Category Archives: empathy

New frontiers in heart rate variability and social coherence research

Article subtitled “Techniques, technologies, and implications for improving group dynamics and outcomes.” It’s part of this Frontiers in Science ebook. In the introductory chapter here’s what the ebook’s editors had to say about it:

“In closing, McCraty is a well-known person throughout the HRV community, having been a proponent of HRV Biofeedback for decades. His experience in the field can be traced to the very roots of awareness of the power and plain excitement of HRV engagement. Among his many areas of study and advocacy can be found the concept of ‘social coherence.’ These ideas springboard off simple group HRV Biofeedback infused with the basic scientific notions of social nervous system and its role in social engagement a la Porges’ polyvagal theory, past the newly emerging field of scientific study of interoception, and lands in the field of electromagnetic potentials in the evolutionary dynamics of ecosystems. Sound thinking prevails in the article’s central thesis that feedback of individual and group HRV will increase group cohesion, thereby promoting pro-social behaviors, such as kindness and cooperation among individuals, improved communication, and decreases in social discord and adversarial interactions. ‘Biomagnetic fields produced by the heart may be a primary mechanism in mediating HRV synchronization among group members’ he writes. Peripheral, implicit, and embedded in this message is the ‘Global Coherence Initiative’ (GCI). GCI takes social coherence to its farthest limits and into the frequency zone that is shared by solar-geomagnetic field synchronization and Schuman Resonances, where it has been noted that these resonant frequencies directly overlap with those of the human brain and cardiovascular system.”
 

Cracking the code of rapid social transformation

If interested sign up for this free one-hour presentation on Wednesday, January 15. The blurb:

Terry Patten and other activist leaders facing the grim implications of climate chaos are seeing surprising glimpses of evolutionary emergence in culture around the world.

Are we capable of making a huge, visible difference? How could each of us live differently to actually make it happen? Which cutting-edge communities and collectives are emerging to catalyze rapid social transformation?

Questions Terry will address include:

  • What is our best real-world evidence of change agents and spiritual practitioners around the world rapidly advancing culture?
  • What are the new potentials for technological breakthroughs that can open a window of opportunity for fundamental systems redesign?
  • What catalytic work is being done already by volunteers and organizers around the world, and particularly in the USA, leading up to the 2020 election?
  • What are the scientifically-grounded, realistic, transformative potentials disclosed by quantum social theory?
  • How might the emerging field of intentional cultural evolution already be setting the stage for rapid social transformation — visible now only in thousands of seemingly insignificant but daring conscious social experiments?

Divided brain, divided world

I was reminded of the video below, and this longer examination of the ideas therein. Here’s the blurb from the latter:

“Divided Brain, Divided World explores the significance of the scientific fact that the two hemispheres of our brains have radically different ‘world views’. It argues that our failure to learn lessons from the crash, our continuing neglect of climate change, and the increase in mental health conditions may stem from a loss of perspective that we urgently need to regain. 

 
“Divided Brain, Divided World examines how related issues are illuminated by the ideas developed in author and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s critically acclaimed work: The Master and his Emissary. It features a dialogue between McGilchrist and Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre, Dr Jonathan Rowson, which informed a workshop with policymakers, journalists and academics.

“This workshop led to a range of written reflections on the strength and significance of the ideas, including critique, clarification and illustrations of relevance in particular domains, including economics, behavioural economics, climate change, NGO campaigning, patent law, ethics, and art.”
 

ai will never conquer humanity

From this piece located at the publications page of the International Computer Science Institute.   “Mathematical models help describe reality, but only by ignoring its inherent integrity.” Computers work on binary logic and the world is full of  ‘noise.’ Hence computers, and mathematical models for that matter, can only approximate reality by eliminating that noise.

“Can a bunch of bits represent reality exactly, in a way that can be controlled and predicted indefinitely? The answer is no, because nature is inherently chaotic, while a bunch of bits representing a program can never be so, by definition.”

Which leads us to ask: “Are our mathematical models just a desperate, failed attempt to de-noise an otherwise very confusing, extremely blurred reality?”

So yes, math and computers are quite useful as long as we keep the above in mind instead of assuming they reveal reality as it is. And as long as we also search for that noisy humanity in the spaces between binary logic, which will never be revealed by math or computers alone.

Can we understand other minds? Novels and stories say: no

by Kanta Dihal

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.

