Sunday, December 29, 2013

Our scope and interests

About Us

Rather than tackle national and international issues and institutions that affect the larger civil society, we attempt to concentrate on place-based trends that more directly affect our everyday experiences in our neighborhoods, workplaces and other closer connections.
Though these will overlap with certain global phenomena, we will seek to grapple with ideas that stem from and have immediate implications for our own personal ties. We will deal with those grassroots issues where we–rather than advocates of interest groups, think tankers, or politicians–can make a difference.
We start from the premise that changing the body politic is becoming increasingly difficult for citizens of the 21st century in the way that the power structure was able to do at the start of the 20th century, when American Progressivism was imbued with a strong reformist optimism (“I propose that we lead” declared Edward Adams in the paper delivered at the organizational dinner of the Commonwealth Club). That determination has long since been replaced by apathy, cynicism and irony. Were it not otherwise, the Commonwealth Club would still be engaged in “public service” i.e. attempting through “Study Sections” to help shape laws and regulations. Now only specialists attached to policy institutes and politicians’ offices can comprehend such complicated issues.
This more decentralized, small scale approach puts aside debates over complex public policy matters such as “the media”, health care, diplomacy, and immigration that tend to happen at academic conferences and research institutions and require a level of expertise that defeats all but most determined policy wonk.
That said, however, certain patterns of behavior associated with racial, gender, and employment relations, for instance, which have a universal dimension, affecting human activity well beyond our own personal situations, obviously have strong influence over our own daily lives. Insofar as these human/primate tendencies can be directed or “debugged”, in Steven Pinker’s word, by individuals and smaller groups, they deserve to be examined as they are manifested in particular contexts which we call culture.
By culture we mean the normative order, grounded in specific places, explained by the human sciences, and illuminated by the arts, which allows us to comprehend ourselves, others, and the world around us, and through which we order our experience.
For culture to be more than a divertissement, it must be pertinent to the formation of our values, what has come to be referred to among researchers as “social capital”. Observations that we accumulate not through “knowing more and more about less and less,” but just by living a cosmopolitan life in the Bay Area equip us to form opinions that deserve to be probed by others who share a desire to reveal the deeper meaning of events.
We emphasize dialogue among participants. While we may invite resource people to guide our conversations – those with special insights into some part of our milieu who might spark and channel our discussions–the major burden for exploring pertinent topics will fall on us ordinary mortals who join our dialogue.

Rafting the Cultural Currents of the New Millennium

"To enter the current of this poem is to hurtle downstream through history on a flood of eloquent and passionate language that is in turn philosophic, satiric, tender, angry, ironic, sensuous, and, above all, elegiac.”
-Helen Vendler on “A Treatise on Poetry” by Czeslaw Milosz
“Our culture revolves around acquisition of material goods, and that turns out to be a pretty dissatisfying pursuit. It is very important for people to have meaning and purpose in their lives and connection to other humans.”
-Dr Dan Shapiro who defeated cancer and counsels other patients, in conversation with Jane Brody, New York Times
CulturePlaces, which combines various areas of interest, relies on events throughout the Bay Area to provide more opportunities to experience and compare opinions on the ramifications of the changing social landscape.

We follow three basic organizing principles:

- Some events can be enjoyed just for their shear senuous or aesthetic pleasure. No need to chatter, just feel the music or experience the beauty of a painting or the architecture of a building.
- Regardless of one’s class, gender, age, race, sexual orientation and the numerous other distinctions that seem so wrapped up in identity politics these days, educated adults want to grapple with the ideas that are shaped by these associations but are not bound by them.
- And finally, we believe that the meaning and implications of our experiences, artistic and otherwise, emerge through discourse. All that is required is a probing mind and the capacity to engage in dialogue (attributes that are too often missing in conversations around the water cooler or at the dinner table). And while we may wrestle with weighty matters that can ignite strong emotions, we want to be able to treat them playfully and with a disinterested passion for clarity that avoids partisanship.
Before becoming a Meetup Group, our programs were held mostly at the Commonwealth Club and explored places that reflect the norms and values that affect both individual and group behavior in this the new millennium. We wish to probe what was once called, rather grandiously, the Human Condition with an emphasis on societal and artistic trends.
From time to time we will add background material on this blog. Checking out these resources will enhance your enjoyment.
For some of our discussion programs, we invite an individual, often an advocate or researcher involved in some aspect of the issue, to join us as a resource person. This person does not give a speech, but instead offers some preliminary remarks to launch our exploration and then serve as a kind of “river guide” to keep the discussion on course.
Frequently, we’ll attend a talk by one of the numerous authors coming through town hawking their thesis as well as their latest publications.
And of course concerts, plays, movies, and museum exhibits will make up the bulk of our outings. But in almost every instance we try to schedule time to share impressions and personal insights with one another.


