humans in the non-Western world still seek psychological healing not from psychiatrists or therapists, but through the ritual of surrender to a God or spirit. It might offend our modern skepticism, but it also often works.

Any way out of our heads can be unhealthy – that includes reading, computer games, war or religion

Psychologists and psychiatrists are moving from their traditional hostility to ecstasy to an understanding that it’s often good for us. Much of our personality is made up of attitudes that are usually subconscious. We drag around buried trauma, guilt, feelings of low self-worth. In moments of ecstasy, the threshold of consciousness is lowered, people encounter these subconscious attitudes, and are able to step outside of them. They can feel a deep sense of love for themselves and others, which can heal them at a deep level. Maybe this is just an opening to the subconscious, maybe it’s a connection to a higher dimension of spirit – we don’t know.

Yet there are risks to ego-dissolution too. It can be a very frightening experience, and we might struggle to integrate it into our ordinary lives. We could ‘unself’ in social contexts that are unsafe or exploitative, that push us into narrow, controlling and hate-filled dogmas. We might insist that our route to God is the only route, and everyone else is demonic. We might get over-attached to the ecstatic, and foolishly seek a spiritual life entirely made up of special experiences. A peak experience is just a peek – we still have to put in the boring, hard work to deconstruct our egotism.

How do we reduce the risks of ego-dissolution? We can try to take care of one another in groups, both offline and online; we can look to the wisdom of various spiritual traditions, and respectfully compare notes; and we can draw on the burgeoning science of ecstatic experiences. But we will never entirely eliminate the risks. The journey beyond the self is not safe or predictable. On the other hand, staying in the self also has its risks – boredom, staleness, sterility, despair. Ultimately, there’s something in us that calls to us, that pulls us out the door. Let’s find out where it leads.

The Art of Losing Control: A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience by Jules Evans is out now (Canongate).

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how emotions are made

Feb 24 2018


Lisa Barrett in Delancey Place:

Faces"Emotions are … thought to be a kind of brute reflex, very often at odds with our rationality. The primitive part of your brain wants you to tell your boss he’s an idiot, but your deliberative side knows that doing so would get you fired, so you restrain yourself. This kind of internal battle between emotion and reason is one of the great narratives of Western civilization. It helps define you as human. Without rationality, you are merely an emo­tional beast. …

"And yet … despite the distinguished intellectual pedigree of the classi­cal view of emotion, and despite its immense influence in our culture and society, there is abundant scientific evidence that this view cannot possibly be true. Even after a century of effort, scientific research has not revealed a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion. When scientists attach electrodes to a person’s face and measure how facial muscles actually move during the experience of an emotion, they find tremendous variety, not uniformity. They find the same variety — the same absence of finger­prints — when they study the body and the brain. You can experience an­ger with or without a spike in blood pressure. You can experience fear with or without an amygdala, the brain region historically tagged as the home of fear. …

"So what are [emotions], really? When scientists set aside the classical view and just look at the data, a radically different explanation for emotion comes to light. In short, we find that your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment. Emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real — that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of hu­man agreement. This view, [is] call[ed] the theory of constructed emotion."

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Beard vs Taleb: Scientism and the Nature of Historical Inquiry

Feb 24 2018


Massimo Pigliucci at the Institute of Art and Ideas:

SetWidth592-pigliucciarticleBefore reading this essay, you may want to watch this short BBC cartoon, aimed at an audience of children, and explaining basic facts about Ancient Roman life in Britain. Done? Okay, what did you think of it?

This 5’30” video sparked a really nasty Twitter war (okay, “nasty” and “Twitter” may be slightly redundant, but still) involving two high caliber academics: historian Mary Beard (author of the highly readable and engaging SPQR) and statistician Nassim Taleb (author of the best selling and controversial The Black Swan). We’ll take a look at the exchange in a moment, but first — if you can stomach it — check out this “commentary” (I’m using the word very generously) by alt-right celebrity Alex Jones, who rails against the BBC for having succumbed to political correctness, on the grounds that one of the characters in the video is a young boy with a darker-than-white skin.

