Archives for category: Academic

The diverse answers come from a number of Brain Pickings favorites. Neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of the excellent Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, explores the concept of “the umwelt” coined by biologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909 — the idea that different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different elements of their environment and thus live in different micro-realities based on the subset of the world they’re able to detect. Eagleman stresses the importance of recognizing our own umwelt — our unawareness of the limits of our awareness:

I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.”

This Will Make You Smarter: 151 Big Thinkers Each Pick a Concept to Enhance Your Cognitive Toolkit | Brain Pickings.

52 Resident Thinkers

From the moment the expedition team set sail to the Arctic in September 2011 until the final weekend of the Cultural Olympiad in September 2012, Nowhereisland will have a different Resident Thinker each week. Our 52 Resident Thinkers will be drawn from environmentalism to peace activism, broadcasting to stand-up comedy, sustainable farming to human rights. Each week’s letter will be the focus of live public discussion here online and you can follow previous conversations in response to previous thinkers here.

Nowhereisland Resident Thinkers have used the opportunity to test out new ideas about how we might shape our society. These propositions are independent views, imagining Nowhereisland as a place where we might begin again.

The Resident Thinkers programme is published by Situations at the University of the West of England, Bristol, 2012. The views expressed in the Resident Thinkers programme are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Publisher. May Contain Strong Language.

Nowhereisland.

# 12 [4 May 2012]”The modern artist exists in a society as an experimenter with the conventions of culture; licensed to define his/her practice, its criteria and aims, independently from the dynamics that drive the change in conventions that prevail in the same culture generally.

At the same time, the existence of the artist is also something of a social experiment itself, subject to the authority of conventional assumptions, beliefs and expectations. Thus on the one hand, each individual artistic practice is by definition unique and non-representative of the culture at large. While on the other, all artists and their practices share in the eyes of the public certain common characteristics and traits, and these collectively represent the place of the art in the make-up of the societys self image, The image that the society has of itself as a culture is then less the product of artists experimental efforts – the singular worlds they create through their art – than it is the outcome of societys attitudes towards the vale of the artists unique practice for the social experimentation of art.

The experiment also extends onto the attempts to modernise the old job of the artist as one who records, reports and celebrates the actions and achievements of others from the observation and experience of their world. In this again the artist is generally expected to provide a contribution which is at once unique and representative of the cultures concepts of art. The artist must show an insider understanding of the others world but also maintain the distance that the society needs to understand the artists practice as a model of art. The more modern society becomes the information society or the more the two become interchangeable, the more remote the models of art become and the more society tends to learn about itself, not from the observations of the artist but from observing the artist.

The artists old job is taken over by the intermediaries who deliver the art to the public, who facilitate public access to art – curators, critics, arts administrators – and whose role it is to negotiate the practical and ideological terms and conditions of the services provided by artists in society.

“Extract from Other peoples culture, Pavel Büchler published in Curious – artists research within expert culture, Visual Art Projects, Glasgow 1999

via SusanJonesArts | Project blogs | Artists talking | a-n.

Does ‘Oxytocin Man’ have real magic powers? : RSA blogs.

Does ‘Oxytocin Man’ have real magic powers?

July 20, 2012 by 
Filed under: Social Brain

Oxytocin Man is Paul Zak, and the quick answer to the title question seems to be ‘no’.

I came across the partly endearing and partly ridiculing nickname through a tweet by Ben Goldacre: “I met the Oxytocin man when I spoke at TED. He said “I guess you’d probably say my schtick is Bad Science” “Why’s that?” I asked.”

So far, so intriguing, but I had to investigate further when I noticed Goldacre attacked Guardian writer and author Oliver Burkeman on Twitter:

“This, from @oliverburkeman in the Guardian on oxytocin and trust, is embarrassing credulous pseudoscience bulls**t http://bit.ly/NsJyA8 

I enjoyed chairing an RSA event with Oliver last year, loved his previous book ‘Help!’, and generally like his columns, so I was intrigued to see what he had done wrong in Goldacre’s eyes.

