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I just wrote up a detailed overview of a book I recently read which rang some loud bells for me throughout. I tried to provide enough info in the overview that you don't actually have to read the book! But it's still totally worth reading if you're interested in the topic, because it's really well-written and contains a lot of fascinating stories in it.


Legit clinical psychs like [livejournal.com profile] vision_serpent probably wouldn't get much from this book, because it's really written for the layperson. But I thought it was very good.
iamom: (Default)
University of Victoria philosophy professor Jeffrey Foss, himself author of a book called Science and the Riddle of Consciousness: A Solution, reviewed this recent book by scientific researcher Michael Gazzaniga in Saturday's Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail. Gazzaniga's book looks at the ancient question of whether or not humans have free will from an interesting angle: namely, by asking who's actually in charge of synthesizing the data in our brains which ultimately result in decisions being made. More specifically, he transforms this question through his profound scientific understanding of the human brain. To begin the discussion, Professor Foss explains: "[The human brain] is at least the surface at which our consciousness (or soul) contacts our body, even if it is not, as Gazzaniga believes, the very engine of our consciousness (though he admits we currently do not understand how consciousness emerges from the brain)."

Gazzaniga examines this question by reviewing the fascinating research that he and others have conducted on split-brain patients whose left and right brain hemispheres can no longer communicate with each other due to a separation (often surgical, employed to treat extreme epilepsy) of the corpus collosum, which is the body that transmits data from one side of the brain to the other.

(Technical sidebar: The Wikipedia article on split-brain provides a useful overview of how the right and left hemispheres of the brain work together, wherein the left hemisphere (typically considered analytic or logical) and the right hemisphere (typically considered holistic or intuitive) each controls and receives sensory inputs from the opposite side of the body. In split-brain patients, there's a sort of cognitive breakdown in the way that objects are perceived or understood by one side of the body when picked up or perceived by the opposite hemisphere of the brain; studying this breakdown has allowed Gazzaniga to develop insights into the way the two hemispheres interact.)

From Jeffrey Foss's review of the book comes these interesting insights:
Gazzaniga (with his teacher, Nobel laureate Roger Sperry) discovered the split in human consciousness that results from splitting the human brain into right and left hemispheres, a split that consciousness itself doesn't even notice. We have accepted our internal divisions long, long ago, and have, over the millennia, used them to explain our capacity for good and for evil. But whereas we can actually feel ourselves being influenced by Mars or Satan or our combative instinct, no amount of soul-searching can reveal to split-brain patients the resulting rent in their very selves.

The explanation for this is quite simple. The left brain, where language processing occurs, is the mechanism of the soul searching itself, and cannot, in split brains, access or report the activity of the right brain and its input into the brain-as-a-whole.

The brain, split or unsplit, has no centre of control, no centre of consciousness, no centre period: no self. Gazzaniga marshals countless scientific studies of the brain that reveal it to be a rag-bag collection of specialized modules for everything from facial recognition and counting through to distinguishing self from other.

It's quite amazing how these modules make us identify the thoughts and actions of our brain as our own, even when the cause is known to be external control of our brain via transcranial magnetic stimulation. It's quite amazing, that is, to think that our sense of self is achieved by some dozens of such modules working in loose formation with one another -- in the absence of any real self at all.

So, as Gazzaniga and the many scientists of his sort see it, they, you and I are but the imaginary focuses created by our nervous systems in order to better serve the evolutionary demand of our trillions of component cells to survive and reproduce.
I'm deeply drawn towards scientific research which reveals what I find to be essential truths about the nature of consciousness and self: namely, that we possess no particular, identifiable self as such, and that the myriad thoughts and insights that we attribute to a seemingly separate entity called "our self" are simply a collection of evolution-serving, neurochemical, electrical and biological processes that are in place solely to continue the species, and not for any particularly meaningful purpose higher than that.

I find these insights to be enormously liberating. It gives me the license to stop worrying about what's happening; to loosen up my expectations over the way I think things should be; and to allow myself to just let go and let things unfold as they will, because "I" have no control to exert over the system. The universe is taking care of itself without any express input from "me," so why don't I just stop worrying about it?

Foss adds a sidebar to his review listing five essential books on the question of free will:
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman (2011)
Freedom and Belief, by Galen Strawson (2010)
Freedom Evolves, by Daniel Dennett (2003)
How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker (1997)
The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, by Matt Ridley (1996)
iamom: (Default)
I observed these terms discussed in a post and related comments by [livejournal.com profile] grammardog. These passages don't resonate with me personally, so much as they remind me of a close friend of ours (not [livejournal.com profile] grammardog) who suffers from depression and from these factors. She has created a lot of suffering in her life due to excessively high expectations of herself and others around her, and she exacerbates this suffering through her apparent lack of insight into it. I believe it's a bona fide mental illness, this. But I doubt it would help to share these passages with her.