The kerfuffle began in earnest when Beard tweeted that the video was “indeed pretty accurate, there’s plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain.” Which I would have imagined is uncontroversially the case, since it is well known that the Roman Empire as a whole was highly diverse, and we have direct historical record of, for instance, one Governor of Britannia — Quintus Lollius Urbicus — who likely was a Berber from North Africa (specifically, modern Algeria). And Urbicus, based again on historical documents, was not an isolated case.

(As a side note, I did find the BBC video just slightly too informed by modern sensibilities, as for instance in the scene, at 1’50", where a Patrician girl expresses the desire to one day become a military commander, only to be rebuked by her mother who explains that women are not allowed in the Roman military. Then again, it is a video meant to teach an audience of modern children. And if one wishes to be picky then one would also have to point out that the Ancient Romans did not speak modern English with a British accent either…)

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Freud the philosopher

Feb 24 2018



David Livingstone Smith in Aeon:

Most people think of Sigmund Freud as a psychologist or a psychiatrist. But he was neither. He was trained as a neuroscientist and went on to create a new discipline that he called ‘psychoanalysis’. But Freud should also be thought of as a philosopher – and a deeply insightful and prescient one at that. As the philosopher of science Clark Glymour observed in 1991:

Freud’s writings contain a philosophy of mind, and indeed a philosophy of mind that addresses many of the issues about the mental that nowadays concern philosophers and ought to concern psychologists. Freud’s thinking about the issues in the philosophy of mind is better than much of what goes on in contemporary philosophy, and it is sometimes as good as the best …

In fact, it’s impossible to really understand Freudian theory without coming to grips with its philosophical undercurrents. This might sound strange, given the many derogatory remarks about philosophy that are scattered through Freud’s writings and correspondence. But these remarks are easy to misinterpret. Freud’s verbal barbs were not directed at philosophy per se. They were directed at the kind of philosophy that was dominant during his lifetime – philosophy of the speculative, armchair variety that remains aloof from scientific investigations of the material world, often described as ‘metaphysics’, a subject that he characterised as ‘a nuisance, an abuse of thinking’, adding: ‘I know well to what extent this way of thinking estranges me from German cultural life.’

To come to grips with the philosophical thrust of Freud’s thinking, it is crucial to place it in its historical context. Born in 1856 in a village in what is now the Czech Republic, Freud enrolled in the University of Vienna just at the time when the sciences of the mind were gaining momentum. Although he initially planned to study law with the intention of pursuing a career in politics, and also toyed with the idea of doing a joint PhD in zoology and philosophy, he eventually found his way to neurology. In entering this field at just that moment, the young Freud launched himself into an incredibly exhilarating and dynamic intellectual milieu. For neuroscientific researchers, the daunting scientific challenge of figuring out how the brain works (without the benefit of the sophisticated technologies available today) was compounded by the equally formidable philosophical challenge of explaining the relationship between the electrochemical impulses coursing through a massively complex network of neurons and the experiential fabric of our subjective mental lives – our thoughts, values, perceptions, and choices.

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Moral Tragedy?

Feb 24 2018


by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

MaskTragedy168It was probably Aristotle who first took careful notice of the special role that the concept of happiness plays in our thinking about how to live. Happiness, he argued, is the final end of human activity, that for the sake of which every action is performed. Although it makes perfect to sense to ask someone why she is pursuing a college degree, or trying to master chess, there is something decidedly strange in the question, "Why do you want happiness?" Aristotle saw that when explaining human action, happiness is where the buck stops.

Aristotle’s insight seems undeniable, but nearly vacuous. To identify happiness as the ultimate aim of human action is simply to assert that we tend to do what we think will bring us happiness. It is to say that when we act, we act ultimately for the sake of what we take to be happiness. As appearances can be deceiving, all of the deep questions remain.

