Saturday, October 31, 2009

Why I Blog on Here

Recently, I've been seeing a feed from someone who apparently took up blogging to make money. I must admit I find the concept a bit bizarre. I don't consider blog posts a commodity - I consider them a form of self-reflection and communication. I started this blog five years ago, so I could share what I learned with my friends. I am an experiential learner, which means I learn concepts by applying them to the world around me. This includes writing about them and hopefully taking them a few steps further to see if my understanding still holds up.

So, you see, this blog is really a personal indulgence of mine, which I share because at least a few other people find my intellectual/academic musings and discoveries interesting. I have it separate from my livejournal account because not all of my friends are interested in this part of my life. They are more concerned with my more mundane doings and and rants. I have another journal for my creative writings, so those friends interested in those can read them. I even have a religious journal, which to be honest, I have neglected badly, for the same reason. Most of my friends like the ala cart method I have, and I have no problem with them preferring only part of my life to follow.

So, for me personally, adding advertisements to this blog feels wrong, as does running it like a business. I want to share freely with my friends. I consider it an act of true charity (i.e. love) for those who don't have the access to material that I have (which is the reason this particular site was created - a friend in another country, who does not have the resources to study the topics I am, asked me to share some of my assignments with her). From there, it sort of turned into my more formal blog.

Still, if someone wishes to making blogging their career, then all the more power to them. There's nothing wrong with gaining something for providing information. Frankly, I'm tempted to put my Amazon wishlist up for those who wish to give me something to alleviate any feelings of one sided indebtedness they may feel while reading this blog. Not because I want something for it, but because I have learned that there is more to being charitable and generous than just giving to people--sometimes, you have to be humble and gracious enough to let them give to you. If you can't do this, then your generousity is a sham; a means to assert superiority to those you perceive as less fortunate than you. If receiving help or gifts from other people means you're weak, then what does that say about your view of those you are giving to? If you believe that receiving puts you into another's debt, then what price are you attaching to your gifts?

I will have to think this over some more. I haven't been keeping track of who has been reading this blog during the past three years or so. Most of the people who I do know that read it are friends who already give to me of their talents, companionship, and even the occassional gift. I guess I can start monitoring visitors again and if, indeed, I have a wider audience than I realize, I might put a link somewhere for people who just want to send a little something to thank me for whatever reason. I want whatever I do to be done as a free choice and not as an obligation. I will probably make a special "under $5" wishlist for this blog then. And maybe a list of professional books that a reader here might what me to comment on. But then I might feel obligated to read some books that really don't spark my interest.

Oh well, like I said, I'll have to think this over more.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Basis of Knowledge

David Deutsch starts out shaky in the talk, but stick with him. He hits his stride half-way through and then he is amazing.

Bad explanation: easy to vary

Good explanation: Hard to vary assertions, details have functional uses

Explanationless theories - bad science

Architecture that repairs itself?

Discusses the beginnings of "living" building materials, other known as "protocells", creating limestone structures from the bottom up. Considering how my last post made a point of the influence of natural elements in public places, this recent video is a great example of how some people see buildings in a similar way. But instead of staying with the decay aspect, they are pioneering the creation part.

Color me extremely impressed. I am very delighted to see this technology being pursued.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Art and public spaces

Olafur Eliasson does a wonderful job of showing how making public spaces an art piece, especially interactive, can help people become more aware of their surroundings and relate to them more. He also explains why this happens with things, such as waterfalls.

Of course, Eliasson uses artistic elements that reflect nature into his public spaces, which makes them more human than many man-made spaces. I believe that this reflection of nature that creates a common ground for all humans, whereas the obviously artificial space limits the way people relate to it.

Teddy Roosevelt saw the same thing in nature's effect on humans when he created the US Natural Parks system. He saw the National Parks where people of all classes could visit and be the same.

So nature reflected in art creates common ground. What does other styles of public architecture do? During the Federalist Period in the United States, elements of Ancient Greek architecture was used to bring a sense of order, beauty and achievement from that ancient democracy to the young country. Romanesque architecture was meant to life the spirit and strengthen faith. Crisp, clean, artificial architecture is meant to drive the imagination into future endeavors.

Likewise, shoddy buildings, and other signs of urban decay, negatively affect the psyches of those who live around it. The only exception to the "building decay=depression" rule I've found is when the decay isn't a crumbling into dust, but a reclaimation into nature. In which case, it often strikes me as nature embracing the structure--a marriage of art and life.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Meditation Sunday

Decided to treat everyone to a less information intensive post. Choose a toy and then enjoy yourself.

Meditation Flowers

String Spin 1

the scribbler art toy

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Art and civilization

I was going to wait until I found the video clip I wanted for this, but I decided to go ahead and post it since it appears that I may have to snail mail someone to locate it.

