The Best of the Brain

photograph by Jeremy Enecio


The five biggest neuroscience developments of the year.

The human brain has spent its evolutionary history learning about everything else in the world. Since last summer, it has learned quite a bit about itself. It has discovered lots of things about female sexuality, incest, psychopaths, IQ, brain death, addiction, compulsive buying, and how to remotely control animals through cranial implants. But five major trends and breakthroughs stand out.

1. The arrival of mind reading. Scientists in Germany used pattern recognition software to predict, from functional magnetic resonance imaging of people’s brains, whether each person had secretly decided to add or subtract two numbers he was looking at. The computer correctly predicted the decision 71 percent of the time. The advertised application of this technology is computers that can discern and execute your will when you want them to—for example, if you’re paralyzed or don’t want to use a mouse. The feared application is mental surveillance.

2. The neural alteration of morality. Six people with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were presented with moral dilemmas (e.g., would you smother a baby to prevent bad guys from finding and killing people in hiding) and were found to be two to three times more willing to kill than people without brain damage. The advertised conclusion is that such willingness to kill is objectively immoral. The feared conclusion is that if brain design determines what’s moral, you can change morality by changing the brain—and once technology manipulates ethics, ethics can no longer judge technology.

3. The medicalization of sexual orientation. U.S. experiments confirmed that 7 percent to 10 percent of rams are gay. Research suggests brain biology is involved. The advertised application is identification of gay or asexual rams, “thus eliminating their use for general breeding purposes.” The feared application is identification of gay male fetuses, leading parents to abort them or alter their orientation through hormone treatment in the womb. Some conservative Christian leaders have already endorsed this idea.

4. The discovery of vegetative consciousness. For five months after her car crash, an English patient displayed “no reproducible evidence of purposeful behavior” and was declared vegetative. Then she was asked, during an fMRI scan, to imagine playing tennis and walking through her home. The scan lit up with patterns that in healthy brains signify language, movement, and navigation. A follow-up report cited anecdotal cases in which Ambien woke brain-damaged people from prolonged unresponsiveness. The happy implication is that some people we thought were finished may be salvageable. The horrifying corollary is that until we find these people, they’re buried alive in their skulls.

5. The progress of artificial intelligence. Computers completed their rout of humans at chess, as a $137 computer program beat the world chess champ in a six-game match, giving computers a 2-0-2 record (two wins, two ties) against human champs in their last four matches. Computers also improved their ability to adapt and modify themselves, as a robot demonstrated that it could recognize an injury to itself, infer how its limbs worked, and adjust its method of locomotion. However, DARPA scrapped a program to reverse-engineer the brain, leaving scientists to wonder whether the project had lost out to other priorities or had simply failed.


Proof We Can See Into The Future?


 from: Daily Mail
Last updated at 23:17pm on 4th May 2007

Do some of us avoid tragedy by foreseeing it? Some scientists now believe that the brain really can predict events before they happen

Professor Dick Bierman sits hunched over his computer in a darkened room. The gentle whirring of machinery can be heard faintly in the background.

He smiles and presses a grubby-looking red button.

In the next room, a patient slips slowly inside a hospital brain scanner. If it wasn’t for the strange smiles and grimaces that flicker across the woman’s face, you could be forgiven for thinking this was just a normal health check.

But this scanner is engaged in one of the most profound paranormal experiments of all time, one that may well prove whether or not it is possible to predict the future.

For the results – released exclusively to the Daily Mail – suggest that ordinary people really do have a sixth sense that can help them ‘see’ the future.

Such amazing studies – if verified – might help explain the predictive powers of mediums and a range of other psychic phenomena such Extra Sensory Perception, deja vu and clairvoyance. On a more mundane level, it may account for ‘gut feelings’ and instinct.

The man behind the experiments is certainly convinced. “We’re satisfied that people can sense the future before it happens,” says Professor Bierman, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam.

“We’d now like to move on and see what kind of person is particularly good at it.”

And Bierman is not alone: his findings mirror the data gathered by other scientists and paranormal researchers both here and abroad.

Professor Brian Josephson, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Cambridge University, says: “So far, the evidence seems compelling. What seems to be happening is that information is coming from the future.

“In fact, it’s not clear in physics why you can’t see the future. In physics, you certainly cannot completely rule out this effect.”

Virtually all the great scientific formulae which explain how the world works allow information to flow backwards and forwards through time – they can work either way, regardless.

Shortly after 9/11, strange stories began circulating about the lucky few who had escaped the outrage.

It transpired that many of the survivors had changed their plans at the last minute after vague feelings of unease.

It was a subtle, gnawing feeling that ‘something’ was not right. Nobody vocalised it but shortly before the attacks, people started altering their plans out of an unspoken instinct.

One woman suffered crippling stomach pain while queuing for one of the ill-fated planes which flew into the World Trade Center.

She made her way to the lavatory only to recover spontaneously. She missed her flight but survived the day. Amid the collective outpouring of grief and horror it was easy to overlook such stories or write them off as coincidences.

But in fact, these kind of stories point to an interesting and deeper truth for those willing to look.

