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Screen society vs. our capacity for humanity

Here’s reason number ten thousand and one for why you really ought to shut down your browser/tablet/smartphone and reenter the existential immediacy of your actual surrounding environment with its network of in-person social relationships just as soon as you finish reading this and then clicking through to read the full, brief article from which it’s excerpted:

Most of us are well aware of the convenience that instant electronic access provides. Less has been said about the costs. Research that my colleagues and I have just completed, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, suggests that one measurable toll may be on our biological capacity to connect with other people.

. . . Your brain is tied to your heart by your vagus nerve. . . [In addition to the fact that the relative strength of this brain-heart connection is related to overall physical health], the behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges has shown that vagal tone is central to things like facial expressivity and the ability to tune in to the frequency of the human voice. By increasing people’s vagal tone, we increase their capacity for connection, friendship and empathy. In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa. This mutual influence also explains how a lack of positive social contact diminishes people. Your heart’s capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of “use it or lose it.” If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.

. . . When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health. If you don’t regularly exercise this capacity, it withers. Lucky for us, connecting with others does good and feels good, and opportunities to do so abound.

So the next time you see a friend, or a child, spending too much of their day facing a screen, extend a hand and invite him back to the world of real social encounters. You’ll not only build up his health and empathic skills, but yours as well. Friends don’t let friends lose their capacity for humanity.

More at The New York Times: “Your Phone vs. Your Heart

Is the “brain as computer” metaphor dying?


Yesterday, published a long and depth-filled conversation with Daniel C. Dennett — he of Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea fame — and it shows the renowned philosopher of mind and consciousness saying some things about the now-ubiquitous model and metaphor of the brain as a kind of computing machine that casts a whole new and, as it so happens, doubtful light on the matter:

The vision of the brain as a computer, which I still champion, is changing so fast. The brain’s a computer, but it’s so different from any computer that you’re used to. It’s not like your desktop or your laptop at all, and it’s not like your iPhone except in some ways. It’s a much more interesting phenomenon … We’re getting away from the rigidity of that model, which was worth trying for all it was worth. You go for the low-hanging fruit first. First, you try to make minds as simple as possible. You make them as much like digital computers, as much like von Neumann machines, as possible. It doesn’t work.

— “The Normal Well-Tempered Mind: A Conversation with Daniel C. Dennett,” Edge, January 8, 2013

This is embedded in a much longer series of reflections and analyses on the current state of research into mind, brain, and consciousness, but Nicholas Carr — he of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains fame — culls out the above-quoted portions and holds them up for closer inspection at his blog, and what he finds is that the unspoken subtext shows the entire edifice of the brain-as-computer metaphor crumbling (or, as he puts it, melting):

As someone who has a deep distrust of the popular metaphor that portrays the brain as a computer, I was struck by [Dennett’s words] … Normally, the explanatory power of a metaphor comes from describing a thing we don’t understand in terms of a thing we do understand. But this brain-as-computer metaphor now seems to be diverging from that model. The computer in the metaphor seems to be something very different from what we mean when we talk about a “computer.” The part of the metaphor that is supposed to be concrete has turned into a mystery fluid.

— Nicholas Carr, “Do I smell a metaphor melting?” Rough Type, January 8, 2013

Carr envisions a brief and semi-satirical dialogue that brings out the point:

The brain is like a computer!

Cool. What kind of computer is the brain like?

It’s not actually like any computer that’s ever been invented.

So what kind of computer is it like?

It’s like the unique form of a computer that we call a brain.

So the brain is like a brain?

Yes, exactly.

It sounds like it’s time for a new metaphor.

He closes by point out, evocatively, that “Our understanding of complex, mysterious things always proceeds from metaphor to metaphor. The moment a metaphor changes is an exciting moment because it opens new perspectives that the old metaphor foreclosed” (emphasis added).

The takeaway would seem to be a combined message of “stay tuned” and “brace yourself,” since the death or substantial mutation or revision of the metaphor in question would constitute an epochal shift in the way we’ve all been conditioned to think about our minds and selves on a very deep, very unconscious, very reflexive level for a couple of generations. And if a culture-wide opening of those “new perspectives that the old metaphor foreclosed” should happen to link up with the resurgent consciousness revolution currently taking place in the realms of religion, spirituality, parapsychology, art, music, literature, and psychedelics research, then watch out.

