‘You deserve what you get?’. Modern Monetary Theory and Practice – William Mitchell, L. Randall Wray and Martin Watts.

“There is no such thing as society” Margaret Thatcher.

Neoliberal Economics: ‘You have no one to blame for your meagre allocation but yourself’. Downsizing government and especially reducing the social safety net is consistent with the view that government only needs to ‘get the incentives right’.

Since human survival requires cooperation, selfishness would actually be irrational as it would reduce one’s chances of survival. In all known societies, elaborate rituals and traditions are designed to promote cooperation and even sacrifice for the common good.

Human behaviour is surprisingly malleable, and complexly influenced by custom and tradition. There is nothing natural about humans having ‘unlimited‘ wants. While it is true that modern advertising operates to continually expand our desires. this can be countered through education.

It is ironic that neoclassical economics starts from the presumption that resources are scarce, when the obvious empirical fact is that labour is unemployed. Any theory that begins with the presumption that labour is always fully employed, and hence scarce, is ignoring a glaring inconsistency.

Heterodox Definition of Economics: the study of social creation and social distribution of society’s resources.

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is distinguished from other approaches to macroeconomics because it places the monetary arrangements at the centre of the analysis.

The reality is that currency issuing governments such as those of Australia, Britain, Japan and the US can never run out of money. These governments always have the capacity to spend in their own currencies.

Most of the analysis appearing in macroeconomics textbooks, which filters into the public debate and underpins the cult of austerity, is derived from ‘gold standard’ logic and does not apply to modern fiat monetary systems. Economic policy ideas that dominate the current debate are artefacts from the old system, which was abandoned in 1971.

MMT: The sum of the sectoral balances nets to zero when we consider the government, private, domestic and external sectors.

Whereas households have to save (spend less than they earn) to spend more in the future, governments can purchase whatever they like, as long as there are goods and services for sale in the currency they issue.

Our own personal budget experience generates no knowledge relevant to consideration of government matters.

Chapter 1. Introduction

What is Economics? Two Views

US President Harry Truman is said to have sought a one armed economist because he was so frustrated by the propensity of economists to provide policy advice framed as ‘Well. on the one hand‘ X. but on the other hand. Y’, where ‘Y’ typically would be the precise opposite policy path to ‘X’.

The story is. of course. funny but it does bring up a problem that is ubiquitous to all social sciences. Even if we know the result we would like to achieve (say, smarter and happier kids), we do not know with certainty which policy choices would produce the desired outcome. Since the main topic of the social sciences, human behaviour, is complex, we often do not understand its causes, or even its nature, and much less do we know how to influence it in a desired manner. Economics is as difficult as the other social sciences, such as psychology and political science, as it concerns human behaviour in a social sphere that we designate as ‘the economy‘, which itself is hard to define and to delineate from other spheres of social interaction.

Unfortunately, economics is sometimes equated to something like the ‘study of business decision making’, or even relegated to a narrow sub discipline as a ‘decision science’, in a highly artificial hypothesised world of hyper rational automatons that maximise pleasure and avoid pain.

Some even see economics as just a branch of mathematics, a view fuelled in part by the heavy use of mathematics and models in much of the discipline.

This textbook will take a broader perspective of the economics discipline, including it within the social sciences. While we do think it is useful to carve off ‘the economy’ from the rest of social life, and to apply ‘economics’ to the study of that area of life, we recognise that the division is necessarily arbitrary. In truth, there is no completely separate sphere of ‘economic life’, so economics is linked to, and incorporates findings from, the other social science disciplines.

Further, we want to stress that there is no single ‘right’ way to do economics. In this textbook we will use a variety of methods and approaches to build our understanding of ‘the economy’. We will occasionally bring in research and methods from other disciplines. We will use some mathematics and modelling As we believe that economic history as well as history of economic thought helps us to understand our economy today, we will look back in time, both in terms of economic events, but also to examine the insights of the great thinkers of the past.

In the rest of this section we will briefly outline the two main approaches to economics taken by those thinkers, as well as by today‘s economists. It is always risky to pigeon hole individuals and their theories into categories. Just as a politician in a particular political party (say, Labor in Australia. or the Republican Party in America) will hold many views shared by most members of that party, they will likely also hold some views more consistent with those of a rival party. This is true of economists, too. Still. it is useful to identify two approaches to economics that have dominated much of the debate over the past two centuries.

Recalling the story about President Truman’s frustration, we can think of the ‘two hands’ of economics as the orthodox, or neoclassical approach and the Heterodox or Keynesian/Institutionalist/Marxist approach. Let us examine each in turn, while recognising that we must generalise.

Orthodox, Neoclassical approach

‘You deserve what you get’

In the neoclassical approach, there is a presumed, natural human nature: individuals maximise pleasure and avoid pain. Pleasure is defined as ‘utility’, so individuals pursue utility maximising behaviour, avoiding the ‘disutility’ of pain. Further, rational individuals are self interested seeking to maximise their own utility, and they do not receive either utility or disutility from the experiences of others.

Neoclassical economics presumes individuals are ‘rational’, meaning they maximise utility, given constraints. If there were no constraints, individuals would maximise with infinite utility, but they are constrained by their resources that they have at their disposal, which are referred to as ‘individual resource endowments’. Mutually beneficial exchange redistributes resources according to preferences, increasing the utility of both parties to the trade.

In the hypothesised free market, exchanges take place at competitively determined relative prices. (Relative prices are ratios; for example: 1 deer, 3 beavers, 6 rabbits, 2 bushels of wheat, 10 hours of labour services.) Participants in markets take relative prices as signals. Relative scarcity will cause the price to rise, inducing suppliers to produce more of a particular traded commodity, and buyers to demand less. For example. if the supply of students trained in economics is insufficient to meet the demand for economists. the relative wage of economists to (say) that of historians, rises. This signals to students that they ought to switch from the study of history to the study of economics.

At the same time. employers try to find close but cheaper substitutes, say, political science students. As the supply of economists increases, the relative wage advantage for students trained in economics falls. Of course, other factors enter into decisions, but the important point is that relative prices function as signals to both suppliers (economics students) and demanders (employers of economists).

Equilibrium is defined as the set of relative prices that ‘clear’ markets; a ‘general equilibrium’ is a complete set of prices to clear all markets. One interpretation of Adam Smith’s famous ‘invisible hand” analogy is that by producing market clearing prices, the market provides the signals that guide individuals to maximise their utility while also providing the social or public good of ensuring that demand and supply are equilibrate. The hand is “invisible”, guiding individuals and the economy as a whole toward equilibrium, with no need of an authority. For that reason, there is little need for government management of the economy.

Certainly government has some role to play in setting and enforcing rules, in providing national security, and (perhaps) for providing a social safety net. But according to this interpretation of Smith, there is no need for the govemment to direct individuals to serve the public interest because by reacting to price signals and pursuing their own interests, individuals actually act in the public interest.

There is one more important conclusion reached by neoclassical economics: ‘you deserve what you get”. If we all come to the free market to make mutually beneficial exchanges, all seeking to maximise our own individual utility subject to our resource constraints, then the equilibrium allocation is in an important sense ‘fair’. That does not mean that the allocation is equal, some will have more (and achieve greater utility) and others will have less. However, that is because some start with greater endowments (of resources, ability, and drive).

Technically, the idea is that one receives an allocation of resources based on one’s own contribution to the market. If your final allocation is low, it is because you did not bring enough to market: maybe you were born with few resources, you made a constrained choice to obtain little education, and you prefer leisure over work. In other words, you have no one to blame for your meagre allocation but yourself.

To be sure, neoclassical economics also allows for bad luck, congenital disabilities, and so on. Hence, there is a role for social policy to get involved in altering the allocation in order to protect the poorest and least advantaged. However, generally speaking, allocations ought to be left to the market because it will reward each participant according to productive contributions to the market, a dimension of fairness.

In recent years, the neoclassical approach to economics has been invoked in support of the conservative backlash against post war economic and social reforms in Western nations (this is generally called neoliberal outside the USA or neoconservative within the USA). This ‘anti government” movement is closely associated with the terms in office of President Ronald Reagan in the USA and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the UK. When running for President in 1980, President Reagan promised to “get the government off the backs of the people”; Prime Minister Thatcher was famous for arguing that there is no such thing as society, reflecting the individualistic framework shared by neoclassical economics

Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher

Downsizing government and especially reducing the social safety net is consistent with the view that government only needs to ‘get the incentives right’, and then the ‘free market’ would maximise individual welfare while the invisible hand will ensure that signals coming from markets guide individuals to do what is best for the economy as a whole.

While the neoliberal/neoconservative policies are most closely associated with conservative political parties, even the moderate parties continued the policies throughout the 1990s and 2000s. For example. President Clinton (a Democrat) echoed President Reagan’s distaste for social welfare programs when he promised to “end welfare as we know it” in his 1992 election campaign, eliminating the biggest USA anti poverty program (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and replacing it with a term limited program that tries to force aid recipients to work for their benefits (‘workfare’ rather than ‘welfare’).

Outside the USA the more left wing parties such as the Labour Party in the UK pursued similar strategies (such as ‘work for the dole‘). Neoclassical economic theory provided a strong justification for these economic and social ‘reforms’ as policy would rely more heavily on ‘market outcomes’ while reducing ‘govemment interference” into the workings of the ‘invisible hand’.

Economics, ‘The Dismal Science’: While resources are scarce, our wants are unlimited.

Finally, let us tum to the neoclassical definition of economics, as it provides a very nice summary of the approach taken.

Neoclassical Definition of Economics: The study of the allocation of scarce resources among unlimited wants.

This is often framed as ‘the economic problem”: while resources are scarce, our wants are unlimited. The ‘problem‘ is that we cannot ever satisfy our wants. Many call economics ‘the dismal science’, which comes from this statement of ‘the problem’. While we all try to ‘maximise utility’, resource constraints prevent us from ever achieving maximal bliss.

Another common statement attributed to economists is that ‘there‘s no such thing as a free lunch”, which also derives from the definition. Since resources are scarce, there is always a trade off: if we move resources from one use to another. we necessarily reduce enjoyment in the first use in favour of enjoyment in the second. For example, if we want to have more ‘guns’, we must have less ‘butter’. Or if we want to improve the standard of living enjoyed by ‘Bob’, we must reduce the living standard of ‘Jill”.

Strictly speaking. this would be true only at full employment of all resources However. with the invisible hand guiding the allocation of resources, flexible relative prices ensure that all scarce resources are fully employed. The idea is that prices will always fall until supply equals demand so that no resource is left idle.

Note also that the trade off might only be temporary. For example, if we move resources out of the production of consumption goods and into the production of investment goods that raise productive capacity, then in the future we can have more consumer goods. Through economic growth we can increase the quantity of resources so that both ‘Bob‘ and ‘Jill‘ can have more. This does not violate the admonition that there is no free lunch, however. If we axe to have more production in the future, we need to sacrifice some consumption today, we suffer today with lower consumption, but we are willing to endure the ‘pain’ on the promise that in the future we can enjoy more consumption.

We will have much more to say about the neoclassical approach later in the text. However, it is time to move on to the second approach to economics.

Heterodox, Keynesian, Institutionalist, Marxist approach

Since human survival requires cooperation, selfishness would actually be irrational as it would reduce one’s chances of survival.

There is a second, long, tradition in economics that adopts a quite different framework. Unfortunately, there is no strong consensus about what to call it. Sometimes it is called ‘nonorthodox‘, which appears to define it in opposition to ‘orthodox’ or neoclassical economies. In recent years, many of those working in this tradition have settled on the term ‘heterodox’, but that, too, is usually defined as ‘not in agreement with accepted beliefs”. Yet at one time, those views now associated with ‘heterodox‘ economics were dominant, while the ‘orthodox’ views were considered by most economists as ‘unorthodox’ in the sense that they were not in agreement with the beliefs held by most economists!

Further, unlike neoclassical theory. which is substantially accepted by all orthodox theorists, ‘heterodoxy’ is made up of a number of well established and coherent economic schools of thought. While these share a common approach, they also deviate from one another in important ways.

The three most imponant of these schools of thought are the Marxist (following the work of Karl Marx), the Institutionalist (following the work of Thorstein Veblen), and the Keynesian (followers of John Maynard Keynes).

What are we to do? In spite of the objections we raised, we will conform to the convention and call this second approach the heterodox or Keynesian/Institutionalist/Marxist approach.

Let us examine the shared framework adopted.

First, according to this approach there is no ‘natural’ human behaviour; rather, it is shaped by institutions, culture, and society. There is nothing ‘natural’ about self interested (or, better, ‘selfish’) behaviour, nor would such behaviour be ‘rational‘ in the neoclassical sense. Humans are social animals and in many cultures, selfish behaviour is punished and selfish individuals are ostracised. Since human survival requires cooperation, selfishness would actually be irrational as it would reduce one’s chances of survival. In any event, in all known societies, elaborate rituals and traditions are designed to promote cooperation and even sacrifice for the common good.

Human behaviour varies significantly across societies, and the economic system is one factor that helps to determine appropriate behaviour within any particular society. Selfinterested behaviour is more acceptable in some societies than in others. It is not a coincidence that neoclassical economic theory was developed largely in Western capitalist societies, and particularly in England. The ‘rational’ behaviour attributed by neoclassical economists to all humans actually comes reasonably close as a description of the behaviour of early British capitalists. In the social environment in which they operated, pursuit of their own self interest without regard to the welfare of others (especially that of their employees), may have increased their probability of success as capitalists. Further, they operated in a hostile political climate in which the Crown and their feudal lord cronies wanted to increase their own share of the nation’s rather feeble output.

Government ‘intervention’ was almost always a bad thing, from the perspective of the first capitalists because government operated substantially in the interest of the Crown and the feudal lords.

We will not go into economic history now. What we wish to emphasise is that human behaviour is surprisingly malleable and complexly influenced by custom and tradition.

Further, most decisions are not ‘rational‘ for another reason: the future is uncertain, and even the present and past are uncertain in the sense that we do not fully understand what happened and what is now happening. Clearly, we do not know the future, and we know that we do not. Hence, we cannot know for cenain that any action we take is truly ‘utility maximising’. Should I buy the Renault or the Mazda? Once the decision is made and with the passage of time, I might have a better idea of the best choice, but it is probable that even a decade down the road I will not know which would have been best. Obviously, that choice is relatively unimportant and even simple compared to most economic choices one must make. In truth, we almost never know whether we are ‘maximising’ utility, indeed even with hindsight we often cannot tell if we made the right decision.

According to the heterodox approach, most decisions are not ‘rational’ in the neoclassical sense of the term. Decisions and behaviour depend on a range of other factors, including uncertainty, power, discrimination. prejudice, and segregation. Optiuns available depend on status, social class, race, religion, and gender, for example. These ‘noneconomic’ factors heavily influence and even constrain our choices.

Heterodoxy rejects the notion that economic outcomes are arbitrated by an impersonal market that only seeks to equilibrate ‘demand and supply‘. Actually, market prices are largely administered by firms with market power that allows them to discriminate. Wages are set not to ‘clear‘ the labour market, but rather reflect the outcome of conflicted bargaining processes.

Capitalism is a system defined by class conflict. In general, workers want to earn as much as they can for the effort they expend, while bosses want workers to produce as much as they can but pay them as little as possible. And, as will be discussed later, unemployment cannot be eliminated through wage reductions that eliminate relative excess labour supply; indeed wage reductions can actually reduce the demand for labour and thus increase unemployment.

More generally, wages and other prices are not simply signals of the invisible hand. but rather determine incomes and thus influence business sales and decisions going forward. For that reason, price and wage determination are not usually left to the invisible hand of the market.

Heterodoxy holds a different view of the so called ‘economic problem” of scarce resources and unlimited wants. Wants are largely socially created. and there is nothing natural about humans having ‘unlimited‘ wants. While it is true that modern advertising operates to continually expand our desires. this can be countered through education.

Further, resources are also largely socially created. While it is true that some natural resources have a limited supply, innovations continually produce substitutes. For example. Western societies faced their first major energy crisis in the l9th century when whalers had significantly reduced the number of whales, the source of whale oil used for lighting and other purposes. However, the production of petroleum and then electricity quickly replaced whale oil.

Moreover. the most important resource in any economy is labour. Ironically, in capitalist economies labour is virtually always in excess supply that is, many workers are left unemployed. It is ironic that neoclassical economics starts from the presumption that resources are scarce, when the obvious empirical fact is that labour is unemployed. Any theory that begins with the presumption that labour is always fully employed, and hence scarce, is ignoring a glaring inconsistency.

Let us look at the heterodox definition of economics.

Heterodox Definition of Economics: the study of social creation and social distribution of society’s resources.

Note that unlike the orthodox definition. this one focuses on the creation of resources. Further, most of that creation is social, rather than individual: people work together to produce society’s resources. Distribution, too, is socially determined, rather than determined by a technical relation (one‘s contribution to the production process). For example, labour unions engage in collective bargaining with their employers, who also band together to keep wages low.

The political process is also important in determining distribution; not only does government directly provide income to large segments of society, but it also puts in place minimum wages, benefits, and working conditions that must be met by employers Government is also a creator of resources; it is not just a user of them. It organises and funds innovative research and development (often in its own labs) that is then used to create resources (frequently by private firms). It also purchases directly from firms, encouraging them to increase hiring and output.

Not only do these government activities increase production, but they also affect distribution. This is well understood by voters and their representatives in government as policy creates winners and losers and not usually in a zero sum manner: some policies can create winners while others might create more losers.

Power, discrimination, collusion, and cooperation all play a role in determining ‘who gets what’. The point is that society does not have to let ‘the market’ decide that women should be paid less than men, for example, or that those with less education should remain jobless and thus poor.

Economics, like all social sciences. is concerned with a society that is complex and continually undergoing change. Since economists study human behaviour in the economic sphere, their task is very difficult. Whatever humans do. they could have done something different. Humans have some degree of free will, and their behaviour is largely based on what they think they ought to do. That in turn depends on their expectations of an unknowable future they do not know precisely what the outcome of their actions will be, and they do not know what others will do.

Indeed. humans do not know exactly what happened in the past. nor do they fully understand what is happening today. They must interpret the environment in which they live. and realise that they cannot fully understand it. They can never know if they have truly ‘maximised’ their pleasure. They make plans in conditions of existential uncertainty, and do the best they can do given their circumstances. Their actions are almost always taken with consideration given to the impacts on others, humans are above all social animals and that is why economics must be a branch of the social sciences.

What do economists do?

Like sociologists and political scientists economists are trying to understand particular aspects of human behaviour, for example decisions about levels and patterns of spending, choices about enrolment in post school education and types of employment to pursue, which we argue above, are influenced by institutions; culture; and society; in addition to economic variables. such as income: the prices of goods: and prospective wage rates for different occupations.

In microeconomics our focus is the behaviour of individual consumers and firms. whereas in macroeconomics the focus is the aggregate impacts of these decisions on outcomes. including total output and employment and the rate of inflation. We elaborate on these definitions of microeconomics and macroeconomics below.

In trying to understand particular forms of economic behaviour we need to develop theories that require us to decide on those factors that we think influence the particular economic decisions of interest. In other words, we need to make simplifying assumptions (engage in abstraction). which means we necessarily ignore those factors that we consider to be irrelevant. Otherwise we are trying to replicate the complex reality, as we see it, and we are engaging in description rather than theorising. In the development of theory, concepts are formulated, which can be viewed as the building blocks of theory. A model can be viewed as the formalisation of a theory (see below). To understand any theory (model). it is important that students comprehend the underlying concepts.

Social scientists seek to confront their abstract theoretical models, expressed in the form of conjectures about real world behaviour, with the empirical data that the real world provides. For example. we might form the conjecture that if disposable income rises, household consumption will rise. We would then collect the relevant data for disposable income and household consumption and any other information we thought might bear on the relationship and use various statistical tools (for example, regression analysis) to enumerate the relationship between disposable income and household consumption to see whether our conjecture was data consistent.

In engaging in this sort of exercise, the responsible social scientist is not seeking to establish whether the theoretical model is true, for that is an impossible task, given there is no way of knowing what the truth is anyway. Instead, we seek to develop theories or conjectures that provide the best correspondence with the empirical world we live in. This means our current, accepted body of knowledge comprises theories and conjectures that explain the real world data in the most comprehensive way when compared to the competing theories.

Further, we can rarely refute a theory. As President Truman complained, there are two or more sides to the most important economic questions, so there are competing theoretical approaches yielding different conclusions. Even when a researcher resorts to the analysis of relevant data, (which often entails the use of econometrics), they can never refute a theory with 100 per cent confidence. Often the acceptance of a theory is driven by ideology and politics, rather than a balanced assessment of the competing theories and associated evidence.

Implications for research and policy

Many students, like President Truman. find the inability of economists to come up with definitive answers to economic questions to be rather frustrating. Here it is important to emphasise that, like physical sciences and other social sciences, economics is a contested discipline, as is illustrated by our brief discussion of the two schools of thought. Students will be exposed to some major contemporary debates in macroeconomics later in this textbook, but below we outline a long standing debate in developed economies, such as the UK, USA and Australia, about the impact of an increase in the minimum wage on unemployment.

If there are longstanding debates in economics (and other disciplines), which appear to be unresolved, how can there be progress in our understanding of economic phenomena? This is an important question because decisions made by macroeconomic policymakers have profound effects on the welfare of the population in terms of for example, employment opportunities and wages. Thomas Kuhn developed a way of understanding how progress is made in the social and physical sciences.

What is Macroeconomics?

The study of employment, output and inflation.

In macroeconomics we study the aggregate outcomes of economic behaviour. The word ‘macro’ is derived from the Greek word ‘makro’, which means large and so we take an economy wide perspective.

Macroeconomics is not concerned with analysing how each individual person, household or business firm behaves or what they produce or earn that is the terrain of the other major branch of economic analysis, microeconomics. Macroeconomics focuses on a selected few outcomes at the aggregate level and is rightly considered to be the study of employment, output and inflation in an international context. A coherent macroeconomic theory will provide consistent insights into how each of these aggregates is determined and change.

In this regard, there are some key macroeconomic questions that we seek to explore:

1. What factors determine the flow of total output produced in the economy over a given period and its growth over time?

2. What factors determine total employment and why does mass unemployment occur?

3. What factors determine the evolution of prices in the economy (inflation)?

4. How does the domestic economy interact with the rest of the world and what are the implications of that interaction?

A central idea in economics, whether it is microeconomics or macroeconomics, is efficiency getting the best out of what you have available. The concept is extremely loaded and is the focus of many disputes, some more arcane than others. But there is a general consensus among economists that at the macroeconomic level, the ‘efftciency frontier’ (which defines the best outcome achievable from an array of possible outcomes) is normally summarised in terms of full employment. The hot debate that has occupied economists for years is the exact meaning of the term full employment.

We will consider that issue in full in Chapters 11 and 12. But definitional disputes aside, it is a fact that the concept of full employment is a central focus of macroeconomic theory. Using the available macroeconomic resources including labour to the limit is a key goal of macroeconomics. The debate is over what the actual limit is. The related macroeconomic challenge is how to maintain full employment but at the same time achieve price stability, which means that prices are growing at a low and stable rate.

The clear point is that if you achieve that goal then you will be contributing to the prosperity and welfare of the population by ensuring real output levels are high within an environment of stable prices.

This book develops a framework for understanding the key determinants of these aggregate outcomes, the level and growth in output; the rate of unemployment; and the rate of inflation within the context of what we call a monetary system.

All economies use currencies as a way to facilitate transactions. The arrangements by which the currency enters the economy and the role that the currency issuer, the national government, has in influencing the outcomes at the aggregate level, is a crucial part of macroeconomics. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which is briefly outlined below, develops a macroeconomic framework that incorporates the unique features of the monetary system.

The MMT approach to macroeconomics

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is distinguished from other approaches to macroeconomics because it places the monetary arrangements at the centre of the analysis. Learning macroeconomics from an MMT perspective requires you to understand how money ‘works’ in the modern economy and to develop a conceptual structure for analysing the economy as it actually exists.

Most people are unaware that a major historical event occurred in 1971, when US President Nixon abandoned gold convertibility and ended the system of fixed exchange rates. Under that system, which had endured for about 80 years (with breaks for war), currencies were convertible into gold, exchange rates were fixed, and governments could expand their spending only by increasing taxes or borrowing from the private sector. After 1971, most governments issued their own currencies by legislative fiat; the currencies were not convertible into anything of value, and were floated and traded freely in foreign currency markets.

It is thus essential to understand the notion of a currency regime, which can range through a continuum from fixed exchange rate systems to floating exchange rate systems with varying degrees of exchange rate management in between. Understanding the way the exchange rate is set is important because it allows us to appreciate the various policy options that the currency issuer, the government has in relation to influencing the main objects of our study; employment, output and inflation.

A flexible exchange rate releases monetary policy from defending a fixed parity against a foreign currency. Fiscal and monetary policy can then concentrate on ensuring domestic spending is sufficient to maintain high levels of employment. A consequence of this is that governments that issue their own currencies no longer have to ‘fund‘ their spending. They never need to ‘finance’ their spending through taxes or selling debt to the private sector.

The reality is that currency issuing governments such as those of Australia, Britain, Japan and the US can never run out of money. These governments always have the capacity to spend in their own currencies.

Most of the analysis appearing in macroeconomics textbooks, which filters into the public debate and underpins the cult of austerity, is derived from ‘gold standard’ logic and does not apply to modern fiat monetary systems. Economic policy ideas that dominate the current debate are artefacts from the old system, which was abandoned in 1971.

At the heart of macroeconomics is the notion that at the aggregate level, total spending equals total income and total output. In turn, total employment is related to the total output in the economy. So to understand employment and output determination we need to understand what drives total spending and how that generates income, output and the demand for labour.

In this context, we will consider the behaviour and interactions of the two economic sectors that is, government and non govemment. Then we will unpack the non government into its component sectors, the private domestic sector (consumption and investment) and the external sector (trade and capital flows). In Chapter 4 we analyse in detail the so called National Accounts, drawing on these broad macroeconomic sectors. This approach is called the sectoral balance approach, which builds on the accounting rule that a deficit in one sector must be offset by surpluses in the other in the case of the government non government dichotomy.

More generally, the sum of the sectoral balances nets to zero when we consider the government, private, domestic and external sectors.

If one sector spends more than its income, at least one of the others must spend less than its income because for the economy as a whole, total spending must equal total receipts or income. While there is no reason why any one sector has to mm a balanced budget, the National Accounts framework shows that the system as a whole must. Often though, but not always, the private domestic sector rus a surplus, spending less than its income. This is how it accumulates net financial wealth. Overall private domestic sector saving (or surplus) is a leakage from the overall expenditure cycle that must be matched by an injection of spending from another sector. The current account deficit (the so called external sector account) is another leakage that drains domestic demand. That is, the domestic economy is spending more overseas than foreigners are spending in the domestic economy.

Here it is useful to differentiate between a stock and a flow. The latter is a magnitude per period of time. For example, spending is always a flow of currency per period (for example, households might spend $100 billion dollars in the first three months of 2016). On the other hand, a stock is measured at a point in time. For example, a student’s financial wealth could consist of a deposit account at a local bank, with a balance of $1000 on January 1, 2016.

The sectoral balances framework, outlined later, shows that a sectoral deficit (a flow, say per year) accumulates, as a matter of accounting to a financial debt (a stock). On the other hand, a sequence of sectoral surpluses accumulate to a financial asset which is also a stock.

MMT is thus based on what is known as a stock flow consistent approach to macroeconomics where all flows and resulting stocks are accounted for in an exhaustive fashion. The failure to adhere to a stock flow consistent approach can lead to erroneous analytical conclusions and poor policy design.

From the perspective of fiscal policy choices, an important aspect of the stock flow consistent approach that will be explained in greater detail in Chapter 5, is that one sector’s spending flow equals its income flow plus changes to its financial balance (stock of assets).

The textbook will show that a country can only run a current account deficit if the rest of the world wishes to accumulate financial claims on the nation (financial debt). Often these claims are in the form of government debt. The MMT framework shows that for most govemments, there is no default risk on government debt, and therefore such a situation is ‘sustainable’ and should not be interpreted to be necessarily undesirable. Any assessment of the fiscal position of a nation must be taken in the light of the usefulness of the govemment’s spending program in achieving its national socio-economic goals.

This is what Abba Lerner (1943) called the ‘functional finance” approach. Rather than adopting some desired budgetary outcome, government ought to spend and tax with a view to achieving ‘functionally’ defined outcomes, such as full employment.

0n matters of terminology, we avoid using the term ‘budget’ to describe the spending and taxation outcomes for the currency issuing government. Instead, we use to the term fiscal balance. A government fiscal deficit occurs when its spending exceeds its taxation revenue, whereas a fiscal surplus occurs when govemment spending is less than its taxation revenue.

The use of the term ‘budget’ to describe the fiscal balance invokes the idea that the currency issuing government faces the same ‘budget’ constraints as a household.

A careful understanding of the monetary system will make it obvious that the government is not a ‘big household”. The government can consistently spend more than its revenue because it creates the currency.

Households use the currency issued by the government and must finance their spending. Our access is constrained by the sources of available funds, including income from all sources, asset sales, and borrowings from external parties.

Whereas households have to save (spend less than they earn) to spend more in the future, governments can purchase whatever they like, as long as there are goods and services for sale in the currency they issue.

A sovereign government must spend first before it can subsequently tax or borrow. A household cannot spend more than its revenue indefinitely because continuously increasing private debt is unsustainable. The budget choices facing a household are thus limited and prevent permanent deficits. A currency issuing government can never be revenue constrained in a technical sense and can sustain deficits indefinitely without solvency risk.

In other words, our own personal budget experience generates no knowledge relevant to consideration of government matters.

The alternative narrative, which we present in this book, highlights the special characteristics of the government’s currency monopoly.

Fiscal surpluses provide no greater capacity to governments to meet future needs, nor do fiscal deficits erode that capacity. Governments always have the capacity to spend in their own currencies. The consequences of a fiscal surplus, the government spending less than it is taking out of the economy by way of taxation when a nation runs an external deficit will also be outlined.

In summary, budget surpluses force the non government sector into deficit and the domestic private sector is forced to accumulate ever increasing levels of indebtedness to maintain its expenditure. The textbook will explain why this is an unsustainable growth strategy and how eventually the private domestic sector is forced to reduce its risky debt levels by saving more and the resulting drop in non government spending will reinforce the negative impact of the government fiscal surplus on total spending.

The macro model

To organise the way of thinking in this regard we use a conceptual structure sometimes referred in the economics literature as a model, in this case a macroeconomic model. A model is just an organising framework and is a simplification of the system that is being investigated. In this textbook, we will develop a macroeconomic model, which combines narrative and some algebra to advance your understanding of how the real world economy operates. We will necessarily stylise where complexity hinders clarity, but we will always focus on the real world rather than an assumed world that has no relevance to the actual economy.

All disciplines develop their own language as a way of communicating. One might think that this just makes it harder to understand the ideas and we have sympathy for that view. But we also understand that students of a specific discipline, in this case macroeconomics should be somewhat conversant with the language of the discipline they are studying.

A macroeconomic model draws on concepts and algebraic techniques to advance our understanding of the main economic aggregates (such as output, employment and price level). This textbook design is unique because it specifically develops the MMT macroeconomic model, which will be applicable to the real world issues including economic policy debates. The application to policy is important because macroeconomics is what might be termed a policy science.

By placing government as the currency issuer at the centre of the monetary system we immediately focus on how it spends and how that spending influences the major macroeconomic aggregates that we seek to explain.

The framework will at first, provide a general analysis of government spending that applies to all currency exchange rate systems before explaining the constraints (policy options) that apply to governments as we move from a flexible exchange rate to a fixed exchange rate system. We will consider how the design of the monetary system impacts on the domestic policy choices open to government and the outcomes of specific policy choices in terms of output, employment and inflation.

Fiscal and monetary policy

The two main policy tools that influence what is termed the demand or spending side of the economy are monetary and fiscal policy.

Fiscal policy is represented by the spending and taxation choices made by the government (the ‘treasury’). The net financial accounting outcomes of these decisions are summarised periodically by the government fiscal position. Fiscal policy is one of the major means by which the government seeks to influence overall spending in the economy and achieve its aims.

The textbook will show that a nation will have maximum fiscal space:

– If it operates with a sovereign currency; that is. a currency that is issued by the sovereign government and its value is not pegged to foreign currencies; and

– If it avoids incurring debt in foreign currencies. and avoids guaranteeing the foreign currency debt of domestic entities (firms, households, and state, province, or city debts).

Under these conditions, the national government can always afford to purchase anything that is available for sale in its own currency. This means that if there are unemployed resources, the government can always mobilise them putting them to productive use through the use of fiscal policy. Such a government is not revenue constrained. which means it does not face the financing constraints that a private household or firm faces in framing its expenditure decisions.

To put it as simply as possible ~ this means that if there are unemployed workers who are willing to work, a sovereign government can afford to hire them to perform useful work in the public interest.

From a macroeconomic efficiency argument, a primary aim of public policy is to fully utilise available resources.

The central bank in the economy is responsible for the conduct of monetary policy, which typically involves the setting of a short term policy target interest rate (Fed Funds in the USA, also called bank rate in many counuies). In the recent global economic crisis the ambit of monetary policy has broadened considerably and these developments will be considered in Chapter 15.

The typical roles of a central bank include not only the conduct of monetary policy via the overnight interbank lending rate, but also operating the interbank clearing mechanism (so that bank cheques clear among banks), acting as lender of last resort (to stop bank runs), and regulating and supervising the banks.

MMT considers the treasury and central bank functions to be part of what is termed the consolidated government sector. In many textbooks, students are told that the central bank is independent from government. The MMT macroeconomic model will demonstrate how it is impossible for the two parts of government to work independently if the monetary system is to operate smoothly.

Policy implications for sovereign nations

MMT provides a broad theoretical macroeconomic framework based on the recognition that sovereign currency systems are in fact public monopolies per se, and that the imposition of taxes coupled with insufficient govemment spending generates unemployment.

An understanding of this point will be developed to allow the student to appreciate the role that government can play in maintaining its near universal dual mandates of price stability and full employment. The student will learn that there are two broad approaches to control inflation available to government in designing its fiscal policy choices.

Both approaches draw on the concept of a buffer stock to control prices. We will examine the differences between the use of:

a) Unemployment buffer stocks: The neoclassical approach, which describes the current policy orthodoxy, seeks to control inflation through the use of high interest rates (tight monetary policy) and restrictive fiscal policy (austerity). which leads to a buffer stock of unemployment. In Chapters 11 and 12. students will learn that this approach is very costly and provides an unreliable target for policy makers to pursue as a means for inflation proofing; and

b) Employment buffer stocks: Under this approach the government exploits its fiscal capacity, inherent in its currency issuing status, to create an employment buffer stock. In MMT, this is called the Job Guarantee (JG) approach to full employment and price stability. This model. which is considered by MMT to be the superior buffer stock option, is explained in detail in Chapter 12.

The MMT macroeconomic framework shows that a superior use of the labour slack necessary to achieve price stability is to implement an employment program for those who are otherwise unemployed as an activity floor in the real output sector, which both anchors the general price level to the price of employed labour of this (currently unemployed) buffer and can produce useful output with positive supply side effects.

Macro and the Public Purpose

The households and business firms in a modern capitalist economy make many of the important economic decisions that contribute to determination of the level of employment and output, the composition of that output, the distribution of income, and the prices at which output is sold. Claims are sometimes made that a ‘free market‘ economy comprised of individuals seeking only their own self interest can operate ‘harmoniously’ as if guided by an ‘invisible hand’.

In fact, economists had rigorously demonstrated by the 1950s that the conditions under which such a stylised economy could reach such a result couldn’t exist in the real world. In other words:

There is no scientific basis for the claim that ‘free markets’ are best.

In any case, these claims, even if true for some hypothesised economy, are irrelevant for the modem capitalist economies that actually exist. This is because all modern capitalist economies are ‘mixed‘, with huge corporations (including multinational firms), labour organisations, and big government. Individuals and firms operate within socio political cultural economic structures that are constraining but also enabling.

Sometimes the goals of individuals and firms coincide with what might be called the public purpose, while often they do not. In this section we will discuss the public purpose and the role played by government in trying to align private interests with socially progressive goals.

What is the public purpose? It is not easy to define or to identify the public purpose. One of the basic functions of any social organisation is to provide the necessary food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, legal framework, and socialisation for survival of the society.

While the subject of this course is economics, there is no sharp distinction between the sphere of economics and the spheres of other social sciences that study social processes. We usually think of the economy as the part of the social organisation that is responsible for provision of the material means of survival, the food. clothing, shelter, and so on. However, the economy is always embedded in the social organisation as a whole, affecting and affected by culture, politics, and social institutions.

Even if we can agree that any successful economic organisation should be able to produce adequate food for its population, that still leaves open many questions: What kind of food?; How should it be produced?; How should it be distributed?; and even, What does adequate mean?

Further, the society is comprised of harmonious individuals and groups. There are always conflicting claims and goals that must be moderated. There is no single, obvious public purpose to which all members of a society wish to strive. Even if we can identify a set of goals that the majority of society would like to work toward, that set will surely change over time as hopes and dreams evolve. The public purpose is an evolving concept.

The position taken in this book is that there is no ‘invisible hand’ that ensures that private interests are consistent with the public purpose. Indeed, the economy is just one component of the social organisation that is necessary to establish the always evolving public purpose and that is necessary to work towards achievement of the public purpose.

The ‘market’ is just one institution among a wide variety of social institutions working to delineate social goals that comprise the social and private purposes. Other institutions include political organisations, labour unions, manufacturers. and NGOs (non governmental organisations).

As we noted at the beginning of this Chapter, the national government must play an important role in society as it can help to identify the social purpose and to establish a social structure in which individuals and groups will work toward achieving the social purpose.

While it is admittedly difficult to outline what defines the social purpose, it is possible to identify widely accepted goals. For example, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) commits signatory nations to a common set of relatively well defined goals.

The declaration is outlined on the United Nations Home Page:

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

The Articles that define the Declaration include:

– Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

– No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

– Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted them by the constitution or by law.

– Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.

– Everyone has the right to a nationality.

– Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

– Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

– Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change their religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest their religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

– Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart infomation and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

– Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

– Everyone has the right to take part in the government of their country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

– Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in their country.

– Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realisation, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organisation and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for their dignity and the free development of their personality.

– Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment

– Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

– Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for themselves and their family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

– Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests.

– Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

– Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of themselves and of their family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control.

– Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

– Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

It is obvious that many of these identified human rights, especially near to the end of this list, are connected to the operation of the economy. For example, we argued above that any successful economy should provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter, and many of the human rights listed in the UN Charter address the material well being of a nation‘s population.

Further, other human rights that superficially appear to be unrelated to economic performance actually presuppose fulfilment of other human rights that are directly related to material well being.

For example, in a modern capitalist economy access to employment (one of the recognised rights) is necessary for full participation in society. Not only does a job provide income that allows one to purchase food, clothing, and shelter, but it also provides access to social networks, generates feelings of self worth as one contributes to social production, enhances social prestige, and helps to provide for retirement in old age.

Indeed, employment has been shown to have a wide range of other benefits to individuals and to society including better physical and psychological health, reduced crime and drug abuse, lower child and spouse abuse, and greater participation in other social and political activities.

To be sure, this list (which is itself only a partial listing of the agreed universal rights) includes many rights that have not been fully achieved even in the wealthiest and most democratic nations. In that sense, these rights are ‘aspirational’, with the signatory nations committing to striving toward achieving them. Again, if we look at the example of the right to work and to an adequate standard of living, those are rights that are routinely violated even in the best of times in the wealthiest of nations. Still, these universally recognised rights provide a measure against which nations can measure their progress.

Concluding thoughts on the public purpose

We conclude with three important points.

First, this reason the public purpose is broad and evolving over time, and for these reasons it varies across time and place. It should include rising living standards, particularly for those at the bottom of society. Environmental sustainability must be included. Reduction of racial, ethnic, and gender inequalities across the full socio political economic spectrum is an important component of the public purpose. This must go beyond simple economic measures such as family income to include full participation in the life of the community. The public purpose also should include reductions of crime. corruption, cronyism, invidious distinction, conspicuous consumption, and other social pathologies.

Second the UN Charter lays out what it sees as ‘universal’ human rights This is a useful, but not wholly satisfactory list to be included in a statement of the public purpose. What is considered to be a human right today might have appeared to be radically Utopian a century ago; and today’s list will appear far too cautiously conservative at some date in the future.

The public purpose is inherently a progressive agenda that strives to continually improve the material, social, physical, cultural, and psychological well being of all members of society. It is inherently ‘aspirational‘ in the sense that there is no end point as the frontiers of the public purpose will continually expand.

Third, the national government as well as international organisations (such as the United Nations) must play important roles in shaping our vision regarding the types of societies to which we aspire. And beyond setting these goals, governments at all levels must take the lead in developing sets of institutions, rules of behaviour, and sanctions for undesirable behaviour in order to move toward reaching the goals set as the public purpose.

As an example that demonstrates these points, a half century ago national governments and international organisations set about to eliminate the devastating disease known as smallpox. While markets and for profit production played a role in helping to develop vaccines, in distributing the vaccines, and in formulating information campaigns, private initiative alone would never have eliminated the disease.

The task was too big, it was not completely consistent with the self interest of profit seeking behaviour, and it required intemational cooperation beyond the reach of even the largest firms.