Zak believes that Oxytocin is THE ‘moral molecule’ that creates trust, social bonds and so forth, and that we should do what we can to bring more of it into the world, for instance by hugging each other more than we currently do. In the Guardian article we learn that:

“Oxytocin emerges from Zak’s research as something much more all-embracing: the “moral molecule” behind all human virtue, trust, affection and love, “a social glue”, as he puts it, “that keeps society together”.”

Burkeman’s perceived mistake was to entertain Paul Zak’s ideas without robustly checking and challenging the scientific evidence behind them. In the article he does fall short of endorsing Zak wholesale, but perhaps could have expressed his implicit reservations more explicitly.

Part of the challenge is that Paul Zak is apparently ‘charm personified’, he spoke at the RSAand, for what it’s worth, he was he was named by Wired magazine as one of the 10 Sexiest Geeks in 2005.

Also, I suppose it’s hard to get angry with a man who advocates that we hug each other more often.

it’s hard to get angry with a man who advocates that we hug each other more often.

So from the level of civility, I sympathise with Burkeman, but intellectually I can see where   Goldacre is coming from. Much of Zak’s work does strike me as pseudoscientific, in that it appears to ask too much from one molecule, and goes way beyond the evidence base when describing the role of Oxytocin. In the language of Ray Tallis, he is guilty of the worst excesses of ‘Neuromania‘.

Oxytocin cannot be meaningfully thought of as the sole cause or consequence of anything, and in so far as it can, it has a dark side. While it may lead us to feel warmer towards our in-group, it can also make us feel more hostile towards out-groups, as this New Scientist piece explains.

Ed Yong gives an informed and sophisticated account of the evidence base more generally. I would encourage you to read the entire Slate article, but the main idea is that Oxytocin is part of a wider adaptive system for social behaviour that acts against the background of our histories and emotions. The paragraph that pulls the rug from under Oxytocin Man is the following:

“The problem with oxytocin research is that too many people have been focusing on cataloging what it does (at least in some situations), rather than how it works. Say I’m new to computers and install my first Web browser. Suddenly, I can talk to friends, check train times, and buy books. Web browsers look like a pretty sweet thing. Then I discover Chatroulette and things are not sweet any longer. And none of this tells me anything about the existence of the internet, servers, code, and so on. I know what Web browsers can do, but not how they work.”

So although I can’t share the outrage and ire expressed in the name of Science,  the balance of evidence does seem to question the magical powers of Oxytocin Man. However, fear not, for following from Yong’s trenchant critique, two new twitter accounts appeared online: Oxytocin Hulk and Oxytocin Batman.

Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality – the “north and south of temperament“, as the scientist JD Higley puts it – is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. Our place on this continuum influences our choice of friends and mates, and how we make conversation, resolve differences, and show love. It affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed at them. It governs how likely we are to exercise (a habit found in extroverts), commit adultery (extroverts), function well without sleep (introverts), learn from our mistakes (introverts), place big bets in the stock market (extroverts), delay gratification (introverts), be a good leader (depends on the type of leadership called for), and ask “what if” (introverts).

  1. Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking
  2. by Susan Cain
  3. Buy it from the Guardian bookshop

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It’s reflected in our brain pathways, neurotransmitters, and remote corners of our nervous systems. Today introversion and extroversion are two of the most exhaustively researched subjects in personality psychology, arousing the curiosity of hundreds of scientists.

These researchers have made exciting discoveries aided by the latest technology, but they’re part of a long and storied tradition. Poets and philosophers have been thinking about introverts and extroverts since the dawn of recorded time. Both personality types appear in the Bible and in the writings of Greek and Roman physicians, and some evolutionary psychologists say that the history of these types reaches back even farther than that: the animal kingdom also boasts “introverts” and “extroverts”, from fruit flies to pumpkinseed fish to rhesus monkeys. As with other complementary pairings – masculinity and femininity, East and West, liberal and conservative – humanity would be unrecognizable, and vastly diminished, without both personality styles.

Take the partnership of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr: a formidable orator refusing to give up his seat on a segregated bus wouldn’t have had the same effect as a modest woman who would clearly prefer to keep silent but for the exigencies of the situation. And Parks didn’t have the stuff to thrill a crowd if she had tried to stand up and announce that she had a dream. But with King’s help, she didn’t have to.

