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Philosophy & Science / The mindfulness conspiracy
« on: June 14, 2019, 12:43:33 pm »
The mindfulness conspiracy

Ronald Purser

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Mindfulness advocates, perhaps unwittingly, are providing support for the status quo. Rather than discussing how attention is monetised and manipulated by corporations such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple, they locate the crisis in our minds. It is not the nature of the capitalist system that is inherently problematic; rather, it is the failure of individuals to be mindful and resilient in a precarious and uncertain economy. Then they sell us solutions that make us contented, mindful capitalists.

By practising mindfulness, individual freedom is supposedly found within “pure awareness”, undistracted by external corrupting influences. All we need to do is close our eyes and watch our breath. And that’s the crux of the supposed revolution: the world is slowly changed, one mindful individual at a time. This political philosophy is oddly reminiscent of George W Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”. With the retreat to the private sphere, mindfulness becomes a religion of the self. The idea of a public sphere is being eroded, and any trickledown effect of compassion is by chance. As a result, notes the political theorist Wendy Brown, “the body politic ceases to be a body, but is, rather, a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers”.

Mindfulness, like positive psychology and the broader happiness industry, has depoliticised stress. If we are unhappy about being unemployed, losing our health insurance, and seeing our children incur massive debt through college loans, it is our responsibility to learn to be more mindful. Kabat-Zinn assures us that “happiness is an inside job” that simply requires us to attend to the present moment mindfully and purposely without judgment. Another vocal promoter of meditative practice, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson, contends that “wellbeing is a skill” that can be trained, like working out one’s biceps at the gym. The so-called mindfulness revolution meekly accepts the dictates of the marketplace. Guided by a therapeutic ethos aimed at enhancing the mental and emotional resilience of individuals, it endorses neoliberal assumptions that everyone is free to choose their responses, manage negative emotions, and “flourish” through various modes of self-care. Framing what they offer in this way, most teachers of mindfulness rule out a curriculum that critically engages with causes of suffering in the structures of power and economic systems of capitalist society.

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Philosophy & Science / Neil deGrasse Tyson: Pedantry in Space
« on: June 13, 2019, 01:52:14 pm »
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Pedantry in Space

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Neil deGrasse Tyson: pedantry in space
by Sam Kriss

Neil-deGrasse-Tyson

Something terrible happened to you in outer space. All you can remember are the last few moments, the sun fading to a speck as you and your crew broke free from the solar system, the ship’s systems suddenly shutting down, the panic and blackness inside, shouting and sobbing, outside the phosphorescent fringes of the wormhole as it opened up in front of you – and then you woke up, sweat-slick in your own bed at sunrise, with the birds singing outside, in another universe. You are trapped in the world of the popular TV astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and you know this, because here the sunrise isn’t a sunrise at all. In fact, the earth is a sphere orbiting the sun, so the sun does not in any sense actually ‘rise’ – it’s just that you happen to be positioned right on the moving line, known as the ‘terminator’, that separates the illuminated portion of the planet from its dark side. And the birds singing aren’t really singing – actually, they’re just emitting a series of noises without any of the tonal qualities that distinguish singing from other vocal emissions. And the bed isn’t yours, because scientists have never been able to find any way of isolating ‘ownership’ in the physical composition of any object. You jump out of bed and start banging frantically at the walls. Is there no way out? Where are your crew? You rush to the window, and almost collapse in horror. It’s all there, spread out in front of you, exactly like home: everything is exactly the same, but in this sick parody of a universe it’s all been twisted into something hollow, meaningless, and mercilessly dull.

Pink strands of cloud fizzle up from the horizon, and you know that actually the horizon is just the curvature of the earth, and that the clouds, which were once believed to be inhabited by angels, house nothing of the sort. A few people are already outside in the streets below you, jogging, going to work, but they’re not really people. Actually, they’re just apes of the family Hominidae, most closely related to the genus Pan, going about their ape-business, which remains primarily motivated by the ape-needs of food, shelter, and sex. There is nothing that isn’t instantly boring. It’s too much. You rush into the kitchen, rattling the drawer in sheer panic (actually just dyspnea, tachycardia and dilation of the pupils caused by a surge of epinephrine in your body), pull out the knife (actually just a piece of metal attached to a piece of wood), and open your wrists. The blood (which was once thought to be one of the four humours, governing personality traits, but which is actually primarily used to transmit oxygen) glugs out, darker in colour and slower than you’d expected. It’ll be over now, you think. But actually, you’re not dying: you’re just a collection of atoms, and every single one of those atoms will remain. Not only are you in this universe, this universe is in you.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is, supposedly, an educator and a populariser of science; it’s his job to excite people about the mysteries of the universe, communicate information, and correct popular misconceptions. This is a noble, arduous, and thankless job, which might be why he doesn’t do it. What he actually does is make the universe boring, tell people things that they already know, and dispel misconceptions that nobody actually holds. In his TV appearances, puppeted by an invisible army of scriptwriters, this tendency is barely held in check, but in his lectures or on the internet it’s torrential; a seeping flood of grey goo, paring down the world to its driest, dullest, most colourless essentials. He likes to watch scifi films, and point out all the inaccuracies. Actually, lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space; actually a light year is a unit of space rather than time; actually, none of this is real, it’s just a collection of still images projected at speed to present the illusion of movement, and all the characters are just actors who have never really been into outer space. When the rapper B.o.B. started loudly declaring that there’s a vast conspiracy to hide that fact that the world is really flat, Neil deGrasse Tyson immediately jumped in to refute him, even featuring on a eye-stabbingly awful rap song insisting that ‘B.o.B. gotta know that the planet is a sphere, G’ – a passionate, useless, and embarrassing defence of the blindingly obvious. In a world that’s simply given, brute fact, any attempt to imagine it into an entirely different shape must be stamped out. Why? The subject-matter is cosmic and transcendental, the object-cause is petty and stupid. Neil deGrasse Tyson strides onto stage to say that actually the Earth orbits the sun, that actually living beings gain their traits through evolutionary processes, that actually your hand has five fingers, that actually cows go moo, that actually poo comes out your bum – and you are then supposed to think yes, I knew that, and imagine someone else, someone who didn’t know it already, some idiot, and think: I’m better than that person, I’m so much smarter than everyone else.