Hence, governmental organisations had to play a role.

With respect to the aspirational nature of the public purpose, successful elimination of smallpox would not be the end, but rather would serve as the beginning of a new campaign, to eliminate another disease, and then another and yet another.

Perhaps in a long distant future, a human right to a disease free life would be recognised, adding to an ever increasing list of established rights that all nations would be expected to protect.

While we cannot, of course, imagine such a future, it was not so long ago that the Congress of the US did not recognise the voting rights of women and African Americans. Today, any nation that denies the vote to members of society on the basis of gender, religion, race or ethnicity, or national origin is considered to be in violation of human rights, and thus, to be an international pariah, even though such restrictions were considered acceptable just a few generations ago. For example, white US women over the age of 21 did not secure the vote until the 1920 Presidential election, whereas in the UK suffrage was extended to all women over the age of 21 in 1928. In Australia aborigines were granted the right to enrol and vote in Federal elections in 1962. Many developed countries did not give women or minorities the vote until the 20th Century.

The public purpose is inherently progressive; it can never be finished.

Chapter 2:. How to Think and Do Macroeconomics

. . .


Modern Monetary Theory and Practice. An Introductory Text

by William Mitchell, L. Randall Wray and Martin Watts

get it at Amazon.com


“By all means, compare these shitheads to Nazis” Inspired by Trump, the world could be heading back to the 1930s – Jonathan Freedland.

The US president tears children from parents, and in Europe his imitators dehumanise migrants. We know where such hatred leads.

“Infest” is a word reserved for rats and insects. This is the language of those seeking to choke off human sympathy, by suggesting those suffering are not even human.

‘Where’s my seven-year-old? This is a long bath.’ And the officer says, ‘You won’t be seeing your child again?” It’s not the same as telling Jews about to die they are merely taking a shower, but in the use of deception the echo is loud.

You’ll remember Godwin’s law, which holds that the longer an online debate goes on, the likelier it is that someone will mention Hitler or the Nazis. It was an amusing observation and one that served a useful purpose, guarding against hyperbole and fatuous comparison. Except last August, as the American far right staged a torchlight parade in Charlottesville, Mike Godwin suspended his own law. “By all means, compare these shitheads to Nazis,” he tweeted. “Again and again. I’m with you.”

Despite that dispensation, I’ve tended to abide by my own version of Godwin’s law. I try to avoid Nazi comparisons, chiefly because they’re almost always wrong and because, far from dramatising whatever horror is under way, they usually serve to minimise the one that killed millions in the 1940s. And yet, there’s a cost to such self-restraint. Because if the Nazi era is placed off limits, seen as so far outside the realm of regular human experience that it might as well have happened on a distant planet Planet Auschwitz then we risk failure to learn its lessons. That would be to squander the essential benefit offered by study of the Third Reich: an early warning system.

So yes, when Donald Trump ordered US government agents on the southern border to separate migrant children from their parents, to tear screaming toddlers from their fathers and even to pull a baby from its mother’s breast, he was not re-enacting the Holocaust. He was not ordering the eradication of an entire people or sending millions to their deaths.

But there were echoes. And we must hear them.

For one, there’s the elemental act of separation itself. If you interview survivors of the Holocaust, one thing you notice is that even those who’ve grown used to describing events of the most extraordinary cruelty, and who can do so without shedding a tear, often struggle when they recall the moment they were parted from a parent. Mostly now in their 80s or older, they are taken back to that moment of childhood terror, one that never leaves them.

The parents ripped from those 2,300 children on the Mexican border were not led off to be murdered. But there are grounds to believe they may never again see their sons or daughters, some of whom were sent thousands of miles away. There is no system in place to reunite them. The children were not properly registered. How can a two-year-old who speaks no English explain who she is? Eighty years from now, perhaps, old men and women will sob as they recall the mother taken from them by uniformed agents of the US government, never to be seen again.

But the echoes don’t end there. The wire cages. The guards telling weeping children they are forbidden from hugging each other. And then this chilling detail, reported by Texas Monthly. It turns out that US border guards don’t always tell parents they’re taking their children away. “Instead, the officers say, ‘I’m going to take your child to get bathed.’ The child goes off, and in a half-hour, 20 minutes, the parent inquires, ‘Where is my flve year old?’ ‘Where’s my seven-year-old?’

‘This is a long bath.’ And the officer says, ‘You won’t be seeing your child again?” It’s not the same as telling Jews about to die they are merely taking a shower, but in the use of deception the echo is loud.

And if the mechanics of this operation strike a familiar note, so too does the rhetoric and propaganda deployed by those behind it and defending it. You don’t have to go to back to 1930s Germany to know that the first step towards catastrophe is the dehumanisation of a reviled group. It happened that way in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, and it’s happening in today’s United States. “These aren’t people, these are animals,” the US president said last month.

They want “to pour into and infest our country”, he tweeted this week. “Infest” is a word reserved for rats and insects. This is the language of those seeking to choke off human sympathy, by suggesting those suffering are not even human.

Trump’s defenders reinforce the message. It was a jolt to see Steve Hilton, one time shoeless guru of David Cameron’s Downing Street, now reinvented as a Fox News host, grinning away as pundit Ann Coulter called the crying infants “child actors”. Her message was repeated on Fox by Nigel Farage, who similarly urged Trumb not to be swayed by the “screams coming from the liberal media” and to “stay tough”.

Farage is a reminder that this phenomenon is not confined to the US. Referring to refugees, Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has called for a purification, or perhaps a cleansing, of his country, “neighbourhood by neighbourhood, street by street”. His plan is to draw up a register of Roma living in Italy. Those with Italian citizenship, “we’ll have to keep, unfortunately”, he said.

The signs are there, if only we can bear to look. Something is happening to our world. Others have noted the way the post-1945 global architecture is beginning to crumble, as Trump undermines the western alliance in favour of authoritarian tyrannies. But the postwar order is unravelling in another, more insidious way too.

Put starkly:

The norms and taboos established after the world witnessed the Holocaust are eroding before our eyes. For 70-odd years, roughly the span of a human life, they endured, keeping the lid on the darker impulses that, we had seen, lurked within all of us.

It steadily became taboo to voice undiluted racism and xenophobia. Those fears, those loathings of the stranger, never went away, of course. But they were held in Check, partly by the knowledge of where such hatred, unrestrained, could lead.

Now, in the US, Italy, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere, the restraints are off. There even seems to be a macho thrill in breaking the taboo, in echoing the words and deeds of that darkest era in human history. It’s as if the boundaries that were drawn after 1945, demarcating acceptable human behaviour, were mere lines in the sand and now the tide is coming in.

It doesn’t happen overnight. It happens bit by bit, word by word, each step taking us lower into the pit. It’s why every one of us has to fight today’s horror. Because if we don’t, who knows what terrors lie ahead?

Music and Empathy are psychological neighbours. Empathetic people process music differently – Stephen Johnson * Music, Empathy, and Cultural Understanding – Eric Clarke, Tia DeNora, Jonna Vuoskoski * Current Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Debates on Empathy – Eva-Maria Engelen, Birgitt Röttger-Rössler * Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening – Zachary Wallmark, Choi Deblieck, Marco Iacaboni. * Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI).

“The ‘other’ need not be a person: it can be music.” Clifton (1983)

There are two pathways when it comes to understanding each other: thinking or mind reading and feeling or empathy.

Empirical investigations have shown that people who have a tendency to be more empathic experience more intense emotions in response to music.

Listening to sounds, even outside of a musical context, significantly activates empathy circuits in the brains of high empathy people. In particular, sounds trigger parts of the brain linked to emotional contagion, a phenomenon that occurs when one takes on the emotions of another.

Musical engagement can function as a mediated form of social encounter, even when listening by ourselves. Recent research has shown that trait empathy is linked to musical preferences and listening style. If we consider music through a social psychological lens, it is plausible that individuals with a greater dispositional capacity to empathize with others might also respond to music’s social stimulus differently on a neurophysiological level by preferentially engaging brain networks previously found to be involved in trait empathy.

Music can be conceived as a Virtual Social Agent… listening to music can be seen as a socializing activity in the sense that it may train the listener’s self in social attuning and empathic relationships. In short, musical experience and empathy are psychological neighbors.

Esenherg et al (1991) define empathy as, “an emotional response that stems from another’s emotional state or condition and is congruent with the other’s emotional state or condition.”

Who or what do we empathize with when listening to music?

For some people music is able to represent a virtual person with whom to empathize, and whom they can experience as empathizing with their felt emotions. Studies that have investigated people’s reasons for listening to sad music when they already feel sad have found that some listeners can experience the music itself as providing empathy and understanding for the feelings that they are going through, functioning as a surrogate for an empathic friend.

Mirror neurons may be as much a consequence of a culture of inter-subjective engagement as they are a foundation for it.

It is quite conceivable that people who are inclined to imagine themselves from others’ perspectives also tend to take up the physical actions implied by others’ musical sounds, whether a smooth and gentle voice, a growled saxophone, or any other musical sound reflecting human actions.

It’s no surprise our level or empathy impacts how we process social interactions with other people. But how might empathy affect the way we process music?

That’s the question addressed in a first of-its-kind study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. The results showed that high empathy people not only got more pleasure from listening to music, but also experienced more activity in brain regions associated with social interactions and rewards.

The implication is that empathy can make you interact with music as if it were a person, or a “virtual persona,” as described in a 2007 study:

“Music can be conceived as a virtual social agent… listening to music can be seen as a socializing activity in the sense that it may train the listener’s self in social attuning and empathic relationships.”

The researchers conducted two experiments to examine how empathy impacts the way we perceive music. In the first, 15 UCLA students listened to various sounds made by musical instruments, like a saxophone, while undergoing an fMRI scan.

Activation sites correlating with trait empathy (IRI subscales) in selected contrasts.

Some of the instrument sounds were distorted and noisy. The idea was that the brain might interpret these sounds as similar to the “signs of distress, pain, or aggression” that humans and animals emit in stressful scenarios, and these “cues may elicit heightened responses” among high-empathy people. Participants also completed the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a selfreported survey commonly used by scientists to measure one’s level of empathy.

The results confirmed what the team had hypothesized: listening to the sounds, even outside of a musical context, significantly activated empathy circuits in the brains of high-empathy people. In particular, the sounds triggered parts of the brain linked to emotional contagion, a phenomenon that occurs when one takes on the emotions of another.

But how does empathy affect the way we listen to a complete piece of music?

To find out, the researchers asked students to listen to music that they either liked or disliked, and which was either familiar or unfamiliar to them. They found that listening to familiar music triggered more activity in the dorsal striatum, a reward center in the brain, among high-empathy people, even when they listened to songs they said they hated.

Familiar music also activated parts of the lingual gyrus and occipital lobe, regions associated with visual processing, prompting the team to suggest that “empathic listeners may be more prone to visual imagery while listening to familiar music.”

In general, high-empathy people experienced more activity in brain regions associated with rewards and social interactions while listening to music than did low-empathy participants.

“This may indicate that music is being perceived weakly as a kind of social entity, as an imagined or virtual human presence,” said study author Zachary Wallmark, a professor at SiViU Meadows School of the Arts. “If music was not related to how we process the social world, then we likely would have seen no significant difference in the brain activation between high-empathy and low empathy people.”

We often conceptualize music as an abstract object for aesthetic contemplation, Wallmark said, but the new findings could help us reframe music as a way to connect others, and to our evolutionary past.

“If music can function something like a virtual “other,” then it might be capable of altering listeners’ views of real others, thus enabling it to play an ethically complex mediating role in the social discourse of music,” the team wrote.

Music, Empathy, and Cultural Understanding

Eric Clarke, Tia DeNora, and Jonna Vuoskoski

In the age of the internet and with the dramatic proliferation of mobile listening technologies, music has unprecedented global distribution and embeddedness in people’s lives. It is a source of intense experiences of both the most individual (personal stereos) and massively communal (large-scale live events, and global simulcasts) kind; and it increasingly brings together or exploits a huge range of cultures and histories, through developments in world music, sampling, the re-issue of historical recordings, and the explosion of informal and ‘bedroom’ music making that circulates via YouTube. For many people, involvement with music can be among the most powerful and potentially transforming experiences in their lives.

To what extent do these developments in music’s mediated and mediating presence facilitate contact and understanding, or perhaps division and distrust, between people? This project has pursued the idea that music affords insights into other consciousnesses and subjectivities, and that in doing so may have important potential for cultural understanding.

The project:

1) brings together and critically reviews a considerable body of research and scholarship, across disciplines ranging from the neuroscience and psychology of music to the sociology and anthropology of music, and cultural musicology, that has proposed or presented evidence for music’s power to promote empathy and social/cultural understanding through powerful affective, cognitive and social factors, and to explore ways in which to connect and make sense of this disparate evidence (and counter-evidence);

2) reports the outcome of an empirical study that tests one aspect of those claims demonstrating that ‘passive’ listening to the music of an unfamiliar culture can significantly change the cultural attitudes of listeners with high dispositional empathy.

Researchers and Project Partners

Eric Clarke, Faculty of Music, University of Oxford

Tia DeNora, Sociology, Philosophy & Anthropology, Exeter University

Jonna Vuoskoski, Faculty of Music, University of Oxford


Music is a source of intense experiences of both the most individual (personal stereos, headphone listening) and massively communal (large-scale live events, and global simulcasts) kind; and it increasingly brings together or exploits an exceptional range of cultures and histories, through developments in ‘world music’, sampling, historical recording and hybridization. At a time when musicology, the social and cultural study of music, have become far more circumspect about essentializing and romanticizing claims, it is still not uncommon to find claims being made for music as a ‘universal language’ that can overcome (or even transcend) cultural difference, break down barriers of ethnicity, age, social class, ability/disability, and physical and psychological wellbeing.

There are widespread symptoms of this belief or claim, including the activities of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (founded by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim, to bring together Israeli and Palestinian musicians); and the appointment by UNICEF of classical musicians to act as ‘goodwill ambassadors’, bringing their music to people in deprived, war-torn, or disaster-hit parts of the world so as to offer emotional support, solidarity, and a kind of communion.

An extract from the violinist Maxim Vengerov, who in 1997 was the first classical musician to be appointed a goodwill ambassador, reads: “1997, September: For Maxim Vengerov’s first official undertaking with UNICEF, he organized a musical exchange with children from Opus 118 a violin group from East Harlem, New York. The children of Opus 118, aged 6 to 13, came from three different elementary schools in this inner-city neighbourhood. This innovative programme has spurred a whole generation to learn ‘violin culture’. Along with the youths, Mr. Vengerov not only played Bach but also southern blues and tunes such as ‘Summertime’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’.”

And from the same webpage, beneath a picture showing the violinist in jeans and T-shirt playing as he leads a line of children in the manner of a latter-day Pied Piper is the caption: “In the remote village of Baan Nong Mon Tha, children from the Karen hill tribe ethnic group follow Maxim Vengerov, in a human chain, to a school run by a UNICEF-assisted NGO. Thailand, 2000.”

Similarly, the 1985 Live Aid, and 2005 Live 8, events were global pop music events intended not only to raise money (in the case of Live Aid) and popular pressure on politicians (in the case of Live 8) for the relief of famine and poverty, but also to galvanize a global consciousness and a united ‘voice’: as Bob Geldof, the prime mover of Live 8 put it: “These concerts are the start point for The Long Walk To Justice, the one way we can all make our voices heard in unison.”

And finally, the popular UK television series ‘The Choir’ (which has run to six series so far) documents the powerful ‘identity work’ and intense emotional experiences that accompany the formation of choirs in schools, workplaces, and military establishments out of groups of people who have had little or no previous formal musical experience, and who come from very varied walks of life (from bank executives to fire officers and military wives).

In all these very public examples of a much wider if less visible phenomenon, we see a complex mixture of implicit musical values, discourses about music’s ‘powers’, folk psychology and its sociological equivalent, and (in some cases) more or less grounded or unsupported claims about the impact of music on the brain (cf. Tame, 1984; Levitin, 2006). It would be easy to be hastily dismissive of some of these claims, but a considerable volume of research by highly regarded scientists and scholars, coming from disciplines that range from neuroscience and philosophy through psychology and sociology to anthropology and cultural studies has also made a significant case for the capacity of music and musicking (Small, 1998) to effect personal and social change (e.g. Becker 2004; DeNora 2013; Gabrielsson 2011; Herbert 2011). If music can effect change, and speak across barriers, it can also offer a means of intercultural understanding and identity work.

As Cook (1998: 129) puts it:

“If both music and musicology are ways of creating meaning rather than just of representing it, then we can see music as a means of gaining insight into the cultural or historical other. If music can communicate across gender differences, it can do so across other barriers as well. One example is music therapy… But the most obvious example is the way we listen to the music of other cultures (or, perhaps even more significantly, the music of subcultures within our own broader culture). We do this not just for the good sounds, though there is that, but in order to gain some insight into those (sub)cultures. And if we use music as a means of insight into other cultures, then equally we can see it as a means of negotiating cultural identity.”

In different ways, these (and other) claims seem to make use of a generalized notion of empathy. Empathy has recently seemed to gain considerable attention/currency in musicology, psychology of music, sociology of music and ethnomusicology as a way to conceptualize a whole range of affiliative, identity-forming, and ‘self-fashioning’ capacities in relation to music. But what is brought together or meant by the term ‘empathy’, and is it a useful and coherent way to think about music in relation to its individual and social effects?

Our project, and this report, arise from the disparate nature of the evidence for the claims about music’s transformative power, individually and socially, and the ‘scattering’ of the case across theories and findings in a huge disciplinary range: from research on music and mirror neurons (Overy and Molnar-Szakacs 2009) to the ethnomusicology of affect (Stokes 2010), the history of musical subjectivity (Butt 2010) and sociological studies of music and collective action (Eyerman and Jamieson 1998), the case has been made for different perspectives on music’s capacity to afford compassionate and empathetic insight and affiliation, and its consequent power to change social behaviour.

These diverse research strands all point to the crucial role that musicking plays in people’s lives, to its transformational capacity, and to the insights that it can afford. There is no single window onto ‘what it is like to be human’, but musicking seems to offer as rich, diverse, and globally distributed a perspective as any and one that engages people in a vast array of experiences located along dimensions of public and private, solitary and social, frenzied and reflective, technological and bodily, conceptual and immediate, calculated and improvised, instantaneous and timeless. The fact that music can be heard and experienced by large numbers of people simultaneously and in synchrony (orchestral concerts, stadium gigs, live simulcasts) means that the embodied experience of music can also be shared fostering entrainment and a sense of cosubjectivity. Indeed, some theories of the evolutionary significance of music highlight the importance of music’s empathy promoting aspects, suggesting that a fundamental adaptive characteristic of music is its capacity to promote group cohesion and affiliation (Cross & Morley, 2008).

While a whole range of studies has suggested that empathic interaction with other human beings is facilitated by musical engagement, the direct empirical evidence for this important possibility is scattered and disciplinarily disconnected. The aim of the project summarised in this report was to examine critically a substantial body of research evidence that relates to claims for music’s capacity to engender cultural understanding, primarily through the mediating construct of empathy; examine its consequences and significance, and provide a framework within which to connect its disparate elements and highlight points of interdisciplinary convergence and divergence; and carry out a focused empirical study that was designed to investigate a specific aspect of that complex case.

The report follows the general disciplinary outlines of the initial literature search, which revealed in excess of 300 items relating to the broad theme (‘Music, Empathy and Cultural Understanding’) of the project.


The word empathy has had currency in English for little more than 100 years, listed by the Oxford English Dictionary as being first used by the psychologist Edward Titchener in 1909, and defined by the OED as:

“a. Psychol. and Aesthetics. The quality or power of projecting one’s personality into or mentally identifying oneself with an object of contemplation, and so fully understanding or appreciating it.

b. orig. Psychol. The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”

Titchener’s ‘empathy’ was his attempt to translate the term Einfühlung, coined by the philosopher Robert Vischer (1873) in a book on visual aesthetics. But it was Theodor Lipps (1903) who really championed the concept of empathy, developing it from an essentially aesthetic category (the ability to ‘feel into’ an artwork) into a much more general psychological/philosophical concept to account for the human capacity to recognize one another as having minds. Laurence (2007) gives an important account of the origin and development of the idea of empathy, tracing a line back to Adam Smith’s (1759) The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Smith’s appeal to a notion of sympathy and ‘fellow feeling’ as the basis for understanding and living a moral life that is based on imagining how we would feel in the circumstances of others. The distinction between imagining how we would feel and simply identifying with how another feels is crucial, since it places Smith’s notion of sympathy in the domain of imaginative reason rather than blind contagion, and makes clear the role of cultural artefacts (paintings, literature, drama, music) as a means of socially learning that sympathetic attitude.

Laurence also draws significantly on the work of Edith Stein (1917) a doctoral student of Edmund Husserl whose On the Problem of Empathy also engages with the problem of how it is that we can know or experience the mental states of others, whether this knowledge or experience is given in some direct and primordial sense, and Stein’s conclusion that empathy is dependent on the mediating role of similarity with the person (or even animal) with whom/which we attempt to empathize. Laurence ends up with definition of empathy that emphasizes empathy as both a process, and as a social and educable achievement:

“In empathizing, we, while retaining fully the sense of our own distinct consciousness, enter actively and imaginatively into others’ inner states to understand how they experience their world and how they are feeling, reaching out to what we perceive as similar while accepting difference, and experiencing upon reflection our own resulting feelings, appropriate to our own situation as empathic observer, which may be virtually the same feelings or different but sympathetic to theirs, within a context in which we care to respect and acknowledge their human dignity and our shared humanity.” (Laurence 2007: 24)

Finally, and in significant contrast to Laurence, Baron Cohen (2011) provides a wide ranging account of empathy that explicitly presents it as a psychometrically measurable trait, with a genetic and environmental basis, distributed in a particular network of brain regions, and manifested in seven ‘degrees’ ranging from the zero degrees of empathy of the psychopath or autistic person, to the six degrees of empathy of some ‘hyper empathic‘ individuals. Baron Cohen regards empathy as critically valuable human resource, and sees the erosion or loss of empathy as an issue of global importance that has the most serious consequences for social health at scales ranging from the family to international relations.

As this necessarily brief review has revealed, there is a significant range of perspectives on empathy, from which two in particular might be drawn. The first is the distinction between empathy as a skill or social achievement acquired, educable, and in some sense fundamentally collective; and empathy as a trait relatively fixed, individual, and with a genetic component. The second concerns the extent to which different perspectives emphasize the involuntary and inter subjective character of empathy (sometimes expressed through the metaphor of contagion), involving identification with the other and a loss of self; as opposed to a more cognitive and deliberate view in which empathy depends upon an imaginative projection into the circumstances of the other (closer to what Smith called sympathy).

These differences in perspective affect the scope and reach of the term empathy, and are an issue to which we return towards the end of this report in the specific context of music.

Music and Empathy across Different Fields

This section critically reviews the existing literature on music and empathy under a number of different conceptual and disciplinary headings.

1. Neuroscience

An increasing body of neuroscientific evidence indicates the very close coupling of perceptual and motor functions in the central nervous system, strongly suggesting that one way to account for the human capacity to adopt the perspective of another (sometimes referred to as ‘theory of mind’ or even ‘mind reading’) is on the basis of the way in which a person’s experience of their own actions is entangled with their perception of the actions of others. At the level of brain anatomy, it has long been recognized that there are suggestive parallels between the organization of sensory and motor cortices of the human brain and this might provide at least superficial evidence for the close relationship between perception and action.

More recently, however, and particularly in the wake of the discovery of mirror neurons in the early 1990s (e.g. Di Pellegrino, Fadiga, Fogassi, Gallese, and Rizzolatti G., 1992), there has been a surge of interest in the ways in which perception action relationships at the level of the central nervous system might provide a powerful way to explain a variety of intersubjective and empathic phenomena. Freedberg and Gallese (2007: 197) have argued that the activation of a variety of embodied neural mechanisms underlie a range of aesthetic responses, proposing that “a crucial element of esthetic response consists of the activation of embodied mechanisms encompassing the simulation of actions, emotions and corporeal sensation, and that these mechanisms are universal.” Freedberg and Gallese are primarily concerned with the embodied and empathic qualities of visual art, but Overy and co-authors (Molnar Szakacs & Overy 2006; Overy & Molnar Szakacs 2009; McGuiness & Overy 2011) have developed a persuasive model of how the embodied, emotive and empathic effects of music might be understood from a mirror neuron perspective.

(A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.
Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species. Birds have been shown to have imitative resonance behaviors and neurological evidence suggests the presence of some form of mirroring system.
In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area (SMA), the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex.)

In simple terms, mirror neurons (or mirror systems as they are often called) are neurons in a motor area of the brain that become active when an individual merely observes an action of the kind that these neurons are usually responsible for controlling.

These ‘as if body loops’, as Damasio (1999) has called them, provide a direct identification with the actions of another, and constitute the fundamental building blocks of what Gallese (2001; 2003) has termed the ‘shared manifold’. The shared manifold is understood as a three-leveled mechanism for inter-subjective identification: i) a phenomenological level that is responsible for our sense of similarity with others which Gallese equates with an expanded notion of empathy; ii) a functional level characterized by models of self other interaction; and iii) a subpersonal level, instantiated by the activity of mirror matching neural circuits (Mirror Neuron Systems). The aim of the shared manifold hypothesis is to ground a sense of empathy and self other identity without suggesting that human experience and neuroscience can simply be collapsed into one another: hence the distinction between phenomenological, functional and subpersonal levels.

Gallese is also at pains to point out that self other identity is not all that there is to inter subjectivity: mirror systems do not allow us to experience others exactly as we experience ourselves, since to do so would (ironically) preclude the possibility of experiencing others as such at all. Our capacity to experience an external reality with content and behaviours that we can understand is made possible by “the presence of other subjects that are intelligible, while preserving their alterity character.” (Gallese 2003: 177)

At times the mirror neuron idea has been presented as if it were a hardwired feature of the brain that acted rather like a magic bullet. But as Heyes (2010) has argued, while one way to see mirror neurons is as an evolutionary adaptation (and therefore present at the species level), an alternative is to see the development of mirror systems as acquired through the operation of associative processes through the lifetime of individuals. From this perspective, mirror processes originate in sensorimotor experience, much of which is obtained through interaction with others. Thus, the mirror neuron system is a product of social interaction, as well as a process that enables and sustains social interaction. One rather specific example of this kind of plasticity is the finding by Bangert et al. (2006) that trained pianists listening to the sound of piano music showed significantly more neural activity in the motor areas of their brains than did a matched group of non-musicians.

2. Perception-action coupling, Empathy and Embodiment

Mirror systems are one way to understand inter-subjective interaction and identity, with direct relevance to music, at a neural level.

At the behavioural level there is another extensive literature that has revealed the significance of mimicry and synchronization in mediating human relationships in general, and music in particular. In a review of the extensive literature Chartrand and Dalton (2008; see also Chartrand & Bargh 1999) make the case for the importance of mimicry in social life, ranging from postural and facial to vocal and syntactic mimicry (people unconsciously mimicking one another’s accents and sentence structures) as both manifestations of existing social bonds and affiliations as well as the means by which such social bonds may be established (e.g. Inzlicht, Gutsell & Legault, 2012). As Heyes (2011) has argued such imitative behaviours may be automatic and insuppressible, and constitute a fundamental embodied basis for a critically important domain of human social interaction.

At a similarly general level, a number of authors (e.g. Valdesolo and DeSteno 2011) have demonstrated the power of synchronization in inducing altruistic and compassionate behaviours, this synchronization in many cases serving to entrain people’s behaviours upon one another.

With this general psychological literature in mind, it is easy to see that music powerfully affords these kinds of cooperative and affiliative engagements. Music has long been associated with socially coordinated work, worship and celebration, where its rhythmically entraining attributes and opportunities for controlled mimicry and complementation (such as in the ‘call and response’ character of many vernacular musical cultures) play a central role (e.g. Clayton, Sager and Will 2005).

Hove and Risen (2009) demonstrated with a tapping task that the degree of synchrony between individuals tapping together predicted how affiliated those individuals rated one another, and in a more directly musical context both Kirschner and Tomasello (2009) and Rabinowitch, Cross & Burnard (2012) have shown that over both shorter and longer timescales children involved in rhythmically synchronized music activities subsequently behaved more cooperatively and empathically than did children who were involved in an equivalent but not synchronized activity. Music is a powerfully multi-sensory, and particularly kinaesthetic (see Stuart 2012) phenomenon whose embodied character draws people into fluid and powerful social groups at a range of scales and degrees of (im)permanence, and in doing so helps to enact a kind of empathy.

3. Dispositional empathy and music

As discussed above, some authors (e.g. Baron-Cohen 2011) have understood empathy as a trait, arguing that since some people have a tendency to experience empathy more readily than others, being more or less empathic can be understood as a personality trait or a disposition.

In its broadest sense, dispositional empathy can be defined as an individual’s general responsiveness to the observed experiences of others, involving both perspective-taking capabilities or tendencies, and emotional reactivity (e.g., Davis, 1980).

Davis (1980) has suggested that dispositional empathy is a multidimensional construct comprising at least four components:

Perspective-taking (PT) can be understood as the ability as well as the tendency to shift perspectives (i.e., to see and understand things from another’s point of view)

Fantasy can be described as the tendency to identify oneself with fictional characters in books and films, for example. By contrast,

Empathic Concern (EC) taps into the tendency to experience feelings of compassion and concern for observed individuals, whereas

Personal Distress is associated with the individual’s own feelings of fear, apprehension and discomfort in response to the negative experiences of others.

Empathic Concern (EC) and Personal Distress are associated with the more emotional side of empathy.

Theories of music-induced emotions suggest that some form of empathy may be involved in the emotional responses induced by music (e.g., Scherer & Zentner, 2001; Juslin & vastfjall, 2008; Livingstone & Thompson, 2009). The proposed mechanisms range from pre-conscious ‘motor resonance’ with musical features that resemble vocal and motor expression of emotion (Molnar-Szakacs & Overy, 2006; Livingstone & Thompson, 2009) and emotional contagion (Juslin & Vastfjal, 2008) to empathizing with emotions and notions that are construed in the listener’s imagination (e.g., Scherer & Zentner, 2001). Indeed, empirical investigations have shown that people who have a tendency to be more empathic experience more intense emotions in response to music (Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2012; Ladinig & Schellenberg, 2011), providing indirect evidence for the role of empathy in music-induced emotions.

As people with high dispositional empathy are more susceptible to emotional contagion in general (Doherty, 1997), it may be that highly empathic people also experience emotional contagion from music more readily (Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2012). A complementary explanation is that empathic people may be more likely to engage in some form of reflective empathy during music listening, involving visual or narrative imagery, for example (e.g., Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2012; 2013).

Dispositional empathy has been associated with music-induced sadness in particular, as highly empathic people have been found to experience more intense sadness after listening to sad instrumental music (Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2012).

Interestingly, empathic individuals also tend to enjoy sad music more than non-empathic individuals, suggesting that empathically experienced negative emotions such as sadness can be enjoyable in the context of music (Vuoskoski et al., 2012; Garrido & Schubert, 2011).

Similar findings have been made in the context of films, where the experience of empathic distress while watching a tragic film has been associated with greater enjoyment of the film (De Wied et al., 1994).

It is not yet known what the mechanisms behind such enjoyment are, although the portrayal of more positive themes such as friendship, love, and human perseverance often present in tragic films have been proposed as one potential source (De Wied et al., 1994). However, it is not clear whether this explanation could also apply in the context of music. Nevertheless, these findings do suggest that there is something inherently enjoyable in empathic engagement in an aesthetic context even when the experienced emotions could be nominally characterized as negative.

4. Music as a virtual person, music and subjectivity

People tend to describe music in terms of attributes commonly used to describe psychological attributes of people (Watt & Ash, 1998). Indeed, it has been suggested that music is capable of creating a ‘virtual person’ of sorts (Watt & Ash, 1998; Livingstone & Thompson, 2009). The musical expression of emotion bears a close resemblance to human vocal and motor expression of emotion, involving similar auditory and gestural cues (for a review, see Juslin & Laukka, 2003), and it has been proposed that listeners may respond to music as they would to the perceived emotional state of a conspecific (e.g., Livingstone & Thompson, 2009). However, music’s capacity to represent a virtual person seems to go beyond acoustic and gestural cues that resemble vocal and motor expression of emotion.

An example is provided by studies that have investigated people’s reasons for listening to sad music when they already feel sad. These studies have found that some listeners can experience the music itself as providing empathy and understanding for the feelings that they are going through, functioning as a surrogate for an empathic friend (Lee, Andrade & Palmer, 2013; Van den Tol & Edwards, 2013).

The participants in Van den Tol and Edwards’s study felt that:

“The music was empathizing with their circumstances and feelings, supporting them, making them feel understood, or making them feel less alone in the way they were feeling” (Van den Tol & Edwards, 2013, p. 14).

Thus, it appears at least for some people that music is able to represent a virtual person with whom to empathize, and whom they can experience as empathizing with their felt emotions.

There has been considerable interest in the musicological literature in the relationship between music and human subjectivity (e.g. Cumming, 2000; McCIary, 2004), pursuing the idea that music has attributes either of an idealized person, or of an idealized collection or community of people. Lawrence Kramer (e.g. 2001; 2003) has written extensively about music as the instantiation of a kind of imagined subjectivity not associated specifically with the composer, performers, or anyone else explicitly and literally engaged with the making of the music, nor simply as the mirror of a listener’s own subjectivity, but in a more abstracted and generic manner. Likewise, the philosopher and violinist Naomi Cumming, in a paper that focuses on the violin introduction to the aria ‘Erbarme Dich’ from J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, writes of how the listener does not just find her or his own subjectivity passively reflected back, but reconfigured:

“The pathos of Bach’s introduction, and its elevated style, are quite unmistakable, and recognition promotes empathy. Once involved with the unfolding of the phrase’s subjectivity, the listener does not, however, find a simple reflection of his or her own expectancies. The music forms the listener’s experience, and in its unique negotiation of the tension between striving and grief, it creates a knowledge of something that has been formerly unknown, something that asks to be integrated in the mind of the hearer.” (Cumming, 1997: 17)

And in a still more explicitly psychological manner, DeNora (2000; 2003; 2013) has written of the ways in which music acts as a technology that affords a listener the opportunity to structure and organize their identity in long-term ways, and as a way of managing their immediate emotional states and sense of identity. Writing of one of her informants, ‘Lucy’, DeNora points out how she (Lucy) uses music as a medium in which she can draw a connection between the musical material, her own identity, and a kind of social ideal. As Lucy herself expresses it, she ‘finds herself’, the ‘me in life’ within musical materials, in a manner that allows her to reflect on who she is and how she would like to be, a process that DeNora points out is not just private and individual:

“Viewed from the perspective of how music is used to regulate and constitute the self, ‘solitary and individualistic’ practices may be re-viewed as part of a fundamentally social process of self-structuration, the constitution and maintenance of self. In this sense then, the ostensibly private sphere of music use is part and parcel of the cultural constitution of subjectivity, part of how individuals are involved in constituting themselves as social agents.” (DeNora, 2000: 47-8)

Music and musicking, then, can be viewed as a rich environment in which more or less active participants (listeners and makers) can engage with the real and virtual subjectivities of other real and virtual participants, and in doing so come to experience (and perhaps increasingly understand) the cultural perspective that those others (real or virtual) inhabit. Music is in this way both a medium for empathic (and antagonistic) engagement with others, and an environment in which to explore and experiment with a range of more or less projected, fantasized and genuinely discovered subject positions.

5. Sociological Perspectives

Turning from the rather individualistic accounts that have dominated the previous sections, towards understandings of music and empathy that take an explicitly social stance, sociological perspectives that enhance understanding of empathic processes derive from what may be termed the ‘new sociology of art’ (de la Fuente 2007). This sub-disciplinary paradigm investigates aesthetic materials for the ways that they may be seen to frame, shape or otherwise have an impact in social life. It is linked in turn to perspectives within sociology that cluster around the so-called, ‘strong’ program of cultural sociology (Alexander 2008) in which cultural materials are understood as active mediators of psycho-social and subjective processes and in which arts are not understood to be ‘about’ society or shaped ‘by’ society but rather ‘in’ society and constitutive of social relations (Hennion 2007).

These ‘new’ sociologies of art and culture are in turn linked to a ‘meso’ perspective in sociology devoted to groups of actors understood as networks of people, practices (conventions, operations, activities with histories of use) and things (Fine 2010). They focus on interaction orders (Fine 2012), or local actions that produce forms of ordering. The interaction order is the place where meanings are created, validated and reproduced in ways that travel to other networks.

Within this meso perspective there is no macro-micro divide since both macro and micro are mutually produced within scenes and settings of activity. The focus on this concerted activity in turn offers considerable scope for examining the question of just how cultural forms, including musical forms, actually enter into action and experience (DeNora 2003).

The impetus for these perspectives comes from various distinct but complementary developments in sociology since the middle 1980s that describe the ways that aesthetic and symbolic materials ‘anchor’ action (Swidler 2002) by presenting actors with orientational materials that can inform, focus and specify styles and trajectories of action in real time. The concern with how aesthetic materials ‘get into’ action (Acord and DeNora 2012) is one that has been associated with other developments in sociology, most notably the turn from a focus on the cognitive components of action, and models of social actors as calculating beings, to a focus on embodiment and feeling (Witkin 1994). These developments resonate well with, and are further illuminated by, developments in the philosophy of consciousness that begin with notions of the ‘extended mind’ (Clark and Chalmers 1998) and draw out that concept to embrace ‘the feeling body’ (Colombetti 2013) in which embodied conditions and sensations are understood both to take shape in relation to things outside of individuals and to inform cognitive appraisal.

Insofar as feeling and embodiment can be understood to take shape through encounters with aesthetic materials and can be understood to cultivate sensibilities or predispositions in favour of some social scenarios (and thus, contrarily, away from others), aesthetic materials have been highlighted within sociology as sources of social order. In this respect, the ‘new’ sociology of art harks back to Adam Smith’s ideas of sympathy and the capacity for fellow feeling discussed above, in which Smith suggests that the capacity for fellow feeling and being able to imagine the other is a lynchpin of mutual orientation and, thus, social stability. While Smith makes it clear that sympathy (the capacity to imagine the other) is not empathy (the capacity to feel what the other is feeling, literally to share their experience), Smith’s focus on the prerequisites for achieving sympathy highlight the importance of bodily processes. Specifically, Smith describes how, if sympathy is to be achieved, it is necessary for actors to moderate their passions (tamp down, raise up levels of intensity or ‘pitch’ as Smith calls it) so as to encourage mutual engagement through shared modalities of feeling (Smith 1759: I. I. 36-39). In this respect, Smith’s interest in mutual emotional calibration, understood as a prerequisite of mutual understanding, resonates with Alfred Schutz’s concept of attunement, understood as the prerequisite for ‘making music together’ (his example is the performance of a string quartet used as a case in point of social action writ large and the need for mutual orientation, entrainment, calibration and the gestalt to which they give rise, namely, shared feeling forms.

Classical sociology can, in short, be read as offering important leads for the study of empathy, understood as emotional and embodied mutual orientation, predisposition and preference, and in this sense it can also be read as offering an excellent basis for appreciating ‘art in action’ and the role of the arts in underwriting communicative action or how we bind ourselves together in time, whether in conversation, with its prosodic and timing patterns (Scollon 1982), or more generally, as Trevarthen puts it, as the dynamic sympathetic state of a human person that allows co-ordinated companionship to arise’ (cited in Ansdell et al 2010). As such the arts, and in the case of this project, music, can be conceptualised as offering materials for shaping up the feeling body from infancy to old age, in a wide range of roles and guises.

But if the arts and music more specifically ‘get into’ action, the question, as stated earlier, remains: how does this happen and can we trace that process? And in relation to empathy, this question can be posed in terms of how shared feeling states, sensibilities and predispositions come about, and how they can be cultivated and thus also how they may be more problematically controlled (Hesmondhalgh 2013; Born 2012; DeNora 2003). Within sociology the most fruitful paradigms have focused upon learning, mostly informal situated learning, among which the classic work on this topic is Howard S. Becker’s ‘Becoming a Marijuana User’ (1953).

Becker’s piece has been used by subsequent scholars to develop new (grounded) theories of how culture gets into action from comparisons of how one learns to respond to musical ‘highs’ (Gomart and Hennion 1999) to how one learns to feel and respond sexually (Jackson and Scott 2007; DeNora 1997) and how one learns to respond in various workplaces and forms of occupation (Pieslack 2009; DeNora 2013) and how one manages and modifies emotions and energy levels as part of everyday self-care (DeNora 2000; Batt-Rawden, DeNora and Ruud 2005; Skanland 2010) or in scene-specific settings such as retail outlets (DeNora 2000). Specifically these studies have followed the ways that individuals and groups engage in processes of modelling, adjustment, tutoring and directing and attempted alignment with musical materials in ways that draw out emotional and embodied sensation and experience in musically guided ways. This work helps to highlight just how deeply culture can come to penetrate embodied processes and experiences, and thus dovetails with more recent work on the culturally mediated experience of health and wellbeing.

