Archive for June, 2012
I got the heads up from a friend on FaceBook about a forceful and timely article by Stephen R. Friberg on the issue of religion and science to be found at the Huffington Post (see link for the full article). The theme is at the forefront of my attention at the moment and Friberg’s approach is a valuable one, so the desire to pass on the hint was irresistible.
Drawing on the Bahá’í view of reality he states:
Weakening, sidelining, ridiculing, or disparaging science or religion in favor of the other has very real consequences: “Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism” (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, pg. 143).
The article deals with four key issues:
Below, we describe four possible ways inspired by the Bahá’í teachings of [realising in practice] the unity of science and religion:
- Reduce or eliminate conflicts over evolution
- Develop moral and ethical principles for global progress
- Provide universal education in scientific literacy
- Renew and transform religion
It’s well worth a closer look.
Posted in Book Reviews, Science, Psychology & Society, tagged Bahá'í Faith, Elizabeth Gould, Iain McGilchrist, Jeffrey Schwatrz, Michael Merzenich, neurogenesis, Neuroplasticity, Norman Doidge on 20/06/2012 | 4 Comments »
Going Back over Old Ground
From Lehrer’s account in his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, we can pick up the story from the point in the previous post on this topic when Elizabeth Gould, much to her surprise, had found long discounted evidence of neuroplasticity in the literature. She began to explore it in depth.
She realised [they] all had strong evidence for mammalian neurogenesis. Faced with this mass of ignored data, Gould abandoned her earlier project and began investigating the birth of neurons.
She published new data over the next eight years (ibid.):
Gould’s data shifted the paradigm. More than thirty years had passed since Altman first glimpsed new neurons, but neurogenesis had become a scientific fact.
By 1998 ‘even Rakic admitted that neurogenesis was real.’
The implications of neurogenesis are of extreme importance (page 42):
What does the data mean? The mind is never beyond redemption, for no environment can extinguish neurogenesis. As long as we are alive, important parts of the brain are dividing. The brain is not marble, it is clay, and our clay never hardens.
It is Norman Doidge‘s book, though – the one I bought at the same time as Lehrer’s, completely unconscious of their close correspondences – that expands upon the human cost of the arrogance that buried the evidence for thirty years. His whole book The Brain That Changes Itself is an accessible but authoritative explanation of the multitude of ways that neuroplasticity impacts upon us – how belief in it promotes healing and scorn of it has prolonged suffering.
I got the heads up about this fascinating book from a friend at a Bahá’í meeting. Standing absolutely upright at over six feet in height, he looked me straight in the eye and said with absolute conviction, ‘You really must read this book. I’m 75 years old now and I’m functioning better mentally than I was at the age of 60 purely as a result of doing the exercises it talks about.’ After a recommendation like that, how could I resist. I’m almost 70 trying to pretend I could keep up with myself at 50. It was a no-brainer.
I’ll just take a few points from one chapter - Redesigning the Brain - to illustrate just how poisonous the dogmatism of science has been in this critical area.
He discusses the work of Michael Merzenich (page 49):
In a series of brilliant experiments he showed that the shape of our brain maps changes depending upon what we do over the course of our lives.
At first his interest in brain plasticity had to go on the back burner. After remaining underground for a few years with his ideas, he had an opportunity in 1971 to research them using adult monkeys. His findings were dismissed: they could not possibly be true. He was opposed by the most influential figures in the field. This was not just frustrating at a personal level (page 62):
“The most frustrating thing,” says Merzenich, “was that I saw that neuroplasticity had all kinds of potential implications for medical therapeutics – for the interpretation of human neuropathology and psychiatry. And nobody paid attention.”
People previously seen as beyond help could form new maps in the brain and live more normal lives (page 63) – ‘people with learning problems, psychological problems, strokes, or brain injuries’ – but only if the idea was accepted and became the basis for widespread interventions.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Merzenich was able to develop a deep and accurate understanding of how positive changes could be facilitated. He teased out the importance of motivation (page 66), how individual neurones got more selective with training (page 67), how they came to operate more quickly (ibid) and perhaps most importantly of all (page 68) ‘that paying close attention is essential to long-term plastic change.’
