Blog Explanation

This blog brings together content that is noticeable, important or otherwise interesting from a human givens point of view.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Riots show why happiness agenda is vital UK / PEACE & DEMOCRACY12 AUG 201

In the aftermath of the riots in London and other cities across the UK, people
are shocked and angry. The images of burning buildings and streets in ruin
are more like scenes from a disaster movie than something you’d expect to
see in a prosperous country like the UK in 2011. There are far more
questions than answers.
Although the chaos may have initially been triggered by the death of Mark
Duggan, shot by police in Tottenham, it now seems obvious that this week’s
rampage is more a case of mindless violence and opportunistic looting than a
calculated response to a specific incident. Two images, for me, highlighted
the depths to which the rioters sunk: the footage of an injured, bleeding
young person having items stolen from his backpack; and the pictures of a
charity shop having had its windows broken. Both were vivid examples of
the senseless and callous nature of the rioting.

Let’s revisit the big picture. Over the last few decades we’ve seen
unprecedented increases in average incomes and living standards, but this
hasn’t been matched by a corresponding increase in average life satisfaction.
The reasons for this are complicated but, in short, by building a
socio-economic system that promotes self-centred materialism as the route
to economic progress, we’ve exacerbated inequalities and created a culture
that brings out the worst in human nature.So what does any of this tragic and
inexplicable behaviour have to do with happiness?
Now, people are rightly calling for a focus on security, law enforcement and
justice. But if we stop to look at what might be the underlying drivers of the
rioters’ behaviour, it leads us back to issues at the heart of the agenda to
create a happier
It’s a culture that puts possessions and individual success before people and
communities. It’s why the percentage of people in the UK who say “most
other people can be trusted,” has tumbled from 60% to 30% since 1970.
This culture has also contributed to the big problem at the heart of this week’s
riots: a generation of disillusioned and disengaged kids that feel that they
don’t have any stake in society.
People who mindlessly attack their own local areas have clearly lost any
sense of connection to their communities. And when they place more value
on looting mobile phones and designer trainers than the safety and livelihoods
of their own neighbours, it suggests a culture with it’s priorities all wrong.
As one commentator noted on Twitter: “The youth of the Middle East rise
up for basic freedoms. The youth of London rise up for a HD ready 42″
Plasma TV.”
Our young people are bombarded with the message that success and
happiness are tied up in money and possessions. Yet for those at the
bottom of the pyramid, these things are simply out of reach. As they watch
the rich and powerful grow in prosperity, the promised ‘trickle-down effect’
of economic progress has largely failed to reach them. While not necessarily
worse off in real terms, they are undoubtedly worse off in relative terms,
which matters deeply at the psychological level.
As the inequality gap has grown so has their anger at a sense of unfairness
and the feeling that they’re worthless in the eyes of our leaders and wider
society. And when you feel you’ve got nothing, then you’ve got nothing to
lose from lashing out.
Of course the current economic situation contributes to the problem; the
financial crisis and the largest cuts in public services for generations are
causing many people great hardship and uncertainty. But the underlying
factors run deeper than this.
Ultimately, many of the problems with disengaged teenagers can be traced
to broken families and parents who are themselves ill-equipped to raise
happy, thriving children. Many of these disaffected young people grow up
without the essential ingredients for their wellbeing: unconditional love and
clear boundaries.
The absence of these emotional and behavioural building blocks was very
evident on our streets this week. The rioters showed a complete lack of
empathy for those whose livelihoods they were wrecking and a total lack
of understanding of the personal consequences of their actions.
There is a now very strong body of evidence linking secure attachment
and emotional intelligence in early years to positive life outcomes”
A focus on emotional factors, such as love, may seem naive at a time of
such fear and anger. But there is a now very strong body of evidence
linking secure attachment and emotional intelligence in early years to positive
life outcomes, including better academic achievement as well as lower
likelihood of involvement in criminal activities.
There is also evidence showing that children who grow up without feeling
loved and securely attached tend to place a much higher value on material
possessions as a source of fulfilment. This is desperately sad, but perhaps
it partially explains the shocking thirst for looting products, which we saw
this week.
In no way do I condone the unacceptable aggression we’ve seen on our
streets; violence solves nothing. But we all need to look inwards and accept
that all of us have some responsibility for creating the culture that has made
this level of disengagement and anger possible.
We need to reassess our priorities and pursue a fundamentally different way
of life, where we care less about what we can get for ourselves, and more
about the happiness of others. That is the only route to lasting fulfilment. At
the heart of the happiness agenda is a passion to do everything we can to
address unhappiness in the world around us, whether it comes from poverty,
depression, inequality or disaffected youth.
Yes government needs to do more, yes criminals need to be brought to
justice; but at the same time we all need to be the change we want to see
in the world.
An inspiring example of this attitude has been the hundreds of ordinary people
all over the country who have united together to clean up the mess and start
the process of rebuilding their communities. Let’s use this tragic and
turn of events to start a process of realigning our values and putting a greater
focus on equality and the happiness of those around us, especially those at
the margins of our society.