6. Music Therapeutic and Wellbeing Perspectives

The focus on music, health and wellbeing is a growing area (Koen et al 2008; MacDonald et al 2012; MacDonald 2013). It encompasses music therapeutic perspectives, community music, psychotherapeutic perspectives and more overtly medical applications as well as the history of medicine and healing. At the level of the individual, and in overtly medical contexts, research in these areas has documented music’s potential for the management of pain (Edwards 2005; Hanser 2009), anxiety (Drahota et al 2012), palliative care (Aasgaard 2002; Archie et al 2013; DeNora 2012), and immunology (Fancourt et al 2013; Chandra and Levitin 2013) all of which emphasise mind-bodyculture interaction. At the broader level at which music connects with and can be seen to contribute to wellbeing, music has been described ecologically as part of salutogenic (health-promoting) space (DeNora 2013).

In all of this work, there are excellent resources for the study of empathy, in particular for investigating empathy understood as sensibility, perception and orientation as musically mediated. Specifically, the focus on the malleability of consciousness and selfperception (Clarke and Clarke 2011) points to a human capacity for entering into different modes of awareness, ones that are simultaneously sensitising (aesthetic) and desensitising (anaesthetic), and in so doing indicates the importance and power of the cultural technologies through which altered states can be achieved. The case of music and pain management illustrates many aspects of this theme.

As Hanser has described it, recent theoretical understandings of pain have moved toward a multi-dimensional conception of pain perception, one in which pain is not unmediated but rather comes to be experienced in relation to cultural and situated interventions, including music. In part, musical stimuli simply compete with neural pain messages. But more interestingly, music stimulates both oxytocin and embodied sympathetic responses (Grape 2002; Hurlemann et al 2010). Recent interdisciplinary perspectives highlight how the music, in tandem with other biographical and contextual factors, may lead a person in pain into alternative situations, ones in which she/he becomes sensitised to musically inspired associations and desensitised to the former situation of being in pain. Thus, music cannot necessarily address the cause of the pain but it can redirect the sensation of pain by capturing consciousness in ways that recalibrate it (DeNora 2013). So too, in the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (Bonde 2012) music may provide a grid or template against which knowledge-production (memory, self-and mutual understanding, historical accounts) can be elaborated and scaffolded in ways that can be used to diminish ‘negative’ emotions and associations, effectively recalibrating perception and, in this case, the self-perception of pain.

Methodologically, the music therapy index (Nordoff & Robbins 2007), a highly detailed real-time log of musical and para-musical action, can be used to display key or pivotal moments of musically instigated or musically guided action (movement, shifts in comportment, utterances). So too, the ‘musical event’ scheme can be used to track with some precision the ways in which the musical permeates the paramusical and vice versa across time and in keeping with the meso focus described earlier networks (DeNora 2003; Stige and Aara 2012).

More generally, and in ways that draw music therapy and music and conflict resolution into dialogue, musical engagement may be used to transform psycho-social situations, again leading the actor or actors away from the perception of distressing features of body/environment and toward more positive features and scenarios, and in ways that may also contribute to hope, patience and general mental wellbeing (Ansdell et al 2010; Ansdell 2014) as well as broader forms of cross-cultural and interactional accord, linked to music and guided imagery (Jordanger 2007). Community Music Therapy has perhaps most notably described music’s role in the production of communitas, through joint improvisation and as a means of generating proto-social capital (Procter 2012).

Within the growing field of music and conflict transformation studies (Laurence 2007), a key theme has focused on the importance of shared practice and actual grass-roots (bottomup) musicking as a prerequisite for enduring forms of change (Bergh 2011; 2010; Robertson 2010). In particular, as Bergh has described, if music is to contribute to enduringly altered practice, or altered consciousness of the other, that endurance requires continued and repeated practice, continued and repeated participation in musical activity. And as we have already indicated, music is by no means an unmitigated ‘good’ within the conflict transformation literature: as Bergh has observed (Bergh 2011), music can be and has been used to inculcate feelings of animosity, or for purposes of oppression and torture (Cusick 2008); and historically has been incorporated into military culture through drill, march music and, more recently, through psych-op motivational techniques (Gittoes 2004; Pieslack 2009). Indeed Laurence (2007: 33), even while writing of the potential for music in conflict resolution, argues that inculcating peaceful values is one of music’s rarest uses, and that “of music’s purposes, many and probably most, serve the ongoing ends of power relationships one way or another.”

7. Cross-cultural perspectives

The final category of literature that we consider in this report touches on the potentially vast question of cultural and cross-cultural understanding. Within the psychology of music there has been an interest in the relationship between possibly ‘universal’ and culturally specific aspects of musical communication dating back to the very beginnings of both the psychology of music and ethnomusicology in the work of Carl Stumpf (Stumpf & Trippett 1911/2012).

Among other more recent empirical studies, Balkwiil, Thompson, & Matsunaga (2004) have shown that music can successfully communicate emotional meanings across different cultures, but ethnomusicologists, perhaps rightly suspicious of simplistic notions of inter-cultural communication, have pointed to issues of representation, and of the incommensurability of concepts (or in this case emotional meanings) across cultural contexts as factors that might undermine the validity of a naively empirical approach (Stock 2014). A number of authors have recently proposed the value of a ‘relational musicology’ that might tackle issues of inter-cultural understanding, including Cook (2012: 196) who argues for relational musicology as “a means of addressing key personal, social and cultural work that is accomplished by music in today’s world.”

One specific kind of ‘cultural work’ that has recently been addressed in ethnomusicology that is of direct relevance to this project is the affective and social work that is accomplished by/within modern ‘sentimental’ cultures. Martin Stokes (2007; 2010) has provided vivid accounts of the emotional, intimate and affiliative character of contemporary sentimental musical cultures in Egypt and Turkey, and Butterworth (2014) in relation to Peruvian huayno music, in which something very much like empathy (though Stokes relates it more directly to a ‘Smithian’ as in Adam Smith notion of sympathy) is understood as a cultural construct or condition. In Stokes’s words (2010: 193), one might view “sentimentalism as a kind of civic project, a way of imagining affable relations of dependence on strangers in modern society.” This is a very different perspective on empathy one that sees it as a social achievement, rather than personality trait; a collective skill, rather than the expression of a circuit of ten interconnected brain regions (cf. Baron-Cohen 2011). As Cook (2012) argues in relation to the relational understanding of musical methods from one domain applied to another (Schenkerian analysis and Chinese music; Nineteenth century Western transcriptions of Indian melodies that were presented as ‘authentic Hindostannie airs’), such encounters conceived within an appropriate relational conceptual framework offer a domain of shared experience and cross-cuitural understanding.

Figure 1. Mean IAT scores (D-values) ±standard error of the mean, grouped by condition. Positive D-values indicate an unconscious preference for West African (relative to Indian) people, and negative values indicate an unconscious preference for Indian (relative to West African) people.

To investigate the effect of listening to Indian vs. West African music on participants’ Dvalues as well as the hypothesized moderating effect of dispositional empathy on the effects of music we conducted an ANCOVA with the Type of Music (Indian or West African) as a factor, and Dispositional Empathy (global IRI scores) as a covariate. We also included an interaction term of Type of Music and Dispositional Empathy in the model. There was no significant main effect of Type of Music; F(1,54) = 2.59, p = .11, although the trend was in the anticipated direction with participants exposed to Indian music displaying a slight preference for Indian (relative to West African) people, and participants exposed to West African music displaying no apparent preference.

The mean D-values of the two groups are displayed in Figure 1. As might have been expected, Dispositional Empathy was not significantly related to IAT scores when examined across the two conditions; F(1,54) = 0.20, p = .89. However, there was a significant interaction between Type of Music and Dispositional Empathy; F(1,54) = 5.51, p = .023, n(2/p) = .09, suggesting that dispositional empathy indeed moderated participants’ susceptibility to the musical manipulations. The relationship between dispositional empathy and D-values in the two groups is displayed in Figure 2. We also investigated the potential contributions of musical training, sex, and subjective responses to the music (ratings of liking and felt emotional impact) to the D-values, but no statistically significant relationships were found.

Figure 2. The relationship between dispositional empathy and IAT scores (D value), grouped by condition. Positive D values indicate an unconscious preference for West African (relative to Indian) people, and negative values indicate an unconscious preference for Indian (relative to West African) people.

2 Conclusions

The empirical study has provided preliminary evidence for the hypothesis that listening to music without any explicit semantic content (such as comprehensible lyrics) can evoke empathy and affiliation in listeners with high dispositional empathy. This interpretation is supported by the significant interaction between Type of Music and Dispositional Empathy, which revealed that people with high dispositional empathy scores were more likely to display an unconscious preference for the ethnic group to whose music they were exposed than those with low dispositional empathy scores. The fact that high dispositional empathy made participants more susceptible to the musical manipulations suggests that the observed findings cannot be explained in terms of priming or knowledge activation effects, such as those observed in the case of background music and purchasing decisions (e.g. North, Hargreaves & McKendrick, 1999). The lack of a statistically significant relationship between the IAT scores and liking ratings also indicates that our findings cannot be accounted for by a simple preference effect (cf., Nantais & Schellenberg, 1999).

Instead, we propose that the more empathic participants may have been more open to the music, and more likely to entrain with the music involving internal mimicry and emotional contagion; and may also have been more likely to engage in reflective empathy, in the form of visual and/or narrative imagery, and/or semantic elaboration. In the context of music, entrainment comprises both temporal as well as affective components (see e.g., Phillips-Silver & Keller, 2012), and in general imitation and entrainment have been found to both reflect and elicit affiliation (Chartrand & Bargh 1999; Hove & Risen 2009). Since people with high dispositional empathy have been found to exhibit stronger motor and sensory resonance to observed actions, and the pain of others (Gazzola, Aziz-Zadeh 8i Keysers, 2006; Avenanti et al., 2008), it is possible that empathic people are also more likely to resonate with the acoustic and gestural features of music. This stronger resonance could explain why empathic individuals are more susceptible to emotional contagion from music (cf. Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2012), and why they also appear to be more sensitive to the affiliation-inducing effects of music listening.

However, further investigation is required in order to better understand the phenomenon, and to distinguish between the potential contributions of pre-reflective motor and affective resonance, and the more reflective empathy involving imagery, perspective-taking, and other extra-musical associations. As dispositional empathy comprises both emotional reactivity and cognitive perspective-taking attributes, either or both of these components may contribute to the observed affiliation-inducing effects of music listening. A possible way to investigate this would be to implement a nondemanding distractor task during the music listening, which would limit participants’ capacity to conjure up imagery and other extra-musical associations. Furthermore, the failure to find a statistically significant main effect of Type of Music on participants’ implicit associations could either be due to the fact that the variation in participants’ pre-existing preferences for Indian vs. West African people was too great in relation to our sample size, or that the participants with low dispositional empathy were simply not affected by the music.

Future studies could attempt to investigate this issue by implementing pre as well as post-manipulation measures of implicit associations, although there may be other, more problematic issues associated with exposing participants to Indian and West African images prior to the musical manipulations.

5. General Discussion, Implications, Prospects

The result of our empirical study provides some evidence for the capacity of music even when encountered in arguably the most passive circumstances (solitary headphone listening in a ‘Iaboratory’ setting) to positively influence people’s unconscious attitudes towards cultural others. Specifically, people with higher dispositional empathy scores show more differentiated positive associations with images of people from two different cultural groups after listening to music explicitly belonging to that cultural group than do people with lower dispositional empathy scores.

This is a striking result, and provides what might be characterized as narrow but ‘hard-nosed’ evidence for music’s positive inter-cultural potential, and we have speculated on the broad psychological mechanisms (including entrainment, mimicry, emotional contagion, and semantic elaboration) that may be responsible.

But a number of notes of caution also need to be sounded. We have no evidence for the robustness or duration of the effects that we have observed: it may be that this is a very temporary shift that is easily disrupted, casting doubt on the practical efficacy of music as an agent of change in cultural understanding. And in the light of the interaction with dispositional empathy, the result suggests that any practical efficacy might be confined to those individuals who are already predisposed to be empathic towards others arguably those people who are (to put it simplistically) the least urgent cases.

Are we then forced to conclude that music has little or no power to change attitudes among those people who are most resistant? Perhaps more seriously, music as we have already indicated is arguably as capable of distinguishing (Bourdieu 1984/1979), dividing and alienating people as it is of bringing them together. Hesmondhalgh (2013: 85) points out that “Music can reinforce defensive and even aggressive forms of identity that narrow down opportunities for flourishing in the lives of those individuals who adhere to such forms of identification”, and provides a vivid anecdotal example of just such a defensive/aggressive encounter with or through music. He describes a Friday night out with friends at a pub where an Elvis impersonator is performing. Having at first dreaded the performance, Hesmondhalgh and his friends, along with a large number of strangers who are also in the pub for a night out, are quickly won over and join with one another, and the performer, with increasing intensity. The chorus of the final song “elicits an ecstasy of collective singing, women and men, all at the top of our voices. There are smiles and laughter, but there’s melancholy too. It seems that bittersweet lines from the Elvis repertory are invoking thoughts about relationships, past and present… [We] stagger out of the pub feeling we’ve had a great night, and that the working week has been obliterated by laughter and bittersweet emotion. Unwittingly, I brush against a man’s drink as I’m leaving, and he follows me out demanding an apology for his spilt beer… The power of Elvis’s music, it seems, has brought strangers and acquaintances together, and with a formidable intensity. But my pursuer has reminded me unpleasantly that there are those who feel excluded from such collective pleasures. If music-based gatherings answer to our need for sociality and attachment, and combat loneliness, might they also evoke envy when others miss out?” (Hesmondhalgh 2013: 103-4)

Are we to regard music’s affiliative and divisive attributes as two sides of the same coin, or as a more fundamental incompatibility between emancipatory and oppressive qualities? Indeed, rather than considering how music might help to make a bridge between apparently pre-existent cultural ghettos, should we not be asking in what ways music is already implicated in the establishment and maintenance of those very ghettos in the first place? These are significant challenges to the potentially starry-eyed representation of music that an uncritical attitude might project; but as Hesmondhalgh, again, puts it: “Music’s ability to enrich people’s lives [and expand their empathic understanding] is fragile, but I believe it can be defended better if we understand that fragility, and do not pretend it floats free of the profound problems we face in our inner lives, and in our attempts to live together.” (Hesmondhalgh 2013: 171)

Part of understanding that ‘fragility’ is considering what, if anything, is special about music as a force for (compromised) cultural benefit. Why not football, or food, both of which can lay claim to mass engagement and global reach? Is there anything about music that affords either particular, or particularly powerful or efficacious kinds of intercultural engagement? One way to tackle these questions is consider what the mechanisms for empathy and cultural understanding might be, and in what ways those mechanisms are engaged by different cultural manifestations whether those are music, food or football. As our critical review of the literature reveals, this is a fascinating but considerable challenge, and one that turns in part on how broad or narrow a conception of empathy is entertained.

One approach might be to admit a considerable range of inter-subjective engagements as occupying different positions on an empathy spectrum, from conditions of seIf-other identity in the context of what might be called ‘deep intersubjectivity’ (perhaps emblematically represented by that pre-Oedipal oneness between mother and infant); through powerful experiences of compassionate fellow-feeling; to the operation of much more controlled and deliberate rational, imaginative projection into the circumstances of others. Some (such as Adam Smith, Felicity Laurence and Colwyn Trevarthen) would want to make firm distinctions between, say, empathy and sympathy. But an alternative might be to agree on an umbrella term (and empathy might do), and then focus on what distinguishes different positions under the umbrella, and what the implications (practical, functional, conceptual) of those differences might be.

A common thread that runs through most of these positions is the central role of embodiment in empathy. From the most neuroscientifically reductionist approach (e.g. a ‘fundamentalist’ mirror neuron perspective) to the position of Smith or Stokes, a capacity to feel the situation of another underpins the inter-subjective character of empathy/feIlow-feeling/sympathy. And arguably it is in this respect that music has ‘special properties’ properties of enactment, of synchronization and entrainment in situations ranging from a single individual alone with their music (the solitary headphone listener ‘Lost in music’ (Clarke 2014) to massively social contexts (pop festivals, simulcasts) where enormous numbers of peopie can participate in collective, synchronized, embodied engagement.

As others have pointed out (e.g. Cross 2012), music is a uniquely widespread, emotionally and physically engaging, social, participatory and fluidly communicative cultural achievement, a powerful (cultural) ecological niche that affords extraordinary possibilities for participants, and which both complements and in certain respects surpasses those other global cultural achievements in which human beings participate (language, religion, visual culture, craft). There is little, perhaps, to be gained by attempting to set any one of these up on a uniquely high pedestal but equally it is important not to flatten the terrain by failing to recognize music’s particular combination of affordances in this rich cultural mix: cognitive and emotional complexity, from solitary to mass-social engagement, compelling embodiment, floating intentionality (Cross 2012), synchronization/entrainment, flexible mimicry, temporal and ambient character, and digitaI-analog mix.

As our critical review of the literature has revealed, the empathy-affording character of this mix of affordances has been explored and theorized across an astonishing range of disciplines invoking mechanisms that range from mirror neurons to semiotics and the cultural history of sentimentalism. Are these kinds of explanation in any way compatible with one another, and is there a way to avoid a simplistic and potentially reductionist ‘layers of an onion’ approach in which supposedly ‘fundamental’ biological attributes (whether those are genetic in the case of a narrowly ‘trait’ perspective on empathy; or neurological in the case of sensorimotor contingency theory) underpin progressively more ramified and arbitrary cultural constructs? We have already seen (e.g. Heyes 2010) that from within the scientific literature itself, as well as from outside it, there is ample evidence for the plasticity of so-called fundamental properties, and for the reciprocal relationship between biology and culture. Mirror neurons may be as much a consequence of a culture of inter-subjective engagement as they are a foundation for it. But it clearly remains a considerable challenge to develop in detail the more flexible and relational approach that we point towards in this report.

Finally, there is the question of the utility of the concept or term ‘empathy’ itself. Perhaps rather like the word ‘meaning’, it both enables and suffers from the capacity to bring together a wide range of phenomena, which critics may find unhelpful in its heterogeneity. We share the concern not to confuse chalk with cheese, but against a drive to compart-mentalize (sic) we are persuaded of the long-term value of sticking with a word and its associated conceptual field which, although still just a century old, offers a rich and powerful way to try to understand a central element of human sociality. The debates about whether to understand empathy as a genetic predisposition, a personality trait, an emergent attribute of perception-action coupling, a skill, or a social achievement are symptomatic of the conceptual reach of the term.

Engelen and Rottger-Rossler (2012), in a brief overview of a speciai issue of the journal Emotion Review devoted to empathy, declare in their first sentence that “there is no accepted standard definition of empathy, either among the sciences and humanities or in the specific disciplines”, but nonetheless emphatically endorse the importance of continuing to develop better understandings of that fundamentally social capacity to “feel one’s way into others, to take part in the other’s affective situation, and adopt the other’s perspective“ to grasp the other’s intentions and thus to engage in meaningful social interaction.”

We, too, are committed to the value of that enterprise, and to the specific role that music may play in understanding empathy, and as itself a ‘medium’ for empathy. In addressing the complex network of relationships between neighbouring terms (sympathy, compassion, contagion, entrainment, ‘theory of mind‘, attunement…) we see the prospect of a more nuanced and differentiated understanding of what Baron Cohen (2011: 107) has characterized as “the most valuable resource in our world” and “an important global issue related to the health of our communities.”

Current Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Debates on Empathy

Eva-Maria Engelen, Birgitt Röttger-Rössler, University of Konstanz, Department of Philosophy & Freie Universitat Berlin, Social and Cultural Anthropology

Almost anybody writing in the field would declare that there is no accepted standard definition of empathy, either among the sciences and humanities or in the specific disciplines. However, even when accepting that there can be no all time and universally valid definition, one can still try to clarify some aspects and establish a few landmarks that will help to ensure that the phenomenon with which various researchers are dealing is the same or has at least important features in common.

Although there is no established concept, several topics and discussions have proved to be crucial for the phenomenon that was once given this specially made up label empathy by Edward Titchner who introduced this word into English at the beginning of the 20th century in order to translate the German term Einfühlung.

The idea behind this special issue on empathy is to present a range of the currently most lively topics and discussions to be found not only within several disciplines but also across several disciplinary boundaries. This makes it interdisciplinary. Authors from different disciplines were asked to contribute to the field in a style that would be accessible for a broader range of interested readers. These contributions come from the following disciplines in which empathy is either an ongoing or an upcoming topic of academic interest: neuropsychology, developmental psychology, philosophy, literary studies, and anthropology. The commentators giving their views on the articles are sometimes experts on empathy from the same discipline as the authors and sometimes from adjoining ones. We tried as far as possible to introduce crossovers, but these did not always fit.

Points of Discussion and Open Questions

Roughly speaking, there are two pathways when it comes to understanding each other: thinking or mind reading and feeling or empathy. Nonetheless, one of the ongoing debates in psychology and philosophy concerns the question whether these two abilities, namely, understanding what the other is thinking and “understanding“ what the other is feeling, are separate or not.

Other debates refer to the best theoretical model for empathy and ask whether it makes sense to assume just one kind of empathy or whether one should differentiate between at least two kinds: cognitive and affective.

Further questions are: Does a living being have to be able to make a self-other distinction in order to be empathic? How far do emotional contagion or sympathy and pity differ from empathy? Is empathy necessarily an affective ability and does it have to be conscious? Does it occur in face to face relationships between two persons or more? And can it also occur between a reader and a fictive character in a novel (Coplan 2004)?

These are just some of the questions currently being discussed. But before addressing them in detail in the following six articles and twelve commentaries, we shall survey the different definitions of empathy presented and defended in this special issue.

A Starting Point for the Discussions

We start off with the concept of empathy in the social cognitive neurosciences. The major growth of interest in empathy is largely due to a recent debate in this field. Previously, in the late nineteenth and first half to middle of the twentieth century, it was an important term in psychology, hermeneutics, and phenomenology. Later on, interest in the concept spread to developmental psychology as well. But the currently ongoing debate received its initial impetus from the question how far mind reading and empathizing are different faculties and how far they may not be completely separable (Singer 2006).

Basically speaking, both faculties are about understanding the other, either cognitively or emotionally. What are the intentions of the other? What are his or her wishes, beliefs, or deductions? These questions belong to the mind reading side, whereas understanding the other‘s emotional state belongs to the other side: the capacity of empathy.

Nonetheless, despite these clear cut definitions, there are also concepts such as the affective theory of mind that is also called cognitive empathy. The rationale for this distinction is that empathy is based on understanding the affective states of others.

Another question that one might consider before reading the assembled articles on empathy is whether empathy has to be a process leading to a conscious state. We advise the reader to bring to mind the definition of empathy in his or her own research perspective before reading the articles presented here. Whether one agrees or disagrees with many of the arguments exchanged and discussed in the following articles and commentaries will depend on which definition of empathy one already has in mind. Hence, a reflection on one’s own implicit or explicit definition might lead one to reconsider one’s initial assumptions. Whatever the case, it will certainly help one to understand how different disciplines take divergent approaches to the subject.

One might also bear in mind that the notions of understanding and empathy to be found in the long lasting philosophical hermeneutic tradition have been used to differentiate between the sciences and the humanities. Explaining was considered to be the method of the sciences, whereas understanding and empathy were the methods of the humanities. This involves the assumption of a deep dualism, and one should be cautious about claiming a particular term for one or the other discipline and tradition without thoughtful reflection if one wishes to avoid stepping into the footprints of such dualisms.

Empathy as Embodied Capacity for Social Orientation

Coming from the humanities, we propose the following definition for empathy:

Empathy is a social feeling that consists in feelingly grasping or retracing the present, future, or past emotional state of the other; thus empathy is also called a vicarious emotion. (Vicarious: experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person.)

As a social feeling empathy is always shaped through cultural codes, which differently emphasize, modulate and train the capacity to “feel into“ another person’s emotions. The main function of this feelingly grasping is, we assume. orientation in social contexts. This can mean taking part in the precise emotional state that the other is in at a certain moment, namely: being happy when she is happy, scared when she is scared. and so forth.

But this does not have to be the case. Grasping the other’s emotional state, that is. adopting the other‘s emotional perspective, could also produce a different feeling or emotion in me than the one currently being experienced in the other. And even when the empathic adoption of the other’s perspective produces in me the same emotion as the other is having (or is fictively experiencing) at that very moment, it would not be the same emotion, because the self-other differentiation has not been overcome.

We want to make sure that we do not take empathy to mean the same as sympathy or pity. Both are, in our opinion, special forms of empathy that cover only a certain aspect of empathic processes. Whereas pity is the mode of feeling sorry for the other, sympathy is the mode of being in favor of the other. Both these feelings are ways of adopting an emotional perspective (as empathy is), but they cover only a special form of emotional perspective taking that is structured by the social bond or relation between the persons involved. Thus in social life, pity and sympathy are most likely to occur toward persons one is related to or who belong to one’s own ingroup, but less often toward outgroup members who are mostly perceived as being totally different, strange, or even malevolent, in short, as persons one can scarcely identify with.

Pity and compassion as particular kinds of empathy are deeply connected to social attachment. Frans de Waal (2009) conceives empathy as an evolved concern for others that is triggered through identification with these others. “Empathy’s chief portal is identification,” he argues, meaning that close social bonds increase, in a quasi-automatic way, the emotional responsiveness to others and thus the readiness to help and support fellow beings (de Waal. 2009, 2l3).

Continuing his line of argument, he stresses that empathy also needs a “turn off switch,” a mechanism to override and regulate automatic empathic responses. He considers that what constitutes this turn off switch of empathic processes is a lack of identification. What becomes evident here is that de Waal is implicitly equating pity and compassion with empathy, or he is conceiving them as the evolutionary basis of empathy. lf fellow beings harm or violate each other, as it is often the case in social reality, they must, according to de Waal’s model, have switched off their empathic capacity.

We deliberately take another position here: We conceive empathy as an evolutionarily grounded capacity to adopt an emotional perspective, to implicitly “feel into” the other regardless of the behavioral outcome. This may be directed toward ingroup members and be prosocial and supporting, or toward outgroup members and be destructive and harming.

We make a point of affectively grasping the emotional state of another, but that does not mean to draw a definite line between cognitive understanding and emotional grasping. There are good reasons to stick to a narrower notion when it comes to defining empathy as a “feelingly grasping” if one wants to make sense of notions such as vicarious emotion or of the history of the notion that started with Einfühlung (feeling into). However, the specific conceptual perspective one takes depends very strongly on one’s research traditions and research interest.

When it comes to the relation between empathic perspective taking and the cognitive perspective taking that is related to theory of mind (TOM), we cannot judge the discussions amongst neuropsychologists regarding whether or not these are completely different kinds of perspective taking, and whether or not these processes take place in different brain areas. However, defining the term according to an established tradition, we take empathy to be the emotional perspective taking; and mind reading (in TOM), to be the cognitive perspective taking. Nonetheless, on a purely conceptual level, one might have to admit that the two faculties cannot be separated altogether, because in cognitive perspective taking, the subject who is taking the perspective of another being has to be at least interested in the other being, and that means to care for the other in some way. First, you have to consider the other as an equal in a certain way, as a fellow human being, for instance, or at least as a creature able to feel. Second. you have to consider the other and the other‘s actions as relevant to yourself. You have to be somehow interested in order to be either emotionally involved or curious about the other’s intentions. Therefore, both cases, empathy and Tom, start with the same precondition:

You have to consider the other as being the same as you and of being your counterpart in a particular situation; there has to be a tacit analogy between the subject adopting the other‘s perspective and the other whose perspective is being taken, be it emotional or cognitive.

When specifying what we meant by empathy, we wrote of feelingly grasping or feelingly retracing something; this already suggests that the processes of feeling and of comprehending cannot always be separated clearly. And this makes empathic acts particularly interesting, because they resist the artificial dualisms in the philosophy of mind that still emboss philosophical, scientific, and everyday speech.

To recap briefly, empathy, as the embodied (or bodily grounded) capacity to feel one‘s way into others, to take part in the other’s affective situation, and adopt the other‘s perspective, is a fundamentally social capacity. It allows one to grasp the other’s intentions and thus to engage in meaningful social interaction. Empathy is a crucial means of social communication. It is not just an emotional contagiousness: in which one remains concentrated on oneself.

However, this definition of empathy fails to specify whether this comprehension involves a kind of simulation or imitation of the minds of others. In many of the following contributions, we shall see what important role simulation plays in the debates on a theoretical model of empathy.

Outline of the Contributions

The following six articles are written by distinguished scholars on empathy who come from five different disciplines. Each contribution presents recent research findings and theoretical reflections about the phenomenon of empathy within the respective discipline and simultaneously gives an insight into some currently ongoing debates on the subject within as well as across disciplinary boundaries. The following outline might already give a first impression about this.

Social Cognitive Neuroscience: Cognitive and Affective Empathy

The neuropsychologist Henrik Walter (2012) places his accent on understanding the emotional or affective states of another human being. Furthermore, he views understanding as a purely cognitive concept in this context that suggests making deductions and reasoning. Because Walter concentrates on this approach to understanding the affective states of others, conceptions such as affective theory of mind or cognitive empathy are also highly relevant for his ideas on the capacities for understanding other human beings. Whether this empathy is due to a cognitive faculty or an affective one is not the focus of this distinction. Empathy is, in this case, defined only by the understanding of the emotional state of the other and not by whether the process of understanding is either an affective one or a cognitive one. If it is a cognitive one, it is called cognitive empathy or affective theory of mind; if it is an affective one, it is called affective empathy.

Walter presents this conceptual analysis before linking it both to findings in empirical research investigating the neural basis of empathy and to data on the possible neurogenetic basis of empathy. The tradition followed by Walter when differentiating between TOM, cognitive empathy, and affective empathy is one developed in psychology since the late 1950s. It defined empathy as an emotional or affective phenomenon, and introduced the notion of cognitive empathy as a cognitive faculty or “intellectual or imaginative apprehension of another‘s condition or state of mind” (Hogan, 1969, 308). The main topic within this research tradition is the accuracy of our ability to conceive the other’s condition. Cognitive empathy is not defined in terms of shared emotions but in terms of knowing another’s state of mind by inferential processing (Ickes, 1997).

Social Cognitive Neuroscience again: Neural Overlap and Self-Other Overlap Stephanie Preston and Alicia Hofelich’s contribution (2012) comes from one of the most rapidly growing research fields on empathy, namely, the social neuroscience of empathy. Preston and Frans de Waal (2002) are well known in this field for having developed the perception-aclion model of empathy. This proposes that observing an emotion in someone else generates that emotion in the observer. Preston and Hofelich use this model to argue in favor of a neural overlap in the early stages of processing all cases of social understanding such as cognitive empathy, empathic accuracy, emolion contagion, sympathy. and helping behavior. The self-other overlap in empathy occurs only at a later state of processing. They offer some criteria for differentiating between neural overlap. subjeclive resonance, and personal distress. Because the self-other overlap is crucial for the definition of empathy. this represents an important attempt to seek empirical support for a theoretical differentiation. In addition, it offers a taxonomy of the different cases of social understanding that are supposed to be highlighted by a biological view of empathy.

The academic challenge of this undertaking lies not least in the attempt to show that there is some such thing as a self-other overlap on the neural level, and that it is not just to be found on the subjective level on which the conceptual capacities of a human being are already“at work.”

In order to engage in an empathic process, the empathic subject has to be able to differentiate between his or her own affective states and those of the being he or she is being empathic with, be this a conscious process, as is quite often the case on the subjective level, or a subconscious process on the neural level. This is also a necessary precondition for cognitive empathy and sympathy, but not for emotional contagion. Scientific research on the subjective overlap, that is, the sharing of an emotion, is the task of psychology. But in order to grasp this point on a biological level one has to avoid the subjective perspective. This is done by defining the self-other overlap via the notion of the activation of a personal representation in order to experience an observed state or action, and not via the notion of the activation of a personal representation when acting oneself or being in the state oneself. The overlap in representation on the neural level has to be reflected by a spatial overlap of brain activation between imitation and observation of facial emotional expression (on the subjective level, one is speaking about “sharing another’s emotional or intentional state”).

The process of observing or imagining someone else in a situation might therefore be crucial for determining whether a neural representation of an emotion is the representation of the emotion in somebody else, and therefore an empathic reaction, or whether it is the neural representation of one‘s own emotional process.

Developmental Psychology: The Self-Other Distinction

The developmental psychologist Doris Bischof Kohler (20l2) concentrates on the subjective level of empathy. She defines empathy as understanding and sharing the emotional state of another person. This definition implies not only that an empathic capacity is linked strongly to cognitive capacities, but also that the self-other distinction is crucial for the notion of empathy.

Bischof Kohler’s investigations on empathy are therefore related to her research on the symbolic representation of the self in imagination (self recognition). Her findings reveal that only children who are able to recognize themselves exhibit empathic behavior. This does not imply that self recognition leads to empathic behavior, but that it is a necessary precondition for empathy. And as her data show, this mode of self recognition does not have to be a kind of metarepresentation or conscious self reflection that the theory of mind predicts to first emerge only in 4 year olds. This can explain not only why empathy is already observable in 2 year old children but also why the mere recognition of a mark on one’s cheek while looking in a mirror is a transitional state to self recognition that is not linked to empathy. Her conclusion from these results is that “the capacity to empathize is an effect of maturation rather than socialization.”

Philosophy: Empathy and Simulation Theory

The philosopher Karsten Stueber (20l2) presents a model of the cognitive and afective understanding and knowledge of another human being’s mind, and demonstrates the importance of empathy for social cognition. He is well known as a representative of simulation Iheory-an approach that fits quite well with empirically based theories on empathy. In this article, he extends this basic approach by replying to some narrativist criticism. His main focus is on the cognitive mechanisms that allow us to gain knowledge of other minds and therefore on social cognition and on our understanding of individual agency. One challenge for such an approach is to give a theoretical account of resonance phenomena and projection mechanisms that does not presuppose some kind of Canesian subject who remains in a solitary state of skepticism about the existence of other minds. While insisting on the imponance of our sensitivity to differences between ourselves and other human beings, he introduces the importance of the other on the two levels distinguished in the simulation approach. The first level is the basic level of neuronal resonance phenomena. It is activated automatically by observation of the bodily activities and the accompanying bodily and facial expressions of other beings (basic empathy). The second level is the more developed stage, namely, the re enactment of the thoughts and reasonings of another human being as a rational agent (re enactive empathy). On this level, Stueber admits that in order to understand the actions of another person, we do not necessarily have to appeal to his or her beliefs and desires, but that the knowledge of the other‘s character traits or the other’s role in various social contexts could be equally important. By accepting this possibility, he opens up his model not only to some narrativist proposals for understanding the actions of others but also to the social, historical, or cultural contexts that one might have to consider in order to understand the actions of another human being. He insists, however, that this information would make neither the re enactment nor the simulation superfluous, because pretend beliefs and pretend desires are at the core of the imaginative perspective taking that is necessary for empathy.

Anthropology: The Cultural Embedednass of Empathy

The opening up of simulation theory toward an integration of personal, historical, and cultural information makes a philosophical approach like Stueber‘s attractive for a cultural and social anthropologist such as Douglas Hollan (2012). He takes up the distinction between basic empathy and re enactive empathy, although calling the latter complex empathy instead. This allows him not only to accept embodied forms of imitation and attunement as biologically evolved capacities, but also to concentrate on the more language bound evaluations and adjustments that have evolved culturally and historically. Hollan emphasizes that one has to be acquainted with the latter and with the personal background of a person in order to understand why he or she is in a certain emotional state. And, as he points out, this is necessary in order to be able to be empathic, because one has to understand not only that a person is in a certain emotional state but also why. In other words, one needs to have a cenain amount of knowledge about the normative and moral standards of a culture or society before one can evaluate the meaning of social situations and forms of behavior and comprehend another’s feeling state within the context of social circumstances. In short, empathic processes cannot be detached from the social and cultural contexts in which they are embedded. One way to narrow down the range of the meaning of the definition of empathy is to delete the need to understand why the person is in the state from the definition, leaving only the understanding that a person is in a certain emotional state.

The heuristic differentiation between basic empathy and complex empathy is in line with the ability to determine that another person is in a cenain emotional state and to understand the experience of the other. By reporting important research results on empathy in social anthropology, Douglas Hollan demonstrates not only how far some of the main features of empathy seem to be, by some means, universal, but also how far the studies on empathy need to be refined in light of some findings from anthropological research.

Intercultural findings on empathy reveal that the blending of feelingly perspective taking and cognitive perspective taking is one of the constant features of empathy. whereas the differentiation into “me” and “the other“ seems to be less distinct in empathic like responses in many non Western societies. Another finding of Hollan‘s research is that in the Pacific region, empathy is not a neutral engagement in the understanding of the emotional state of the other, but more like a sympathy that is linked very frequently to a positive attunement with that other person. And this positive attunement is expressed as an active doing rather than a passive experience.

Alongside these research results, he has noticed another, rather opposite tendency: a widespread fear that an empathic like knowledge could be used to harm others. This is why in many parts of the world-from the lndo Pacific to Latin America or Nonhem Canadapeople try to mask their faces. that is, to not express their inner feelings and thoughts but always show a “bright” face and not disclose their vulnerabilities. This phenomenon points to the fact discussed above that empathy is not linked automatically to compassion and helping attitudes, but might also be used by enemies or individual psychopaths as a way to find out how to harm the other.

Among the most challenging research desiderata that result from anthropological findings is the call for more studies on the complex interrelationship between the culture specific moral and situational contexts mediating the expression of empathy on the one side and the dispositions (or traits) that individuals develop to experience and display empathy on the other. Put succinctly, all cultures have some people who are likely to empathize more and others who are likely to empathize less. Hollan considers one of the most demanding tasks facing future research is to investigate how far personality traits interact with the culturally different modes of conceptualizing empathy.

Literary Studies: A Three-Step Model of Human Empathy

The findings on empathy filters introduced by the ethologist and primatologist Frans de Waal might well have been one of the starting points for the theory on empathy proposed by Fritz Breithaupt (2012), a scholar of German studies. As already mentioned. de Waal (2009, 213) has argued that “empathy needs both a filter that makes us select what we react to, and a turn off switch.” Breithaupt shares the hidden agenda for this approach, namely, that human beings are hyperempalhic, without equating pity and compassion with empathy. He has developed a three step model of human empathy that should account for the individual and cultural variety in empathy that also interests Douglas Hollan. According to Breithaupt’s theory, individual and cultural diferences are due to the control functions of blocking and channeling empathy.

These blucking mechanisms are important for a hyperempathic being (Step I) because of the costs accompanying such a social hyperactivity. As well as requiring energy, the danger of self loss might be another cost of empathy in this approach. This possibly ongoing activity therefore needs to be blocked (Step 2). Neurobiologists such as Marco lacobini (2008) have therefore proposed some kind of “super mirror neurons“ that control the mirror neurons. But, because Breithaupt is dealing with more conscious processes, he is hinting at cultural techniques and learning without excluding the possible existence of evolutionarily evolved mechanisms as well. Once the blocking mechanisms are in action, a third step is needed in order to be able to experience empathy at all (Step 3). This step consists in the techniques to circumvent the blocking mechanisms.

The technique to unblock the empathy inhibition on which Breithaupt is concentrating is side raking in a three person setting of empathy. The reason why he turns to a three person instead of a two person model is linked to the observation that hyperempathy in human beings goes hand in hand with hypersociabiliry, and a two person model might be too narrow to encompass this. The side taking process is deliberate: A person decides who’s side to take. After making this decision, empathy emerges (or returns), and it maintains and strengthens the initial choice, because empathy allows emotions to be released that confirm the decision. Breithaupt points out explicitly that the side taking is not involved in empathy itself (as it is in sympathy), but that it is rather “external” to it. The advantage of this model lies in the ability to combine cognitive elements in perspective taking with a caring attitude that might evolve when the side taking decision is followed by empathy.

The ambition of this special issue with its six articles from several disciplines is to give an overview on recent research on empathy. The twelve commentaries not only contribute greatly to achieving this aim but also help significantly to identify the hotspots in ongoing disciplinary and interdisciplinary debates.

Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening

Zachary Wallmark, Choi Deblieck and Marco Iacaboni.

The social cognitive basis of music processing has long been noted, and recent research has shown that trait empathy is linked to musical preferences and listening style.

Does empathy modulate neural responses to musical sounds?

We designed two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments to address this question. In Experiment 1, subjects listened to brief isolated musical timbres while being scanned. In Experiment 2, subjects listened to excerpts of music in four conditions (familiar liked (FL)/disliked (FD) and unfamiliar liked (UL)/disliked (UD).

For both types of musical stimuli, emotional and cognitive forms of trait empathy modulated activity in sensorimotor and cognitive areas: in the first experiment, empathy was primarily correlated with activity in Supplementary motor area (SMA),

Inferior frontal gyrus (IFG)

and Insula;

In Experiment 2, empathy was mainly correlated wth activity in prefrontal,


and reward areas, Taken together. these findings reveal the interactions between bottom-up and top-down mechanisms of empathy in response to musical sounds, in line with recent findings from other cognitive domains.


Music is a portal into the interior lives of others. By disclosing the affective and cognitive states of actual or imagined human actors, musical engagement can function as a mediated form of social encounter, even when listening by ourselves. It is commonplace for us to imagine music as a kind of virtual “persona,” with intentions and emotions of its own: we resonate with certain songs just as we would with other people, while we struggle to identify with other music.

Arguing from an evolutionary perspective, it has been proposed that the efficacy of music as a technology of social affiliation and bonding may have contributed to its adaptive value, As Leman indicates: “Music can be conceived as a Virtual social agent… listening to music can be seen as a socializing activity in the sense that it may train the listener’s self in social attuning and empathic relationships.” In short, musical experience and empathy are psychological neighbors.