A decent name for this tendency, for stars and spaceships recast as the instruments of a joyless and pedantic class spite, would be I Fucking Love Science. ‘Science’ here has very little to do with the scientific method itself; it means ontological physicalism, not believing in our Lord Jesus Christ, hating the spectrally stupid, and, more than anything, pretty pictures of nebulae and tree frogs. ‘Science’ comes to metonymically refer to the natural world, the object of science; it’s like describing a crime as ‘the police,’ or the ocean as ‘drinking.’ What ‘I Fucking Love Science’ actually means is ‘I Fucking Love Existing Conditions.’ But because the word ‘science’ still pings about between the limits of a discourse that depends on the exclusion of alternate modes of knowledge, the natural world of I Fucking Love Science is presented as being essentially a series of factual statements. There are no things, there are only truths. The fact that the earth is a sphere is vast and ponderous: you stand on its grinding surface, as that fact carries you on its heavy plod around our nearest star. The fact that the forms of organic life emerge through Darwinian evolution is fractal and distributed, so that little fragments of that fact will bark at you in the street or dart chirping overhead. The fact that there is no God, being a negative statement, is invisible, but you know for certain that it’s out there.

Which is not to say that there’s any requirement that these facts be true. None of this is real. Those multicoloured nebulae are not real objects, they exist only in fantastic pictures overlaid with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s face and some vague sentiments about how wonderful the universe is when it’s very far away from human life.  The images are digitally stitched together, the colours are fake, the shapes are not anything that could actually be seen out the window of your spaceship, a real-life nebula is about as exciting as a damp fog. If you’re going to love the natural world, really Fucking Love it, it’s best that you know as little about it as possible, or it might start to seem less lovable. Like when Neil DeGrasse Tyson quipped that ‘if ever there were a species for which sex hurt, it surely went extinct long ago.’ It’s a perfect Tyson fact, true because it’s basically tautologous, its scientific quality having everything to do with the idea that actual phenomena are just instantiations of abstract laws, and nothing to do with any scientific observation, such as listening to the yelps of cats fucking at night, or to women. Or when his TV show Cosmos described the sixteeth-century astrologer Giordano Bruno as a martyr for science, executed by the Catholic church for proposing a heliocentric solar system. See how the idiots persecute us, the rational, with their superstition and their hostility to objective thought. The reality – that Bruno believed in magic, worshipped the ancient Egyptian god Thoth, and was executed not for heliocentrism but for denying the divinity of Christ – is ignored, because that isn’t Fucking Science Love. Or when he decided that ‘Italy valued cathedrals while Spain valued explorers. So worldwide, five times as many people speak Spanish than Italian.’ A spurious reconstruction of the past from present conditions, or the I Fucking Love Scientific theory of history: successful tribes were populated by little atavistic Carl Sagans; if Italians didn’t slaughter millions in the New World it isn’t because the peninsula was at the time fractured into multiple city-states (some of them occupied by, uh, Spain) which supplied significant amounts of capital rather than colonists, it’s because they weren’t interested in spaceships.

But all this is pedantry, the perverse insistence on how the world is, the total apathy to how it could be different. Pedantry could be broadly defined as a hostility to metaphor, the demand that every object stand for itself and nothing else, that words function in the same way as numbers. Which is why it’s pointless to criticise Neil deGrasse Tyson or the I Fucking Love Scientists for being the pompous, self-important, and utterly cretinous pedants that they are: it’s just falling back into their own dismal, boring logic, insisting that a thing is what it is rather than something else. It won’t help you, lying dazed on the lino, the blood now spluttering in half-congealed dribs from your arms, running diagonally to the corner of the room, where the cat is skittishly starting to lap it up with tiny flicks of its tongue. You lie there, and you try to remember if you ever did really go into outer space. It was so black out there, you remember. And all the stars were so far apart.

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Einstein's Quest to 'Know God's Thoughts' Could Take Millenia

Don Lincoln

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However, physicists suspect this final unification would also take place at the Planck energy, again because this is the energy and size at which quantum effects can no longer be ignored in relativity theory. And, as we've seen, this is a much higher energy than we can hope to achieve inside a particle accelerator any time soon. To give a sense of the chasm between current theories and a theory of everything, if we represented the energies of particles we can detect as the width of a cell membrane, the Planck energy is the size of Earth. While it is conceivable that someone with a thorough understanding of cell membranes might predict other structures within a cell — things like DNA and mitochondria — it is inconceivable that they could accurately predict the Earth. How likely is it that they could predict volcanoes, oceans or Earth's magnetic field?

