Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Human Origins - Professor Marean

Hypnotized by Charisma

Hypnotized by Charisma

Now to the new study, which has possibly identified another state in which our critical thinking and executive function is inhibited, much like hypnotic induction. The study looked at individuals identified as Christian and very religious (confirmed with a questionnaire) and non-religious controls. They were then exposed to speeches by a non-Christian, a Christian, and a Christian faith healer, while being examined by fMRI (functional MRI scanning looks at brain function by measuring blood flow to the various brain regions). One caveat – this is a smallish study with a low signal to noise ratio inherent in fMRI research. The results are interesting primarily because they conform to prior psychological research.

The authors conclude:

The contrast estimates reveal a significant increase of activity in response to the non-Christian speaker (compared to baseline) and a massive deactivation in response to the Christian speaker known for his healing powers. These results support recent observations that social categories can modulate the frontal executive network in opposite directions corresponding to the cognitive load they impose on the executive system.

So two things appear to be happening here. The first is an increase in activity among the secular group when exposed to the speech of a Christian faith healer – this can perhaps be interpreted as a negative reaction, putting their critical thinking on alert. Further, Christians who believed in faith healing had the opposite reaction – they turned off their critical thinking. They were literally hypnotized by the faith healer. The authors write:

Insights from hypnosis research may further explain how such effects become established in interpersonal interactions suggesting that frontal deactivation indicates a ‘handing-over’ of the executive function to the perceived charismatic speaker similar to a patient’s ‘handing-over’ of executive function to the hypnotist.

It is probably not a coincidence that in the vernacular we talk about a charismatic figure “hypnotizing” his audience. This research suggests that this is no mere metaphor and may be literally true.

The take home from all of this is that our brain function is complex, and has many inherent weaknesses. We may fall victim to simple resource limitations, and when we tax our brain function our performance – including critical thinking – diminishes.

But there is also another layer here – it is interesting how easy it is to turn off our critical thinking. Evolutionary psychologists speculate that our ancestors may have been selected for the ability to hand over their executive function to a charismatic leader. This allows for group cohesion, and it allows for the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the group. If the group is comprised largely of our genetic relatives, this self-sacrifice can make Darwinian sense.

This level of handing over may be necessary to do otherwise unthinkable acts, such as following your commander into a deadly (even suicidal) situation.

But there is a dark side to the monkey brains we inherited. Cults are the ultimate expression of this – turning over complete control to a charismatic leader. Cults then indoctrinate their members into a belief system that enhances this effect. They further cultivate an us vs them attitude, which makes them more pliable to their leaders and resistant to outsiders. Cults even manipulate their recruits with sleep and protein deprivation, to further stress their neurological resources.

But we all encounter this phenomenon in day-to-day life. Charismatic leaders of all types may exploit this neurological effect. As will con men. Free energy guru Dennis Lee comes to mind – he crowds people into a conference room and then wears them down for hours with multiple presentations. As the night drags on, those more predisposed to suggestion remain. He heavily doses them with appeals to God and country – manipulating their faith and patriotism. He does all the things this research shows inhibits critical thinking. Then he hits them up for an investment scheme.

In the morning many of them may ask themselves – “What was I thinking?”

Published by Steven Novella

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Huge Impact Crater Found in Remote Congo

Huge Impact Crater Found in Remote Congo

A circular depression deep in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been confirmed as the first known impact crater in central Africa, a new study says. The find brings the number of known meteor craters on Earth to 182.

The so-called Luizi structure was first described in a German geological report from 1919. But without further fieldwork, it was impossible to say for sure that the 10.5-mile-wide (17-kilometer-wide) feature had been made by a meteor impact.

On other planets, such as Mercury and Mars, it's easier to identify impact craters based only on their shapes, since these worlds no longer have geologic forces making major changes to their surfaces.

But on Earth, many older craters have likely been erased by tectonic activity or erosion, while others are so covered with dense vegetation or sediments, like Luizi, that they're almost impossible to spot without satellites.