We take our goals, with some alteration, from those laid out for the Journal Places which has co-sponsored some of our previous programs:
~To acknowledge that a community must simultaneously nurture both a respect for group values and a tolerance for individuality, even eccentricity. This is the paradox of community that will forever require readjustments.
~To shift the debate about sites, development proposals, and environmental design from the discussion of buildings, landscapes and art projects as singular, visual objects to the consequences they have in the environments that surround our lives and foster particular behavior.
~To cross the lines of established professions and topical categories. CulturePlaces is intended to offer a forum to explore the views of designers, developers, film makers and other artists, scholars, journalists, travel writers, public officials, and citizens to everybody, really, who creates places, manages places, studies and reports on society and place and, most importantly, experiences places.
~To explore the multiple meanings of place, including cyberspaces, and the multiple ways that ideas about place are put in service in a pluralistic society and diverse world. CulturePlaces seeks to cultivate dialogue among differing modes for understanding, operating in and celebrating the significance of the built and natural environment.
~To focus attention on the often neglected public realm. CulturePlaces considers how perceptions about place can be a catalyst for understanding and helping to create neighborhoods, parks, streets, workplaces, infrastructure and other facilities and spaces that sustain our civic and social lives.
~To foster an appreciation of urban living. There are now several generations of Americans who have no idea or experience of the kinds of tolerance and cooperation which are implicit in higher density neighborhoods or communities.
~To inform the way citizens and professionals shape and are shaped by the environment. CulturePlaces will examine how approaches to cultivating spaces can support the well being of individuals, our communities, and through example, the larger society.

Social Capital

The Importance of Social Capital for creating a Civil Society

What produces social capital? According to one definition, social capital refers to aspects of the network structure, such as social norms and sanctions, mutual obligations, trust, and information transmission, that encourage collaboration and coordination between friends and strangers alike.
Social capital is thus embodied within specific social settings: what we are calling ~CulturePlaces~.
According to another definition, it is a person’s social characteristics – including, for example, the watch one wears – that help us reap both market and nonmarket returns from interactions with others, but that cannot be evaluated without knowledge of the social structure in which we operate.
Whether an attribute of an individual or a society, social capital is produced by individuals’ participation decisions. An individual can increase the number and depth of connections with others, but the value of those network connections depends upon the extent (both quality and quantity) of others’ participation. Social capital therefore depends both upon individual socioeconomic and demographic characteristics and upon the characteristics of a given society.

The Threat of Diversity

Over the last 10 years, a number of empirical economic papers have studied the consequences of community heterogeneity, and all of these studies have the same punch line: heterogeneity reduces civic engagement. In more diverse communities, people participate less as measured by how they allocate their time, their money, their voting, and their willingness to take risks to help others.
Data from U.S. cities, metropolitan areas, and urban counties show that the share of spending on such productive public goods as education, roads, sewers, and trash pickup is inversely related to the area’s ethnic fragmentation, even after controlling for other socioeconomic and demographic characteristics.
When interpersonal contact is high, people prefer to be with others like themselves. Controlling for heterogeneity explains anywhere from one-third to almost all of the declines in volunteering, membership, and trust among people ages 25 to 54. Among older Americans both membership and trust has declined, with the largest declines in membership occurring in the late 1980s, which coincides with increases in immigration. This decline in group membership can only be explained by one variable: heterogeneity.
Can diversity ever increase civic engagement in community organizations that cut across ethnic, racial, or income divisions? If people realize that their skills are complements, then they will seek out individuals different from themselves to work together to achieve a common goal more effectively. If a community fair will generate more revenue for the local school when there are diverse food offerings from every culture, instead of endless Apple Betties, then more parents will be pressured to become involved and more will agree to do so.
Social capital, then, is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words, to involvement in a group.
The most prominent figure in this field, Harvard professor Robert Putnam, has described social capital as: “…features of social life – networks, norms, and trust – that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives… Social capital, in short, refers to social connections and the attendant norms and trust.”  Sounds like friendship, doesn't it.
The term “social capital” is increasingly used by policymakers as another way of describing “community”, but it is important to recognise that a traditional community is just one of many forms of social capital. Work-based networks, diffuse friendships and shared or mutually acknowledged social values can all be seen as forms of social capital.
History and culture
Putnam’s seminal study in 1993 of regional differences in Italy found that large variations in the effectiveness of Italy’s regional governments were explained not by their resources or structures, but by regional differences in social capital. Putnam argued that the success of the Northern Italian regions lay in the rich social fabric of vibrant associational life of those regions in contrast to the “amoral familism” – a distrust of strangers combined with strong family bonds – that typified the more backward southern regions.
Putnam’s analysis linked these very longstanding cultural differences with historical events going back up to a 1,000 years. He saw the vibrant civic life of the North having its roots in the northern city-states of centuries earlier. In contrast, the culture of Southern distrust he saw as rooted in a history of invasion, oppression, in closely related ancient traditions of patronage and in the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church. Not surprising that Venice and the Veneto region wants to bread away from Italy.
The sense that a community, region or nation’s social capital is stable over time has been reinforced by subsequent work. An illustration of this stability over time is the finding that the large regional differences in social capital across the USA today correspond fairly exactly to the differences in social capital between the nations from which the ancestors of today’s Americans came.
For example, the area around Minneapolis and St. Paul – the area of highest social capital in the USA – was populated with Scandinavians. Something has persisted over more than five generations, and separated by 1,000s of miles and different political structures, to explain why both the residents of Minnesota and the Scandinavian nations today remain so connected and trusting.
A similar stability is seen at the neighborhood level. Sociologists have long noted how the social character of neighborhoods generally remains stable over decades, even though the population is continually changing. This stability over time suggests that a community or nation’s social fabric reaches a stable equilibrium. This is to be expected from theoretical modelling work that shows how it is rational to trust and cooperate in a community of like-minded others, but not in a community of the untrustworthy, and that such equilibria are stable over time.