I was very blessed when I was in high school to have Ms. Sylvia Butler as my Ancient World History teacher. She was significant in my life for two reasons. First, she was the only teacher that had all of my siblings and I take her class. Second, she taught us the history of early civilizations through their art. She not only showed us wonderful pictures that she had taken of art all over the world, but she made us draw some of it, as well as remember the verbal facts, on our tests. You can tell a lot of a civilization through the art it produces and praises.

Another teacher who taught me about the importance of art to a nation was my eigth grade Social Studies teacher, Dr. Demott. He preferred to go as "Mr. Demott" and he was a very soft-spoken guy, but while some teachers know how to present material, he knew what material to present. He used contemporary music and various film clips to underscore certain aspects of life in the 20th century.

One example was using Neil Diamond's "I am, I said" to show the alienation that occurs in a mobile society. Another example was using actual state-sponsored films from communist Russia to show us the power of propaganda. The visual imagery of this clips were so strong that there was no need to translate the Russian in them.

(hopefully, I can find an example)

Frankly, I'm surprised he was able to get away with showing us some of this stuff, but I am glad he did, because it showed us not only real propaganda (versus the weak stuff many people scream about these days), but showed us how powerful controlling the arts can be for those in power, no matter what their idealogy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

99% of Perception is Decision

Confession here--when I first saw the actual title of this video, a prejudice kicked in. Over the years, I have become very cynical about claims that computer programmers can build virtual versions of the human brain--supercomputer or otherwise. So, I almost didn't watch this video because of a pre-decided condition, one that is actually hypocritical considering my interest in cognition. I don't feel all too horrible about it. First off, it is a very common occurance in humans, even those who should know better. Second, and more importantly, my conscience pointed out my hypocrisy and nagged me until I made a commitment to watch this--thus maintaining my intellectual integrity on the matter.

I am so glad I watched this video. Because instead of seeing a theory built on narrowly conceived philosophies, I saw something that included perception as well as neuron activity. With no disrespect to Jeff Hawkins*, Henry Markham and his colleagues have a fuller theory of the brain, one that consists of holistic elements, as well as detailed ones. Their theory isn't stuck into a left brain world, but embraces both hemispheres of the brain--and the graphics used to show their points are not only extremely artistic, fascinating, beautiful and informative, but also examples of right brain/left brain cooperation. Their calculations are not only the mathematical, molecular side. These scientists actually have stepped backed and analyzed the big picture patterns of their results, realizing that they need to understand the "forest" in their work, as well as the "leaves".

I am tempted to say everyone should see this video; however, realistically, this video will be of more interest to you if you also have a fascination with cognition and perception. I will still maintain that those in the field of psychology and counseling, or consider themselves "scientific" should watch this video. You cannot understand a person or data, without understanding how your mind and others perceive it. You will be doing yourself a major diservice if you don't watch the following video:

Highlights for the less excited about brain science:

  • 2 billion people are affected by mental illness in the world today.
  • The theory they are using specifically - "The brain builds a version of the universe and projects this version of the universe, like a bubble, all around us."
  • Finally gives a decent explanation for an optical illusion that was considered unexplained - why the moon looks so big at the horizon. It's not because of light bending. It's because we make it fit our other visual references.
  • Explains how anesthetics work. They doen't put the brain to sleep, they create a static noise in the brain that keeps the neurons from talking to each other. I think this may explain why hypnosis can be used instead.
  • "99% of what you see does not come in through the eyes. It is what you infer about that room." This is why people can look at the same thing and come to vastly differing conclusions. In counseling, it is why it is important to understand how the client perceives things and why they are the ones who actually have to be part of the creation of a healthier mentality. You can't just overlay your perceptions on other people.
  • Shows that for the next hundred years, we can set aside the philosophical side of the above point and ask concrete questions about the brain's ability to do this, which can be tested scientifically.
  • Mammals need a more complex brain because they had to deal with parenting, social interactions, and complex cognitive functions.
  • Excellently done video clips that help explain brain development and structure.
  • Shows how details and general overviews can work together, allowing a better understanding of our world.
  • "The most important design secret of the brain is diversity."
  • Shows in mathematical graphic how we can be different on the "leaf" level and still be alike on the "forest" level.
  • Looking at the raw electical energy and the forms created by it, within the neocortical column.

*I still that Jeff Hawkins is correct with his theory of intelligence. He just doesn't expand it to perception.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Positive Psychology

Martin Seligman goes beyond the disease model in psychology and how to improve human lives, by examining the positive mental states.

Summarizing types of "happy lives": The pleasant life (full of pleasure) is inheritable and not very malleable. The engaged life (or good life) is full of flow, even if there isn't much emotion involved. The meaningful life is to work towards or for something larger than yourself.

The full life has all three, though the pleasant life gives the least amount of fulfillment of the three.

Where's the sweetness in your life?

