How to Erase Fear–in Humans

How-to-erase-fear-in-humans_1Daniel Lametti in Scientific American:

“Memory”, wrote Oscar Wilde, “is the diary that we all carry about with us”. Perhaps, but if memory is like a diary, it’s one filled with torn-out pages and fabricated passages.

In January, a group of New York University neuroscientists led by Daniela Schiller reported in the journal Nature that they had created fearful memories in people and then erased them. Besides being rather cool, the result provides new insight into how to treat traumatic memories in people.

The research was based on the work of neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, a coauthor on the paper. Ten years ago, while experimenting with rats, Ledoux made a discovery that changed the way neuroscientists view memory from that of Wilde’s tidy diary to something more along the lines of a James Frey memoir.

In that experiment, Ledoux conditioned rats to fear a bell by ringing it in time with an electric shock until the rats froze in fear at the mere sound of the bell. Then, at the moment when the fear memory was being recalled, he injected the rats with anisomycin, a drug that stops the construction of new neural connections. Remarkably, the next time he rang the bell the rats no longer froze in fear. The memory, it seemed, had vanished. Poof!

Ledoux concluded that the neural connections in which memories are stored have to be rebuilt each time a memory is recalled. And during rebuilding—or reconsolidation, as he termed it—memories can be altered or even erased. Neuroscientists now believe that reconsolidation functions to update memories with new information—something of an unsettling idea, suggesting that our memories are only as accurate as the last time they were remembered.

The Moral Equivalent of the Parallel Postulate

Sean Carroll
on Sam Harris' TED talk:

He starts by admitting that most people are skeptical that science can lead us to certain values; science can tell us what is, but not what ought to be. There is a old saying, going back to David Hume, that you can’t derive ought from is. And Hume was right! You can’t derive ought from is. Yet people insist on trying.

Harris uses an ancient strategy to slip morality into what starts out as description. He says:

Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures… If we’re more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it’s because we think they are exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. The crucial thing to notice here is that this is a factual claim.

Let’s grant the factual nature of the claim that primates are exposed to a greater range of happiness and suffering than insects or rocks. So what? That doesn’t mean we should care about their suffering or happiness; it doesn’t imply anything at all about morality, how we ought to feel, or how to draw the line between right and wrong.

Morality and science operate in very different ways. In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse. If I believe in the Big Bang model and you believe in the Steady State cosmology, I can point to the successful predictions of the cosmic background radiation, light element nucleosynthesis, evolution of large-scale structure, and so on. Eventually you would either agree or be relegated to crackpot status. But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale — but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it. Who decides what is a successful life? It’s ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question.

Harris is doing exactly what Hume warned against, in a move that is at least as old as Plato: he’s noticing that most people are, as a matter of empirical fact, more concerned about the fate of primates than the fate of insects, and taking that as evidence that we ought to be more concerned about them; that it is morally correct to have those feelings. But that’s a non sequitur.

explore ancient sardis


Sardis, Sardeis, Sardes, Sparda, and Sart are all names of a settlement in Anatolia located 60 miles east of Izmir, Turkey. Sardis has a long urban history which began over three thousand years ago and has been host to many cultures–Mycenaean and Hittite, Lydian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Selcuk, and Ottoman. For more than a millennium it was a major city of the ancient world. The Harvard University Art Museum’s exhibit, “The City of Sardis: Approaches in Graphic Recording” (2003), explores the topography and architecture of Sardis and approaches to graphic recording of the city since the middle of the 18th century. A guided tour of the exhibit, interviews with the curators and archaeologists, as well as slides and video from the exhibit and archeological dig are featured in this video. Explore the role of graphic recording over the last few centuries in preserving and recreating the ancient city of Sardis.

more from Harvard here.

Hydrology: Visions in Ice

Douglas Capron in

Ice I am inspired by transformations and transitions that occur within nature, people and music.

My photographic opportunities often arrive unexpectedly and I am always fascinated by how our perception of time alternates with various life experiences. I hope my work travels beyond graphic emotional impact and that it will provoke and sustain a subtle dialogue with the viewer.

With my current series, Hydrology: Visions in Ice, my goal was to share with viewers the ephemeral mystery that occurs when water transforms into ice in
a natural setting. The resulting formations are surprisingly dynamic, organically expressive and complex, and pose more questions than are revealed beyond an aesthetic perspective in our relationship with the most basic element that sustains us all.

More here.

Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China

From The Telegraph:

Pb-desk Many years ago, my history tutor at Oxford snapped: “I am Anglo-Indian, by which I do not mean that I am half black.” I have thought of this often in the context of the term “mixed race”, not meaning what he meant, wondering why we have lost the words for cultural rather than racial crosses. Pearl Buck was American by birth but entirely Chinese by upbringing. A mission daughter born in 1892, she graduated to being an unhappily married mission wife and mother. The runaway success of her second novel, The Good Earth (1931), altered her life. She swapped China for the United States and her agrarian economist husband for her New York publisher. Her fiction continued to be set in Asia and to borrow from iconoclastic younger novelists in China producing richly plotted popular fiction in the previously despised vernacular. Buck took this one step further by writing about the agrarian poor. A Pulitzer and Nobel Prize followed.

The New York Times recently wrote that “in China [Buck] is admired but not read and in America she is read but not admired”. “Both views could do with reappraisal,” suggests Hilary Spurling. Her compelling examination of the imaginative sources of Buck’s fiction succeeds triumphantly in this aim.

More here.

non-human persons?


The recent fatal attack of a SeaWorld trainer by the orca Tilikum has led to renewed questions about how humans should deal with potentially intelligent animals. Was Tilikum’s action premeditated, and how should that possibility influence decisions on the animal’s future treatment? Orcas, like their close relatives, dolphins, certainly seem smart, though researchers debate just how intelligent these cetaceans are and how similar their cognition is to humans. Should we ever treat such creatures like people? For centuries it seemed obvious to most people what separated them from other animals: Humans have language, they use tools, they plan for the future, and do any number of things that other animals don’t seem to do. But gradually the line between “animal” and “human” has blurred. Some animals do use tools; others solve complicated problems. Some can even be taught to communicate using sign language or other systems. Could it be that there isn’t a clear difference separating humans from other life forms?

more from Dave Munger at Seed here.

the hippie mafia


In the 1960s, a group of psychedelic-loving misfits from Orange County called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love figured it could turn the entire world on to the mystical power of LSD. It seemed like a reasonable idea at the time — the brotherhood had been founded on a shared belief in LSD’s transformative effects. But somewhere along the line, the spiritual message was squashed by thousands of kilos of smuggled marijuana and hashish. By decade’s end, the psychedelic messengers had sidetracked into a smuggling operation that made the group one of the largest drug cartels in America. Instead of enlightenment, the members of the brotherhood wound up making their mark as narcotics trailblazers: They distributed Orange Sunshine, arguably the most popular “brand” of LSD in history; created the strain of pot known as Maui Wowie; and were the first to bring Afghan hash to the U.S.

more from Erik Himmelsbach at the LAT here.

Pay, pack and follow, at convenience


She was neither the first nor the last diplomatic wife to receive the directive, later reduced to six words: “Pay, pack and follow, at convenience.” The version that reached Louisa Catherine Adams in January 1815 was less succinct — her husband was John Adams’s son after all — but she could hardly have complied more swiftly. In three weeks she had crated up the St. Petersburg household, settled the accounts and prepared to set off, across 2,000 miles, to join her husband in Paris. It was winter. Europe remained pockmarked by the Napoleonic Wars. With her Mrs. Adams would take knives and forks; hidden bags of gold and silver; a governess; two servants, one of them trustworthy; and 7-year-old Charles Francis Adams, whose third language was English. They set out late on the afternoon of Feb. 12. It was Mrs. Adams’s 40th birthday. There was some reason for the eager departure from Russia, to which John Quincy Adams had been posted in 1809. His was largely a ceremonial office. A St. Petersburg winter lasts from six to eight months. Neither Adams took naturally to diplomatic life, which in the court of Alexander I consisted of a debilitating round of balls, all-night marathons that left the Adamses to crawl from their beds the next afternoon with aching heads and parched throats. They endured as well the tribulation of every early American envoy abroad: how to survive in the most opulent of European courts on a preposterously low Congressional allowance? Especially to the London-bred Louisa Adams — she remains America’s only foreign-born first lady — the wardrobe-related indignities abounded. She had moreover held down the fort alone for nearly a year.

more from Stacy Schiff at the NYT here.

Saturday Poem

Stone Poem

The doorstep of your existence
is the morning’s clean slate,

a stone on my soul’s roof-hurdle,
a single necessary step
by love’s wall. Simple, stable.

I’ve never understood why people hunt
for crystal, or a lump of gold,
or a diamond. I’m simply

grateful for the stones at hand,
meteorites from the sky at times,
the magnet that holds two ships in harbour,

the loadstone of sensibility,
and the long stone that in an age of gravel
rolls, and gathers no moss,

the whetstone of my brain,
flints demanding an explosion
beneath the tissue, a fresh quarry.