If, for example, fewer people decided to fly on aircraft that subsequently crashed, then that would suggest a subconscious ability to divine the future. Well, strange as it seems, that’s just what happens.

The aircraft which flew into the Twin Towers on 9/11 were unusually empty. All the hijacked planes were carrying only half the usual number of passengers. Perhaps one unusually empty plane could be explained away, but all four?

And it wasn’t just on 9/11 that people subconsciously seemed to avoid disaster. The scientist Ed Cox found that trains ‘destined’ to crash carried far fewer people than they did normally.

Dr Jessica Utts, a statistician at the University of California, found exactly the same bizarre effect.

If it was possible to divine the future, you might expect those at the sharp end, such as pilots, to have the most finely tuned instincts of all. And again, that’s just what you see.

When the Air France Concorde crashed in 2000, it wasn’t long before the colleagues of those killed in the crash spoke about a sense of foreboding that had gripped the crew and flight engineers before the accident.

Speaking anonymously to the French newspaper Le Parisien, one spoke of a ‘morbid expectation of an accident’.

“I had this sense that we were going to bump into the scenery,” he said.

“The atmosphere on the Concorde team for the last few months, if one has the guts to admit it, had been one of morbid expectation of an accident. It was as if I was waiting for something to happen.”

All of these stories suggest that we can pick up premonitions of events that are yet to be.

Although these premonitions are not in glorious Technicolor, they are often emotionally powerful enough for us to act upon them.

In technical parlance it is known as ‘presentiment’ because emotional feelings are being received from the future, not hard facts or information.

The military has long been fascinated by such phenomena. For many years the US military (and latterly the CIA) funded a secretive programme known as Stargate, which set out to investigate premonitions and the ability of mediums to predict the future.

Dr Dean Radin worked on the Stargate programme and became fascinated by the ability of ‘lucky’ soldiers to forecast the future.

These are the ones who survived battles against seemingly impossible odds. Radin became convinced that thoughts and feelings – and occasionally-actual glimpses of the future – could flow backwards in time to guide soldiers.

It helped them make life-saving decisions, often on the basis of a hunch.

He devised an experiment to test these ideas. He hooked up volunteers to a modified lie detector, which measured an electrical current across the surface of the skin.

This current changes when a person reacts to an event such as seeing an extremely violent picture or video. It’s the electrical equivalent of a wince.

Radin showed sexually explicit, violent or soothing images to volunteers in a random sequence determined by computer.

And he soon discovered that people began reacting to the pictures before they saw them. It was unmistakable. They began to ‘wince’ a few seconds before they actually saw the image.

And it happened time and time again, way beyond what chance alone would allow.

So impressive were Radin’s results that Dr Kary Mullis, a Nobel Prizewinning chemist, took an interest. He was hooked up to Radin’s machine and shown the emotionally charged images.

“It’s spooky,” he says “I could see about three seconds into the future. You shouldn’t be able to do that.”

Other researchers from around the world, from Edinburgh University to Cornell in the US, rushed to duplicate Radin’s experiment and improve on it. And they got similar results.

It was soon discovered that gamblers began reacting subconsciously shortly before they won or lost. The same effect was seen in those terrified of animals, moments before they were shown the creatures.

The odds against all of these trials being wrong are literally millions to one against.

Professor Dick Bierman decided to take this work even further. He is a psychologist who has become convinced that time as we understand it is an illusion. He could see no reason why people could not see into the future just as easily as we dip into memories of our past.

He’s in good company. Einstein described the distinction between the past, present and future as ‘a stubbornly persistent illusion’.

To prove Einstein’s point, Bierman looked inside the brains of volunteers using a hospital MRI scanner while he repeated Dr Radin’s experiments.

These scanners show which parts of the brain are active when we do certain tasks or experience specific emotions.

Although extremely complex, and with each analysis taking weeks of computing time, he has run the experiments twice involving more than 20 volunteers.

And the results suggest quite clearly that seemingly ordinary people are capable of sensing the future on a fairly consistent basis. Bierman emphasises that people are receiving feelings from the future rather than specific ‘visions’.

It’s clear, though, that if ordinary people can receive feelings from the future then perhaps the especially gifted may receive visions of things yet to be.

It’s also clear that many paranormal phenomena such as ESP and clairvoyance could have their roots in presentiment.

After all, if you can see a few seconds into the future, why not a few days or even years? And surely if you could look through time, why not across great distances?It’s a concept that ties the mind in knots, unless you’re a physicist.

“I believe that we can ‘sense’ the future,” says the Nobel Prizewinning physicist Brian Josephson.

“We just haven’t yet established the mechanism allowing it to happen.

“People have had so called ‘paranormal’ or ‘transcendental’ experiences along these lines. Bierman’s work is another piece of the jigsaw. The fact that we don’t understand something does not mean that it doesn’t happen.’

If we are all regularly sensing the future or occasionally receiving glimpses of it, as some mediums claim to do, then doesn’t that mean we can change the future and render the ‘prediction’ obsolete?

