Category Archives: psychology

Wild systems theory (WST) – context and relationships make reality meaningful

Edward has posted some great thoughts and resources on embodied cognition (EC). I stumbled on some interesting information on a line of thinking within the EC literature. I find contextualist, connectivist approaches compelling in their ability to address complex-systems such as life and (possibly) consciousness. Wild systems theory (WST) “conceptualizes organisms as multi-scale self-sustaining embodiments of the phylogenetic, cultural, social, and developmental contexts in which they emerged and in which they sustain themselves. Such self-sustaining embodiments of context are naturally and necessarily about the multi-scale contexts they embody. As a result, meaning (i.e., content) is constitutive of what they are. This approach to content overcomes the computationalist need for representation while simultaneously satisfying the ecological penchant for multi-scale contingent interactions.”While I find WST fascinating, I’m unclear on whether it has been or can be assessed empirically. What do you think? Is WST shackled to philosophy?

Can one person know another’s mental state? Physicalists focus on how each of us develops a theory of mind (TOM) about each of the other people we observe. TOM is a theory because it is based on assumptions we make about others’ mental states by observing their behaviors. It is not based on any direct reading or measurement of internal processes. In its extreme, the physicalist view asserts that subjective experience and consciousness itself are merely emergent epiphenomena and not fundamentally real.

EC theorists often describe emergent or epiphenomenal subjective properties such as emotions and conscious experiences as “in terms of complex, multi-scale, causal dynamics among objective phenomena such as neurons, brains, bodies, and worlds.” Emotions, experiences, and meanings are seen to emerge from, be caused by or identical with, or be informational aspects of objective phenomena. Further, many EC proponents regards subjective properties as “logically unnecessary to the scientific description.” Some EC theorists conceive of the non-epiphenomenal reality of experience in a complex systems framework and define experience in terms of relational properties. In Gibson’s (1966) concept of affordances, organisms perceive behavioral possibilities in other organisms and in their environment. An affordance is a perceived relationship (often in terms of utility), such a how an organism might use something–say a potential mate, prey/food, or a tool. Meaning arises from “bi-directional aboutness” between an organism and what it perceives or interacts with. Meaning is about relationship.

(A very good, easy read on meaning arising from relationships is the book Learning How to Learn, by Novak and Gowin. In short, it’s the connecting/relating words such as is, contains, produces, consumes, etc., that enable meaningful concepts to be created in minds via language that clarifies context.)

Affordances and relationality at one level of organization and analysis carve out a non-epiphenomenal beachhead but do not banish epiphenomena from that or other levels. There’s a consideration of intrinsic, non-relational properties (perhaps mass) versus relational properties (such as weight). But again, level/scale of analysis matters (“mass emerges from a particle’s interaction with the Higgs field” and is thus relational after all) and some take this line of thinking to a logical end where there is no fundamental reality.

In WST, “all properties are constituted of and by their relations with context. As a result, all properties are inherently meaningful because they are naturally and necessarily about the contexts within which they persist. From this perspective, meaning is ubiquitous. In short, reality is inherently meaningful.”

2. Jordan, J. S., Cialdella, V. T., Dayer, A., Langley, M. D., & Stillman, Z. (2017). Wild Bodies Don’t Need to Perceive, Detect, Capture, or Create Meaning: They ARE Meaning. Frontiers in psychology8, 1149. Available from: [accessed Nov 09 2017]

BMAI members repository copy (PDF):

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.

Your brain on AI-powered, immersive, virtual reality social networks

Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired Magazine, forecasts virtual reality (VR) becoming our primary social environment within five years. VR experiences will be increasingly interactive (physically and socially). Our brains will process VR sensations as real.

The price of this novelty is all your data, historical and biometric, and with that will come more advertising than ever. What is the beginning of a new dimension of fun, will be the end of privacy.

AI more advanced than what keeps people addicted to current social media and search platforms will attract and keep social VR participants. How will personal and group cognition and behavior change when VR becomes more compelling than ‘legacy reality?’

See Kelly’s 5-minute talk at

Illusory Pattern Perception

This article discusses a new paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology that shows our brain’s penchant for seeing patterns can go awry. Illusory pattern perception is displayed for example in climate science denial, 9/11 truthers, Pizzagate etc. This phenomenon correlates with irrational beliefs that connect dots that aren’t there. We all have this tendency to confirm our biases. However training in critical thinking can reduce the effects of this syndrome.

Neuroscience of Empathy

(This is copied from the Meetup site. Thanks again to Brent for hosting.)


Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and understand how they feel- to be them, even for a second. It’s the link between self and others: how we connect, heal, and relate. Considering its importance in every aspect of our lives, we are taking a deeper look at the neuroscience behind empathy.

Recommended Preparation Info.