The concept of empathy has generated sustained interest in recent years among researchers seeking to better account for the social and affective valence of musical experience; it is also a popular topic of research in social neuroscience. However, the precise neurophysiological relationship between music processing and empathy remains unexplored. Individual differences in trait empathy modulate how we process social stimuli, does empathy modulate music processing as well?

(Valence, as used in psychology, especially in discussing emotions, means the intrinsic attractiveness/”good”-ness (positive valence) or averseness/”bad”-ness (negative valence) of an event, object, or situation. The term also characterizes and categorize specific emotions. For example, emotions popularly referred to as “negative”, such as anger and fear, have negative valence. Joy has positive valence. Positively valenced emotions are evoked by positively valenced events, objects, or situations. The term is also used to describe the hedonic tone of feelings, affect, certain behaviors (for example, approach and avoidance), goal attainment or nonattainment, and conformity with or violation of norms. Ambivalence can be viewed as conflict between positive and negative valence carriers.)

If we consider music through a social psychological lens, it is plausible that individuals with a greater dispositional capacity to empathize with others might also respond to music’s social stimulus differently on a neurophysiological level by preferentially engaging brain networks previously found to be involved in trait empathy.

In this article, we test this hypothesis in two experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In Experiment 1, we explore the neural correlates of trait empathy (as measured using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index) as participants listened to isolated instrument and vocal tones. In Experiment 2. excerpts of music in four conditions (familiar liked/disliked. unfamiliar liked/disliked) were used as stimuli. allowmg us to examine correlations of neural activity with trait empathy in naturalistic listening contexts.

Measuring Trait Empathy

Trait empathy refers to the capacity for empathic reactions as a stable feature of personality. Individual differences in trait empathy have been shown to correlate with prosocial behavior and situational “state” empathic reactions to others.

Trait empathy is commonly divided into two components: emotional empathy is the often unconscious tendency to share the emotions of others, while cognitive empathy is the ability to consciously detect and understand the internal states of others.

There are a number of scales to measure individual differences in trait empathy currently in use. including the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire (TEQ). Balanced Emotional Empathy Scale (BEES). Empathy Quotient (EQ). Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy (QCAE) and Interpersonal Reactivity INDEX (IRI). Here we use the IRI, which is the oldest and most widely validated of these scales and frequently used in neurophysiological studies of empathy.

The IRI consists of 28 statements evaluated on a 5 point Likert scale (from “does not describe me well” to “describes me very well”). It is subdivided into four subscales meant to tap different dimensions of self reported emotional and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy is represented by two subscales: the empathic concern scale (hereafter EC) assesses trait level “other oriented” sympathy towards misfortunate others. and the personal distress scale (PD) measures “self oriented” anxiety and distress towards misfortunate others. The two cognitive empathy subscales «most of perspedive taking (PT). or the tendency to see oneself from another’s perspective, and fantasy (PS). the tendency to imaginatively project oneself into the situations of fictional characters.

Music and Empathy

Theories of empathy have long resonated with the arts. The father of the modern concept of empathy, philosopher Theodor Lipps originally devised the notion of Emfühlung (“feeling into”) in order to explain aesthetic experience. Contemporary psychological accounts have invoked mirror neurons as a possible substrate supporting Lipps’s “inner imitation” theory of the visual and performing arts. However. the incorporation of psychological models of empathy in empirical music research is still in its early stages, Empathy remains an ambiguous concept in general. but applications to music can appear doubly vexed in an influential formulation.

Esenherg et al (1991) define empathy as. “an emotional response that stems from another’s emotional state or condition and is congruent with the other’s emotional state or condition.” Aspects of this definition. though. might seem incongruous when applied to music. which is inanimate and not capable of possessing an emotional “state”. To connect music processing to trait empathy. therefore. it is first necessary to determine the extent to which music comprises a social stimulus, who or what do we empathize with when listening to music?

Scherer and Lentner proposed that empathy toward music is often achieved via identification and sympathy with the lived experiences and expressive intentions of composers and performers. Corroborating this view, in a large web based experiment Egermann and McAdams found that “empathy for the musician” moderated between recognized and induced emotions in music: the greater the empathy. the more likely an individual was to exhibit a strong affective response when listening.

In a related study Wollner presented participants with video of a string quartet performance in three conditions audio/visual, visual only. and audio only and reported a significant correlation between trait empathy measures and perceived expressiveness in both visual conditions (music only condition was non significant), leading him to conclude: “since music is the audible outcome of actions, empathic responses to the performer‘s movements may enhance the enjoyment of music.“ Similarly, Taruiti et al found correlations between the EC and FS scales of the IRI and accuracy in emotion recognition relative to musicians’ self reported expressive encodings in an audio only task.

A music specific manifestation of trait empathy was proposed by Kreutz et al, who defined “music empathizmg“ as a cognitive style of processmg music that privileges emotional recognition and experience over the tendency to analyze and predict the rules of musical structure (or. “music systematizing”). Garrido and Schubert compared this “music empathy” scale alongside the IRI EC subscale in a study exploring individual differences in preference for sad music. They found that people who tend towards music empathizing are more likely to enjoy sad music; however. high trait empathy was not significantly correlated with enjoyment of sad music. This would seem to suggest that the music empathizing cognitive style differs from general trait empathy,

A number of other studies have investigated the relationship between trait empathy and enjoyment of sad music using the IRI. In a series of experiments. Vuoskoski and Eerola reported statistically significant correlations between EC and FS subscales and self reported liking for sad and tender music. Similarly, Kawakami and Katahora found that FS and PT were associated with preference for and intensity of emotional reactions to sad music among children.

There is evidence that musical affect is often achieved through mechanisms of emotional empathy. According to this theory, composers and performers encode affective gestures into the musical signal, and listeners decode that signal by way of mimetic, mirroring processes; musical expression is conveyed transparently as affective bodily motions are internally reenacted in the listening process. Shubert, in his Common Coding Model of Prosocial Behavior Processing, suggests that musical and social processing draw upon shared neural resources: music. in this account, is a social stimulus capable of recruiting empathy systems, including the core cingulate paracingulate supplementary motor area (SMA) insula network, along with possible sensorimotor, paralimbic and limbic representations. The cognitive empathy component, which can be minimal, is involved primarily in detecting the aesthetic context of listening, enabling the listener to consciously bracket the experience apart from the purely social. This model may help account for the perceived “visuality” of musical experience, whereby music is commonly heard as manifesting the presence of an imagined other.

In sum, trait empathy appears to modulate self reported affective reactions to music. There is also peripheral psychophysiological evidence that primed situational empathy may increase emotional reactivity to music. It is plausible that such a relationship is supported by shared social cognitive mechanisms that enable us to process music as a social stimulus; however, this hypothesis has not yet been explicitly tested at the neurophysiological level.

Neural Correlates of Trait Empathy

Corroborating the bipartite structure of trait empathy that appears in many behavioral models of empathy, two interrelated but distinct neural “routes” to empathy have been proposed, one associated with emotional contagion and the other with cognitive perspective taking. Emotional empathy is conceived as a bottom up process that enables “feeling with someone else” through perception action coupling of affective cues. Such simulation or “mirroring” models maintain that empathy is subserved by the activation of similar sensorimotor, paralimbic and limbic representations both when one observes another and experiences the same action and emotional state oneself. This proposed mechanism is generally considered to be pre reflective and phylogenetically ancient; it has also been linked behaviorally to emotional contagion, or the propensity to “catch” others’ feeling states and unconsciously co experience them. For example. several imaging studies have found evidence for shared representation of observed/experienced pain in anterior cingulate and anterior insula, as well as somatosensory cortex. Similarly, disgust for smells and tastes has been shown to recruit the insula during both perception and action, and insula has been proposed as a relay between a sensorimotor fronto parietal circuit with mirror properties and the amygdala in observation and imitation of emotional facial expressions. There is also evidence that insula functions similarly in music induced emotions, particularly involving negative valence.

In contrast to emotional empathy, trait cognitive empathy has been conceived as a deliberative tendency to engage in top down, imaginative transpositions of the self into the “other’s shoes,” with concomitant reliance upon areas of the brain associated with theory-of-mind, executive control, and contextual appraisal, including medial, ventral and orbital parts of the prefrontal cortex; somatomotor areas; temporoparietal junction; and precuneus/postenor cingulate. As implied in the functional overlap between certain emotional and cognitive empathy circuits, some have argued that the two routes are neither hierarchical nor mutually exclusive: cognitive perspective taking is premised upon emotional empathy, though it may, in turn, exert top down control over contagion circuits, modifying emotional reactivity in light of contextual cues and more complex social appraisals.

Brain studies have converged upon the importance of the human mirror neuron system in action understanding, imitation and empathy, and has been demonstrated in multiple sensorimotor domains, including the perception of action sounds. Mirror properties were initially reported in the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and the inferior parietal lobule (IPL); consistent with simulation theories of trait empathy. Moreover, activity in these and other sensorimotor mirror circuits has been found to correlate with IRI scales in a variety of experimental tasks, including viewing emotional facial expressions; and video of hands injected with a needle. That is, high empathy people tend to exhibit greater activation in mirror regions during the observation of others. Simulation mechanisms also appear to underpin prosocial decision making.

Implication of inferior frontal and inferior parietal mirror neuron areas is not a universal finding in the empathy literature, and some have suggested that it may reflect specific socially relevant tasks or stimulus types, not empathy in and of itself. However, evidence for mirror properties in single cells of the primate brain now exists in medial frontal and medial temporal cortex, dorsal premotor and primary motor cortex, lateral intraparietal area, and ventral intraparietal area. This means that in brain imaging data the activity of multiple brain areas may potentially be driven by cells with mirror properties.

In addition to studies using visual tasks, auditory studies have revealed correlations between mirror neuron activity and trait empathy. Gazzola et al, for instance, reported increased premotor and somatosensory activity associated with PT during a manual action sound listening task. A similar link was observed between IFG and PD scores while participants listened to emotional speech prosody. To date, however, no studies have investigated whether individual differences in empathy modulate processing of more socially complex auditory stimuli, such as music.

Study Aim

To investigate the neural substrates underlying the relationship between trait empathy and music. we carried out two experiments using fMRI.

In Experiment 1, we focused on a Single low level attribute of musical sound timbre, or “tone color”, to investigate the effects of empathy on how listeners process isolated vocal and instrumental sounds outside of musical context.

We tested two main hypotheses:

First, we anticipated that trait empathy (measured with the IRI) would be correlated with increased recruitment of empathy circuits even when listening to brief isolated sounds out of musical context (Gazzola et al).

Second, following an embodied cognitive view of timbre perception (Wallmark et al), we hypothesized that subjectively and acoustically ”noisy” timbral qualities would preferentially engage the emotional empathy system among higher empathy listeners. Abrasive. noisy acoustic features in human and many non human mammal vocalizations are often signs of distress, pain, or aggression (Isai et al): such state cues may elicit heighted responses among people with higher levels of trait EC.

To explore the relationship between trait empathy and music processing, in Experiment 2 participants passively listened to excerpts of self selected and experimenter selected “liked” and “disliked” music in familiar and unfamiliar conditions while being scanned. Musical preference and familiarity have been shown to modulate neural response. Extending previous research on the neural mechanisms of empathy, we predicted that music processing would involve circuitry shared with empathic response in non musical contexts (Schubert).

Unlike Experiment 1, we had no a priori hypotheses regarding modulatory effects of empathy specific to each of the four music conditions However, we predicted in both experiments that emotional empathy scales (EC and FD) would be associated with regions of the emotional empathy system in music listening, including sensorimotor. paralimbic and limbic areas, while cognitive empathy scales (PT and FS) would primarily be correlated With activity in prefrontal areas implicated in previous cognitive empathy studies (Singer and Lamm).


Experiment 1 demonstrated that trait empathy is correlated With Increased activation of circuitry often associated with emotional contagion, including sensorimotor areas and insula, in the perception of isolated musical timbres. FS and EC also appear to be sensitive to the affective connotations of the stimuli. Timbre is arguably the most basic and quickly processed building block of music. Though sufficient to recruit empathy areas, these brief stimuli do not, however, constitute “music” per sci

In Experiment 2, we turned our focus to more naturalistic stimuli including excerpts of music selected in advance by participants in order to explore the effect of trait empathy on the processing of music.


The present study demonstrates that trait empathy is correlated with neurophysiological differences in music processing. Music has long been conceived as a social stimulus. Supporting this view, our study offers novel evidence that neural circuitry involved in trait empathy is active to a greater degree in empathic individuals during perception of both simple musical tones and full musical excerpts. Individual variances in empathy are reflected in differential recruitment of core empathy networks during music listening; specifically. IRI subscales were found to correlate with activity in regions associated with both emotional (e.g.. sensorimotor regions, insular and cingulate cortex) and cognitive empathy (cg, PFC. TPI) during passive listening tasks

Our main hypotheses were continued, though with an unexpected twist regarding the two putative empathy types (at least as structured by the MU), Both experiments seem to suggest interactions between bottom up and top down processes (indexed in our study by both IRI scores and activity in neural systems) in empathy modulated music listening. This is in line with recent findings in prosocial decision making studies. Stimulus type, however, seems associated with different patterns of neural systems engagement.

In Experiment 1, sensorimotor areas were more frequently modulated by trait empathy in the processing of musical timbre: conversely. in Experiment 2, cognitive areas were more frequently modulated by trait empathy in the processmg of (famillar) music. Together this suggests that, contrary to our initial hypothesis for Experiment 2, modulation of neural activity by empathy was driven more by stimulus type than by empathy type; that is. the emotional empathy subscale (BC) was no more selective to emotional contagion circuitry than cognitive empathy scales (PT and FS), and vice versa (the PD scale did not reveal any significant correlations with brain activity. In what follows, we interpret these results and discuss their implications.

Empathy-Modulated Sensorimotor Engagement in Timbre Processing

Using isolated 2-s instrument and vocal tones as stimuli, Experiment 1 found that the four IRI subscales modulated response to timbre. First, we found that cognitive perspective was correlated with activity in motor areas SMA for A0: and SI and anterior cingulate (ACC).

This finding is in line with numerous studies suggesting a role for ACC and SI in emotional empathy; it also replicates a result of Gazzola et al 2006. who reported a correlation of somatomotor activity and PT scores in an action sound listening task. Activity in these regions may suggest a sensorimotor simulation process whereby high PT individuals imitate internally some aspect of the production of these sounds, This result could be explained in light of Cox’s 2016 “mimetic hypothesis,” according to which music is understood by way of covert or overt motor reenactments of sound producing physical gestures. It is quite conceivable that people who are inclined to imagine themselves from others’ perspectives also tend to take up the physical actions implied by others’ musical sounds, whether a smooth and gentle voice, a growled saxophone, or any other musical sound reflecting human actions.

It is intriguing, however, that PT was not implicated in the processing of positive or negative valence. One might assume that perspective takers possess a neural preference for “good“ sounds: for example, one study reported activation of larynx control areas in the Rolandic operculum while subjects listened to pleasant music (but not unpleasant), suggesting subvocalization only to positively valenced music (K elsch et al) Our results, however. indicate that PT is not selective to valence in these sensorimotor areas.

FS also revealed motor involvement (SMA) in the task > baseline contrast. Unlike PT, FS appeared to be sensitive to both positive and negative valence of timbres: we found activity in left TH and Broca‘s area of the IFG associated with positively valenced timbres, and temporal, parietal and prefrontal activations associated with disliked timbres. TPI is an important structure for theory of mind. Together with Broca‘s area, a well studied language and voice specific motor region that has been implicated in emotional empathy. It is plausible to suggest that individuals who are prone to fantasizing may exhibit a greater tendency to attribute mental states to the virtual human agents responsible for making musical sounds, and that this attribution would be more pronounced for positively valenced stimuli.

As hypothesized. EC was correlated with activation in a range of areas previously implicated in empathy studies, including IPL, IPG and SMA, along With SI, STG. cerebellum and AIC. It was also sensitive to negative valence: noisy timbres were processed with greater involvement from SMA in individuals with higher EC. EC is an “other oriented” emotional scale measuring sympathy or compassion towards the misfortune of others. Since noisy, distorted qualities of vocal timbre are an index of generally high arousal, negatively valenced affective states, we theorize that individuals with higher trait EC exhibited greater motor attunement owing to the ecological urgency typically signaled by such sound events.

In short, we usually deploy harsh vocal timbres when distressed or endangered (e.g., screaming or shouting), not during affectively positive or neutral low arousal states, and high empathy people are more likely to pick up on and simulate the affective motor implications of others in distress. Though our sensitivity to the human voice is especially acute, researchers have hypothesized that instrumental timbre can similarly function as a “superexpressive voice” via acoustic similarities to emotional vocal expression. Our result would seem to support this theory, as motor response appears to encode the combined effects of noisy tones, both vocal and instrumental.

It is also worth noting, as might be expected given the above, that noisy voice produced a unique signature of activation among high FS and EC participants relative to the normal vocal stimuli: FS modulated processing of the noisy voice in SII and IPL, while EC was selective to noisy vocal sounds in the SMA and primary motor cortex. This result appears to be at odds with other studies of vocal affect sensitivity that report motor mimetic selectivity for pleasant vocalizations. It is likely that individual variances in empathy (plus other mediating factors) predispose listeners to differing orientations towards others’ affective vocalizations, with empathic listeners more likely to “catch” the motor affective implications of aversive sounds than low empathy people, who might only respond to sounds they find pleasant while tuning out negatively valenced vocalizations.

Cox (2016) theorizes that music can afford listeners an “invitation” for motor engagement, which they may choose to accept or decline, Seen from this perspective, it is likely that individual differences in empathy play an important role in determining how we choose to respond to music’s motor invitations.

Regarding motor engagement across IRI subscales it is apparent that SMA is the most prominent sensorimotor area involved in empathy modulated processing of timbre. SMA is a frequently reported yet undertheorized part of the core empathy network; it has also been implicated in internally generated movement and coordination of action sequences, and has been shown in a single neuron study to possess mirror properties. Most relevant to the present study, moreover, SMA contributes to the vividness of auditory imagery, including imagery for timbre. Halpern et al and Lima et al attributed SMA activity in an auditory imagery task in part to subvocalization of timbral attributes, and the present study would seem to partially corroborate this explanation. We interpret this result as a possible instance of sensorimotor integration: SMA activity could reflect a basic propensity to link sounds with their associated actions, which are internally mirrored while listening. In accordance with this view, we would argue that people do not just passively listen to different qualities of musical timbre, they enact some of the underlying physical determinants of sound production, whether through subvocalization, biography specific act sound associations.

To summarize, sensorimotor areas have been implicated in many previous studies of emotional empathy, including IFG and IPL; “pain circuit” areas in AIC and ACC; and somatomotor regions. Interestingly. these precise regions dominated results of the Experiment 1 timbre listening task. This is true, moreover, for both emotional and cognitive scales: PT and FS, though often implicated in cognitive tasks, were found in this experiment to modulate SMA, SI, primary motor cortex, IPL, MC and IFG, well documented motor affective AREAS. We theorize that the contextual impoverishment and short duration of the timbre listening task (2-s isolated tones) may have largely precluded any genuine perspective taking or fantasizing from occurring, it is much harder to put oneself in the “shoes” of an single isolated voice or instrument, of course, than it is an affectively rich piece of actual music. However, even in the absence of conscious cognitive empathizing, which presumably would have been reflected in engagement of the cognitive empathy system, individuals with high trait PT and FS still showed selective activations of sensorimotor and affective relay circuits typically associated with emotional empathy. This could be interpreted to suggest that the two “routes” to empathy are not dissociated in music listening: although conscious PT in response to abbreviated auditory cues is unlikely, people who frequently imagine themselves in the positions of others also exhibit a tendency toward motor resonance in this basic listening task, even when musical context is missing.

Prefrontal and Reward Activation During Music Listening

Experiment 2 used 16-s excerpts of self and experimenter selected music to explore the effect of dispositional empathy on the processing of music in four conditions. familiar liked (FL), familiar disliked (FD), unfamiliar liked (UL), and unfamiliar disliked (UD). Participants consisted of individuals who reported regularly experiencing intense emotional reactions while listening to music. Musical liking is associated at the group level (ie. no IRI covariates), with left basal ganglia reward areas, and disliking with activity in right AIC, primary auditory cortex and prefrontal areas (OFC and VLPFC). Musical familiarity is associated with activation across a broad region of the cortex, subcortical areas, and cerebellum, including IPL. premotor cortex and the core empathy network, while unfamiliarity recruits only the SFG.

This robust familiarity effect is even more acute among high empathy listeners: after adding empathy covariates to our analysis, there were no regions that demonstrated an affect specific response after controlling for familiarity. This result is consistent with the literature in showing a large neurophysiological effect of familiarity on musical liking; it appears that trait empathy, as well, modulates responses to familiar music to a greater degree than unfamiliar music.

Contrary to expectations, activation in regions primarily associated with emotional empathy (e.g., sensorimotor areas, ACC, AIC) was not a major component in empathy modulated music processing. Instead. the most prominent activation sites for PT and EC scales were prefrontal, including medial, lateral, and orbital portions of the cortex, as well as TPJ. These regions are involved in executive control, regulation of emotions, mentalizing, contextual appraisal, and “enactment imagination”, and have figured prominently in many studies on the neurophysiology of cognitive empathy. Additionally, FS and EC results were characterized by dorsal striatum when participants listened to familiar music. This basal ganglia structure has been frequently reported in empathy studies but not often discussed; it has also long been associated with musical pleasure.

basal ganglia

Replicating this association, our results suggest that empathic people experience a higher degree of reward and motivation when listening to familiar music compared to lower empathy people.

PT was associated with left TPI in the task > baseline contrast. Activation of this region among perspective takers is consistent with studies implicating TPI in theory of mind and the merging of self and other (Lawrence et a1, 2006). The TPI was joined by posterior cingulate, cerebellum and superior prefrontal areas when listening to familiar liked music (FL > FD), the former two of which were also identified in a study on the neural bases of perspective taking. Interestingly, these results differ substantially from the PT correlations in Experiment 1, which were entirely sensorimotor. In the context of isolated musical sounds, PT results were interpreted as a reflection of covert imitation (or, enactive perspective taking): in contrast. however, it appears here that PT may reflect a more cognitively mediated, mental form of perspective taking, which conceivably extends beyond action perception coupling of musicians‘ affective motor cues to encompass contextual appraisal, assessments of the affective intent embodied in the music, and other executive functions.

In contrast to the prominent TPI and prefrontal activation associated with PT, FS results revealed activation of dorsal striatum (caudaie and putamen) and limbic areas (thalamus, hippocampus and amygdala). Activation of reward and emotion centers may suggest that fantasizers also tend to exhibit heightened positive emotional reactions to familiar music. Indeed, we found a moderate correlation between FS and preference ratings for familiar liked music, which may tentatively corroborate this claim. Moreover, structural brain studies have found that FS is associated with increased gray matter volume in hippocampus, an important memory area, perhaps also indicating enhanced encoding of familiar liked music among fantasizers.

The contrast in activation between the two IRI cognitive empathy scales (PT and FS) is notable, and may be attributed to the different aspects of empathy they were designed to assess. PT taps the tendency to imagine oneself in other people’s shoes, whereas FS captures the tendency to imagine oneself from the perspective of fictional characters. With this distinction in mind, one could surmise that the two scales also tap different views regarding the ontology of the musical agent: in this reading, people with high trait PT are more likely to take music as a social stimulus, i.e., as if it was a real or virtual human presence (with theory of mind, goals, beliefs), while high FS listeners are more likely to hear it as “fictional” from a social perspective, i.e., as a rewarding sensory stimulus with an attenuated grip on actual social cognition. Further research is called for to explore possible explanations for the differences in cognitive scales as reflected in music listening.

Turning finally to emotional empathy, we found that EC recruits prefrontal, reward and sensorimotor affective areas in music listening, and is likewise quite sensitive to familiarity. In the Familiar > Unfamiliar contrast, we found activation of cerebellum, IPL, DLPFC, IFG, DMPFC, amygdala, anterior paracingulate, dorsal striatum, OFC and lingual gyrus, and a variation on this general pattern for the Familiar liked > Unfamiliar liked and interaction contrasts. Activation of bilateral IPL and IFG is consistent with mirror accounts of empathy. Furthermore, the ACC, paracingulate, and areas that extend dorsally (SMA, DMPFC) have been proposed as the core of the empathy network: our result would seem to extend support for the primacy of this region using an experimental task that is not explicitly social in the manner of most empathy studies. Lastly, DLPFC is an important executive control area in cognitive empathy, and has been implicated in emotional regulation. Activation of this region may reflect top down control over affective responses to familiar music, both in terms of up regulation to liked music and down regulation to disliked (or possibly up regulation to negative stimuli, as Open minded empathic listeners try to “see something positive” in the disliked music), In further research, connectivity analysis between DLPFC and limbic/reward areas may help to specify the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying empathy modulated emotional regulation during music listening.

In addition to motor, cingulate and prefrontal activity, we found the recruitment of emotion and reward processing areas as a function of EC and musical familiarity: dorsal striatum (the whole extent of the caudate nucleus, plus thalamus) may reflect increased pleasure in response to familiar music among empathic listeners. It is not surprising that the reward system would show preferential activation to familiar music, as confirmed in the basic group Liked > Disliked contrast.

Prevalence of basal ganglia for both EC and FS suggests that trait empathy may effectively sensitize people to the music they already know. This even appears to be the case for disliked music, which showed dorsal striatum activation (along with OFC) in the Familiar disliked > Unfamiliar disliked contrast. This could be interpreted to indicate that empathic people may experience heightened musical pleasure even when listening to the music they self select as “hating,” provided it is familiar. By way of contrast. no striatum activation was found for any of the unfamiliar music conditions.

In concert with limbic circuitry, then, it is apparent that musical familiarity recruits a broad region of the affect reward system in high EC listeners.

Activation of inferior parts of the lingual gyrus and occipital lobe was another novel finding, and may also be linked to musical affect. These areas are associated with visual processing, including perception and recognition of familiar sights and emotional facial expressions, as well as visual imagery. It is reasonable to think that empathic listeners may be more prone to visual imagery while listening to familiar music. Visual responses are an important mechanism of musical affect more generally, and are a fairly reliable index of musical engagement and attention.

If high EC people are more susceptible to musical affect, as suggested by our results, they may also show a greater tendency towards visual imagery in music listening.

To be clear, we did not explicitly operationalize visual imagery in this study: in the future, it would be interesting to follow up on this result by comparing visual imagery and music listening tasks using the EC scale as a covariate.

The behavioral data resonate in interesting and sometimes contradictory ways with these imaging findings. We found that EC is strongly associated with preference for liked music and unfamiliar music, and negative responses to familiar disliked music. Results suggest that high EC people are more responsive to the affective components of music, as reflected in polarity of preference responses. EC was also associated with open mindedness to new music (i,e.. higher ratings for unfamiliar music), though imaging results for this contrast did not reach significance, and might appear to be contradicted by the clear familiarity effect discussed previously.

We must be cautious in the interpretation of these findings owing to the small sample size, but this resonance between behavioral and imaging evidence is nonetheless suggestive in demonstrating a role for EC in affective responsiveness to familiar music. This conclusion is broadly consistent With previous behavioral studies, especially regarding pleasurable responses to sad music.

In sum, the present results provide complementary neural evidence that involvement of prefrontal areas and limbic/basal ganglia in music listening covaries with individual trait differences in empathy, with sensorimotor engagement playing a smaller role.

How do we account for the prominence of cognitive, prefrontal areas in music listening but not musical timbre in isolation? It must be noted that a broad swath of the emotional empathy system was involved in the basic task > baseline contrast (used to mask all IRI covariates): in other words, it is clear that music in aggregate is processed with some level of sensorimotor, paralimbic, and limbic involvement, regardless the empathy level of the listeners or the valence/familiarity of the music. However, our results seem to suggest that empathic people tend to be more attuned to the attribution of human agency and affective intention in the musical signal. as indicated by preferential engagement of cognitive empathy networks including PFC (MPF and DLPFC) and TP), as well as reward areas.

In other words, what seems to best characterize the high empathy response to musical stimuli is the tendency to take an extra cognitive step towards identification with some agentive quality of the music, over and above the work of emotional contagion mechanisms alone.

Thus while patterns of neural resonance consistent with emotional contagion appear to be common to most experiences of music and were also found among high empathy participants in Experiment 1, activation of prefrontal cognitive empathy systems for the PT and EC scales may indicate the tendency of empathic listeners to try to “get into the heads” of composers, performers, and/or the virtual persona of the music. This top down process is effortful, imaginative, and self aware, in contrast to the automatic and pre reflective mechanisms undergirding emotional contagion. Accordingly, as suggested by Schubert, the involvement of cognitive systems may not strictly speaking be required for affective musical response, which can largely be accounted for by emotional contagion circuitry alone.

A number of studies have shown that mental imagery may be supported by sensorimotor and affective components without the contribution of prefrontal areas. Nevertheless, they could betoken a more social cognitive mode of listening, a deliberative attempt on the part of listeners to project themselves into the lived experience of the musical agent. This imaginative projection is more intense, understandably, for music that empathic people already know, and also appears to interact with musical preference.

General Implications

The present study has a number of implications for social and affective neuroscience, music psychology, and musicology. For neuroscientific empathy research, we demonstrate the involvement of the core empathy network and mirror neuron system outside of tasks that are explicitly social cognitive. Most studies use transparently social experimental tasks and stimuli to assess neural correlates of state and trait empathy; for example, viewing pictures or videos of other people.

This study demonstrates that musical sound. which is perhaps not an obvious social stimulus, can elicit neural responses consistent with theories of empathy. By domg so, this study highlights the potential value of operationalizing artistic and aesthetic experience as a window into social cognitive and affective processing, a perspective that is arguably the historical progenitor of contemporary empathy research.

For music psychology, this research has at least three main implications.

First, this study demonstrates that trait empathy may modulate the neurophysiology of music listening. Although there is mounting behavioral and psychophysiological evidence pointing to this conclusion, this is the first study to investigate the effects of empathy on the musical brain.

Second, this study confirms and extends empirical claims that music cognition is inextricably linked to social cognition. Our results suggest that aspects of affective music processing can be viewed as a specialized subprocess of general social affective perception and cognition. This may begin to explain the neural bases for how music can function as a “virtual social agent”.

Third, in demonstrating neural differences in music processing as a function of empathy, we highlight the possible significance of looking at other trait features when assessing the functional neural correlates of musical tasks and stimuli. Many neurophysiological music studies take only a few trait features into account in sampling procedures and analysis, most notably sex, age, and musical training: the latter has been well explored, but other factors such as personality factors and mood are not frequently addressed. Individual differences in music processing may relate to dispositional characteristics that can be captured by psychosocial questionnaires, indirect observational techniques, or other methods. Exploring the role of such trait variables in musical behaviors and brain processing could provide a more detailed and granular account of music cognition,

Finally, these results enrich the humanistic study of music in providing a plausible psychobiological account for the social valence of musical experience observed in diverse cultural and historical settings. As music theorist Clifton claims, “the ‘other’ need not be a person: it can be music.”

In a very rough sense, this study provides empirical support for this statement: areas implicated in trait empathy and social cognition also appear to be involved in music processing, and to a significantly greater degree for individuals with high trait empathy.

If music can function something like a virtual ”other,” then it might be capable of altering listeners‘ views of real others, thus enabling it to play an ethically complex mediating role in the social discourse of music. Indeed, musicologists have historically documented moments of tense cultural encounter wherein music played an instrumental role in helping one group to realize the other’s shared humanity.

Recent research would seem to provide behavioral ballast for this view: using an implicit association task,Vuoskoski et a showed that listening to the music of another culture could positively modulate attitudes towards members of that culture among empathic listeners. Though we do not in this study explicitly address whether music can alter empathic brain circuits, it is suggestive that certain attitudes toward musical sound may have behavioral and neural bases in individual differences in trait empathy.


A few important limitations must be considered in interpreting these results, First, this study was correlational: no causative links can thus be determined in the relationship between music and trait empathy. In the future, it would be interesting to use an empathy priming paradigm in an MRI context to compare neurophysiological correlates of trait empathy with primed “state” empathy in music listening; this could provide a powerful method for disentangling possible differences in processing between dispositional attributes of empathy and contextual factors (e.g., socially conditioned attitudes about a performer, mood when listening).

As a corollary to the above, moreover, this study does not address whether our results are specific to music listening: perhaps high empathy people utilize more of these areas when performing other non musical yet not explicitly social tasks as well (eg. viewing abstract art). Additionally. we do not explore whether there could be other mediating trait factors in music processing besides empathy and sex: personality and temperament, for instance, have been shown to modulate responses to music.

Finally, this study will need to be replicated with a larger sample size, and with participants who do not self select based on strong emotional reactions to music, in order to strengthen the statistical power and generalizability of the results.


In two experiments using fMRI, this article demonstrates that trait empathy modulates music processing. Replicating previous findings in the social neuroscience literature, isolated musical timbres are related to sensorimotor and paralimbic activation; in actual MUSIC listening, however, empathy is primarily associated with activity in prefrontal and reward areas. Empathic participants were found to be particularly sensitive to abrasive, “noisy” qualities of musical timbre, showing preferential activation of the SMA, possibly reflecting heightened motor mimetic susceptibility to sounds signaling high arousal, low valence affective states.

In the music listening task. empathic subjects demonstrated enhanced responsiveness to familiar music, with musical preference playing a mediating role. Taken together, these results confirm and extend recent research on the link between music and empathy, and may help bring us closer to understanding the social cognitive basis for music perception and cognition.



Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10, 85.

Description of Measure:

Defines empathy as the “reactions of one individual to the observed experiences of another (Davis, 1983).”

28 items answered on a 5 point Likert scale ranging from “Does not describe me well” to “Describes me very well”. The measure has 4 subscales, each made up of 7 different items. These subscales are (taken directly from Davis, 1983):

Perspective Taking, the tendency to spontaneously adopt the psychological point of view of others.

Fantasy taps respondents‘ tendencies to transpose themselves imaginatively into the feelings and actions of fictitious characters in books, movies, and plays

Empathic Concern assesses “other-oriented” feelings of sympathy and concern for unfortunate others

Personal Distress measures “self oriented” feelings of personal anxiety and unease in tense interpersonal settings

Abstracts of Selected Related Articles:

Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113126.

The past decade has seen growing movement toward a view of empathy as a multidimensional construct. The Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis, 1980), which taps four separate aspects of empathy, is described, and its relationships with measures of social functioning, self esteem, emotionality, and sensitivity to others is assessed. As expected, each of the four subscales displays a distinctive and predictable pattern of relationships with these measures, as well as with previous unidimensional empathy measures. These findings, coupled with the theoretically important relationships existing among the four subscales themselves, provide considerable evidence for a multidimensional approach to empathy in general and for the use of the IRI in particular.

Pulos, S., Elison, J ,, & Lennon, R. (2004). Hierarchical structure of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index. Social Behavior and Personality, 32, 355 360.

The hierarchical factor structure of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) (Davis, 1980) inventory was investigated with the Schmid Leiman orthogonalization procedure (Schmid & Leiman, 1957). The sample consisted of 409 college students. The analysis found that the IRI could be factored into four first order factors, corresponding to the four scales of the IRI. and two second order orthogonal factors, a general empathy factor and an emotional control factor.


The following statements inquire about your thoughts and feelings in a variety of situations. For each item, indicate how well it describes you by choosing the appropriate letter on the scale at the top of the page: A, B, C, D, or E.

When you have decided on your answer, fill in the letter next to the item number.

READ EACH ITEM CAREFULLY BEFORE RESPONDING. Answer as honestly as you can. Thank you.







1. I daydream and fantasize, with some regularity, about things that might happen to me. (FS)

2. I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me. (EC)

3. I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the “other guy’s” point of View. (PT) (-)

4. Sometimes I don’t feel very sorry for other people when they are having problems. (EC) (-)

5. I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel. (FS)

6. In emergency situations, I feel apprehensive and ill at ease. (PD)

7. I am usually objective when I watch a movie or play, and I don’t often get completely caught up in it. (FS) (-)

8. I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision. (PT)

9. When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them. (EC)

10. I sometimes feel helpless when I am in the middle of a very emotional situation. (PD)

11. I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective. (PT)

12. Becoming extremely involved in a good book or movie is somewhat rare for me. (FS) (-)

13. When I see someone get hurt, I tend to remain calm. (PD) (-)

14. Other people’s misfortunes do not usually disturb me a great deal. (EC) (-)

15. If I‘m sure I’m right about something, I don’t waste much time listening to other people’s arguments. (PT) (-)

16. After seeing a play or movie, I have felt as though I were one of the characters. (FS)

17. Being in a tense emotional situation scares me. (PD)

18. When I see someone being treated unfairly, I sometimes don’t feel very much pity for them. (EC) (-)

19. I am usually pretty effective in dealing with emergencies. (PD) (-)

20. I am often quite touched by things that I see happen. (EC)

21. I believe that there are two sides to every question and try to look at them both. (PT)

22. I would describe myself as a pretty soft hearted person. (EC)

23. When I watch a good movie, I can very easily put myself in the place of a leading character. (FS)

24. I tend to lose control during emergencies. (PD)

25. When I’m upset at someone, I usually try to “put myself in his shoes” for a while. (PT)

26. When I am reading an interesting story or novel, I imagine how I would feel if the events in the story were happening to me. (FS)

27. When I see someone who badly needs help in an emergency, I go to pieces. (PD)

28. Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place. (PT)

See also:

Music and the Mind

by Anthony Storr

‘Wise Man’, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind – Dr Yuval Noah Harari.

Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.

From about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar and perhaps incriminating.

It is unsettling and perhaps thrilling to think that we Sapiens could at one time have sex with an animal from a different species, and produce children together. Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. As we will see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings.

Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one.

Us, Homo sapiens.

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, consumerism and the pursuit of happiness? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our beliefs, our actions, our power and our future.

About the Author

“I encourage all of us, whatever our beliefs, to question the basic narratives of our world, to connect past developments with present concerns, and not to be afraid of controversial issues.”

Dr Yuval Noah Harari has a PhD in History from the University of Oxford and now lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specialising in World History. His research focuses on broad questions, such as:

What is the relation between history and biology? Is there justice in history? Did people become happier as history unfolded?

65,000 people have signed up to Harari’s online course, A Brief History of Humankind. Sapiens is an international bestseller and is published in more than 20 languages worldwide. In 2012 Harari was awarded the annual Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in the Humanistic Disciplines.


The Cognitive Revolution

1. An Animal of No Significance

ABOUT 13.5 BILLION YEARS ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.

About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.

About 3.8 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.

About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.

Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different.

This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.

There were humans long before there was history. Animals much like modern humans first appeared about 2.5 million years ago. But for countless generations they did not stand out from the myriad other organisms with which they shared their habitats.

On a hike in East Africa 2 million years ago, you might well have encountered a familiar cast of human characters: anxious mothers cuddling their babies and clutches of carefree children playing in the mud; temperamental youths chafing against the dictates of society and weary elders who just wanted to be left in peace; chest-thumping machos trying to impress the local beauty and wise old matriarchs who had already seen it all. These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power but so did chimpanzees, baboons and elephants. There was nothing special about humans. Nobody, least of all humans themselves, had any inkling that their descendants would one day walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write history books. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.

Biologists classify organisms into species. Animals are said to belong to the same species if they tend to mate with each other, giving birth to fertile offspring. Horses and donkeys have a recent common ancestor and share many physical traits. But they show little sexual interest in one another. They will mate if induced to do so but their offspring, called mules, are sterile. Mutations in donkey DNA can therefore never cross over to horses, or vice versa. The two types of animals are consequently considered two distinct species, moving along separate evolutionary paths. By contrast, a bulldog and a spaniel may look very different, but they are members of the same species, sharing the same DNA pool. They will happily mate and their puppies will grow up to pair off with other dogs and produce more puppies.

Species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading ‘genus’ (plural genera). Lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars are different species within the genus Panthera. Biologists label organisms with a two-part Latin name, genus followed by species. Lions, for example, are called Panthera Leo, the species leo of the genus Panthera. Presumably, everyone reading this book is a Homo sapiens the species sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man).

Genera in their turn are grouped into families, such as the cats (lions, Cheetahs, house cats), the dogs (wolves, foxes, jackals) and the elephants (elephants, mammoths, mastodons). All members of a family trace their lineage back to a founding matriarch or patriarch. All cats, for example, from the smallest house kitten to the most ferocious lion, share a common feline ancestor who lived about 25 million years ago.

Homo sapiens, too, belongs to a family. This banal fact used to be one of history’s most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and, most importantly, without parents. But that’s just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.

Skeletons in the Closet

Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret. Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilised cousins, once upon a time we had quite a few brothers and sisters as well. We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, because for the last 10,000 years, our species has indeed been the only human species around. Yet the real meaning of the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo’, and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens. Moreover, as we shall see in the last chapter of the book, in the not-so-distant future we might again have to contend with non-sapiens humans. To clarify this point, I will often use the term ‘Sapiens’ to denote members of the species Homo sapiens, while reserving the term ‘human’ to refer to all extant members of the genus Homo.

Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago from an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus, which means ‘Southern Ape’. About 2 million years ago, some of these archaic men and women left their homeland to journey through and settle vast areas of North Africa, Europe and Asia. Since survival in the snowy forests of northern Europe required different traits than those needed to stay alive in Indonesia’s steaming jungles, human populations evolved in different directions. The result was several distinct species, to each of which scientists have assigned a pompous Latin name.