More Information:

Seeing is believing? How our senses can be remarkably untrustworthy.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Exercise May Help Prevent Brain Damage Caused by Alzheimer's Disease

AUGUST 15, 2011

Regular exercise could help prevent brain damage associated with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, according to research published this month in Elsevier's journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
"Exercise allows the brain to rapidly produce chemicals that prevent damaging inflammation", said Professor Jean Harry, who led the study at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the United States. "This could help us develop a therapeutic approach for early intervention in preventing damage to the brain."
Previous research has already demonstrated that exercise after brain injury can help the repair mechanisms. This new study shows that exercise before the onset of damage modifies the brain environment in such a way that the neurons are protected from severe insults. The study used an experimental model of brain damage, in which mice are exposed to a chemical that destroys the hippocampus, an area of the brain which controls learning and memory. Mice that were exercised regularly prior to exposure produced an immune messenger called interleukin-6 in the brain, which dampens the harmful inflammatory response to this damage, and prevents the loss of function that is usually observed.
Pharmacological therapies to downregulate inflammation and address cognitive decline in older adults, and those with Alzheimer's disease, have been less successful. This research helps understand how exercise could be used to affect the path of many human conditions, such as neurodevelopmental disorders and neurodegenerative diseases. In addition, as a chemical model of neuronal damage was used, it also raises the possibility that exercise could offer protection against the potentially harmful effects of environmental toxins.
"This elegant series of experiments reveals an alternative pathway by which voluntary physical exercise may protect hippocampal neurons", said Dr. Ruth Barrientos from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado. "The study on the role of exercise as a therapeutic intervention will undoubtedly get a workout in the years to come. Perhaps the greatest challenge with this line of research will not be more discoveries of compelling evidence of the anti-neuroinflammatory effects of exercise, but instead, getting humans to exercise voluntarily and regularly."
You may read this press release in its original location:

Monday, 15 August 2011

Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings

The canon talks about how gangs can meet needs for security, status and meaning for young members:
"Once again, politicians and commentators are talking about gangs - this time as a result of their apparent role in some of last week’s rioting. The Prime Minister has signalled that he will make it one of his priorities, turning for advice to Bill Bratton, the retired American police chief with experience of gang culture.
Yet a great deal of experience is already available in the justice system to policy makers and you only have to spend time with young people themselves to understand why, for some, the gang is so important. If we are to wean them away from the gang, recognising the needs the gang satisfies has to be the starting-point.
From time to time I visit young offender institutions – youth prisons. I remember well a conversation I had with one young teenager about his gang membership. He said, in effect, that the gang gave him the three things he most craved – respect, a sense of worth and something to do. By respect he meant protection. When he walked the streets with other gang members, no one – as he put it – would 'mess' with him. By a sense of worth he meant that the gang was the only context in which he counted for anything. His mother worked long hours and had little time to give him when she came home, and he struggled at school. In the gang he was somebody. And the gang gave him something to fill his days both now and in a future where there would be few low-skilled jobs for the likes of him. Unfortunately, what the gang filled his days with were activities that were often anti-social and sometimes criminal.
The aftermath of the riots may not be the ideal time for thinking dispassionately about gangs. Our first priority should be the punishment of offenders. But the destruction on our high streets does reveal in starkest fashion that the lives of our troubled youth are bound up with ours. If we are to make a difference to their lives, then, yes, they must be punished for criminal acts – they need to know their actions have consequences and victims - but we also need to think about how we can better meet the needs the gang satisfies.
Some of the young people I meet are not easy to like. But if I am ever tempted to wash my hands of them, scripture has a way of rebuking me. They may be troublesome but they are still children; and Jesus in the gospels reserves some of his sternest words for those who can’t be bothered with children. If they cause children to stumble it would be better if a stone were hung round their neck and they were thrown into the uttermost parts of the sea. I don’t think he added a rider about troublesome children being an exception."

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Study Shows Good Posture Makes You More Resilient

JULY 15, 2011
University of Southern California

Mothers have been telling their children to stop slouching for ages. It turns out that mom was onto something and that poor posture not only makes a bad impression, but can actually make you physically weaker. According to a study by Scott Wiltermuth, assistant professor of management organization at the USC Marshall School of Business, and Vanessa K. Bohns, postdoctoral fellow at the J.L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, adopting dominant versus submissive postures actually decreases your sensitivity to pain.
The study, "It Hurts When I Do This (or You Do That)" published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that by simply adopting more dominant poses, people feel more powerful, in control and able to tolerate more distress. Out of the individuals studied, those who used the most dominant posture were able to comfortably handle more pain than those assigned a more neutral or submissive stance.
Wiltermuth and Bohns also expanded on previous research that shows the posture of a person with whom you interact will affect your pose and behavior. In this case, Wiltermuth and Bohns found that those adopting submissive pose in response to their partner's dominant pose showed a lower threshold for pain.
Fake It Until You Make It
While most people will crawl up into a ball when they are in pain, Bohn's and Wiltermuth's research suggests that one should do the opposite. In fact, their research suggests that curling up into a ball may make the experience more painful because it will make you feel like you have no control over your circumstances, which may in turn intensify your anticipation of the pain. Instead, try sitting or standing up straight, pushing your chest out and expanding your body. These behaviors can help create a sense of power and control that may in turn make the procedure more tolerable. Based on previous research, adopting a powerful, expansive posture rather than constricting your body, may also lead to elevated testosterone, which is associated with increased pain tolerance, and decreased cortisol, which may make the experience less stressful.
Keeping Your Chin Up Might Really Work to Manage Emotional Pain
While prior research shows that individuals have used pain relievers to address emotional pain, it is possible that assuming dominant postures may make remembering a breakup or some distressing emotional event less painful.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The 10 Essential Emotional Needs

