Monday, January 26, 2009

Philosophers to Probe Consciousness

A team of English philosophers has launched a three-year research project to explore conscious experiences that science still cannot explain.

Funded through Britain’s Arts and Humanities Research Council and involving the collaboration of some of the world’s leading philosophers and cognitive scientists, the project will attempt to answer the mystery of consciousness.
“When we see a sunset or hear a symphony our sense organs, brains and bodies are moved in ways that are well understood by the physical and biological sciences,” Professor Paul Coates of the University of Hertfordshire told ScienceDaily. “But during such experiences we also enjoy distinctive forms of conscious awareness. Yet this undeniable fact about our conscious lives is stubbornly resistant to scientific understanding.

“How is it even possible for purely physical brain activity to produce conscious experience?” he went on. “How do the qualities that manifest themselves in experience relate to the very different properties that are referred to in scientific descriptions of the physical world?”

To find the answers, Coates and a scientific team will re-examine fundamental concepts relating to consciousness and physical reality. They say they will examine experimental results in psychology and brain science as well as phenomenology and other forms of philosophical enquiry.

Click here for the ScienceDaily article.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Worthy Sentiment

This morning I saw this old Monty Python video on George Breed's spiritually provocative blog, Embodying Spirit, and I thought, "Come on, George ..." Then I found myself whistling the tune and reliving the same sense of joy ~ admittedly a somewhat twisted sense of joy ~ I felt when I first saw the cast of Monty Python's Life of Brian sing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" as shown here. Now all I can say is, "Thanks, George!"

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Outlying Moons Suitable for Exploration

Depiction of surface of Saturn moon Titan.

NASA’s leading candidates for extraterrestrial life are now Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus or perhaps Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede. Scientists are weighing the possibilities in anticipation of picking a destination for a $4 billion space mission set for around 2020.

According to the BBC, the potential Saturn mission would follow up the remarkable discoveries made by the Nasa/Esa Cassini-Huygens mission which continues to operate at the ringed planet. Cassini has sent back data that indicates Titan is akin to a primitive ~ albeit frozen ~ Earth. It has a thick atmosphere and is rich in organic (carbon-rich) molecules.

But Nature News says the arguments for exploring Jupiter’s moons are just as compelling. In 1995, the Galileo probe began an 8-year tour of Jupiter’s system, during which it snapped the first close-ups of Europa’s scarred surface. Analysis of a magnetic anomaly soon revealed the moon’s most astonishing feature: that eggshell of ice is thought to enclose a warm, salty ocean. Scientists immediately clamoured to return.

Click here for the Discover magazine article.

Dementia Sufferers Can't Detect Sarcasm

People suffering from dementia can’t tell if someone is being sarcastic, thus sarcasm has been elevated from the lowest form of wit to a medical diagnostic device.

Australian researchers said people under 65 suffering from frontotemporal dementia (FTD) ~ the second most prevalent form of dementia ~ cannot decipher sarcasm, which helps explains some of their lack of feeling toward their caregivers.

"This is significant because if caregivers are angry, sad or depressed, the patient won't pick this up. It is often very upsetting for family members," John Hodges, one of the lead researchers, told Cosmos magazine. "Patients find it difficult to interact with people, they don't pick up on social cues, they lack empathy and they make bad judgements."

Researchers began studying the role of sarcasm in detecting FTD, because it requires a patient to spot discrepancies between a person's words and the tone of their voice, Hodges said.

Click here for the complete article in Cosmos magazine.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Placebo Effect Occurs with Acupuncture Too

I’m a firm believer in acupuncture, having had a number of maladies ~ including a couple of serious ones ~ seemingly remedied by the needles. Yet I’m not surprised at the new studies showing a portion of acupuncture’s benefit is the placebo effect.

There’s no reason why acupuncture shouldn’t be susceptible to placebo along with the rest of the world’s medical cures. I just hope people don’t take the unwarranted leap to see the studies as somehow denigrating acupuncture’s effectiveness.

Acupuncture is based on the theory of lines of energy running along meridians through the body. With acupressure, a fingertip or a bead is used to press a specific pressure point, while needles are used in acupuncture to stimulate the meridians and cure energy blockages responsible for much illness.

The placebo effect is mostly a mind-over-matter cure. If a person believed totally in the efficacy of acupuncture, it is reasonable that his or her mind could enact a cure even if the needles were misplaced, since a placebo cure would have no direct relation to the needles anyway.

German researchers have fueled the current discussions by releasing a study where needles were inserted at fake points to cure specific conditions ~ mostly headaches ~ yet the cures occurred anyway. According to Reuters News:

Their findings suggest the benefits of acupuncture may stem more from people's belief in the technique, said Klaus Linde, a complementary medicine researcher at the Technical University in Munich, who led the analysis published in the Cochrane Review journal.