Social structures and hierarchy

Social structures that are strongly hierarchical or unequal appear to form a poor soil from which to grow social capital, and the consequences of these settlements echo through the generations. Hence one finds that the impact of the relatively hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church is not limited to the South of Italy. Similarly, nations and regions that experienced high levels of slavery are today regions with markedly low levels of social capital and trust (such as the Southern US States).

Ethnic and social heterogeneity

There is considerable evidence that social and ethnic heterogeneity is associated with lower levels of social capital, not only between groups but within them. Largely unpublished US data suggests that this may be one of the most powerful explanations of local and regional variations in social capital.
This controversial finding is difficult to interpret. After all, the bridging between groups that eventually reduces long-term conflict cannot easily occur if those groups are not in contact. What really needs to be established is what factors facilitate the growth of social capital in contexts where the starting point is characterised by strong ethnic and social fissures.
In our programs, we’ll be on the look out for ways that different groups have built those bridges, however fragile…

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Guides to the journey into the brain

A journey into the human brain starts with the usual travel decisions: will you opt for a no-frills sightseeing jaunt, a five-star luxury cruise, or trek a little off the beaten track, skipping the usual tourist attractions?

The Self as Brain. By Patricia S. Churchland.
W. W. Norton. 291 pages. $26.95.
Read an excerpt of “Touching a Nerve: The Self As Brain” (PDF)
Read an excerpt of “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience” (PDF)

The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. By Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld. Basic Books. 218 pages. $26.99.

Now that science’s newfound land is suddenly navigable, hordes of eager guides are offering up books that range from the basic to the lavishly appointed to the minutely subspecialized. But those who prefer wandering off trail may opt for two new ones, neither by a neuroscientist.

When the philosopher Patricia S. Churchland explains that her book represents “the story of getting accustomed to my brain,” she is speaking as both a brain-owning human being and a career humanist. An emerita professor at the University of California, San Diego, she has spent a career probing the physical brain for the self and its moral center. And unlike many humanists who hate the science for the irritating violence it does to centuries of painstaking intellectual labor, she is entranced by the power of the data, and her delight is utterly contagious.

She loses little time in dispatching the archaic notion of the soul, and suggests that near-death visions of heaven simply represent “neural funny business” in a malfunctioning brain.

Can humans still live a moral and spiritual life even without the ideas of soul and heaven? You bet they can. “We may still say that the sun is setting even when we know full well that earth is turning,” Professor Churchland points out, and she is off and running.

Where do values come from? Does a “brainstem-limbic system shaped by reward-based learning and problem solving” suffice? Can moral behavior be genuinely moral if the consciousness is not involved? Does the “me” that is you include the many levels of your unconscious? Do you have any free will at all? Is there such a thing as criminal intent? Does criminal behavior prompted by misaligned circuits, aberrant neurotransmitters or tumors in vital areas imply innocence? Should we empty out the prisons?

It is hard to conceive of a better guide to this difficult terrain than the MacArthur-award-winning Ms. Churchland, who knows the science inside out and writes with surpassing clarity, elegance, humor and modesty, punctuating the hard parts with accessible lessons about the brain she learned during a hardscrabble childhood on a Canadian farm.

She also recalls with some chagrin a more recent encounter with a fellow academic: “My very presence brought her to fury, and she hissed: ‘You reductionist! How can you think there is nothing but atoms?’ ” But surely, Ms. Churchland muses, “if reductionism is essentially about explanation, the lament and the lashing out are missing the point.” Her typically understated bottom line: “To rail against reality seems to me unproductive.”

If Professor Churchland tours the moral brain in a mood of joyous discovery, Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld, traversing much of the same territory, are just plain annoyed. Dr. Satel is a psychiatrist and an occasional contributor to The New York Times, and Dr. Lilienfeld a psychology professor at Emory University; their mission is to debunk the pop neuroscience that keeps making headlines with “facile and overly mechanistic explanations for complicated behaviors.”

Their primary target is functional M.R.I. scanning, a technique that has been deployed to localize instinct and emotion to specific brain areas, positing sites for such intangibles as love, hate, fear, political preferences and consumer behavior.

Dr. Satel and Dr. Lilienfeld offer a methodical critique of this oversimplified neuro-nonsense, convincingly arguing that in many ways the M.R.I.’s of today are simply the phrenology heads of yesteryear, laughably primitive attempts to wrangle human character and behavior into tractable form.

Thus launched, they head out to evaluate the contributions of neuroimaging to behaviors more complex and weighty than choosing which S.U.V. to buy, homing in on the age-old questions of blame, responsibility and punishment among criminals, addicts and the criminally insane.

Can brain imaging help sort it all out? Not in their view: when it comes to the legalities of bad behavior, “the capacity of functional brain imaging to mislead currently exceeds its capacity to inform.” It doesn’t do much better than the old polygraphs for evaluating alibis, they conclude, and utterly fails to explain why some people do unspeakable things.

The “my amygdala made me do it” school of criminal defense was around as early as 1924, they note, when Clarence Darrow undertook to defend Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the two teenage psychopaths who kidnapped and killed a 14-year-old boy for no reason except to commit a crime. “They killed him because they were made that way,” Darrow thundered to the judge, pleading for clemency.

