Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Neverending Godfomercial, part n+1: “Monkey See, Monkey Did”

As promised in the first installment, how visual and anecdotal validation of the “existence” of supernatural demons “validates” the belief in the existence of life after death, and the concepts of Heaven and Hell.

First, that which can be concluded about the nature of the human animal based on the behaviors of early civilizations, direct observation, and behaviors of other mammals. Man is a pack animal, similar to dogs in that stone-age man practiced cooperative hunting. It is also likely to a degree of near certainty that early proto-tribes were based on the same type of alpha-male hierarchy as can be observed among the great apes. This culture was further refined into the bureaucratic hierarchies that we know today through refinement of the pecking order. This refinement came about through specialization of tribe members, the taking of slaves in inter-tribal war, and the self-promotion efforts of early shaman-priests. Whatever your opinion of their methods, you have to admire the success of the priest class in becoming the power behind the throne. If you think much has changed since the early days, contemplate the toppling of the Shah of Iran, or the fact that no atheist is electable to high office in the US at the present time.

The success of religious practices to form patterns of belief is attributable in part to the behaviors of early man. The earliest form of communication is by example. This is how a mother cat teaches her kittens to hunt, and how the earliest hominids passed on knowledge that helped them survive. There is a hard-wired mechanism in the brain that actually acquires sense memory of an observed action before a person actually repeats that action.

Formation of a Motor Memory by Action Observation Abstract:

“Mirror neurons discharge with both action observation and action execution. It has been proposed that the mirror neuron system is instrumental in motor learning. The human primary motor cortex (M1) displays mirror activity in response to movement observation, is capable of forming motor memories, and is involved in motor learning. However, it is not known whether movement observation can lead directly to the formation of motor memories in the M1, which is considered a likely physiological step in motor learning. Here, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to show that observation of another individual performing simple repetitive thumb movements gives rise to a kinematically specific memory trace of the observed motions in M1. An extended period of observation of thumb movements that were oriented oppositely to the previously determined habitual directional bias increased the probability of TMS-evoked thumb movements to fall within the observed direction. Furthermore, the acceleration of TMS-evoked thumb movements along the principal movement axis and the balance of excitability of muscle representations active in the observed movements were altered in favor of the observed movement direction. These findings support a role for the mirror neuron system in memory formation and possibly human motor learning”.

Katja Stefan,1,3 Leonardo G. Cohen,1 Julie Duque,1 Riccardo Mazzocchio,1 Pablo Celnik,1 Lumy Sawaki,1 Leslie Ungerleider,2 and Joseph Classen3

1Human Cortical Physiology Section, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke-National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda, Maryland 20892, 2Laboratory of Brain and Cognition, National Institute of Mental Health-NIH, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, and 3Human Cortical Physiology and Motor Control Laboratory, Department of Neurology, University of Würzburg, 97080 Würzburg, Germany

Before there was a spoken language, humans communicated through gestures and signals. This allowed hunters to coordinate their efforts over distance. This represents a leap forward in mental acuity. The meaning of a gesture is now tied to an agreed-upon interpretation. In other words, the gesture is symbolic. The reliance on symbolic interpretation deepened as the Human Race developed written language. Humans have an instinctual prejudice toward assigning meaning to, and interpreting symbols such as flags, emblems, and ritual behavior.

Brain activity during observation of actions. Influence of action content and subject's strategy


"PET (Positron Emission Tomography) was used to map brain regions that are associated with the observation of meaningful and meaningless hand actions. Subjects were scanned under four conditions which consisted of visually presented actions. In each of the four experimental conditions, they were instructed to watch the actions with one of two aims: to be able to recognize or to imitate them later. We found that differences in the meaning of the action, irrespective of the strategy used during observation, lead to different patterns of brain activity and clear left/right asymmetries. Meaningful actions strongly engaged the left hemisphere in frontal and temporal regions while meaningless actions involved mainly the right occipitoparietal pathway. Observing with the intent to recognize activated memory-encoding structures. In contrast, observation with the intent to imitate was associated with activation in the regions involved in the planning and in the generation of actions. Thus, the pattern of brain activation during observation of actions is dependent both on the nature of the required executive processing and the type of the extrinsic properties of the action presented."

J Decety, J Grezes, N Costes, D Perani, M Jeannerod, E Procyk, F Grassi and F Fazio Processus mentaux et activation cerebrale, Inserm Unit, Bron, France.

How does this all relate to the Neverending Godfomercial, and the fostering of supernatural and religious belief? Every time you watch a movie where some poor slob is running away from a growly-voiced minion of Pure Evil ®, there is a part of your brain that processes it as if it were happening to you. If your critical thinking skills have been impaired through years of repetitive brainwashing, bullshit, and induced self-doubt and shame, you will be prone to accept this fictional input as possible, or even real. In your mind, you will run in front of the threat along with the protagonist, like an animal running ahead of a forest fire. The same impulse that brings the armchair athlete out of the chair when a player scores a goal will cause your heart to pound as if the fantasy you are watching is really happening to you. If you have a prejudice for believing in supernatural beings and magic, you have just had that prejudice validated through fictional events that part of your brain treats as actual events. Or, to express this symbolically, “Oooga Booga!” You’ve been had (again).