"Much of the clinical benefit of acupuncture might be due to non-specific needling effects and powerful placebo effects, meaning selection of specific needle points may be less important than many practitioners have traditionally argued," he said in a statement.

Several studies have shown both treatments may stimulate the release of hormones known as endorphins, which can relieve stress, pain and nausea.

Linde and colleagues conducted two separate reviews that included 33 studies of nearly 7,000 men and women to see whether the technique was effective at preventing headaches and migraines.
The studies concluded that people treated with acupuncture suffered fewer headaches compared to men and women given only pain killers. When it came to migraines, the needles beat drugs but faked treatments worked too, the researchers said. For less severe headaches, acupuncture worked just slightly better than sticking the needles randomly, the researchers said.

"Doctors need to know how long improvements associated with acupuncture will last and whether better trained acupuncturists really achieve better results than those with basic training only," Linde told Reuters.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Mysterious Undersea Wall Found Near Taiwan

Section of the wall formation in the Taiwan Strait.

A biodiversity researcher has discovered a huge basalt rock formation in the Taiwan Strait, resembling a city wall and rivaling similar monoliths on land. The 200-meter-long, 10-meter-high undersea wall ~ resembling thousands of pillars packed together ~ is near the Pescadores archipelago, researcher Jeng Ming-hsiou said on Monday.

Jeng was diving in the area when he saw and filmed the wall 25 miles west of Taiwan's main island. "It was completely unexpected," he told Reuters. "It's not easy to see these formations underwater."

Basalt walls such as the famed Giant's Causeway on the coast of Ireland and the Wairere Boulders of New Zealand are known to have occurred on land but seldom, if ever, are found at sea.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Number 55 ~ ABUNDANCE

ABUNDANCE has success.
The king attains abundance.
Be not sad.
Be like the sun at midday.

It is not given to every mortal to bring about a time of outstanding greatness and abundance. Only a born ruler of men is able to do it, because his will is directed to what is great. Such a time of abundance is usually brief. Therefore a sage might well feel sad in view of the decline that must follow. But such sadness does not befit him. Only a man who is inwardly free of sorrow and care can lead in a time of abundance. He must be like the sun at midday, illuminating and gladdening everything under heaven.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Greater Self-Control Linked to Religious Beliefs

"But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king's delicacies, nor with the wine which he drank; therefore he requested of the chief of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself." Daniel 1:8

In Science’s ongoing (and in my humble opinion, often fruitless) attempts to understand and to quantify “Religion,” we now have a new study linking religious behavior with self-control.

The study recently was conducted by University of Miami psychology professor Michael McCullough and concludes that religious people have more self-control than do their less religious counterparts. According to ScienceDaily:
These findings imply that religious people may be better at pursuing and achieving long-term goals that are important to them and their religious groups. This, in turn, might help explain why religious people tend to have lower rates of substance abuse, better school achievement, less delinquency, better health behaviors, less depression, and longer lives.

In this research project, McCullough evaluated eight decades worth of research on religion, which has been conducted in diverse samples of people from around the world. He found persuasive evidence from a variety of domains within the social sciences, including neuroscience, economics, psychology, and sociology, that religious beliefs and religious behaviors are capable of encouraging people to exercise self-control and to more effectively regulate their emotions and behaviors, so that they can pursue valued goals.
"The importance of self-control and self-regulation for understanding human behavior are well known to social scientists, but the possibility that the links of religiosity to self-control might explain the links of religiosity to health and behavior has not received much explicit attention," McCullough told ScienceDaily. "We hope our paper will correct this oversight in the scientific literature."

"Sacred" Goals Get More Energy

Among the conclusions the research team drew were:
  • Religious rituals such as prayer and meditation affect the parts of the human brain that are most important for self-regulation and self-control;
  • When people view their goals as "sacred," they put more energy and effort into pursuing those goals, and therefore, are probably more effective at attaining them;
  • Religious lifestyles may contribute to self-control by providing people with clear standards for their behavior, by causing people to monitor their own behavior more closely, and by giving people the sense that God is watching their behavior;
  • The fact that religious people tend to be higher in self-control helps explain why religious people are less likely to misuse drugs and alcohol and experience problems with crime and delinquency.
"By thinking of religion as a social force that provides people with resources for controlling their impulses (including the impulse for self-preservation, in some cases) in the service of higher goals, religion can motivate people to do just about anything," McCullough said.

Click here for the ScienceDaily article.

Sleeping Pill Use Soars Among Young

Use of prescription sleep aids has tripled among young adults between 1998 and 2006. A new Thomson Reuters study of medical and drug use has found a 50-percent increase in use of the drugs among all adults under 45, who also appear to be using the sleep aids for a longer period of time to help them fall asleep.

"I find it very worrisome that young people who should have a very strong and healthy sleep system are now finding they are turning to medication to help them get to sleep," Donna Arand, a sleep specialist at Kettering Hospital Sleep Disorder Center in Dayton, Ohio, told Reuters News.