Or perhaps we were meant to receive the premonition and act upon it? Such paradoxes could go on for ever, providing a rich seam of material for films such as Minority Report – based on a short story of the same name – in which a special police department is able to foresee and prevent crimes before they have even taken place.

Could such science fiction have a grain of truth in it after all? The emerging view, Bierman explains, is that ‘the future has implications for the past’.

“This phenomena allows you to make a decision on the basis of what will happen in the future. Does that restrain our free will? That’s up to the philosophers. I’m far too shallow a person to worry about that.”

The problem with presentiment is that it appears so nebulous that you can’t rely on it to make reliable decisions. That may be the case, but there are plenty of instances where people wished they had listened to their premonitions or feelings of presentiment.

One of the saddest involves the Aberfan disaster. This occurred in 1966 when a coal tip collapsed and swept through a Welsh school killing 144 people, including 116 children. It turned out that 24 people had received premonitions of the tragedy.

One involved a little girl who was killed. She told her mother shortly before she was taken to school: “I dreamed I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it.”

So should we listen to our instincts, hunches and dreams? Some experts believe we may already be using them in our everyday lives to a surprising degree.

Dr Jessica Utts at the University of California, who has worked for the US military and CIA as an independent auditor of its paranormal research, believes we are constantly sampling the future and using the knowledge to help us make better decisions.

“I think we’re doing it all the time,” she says. “We’ve looked at the data and it does seem to happen.”

So perhaps the Queen in Through The Looking Glass was right: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”

Do You Need A Guru?


Find the right teacher, and your spiritual growth can be greatly enhanced. But how do you go about it—and are you ready for such a relationship?

by Lorie Parch
copyright: Gale Group

You’ve heard about “the path.” It’s the one we use to navigate through life’s distracting struggles, the road we take toward enlightenment (whatever that means to us). We understand that the path is unique to each of us and that we are able to use a variety of means–reading, meditation, community service, prayer, retreats–to make our way along it. Yet at some point, we may wonder whether it’s time to find a seasoned guide, and to develop a one-on-one relationship with someone who can help expedite our progress.

“Many people ask about finding a teacher,” says Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., and author of Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. So how do we find someone to spur us on to greater self-awareness, happiness and peace? Is it as simple as the old adage: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”? If so, how do we tell if we’re ready for a kind of relationship that few of us have ever known?

Because the path is individual, there are, necessarily, no rules. But these guidelines will help you understand the process and maybe even identify the teacher who’s right for you.

Evaluate yourself honestly. Make a truthful assessment of what you want from a mentor, and what you expect. Most traditions of faith offer four different ways to connect with the meaningful: spiritual study, contemplation, devotion or service. Consider which of these four most appeals to you, and find a teacher who emphasizes your chosen path.

Be realistic, too, about the commitment you’re willing to make to this part of your life. “Ask yourself what such a relationship will require of you,” says Sylvia Boorstein, author of Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake, and a co-founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, Calif.

According to Boorstein, Westerners often feel uncomfortable in the formal student-teacher relationship common to many traditions of spiritual learning. It may be that a simpler, less formal relationship with a teacher makes more sense for you, or that you can find significant inspiration from fellow travelers–your spiritual buddies–along the path.

“It’s always valuable to have mentors and companions on the spiritual trip,” says Boorstein.

Socialize purposefully. Spending time with others who are also on a spiritual journey–whether attending discussion groups, joining an organized religion, or going on a weekend retreat–can help you find like-minded friends and, in turn, suggestions for good teachers. “The Buddha said to surround yourself with the people who want to talk about the things you do,” says Boorstein. “It’s such a comfort to be with people who are cultivating a sweet heart; they lift you up.”

Seek wisely. There’s no shortage of false mentors out there, those who profess to offer the road to enlightenment or happiness but in truth are motivated by money or power. So caution is needed.

The best way to avoid charlatans, says Mariana Caplan, Ph.D., author of Do You Need a Guru? Understanding the Student-Teacher Relationship in an Era of False Prophets, is to take a slow and studied approach. Caplan suggests asking people you admire for their recommendations, then doing the legwork. “When you visit teachers, pay attention to how you feel when you’re there, and observe students who are close to them,” she says.

In her own search, she asked prospective teachers all the questions she wanted to ask and articulated every doubt she had. “You wouldn’t want to throw your mind and soul into just anybody’s hands,” she says. “An authentic guru leads a life of sacrifice to his or her students.”

The last sentiment is echoed by Salzberg. “The best student-teacher relationship is founded on the teacher being there to serve the student,” she says. “It’s not about the glorification of the teacher.”