It wasn’t until 1996 that he, along with a number of colleagues (page 70), ‘formed the nucleus of a company . . . that is wholly devoted to help people rewire their brains.’
A Costly Case of Dogma
Even if you only date the start of a belief in neuroplasticity at 1962 – and there is some evidence it could fairly be backdated earlier than that – 34 years seems a long time to wait for such a clinically vital concept to surface into general practice.
I can testify to that from personal experience. From when I first studied psychology in 1975 until I qualified as a clinical psychologist in 1982, the conventional wisdom was that the adult brain had virtually no capacity to change itself. I cannot exactly remember when it became respectable to doubt that dogma, but I am fairly sure it was well into the 90s. And even then it was a qualified scepticism only. We were into the new century before I became aware of the wide ranging and radical possibilities that people like Schwartz (See Mind over Matter link below) have written about.
It is horrifying to contemplate the human cost of such resolute intransigence in the face of compelling data. It testifies, in McGilchrist’s terms, to the power of the left-brain to shut out the evidence of experience in order to keep faith with its often misguided maps. If a huge body of carefully accumulated and completely credible evidence such as this took so long to make a dent in this particular dogma, how long is it going to be before science will take serious steps to investigate spiritual realities. Anyone who attempts any such thing at the moment has almost certainly killed their career and will have their evidence subjected to an onslaught of nit-picking that no findings could ever survive.
Thus does science make it impossible even for its own practitioners to investigate, let alone to understand, what it has decided in advance is impossible. So much for its spirit of genuine enquiry. This has to change if human thought and society is to grow beyond the current straitjacket of materialism.
The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist
Posted in Book Reviews, Science, Psychology & Society, tagged Bahá'í Faith, Elizabeth Gould, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Jonah Lehrer, Middlemarch, Neuroplasticity, Norman Doidge, Pasko Rakic, Rupert Sheldrake, Walt Whitman, Zero Degrees of Empathy on 13/06/2012 | 1 Comment »
Kicked-Started by Coincidence
Till just over a fortnight ago I would not have connected George Eliot with neuroplasticity. Why on earth should I have?
Well, I can now think of at least one reason.
During the same period I was spending part of my book token loot on ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy‘ (see previous post) I had the chance to spend what was left. Not surprisingly I went to the same shelf (‘Popular Science’) in the same Waterstones. I was on the hunt for two books, one by Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself, and one by Jonah Lehrer Imagine: how creativity works. I ended up buying the Doidge but a different one by Lehrer - Proust was a Neuroscientist.
Bear with me a bit longer – this is going to get interesting in a minute. I had no idea that I was setting up a remarkable juxtaposition of events.
It’s my month for such things I suspect. Just recently a couple I had not seen for many many years came to visit us from London. On arrival at our house the wife was in a state of astonishment. ‘You two,’ she said incredulously to her husband, ‘have been exchanging Christmas and Bahá’í New Year cards for decades but I never saw the address you were sending our cards to. This is the very road I used to live in when I was a child. How unlikely is that?’
I had no idea, when I was paying for the two books, that I’d just bought into another improbable coincidence, maybe not so dramatic but a touch more generally significant. Sheldrake’s notion of morphic resonance was gaining credibility by the second.
Marshalling Middlemarch in his Argument
When I got home I kicked off by starting to read Lehrer’s book. There was a mildly interesting chapter on Walt Whitman – no offence to his memory but I’ve always found Emily Dickinson, though secretive to the point of invisibility, far more impressive. But I would prefer the introverted poet of the two, wouldn’t I?
Then Lehrer moved on to one of my all-time favourite writers discussing her greatest novel: it was a chapter involving George Eliot using Middlemarch as a springing off point. He quoted her as follows (page 38):
Dorothea – a character who, like Eliot herself, never stopped changing – is reassured that the mind “is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing.”
I don’t think I’m being pedantic to point out that this is not the exact quote. At the beginning of Chapter 72 Dorothea is talking to Mr Farebrother and the conversation goes like this:
“Besides, there is a man’s character beforehand to speak for him.”