The simple fact is that with such a large gap between currently achievable energy in particle accelerators and the Planck energy, correctly devising a theory of everything seems improbable.

That doesn't mean physicists should all retire and take up landscape painting — there is still meaningful work to be done. We still need to understand unexplained phenomena such as dark matter and dark energy, which make up 95% of the known universe, and use that understanding to create a newer, more comprehensive theory of physics. This newer theory will not be a TOE, but will be incrementally better than the current theoretical framework. We will have to repeat that process over and over again.

Disappointed? So am I. After all, I've devoted my life to trying to uncover some of the secrets of the cosmos, but perhaps some perspective is in order. The first unification of forces was accomplished in the 1670s with Newton's theory of universal gravity. The second was in the 1870s with Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism. The electroweak unification was relatively recent, only half a century ago.

Given that 350 years has elapsed since our first big successful step in this journey, perhaps it's less surprising that the path ahead of us is longer still. The notion that a genius will have an insight that results in a fully developed theory of everything in the next few years is a myth. We're in for a long slog — and even the grandchildren of today's scientists won't see the end of it.

But what a journey it will be.

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Philosophy & Science / The Tyranny of Simple Explanations
« on: June 09, 2019, 08:07:22 pm »
The Tyranny of Simple Explanations: The history of science has been distorted by a longstanding conviction that correct theories about nature are always the most elegant ones.

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Here the implication is that the simplest theory isn’t just more convenient, but gets closer to how nature really works; in other words, it’s more probably the correct one.

There’s absolutely no reason to believe that. But it’s what Francis Crick was driving at when he warned that Occam’s razor (which he equated with advocating “simplicity and elegance”) might not be well suited to biology, where things can get very messy. While it’s true that “simple, elegant” theories have sometimes turned out to be wrong (a classical example being Alfred Kempe’s flawed 1879 proof of the “four-color theorem” in mathematics), it’s also true that simpler but less accurate theories can be more useful than complicated ones for clarifying the bare bones of an explanation. There’s no easy equation between simplicity and truth, and Crick’s caution about Occam’s razor just perpetuates misconceptions about its meaning and value.   

The worst misuses, however, fixate on the idea that the razor can adjudicate between rival theories. I have found no single instance where it has served this purpose to settle a scientific debate. Worse still, the history of science is often distorted in attempts to argue that it has.

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Philosophy & Science / The Worth of an Angry God
« on: June 03, 2019, 01:38:00 pm »
The Worth of an Angry God: How supernatural beliefs allowed societies to bond and spread.

Brian Gallagher

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Did humans need belief in a God-like being—someone who can punish every immorality we might commit—to have the big societies we have today, where we live relatively peaceably among strangers we could easily exploit?

Harvey Whitehouse, the director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, doesn’t think so. “Complex societies,” he and his colleagues declared in a March Nature paper, “precede moralizing gods throughout world history.” They relied on a massive historical database, called Seshat, which over a decade attracted contributions from over a hundred scholars. With the database “finally ready for analysis,” Whitehouse and his colleagues wrote in The Conversation, “we are poised to test a long list of theories about global history,” particularly “whether morally concerned deities drove the rise of complex societies,” some hallmarks of which are more economic integration and division of labor, more political hierarchy, the emergence of classes, and dependence on more complex technology and pre-specialists. Whitehouse concluded that those deities did no such driving. As he told Nautilus in a 2014 interview, as societies became more agricultural, what researchers see “in the archeological record is increasing frequency of collective rituals. This changes things psychologically and leads to more doctrinal kinds of religious systems, which are more recognizable when we look at world religions today.”

Joseph Henrich, chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, sees it differently. He contends that moralizing gods spurred societal complexity because belief in moralizing gods leads to success in intergroup competition. It increased trust and cooperation among a growing population of relative strangers, he said, and buttressed traits like bravery in warfare. “The word ‘moralizing’ is not a useful term,” though, he added. “People use it casually, because people are interested in morality, but the theory specifies this very specific set of things that increase your success in intergroup competition. Most people want to call greater cooperation, helping strangers, things like that, moral. That’s just a Western preoccupation.”

I caught up with Henrich earlier this month to discuss the anthropological chicken-and-egg problem of whether gods or complex societies came first. He was gracious in defending his position that gods were the bonds that allowed societies to gain strength and grow.

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Two Aspects of Śūnyatā in Quantum Physics: Relativity of Properties and Quantum Non-separability

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The so-called paradoxes of quantum physics are easily disposed of as soon as one accepts that there are no such things as intrinsically existing particles and their intrinsic properties, but that both particles and properties are relational “observables.” Accordingly, quantum physics does not offer a “description of the outer world,” but rather a prescription about how to make probabilistic predictions within a participatory environment. The latter view (or rather criticism of views) looks quite radical with respect to standard Western Aristotelian ontology; but it looks natural in the context of the Indian-Buddhist concept of Pratītyasamutpāda which underpins Śūnyatā. Special attention will then be devoted to the quantum feature of non-separability, which displays remarkable similarities with Pratītyasamutpāda. Finally, the meaning of such twofold parallel between quantum physics and Śūnyatā will be discussed. This parallel will be related to the similarity of epistemological situation between knowing a world from which we are not entirely separated and knowing oneself.