Humans in Europe and western Asia evolved into Homo neanderthalensis (‘Man from the Neander Valley’), popularly referred to simply as ‘Neanderthals’. Neanderthals, bulkier and more muscular than us Sapiens, were well adapted to the cold climate of Ice Age western Eurasia. The more eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo erectus, ‘Upright Man’, who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever. This record is unlikely to be broken even by our own species. It is doubtful whether Homo sapiens will still be around a thousand years from now, so 2 million years is really out of our league.

On the island of Java, in Indonesia, lived Homo soloensis, ‘Man from the Solo Valley’, who was suited to life in the tropics. On another Indonesian island the small island of Flores archaic humans underwent a process of dwarfing. Humans first reached Flores when the sea level was exceptionally low, and the island was easily accessible from the mainland. When the seas rose again, some people were trapped on the island, which was poor in resources. Big people, who need a lot of food, died first. Smaller fellows survived much better. Over the generations, the people of Flores became dwarves. This unique species, known by scientists as Homo floresiensis, reached a maximum height of only one metre and weighed no more than twenty-five kilograms. They were nevertheless able to produce stone tools, and even managed occasionally to hunt down some of the island’s elephants though, to be fair, the elephants were a dwarf species as well.

In 2010 another lost sibling was rescued from oblivion, when scientists excavating the Denisova Cave in Siberia discovered a fossilised finger bone. Genetic analysis proved that the finger belonged to a previously unknown human species, which was named Homo denisova. Who knows how many lost relatives of ours are waiting to be discovered in other caves, on other islands, and in other climes?

While these humans were evolving in Europe and Asia, evolution in East Africa did not stop. The cradle of humanity continued to nurture numerous new Species, such as Homo rudolfensis, ‘Man from Lake Rudolf’, Homo ergaster, ‘Working Man’, and eventually our own species, which we’ve immodestly named Homo sapiens, ‘Wise Man’.

The members of some of these species were massive and others were dwarves. Some were fearsome hunters and others meek plant-gatherers. Some lived only on a single island, while many roamed over continents. But all of them belonged to the genus Homo. They were all human beings.

It’s a common fallacy to envision these species as arranged in a straight line of descent, with Ergaster begetting Erectus, Erectus begetting the Neanderthals, and the Neanderthals evolving into us. This linear model gives the mistaken impression that at any particular moment only one type of human inhabited the earth, and that all earlier species were merely older models of ourselves.

The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar and perhaps incriminating. As we will shortly see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings.

The Cost of Thinking

Despite their many differences, all human species share several defining characteristics. Most notably, humans have extraordinarily large brains compared to other animals. Mammals weighing sixty kilograms have an average brain size of 200 cubic centimetres. The earliest men and women, 2.5 million years ago, had brains of about 600 cubic centimetres. Modern Sapiens sport a brain averaging 1,200-1,400 cubic centimetres. Neanderthal brains were even bigger.

That evolution should select for larger brains may seem to us like, well, a no-brainer. We are so enamoured of our high intelligence that we assume that when it comes to cerebral power, more must be better. But if that were the case, the feline family would also have produced cats who could do calculus, and frogs would by now have launched their own space programme. Why are giant brains so rare in the animal kingdom?

The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. It’s not easy to carry around, especially when encased inside a massive skull. It’s even harder to fuel. In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2-3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy.

Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied. Like a government diverting money from defence to education, humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons. It’s hardly a foregone conclusion that this is a good strategy for survival on the savannah. A chimpanzee can’t win an argument with a Homo sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart like a rag doll.

Today our big brains pay off nicely, because we can produce cars and guns that enable us to move much faster than chimps, and shoot them from a safe distance instead of wrestling. But cars and guns are a recent phenomenon. For more than 2 million years, human neural networks kept growing and growing, but apart from some flint knives and pointed sticks, humans had precious little to show for it.

What then drove forward the evolution of the massive human brain during those 2 million years? Frankly, we don’t know.

Another singular human trait is that we walk upright on two legs. Standing up, it’s easier to scan the savannah for game or enemies, and arms that are unnecessary for locomotion are freed for other purposes, like throwing stones or signalling. The more things these hands could do, the more successful their owners were, so evolutionary pressure brought about an increasing concentration of nerves and finely tuned muscles in the palms and fingers. As a result, humans can perform very intricate tasks with their hands. In particular, they can produce and use sophisticated tools. The first evidence for tool production dates from about 2.5 million years ago, and the manufacture and use of tools are the criteria by which archaeologists recognise ancient humans.

Yet walking upright has its downside. The skeleton of our primate ancestors developed for millions of years to support a creature that walked on all fours and had a relatively small head. Adjusting to an upright position was quite a challenge, especially when the scaffolding had to support an extra-large cranium. Humankind paid for its lofty vision and industrious hands with backaches and stiff necks.

Women paid extra. An upright gait required narrower hips, constricting the birth canal and this just when babies’ heads were getting bigger and bigger. Death in childbirth became a major hazard for human females. Women who gave birth earlier, when the infant’s brain and head were still relatively small and supple, fared better and lived to have more children. Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still underdeveloped. A colt can trot shortly after birth; a kitten leaves its mother to forage on its own when it is just a few weeks old. Human babies are helpless, dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education.

This fact has contributed greatly both to humankind’s extraordinary social abilities and to its unique social problems. Lone mothers could hardly forage enough food for their offspring and themselves with needy children in tow. Raising children required constant help from other family members and neighbours.

It takes a tribe to raise a human. Evolution thus favoured those capable of forming strong social ties.

In addition, since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal. Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln, any attempt at remoulding will only scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom. This is why today we can educate our children to become Christian or Buddhist, capitalist or socialist, warlike or peace-loving.

We assume that a large brain, the use of tools, superior learning abilities and complex social structures are huge advantages. It seems selfevident that these have made humankind the most powerful animal on earth. But humans enjoyed all of these advantages for a full 2 million years during which they remained weak and marginal creatures. Thus humans who lived a million years ago, despite their big brains and sharp stone tools, dwelt in constant fear of predators, rarely hunted large game, and subsisted mainly by gathering plants, scooping up insects, stalking small animals, and eating the carrion left behind by other more powerful carnivores.

One of the most common uses of early stone tools was to crack open bones in order to get to the marrow. Some researchers believe this was our original niche. Just as woodpeckers specialise in extracting insects from the trunks of trees, the first humans specialised in extracting marrow from bones. Why marrow? Well, suppose you observe a pride of lions take down and devour a giraffe. You wait patiently until they’re done. But it’s still not your turn because first the hyenas and jackals and you don’t dare interfere with them scavenge the leftovers. Only then would you and your band dare approach the carcass, look cautiously left and right and dig into the edible tissue that remained.

This is a key to understanding our history and psychology. Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years with the rise of Homo sapiens that man jumped to the top of the food chain.

That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and rhinoceroses to be more badtempered. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana-republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.

A Race of Cooks

A significant step on the way to the top was the domestication of fire. Some human species may have made occasional use of fire as early as 800,000 years ago. By about 300,000 years ago, Homo erectus, Neanderthals and the forefathers of Homo sapiens were using fire on a daily basis. Humans now had a dependable source of light and warmth, and a deadly weapon against prowling lions. Not long aftenwards, humans may even have started deliberately to torch their neighbourhoods. A carefully managed fire could turn impassable barren thickets into prime grasslands teeming with game. In addition, once the fire died down, Stone Age entrepreneurs could walk through the smoking remains and harvest charcoaled animals, nuts and tubers.

But the best thing fire did was cook. Foods that humans cannot digest in their natural forms such as wheat, rice and potatoes became staples of our diet thanks to cooking. Fire not only changed food’s chemistry, it changed its biology as well. Cooking killed germs and parasites that infested food. Humans also had a far easier time chewing and digesting old favourites such as fruits, nuts, insects and carrion if they were cooked. Whereas chimpanzees spend five hours a day chewing raw food, a single hour suffices for people eating cooked food.

The advent of cooking enabled humans to eat more kinds of food, to devote less time to eating, and to make do with smaller teeth and shorter intestines. Some scholars believe there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the human intestinal tract, and the growth of the human brain. Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it’s hard to have both. By shortening the intestines and decreasing their energy consumption, cooking inadvertently opened the way to the jumbo brains of Neanderthals and Sapiens.

Fire also opened the first significant gulf between man and the other animals. The power of almost all animals depends on their bodies: the strength of their muscles, the size of their teeth, the breadth of their wings. Though they may harness winds and currents, they are unable to control these natural forces, and are always constrained by their physical design. Eagles, for example, identify thermal columns rising from the ground, spread their giant wings and allow the hot air to lift them upwards. Yet eagles cannot control the location of the columns, and their maximum carrying capacity is strictly proportional to their wingspan.

When humans domesticated fire, they gained control of an obedient and potentially limitless force. Unlike eagles, humans could choose when and where to ignite a flame, and they were able to exploit fire for any number of tasks. Most importantly, the power of fire was not limited by the form, structure or strength of the human body. A single woman with a flint or fire stick could burn down an entire forest in a matter of hours. The domestication of fire was a sign of things to come.

Our Brothers’ Keepers

Despite the benefits of fire, 150,000 years ago humans were still marginal creatures. They could now scare away lions, warm themselves during cold nights, and burn down the occasional forest. Yet counting all species together, there were still no more than perhaps a million humans living between the Indonesian archipelago and the Iberian peninsula, a mere blip on the ecological radar.

Our own species, Homo sapiens, was already present on the world stage, but so far it was just minding its own business in a corner of Africa. We don’t know exactly where and when animals that can be classified as Homo sapiens first evolved from some earlier type of humans, but most scientists agree that by 150,000 years ago, East Africa was populated by Sapiens that looked just like us. If one of them turned up in a modern morgue, the local pathologist would notice nothing peculiar. Thanks to the blessings of fire, they had smaller teeth and jaws than their ancestors, whereas they had massive brains, equal in size to ours.

Scientists also agree that about 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East Africa spread into the Arabian peninsula, and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Homo sapiens landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled by other humans. What happened to them? There are two conflicting theories. The ‘Interbreeding Theory’ tells a story of attraction, sex and mingling. As the African immigrants spread around the world, they bred with other human populations, and people today are the outcome of this interbreeding.

For example, when Sapiens reached the Middle East and Europe, they encountered the Neanderthals. These humans were more muscular than Sapiens, had larger brains, and were better adapted to cold climes. They used tools and fire, were good hunters, and apparently took care of their sick and infirm. (Archaeologists have discovered the bones of Neanderthals who lived for many years with severe physical handicaps, evidence that they were cared for by their relatives.) Neanderthals are often depicted in caricatures as the archetypical brutish and stupid ‘cave people’, but recent evidence has changed their image.

According to the Interbreeding Theory, when Sapiens spread into Neanderthal lands, Sapiens bred with Neanderthals until the two populations merged. If this is the case, then today’s Eurasians are not pure Sapiens. They are a mixture of Sapiens and Neanderthals. Similarly, when Sapiens reached East Asia, they interbred with the local Erectus, so the Chinese and Koreans are a mixture of Sapiens and Erectus.

The opposing view, called the ‘Replacement Theory’ tells a very different story, one of incompatibility, revulsion, and perhaps even genocide. According to this theory, Sapiens and other humans had different anatomies, and most likely different mating habits and even body odours. They would have had little sexual interest in one another. And even if a Neanderthal Romeo and a Sapiens Juliet fell in love, they could not produce fertile children, because the genetic gulf separating the two populations was already unbridgeable. The two populations remained completely distinct, and when the Neanderthals died out, or were killed off, their genes died with them. According to this view, Sapiens replaced all the previous human populations without merging with them. If that is the case, the lineages of all contemporary humans can be traced back, exclusively, to East Africa, 70,000 years ago. We are all ‘pure Sapiens’.

A lot hinges on this debate. From an evolutionary perspective, 70,000 years is a relatively short interval. If the Replacement Theory is correct, all living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible. But if the Interbreeding Theory is right, there might well be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years. This is political dynamite, which could provide material for explosive racial theories.

In recent decades the Replacement Theory has been the common wisdom in the field. It had firmer archaeological backing, and was more politically correct (scientists had no desire to open up the Pandora’s box of racism by claiming significant genetic diversity among modern human populations). But that ended in 2010, when the results of a four-year effort to map the Neanderthal genome were published. Geneticists were able to collect enough intact Neanderthal DNA from fossils to make a broad comparison between it and the DNA of contemporary humans. The results stunned the scientific community.

It turned out that 1-4 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA. That’s not a huge amount, but it’s significant. A second shock came several months later, when DNA extracted from the fossilised finger from Denisova was mapped. The results proved that up to 6 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.

If these results are valid, and it’s important to keep in mind that further research is under way and may either reinforce or modify these conclusions, the Interbreeders got at least some things right. But that doesn’t mean that the Replacement Theory is completely wrong. Since Neanderthals and Denisovans contributed only a small amount of DNA to our present-day genome, it is impossible to speak of a ‘merger’ between Sapiens and other human species. Although differences between them were not large enough to completely prevent fertile intercourse, they were sufficient to make such contacts very rare.

How then should we understand the biological relatedness of Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans? Clearly, they were not completely different species like horses and donkeys. On the other hand, they were not just different populations of the same species, like bulldogs and spaniels. Biological reality is not black and white. There are also important grey areas. Every two species that evolved from a common ancestor, such as horses and donkeys, were at one time just two populations of the same species, like bulldogs and spaniels. There must have been a point when the two populations were already quite different from one another, but still capable on rare occasions of having sex and producing fertile offspring. Then another mutation severed this last connecting thread, and they went their separate evolutionary ways.

It seems that about 50,000 years ago, Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans were at that borderline point. They were almost, but not quite, entirely separate species. As we shall see in the next chapter, Sapiens were already very different from Neanderthals and Denisovans, not only in their genetic code and physical traits, but also in their cognitive and social abilities, yet it appears it was still just possible, on rare occasions, for a Sapiens and a Neanderthal to produce a fertile offspring. So the populations did not merge, but a few lucky Neanderthal genes did hitch a ride on the Sapiens Express.

It is unsettling and perhaps thrilling to think that we Sapiens could at one time have sex with an animal from a different species, and produce children together.

But if the Neanderthals, Denisovans and other human species didn’t merge with Sapiens, why did they vanish? One possibility is that Homo sapiens drove them to extinction. Imagine a Sapiens band reaching a Balkan valley where Neanderthals had lived for hundreds of thousands of years. The newcomers began to hunt the deer and gather the nuts and berries that were the Neanderthals’ traditional staples. Sapiens were more proficient hunters and gatherers thanks to better technology and superior social skills so they multiplied and spread. The less resourceful Neanderthals found it increasingly difficult to feed themselves. Their population dwindled and they slowly died out, except perhaps for one or two members who joined their Sapiens neighbours.

Another possibility is that competition for resources flared up into violence and genocide.

Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.

Whichever way it happened, the Neanderthals, and the other human species, pose one of history’s great what ifs. Imagine how things might have turned out had the Neanderthals or Denisovans survived alongside Homo sapiens. What kind of cultures, societies and political structures would have emerged in a world where several different human species coexisted? How, for example, would religious faiths have unfolded? Would the book of Genesis have declared that Neanderthals descend from Adam and Eve, would Jesus have died for the sins of the Denisovans, and would the Qur’an have reserved seats in heaven for all righteous humans, whatever their species? Would Neanderthals have been able to serve in the Roman legions, or in the sprawling bureaucracy of imperial China? Would the American Declaration of Independence hold as a self-evident truth that all members of the genus Homo are created equal? Would Karl Marx have urged workers of all species to unite?

Over the past 10,000 years, Homo sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s hard for us to conceive of any other possibility. Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

When Charles Darwin indicated that Homo sapiens was just another kind of animal, people were outraged. Even today many refuse to believe it. Had the Neanderthals survived, would we still imagine ourselves to be a creature apart? Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals. They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.

Whether Sapiens are to blame or not, no sooner had they arrived at a new location than the native population became extinct. The last remains of Homo soloensis are dated to about 50,000 years ago. Homo denisova disappeared shortly thereafter. Neanderthals made their exit roughly 30,000 years ago. The last dwarf-like humans vanished from Flores Island about 12,000 years ago. They left behind some bones, stone tools, a few genes in our DNA and a lot of unanswered questions. They also left behind us, Homo sapiens, the last human specks.

What was the Sapiens’ secret of success? How did we manage to settle so rapidly in so many distant and ecologically different habitats? How did we push all other human species into oblivion? Why couldn’t even the strong, brainy, cold-proof Neanderthals survive our onslaught? The debate continues to rage. The most likely answer is the very thing that makes the debate possible: Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.

2. The Tree of Knowledge

IN THE PREVIOUS chapter we saw that although Sapiens had already populated East Africa 150,000 years ago, they began to overrun the rest of planet Earth and drive the other human species to extinction only about 70,000 years ago. In the intervening millennia, even though these archaic Sapiens looked just like us and their brains were as big as ours, they did not enjoy any marked advantage over other human species, did not produce particularly sophisticated tools, and did not accomplish any other special feats.

In fact, in the first recorded encounter between Sapiens and Neanderthals, the Neanderthals won. About 100,000 years ago, some Sapiens groups migrated north to the Levant, which was Neanderthal territory, but failed to secure a firm footing. It might have been due to nasty natives, an inclement climate, or unfamiliar local parasites. Whatever the reason, the Sapiens eventually retreated, leaving the Neanderthals as masters of the Middle East.

This poor record of achievement has led scholars to speculate that the internal structure of the brains of these Sapiens was probably different from ours. They looked like us, but their cognitive abilities, learning, remembering, communicating were far more limited. Teaching such an ancient Sapiens English, persuading him of the truth of Christian dogma, or getting him to understand the theory of evolution would probably have been hopeless undertakings. Conversely, we would have had a very hard time learning his language and understanding his way of thinking.

But then, beginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens started doing very special things. Around that date Sapiens bands left Africa for a second time. This time they drove the Neanderthals and all other human species not only from the Middle East, but from the face of the earth. Within a remarkably short period, Sapiens reached Europe and East Asia. About 45,000 years ago, they somehow crossed the open sea and landed in Australia a continent hitherto untouched by humans. The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows and needles (essential for sewing warm clothing). The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era (see the Stadel lion-man hem), as does the first clear evidence for religion, commerce and social stratification.

Most researchers believe that these unprecedented accomplishments were the product of a revolution in Sapiens’ cognitive abilities. They maintain that the people who drove the Neanderthals to extinction, settled Australia, and carved the Stadel lion-man were as intelligent, creative and sensitive as we are. If we were to come across the artists of the Stadel Cave, we could learn their language and they ours. We’d be able to explain to them everything we know from the adventures of Alice in Wonderland to the paradoxes of quantum physics and they could teach us how their people view the world.

The Cognitive Revolution

The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation.

Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than in that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell. But it’s more important to understand the consequences of the Tree of Knowledge mutation than its causes. What was so special about the new Sapiens language that it enabled us to conquer the world?

It was not the first language. Every animal has some kind of language. Even insects, such as bees and ants, know how to communicate in sophisticated ways, informing one another of the whereabouts of food. Neither was it the first vocal language. Many animals, including all ape and monkey species, have vocal languages. For example, green monkeys use calls of various kinds to communicate. Zoologists have identified one call that means ‘Careful! An eagle!’ A slightly different call warns ‘Careful! A lion!’ When researchers played a recording of the first call to a group of monkeys, the monkeys stopped what they were doing and looked upwards in fear. When the same group heard a recording of the second call, the lion warning, they quickly scrambled up a tree.

Sapiens can produce many more distinct sounds than green monkeys, but whales and elephants have equally impressive abilities. A parrot can say anything Albert Einstein could say, as well as mimicking the sounds of phones ringing, doors slamming and sirens wailing. Whatever advantage Einstein had over a parrot, it wasn’t vocal. What, then, is so special about our language?

The most common answer is that our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world. A green monkey can yell to its comrades, ‘Careful! A lion!’ But a modern human can tell her friends that this morning, near the bend in the river, she saw a lion tracking a herd of bison. She can then describe the exact location, including the different paths leading to the area. With this information, the members of her band can put their heads together and discuss whether they should approach the river, chase away the lion, and hunt the bison.

A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping.

According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.

The amount of information that one must obtain and store in order to track the ever-changing relationships of even a few dozen individuals is staggering. (In a band of fifty individuals, there are 1,225 one-on-one relationships, and countless more complex social combinations.) All apes show a keen interest in such social information, but they have trouble gossiping effectively.

Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens probably also had a hard time talking behind each other’s backs, a much maligned ability which is in fact essential for cooperation in large numbers. The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.

The gossip theory might sound like a joke, but numerous studies support it. Even today the vast majority of human communication whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns is gossip. It comes so naturally to us that it seems as if our language evolved for this very purpose. Do you think that history professors chat about the reasons for the First World War when they meet for lunch, or that nuclear physicists spend their coffee breaks at scientific conferences talking about quarks? Sometimes. But more often, they gossip about the professor who caught her husband cheating, or the quarrel between the head of the department and the dean, or the rumours that a colleague used his research funds to buy a Lexus. Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders.

Most likely, both the gossip theory and the there-is-a-lion-near-the-river theory are valid. Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.

As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.

It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting.

People who go to the forest looking for fairies and unicorns would seem to have less chance of survival than people who go looking for mushrooms and deer. And if you spend hours praying to non-existing guardian spirits, aren’t you wasting precious time, time better spent foraging, fighting and fornicating?

But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately.

Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

The Legend of Peugeot

Our chimpanzee cousins usually live in small troops of several dozen individuals. They form close friendships, hunt together and fight shoulder to shoulder against baboons, Cheetahs and enemy chimpanzees. Their social structure tends to be hierarchical. The dominant member, who is almost always a male, is termed the ‘alpha male’. Other males and females exhibit their submission to the alpha male by bowing before him while making grunting sounds, not unlike human subjects kowtowing before a king. The alpha male strives to maintain social harmony within his troop. When two individuals fight, he will intervene and stop the violence. Less benevolently, he might monopolise particularly coveted foods and prevent lower-ranking males from mating with the females.

When two males are contesting the alpha position, they usually do so by forming extensive coalitions of supporters, both male and female, from within the group. Ties between coalition members are based on intimate daily contact hugging, touching, kissing, grooming and mutual favours. Just as human politicians on election campaigns go around shaking hands and kissing babies, so aspirants to the top position in a chimpanzee group spend much time hugging, back-slapping and kissing baby chimps. The alpha male usually wins his position not because he is physically stronger, but because he leads a large and stable coalition. These coalitions play a central part not only during overt struggles for the alpha position, but in almost all day-to-day activities. Members of a coalition spend more time together, share food, and help one another in times of trouble.

There are clear limits to the size of groups that can be formed and maintained in such a way. In order to function, all members of a group must know each other intimately. Two chimpanzees who have never met, never fought, and never engaged in mutual grooming will not know whether they can trust one another, whether it would be worthwhile to help one another, and which of them ranks higher. Under natural conditions, a typical chimpanzee troop consists of about twenty to fifty individuals. As the number of chimpanzees in a troop increases, the social order destabilises, eventually leading to a rupture and the formation of a new troop by some of the animals. Only in a handful of cases have zoologists observed groups larger than a hundred. Separate groups seldom cooperate, and tend to compete for territory and food. Researchers have documented prolonged warfare between groups, and even one case of ‘genocidal’ activity in which one troop systematically slaughtered most members of a neighbouring band.

Similar patterns probably dominated the social lives of early humans, including archaic Homo sapiens. Humans, like chimps, have social instincts that enabled our ancestors to form friendships and hierarchies, and to hunt or fight together. However, like the social instincts of chimps, those of humans were adapted only for small intimate groups. When the group grew too large, its social order destabilised and the band split. Even if a particularly fertile valley could feed 500 archaic Sapiens, there was no way that so many strangers could live together. How could they agree who should be leader, who should hunt where, or who should mate with whom?

In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.

Even today, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number. Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering. There is no need for formal ranks, titles and law books to keep order. A platoon of thirty soldiers or even a company of a hundred soldiers can function well on the basis of intimate relations, with a minimum of formal discipline. A well-respected sergeant can become ‘king of the company’ and exercise authority even over commissioned officers. A small family business can survive and flourish without a board of directors, a CEO or an accounting department.

But once the threshold of 150 individuals is crossed, things can no longer work that way. You cannot run a division with thousands of soldiers the same way you run a platoon. Successful family businesses usually face a crisis when they grow larger and hire more personnel. If they cannot reinvent themselves, they go bust.

How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

Any large-scale human cooperation whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights and the money paid out in fees.

Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations. Modern businesspeople and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales. The legend of Peugeot affords us a good example.

An icon that somewhat resembles the Stadel lion-man appears today on cars, trucks and motorcycles from Paris to Sydney. It’s the hood ornament that adorns vehicles made by Peugeot, one of the oldest and largest of Europe’s carmakers. Peugeot began as a small family business in the village of Valentigney, just 300 kilometres from the Stadel Cave. Today the company employs about 200,000 people worldwide, most of whom are complete strangers to each other. These strangers cooperate so effectively that in 2008 Peugeot produced more than 1.5 million automobiles, earning revenues of about 55 billion euros.

In what sense can we say that Peugeot SA (the company’s official name) exists? There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the company. Even if every Peugeot in the world were simultaneously junked and sold for scrap metal, Peugeot SA would not disappear. It would continue to manufacture new cars and issue its annual report. The company owns factories, machinery and showrooms, and employs mechanics, accountants and secretaries, but all these together do not comprise Peugeot. A disaster might kill every single one of Peugeot’s employees, and go on to destroy all of its assembly lines and executive offices. Even then, the company could borrow money, hire new employees, build new factories and buy new machinery. Peugeot has managers and shareholders, but neither do they constitute the company. All the managers could be dismissed and all its shares sold, but the company itself would remain intact.

It doesn’t mean that Peugeot SA is invulnerable or immortal. If a judge were to mandate the dissolution of the company, its factories would remain standing and its workers, accountants, managers and shareholders would continue to live but Peugeot SA would immediately vanish. In short, Peugeot SA seems to have no essential connection to the physical world. Does it really exist?

Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’. It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. Just like you or me, it is bound by the laws of the countries in which it operates. It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.

Peugeot belongs to a particular genre of legal fictions called ‘limited liability companies’. The idea behind such companies is among humanity’s most ingenious inventions. Homo sapiens lived for untold millennia without them. During most of recorded history property could be owned only by flesh-and-blood humans, the kind that stood on two legs and had big brains. If in thirteenth-century France Jean set up a wagon-manufacturing workshop, he himself was the business. If a wagon he’d made broke down a week after purchase, the disgruntled buyer would have sued Jean personally. If Jean had borrowed 1,000 gold coins to set up his workshop and the business failed, he would have had to repay the loan by selling his private property his house, his cow, his land. He might even have had to sell his children into servitude. If he couldn’t cover the debt, he could be thrown in prison by the state or enslaved by his creditors. He was fully liable, without limit, for all obligations incurred by his workshop.

If you had lived back then, you would probably have thought twice before you opened an enterprise of your own. And indeed this legal situation discouraged entrepreneurship. People were afraid to start new businesses and take economic risks. It hardly seemed worth taking the chance that their families could end up utterly destitute.

This is why people began collectively to imagine the existence of limited liability companies. Such companies were legally independent of the people who set them up, or invested money in them, or managed them. Over the last few centuries such companies have become the main players in the economic arena, and we have grown so used to them that we forget they exist only in our imagination. In the US, the technical term for a limited liability company is a ‘corporation’, which is ironic, because the term derives from ‘corpus’ (‘body’ in Latin) the one thing these corporations lack. Despite their having no real bodies, the American legal system treats corporations as legal persons, as if they were flesh-and-blood human beings.

And so did the French legal system back in 1896, when Armand Peugeot, who had inherited from his parents a metalworking shop that produced springs, saws and bicycles, decided to go into the automobile business. To that end, he set up a limited liability company. He named the company after himself, but it was independent of him. If one of the cars broke down, the buyer could sue Peugeot, but not Armand Peugeot. If the company borrowed millions of francs and then went bust, Armand Peugeot did not owe its creditors a single franc. The loan, after all, had been given to Peugeot, the company, not to Armand Peugeot, the Homo sapiens. Armand Peugeot died in 1915. Peugeot, the company, is still alive and well.

How exactly did Armand Peugeot, the man, create Peugeot, the company? In much the same way that priests and sorcerers have created gods and demons throughout history, and in which thousands of French curés were still creating Christ’s body every Sunday in the parish churches. It all revolved around telling stories, and convincing people to believe them. In the case of the French curés, the crucial story was that of Christ’s life and death as told by the Catholic Church. According to this story, if a Catholic priest dressed in his sacred garments solemnly, said the right words at the right moment, mundane bread and wine turned into God’s flesh and blood. The priest exclaimed, ‘Hoc est corpus meum!’ (Latin for ‘This is my body!’) and hocus pocus the bread turned into Christ’s flesh. Seeing that the priest had properly and assiduously observed all the procedures, millions of devout French Catholics behaved as if God really existed in the consecrated bread and wine.

In the case of Peugeot SA the crucial story was the French legal code, as written by the French parliament. According to the French legislators, if a certified lawyer followed all the proper liturgy and rituals, wrote all the required spells and oaths on a wonderfully decorated piece of paper, and affixed his ornate signature to the bottom of the document, then hocus pocus a new company was incorporated. When in 1896 Armand Peugeot wanted to create his company, he paid a lawyer to go through all these sacred procedures. Once the lawyer had performed all the right rituals and pronounced all the necessary spells and oaths, millions of upright French citizens behaved as if the Peugeot company really existed.

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.

Over the years, people have woven an incredibly complex network of stories. Within this network, fictions such as Peugeot not only exist, but also accumulate immense power. The kinds of things that people create through this network of stories are known in academic circles as ‘fictions’, ‘social constructs’ or ‘imagined realities’. An imagined reality is not a lie. I lie when I say that there is a lion near the river when I know perfectly well that there is no lion there. There is nothing special about lies. Green monkeys and chimpanzees can lie. A green monkey, for example, has been observed calling ‘Careful! A lion!’ when there was no lion around. This alarm conveniently frightened away a fellow monkey who had just found a banana, leaving the liar all alone to steal the prize for itself.

Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world. The sculptor from the Stadel Cave may sincerely have believed in the existence of the lion-man guardian spirit. Some sorcerers are Charlatans, but most sincerely believe in the existence of gods and demons. Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and limited liability companies. Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights. No one was lying when, in 2011, the UN demanded that the Libyan government respect the human rights of its citizens, even though the UN, Libya and human rights are all figments of our fertile imaginations.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

Bypassing the Genome

The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively. But it also did something more. Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths, by telling different stories. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people.

Consequently, ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution. Speeding down this fast lane, Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and animal species in its ability to cooperate.

The behaviour of other social animals is determined to a large extent by their genes. DNA is not an autocrat. Animal behaviour is also influenced by environmental factors and individual quirks. Nevertheless, in a given environment, animals of the same species will tend to behave in a similar way. Significant changes in social behaviour cannot occur, in general, without genetic mutations. For example, common chimpanzees have a genetic tendency to live in hierarchical groups headed by an alpha male. Members of a closely related chimpanzee species, bonobos, usually live in more egalitarian groups dominated by female alliances. Female common chimpanzees cannot take lessons from their bonobo relatives and stage a feminist revolution. Male chimps cannot gather in a constitutional assembly to abolish the office of alpha male and declare that from here on out all chimps are to be treated as equals. Such dramatic changes in behaviour would occur only if something changed in the chimpanzees’ DNA.

For similar reasons, archaic humans did not initiate any revolutions. As far as we can tell, changes in social patterns, the invention of new technologies and the settlement of alien habitats resulted from genetic mutations and environmental pressures more than from cultural initiatives. This is why it took humans hundreds of thousands of years to make these steps. Two million years ago, genetic mutations resulted in the appearance of a new human species called Homo erectus. Its emergence was accompanied by the development of a new stone tool technology, now recognised as a defining feature of this species. As long as Homo erectus did not undergo further genetic alterations, its stone tools remained roughly the same for close to 2 million years!

In contrast, ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been able to change their behaviour quickly, transmitting new behaviours to future generations without any need of genetic or environmental change. As a prime example, consider the repeated appearance of childless elites, such as the Catholic priesthood, Buddhist monastic orders and Chinese eunuch bureaucracies. The existence of such elites goes against the most fundamental principles of natural selection, since these dominant members of society willingly give up procreation. Whereas chimpanzee alpha males use their power to have sex with as many females as possible and consequently sire a large proportion of their troop’s young the Catholic alpha male abstains completely from sexual intercourse and childcare. This abstinence does not result from unique environmental conditions such as a severe lack of food or want of potential mates. Nor is it the result of some quirky genetic mutation. The Catholic Church has survived for centuries, not by passing on a ‘celibacy gene’ from one pope to the next, but by passing on the stories of the New Testament and of Catholic canon law.

In other words, while the behaviour patterns of archaic humans remained fixed for tens of thousands of years, Sapiens could transform their social structures, the nature of their interpersonal relations, their economic activities and a host of other behaviours within a decade or two. Consider a resident of Berlin, born in 1900 and living to the ripe age of one hundred. She spent her childhood in the Hohenzollern Empire of Wilhelm ll; her adult years in the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Third Reich and Communist East Germany; and she died a citizen of a democratic and reunified Germany. She had managed to be a part of five very different sociopolitical systems, though her DNA remained exactly the same.

This was the key to Sapiens’ success. In a one-on-one brawl, a Neanderthal would probably have beaten a Sapiens. But in a conflict of hundreds, Neanderthals wouldn’t stand a chance. Neanderthals could share information about the whereabouts of lions, but they probably could not tell and revise stories about tribal spirits. Without an ability to compose fiction, Neanderthals were unable to cooperate effectively in large numbers, nor could they adapt their social behaviour to rapidly changing challenges.

While we can’t get inside a Neanderthal mind to understand how they thought, we have indirect evidence of the limits to their cognition compared with their Sapiens rivals. Archaeologists excavating 30,000 year old Sapiens sites in the European heartland occasionally find there seashells from the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. In all likelihood, these shells got to the continental interior through long distance trade between different Sapiens bands. Neanderthal sites lack any evidence of such trade. Each group manufactured its own tools from local materials.

Another example comes from the South Pacific. Sapiens bands that lived on the island of New Ireland, north of New Guinea, used a volcanic glass called obsidian to manufacture particularly strong and sharp tools. New Ireland, however, has no natural deposits of obsidian. Laboratory tests revealed that the obsidian they used was brought from deposits on New Britain, an island 400 kilometres away. Some of the inhabitants of these islands must have been skilled navigators who traded from island to island over long distances.

Trade may seem a very pragmatic activity, one that needs no fictive basis. Yet the fact is that no animal other than Sapiens engages in trade, and all the Sapiens trade networks about which we have detailed evidence were based on fictions. Trade cannot exist without trust, and it is very difficult to trust strangers. The global trade network of today is based on our trust in such fictional entities as the dollar, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the totemic trademarks of corporations. When two strangers in a tribal society want to trade, they will often establish trust by appealing to a common god, mythical ancestor or totem animal.

If archaic Sapiens believing in such fictions traded shells and obsidian, it stands to reason that they could also have traded information, thus creating a much denser and wider knowledge network than the one that served Neanderthals and other archaic humans.

Hunting techniques provide another illustration of these differences. Neanderthals usually hunted alone or in small groups. Sapiens, on the other hand, developed techniques that relied on cooperation between many dozens of individuals, and perhaps even between different bands. One particularly effective method was to surround an entire herd of animals, such as wild horses, then chase them into a narrow gorge, where it was easy to slaughter them en masse. If all went according to plan, the bands could harvest tons of meat, fat and animal skins in a single afternoon of collective effort, and either consume these riches in a giant potlatch, or dry, smoke or (in Arctic areas) freeze them for later usage. Archaeologists have discovered sites where entire herds were butchered annually in such ways. There are even sites where fences and obstacles were erected in order to create artificial traps and slaughtering grounds.

We may presume that Neanderthals were not pleased to see their traditional hunting grounds turned into Sapiens controlled slaughterhouses. However, if violence broke out between the two species, Neanderthals were not much better off than wild horses. Fifty Neanderthals cooperating in traditional and static patterns were no match for 500 versatile and innovative Sapiens. And even if the Sapiens lost the first round, they could quickly invent new stratagems that would enable them to win the next time.

What happened in the Cognitive Revolution?

The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behaviour patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’.

The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology. Until the Cognitive Revolution, the doings of all human species belonged to the realm of biology, or, if you so prefer, prehistory (I tend to avoid the term ‘prehistory’, because it wrongly implies that even before the Cognitive Revolution, humans were in a category of their own). From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo sapiens. To understand the rise of Christianity or the French Revolution, it is not enough to comprehend the interaction of genes, hormones and organisms. It is necessary to take into account the interaction of ideas, images and fantasies as well.

This does not mean that Homo sapiens and human culture became exempt from biological laws. We are still animals, and our physical, emotional and cognitive abilities are still shaped by our DNA. Our societies are built from the same building blocks as Neanderthal or chimpanzee societies, and the more we examine these building blocks, sensations, emotions, family ties, the less difference we find between us and other apes.

It is, however, a mistake to look for the differences at the level of the individual or the family. One on one, even ten on ten, we are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Significant differences begin to appear only when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals, and when we reach 1,000-2,000 individuals, the differences are astounding. If you tried to bunch together thousands of chimpanzees into Tiananmen Square, Wall Street, the Vatican or the headquarters of the United Nations, the result would be pandemonium. By contrast, Sapiens regularly gather by the thousands in such places. Together, they create orderly patterns such as trade networks, mass celebrations and political institutions that they could never have created in isolation. The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation.

Of course, we also needed other skills, such as the ability to make and use tools. Yet tool-making is of little consequence unless it is coupled with the ability to cooperate with many others. How is it that we now have intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads, whereas 30,000 years ago we had only sticks with flint spearheads? Physiologically, there has been no significant improvement in our tool-making capacity over the last 30,000 years. Albert Einstein was far less dexterous with his hands than was an ancient hunter-gatherer. However, our capacity to cooperate with large numbers of strangers has improved dramatically. The ancient flint spearhead was manufactured in minutes by a single person, who relied on the advice and help of a few intimate friends. The production of a modern nuclear warhead requires the cooperation of millions of strangers all over the world from the workers who mine the uranium ore in the depths of the earth to theoretical physicists who write long mathematical formulae to describe the interactions of subatomic particles.

To summarise the relationship between biology and history after the Cognitive Revolution:

1. Biology sets the basic parameters for the behaviour and capacities of Homo sapiens. The whole of history takes place within the bounds of this biological arena.

2. However, this arena is extraordinarily large, allowing Sapiens to play an astounding variety of games. Thanks to their ability to invent fiction, Sapiens create more and more complex games, which each generation develops and elaborates even further.

3. Consequently, in order to understand how Sapiens behave, we must describe the historical evolution of their actions. Referring only to our biological constraints would be like a radio sportscaster who, attending the World Cup football championships, offers his listeners a detailed description of the playing field rather than an account of what the players are doing.

What games did our Stone Age ancestors play in the arena of history? As far as we know, the people who carved the Stadel lion-man some 30,000 years ago had the same physical, emotional and intellectual abilities we have. What did they do when they woke up in the morning? What did they eat for breakfast and lunch? What were their societies like? Did they have monogamous relationships and nuclear families? Did they have ceremonies, moral codes, sports contests and religious rituals? Did they fight wars? The next chapter takes a peek behind the curtain of the ages, examining what life was like in the millennia separating the Cognitive Revolution from the Agricultural Revolution.

3. A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

TO UNDERSTAND OUR nature, history and psychology, we must get inside the heads of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lived as foragers. The past 200 years, during which ever increasing numbers of Sapiens have obtained their daily bread as urban labourers and office workers, and the preceding 10,000 years, during which most Sapiens lived as farmers and herders, are the blink of an eye compared to the tens of thousands of years during which our ancestors hunted and gathered.

The flourishing field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long preagricultural era. Even today, scholars in this field claim, our brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.



Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

get it at Amazon.com

Inequality breeds stress and anxiety. No wonder so many Britons are suffering – Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Studies of people who are most into our consumerist culture have found that they are the least happy, the most insecure and often suffer poor mental health.

Understanding inequality means recognising that it increases school shootings, bullying, anxiety levels, mental illness and consumerism because it threatens feelings of self-worth.

In equal societies, citizens trust each other and contribute to their community. This goes into reverse in countries like ours.

The gap between image and reality yawns ever wider. Our rich society is full of people presenting happy smiling faces both in person and online, but when the Mental Health Foundation commissioned a large survey last year, it found that 74% of adults were so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Almost a third had had suicidal thoughts and 16% had selfharmed at some time in their lives. The figures were higher for women than men, and substantially higher for young adults than for older age groups. And rather than getting better, the long-term trends in anxiety and mental illness are upwards.

For a society that believes happiness is a product of high incomes and consumption, these figures are baffling. However, studies of people who are most into our consumerist culture have found that they are the least happy, the most insecure and often suffer poor mental health.

An important part of the explanation involves the psychological effects of inequality. The greater the material differences between us, the more important status and money become. They are increasingly seen as if they were a measure of a person’s inner worth. And, as research shows, the result is that the more unequal the society, the more people feel anxiety about status and how they are seen and judged. These effects are seen across all income groups from the poorest to the richest tenth of the population.

