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« Watching the World Fall Apart II | Main | Anticipating the End »

July 17, 2017


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Don Stewart

I have found it very helpful to read these two books in tandem this summer:
How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky

Both books, I think, put to rest any notion that there is some innate, perhaps gene-driven, human nature. Instead, we get from Barrett several key points:
*You can change who you become tomorrow
*Degeneracy: many combinations yield the same output
*Core systems serve many purposes; one to many
*Simulation: the brain guesses what is happening in the world. Allows the brain to impose meaning.

From Sapolsky, we get these notions:
*Context is everything
*Anything you can measure in the nervous system can be changed by experience
*Socioeconomic status is the worst human innovation yet
*Moral Heroism is usually a result of doing the right thing because it isn’t the hardest thing.
*Stress leads to habitual decision making, while ignoring new information

The message here is somewhat similar to the message from Permaculture: build an infrastructure which facilitates doing the right thing.

The message is both optimistic and pessimistic. Optimistic because, sitting in our armchair, we can imagine a world reconfigured in such a way that ‘the right thing’ is the easiest thing to do. I can easily describe my ideal garden or the politicians who should really be running Washington. Pessimistic because hard experience has taught us that building the right garden is actually pretty hard work, at least initially, and that campaigning for some politician is almost certain to lead to disillusionment.

Don Stewart

Godofredo Aravena


You are lucky, there are still some topics that invite you to read.
It is not my case, as I find that most of the books around are just half way opinions. Sadly, Youtube and the whole Internet is very much the same. Nothing really interesting and useful.
The worst of all, they do not lead to any useful conclusion, they focus on a few pixels of our big Gigapixels picture. Leaving more questions in the end, and no answers.
Nobody is looking into the picture. It is all about having something to say (to sell, or to get “likes”).
It is all about pixels.
Unfortunately for me, my theories give better and more practical explanations for all these topics. Just a few lose ends, that unfortunately nobody is yet even seeing. My lose ends would be something interesting to read and talk about (discuss).
The very bottom of the things is that it does not make sense to try to dig into our system and its problems, since there is nothing to save and to do. This is a system without a purpose rather than just keep on rolling, that based on its concept it can only fail in the end. A totally unreal system, which cannot be repaired, neither will accept alternatives, because any of them imply radical changes. A system in overshoot will necessarily require big corrections.
Godofredo Aravena

George Mobus

@Don S.

I am familiar with Sapolsky's work but not the other author. Thanks for the heads up. I will look into them.

*Context is everything
*Anything you can measure in the nervous system can be changed by experience

I tend to steer clear of absolutes if I can. I agree context is very important, but it is not everything. That would be tantamount to returning to the concept of the 'blank slate,' something we gave up a long time ago. Similarly, there are any number of parameters in the nervous system that you will find to be stable under most nominal conditions. And things like synaptic strength do not modify linearly in any case.


... I find that most of the books around are just half way opinions

To this judgement you must consider that you have or know the other half. Or are you just expressing deep disappointment in what has been written (and promised perhaps) vs. how things have continued to decline. I certainly share that sentiment.

However, I still find there are new things to think about every day. And I appreciate the authors who provide me with information or challenges to consider more than what I already have.

I agree with your final conclusion. "Big corrections" may be required but then the system is corrected to what?



Don Stewart

Sapolsky wrote a blurb for Barrett's book:
'In this excellent new book, Lisa Barrett draws on contemporary research to offer a radically different picture: that the experience of emotions is highly individualized, neurobiologically idiosyncratic, and inseparable from cognition. This is a provocative, accessible, important book.'

Sapolsky's book, which is massive, was reviewed by 24 eminent academics. My guess is that Barrett's book arrived as Sapolsky was putting the finishing touches on his own book. You can find evidence of the older way of thinking in Sapolsky's book, as well as some of the newer, Barrett-style thinking.

Barrett would say that the 'blank slate' is not very informative (at least I think that is what she would say). We are born with certain core systems, which adapt to the environment. The core system is compatible with a very wide range of behaviors.

