Category Archives: Worldviews and Ethics

Life, Technology and Meaning

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Rather a grander title than this post. I’ve been so busy the last three weeks that time to ruminate has suffered. So today I integrate some of the exterior into the interior – sort of like what sleep ostensibly does to our daily experiences each evening.

Writing aside, my Twitter connections have fed so much material around the themes that I follow that the tide has pretty much swept the beach clean. Some reading, a lot of “archive and get to later” and even more “wow, that was interesting and maybe I can follow up.” The whole area of so-called “emerging technologies” across the broad human spectrum has been simultaneously wondering and haunting.

Biotech has been of hot interest of late – so many drugs and technologies evolving at a such a rapid pace. “Kill switches” in GMO’s actualize at least one movie plot whose name now escapes me. The whole nascent realm of synthetic biology is fascinating as is the related areas around genomics. Two films I’ve seen recently, “One Sense” and “The Last Days,” both European rather than American, artfully touch on related ideas in differing styles. “One Sense” in particular, with its storyline of gradual sensory loss until only the afflicted’s sense of touch remains, strikes a nerve around the whole idea of feeling my collective humanity.

“Wearables” – whether bracelets, watches, Google Glass-style eyewear, or VR goggles continue the technological march into our “quantified selves” and our layering of increasing virtual realities and data across our physical sensory worlds. More data, but not yet so useful until contextualized, or analyzed, or tied through social media or some form of internet-of-things into a larger collective framework. Whatever I may think about it, it has to be absorbed (or disavowed if so inclined).

I find the swiftly evolving technological expertise in China and other Asian nation markets astonishing as technology once developed and exported primarily for western consumption is increasingly funneled into its own home markets. Xiaomi, Alibaba, Malaysian startups – not to mention Japan’s cultural technology integration – seem but glimpses of the future, an Asian singularity racing to an unrealized future all its own.

Futurists, disruptive insights and technologies, innovations, clean energy technologies are just a few others recently streaming across my internal monitor.

Tying it all together, for me, is the other half of the equation – how to use new technologies in ethical  and people-affirming ways. Our much-stained history isn’t particularly encouraging, and yet some things seem more encouraging now than at any time in the past.

I’ve seen reiterated recently that our technological advances serve our philosophies/worldviews. (And vice versa, these same mental model constructs determine what technologies we develop in an often closed loop.) And so the intense competition among philosophies, ideologies, theologies and so forth is at least of equal, if not of more, import than our technologies.

Quick, and off-the-cuff, but oh so interesting these days…wonder, both positive and negative, at this world around.

Challenge (and Define) What you Think

For those with the occasional thoughtful bent as winter comes on, check out the description below from Open Culture.  It’s work, but an occasional video makes for a great evening discussion with a group of good friends. Best of all, it’s free.

The Philosophy section of our big Free Online Courses collection just went through another update, and it now features 100 courses. Enough to give you a soup-to-nuts introduction to a timeless discipline. You can start with one of several introductory courses.

Our worldviews form the basis for what our thinking preferences, emotional IQs, personalities and communications styles share with the world around us. That journey continues to challenge me…and yet it also frees me, when I let it.

What is most Fair?

Things feel fair or unfair. Our emotions play a central role in our perceptions of fairness and how we respond to injustice. fMRI imaging studies of individuals making decisions involving fairness indicate that emotions help determine a person’s attitude towards inequity through involvement of the insula.

The question in a University of Illinois and California Institute of Technology study, “Which is better, giving more food to a few hungry people or letting some food go to waste so that everyone gets a share” finds that most people choose the latter. As a social species, we as individuals are fairly intolerant of inequality.

“One could choose to take 15 meals from a single child, for example, or 13 meals from one child and five from another. In the first option the total number of meals lost would be lower. Efficiency would be preserved, but one child would bear the brunt of all the cuts. In the second option more children would share the burden of lost meals but more meals would be lost. The equity was better — but at a cost to efficiency.” We will see that everyone has a fair share even if it means that the overall resources available to us take a greater hit.

Of note, the decisions were made by individuals who were themselves well-fed and not in danger of starving. When things are going well we tend to favor equity for all. In times of scarcity, danger or other threat, self-preservation instincts tend to override this behavior. In other words, it would seem that we would maintain this pattern of sharing because it feels right until the resources actually started running out.

In a world of growing scarcity and competition for resources this becomes increasingly relevant.

Link: ScienceDaily, Coaching Fairness, Fairness and Feeling Good

The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love

An interesting link on the nature, expression and fostering of altruism and related is www.unlimitedloveinstitute.org. Per its mission statement –

The unique mission of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love is:

(1) to study the benefits of benevolent love for those who give it and for those who receive it
(2) to bring the results of research to the wider public in understandable and practical format
(3) to sustain an international dialogue around the possibility of global human enhancement through the application of a new science of love
(4) to encourage discussion within spiritual traditions about love for a shared humanity, rather than for some small fragment of humanity
(5) to develop an ongoing dialogue between spirituality, theology, and science around the idea of unlimited love as the ultimate ground of reality

It minimally provides a complementary venue to the more traditional philosophical, theological and scientific approaches without apparently marginalizing any of them.