Perhaps this is why Aristotle affirmed also that happiness is the culmination of all of the good things a human life could manifest. He declared that the truly happy person not only derives great enjoyment from living, but also is morally and cognitively flawless. In fact, Aristotle goes so far as to affirm that the happy person necessarily has friends, good looks, health, and wealth. And, as if these advantages were not enough, he holds further that the happy person is invulnerable even to misfortune and bad luck. According to Aristotle, then, happiness is not simply that for the sake of which we act; it is also that which renders a human life complete, lacking nothing that could improve it. It is no wonder that Aristotle also thought that happiness is rare.

Few today subscribe to the view that complete success in every evaluative dimension is necessary for happiness. Surely a person could be happy but not especially beautiful or wealthy. It is important to note, however, that those who affirm this more modest view often take their insight to show that things like wealth and beauty are not really the incontrovertible goods that they often appear to be. That is, the claim that one might be happy in the absence of wealth and good looks is most often accompanied by the rider that these latter attributes are not especially valuable after all. Consequently, the core of Aristotle’s second claim is retained, albeit in a moderated form: the happy life manifests not every good that a human life could realize, but all of the really important goods that a human life could realize.

This moderated version of Aristotle’s second claim is undeniably attractive. It strikes many as obvious that success in living involves achieving a range of centrally important values; in order to be good, a life must manifest integrity, honesty, loyalty, hopefulness, kindness, determination, charity, trustworthiness, and much else. It also seems obvious to many that these success-making attributes must be manifest to the fullest degree. A person who only occasionally manifests integrity and determination, or who is sometimes disloyal and untrustworthy, is living a life that is to some degree failing from the moral point of view. He may of course feel satisfied with his life, but it is nevertheless unsuccessful.

To be sure, even on the moderated version, it is not easy to live successfully. The important goods upon whose manifestation success depends are not easily attained; one must work to achieve a good life. It is not surprising, then, that we live in a social world that inundates us with competing images of success, each promoting its distinctive conception of how all of the truly important values best can be realized and maintained. From automobile advertisements and fashion magazines to university websites, television preachers, and political candidates, the social environment is saturated with depictions of the good life, and, again, all but the most simplistic of these includes some program for achieving the right balance of all of the goods. The self-help section of your local bookstore tells the tale: success in life consists in having it all, making no compromises, missing out on nothing, achieving and sustaining all of the good things, all at once.

But what if it should turn out that success in this sense is not only hard to achieve, but impossible? What if the reason why it’s so difficult to live a life that manifests all of the important goods to the fullest degree is that it is not possible to do so? Would it follow that we are doomed moral failure?

To get a better sense of the possibility we are raising, consider that our lives feature periodic episodes where we must choose not between a good and a bad, but rather between two or more goods. We sometimes can remain loyal to one person only by betraying the trust of another; in some circumstances, kindness requires dishonesty; and often seeing things clearly results in little more than a loss of hope. In cases like these, the achievement of one good requires the violation of another good. And, more importantly, it is not clear how one could determine whether in any instance the preservation of loyalty was worth the corresponding dissolution of trust. Hence it’s possible that humans just can’t have it all. Cases in which goods conflicts are common enough. What should we make of them?

One view claims that irredeemable losses involving important goods is an inescapable feature of human lives because strife among goods is built into the fabric of the moral universe. Another view is that the cases of strife are all due to limitations on human insight, knowledge, or imagination. According to the first view, there could be no human life without serious moral loss. That may sound harsh. However, this view offers something of a consolation: As moral loss is inevitable, it is in the end not clear how it could constitute a moral failure. The second view also seems harsh. It claims that moral losses have their roots in our limitations, and so it would appear that such losses are due to our shortcomings. However, there is consolation in the idea that finite beings are always subject to cognitive and epistemic limitations; such, after all, is part of what constitutes our finitude.

Both views at once condemn us to inescapable moral loss while offering a corresponding consolation that derives from the loss’s inevitability. Both provide parallel doom and comfort in the thought that we are human, after all. 

However, matters are more complicated than it might seem. We have identified only two accounts of the conflict between goods. There are other accounts, including a number that hold that moral loss is not inevitable. These views hold that every conflict among goods is resolvable either because there is always an overarching good that can adjudicate the conflict, or because the limitations on our moral understanding are surmountable. Thus, there is a conflict among two styles of thinking about moral conflicts. One holds that strife among goods is inevitable and irresolvable, and the other denies this. Can this conflict be addressed?

