Atlantis Farewell

When I grew up, in the 1950s, it was a time when researchers were still searching for Bridey Murphy and field and stream magazines still reported sightings of Bigfoot. Flying Saucer Magazine could be found at the drugstore magazine counter, and ESP was thought to have been a proven phenomenon at Duke University.

Concurrently we were administered first the Salk polio vaccine, and then the Sabin replacement. The 20th Century at its mid period was a time when science was coming on strong but beliefs in the strange and supernatural persisted deeply into the general culture of the day.

I liked science, just as I liked Mickey Mantle, but it resided in a place alongside the prophetic dreams of Edgar Cayce and the local church. As a noncritical child, I believed pretty much in everything, including the lost continent of Atlantis. The very fact that I have to provide links to some of these references shows the distance between today and then. Today most of this material has been relegated to the pages of the National Enquirer.

Science, in the meantime, has thrived and grown and has to a large degree undermined the realm of UFOs, yeti, and the supernatural. In places the local church is still thriving, but the numbers are dwindling every year as the congregations age and the true believers leave this life.

By the end of the 20th Century we were well on our way toward a new Age of Enlightenment, if by enlightenment we mean dispelling beliefs that have no provable basis in fact.

By this point in the 21st Century science and scientific thinking have become even more pervasive, despite outbreaks, particularly in the United States, of anti-scientific undercurrents such as anti-vaccination movements and anti-evolution legislation. Frustrating though they may be to a rational person, these movements will die out as surely as the search for Bridey Murphy. There is nothing real to sustain them.

I don’t mind this sea-change in perspective because I vowed, many years ago, not to believe in things for which there was no good evidence. In my case, this included religion.

However, one area I see fading away causes me some lamentation: the receding of mythology as a force of the psyche. Through the 60s and 70s it seemed that Carl Jung, with his archetypes, and popularizers of Jungian thinking, like Joseph Campbell, had somehow tapped into the wellspring of the human spirit. Mythic stories run deep through our emotions and often lead us to a feeling of epiphany. Of all the things I’ve given up from my youth, mythology is the hardest. I don’t mean myth as story—which is eternally fascinating—but myth as something fundamental to the human psyche.

But as brain science knowledge spreads, it seems the concept of a psyche is little more than a brain construct—a side effect of consciousness. Of course there is pushback to this kind of materialistic thinking, a kind of Cartesian split of brain/mind, but it’s difficult for a rational person to see much basis in fact for this view. Nonetheless the idea of a brain/mind split reaches far back in Western philosophy and is hard to shake off simply because it’s been with us for so long.

Like the measles, however, belief in a psyche can be inoculated against by sticking with the hard evidence. In time it will be seen to be as mythical as the lost continent of Atlantis—a pretty, captivating story, but unsustainable as a model of reality.

Dispensing with old beliefs, especially cherished ones, is difficult. Yet the rewards of maintaining evidence-based reasoning outweigh the pain of parting with wish-fulfillment, faith-based beliefs. It cleanses thinking and prepares one for the real world. There comes a time when it’s necessary, for good mental hygiene, to say farewell to Atlantis.

Taking Stock: Facing 2012

iPhone Selfie

I hope you all had a good Christmas and New Year season!

Traditionally New Years Day is a time for resolutions that will largely be unkept in the months that follow, so I’ll refrain from making any. Besides some of them are ongoing no matter what time of year: lose weight, exercise more, write more.

Looking back to 2011, I’ve had a Macbook Air (11″) for a year now and it’s so slick and useful it still feels new. As such it’s an incentive to get down to the task of writing just so I can use it. I enjoy my technologies, but it’s been a long time since one has stayed so fresh. Kudos to Apple for another brilliant design and execution.

There are rumours of a new iPad in the works some time 2012. If it turns out to be true I might be ready to pick one up. I gave my previous one to Marion after getting the more writer-friendly Macbook Air, but I confess I miss the iPad experience. I get a miniature version of it with my iPhone 4 but it’s not the same without the large viewing screen.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a fan of podcasts and I’d like to pay tribute to my two favourites: I Should Be Writing, by Mur Lafferty, and Brain Science Podcast, by Dr. Ginger Campbell. You ladies have allowed me to listen in on hours of intelligent conversation. Thank you.

I have a couple of directions I may take my writing in 2012. One idea I’ve been kicking around is putting together a series of personal essays into a Kindle book. The other is to write on a couple of subjects that interest me, but as extended feature articles that could be published as Kindle Shorts.

I don’t have any special photo projects in mind for the year. I’m content to carry a camera around with me and take shots of this and that as I see things. I plan to post a new photo on my Flickr photostream every day, if possible. The camera in my iPhone 4 increases my odds of meeting this goal.

One of the things I may do more of in 2012 is post short reviews of books I’ve read. My current reading is Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, by Toby E. Huff. I’m about 25% into it and already it’s shaping up as the best science book I’ve read in the past year.