We are all born with essential physical and emotional needs and the innate resources to help us fulfil them – known as human ‘givens’ – which need to be met in order to facilitate good mental health.
Following are the ten main innate emotional needs:
1) Security — safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully
2) Attention (to give and receive it) — a form of nutrition
3) Sense of autonomy and control — having volition to make responsible choices
4) Being emotionally connected to others
5) Feeling part of a wider community
6) Friendship, intimacy — to know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are, “warts ‘n’ all”
7) Privacy — opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
8 ) Sense of status within social groupings
9) Sense of competence and achievement
10) Having meaning and purpose — which comes from being stretched in what we do and think.
Life is never 100 per cent perfect, but as long as our main essential needs are being met, and our resources are being used well, we do not suffer mental health problems. However, if just one of these needs is unmet, or our resources are being misused, it can affect our mental health and well being.
Here is a list of the innate resources (also human givens) that we have to meet our emotional needs.
  • The ability to develop complex long term memory, which enables us to add to our innate knowledge and learn
  • The ability to build rapport, empathise and connect with others
  • Imagination, which enables us to focus our attention away from our emotions, use language and problem solve more creatively and objectively
  • conscious, rational mind that can check out emotions, question, analyse and plan
  • The ability to ‘know’ — that is, understand the world unconsciously through metaphorical pattern matching
  • An observing self — that part of us that can step back, be more objective and be aware of itself as a unique centre of awareness, apart from intellect, emotion and conditioning
  • A dreaming brain that preserves the integrity of our genetic inheritance every night by metaphorically defusing expectations held in the autonomic arousal system because they were not acted out the previous day.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Choosing compassion could help us survive - by Pat Williams

WE humans live on the edge of a precipice. Our evolutionary history has created within us everything
we need to live in this world - which inevitably means that we have within us equal. opposite, and inconsistent
That we are largely driven by our animal natures is clear from both self-inspection and decades of research into aggression and violence. We know, too, from these same sources, that we have in our make-up strong impulses towards both territoriality and conformist herd behaviour. But we also know that we have equally basic compassionate instincts - for generosity and kindness, for example. And there must be few, if any, human beings on this planet who have not sought, or do not seek, to give and receive love. Yet our present situation seems to reinforce our darker, more violent instincts. The precipice is growing ever steeper. We are living in the shadow of a terrifying potential for violence and destruction, aware that many millions could die in a nuclear conflict or that long-range missiles might reach us from halfway across the planet. And if not that, then like a tribe that has over-grazed, we may run out of vital resources. Or else we may unwittingly render our planet uninhabitable, because our brains are not designed to react automatically to threats which we do not reckon to be immediate.
Perhaps the search for possible solutions to this danger may be what lies unspoken behind the increasing amount of current research into what you might call the 'positive' side of our natures: forgiveness, heroism, gratitude, altruism, fairness, trust, cooperation and peacemaking - all of which feature in what is becoming known as 'compassion research'.
An increasing number of new, or newish, organisations dedicated to this kind of research have sprung up. Among them, for instance, is the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, created by a team comprising the Dalai Lama, Stanford University and James Doty, a multimillionaire inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist as well as a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University. The aim
is to investigate how the brain deals with compassion and altruism, and how to apply those findings in a practical way to improve people's lives.Another is the Greater GoodScience Centre, dedicated to expanding a scientific understanding of compassion, which actively disseminates findings from scientists whose areas of study are consistent with this objective. It funds research into, among other things, compassion and empathy,
social and emotional learning and forgiveness.
The Centre recently published The Compassionate Instinct, a book of essays by 52 authors of the stature of Daniel Goleman, Philip Zimbardo, Paul Ekman, Steven Pinker, Robert Sapolsky, and ArchbishopDesmond Tutu. It discusses aspects of current research, experiences and observations on the theme of compassion and its kaleidoscope of concomitants, such as kindness, forgiveness, empathy and trust.  The book is well worth reading.
The ground covered includes research into the biological roots of forgiveness, empathy, compassion, and trust; the cultivation of compassion with friends and neighbours, and also in politics and society.And it provides an added interest for readers of this journal - an abundance of materials which can be transformed into anecdotes and stories of optimism with which to inspire downcast patients, students, colleagues
and friends. Some of the material in this article has been sourced from this book.
The idea of compassion, of course, is at the heart of every human and ethical tradition. In the Qur'an, God the Compassionate is foremost among the (99) Most Beautiful Names of God. In the Jewish tradition, God is invoked as the Father of Compassion. The theme of compassion in Hinduism reaches as far back as the Vedas, which were composed prior to 1500 Be. Christians are enjoined to love their neighbours unconditionally, to 'go the extra mile', and never to place themselves above others. And compassion is also the essence of all humanist thinking.
Here are two inspiring examples of compassion. The first comes from South Africa's apartheid era. Nelson Mandela and the men imprisoned with him on Robben Island deliberately worked to make their brutal guards
understand that they, their black prisoners, were human beings too. One former prisoner, Neville
Alexander, smiling ruefully at the memory, said when interviewed, "It was very frustrating. We'd just succeed in educating one set of guards to understand this, when a new set would replace them, and we'd have to start all over again." The second is from Man's Search for Meaning,psychiatrist Victor Frankl's strong and memorable account of his Auschwitz experiences: "We who lived in concentration camps can remember

