Thursday, November 03, 2005

Scientists Say Everyone Can Read Minds

Angel Cabales used to say that getting good at Escrima was like learning to read minds. I always attributed this in part to reading subtle signals through experience. In Tai Chi Chuan, there is a saying that "when the opponent moves fast, you move fast; when he moves slow, you move slow." That also relates to another which says "Wait until your opponent moves, then move first!" My interpretation was that one learns to match and mirror the movement and position of the opponent, which then allows one to either push ahead of the timing or drop in behind it. Either way, you first have to have the tempo and rhythm before you can work off of it.

Now, however, there may be more, which is that the body actually receives signals that synchronize with another. Entrainment is a $50 word for the process of synchronizing through matching energetic frequencies. The article I've reprinted below from identifies a biological process within the brain that seems to quantify this phenomenon within the realm of hard science. Great times we're living in!

- Jeff

Scientists Say Everyone Can Read Minds
By Ker Than
Special to LiveScience
posted: 27 April 2005
07:01 am ET

Empathy allows us to feel the emotions of others, to identify and understand their feelings and motives and see things from their perspective. How we generate empathy remains a subject of intense debate in cognitive science.

Some scientists now believe they may have finally discovered its root. We're all essentially mind readers, they say.

The idea has been slow to gain acceptance, but evidence is mounting.

Mirror neurons

In 1996, three neuroscientists were probing the brain of a macaque monkey when they stumbled across a curious cluster of cells in the premotor cortex, an area of the brain responsible for planning movements. The cluster of cells fired not only when the monkey performed an action, but likewise when the monkey saw the same action performed by someone else. The cells responded the same way whether the monkey reached out to grasp a peanut, or merely watched in envy as another monkey or a human did.

Because the cells reflected the actions that the monkey observed in others, the neuroscientists named them "mirror neurons."

Later experiments confirmed the existence of mirror neurons in humans and revealed another surprise. In addition to mirroring actions, the cells reflected sensations and emotions.

"Mirror neurons suggest that we pretend to be in another person's mental shoes," says Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. "In fact, with mirror neurons we do not have to pretend, we practically are in another person's mind."

Since their discovery, mirror neurons have been implicated in a broad range of phenomena, including certain mental disorders. Mirror neurons may help cognitive scientists explain how children develop a theory of mind (ToM), which is a child's understanding that others have minds similar to their own. Doing so may help shed light on autism, in which this type of understanding is often missing.

Theory theory

Over the years, cognitive scientists have come up with a number of theories to explain how ToM develops. The "theory theory" and "simulation theory" are currently two of the most popular.

Theory theory describes children as budding social scientists. The idea is that children collect evidence -- in the form of gestures and expressions -- and use their everyday understanding of people to develop theories that explain and predict the mental state of people they come in contact with.

Vittorio Gallese, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma in Italy and one of original discovers of mirror neurons, has another name for this theory: he calls it the "Vulcan Approach," in honor of the Star Trek protagonist Spock, who belonged to an alien race called the Vulcans who suppressed their emotions in favor of logic. Spock was often unable to understand the emotions that underlie human behavior.

Gallese himself prefers simulation theory over this Vulcan approach.

Natural mind readers

Simulation theory states that we are natural mind readers. We place ourselves in another person’s "mental shoes," and use our own mind as a model for theirs.

Gallese contends that when we interact with someone, we do more than just observe the other person’s behavior. He believes we create internal representations of their actions, sensations and emotions within ourselves, as if we are the ones that are moving, sensing and feeling.

Many scientists believe that mirror neurons embody the predictions of simulation theory. "We share with others not only the way they normally act or subjectively experience emotions and sensations, but also the neural circuits enabling those same actions, emotions and sensations: the mirror neuron systems," Gallese told LiveScience.

Gallese points out, however, that the two theories are not mutually exclusive. If the mirror neuron system is defective or damaged, and our ability to empathize is lost, the observe-and-guess method of theory theory may be the only option left. Some scientists suspect this is what happens in autistic people, whose mental disorder prevents them from understanding the intentions and motives of others.

Tests underway

The idea is that the mirror neuron systems of autistic individuals are somehow impaired or deficient, and that the resulting "mind-blindness" prevents them from simulating the experiences of others. For autistic individuals, experience is more observed than lived, and the emotional undercurrents that govern so much of our human behavior are inaccessible. They guess the mental states of others through explicit theorizing, but the end result is a list -- mechanical and impersonal -- of actions, gestures and expressions void of motive, intent, or emotion.

Several labs are now testing the hypothesis that autistic individuals have a mirror neuron deficit and cannot simulate the mental states of others.