Look around you. While Americans have great interest in Eastern religions, especially Buddhism and Hinduism, we shouldn’t dismiss Western practices in the bargain, says Tony Hendra, author of the best-selling Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul. “It’s extremely important that the occidental monastic tradition is seen as just as universal and just as rich as the Eastern tradition,” says Hendra, whose book chronicles his 4u-year relationship with a Benedictine monk. “We shouldn’t write off our traditions of monastic guidance and wisdom simply because they’re ours”

Indeed, a recent return to mystical traditions in Christianity, Judaism and Islam is one of the most hopeful changes seen in years, says Andrew Harvey, co-founder of the Global Center for Interfaith Scholarship and Respect at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. According to Harvey, who grew up in India and was educated at Oxford, the teacher who had the most profound effect on his own spiritual life was Father Bede Griffiths, a Catholic monk who exuded peace, love, tenderness and acceptance. “He never told me to do anything; he was never authoritarian or directive” recalls Harvey. “He just lived a life that was simple and holy. He had the greatest respect and love for all his pupils; he treated us as a father would his children and wanted us to become our true selves. I’m convinced that this is the real form of teaching because it completely honors and respects the person.”

Trust yourself. Perhaps the most powerful gift you can receive from an ongoing relationship with a spiritual mentor is a measure of encouragement to instill the confidence that you are good, loving and lovable, capable, and making progress (however slow)–as long as it’s accompanied by the occasional nudge to help you achieve more or simply to be kinder to yourself. “A lot of strength comes from a teacher who looks at you and says, ‘You can do it, you can solve your problems,'” says Salzberg.

No matter what name it goes by–guru, teacher, mentor, friend, spiritual buddy–what really matters, it seems, is having someone with you as you travel along the path.

Inquire within.

Self-knowledge is the foundation upon which a useful student-teacher relationship rests, and the beginning to the insights that spawn such a relationship. Before you set off to find a guide, take time to meditate on it.

“My belief is that if you do a meditation practice with sincere motivation, it will show you what you need to know; it will show you the places you’re holding back and where you’re distorting things,” says Sharon Salzberg of the Insight Meditation Society.

Andrew Harvey, co-founder of the Global Center for Interfaith Scholarship and Respect, agrees: “Meditation uncovers the deep union between your inner spirit and the great spirit; you discover your motivations.”

Be true to yourself.

As a student of Buddhism many years ago, Sylvia Boorstein recounts that she was particularly struck by the Buddha’s sermon to the people of Kalama in which he said: Don’t listen to me; don’t listen to anybody; don’t listen to someone who says they’re the authority. You do this by yourself, and if it works for you, good. If not, don’t do it.

“That was a tremendously empowering teaching for me,” says Boorstein, who is an observant Jew. “I didn’t have to worry about giving up my own authority, my own discernment, and I didn’t have to worry about my heart’s commitment to another religious lineage.”

Ecological Lessons in Survival

photograph: Xaquin Rosales

by Jared Diamond

Societies normally endure minor rises and falls of fortune, even conquest by a neighbor, without undergoing a drastic change in total population or social complexity. But some societies have truly collapsed: their populations crashed and their complex social and economic organizations broke apart. Might such a fate befall our own society? Will tourists someday stare mystified at the rusting hulks of New York City’s skyscrapers, much as we stare today at the overgrown ruins of Mayan cities?

Many collapses of the past appear to have been triggered, at least in part, by ecological problems: people inadvertently destroyed their environmental resources. But societies are not doomed to collapse because of environmental damage. Some societies have coped with their problems, whereas others have not. But I know of no case in which a society’s collapse can be attributed simply to environmental damage; there are always complicating factors. Among them are climate change, the role of neighbors (who can be friendly or hostile), and, most important, the ways people respond to their environmental problems.

In some respects we face greater risks than past societies did. Our technology (and its unintended destructive effects) is potent; our economy is global (so that now a collapse even in Somalia affects the United States and Europe); millions (and, soon, billions) of us depend on modern medicine for survival; and our population is much larger. No place is truly immune from environmental damage. And for the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline. Yet some of the same new conditions–technology, globalization, modern medicine–can help us find solutions to our problems.

Because we are the cause of most of our own environmental problems, we can choose to solve them. And we enjoy an unprecedented opportunity to learn quickly from developments everywhere in the world today, and from what has unfolded in times past.

Maya: A Classic Case

No ancient civilization is more commonly associated with the word “collapse” than that of the Maya of Central America. In the ninth century A.D., the Mayan population fell from at least 5 million people to a tenth that size or less. At about the same time, in some of the most vibrant centers of Mayan settlement, there’s a sudden dearth of inscriptions featuring the names of kings or dates expressed in the “Long Count” calendar, signaling the disintegration of complex political and cultural institutions. Many cities were entirely abandoned and fell into ruin; then, overgrown with trees, they remained virtually unknown to the outside world for a thousand years.

Throughout the so-called Classic period of Mayan civilization, from about A.D. 250 to 900, Mayan society remained politically divided into small kingdoms. Typifying the Mayan collapse was a kingdom whose ruins now lie in western Honduras, at a site known as Copan. The best agricultural land in the kingdom, the fertile alluvial soil of a river valley, covered only ten square miles. Beginning in the fifth century A.D., the population of the valley rose rapidly, and by A.D. 650 people had begun to occupy and farm the surrounding hillsides. Archaeological evidence indicates that the hillsides were initially forested and less fertile than the river valley. But soon the forests were cut down, mostly for fuel, leaving the steep slopes open to soil erosion and probably also to the leaching of nutrients. Cultivation of the hillsides apparently proved worthwhile for only about a century. Erosion also carried the poorer soils from the slopes down into the valley, compromising the better agricultural zones. Furthermore, because forests play a major role in water recycling, the massive deforestation may have also contributed to drought.

