• MIND

"The problem lies in how we imagine our future hedonic states. We are the only animals that can peer deeply into our futures—the only animal that can travel mentally through time, preview a variety of futures, and choose the one that will bring us the greatest pleasure and/or the least pain. This is a remarkable adaptation—which, incidentally, is directly tied to the evolution of the frontal lobe—because it means that we can learn from mistakes before we make them.


Paul Bloom

In the domain of bodies, most of us accept that common sense is wrong. We concede that apparently solid objects are actually mostly empty space, consisting of tiny particles and fields of energy. Perhaps the same sort of reconciliation will happen in the domain of souls, and it will come to be broadly recognized that our dualist belief system, though intuitively appealing, is factually mistaken. Perhaps we will all come to agree with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and join the side of the "brights": those who reject the supernatural and endorse the world-view established by science.

But I am skeptical. The notion that our souls are flesh is profoundly troubling to many, as it clashes with religion. Dualism and religion are not the same: You can be dualist without holding any other religious beliefs, and you can hold religious beliefs without being dualist. But they almost always go together. And some very popular religious views rest on a dualist foundation, such as the belief that people survive the destruction of their bodies. If you give up on dualism, this is what you lose.

This is not small potatoes.



As a teenager, Paul Bloom worked extensively with autistic children, and when he majored in psychology at McGill University, he expected to end up as a clinical child psychologist. His interests shifted when he met John Macnamara, a professor who studied the interface between psychology and philosophy. Bloom worked with Macnamara as an undergraduate, and then did his graduate work at MIT with Susan Carey, on cognitive development and language acquisition.

As a professor—first at University of Arizona, and then at Yale—Bloom explores how children learn the meanings of words, and he developed a theory of word learning that has social cognition (also known as "theory of mind" or "mindreading") at its core. More recently, Bloom and his students have started to explore a set of related puzzles having to do with the nature and development of art, religion, humor, and morality.

PAUL BLOOM is a professor of psychology at Yale University who works on language and development, and with Steven Pinker coauthored one of the seminal papers in the field. He is co-editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and the author of several books, the most recent of which is Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human.

Paul Bloom's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Responses by Jesse Bering, Marvin Minsky, Jaron Lanier, Paul Harris, Pascal Boyer, Paul Bloom replies; Mark Mirsky



  • MIND

"In the domain of bodies, most of us accept that common sense is wrong. We concede that apparently solid objects are actually mostly empty space, consisting of tiny particles and fields of energy. Perhaps the same sort of reconciliation will happen in the domain of souls, and it will come to be broadly recognized that our dualist belief system, though intuitively appealing, is factually mistaken.


A Talk with
John Gottman


Psychologist John Gottman's goal is "to be like the guy who invented Velcro. Nobody remembers his name, but everybody uses Velcro". He is a psychologist who looks at relationships and focus on the interaction, the "fleeting architectural fluid form that people are creating as they talk to each other, as they smile, as they move."

At Gottman's "Love Lab" he conducts empirical research projects that study human nature scientifically. He follows up his empirical research of interviews, physiological measurements, observations, and creates mathematical models that provide theoretical understanding of all these processes.

Gottman, trained as a mathematician, has been influenced by the field of psycho-physiology, which is concerned with "the study of the body and the face and voice and emotion in relationships, and just try to understand the naturalistic development of relationships. How do people respond emotionally to one another?" He's made his own contribution to this field of emotion with his concept of "met-emotion," or "how people feel about feelings, what their history is with specific emotions like pride, respect or disrespect, love, fear, anger, sadness".

He is looking for nothing less than the universality in relationships. We are as social as bees, he points out, and "Von Frisch discovered the language of bees by going right to the hive and watching them dance. So we will discover the human dance."

So far, his surmise is that "respect and affection are essential to all relationships working and contempt destroys them. It may differ from culture to culture how to communicate respect, and how to communicate affection, and how not to do it, but I think we'll find that those are universal things".



Martin Seligman

The third form of happiness, which is meaning, is again knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying those in the service of something you believe is larger than you are. There's no shortcut to that. That's what life is about. There will likely be a pharmacology of pleasure, and there may be a pharmacology of positive emotion generally, but it's unlikely there'll be an interesting pharmacology of flow. And it's impossible that there'll be a pharmacology of meaning.


Clinical psychology, social psychology has, in our lifetimes, been able to relieve an enormous amount of suffering, notes Martin Seligman. "Can psychologists can make people lastingly happier?," he asks.

"We are able to look at the causal skein of mental illness and unravel it, either by longitudinal studies — the same people over time — or experimental studies, which would get rid of third variables...We're able to create treatments — drugs, psychotherapy — and do random assignment placebo control studies to find out which ones really worked and which ones were inert." But, he notes that one result of this success is that 90% of the science in psychology is now based on the disease model, and this has resulted in three costs:

"The first one was moral, that we became victimologists and pathologizers. Our view of human nature was that mental illness fell on you like a ton of bricks, and we forgot about notions like choice, responsibility, preference, will, character, and the like. The second cost was that by working only on mental illness we forgot about making the lives of relatively untroubled people happier, more productive, and more fulfilling. And we completely forgot about genius, which became a dirty word. The third cost was that because we were trying to undo pathology we didn't develop interventions to make people happier; we developed interventions to make people less miserable."