It matters how we think about conflicts among important goods. If we think that such conflicts are irresolvable, in the face of them we will see no point in agonizing over their resolution. In fact, agonizing over them and trying to think of solutions will seem only to their difficulty. If alternatively we think that all such conflicts admit of some resolution, then striving to find the right response might be obligatory. Consequently, the hasty inference from it being difficult to find an answer to there being no answer is not only a cognitive but also a moral error.

The trouble is that it is unclear that this conflict over how to think about moral conflict is itself resolvable. This second-order conflict is at least as vexed as any first-order conflict over goods like honesty and loyalty is. But if we don’t know how to resolve the conflict over how to think about moral conflicts, a different and more thoroughly unsettling possibility looms.

According to plausible account, a morally successful life must be a life of moral reflection and command. One might say that in order to live well, one must achieve a certain level of moral understanding. One cannot live a successful life by accident; success must be in some way won by way of deliberate effort. But if we can’t resolve the conflict among ways of thinking about moral conflicts, we lack a significant — some might say indispensable — ingredient of moral understanding. In the same way that we may lack real happiness if we fail to achieve some first-order good, it seems we also lack happiness if we lack this second-order good of moral understanding. Hence our lives might be condemned not only to imperfection, but tragedy too.

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This ancient mnemonic technique builds a palace of memory

Feb 24 2018


In Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novel A Study in Scarlet (1887) we learn that Sherlock Holmes used the most effective memory system known: a memory palace. Although imagined memory palaces are still used by memory champions and the few who practice the memory arts, they are best known from Greco-Roman times when great orators, including Cicero, used them to ensure their rhetoric was smooth, detailed and flawless. The physical memory palace, usually a streetscape or building interior, would become so familiar to the orator that it was always available to them in their imagination. By ‘placing’ one piece of information in each site, they could mentally stroll through their memory palace, location by location, drawing out each portion of the speech in the required order without missing any element.

Received opinion is that this method of loci, as the technique is also known, dates to before Simonides of Ceos (c556-468 BCE), who is often credited as the inventor. However there is ample circumstantial evidence that indigenous cultures the world over have been using it for far longer than that. There is a continuous record dating back at least 40,000 years for Australian Aboriginal cultures. Their songlines, along with Native American pilgrimage trails, Pacific Islanders’ ceremonial roads and the ceque system of the Inca at Cusco all exhibit exactly the same pattern as the memory palaces described by Cicero. At each sacred location along these paths, elders would sing, dance or tell a story, all making the information associated with the location more memorable.

The memory skills of indigenous elders exceed anything reported for the ancient Greeks. Research with the Native American Navajo people, for example, shows that they memorise a classification of more than 700 insects along with identification, habitats and behaviour. And that’s just insects. A fully initiated indigenous elder would be able to relate stories equivalent to a field guide for all the birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and hundreds of insects within their environment.

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Another study shows that the Hanunoo people of the Philippines were able to identify 1,625 plants, many of which were unknown to Western science at the time. Add to that knowledge of astronomy, timekeeping, navigation, legal and ethical guidelines, weather and seasons, complex genealogies and belief systems, and you have a vast encyclopaedia stored in an interwoven memorised web: a web that is tied to a real or imagined memory palace.

Cultures without writing are referred to as ‘non-literate’, but their identity should not be associated with what they don’t do, but rather with what they do from necessity when there is no writing to record their knowledge. Cultures without writing employ the most intriguing range of memory technologies often linked under the academic term ‘primary orality’, including song, dance, rhyme and rhythm, and story and mythology. Physical memory devices, though, are less often included in this list. The most universal of these is the landscape itself.

Australian Aboriginal memory palaces are spread across the land, structured by sung pathways referred to as songlines. The songlines of the Yanyuwa people from Carpentaria in Australia’s far north have been recorded over 800 kilometres. A songline is a sequence of locations, that might, for example, include the rocks that provide the best materials for tools, to a significant tree or a waterhole. They are far more than a navigation aid. At each location, a song or story, dance or ceremony is performed that will always be associated with that particular location, physically and in memory. A songline, then, provides a table of contents to the entire knowledge system, one that can be traversed in memory as well as physically.