But Dr. Satel and Dr. Lilienfeld are having none of this, arguing that senses of free will, justice, retribution and fair play are all too deeply ingrained in human nature for neuroscience to erase them — at least, as the science now stands. Similarly, Dr. Satel has long argued against calling drug addiction a disease, and she and Dr. Lilienfeld reaffirm that position here, writing that such a conception “threatens to obscure the vast role of personal agency in perpetuating the cycle of use and relapse.”

Ah, but what underlies that personal agency? Are there not neural circuits there as well? Dr. Satel and Dr. Lilienfeld’s polemic ultimately seems a little abrupt and shortsighted to a reader who has watched a world-class philosopher gaze with eager intensity at the brain and find in it an infinite series of mirrored selves.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

On challenging the growing appeal of neuroscience to remove blame

Sally Satel writing [a practicing psychiatrist] on James Q Wilson”~ The Moral Sense~ in honor of the occasion of  the 75th anniversary of the American Enterprise Institute where Wilson was on the Council of Academic Advisers:

“ Although we generally think of ourselves as free agents who make choices, a number of prominent scholars claim that we are mistaken. "Our growing knowledge about the brain makes the notions of volition, culpability, and, ultimately, the very premise of the criminal justice system, deeply suspect," contends Stanford University biologist Robert Sapolsky. “Progress in understanding the chemical basis of behavior will make it increasingly untenable to retain a belief in the concept of free will,” writes biologist Anthony R. Cashmore.

Philosopher-neuroscientist Joshua Greene and psychologist Jonathan Cohen contend that neuroscience has a special role to play in giving age-old arguments about free will more rhetorical bite. “New neuroscience will affect the way we view the law, not by furnishing us with new ideas or arguments about the nature of human action, but by breathing new life into old ones,” they write. “[It] can help us see that all behavior is mechanical, that all behavior is produced by chains of physical events that ultimately reach back to forces beyond the agent’s control,” Greene adds. Other neuroscientists hope to see a general attitude “shift from blame to biology.”

….Sapolsky, Cashmore, Green, and Cohen, seem to disagree, insisting that our deliberations and decisions do not make us free because they are dictated by neuronal circumstances. They hope that as the general public becomes more familiar with the latest discoveries about the workings of the brain, it will inevitably come to accept their view on moral agency. In turn, they predict, we'll be compelled to adopt a strictly utilitarian model of justice dedicated solely to preventing crime through deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation."

But Sally Satel rejects this deterministic position …

"The belief that discoveries in neuroscience will threaten morality seems unrealistic. After all, the high degree of consensus across cultures regarding the value of proportionate punishment suggests that human intuitions about fairness and justice are deeply entrenched. That babies too young to have absorbed social rules from their parents behave as if guided by these foundations bolsters the view that reciprocity, proportionality, and the impulse to punish violators are so deeply rooted in evolution, psychology, and culture that new neuroscientific revelations are unlikely to dislodge them easily, if at all.

...By failing to reflect the moral values of the citizenry, which encompass fair punishment, the law would lose some, if not most, of its authority. What’s more, a blameless world would be a very chilly place, inhospitable to the warming sentiments of forgiveness, redemption, and gratitude. In a milieu where no individuals are accountable for their actions, the so-called moral emotions would be unintelligible. If we no longer brand certain actions as blameworthy and punish transgressors in proportion to their crimes, we forgo precious opportunities to reaffirm the dignity of their victims and to inculcate a shared vision of a just society. In the words of Wilson, “if we allow ourselves to think that explaining behavior justifies [them] …  virtue then becomes just as meaningless as depravity — a state of affairs in which no society could hope to remain ordered or healthy.”

Friday, December 06, 2013

Electrodoping with Transcranial Electrical Stimulation – Fact or Fiction?