Inequality increases our insecurities about selfworth because it emphasises status and strengthens the idea that some people are worth much more than others. People at the top appear supremely important, almost as superior beings, while others are made to feel as if they are of little or no value. A study of how people experience low social status in different countries found, predictably, that people felt they were failures. They felt a strong sense of shame and despised themselves for failing. Whether they lived in countries as rich as the UK and Norway, or as poor as Uganda and Pakistan, made very little difference to what it felt like to be near the bottom of the social ladder.

Studies have shown that conspicuous consumption is intensified by inequality. If you live in a more unequal area, you are more likely to spend money on a flashy car and shop for status goods. The strength of this effect on consumption can be seen in the tendency for inequality to drive up levels of personal debt as people try to enhance their status.

But it is not just that inequality increases status anxiety. For many, it would be nearer to the truth to say that it is an assault on their feeling of self-worth. It increases what psychologists have called the “social evaluative threat”, where social contact becomes increasingly stressful. The result for some is low self-esteem and a collapse of self-confidence. For them, social gatherings become an ordeal to be avoided. As they withdraw from social life they suffer higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Others react quite differently to the greater ego threat of invidious social comparisons. They react by trying to boost the impression they give to others. Instead of being modest about achievements and abilities, they flaunt them.

Rising narcissism is part of the increased concern with impression management. A study of what has been called “self-enhancement” asked people in different countries how they rated themselves relative to others. Rather like the tell-tale finding that 90% of the population think they are better drivers than average, more people in more unequal countries rated themselves above average on a number of different dimensions. They claimed, for example, that they were cleverer and more attractive than most people.

Nor does the damage stop there. Psychological research has shown that a number of mental illnesses and personality disorders are linked to issues of dominance and subordination exacerbated by inequality. Some, like depression, are related to an acceptance of inferiority, others relate to an endless attempt to defend yourself from being looked down on and disrespected. Still others are borne of the assumption of superiority or to an endless struggle for it. Confirming the picture, the international data shows not only that mental illness as a whole is more common in more unequal societies, but specifically that depression, schizophrenia and psychoses are all more common in those societies.

What is perhaps saddest about this picture is that good social relationships and involvement in community life have been shown repeatedly to be powerful determinants of health and happiness. But it is exactly here that great inequality throws another spanner in the works. By making class and status divisions more powerful, it leads to a decline in community life, a reduction in social mobility, an increase in residential segregation and fewer inter-class marriages.

More equal societies are marked by strong community life, high levels of trust, a greater willingness to help others, and low levels of violence. As inequality rises, all this goes into reverse. Community life atrophies, people cease to trust each other, and homicide rates are higher.

In the most unequal societies, like Mexico and South Africa, the damage has gone further: citizens have become afraid of each other. Houses are barricaded with bars on windows and doors, razor wire atop walls and fences.

And as inequality increases, a higher proportion of a country’s labour force is employed in what has been called “guard labour” the security staff, prison officers and police we use to protect ourselves from each other.

Understanding inequality means recognising that it increases school shootings, bullying, anxiety levels, mental illness and consumerism because it threatens feelings of self-worth.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are the authors of The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Wellbeing

Life after Severe Childhood Trauma. I Think I’ll Make It. A True Story of Lost and Found – Kat Hurley.

Had I known I should have been squirreling away memories as precious keepsakes, I would have scavenged for more smiles, clung to each note of contagious laughter and lingered steadfast in every embrace.

Memory is funny like that: futile facts and infinitesimal details are fixed in time, yet things you miss, things you wish you paid fuller attention to, you may never see again.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

To write this book, I relied heavily on archived emails and journals, researched facts when I thought necessary, consulted with some of the people who appear in the book, and called upon my own memory, which has a habitual tendency to embellish, but as it turns out, there wasn’t much need for that here. Events in this book may be out of sequence, a handful of locations were changed to protect privacy, many conversations and emails were re-created, and a few names and identifying characteristics have been changed.

It was hardly a secret growing up that psychologists predicted I would never lead a truly happy and normal life. Whether those words were intended for my ears or not seemed of little concern, given the lack of disclaimer to follow. There was no telling what exceedingly honest bits of information would slip through the cracks of our family’s filtration system of poor Roman Catholic communication. I mean, we spoke all the time but rarely talked. On the issues at least, silence seemed to suit us best, yet surprising morsels of un-sugarcoated facts would either fly straight out of the horse’s mouth or trickle their way down through the boys until they hit me, the baby.

I was five when I went to therapy. Twice. On the second visit, the dumb lady asked me to draw what I felt on a piece of plain construction paper. I stared at the few crayons next to the page when I told her politely that I’d rather not. We made small talk instead, until the end of the hour when she finally stood up, walked to the door and invited my grandma in. They whispered some before she smiled at me and waved. I smiled back, even if she was still dumb. I’m sure it had been suggested that I go see her anyway, because truth be known, psychologists were a “bunch of quacks,” according to my grandma. When I said I didn’t want to go back, nobody so much as batted an eye.

And that was the end of that.

When I draw up some of my earliest most vivid memories, what I see reminds me of an old slide projector, screening crooked, fuzzy images at random. in the earliest scenes, I am lopsidedly pigtailed, grass stained, clothes painfully clashing. In one frame I am ready for my first day of preschool in my bright red, pill-bottomed bathing suit, standing at the bottom of the stairs where my mom has met me to explain, through her contained laughter, that a carpool isn’t anything near as fun as it sounds. In another, I am in the living room, turning down the volume on my mom’s Richard Simmons tape so I can show her that, all on my own yet only with a side-puckered face, I’d learned how to snap. In one scene, I’m crouched down in the closet playing hide-and-seek, recycling my own hot Cheerio breath, patiently waiting to be found, picking my toes. Soon Mom would come home and together we’d realize that the boys weren’t seeking (babysitting) me at all, they’d simply gone down the street to play with friends.

I replay footage of the boys, Ben and Jack, pushing me in the driveway, albeit unintentionally, toward the busy road on my first day with no training wheels, and (don’t worry, I tattled) intentionally using me as the crash-test dummy when they sent me flying down the stairs in a laundry basket. I have the scene of us playing ice hockey in the driveway after a big ice storm hit, me proudly dropping the puck while my brothers Stanley Cup serious faced off.

I call up the image of me cross-legged on my parents’ bed, and my mom’s horrified face when she found me scissors in hand thrilled with what she referred to as my new “hacked” do. That same bed, in another scene, gets hauled into my room when it was no longer my parents’, and my mom, I presume, couldn’t stand to look at it any longer. I can still see the worry on her face in those days and the disgust on his. I see the aftermaths of the few fights they couldn’t help but have us witness.

Most of the scenes are of our house at the top of the hill on McClintock Drive, but a few are of Dad’s townhouse in Rockville, near the roller rink. I remember his girlfriend, Amy, and how stupid I thought she was. I remember our Atari set and all our cool new stuff over there. And, of course, I remember Dad’s really annoying crack-of-dawn routine of “Rise and Shine!”

I was my daddy’s darling, and my mommy’s little angel.

Then without warning I wasn’t.

Had I known I should have been squirreling away memories as precious keepsakes, I would have scavenged for more smiles, clung to each note of contagious laughter and lingered steadfast in every embrace. Memory is funny like that: futile facts and infinitesimal details are fixed in time, yet things you miss, things you wish you paid fuller attention to, you may never see again.

I was just a regular kid before I was ever really asked to “remember.” Up until then, I’d been safe in my own little world: every boo-boo kissed, every bogeyman chased away. And for a small voice that had never been cool enough, clever enough, or captivating enough, it was finally my turn. There was no other choice; I was the only witness.

“Tell us everything you know, Katie. It is very important that you try to remember everything you saw.”

August 11, 1983

I am five. I’ll be in kindergarten this year, Ben is going to third grade, Jack will be in seventh. I’m not sure where the boys are today; all I know is that I’m glad it’s just me and Mom. We’re in the car, driving in our Ford wagon, me bouncing unbuckled in the way back. We sing over the radio like we always do. We’re on our way to my dad’s office, for the fivehundredth time. Not sure why, again, except that “they have to talk.” They always have to talk. Ever since Dad left and got his new townhouse with his new girlfriend, all they do is talk.

Mom pulls into a space in front of the office. The parking lot for some reason is practically empty. His cleaning business is all the way in the back of this long, lonely stretch of warehouse offices, all boring beige and ugly brown, with big garage doors and small window fronts.

“You can stay here, sweetie pie I won’t be long.”

I have some of my favorite coloring books and a giant box of crayons; I’ll be fine.

Time passes in terms of works of art. Goofy, Mickey, and Donald are all colored to perfection be fore I even think to look up. I am very fond of my artistic abilities; my paint by numbers are exquisite, and my papier-maché, as far as I’m concerned, has real promise for five. All of my works are fridge-worthy; even my mom thinks so. My special notes and handmade cards litter her nightstand, dresser, and bathroom counter.

I hear a scream. Like one I’d never heard before, except on TV. Was that her? I sit still for a second, wait for another clue. That wasn’t her. But something tells me to check anyway just in case.

I scramble out from the way back, over the seat, and try to open the door, but I’m locked in why would she look me in? I tug at the lock and let myself out. With the car door still open, I scurry to the front window of my dad’s shop, and on my tiptoes, ten fingers to the ledge, I can see inside. The cage with the snakes is there, the desk and chairs are there, the cabinets and files are there, everything looks normal like the last time I was inside. Where are they?

Then through the window, I see my mom. At the end of the hall, I can see her through the doorway. But just her feet. Well, her feet and part of her legs. They are there, on the floor her sandals still on. I can make out the tip of his shoe too, at her thigh, like he’s sitting on top of her. She is still. I don’t get it. Why are they on the floor? I try to open the door, but it’s locked. I don’t recall knocking; maybe I did. I do know that I didn’t yell to be let in, call for help, or demand that I know what was going on.

It wasn’t her. It sounded like it came from down the street, I tell myself. Maybe it wasn’t a scream scream, anyway. Someone was probably just playing, I convince myself. I get back in the car. I close the door behind me and color some more.

Only two pages are colored in this time. Not Mickey and friends, Snow White now. Fairy tales. My dad knocks on the window, startling me, smiling. “Hey, princess. Your mom is on the phone with Aunt Jeannie, so you’ll just see her Monday. You’re coming with me, kiddo. We have to go get your brother.”

Everything I’ve seen is forgotten. My dad’s convincing smile, tender voice, and earnest eyes make all my fright disappear. He told me she was on the phone, and I believed him. How was I supposed to know that dads could lie?

Two days later, my brothers and I were at the beach on a job with Dad when our grandparents surprised us with the news. “Your mother is missing.” And it was only then, when I sensed the fear they tried so intently to wash from their faces, that the realization struck me as stark panic, that l was brought back to the scene for the first time and heard the scream I understood was really her.

My testimony would later become the turning point in the case, reason enough to convict my father, who in his cowardice had covered all his traces. Even after his conviction, it would be three more years until he fully confessed to the crime. I was eight when I stood, uncomfortable, in a stiff dress at her grave for the second time more flowers, same priest, same prayers.

To say I grew up quickly, though, as people have always suspected, would be a stretch. Certainly, I was more aware, but the shades of darkness were graced with laughter and lullabies and being a kid and building forts, and later, learning about my period from my crazy grandma.

I honestly don’t remember being treated any differently, from Grandma Kate at least. If I got any special attention, I didn’t know it. Life went on. Time was supposed to heal all wounds. My few memories of mom, despite my every attempt, faded with each passing holiday.

I was in Mrs. Dunne’s third grade class when my dad finally confessed. We faced a whole ’nother wave of reporters, news crews, and commotion. They replayed the footage on every channel: me, five years old again, clad in overalls, with my Care Bear, walking into the courtroom. And just like before, my grandpa taped all the news reels. “So we never forget,” he said.

For our final TV interview, my grandparents, the boys, and I sat in our church clothes in the front room to answer the reporter’s questions. I shifted around on Grandma Kate’s lap in my neatly pressed striped Easter dress. Everybody had a turn to talk. I was last. “Katie, now that the case is closed, do you think you will be able to move on?”

I’m not sure how I knew it then, especially when so many years of uncertainty were still to come, but I was confident: “Yeah.” I grinned. “I think I’ll make it.”

Chapter One


“Well, I just called to tell you I’ve made up my mind.” Silence “I will not be returning to school next year.”

Silence “I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m going to do I just know I cannot come back.”

Barbara, my faculty chair, on the other end of the line, fumed. I could hear it in each syllable of Catholic guilt she spat back at me. We’d ended a face-to-face meeting the day before with, “I’ll call you tomorrow with my decision,” as we agreed to disagree on the fact that the students were more important than my mental health and well-being.

“What will they do without you? You know how much they love you. We created this new position for you, and now you’re just going to leave? Who will teach the class? It’s August!” she agonized.

God, she was good. She had this guilt thing down pat. An ex-nun, obviously an expert, and this was the first I’d been on her bad side, a whole year’s worth of smiles, waves and high-fives in the hallways seemed to get clapped out with the erasers.

It was true; I loved the kids and didn’t want to do this so abruptly, like this is August. This was not my idea of a resume builder. Nevertheless, as each bit of honesty rose from my lips, I felt freer and freer and more true to myself than I’d felt in, well, a long frickin’ time. A sense of relief washed through me in a kind of cathartic baptism, cleansing me of the guilt. I stopped pacing. A warm breeze swept over the grass on the hill in front of our condo then over me. I stood on the sidewalk still nervous, sweating, smiling, teary-eyed. I can’t believe I just did that.

St. Anne’s was a very liberal Catholic school, which ironically, had given me a new faith in the closeminded. The building housed a great energy of love and family. I felt right at home walking through its doors even at new-teacher orientation, despite it having been a while since I needed to be shown the ropes. I’d already been teaching for six years in a position where I’d been mentoring, writing curriculum and leading administrative teams. I normally didn’t do very well on the bottom rung of the totem pole, but more pay with less responsibility had its merit.

It was definitely different, but a good different. I felt newly challenged in a bigger school, looked forward to the many programs already in place and the diversity of the staff and student body. The ceremonies performed in the religion-based setting seemed foreign at first, yet witnessing the conviction of our resident nuns and tenured faculty restored a respect I had lost over the years. They were the hymns that I recognized, the verses I used to recite, the prayers I was surprised I still remembered, the responses I thought I’d never say again.

The first time we had Mass together as an entire school, I was nearly brought to tears. I got goose bumps when the notes from the piano reverberated off the backboards on the court the gym-turned-place-of-worship hardly seemed the place to recommit. Yet, hearing the harmony of our award-winning gospel choir and witnessing the level of participation from the students, faculty, and administration, I was taken aback. The maturity of devotion in the room was something I had never experienced in any of my churches growing up. Students, lip-synching their words, distracted and bored, still displayed more enthusiasm than the lumps hunched at my old parishes.

It was during that first Mass that I realized there was only one person who could have gotten me there to a place she would have been so proud to tell her bridge club I was working. She would have been thrilled for me to find God here. The God she knew, her Catholic God the one who had listened to her rosary, day after day, her pleas for her family’s health and well-being, her pleas for her own peace and forgiveness. Gma had orchestrated it all. I was certain.

As that realization unfolded, I saw a glimpse of her endearing eyes, her tender smile before me, and with that my body got hot, my lashes heavy, soaked with a teary mist. Although it would be months till I stumbled upon a glimpse of what some might call God, it was here, at St. Anne’s, where I gained a tradition I had lost, a perspective I had thought impossible, a familiarity that let me feel a part of something, and a trust that may have ultimately led me straight out the door.

Our kitchen, growing up, reeked of canned beans and burnt edges. Grandma Kate knew of only one way to cook meat, crispy. On most nights, the fire alarm let us know that dinner was ready. The table was always set before I’d come running in, at the sound of her call, breathless from playing, to scrub the dirt from my fingernails. She was a diligent housewife, though at times she played the part of something far more independent. The matriarch, we called her the gel to the whole damn bunch of us: her six, or five rather, and us three.

She responded to Grandma Kate, or just Kate, or Kitty, as her friends from St. Cecelia’s called her, or Catherine, as she generally introduced herself, or Gma, as I later deemed her all names necessary to do and be everything that she was to all of us.

She and I had our moments through my adolescence where the chasm of generations between us was more evident than we’d bother to address. They’d sold their five-bedroom home in Manor Club when it was just she and Grandpa left alone inside the walls baring all their memories. The house had character worn into its beams by years of raising six children and consequently taking the abuse of the (then) eleven grandchildren like a docile Golden Retriever.

It wasn’t long after my grandpa died that I moved back in with Gma. At fifteen, it was just she and I in their new two-bedroom condo like college roommates, bickering at each other’s annoying habits, ridiculing each other’s guests, and sharing intimate details about each other’s lives when all guards were off and each other was all we had.

Despite our differences, her narratives always fascinated me. I had grown up on Gma’s tales and adventures of her youth. In most of her stories, she depicted the trials of the Depression and conversely, the joys of simplicity. She encouraged any craft that didn’t involve sitting in front of the television. She believed in hard work, and despite her dyslexia, was the first woman to graduate from Catholic University’s Architectural School in the mid-1940s. “Of course,” she said. “There was no such thing as dyslexia in my day. Those nuns damn near had me convinced I was just plain dumb.”

She was a trained painter and teacher, a fine quilter, gardener, and proud lefty. She had more sides to her than a rainbow-scattering prism. When we were young and curious, flooding her with questions, we’d “look it up” together. When we had ideas, no matter how silly, she’d figure out a plan to somehow help us make it happen. All of us grandkids had ongoing special projects at any given time: whether it was building in the garage, sewing in the living room, painting in the basement, or taking long, often lost, “adventures” that brought us closer to her past.

She was from Washington DC, so subway rides from Silver Spring into the city were a regular episode. We spent so many hours in the Museum of Natural History I might attribute one of my cavities to its famous astronaut ice cream. We also went to see the cherry blossoms when they were in bloom each year, visited the National Zoo and toured the Washington Monument as well as several of the surviving parks and canal trails from her childhood.

It was on these journeys that she and I would discuss life, politics, war, religion, and whatever else came to mind. She was a woman of many words, so silences were few and far between. I got to know her opinion on just about everything because nothing was typically left unsaid, nothing.

By the time I was in high school and college, the only music we could agree on in the car was the Sister Act soundtrack. On our longer jaunts when conversation dripped to a minimum, I would toss in the tape before the banter went sour, which was a given with our opposite views on nearly everything. I’d slide back the sunroof, and we’d sing till our hearts were content.

“Hail mother of mercy and of love. Oh, Maria!”

She played the grouchy old nun, while I was Whoopi, trying to change her stubborn ways.

Gma and I both loved musicals, but while I was off scalping tickets to see Rent on Broadway, which she would have found too loud and too crude (God knows she would have had a thing or two to say about the “fairy” drag queen), she was content with her video of Fiddler on the Roof.

As I sat in the theater recently for the Broadway performance of Lion King, I couldn’t help but picture her sitting there beside me, her big, brown eyes shifted right with her good ear turned to the stage; it was a show we would have both agreed on.

For the theater, she would have wetted down her short gray wispy hair and parted it to the side and then patted it down just so with both hands. A blouse and a skirt would have already been picked out, lying on the bed. The blouse would get tucked in and the belt fastened not too far below her bra line. Then she’d unroll her knee highs from the toes and slip on some open toe sandals, depending on the season; she didn’t mind if the hose showed. Some clip-on earrings might have made their way to her virgin lobes, if she remembered, and she would have puckered up in the hallway mirror with a tube of Clairol’s light pink lipstick from her pocketbook before announcing that she was ready.

Gma would have loved the costumes, the music, the precision in each detail. And in the car ride home, I can hear her now, yelling over the drone of the car’s engine because her hearing aid had remained in the dresser drawer since the day she brought it home. “There wasn’t but one white fella’ in the whole gosh dern show. Every last one of ’em was black as the day is long, but boy could they sing. God, what beautiful voices they had, and even as deaf as I am I could understand what they were saying. They were all so well spoken.”

Rarely does a day go by that I don’t smile at one of her idioms or imagine one of her crazy shenanigans, her backward lessons, or silly songs. I used to feel guilty about the proportion I spent missing her over the amount I did my own mother. I guess it makes sense, though, to miss what I knew for far longer, and I suppose I had been swimming laps in the gaping void I housed for my mom.

Over the years, I often thought if I truly searched for my mom she would give me a sign, but where would I even look? Or would I even dare? Gma believed in those kinds of things, and despite having long lost my religion, she made me believe.

She told me a story once, without even looking up from the quilt she mended, about a dark angel who sat in a chair by the window in the corner of the room, accompanying her in the hospital as her mother lay on her deathbed gripped by cancer. She said the angel’s presence alone had been enough to give her peace. I had watched her get mistyeyed while she brought herself back to the scene, still pushing the thimble to the fabric. Another time, she continued, she sat on the front step of their first house on Pine Hill in hysterics as she’d just gotten word of her three-year-old daughter’s cancer diagnosis; she’d felt a hand on her shoulder enough to calm her. She knew then she wasn’t alone.

These conversations became typical when it was just us. When she cried, so did I. We wore each other’s pain like thick costume makeup, nothing a good cry and some heavy cold cream couldn’t take off. She shared with me her brinks of meltdowns after losing my mother, and I grew up knowing that she had far more depth than her overt simplicity echoed.

It wasn’t until my latter college years, though, when we had become so close we were able to overlook most of our differences. By then, I wanted all the time I spent running away back; I wanted my high school bad attitude and disrespect erased; I wanted the smell of my cigarette smoke in her station wagon to finally go away. She was my history. She was my companion. She was home to me.

In the last few years, we shared our haunts, our fears, our regrets. Yet, we laughed a lot. She never minded being the butt of any good joke. She got crazier and goofier in her old age, shedding more of her crossbred New England proper and Southern Belle style. One of my favorite memories was of the time my college roommate, Kathleen, and I taught her how to play “Asshole” at our Bethany, Delaware, beach house.

Gma had said, “The kids were all down here whoopin’ it up the other night playing a game, havin’ a good ol’ time, hootin’ and hollerin’. I would like to learn that game. They kept shouting some curse word what’s it called again?”

“Asshole?” I had said.

“Yup, that must be it. Asshole sounds right. Think you can teach this old bird?”

Kathleen and I nearly fell over at the request but were obliged to widen Gma’s eyes to the awesome college beer-drinking game full of presidents, assholes, and beer bitches. And she loved it, quite possibly a little tipsy after a few rounds. We didn’t typically play Asshole with Jacob’s Creek chardonnay.

Throughout the course of several conversations, Gma assured me that she’d had a good life and when the time came, she’d be ready. In those last few years, if I stood in her condo and so much as mentioned the slightest gesture of admiration toward anything she owned, she’d say, “Write your name on the back.” She’d have the Scotch tape and a Sharpie out before I could even reconsider.

It was 2003, a year into my teaching career, when Gma finally expressed how proud she was of me. She said that my mom had always wanted to be a teacher, that she was surely proud of me, too. I’ll never forget waking up to my brother’s phone call, his voice solemn. I was devastated.

It was my mom and Gma who helped Brooke and I get our house, I always said. I had signed a contract to start at St. Anne’s in the fall, so we needed a home outside the city that would make my new commute toward DC more bearable. Three years after Gma died, since I wasn’t speaking to God much in those days, I asked Mom and Gma to help us out if they could. Brooke, who only knew Gma through my incessant stories, was just as kooky as I was when it came to talking to the dead so she never batted an eye at the references I made to the china cabinet.

Gma’s old antique china cabinet green until she stripped, sanded and painted it maroon the year she moved to her condo sat in the dining room of our rented row house in Baltimore. (The smell of turpentine will always remind me of her leathered hands.) Sometimes, for no good reason, the door would fall slightly ajar, and each time it did, I swore she was trying to tell me something. While dating a girl I imagine Gma was not particularly fond of, I eventually had to put a matchbook in the door just to keep the damn thing closed it creeped me out in the mornings when I’d wake up to the glass door gaping.

The exact night Brooke and I put the contract in on our house, we mentioned something to Gma before going to bed, kissing our hands and casually patting the side of the paint-chipped cabinet. The next morning wide open. Two days later contract accepted. I was elated; I’d never had such a good feeling about anything.

I felt so close to my team of guardian angels then. Everything seemed to be in its delightfully divine order, and I thanked them immensely from the moment we began the purchasing process until the time we moved in, displaying my gratitude thereafter with each stroke of my paintbrush and each rock pulled from the garden. I adored the home we were blessed with, our cute little cobblestone accented condo, our very first house. Even though we knew it wasn’t a forever home, it was ours to make our own for now. And we did or we started to.

So when the fairy tale began to fall apart, just a little over a year later, I couldn’t help but question everything, intentions, meaning. There was no sign from the china cabinet. None of it made sense, the reason behind it all, I mean. Sure, I had always known growing up that everything has its reason. I have lived by that motto, but I could make no sense of this. It’s one thing for a relationship to fall apart, but to have gone all this way, with the house to tie us even further? I was beside myself.

Needless to say, my bits of gratitude tapered off as I felt like I had less and less to be thankful for. I still talked to Mom and Gma, but not without first asking, “Why?” And something, quite possibly the silence that made the question seem rhetorical told me I was going to have to get through this on my own. Perhaps it was a test of independence or a sudden stroke of bad karma for all the years spent being an obnoxious teenager, ungrateful, untrustworthy. Either way I was screwed; of that much I was certain.

I had always wanted to leave. To go away, I mean. Study abroad or go live in another state and explore. I had traveled a little in college but nowhere extensively. So, as all the boxes moved into our brand new house were unpacked and making their way into storage, the reality of being bound started creeping into my dreams through suffocation. I was faintly torn. Not enough to dampen the mood, because I imagined that somehow all that other stuff, my writing, my passions, would come later. It would all fall into place somehow. I guess I trusted even in the slightest possibility, although I knew that with each year of teaching, the job that was supposed to give me time off to be creative, I felt more and more comfortable and lackadaisical about pursuing my dreams.

I took a writing course online that drove in some discipline, only to drop it midway when things got complicated. Brooke often entertained the idea of moving to California, which kept me content, although I knew with the look of things that was only getting further and further from practical. But since being honest with myself wasn’t my strong suit, I ignored my intuition, and looking back, ignored a lot of signs that might have politely escorted me out the door rather than having it slammed in my face.

Chapter Two


I took a course, Sex in a Pluralistic Society, in my last semester of college. Somehow I thought it was going to be a lecture on the sociology of gender. Keep in mind this was the same semester I tried to cram in all my last requirements, registering for other such gems as Plagues and People; Death, Dying and Bereavement; and History of Theology.

Yes, the sex class was the lighter side to my schedule, but my prude Catholic upbringing made a sex journal, “Or, if you don’t have a partner, make it a self-love journal,” a really difficult assignment. Plus, the guy who taught the class just creeped me out. The videos he made us watch, I’m still traumatized. A classmate and I thought to complain, on several occasions, but it was both of our last semesters so it’s fair to say that, like me, she left that sort of tenacity to the underclassmen.

Despite the dildos, the pornography, and the daylong discussion on G-spots, I did take away one valuable lesson from that loony old perv. It was toward the end of the semester when the concept of love was finally introduced. By then, I had done my fair share of heart breaking and had tasted the bitter side of breakup a few times myself. I was sure I knew everything he had to say.

Instead, I was surprised to find myself taking notes when he broke down the Greeks’ take on the four different kinds of love: agape, eros, philia, storge. We discussed unconditional love versus conditional love. Yeah, yeah; I knew all that. He went on to describe eros as manic love, obsessive love, desperate love.

“This is the kind of love movies are based on. It’s high energy, high drama, requires no sleep, is built on attraction, jealousy runs rampant; it comes in like a storm and subsides often as quickly as it came in.” I cringed when he said, “It’s immature love.”

And here, I thought, this is what it was all about. All lesbian love, at least all those wonderful, electrifying things! Eros it even sounds erroneous.

It was when I was dating the most confident and beautiful, twinkly-eyed woman I’d ever laid my hands on, some four years later, that I was brought back to that lecture. Despite our good intentions and valiant attempts at maturity, Brooke and I had a relationship built on many of those very erroneous virtues. It was movie-worthy high passion infused with depths that felt like coming down from a rock star kind of party.

Perhaps it’s because it began all wrong. She was fresh out of college. I was already teaching, working weekends at a chick bar in Baltimore at the time, Coconuts, our very own Coyote Ugly. One night, a friend of hers (she admitted later) noticed me, in my finest wicker cowboy hat and cut-off shirt, slinging beers and lining up shots between stolen, flirtatious moments on the dance floor. A week later, Brooke and I were fixed up at a party. We were both in other relationships that we needed excuses to get out of, so why not? She was beautiful (did I say that already?), tall, caramel skin and hazel eyes, tomboy cute when she was feeling sporty, simply stunning when dressed to the nines. She even fell into her dad’s Brazilian accent after a few cocktails, which sealed it for me; I was enamored. Plus, she was a bona fide lesbian (a first for me), and we wore the same size shoe. What more do you need?

We did everything together: tennis, basketball, squash. She’d patiently sit on the beach while I surfed. I always said yes to her shopping trips. We even peed with the door open so as to not interrupt conversation. And I’m almost certain I slept right on top of her for at least a solid year, I’d never been considered a “peanut” before. In fact, I don’t think we separated at all for the first couple of years we dated, now that I think about it. Maybe for an odd trip, but it didn’t go without feeling like we’d lost a limb, I swear. We’d always say, “No more than five days,” as if we wouldn’t have been able to breathe on day six.

When we first started dating, I went to Japan for nine days to visit my brother Jack who had been stationed at Atsugi. I was pretty pathetic. It was my first time traveling alone, so when I stepped off the plane on foreign soil and my family wasn’t at the gate ready to collect me, I quickly reverted to my inner child, the sweeping panic stretched from my tippy toes to my fingertips.

It was the same feeling I used to get in Kmart when I’d look up from the shelf to tug at the skirt of the lady standing beside me, only to be both mortified and petrified when I realized that face and body didn’t belong to my Gma. I’m not sure who was supposed to be keeping track of whom, but whoever it was did so poorly. Hence the reason why I developed a system: I’d go sit in the back of our station wagon where I knew it would be impossible for me to be forgotten among the dusty racks of stiff clothes. The first time I put this system into place, unbeknownst to anyone, I resurfaced from the car when the two police cars arrived, to see what all the hubbub was about. Boy, were they glad to see me when I strolled back through the automatic sliding doors, unaware of all the excitement I had started.

Thank God my sister-in-law found me in Tokyo after I’d already figured out how to work the phones and had dialed home. Brooke had calmed me down by talking me through the basics: I wasn’t lost; I was just on the brink of being found, she assured me. I’d hung up and collected myself by the time Jill and the kids arrived.

Every evening in Japan, I slid away from the family and hid in my room where I clumsily punched hundreds of calling card numbers into the phone just so I could hear Brooke’s voice before bed. And like me, she was dying inside at the distance between us.

Sure, there were some caution signs, some red flags being waved, but all the good seemed to outweigh the bad, and who’s perfect, really? I thought some of my ideologies about love were too lofty and maybe, just maybe, I had to accept that I would never have all that I desired from a relationship, like say, trust. Plus, people grow, they mature, relationships mature; surely we’d be the growing kind. We liked self-help books. We had a shelf where they sat, most of them at least half-read.

Her family loved me, and I adored them. Yes, it took a while for them to get used to the idea of me being more than just Brooke’s “roommate.” Thankfully, the week Brooke came out to her family, a close family friend, battling breast cancer, took a turn for the worse. Brooke came back at her parents’ retorts with, “Well, at least I don’t have cancer.” And to that, well they had to agree.

Brooke and I traveled together. We loved the beach. We loved food and cute, quaint little restaurants. We loved playing house and raising a puppy. We loved talking about our future and a big fat gay wedding, and most of all we loved being loved. We bought each other flowers and little presents and surprised each other with dinner and trips and concert tickets. I’ll never forget the anniversary when she had me get all dressed up just to trick me into a beautiful candlelit dinner at home. I could have sat at that table forever, staring into her shimmering, smiling eyes, or let her hold me for just as long as we danced among the rose petals she’d scattered at our feet.

It was for all those reasons that the darkness never outweighed the light, the screaming matches, the silent treatments, the distrust, the jealousy. All those things seemed part of our short past when we began shopping for our first home. It was a blank slate, a new beginning signing the paperwork, picking out furniture, remodeling our kitchen.

God, we danced so much in that kitchen.

We laughed at our goofy dog, Porter. We cried on our couch, watching movies. We supported each other in our few separate endeavors. We shared chores and “mom” duty and bills and credit cards. And I think it was under the weight of all the things of which we were once so proud that it all began to crumble. “Do you have to slam the cabinets like that?” as if I were picking up new habits to purposefully push her away. “I hate fighting like this in front of him!” she’d say, pointing at Porter. “Look, we’re making him nervous.”

She sobbed and sobbed, and her big beautiful eyes remained bloodshot for at least six months as I watched her slip away from me. I begged her to tell me what she needed, and even that she couldn’t do.

Brooke finally had a social life that I supported wholeheartedly, but that social life seemed to echo more and more of what was wrong with us. During the day things appeared fine and good and normal, but at night her cold shoulder sent me shivering further and further to the opposite side of the bed until I eventually moved into the spare bedroom.

I didn’t get it. I said that I did, that I understood, but I didn’t.

She spent an awful lot of time with a “friend.” Julie, a mutual friend, or so I thought. We all hung out together, thus I didn’t think to question anything until it became more and more blatant. I would beg, “Just tell me what’s going on with the two of you. I’m a big girl. I’ll just walk away. But I can’t just sit around here feeling batty while you deny what I can see with my own two eyes!”

She wouldn’t admit to it. “Nothing is going on.” She said she just needed time to figure herself out.

In the meantime, I was still her home. I was still her best friend and even at the furthest distance she’d pushed me to, I was the one who calmed her when the weight of it all made her come unhinged.

I was the one who rubbed her back and kissed her forehead.

She wanted me to be an asshole, so she’d have an excuse. She wanted me to get pissed to lessen her compounding guilt. I’m not sure if it was that I couldn’t or that I wouldn’t do either of those things. I still hung onto what I’d promised with that sparkly little ring I’d given her, not the real thing, but a big promise. I had taken it all very seriously. “In sickness and in health.” And here she was before me, as far as I could see it, sick.

Well, sick was the only diagnosis that wouldn’t allow me to hate her as she inhabited our home with me, a platonic roommate, sometimes cold and aloof and other times recognizable and warm. I felt like we had somehow been dragged into the drama of a bad after-school special without the happy commercials of sugary cereals and toys that will never break or end up like the Velveteen Rabbit, who ironically, I was really starting to resemble in the confines of our condo with its walls caving in.

While the final days of summer strode past in their lengthy hour, the honest words, “I want to take a break,” were inescapably spoken. I felt sick, stunned by the syllables as they fell from her lips. We’d been at the beach for the weekend where I naively thought we might be able to spend some time all to ourselves, mending the stacks of broken things between us. I knew this had to do with Julie, but still nobody had the guts to admit it. I was infuriated. So much so, that I reduced myself to checking cell phone logs and sleuthing around my own home. I hated myself for the lengths I allowed her to push me.

There was no way I could return to school as my signed contract promised. I couldn’t imagine focusing on my students while I was so busy focusing on my failing relationship. Although the last thing I wanted to do was uproot myself, I had finally begun to gather the pebbles of self-respect that would eventually become its new foundation. I had to go.

And with the phone call to my faculty chair, I did exactly what I never imagined I would do. I resigned. I had never been so excited to throw in the towel well, except for that one awful restaurant where I was too much of a coward to quit so I faxed in my resignation an hour before my shift that time felt good too. But this was different. I didn’t chicken out. I stood up to Barbara’s crucifix-firing cannon and prevailed.

When Brooke and I weren’t fighting or walking on eggshells around each other, she dove into my arms expressing her undying love for me, and I held the stranger I no longer connected with, consoling her. I didn’t know what to make of all the mixed emotions. I had taken my accusations to Julie herself to try to get some answers, but she laughed at my arguments, claiming Brooke was “too confused” to be dating anyone right now. Julie was older, with graying wisps, loafers and pleated pants. To look at her anymore made me sick. And, after all, Brooke still wore the ring I’d given her. Still, after nine months, none of it made any sense.

The night she woke me, cross-legged on the floor at my bed because she couldn’t sleep and it was driving her crazy, she looked desperate. I held her and stroked her hair, calming her with my patient voice, exuding every ounce of love that could look past my own pain to reduce hers. Healthy? Probably not. But that was the only way I knew how to love her. To put everything of me aside. Everything.

I have always wanted a family. From the time I was little I knew I would be a mom. At eight, I thought marrying a rich man and becoming a housewife was the golden ticket to true happiness, along with becoming the president, a monkey trainer, and a marine biologist. My pending future changed with the weather, but rich was almost always a constant. A valid measure of success at eight, I suppose. A family, and its entire construct, was very important to me: the house, the dog, the hus or now the wife, all of it.

And that’s what Brooke and I had, or we talked like we did. Raising our puppy from ten weeks to his “man”hood and buying household goods on joint credit cards. We were all grown up like a real family. With our names linked on more than just the dog’s birth certificate, “taking a break” was really a separation and anything beyond that was really a divorce. I hadn’t reached that logic in my head, perhaps because I still refused to believe that all I imagined was disintegrating before me, where I stood, clenching fistfuls of hopeless dust.

Chapter Three


I toyed with the idea of California, as I had always talked about. No reason to stay here. Seriously, with no excuses holding me back, I searched tirelessly for jobs on craigslist day in and day out. And there was an edge of excitement in taking control, or that’s what I convinced myself was going on. I applied for a few teaching jobs in California, Colorado, British Columbia, and even New York. I was intrigued by the schools that touted their outdoor education programs and offered classes like rock climbing and snowboarding. I reasoned with myself: teaching can’t be all that bad with a mountain backdrop and class cancelations for white-water rafting.



I Think I’ll Make It. A True Story of Lost and Found

by Kat Hurley

get it at Amazon.com

Why even supply-siders know Trickle Down is rubbish. Even if you build it, the poor can’t come – Mark R Reiff.

Supply creates its own demand?


When you build more stuff, it is not true that all the costs of production are introduced into the economy as new money. You have merely injected new money to the extent you have incurred additional marginal costs, labour and materials mostly. Most fixed costs don’t rise with the increased production.

And it is unlikely that a producer would take the risk of ramping up production in a troubled economic environment if all that could be recovered was the marginal costs.

And no reasonable business person thinks that enough new money can be introduced by increasing production alone. If they did, record amounts of cash wouldn’t be sitting in corporate bank accounts doing nothing.

Obviously, the people who control this cash don’t believe that supply creates its own demand. They think that increasing production without first seeing an increase in demand would be foolhardy.

‘If you build it, they will come.’

It’s a Latin saying, Si tu id aeficas, ei venient, but it’s probably more recognisable because it sounds like what that disembodied voice says to Kevin Costner in the film Field of Dreams (1989). And in the film, Costner does build it, a baseball field, and people do come. In either case, it’s a good way of summing up the case for supply-side economics.

But to understand that case, we need to break it down into its constituent elements. And the thinking behind it goes like this: if you want to stimulate the economy, then cut taxes on the rich, those who invest in and build things, and they will use this extra money to produce more stuff. Why? Because supply creates its own demand, so if they produce more they will sell more, and the economy will expand. An expanding economy, in turn, benefits everybody. There will be more jobs, wages will be higher, and government budget deficits will shrink.

This latter effect, of course, might seem counterintuitive. But the argument is that even though tax rates go down, the amount of economic activity these cuts unleash will grow everyone’s income to such an extent that the total tax collected by the government, even at these lower rates, will actually go up.

That’s what the supply-siders contend.

Given that the supply-side approach has been the policy of the Republican Party for decades, this argument has proved convincing to a lot of people. But let’s look at it a little more carefully.

The notion that supply creates its own demand is known as Say’s law, after the French economist Jean Baptiste Say (1767-1832) who is credited with its formulation. The thought is that when you produce more, you have to spend additional money to do so. This additional spending, in turn, provides people with extra income, and therefore the wherewithal to buy the additional goods you have created.

Of course, you cannot just build anything. To sell more of something, it has to be something that people actually want. Say himself acknowledged this. But let’s focus on the mechanics of how increasing production is supposed to give people the wherewithal to purchase more of what they do want. Unfortunately, the presumptions here just don’t make sense.

First, at most, building more goods simply introduces funds equivalent to their cost of production into the economy. But things don’t sell for their cost of production no one builds anything unless they think they can price it at a profit. And if you don’t think people will have enough new money to pay this price, why would you increase production?

Second, a lot of the costs of production are what economists call ‘fixed’ costs; that is, the cost of big things such as factories and office buildings and expensive machines and equipment, rather than the costs of the additional labour and supplies necessary to build one extra thing, which are called ‘marginal’ costs. The total cost of production combines fixed and marginal costs, and fixed costs usually represent the far greater share. This means that when you build more stuff, it is not true that all the costs of production are introduced into the economy as new money.

You have merely injected new money to the extent you have incurred additional marginal costs.

And it is unlikely that a producer would take the risk of ramping up production in a troubled economic environment if all that could be recovered was the marginal costs.