Enmeshed with the vitalised landscape, some indigenous cultures also use the skyscape as a memory device; the stories of the characters associated with the stars, planets and dark spaces recall invaluable practical knowledge such as seasonal variations, navigation, timekeeping and much of the ethical framework for their culture. The stories associated with the location in the sky or across the landscape provide a grounded structure to add ever more complexity with levels of initiation. Typically, only a fully initiated elder would know and understand the entire knowledge system of the community. By keeping critical information sacred and restricted, the so-called ‘Chinese whispers effect’ could be avoided, protecting information from corruption.

Rock art and decorated posts are also familiar aids to indigenous memory, but far less known is the range of portable memory devices. Incised stones and boards, collections of objects in bags, bark paintings, birchbark scrolls, decorations on skins and the knotted cords of the Inca khipu have all been used to aid the recall of memorised information. The food-carrying dish used by Australian Aboriginal cultures, the coolamon, can be incised on the back, providing a sophisticated mnemonic device without adding anything more to the load to be carried when moving around their landscape. Similarly, the tjuringa, a stone or wooden object up to a metre long decorated with abstract motifs, is a highly restricted device for Aboriginal men. As the owner of the coolamon or the elder with his tjuringa touched each marking, he or she would recall the appropriate story or sing the related song.

This is very similar to the way the Luba people of West Africa use a well-documented memory board known as a lukasa. Previous researchers have claimed that the ‘men of memory’ of the Mbudye society would spend years learning a vast corpus of stories, dances and songs associated with the bead and shells attached to a piece of carved wood. My initial attitude when I read this was complete skepticism. It was surely claiming far too much for such a simple device. So I made one. I grabbed a piece of wood and glued some beads and shells on it and started encoding the 412 birds of my state: their scientific family names, identification, habitats and behaviour. It worked a treat. I no longer doubt the research. Though simple, this is an incredibly powerful memory tool. Inspired by my success with the lukasa, I have also created songlines for more than a kilometre around my home. I have a location on my walk for each of the 244 countries and dependent territories in the world. I walk through them from the most populous in China to little Pitcairn Island. I also walk through time from 4,500 million years ago until the present, nodding to the dinosaurs, meeting our hominid ancestors and greeting numerous characters from history. My memory has been hugely expanded by using this ancient mnemonic technique.

It is the structure of the human brain that dictates the memory methods that work so effectively right across human societies. It is our dependence on writing that has eroded this skill. We can, if we choose to, implement these techniques alongside our current educational methods. I have taught schoolchildren to sing their science and to create memory trails right around the school grounds, with excellent results. We can and should learn from the intellectual achievements of indigenous cultures by adapting their techniques to contemporary life. But when we do this, we should acknowledge the source. These memory techniques are far older than our Western civilisation, and they are far more effective than the crude rote techniques that replaced them.


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Electric honeycomb: Pakistani teen in scientific first

Feb 24 2018


Muhammad Shaheer Niazi

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Only 17-years-old and he is already a recognised scientist. Muhammad Shaheer Niazi’s research on electric honeycomb was recently published in the Royal Society Open Science journal.

Physicists have known the phenomenon of electric honeycomb for decades. It occurs when a layer of oil is placed in an electric field between a pointy electrode and a flat one – and the instability caused by the build up of ions applies pressure to the surface of the oil – creating a beautiful pattern that looks like a honeycomb, or a stained glass window.

The high school student from Pakistan’s city of Lahore managed to photograph the movement of ions that forms the honeycomb besides recording the heat found on the surface of oil. No one has done this before.

Electric honeycomb phenomenon was the problem given to him at the International Young Physicists’ Tournament held in Russia last year. Mr Niazi, and four other students, made up the first-ever team to represent Pakistan at the tournament. Returning from Russia, Mr Niazi decided to get his research published.