What's more, the crater-like structures we do see may have been made by volcanoes, collapsed underground chambers, and other forces that have nothing to do with impacts, said study leader Ludovic Ferrière, curator of the rock collection at the Natural History Museum of Vienna in Austria.

"On Earth, to confirm it's an impact, you have to go in the field because you need evidence of high pressures and temperatures," Ferrière said.

Crater Expedition Had Brushes With Snakes, Poachers

The researcher first became interested in the Luizi structure after seeing satellite pictures published in the 1990s.

By studying the available satellite data, Ferrière and colleagues estimated that the structure has an elevated rim about 1,148 feet (350 meters) high, as well as an interior ring and a central depression.

But to truly confirm Luizi as an impact crater, the researchers had to mount an expedition to the politically tumultuous DRC. (Related: "Rare Gorillas at Risk as Rebels Seize Congo Park.")

"I was working for a year just to find a contact there, because you need a local person to help you find your way around," Ferrière said.

With funding from the National Geographic Society/Waitt Foundation program, Ferrière—then a postdoc at the University of Western Ontario in Canada—visited the crater site in June 2010 with colleagues from the University of Lubumbashi.

"I flew direct to Lubumbashi, the second largest city in the DRC. From there we had to drive from the city to the crater," he said.

"I had looked at maps and planned a route before I left. But when I got there, my contact told me there is no bridge across part of my intended path. We had to take some crazy gravel roads with big potholes inside. These are not good roads to drive on, even with a four-wheel-drive car."

The team set up camp in a small village about 8 miles (13 kilometers) from the crater rim, recruiting two local guides/porters and a soldier to help them safely navigate the wild terrain.

"The crater is in a national park, and I thought it would be like the jungles of South America," Ferrière said. "Instead it was a tree savanna—a big plataeu with dry grass. The grass was sometimes more than a meter [3.2 feet] high."

Standing on the rim of the Luizi structure, Ferrière could see skinny trees that seemed to fill the depression, with the crater's distant edge rising like small hills.

Despite the remote, wooded terrain, "we saw no large animals, only snakes. But we did see a lot of remnants of poachers. Sometimes we'd come to a site and the doused fires were still hot."

Ferrière's team spent about a week at the crater collecting samples, which were sent back to the lab in Canada for analysis.

"I found so-called shatter cones, which are features in the rock only found in impact structures," he said. The nested, conical shapes in such features are evidence that the bedrock has been exposed to extreme pressure from a shock wave.

The crater rocks also contained an abundance of shocked quartz, a version of the mineral known to form only from impacts or nuclear blasts, Ferrière said.

"Everybody will believe me now, I think, that this is an impact site."

(Related: "Meteorite Impact Reformulated Earth's Crust, Study Shows.")

The scientists think the Luizi crater was made by a meteor more than 0.6 mile (a kilometer) wide that slammed into what is now the DRC at about 45,000 miles (72,000 kilometers) an hour.

For now it's unclear how old the crater is—the scientists can say only that the affected rocks are about 575 million years old, "but we know it's younger than that, because the rocks have been excavated," Ferrière said.

"It would be nice to do more fieldwork, because the shape of the structure with this inner ring can tell us about the exact formation process involved," he added. In the meantime, the researcher will continue to study the rock samples, now housed at the Vienna museum.

"There is still a lot to discover" about Luizi, he said.

Map Of The Day - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Map Of The Day - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions in Carl Sagan's "Earth the Pale Blue Dot"

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Earliest evidence for magic mushroom use in Europe - life - 06 March 2011 - New Scientist

Earliest evidence for magic mushroom use in Europe - life - 06 March 2011 - New Scientist

EUROPEANS may have used magic mushrooms to liven up religious rituals 6000 years ago. So suggests a cave mural in Spain, which may depict fungi with hallucinogenic properties - the oldest evidence of their use in Europe.

The Selva Pascuala mural, in a cave near the town of Villar del Humo, is dominated by a bull. But it is a row of 13 small mushroom-like objects that interests Brian Akers at Pasco-Hernando Community College in New Port Richey, Florida, and Gaston Guzman at the Ecological Institute of Xalapa in Mexico. They believe that the objects are the fungi Psilocybe hispanica, a local species with hallucinogenic properties.