Third, producers receive many of the goods needed in the production of further goods from their suppliers on credit. Why presume that all the marginal costs of additional production have actually been paid at the time the goods hit the shelves? Or that the ultimate consumer is going to be willing to use credit to increase consumption in troubled times, even if those higher up the chain have used credit to increase production?

More concerning still, if consumers do use credit, unless we later provide them with more income, we will have simply set ourselves up for another financial collapse when the teaser rates on their loans time out and further payments become unaffordable, as happened in 2008.

None of these problems with supply-side thinking will come as a surprise to anyone who runs a business. They are happy to see their taxes cut, sure, but they are not going to use this extra money to increase production unless they think that their customers will have enough new money to buy these additional goods. And no reasonable business person thinks that enough new money can be introduced by increasing production alone. If they did, record amounts of cash wouldn’t be sitting in corporate bank accounts doing nothing, which is what has been happening for years now. Obviously, the people who control this cash don’t believe that supply creates its own demand. They think that increasing production without first seeing an increase in demand would be foolhardy.

History is also not on the supply-siders’ side. To see the failure of the supply-side approach at the national level, all we need do is look at the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts signed into law by the then president of the United States, George W Bush.

These tax cuts did not increase investment or production. Rather, the rich either hoarded this additional money or used it to bid up the price of existing assets, creating asset bubbles and exponentially increasingly economic inequality. And because economic activity did not increase enough to offset the loss of government revenue from reduced taxes, the deficit exploded. To see a similar result on the state level, in turn, we can look at the recent supply-side ‘Kansas experiment’. There, massive tax cuts on the rich and corporations almost bankrupted the state.

Remember also that in the 19th century, when Say devised his law, there was a huge amount of untapped demand for new goods; most costs were marginal costs; and most transactions were for cash, not credit. At that time, perhaps it seemed like supply did create its own demand. But not today.

Today, to stimulate the economy, we need to increase demand first. And the best way to do this is by putting more money in the hands of the people whom the economist John Maynard Keynes described in 1936 as having the highest ‘marginal propensity to consume’.

These are not the rich, but rather the poor and middle-class. For, as a group, these are the people who can be counted on to spend all their income whereas, as we have already seen, the rich are likely to keep a chunk of it in cash.

Once demand is increased among the poor and middle class, Keynes argued, production will rise to meet it.

In deciding whether to go with the supplyside or the Keynesian approach to stimulating the economy, there is one more consideration that is relevant.

Recent history has shown that we can’t be sure that economic expansion alone will solve our wider economic problems. Almost all of the benefits of economic growth during the past 30 years or so have accrued to the rich, and mostly to the super-rich. Real income for most people has been stagnant or even declined. The new jobs that have been created are mostly temporary, low-wage, nobenefit jobs. Permanent, good-wage jobs with benefits have continued to disappear.

Rather than giving money to the rich in these circumstances and hoping that it trickles down to the rest of us, as the supply-siders suggest, it would be better to give money to the poor and middle-class, as the Keynesians suggest. The Keynesian approach, after all, has worked many times in the past. Indeed, it’s how the West emerged from the Great Depression. But most importantly, if for some reason it doesn’t work, at least we will have made the right people better off.

Mark R Reiff has taught political, legal and moral philosophy at the University of Manchester, the University of Durham and the University of California, Davis, and he was a Faculty Fellow at the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

Common sense on Tax. Who said it was meant to be fair? – Brian Fallow.

The major part of a homeowner’s return on investment is the avoided cost of renting a similar property. It falls within the purist definition of income.

But perhaps the most unfortunate restriction on the scope of the Tax Working Group’s task, from the standpoint of fairness, is that it has been instructed not to consider the interaction between the tax system and the transfer (welfare) system.

It is the net effect of both tax and transfers which reduces the stark inequality of market incomes into the (still substantial) inequality of disposable incomes.

The OECD says New Zealand has the fourth least redistributive tax and transfer system among 30 rich countries it looked at.

The Government has given the Tax Working Group chaired by Sir Michael Cullen a well nigh impossible task.

Its terms of reference are peppered with the word “fair”. It occurs seven times. How can the tax system be made ”fair, balanced and efficient”?

But the terms of reference go on to rule out all the obvious ways of making it fairer.

For a start, the working group is not allowed to recommend any increase in income tax rates.

Yet there might well be a case for a more progressive income tax scale on vertical equity grounds. That is, the principle that those with higher incomes, or ability to pay, should pay a greater amount of tax.

And if they wanted to reduce the impact of bracket creep in the middle of the income distribution, the revenue cost could be reduced by introducing a new top rate for those with most ability to pay. Too bad, it is forbidden.

Inheritance tax is also ruled out of consideration, despite the obvious equity argument for having one. Yet legacies fall within economists’ conception of income what can be consumed in a given period while keeping real wealth intact and if you have an income tax, you should tax income. The broader the base, the lower rates can be.

Real capital gains are also income, and the Government has clearly pointed the tax working group’s gaze in that direction.

But the family home is off limits for any capital gains tax, and the ground under it for any land tax.

That is despite the fact that housing equity represents the lion’s share of household wealth, which is distributed even more unequally than income is.

The “third rail” (touch it and you die) status of owner-occupied housing would also rule out any attempt to tax imputed rents, which also count as economic income.

The major part of a homeowner’s return on investment is the avoided cost of renting a similar property. It falls within the purist definition of income, but the electoral fate of Gareth Morgan’s party last year suggests that persuading voters of the merits of such a reform is a forbidding challenge.

But perhaps the most unfortunate restriction on the scope of the Tax Working Group’s task, from the standpoint of fairness, is that it has been instructed not to consider the interaction between the tax system and the transfer (welfare) system.

Victoria University of Wellington economists Simon Chapple and Toby Moore, in a wide ranging and trenchant submission to the Tax Working Group, argue that this makes no sense.

It is the net effect of both tax and transfers which reduces the stark inequality of market incomes into the (still substantial) inequality of disposable incomes.

And, it turns out, less so here than in most other developed countries. Officials, in a background paper for the working group on tax and fairness, point out that the OECD reckons New Zealand has the fourth least redistributive tax and transfer system among 30 rich countries it looked at.

As one example of the incoherence of the tax benefit system, Chapple and Moore cite child support payments.

For someone on one of the main benefits, like Sole Parent Support, every dollar of child support reduces their benefit by $1, an effective tax rate of 100 per cent until the benefit payment is entirely clawed back by the Government.

For someone else who has a job well enough paid not to need a benefit, the same child support is tax-free income. How fair is that?

The tax welfare interface is riddled with such anomalies and perverse incentives.

Research by Patrick Nolan at the Productivity Commission, into the effective marginal tax rates which arise from the targeting of income support policies, indicates it is not uncommon for people to find themselves facing rates as high as 100 per cent. That is, they could significantly increase the number of hours they work and be not one dollar better off, because ofthe thresholds and abatement rates which apply.

These poverty traps are not so much a ditch as a crevasse.

Chapple and Moore also highlight the inconsistency between the tax and benefit systems in terms of the units they apply to individuals or families: “The benefit (or negative tax) system assesses need on the basis of family income. The income tax system assesses ability to pay on the basis of individual income.” We assess fairness or equity issues in terms of families, not individuals’ circumstances.

“Yet we have a tax system which bases income tax, which has as an important goal equity on individuals rather than families.”

They urge the Tax Working Group to look into the pros and cons of a family-based tax system.

“A lot of OECD countries, including the United States, adjust income tax to family circumstances,” says Chapple, a former chief economist at the Ministry of Social Development who now heads the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies.

All this would not be so bad if the newly formed Welfare Expert Advisory Group was going to get to grips with the complexities of the tax/welfare interface.

But it is not clear that it will.

Its brief does include giving “high level” recommendations for improving Working for Families.

And it is instructed to give ”due consideration to interactions between the welfare overhaul and related Government work programmes such as the Tax Working Group”.

So it arguably does have a mandate, should it wish, to get to grips with the often toxic interaction between the tax and welfare systems.

But it is far from clear that the Welfare Expert Advisory Group has the expertise, or for that matter the budget, to do so.

More likely, the issue will fall between the two stools.

For a Government that proclaims the reduction of child poverty to be a central goal, it is a striking omission.

Fortress Europe, the Inhumanity of Europe’s Refugee Policy – Costas Georgiades and Luca Bücken.

Officials undertaking vulnerability assessments at Moria refugee camp are left asking not whether someone has been raped, but how brutally and how often.

This is no longer a “refugee crisis” or even a “refugee management crisis.” It is now a humanitarian crisis by design.

Are Europe’s citizens and leaders really prepared to abandon basic values like solidarity and empathy for a future of walls guarded by Libyan mercenaries, an arguably unlawful deal with Turkey, and unconscionable conditions for people seeking refuge from poverty and conflicts that Europe helped to create?

Many promising policies with the potential to create a safe and humane asylum process have been proposed. Yet the EU continues to allow asylumseekers to languish in unconscionable conditions, betraying its values for the sake of deterrence.

For the asylum seekers in the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, the word “almost” has become a source of devastation. They almost made it. They are almost at the end of their brutal journey. As Aarash, a 27-year-old father of a young daughter and an MBA graduate from Kabul, Afghanistan, put it, “When all is said and done, we are only almost human.” And Europe only almost welcomes them.

“Almost” causes unbearable despair to the asylum-seekers trapped on Lesbos and Samos, who have already endured the trauma of their journey and camp life. According to a report released in October by Doctors without Borders, nearly 50% of refugees on Samos experienced violence while passing through Turkey, and close to 25% had experienced violence since arriving in Greece. Officials undertaking vulnerability assessments at Moria are left asking not whether someone has been raped, but how brutally and how often.

Against this background, it is unsurprising that residents suffer psychologically. Yet the waiting list for psychological treatment is over 500 names long, meaning that few will end up receiving any support at all. In the meantime, a small clinic run by the Greek nonprofit Emergency Response Center International in Moria confronts cases of self-harm daily, and suicide is not uncommon.

The trauma specialist Paul Stevenson described a demoralization syndrome that he observed during his work at migrant detention centers on Nauru, off the Australian coast. Following a natural disaster, he says, the incidence of posttraumatic stress disorder is about 3%. After a terrorist attack, that figure rises to about 25%. In the case of torture and incarceration, it jumps to 50%, because that “is considered to be the most demoralizing situation” a person can experience.

Psychological torture and incarceration are effectively what asylum-seekers in the Moria camp now face. Although they are permitted to come and go as they please, there are no alternative living spaces or food-distribution points. And conditions in the camp are characterized by cramped and inadequate facilities an estimated 6,600 asylum-seekers are currently residing in a camp built for 3,000 not to mention the constant threat of abuse.

This situation contrasts sharply with the European Union’s narrative. A year after the European refugee crisis or, more accurately, refugee-management crisis peaked in the summer of 2015, the EU declared that the situation was under control. But, while it is true that fewer refugees were arriving on Europe’s shores, anyone who has been to Lesbos lately knows that the crisis is far from over.

Analysts have likened the EU’s asylum and security policies in the Mediterranean since 2015 to the construction of a “fortress Europe.” If the EU is a fortress, Moria camp is its torture chamber, with nightmarish conditions that have been well documented. This is no longer a “refugee crisis” or even a “refugee management crisis.” It is now a humanitarian crisis by design. Given the EU’s data and resources, this outcome can be viewed only as intentional.

In fact, appalling conditions are being allowed to prevail in refugee camps, because authorities want to deter other asylum seekers including some who arguably have no right to international protection from trying to get in, and potentially even to impel some who have arrived to return home. Better camp conditions and allowing refugees to reach the Greek mainland, the logic goes, would contribute to another surge in crossings. Greece’s highest administrative court has called into question the legality of this containment policy, a result of the controversial EU-Turkey agreement. The Greek government, however, has defied the court’s ruling.

It is a heartless, cynical strategy of reckless disregard for human dignity, justified by bigoted discourse and biased narratives. Are Europe’s citizens and leaders really prepared to abandon basic values like solidarity and empathy for a future of walls guarded by Libyan mercenaries, an arguably unlawful deal with Turkey, and unconscionable conditions for people seeking refuge from poverty and conflicts that Europe helped to create?

Against all logic, and despite “almost” after “almost,” Moria camp residents remain hopeful that Europe will soon remember and abide by its commitments to upholding human rights. In the meantime, they demonstrate that it is often in inhumane conditions that humanity shines the brightest.

New arrivals receive support from their communities, including lessons on survival in the camp’s demoralizing environment. The camp’s different ethnic communities often act together to ensure that compatriots who develop psychosis, for example, are among those who actually receive treatment. Waqi, despite incredible personal trauma experienced before and after her arrival in Greece, cares for the children of two families because their depressive parents cannot.

It does not have to be this way. Many promising policies with the potential to create a safe and humane asylum process have been proposed. These include humanitarian visas, preference matching between host countries and asylum seekers, resettlement, and much stronger support for frontline countries.

Advocating for such solutions may not be comfortable or politically popular. Developing and implementing new asylum policies that respect the rights and humanity of asylum-seekers then will demand bold leadership. But the status quo is clearly unacceptable.

The Handbook Of Solitude. Psychological Perspectives on Social Isolation, Social Withdrawal, and Being Alone.

Some might believe that it is not fear that guides the behaviors of some of these solitary individuals. Instead, it might be proposed that some of these noninteracting individuals have a biological orientation that leads them to prefer a solitary existence.

I am quite certain that what the reader will come away with after having completed the chapters included herein is that solitude has many faces.

On Solitude, Withdrawal, and Social Isolation

Kenneth H. Rubin

As I sit in my office pondering what it is that I should be writing in the Foreword to this extraordinary compendium, I am alone. With the door closed, I am protected against possible interruptions and am reminded of the positive features of solitude, there is no one around, it is quiet, and I can concentrate on the duties at hand. Indeed, several contributors to this volume have written about the pleasantries associated with solitude; frankly, I must agree with this perspective, but do so with a number of significant provisos. I will offer a listing of these provisos in the following text. However, before so doing, I would like to suggest a thought experiment or two.

A Science Fiction Thought Experiment

Why must one understand the significance of solitude, withdrawal, and social isolation? Let’s begin with a little thought experiment. Imagine, for at least one millisecond, that we have arrived on a planet populated by billions of people. Never mind how these people came into existence. Let’s just assume that they happen to be on the planet and that we know not how they came to be. Imagine too that there is no interpersonal magnetism, that these people never come together, there are no interactions, there is no crashing together or colliding of these individuals. All we can see are solitary entities walking aimlessly, perhaps occasionally observing each other. In short, we are left with many individuals who produce, collectively, an enormous social void. From an Earthly perspective, we might find the entire enterprise to be rather intriguing or boring or frightening and would likely predict that prospects for the future of this planet are dim.

Given that this is a supposed “thought exercise,” please allow me to humor myself and replace the aforementioned noun “people” with “atoms” or their intrinsic properties of electrons, protons, and neutrons. By so doing, one might have to contemplate such topics as magnetism and collision and the products of these actions. This would immediately give rise to thoughts of mass, electricity, and excitement. Without magnetism (attraction), electricity, and excitement, whatever would we be left with? As I move more forcefully into this exercise, I find myself in increasingly unfamiliar territory I may study pretense, but I am not a pretender at least insofar as suggesting to anyone willing to listen (or read) that l have “real” knowledge about anything pertaining to physics. In fact, I am ever so happy to leave the study of the Higgs boson to that group of scholars engaged in research at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

For the time being, I will escape from any contemplation of physics and swiftly return to thinking about a planet on which people appear to exist without laws of attraction. If the “people” who inhabit the planet do not collide, we are left with the inevitability of what solitude would eventually predict, a nothingness, an emptiness, a void. If “people” did not collide, did not interact, there would be no “us.” Relationships would not exist; there would be no human groups, no communities, no cultures. There would be no sense of values, norms, rules, laws. Social hierarchies would not exist; there would be no need to think about mindreading, perspective taking, interpersonal problemsolving. Liking, loving, accepting, rejecting, excluding, victimizing none of these significant constructs would be relevant. Social comparison, self-appraisal, felt security, loneliness, rejection sensitivity topics that tend to appear regularly in the Developmental, Social, Personality, Cognitive, and Clinical Psychology literatures would be irrelevant. From my admittedly limited perspective, as a Developmental Scientist (and thankfully not as a Physicist), there would be nothing to write, think, feel, or be about.

Thank goodness for those nuclear researchers at CERN. They have taught us that magnetism matters, that interactions matter, that clusters matter (and may collide to produce new entities). These folks are not pondering what happens with people, they are thinking at the subatomic level. I, on the other hand, have spent the past 40-some years thinking about people, their individual characteristics, their interactions and collisions with one another, the relationships that are formed on the basis of their interactions, and the groups, communities, and cultures within which these individuals and relationships can be found. Indeed, I have collected more than a fair share of data on these topics. In so doing, I am left with the conclusion that solitude, isolation, and social withdrawal can be ruinous. It ain’t science fiction.

A Second Thought Experience

Let’s move to a rather different thought experience. Imagine that the community within which we live teaches its inhabitants, from early childhood, that normative sociocultural expectations involve helping, sharing, and caring with and for each other; teaching each other about that which defines the “good, bad, and ugly”; communicating with each other about norms and what may happen when one conforms to or violates them. Imagine too, that in such a community within which interaction, cooperation, and relationships matter, there are some individuals who, for whatever reason, do not interact with their confreres. One might suppose that the remaining members of the community could ponder why it is that these solitary individuals behave as they do. And several suggestions may be offered for their solitude.

For example, it may be suggested that some of these noninteracting individuals have some biological or perhaps some genetic orientation that leads them to feel uncomfortable in the presence of others. Perhaps members of the community may have read something about a gene that is associated with diminished 5-HTT transcription and reduced serotonin uptake. Some in the community may have read somewhere that without the regulating effects of serotonin, the amygdala and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system can become overactive, leading to the physiological profile of a fearful or anxious individual.

Fear may be a guiding force for these solitary individuals fear of what may happen if they approach others in the community; fear of what may happen if they attempt to develop a nonfamilial relationship with another in the community; fear of leaving a negative impression on those who may judge their actions, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Or perhaps, some might believe that it is not fear that guides the behaviors of some of these solitary individuals. Instead, it might be proposed that some of these noninteracting individuals have a biological orientation that leads them to prefer a solitary existence. These individuals may feel more positively inclined when in the company of inanimate objects things.

At this point, our second thought experience leaves us with the identification of two “types” of solitary individuals:

1. Those who are motivated by fear, the prospects of social appraisal, and heightened sensitivity to the possibility of rejection;

2. Those who have a distinct preference for solitude.

Regardless of the epidemiological “causes” of solitary behavior, in a society that has strong beliefs in the importance of cooperation, collaboration, and caregiving, it is likely that the majority of individuals who adhere to the cultural ethos would begin to think unpleasant thoughts about the noninteracting minority. They may think of solitary individuals as displaying unacceptable, discomfiting behavior; they may begin to feel negatively about them; they may discuss among themselves the need to exclude these noninteractors or to alter the behavior of these nonconforming individuals. Indeed, from the extant research, it is known that those who display behaviors considered to be inappropriate or abhorrent to the majority may be isolated by the group-at-large.

And so now we have a third group of solitary individuals those who have been isolated by the social group.

But how would these hypothetical community responses affect the nonsocial, nonconforming individual? What kinds of interactive/noninteractive cycles would be generated? And what would the solitary individuals think and feel about the larger community responses to them?

The Point

The preceding verbiage brings me to the singular message that I am attempting to convey. From “all of the above,” I am willing to step out on a limb to suggest, straight-out, that solitude can be punishing, humbling, debilitating, and destructive.

I do admit that it would be foolish to ignore the perspectives of those who have sung the praises of solitude. This would include several authors of chapters in this compendium. It would also include the many beloved and respected authors, poets, painters, philosophers, spiritualists, and scientists who have suggested that their best work or their deepest thoughts derive from those moments when they are able to escape the madding crowd. Here are a few examples:

1 “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Franz Kafka

2 “How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary seabird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here forever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.” Virginia Woolf

I could offer hundreds of quotations about the glories of solitude from rather well known people. Nevertheless, from my perhaps distorted, limited, and ego-centered perspective, I find it difficult to believe that one can lead a productive and happy life locked in a closet, a cave, a tent, a room. Virginia Woolf committed suicide; Kafka had documented psychological difficulties vis-a-vis his inability to develop and maintain positive and supportive relationships with others.

One may prefer solitude and many of us require solitude for contemplation, exploration, problem solving, introspection, and the escape of pressures elicited by the social/academic/employment/political communities. As I noted in the opening paragraph, solitude may be an entirely acceptable pursuit. But this statement comes with several provisos.

The “ifs”

If one spends time alone voluntarily, and if one can join a social group when one wants to, and if one can regulate one’s emotions (e.g., social fears and anger) effectively, and if one can initiate and maintain positive, supportive relationships with significant others, then the solitary experience can be productive.

But the provisos that I have appended to the solitary experience are rather significant. I am quite certain that what the reader will come away with after having completed the chapters included herein is that solitude has many faces. These faces have varied developmental beginnings, concomitants, and courses. And these faces may be interpreted in different ways in different contexts, communities, and cultures. And perhaps most importantly, the provisos offered previously must be kept in mind regardless of context, community, and culture. Frankly, if one fails to be mindful of these provisos, one can return to the introductory thought experiment and be assured that the failure of individuals to “collide” with one another will result in unpleasant consequences.

People do need to collide, or better put, interact with others. Of course, these interactions must be viewed by both partners as acceptable, positive, and productive. These interactions must be need fulfilling. Drawing from the wisdom of others who have written of the significance of such interactions (e.g., John Bowlby and Robert Hinde), one might expect that a product of these interactive experiences is the expectation of the nature of future interactions with the same partners. Furthermore, from this perspective, one might expect that each partner is likely to develop a set of expectations about the nature of future interactions with unknown others. If the interactions experienced are pleasant and productive, then positive dyadic relationships may result. if, however, the interactions experienced are unpleasant or agonistic, the partners may avoid each other. And in some cases, if a particular individual comes to expect that all interactions will eventually prove negative, withdrawal from the social community may result.

A Final Comment: Annus horribilis

During the first six months of 2012, I “lived” in a hospital after having endured a heart transplant and numerous health complications. Although I was surrounded by medical staff and had many regular visitors, I was literally isolated from the “outside world.” For the first two months of my hospitalization, my mind and body were at the river’s edge. But when the neurons began firing somewhat normally (beginning March 2012), and when I was able to converse with hospital staff and visitors, I nevertheless felt totally alone. It did not help that when visitors (and medical staff) met with me, they were required to wear masks, gloves, and medical gowns of one sort or another.

Eventually, it struck me that I was living at the extreme edge of what I had been studying for most of my professional career. And just as I had found through the use of questionnaires, interviews, rating scales, and observations (with samples of children and adolescents, and their parents, peers, and friends), solitude brought with it intrapersonal feelings of loneliness, sadness, anxiety, helplessness, and hopelessness. I felt disconnected from my personal and professional communities. Despite visitors’ generosity and kindness, I was miserable. Of course, when I was able to read and use my laptop, I could have taken the opportunity to play with ideas and data; my solitude could have been productive. But negative affect (emotion dysregulation) got in the way.

Upon return home, I rehabilitated and received visitors family, friends, colleagues, students, former golf and hockey “buddies.” I welcomed news about family (I was especially grateful to be reunited with my grandchildren!), friends, academe, and the world at large. I began to catch up on the various projects that my lab was involved in. Within a matter of weeks, I was coauthoring manuscripts and preparing abstracts for submission to various conferences. Although physically weak and incapable of taking lengthy walks or lifting anything heavier than a few pounds, my spirits were greatly improving, I was no longer alone! And finally, by August, when I returned to campus for the first time, I felt reconnected and valued!

The bottom line is that my personal solitude, especially given that it was experienced for a lengthy period of time and “enforced” externally and involuntarily, resulted in unpleasant consequences. The good news is that I have come to believe that the data my colleagues and I have collected over the years are actually meaningful beyond the halls of academe! Spending an inordinate time alone; feeling disconnected, rejected, and lonely; being excluded and perhaps victimized by others; being unable to competently converse with and relate to others (which may well result from solitude) can create a life of misery and malcontent; in some cases, this combination of factors may result in attempts at self-harm; in other cases it may result in attempts to harm others. Think for a moment about how often perpetrators of violence (e.g., Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newton High School, and the Boston Marathon bombings) have been described as loners, withdrawn, victimized, isolated, and friendless. Indeed, think about how some of the perpetrators have described themselves.

As I write this last sentence, my mind drifts to the lyricist/songwriting team of Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament. Their evocative song “Jeremy” is based, in part, on the description of the death of Jeremy Wade Delle, a 15-year-old high school student in Richardson, Texas. Jeremy is portrayed as a quiet, sad adolescent who “spoke in class today” by committing suicide (by gunshot) in the presence of his classmates. The lyrics also suggest that the Jeremy in the song suffered parental abuse and/or neglect. In the music video, Jeremy appears to be rejected, excluded, and isolated by his peers. The words “harmless,” “peers,” and “problem” appear throughout the video. And in interviews about the “meanings” of the lyrics, Vedder has suggested that he was attempting to draw attention to one possible consequence of difficulties that can be produced by familial and peer disruptions. More importantly, he argued that one must gather one’s strength to fight against the seeming inevitability of the negative consequences of isolation, solitude, and rejection. I would suggest that the central message is that family members, peers, school personnel, and community leaders should be aware of the signs that presage intra and interpersonal desolation.

Of course, not all people described as “solitary” or “isolated” have intra or interpersonal problems. As noted previously, solitude and social withdrawal are not “necessarily evil.” We all need time alone to energize and re-energize, to mull, to produce this-and-that without interruption. But our species is a social species. So much is gained when people interact, collaborate, help, and care for others, develop relationships, and become active members of groups and communities. However, when combined with dysregulated emotions, social incompetence, and a lack of supportive relationships, solitude, much like many other behavioral constructs studied by psychologists, can induce miserable consequences. The “trick” is to know if, when, and how to intervene within the family, peer group, and community.

In closing, it is with pleasure and pride that two of my former students (and current colleagues and close friends) have done such a wonderful job in putting together this compendium on solitude. After all, I do believe that once upon a time, I may have introduced the constructs of social withdrawal and solitude to Rob Coplan and Julie Bowker! Somehow, I doubt that I instructed or commandeered Rob and Julie to study solitude, isolation, and aloneness. If memory serves me correct, they were each interested in things social. All I happened to do was provide them with a personal, historical (perhaps hysterical) note about how and why I became interested in the research I was doing. Of course, I could never claim to have played a role in the thoughts and research of those who have examined solitude from the perspectives of anthropology, biology, computer science, divinity, neuroscience, political science, primatology, psychoanalysis, sociology, and those tracks of psychology that focus primarily on personality, the environment, autism, and adult relationships. Therein lies the beauty of this compendium.

Editors Coplan and Bowker have cleverly taken a twisty turn that curves beyond their own comfort zones of Developmental Science. By so doing, they have left me absolutely delighted. Coplan and Bowker have clearly attempted to move the reader into multiple zones of cognitive disequilibration and to appreciate that if we are to truly understand any given phenomenon, we must look well beyond the silos within which we are typically reinforced to reside.

You now hold in your hands a selection of readings that describe a variety of perspectives on solitude. You will read what solitude looks like; why it is that people spend time alone; why it is that solitude can be a necessary experience; how it feels and what one thinks about when one spends a good deal of time avoiding others or being rejected and excluded by one’s social community. There is no compendium quite like the one that you are handling. I applaud the editors’ efforts, and I do hope that the reader does herself/himself justice by closely examining chapters that move well beyond their own self-defined areas of expertise and intrapersonal comfort tunnels.

1 All Alone

Multiple Perspectives on the Study of Solitude

Robert J. Coplan, Department of Psychology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

Julie C. Bowker, Department of Psychology, University at Buffalo, USA

Seems I’m not alone in being alone. Gordon Matthew Sumner (1979)

The experience of solitude is a ubiquitous phenomenon. Historically, solitude has been considered both a boon and a curse, with artists, poets, musicians, and philosophers both lauding and lamenting being alone. Over the course of the lifespan, humans experience solitude for many different reasons and subjectively respond to solitude with a wide range of reactions and consequences. Some people may retreat to solitude as a respite from the stresses of life, for quiet contemplation, to foster creative impulses, or to commune with nature. Others may suffer the pain and loneliness of social isolation, withdrawing or being forcefully excluded from social interactions. Indeed, we all have and will experience different types of solitude in our lives.

The complex relationship we have with solitude and its multifaceted nature is reflected in our everyday language and culture. We can be alone in a crowd, alone with nature, or alone with our thoughts. Solitude can be differentially characterized along the full range of a continuum from a form of punishment (e.g., timeouts for children, solitary confinement for prisoners) to a less than ideal context (e.g., no man is an island, one is the loneliest number, misery loves company), all the way to a desirable state (e.g., taking time for oneself, needing your space or alone time).

In this Handbook, we explore the many different faces of solitude, from perspectives inside and outside of psychology. In this introductory chapter, we consider some emergent themes in the historical study of solitude (see Figure 1.1) and provide an overview of the contents of this volume.

Figure 1.1 Emergent themes in the psychological study of solitude.

Emergent Themes

The study of solitude cuts across virtually all psychology subdisciplines and has been explored from multiple and diverse theoretical perspectives across the lifespan. Accordingly, it is not surprising that there remains competing hypotheses regarding the nature of solitude and its implications for well-being. Indeed, from our view, these fundamentally opposed differential characterizations of solitude represent the most pervasive theme in the historical study of solitude as a psychological construct.

In essence, this ongoing debate about the nature of solitude can be distilled down to an analysis of its costs versus benefits.

Solitude is bad

Social affiliations are relationships that have long been considered to be adaptive to the survival of the human species. Indeed, social groups offer several well-documented evolutionary advantages: e.g., protection against predators, cooperative hunting, and food sharing. The notion that solitude may have negative consequences has a long history and can literally be traced back to biblical times: Genesis 2:18, And the LORD God said “It is not good for the man to be alone”.

Within the field of psychology, Triplett (1898) demonstrated in one of the earliest psychology experiments that children performed a simple task (pulling back a fishing reel) more slowly when alone than when paired with other children performing the same task. Thus, at the turn of the century, it was clear that certain types of performance were hindered by solitude.

Developmental psychologists have also long suggested that excessive solitude during childhood can cause psychological pain and suffering, damage critically important family relationships, impede the development of the self-system, and prevent children from learning from their peers. The profound psychological impairments caused by extreme cases of social isolation in childhood, in cases such as Victor (Lane, 1976) or Genie (Curtiss, 1977), have emphasized that human contact is a basic necessity of development.

Social psychologists have also long considered the need for affiliation to be a basic human need. Early social psychology studies on small group dynamics, such as the Robbers Cave experiments, further highlighted the ways in which intergroup conflict can emerge and how out-group members can become quickly perceived negatively and in a stereotypical fashion and become mistreated. More recently, the need to belong theory has suggested that we all have a fundamental need to belong or be accepted and to maintain positive relationships with others, and that the failure to fulfill such needs can lead to significant physical and psychological distress. Relatedly, social neuroscientists now suggest that loneliness and social isolation can be bad not only for our psychological functioning and well-being but also for our physical health.

Finally, from the perspective of clinical psychology, social isolation has been traditionally viewed as a target criterion for intervention. In the first edition of the Diagnostic statistical manual of mental disorders, people who failed to relate effectively to others could be classified as suffering from either a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia; a psychoneurotic disorder, such as anxiety; or a personality disorder, such as an inadequate personality, characterized by inadaptability, ineptness, poor judgment, lack of physical and emotional stamina, and social incompatibility.

Schizoid personality disorder is described as another personality disorder characterized by social difficulties, specifically social avoidance. Interestingly, children with schizoid personalities are described as quiet, shy, and sensitive; adolescents were described as withdrawn, introverted, unsociable, and as shut-ins.

Solitude can be good

In stark contrast, and from a very different historical tradition, many theorists and researchers have long called attention to the benefits of being alone.

For example, a central question for ancient Greek and Roman philosophers was the role of the group in society and the extent to which the individual should be a part of and separate from the group in order to achieve wisdom, excellence, and happiness. Later, Montaigne acknowledged the difficulties of attaining solitude but argued that individuals should strive for experiences of solitude to escape pressures, dogma, conventional ways of thinking and being, vices, and the power of the group. For Montaigne, the fullest experiences of solitude could not be guaranteed by physical separation from others; instead, solitude involved a state of natural personal experience that could be accomplished both alone and in the company of others.

Related ideas can be found in religious writings and theology. For example, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who spent many years in solitude, passionately argued in several books and essays that solitude offered unique experiences for contemplation and prayer and that solitary retreats are necessary to achieve authentic connections with others.

Ideas about the benefits of solitude can also be found in the writings of Winnicott (1958). For Winnicott, solitude was an experience of aloneness afforded by a good enough facilitating environment and was a necessary precondition during infancy and childhood for later psychological maturity and self-discovery and self-realization.

In adulthood, spending time alone and away from others has also long been argued by philosophers, authors, and poets to be necessary for imaginative, creative, and artistic enterprises (e.g., Thoreau, 1854). In these perspectives, solitary experiences provide benefits when the individual chooses to be alone. However, personal stories of several accomplished authors, such as Beatrix Potter and Emily Dickinson, suggest that creativity and artistic talents may also develop in response to long periods of painful social isolation and rejection (Middleton, 1935; Storr, 1988).

Underlying mechanisms of solitude

Although the costs versus benefits debate regarding solitude is somewhat all-encompassing, nested within this broader distinction is a theme pertaining to the different mechanisms that may underlie our experiences of solitude. To begin with, it is important to distinguish between instances when solitude is other imposed versus sought after. Rubin (1982) was one of the first psychologists to describe these different processes as distinguishing between social isolation, where the individual is excluded, rejected, or ostracized by their peer group, and social withdrawal, where the individual removes themselves from opportunities for social interaction.

As we have previously discussed, there are long-studied negative consequences that accompany being socially isolated from one’s group of peers. Thus, we turn now to a consideration of varying views regarding why individuals might chose to withdraw into solitude.

Within the psychological literature, researchers have highlighted several different reasons why individuals may seek out solitude, including a desire for privacy (Pedersen, 1979), the pursuance of religious experiences (Hay & Morisey, 1978), the simple enjoyment of leisure activities (Purcell & Keller, 1989), and seeking solace from or avoiding upsetting situations (Larson, 1990).

Biological and neurophysiological processes have also been considered as putative sources of solitary behaviors. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans argued that biologically based individual differences in character help to determine mood (such as fear and anxiety) and social behavioral patterns (such as the tendency to be sociable or not), ideas which were precursors to the contemporary study of child temperament (Kagan & Fox, 2006). As well, recent interest in the specific neural systems that may be involved in social behaviors can be traced to the late 1800s with the case of Phineas Gage, who injured his orbitofrontal cortex in a railroad construction accident and afterwards was reported to no longer adhere to social norms or to be able to sustain positive relationships (Macmillan, 2000).

Finally, there is also a notable history of research pertaining to motivations for social contact (e.g., Murphy, 1954; Murray, 1938), which has been construed as a primary substrate of human personality (Eysenck, 1947). An important distinction was made between social approach and social avoidance motivations (Lewinsky, 1941; Mehrabian & Ksionzky, 1970). It has since been argued that individual differences in these social motivations further discriminate different reasons why individuals might withdraw from social interactions. For example, a low social approach motivation, or solitropic orientation, is construed as a non-fearful preference for solitude in adults (Burger, 1995; Cheek & Buss, 1981; Leary, Herbst, & McCrary, 2001) and children (Asendorpf, 1990; Coplan, Rubin, Fox, Calkins, & Stewart, 1994). In contrast, the conflict between competing social approach and social avoidance motivations (i.e., approach-avoidance conflict) is thought to lead to shyness and social anxiety (Cheek & Melchior, 1990; Jones, Briggs, & Smith, 1986).

Developmental timing effects of solitude

Our final theme has to do with developmental timing or when (or at what age/developmental period) experiences of solitude occur. The costs of solitude are often assumed to be greater during childhood than in adolescence or adulthood given the now widely held notion that the young developing child requires a significant amount of positive peer interaction for healthy social, emotional, and social-cognitive development and well-being (Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 2006). This pervasive belief may explain, in part, why considerably more developmental research on the concomitants of social withdrawal has focused on children as compared to adolescents. In addition, it is during adolescence that increasing needs for and enjoyment of privacy and solitude are thought to emerge (Larson, 1990). For this reason, it has been posited that some of the negative peer consequences often associated with social withdrawal during childhood, such as peer rejection and peer victimization, may diminish during the adolescent developmental period (Bowker, Rubin, & Coplan, 2012). However, it has also long been argued that solitude at any age can foster loneliness and psychological angst, particularly if it is other-imposed.

As mentioned previously, social needs are thought to exist in individuals of all ages, with several social and developmental theories suggesting that psychological well-being is determined by whether social needs are satisfied. For example, Sullivan (1953) posited that all individuals have social needs but that with development, the nature of the social needs change (e.g., with puberty, needs for sexual relations emerge), as well as the type of relationship required to fulfill the needs (e.g., relationships with parents might satisfy early needs for tenderness; same-sex chumships or best friendships might satisfy needs for intimacy that emerge in early adolescence). Regardless of the developmental changes, however, Sullivan argued that if social needs were not fulfilled, significant negative self-system and psychological consequences would ensue. Consistent with these latter ideas are research findings that have identified loneliness, at any age, as one of the strongest risk factors for psychological illbeing (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006).

The debate as to when in development solitude might carry the greatest costs is yet to be resolved. However, it must also be acknowledged that the very nature of solitary experiences likely changes with age. For example, young children may retreat to their rooms, engage in solitary play in the company of peers, or find themselves forced to the periphery of social groups. Although other-imposed solitude might be manifested similarly at older ages (e.g., adolescents being forced to eat alone at lunchtime, adults being left out of afterwork gatherings), adolescents and adults have greater control over and increased opportunities for selfselected solitary experiences relative to children. For example, adolescents are sometimes left alone without parental supervision in their homes or able to take themselves to places of their choosing. Adults can also choose to travel alone, can engage in meditative and religious retreats, and can select relatively solitary occupations and ways to spend their free time. In contrast, there may come a time in the life of an older adult where they are significantly impeded in their ability to actively seek out social contacts. It remains to be seen how these potential differences in agency pertaining to solitude across the lifespan speak to the relation between solitude and well-being.

Final Comments: Solitude…Together?

It is somewhat ironic that the future study of solitude will likely be pursued within the context of an everexpanding and increasingly connected global social community. The chapter authors in this Handbook span 13 countries and represent only the very tip of the iceberg in terms of cross-cultural research in this area. There is growing evidence to suggest that both the meaning and impact of (different types of) solitude differ substantively across cultures (e.g., Chen & French, 2008). Accordingly, it is critically important to embed this psychological research within a larger cultural context.

Moreover, as evidenced by the chapters in the final section of this volume, psychologists have much to learn about the study of solitude from our colleagues in other disciplines. Indeed, we should expect interdisciplinary collaboration to eventually become the norm in these (and other) research areas. Such collaborations will allow us to further explore both the depth and breadth of our experiences of solitude and perhaps help to resolve some of the great debates in theory and research on solitude, such as when and why solitude causes harm or brings benefits.

Finally, rapidly evolving technological advances intend to connect all of us all of the time to social and informational networks. This inevitably leads to the question as to whether any of us will ever truly be alone in the future. It is certain that our relationship with solitude will necessarily evolve in the digital age. In this regard, it remains to be seen if the experience of solitude is itself doomed to become an archaic remnant of a past era.



The Handbook Of Solitude. Psychological Perspectives on Social Isolation, Social Withdrawal, and Being Alone.

get it at Amazon.com

Designers push limits with first 3D-printed concrete housing project – Colleen Hawkes * Chinese Company Constructs the World’s Tallest 3D Printed Building – Rory Stott.

3D printing of concrete is a potential game changer in the building industry. Besides the ability to construct almost any shape, it also enables architects to design very fine concrete structures.

Work will start this year on the world’s first 3D-printed concrete house to be built and occupied.

It will be a single-storey house and it’s expected to be ready for occupation in the first half of 2019.

Eventually, there will be five futuristic houses in the Project Milestone development, which is in the city of Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

The other four houses in the development will be multi-storey houses. And all five houses will be subject to regular building regulations and they all will meet the demands of current-day occupants concerning comfort, lay-out, quality and pricing.

Project Milestone is a joint venture between the municipality of Eindhoven, Eindhoven University of Technology, contractor Van Wijnen, real estate manager Vesteda, materials company Saint Gobain-Weber Beamix and engineering firm Witteveen+Bos.

Vesteda, the prospective buyer, will let the houses to tenants.

The design of the houses is based on erratic blocks in a green landscape. The university says the irregular shape of the buildings can be realised thanks to one of the key features of 3D-printing: the ability to construct almost any shape.

”The design aims at a high level of quality and sustainability. For example, the houses will not have a natural gas connection, which is quite rare in the Netherlands.”

During the project, research on concrete printing will be done for new innovations. The five houses will be built consecutively, so every time these innovations and all lessons learnt can be applied in the next house.

The building elements of the first house will all be printed by the concrete printer at the university. It is the intention to gradually shift the whole construction work to the construction site. The last house will be fully realised on site, including the print work.