Two electrical cords
Envision yourself attaching a pair of electrodes on to your head connected to a 9 volts battery pack right before your final exams. You have a chart in your hand that says 0.5 mA-prefrontal cortex for physics, 1.0 mA-temporal cortex for history, 0.8 mA-orbitofrontal cortex for economics and so on. What you are about to do, is electrodopeyourself to an A! If this fantasy sounds familiar or exciting, you are probably reading the right article!
When most of us think of electricity and the brain together, we generally visualize what is known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) with an image of a man’s face in gruesome pain. Thanks to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for that! But, recently, there has been a revival of interest in a somewhat subdued version of ECT referred to as transcranial electric stimulation (tES) encompassing direct current (tDCS), alternating current (tACS) and random noise (tRNS) stimulation. One key difference between these methods and ECT is the intensity of current being used. Whereas tES techniques only use a few milliamperes of current, ECT often uses hundreds of milliamperes ensuring a much more vigorous manipulation of the brain state. tES also comes in at a low cost and with negligible discomfort or side effects. So the idea of someone just hooking their heads up to a battery and manipulating their brain activity without risking too much might just be a little more close to reality than we would expect.
Besides its use in clinical therapy (depression, chronic pain, stroke recovery and what not; just search for “transcranial electric stimulation” in — we can also expand our imagination and think of some other fun applications. For instance, why not stimulate the pitcher of your base ball team for some extra speed in his pitches? Or, read up your text book and go to bed with your head hooked up to the stimulator, accelerating memory consolidation during sleep. How about training athletes and military personnel to develop faster reaction times and better visuomotor coordination by stimulation? How about stimulating the US senators before crucial meetings to enhance their critical thinking or planning capabilities? Recent experimental results do render some of these possibilities feasible. For instance, Lisa Marshall and colleagues has recently reported that tDCS during sleep improves declarative memory [1]. Colleen Dockery and colleagues have provided evidence towards enhancement of planning ability by tDCS [2]. Improvement of motor learning skills, reactions times, numerical capabilities and other tasks has also been reported (for review, see [3]).
Everything so far seems just great! But there are also reasons why you should think twice before you subscribe to these tools. First, although there is a plethora of reports of behavioral effects of tES, the mechanisms of actions of tES is pretty much unknown and existing theories can be categorized as mere speculations. Second, if there are adverse chronic effects (which requires objective longitudinal studies); we probably are better off harnessing our natural brain power rather than messing it up with unknown electrical manipulations. Third, what if tES is nothing but a placebo? There isn’t a definitive answer to the last question yet. Hence it remains important for us to remain skeptical about the applications of tES. But at the same time, given the exciting possibilities, we should invest resources and encourage scientists to study the effects of external electric fields on our brains. If we play the cards right, we might just be a decade away from going to radio shack and ordering the $5 Brain Recharger Kit!
1. Marshall L, Mölle M, Hallschmid M, & Born J (2004). Transcranial direct current stimulation during sleep improves declarative memory. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 24 (44), 9985-92 PMID: 15525784
2. Dockery CA, Hueckel-Weng R, Birbaumer N, & Plewnia C (2009). Enhancement of planning ability by transcranial direct current stimulation. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 29 (22), 7271-7 PMID: 19494149
3. Utz KS, Dimova V, Oppenländer K, & Kerkhoff G (2010). Electrified minds: transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and galvanic vestibular stimulation (GVS) as methods of non-invasive brain stimulation in neuropsychology–a review of current data and future implications. Neuropsychologia, 48 (10), 2789-810 PMID: 20542047

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Determination' can be induced by electrical brain stimulation

Applying an electric current to a particular part of the brain makes people feel a sense of determination, say researchers

Doctors in the US have induced feelings of intense determination in two men by stimulating a part of their brains with gentle electric currents.
The men were having a routine procedure to locate regions in their brains that caused epileptic seizures when they felt their heart rates rise, a sense of foreboding, and an overwhelming desire to persevere against a looming hardship.
The remarkable findings could help researchers develop treatments fordepression and other disorders where people are debilitated by a lack of motivation.
One patient said the feeling was like driving a car into a raging storm. When his brain was stimulated, he sensed a shaking in his chest and a surge in his pulse. In six trials, he felt the same sensations time and again.
Comparing the feelings to a frantic drive towards a storm, the patient said: "You're only halfway there and you have no other way to turn around and go back, you have to keep going forward."
When asked by doctors to elaborate on whether the feeling was good or bad, he said: "It was more of a positive thing, like push harder, push harder, push harder to try and get through this."
A second patient had similar feelings when his brain was stimulated in the same region, called the anterior midcingulate cortex (aMCC). He felt worried that something terrible was about to happen, but knew he had to fight and not give up, according to a case study in the journal Neuron.
Both men were having an exploratory procedure to find the focal point in their brains that caused them to suffer epileptic fits. In the procedure, doctors sink fine electrodes deep into different parts of the brain and stimulate them with tiny electrical currents until the patient senses the "aura" that precedes a seizure. Often, seizures can be treated by removing tissue from this part of the brain.
"In the very first patient this was something very unexpected, and we didn't report it," said Josef Parvizi at Stanford University in California. But then I was doing functional mapping on the second patient and he suddenly experienced a very similar thing."
"Its extraordinary that two individuals with very different past experiences respond in a similar way to one or two seconds of very low intensity electricity delivered to the same area of their brain. These patients are normal individuals, they have their IQ, they have their jobs. We are not reporting these findings in sick brains," Parvizi said.
The men were stimulated with between two and eight milliamps of electrical current, but in tests the doctors administered sham stimulation too. In the sham tests, they told the patients they were about to stimulate the brain, but had switched off the electical supply. In these cases, the men reported no changes to their feelings. The sensation was only induced in a small area of the brain, and vanished when doctors implanted electrodes just five millimetres away.
Parvizi said a crucial follow-up experiment will be to test whether stimulation of the brain region really makes people more determined, or simply creates the sensation of perseverance. If future studies replicate the findings, stimulation of the brain region – perhaps without the need for brain-penetrating electrodes – could be used to help people with severe depression.
The anterior midcingulate cortex seems to be important in helping us select responses and make decisions in light of the feedback we get. Brent Vogt, a neurobiologist at Boston University, said patients with chronic pain and obsessive-compulsive disorder have already been treated by destroying part of the aMCC. "Why not stimulate it? If this would enhance relieving depression, for example, let's go," he said.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Electroceuticals and Mind Control