It took him another year of work to come up with “novel ideas” before his paper was finally accepted for publication. He received the letter of acceptance just days ahead of his 17th birthday last month.

“Your research is like your child, and you feel out of this world when it is accepted for publication,” Mr Niazi tells the BBC in an interview at his residence in Lahore’s posh Sukh Chayn sector.

With the slim stature of a teenage boy with curly hair and spectacles sitting firmly on his nose, the young scientist cuts a smart figure.

‘Seeking equilibrium’

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Anticipating the first question, he settles down on a couch next to a desk laden with boxes full of wires, motherboards and incomplete circuits. It is where he conducts his experiments.

How is an electric honeycomb formed? Mr Niazi elaborates: “Electric honeycomb perfectly demonstrates how everything in this universe is seeking equilibrium. Its hexagonal shape is the most stable structure.”

In this case, he says, two electrodes are used; a pointy needle on top of a flat surface with a thin layer of oil on it. High voltage from the needle makes ions bombard the surface of oil, on their way to meet the ground electrode.

“It is just like lightening striking the surface of earth,” he says. But oil is a non-conductor. The ions start accumulating on the surface of oil. As the pressure increases, they create a depression and manage to meet the ground electrode.

In the process the surface of oil loses its shape, something it does not want. So within no time, honeycomb-like hexagonal structures appear on the surface of oil.

“The amount of energy that goes in equals the energy that comes out and thus the flow of electricity is efficient. This way equilibrium is restored,” he sums up. Mr Niazi replicated the phenomenon at last year’s tournament.

To prove his findings, he photographed the ion wind demonstrating that the ions were moving. He also recorded the heat produced through their movement, a finding that needs further study.

He says he had been using the shadowgraphy technique just for fun before he decided to use it in his research. “I thought if I see my research from that perspective, I might discover something new. That’s how I managed to photograph the shadow of ion-wind and it was added as novelty in my paper.”

Mr Niazi says that using this technique an oil droplet can be manipulated without touching it. Engineers can use the visualization of this phenomenon to develop technologies that can be used in biomedicine and in printing.

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In the country he comes from, not many his age would dare venture into avenues of learning other than the conventional schooling. For Mr Niazi, the traditional classroom learning became boring at times. It was then that he turned to other avenues such as books he received from his father and grandfather.

At a very young age he was also introduced to the concept of self-learning. He was only 11 when he first started taking online courses. He has taken 25 courses in different subjects from platforms like Coursera. For toys, he owns a telescope and tools for his scientific experiments.

“When I was a child I used to watch documentaries on science with my grandfather and read books on mathematics and other science subjects,” says Mr Niazi.

He has an inquisitive nature. His mind is always abuzz with questions and then theories to explain them. Yet, he too seeks equilibrium. Mr Niazi has a deep interest in music and art. He creates excellent pencil sketches and is a self-taught pianist.

He was not expecting the media attention he is now getting. But he is glad he did something that made his country proud. He hopes to get into a reputable educational institution where he can further his research in physics.

Mr Niazi aims big – “I would love to win another Nobel Prize for Pakistan” – and he thinks bigger – “Isaac Newton was 17 when his first paper was published; I was 16 when I officially received my acceptance letter.”

from BBC News http://ift.tt/2wHfIoW

Scientists say they can measure your charisma with only six questions

Feb 24 2018


I have a select few friends I would call genuinely charismatic — the rest are kind, and/or funny, and/or outgoing, but aren’t quite there yet.

The thing is, I can’t tell you exactly how I made that distinction. It’s more of an intuitive judgement.

But a team of researchers at the University of Toronto, led by Konstantin O. Tskhay (now a consultant at Deloitte), have taken aim at the idea that the average person can’t quantify charisma; and through a series of clever studies, they’ve made it surprisingly easy to do just that.

According to their paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and highlighted in The Wall Street Journal, your responses to six prompts can reveal just how charismatic you are. The prompts are below; rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 on each behavior.