At its height, in the ninth century A.D., Copan’s population reached about 27,000; the last big buildings were erected around 800. The subsequent decline in population was not instantaneous–as late as A.D. 950 it was still about 15,000–but it was steadily dwindling. By about 1250 the valley was deserted.

Five strands, or major factors, contributing to the downfall of Copan can be tentatively identified. The strand was simply that population growth was outstripping the available resources. The second strand, already mentioned, compounding that mismatch, was the array of negative effects that were brought on by deforestation and hillside erosion.

The third strand was increased warfare, as neighboring kingdoms fought over their diminishing resources. Bringing matters to a head was a fourth strand: climate change. The worst drought to strike the region in 7,000 years began about A.D. 760 and peaked about 800. By then there were no unoccupied favorable lands to which people could move to save themselves. The ensuing declince in the Mayan population must have come about partly from starvation and warfare, as well as from a fall in the birthrate and in the survival rate of children.

The fifth strand was a failure of the Mayan kings and nobles to address problems within their control. The attention of the leaders was evidently focused on enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with each other, and extracting enough food and other resources from the peasants to support those activities. Like most leaders throughout human history, the Mayan kings and nobles did not heed long-term problems, if they noticed them at all.

Paths to Success

Failures offer many lessons, but so do successes. Many societies have survived in difficult environments for thousands of years. Their stories suggest two contrasting approaches to solving environmental problems: bottom-up and top-down. Three examples of societies that successfully addressed environmental issues by adopting one of those two approaches are highland New Guinea, Tikopia Island in the south Pacific, and pre-modern Japan.

In general, small societies–such as a society occupying a small island–can adopt a bottom-up approach. All the inhabitants are familiar with the entire territory, all are keenly aware that they are affected by developments everywhere else, and all share a sense of common identity and common interests. Even the citizens of large, industrialized societies can often find bottom-up resource management effective within the neighborhoods where they live or work.

In a large, centrally organized society, such as one that embraces an entire archipelago, the general population may not be familiar with what is going on throughout the territory. A central ruler, however, may effectively exercise the necessary resource management. A king who wishes merely to see his descendants enjoy his domain in perpetuity has good reason to be aware of the need to limit environmental damage. He may order his subjects to manage resources in ways that favor himself and his heirs–but in the long run, those practices may be good for his subjects as well. Of course, such a top-down approach is also familiar to those of us who live in modern, developed countries (for “king,” read “government”).

One outstanding example of the bottom-up approach developed in New Guinea. Because New Guinea’s steep, mountainous interior is so rugged, Europeans who explored the island beginning in the sixteenth century were confined to its coast and lowland rivers. They assumed the interior was entirely forested and uninhabited.

It therefore came as a shock when the first over-flights, in the 1930s, revealed a landscape transformed by millions of farmers previously unknown to the outside world. New Guinea now appears to have been one of the limited number of independent centers of plant domestication in the world. Agriculture has been going on there for 7,000 years.

Over that time, through trial and error, New Guineans worked out a whole suite of techniques to maintain soil fertility, including crop rotation. They observed the consequences of deforestation and, in response, developed the practice of planting and cultivating trees for food and for timber. The population size was kept in check through warfare, contraception, abortion, and other practices.

Another example of bottom-up control comes from the Tikopia Islanders, who inhabit an isolated tropical island in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Only 1.8 square miles in area, the island is home to about 1,200 people. Tikopians, too, have regulated their numbers through a variety of practices–explicitly to prevent the island from becoming over-populated and to prevent a family from having more children than the family’s land could support. In addition, they have been adjusting their use of resources from the time of the island’s first settlement, nearly 3,000 years ago. Most dramatically, they made the momentous decision, about A.D. 1600, to kill off all the pigs on the island. Even though the pigs had become a luxury food for the chiefs, the animals raided and rooted up gardens and competed with humans for food.

A good example of successful top-down resource management is Japan during the Tokugawa period (1603-1867). In 1657 a fire ravaged the capital city, Edo. The demand for timber to rebuild the city served as a wake-up call to the rulers, because by then, most of Japan’s original forests had been cut down. During the next two centuries, under the leadership of successive shoguns, Japan gradually achieved a stable population and more sustainable rates of resource consumption. Part of the solution was to promote trade for food with the Ainu people on the northern island of Hokkaido (thus shifting some potential problems of resource depletion outside what was then Japan proper).

By 1700 the shoguns and their underlords had instituted an elaborate system of woodland management, and Japan gradually developed the idea of plantation forestry: trees came to be regarded as a slow-growing crop. Japan was favored in this by the country’s high rainfall, high fallout of volcanic ash and dust from Asia, and young soils–all factors that promote rapid regrowth of trees. In what was an era of peace and social stability, both the elite and the masses in Japan recognized their long-term stake in preserving their forests.