“But, my dear Mrs. Casaubon,” said Mr. Farebrother, smiling gently at her ardour, “character is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.”
Lehrer isn’t making the mistake of absolutely identifying Eliot with a statement of one of her characters, albeit a vicar and a man of some integrity. He is looking at how Eliot examines the capacity for change we all have through a variety of lenses. She is part of his body of evidence that science and art are not irrevocably at odds. It is unfortunate that he strengthens his case for her as an early proponent of neuroplasticity by this substitution of ‘mind’ for ‘character.’ It does make the subsequent shift to talking about brains easier though. And she is as ‘anti’ any form of reductionism as Lehrer is.
Science or Scientism?
And when he does start talking about brains the discussion becomes fascinating. One reason for this is that the other book I had bought is entirely focused on aspects of neuroplasticity. The second completely unexpected reason is that both discussions of this issue contain page after page that vindicate Sheldrake’s contention that science in its current form is ‘dogmatic.’ Sheldrake wrote in The Science Delusion (page 4):
I have written this book because I believe that the sciences will be more exciting and engaging when they move beyond the dogmas that restrict free enquiry and imprison imaginations.
His main aim is to attack its materialism as a creed not a fact (page 6):
Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.
However, dogma also operates within science even where there is no such violation of this creed. The mind/brain problem is a powerful example of where dogma within science has clearly impeded our proper understanding of the brain and the mind/brain relationship for decades to the detriment of huge numbers of people. It illustrates how assumptions can and often do become fossilised, useful only for stoning into oblivion all those that disagree.
A Heretic at Work?
Lehrer, in his book, looks at the career of Elizabeth Gould, for example (page 39). In 1985 Pasko Rakic had proclaimed he possessed conclusive proof from experiments with rhesus monkeys that neurones are only generated ‘during pre-natal and early post-natal life.’ So the adult brain could not grow neurones: end of story. Everyone that mattered seemed to have believed him. No resurrection then for the notion of neurogenesis lying discredited in its mausoleum.
In 1989, during a completely different piece of research, Gould had found the unexpected: ‘the brain also healed itself.’ Gould assumed she must have been mistaken. She went back to the literature expecting to find that this was the case. To her astonishment she found the opposite. She found a wealth of evidence dating back to 1962 that all sorts of fully grown creatures were capable of growing neurones in their adult brains. All the evidence had been arbitrarily dismissed out of hand and entombed out of sight on neglected library shelves.
What happened next will have to wait until the next post.
I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Jonathan Haidt on righteousness: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. I’d have finished it by now and started blogging about it if he hadn’t derailed me by mentioning the ideas of Simon Baron-Cohen – no, not Sacha, his cousin, though Simon’s book has clear implications for dictators.
So then what happened? Well, I had a book token burning a hole in my wallet and ten minutes to spare when I found myself three hundred yards from a Waterstones. Among the shelves I always gravitate towards are those that hold books on ‘Popular Science.’ Almost immediately, like iron filings to a magnet, my eyes were draw to a thin volume with an unobtrusive white cover called Zero Degrees of Empathy. Why did it catch my eye so fast when it was so relatively tiny and colourless?
An Irresistible Attraction
Basically because the taster I found in Haidt’s book made it all but irresistible. He writes (page 116):
According to one of the leading autism researchers, Simon Baron-Cohen, there are in fact two spectra, two dimensions on which we can place each person: empathizing and systemizing. Empathizing is “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion.”
. . . . . Systemizing is “the drive to analyse the variables in a system, to derive the underlying rules that govern the behaviour of the system.” If you are good at reading maps and instruction manuals, or if you enjoy figuring out how machines work, you are probably above average on systemizing.
This blog is crowded with my attempts to address the issue of compassion and empathy (see links below for some posts).
When he threw in, as a further temptation, references to Kant and Bentham, I was lost (ibid):
The two leading ethical theories in Western philosophy were founded by men who were as high as could be on systemizing, and were rather low on empathizing.
Even so, I probably didn’t realise just how compelling a read Baron-Cohen’s book would be. Even before I got a sense of his position in detail he had me hooked.
