Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Socrates gets an brain MRI scan

While I gather my words for the next post of philosophy and poetry, here's a link to an article on the neuropsychology of wisdom. I am on record as insisting that any "philosophy" that discards sophia is just so much academic, cocktail-party, or coffeehouse power jockeying; but bearing in mind some recent admonishments about the impossibility of disregarding science, I thought I might attempt to allay suspicions with a short post on the science of mental states.

The article's author, Stephen S. Hall, maintains a website including a blog, where there are some marvelous posts. The article itself is the germ of a book,
Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. You can also listen to the radio interview Hall gave today. (Note that Hall's interest is science in general, not "just" wisdom; see, e.g., this interview on genetics, the impact of science, and "science writing," among other things. A look at some of his archived articles on his website will reinforce this).

On wisdom, one of the interesting things I note is the cross-cultural consensus on what it entails: among other things, emotional equanimity, a kind of altruism or empathy, and a long view; wisdom, Hall underscores, seems to be future-oriented. (It is no coincidence, I suggest, that this is what Heidegger says about Dasein in its authenticity).

Regarding emotional balance, I am reminded of another famous study, the so-called "Nun Study". A good summary is in Martin Selligman's book
Authentic Happiness. The results point to a fairly strong correlation between optimism and longevity. The nuns (an ideal control population, since almost all 'outside
factors' like lifestyle, diet, exercise were eliminated), all wrote, in the 1930s, personal statements, which many decades later, scoured for keywords betokening either optimism or pessimism, yielded surprising results when matched with the actual lifespans of the authors. The study seems to be strong evidence that optimism really does correlate with long life.

However, another study, by Lauren Abramson and Lyn Alloy (& also referenced by Selligman), yields a curious twist when contrasted with the Nun Study. College students were were put into situations in which they had a degree of control over a certain outcome--turning on a green light. Sometimes that control was of degree zero, sometimes it was 100%, sometimes it was in between. Students who were depressed tended to
accurately assess how much control they had. Non-depressed students tended always to overstate the degree of control they had-- sometimes believing they were influencing the outcome of whatever the process was when in fact it had nothing to do with what they did.

This is the famous "illusion of control," which plays into everything from gambling to witchcraft; it's also the much-debated phenomenon of "depressive realism."

Put these two studies together and what do you learn? In short, and oversimplifying for effect: if you are a look-on-the-bright-side type, you will be happy and long-lived, but wrong; and if you are a pessimist, you will tend to be accurate, dour, and die young. But the paradox that arises is, how to assess this apparently accurate finding? does it reinforce pessimism? Is it possible to cultivate optimism for the sake of its benefits (apparently accurately assessed) even when you know that pessimism, not optimism, hones (or at least correlates with) accuracy?

It may be possible to be scientific about happiness, and even about wisdom. But it is harder, and more important, to be wise about science.


  1. It seems to me not far off before we will be able to use functional imaging to map out the circuits of the brain and begin a critique of differing mental processes. Some will be obviously harmful and others subtle and complicated. Not long after we may be able to manipulate the circuits to *fix* ones we find dangerous, or perhaps merely objectionable. This is obviously going to be very complicated and controversial. What about pedophilia? Is it absolutely evil or only if expressed? How much art might we discover to be sublimations of circuits that we find objectionable? So do we *fix* the pedophiles? How about people into bondage? Or shoes? And what about religious behavior? Can we start prescribing that the terrorist's brain be re-imaged to look a little more like Gandhi's? But why Gandhi? Why not George W Bush? He claims some pretty important religious guidance. Of course we'd be able to look into his brain and figure out if he lied about that. Maybe all our politicians should subject themselves to scans to prove their allegiance to their stated causes. Perhaps divinity schools will only graduate those with a verifiable functional MRI. If you fail it might just cost extra for the re-imaging. But then perhaps the capacity for spiritual ecstasy is an inalienable right not yet realized. If everybody becomes a wondering monk who will raise the food? I think the answer to that one obvious: the robots. Next, of course, robot activists who think we should rewire robot heads for spirituality.

