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Transcript: David DiSalvo on How Cultural Evolution Outpaces Natural Evolution and Old Brain Metaphors

Below you can find the full tran­script of our engag­ing Q&A ses­sion today with David DiSalvo, author of What makes your brain happy and why you should do the oppo­site, moderated by Alvaro Fernandez. You visit previous Q&A Ses­sions Here.

Full Tran­script (Lightly edited) of Live Q&A held on December 9th, 2-3pm ET

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The Evolution of Empathy

(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this article thanks to our collaboration with Greater Good Magazine).

The Evolution of Empathy

Empathy’s not a uniquely human trait, explains primatologist Frans de Waal. Apes and other animals feel it as well, suggesting that empathy is truly an essential part of who we are.

Once upon a time, the United States had a president known for a peculiar facial display. In an act of controlled emotion, he would bite his lower lip and tell his audience, “I feel your pain.” Whether the display was sincere is not the issue here; how we are affected by another’s predicament is. Empathy is second nature to us, so much so that anyone devoid of it strikes us as dangerous or mentally ill.

At the movies, we can’t help but get inside the skin of the characters on the screen. We despair when their gigantic ship sinks; we exult when they finally stare into the eyes of a long-lost lover.

We are so used to empathy that we take it for granted, yet it is essential to human society as we know it. Our morality depends on it: How could anyone be expected to follow the golden rule without the capacity to mentally trade places with a fellow human being? It is logical to assume that this capacity came first, giving rise to the golden rule itself. The act of perspective-taking is summed up by one of the most enduring definitions of empathy that we have, formulated by Adam Smith as “changing places in fancy with the sufferer.”

Even Smith, the father of economics, best known for emphasizing self-interest as the lifeblood of human economy, understood that the concepts of self-interest and empathy don’t conflict. Empathy makes us reach out to others, first just emotionally, but later in life also by understanding their situation.

This capacity likely evolved because it served our ancestors’ survival in two ways. First, like every mammal, we need to be sensitive to the needs of our offspring. Second, our species depends on cooperation, which means that we do better if we are surrounded by healthy, capable group mates. Taking care of them is just a matter of enlightened self-interest.

Animal empathy

It is hard to imagine that empathy—a characteristic so basic to the human species that it emerges early in life, and is accompanied by strong physiological reactions—came into existence only when our lineage split off from that of the apes. It must be far older than that. Examples of empathy in other animals would suggest a long evolutionary history to this capacity in humans.

Evolution rarely throws anything out. Instead, Read the rest of this entry »

Training Attention and Emotional Self-Regulation – Interview with Michael Posner

(Editor’s Note: this is one of the 20 interviews included in the book The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age)

Michael I. Posner is a prominent scientist in the field of cognitive neuroscience. He is currently an emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of Oregon (DepartmentMichael Posner of Psychology, Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences). In August 2008, the International Union of Psychological Science made him the first recipient of the Dogan Prize “in recognition of a contribution that represents a major advance in psychology by a scholar or team of scholars of high international reputation.”

Dr. Posner, many thanks for your time today. I really enjoyed the James Arthur Lecture monograph on Evolution and Development of Self-Regulation that you delivered last year. Could you provide a summary of the research you presented?

I would emphasize that we human beings can regulate our thoughts, emotions, and actions to a greater degree than other primates. For example, we can choose to pass up an immediate reward for a larger, delayed reward.

We can plan ahead, resist distractions, be goal-oriented. These human characteristics appear to depend upon what we often call “self-regulation.” What is exciting these days is that progress in neuroimaging and in genetics make it possible to think about self-regulation in terms of specific brain-based networks.

Can you explain what self-regulation is?

All parents have seen this in their kids. Parents can see the remarkable transformation as their children develop the ability to regulate emotions and to persist with goals in the face of distractions. That ability is usually labeled ‚ self-regulation.

The other main area of your research is attention. Can you explain the brain-basis for what we usually call “attention”?

I have been interested in how the attention system develops in infancy and early childhood.

One of our major findings, thanks to neuroimaging, is that there is not one single “attention”, but three separate functions of attention with three separate underlying brain networks: alerting, orienting, and executive attention. Read the rest of this entry »

Use It or Lose It, and Cells that Fire together Wire together

Everyone has heard of “Use It or Lose It.” Now…what is “It”?

Last week I gave a talk at the Italian Consulate in San Francisco, and one of the areas attendees seemed to enjoy the most was learning about what our brains are and how they work, peaking into the “black box” of our minds. Without understanding a few basics, how can we make good decisions about brain health?

At a quick glance:, the brain is composed of 3 “brains” or main sub-systems, each named after the evolutionary moment in which the sub-system is believed to have appeared. Read the rest of this entry »

Darwin’s adult neuroplasticity

Charles Darwin 1880Charles Darwin (1809-1882)’s autobiography (full text free online) includes some very insightful refections on the evolution of his own mind during his middle-age, showcasing the power of the brain to rewire itself through experience (neuroplasticity) during our whole lifetimes-not just when we are youngest.

He wrote these paragraphs at the age of 72 (I have bolded some key sentences for emphasis, the whole text makes great reading):

“I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily– against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.

This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with Read the rest of this entry »

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