The Neuroscience of Empathy | Article | 5 minutes (

The Neuroscience of Compassion | Video | 20 min (

Jeremy Rifkin: The empathic civilization | Video | 10 min (


Empathy for others’ pain rooted in cognition rather than sensation | Article | 5 min (

Thomas Lewis: “The Neuroscience of Empathy” | Video | 60 min (

Suggested Additional Info.

Feeling Others’ Pain: Transforming Empathy into Compassion | Article | 5 min (

Structural basis of empathy and the domain general region in the anterior insular cortex | Study | 20 min (

Neurobiology of Empathy and Callousness: Implications for the Development of Antisocial Behavior | Study | 20 min (

The Science Behind Empathy and Empaths | Article | 5 min (

Study challenges perception that empathy erodes during medical school | Article | 5 min (


  • Mark Harris

    Rifkin’s book, The Empathic Civilization, is excellent.

    29 days ago
  • John

    Here is a link to an excellent article arguing against a myopic focus on empathy.

    23 days ago
  • John

    Here is a link to a free ebook that is entitled Compassion: Bridging Science and Practice. The book is the culmination of research findings in social neuroscience studies conducted by Tania Singer and others. There are multiple formats for download.

    23 days ago
  • John

    Here is a link to an article about Tania Singer’s research in Science Magazine.

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    From the link: “Patterns associated with empathic care, for instance, overlapped with systems in the brain associated with value and reward, such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the medial orbitofrontal cortex. In contrast, patterns of empathic distress overlapped with systems in the brain known for mirroring, such as the premotor cortex and the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices, which help an individual simulate or imagine what another person is feeling or thinking.”

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    Here’s another one I just read: “Brain imaging reveals neural roots of caring.

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    From the conclusion: “Shared representations of affective states are activated from the top down in more  cognitive forms of empathy, which recruit additional executive and visuospatial processes. However, the literature overestimates distinctions between emotional and cognitive empathy, following traditional practices to dichotomize in science and philosophy. Despite each
    having unique features, affective and cognitive empathy both require access to the shared representations of emotion that provide simulations with content and an
    embodied meaning.”

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    The entire article can be read here:

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    And this article. Abstract: “Recent research on empathy in humans and other mammals seeks to dissociate emotional and cognitive empathy. These forms, however, remain interconnected in evolution, across species and at the level of neural mechanisms. New data have facilitated the development of empathy models such as the perception–action model (PAM) and mirror-neuron theories. According to the PAM, the emotional states of others are understood through personal, embodied representations that allow empathy and accuracy to increase based on the observer’s past experiences. In this Review, we discuss the latest evidence from studies carried out across a wide range of species, including studies on yawn contagion, consolation, aid-giving and contagious physiological affect, and we summarize neuroscientific data on representations related to another’s state.”

    23 days ago
  • John

    Here is a link to an excellent video of 4 researchers giving talks at the Stanford CCARE conference. The video is 75 minutes.
    CCARE Science of Compassion 2014: Introduction to the Science of Empathy, Altruism, and Compassion

    22 days ago
  • Edward

    Jimmy Kimmel in this video highlights a lot of what we talked about tonight. Yes, we need to feel empathy for those killed an injured in the Las Vegas shooting, but we also need to DO something about it. Meaning gun legislation. He highlights those in Congress who are making it easier instead of harder to obtain the kind of automatic weapons used in this mass murder. The reality is we must make such guns illegal, for it acts on our empathy and morality in a way that protects and serves us.

    21 days ago

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.

Poor understanding correlates with religious/supernatural belief

According to this article in Applied Cognitive Psychology. The summary follows. The entire article can be accessed at Sci-Hub.

“Although supernatural beliefs often paint a peculiar picture about the physical world, the possibility that the beliefs might be based on inadequate understanding of the non-social world has not received research attention. In this study (N = 258), we therefore examined how physical-world skills and knowledge predict religious and paranormal beliefs. The results showed that supernatural beliefs correlated with all variables that were included, namely, with low systemizing, poor intuitive physics skills, poor mechanical ability, poor mental rotation, low school grades in mathematics and physics, poor common knowledge about physical and biological phenomena, intuitive and analytical thinking styles, and in particular, with assigning mentality to non-mental phenomena. Regression analyses indicated that the strongest predictors of the beliefs were overall physical capability (a factor representing most physical skills, interests, and knowledge) and intuitive thinking style.”

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 and subliminal stimuli (effects on later behavior)
  • incremental theory – “The Dark Side of Malleability”
  • creative flow as a unique cognitive process
  • Eastern philosophies and psychology – a psychology of self-cultivation
  • neuroscience of empathy – effects on the brain, including on neuroplasticity (discussed October 2017)
  • comparative effects of various meditative practices on the brain
  • comparative effects of various psychedelics on the brain
  • effects of childhood poverty on the brain
  • neurocognitive bases of racism

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.

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.