Scrooge: "What right to you have to be happy? You're poor enough."
Fred: "What right do you have to be miserable? You're rich enough."
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

"Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something." - The Princess Bride

You would be very hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't had some grief, pain or other misery in their life, but you can probably easily find examples of people who can be happy in spite of their poor circumstances and those who are miserable in spite of their riches.

My daughter is friends with one of the sweetest, most childlike (without being childish) people I know. Everything she draws has an aura of cuteness. To the casual observer, the only clue to the darkness in her is the fact that she likes really heavy metal. Her innocence is so precious that her friends will tell anyone who tries to destroy it to back off in now uncertain terms. For the past few years, she has lived with a good family that has legal guardianship over her. It has been through conversations with her foster mother that I have some idea what this young woman's early life was like. With most people, I can say that while I haven't been exactly where they are, I have been a few houses down or a block or two away. In her case, imagine living with the craziest relative you know, while in an active war zone - and you just might have some idea what her childhood was like. While I have personal familiarity with some of the architecture of her life, most of the rest of it I only have the familiarity of a war correspondant in comparison.

If anything, her sweetness is one of the main things that kept the misery of her life from totally destroying her. It is no wonder that my daughter and her other friends fight so hard to keep that sweetness alive. Because truth be told, while she may be innocent in many ways, she has experienced more evil than many who parade their "emo-ness" can even fanthom. Her sweetness is not an act of avoidence - it is an act of bravery.

To often we shy away from joy and innocence because others try shame us away from under the guise of calling it "childish", "quaint", "silly", "hokey", and various other snobbish comments. It takes bravery to embrace sweetness and joy, while living in a culture that praises negativity and jadedness. It's no wonder that many people have no clue how to turn Life's lemons into lemonade; most of us don't recognize Life's sweeteners even when they are labelled for us. And a lot of people expect the lemonade to be made and given to them, completely unaware of how much better lemonade is when it is sweetened by ourselves to our own individual tastes. And sometimes Life doesn't give us lemons; sometimes it gives us cream of wheat, medicine, treackle, habenaro peppers, or crabapples.

And there are many types of sweeteners in Life. Nature uses more than just sucrose (refined sugar). She uses glucose (honey), lactose (milk), fructose (fruit), and others.

So today I am going to share some of the musical sweeteners that are currently just right for my life at the moment:

  • "I get ten thousand hugs from ten thousand lightning bugs." - Firefly by Owl City
  • Looking out my backdoor by Creedance Clearwater Revival
  • In My Wildest Dreams - Moody Blues
  • Never Gonna to Give You Up by Rick Astley. Yes, Rickrolling doesn't annoy me - I actually enjoy it. 'Tis like trying to injure a volcano with a flame thrower or stopping a hurricane with a water cannon! FEAR ME, PUNY MORTALS!
  • Dragostea Din Tei by O-Zone
  • Run, Runaway by Slade
  • I Don't Feel Like Dancing by Scissor Sisters
Youtube playlist for your convience.

Now, what sweetness exists in your life? Please feel free to share, so others not only learn of other sources of sweetness, but take courage enough from your example to embrace the sweetness in their lives.

Cross-posted to my other blog.


While I do want to continue my series about the transformative power of art, I am currently awaiting some information that I really, really want for my next post on the subject. So, until then, back to the TED commentaries.

Nancy Etcoff discusses the science of happiness in the following talk:

Happiness is not the absence of misery. People can feel happy, even while feeling miserable. I have experienced this, being happy, even while in pain and under stress. It is also interesting to note that the pleasure and the reward pathways in the brain are not actually the same things.

Dan Gilbert gives a great talk about natural and synthesized happiness:

I find the free choice experiments very interesting, if not mind-blowing. There is another talk on TED about this, but I find this one more convincing.

The following talk is a more spiritual on the matter of happiness. At the very least, it has some beautiful images.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Art as a means of true social change

I've decided to talk a short break from sharing my favorite TED talks to share something that hit me while studying for an art history test 3 years ago. I have it posted it elsewhere, but I think it's time to share it here.

Lamentation by Giotto

Take a look at this picture. Do you know why it is so important?

If you're an art student, you would probably answer with something like this:

One of the most admired frescos from the Arena Chapel done by Giotto, known as the "Father of Picturial Painting". It shows real emotion and human suffering. Uses focal points instead of symmetry, overlapping figures and shading. Done in Italo-Byzantine style, it breaks from the stylistic other-worldness of the Byzantine style of the Dark Ages, with its introduction of naturalism.

However, if you take into the account of the cultural and religious significance of this piece, it becomes so much more than the epitome of a style of painting.

