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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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