See also:  The Influence of Others, Empathy and Learning to do Good, Practice Giving for your Health and Peace of Mind, Paying Taxes Makes me Feel Good?

I will Decide . . . at some Point in Time

The debate around free will ebbs and flows with each new study.  We certainly like to think that we have the ability to freely make and follow the decisions that we make.  Most of the time anyway.  We also seem to like blaming anything or anybody other than oursleves when situations start “heading south” as the old saying goes.

When do we make decisions?  At what point do we become aware that we’ve made a decision?  And at the point at which we realize that we’ve made a decision, have we perhaps made it earlier than we realize.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, have demonstrated that portions of the brain iinvolved in our decision-making processes are activated up to seven seconds before we are consciously aware that we have made a decision.

As they are quick to point out – “Our study shows that decisions are unconsciously prepared much longer ahead than previously thought.   But we do not know yet where the final decision is made.  We need to investigate whether a decision prepared by these brain areas can still be reversed.”

So the jury remains out for the moment, at least in terms of this study.  When do I decide? At some point in time.

Link:  Decision-making may be Surprisingly Unconscious Activity

The Influence of Others, Empathy and Learning to Do Good

Why do we behave? Janneke Joly, Ph.D., the University of Groningen, suggests that we are prompted by others to do so and that we do it under three distinct influences – other people’s physical presence, the association of a particular person with a normative behavior, or having their memory on our minds.  In other words, my mother standing next to me, the association of her with cleaning my plate of all its food, or the memory of her telling me to clean my plate will all have the effect of influencing me to finish my meal.

Now, if the norm happens to be that altruism or doing good is a proper thing to do, then each of the three influences above will tend to direct me to do good.  But why I do good could be motivated by a variety of things.  Recent research by psychologist Lidewij Niezink, also of the University of Groningen, suggests that we help friends due to our empathy with them whereas we tend to help relatives because we expect help back in return.  This has a certain logic.  As the old cliche goes, you can’t choose your relatives.  We may or may not have a lot in common with siblings or parents whereas we will tend to have more in common with the friends that we choose – hence an easier time empathizing with them.

Finally, we are hardly off the hook if we state that we just don’t have a lot of empathy for people, period.  Maybe so.  But researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison state that kindness and compassion can be learned.  Functional MRI studies indicate that “brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation.”  Activity increased in the insula, a portion of the brain where bodily representations of emotion tend to be processed, and the temporal parietal juncture, which processes empathy.  The net result was that individuals who practiced “compassion meditation,” the art of generating kind and compassionate thoughts towards others, thought and acted more compassionately.

So in summary, thoughts of my mother telling me to be kind to my crazy Aunt Meg will influence me to do so, even though I don’t want to.  I may expect that Aunt Meg will be nice to me in return, even though she and I have little in common.  Nevertheless, under my mother’s influence I decide to do so and after a few minutes of quiet thoughts of good will towards her I surprisingly find it easier to do so.  Anybody relate?

Where is a History of Feeling?

An interesting book review highlights the relationship between experience and brain chemistry among its other items.  On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail suggests that one common theme through history is our desire as human beings to alter our moods and feelings.  And what I find interesting is that the emphasis is on mood and feelings rather than a more cerebral cognition.

This binary disconnect between cognitive thinking and emotion can sometimes be summed up like this, I suspect.  I think, therefore I am.  I feel, there fore I am ALIVE.  Emotion trumps cognitive thinking over and over again in terms of strength in our overall sense of awareness.  We exist to feel in profound ways and the great religions of the world have gone into sometimes exquisite detail on the “heart” and its management.

There have been many intellectual histories written that trace the development of ideas.  Ideas grow, change, and evolve as mental models frame and reframe around core concepts.  Emotions, moods and feelings remain much more constant over time.  Anger, love, hatred, and so forth remain from generation to generation, culture to culture.  What changes is how we allow ourselves to express them.  As Star says:

“Our very synapses are shaped by experience and education from before birth to the time of death. The brain of a monk does not resemble the brain of a soldier or a taxicab driver. An impulse to swoon in distress or erupt in anger may be innate, but Victorian women were quicker to faint at the sight of blood and Southern men are faster to react to slights than women or men in many other places. These predispositions can be passed on from generation to generation without any alteration in anyone’s genes, and yet they are readily seen as aspects of our nature. In a way, they are. “Culture is wired in the brain,” Smail writes, and “cultural practices can have profound neurophysiological consequences.”

It would be interesting, I think, to see a written emotional history comparable in scope to the great intellectual histories.  They may exist (and if anyone knows of a good recommendation please post).  Smail’s book would to a subset of that category as he focuses upon the more narrow subject of our pursuit of mood altering technologies.  But he brings up important questions relative to our continuing efforts to come to grips with both our thinking and feeling selves.