He opens his first chapter on the first page with his father telling him, when he was seven years old, that ‘the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades.’ I was two years old when the war ended and my childhood was overshadowed with tales of the death camps. Here was a book that was addressing, yet again, the issues that have haunted me since infancy. My nightmares were of being chased by the Gestapo.
Then, his basic thesis resonated so closely to the idea in the Bahá’í Faith that evil is the absence of something rather than a positive force in itself. He aims, he writes, (page 6):
. . .to explain how people can be cruel to each other not out of evil but because of empathy erosion.
The closeness of the parallel is clear if we look at a typical statement from the Bahá’í perspective on this issue:
The epitome of this discourse is that it is possible that one thing in relation to another may be evil, and at the same time within the limits of its proper being it may not be evil. Then it is proved that there is no evil in existence; all that God created He created good. This evil is nothingness; so death is the absence of life. When man no longer receives life, he dies. Darkness is the absence of light: when there is no light, there is darkness. Light is an existing thing, but darkness is nonexistent. Wealth is an existing thing, but poverty is nonexisting.
Then it is evident that all evils return to nonexistence. Good exists; evil is nonexistent.
Aspects of Empathy
Secondly, his definition of empathy is a rich one that avoids the possibility of anyone’s using an understanding of the other person the better to take advantage of them (page 11):
Empathy therefore requires not only that you can identify another’s person’s feelings and thoughts, but that you respond to these with an appropriate emotion.
It is also a dimension and not simply either absent or present. We are also talking about a trait of character here, rather than the transient though powerful states that Philip Zimbardo explores in his brilliant book The Lucifer Effect.
He goes on to examine the roots of empathy in brain functioning as well as the fruits of recent research that is seeking to locate possibly genetic mechanisms. He is clear however that genes and environment interact to produce the effects upon the brain that lead to a person with an empathy depletion.
Those sections of the book may not appeal strongly to the non-specialist. His skill at conveying what zero empathy feels like and results in will appeal to almost everyone, though there are some shocking examples of cruelty on the way. He does not flinch at briefly depicting some of the horror of the concentration camps for instance or the unfeeling and sometimes extreme cruelty of damaged individuals.
Early in the book there is a fine depiction of the zero empathy mind state (page 19):
It leaves you feeling mystified by why relationships don’t work out, and it creates a deep-seated self-centredness. Other people’s thoughts and feelings are just off your radar. It leaves you doomed to do your own thing, in your own little bubble, not just oblivious of other people’s feelings and thoughts but oblivious to the idea that there might even be other points of view. The consequence is that you believe 100 per cent in the rightness of your own ideas and beliefs, and judge anyone who does not hold your beliefs as wrong, or stupid.
As illustrations he examines in some detail three negative forms of zero empathy: Borderline, Psychopath and Narcissist before surprising us with the possibility that there could be a positive form of it: the extreme systematiser with a degree of Asperger Syndrome (page 65). He gives us absorbing case examples before asking the crucial question (page 83): “Where would we be without zero positive?’
Arguably we would not have as much (perhaps any) technological innovation and we would still be pre-industrial and pre-scientific.
He also contends that, while the Zero Empathy Positive’s lack of feeling for others may lead to unintended harm, they have a powerful route of their own to a strong moral sense (page 84):
. . . despite their low levels of empathy, this group of individuals do not for the most part act in cruel ways towards others. . . . That is because, even though most people may develop their moral code via empathy, these individuals have developed their moral code through systematising. They have a strong desire to live by rules and expect others to do the same, for reasons of fairness.
His Last Word on the Matter
His basic position, as summarised in the final chapter is (page 103):
. . . empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world.
He sees the situation as a stark choice (page 125):
Without empathy we risk the breakdown of relationships, we become capable of hurting others, and we can cause conflict. With empathy we have a resource to resolve conflict, increase community cohesion, and dissolve another person’s pain.
All in all, though relatively short at a slender 190 pages, this book is a richly rewarding read, especially for those who, like me, seek a deeper understanding of the nature of human evil.
- What Price a Compass and a Map?
- Transcending Revenge
- Practising Compassion (1 & 2)
- The Compass of Compassion
- The Terror of Conviction (1/3)