The disconnect is that many of us grew up thinking that 'genes control everything'. I would suggest that Barrett suggests that genes certainly do construct the core systems, but the core systems are complex adaptive systems (or something like that). So rather than genes explaining most behavior, the way the individual's core systems have adapted contains most of the explanatory power.

The errors I am doubtless making when I describe what these two authors have written are my own fault...not theirs.

Don Stewart

Don Stewart

As one example, Barrett includes a reference to a Yale study of diet. A smoothie is prepared and then divided into two different batches. One batch is labeled 'healthy low fat' while the other is labeled 'sinfully decadent'. There is a crossover experiment, which reveals that the 'sinfully decadent' version manipulates the ghrelin/ leptin balance in such a way that people stop eating. The 'healthy low fat' version does not manipulate the ghrelin/ leptin balance and the people keep eating.

So a complete theory of hormones must take into account the strange things which happen in society and the mind and the brain.
Don Stewart

Don Stewart

I recommended reading Lisa Barrett’s book How Emotions are Made. TED talks has published some of their short videos which I believe are related:
Jennifer Pluznick…You Smell With Your Body, Not Just Your Nose
You will find links to 4 other talks, including one where the speaker has made a vest which vibrates on the back of a completely deaf patient such that the patient is able to infer meaning from what is picked up by the microphone.

I believe these are analogous examples of what Barrett is talking about when she debunks the traditional theories of emotion and instead proposes that emotions are constructed.
*pg 19 combinations of different neurons can create instances of fear
*pg 19 The brain contains core systems that participate in creating a wide variety of mental states…I am saying that most neurons are multipurpose, playing more than one part, much as flour and eggs in your kitchen can participate in many recipes
*fMRI studies showed that the amygdala was activated in fearful situations. But ‘the activity increases in response to ANY face—whether fearful or neutral—as long as it is novel….the amygdala also showed a consistent increase during studies of anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness, indicative that whatever functions the amygdala was performing in some instances of fear, it was also performing those functions during some instances of those other emotions.
*pg 24 When properly applied, pattern classification is an example of population thinking. A species…is a collection of diverse individuals, so it can be summarized only in statistical terms…No two Labrador Retrievers are identical, but they are all distinguishable from Golden Retrievers.
*pg 38 The final major assumption of the classical view is that certain emotions are inborn and universal: all healthy people in the world are supposed to display and recognize them. The theory of constructed emotion, in contrast, proposes that emotions are not inborn, and if they are universal, it’s due to shared concepts. What’s universal is the ability to form concepts that make our physical sensations meaningful. (And then we construct the emotion which causes many bodily systems to react appropriately…my note)

Permit me one amateurish reaction. We most likely have an inborn concept of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. We can expand ‘us’ to include ‘mommy’, or even ‘the old guy smiling at me and tickling my toes’. In a market economy, we can sometimes expand the concept to include the friendly farmer who grows our food. On some occasions, we are able to expand it to include ‘Americans’ or ‘all of humanity’ or even ‘God’s creation’. We know that our immune system is founded on the principle of differentiating what is ‘friendly’ and what is ‘foreign’. Barrett notes that the conundrum involved in 'getting along' vs. 'getting ahead' has no general solution. So where exactly we draw the line between 'us' and 'them' will be heavily context dependent.

If something is detected as ‘foreign’, and also gets through the gut lining and into our body proper, then we suffer from inflammation and we get degenerative diseases from cancer and heart disease to Alzheimer’s and lupus. Which is why people are wary of genetically engineered substances in our food.

Whether the particular instance of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ is perceived as an opportunity or a threat depends heavily on the circumstances. The Christmas Truce in 1914 showed that under the right circumstances, even soldiers on opposite sides could be convivial. But the military elites effectively intervened and changed the circumstances and the world went back into bloody trench warfare.

IF it is possible to design a world with more opportunities for 'us' and fewer threats from 'them', then it requires some kind of political leadership to bring it off. It probably also requires a lot of humility as the leaders figure out what works and what doesn’t. Sapolsky’s book contains instances where, statistically, some things work.

Don Stewart

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