I am someone who …

  1. has a presence in a room
  2. has the ability to influence people
  3. knows how to lead a group
  4. makes people feel comfortable
  5. smiles at people often
  6. can get along with anyone

Now divide your total score by six to get your average charisma score. If it’s higher than 3.7, the researchers say you’re more charismatic than the average person.

These prompts were developed through multiple studies the researchers conducted, with a total of nearly 1,000 participants.

The researchers asked participants to rate themselves on a series of qualities that described charismatic people and determined that charisma comes down to two factors: influence — i.e. leadership ability and strength of presence — and affability — or being pleasant and approachable. (In the prompts above, the first half correspond to influence and the second half correspond to affability).

One of the most intriguing findings from the paper is that people’s ratings of their own influence and affability generally line up with other people’s perceptions. That’s not always true when it comes to assessing personality and behavior.

What’s more, charisma doesn’t just exist in a vacuum — according to the studies, it has important implications for social relationships. For example, in a getting-to-know-you exercise, participants who were rated higher in affability were also perceived as more likable. (Influence didn’t seem to matter for likability.)

The University of Toronto researchers aren’t the first to quantify charisma. I’ve written before about the work of John Antonakis and colleagues, for example, who have taught groups of managers to be more charismatic at work.

What differentiates the current research is that it looks at charisma in the general population — most other studies have focused on charisma in leaders. This research also boils down charisma to a smaller set of observable qualities than many other studies have.

As with most personality assessments, you shouldn’t panic if you score lower on charisma than you’d like. There are plenty of ways to become more charismatic, from practicing reading other people’s emotions to using words people can relate to.

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Read the original article on Business Insider UK. © 2016. Follow Business Insider UK on Twitter.

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The drugs do work: antidepressants are effective, study shows

Feb 24 2018


Antidepressants work – some more effectively than others – in treating depression, according to authors of a groundbreaking study which doctors hope will finally put to rest doubts about the controversial medicine.

Millions more people around the world should be prescribed pills or offered talking therapies, which work equally well for moderate to severe depression, say the doctors, noting that just one in six people receive proper treatment in the rich world – and one in 27 in the developing world.

If cancer or heart patients suffered this level of under-treatment, there would be a public outcry, they say.

“Depression is the single largest contributor to global disability that we have – a massive challenge for humankind,” said John Geddes, professor of epidemiological psychiatry at Oxford University. It affects around 350 million people worldwide and instances rose almost 20% from 2005-2015.

“Antidepressants are an effective tool for depression. Untreated depression is a huge problem because of the burden to society,” said Andrea Cipriani of the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, who led the study.

In the UK, Geddes said “it is likely that at least one million more people per year should have access to effective treatment for depression, either drugs or psychotherapy. The choice will need to be made by doctor and patient.”

The debate over antidepressants has unfortunately often been ideological, said Cipriani. Some doctors and patients have doubts over whether they work at all and point to the big placebo effect – in trials, those given dummy pills also improve to some degree. Some people suspect drug companies of fiddling trial results. Some patients simply do not want to take pills for a mental health condition.

The study published in the Lancet took six years, Cipriani said, and included all the published and unpublished data that the scientists could find. It was carried out by a team of international experts. They looked at results after eight weeks of more than 500 trials involving either a drug versus placebo or comparing two different medicines.

The most famous antidepressant of them all, Prozac – now out of patent and known by its generic name, fluoxetine – was one of the least effective but best tolerated, measured by a low drop-out rate in the trials or fewer side-effects reported. The most effective of the drugs was amitriptyline, which was the sixth best tolerated.

Antidepressant league table

In a commentary in the journal, Sagar Parikh from the University of Michigan in the USA and Sidney Kennedy from the University of Toronto in Canada pointed out that three drugs scored best for efficacy and tolerability: agomelatine, escitalopram, and vortioxetine. Three others scored particularly poorly: fluvoxamine, reboxetine, and trazodone. The first three “might be considered first choice” by doctors, they write, although the two most effective drugs – amitriptyline and venlafaxine – might still be first choice for severe depression.

But Cipriani said any of the drugs might still have their uses. The trial data cannot show which drug would be likely to work best for any one individual.