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Neuroscience Has a Lot To Learn from Buddhism

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Ricard: A study of people who have practiced meditation for a long time demonstrates that structural connectivity among the different areas of the brain is higher in meditators than in a control group. Hence, there must be another kind of change allowed by the brain.

Singer: I have no difficulty in accepting that a learning process can change behavioral dispositions, even in adults. There is ample evidence of this from reeducation programs, where practice leads to small but incremental behavior modifications. There is also evidence for quite dramatic and sudden changes in cognition, emotional states, and coping strategies. In this case, the same mechanisms that support learning—distributed changes in the efficiency of synaptic connections—lead to drastic alterations of global brain states.

Ricard: You could also change the flow of neuron activity, as when the traffic on a road increases significantly.

Singer: Yes. What changes with learning and training in the adult is the flow of activity. The fixed hardware of anatomical connections is rather stable after age 20, but it is still possible to route activity flexibly from A to B or from A to C by adding certain signatures to the activity that ensure that a given activation pattern is not broadcast in a diffuse way to all connected brain regions but sent only to selected target areas.

Ricard: So far, the results of the studies conducted with trained meditators indicate that they have the faculty to generate clean, powerful, well-defined states of mind, and this faculty is associated with some specific brain patterns. Mental training enables one to generate those states at will and to modulate their intensity, even when confronted with disturbing circumstances, such as strong positive or negative emotional stimuli. Thus, one acquires the faculty to maintain an overall emotional balance that favors inner strength and peace.

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How the dualism of Descartes ruined our mental health

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While it is true that there is value in ‘normalising’ irrational experiences like this, it comes at a great cost. These interventions work (to the extent that they do) by emptying our irrational experiences of their intrinsic value or meaning. In doing so, not only are these experiences cut off from any world-meaning they might harbour, but so too from any agency and responsibility we or those around us have – they are only errors to be corrected.

In the previous episteme, before the bifurcation of mind and nature, irrational experiences were not just ‘error’ – they were speaking a language as meaningful as rational experiences, perhaps even more so. Imbued with the meaning and rhyme of nature herself, they were themselves pregnant with the amelioration of the suffering they brought. Within the world experienced this way, we had a ground, guide and container for our ‘irrationality’, but these crucial psychic presences vanished along with the withdrawal of nature’s inner life and the move to ‘identity and difference’.

In the face of an indifferent and unresponsive world that neglects to render our experience meaningful outside of our own minds  –  for nature-as-mechanism is powerless to do this  –  our minds have been left fixated on empty representations of a world that was once its source and being. All we have, if we are lucky to have them, are therapists and parents who try to take on what is, in reality, and given the magnitude of the loss, an impossible task.

But I’m not going to argue that we just need to ‘go back’ somehow. On the contrary, the bifurcation of mind and nature was at the root of immeasurable secular progress –  medical and technological advance, the rise of individual rights and social justice, to name just a few. It also protected us all from being bound up in the inherent uncertainty and flux of nature. It gave us a certain omnipotence – just as it gave science empirical control over nature – and most of us readily accept, and willingly spend, the inheritance bequeathed by it, and rightly so.

It cannot be emphasised enough, however, that this history is much less a ‘linear progress’ and much more a dialectic. Just as unified psyche-nature stunted material progress, material progress has now degenerated psyche. Perhaps, then, we might argue for a new swing in this pendulum. Given the dramatic increase in substance-use issues and recent reports of a teenage ‘mental health crisis’ and teen suicide rates rising in the US, the UK and elsewhere to name only the most conspicuous, perhaps the time is in fact overripe.

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Pauli’s ideas on mind and matter in the context of contemporary science

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Pauli’s thoughts on topics beyond physics are likely to be appreciated as inspiring sources for the present and future development of Western science and culture. In recent years many of his ideas, expressed in his letters,5provoked an increasing interest in the communities of philosophers, psychologists, and natural scientists. Pauli understood that physics necessarily gives an incomplete view of nature, and he was looking for an extended scientific framework. However, the fact that the often colloquial and speculative style of his letters is in striking contrast to his careful and refined publications should advise us to act with caution. His accounts are extremely stimulating, but they should be considered as first groping attempts rather than definitive proposals.

In this contribution, we will give an overview of Pauli’s extra physical interests. He himself reviewed the main body of his corresponding views in three publications, the Kepler article (Pauli 1952), the paper on Jung’s ideas of the unconscious (Pauli 1954b), and the contribution to a conference at Mainz (Pauli1956b). But his extensive correspondence provides a much more comprehensive source of material in this respect. Pauli’s interest in Jung’s depth psychology was mainly focused on its structural, conceptual aspects. Therefore, we will not enter into the discussion of questions of psychological therapy as they maybe recognized in parts of the Pauli-Jung dialog.6Pauli’s scientific work in the narrow sense and its impact on specific problems of contemporary theoreticalphysics7will be addressed only insofar as they arise in the context of more general issues

The following sections 2, 3 and 4 provide the basis for a detailed under-standing of Pauli’s ideas on mind and matter. Section 2 is devoted to the basic importance that Pauli ascribed to symmetry principles and to symmetry breaking. Section 3 addresses the role of symbols (in the Jungian sense) in theory formation. In section 4 we introduce Pauli’s ideas, based on those of Bohr,concerning a generalized notion of complementarity. In section 5, we present the key issue of Pauli’s extraphysical interests: the psychophysical problem of how relations between mind and matter can be reasonably circumscribed and conceived. Section 6 extends this theme into the significance of concepts of time for the psychophysical problem. Section 7 gives some material concerning Pauli’s ideas on biological evolution and the nature of mutations. We conclude this overview in section 8.