the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
As Frankl says, even when stripped of everything, some things can never be taken from us: the ability to make choices, even in the worst imaginable circumstances, and the capacity to be compassionate. These are riches beyond price.
Capacity for reconciliation after aggression is deep within us. For instance, mutual kissing, submissive
vocal sounds, touching and embracing are quite common after the aggressive conflicts of chimps. Other great apes, like the bonobo and mountain gorilla, also engage in acts of reconciliation, as do goats, sheep, dolphins and hyenas. In fact, of the half-dozen or so non-primates that have been studied, only domestic cats have failed to demonstrate a conciliatory tendency".
There is also, quite clearly, an innate inhibition against killing our own kind. This is well documented in many studies, which show that throughout military history soldiers have demonstrated a strong resistance to killing others. In the 1860s, in response to a questionnaire, French officers reported a common tendency of soldiers
to fire harmlessly into the air, often without even seeming to aim. And a British study in 1986 examining 100 19th- and 20th-century battles, discovered that the killing potential of the combat weapons used was much greater than the historical casualty rates. The evidence showed that the majority of combatants, when faced with killing the enemy, avoided doing so.'
According to former paratrooper Lt Colonel Dave Grossman/ who taught psychology at West Point and was both chairman of and a professor at, the Department of Military Science at Arkansas University, these findings have largely been ignored by academia, psychiatry and psychology - but not by the military itself Since the Second World War, troops have been 'brainwashed' to overcome this resistance. They are trained, for example, to see the enemy as nothing more than one of the man-shaped targets they have practised
on in similar field conditions in full battledress. And they are trained to aim at the heart, which they are conditioned to see as merely a splosh of red paint on the 'target'. But the success of the training, says Grossman, comes at the cost of severe psychological trauma - post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
suicides, alcoholism, drug use and divorce. A study in 1988 showed that PTSD sufferers were almost exclusively among veterans who had taken part in 'high-intensity combat situations'. Grossman also points out that popular culture has done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing. Many video games actually replicate military training, and are conditioning young people to kill - "but without 'stimulus discriminators'to
ensure they only fire under authority".
Research into human violence has, however, also thrown up an unexpected, though contentious, possibility - that in spite of genocide, 'ethnic cleansing', and unjustifiable wars, the level of violence in the past century may have actually decreased. According to Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, social scientists have begun to count bodies in different historical periods and have found that any idyllic images we may have had of hunter-gatherer societies living in a state of harmony with nature and each other are the wrong way round." Our ancestors were far more violent than we are today, he says: in fact, we may be living in the most peaceful moment of our time on earth.
There has been much criticism of Pinker's view, but ancient texts, certainly, in all the traditions, show a stunning disregard for human life. Think of all the smiting commanded by God in the Old Testament, which also prescribes death by stoning for a whole list of non-violent infractions, including picking up sticks on the Sabbath, homosexuality, and disrespecting one's parents. In the Middle Ages, too, mutilation and torture were still routine punishments for social infringements which today would result in a fine. So why do so many people believe that we are living in the most violent period that has even been? Better reporting, says Pinker, plus the fact that, as cognitive psychologists have shown, the easier it is to recall an event, the more likely we are to believe it will happen again. War images from TV are burned into our brains; images of people dying in
their beds of old age are not.
About 20 years ago, medical and psychological researchers turned their attention from focusing exclusively on disease and depression, and began to look also at 'wellness' and positive thinking. Similarly, interest in the 'red in tooth and claw' aspect of our natures has widened to include the compassionate 'up' side. When, in the course of research, Professor Jonathan D Haidt, of the University ofVirginia, and colleagues asked people
in several countries to list disgusting things, they found, to their surprise, that, as well as rotten food, dead bodies, excrement, etc, most people also mentioned social offences such as hypocrisy, racism, cruelty and betrayal. Haidt later began to wonder about things which uplifted people rather than revolted them and to look at what he termed 'elevation': the uplifting effect that comes from seeing another person perform an unexpected altruistic act.' His experiments have shown that people who witness such events become more