Godescalc-Evangeliar, Manuskript des Godescalc, Hofschreiber Karl des Großen To appreciate Giotto's work, you need to understand that in the Dark Ages, artists painted figures to look other-worldly to reflect the supernatural and unfathomableness of Christ and the saints. These were not persons who could be related to in a normal fashion. These were impersonal beings, who only interacted with we unworthy and insignificant humans out of supernatural mercy.

To this end, the populace were treated to paintings like the one to the left here. Faces that showed no emotions. Images that showed not connection to the things of this world. During the Dark Ages, God was not Love, but Power.

Look again at the Byzantine representation of Christ. Is the image a welcoming one? Does this look like someone who emanates love? Someone who had a personal interest in your salvation?

It doesn't to me.

On the other hand, look again at Giotto's Christ. Is there any doubt that the man lying there had a connection to those around him on a personal level? That they felt his love for them in their life?

To the best of my knowledge, Giotto was the first person to paint Christ in a personal way. Perhaps herding sheep as a child made Giotto feel a special kinship with Jesus Christ. Perhaps being chosen by the master painter Cimabue as a humble lad from the country, Giotto saw more of God's love in the world around him, instead of the power plays of rulers and religious leaders.

Whatever the reason, so moving and innovated was Giotto's works, that he was in high demand and other artists began to follow suit. Soon, many who could not read, much less have access to the Holy Scriptures, had a different insight into the nature of Christ - where they actually meant something to the universe and their Creator.

A description of Giotto from

Giotto was short and homely, and he was a great wit and practical joker. He was married and left six children at his death. Unlike many of his fellow artists, he saved his money and was accounted a rich man. He was on familiar terms with the pope, and King Robert of Naples called him a good friend.

Rereading what I wrote, I realized that I need to explain that the rediscovery of humanism started at the same time that Giotto began his work. And, frankly, I think that his work was a main factor for its re-emergence.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Dan Pink's talk on the surprising science of motivation is something anyone who deals with other people in an oversight capacity should watch. It's good for those in behavioral studies to watch it, too.

Nothing beats intrinsic motivation when it comes to tasks that need creativity. Which is probably why Tony Robbins is considered a motivational speaker, instead of how he describes himself - a why guy, who asks why you are doing what you do.

As you see from the video, what he is doing is helping people to figure out their intrinsic motivations, their internal drives - which empowers them to do their best.

Human needs as Robbins defines them:
1) Certainty
2) Uncertainty
3) Critical Significance
4) Connection and Love
5) Grow
6) To contribute beyond ourselves

Freud would call "certainty" life-instincts and "uncertainty" death instincts. Adlerian therapy stresses that people need goals and significance in their lives. Existential therapy deals with the need to grow and be unique. Family systems and group therapies deal with connections. Maslow's hierarchy contains all but the uncertainty. So, in spite of Robbins negative comments about us being a therapy society, he, himself, is using much of the basis of psychology.


UCLA coach and English professor, John Wooden, explains his definition of success:

"Peace of mind that comes from doing the best you are capable of," means a lot more with some of the examples he gives near the end.

This video underlines the capriciousness of fate, despite of merit, and job snobbery, which is rampant in our society. Unless you're a celebrity, it's what you do that gives you status.

My masters' advisor, Dr. Bryan Farha, is quoted by Gerald Corey about people focusing on doing to avoid the experience of being. He never mentioned it in the classes I had with him (probably because we students mentioned the reference ourselves), but you will find him in the chapter of existential therapy of Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychology (at least in the sixth and seventh editions). Anyway, this idea can be also applied to our society - we avoid facing ourselves through our works. Granted, it's not as bad as building monuments using slave labor, but in the United States especially, value in the corporate world means more than value in things like teaching and other pursuits. And it has been that way for a few centuries, at least, as evidenced by the Booker T. Washington quote: "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."

Though, in a way, several people have now given the poet the same status as the farmer, based on earnings, and not for the better. It seems to me that we now over-value things that are actually parasitical to our society, while dismissing that which truly feeds body and soul. Everybody wants luxury; some even to the neglect of the necessities.

Greatest part of this talk is stressing the part that we should make sure our ideas of success are truly our own. Also when he says that the nightmare part is that scaring people is best way to get work out of them. My next post will tackle that with some research.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Prediction - the hallmark of intelligence

Even if you're not into physics and math, the following video also talks about balance and beauty, with gorgeous visuals.

A long way to go to fit a pattern, don't you think? Why do we seek for patterns? It is a very human thing to do and it helps us predict future possibilities. Jeff Hawkins talk makes a very good argument of what intelligence actually is.

Interesting alternative views

These are two videos that offer a different way of looking at things. Granted, most TED talks do, but I don't really have much to say about these talks because they are a bit outside my areas of knowledge, so I'm still processing their content. However, I do think they are worth considering.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Hidden worlds

The underwater "flying turkey" creeps me out, but the squids and octopi are way cool. I especially like how male squids will split their coloring to show a potential mate his "softer" side, while still showing aggression towards potential rivals.