“Electroceuticals”, or therapies utilising electricity, are nothing new and range from the widely accepted defibrillator/ pace makers to the more controversial electric shock therapies like ECT sometimes employed to treat severe depression.
But a recent article in Nature argues that these are just a small, crude sample of what electroceuticals may be able to offer in the future. Universities and pharmaceutical companies are researching a wide range of therapies based around electrical stimulation, promising benefits (in the long term) as diverse as mind-controlled prosthetic limbs to a treatment for anorexia. Transcranial Electric Stimulation (TES) is delivering some promising results in depression and treatment of learning disabilities.
Not only is the research potential there, but it appears that the funding is too. Nature report that GlaxoSmithKline are funding 40 researchers to pursue research in this area, amongst other initiatives to kick start electroceutical development. And earlier this year, the US invested $110 million from 2014’s budget for the “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative”. At the same time, over in Europe, work has commenced on a 10 year, billion pound ‘Human Brain Project, bringing together 135 institutions to try to map parts of the human brain via computer simulations.
We may be starting out on the track for the “holy grail” of neuroscience: strategic control of single neuronal activity. This is, apparently, one of GSK’s goals.
With that level of control, we could finally reach the realms of science fiction: where the mind and therefore the person is under external control. Freedom might be annihilated.
We would face confronting questions over authenticity and identity. There would be alienation between the pre-existing person and their subsequent brain activity.
Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is a graphic illustration of a common objection to enhancement, the erosion of freedom. TES at present does not appear to represent a major threat to freedom, but it is one of a family of technologies that could one day be used for effective mind control.
Even without control via a third party, there is a risk of abuse. For example, some might choose to live in the “Experience Machine”. Nozick (1974) ‘ invented’ the Experience Machine and its basic premise has been used in popular and science fiction in various forms, including most famously in The Matrix. It allows an individual to dial up any life they like. The machine then stimulates the brain to give the experience of that life, be it President, despot, star footballer or novelist. All the while the subject is sitting in a chair.
Some might argue that so steep and slippery is this slope, and so bad is the possible bottom, that such research should never go ahead.
On the other hand, I have argued with Ingmar Persson that, under the voluntary control of the person whose mind is being affected, there could be opportunities to enhance our freedom and autonomy, rather than to diminish it. For example, individuals might be able to use this technology to enhance achievement of their goals, by staving off addictions or improving impulse control, or even enhance their own values, starting with what they believe to be good and right. This could be viewed as a way of increasing freedom, giving people a greater ability to act on their values and goals. Any interventions which improve impulse control improve the ability to achieve longer term goals and aims, and so enhance freedom and autonomy.
Furthermore, if freedom to remove desires for grossly immoral ends were possible, like murdering innocent people, and control was limited to that end, then the price might be worth paying in terms of promotion of welfare.
All of this is far from the technologies that we have today. But while such scenarios are at present science fiction, they speak to the profound potential power of this family of technologies and stress the importance of early, vigorous, wide ranging, deep and professional dialogue about the development and growing potential of technologies that directly modify the brain, and so the mind.
We may already be down a path to external control of single neuron activity in the human brain. As the neural firing pattern underpinning belief, desire, character, abilities, behaviour and emotion are better understood, and neurons can be precisely, brain activity can be controlled. Since brain activity is the basis of everything about our mental lives, control of neuronal electrical activity implies brain control which implies mind control. That is, we may already be down a path where the final destination is complete control of the human mind. How far we go down this path requires not science, but ethics.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


I'm now thoroughly convinced that Eism (Epicureanism) is THE antidote for what we are experiencing in the present and will continue to experience especially in the US--the stress that stems largely from inequality, poverty, a sense of helplessness, lack of control, and the rest of the negative aspects of being at the bottom or middle of the status pole (where more and more people now or will find themselves).

The following article, which is hidden behind a paywall on the NY Times, so I have pasted the entire essay, summarizes the negative effect on health that comes from a feeling of low self esteem. Neuroscience research is clearly finding the link between brain malfunctioning caused by a socioecomic anxiety and physical maladies.

We are not going to shrink this gap like Finland has done largely because of its homogeneity. Instead we must learn to live with it, which is where Epicureanism comes in. There is an industry of self help books, videos, talks etc., but our alternative offers the greatest potential for offsetting the debilitating effects of inequality. 

Can the general populace come to embrace Eism like Christianity and other forms of supersitition, which requires a fair amount of sophistication? Can it be made more digestible to the masses, or will it only be available to well educated elites?

We should think seriously about our philosophy as therapy ( a la Martha Nussbaum). Our way lies the truth and the light, but how to spread it is daunting, made all the more formidable since the term is associated with fine dining--jut the opposite of what we are proposing.

Opinionator - A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web
THE GREAT DIVIDE July 27, 2013, 2:30 pm 
Status and Stress ~ New York Times


Although professionals may bemoan their long work hours and high-pressure careers, really, there’s stress, and then there’s Stress with a capital “S.” The former can be considered a manageable if unpleasant part of life; in the right amount, it may even strengthen one’s mettle. The latter kills.

What’s the difference? Scientists have settled on an oddly subjective explanation: the more helpless one feels when facing a given stressor, they argue, the more toxic that stressor’s effects.

That sense of control tends to decline as one descends the socioeconomic ladder, with potentially grave consequences. Those on the bottom are more than three times as likely to die prematurely as those at the top. They’re also more likely to suffer from depression, heart disease and diabetes. Perhaps most devastating, the stress of poverty early in life can have consequences that last into adulthood.

Even those who later ascend economically may show persistent effects of early-life hardship. Scientists find them more prone to illness than those who were never poor. Becoming more affluent may lower the risk of disease by lessening the sense of helplessness and allowing greater access to healthful resources like exercise, more nutritious foods and greater social support; people are not absolutely condemned by their upbringing. But the effects of early-life stress also seem to linger, unfavorably molding our nervous systems and possibly even accelerating the rate at which we age.