optimistic about humanity, develop higher goals for themselves and are prepared to affiliate with others; they also report more energy, playfulness, and pleasant physical feelings - warmth or tingling in their chests - none of which was found in the control groups. Elevation is also contagious, says Professor Haidt, and so he is looking at ways to include the idea in education programmes, "inspiring young people in ways that more traditional teaching techniques cannot". But there is a need for caution here. All emotions are contagious, sometimes to the point of mass hysteria. We are, in many ways, herd animals. And there is a strong tendency, especially in groups, for elevated feelings to tip over into highminded self-righteousness. Past and current events - from the Inquisition to the persecution of so called 'witches', to the phenomenon of the suicide
bomber - demonstrate the tragic direction in which the 'meme' of self-righteousness can lead us. There is, I think, no substitute for making altruism, or any other 'elevated' emotion one may have 'caught', authentically one's own.
For example, in the year 2000 the International Committee of the Red Cross asked Harvard researchers
to analyse the comprehensive data collected from its People on War project, in which thousands of hours of interviews with individuals in 12 of the world's most wartorn areas were undertaken, discussing the often almost unbearable impact of war on their lives, in terms of humiliation, tragedy and loss. The researchers
found that, although the focus of the interviews had been the terrible things that had happened, time and again
acts of compassion and altruism were spontaneously mentioned. Sometimes it made the difference between life and death; sometimes it might have been the simple giving of a glass of water. In the nightmare of war, these acts of humanity shone like beacons and were lifelines for the recipients. It seems to me that such actions were not, and could not have been, produced by superficial emotional contagion. They could only have arisen from deep within certain individuals.
Research into forgiveness, as we learn from many studies cited in The Compassionate Instinct, confirms what observation and common sense also tell us - that we could not have survived without the capacity to forgive because, quite apart from the obvious benefit of damage limitation, forgiveness brings in its train peace,
harmony, cooperation and wellbeing, to families, social groups, and whole countries. But studies
also show that forgiveness has powerful psychological and physiological effects on the forgiver, in terms of reduced stress levels and general wellbeing.
Right across what you could call 'the compassionate spectrum', in fact, these healthy and beneficial consequences are found. For example, although it has been said for centuries that kindness is its own reward, neuroscience has now found the physiological pathways which express this in the body. When we give to others, our brain shows heightened activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region known to have many dopamine
receptors, and which processes rewards.
But compassion, like everything else, must begin at home. We all need to be able, when necessary, to turn its healing light on ourselves. Indeed a therapeutic technique known as Compassionate Mind Training (CMT)has recently been developed by evolutionary psychologist Paul Gilbert for people with high shame and self-criticism, whose problems tend to be chronic and who find selfwarmth and self-acceptance difficult and/or
In 2008 Professor Gilbert and Sophie Mayhew published a series of case studies exploring the understanding, acceptance and value of CMT for psychotic individuals who heard voices.They were interested in the degree to which such people were able to access and feel the positive emotions of 'warmth' and 'contentment', and to become more compassionate towards themselves. They also explored how CMT affected participants'
hostile voices, their levels of anxiety, depression, paranoia and self-criticism. Participants were invited to offer their own suggestions for tailoring this approach for those people who hear voices.The results showed
decreases for all participants in depression, psychoticism, anxiety, paranoia, obsessive compulsive
disorder and interpersonal sensitivity. And all the participants' auditory hallucinations became less malevolent,
less persecuting and more reassuring."
This is a powerful result, particularly in individuals suffering extreme symptoms. But in my experience, people with even minor anxieties, or simple social embarrassment, benefit from learning how to extend to themselves the healing balm of compassion.
Researchers are also looking at a range of other ways in which compassionate responses can be learned. Interventions have been designed, for instance, for partners in marriage, for parents, for incest victims, for people recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't work with everyone. However, there is a powerful, long-term way in which individuals can be primed for compassionate and heroic responses, without indoctrination or conditioning. The human race has practised it from time immemorial