Like the objects depicted in the mural, P. hispanica has a bell-shaped cap topped with a dome, and lacks an annulus - a ring around the stalk. "Its stalks also vary from straight to sinuous, as they do in the mural"

This isn't the oldest prehistoric painting thought to depict magic mushrooms, though. An Algerian mural that may show the species Psilocybe mairei is 7000 to 9000 years old.

Maybe Christians Should Read The Bible - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Maybe Christians Should Read The Bible - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Adam Kirsch reviews Timothy Beal's The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book:

While there is no denying that the Bible remains central—Beal quotes polls indicating that “65 percent of all Americans believe that the Bible ‘answers all or most of the basic questions of life,’ ”—he notes simultaneously that Americans are surprisingly ignorant of what is actually in it. “More than 80 percent of born-again or evangelical Christians believe that ‘God helps those who help themselves’ is a Bible verse,” he writes. Less than half of all adults can name the four Gospels; only one-third can name five of the Ten Commandments.

The Bible isn’t really “a book” at all, but a library of books—the Greek word biblia, Beal points out, is a plural—written over a span of centuries, in a wide range of genres—myth, history, law codes, poems, proverbs.

In asking “What Would Jesus Read?”, Beal also ends up explaining what is still apparently unknown to many Christians—that Jesus was a Jew, and Christianity initially a Jewish movement. The episode in Luke 4 where Jesus preaches in a synagogue leads Beal to discuss Torah reading and Shabbat services. Later he examines the Hebrew text of the Bible to demonstrate how every English translation is inevitably an interpretation—sometimes, a Christian apologetic interpretation, as when the Hebrew word almah in the Book of Isaiah is translated as “virgin” rather than “young woman,” in order to produce a Christological reading: “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son …”

Saturday, March 5, 2011

(Richard Dawkins & Francis Collins)

God vs. Science

DAWKINS: Yes. For centuries the most powerful argument for God's existence from the physical world was the so-called argument from design: Living things are so beautiful and elegant and so apparently purposeful, they could only have been made by an intelligent designer. But Darwin provided a simpler explanation. His way is a gradual, incremental improvement starting from very simple beginnings and working up step by tiny incremental step to more complexity, more elegance, more adaptive perfection. Each step is not too improbable for us to countenance, but when you add them up cumulatively over millions of years, you get these monsters of improbability, like the human brain and the rain forest. It should warn us against ever again assuming that because something is complicated, God must have done it.

COLLINS: I don't see that Professor Dawkins' basic account of evolution is incompatible with God's having designed it.

TIME: When would this have occurred?

COLLINS: By being outside of nature, God is also outside of space and time. Hence, at the moment of the creation of the universe, God could also have activated evolution, with full knowledge of how it would turn out, perhaps even including our having this conversation. The idea that he could both foresee the future and also give us spirit and free will to carry out our own desires becomes entirely acceptable.

DAWKINS: I think that's a tremendous cop-out. If God wanted to create life and create humans, it would be slightly odd that he should choose the extraordinarily roundabout way of waiting for 10 billion years before life got started and then waiting for another 4 billion years until you got human beings capable of worshipping and sinning and all the other things religious people are interested in.

COLLINS: Who are we to say that that was an odd way to do it? I don't think that it is God's purpose to make his intention absolutely obvious to us. If it suits him to be a deity that we must seek without being forced to, would it not have been sensible for him to use the mechanism of evolution without posting obvious road signs to reveal his role in creation?

TIME: Both your books suggest that if the universal constants, the six or more characteristics of our universe, had varied at all, it would have made life impossible. Dr. Collins, can you provide an example?

COLLINS: The gravitational constant, if it were off by one part in a hundred million million, then the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang would not have occurred in the fashion that was necessary for life to occur. When you look at that evidence, it is very difficult to adopt the view that this was just chance. But if you are willing to consider the possibility of a designer, this becomes a rather plausible explanation for what is otherwise an exceedingly improbable event--namely, our existence.