Since 1996, Seligman, the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at UPenn, has been President of the American Psychological Association. His aim for the coming years is that "we will be able to make the parallel claim about happiness; that is, in the same way I can claim unblushingly that psychology and psychiatry have decreased the tonnage of suffering in the world, my aim is that psychology and maybe psychiatry will increase the tonnage of happiness in the world."

Central to Seligman's positive psychology is "eudaemonia, the good life, which is what Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle meant by the pursuit of happiness. They did not mean smiling a lot and giggling. Aristotle talks about the pleasures of contemplation and the pleasures of good conversation. Aristotle is not talking about raw feeling, about thrills, about orgasms. Aristotle is talking about what Mike Csikszentmihalyi works on, and that is, when one has a good conversation, when one contemplates well. When one is in eudaemonia, time stops. You feel completely at home. Self-consciousness is blocked. You're one with the music."

"The good life consists of the roots that lead to flow. It consists of first knowing what your signature strengths are and then recrafting your life to use them more — recrafting your work, your romance, your friendships, your leisure, and your parenting to deploy the things you're best at. What you get out of that is not the propensity to giggle a lot; what you get is flow, and the more you deploy your highest strengths the more flow you get in life."


MARTIN E.P. SELIGMAN, Ph.D., works on learned helplessness, depression, and on optimism and pessimism. He is currently Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is well known in academic and clinical circles and is a best-selling author.

His bibliography includes twenty books and 200 articles on motivation and personality. Among his better-known works are Learned Optimism; The Optimistic Child; Helplessness; Abnormal Psychology, and Authentic Happiness.

In 1996 Dr. Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association.

Martin Seligman's Edge Bio Page


Gary Marcus



Gary Marcus is a young research psychologist whose interest in the literature of biology and resulted in new and interesting ideas about the biological basis of mind. He believes that "the mechanisms that build our brains are just a special case of the mechanisms that build the rest of our body. The initial structure of the mind, like the initial structure of the rest of the body, is a product of our genes."

His goal is twofold: (a) "to track closely the progress in genetics, and try to think about the question of how a tiny number of genes can lead you from an ancestral chimpanzee view of the world to a human view of the world"; and (b) "to rethink linguistics as a question of adapting from primate systems that are already in place. Instead of assuming that everything about language is sui generis—independent of the rest of the cognitive system—or the opposite extreme, which the anti-nativists might assume—that there's nothing special about language—I'm assuming there's something special about language, but that it's a variation on a theme."

Noam Chomsky appreciates Marcus's "wonderful contribution to our understanding of the biological basis for higher mental processes." Steven Pinker notes his "new ideas for how to integrate what we know about the thinking, talking person". Howard Gardner reads him for an understanding of the "space between genes and the mind". Read on....


GARY F. MARCUS is Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology at New York University and Director of the NYU Infant Language Center. His research on language acquisition and computational modeling has been published in journals such as Science, Cognition, and Cognitive Psychology. He is the author of The Algebraic Mind: Integrating Connectionism and Cognitive Science and The Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates the Complexities of Human Thought.

Gary Marcus's Edge Bio Page



  • MIND

"For a long time the fields of biology and psychology have been quite separate, and only in the last few years people have started thinking about brain imaging and about how the brain and mind relate. But they haven't really thought that much about another part of biology: developmental biology. Brain imaging tells you something about how the brain works, but that doesn't tell you anything about how the brain gets to be the way that it is.


Samuel Barondes

Most of the psychiatric drugs we use today are refinements of drugs whose value for mental disorders was discovered by accident decades ago. Now we can look forward to a more rational way to design psychiatric drugs. It will be guided by the identification of the gene variants that predispose certain people to particular mental disorders such as schizophrenia or severe depression.



Psychiatrist Samuel Barondes, M.D. is interested in the ways that chemicals influence mental processes. "Despite decades of tinkering," he notes, "the drugs we presently use still have serious limitations. First, they don't always work. Second, they still have many undesirable side effects. Instead of continuing to invest in more minor improvements, pharmaceutical companies are becoming interested in a new approach to psychiatric drug development." In this discusion he traces the accidental discovery of LSD by Albert Hoffman in 1943 as a contribution to a milieu that favored the discovery of many psychiatric medications.

For example, he notes that "in the course of just a few years there were these two discoveries of extremely valuable psychiatric drugs that radically changed the practice of psychiatry. Before the discovery of chlorpromazine and imipramine disorders like schizophrenia and major depression were usually dealt with by talking, exhortation, and hospitalization—and with limited success. With these new drugs many patients had remarkable improvements."

There are new approaches that take advantage of the fact that there are genetic vulnerabilities to mental disorders. "The hot new technologies that psychiatric scientists are now using," he says, "include not only genetics but also brain imaging...It will be possible to correlate knowledge about genetic variation with knowledge about how specific brains operate in specific circumstances, as looked at with various kinds of functional magnetic resonance imaging. Right now our ideas about mental disorders are mainly based on interviews, questionnaires, and observations of behavior. Being able to look at what's going on inside the human brain, once considered to be an inscrutable black box, is turning out to be quite informative."