Do Individuals Matter?


 by: Carol Rovane

There is an unresolved and generally unnoticed contradiction in a conception of the person often associated with the Enlightenment. The conception incorporates two commitments that, while they seem to support each other, can serve only to undermine each other. The first is a commitment to the moral importance of the individual human being. The second is a commitment to the moral importance of rationality.

It does seem that these two commitments should stand and fall together. In fact, they may seem barely distinct from one another. When we consider the first and ask what sets individual human beings apart as having a kind of moral importance not shared by other animals (or mere things), the most salient answer seems to be that only human beings are persons. What sets them apart as persons is their capacity to engage one another in distinctively interpersonal ways, such as conversation, argument, criticism, moral evaluation, and exchanging promises and contracting with one another. Since this obviously requires rational capacities, it does seem that the second commitment, to the moral importance of rationality, follows upon the first. And the converse would seem to hold as well. If rationality is morally important then so is the human being. For human beings are the only things known to possess the rational capacities required for personhood. (I am simply going to set aside the contested cases of God, angels, and rational automata.)

Why, then, are these two commitments incompatible? The source of the difficulty lies in an implicit assumption about the nature of the individual. Key Enlightenment thinkers – Kant prominently among them – took for granted that personhood is a unique property of individual human beings. But it isn’t so. A number of human beings may together constitute a single ‘group person/ and an individual human being may be the site of multiple persons.

Although it may be said that these possibilities have never been realized in fact, they have certainly been contemplated in philosophy and literature. For example, the group person bears a resemblance to Rousseau’s moi commun, while Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are the most famous fictional case of multiple persons. And it is easy to imagine such cases because they are closely related to some real-life phenomena. Whenever human beings engage in joint endeavors, they achieve in degree the kind of unity characteristic of the individual person. And when human beings suffer from certain dissociative disorders, they may manifest multiple centers of such unity.

Still, my claim that there could literally be group and multiple persons will strike many as counterintuitive, if not downright false. Unfortunately, I cannot fully defend it here, or even fully convey its meaning. I shall only say just enough to get across why someone might take it seriously, and then consider some of its ethical implications.1

Here is one disturbing implication. If group and multiple persons ever did come into existence, they would exist in the place of the human-size persons who would have existed instead. In other words, if joint endeavors ever did give rise to group persons, there would no longer be any individual persons of human size who could separately be held responsible for those endeavors. It also means that if dissociation ever did give rise to multiple persons, there would no longer be an underlying self of human size for a therapist to treat. To put the point somewhat flamboyantly: if group agents and alter personalities really were persons, then disbanding the one and curing the other would be a species of murder; correlatively, if we human-size persons ever chose to integrate into group persons or fragment into multiple persons, we would be committing a kind of suicide.

One might wonder whether the possibility of group and multiple persons is really very damaging to the Enlightenment conception of the person. Why not simply correct its mistaken meta-physical assumption about individuality and revise it accordingly? This strategy of response would aim to leave the second commitment, to the moral importance of rationality, just as it is, keeping the tie between rationality and personhood in place; and then it would recast the first commitment, to the moral importance of individual human beings, as a commitment to the moral importance of all rational individuals regardless of their size.

However, we shall see that matters are not quite so straightforward. There are ways in which we currently conceive the moral importance of individual human beings – ways that we have inherited more or less directly from the Enlightenment – that do not carry over to the group and multiple cases. This is not because we don’t think rationality is morally important. It is rather because our mistaken metaphysics of the individual informs our understanding of its importance. As a result, the difficulty presented by the cases of group and multiple personhood goes beyond the respects in which they seem counterintuitive; the larger difficulty is that they deprive us of deep-seated metaphysical and moral intuitions about the human case as well.

The Universe is a String-Net Liquid


From: New Scientist

In 1998, just after he won a share of the Nobel prize for physics, Robert Laughlin of Stanford University in California was asked how his discovery of “particles” with fractional charge, now called quasi-particles, would affect the lives of ordinary people. “It probably won’t,” he said, “unless people are concerned about how the universe works.”

Well, people were. Xiao-Gang Wen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Michael Levin at Harvard University ran with Laughlin’s ideas and have come up with a prediction for a new state of matter, and even a tantalising picture of the nature of space-time itself. Levin presented their work at the Topological Quantum Computing conference at the University of California, Los Angeles, early this month.

The first hint that a new type of matter may exist came in 1982. “Twenty five years ago we thought we understood everything about how matter changes phase,” says Wen. “Then along came an experiment that opened up a whole new world.”

In the experiment, electrons moving in the interface between two semiconductors behaved as though they were made up of particles with only a fraction of the electron’s charge. This so-called fractional quantum hall effect (FQHE) suggested that electrons may not be elementary particles after all. However, it soon became clear that electrons under certain conditions can congregate in a way that gives them the illusion of having fractional charge – an explanation that earned Laughlin, Horst Störmer and Daniel Tsui the Nobel prize (New Scientist, 31 January 1998, p 36).