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Is Science Doomed to Leave Some Questions Unanswered?

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Gleiser, Frank, and Thompson highlight three particular stumbling blocks: cosmology (we cannot view the universe from the “outside”); consciousness (a phenomenon we experience only from within); and what they call “the nature of matter”—roughly, the idea that quantum mechanics appears to involve the act of observation in a way that is not clearly understood.

Consequently, they say, we must admit that there are some mysteries science may never be able to solve. For instance, we may never find a “Theory of Everything” to explain the entire universe. This view contrasts sharply with the ideal that Nobel laureate physicist Sheldon Glashow expressed in the 1990s: “We believe that the world is knowable: that there are simple rules governing the behavior of matter and the evolution of the universe. We affirm that there are eternal, objective, extra-historical, socially-neutral, external and universal truths. The assemblage of these truths is what we call science, and the proof of our assertion lies in the pudding of its success.”

What Gleiser and his colleagues are critiquing, he says, is “this notion of scientific triumphalism—the idea that, ‘Just give us enough time, and there are no problems that science cannot solve.’ We point out that that is in fact not true. Because there are many problems that we cannot solve.”

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How Drug Companies Helped Shape A Shifting, Biological View Of Mental Illness

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On why pharmaceutical companies are leaving the psychiatric field

Because there have been no new good ideas as to where to look for new, novel biomarkers or targets since the 1960s. The only possible exception is there is now some excitement about ketamine, which targets a different set of biochemical systems. But R&D is very expensive. These drugs are now, mostly, off-patent. ... [The pharmaceutical companies'] efforts to bring on new drugs in that sort of tried-and-true and tested way — with a tinker here and a tinker there — has been running up against mostly unexplained but indubitable problems with the placebo effect.

But it doesn't mean that the drugs don't work. It just means that the placebo effect is really strong. But the logic of clinical trials is that the placebo effect is nothing, and you have to be able to be better than nothing. But, of course, if the placebo effect isn't just nothing, then maybe you need to rethink what it means to test a drug. Now, this sort of goes beyond what historians should be talking about, but it does seem that the pharmaceutical company has a big placebo problem on its hands.

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Surprising quantum effect in hard disk drive material

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As reported in a recent issue of Physical Review Letters, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, along with Oakland University in Michigan and Fudan University in China, have found a surprising quantum effect in this alloy.

The effect involves the ability to control the direction of electron spin, and it could allow scientists to develop more powerful and energy-efficient materials for information storage. By changing the electron spin direction in a material, the researchers were able to alter its magnetic state. This greater control of magnetization allows more information to be stored and retrieved in a smaller space. Greater control could also yield additional applications, such as more energy-efficient electric motors, generators and magnetic bearings.

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The Forum of Interesting Things / Twitter Is Not America
« on: April 27, 2019, 01:56:39 pm »
Twitter Is Not America

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As the platforms age, their devotees become more and more distinct from the regular person. For more than a decade now, many people in media and technology have been feeding an hour or two of Twitter into our brains every single day. Because we’re surrounded by people who live their lives like this—and, crucially, because so many of the journalists who write about the internet experience the internet in this way—it might feel like this is just how Twitter is, that a representative sample of America is plugged into the machine in this way.

But it’s not. Twitter is not America. And few people who work outside the information industries choose to spend their lives reading tweets, let alone writing them.

Twitter is a highly individual experience that works like a collective hallucination, not a community. It’s probably totally fine that a good chunk of the nation’s elites spend so much time on it. What could go wrong?

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Building Alien Worlds— The Neuropsychological and Evolutionary Implications of the Astonishing Psychoactive Effects of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)

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Abstract—

Arguably the most remarkable property of the human brain is its ability to construct the world that appears to consciousness. The brain is capable of building worlds during waking life, but also in the complete ab- sence of extrinsic sensory data, entirely from intrinsic thalamocortical activ- ity, as during dreaming. DMT, an extraordinary psychedelic, perturbs brain activity such that indescribably bizarre and apparently alien worlds are built. This property of DMT continues to defy explanation. However, by regarding this unique molecule as equivalent to serotonin, an endogenous neuro- modulator with a long-standing relationship with the brain, DMT’s effects may be explained. Serotonin has evolved to hold the brain’s thalamocortical system in a state in which the consensus world is built. When serotonin is replaced by DMT, the thalamocortical system shifts into an equivalent state, but one in which an apparently alien world is built. This suggests that DMT may be an ancestral neuromodulator, at one time secreted endogenously in psychedelic concentrations—a function apparently now lost. However, DMT maintains a number of unique pharmacological characteristics and a peculiar affinity with the human brain that supports this model. Thus, the modern practice of ingesting exogenous DMT may be the reconstitution of an ancestral function.