Yet today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. Closet introverts pass undetected on playgrounds and in corporate corridors. Some fool even themselves, until some life event – redundancy, an empty nest, an inheritance that frees them to spend time as they like – jolts them into taking stock of their true natures.

We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He or she favours quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong; works well in teams and socialises in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual – the kind who is comfortable “putting himself out there”. Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.

Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.

The Extrovert Ideal has been documented in many studies. Talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting and more desirable as friends. Velocity of speech counts as well as volume: we rank fast talkers as more competent and likable than slow ones. The same dynamics apply in groups, where research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent – even though there’s zero correlation between the gift of the gab and good ideas. Even the word introvert is stigmatised – one informal study, by psychologist Laurie Helgoe, found that introverts described their own physical appearance in vivid language (“green-blue eyes”, “exotic”, “high cheekbones”), but when asked to describe generic introverts they drew a bland and distasteful picture (“ungainly”, “neutral colours”, “skin problems”).

But we make a grave mistake to embrace the Extrovert Ideal so unthinkingly. Some of our greatest ideas, art, and inventions – from the theory of evolution to Van Gogh’s sunflowers to the personal computer – came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there. Without introverts, the world would be devoid of Newton’s theory of gravity, Einstein’s theory of relativity, WB Yeats’s The Second Coming, Chopin’s nocturnes, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Peter Pan, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Cat in the Hat, Charlie Brown, the films of Steven Spielberg, Google (co-founded by introvert Larry Page) and Harry Potter.

As the science journalist Winifred Gallagher writes: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.” Even in less obviously introverted occupations, like finance, politics and activism, some of the greatest leaps forward were made by introverts. Al Gore, Warren Buffett, Eleanor Roosevelt and Gandhi achieved what they did not in spite of but because of their introversion.

Yet many of the most important institutions of contemporary life are designed for those who enjoy group projects and high levels of stimulation. As children, our classroom desks are increasingly arranged in pods, the better to foster group learning, and research suggests that the vast majority of teachers believe that the ideal student is an extrovert. As adults, many of us work for organisations that insist we work in teams, in offices without walls, for supervisors who value “people skills” above all. To advance our careers, we’re expected to promote ourselves unabashedly. The scientists whose research gets funded often have confident, perhaps overconfident, personalities. The artists whose work adorns the walls of contemporary museums strike impressive poses at gallery openings. The authors whose books get published – once a reclusive breed – are now vetted by publicists to make sure they’re talk-show ready.

If you’re an introvert, you also know that the bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain. As a child you might have overheard your parents apologise for your shyness. Or at school you might have been prodded to come “out of your shell” – that noxious expression that fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter everywhere they go, and that some humans are just the same. “All the comments from childhood still ring in my ears, that I was lazy, stupid, slow, boring,” writes a member of an email list called Introvert Retreat. “By the time I was old enough to figure out that I was simply introverted, it was a part of my being, the assumption that there is something inherently wrong with me. I wish I could find that little vestige of doubt and remove it.”

Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much,” a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral.

Of course, there’s another word for such people: thinkers.

You can be a shy extrovert too

There are now almost as many definitions of introvert and extrovert as there are personality psychologists. Still, they tend to agree on several important points: for example, that introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo.

Many psychologists would also agree that introverts and extroverts work differently. Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly. They make fast (sometimes rash) decisions, and are comfortable multitasking and risk- taking. They enjoy “the thrill of the chase” for rewards like money and status. Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration. They’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame.

A few things introverts are not: the word introvert is not a synonym for hermit or misanthrope. Introverts can be these things, but most are perfectly friendly. One of the most humane phrases in the English language – “Only connect!” – was written by the distinctly introverted EM Forster in Howards End, a novel exploring the question of how to achieve “human love at its height”.

Nor are introverts necessarily shy. Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not. One reason that people confuse the two concepts is that they sometimes overlap (though psychologists debate to what degree).