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Neverending Gofomercial Part n-a

This is not exactly the next post in this series. That has been delayed because I can't find a reference that I'm looking for. Meanwhile, a question: How great a role do you suppose ego plays in the endless repetition of scripture? I mean, is one of the motivators in this selling game the idea that the prostylitizer has the knowledge of the ages, and is dispensing same to those who are not priviledged to have this knowledge without his/her sharing it? If so, how much of a factor is that in the behavior? How important, do you think, is this ego trip in the scheme of things?

The photo is of the not-only-Reverend but "Very Rev. Christopher Cantrell, SSC" of the Church of the Holy (what, no "very"?) Apostoles. And what is this I see before me, emblazoned on that robe? Surely it's not... The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch?

Friday, September 15, 2006

I’ve Been Tagged

So here is my entry into chain-meme madness:

One Book That Changed Your Life

Pinocchio. Not the Little Golden Book, Not the Disnoid version with the cricket, the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. I read this with help, at an early age. It taught me that I did not have to be intimidated by grown-up style books, and that magical beings like talking puppets weren’t real. It was also my first experience with allegory. I did not understand the larger symbolism at that time, but I did have someone explain to me what the boys turning into donkeys really meant. This was an eye-opening concept; symbolism versus reality, and was probably the birth of my skepticism.

One Book That You Have Read More Than Once

Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Several social constructs are examined in this work, as well as the almost organic way that the power structures of a culture will defend themselves against competition. If you think it’s all hippy-dippy, look again. This was also written in response to L. Ron’s drivel, and makes a good read from that perspective as well.

One Book You'd Want On A Desert Island

Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen, by Mary Blewitt

A Book That Made You Excited

Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations by Al Franken

One Book That You Wish Had Been Written

The White House Pirates – The investigation, trial and conviction of the men behind the election fraud of 2000.

One Book That Wracked You With Sobs

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

One Book That You Wish Had Never Been Written

Mein Kampf

One Book That You're Currently Reading

The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

One Book You've Been Meaning To Read

Love’s Executioner, and Other Tales of Psychotherapy, by Irvin D. Yalom, MD

Now Tag Five Bloggers

Just this once…I’ll play along. Victims coming soon.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Obligatory 9/11 Post

I took part in a memorial service this morning. It was complete with sound bites from that day and place in time. I cried. I resent having my emotions manipulated in that fashion, but there it is. Thousands of civilians, just trying to go to work. They die because our government supports an unpopular regime in Saudi Arabia. What was their involvement? They paid taxes and worked in a financial hub. Some of them were from my home town. Some of them were faces I passed in the hall of my High School, or their brothers and sisters. I recognized some of the names. I saw those towers being built, the New York skyline off in the distance like the Emerald City of OZ. I saw them fall on a television screen, live.

Fucking outrageous. Disgusting. Horrible. The price for murder is usually life in prison or death. This is true no matter if you kill one person or thousands of people. Whether or not you are ever made to pay that price is another story. We humans have always had a hang-up about numbers, but the murder of one is no less a crime.

I remember a lot more than 9/11. I remember fear and suffering as a village awakens to the thunder of hooves and the glint of sabers at Wounded Knee. I remember what the Romans meant when they said “Decimate.” I remember the stories of atrocities from Burma, and Ethiopia, and “Ethnic Cleansing”. I remember rifle fire in Ireland, and the answering blasts in London as glass showered in the streets. ... and I remember the wailing of the survivors on every continent.

Where did it start? With the Saracens and the Knights Templar? With the Hordes of Genghis Khan? With the small, sturdy brown race that pushed the Caucasians out of the Indus Valley? Who knows and who cares? It must stop!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Discussion Topic:

I am going to juxtapose two thoughts, and then ask for commentary.

Thought 1 (the easy one):

“A difference that makes no difference is no difference.” - William James (although often attributed to Spock on Star Trek)

Thought 2 (the complicated one):

If you have been exposed to Einstein’s theory of relativity, you are perhaps familiar with the idea that each of us occupies a unique position in space-time. In other words, your “now” is not exactly the same as my “now” because of the physical distance that separates us. This is beyond the difference in experiential perspective, although it is the cause of that difference as well. Simply put, I’m not you.

If you gesture, it takes time for that motion to arrive at my retina, and even more time for my brain to process it. What I perceive as happening right now actually occurred several milliseconds ago. The sunlight that I see bouncing off a rock and illuminating it, is actually fossil light (though very recent) from the sun. Everything that I see around me and everything that I experience, including the feedback from my own motor control of my body happened in the immediate past, not the present.

Does “the present moment” actually exist?

Is there a locus in space-time, like a point in the physical center of my body, for example, that represents my “now”?