Currently listening to The Harrow & The Harvest, by Gillian Welch. Indispensable if you like a traditional folk sound.

My other two goals for the New Year are to study more philosophy and mathematics. I’m nearly ready to tackle my Algebra II course and I have a good Teaching Company Great Lectures course Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida that I’ve started. Staying intellectually active is less a goal than a deep-seated need. I suspect it’s the same for you.

I look forward to seeing and hearing from friends in 2012. May your 2012 be a wonderful year.

The Greening of the Psyche

First Green (by StarbuckGuy)

“The Greening of the Psyche” is the title of the latest podcast of All in the Mind, a brain-science podcast presented by Natasha Mitchell, ABC Radio National [Australia]. It probes the question “are human beings naturally drawn to green spaces?” or, in the terminology of biologist E.O. Wilson, “do human beings possess an inner biophilia?” It’s a lovely thought that being creatures that evolved on the Savannah we are naturally drawn to park-like settings, and to other living things, but the science behind the concept, according to the show, has, until recently, been fuzzy.

It’s shows like this that make me a podcast junkie. I listen in and somewhat randomly encounter ideas, terms, and debate about topics I find new, fresh, and stimulating. I rarely use my iPod to listen to music — I’d rather be eavesdropping on interesting conversations. For the essayist-blogger, it’s a stimulus to writing.

The gist of the episode is that there is emerging evidence to support the idea that the human brain responds favourably to green spaces. One of the studies cited was conducted in public housing areas in Chicago where poverty is extreme. Around units where trees and grass were planted, there was a measurable decrease in crime. Not astounding numbers, but 7 per cent, which, as the show said “any mayor would be proud of.” There are other studies and indicators as well, that I won’t dwell on — you can listen to the podcast yourself.

What the episode did was remind me of some of the key reasons why I live in Port Credit: green space, trees, parks, and water. Not to mention that it’s a pleasant little village tucked away within the sprawling metropolis of Mississauga, adjacent to Toronto.

I was raised in open areas. A homestead farm in Minnesota — a small farm in rural Illinois — a small town in Arizona. Although I’ve come to enjoy city life, especially jaunts into Toronto, when I return to Port Credit, where everything is quieter, calmer, and on a smaller scale, I feel relief perhaps akin to what barn swallows feel when they return to their nests under the bridge over the Credit River. Home. Belonging. At one with the river, the harbour, the grass, the sky. Well, maybe not the swooping after mosquitoes part.

Here I have walking trails that go farther than I can walk or cycle. Once winter unlocks its grip and green shoots push up through the ground, the psyche opens up and pushes away the winter doldrums. The walks get longer, the vista more satisfying.

It’s too early to celebrate spring — at least six weeks too early — but the past week with temperatures above freezing has brought promise. Spring is coming. The days are longer. The sun is warmer. Soon nature will be greening and, with it, perhaps, our psyches.


Waiting for Godot (by StarbuckGuy)

It’s “Mysteries of the Mind Week” on TVO (TVOntario — the province’s educational television station). I’ve been interested in brain science and neurology for a couple of years, reading books and articles on the subject, watching TV specials when they appear, and following the excellent Brain Science Podcast, an impressive series of interviews with brain scientists and related book discussions by host Dr. Ginger Campbell.

Every evening, TVO is presenting two to three hours of programming devoted to the brain. The specials have been weak — mainly BBC-produced documentaries focusing on individuals whose brains are failing to alzheimers or dementia, and on other unusual types of individuals, such as an autistic artist with amazing abilities to accurately recreate cityscapes he’s seen once. One of the specials is a time series on precocious children who have “genius” level IQ scores, following them through their development. It was easily the most interesting of the specials.

The problem with the specials is that there was very little science in them. As human interest stories they are interesting, but I was hoping to learn new things this week and I don’t get much from the features.

In contrast, TVO’s daily topic show, The Agenda with Steve Paiken, delivered. A varying group of panelist covered many topics and issues, providing current understandings of brain science based on their research, clinical experience, and in the scientific literature.

Last night’s topics included debate on whether or not the bombardment of media, including things like iPods, Facebook, instant messaging, cell-phone texting, and video games, has produced a generation of young people who are fundamentally different from previous generations. Does this activity create a different neuronal structure in the brain itself?

Of course no solid conclusions could be reached, but all the panelists, most of whom were neuroscientists, agreed that it was highly likely. The discussion then proceeded along the lines of “is this affecting their ability to concentrate and succeed in the world and the workforce, or does it leave them fragmented?”

The most interesting panelists in this part of the discussion were science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, and media consultant Don Tapscott, whose newest book is Grown Up Digital — a followup to his earlier Growing Up Digital.

Rob made the salient point that humans evolved on the African Savannah where multitasking was essential to survival. While searching for food, or hunting, you also had to be alert to sounds and motions, such as poisonous snakes, hunting eagles, and lions, all of whom may be hunting you. His thesis is that humans evolved to be multitasking, and that the past fifty years or so, with people glued to the boob tube, have been an aberration rather than the norm.