- the telling of traditional tales and epic stories of heroes.
Philip Zimbardo is famous for his landmark Stanford Prison Experiment in which seemingly well-adjusted male college students, randomly assigned the roles of 'prison guards' at a makeshift jail' on campus, descended within five days to perpetrating outlandish, sadistic punishments on their student 'prisoners', which eerily foreshadowed Abu Ghraib. The experiment, due to run for two weeks, was stopped only because a
compassionate young woman, Zimbardo's girlfriend, courageously challenged the situation. After hours of argument and protest, she convinced him to call it off. In recent years, Zimbardo has been researching
what kind of individuals will stand up against authority, or blow the whistle, or even sacrifice their lives, for what they know to be right. They are quite ordinary people, he says - but a number of factors make them able to go against the herd if the situation calls for it. As a result of his research he has created the Hero Project,
designed to help instil in children the qualities of heroes rather than monsters." The most important factor of all, he says, is what he calls 'the stimulation of heroic imagination' - in other words, the telling of epic stories such as the Iliad, or Beowulf, which have embedded in them models of the heroic process. As readers of this journal are aware, metaphors and patterns of compassion, generosity and sacrifice within stories nourish human development. Children have a natural hunger for such tales, but in this digital age are too often starved of them - and society has begun to feel the consequences.
Even if the sense of dread in the public mind does not, as Pinker suggests, pass any reality check, the gathering storms around us seem real enough - and in times of emergency our baser, short-term animal survival instincts tend to win, because this is what our brains are specialised for. Yet even here, if we have templates provided by stories or the example of others already in our minds, our compassionate instinct can be sustained.
We have all exercised compassion on behalf of others, so we can quickly and easily evoke it from the range of our sub-personalities - the 'characters', as I have described them in an earlier article in this journal" and a CD, which we unconsciously switch between in the theatre of our lives. Indeed one can consciously apply the
idea of the 'characters' to our whole repertoire of survival instincts, switching from Seeking Advantage to Intention to Share, or banishing Vengeance and bringing Cooperation to the centre of the mental stage. Our sub-personalities, the 'characters' in the theatre of our lives, can help us - because the 'many minds' model
fosters conscious choice.
Here is an example from our evolutionary past. The desire for revenge, according to Professor Michael McCullough, is a universal trait in human nature. When our human ancestors were harmed by another, the propensity for revenge may have deterred the aggressor from harming them again and prevented them from appearing weak and vulnerable, thus serving as a protective device." This dynamic still plays out today.
Social psychologists have shown in the laboratory that a victim will retaliate more strongly against a provoker when others are watching. And when two men have an argument in the street, the mere presence of a third person doubles the likelihood that the encounter will escalate from an exchange of words to an exchange of blows.
Clearly revenge is adaptive, and can protect us. But we are all interdependent, all linked, now, in
global networks, all in the firing line. What worked automatically for our ancestors needs to be put, from time to time, under conscious control, so that we can deliberately select from our basic biological repertoire what will work best for the whole human network, not just for ourselves - revenge or peacemaking, disgust or elevation, suspicion or trust. We can no longer be driven blindly by the primal needs of our ancestral primates
and early tribal living. Retaliation in order to save face is too dangerous now. Even within our own society, a minor perceived slight may result in murder by knife or gun. But internationally, whatever our country, the threats are too great to stoke up grievance and resentment, or to think in terms of 'them' and 'us'. Yet many societies, our own included, seem in recent decades to have become overheated and anxious, pointing the
finger of blame at other cultures, other beliefs, other behaviours, other religions, other people - whatever it is, is the fault of the 'other'.
So the revenge instinct needs to be avoided, or controlled, or carefully measured. Sometimes we may find the measure more easily, both individually and collectively, by looking in our minds for an appropriate 'character' who can choose to warn strongly, but not to harm. Naming our impulses and sub-personalities as 'characters'
helps distance us from an aggressive (or any other) impulse, because by doing so we automatically move into our 'observing selves' - which can both cool us down and help us see our options more clearly.
It has become even clearer to me through writing this article how important it is, in certain circumstances, consciously and authentically to choose compassion, rather than allow ourselves to be infected by the  emotional context, whatever it is. And, in more ambiguous circumstances, to be able to select, situation by situation, what may be the optimum 'measure' of compassion we can manage.
Our choices could determine our survival. Is there anything that can help us in this? Victor Frankl states it impeccably: "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our :response lies our growth and our freedom."

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The cost of coming in from the cold - by Pat Williams