    Scientific ethics is always very hard and quite possibly too much for our current state of cultural evolution. I'm not sure that means we should stop the science while we all catch up. After thousands of years of study, ethics has achieved very little in theory and absolutely nothing in practice (I'm referring to the permanence of atrocity).

  2. I have been a long time advocate and investor in stem cell technology. The Bush years were very painful. It wasn't the benign neglect of non-funding that hurt the field as much as the active warfare against those who dared proceed anyways. A bureaucracy like the FDA is very easy to infiltrate with idealogue naysayers. Not that embryonic stem cell research isn't full of ethical dilemmas. Creating embryos for scientific research is questionable. But it was the scientists themselves who recognized this and quickly worked for solutions. After all, a professional scientist and physician dedicated to the welfare of his patients and species is at as least likely to be a thoughtful and spiritual being as a poly sci grad from Oral Roberts University. Dr Robert Lanza, the Chief Science Officer at Advanced Cell Technology (I'm not suggesting anybody invest--just pointing out historical names) found an elegant solution. Using the same early cell used to diagnose genetic diseases in embryos before IVF implantation he was able to create embryonic stem cell lines without destroying, or harming in any way, the embryo. But of course that wasn't good enough. And no solution ever will be. If we wait for consensus on ethical issues we will scarcely be able to organize a dinner much less solve difficult and meaningful problems. But the story does have a happy moment. New and slightly less restrictive regulations have recently been passed which appear to allow these lines to be used and later this year Advanced Cell Technology expects to be the first company ever allowed (in the US) to do human trials of an embryonic stem cell treatment. The line of cells they will be testing, if as effective in humans as in other species tested, will treat over 200 blindness causing diseases, the most common of which, Macular degeneration, affects 15% of the current population and would eventually affect everyone if we lived long enough. I maintain that not doing science may be at least as ethically problematic as doing it. But those with more sensitive souls should follow their consciences and look forward (with their stem cell cured eyes) to the damnation of those who dare play god.

    Obviously I'm having a little fun here. Please don't take offense.

  3. Dy0genes,

    Interesting you should mention Lanza. I am mildly intrigued by his "biocentrism" speculations. Some of what I have read online left me underwhelmed, but the American Scholar article was pretty good. (I have not read his book yet). I was thinking about him because biocentrism seems to me a beautiful example of a respected scientist giving rein to his more fringe-science hobbies while retaining his street cred. It is astonishing to me that his colleagues do not jump down his throat. If he had suggested an interest in, say, Intelligent Design, he would have been pilloried. This is not to say that he has had no criticism, but what I have read has been mild indeed. Nothing like, say, what happened to Rupert Sheldrake.

    You are absolutely right that "ethics of science" should be generated out of scientific practice... I would say that science itself is an ethical response. This doesn't mean of course that science is always ethical; but I would willingly include the scientist's urge to understand as an instance in humankind's responding to the "desire to be known" that Rilke imaginatively attributes to the world. When I advocate being "wise about science" I hope no one takes me as having advocated (per impossible) "stopping science while we catch up."

    However the Brave New World scenarios you conjure up are all too plausible, and call for tripled vigilance. There will be quite a lot for philosophers to do in the future, assuming it includes civilization at all.

  4. Just for a little perspective, the stem cell lines that will be used for the above mentioned trials were developed in 2001. They have been sitting in freezers ever since. Perhaps we will one day call the Bush era the Ice age of science. Hard to imagine global warming as a bad thing during the ice age. I don't mean to tar you with the same brush I'm using on the scientific obstructionists. They cannot, of course, stop science but they can make sure America loses our edge in certain fields and delay treatments for the ill(might as well say blind, paralyse or murder).

    Lanza is an interesting guy. I don't personally have any patience with his biocentrism (I don't plan on reading his book). It seems to me like an attempt to smuggle some tired old teleology into a field in which none belongs. But it doesn't matter to me. His speculations neither help *nor hurt* his science and that is an important point. Lanza is a tireless booster for himself and his science. There are more central and less controversial figures in the field I could have mentioned but, as you astutely perceived, Lanza is a great example of how human complexity and duality is allowed amongst scientists. (If he had advocated Intelligent design he would have been denying known science, as it is, so far, he is merely speculating about things beyond the pale of science--but I think he's close to crossing that line)