DAWKINS: People who believe in God conclude there must have been a divine knob twiddler who twiddled the knobs of these half-dozen constants to get them exactly right. The problem is that this says, because something is vastly improbable, we need a God to explain it. But that God himself would be even more improbable. Physicists have come up with other explanations. One is to say that these six constants are not free to vary. Some unified theory will eventually show that they are as locked in as the circumference and the diameter of a circle. That reduces the odds of them all independently just happening to fit the bill. The other way is the multiverse way. That says that maybe the universe we are in is one of a very large number of universes. The vast majority will not contain life because they have the wrong gravitational constant or the wrong this constant or that constant. But as the number of universes climbs, the odds mount that a tiny minority of universes will have the right fine-tuning.

COLLINS: This is an interesting choice. Barring a theoretical resolution, which I think is unlikely, you either have to say there are zillions of parallel universes out there that we can't observe at present or you have to say there was a plan. I actually find the argument of the existence of a God who did the planning more compelling than the bubbling of all these multiverses. So Occam's razor--Occam says you should choose the explanation that is most simple and straightforward--leads me more to believe in God than in the multiverse, which seems quite a stretch of the imagination.

DAWKINS: I accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine. What I can't understand is why you invoke improbability and yet you will not admit that you're shooting yourself in the foot by postulating something just as improbable, magicking into existence the word God.

Does God Exist? William Lane Craig vs Austin Dacey 4/14

IR M63. What RU?

IR M63. What RU?

The various spiral arm segments of the Sunflower galaxy, also known as Messier 63, show up vividly in this image taken in infrared light by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Infrared light is sensitive to the dust lanes in spiral galaxies, which appear dark in visible-light images. Spitzer's view reveals complex structures that trace the galaxy's spiral arm pattern.

Messier 63 lies 37 million-light years away -- not far from the well-known Whirlpool galaxy and the associated Messier 51 group of galaxies.

The dust, glowing red in this image, can be traced all the way down into the galaxy's nucleus, forming a ring around the densest region of stars at its center.

The short, diagonal line seen on the lower right side of the galaxy's disk is actually a much more distant galaxy, oriented with its edge facing toward us.

Blue shows infrared light with wavelengths of 3.6 microns, green represents 4.5-micron light, and red, 8.0-micron light. The contribution from starlight measured at 3.6 microns has been subtracted from the 8.0-micron image to enhance the visibility of the dust features.

14 billion years-TEDxYouth@Castilleja - RISA WECHSLER

Psychology Today: Despair & Psychotherapy

A Forensic Psychologist on Anger, Madness and Destructive Behavior
by Dr. Stephen Diamond

Existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, whose concentration camp experience during the second World War made him somewhat of an expert on the subject, defined despair as meaningless suffering in the simplistic but powerful formula D=S-M: despair equals suffering minus meaning. The clinical implication here is that despair can be treated by helping the patient attribute to or discover some meaning in his or her personal suffering, misery and symptoms. Indeed, when a psychiatrist diagnoses the patient's despair as stemming from clinical depression or bipolar disorder, he or she has provided some meaning to their suffering, and also some hope for psychopharmacological salvation. Unfortunately, this too often turns out to be a disappointing, false or fleeting hope, which then tends to exacerbate and reinforce the patient's already devastating clinical despair. The same may be said of psychotherapies, both brief and longer-term, that offer patients the perhaps overly optimistic hope of relieving their clinical despair and then do not deliver.

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in his Sickness Unto Death (1849), suggested that despair could be understood as comprising three stages: Spiritlessness, which applies to those who outwardly seem well-adjusted and successful yet inwardly live in a state of deep and perilous despair; despair in weakness and despair about weakness, which has to do with a refusal to become authentically and fully one's self and the existential guilt (what Sartre called mauvaise foi or "bad faith") of this cowardly refusal to move forward and frustrating inability to retreat back to their former identity; and, thirdly, the despair of defiance, which pertains to the capacity of despair to turn, sometimes quite suddenly, to elation, excitement, optimism, enthusiasm, hypomania or mania and frenetic creative activity as so often seen in extremis during the manic phase of bipolar disorder. For Kierkegaard, the cure or antidote to despair is religious faith, in his case, Christianity or what he called Christian existence. (For this brief section on Kierkegaard, I am mainly indebted to Dr. Robert L. Moore's paper titled "Theory Matters: Analytical Psychology and the Human Experience of Despair")

