Category Archives: brain

Are We Racists?

BMAI friends. The following ramble is my first cut at making sense of the grave role racial (and other) bias is playing in the world today. This was prompted by comments I see daily from my family and friends on social media. Thinking about the great lack of self- and group-awareness many of the commenters display, I turned my scope inward. How do my own innate, evolved biases slant me to take my group’s and my own privileges for granted and make invalid assumptions about those I perceive (subconsciously or explicitly) to be ‘the other’? I put this forward to start a discussion and hope you will contribute your own insights and references. Feel free to post comments or even insert questions, comments, or new text directly into my text. Of course, you can create your own new posts as well. Thanks.

Two Levels of Racism
1. Population Group Level
Racism is an expression of group dynamics. Consider two levels of racism. First, there’s systemic racism where conditions in a population generally favor one race over others. One race (or maybe a few races) has greater access to material and cultural influence in the population. This does not occur accidentally, but through the ongoing efforts of the dominant group to achieve and expand its controlling influence.
2. Individual and Local-Group Level
That’s where the second level of racism comes in. How a person perceives any group’s efforts to attain equal access and influence depends on whether the person is in the dominant group or the aspiring group. There are many ways individuals and their affinity groups perceive and act within the racially unequal system to maintain or change the racial inequalities. The group in power perceives efforts in its favor as good, appropriate, justified, patriotic, necessary, ethical, moral, and even (when there’s a shared group supernatural narrative) ordained, holy, etc. When a member of an out-group appears to support (or at least not outwardly oppose) the in-group’s dominance, members of the in-group view that as a proof that they are rightfully on top.
The group in power perceives any questioning of its dominance in the larger population as suspicious, dishonest, lazy (attempts to gain more access than is deserved), subversive, unpatriotic (or even treasonous), or (through the lens of dogma) evil, anti-God, etc. Obviously, racism (and other efforts to maintain inequality) is at work when these perceptions are acted out by legislators, law enforcers, prosecutors, juries, judges, presidents and their staff members, the private sector, and individual members of the favored group.
Members of a group with less influence perceive their questioning of the dominant group’s power in opposite terms from how the dominant group sees their struggle. Members of lower-access groups experience their quest for equality on all fronts as expressions of their inherent right–even necessity–to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness.” They see the efforts of dominant groups to control and exclude them as unjustified oppression by people who abuse the power provided them within a biased system that clearly needs to be changed.
On the first (population) level, racism is an aspect of the in-group/out-group dynamics that are present in all of us. Our ‘hard-wired’ programming is to subconsciously favor those we perceive to be more like us (in outward appearance, views, and culture) and subconsciously feel some degree of aversion and suspicion (and often fear) of those whose appearances, views, and culture vary from ours. Groups (through the actions of their members and leaders) use their power to slant social and economic systems to favor their own power and influence and to decrease the influence of those they perceive as not members of their group(s). When this natural bias results in one racial group having greater access to resources (education, healthcare, emergency services, and other public services; jobs; legislative influence; judicial equality; media visibility; etc.), systemic or structural racism is in place.
A takeaway of all this is that we are all racists, in the sense that the human brain has evolved complex social navigation functions that include strong biases in favor of one’s perceived in-group and disfavoring members of all other groups. To the extent we are hard-wired to perceive people who (as a category) look superficially different from us as somehow less safe or worthy of inclusion and power-sharing, we are innately racist. When we make the effort to become aware of, challenge, and ensure our racial biases do not influence our words and actions, we are moving toward a less bigoted way of being.

State of AI progress

An MIT Technology Review article introduces the man responsible for the 30-year-old deep learning approach, explains what deep machine learning is, and questions whether deep learning may be the last significant innovation in the AI field. The article also touches on a potential way forward for developing AIs with qualities more analogous to the human brain’s functioning.

Downward mental causation and free will

I know, to free will or not to free will, that is the hackneyed question debated in philosophical circles since we learned how to talk. But here’s a cognitive neuroscientist’s research on “how neuronal code underlies top-down mental causation.” It’s a long video, over 2 hours, and I have yet to complete it. Here is Peter Tse’s CV.  Here is his book on the topic is. Here is a good summary of Tse’s work on the topic.

Daniel Dennett on the evolution of the mind

The Google talk on his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. The blurb:

“How did we come to have minds? For centuries, this question has intrigued psychologists, physicists, poets, and philosophers, who have wondered how the human mind developed its unrivaled ability to create, imagine, and explain. Disciples of Darwin have long aspired to explain how consciousness, language, and culture could have appeared through natural selection, blazing promising trails that tend, however, to end in confusion and controversy. Even though our understanding of the inner workings of proteins, neurons, and DNA is deeper than ever before, the matter of how our minds came to be has largely remained a mystery. That is now changing, says Daniel C. Dennett. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his most comprehensive exploration of evolutionary thinking yet, he builds on ideas from computer science and biology to show how a comprehending mind could in fact have arisen from a mindless process of natural selection. Part philosophical whodunit, part bold scientific conjecture, this landmark work enlarges themes that have sustained Dennett’s legendary career at the forefront of philosophical thought.”