Wen suspected that the effect could be an example of a new type of matter. Different phases of matter are characterised by the way their atoms are organised. In a liquid, for instance, atoms are randomly distributed, whereas atoms in a solid are rigidly positioned in a lattice. FQHE systems are different. “If you take a snapshot of the position of electrons in an FQHE system they appear random and you think you have a liquid,” says Wen. But step back, and you see that, unlike in a liquid, the electrons dance around each other in well-defined steps.

It is as if the electrons are entangled. Today, physicists use the term to describe a property in quantum mechanics in which particles can be linked despite being separated by great distances. Wen speculated that FQHE systems represented a state of matter in which entanglement was an intrinsic property, with particles tied to each other in a complicated manner across the entire material.

This led Wen and Levin to the idea that there may be a different way of thinking about matter. What if electrons were not really elementary, but were formed at the ends of long “strings” of other, fundamental particles? They formulated a model in which such strings are free to move “like noodles in a soup” and weave together into huge “string-nets”.

Light and matter unified
The pair ran simulations to see if their string-nets could give rise to conventional particles and fractionally charged quasi-particles. They did. They also found something even more surprising. As the net of strings vibrated, it produced a wave that behaved according to a very familiar set of laws – Maxwell’s equations, which describe the behaviour of light. “A hundred and fifty years after Maxwell wrote them down, here they emerged by accident,” says Wen.

That wasn’t all. They found that their model naturally gave rise to other elementary particles, such as quarks, which make up protons and neutrons, and the particles responsible for some of the fundamental forces, such as gluons and the W and Z bosons.

From this, the researchers made another leap. Could the entire universe be modelled in a similar way? “Suddenly we realised, maybe the vacuum of our whole universe is a string-net liquid,” says Wen. “It would provide a unified explanation of how both light and matter arise.” So in their theory elementary particles are not the fundamental building blocks of matter. Instead, they emerge from the deeper structure of the non-empty vacuum of space-time.

“Wen and Levin’s theory is really beautiful stuff,” says Michael Freedman, 1986 winner of the Fields medal, the highest prize in mathematics, and a quantum computing specialist at Microsoft Station Q at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “I admire their approach, which is to be suspicious of anything – electrons, photons, Maxwell’s equations – that everyone else accepts as fundamental.”

Other theories that try to explain the same phenomena abound, of course; Wen and Levin realise that the burden of proof is on them. It may not be far off. Their model predicts specific arrangements of atoms in the new state of matter, which they dub the “string-net liquid”, and Young Lee’s group at MIT might have found it.

Lee was aware of Wen’s work and decided to look for such materials. Trawling through geology journals, his team spotted a candidate – a dark green crystal that geologists stumbled across in the mountains of Chile in 1972. “The geologists named it after a mineralogist they really admired, Herbert Smith, labelled it and put it to one side,” says Lee. “They didn’t realise the potential herbertsmithite would have for physicists years later.”

Herbertsmithite (pictured) is unusual because its electrons are arranged in a triangular lattice. Normally, electrons prefer to line up so that their spins are in the opposite direction to that of their immediate neighbours, but in a triangle this is impossible – there will always be neighbouring electrons spinning in the same direction. Wen and his colleagues propose that such a system would be a string-net liquid.

Although herbertsmithite exists in nature, the mineral contains impurities that disrupt any string-net signatures, says Lee. So Lee’s team made a pure sample in the lab. “It was painstaking,” says Lee. “It took us a full year to prepare it and another year to analyse it.”

The team measured the degree of magnetisation in the material, in response to an applied magnetic field. If herbertsmithite behaves like ordinary matter, they argue, then below about 26 °C the spins of its electrons should stop fluctuating – a condition called magnetic order. But the team found no such transition, even down to just a fraction above absolute zero.

They measured other properties, too, such as heat conduction. In conventional solids, the relationship between their temperature and their ability to conduct heat changes below a certain temperature, because the structure of the material changes. The team found no sign of such a transition in herbertsmithite, suggesting that, unlike other types of matter, its lowest energy state has no discernible order. “We could have created something in the lab that nobody has seen before,” says Lee.

The team plans further tests to visualise the position of individual electrons, looking for long-range entanglement by firing neutrons at the crystal and observing how they scatter. “We want to see the dynamics of the spin,” says Lee. “If we tweak one [electron], we can see how the others are affected.”

This intrigues Paul Fendley, a quantum computing specialist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville (see “Silicon for a quantum age”). “It’s reasonable to hope that we are seeing something exotic here,” he says. “People are getting very excited about this.”

Even if herbertsmithite is not a new state of matter, we shouldn’t be surprised if one is found soon, as many teams are hunting for them, says Freedman. He says people wrongly assume that particle accelerators are the only places where big discoveries about matter can be made. “Accelerators are just recreating conditions after the big bang and repeating experiments that are old hat for the universe,” he says. “But in labs people are creating [conditions] that are colder than anywhere that has ever existed in the universe. We are bound to stumble on something the universe has never seen before.”