Even those who become rich are more likely to be ill if they suffered hardship early on. The British epidemiologist Michael Marmot calls the phenomenon “status syndrome.” He’s studied British civil servants who work in a rigid hierarchy for decades, and found that accounting for the usual suspects — smoking, diet and access to health care — won’t completely abolish the effect. There’s a direct relationship among health, well-being and one’s place in the greater scheme. “The higher you are in the social hierarchy,” he says, “the better your health.”

Dr. Marmot blames a particular type of stress. It’s not necessarily the strain of a chief executive facing a lengthy to-do list, or a well-to-do parent’s agonizing over a child’s prospects of acceptance to an elite school. Unlike those of lower rank, both the C.E.O. and the anxious parent have resources with which to address the problem. By definition, the poor have far fewer.

So the stress that kills, Dr. Marmot and others argue, is characterized by a lack of a sense of control over one’s fate. Psychologists who study animals call one result of this type of strain “learned helplessness.”

How they induce it is instructive. Indiscriminate electric shocks will send an animal into a kind of depression, blunting its ability to learn and remember. But if the animal has some control over how long the shocks last, it remains resilient. Pain and unpleasantness matter less than having some control over their duration.

Biologists explain the particulars as a fight-or-flight response — adrenaline pumping, heart rate elevated, blood pressure increased — that continues indefinitely. This reaction is necessary for escaping from lions, bears and muggers, but when activated chronically it wears the body ragged. And it’s especially unhealthy for children, whose nervous systems are, by evolutionary design, malleable.

Scientists can, in fact, see the imprint of early-life stress decades later: there are more markers of inflammation in those who have experienced such hardship. Chronic inflammation increases the risk of degenerative diseases like heart disease and diabetes. Indeed, telomeres — the tips of our chromosomes — appear to be shorter among those who have experienced early-life adversity, which might be an indicator of accelerated aging. And scientists have found links, independent of current income, between early-life poverty and a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and arthritis in adulthood.

“Early-life stress and the scar tissue that it leaves, with every passing bit of aging, gets harder and harder to reverse,” says Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford. “You’re never out of luck in terms of interventions, but the longer you wait, the more work you’ve got on your hands.”

This research has cast new light on racial differences in longevity. In the United States, whites live longer on average by about five years than African-Americans. But a 2012 study by a Princeton researcher calculated that socioeconomic and demographic factors, not genetics, accounted for 70 to 80 percent of that difference. The single greatest contributor was income, which explained more than half the disparity. Other studies, meanwhile, suggest that the subjective experience of racism by African-Americans — a major stressor — appears to have effects on health. Reports of discrimination correlate with visceral fat accumulation in women, which increases the risk of metabolic syndrome (and thus the risk of heart disease and diabetes). In men, they correlate with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Race aside, Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York, describes these relationships as one way that “poverty gets under the skin.” He and others talk about the “biological embedding” of social status. Your parents’ social standing and your stress level during early life change how your brain and body work, affecting your vulnerability to degenerative disease decades later. They may even alter your vulnerability to infection. In one study, scientists at Carnegie Mellon exposed volunteers to a common cold virus. Those who’d grown up poorer (measured by parental homeownership) not only resisted the virus less effectively, but also suffered more severe cold symptoms.

Peter Gianaros, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh, is interested in heart disease. He found that college students who viewed their parents as having low social status reacted more strongly to images of angry faces, as measured by the reactivity of the amygdala — an almond-shaped area of the brain that coordinates the fear response. Over a lifetime, he suspects, a harder, faster response to threats may contribute to the formation of arterial plaques. Dr. Gianaros also found that, among a group of 48 women followed for about 20 years, higher reports of stress correlated with a reduction in the volume of the hippocampus, a brain region important for learning and memory. In animals, chronic stress shrinks this area, and also hinders the ability to learn.

These associations raise profound questions about stress’s role in hindering life achievement. Educational attainment and school performance have long been linked to socioeconomic class, and a divergence in skills is evident quite early in life. One oft-cited study suggests that 3-year-olds from professional families have more than twice the vocabulary of children from families on welfare. The disparity may stem in part from different intensities of parental stimulation; poorer parents may simply speak less with their children.

But Martha Farah, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has also noted differences not just in the words absorbed but in the abilities that may help youngsters learn. Among children, she’s found, socioeconomic status correlates with the ability to pay attention and ignore distractions. Others have observed differences in the function of the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with planning and self-control, in poorer children.

“You don’t need a neuroscientist to tell you that less stress, more education, more support of all types for young families are needed,” Dr. Farah told me in an e-mail. “But seeing an image of the brain with specific regions highlighted where financial disadvantage results in less growth reframes the problems of childhood poverty as a public health issue, not just an equal opportunity issue.”

Animal studies help dispel doubts that we’re really seeing sickly and anxiety-prone individuals filter to the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. In primate experiments females of low standing are more likely to develop heart disease compared with their counterparts of higher standing. When eating junk food, they more rapidly progress toward heart disease. The lower a macaque is in her troop, the higher her genes involved in inflammation are cranked. High-ranking males even heal faster than their lower-ranking counterparts. Behavioral tendencies change as well. Low-ranking males are more likely to choose cocaine over food than higher-ranking individuals.