"POETS", said Shelley - by which I take him to mean the great brotherhood of creative minds, (including great scientists) - "are the unacknowledged legislators of the future". They see further, and earlier, than the rest of us. And they create a cradle of words, colours, sounds, or even scientific formulae, to hold the unfamiliar subtleties they find. In Shakespeare's words, "As their imagination bodies forth / The form of things unknown, the poet's pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name". Such people can travel in the endless worlds of which the sirens sing, and bring back with them some of the 'airy nothings' they encounter. This poetic journey is, of course, one of the many meanings of the story of Odysseus and the Sirens, in Homer's Odyssey - a story repeated in many forms, and in every culture.
 From my own South African experience of the apartheid years, I have seen that without the work of 'poets' and their soaring imaginations, as well as the creativity and sheer sense of shared humanity that it triggers in others, a society is truly brutalised. But I have only now really understood and framed for myself the astonishing paradox that the sanity of any society depends on its madmen.By madmen I mean those whose vision soars beyond the box; for whom, in fact, there is no box, in whom normal everyday connections can dissolve on the instant and reveal something utterly different. Such people live on a knife edge - mad, but not mad. Their capacity is not given to all, and the price for it can be high - free spirits returning from the metaphorical sphere often make crash landings.
 A study by Kay Redfield Jamison of 47 living poets, writers and artists, for instance, all of whom had won major prizes or awards in their fields, found that 28 per cent had received treatment for affective disorder, and 29 per cent had taken antidepressants or lithium or been hospitalised - significantly more
than in the general population. Daniel Nettle, interviewed in this journal about his fine book Strong Imagination (OUP, 2001), from which this research is drawn, shows that the knife-edge actually arises within our genes. The delusions of the mentally ill and the creations of the artist spring from a common source. Indeed the underlying cognitive make-up of healthy individuals in creative professions has been shown to have an overlapping profile with schizophrenics. So it's a trade-off. The price for high art and creativity in the human species is often mental illness. Many readers of this journal, in fact, will have met unfortunate individuals who - whether artistically gifted or not - have strayed into the world of dreams and become lost there. Nettle argues persuasively that : humans have thought the function of  their 'poets' so valuable that they have been prepared to live with the mental misery it is often yoked to. Otherwise the gene may well have been bred out, there being no obvious adaptive reason for retaining it. It seems to me we are prepared to pay the price - about two per cent of the population in all cultures - because a proportion of this percentage will allow us,  sometimes, to fly high, on the wings of imagination and metaphor, rather than permanently suffocating on the ground.
Byron once said, "We of the craft. are all crazy" - but truly these 'mad-men' are in some respects saner than the rest of us. Without the great creative works of our ancestors, and even the tolerance of eccentricity, we would have far fewer beacons to sustain and inspire us, particularly in hellish times. Sir Geoffrey Jackson, for example, former British Ambassador in Guatemala, who was kidnapped and kept isolated in a hole in the ground for eight months, said that one of the strongest elements in keeping him sane and stable was all the poetry he learned as a child. Another example is that of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul official in Lithuania, who in 1940 signed more than 2,000 visas for Jews hoping to escape the Nazi invasion, despite his government's direct orders not to do so. Bound by the strict codes of Japanese society, and knowing that flouting them brought shame on his family, something even stronger impelled him - a well-known image lodged in his culture: ''Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge". A single sentence framed by an unknown 'madman' centuries before saved all those lives.

Many earlier societies were coherent enough for their populations to share in their dreams, myths, stories, proverbs and adages. But our own society is too fragmented now; too big, and too ill-educated. Many of my clients under 40 read no books, know no poetry, see or make no art. Getting and spending, seeking advantage, consuming in comfort, being celebrated for nothing much ... these often seem to be their highest aspirations. And of those who do read, many insist that reason and rationality are sovereign. They would take Goya's words, "the sleep of reason produces monsters", at their face value, unaware that, both metaphorically

and in reality, 'monsters' also guard the gateway to the unknown realms. It's as if we are living in a terrarium,
nothing too terrible, nothing too outstanding, a ceiling over our heads, and the arts themselves, those building
blocks of the imagination, largely scaled down to terrarium-size, Creative individuals tend to pour their talent into TV, films, advertising, blockbuster books and computer games, where the material rewards are great. And of course we are worried, because our children are addicted to them. But an addiction is often a conquered repulsion, or a concealed allergy caused by faulty nutrition. So when a child's natural hunger for
proper, time-tested stories - their real spaceships - has been diverted to the synthetic and second-best, what else could the result be? The majority of us, lacking the poets' double-edged gene and lucky enough to be called 'sane', huddle in our cosy terrarium, nibbling our art and- poetry-lite, and occasionally wondering if that is all there is. Yet all the while our madmen and giants 'and poets are out there in the cold, calling us, calling us ... and fewer and fewer people can hear them. We should all get out more.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Science Behind Dreaming