Future discussion topic recommendations

Several of us met on Labor Day with the goal of identifying topics for at least five future monthly meetings. (Thanks, Dave N, for hosting!) Being the overachievers we are, we pushed beyond the goal. Following are the resulting topics, which will each have its own article on this site where we can begin organizing references for the discussion:

  • sex-related influences on emotional memory
    • gross and subtle brain differences (e.g., “walls of the third ventricle – sexual nuclei”)
    • “Are there gender-based brain differences that influence differences in perceptions and experience?”
    • epigenetic factors (may need an overview of epigenetics)
  • embodied cognition
    • computational grounded cognition (possibly the overview and lead-in topic)
    • neuro-reductionist theory vs. enacted theory of mind
    • “Could embodied cognition influence brain differences?” (Whoever suggested this, please clarify.)
  • brain-gut connection (relates to embodied cognition, but can stand on its own as a topic)
  • behavioral priming (one or multiple discussions)
  • neuroscience of empathy – effects on the brain, including on neuroplasticity
  • comparative effects of various meditative practices on the brain
  • comparative effects of various psychedelics on the brain
  • effects of childhood poverty on the brain

If I missed anything, please edit the list (I used HTML in the ‘Text’ view to get sub-bullets). If you’re worried about the formatting, you can email your edits to and Mark will post your changes.

The differences between sitting and moving meditative states

Here is Thompson’s talk on the topic. As a dancer and martial artist, as well as an embodied cognitioner, this talk is particularly relevant to me. I’ve been saying since forever that these arts are meditative disciplines in themselves. And one doesn’t necessarily need the sitting still sort of meditation to achieve meta-cognition.

Having done both kinds my anectodic report is that both sitting and moving meditation induce meta-cognition. But there are no studies on movement meditation to confirm it as yet. That’s part of what Thompson is complaining about, and encouraging the scientific meditative researchers to start investigating.

Around 14:20 he said that research has show that perception is different when one initiates movement than when one is passively moved. He did not directly compare perception with movement to perception while completely still, so not sure of those differences.

At 18:20 he reiterates a point made elsewhere, that individual meta-cognition is an internalized form of social cognition, a point I used in the paper on collective enlightenment. He then brings in Vygotsky’s work along this line, different than Piaget’s. In our paper I also brought in Habermas’ use of Mead in this regard. For reference, also see Edwards’ 3-part series at Integral World on the depth of the exteriors. 

At 23:40 is an important point to my initial inquiry about comparing sitting and moving meditation: “If two cognitive systems include different cognitive practices, the two systems can have different cognitive properties, even when the neural network activations are the same.” 

At 30:20 Thompson said that attention has no specific location in the brain but is the whole embodied subject. Attention isn’t a particular process or even a collection of processes, but a mode in which processes are related. I’m reminded of this discussion on amodal and supramodal processing, although that is limited to the brain and not the brain/mind/body/environment enaction Thompson discusses.

Finishing the talk he reiterates the need to extend scientific meditative research to the movement arts. From the above he seems to suggest that movement mediation, which perhaps activating the same brain areas, means something very different via its enaction than sitting meditation. So it is not the same meta-cognitive experience with the two forms.

Having done both kinds I find moving meditation activates and refines the spatial-temporal bodily image schema in a way that sitting meditation does not. In so doing it literally gives multiple views of objects within an immediate field of attention, thereby opening to multiple points of view rather than a fixed point of reference in sitting.

However the attention in sitting meditation, while opening to whatever arises, be it a sound or a thought, or even by focusing one one object, is still within a fixed center or perspective, this notion of a bare attention that theoretically has no center or ego reference. But that rests on an assumption that bare attention itself is beyond reference or perspective, while moving meditation’s sort of bare attention makes no such assumption given its ever shifting physical perspective. It seems that sitting mediation is literally fixated while moving meditation is multi-perspectival with no fixed center.

Just some biased ruminations that are sure to fire up the sitters! Have at it.


From intersubjectivity to interbeing

I was reminded today of this seminal paper by Evan Thompson with the above title. The premise:

“Human consciousness is not located in the head, but is immanent in the living body and the interpersonal social world. One’s consciousness of oneself as an embodied individual embedded in the world emerges through empathic cognition of others. Consciousness is not some peculiar qualitative aspect of private mental states, nor a property of the brain inside the skull; it is a relational mode of being of the whole person embedded in the natural environment and the human social world.”

There’s no such thing as a male or female brain

See this New Scientist article. Excerpt:

When the group looked at each individual brain scan, however, they found that very few people had all of the brain features they might be expected to have, based on their sex. Across the sample, between 0 and 8 per cent of people had “all-male” or “all-female” brains, depending on the definition. “Most people are in the middle,” says Joel.

This means that, averaged across many people, sex differences in brain structure do exist, but an individual brain is likely to be just that: individual, with a mix of features. “There are not two types of brain,” says Joel.