Commonly, clinical despair results from the chronic repression of what existential psychologist Rollo May called the daimonic: the ultimate source of our vitality, will, power and creativity. When, for example, we habitually deny or repress our anger, sexuality, passion, spirituality, sadness, anxiety, creativity-and even our existential despair--we are cutting ourselves off from the daimonic and our true selves, and drifting toward clinical despair, apathy and depression. Clinical despair, which often contains a kind of embitterment, typically stems from chronically repressed anger or rage about how unfairly life has treated us, and how powerless and helpless we are to do anything constructive about it. This is why it can be vitally important for the patient to get in touch with this daimonic anger and harness its power and motivating energy to courageously change themselves and their lives for the better. Otherwise, clinical despair festers, sometimes expressing itself in self-destructive and even violent behavior.

As Sartre suggests,
"Human life begins on the far side of despair."
Instilling some hope in the patient suffering from clinical despair seems an obvious and simple therapeutic ploy, but in practice proves much easier said than done. Counterintuitively, confronting clinical despair can be closer to taking Dante's sojourn through Hell in The Inferno, where he anxiously reads the daunting inscription on the gate:
" Abandon all hope all ye who enter here."
Clinging desperately to false hope, whether in childhood, adolescence or adulthood, can paradoxically be a neurotic defense against despair, a defense which, while serving the valuable purpose of survival in some cases, ultimately prevents one from facing and moving past the despair of abandonment, abuse, neglect, loss and other traumas. This is what Jung may have meant when he noted that
"neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering."

Sometimes clinical despair, it seems, must simply be patiently accepted, tolerated and suffered through with the stabilizing and supportive presence and accompaniment of the compassionate psychotherapist until it eventually turns into something else: courage, hope, joy, love, rage, passion, spirituality, faith or creativity. (This subtle shift is something fundamentally different in intensity from the radical, dramatic, transitory, destabilizing and dangerously exaggerated mood swings seen in bipolar disorder.) Moving through this excruciating process can be likened to both a terrifying death of one's old self, and a birth of the new self, with despair being the prolonged pregnancy and painful labor. But when clinical despair is totally avoided or prematurely aborted during treatment by pharmacological and/or psychological means, there can be no true transformation. Tragically, the patient remains stuck in the destructive vicious cycle and potentially deadly snare of clinical despair.

Christopher Hitchens on 60 minutes

Thursday, March 3, 2011

How Do Blue Whales Avoid Cancer? - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

How Do Blue Whales Avoid Cancer? - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Carl Zimmer raises a fascinating question:

Blue whales can weigh over a thousand times more than a human being. That’s a lot of extra cells, and as those cells grow and divide, there’s a small chance that each one will mutate. A mutation can be harmless, or it can be the first step towards cancer. As the descendants of a precancerous cell continue to divide, they run a risk of taking a further step towards a full-blown tumor. To some extent, cancer is a lottery, and a 100-foot blue whale has a lot more tickets than we do...

Yet there seems to be no correlation between body size and cancer rates among animal species. We run a thirty percent risk of getting cancer over our life time. So do mice, despite the fact that they’re 1000 times smaller than we are. All animals studied so far have cancer rates in that ballpark. (And yes, sharks do get cancer.)

Caulin and Maley argue that when animals evolve to larger sizes, they must evolve a better way to fight against cancer.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Bolivia Landslide Photos: Neighborhoods, Cemetery Fall

Bolivia Landslide Photos: Neighborhoods, Cemetery Fall

Visions of the Universe: Stars to Microbes

Poverty's Cancer

Poverty's Cancer

Cancer is an enormous, and growing, global public-health problem. A disease formerly considered more pervasive in affluent countries now places its heaviest burden on poor and disadvantaged populations. Of the 7.6 million cancer deaths every year, 4.8 million occur in the developing world.