SAMUEL H. BARONDES is the Jeanne and Sanford Robertson Professor and director of the Center for Neurobiology and Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. He is past president of the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience and recently served as chair of the Board of Scientific Counselors of the National Institute of Mental Health.

Barondes is interested in psychiatric genetics and psychopharmacology. He is the author of Molecules and Mental Illness; Mood Genes: Hunting for the Origins of Mania and Depression; and Better Than Prozac: Creating the Next Generation of Psychiatric Drugs. 

Samuel Barondes' Edge Bio Page

The idea that animals can be used to study mental illness strikes many people as strange, because human behavior seems unique. After all, only humans use language for introspection and long-range planning, and it is just these functions that are disturbed in many psychiatric disorders. Nevertheless, we have enough in common with other animals to make them very useful for studies that can’t be done with patients.

Of the animals used for this purpose, apes and monkeys have been favorites because they are our closest relatives. Dogs, too, have obvious human qualities. They may even display patterns of maladaptive behavior that resemble those in DSM-IV. For example, Karen Overall, a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has been studying a dog version of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is fairly common in certain breeds. Like people with OCD who each have their particular patterns of symptoms, individual dogs with canine OCD also have distinctive main symptoms such as tail-chasing or compulsive licking of their paws. Like humans with OCD, the dogs tend to perform their rituals in private. And, like human OCD, the canine version responds to drugs such as clomipramine and Prozac. Because of these many similarities, Overall’s dogs may provide information about the human disorder—an aim that has already been achieved for another canine behavioral disorder that I will turn to shortly.

But despite their value for certain types of studies, primates and dogs are not ideal experimental animals. Their main shortcoming is that they are costly to raise and maintain, which makes them impractical for the many experiments that require large numbers of subjects. For this reason scientists have been turning to a much less expensive alternative, the laboratory mouse. Although it is more difficult to empathize with these tiny rodents than with a chimpanzee or a golden retriever, we now know that all these mammals share much of our complex brain machinery. What makes mice especially attractive is that their genes are relatively easy to manipulate by traditional breeding methods and by the new techniques of genetic engineering. Both experimental approaches have been successfully employed to make special strains of mice that are being used to study mental disorders and to develop new psychiatric drugs.



  • MIND

"Most of the psychiatric drugs we use today are refinements of drugs whose value for mental disorders was discovered by accident decades ago. Now we can look forward to a more rational way to design psychiatric drugs. It will be guided by the identification of the gene variants that predispose certain people to particular mental disorders such as schizophrenia or severe depression."


Irene Pepperberg

What the data suggest to me is that if one starts with a brain of a certain complexity and gives it enough social and ecological support, that brain will develop at least the building blocks of a complex communication system. Of course, chimpanzees don't proceed to develop full-blown language the way you and I have. Grey parrots, such as Alex and Griffin, are never going to sit here and give an interview the way you and I are conducting an interview and having a chat. But they are going to produce meaningful, complex communicative combinations. It is incredibly fascinating to have creatures so evolutionarily separate from humans performing simple forms of the same types of complex cognitive tasks as do young children.


In the late 1960s, a flurry of research on the great apes—chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans—began to challenge our uniqueness, especially our capacity for language and abstract conceptual abilities. Everyone soon weighed in on this debate including the linguist Noam Chomsky, the philosophers John Searle and Daniel Dennett, and the psychologist Burrhus Skinner. One corner of this debate focused on the assumption that you need a big primate brain to handle problems of reference, syntax, abstract representations, and so forth. It was to this corner of the debate that Irene Pepperberg first turned. She started with a challenge: do you really need a big primate brain to run these computations? After over 20 years of work with her African Gray parrot Alex, the clear answer is "No!"

Irene's intellectual journey with Alex is an impressive one because she has sustained a consistent line of research exploring some of the deepest problems concerning the nature of mind, and in particular, the relationship between language and thought. Her work has revealed that Alex can grasp important aspects of number, color concepts, the difference between presence and absence, and physical properties of objects such as their shape and material. These results are not only relevant to the evolution of human cognition, but they are also relevant to the evolution of animal cognition. By understanding what animals such as Alex can do under tigthly controlled laboratory conditions, we can apply such knowledge to what parrots do in the wild, the kinds of strategies they might use to negotiate in such a complex social world. How far this work will go is anyone's guess, but it is clear that Irene, Alex and her new stars will teach us a lot along the way.

—Marc D. Hauser, Director of Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Harvard, and author of Wild Minds: What Animals Think.

IRENE PEPPERBERG studies Grey parrots. The main focus of her work is to determine the cognitive and communicative abilities of these birds, and compare their abilities with those of great apes, marine mammals, and young children. She is studying the mechanisms of their learning as well as the outcomes.

Dr. Pepperberg is a research scientist at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, and a Research Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Brandeis University.

Irene Pepperberg's Edge Bio Page


Subscribe to RSS - MIND