New research sheds light on how and why we remember dreams--and what purpose they are likely to serve
For centuries people have pondered the meaning of dreams. Early civilizations thought of dreams as a medium between our earthly world and that of the gods. In fact, the Greeks and Romans were convinced that dreams had certain prophetic powers. While there has always been a great interest in the interpretation of human dreams, it wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung put forth some of the most widely-known modern theories of dreaming. Freud’s theory centred around the notion of repressed longing -- the idea that dreaming allows us to sort through unresolved, repressed wishes. Carl Jung (who studied under Freud) also believed that dreams had psychological importance, but proposed different theories about their meaning.
Since then, technological advancements have allowed for the development of other theories. One prominent neurobiological theory of dreaming is the “activation-synthesis hypothesis,” which states that dreams don’t actually mean anything: they are merely electrical brain impulses that pull random thoughts and imagery from our memories. Humans, the theory goes, construct dream stories after they wake up, in a natural attempt to make sense of it all. Yet, given the vast documentation of realistic aspects to human dreaming as well as indirect experimental evidence that other mammals such as cats also dream, evolutionary psychologists have theorized that dreaming really does serve a purpose. In particular, the “threat simulation theory” suggests that dreaming should be seen as an ancient biological defence mechanism that provided an evolutionary advantage because of  its capacity to repeatedly simulate potential threatening events – enhancing the neuro-cognitive mechanisms required for efficient threat perception and avoidance.
So, over the years, numerous theories have been put forth in an attempt to illuminate the mystery behind human dreams, but, until recently, strong tangible evidence has remained largely elusive.
Yet, new research published in the Journal of Neuroscience provides compelling insights into the mechanisms that underlie dreaming and the strong relationship our dreams have with our memories. Cristina Marzano and her colleagues at the University of Rome have succeeded, for the first time, in explaining how humans remember their dreams. The scientists predicted the likelihood of successful dream recall based on a signature pattern of brain waves. In order to do this, the Italian research team invited 65 students to spend two consecutive nights in their research laboratory.
During the first night, the students were left to sleep allowing them to get used to the sound-proofed and temperature-controlled rooms. During the second night the researchers measured the student’s brain waves while they slept. Our brain experiences four types of electrical brain waves: “delta,” “theta,” “alpha,” and “beta.” Each represents a different speed of oscillating electrical voltages and together they form the electroencephalography (EEG). The Italian research team used this technology to measure the participant’s brain waves during various sleep-stages. (There are five stages of sleep; most dreaming and our most intense dreams occur during the REM stage.) The students were woken at various times and asked to fill out a diary detailing whether or not they dreamt, how often they dreamt and whether they could remember the content of their dreams.
While previous studies have already indicated that people are more likely to remember their dreams when woken directly after REM sleep, the current study explains why. Those participants who exhibited more low frequency theta waves in the frontal lobes were also more likely to remember their dreams.
This finding is interesting because the increased frontal theta activity the researchers observed looks just like the successful encoding and retrieval of autobiographical memories seen while we are awake. That is, it is the same electrical oscillations in the frontal cortex that make the recollection of episodic memories (e.g., things that happened to you) possible. Thus, these findings suggest that the neurophysiological mechanisms that we employ while dreaming (and recalling dreams) are the same as when we construct and retrieve memories while we are awake.
In another recent study conducted by the same research team, the authors used the latest MRI techniques to investigate the relation between dreaming and the role of deep-brain structures. In their study, the researchers found that vivid, bizarre and emotionally intense dreams (the dreams that people usually remember) are linked to parts of the amygdala and hippocampus. While the amygdala plays a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions, the hippocampus has been implicated in important memory functions, such as the consolidation of information from short-term to long-term memory.
The proposed link between our dreams and emotions is also highlighted in another recent study published by Matthew Walker and colleagues at the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at UC Berkeley, who found that a reduction in REM sleep (or less “dreaming”) influences our ability to understand complex emotions in daily life – an essential feature of human social functioning.  Scientists have also recently identified where dreaming is likely to occur in the brain.  A very rare clinical condition known as “Charcot-Wilbrand Syndrome” has been known to cause (among other neurological symptoms) loss of the ability to dream.  However, it was not until a few years ago that a patient reported to have lost her ability to dream while having virtually no other permanent neurological symptoms. The patient suffered a lesion in a part of the brain known as the right inferior lingual gyrus (located in the visual cortex). Thus, we know that dreams are generated in, or transmitted through this particular area of the brain, which is associated with visual processing, emotion and visual memories.
Taken together, these recent findings tell an important story about the underlying mechanism and possible purpose of dreaming.
Dreams seem to help us process emotions by encoding and constructing memories of them. What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the emotions attached to these experiences certainly are. Our dream stories essentially try to strip the emotion out of a certain experience by creating a memory of it. This way, the emotion itself is no longer active.  This mechanism fulfils an important role because when we don’t process our emotions, especially negative ones, this increases personal worry and anxiety. In fact, severe REM sleep-deprivation is increasingly correlated to the development of mental disorders. In short, dreams help regulate traffic on that fragile bridge which connects our experiences with our emotions and memories.


Sander van der Linden is a doctoral researcher in social experimental psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research is concerned with the process of behavioral change and funded by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
A Role for REM Sleep in Recalibrating the Sensitivity of the Human Brain to Specific Emotions Ninad Gujar et al

Although the impact of sleep on cognitive function is increasingly well established, the role of sleep in modulating affective brain processes remains largely uncharacterized. Using a face recognition task, here we demonstrate an amplified reactivity to anger and fear emotions across the day, without sleep. However, an intervening nap blocked and even reversed this negative emotional reactivity to anger and fear while conversely enhancing ratings of positive (happy) expressions.

Most interestingly, only those subjects who obtained rapid eye movement (REM) sleep displayed this remodulation of affective reactivity for the latter 2 emotion categories. Together, these results suggest that the evaluation of specific human emotions is not static across a daytime waking interval, showing a progressive reactivity toward threat-related negative expressions. However, an episode of sleep can reverse this predisposition, with REM sleep depotentiating negative reactivity toward fearful expressions while concomitantly facilitating recognition and ratings of reward-relevant positive expressions. These findings support the view that sleep, and specifically REM neurophysiology, may represent an important factor governing the optimal homeostasis of emotional brain regulation.

Full paper:

Stephen Fry debating Ann Widdecombe on the worth of the Catholic Church