Link: I Feel Good

Culture Influences Brain Function

Been out for the holidays among other things but of interest on my return is a news release indicating that cultural bias can influence physiological brain function.  ScienceDaily, in this post, states that people from different cultures use their brains differently to solve the same visual perception tasks.  Using the binary cultural differentiation broadly characteristic of Eastern and Western cultures (emphasis upon the individual as opposed to emphasis upon the group), the study found that –

. . . the two groups showed different patterns of brain activation when performing these tasks. Americans, when making relative judgments that are typically harder for them, activated brain regions involved in attention-demanding mental tasks. They showed much less activation of these regions when making the more culturally familiar absolute judgments. East Asians showed the opposite tendency, engaging the brain’s attention system more for absolute judgments than for relative judgments.

Making judgments outside of one’s cultural comfort zone involves more brain processing activity.  As one of the study authors suggests –

“Everyone uses the same attention machinery for more difficult cognitive tasks, but they are trained to use it in different ways, and it’s the culture that does the training,” Gabrieli says. “It’s fascinating that the way in which the brain responds to these simple drawings reflects, in a predictable way, how the individual thinks about independent or interdependent social relationships.”

Of related interest is the impact of culture on the brain’s mirror neuron system, the system that operates both when we do something as well as when we merely observe someone doing something.  It is this observation aspect that is significant as neuroscientists presently think that this “mirroring” is the neural mechanism by which people are able to empathize with others.

A recent study indicates that mirror neuron activation increases when one is observing someone from one’s own cultural background as opposed to someone from a different cultural background, even when both are making the same culturally understood gestures.  “All in all, our research suggests that with mirror neurons our brain mirrors people, not simply actions,” this study’s author states.

And that has interesting implications for empathy, group dynamics, communication, and other issues.

This idea that culture not only trains and influences how we behave, but actually impacts the physiological ways in which we use our brains is an interesting springboard for further exploring how we relate to one another, and more importantly, how we can develop better communication and coaching tools for the building of community.

Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty

Three distinct responses to new information. Do I accept it or throw it out? Or am I unsure? Our cumulative responses together build our mental models – our worldviews of everything around us.

A study conducted by Mark Cohen, Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Sam Harris, a graduate student in his lab, and Sameer Sheth of the Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests that physiological differences in processing belief and disbelief are independent of content or emotional associations. It appears that different physiological portions of the brain process belief and disbelief as well as uncertainty.

Taken together, these data offer insight into the way in which our brains work to form beliefs about the world. “What I find most interesting about our results,” said Harris, “is the suggestion that our view of the world must pass through a bottle-neck in regions of the brain generally understood to govern emotion, reward, and primal feelings like pain and disgust. While evaluating mathematical, ethical, or factual statements requires very different kinds of processing, accepting or rejecting these statements seems to rely upon a more primitive process that may be content-neutral. I think that it has long been assumed that believing that “two plus two equals four” and believing that “George Bush is President of the United States” have almost nothing in common as cognitive operations. But what they clearly have in common is that both representations of the world satisfy some process of truth-testing that we continually perform. I think this is yet another result, in a long line of results, that calls the popular opposition between reason and emotion into question.”

Of many items of interest in this study is the association of emotion with our truth-discerning processes and our personal convictions.

Link: Study Shows Brain Responds Differently to Belief and Disbelief

Tagore, Delight, my Brain – and Memory

On a personal note, Tagore’s early letters have been a delight of late. Something moves me in his early, reflective writing – the discovery by youth of something of the mystery of self, perception and the world around it. On an extended, lazy river trip he writes –

There must have been some sudden excitement in the night which sent the current racing away. I rose and sat by the window. A hazy kind of light made the turbulent river look madder than ever. The sky was spotted with clouds. The reflection of a great big star quivered on the waters in a long streak, like a burning gash of pain. Both banks were vague with the dimness of slumber, and between them was this wild, sleepless unrest, running and running regardless of consequences.

To watch a scene like this in the middle of the night makes one feel altogether a different person, and the daylight life an illusion. Then again, this morning that midnight world faded away into some dreamland, and vanished into thin air. The two are so different, yet both are true for man. Shelidah, 10th August 1894.

Many other things move me as well of course. And of many things that they have in common, a piquant poignancy is one important thread among many – a poignancy that not only occurs “in the moment” of the actual event, but is brought forth again and heightened by the simple act of remembering.

Memory is a tricky thing – that which we remember is but one approximation of the actuality – colored by who we are and what we’ve experienced. Events often becomes more pleasant in memory than the actual event itself. Our brains are pretty good storage instruments in many regards – not so much of data perhaps, but of information (data interpreted) and experience (data acted upon). But they act more effectively as interpreters than storage instruments. (Check here and here for the drier explanation if you like.)

And that is significant. For us as individuals data alone is fairly irrelevant. But data that is interpreted, experienced and colored by the complex emotional components that spring from our brains is the stuff of which our memories are made.

I think that’s why experiments such as Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits, while important, and even useful as tools, ultimately remain only that – tools of recall for our brains and minds. The data is just data. Its significance lies in the act of recollection.

And so Tagore’s words move me in my memory some 100 years after they were written. It isn’t merely the data that he left behind – but what those words cause to resonate within me. And it is that resonance that causes me delight – even as it reminds me of the limitations of my mind.