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Conscious awareness of a world appears to be a default state of the brain (Llinas & Pare 1991) and can be fully independent of incoming sensory data, as exemplified by dreaming. During REM sleep, the brain is perfectly capable of building completely realistic worlds, with all sensory modalities intact, despite having no access to the external world. In fact, even during waking, sensory stimuli contribute far less to the information used to build the world than might be expected (Edelman 2000). To understand what this means, we need to distinguish between two types of information in the brain. Information generated entirely within the brain, through the differentiated and integrated activity of the thalamocortical system, as discussed, is intrinsic information. Information that enters from outside, through the senses, is extrinsic information. It is a combination of these two types of information that the brain uses to build worlds. However, it is not simply a case of extrinsic sensory information adding to intrinsic information. Rather, patterns of sensory data amplify or “awaken” (Sporns 2011) existing intrinsic activity within the brain (Edelman 2000), and very little additional information is provided by sensory data (Tononi, Edelman, & Sporns 1998).  To put it another way, extrinsic sensory data is ‘matched’ to ongoing intrinsic activity, which it amplifies (Tononi, Sporns, & Edelman 1996). The intrinsic activity thus represents a repertoire of thalamocortical states that provide the context for any incoming sensory data. In fact, even in the complete absence of extrinsic sensory data, the intrinsic thalamocortical activity remains perfectly capable of building complete worlds. Of course, this is dreaming, which will be discussed in detail later. However, suffice to say that the principal difference between the waking consensus world and the dream world is the manner in which the former is modulated by extrinsic sensory data. Sensory information constrains conscious perception (Behrendt 2003), and the conscious awareness of a world is an intrinsic functional state of the brain that is modulated, but not created, by sensory input (Llinas, Ribary, Contreras, & Pedroarena 1998). Naturally, this begs the question as to why the intrinsic activity of the thalamocortical system tends to build the consensus world as a default and thus why extrinsic sensory data can be so effectively ‘matched’ to ongoing intrinsic activity. This suggests that extrinsic sensory data somehow shaped the thalamocortical system, i.e. that the brain used sensory data from the external world to learn to build a representation of it.

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It seems the brain builds worlds in exactly the same way during dreaming as it does during waking—and why wouldn’t it? Indeed, it is the only way the brain is able to build the worlds that appear to us. As pointed out earlier, the primary difference between waking and dreaming is the manner in which the waking world is modulated by extrinsic information. During waking, the formation of coherent oscillatory assemblies (i.e. thalamocortical states) is modulated by incoming sensory information. During dreaming, however, the individual is disconnected from the external environment (although the reason for this remains subject to debate, see Nir & Tononi 2010). The primary sensory areas of the cortex, which normally receive the incoming information before passing it on to higher cortical areas for further processing, also become inactive, as does the prefrontal cortex (Braun et al. 1998). The higher sensory areas of the cortex remain active in building the dream world, using the repertoire of intrinsic thalamocortical states developed during waking life. As the dynamic sequence of thalamocortical states is not constrained by incoming sensory data, however, the dream world can become bizarre, often impossible...Unfortunately, loss of normal critical function means that such ridiculousness is rarely recognized for what it is, unless you happen to be a lucid dreamer.

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The user typically rushes through a number of stages, before ‘breaking through’ into the characteristic alien worlds, which are the focus of this discussion. The accounts of Strassman’s volunteers and posters on Erowid. org who achieved this breakthrough, while varied, follow a number of recurring themes:

– Merry-go-rounds, fairgrounds, clowns/jesters, circuses; – Mischievous or playful elves/dwarves/imps;
– Insectoid and reptilian creatures, aliens;
– Futuristic hypertechnological buildings and cities;
– Complex machinery, hyper-advanced technology; – Being observed and/or experimented upon;
– Unknown places apparently on Earth.

A number of these features are common in ‘trip reports’ by users and, notably, unique to DMT. Users typically describe the DMT world as being more real than ordinary waking reality, even after the experience has ended. The lucidity of the experience is also striking—the lack of haziness or stoning allows the user to experience the effects as if in an ordinary waking state. Perhaps the most interesting of the recurrent themes, recounted by a significant proportion of users, is the experience of apparently hyperadvanced technological societies, with highly intelligent entities occupying futuristic cities and unearthly landscapes, manipulating complex machinery. Often the entities appear as mischievous or playful ‘elves’ that vie for the attention of the user...

...While elves, aliens, and insectoid entities appear regularly, they are by no means the only type of entity met in the DMT realm—angels, demons, monsters, chimeras, and animals, among others, also are reported (Shanon 2002), although some of these are more typical of ayahuasca. Sometimes, the entity isn’t identifiable by form, but manifests as an overwhelming presence that seems extraordinarily powerful (Strassman 2001).

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It would be a truly startling coincidence if DMT, the simplest tryptamine possible with little chemical functionality, the most widely distributed in nature and a natural human metabolite, just happens to be the only one capable of perturbing brain chemistry in such a finely tuned manner so as to produce apparent transport to alien worlds—all by chance and without any functional significance. And yet, this is exactly what we are faced with. It is difficult to reconcile these characteristics of DMT and its effects on consciousness with the assumption that DMT is merely an exogenous psychedelic drug and that any psychedelic effects are incidental and unrelated to its neural function. The nature of DMT and its effects might be better understood if, rather than as an exogenous drug, we begin to regard DMT as a neuromodulator with a long-standing relationship with the human brain.

