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July 23, 2008

The Wisdom of the Lowly Ant -- Distributive Intelligence

ptgmazebig.jpgResearchers are working to clear away the freeway gridlock that is overwhelming at times in large metropolitan areas globally.  And just what are they studying to solve this problem? Ants.  Slate has a video describing this phenomenon here. As it happens, ants have developed what scientists call "distributive intelligence" - a way to communicate with others from the colony in real time important information about the shortest, quickest route to potential food sources.  Instead of using biochemical pheromones to communicate with other drivers, real time information will be distributed to other drivers on the same route advising them when it is best to take an alternate route.  

In one sense we are already experiencing the implications of "distributive intelligence" when reading this blog entry.  The packets are continually "learning" which is the fastest route from one server to the next to the end user.  The difference is that the packets are to communicating with each other the way ants do.

This "distributive intelligence" model may have far-reaching implications for all sorts of learning beyond solving traffic jams.  Who knows, perhaps a better understanding of bees will help relieve the gridlock in the skies.

Again here is a link to the video (about 3 minutes long).

July 18, 2008

No Place to Land the Plane

guardian.logo.gifSociology professor Ulrich Beck, from Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians University and the London School of Economics has a thought-provoking article in the Guardian on how the conversation about increased use of nuclear power is being framed by political leaders today.

He writes:
"...the actors who are supposed to be the guarantors of security and rationality - the state, science and industry - are engaged in a highly ambivalent game. They are no longer trustees but suspects, no longer managers of risks but also sources of risks. For they are urging the population to climb into an aircraft for which a landing strip has not yet been built."

Several of the comments are worth a look as well.

July 6, 2008

A National Teacher Academy ala West Point?

ed_in_08_logo_home.gifThis "Teacher Corp Academy"  is one of the ideas bandied about by a panel at "EDin08", America's Education Crisis: Pursuing Academic Excellence.  EDin08 is an initiative that grew from the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors Strong American Schools project. This  nonpartisan campaign is also supported by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is dedicated to "promoting sound education policies for all Americans".

Then again, maybe there is already one in the making (see below).

Even though it is difficult not to notice that the entire panel was comprised of white males, the ninety-minute panel discussion is worth a look.  Also, there was very little "kid focus" to the conversation.  The conversation was advertised as  a look at some of the political implications of the educational crisis in the US, and to that extent it fit the bill.

Several participants - notably the superintendents from New York City and Prince George's County in Maryland - really nailed some key points about the gap in achievement between the privileged and those living in poverty.

The conversation about standards is an important one.  According to John Deasy (from PG County) the standards need to be "higher, deeper and fewer".  They did seem to dance around some of the barriers to national standards, and especially a candid assessment of No Child Left Behind.  It would also have been helpful if the panelists decoded "state's rights" and "local rights" in this context.

Also, missing from the conversation was a discussion of the purpose of public education.  It appeared axiomatic that the only reason to educate children is so that we, as a nation, can be more competitive with children in other countries.  Admittedly, math and science proficiencies are crucial, but so is critical thinking and creativity.

It is still amazing that discussions about the need for increased time on task are still in the mix.  Solid research on that issue has been around for at least twenty years.  Yet, we still are discussing it instead of increasing it. Just like the school year and the school day.  An indication of just how many contravening forces are at play in American education.

And from what all of these experts said, it is very clear that initiatives like the On The Move's* REACH Institute is at the cutting edge of the creation of these new teachers.

To repeat, a useful conversation to drop in on. It would have been great, though, if some representatives from academia, like folks from REACH and some classroom teachers, had been on the panel.  Or at least a woman, or a person of color.  Maybe next time.

Here is the link on FORA.tv.

* On The Move is a member of the Whitman Community.

July 2, 2008

The Empathy Switch


Recent empirical research from Taipai has validated anecdotal evidence that has long suggested that medical practitioners have a physiological capacity to disengage "natural" empathic responses to seeing others in discomfort, or in pain.  This kind of neurophysiological research leads to any number of questions about the interplay between thinking and feeling.

Here is one of the interesting research findings:

Physicians registered no increase in activity in the portion of the brain related to pain, whether they saw an image of someone stuck with a needle or touched with a Q-tip. However, the physicians, unlike the control group, did register an increase in activity in the frontal areas of the brain--the medial and superior prefrontal cortices and the right tempororparietal junction. That is the neural circuit that is related to emotion regulation and cognitive control.

The research was focused on acupuncture practitioners exclusively.  One question that emerges from this study is whether or not there is a similar, yet dysfunctional, capacity in sociopaths for instance to "turn off" empathy when they see others in pain.  And of course that would lead to the possibility that such a switch might be turned on.

Here is a longer discussion of the study along with appropriate journal links.

July 1, 2008

Book Review: The Wise Heart

WiseHeart.jpgThe Wise Heart, A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, Jack Kornfield's latest work, is well worth a read, even if you have very little interest in the particularities of Buddhist Psychology.  The book combines many lessons learned during the forty odd years he has been a practicing Buddhist with twenty-six principles of Buddhist Psychology that he has studied and help refine over those years. The result is a very practical map into a world that is both extraordinarily complex and profoundly simple.

Kornfield teaches at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, and the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. Those experiences gave him an enormous amount of anecdotal material to make these principles very clear and available to the average reader, while also making striking parallels to traditional western methodologies.

Interwoven throughout the book are stories from his own family life that are carefully crafted to add to our understanding of this discipline.  At no time did I have the sense that I was reading an Oprahesque tell all - even though these personal stories spoke of some very difficult times in his life.

Also, Kornfield brings a number of his clients into the conversation.  Normally I tend to skip over "case studies" in such books.  They are usually much too long with more context than I want and less relevance than I need.  In this book it is different.  The "cases" are really brief, tightly focused vignettes that capture the essence of the principle being discussed.  I was left with powerful personal sketches that continue to stay with me, and are very helpful in keeping the more abstract principles grounded.

The author does not shy away from difficult, and sometimes arcane, notions within the Buddhist psychological systems.  There are the healthy and unhealthy states of desire, the eight levels of the jhana states "that open the door to illumination".  Not to mention the "alchemy of transformation".  Woven through entire book, though, is how mindfulness, compassion and lovingkindness are some of the essential tools we bring into any transformative relationship that might lead to an end to suffering.

Finally, at the end of each chapter Kornfield gives very clear practice instructions to activate these principles into everyday life.  No doubt these are the same practices he suggests to his meditation students during retreats. 

The eastern psychology systems - in tandem with many centuries of consciousness studies, ethical systems, and spiritual practices - are in many ways far more advanced than our western perspectives on the nature and function of emotions and thought processes. This is especially true when looking at human beings through lenses other than those provided by the DSM.  

As an advanced practitioner in both eastern and western psychological traditions, Kornfield has added important new ways to approach many psychological questions, such as how we construct and make meaning of our world, the interplay of thinking and feeling, individual and social identity, reality and self as social constructs, and so forth.  Questions that are at the forefront of many conversations that members of our community have every day.