I never realized that the canopy of the redwood forest was once considered a "desert", devoid of other life. This video corrects that belief in spades. And I never knew that redwoods can grow back into themselves.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Engineering, art and nature

This is another example of using a perspective that is based on usefulness. The artist considers his sculptures to be alive. That belief obviously helps him to create this fascinating moving structures.

Now this video keeps me glued to the screen every time. I love how he explains that evolution works on the "just good enough" principle and the extreme constraints of living organisms. Being inspired by nature tells us more than bio-mimicry. And who could not be fascinated by the robots they developed?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Deconstructing and Interacting with Art

As with the exception to parenting I mentioned a few blog posts ago, I only partially agree with Dr. Pinker in his discussion of art and beauty. Classic beauty is probably a human constant and modern art does tend to reject it, but there is a purpose for the exploration of deconstruction and minimalization. The problem is, in my opinion, that many "progressive" artists stop at the deconstruction and never finish the journey to reconstruction. Therefore, making their own label an oxymoron because they never complete the process to allow true progress.

Golan Levin, on the other hand, does. As an engineer and artist, during the second half of his talk, he shows the progression from simplicity of gaze to one very engaging robot eye.

I see no problem with merging art and engineering. Di Vinci was an excellent example of an artist and engineer. Michelangelo and other artists were also scientists. So, again, we see the creative cycle of divergence and the convergence.

Going back to the first half of Levin's talk, he gives examples of mixing sensory inputs. Evan Grant also works on making sound visible, through the science of cymatics.

Sound does have form and affects matter. There is still much data hidden in nature for us to find.

What happens in a prison-like environment

I really should have added this to the post on brain damage and the environment, after Dr. Pinker's talk on violence, but I had temporarily forgotten it. This video shows how quickly normally good people can turn into monsters if the conditions are right, even if they don't have a genetic predisposition to do so. I have one very morbid friend who thinks the experiment should have been continued; however, there is no need for that. All one has to do is read up on prisons, and especially prisoners of war, to see where it would have led. We've always had tons of data on that front. The data missing was what type of people were the guards before they fell into this mindset. Once the mindset was achieved, there was nothing new to gain by continuing the experiment. (And, of course, it would have been extremely unethical.)

I wouldn't be surprised if something similar happens in some groups that use hazing. The only difference is that once the initiate lives through the hazing period, they get to become part of the "guards".

Creative Environments

Not a video, but still a wonderful example of a creative workplace.

It is a shame that not all engineers are like Golan Levin, who I will discuss in the post after the next one. I admire the BMW design team's sensitivity to their engineering colleagues; however, it really irritated me that the engineers at BMW couldn't think outside their own box. It seems to me that, while the communication part is very important, that the engineers themselves could use a good dose of Google's environment.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Creativity and play

The 30 circle test reminds me a little of when I did figures in my Drawing I class in college. We first did several drawings of our instructor with only 30 seconds per pose. Then we did a few drawing with a minute per pose. The last two poses for 5 and 10 minutes, respectively. What the exercise did was force us to just draw what we saw, without pausing to edit. Obviously, we only got basic forms at first. But this carried on to the longer drawings and I have to admit that I did much better drawing of human than I had in any other art class before. So, getting past the self-critiques (and external critiques) for a period of time does more than increase creativity, it also improves skills. Creative writing works much better if you wait to edit until after you've written the story. Starting to edit in the midst of creating will deaden the creativity and stunt the work. Editting happens after the creative period, no matter what you are working on. Or in Tim Brown's terms, the convergence period happens after the divergence period.

This next talk is also by a Brown - Stuart Brown:

It amazes me how much we have weeded out adult playfulness in the past couple of centuries. My son did a report of historical children's games last year and we were both surprised to find old books full of adult-too games. In fact, it was hard to find written resources of children-only games before the 1900s. A side-effect of the Industrial Revolution, I suspect.

Both videos underscore the need for kinistetic activity in problem solving. Though I didn't use it in my capstone, I did find a study on how swinging one's arms helps one to solve problems with a swinging element, while researching how the right and left brain function cognitively.

Back to the talk - while the meeting suits are fun, I can imagine all sort of sexual harrassment potential. But I can't deny that it is creative.

The hold of creativity

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses creativity, fulfillment, and flow in this following video:

In it, he tries to describe the paranormal feeling felt in midst of being creativity - basically, that the mind is so focused that it leaves no room in the mind for the monitoring of self or other distractions. He also lists seven attributes of being in creative "flow":

  1. focused and concentrated
  2. a sense of estacy
  3. great inner clarity
  4. knowing that it can be done
  5. a sense of serenity
  6. timelessness
  7. the process is its own reward

A perfect example of being in creative flow is Adam Savage's talk about his creative obsessions:

If the humor is not enough, it is an incredible example on how creative people need research and knowledge to feed their creativity.