Two-thirds of those in this study population were taking non-benzodiazepine hypnotics ~ such as Sanofi-Aventis' Ambien CR and Sepracor Inc's Lunesta. These newer sleep aids in rare cases can cause sleep walking.

Click here for the complete Reuters article.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

From the Tao Te Ching

The Tao can't be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.

If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.

When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop,
you can avoid any danger.

All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

'Spirituality' Linked to Children's Happiness

A recent study correlating children’s happiness and spirituality ~ apparently at the expense of more conventional religion ~ is getting a fair share of press. But there’s a lot of hair-splitting going on in the articles, and perhaps in the study itself.

It appears “religion” is equated with “organized religion,” in other words, conventional denominations and regular attendance. “Spirituality,” however, is defined as “meaning and value in one’s own life.”

According to an article in LiveScience:
Personal aspects of spirituality (meaning and value in one's own life) and communal aspects (quality and depth of inter-personal relationships) were both strong predictors of children's happiness, said study leader Mark Holder from the University of British Columbia in Canada and his colleagues Ben Coleman and Judi Wallace.

However, religious practices were found to have little effect on children's happiness, Holder said. Religion is just one institutionalized venue for the practice of or experience of spirituality, and some people say they are spiritual but are less enthusiastic about the concept of God. Other research has shown a connection between well-adjusted and well-behaved children and religion, but that is not the same, necessarily, as happiness.

A child's temperament was also an important predictor of happiness, according to LiveScience. Happier children were more sociable and less shy. The relationship between spirituality and happiness remained strong, even when the authors took temperament into account.

Somewhat counterintuitively, religious practices — including attending church, praying and meditating — had little effect on a child's happiness.

"Enhancing personal meaning may be a key factor in the relation between spirituality and happiness," the researchers stated. Strategies aimed at increasing personal meaning in children ~ such as expressing kindness towards others and recording these acts of kindness, as well as acts of altruism and volunteering ~ may help to make children happier, Holder suggests.

Click here for the complete LiveScience article.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Psychics Doing Okay in Economic Downturn

A number of psychics, according to the New York Times, are finding business robust these days, especially from clients such as real-estate and investment advisers who are paying psychics, astrologers, palm readers and channelers from $75 to $1,000 an hour for intuitive insights.
  • “My phone is ringing off the hook,” said Roxanne Usleman, a psychic in Manhattan, who says she channels angels to advise her clients on interpersonal and financial matters. She reports both a spike in traffic on her Web site and a significant surge in private consultations. She used to see comfortably 15 to 20 clients a week, she said. Now she meets with more than twice that number. “I’m having trouble squeezing in appointments,” she said.
  • Dawn Carr, a psychic in Boston, said her holiday bookings jumped as much as 70 percent this year over last, fueled in part by corporate bookings for holiday parties. “These people are looking for someone not just to entertain them, but to enlighten them,” she said.
“When you don’t know what to expect of a job interview or a business partnership,” Gita V. Johar, a professor of at the Columbia University Business School, told the Times. “That's when you’re most likely to turn to a psychic.”

Professor Johar, whose specialty is studying the effects of superstition on consumer behavior, suggested that when your portfolio is shrinking or your business is tanking, talking to a soothsayer may be “one way of feeling in control.” She needed no crystal ball herself to predict that “given the uncertainty of the economy, psychics are going to see an increase in business.”

Click here for the complete New York Times article.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Diamond Dust Points to Comet Cataclysm

Diamond dust dating to 12,900 years ago exists at six North American sites, pointing to Earth's impact with a rare swarm of carbon-and-water-rich comets or carbonaceous chondrites, reports a nine-member scientific team.

Nanodiamonds ~ produced under high-temperature, high-pressure conditions created by cosmic impacts and have been found in meteorites ~ are concentrated in similarly aged sediments at sites in Arizona, Oklahoma, Michigan, South Carolina and at two additional sites in Canada.

According to ScienceDaily, last year a team of scientists proposed that a cosmic impact event ~ possibly multiple airbursts of comets ~ set off a 1,300-year-long cold spell known as the Younger Dryas and led to the extinction of a large range of animals, including mammoths, across North America.

Now, reporting in today’s issue of the journal Science, a team led by the University of Oregon's Douglas J. Kennett, a member of the original research team, report finding billions of nanometer-sized diamonds concentrated in sediments ~ weighing from about 10 to 2,700 parts per billion ~ in the six locations during digs funded by the National Science Foundation.

"The nanodiamonds that we found at all six locations exist only in sediments associated with the Younger Dryas Boundary layers, not above it or below it," Kennett, a UO archaeologist, told ScienceDaily. "These discoveries provide strong evidence for a cosmic impact event at approximately 12,900 years ago that would have had enormous environmental consequences for plants, animals and humans across North America."

Click here for the complete ScienceDaily article.
Click here for today's Washington Post article.

This post originally appeared on my Ancient Tides blog.