One recent experiment by Hugo Theoret and colleagues at the University of Montreal showed that mirror neurons normally active during the observation of hand movements in non-autistic individuals are silent in those who have autism.

"You either simulate with mirror neurons, or the mental states of others are completely precluded to you," said Iacoboni.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Yoga vs. Martial Arts

In the 1970's and 80's martial arts were riding high, largely on the coattails of Bruce Lee's popularity. Since then there has been a lot of change within the M.A. community, but little growth in general popularity. On the other hand, yoga has built steadily on foundations laid in the 80's and 90's and now has an unprecedented reputation. Part of this is its appeal to women, as opposed to the heavy testosterone atmosphere of the dojo.

Another reason is the organizational skills behind yoga, which resemble in some ways the early growth of Japanese and particularly Korean arts. Bikram, Ashtanga and Iyengar are known for their individual styles, though each is basically a form of Hatha. Just yesterday I heard a good example of yoga's explosive growth from a student of Deepak Chopra. Apparently only two years ago he began certifying teachers in his personal method at his academy in southern California, and today there are over 700 teachers worldwide. Classes can be found not only in major metropolitan areas but in resorts as well, so people can keep up with their practice while vacationing in Puerto Vallarta, or become exposed to the art there and then continue when they get home.

Contrast this with the FMA, which have been called "the next big thing" in martial arts since the mid-1980's. While FMA has undoubtedly spread, it has never achieved any sort of widespread recognition on its own merits. Furthermore, the historic secrecy of these arts, combined with the desire to closely control the information, has kept most schools small and local. Serrada is a good example. While Deepak Chopra has developed 700 teachers in 2 years, how many teachers have several generations of Serrada practitioners produced in the last 20?

Don't think Chopra has made it easy. Students train 10-12 hours a day in his program, split between several hours of yoga practice, studying anatomy and Ayurvedic medicine, and beginning with 2 one-hour sessions of meditation daily, build up to four hours per day. This is a highly focused and disciplined approach, yet people clamor to get in.

Certainly it helps that he's a best selling author, and as a doctor has strong credentials. As an ethnic Indian he has the feel of authenticity to draw in those seeking wisdom from the East. On the other hand, he also made a commitment to building an organization to spread his message that is generally lacking in martial arts, or where there is the will to do so, other factors such as lack of business acumen or excessive ego hinder such development.

Martial arts are not lacking in similar potential. The popularity of Tai Chi for health shows it crosses that bridge, and many Aikidoists are drawn to their art for the spiritual orientation associated there. What is lacking is the broader commitment to creating a holistic lifestyle, one that calms the mind and heals the body, along with the singular benefit of providing potential life-saving skills. There are few martial arts program that demand - and receive - the widespread dedication of these yoga organizations. Their secular yoga classes are full, as are the more spiritual ashrams. In contrast, how many martial art teachers are struggling to pay rent, running classes with only a handful of students? Sure, there are martial arts camps and seminars, but are there waiting lists to get in? Where is the buzz?!!

Taekwondo is a notable exception, and that style is famous for the support of a national government for its international organizations. Similar to yoga, there is both an infrastructure for steady growth, and a focus on building inner discipline and character in students. If there is draw for Westerners in Eastern wisdom, it is perhaps found there, in developing those qualities no longer demanded by the institutions of our culture. Our schools don't teach it, families don't demand it. The void many people feel within themselves is filled with pop culture and junk food, until they have enough and seek alternative paths to nourish mind and body.

The challenge for martial arts is to become relevant to people's needs, not just a fad or a bandage for insecurities. Perhaps if there has been a failure of leadership in this community, it reflects the deeper martial culture's distrust of others. While yoga focuses on unity, martial arts is more often about overcoming adversity. Certainly the knowledge and skills to bring forth a similar message are an integral part of the art, but it is elusive and hidden at higher levels of understanding and skill. Beginners rely on strength to oppose others; it takes time and experience to learn to blend one's energy with that of others to achieve results, and then introspection to see how this applies to other areas besides physical combat.

Perhaps if the arts were able to show the soft hidden within the hard sooner, more people would be drawn in, perceiving the balance they desire. Instructors need to know not just the mechanics of their style, but how to talk about the inner game. It has often been said that a master knows not just how to destroy, but how to heal. Many people have wounds which cannot be seen on the outside. When martial arts can show a path for healing within, there is less need to rely on the brute strength of destruction towards the world. This is the meaning of the traditional kung-fu salute, the fist within the palm of the open other hand; sword within the sheath, power tempered by knowledge. The most important knowledge is not how to conquer others, but how to conquer oneself. The world is a mirror, and when we find inner peace, we also see less conflict on the outside. The less fear with have within, the more options we find available for dealing with the stress of living.