And as he says: "Achieving the end of the exercise was never the point of the exercise to begin with."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Cultivating the creative mind

Elizabeth Gilbert suggests a different way to look at creative genius in the following video:

In some ways, I should probably post this video after discussing the research on the creative mind and the creative process. However, I think it fits in well with the posts of perception I have recently posted. If a perception helps someone use their talents and relate to their genius in a healthy way, can we truly label it as false?

Most of my life, my rule of thumb has been if it works, then that is the bottom line. As such, can I deny the perception of another, which allows them to create beauty and makes the world better for others? Perhaps it is not my truth, but what right do I have to say it is false for a person who it works for?

Among most counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists, there is a belief that as long as a behavior or belief does not interfer with functioning in life, it's not something to worry about. For no one really has the right to impose their idea of truth onto another human being. Nor do they have the right to ridicule it.

That's not to say that they can't debate their ideas and search for data. I am a research addict, myself. However, I have found that it is always good to step back for a moment and ask myself how much the data actually proves, versus what it suggests. I believe many people make the mistake of treating the concepts suggested by a body of data as if they are carved in stone facts. Obviously, many people can do this, make it part of their identity and still function in their daily lives. I can't. I have to live with my own truths, which means that I have to accept that I might be wrong at times. (Though I must point out that I have a habit of making declarative statements, which give the impression that I am more firm on a matter than I really am.) Luckily for me, research has shown that being willing to be wrong is one of the key element of being creative. Sir Ken Robinson has a wonderful talk on this very subject:

You can't create something new, if all your concepts are in stone. Still, even a creative person needs a stone foundation in their life. Sometimes, you just have to be willing to rebuild it, after it cracks, into something stronger.

Brain Abnormalities and Environment: from the Curious to the Dangerous

A continuation of how some brains can perceive things like Capgras syndrome (impaired facial recognition), phantom limbs with learned paralysis, and synesthesia.

I want to point out that Dr. Ramachandran stresses that these perceptual abnormalities do not impaired the rest of their brain functioning. In other words, a perceptual abnormality does not mean there are problems with their ability to analyze and think logically. Truth is, most of us have some form of neurological screwiness in our brains. And most of the time, we can make it work for us, allowing us to specialize in tasks, while other people specialize in other tasks.

So for most people, these differences can actually improve society and humanity in general, if they are not squashed and demonized. I will not deny that there are mental abnormalities that are dangerous. However, from the research I have read, it takes more than the abnormality by itself to cause the danger part. It it is a combination of genetics, brain damage, environment, and development to trigger these behaviors that we have every right to fear, as shown in the following video:

It is interesting that Dr. Fallon's father and three uncles were all conscientious objectors in WWII, after so many generations of killers in the family tree. Before this talk, I had always seen conscientious objections as a personal moral and/or religious choice. However, knowing the family history of Dr. Fallon's dad, I believe that in their case especially, it was a matter of not only personal safety, but public too.

I also think this video explains the mindset of violence in areas like Ireland, the Middle East, Africa, and any other place where deep historical hatred seems to have a life of its own. The question is: can these concentrations of violence be diluted? I believe they can, based on how most of humanity has been becoming less violent over the centuries. Steven Pinker gives an excellent summary of this decline in the following video. Be prepared to have several common beliefs challenged.

The last seven or eight minutes gives possible reasons why violence can decline. It's perhaps ironic that Dr. Pinker shows in this talk how environment can change behavior, while in his TED talk about his book, The Blank Slate, he appears to make the argument that genetic aspect is a stronger force. I believe the point really is, that when environmental factors are not strongly stressful, genetics will usually have the upper hand. Sort of like how some people make fruits look like art by placing them into forms to shape them as they grow to maturity. People can be shaped by child abuse and other extreme stressors, in ways that either suppresses or triggers genetic tendencies. Without these extreme forces, a person will develop into their own behaviors and talents, regardless of parental behavior, as explained by the elderly pediatrician who counselled me as a new mother with these words: "The most important thing a parent can do is love their child. Any mistakes they may make will work out fine as long as the child knows they are loved."

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Several of my recents posts have been about preception and how the brain works. So, it is very fortunate that recently has posted an excellent video on how the brain interprets visual data.

As the video reminds us, our brains are not wired for "truth"; they are wired for usefulness.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

My Google Reader Feed

For those who need more stuff to read.

Mostly contains psych articles, art, some science and the occasional news item. Occasionally stuff from various blogs that I read from there. (I recently moved some of them from my LJ friends list to the RSS reader.) I have stuff from both sides of the political spectrum, so don't get all weirded out if you see some conservative, libertarian, or liberal.

Electroshock Therapy

This TED talk is about one surgeon's personal experience with electroshock therapy. Please be advise that foul language is used, but it's only like four or five times.