This particular hyperbolic gem has been doing the rounds on Tumblr for a while. It resurfaced in April 2018, in response to a viral Twitter challenge posed by the US podcaster Whitney Reynolds: women, describe yourself the way a male writer would.

The dare hit a sweet spot. Many could summon up passages from books containing terrible, sexualised descriptions of women. Some of us recalled Haruki Murakami, whose every novel can be summarised as: ‘Protagonist is an ordinary man, except lots of really beautiful women want to sleep with him.’ Others remembered J M Coetzee, and his variations on the plot: ‘Tenured male professor in English literature sleeps with beautiful female undergraduate.’ It was a way for us to joke about the fact that so much great literature was written by men who could express perfectly detailed visual descriptions of the female body, and yet possessed such an impoverished understanding of the female mind.

This is why the philosophical project of trying to map the contours of other minds needs a reality check. If other humans are beyond our comprehension, what hope is there for understanding the experience of animals, artificial intelligence or aliens?

I am a literature scholar. Over thousands of years of literary history, authors have tried and failed to convey an understanding of Others (with a capital ‘O’). Writing fiction is an exercise that stretches an author’s imagination to its limits. And fiction shows us, again and again, that our capacity to imagine other minds is extremely limited.

It took feminism and postcolonialism to point out that writers were systematically misrepresenting characters who weren’t like them. Male authors, it seems, still struggle to present convincing female characters a lot of the time. The same problem surfaces again when writers try to introduce a figure with a different ethnicity to their own, and fail spectacularly.

I mean, ‘coffee-coloured skin’? Do I really need to find out how much milk you take in the morning to know the ethnicity you have in mind? Writers who keep banging on with food metaphors to describe darker pigmentation show that they don’t appreciate what it’s like to inhabit such skin, nor to have such metaphors applied to it.

Conversely, we recently learnt that some publishers rejected the Korean-American author Leonard Chang’s novel The Lockpicker (2017) – for failing to cater to white readers’ lack of understanding of Korean-Americans. Chang gave ‘none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us’, one publisher’s letter said. ‘For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes …’ Any failure to understand a nonwhite character, it seems, was the fault of the nonwhite author.

Fiction shows us that nonhuman minds are equally beyond our grasp. Science fiction provides a massive range of the most fanciful depictions of interstellar space travel and communication – but anthropomorphism is rife. Extraterrestrial intelligent life is imagined as Little Green Men (or Little Yellow or Red Men when the author wants to make a particularly crude point about 20th-century geopolitics). Thus alien minds have been subject to the same projections and assumptions that authors have applied to human characters, when they fundamentally differ from the authors themselves.

For instance, let’s look at a meeting of human minds and alien minds. The Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin is best known for his trilogy starting with The Three-Body Problem (2008). It appeared in English in 2014 and, in that edition, each book has footnotes – because there are some concepts that are simply not translatable from Chinese into English, and English readers need these footnotes to understand what motivates the characters. But there are also aliens in this trilogy. From a different solar system. Yet their motivations don’t need footnoting in translation.

Splendid as the trilogy is, I find that very curious. There is a linguistic-cultural barrier that prevents an understanding of the novel itself, on this planet. Imagine how many footnotes we’d need to really grapple with the motivations of extraterrestrial minds.

Our imaginings of artificial intelligence are similarly dominated by anthropomorphic fantasies. The most common depiction of AI conflates it with robots. AIs are metal men. And it doesn’t matter whether the press is reporting on swarm robots invented in Bristol or a report produced by the House of Lords: the press shall plaster their coverage with Terminator imagery. Unless the men imagining these intelligent robots want to have sex with them, in which case they’re metal women with boobily breasting metal cleavage – a trend spanning the filmic arts from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the contemporary TV series Westworld (2016-). The way that we imagine nonhumans in fiction reflects how little we, as humans, really get each other.

All this supports the idea that embodiment is central to the way we understand one another. The ridiculous situations in which authors miss the mark stem from the difference between the author’s own body and that of the character. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if we can’t feel it. So, much as I enjoyed seeing a woman in high heels outrun a T-Rex in Jurassic World (2015), I knew that the person who came up with that scene clearly has no conception of what it’s like to inhabit a female body, be it human or Tyrannosaurus.

Because stories can teach compassion and empathy, some people argue that we should let AIs read fiction in order to help them understand humans. But I disagree with the idea that compassion and empathy are based on a deep insight into other minds. Sure, some fiction attempts to get us to understand one another. But we don’t need any more than a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else in order to empathise with them – and, hopefully, to not want to kill and destroy them.