You can be a shy extrovert, like Barbra Streisand, who has a larger-than-life personality and paralysing stage fright; or a non-shy introvert, like Bill Gates, who by all accounts keeps to himself but is unfazed by the opinions of others. You can also, of course, be both shy and an introvert: TS Eliot was a famously private soul who wrote in The Waste Land that he could “show you fear in a handful of dust”. Many shy people turn inward, partly as a refuge from the socialising that causes them such anxiety. And many introverts are shy, partly as a result of receiving the message that there’s something wrong with their preference for reflection, and partly because their physiologies compel them to withdraw from high-stimulation environments.

But for all their differences, shyness and introversion have in common something profound. The mental state of a shy extrovert sitting quietly in a business meeting may be very different from that of a calm introvert – the shy person is afraid to speak up, while the introvert is simply overstimulated – but to the outside world, the two appear to be the same. This can give both types insight into how our reverence for alpha status blinds us to things that are good and smart and wise. For very different reasons, shy and introverted people might choose to spend their days in behind-the-scenes pursuits like inventing, or researching, or holding the hands of the gravely ill – or in leadership positions they execute with quiet competence. These are not alpha roles, but the people who play them are role models all the same.

Extracted from Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, to be published by Viking on 29 March at GBP 20.00

Why the world needs introverts | Science | The Guardian.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections: A Rare Glimpse Inside Iconic Psychiatrist Carl Jung’s Mind

By: 

“…the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”

In the spring of 1957, at the age of 84, legendary psychiatrist Carl Jung set out to tell his life’s story. He embarked upon a series of conversations with his colleague and friend, Aniela Jaffe, which he used as the basis for the text. At times, so powerful was his drive for expression that he wrote entire chapters by hand. He continued to work on the manuscript until shortly before his death in 1967. The result was Memories, Dreams, Reflections — a fascinating peek behind the curtain of Jung’s mind, revealing a wonderland of wisdom, experience, and self-reflection.

Jaffe writes in the introduction in 1961:

The genesis of this book to some extent determined its contents. Conversation or spontaneous narration is inevitably casual, and the tone has carried over the entire ‘autobiography.’ The chapters are rapidly moving beams of light that only fleetingly illuminate the outward events of Jung’s life and work. In recompense, they transmit the atmosphere of his intellectual world and the experience of a man to whom the psyche was a profound reality.”

Jung’s reflections span everything from the minutia of working for a living to the grand truths of the human condition to the nature of the divine. This particular passage, from the closing of a chapter entitled “Life and Death,” struck me as a powerful lens on consciousness and what it means to be human:

Our age has shifted all emphasis to the here and now, and thus brought about a daemonization of man and his world. The phenomenon of dictators and all the misery they have wrought springs from the fact that man has been robbed of transcendence by the shortsightedness of the super-intellectuals. Like them, he has fallen a victim to unconsciousness. But man’s task is the exact opposite: to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious. Neither should he persist in his unconsciousness, nor remain identical with the unconscious elements of his being, thus evading his destiny, which is to create more and more consciousness. As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. It may even be assumed that just as the unconscious affects us, so the increase in our consciousness affects the unconscious.”

The inimitable Austin Kleon — of Steal Like An Artist fame — has a lovely sketchnote visualization of the book:

Among the most fascinating elements of the book is the Appendix, which features never-before-published letters from Freud to Jung. In one, dated April 16, 1909, Freud discusses — with an odd blend of reverence for mysticism and keen self-awareness of the selective attention at work — how he became obsessed with the idea that he would die between the ages of 61 and 62, and subsequently started seeing the two numbers everywhere. Freud concludes, with a subtle jab at Jung’s own views on “poltergeist phenomena”:

Here is another instance where you will find confirmation of the specifically Jewish character of my mysticism. Apart from this, I only want to say that adventures such as mine with the number 62 can be explained by two thing. The first is an enormously intensified alertness on the part of the unconscious, so that one is led like Faust to see Helen in every woman. The second is the undeniable ‘co-operation of chance,’ which plays the same role in the formation of delusions as somatic co-operation in hysterical symptoms or linguistic co-operation in puns.

I therefore look forward to hearing more about your investigations of the spook-complex, my interest being the interest one has in a lovely delusion which one does not share oneself.”

Though not without faults, Jung’s was one of modern history’s most intriguing minds and Memories, Dreams, Reflections presents a rare, infinitely insightful glimpse of its inner workings.

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