Antidepressants and psychological therapies – of which the most frequently used is CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) – have similar success rates. Around 60% of people respond by about two months to the drugs with about a 50% reduction in their symptoms – an improvement in mood, better sleep and so on. But, he said, “about 80% of people stop antidepressants within a month”.

New treatments are badly needed, the experts say. Most of the drugs in the study are known as SSRIs, which are thought to work by increasing levels of a chemical messenger called serotonin in the brain, but nobody knows for certain. “We don’t have any very precise treatments for depression at this point in time,” said Geddes.

However, the doubts and controversy over antidepressants, allied to the difficulties in discovering new neurological drugs, have led to the drug companies quitting a field that once – after the launch of Prozac – looked likely to be very lucrative for them. “It is a massive problem that the industry has pulled out because they found this area very challenging to work in,” said Geddes.

Other experts said the study was of major importance. Professor Carmine Pariante, spokesperson for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the analysis “finally puts to bed the controversy on antidepressants, clearly showing that these drugs do work in lifting mood and helping most people with depression. Importantly, the paper analyses unpublished data held by pharmaceutical companies, and shows that the funding of studies by these companies does not influence the result, thus confirming that the clinical usefulness of these drugs is not affected by pharma-sponsored spin.”

Dr James Warner, reader in psychiatry at Imperial College London, said: “This rigorous study confirms that antidepressants have an important place in the treatment of depression. Depression causes misery to countless thousands every year and this study adds to the existing evidence that effective treatments are available.”

Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said taking antidepressants was frequently portrayed as a negative thing “but this in itself can add to the unfortunate stigma that sometimes exists around people with mental health conditions”.

The research should reassure patients and doctors, she said. “Depression is a significant mental illness which, if left untreated or unmanaged, can cause a huge amount of distress for a patient, their family and friends. It should never be swept under the carpet or ignored.”

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

from the Guardian http://ift.tt/2FougPD

It’s official: antidepressants are not snake oil or a conspiracy – they work

Feb 24 2018


It’s official: antidepressants work.

They are not a multibillion-dollar conspiracy dreamed up by Big Pharma Bond villains. They are not a snake oil distilled in secret laboratories, designed to stupefy us all. They are not a futile cop-out from overextended family doctors.

They are an effective treatment to alleviate symptoms of depression, a global scourge that affects as many as one in 20 people on the planet. Even the least effective antidepressants are better than placebos, the sugar pills dished out in trials. And placebos are better than nothing.

The upshot of this, the most intensive piece of meta-analysis ever conducted into antidepressants, is that the millions of people (including me) who take them – reluctantly, sceptically, hopefully – can continue to do so without feeling guilt, shame or doubt about the course of treatment.

Moreover, doctors should feel no compunction about prescribing these drugs, though really they should be reserved for serious cases, and should be offered as part of a mix of interventions such as CBT, group therapy, work sabbaticals, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, exercise, education and local support networks.

Doctors might also consider changing the specific antidepressants they are dishing out: the league table that has emerged from this six-year trial is a thing of great esoteric beauty, fascinating to those on first-name terms with these medicines. The big surprises are that the two best known – Prozac (fluoxetine) and citalopram (mostly widely prescribed in the UK) – are relatively poor at their job.


Of course, this is not the end of the story. The other big questions that have dogged antidepressants have not gone away: why they work for some and not for others (though this is the same with other medicines); why they take so damn long to kick in (anything from a few weeks to a few months) and HOW they work (the rather vague science is that they slow down the reuse of an important neurotransmitter, serotonin, deficiencies of which affect everything from mood and appetite to sleep and concentration).

The other big question that will persist for at least as long as it takes to gather proper evidence, is what the long-term side effects of taking antidepressants are. Most people quit taking them within the first year of being prescribed. But an important minority take antidepressants as an open-ended treatment: they have tried life without and it doesn’t work.

Who knows what the impact of a lifetime’s usage might be. But then again, something’s got to get you in the end.

Mark Rice-Oxley is a Guardian editor and author of the depression memoir Underneath the Lemon Tree

from the Guardian http://ift.tt/2GyY4YU