For the record, electroshock therapy is for very severe depression. If you take only ONE thing away from this video, let it be that people can return from the depths of non-function and psychological pain. That they can regain their abilities again.

If you need more proof, I present Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor:

Her progress is better laid out in her book, My Stroke of Insight. Quoting my capstone paper again: "Five years after Dr. Taylor's stroke, she was able to do division and other simple mathematical problems. Two years after that, she was teaching Gross Anatomy again. As of 2006, she was a consulting neuroanatomist at the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute, helping stroke survivors neurologically rehabilitate themselves. (Taylor, 2006)"

Never underestmate a person's ability to recover and function.

Taylor, J. B. (2006). My stroke of insight: a brain scientist's personal journal. New York : Viking.

How We Read Each Other's Minds

I found out that the embed codes from the TED site doesn't work with my Google Reader, so I went back to the YouTube version.

Probably the most "stunning" part of Rebecca Saxe's talk is how moral judgments can be affected by magnetic fields. It decreases the desire to blame for intentional acts and increases the desire to blame in accidental acts. As she tried to explain, it takes a noticable magnetic field to actually do anything. Pay attention to the video excerpt, where she is zapped by the equipment - there is a physical and visual response. Let me repeat - there is a physical and visual response. And the effect is TEMPORARY. Of course, if you are attached to your tinfoil hat, far be it from me to deny you another reason to sport it.

Now the question is - what about those people who already put more blame for accidental acts? Obviously they aren't constantly affected by a magnetic field, so it is possible that some brain circuitry gone haywire. Of course, brain circuitry can often be affected by repetitive thoughts and actions.

Another interesting study shows that when the right hemisphere of the brain is similarly stimulated, there is a gender difference in how that stimulation is perceived. To quote my capstone paper: "The creativity of the left hemisphere is evident in how men and women perceive the over-stimulation of the right hemisphere differently. To men it will feel like an alien presence or a source outside of themselves. To women, who are more sensitive to the stimulation, it will most likely take the form of a physical manifestation (i.e. dizziness, spinning, spatial displacement, etc.) from a source inside them. (Persinger, 2003) It is interesting to note that the left hemisphere will also cause delusions to compensate for right hemisphere damage. (Wood, 2009)"

Persinger believes that this is an example of male egotism. Some may say it explains all religious experiences. However, the question is then - what is causing the stimulation of the right brain in those cases? Some we can account for. Others we can't. So while it may give some people warm fuzzies to learn of this, it still doesn't actually prove or disprove anything theological. There is just not enough research and data. Our physical senses can give us weird stuff that aren't accurate and yet most of what they give us is considered accurate. Many of us have hypnogognic hallucinations and delusions. It is not an indication of our sanity or lack thereof.

The following video from TED is about Charles Bonnett hallucinations:

In the cases of Charles Bonnett and hynagognic hallucinations, we know the stimulus sources. Perhaps one day we will know all sources, until then an analytical critical mind will have to be willing to accept abiguity on the matter and be willing to accept that a difference of opinion doesn't necessitate a judgment of insanity on the other person's part. (Insanity is a legal issue, not a medical issue, anyway.)

Persinger, M. (2003, January). The sensed presence within experimental settings: implications for the male and female concept of self. Journal of Psychology, 137(1), 5. Retrieved December 1, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.

Woods, L. (2009, January). Association between delusions and consistent pattern of brain injury. Medical News Today. Retrieved May 21, 2009, from

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Brain in Love

This video inspired the poem that follows it.

A Geek's Valentine Poem
by A. Doerr

I love you from the core of my lizard brain.
You are the addiction I can't contain.
Your eyes are gravity wells that captured my soul,
With a gentleness that warms me like anthracite coal.
Your brilliance with the magnitude of Sirius A,
Mesmerize me with the thoughts you display,
Expanding the fabric of my universe with the possibilities
Generated within the bounds of our theories.
You are the greatest collaborator a person can find--
So, my heart's desire, please be my Valentine.

Theories of Morality

I'm going to cheat on this TED talk and just give excepts from a class paper I did on moral development after the video.

. . . If finding out the early lives of Kohlberg and Gilligan is hard, finding information about someone as young as Jonathan Haidt is pretty much an exercise in futility. All that can be said for certain about his background is that he is a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Virginia and is currently a Research Fellow at the University of California Santa Barbara until the end of 2008. By all reports, he is an excellent teacher, who believes in positive psychology. (The Leigh Bureau, 2008) However, in an interview for Vox Day, a Christian libertarian opinion columnist (2007), Haidt states that he is an atheist, but one who believes that religion is an adaptation that generally works well in societies.