All hope is not lost, however. Gene expression profiles can normalize when low-ranking adult individuals ascend in the troop. “There are likely contextual influences that are not necessarily immutable,” says Daniel Hackman, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. And yet, as with humans, the mark of early-life hardship persists in nervous systems wired slightly differently. A nurturing bond with a caregiver in a stimulating environment appears essential for proper brain development and healthy maturation of the stress response. That sounds easy enough, except that such bonds, and the broader social networks that support them, are precisely what poverty disrupts. If you’re an underpaid, overworked parent — worried, behind on rent, living in a crime-ridden neighborhood — your parental skills are more likely to be compromised. That’s worrisome given the trends in the United States. About one in five children now lives below the poverty line, a 35 percent increase in a decade. Unicef recently ranked the United States No. 26 in childhood well-being, out of 29 developed countries. When considering just childhood poverty, only Romania fares worse.

“We’re going in the wrong direction in terms of greater inequality creating more of these pressures,” says Nancy Adler, the director of the Center for Health and Community at the University of California, San Francisco. As income disparities have increased, class mobility has declined. By some measures, you now have a better chance of living the American dream in Canada or Western Europe than in the United States. And while Americans generally gained longevity during the late 20th century, those gains have gone disproportionately to the better-off. Those without a high school education haven’t experienced much improvement in life span since the middle of the 20th century. Poorly educated whites have lost a few years of longevity in recent decades.

A National Research Council report, meanwhile, found that Americans were generally sicker and had shorter life spans than people in 16 other wealthy nations. We rank No. 1 for diabetes in adults over age 20, and No. 2 for deaths from coronary artery disease and lung disease. The Japanese smoke more than Americans, but outlive us — as do the French and Germans, who drink more. The dismal ranking is surprising given that America spends nearly twice as much per capita on health care as the next biggest spender.

But an analysis by Elizabeth H. Bradley, an economist at the Yale School of Public Health, suggests that how you spend money matters. The higher the spending on social services relative to health care, she’s found, the greater the longevity dividends.

Some now argue that addressing health disparities and their causes is not just a moral imperative, but an economic one. It will save money in the long run. The University of Chicago economist James Heckman estimates that investing in poor children yields a yearly return of 7 to 10 percent thereafter to society.

Early-life stress and poverty aren’t a problem of only the poor. They cost everyone.

Moises Velasquez-Manoff is a science writer and the author of “An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Brain scans of inmates turn up possible link to risks of reoffending,0,5130358.story

By Michael Haederle

Brain scan
ALBUQUERQUE — It began with a casual question that neuroscientist Kent Kiehl posed to a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory who had been conducting brain scans on New Mexico prison inmates.
"I asked, 'Does ACC activity predict the risk of reoffending?'" Kiehl recalls, using the scientific shorthand for the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain structure associated with error processing.
The postdoctoral fellow, Eyal Aharoni, decided to find out. When he compared 96 inmates whose brains had been monitored while they performed a test that measures impulsiveness, he discovered a stark contrast: Those with low ACC activity were about twice as likely to commit crimes within four years of being released as those with high ACC activity.
"We cannot say with certainty that all who are in the high-risk category will reoffend — just that most will," Kiehl says. "It has very big implications for how we think about treatment and rehabilitation."
The study is the latest paper from Kiehl's lab reporting on experiments performed in a powerful functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner mounted in a semi-trailer. Kiehl and his team at the nonprofit Mind Research Network have used the scanner to study the brains of nearly 3,000 convicted criminals at facilities in New Mexico and Wisconsin since 2007....
The trove of data they have gathered has revealed telltale abnormalities in the structure and functioning of psychopaths' brains. On the whole, they have less gray matter in the paralimbic system — believed to help regulate emotion — which may help account for their characteristic glibness, pathological lying, lack of empathy and tendency to act impulsively.
Kiehl often briefs judges and legal groups on his findings and has consulted in more than 100 criminal cases where, for example, psychopathy might be raised as a mitigating factor to account for a defendant's impaired self-control.
The mere suggestion that it might be possible to predict future criminal behavior may conjure up such futuristic films as "Minority Report," but Kiehl cautioned that the new study merely averages test results from a large group and cannot at this point predict whether any particular individual will reoffend.
But with further refinement, he says, brain imaging might one day be considered in civil commitment proceedings, where convicted sexual offenders can be held indefinitely if it is believed they have a propensity to reoffend.
Predictions about whether an offender poses an ongoing danger to society "already play roles in a variety of legal contexts, such as in deciding whether to sentence a criminal offender to a mental health facility, deciding whether to grant parole and the like," said Owen D. Jones, a Vanderbilt University professor of law and biology and director of the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project, which helped fund Kiehl's study.
Describing the study as interesting and well-designed, Jones said the neuroscience of criminal behavior was evolving so rapidly that courts and lawmakers could barely keep up. "Although there are efforts underway to help the legal system close that gap, the gap remains," he said. "This poses challenges to the fair and effective administration of justice."
After hundreds of encounters with psychopaths, Jones has come to view their distinctive lack of empathy as a missing skill, akin to a dyslexic's inability to read.
Some experts see psychopathy as an incurable defect, but Kiehl cites neuroplasticity — the brain's lifelong ability to remold itself in the face of new stimuli — as cause for optimism: New therapies might be developed to bolster the psychopathic brain's underactive empathy circuits, he says.
Selling that idea to judges and lawmakers, however, is likely to be an uphill battle. "The problem is, people don't think about empathy as an ability," he said. "They take it for granted."