Stone upon stone. Milestones
I walk towards happily,
chirping like a stonechat.

by Menna Elfyn

The History of White People

Linda Gordon in the New York Times Book Review:

ScreenHunter_02 Mar. 27 11.08 Nell Irvin Painter’s title, “The History of White People,” is a provocation in several ways: it’s monumental in sweep, and its absurd grandiosity should call to mind the fact that writing a “History of Black People” might seem perfectly reasonable to white people. But the title is literally accurate, because the book traces characterizations of the lighter-skinned people we call white today, starting with the ancient Scythians. For those who have not yet registered how much these characterizations have changed, let me assure you that sensory observation was not the basis of racial nomenclature.

Some ancient descriptions did note color, as when the ancient Greeks recognized that their “barbaric” northern neighbors, Scythians and Celts, had lighter skin than Greeks considered normal. Most ancient peoples defined population differences culturally, not physically, and often regarded lighter people as less civilized. Centuries later, European travel writers regarded the light-skinned Circassians, a k a Caucasians, as people best fit only for slavery, yet at the same time labeled Circassian slave women the epitome of beauty. Exoticizing and sexualizing women of allegedly inferior “races” has a long and continuous history in racial thought; it’s just that today they are usually darker-skinned women.

More here.

Bonfire of the Intellectuals

Ron Rosenbaum in Slate:

100325_Spec_AliTN Return with me now to the lusty days of yore, when engagé public intellectuals battled it out over Trotskyism, anarcho-syndicalism, and just who betrayed whom in the bloody streets of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War—and later in the savage pages of The Partisan Review, where those battles were refought. Sometimes the intense seriousness of the intellectual combat can sound overstrained in retrospect (cf. the Woody Allen joke about Commentary and Dissent merging to form Dysentery). But in fact these were foundational postwar arguments, waged by some of the sharpest thinkers in print as they clashed over urgent questions about the future of totalitarianism and democracy.

The Flight of the Intellectuals, Paul Berman's new 300-page polemic (to be published this spring), recalls these heady days in a book that is likely to provoke an intense controversy among public intellectuals. The most contentious assertion in Berman's book is that some of the most prominent of these—people who rushed to the defense of Salman Rushdie when he was threatened with death for a novel deemed blasphemously irreverent to Islam—have failed to offer wholehearted support to Muslim dissidents today, people such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born author and Muslim apostate, whose lives are similarly threatened. This failure, this “flight of the intellectuals,” Berman argues, represents a deeply troubling abandonment of Enlightenment values in the face of recurrent threats to freedom of expression.

More here.

“Goddess” Glacier Melting in War-Torn Kashmir

Rebecca Byerly in National Geographic:

ScreenHunter_01 Mar. 27 10.31 Surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the world's tallest mountain range, the Kashmir region, disputed over by India and Pakistan, is home to thousands of glaciers. Until recently scientists had claimed they would be gone in just a few decades, mostly based on data from the United Nation’s (UN) 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

However, in 2009 scientists discovered major flaws with this prediction. A report published in November 2009 claimed the glaciers in the Himalayas are not receding and some have even expanded.

Despite the errors, it's clear that at least some glaciers, including Kolahoi, are still retreating. The latest data from the New Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) shows that in the past four decades, Kolahoi has lost between 15 to 18 percent of its total volume. The research also shows that the glacier is retreating by almost ten feet (three meters) a year.

More here.

Rereading: George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss

From The Guardian:

Tom-and-Maggie-overwhelme-001 On 5 March 1860, the scientist and journalist GH Lewes reported to the publisher John Blackwood that “Mrs Lewes is getting her eyes redder and swollener every morning as she lives through her tragic story. But there is such a strain of poetry to relieve the tragedy that the more she cries, and the readers cry, the better say I.” “Mrs Lewes” was, of course, George Eliot, and “the tragic story” on which she was working so damply was The Mill on the Floss, published by Blackwood 150 years ago next week. What was making Eliot cry was having to write the last few pages of her novel in which the heroine Maggie Tulliver and her estranged brother Tom drown in the swollen River Floss, locked together “in an embrace never to be parted”.

More than mere melodrama, the watery hug represented a wishful reworking of Eliot's fractured relationship with her own adored brother, with whom she had grown up on the Warwickshire family farm in the 1820s. Ever since she had written to Isaac Evans three years before to explain that she was now cohabiting in London with the married Lewes – “Mrs Lewes” was a term of social convenience, her legal name remained Mary Ann Evans – the rigidly respectable Isaac had refused to have anything to do with her. Even more hurtfully, he had instructed their sister to break off contact too. This silence was to stretch bleakly over the coming quarter of a century. The brother and sister who, like Tom and Maggie, had once “roamed the daisied fields together” in loving childhood, would never meet again.

More here.