I'm interested to know more about this Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy, though. At first blush, it sounds a bit quacky, but after a careful reading, it makes a fair bit of sense to me. The treatment tenet of learning to accept things as they are is profound, and in a nutshell, would really resolve most human suffering of a psychological nature in one blow, I think. And what about this statement: ideas and feelings about self-worth are largely definitional and are not empirically confirmable or falsifiable. Like, wow! Imagine if we all really believed that one!

Learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which a human being or an animal has learned to believe that it is helpless in a particular situation. It has come to believe that it has no control over its situation and that whatever it does is futile. As a result, the human being or the animal will stay passive in the face of an unpleasant, harmful or damaging situation, even when it does actually have the power to change its circumstances. Learned helplessness theory is the view that depression results from a perceived lack of control over the events in one's life, which may result from prior exposure to (actually or apparently) uncontrollable negative events.

Learned helplessness is a well-established principle in psychology. It can be observed in the effect of inescapable punishment (such as electrical shock) on animal (and human) behaviour. Learned helplessness may also occur outside the laboratory, in everyday situations or environments in which people perceive (rightly or wrongly) that they have no control over what happens to them. Such environments may include repeated failures, dysfunctional childrearing, repeated mental, emotional and/or physical abuse, prison, school, war, disability, famine, and drought. A similar example is that of those concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust who refused to care or fend for themselves (so-called Muselmänner). Present-day examples can be found in schools, mental institutions, orphanages, or long-term care facilities where the patients have failed or been stripped of agency for long enough to cause their feelings of inadequacy to persist.

Not all people become depressed as a result of being in a situation where they appear not to have control. In what learned-helplessness pioneer Martin Seligman called "explanatory style ," people in a state of learned helplessness view problems as personal, pervasive, or permanent. That is,

* Personal - They may see themselves as the problem; that is, they have internalized the problem.
* Pervasive - They may see the problem as affecting all aspects of life.
* Permanent - They may see the problem as unchangeable.


Explanatory style is a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative. Psychologists have identified three components in explanatory style:

* Personal. People experiencing events may see themselves as the cause; that is, they have internalized the cause for the event. Example: "I always forget to make that turn" (internal) as opposed to "That turn can sure sneak up on you" (external).
* Permanent. People may see the situation as unchangeable, e.g., "I always lose my keys" or "I never forget a face".
* Pervasive. People may see the situation as affecting all aspects of life, e.g., "I can't do anything right" or "Everything I touch seems to turn to gold".


One of the main pillars of REBT is that irrational patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving are the cause of much, though hardly all, human disturbance. REBT teaches that when people turn flexible preferences, desires and wishes into grandiose absolutistic jehovian demands and commands, they disturb and upset themselves. Albert Ellis has suggested three core beliefs that humans disturb themselves through (Ellis, 2001):

* "I absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, perform well (or outstandingly well) and win the approval (or complete love) of significant others. If I fail in these important—and sacred—respects, that is awful and I am a bad, incompetent, unworthy person, who will probably always fail and deserves to suffer." This belief usually contributes to feelings of anxiety, panic, depression, despair, and worthlessness.

* "Other people with whom I relate or associate, absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, treat me nicely, considerately and fairly. Otherwise, it is terrible and they are rotten, bad, unworthy people who will always treat me badly and do not deserve a good life and should be severely punished for acting so abominably to me." This belief usually contributes to feelings of anger, rage, fury, and vindictiveness and lead to actions like fights, feuds, wars, genocide, and perhaps ultimately an atomic holocaust.

* "The conditions under which I live absolutely MUST, at practically all times, be favorable, safe, hassle-free, and quickly and easily enjoyable, and if they are not that way it's awful and horrible and I can't bear it. I can't ever enjoy myself at all. My life is impossible and hardly worth living." This beliefs usually contributes to frustration and discomfort, intolerance, self-pity, anger, depression, and to behaviors such as procrastination, avoidance, and inaction.

REBT teaches that:

* Unconditional self-acceptance, other-acceptance, life-acceptance are of prime importance in achieving mental wellness.
* People and the world are inherently fallible and people had better accept themselves, life's hassles, and unfairness and others "as is".
* People had better consider themselves valuable simply because they are alive and kicking, and are better off not measuring their entire self or their "being," or giving themselves any global rating, because all people are continually evolving and are therefore far too complex to rate, and all humans do both good and bad deeds and have both good and bad attributes and traits. REBT holds that ideas and feelings about self-worth are largely definitional and are not empirically confirmable or falsifiable (Ellis, 2003).
iamom: (nisargadatta in shades)
I found this article through Digg, concerned with British psychologist Susan Blackmore's lifelong habits of taking cannabis and other illegal drugs for creative inspiration. Boy, can I ever empathize with her on those points.

Her take on Zen is probably worth checking out some more, too. She's devoted most of her studies to the nature of consciousness.


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Dustin LindenSmith

January 2013

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