Rare but Real: People Who Feel, Taste and Hear Color

The colors of letters and numbers in this photo illustration of Ingrid Carey, by Ingrid Carey, match up with what she sees.

from: LiveScience

When Ingrid Carey says she feels colors, she does not mean she sees red, or feels blue, or is green with envy. She really does feel them.

She can also taste them, and hear them, and smell them.

The 20-year-old junior at the University of Maine has synesthesia, a rare neurological condition in which two or more of the senses entwine. Numbers and letters, sensations and emotions, days and months are all associated with colors for Carey.

The letter “N” is sienna brown; “J” is light green; the number “8” is orange; and July is bluish-green.

The pain from a shin split throbs in hues of orange and yellow, purple and red, Carey told LiveScience.

Colors in Carey’s world have properties that most of us would never dream of: red is solid, powerful and consistent, while yellow is pliable, brilliant and intense. Chocolate is rich purple and makes Carey?s breath smell dark blue. Confusion is orange.

Scientific acceptance

Long dismissed as a product of overactive imaginations or a sign of mental illness, synesthesia has grudgingly come to be accepted by scientists in recent years as an actual phenomenon with a real neurological basis. Some researchers now believe it may yield valuable clues to how the brain is organized and how perception works.

“The study of synesthesia [has] encouraged people to rethink historical ideas that synesthesia was abnormal and an aberration,” says Amy Ione, director of the Diatrope Institute, a California-based group interested in the arts and sciences.

The cause remains a mystery, however.

According to one idea, irregular sprouting of new neural connections within the brain leads to a breakdown of the boundaries that normally exist between the senses. In this view, synesthesia is the collective chatter of sensory neighbors once confined to isolation.

Another theory, based on research conducted by Daphne Maurer and Catherine Mondloch at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, suggests all infants may begin life as synesthetes. In this way of thinking, animals and humans are born with immature brains that are highly malleable. Connections between different sensory parts of the brain exists that later become pruned or blocked as an organism matures, Mondloch explained.

Maurer and Mondloch hypothesize that if these connections between the senses are functional, as some experiments suggest, then infants should experience the world in a way that is similar to synesthetic adults.

In a variation of this theory, babies don?t have five distinct senses but rather one all-encompassing sense that responds to the total amount of incoming stimulation. So when a baby hears her mother?s voice, she is also seeing it and smelling it.

Technology lags

Maurer and Mondloch?s pruning hypothesis is intriguing, says Bruno Laeng, a psychology professor at the University of Tromso, Norway. But he adds a caution.

“At present, we do not have the technology to observe brain-connection changes in the living human brain and how these relate to mental changes,” Laeng said in an email interview.

Like other scientists, Laeng also questions whether synesthesia needs such extra neural connections in order to occur. Advancements in current brain imaging techniques may one day allow the pruning hypothesis to be tested directly, he said.

According to another theory that does not rely on extra connections, synesthesia arises when normally covert channels of communications between the senses are exposed to the light of consciousness.

All of us are able to perceive the world as a unified whole because there is a complex interaction between the senses in the brain, the thinking goes. Ordinarily, these interconnections are not explicitly experienced, but in the brains of synesthetes, “those connections are ?unmasked? and can enter conscious awareness,” said Megan Steven, a neuroscientist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Because this unmasking theory relies on neural connections everyone has, it may explain why certain drugs, like LSD or mescaline, can induce synesthesia in some individuals.

‘Like I’m crazy’

Many synesthetes fear ridicule for their unusual abilities. They can feel isolated and alone in their experiences.

“Most people that I?d explain it to would either be fascinated or look at me like I?m crazy,” Carey said. “Especially friends who were of a very logical mindset. They would be very perplexed.”

The study of synesthesia is therefore important for synesthetes, says Daniel Smilek, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

Research is revealing synesthetes to be a varied bunch.
Smilek and colleagues have identified two groups of synesthetes among those who associate letters and numbers with colors, he explained in a telephone interview. For individuals in one group, which Smilek calls “projector” synesthetes, the synesthetic color can fill the printed letter or it can appear directly in front of their eyes, as if projected onto an invisible screen. In contrast, “associate” synesthetes see the colors in their “mind?s eye” rather than outside their bodies.

In Carey?s case, the colors appear in quick flashes right behind her eyes, blinking in and out of existence as quickly as ocean foam. Other times they linger, coalescing and dividing like sunlight on the surface of a soap bubble.

‘No mere curiosity’

Other subgroups have also been identified.

The synesthesia of those in the “perceptual” category is triggered by sensory stimuli like sights and sounds, whereas “conceptual” synesthetes respond to abstract concepts like time. One conceptual synesthete described the months of the year as a flat ribbon surrounding her body, each month a distinct color. February was pale green and oriented directly in front of her.

Richard Cytowic, a neuroscientist and author of “The Man Who Tasted Shapes” (Bradford Books, 1998), has watched the scientific shift in attitudes toward the condition in recent years.

“Many of my colleagues claimed that synesthesia was ?made up? because it went against prevailing theory,” Cytowic told LiveScience. “Today, everyone recognizes synesthesia as no mere curiosity but important to fundamental principles of how the brain is organized.”