Don Tapscott recently funded a study that indicated that young people who have grown up in a multitasking, wired environment, are succeeding very well indeed, and that the activities they engage in occur in place of the TV time that absorbed earlier generations.

All the panelists agreed that there is no such thing as multitasking per se, but that what young people do is very rapid task switching. And that they are much better at it than older generations.

It was a fascinating discussion, and may help me to understand the rivetting attraction of texting I see in many of the younger folk I know. Perhaps I will eventually even get Twitter.

The Zonules of Zinn

I’ve taken the title of this posting from a new book that arrived from today: Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: a Fantastic Journey through Your Brain, by David Bainbridge.1 I learned about this book from the extensive coverage given to it by one of my favourite podcasts: The Brain Science Podcast, hosted by Dr. Ginger Campbell. Brain science? Yes, for Marion and me brain science and research has become our latest study — in a lay person’s sense of the word.

Our interest in brain study has been increasing gradually over the past few years. Of course we, like most people, have been fascinated by the brain as long as we can remember. But after her Mom’s stroke and eventual death due to heart problems, we became interested in knowing how much of her former self could be recovered, as well as wondering what, exactly, happens during a stroke.

Later, after my heart attack, I felt I was losing my ability to think clearly and systematically about anything and that my memory was slipping. I was fumbling on everyday words too often for my liking. Part of this was compounded by clinical depression and the meds I was taking to ameliorate the condition. Around this time we both began to hear about new studies and findings about neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to recover some lost functions and to continue functioning well into late old age.

As I rehabbed from an angioplasty/stent procedure, then a second procedure when I developed more arterial blockage, I became very interested in the keys to a healthy recovery and to overall health and wellness. Not surprisingly, all the things I learned about that contribute to heart health also contribute to brain health: a good diet with a lower-overall glycemic index, regular cardiovascular exercise, and good mental habits for dealing with stress and keeping the mind active.

As I began feeling better, I began reading more and with joy, in the way I did in my younger life when I was interested in nearly everything. A career in computing curtailed that enthusiasm for years because so much energy was required in learning and keeping up with technologies and methodologies. Marion had evolved along a similar path and we both once again began to study art, literature, philosophy and science. Being retired is a great boon to self study.

A healthy brain, so I kept reading, needed to be worked and challenged constantly — whether by learning a new language, taking a course, or even solving challenging puzzles such as non-trivial sudoku and crossword puzzles. I took to both, having never been a puzzle person before (as opposed to being puzzling, at which I excel). As a result of this continuous challenge to my brain, I could feel my mental functions improving. I was remembering things better, word loss was becoming no worse than what would be expected for someone in his early 60’s, and my appetite for learning had returned.

We watched Norman Doidge speak about brain plasticity in a couple of television interviews so we tracked down a library copy of his popular work The Brain That Changes Itself. It was so remarkable we’ve since bought our own copy.

About that time I was browsing the courses that were on sale from The Teaching Company. Marion and I like their courses very much and have purchased courses on history, art, linguistics, and philosophy. I wanted to buy a science course, but nothing quite as abstruse as particle physics or an overview of mathematics. I spied Understanding the Brain, taught by Dr. Jeannette Norden. It was either that or their course on Genetics and DNA. I bought the brain course and now, 36 half-hour lectures later, we’re awed by what we’ve learned from the course and we now have enough foundation knowledge to move on to further study. In our opinion, this course is excellent for people like us who are relatively new to neuroscience. Dr. Norden is a fine lecturer and the course material progressed in a logical and orderly manner.

Our studies have led us to V.S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain, Daniel Amen’s Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, Jeff Hawkins’s On Intelligence, and now the Zonules of Zinn.

We both feel recharged. Brain study, for us, has been one of the most powerful areas we’ve ever explored. It gives us a scientific perspective on where we’ve come from, in an evolutionary sense, and how we are what we are. So much has been learned about the brain in the past twenty years and so much more discovery lies in the future. Like all fields of science, some of what we think we know will likely be discarded as our knowledge increases, and there will be whole new areas of investigation not yet guessed at.

Brain study has been the most powerful intellectual stimulant we’ve encountered in years. We think that brain research and Genetic/DNA research are at the forefront of our current understanding of what we are as evolved life forms on this incredibly diverse and improbable planet. As lay persons looking at science from the outside, we’re delighted so many wonderful, thoughtful scientists and researchers have taken the trouble to write for, and speak to, the non science-trained community.

When things slow down a bit, which could be some time down the road, you can guess what our next course purchase will be. Genetics/DNA, of course.

1 The Zonules of Zinn, for those interested, is one of the areas of brain study with an exotic name. It refers to a ring of fibrous strands that attach from the muscles that ring the lens of the eye. They function in pulling the lens flatter so we can see distant objects more clearly, and relaxing so we can see nearby objects. The eye is a direct outgrowth of the brain. As neuroscientists tell us, it’s the only part of our brain that is visible from the outside.