If no action is taken, the number of cancer deaths in the developing world is forecast to grow to 5.9 million in 2015 and 9.1 million in 2030. While cancer deaths in wealthy countries are expected to increase less dramatically, they are nonetheless predicted to rise by a harrowing 40 percent over the next 20 years.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How To Be A Writer « Thought Catalog

How To Be A Writer « Thought Catalog

1) Don’t listen to advice from writers. I realize that me saying this will invalidate this entire column, but I’m cool with that. Writers like to talk about writing because talking about writing is easier than actually sitting down and — y’know — writing something. (Like a novel, or a play, or a poem, or such.) Don’t listen to writers. And are you sure that writers even have your best interests at heart? Most writers that I know are petty, insecure, self-absorbed dicks. And writers don’t like competition. Therefore, take any advice that they give you with a grain of salt.

2) Chill out. Most people are a thousand times more interesting when they’re talking than when they’re writing. Why is this? Because people panic when they start writing. People instantly revert to memories of 10th grade English class, and memories of No. 2 pencils, and lined notebooks. And then they freak out and tense up. Don’t tense up. Just relax. Seriously.

3) Just relax. …Um, seriously. Chill. When are you funniest and most interesting in life? When you’re hanging with your friends, maybe having a few beers, and telling a funny story. So when you write, do that. Just be normal. Act like you’re telling a story to your friends. Write the way that you talk. This will be much more interesting, I promise you.

4) You’re gonna have to write all the time. I wrote for about six hours a day, every day, for 15 years before I could quit my boring job and become an actual paid full-time writer.

Which reminds me of a funny story. In his excellent autobiography, animator Chuck Jones talks about his first day at art school. And on his first day, the “mean” professor said this to the class: “You have 200,000 bad drawings inside of you. The sooner you get rid of them, the better it will be for everyone.” Startled gasp! The class was horrified. And Chuck Jones, genius and creator of Bugs Bunny, etc., was horrified for a second too. Until he realized this: “Wait. I’ve already done at least 300,000 drawings.”

The same thing happened to me on my first day of school. Our professor said, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write for six hours a day. No exceptions.” And I was appalled, until I remembered that I did that already.

You’re gonna have to write all the time in order to get better. No one can make you do this. You’re going to have to make yourself do it.

Dan Dennett: Cute, sexy, sweet, funny | Video on

Dan Dennett: Cute, sexy, sweet, funny | Video on

Why are babies cute? Why is cake sweet? Philosopher Dan Dennett has answers you wouldn't expect, as he shares evolution's counterintuitive reasoning

A new beginning - Riz Khan - Al Jazeera English

A new beginning - Riz Khan - Al Jazeera English

On Monday's Riz Khan we speak with world-renowned author and historian Tariq Ali. Also on the show is Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dinochick Blogs: Scelidosaurus now on display at the Dinosaur Disco...

Dinochick Blogs: Scelidosaurus now on display at the Dinosaur Disco...: "Today the Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm in Saint George, Utah, will unveil its newest exhibit - the first Scelidosaurus to ev..."

We managed to get our hands on some other (invertebrate) fossils from the same locality that also produced Scelidosaurus (one is an ammonite from the same horizon; others are from slightly higher horizons), as well as a few models (toys, really) of Scelidosaurus that will be used in a display about how perceptions of the animal have changed over time, most recently because of this virtually complete specimen of which we now have a replica. I also have some other replicas of thyreophoran dinosaurs that I use in teaching here at the college, and those will be used in a display about later relatives of Scelidosaurus: one on stegosaurs, including a Stegosaurus skull, plate, and tail spike, and one on ankylosaurs, including skulls of Pawpawsaurus and Saichania (er, Minotaurosaurus) and a Saichania tail club. Lastly, we have some displays on why Scelidosaurus is relevant to our site, even though the animal itself hasn't been found here -- in this display, we'll have some of our Anomoepus tracks, which were made by early ornithischians, possible something like Scutellosaurus, which is about the only thyreophoran more primitive than Scelidosaurus (depending on how much traction you give to the hypothesis that Lesothosaurus is a basal thyreophoran and where Emausaurus fits).