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The thalamocortical states that are generated under DMT modulation are highly regular and highly specific—we know this because the worlds that appear are highly regular and highly specific to DMT. This is difficult to explain unless the brain contains more than one parallel ‘set’ of thalamocortical connectivities—one that developed under the modulation of serotonin (the ‘consensus set’) and one that developed under the modulation of DMT (the ‘alien set’). As such, the set that is expressed depends upon which neuromodulator is present; when serotonin is present, the consensus set is expressed and thus the consensus world appears. When DMT is present, the parallel ‘alien set’ is expressed and the alien world appears.

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The presence of any molecule that shifts the 5HT1A/5HT2A balance in favor of 5HT2A will result in a temporary breakdown of the ‘consensus set’ of thalamocortical connectivities and re- potentiate the thalamocortical system. This would include DMT, of course. Now, one can imagine that if extrinsic data from an alternate reality (the nature of which is unimportant here) was received when DMT was present, a new set of functional connectivities and activation patterns would begin to develop in exactly the same way that the ‘consensus set’ developed in the presence of serotonin (Figure 10). Further, exactly as with serotonin, this would need to happen repeatedly over an extended period of time (i.e. evolutionary time). Eventually, the thalamocortical system would develop the ability to build the ‘alien world’ in the same way it builds the ‘consensus world’ and thus possess two completely independent and parallel world-building modes. Which mode is expressed (i.e. whether the intrinsic thalamocortical activity constructs the consensus world or the alien world) and thus which world is seen, depends only upon which molecule is present—serotonin or DMT. Conceptually, at least, there would be no issue in the brain accommodating such parallel patterns of functional connectivity, as there is massive redundancy in neural connections, and the majority of neural connections are not functionally expressed at any one time (Edelman 1993)...

...This explanation resolves the question as to why DMT is unique in its ability to transport the user to these characteristic alien worlds. Its uniqueness is simply a consequence of the fact that it was the neuromodulator present when the thalamocortical connectivities of the alien world were developed. As such, the intrinsic activity that generates the appearance of the alien world can be expressed only in its presence, in exactly the same way that the consensus world appears in the presence of serotonin. This also provides a neurological mechanism for the suggestion that DMT ‘tunes’ the brain to receive sensory data from another reality. As discussed earlier, extrinsic sensory information adds very little new information to the brain, but is, rather, ‘matched’ to ongoing intrinsic activity, which it amplifies. Thus, sensory data from the DMT reality can only be received only when it matches ongoing intrinsic activity within the brain’s thalamocortical system. DMT, by replacing serotonin in the cortex, acts to shift the thalamocortical system into generating the appropriate intrinsic activity. A structurally unremarkable neuromodulator thus has the most remarkable effects. In fact, this model would predict that DMT is the only molecule capable of shifting the thalamocortical system into a state in which it constructs these characteristic alien worlds.

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So far, it has been suggested that the characteristics of DMT and its interaction with the brain are indicative of an endogenous molecule. Also, the psychedelic effects of DMT, fully immersive hallucinogenesis during which the consensus world is completely replaced with an apparently ‘alien’ world, might be explained if DMT was the major neuromodulator present when a parallel set of thalamocortical connectivities were developed. Both of these ideas would make sense if DMT is an ancestral neuromodulator, i.e. a neuromodulator that, at some point in our evolutionary past, was secreted in psychedelic concentrations by the brain. However, most of this functional capacity has subsequently been lost and the DMT that is currently present in the brain is possibly vestigial and might not have a significant modern function. So, in this ancestral period, the brain would have produced both serotonin and DMT, although probably not at the same time. The evolution of the consensus world–building capabilities of the brain took place under the modulation of serotonin, and was driven by the extrinsic sensory data from the consensus world. However, periodically, the brain was able to switch from primarily serotonin secretion to DMT secretion. This switch made the brain more sensitive and receptive to sensory data from the alternate reality, the ‘alien world’. This is because DMT’s 5HT1A and 5HT2A binding signature facilitated intrinsic thalamocortical activity that more closely matched the extrinsic sensory data from that particular reality. Over time, the intrinsic activity of the thalamocortical system and the alien reality became more and more closely ‘matched’ (i.e. the same mechanism by which the brain developed its consensus- world–building capabilities, except that DMT, rather than serotonin, was present).

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So, rather than the administration of an exogenous drug, smoking DMT could be regarded as reconstitution of an ancestral function. There is no reason to assume that the current repertoire of neuromodulators used by the human brain represents all that have ever been used. This may mean that those looking for a modern function for the small quantities of DMT currently secreted by the brain could be misguided—the function may well be in the past. Why this function was lost is unclear, as is the site of production/secretion in the brain. However, the idea that the human brain has actually regressed functionally in the last ~100,000 years is increasingly attracting attention (Gynn & Wright 2008). It is notable that Gynn and Wright make the case for a decline in pineal function, caused by changes in human’s ancestral diet, as an explanation for many modern human ‘left brain’ characteristics. Although they focus on the pineal gland’s role in the production of melatonin, a hormone associated with the diurnal wake–sleep cycle, it is striking that the pineal has been proposed as a possible site of endogenous DMT synthesis (Strassman, Wojtowicz, Luna, & Frecska 2008). Further, the pineal gland’s primarily nocturnal activity, secreting melatonin only during darkness, accords with the ancestral neuromodulator proposal. In fact, it is possible that there has been either a contraction of pineal function or a functional reassignment, its role shifting from DMT secretion to melatonin secretion—melatonin is itself a tryptamine (specifically, N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine). Luke, Zychowicz, Richterova, Tjurina, and Polonnikova (2012) have explored the idea that the cycle of DMT and melatonin secretion by the pineal might still be correlated and related to precognitive dreams. Although nobody has ever measured DMT levels in the brain directly, it seems likely that any DMT secretion is sub- psychedelic; otherwise, dreams ought to resemble the DMT flash. The pineal has, since ancient times, been regarded as a connection between the material and spiritual worlds (López-Muňoz, Molina, Rubio, & Alamo 2011). Perhaps there is an element of truth in these ostensibly primitive ideas. Certainly, this needs to be explored further and will no doubt be the subject of future
discussions.