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /

Recommended Reading 26

This week’s recommendations include: a thoroughly disturbing expose — written by a medical doctor — of the unsafe conditions in America’s hospitals that frequently lead to permanent injury, destruction of health, or even death; an examination of the possibly shaky foundations of medical science; a review essay on “the oldest self-help book,” a 19th-century grimoire that offered mainstream magical and quasi-magical advice to generations of Westerners about everything from cooking to health to life direction; a cogent calling-out of the hijacking of public discourse by ubiquitous chatter about money and finance; a criticism of the unconsidered claim that telepathy and other parapsychological phenomena stand in a position of inherent conflict with “real science”; and a thorough trashing of “popular neurobollocks,” that is, the new and trendy spate of books promising better living and an end to human problems via a faux “neural” explanation of absolutely everything.

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Western civilization and the divided brain

In his 2009 book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,  psychiatrist, doctor, writer, and former Oxford literary scholar Iain McGilchrist mounts a fascinating argument for the idea “that the division of the brain into two hemispheres is essential to human existence, making possible incompatible versions of the world, with quite different priorities and values.” The first part of the book examines the structure and function of the brain to elicit the differences between the left and right hemispheres, and to show them “as no mere machines with functions, but underwriting whole, self-consistent, versions of the world.” The second part examines the record of Western philosophy, art, and literature to reveal “the uneasy relationship of the hemispheres being played out in the history of ideas, from ancient times until the present. It ends by suggesting that we may be about to witness the final triumph of the left hemisphere — at the expense of us all.”

In more detail, here’s McGilchrist explaining his basic idea in an excellent 2010 interview for The Morning News:
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Recommended Reading 22

This week’s recommended reading includes: a report on the real-world rise of nightmarish SF-type threats from widely deployed nanobots; a satirical exposure of the essence of bipolar political demonization; a story from National Geographic on the way ancient Rome’s obsession with borders and wall-building was directly implicated in the empire’s fall; information about a new book exploring advertising’s insidious impact on our unconscious selves; a rather riveting examination of Alcoholics Anonymous and its still-unexplained effectiveness at treating addictions; and some sage words from Dr. Rupert Sheldrake about the dogmas that currently have a semi-stranglehold on science.

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Recommended Reading 17


This week’s recommendations encompass the spiritual past and future of money and capitalism; the use of neuroscience by tech companies to profit from Internet addiction; the future of books, libraries, and old movies in an age of digital instant gratification and a perpetually shrinking historical awareness; the deep appeal of fairy tales; thoughts on a new future for the debate over paranormal abilities; a riveting first-person account of what it’s like to live with cosmically horrifying panic attacks, and of the way these impact a person’s worldview; and a nice compilation of speech excerpts from Robert Anton Wilson about the nature of reality.

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Neuroscientific support for the value of introspection

The stream of information and recommendations flowing out of the neuroscience field regarding the real value of reflection and daydreaming, as contrasted with our mainstream culture’s relentless emphasis on focus and productivity, recalls Theodore Roszak’s words in Where the Wasteland Ends about the fatuousness of modern science when it frequently announces “revolutionary” “new findings” about human realities that our ancestors held as a baseline of mere common sense. But that doesn’t make it any less pleasant to see. Pair this trend with, for example, the creeping new calls for abandoning the high-productivity economy, recognizing the exhaustion of the economic growth paradigm, and embracing creatively deployed leisure as the apex of human civilization, and we have the recipe for some very wholesome developments indeed. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 7

This week’s collection of recommended articles, essays, blog posts, and (as always) an interesting video or two, covers economic collapse and cultural dystopia; the question of monetary vs. human values; the ubiquity of disinformation in America and the accompanying need for true education of the deeply humanizing sort; the ongoing debate over climate change and its apocalyptic implications (including the apocalyptic implications of one possible means of dealing with it); the possibility of an Armageddon-level solar storm; the ongoing attempt to use the Internet for mass mental and social control, along with advice about protecting your privacy online; the clash between, on the one hand, neurological reductionism and scientism, and, on the other, more expansive ways of understanding science, consciousness, human life, and the universe; the rise of a generation of parentally-dominated college students in America (and its implications for art, psychology, and culture); religious controversies, both current and historical; the practice of eating corpses for medicine; the prospects for artistic achievement in the 21st century; the question of Lovecraft’s paranormal beliefs; Stanley Krippner’s career as a parapsychological researcher respected by both skeptics and believers alike; and a capsule summary of current UFO evidence.

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Recommend Reading 5

This week’s recommended reading includes articles and essays about: collapse and global crisis; the manipulation of economics and politics by wealthy elites; the mysteries of consciousness; current hot-button topics in religion and spirituality; fruitful ways of regarding paranormal phenomena; and the value of working consciously to live a real human life in the midst of our current culture of frenetic speed and digital interconnectedness. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 3

Topics this week include imperial and economic collapse, the true value of a college education, our troubled shift from physical to digital media, the nature of consciousness, a mysterious marine mammal die-off, the nature and quirks of the human religious instinct, and a new UFO documentary.

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