Well-versed in Kohlberg's and Gilligan's theories, Haidt notes that Kohlberg's cross-cultural research was focused on finding support for Kohlberg's own construct and did not address the local cultures' belief systems. Haidt and Craig Joseph desired to go beyond other moral theorists and search for the psychological systems that create moral codes. So instead of creating a moral theory based on the observation of a relatively homogeneous group of subjects and determining a cognitive development theory, they researched the moral codes and institutions of cultures across the world and through history to find constants. They also researched several moral theories, including Shweder's three ethics, which claims that Kohlberg's and Gilligan's theories only constituted one ethic--the ethic of autonomy--while ignoring the ethics of community and divinity. (Haidt, 2007) While Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory is not a developmental model, it does go beyond the Western Judeo-Christian value system, as well as the ethic of autonomy. The five psychological moral systems proposed by Haidt are listed on the Moral Foundations homepage as the following:

1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."
4) Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundation underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions). (Haidt et al, 2008)

. . .

VI. Discussion

An observation made in the graduate level human development class, attended by the author of this paper, is the fact that hypothetical dilemmas cannot truly predict real life decisions. The lack of time, knowledge and resources may affect what someone might actually do in a situation. It was also pointed out that people will act at different moral stages depending on circumstances or priorities. Viktor Frankl's recollections from his imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps, in his book Man's Search for Meaning, is a perfect example of how people's moral can be changed by their circumstances. When people, due to external circumstances, physical illness or mental distress, are forced to a lower level of Maslow's hierarchies of needs, operating at a lower moral stage is to be expected. By linking morality to cognitive development, neither Kohlberg's and Gilligan's theories properly take into account this fluidity of moral decision making.

Based on Haidt's work, Kohlberg's and Gilligan's theories concentrate mostly on liberal values, setting some key conservative concerns at lower stages. Universities have long been considered bastions of liberalism, so this focus can hardly be a surprise. Unfortunately, as Haidt points out in his presentation at the 2008 TED conference, society cannot survive on liberalism alone. Both liberal and conservative forces are needed to keep a civilization viable. So to discount the conservative values in moral judgments is not only inaccurate, but creates unnecessary tension between different segments of society. While it is true that Haidt does not directly address the fluidity of moral decision making, his work does open the door by breaking down moral values into historic cross-cultural constants, instead using the moral preferences of the researchers. The main weak part of Haidt's research, based on the interviews done for this paper, is the belief that respondents will answer from their personal standards and not what they expect from others. Both Brett and the author of this paper share the belief that other people should not be held to their value system. The difference in their answers was based on the fact that while Brett answered as if judging other people, the author answered judging only herself. Haidt's questionnaire also doesn't take into account if someone considers resisting a particular value or two to be a high priority, as in the case of Elena, who is rebelling against the strict values of her adopted country and its religion-based government.

VI. Conclusion
Kohlberg's stages of morality, while still partially useful for most Westerners, is more accurate for liberal males than any other population. Even though Gilligan's theory mirrors Kohlberg's to some extent, it is difficult to use when there are no ethic of care considerations mentioned. Both theories lack real world moral predictive qualities, though they might give one an idea of a person's cognitive development. The idea that higher cognition leads to greater morality seems implausible when one considers that there are intelligent people with no morals at all, as well as very moral people with impaired cognition. Higher cognition may help make more effective moral choices, but it doesn't make a person more moral. That said, it is easy to see why someone who highly values education, like Kohlberg or Gilligan, would emphasize cognition. Indeed, it can be successfully argued that it is the duty of a moral person to check their facts and reasoning before making a decision. Such behavior falls under being prudent. Yet, as Haidt points out, a major percentage of people act like lawyers--making justifications for their actions after the fact, instead of considering the consequences before doing them. (Haidt, 2007)

Haidt's theory appears to be more predictive of behavior, since it focuses on types of values instead of a cognitive path or two of developing moral values. Possibly because of the biases of his predecessors, Haidt has been more vigilant in challenging his own biases and has worked to understand the "other side". It is not an easy thing to do, but the work of Haidt and of other theorists, such as Shweder, is a good start. Moral psychology and moral development theories still have a long ways to go before they can achieve the reliability of physical developmental models. Despite their shortcomings, however, these theories have provided frameworks on which moral thought can be discussed and studied.


Day, V. (2007). Interview with Jonathan Haidt. Retrieved on October 11, 2008 from

Haidt, J. (2008). The real difference between liberals and conservatives. TED 2008 Conference. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from

Haidt, J., Ditto, P., Graham, J., Iyer, R., Joseph, C., Koleva, S., and Nosek, B. (2008). Moral Foundations Theory homepage. University of Virginia. Retrieved October 11, 2008 from

Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007, March). When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98-116. Retrieved September 28, 2008, doi:10.1007/s11211-007-0034-z

The Leigh Bureau (2008). Jonathan Haidt - bio. Retrieved October 11, 2006 from