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Seriously proposing that the brain is capable of receiving extrinsic data from an alternate alien reality is certainly bold. However, this discussion has deliberately avoided defining the nature of the external world and certainly shies away from defining the nature of any alien world. A true external alien reality, the nature of which is difficult to comprehend, isn’t necessarily a requisite within the ancestral neuromodulator model of DMT. Jung proposed that fragments of the psyche buried in the unconscious might carry on a completely separate existence from the conscious ego. These autonomous psychic complexes form a miniature, self-contained psyche and are, perhaps, even capable of a consciousness of their own (Jacobi 1959). If confronted, these complexes would appear entirely alien, with qualities of outside objects or persons. It is conceivable that, rather than receiving extrinsic data from an external alien reality, the parallel thalamocortical repertoire explored and developed during elevated DMT secretion in sleep may in fact represent the informational structure of these autonomous psychic complexes. Rather than learning to build a representation of an alien reality external to the brain, the brain in fact may have learned to build a conscious representation of deep unconscious structures. Laughlin (1996) argues that Jung’s constellation of human archetypes that constitute the collective consciousness are neurognostic structures (neural structures present from birth that produce the experience of the foetus and infant) that are both inheritable and subject to evolution. It ought to be clear that these neural structures are analogous to, if not identifiable with, the thalamocortical connectivities discussed at length in this paper. Clearly, if ancestral DMT secretion facilitated the development of a parallel set of inheritable neurognostic structures (thalamocortical connectivities), whether or not involving data input from a true external alien reality, these may form an autonomous fragment of the collective unconscious (a universal autonomous psychic complex) that can be expressed only when DMT levels in the brain are reconstituted (i.e. by smoking or injection of exogenous DMT). This would explain the phenomenal commonalities reported by DMT users, while also explaining why DMT alone seems capable of evoking these characteristic alien worlds. One can at least speculate that this universal psychic complex might evolve somewhat independently and, perhaps, far more rapidly than other parts of the collective unconscious and the conscious ego. Would this explain why the worlds and their occupants experienced under DMT often appear extremely intelligent and hypertechnological? This requires a far more detailed examination than can be presented here, but it is certainly an interesting idea.

15
Neuroscientists Say They've Found an Entirely New Form of Neural Communication

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Scientists think they've identified a previously unknown form of neural communication that self-propagates across brain tissue, and can leap wirelessly from neurons in one section of brain tissue to another – even if they've been surgically severed.

The discovery offers some radical new insights about the way neurons might be talking to one another, via a mysterious process unrelated to conventionally understood mechanisms, such as synaptic transmission, axonal transport, and gap junction connections.

"We don't know yet the 'So what?' part of this discovery entirely," says neural and biomedical engineer Dominique Durand from Case Western Reserve University.

"But we do know that this seems to be an entirely new form of communication in the brain, so we are very excited about this."

Before this, scientists already knew there was more to neural communication than the above-mentioned connections that have been studied in detail, such as synaptic transmission.

For example, researchers have been aware for decades that the brain exhibits slow waves of neural oscillations whose purpose we don't understand, but which appear in the cortex and hippocampus when we sleep, and so are hypothesised to play a part in memory consolidation.

"The functional relevance of this input‐ and output‐decoupled slow network rhythm remains a mystery," explains neuroscientist Clayton Dickinson from the University of Alberta, who wasn't involved in the new research but has discussed it in a perspective article.

"But [it's] one that will probably be solved by an elucidation of both the cellular and the inter‐cellular mechanisms giving rise to it in the first place."

To that end, Durand and his team investigated slow periodic activity in vitro, studying the brain waves in hippocampal slices extracted from decapitated mice.

What they found was that slow periodic activity can generate electric fields which in turn activate neighbouring cells, constituting a form of neural communication without chemical synaptic transmission or gap junctions.

"We've known about these waves for a long time, but no one knows their exact function and no one believed they could spontaneously propagate," Durand says.

"I've been studying the hippocampus, itself just one small part of the brain, for 40 years and it keeps surprising me."

This neural activity can actually be modulated - strengthened or blocked - by applying weak electrical fields and could be an analogue form of another cell communication method, called ephaptic coupling.

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The team's most radical finding was that these electrical fields can activate neurons through a complete gap in severed brain tissue, when the two pieces remain in close physical proximity.

"To ensure that the slice was completely cut, the two pieces of tissue were separated and then rejoined while a clear gap was observed under the surgical microscope," the authors explain in their paper.

"The slow hippocampal periodic activity could indeed generate an event on the other side of a complete cut through the whole slice."

If you think that sounds freaky, you're not the only one. The review committee at The Journal of Physiology – in which the research has been published – insisted the experiments be completed again before agreeing to print the study.

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