As the US philosopher Thomas Nagel claimed in 1974, a human can’t know what it is like to be a bat, because they are fundamentally alien creatures: their sensory apparatus and their movements are utterly different from ours. But we can imagine ‘segments’, as Nagel wrote. This means that, despite our lack of understanding of bat minds, we can find ways to keep a bat from harm, or even nurse and raise an orphaned baby bat, as cute videos on the internet will show you.

The problem is that sometimes we don’t realise this segment of just a glimpse of something bigger. We don’t realise until a woman, a person of colour, or a dinosaur finds a way to point out the limits of our imagination, and the limits of our understanding. As long as other human minds are beyond our understanding, nonhuman ones certainly are, too.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kanta Dihal is a postdoctoral research assistant and the research project coordinator of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Can children learn to read without explicit instruction from adults?

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An experiment in a remote Ethiopian village demonstrates the potential of mobile devices to enable children to learn and teach each other how to read without traditional schooling.

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See also: How Reading Rewires Your Brain for Empathy

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Saturday Subjective

For something a little different to start your weekend, here is a glimpse into one man’s subjective world. He asks himself what consciousness is. He observes, “Life is fear,” yet his mind has found a way to peace. What is the adaptive significance of magical thinking? What is the value of cozying up to ambiguity?

CUCLI from Xavier Marrades on Vimeo.

 

Persuasion: Do you want to be effective or just feel righteous?

A recent article in The Atlantic reports fascinating research on the relative effectiveness of typical and moral-framing based approaches to persuading people of an opposing political orientation to see value in alternative positions. The upshot is that there are verifiably effective methods for getting around entrenched, reflexive opposition.

The development of altruism

With special reference to human relationships: A 10-stage theory by Hing Keung Ma,  Frontiers of Public Health, Oct. 2017:

“A 10-stage theory of altruism with special reference to human relationships is proposed. The affective, cognitive, and relationship aspects of each stage are delineated in details. There are two developmental principles of altruism. The first principle states that the development of altruism follows the 10-stage theory and moves from Stage 1: Egoism toward the higher stages of altruism slowly. The second developmental principle states that the taxonomy of human relationships is valid at any stage of altruism development. In other words, people at any stage of altruism are more altruistic toward their kin and mate, and then close friends, extended family members, and so on. They are least altruistic toward enemies and members of non-human species.”

It takes more than facts

Excellent article by George Monbiot. He’s right to assert that one’s worldview narrative trumps all other considerations, like facts. Such stories organize how we see everything through their lenses. Monbiot notes that the two major narratives of our time are social democracy and neoliberalism. While having different means and goals they both have the same narrative structure:

“Disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. The hero – who might be one person or a group of people – revolts against this disorder, fights the nefarious forces, overcomes them despite great odds and restores order.”

This notion of a hero has to go; we the people collectively and collaboratively become the initiators and maintainers of the story, not some special class of enlightened ones. We work together to enlighten each other, and it is in that connective interaction where the enlightenment resides, not some special individual achievement.

He explains why we can’t simply go back to the earlier story of social democracy to overcome the current story of neoliberalism. Among other reasons, the earlier story assumes continual economic growth with the same consumer lifestyle, devastating to the environment and more fuel for climate chaos.

So we must create a new story ASAP. This story must be based on our evolutionary capacity for mutual collaboration and aid. It’s one that rejects the narrative told by neoliberalism of  “extreme individualism and competition.” Instead we share ownership and stewardship in community, respecting and honoring each other and the environment.

“We will develop a new economics that treats both people and planet with respect. We will build it around a great, neglected economic sphere: the commons. Local resources will be owned and managed by communities, ensuring that wealth is widely shared. Using common riches to fund universal benefits will supplement state provision, granting everyone security and resilience.”

Monbiot shows how this story has already been taking shape and having positive effects. Sanders’s campaign was one huge water mark. It organized numerous small networks via the internet and got most of its spending money from a large number of small donors. Such tactics were used successfully by Corbin in the UK. The Indivisible Guide grew out of this learning process.

In keeping with Lakoff it’s the Big Picture Story around which everything else revolves. Rifkin would wholehearted agree. The collaborative commons narrative is here to stay, gaining ground by the day. The more we feed it the more it becomes a reality. Keep up the good work citizens.