Eindhoven is a hot spot for 3D-concrete printing, with the research group of concrete technology professor Theo Salet and its concrete printer as pivotal elements. The group recently printed world’s first 3D-printed concrete bridge for cyclists in the village of Gemert.

The university says 3D printing of concrete is a potential “game changer” in the building industry.

”Besides the ability to construct almost any shape, it also enables architects to design very fine concrete structures.

“Another new possibility is to print all kinds, qualities and colours of concrete, all in a single product. This enables integration of all sorts of functions in one and the same building element.”

The university says the process makes it easy to incorporate individual wishes for every single house, at minimum extra costs.

”Another important advantage is sustainability, as much less concrete is needed and hence much less cement, which reduces the C02 emissions originating from cement production.”

Chinese Company Constructs the World’s Tallest 3D Printed Building

Rory Stott

Once again, Chinese company WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co has expanded the capabilities of 3D printing. After constructing ten houses in under twenty-four hours last year, now they are back with both the world’s tallest 3D printed building a five-story apartment block and a 1,100 square meter mansion with internal and external decoration to boot.

On display in Suzhou Industrial Park in Jiangsu province, the two buildings represent new frontiers for 3D printed construction, finally demonstrating its potential for creating more traditional building typologies and therefore its suitability for use by mainstream developers.

The buildings were created using the same 6.6 by 10 meter tall printer which builds up layers of an “ink” made from a mixture of glass fibre, steel, cement, hardening agents and recycled construction waste. With this technology, WinSun is able to print out large sections of a building, which are then assembled together much like prefabricated concrete designs to create the final building.

In a press conference attended by online 3D printing newspaper 3Ders.org, the Chief engineer of China Construction No.8 Engineering Bureau Ma Rongquan explained: “These two houses are in full compliance with the relevant national standards. It is safe, reliable, and features a good integration of architecture and decoration. But as there is no specific national standard for 3D printing architecture, we need to revise and improve a standard for the future.”

The company also announced a raft of signed contracts and future plans that will expand 3D printed buildings beyond the realm of construction experiments: the $160,000 mansion is the prototype for a set of ten that has been ordered by Taiwanese real estate company Tomson Group a third house on display at Suzhou Industrial Park was just one of 20,000 ordered by the Egyptian Government; they also announced the creation of Winsun Global, a collaboration with an American firm that will seek to expand into countries around the world with the aim of providing cheap and efficient homes for low-income families, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.

Mental Illness, Why Some and not Others? Gene-Environment Interaction and Differential Susceptibility – Scott Barry Kaufman * Gene-Environment Interaction in Psychological Traits and Disorders – Danielle M. Dick * Differential Susceptibility to Environmental Influences – Jay Belsky.

“Whether your story is about having met with emotional pain or physical pain, the important thing is to take the lid off of those feelings. When you keep your emotions repressed, that’s when the body starts to try to get your attention. Because you aren’t paying attention. Our childhood is stored up in our bodies, and one day, the body will present its bill.”

Bernie Siegel MD

In recent years numerous studies show the importance of gene-environment interactions in psychological development, but here’s the thing: we’re not just finding that the environment matters in determining whether mental illness exists. What we’re discovering is far more interesting and nuanced: Some of the very same genes that under certain environmental conditions are associated with some of the lowest lows of humanity, under supportive conditions are associated with the highest highs of human flourishing.

Evidence that adverse rearing environments exert negative effects particularly on children and adults presumed “vulnerable” for temperamental or genetic reasons may actually reflect something else: heightened susceptibility to the negative effects of risky environments and to the beneficial effects of supportive environments. Putatively vulnerable children and adults are especially susceptible to both positive and negative environmental effects.

Children rated highest on externalizing behavior problems by teachers across the primary school years were those who experienced the most harsh discipline prior to kindergarten entry and who were characterized by mothers at age 5 as being negatively reactive infants.

Susceptibility factors are the moderators of the relation between the environment and developmental outcome. Is it that negativity actually reflects a highly sensitive nervous system on which experience registers powerfully negatively when not regulated by the caregiver, but positively when coregulation occurs?
Referred to by some scientists as the “differential susceptibility hypothesis”, these findings shouldn’t be understated. They are revolutionary, and suggest a serious rethinking of the role of genes in the manifestation of our psychological traits and mental “illness”. Instead of all of our genes coding for particular psychological traits, it appears we have a variety of genetic mutations that are associated with sensitivity to the environment, for better and worse.

Known epigenetic modifications (cell specialization, X inactivation, genomic imprinting) all occur early in development and are stable. The discovery that epigenetic modifications continue to occur across development, and can be reversible and more dynamic, has represented a major paradigm shift in our understanding of environmental regulation of gene expression.

Gene: Unit of heredity; a stretch of DNA that codes for a protein.
GxE: Gene-environment Interaction.
Epigenetics: Modifications to the genome that do not involve a change in nucleotide sequence.
Heritability: The proportion of total phenotypic variance that can be accounted for by genetic factors.
Logistic Regression: A statistical method for analyzing a dataset in which there are one or more independent variables that determine an outcome. The outcome is measured with a dichotomous variable (in which there are only two possible outcomes).
In logistic regression, the dependent variable is binary or dichotomous, i.e. it only contains data coded as 1 (TRUE, success, pregnant, etc.) or 0 (FALSE, failure, non-pregnant, etc.)
Transcription Factor: In molecular biology, a transcription factor (TF) (or sequence-specific DNA-binding factor) is a protein that controls the rate of transcription of genetic information from DNA to messenger RNA, by binding to a specific DNA sequence. The function of TFs is to regulate – turn on and off – genes in order to make sure that they are expressed in the right cell at the right time and in the right amount throughout the life of the cell and the organism.
Nucleotide: Organic molecules that are the building blocks of DNA and RNA. They also have functions related to cell signaling, metabolism, and enzyme reactions.
MZ: Monozygotic. Of twins derived from a single ovum (egg), and so identical.
DZ: Dizygotic. Of twins derived from two separate ova (eggs). Fraternal twin or nonidentical twin.
DNA: Deoxyribonucleic Acid.
RNA: Ribonucleic acid is a polymeric molecule essential in various biological roles in coding, decoding, regulation, and expression of genes. RNA and DNA are nucleic acids, and, along with lipids, proteins and carbohydrates, constitute the four major macromolecules essential for all known forms of life.
Polymorphism: A location in a gene that comes in multiple forms.
Allele: Natural variation in the genetic sequence; can be a change in a single nucleotide or longer stretches of DNA.
GWAS: Genome-wide Association Study.
ORs: Odds Ratios.
Phenotype: The observed outcome under study; can be the manifestation of both genetic and/or environmental factors.
Dichotomy: A division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.
Chromosome: A single piece of coiled DNA containing many genes, regulatory elements, and other nucleotide sequences.

Gene-Environment Interaction and Differential Susceptibility

Scott Barry Kaufman

Only a few genetic mutations have been discovered so far that demonstrate differential susceptibility effects. Most of the genes that have been discovered contribute to the production of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Both of these biological systems contribute heavily to many aspects of engagement with the world, positive emotions, anxiety, depression, and mood fluctuations. So far, the evidence suggests (but is still tentative) that certain genetic variants under harsh and abusive conditions are associated with anxiety and depression, but that the very same genetic variants are associated with the lowest levels of anxiety, depression, and fear under supportive, nurturing conditions. There hasn’t been too much research looking at differential susceptibility effects on other systems that involve learning and exploration, however.

Enter a brand new study

Rising superstar Rachael Grazioplene and colleagues focused on the cholinergic system, a biological system crucially involved in neural plasticity and learning. Situations that activate the cholinergic system involve “expected uncertainty” such as going to a new country you’ve never been before and knowing that you’re going to face things you’ve never faced before. This stands in contrast to “unexpected uncertainty”, which occurs when your expectations are violated, such as thinking you’re going to a Las Vegas family friendly Cirque Du Soleil only to realize you’ve actually gotten a ticket to an all-male dance revue called “Thunder from Down Under” (I have no idea where that example came from). Those sorts of experiences are more strongly related to the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.

Since the cholinergic system is most active in situations when a person can predict that learning is possible, this makes the system a prime candidate for the differential susceptibility effect. As the researchers note, unpredictable and novel environments could function as either threats or incentive rewards. When the significance of the environment is uncertain, both caution and exploration are adaptive. Therefore, traits relating to anxiety or curiosity should be influenced by cholinergic genetic variants, with developmental experiences determining whether individuals find expected uncertainty either more threatening or more promising.

To test their hypothesis, they focused on a polymorphism in the CHRNA4 gene, which builds a certain kind of neural receptor that the neurotransmitter binds to. These acetylcholine receptors are distributed throughout the brain, and are especially involved in the functioning of dopamine in the striatum. Genetic differences in the CHRNA4 gene seem to change the sensitivity of the brain’s acetylcholine system because small structural changes in these receptors make acetylcholine binding more or less likely. Previous studies have shown associations between variation in the CHRNA4 gene and neuroticism as well as laboratory tests of attention and working memory.

The researchers looked at the functioning of this gene among a group of 614 children aged 8-13 enrolled in a week long day camp. Half of the children in the day camp were selected because they had been maltreated (sexual maltreatment), whereas the other half was carefully selected to come from the same socioeconomic status but not have experienced any maltreatment. This study provides the ideal experimental design and environmental conditions to test the differential susceptibility effect. Not only were the backgrounds of the children clearly defined, but also dramatically different from each other. Additionally, all children engaged in the same novel learning environment, an environment well suited for cholinergic functioning. What did they find?

Individuals with the T/T variation of the CHRNA4 gene who were maltreated showed higher levels of anxiety (Neuroticism) compared to those with the C allele of this gene. They appeared to be more likely to learn with higher levels of uncertainty. In contrast, those with the T/T allele who were not maltreated were low in anxiety (Neuroticism) and high in curiosity (Openness to Experience). What’s more, this effect was independent of age, race, and sex.

These environments, the T/T allele (which is much rarer in the general population than the C allele) may be beneficial, bringing out lower levels of anxiety and increased curiosity in response to situations containing expected uncertainty.

These results are certainly exciting, but a few important caveats are in order. For one thing, the T/T genotype is very rare in the general population, which makes it all the more important for future studies to attempt to replicate these findings. Also, we’re talking vanishingly small effects here. The CHRNA4 variant only explained at most 1% of the variation in neuroticism and openness to experience. So we shouldn’t go around trying to predict individual people’s futures based on knowledge of a single gene and a single environment.

Scientifically speaking though, this level of prediction is expected based on the fact that all of our psychological dispositions are massively polymorphic (consists of many interacting genes). Both gene-gene and gene-environment interactions must be taken into account.

Indeed, recent research found that the more sensitivity (“plasticity”) genes relating to the dopamine and serotonin systems adolescent males carried, the less selfregulation they displayed under unsupportive parenting conditions. In line with the differential susceptibility effect, the reverse was also found: higher levels of selfregulation were displayed by the adolescent males carrying more senstivity genes when they were reared under supportive parenting conditions.

The findings by Grazioplene and colleagues add to a growing literature on acetylcholine’s role in the emergence of schizophrenia and mood disorders. As the researcher’s note, these findings, while small in effect, may have maltreatment is a known risk factor for many psychiatric disorders. Children with the T/T genotype of CHRNA4 rsl 044396 may be more likely to learn fearful responses in harsh and abusive environments, but children with the very same genotype may be more likely to display curiosity and engagement in response to uncertainty under normal or supportive conditions.

While it’s profoundly difficult predicting the developmental trajectory of any single individual, this research suggests we can influence the odds that people will retreat within themselves or unleash the fundamentally human drive to explore and create.

Gene-Environment Interaction in Psychological Traits and Disorders

Danielle M. Dick

There has been an explosion of interest in studying gene-environment interactions (GxE) as they relate to the development of psychopathology. In this article, I review different methodologies to study gene-environment interaction, providing an overview of methods from animal and human studies and illustrations of gene-environment interactions detected using these various methodologies. Gene-environment interaction studies that examine genetic influences as modeled latently (e.g., from family, twin, and adoption studies) are covered, as well as studies of measured genotypes.

Importantly, the explosion of interest in gene-environment interactions has raised a number of challenges, including difficulties with differentiating various types of interactions, power, and the scaling of environmental measures, which have profound implications for detecting gene-environment interactions. Taking research on gene-environment interactions to the next level will necessitate close collaborations between psychologists and geneticists so that each field can take advantage of the knowledge base of the other.


Gene-environment interaction (GxE) has become a hot topic of research, with an exponential increase in interest in this area in the past decade. Consider that PubMed lists only 24 citations for “gene environment interaction” prior to the year 2000, but nearly four times that many in the first half of the year 2010 alone! The projected publications on gene-environment interaction for 2008–2010 are on track to constitute more than 40% of the total number of publications on gene-environment interaction indexed in PubMed.

Where does all this interest stem from? It may, in part, reflect a merging of interests from fields that were traditionally at odds with one another. Historically, there was a perception that behavior geneticists focused on genetic influences on behavior at the expense of studying environmental influences and that developmental psychologists focused on environmental influences and largely ignored genetic factors. Although this criticism is not entirely founded on the part of either field, methodological and ideological differences between these respective fields meant that genetic and environmental influences were traditionally studied in isolation.

More recently, there has been recognition on the part of both of these fields that both genetic and environmental influences are critical components to developmental outcome and that it is far more fruitful to attempt to understand how these factors come together to impact psychological outcomes than to argue about which one is more important. As Kendler and Eaves argued in their article on the joint effect of genes and environments, published more than two decades ago:

It is our conviction that a complete understanding of the etiology of most psychiatric disorders will require an understanding of the relevant genetic risk factors, the relevant environmental risk factors, and the ways in which these two risk factors interact. Such understanding will only arise from research in which the important environmental variables are measured in a genetically informative design. Such research will require a synthesis of research traditions within psychiatry that have often been at odds with one another in the past. This interaction between the research tradition that has focused on the genetic etiology of psychiatric illness and that which has emphasized environmental causation will undoubtedly be to the benefit of both. (Kendler & Eaves 1986, p. 288)

The PubMed data showing an exponential increase in published papers on gene-environment interaction suggest that that day has arrived. This has been facilitated by the rapid advances that have taken place in the field of genetics, making the incorporation of genetic components into traditional psychological studies a relatively easy and inexpensive endeavor. But with this surge of interest in gene-environment interaction, a number of new complications have emerged, and the study of gene-environment interaction faces new challenges, including a recent backlash against studying gene-environment interaction (Risch et al. 2009). Addressing these challenges will be critical to moving research on gene-environment interaction forward in a productive way.

In this article, I first review different study designs for detecting gene-environment interaction, providing an overview of methods from animal and human studies. I cover gene-environment interaction studies that examine genetic influences as modeled latently as well as studies of measured genotypes. In the study of latent gene-environment interaction, specific genotypes are not measured, but rather genetic influence is inferred based on observed correlations between people who have different degrees of genetic and environmental sharing. Thus, latent gene-environment interaction studies examine the aggregate effects of genes rather than any one specific gene.

Molecular genetic studies, in contrast, have generally focused on one specific gene of interest at a time. Relevant examples of gene-environment interaction across these different methodologies are provided, though these are meant to be more illustrative than exhaustive, intended to introduce the reader to relevant studies and findings generated across these various designs.

Subsequently I review more conceptual issues surrounding the study of gene-environment interaction, covering the nature of gene-environment interaction effects as well as the challenges facing the study of gene-environment interaction, such as difficulties with differentiating various types of interactions, and how issues such as the scaling of environmental measures can have profound implications for studying gene-environment interaction.

I include an overview of epigenetics, a relatively new area of study that provides a potential biological mechanism by which the environment can moderate gene expression and affect behavior.

Finally, I conclude with recommendations for future directions and how we can take research on gene-environment interaction to the next level.


It is important to first address some aspects of terminology surrounding the study of gene-environment interaction. In lay terms, the phrase gene-environment interaction is often used to mean that both genes and environments are important. In statistical terms, this does not necessarily indicate an interaction but could be consistent with an additive model, in which there are main effects of the environment and main effects of genes.

But in a statistical sense an interaction is a very specific thing, referring to a situation in which the effect of one variable cannot be understood without taking into account the other variable. Their effects are not independent. When we refer to gene-environment interaction in a statistical sense, we are referring to a situation in which the effect of genes depends on the environment and/or the effect of the environment depends on genotype. We note that these two alternative conceptualizations of gene-environment interaction are indistinguishable statistically. It is this statistical definition of gene-environment interaction that is the primary focus of this review (except where otherwise noted).

It is also important to note that genetic and environmental influences are not necessarily independent factors. That is to say that although some environmental influences may be largely random, such as experiencing a natural disaster, many environmental influences are not entirely random (Kendler et al. 1993).

This phenomenon is called gene-environment correlation.

Three specific ways by which genes may exert an effect on the environment have been delineated (Plomin et al. 1977, Scarr & McCartney 1983):

(a) Passive gene-environment correlation refers to the fact that among biologically related relatives (i.e., nonadoptive families), parents provide not only their children’s genotypes but also their rearing environment. Therefore, the child’s genotype and home environment are correlated.

(b) Evocative gene-environment correlation refers to the idea that individuals’ genotypes influence the responses they receive from others. For example, a child who is predisposed to having an outgoing, cheerful disposition might be more likely to receive positive attention from others than a child who is predisposed to timidity and tears. A person with a grumpy, abrasive temperament is more likely to evoke unpleasant responses from coworkers and others with whom he/she interacts than is a cheerful, friendly person. Thus, evocative gene-environment correlation can influence the way an individual experiences the world.

(c) Active gene-environment correlation refers to the fact that an individual actively selects certain environments and takes away different things from his/her environment, and these processes are influenced by an individual’s genotype. Therefore, an individual predisposed to high sensation seeking may be more prone to attend parties and meet new people, thereby actively influencing the environments he/she experiences.

Evidence exists in the literature for each of these processes. The important point is that many sources of behavioral influence that we might consider “environmental” are actually under a degree of genetic influence (Kendler & Baker 2007), so often genetic and environmental influences do not represent independent sources of influence. This also makes it difficult to determine whether the genes or the environment is the causal agent. If, for example, individuals are genetically predisposed toward sensation seeking, and this makes them more likely to spend time in bars (a gene-environment correlation), and this increases their risk for alcohol problems, are the predisposing sensation-seeking genes or the bar environment the causal agent?

In actuality, the question is moot, they both played a role; it is much more informative to try to understand the pathways of risk than to ask whether the genes or the environment was the critical factor. Though this review focuses on gene-environment interaction, it is important for the reader to be aware that this is but one process by which genetic and environmental influences are intertwined. Additionally, gene-environment correlation must be taken into account when studying gene-environment interaction, a point that is mentioned again later in this review. Excellent reviews covering the nature and importance of gene-environment correlation also exist (Kendler 2011).


Animal Research

Perhaps the most straightforward method for detecting gene-environment interaction is found in animal experimentation: Different genetic strains of animals can be subjected to different environments to directly test for gene-environment interaction. The key advantage of animal studies is that environmental exposure can be made random to genotype, eliminating gene-environment correlation and associated problems with interpretation.

The most widely cited example of this line of research is Cooper and Zubek’s 1958 experiment, in which rats were selectively bred to perform differently in a maze-running experiment (Cooper & Zubek 1958). Under standard environmental conditions, one group of rats consistently performed with few errors (“maze bright”), while a second group committed many errors (“maze dull”). These selectively bred rats were then exposed to various environmental conditions: an enriched condition, in which rats were reared in brightly colored cages with many moveable objects, or a restricted condition, in which there were no colors or toys. The enriched condition had no effect on the maze bright rats, although it substantially improved the performance of the maze dull rats, such that there was no difference between the groups.

Conversely, the restrictive environment did not affect the performance of the maze dull rats, but it substantially diminished the performance of the maze bright rats, again yielding no difference between the groups and demonstrating a powerful gene-environment interaction.

A series of experiments conducted by Henderson on inbred strains of mice, in which environmental enrichment was manipulated, also provides evidence for gene-environment interaction on several behavioral tasks (Henderson 1970, 1972). These studies laid the foundation for many future studies, which collectively demonstrate that environmental variation can have considerable differential impact on outcome depending on the genetic make-up of the animal (Wahlsten et al. 2003).

However, animal studies are not without their limitations. Gene-environment interaction effects detected in animal studies are still subject to the problem of scale (Mather & Jinks 1982), as discussed in greater detail later in this review.

Human Research

Traditional behavior genetic designs

Demonstrating gene-environment interaction in humans has been considerably more difficult where ethical constraints require researchers to make use of natural experiments so environmental exposures are not random. Three traditional study designs have been used to demonstrate genetic influence on behavior: family studies, adoption studies, and twin studies. These designs have been used to detect gene-environment interaction also, and each is discussed in turn.

Family studies

Demonstration that a behavior aggregates in families is the first step in establishing a genetic basis for a disorder (Hewitt & Turner 1995). Decreasing similarity with decreasing degrees of relatedness lends support to genetic influence on a behavior (Gottesman 1991). This is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for heritability. Similarity among family members is due both to shared genes and shared environment; family studies cannot tease apart these two sources of variance to determine whether familiality is due to genetic or common environmental causes (Sherman et al. 1997).

However, family studies provide a powerful method for identifying gene-environment interaction. By comparing high-risk children, identified as such by the presence of psychopathology in their parents, with a control group of low-risk individuals, it is possible to test the effects of environmental characteristics on individuals varying in genetic risk (Cannon et al. 1990).

In a high-risk study of Danish children with schizophrenic mothers and matched controls, institutional rearing was associated with an elevated risk of schizophrenia only among those children with a genetic predisposition (Cannon et al. 1990). When these subjects were further classified on genetic risk as having one or two affected parents, a significant interaction emerged between degree of genetic risk and birth complications in predicting ventricle enlargement: The relationship between obstetric complications and ventricular enlargement was greater in the group of individuals with one affected parent as compared to controls, and greater still in the group of individuals with two affected parents (Cannon et al. 1993). Another study also found that among individuals at high risk for schizophrenia, experiencing obstetric complications was related to an earlier hospitalization (Malaspina et al. 1999).

Another creative method has made use of the natural experiment of family migration to demonstrate gene-environment interaction: The high rate of schizophrenia among African-Caribbean individuals who emigrated to the United Kingdom is presumed to result from gene-environment interaction. Parents and siblings of first-generation African-Caribbean probands have risks of schizophrenia similar to those for white individuals in the area. However, the siblings of second-generation African-Caribbean probands have markedly elevated rates of schizophrenia, suggesting that the increase in schizophrenia rates is due to an interaction between genetic predispositions and stressful environmental factors encountered by this population (Malaspina et al. 1999, Moldin & Gottesman 1997).

Although family studies provide a powerful design for demonstrating gene-environment interaction, there are limitations to their utility. High-risk studies are very expensive to conduct because they require the examination of individuals over a long period of time. Additionally, a large number of high-risk individuals must be studied in order to obtain a sufficient number of individuals who eventually become affected, due to the low base rate of most mental disorders. Because of these limitations, few examples of high-risk studies exist.

Adoption studies

Adoption and twin studies are able to clarify the extent to which similarity among family members is due to shared genes versus shared environment. In their simplest form, adoption studies involve comparing the extent to which adoptees resemble their biological relatives, with whom they share genes but not family environment, with the extent to which adoptees resemble their adoptive relatives, with whom they share family environment but not genes.

Adoption studies have been pivotal in advancing our understanding of the etiology of many disorders and drawing attention to the importance of genetic factors. For example, Heston’s historic adoption study was critical in dispelling the myth of schizophrenogenic mothers in favor of a genetic transmission explaining the familiality of schizophrenia (Heston & Denney 1967).

Furthermore, adoption studies provide a powerful method of detecting gene-environment interactions and have been called the human analogue of strain-by-treatment animal studies (Plomin & Hershberger 1991). The genotype of adopted children is inferred from their biological parents, and the environment is measured in the adoptive home. Individuals thought to be at genetic risk for a disorder, but reared in adoptive homes with different environments, are compared to each other and to control adoptees.

This methodology has been employed by a number of research groups to document gene-environment interactions in a variety of clinical disorders: In a series of Iowa adoption studies, Cadoret and colleagues demonstrated that a genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse predicted major depression in females only among adoptees who also experienced a disturbed environment, as defined by psychopathology, divorce, or legal problems among the adoptive parents (Cadoret et al. 1996).

In another study, depression scores and manic symptoms were found to be higher among individuals with a genetic predisposition and a later age of adoption (suggesting a more transient and stressful childhood) than among those with only a genetic predisposition (Cadoret et al. 1990).

In an adoption study of Swedish men, mild and severe alcohol abuse were more prevalent only among men who had both a genetic predisposition and more disadvantaged adoptive environments (Cloninger et al. 1981).

The Finnish Adoptive Family Study of Schizophrenia found that high genetic risk was associated with increased risk of schizophrenic thought disorder only when combined with communication deviance in the adoptive family (Wahlberg et al. 1997).

Additionally, the adoptees had a greater risk of psychological disturbance, defined as neuroticism, personality disorders, and psychoticism, when the adoptive family environment was disturbed (Tienari et al. 1990).

These studies have demonstrated that genetic predispositions for a number of psychiatric disorders interact with environmental influences to manifest disorder.

However, adoption studies suffer from a number of methodological limitations. Adoptive parents and biological parents of adoptees are often not representative of the general population. Adoptive parents tend to be socioeconomically advantaged and have lower rates of mental problems, due to the extensive screening procedures conducted by adoption agencies (Kendler 1993). Biological parents of adoptees tend to be atypical, as well, but in the opposite way. Additionally, selective placement by adoption agencies is confounding the clear-cut separation between genetic and environmental effects by matching adoptees and adoptive parents on demographics, such as race and religion. An increasing number of adoptions are also allowing contact between the biological parents and adoptive children, further confounding the traditional genetic and environmental separation that made adoption studies useful for genetically informative research.

Finally, greater contraceptive use is making adoption increasingly rare (Martin et al. 1997). Accordingly, this research strategy has become increasingly challenging, though a number of current adoption studies continue to make important contributions to the field (Leve et al. 2010; McGue et al. 1995, 1996).

Twin studies

Twins provide a number of ways to study gene-environment interaction. One such method is to study monozygotic twins reared apart (MZA). MZAs provide a unique opportunity to study the influence of different environments on identical genotypes. In the Swedish Adoption/Twin Study of Aging, data from 99 pairs of MZAs were tested for interactions between childhood rearing and adult personality (Bergeman et al. 1988).

Several significant interactions emerged. In some cases, the environment had a stronger impact on individuals genetically predisposed to be low on a given trait (based on the cotwin’s score). For example, individuals high in extraversion expressed the trait regardless of the environment; however, individuals predisposed to low extraversion had even lower scores in the presence of a controlling family.

In other traits, the environment had a greater impact on individuals genetically predisposed to be high on the trait: Individuals predisposed to impulsivity were even more impulsive in a conflictual family environment; individuals low on impulsivity were not affected.

Finally, some environments influenced both individuals who were high and low on a given trait, but in opposite directions: Families that were more involved masked genetic differences between individuals predisposed toward high or low neuroticism, but greater genetic variation emerged in less controlling families.

The implementation of population-based twin studies, inclusion of measured environments into twin studies, and advances in biometrical modeling techniques for twin data made it possible to study gene-environment interaction within the framework of the classic twin study. Traditional twin studies involve comparisons of monozygotic (MZ) and dizy-gotic (DZ) twins reared together. MZ twins share all of their genetic variation, whereas DZ twins share on average 50% of their genetic make-up; however, both types of twins are age-matched siblings sharing their family environments. This allows heritability, or the proportion of variance attributed to additive genetic effects, to be estimated by (a) doubling the difference between the correlation found between MZ twins and the correlation found between DZ twins, for quantitative traits, or ( b ) comparing concordance rates between MZs and DZs, for qualitative disorders (McGue & Bouchard 1998).

Biometrical model-fitting made it possible for researchers to address increasingly sophisticated research questions by allowing one to statistically specify predictions made by various hypotheses and to compare models testing competing hypotheses. By modeling data from subjects who vary on exposure to a specified environment, one could test whether there is differential expression of genetic influences in different environments.

Early examples of gene-environment interaction in twin models necessitated “grouping” environments to fit multiple group models. The basic idea was simple: Fit models to data for people in environment 1 and environment 2 separately and then test whether there were significant differences in the importance of genetic and environmental factors across the groups using basic structural equation modeling techniques. In an early example of gene-environment interaction, data from the Australian twin register were used to test whether the relative importance of genetic effects on alcohol consumption varied as a function of marital status, and in fact they did (Heath et al. 1989).

Having a marriage-like relationship reduced the impact of genetic influences on drinking: Among the younger sample of twins, genetic liability accounted for but half as much variance in drinking among married women (31%) as among unmarried women (60%). A parallel effect was found among the adult twins: Genetic effects accounted for less than 60% of the variance in married respondents but more than 76% in unmarried respondents (Heath et al. 1989).

In an independent sample of Dutch twins, religiosity was also shown to moderate genetic and environmental influences on alcohol use initiation in females (with nonsignificant trends in the same direction for males): In females without a religious upbringing, genetic influences accounted for 40% of the variance in alcohol use initiation compared to 0% in religiously raised females. Shared environmental influences were far more important in the religious females (Koopmans et al. 1999).

In data from our population-based Finnish twin sample, we also found that regional residency moderates the impact of genetic and environmental influences on alcohol use. Genetic effects played a larger role in longitudinal drinking patterns from late adolescence to early adulthood among individuals residing in urban settings, whereas common environmental effects exerted a greater in-fluence across this age range among individuals in rural settings (Rose et al. 2001).

When one has pairs discordant for exposure, it is also possible to ask about genetic correlation between traits displayed in different environments.

One obvious limitation of modeling gene-environment interaction in this way was that it constrained investigation to environments that fell into natural groupings (e.g., married/unmarried; urban/rural) or it forced investigators to create groups based on environments that may actually be more continuous in nature (e.g., religiosity). In the first extension of this work to quasi-continuous environmental moderation, we developed a model that allowed genetic and environmental influences to vary as a function of a continuous environmental moderator and used this model to follow-up on the urban/rural interaction reported previously (Dick et al. 2001).

We believed it likely that the urban/rural moderation effect reflected a composite of different processes at work. Accordingly, we expanded the analyses to incorporate more specific information about neighborhood environments, using government-collected information about the specific municipalities in which the twins resided (Dick et al. 2001). We found that genetic influences were stronger in environments characterized by higher rates of migration in and out of the municipality; conversely, shared environmental influences predominated in local communities characterized by little migration.

We also found that genetic predispositions were stronger in communities composed of a higher percentage of young adults slightly older than our age-18 Finnish twins and in regions where there were higher alcohol sales.

Further, the magnitude of genetic moderation observed in these models that allowed for variation as a function of a quasi-continuous environmental moderator was striking, with nearly a fivefold difference in the magnitude of genetic effects between environmental extremes in some cases.

The publication of a paper the following year (Purcell 2002) that provided straightforward scripts for continuous gene-environment interaction models using the most widely used program for twin analyses, Mx (Neale 2000), led to a surge of papers studying gene-environment interaction in the twin literature. These scripts also offered the advantage of being able to take into account gene-environment correlation in the context of gene-environment interaction. This was an important advance because previous examples of gene-environment interaction in twin models had been limited to environments that showed no evidence of genetic effects so as to avoid the confounding of gene-environment interaction with gene-environment correlation.

Using these models, we have demonstrated that genetic influences on adolescent substance use are enhanced in environments with lower parental monitoring (Dick et al. 2007c) and in the presence of substance-using friends (Dick et al. 2007b). Similar effects have been demonstrated for more general externalizing behavior: Genetic influences on antisocial behavior were higher in the presence of delinquent peers (Button et al. 2007) and in environments characterized by high parental negativity (Feinberg et al. 2007), low parental warmth (Feinberg et al. 2007), and high paternal punitive discipline (Button et al. 2008).

Further, in an extension of the socioregional-moderating effects observed on age-18 alcohol use, we found a parallel moderating role of these socioregional variables on age-14 behavior problems in girls in a younger Finnish twin sample. Genetic influences assumed greater importance in urban settings, communities with greater migration, and communities with a higher percentage of slightly older adolescents.

Other psychological outcomes have also yielded significant evidence of gene-environment interaction effects in the twin literature. For example, a moderating effect, parallel to that reported for alcohol consumption above, has been reported for depression symptoms (Heath et al. 1998) in females. A marriage-like relationship reduced the influence of genetic liability to depression symptoms, paralleling the effect found for alcohol consumption: Genetic factors accounted for 29% of the variance in depression scores among married women, but for 42% of the variance in young unmarried females and 51% of the variance in older unmarried females (Heath et al. 1998).

Life events were also found to moderate the impact of factors influencing depression in females (Kendler et al. 1991). Genetic and/or shared environmental influences were significantly more important in influencing depression in high-stress than in low-stress environments, as defined by a median split on a life-event inventory, although there was insufficient power to determine whether the moderating influence was on genetic or environmental effects.

More than simply accumulating examples of moderation of genetic influence by environmental factors, efforts have been made to integrate this work into theoretical frameworks surrounding the etiology of different clinical conditions. This is critical if science is to advance beyond individual observations to testable broad theories.

A 2005 review paper by Shanahan and Hofer suggested four processes by which social context may moderate the relative importance of genetic effects (Shanahan & Hofer 2005).

The environment may (a) trigger or (b) compensate for a genetic predisposition, (c) control the expression of a genetic predisposition, or (d ) enhance a genetic predisposition (referring to the accentuation of “positive” genetic predispositions).

These processes are not mutually exclusive and can represent different ends of a continuum. For example, the interaction between genetic susceptibility and life events may represent a situation whereby the experience of life events triggers a genetic susceptibility to depression. Conversely, “protective” environments, such as marriage-like relationships and low stress levels, can buffer against or reduce the impact of genetic predispositions to depressive problems.

Many different processes are likely involved in the gene-environment interactions observed for substance use and antisocial behavior. For example, family environment and peer substance use/delinquency likely constitute a spectrum of risk or protection, and family/friend environments that are at the “poor” extreme may trigger genetic predispositions toward substance use and antisocial behavior, whereas positive family and friend relationships may compensate for genetic predispositions toward substance use and antisocial behavior.

Social control also appears to be a particularly relevant process in substance use, as it is likely that being in a marriage-like relationship and/or being raised with a religious upbringing exert social norms that constrain behavior and thereby reduce genetic predispositions toward substance use.

Further, the availability of the substance also serves as a level of control over the ability to express genetic predispositions, and accordingly, the degree to which genetic influences will be apparent on an outcome at the population level. In a compelling illustration of this effect, Boardman and colleagues used twin data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States and found a significant reduction in the importance of genetic influences on people who smoke regularly following legislation prohibiting smoking in public places (Boardman et al. 2010).

Molecular analyses

All of the analyses discussed thus far use latent, unmeasured indices of genetic influence to detect the possible presence of gene-environment interaction. This is largely because it was possible to test for the presence of latent genetic influence in humans (via comparisons of correlations between relatives with different degrees of genetic sharing) long before molecular genetics yielded the techniques necessary to identify specific genes influencing complex psychological disorders.

However, recent advances have made the collection of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and resultant genotyping relatively cheap and straightforward. Additionally, the publication of hig profile papers brought gene-environment interaction to the forefront of mainstream psychology. In a pair of papers published in Science in 2002 and 2003, respectively, Caspi and colleagues analyzed data from a prospective, longitudinal sample from a birth cohort from New Zealand, followed from birth through adulthood.

In the 2002 paper, they reported that a functional polymorphism in the gene encoding the neurotransmitter-metabolizing enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) moderated the effect of maltreatment: Males who carried the genotype conferring high levels of MAOA expression were less likely to develop antisocial problems when exposed to maltreatment (Caspi et al. 2002). In the 2003 paper, they reported that a functional polymorphism in the promoter region of the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTT) was found to moderate the influence of stressful life events on depression. Individuals carrying the short allele of the 5-HTT promoter polymorphism exhibited more depressive symptoms, diagnosable depression, and suicidality in relation to stressful life events than did individuals homozygous for the long allele (Caspi et al. 2003).

Both studies were significant in demonstrating that genetic variation can moderate individuals’ sensitivity to environmental events.

These studies sparked a multitude of reports that aimed to replicate, or to further extend and explore, the findings of the original papers, resulting in huge literatures surrounding each reported gene-environment interaction in the years since the original publications (e.g., Edwards et al. 2009, Enoch et al. 2010, Frazzetto et al. 2007, Kim-Cohen et al. 2006, McDermott et al. 2009,Prom-Wormley et al. 2009, Vanyukov et al. 2007, Weder et al. 2009). It is beyond the scope of this review to detail these studies; however, of note was the publication in 2009 of a highly publicized meta-analysis of the interaction between 5-HTT, stressful life events, and risk of depression that concluded there was “no evidence that the serotonin transporter genotype alone or in interaction with stressful life events is associated with an elevated risk of depression in men alone, women alone, or in both sexes combined” (Risch et al. 2009). Further, the authors were critical of the rapid embracing of gene-environment interaction and the substantial resources that have been devoted to this research.

The paper stimulated considerable backlash against the study of gene-environment interactions, and the pendulum appeared to be swinging back the other direction. However, a recent review by Caspi and colleagues entitled “Genetic Sensitivity to the Environment: The Case of the Serotonin Transporter Gene and Its Implications for Studying Complex Diseases and Traits” highlighted the fact that evidence for involvement of 5-HTT in stress sensitivity comes from at least four different types of studies, including observational studies in humans, experimental neuroscience studies, studies in nonhuman primates, and studies of 5HTT mutations in rodents (Caspi et al. 2010).

Further, the authors made the distinction between different cultures of evaluating gene-environment interactions: a purely statistical (theory-free) approach that relies wholly on meta-analysis (e.g., such as that taken by Risch et al. 2009) versus a construct-validity (theory-guided) approach that looks for a nomological network of convergent evidence, such as the approach that they took.

It is likely that this distinction also reflects differences in training and emphasis across different fields. The most cutting-edge genetic strategies at any given point, though they have changed drastically and rapidly over the past several decades, have generally involved atheoretical methods for gene identification (Neale et al. 2008). This was true of early linkage analyses, where ~400 to 1,000 markers were scanned across the genome to search for chromosomal regions that were shared by affected family members, suggesting there may be a gene in that region that harbored risk for the particular outcome under study. This allowed geneticists to search for genes without having to know anything about the underlying biology, with the ideas that the identification of risk genes would be informative as to etiological processes and that our understanding of the biology of most psychiatric conditions is limited.

Although it is now recognized that linkage studies were underpowered to detect genes of small effect, such as those now thought to be operating in psychiatric conditions, this atheoretical approach was retained in the next generation of gene-finding methods that replaced linkage, the implementation of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) (Cardon 2006). GWAS also have the general framework of scanning markers located across the entire genome in an effort to detect association between genetic markers and disease status; however, in GWAS over a million markers (or more, on the newest genetic platforms) are analyzed.

The next technique on the horizon is sequencing, in which entire stretches of DNA are sequenced to know the exact base pair sequence for a given region (McKenna et al. 2010).

From linkage to sequencing, common across all these techniques is an atheoretical framework for finding genes that necessarily involves conducting very large numbers of tests. Accordingly, there has been great emphasis in the field of genetics on correction for multiple testing (van den Oord 2007). In addition, the estimated magnitude of effect size of genetic variants thought to influence complex behavioral outcomes has been continually shifted downward as studies that were sufficiently powered to detect effect sizes previously thought to be reasonable have failed to generate positive findings (Manolio et al. 2009). GWAS have led the field to believe that genes influencing complex behavioral outcomes likely have odds ratios (ORs) on the order of magnitude of 1.1. This has led to a need for incredibly large sample sizes, requiring meta-analytic GWAS efforts with several tens of thousands of subjects (Landi et al. 2009, Lindgren et al. 2009).

It is important to note there has been increasing attention to the topic of gene-environment interaction from geneticists (Engelman et al. 2009). This likely reflects, in part, frustration and difficulty with identifying genes that impact complex psychiatric outcomes. Several hypotheses have been put forth as possible explanations for the failure to robustly detect genes involved in psychiatric outcomes, including a genetic model involving far more genes, each of very small effect, than was previously recognized, and failure to pay adequate attention to rare variants, copy number variants, and gene-environment interaction (Manolio et al. 2009).

Accordingly, gene-environment interaction is being discussed far more in the area of gene finding than in years past; however, these discussions often involve atheoretical approaches and center on methods to adequately detect gene-environment interaction in the presence of extensive multiple testing (Gauderman 2002, Gauderman et al. 2010). The papers by Risch et al. (2009) and Caspi et al. (2010) on the interaction between 5-HTT, life stress, and depression highlight the conceptual, theoretical, and practical differences that continue to exist between the fields of genetics and psychology surrounding the identification of gene-environment interaction effects.


An important consideration in the study of gene-environment interaction is the nature, or shape, of the interaction that one hypothesizes. There are two primary types of interactions.

One type of interaction is the fan-shaped interaction. In this type of interaction, the influence of genotype is greater in one environmental context than in another. This is the kind of interaction that is hypothesized by a diathesis-stress framework, whereby genetic influences become more apparent, i.e., are more strongly related to outcome, in the presence of negative environmental conditions. There is a reduced (or no) association of genotype with outcome in the absence of exposure to particular environmental conditions.

The literature surrounding depression and life events would be an example of a hypothesized fan-shaped interaction: When life stressors are encountered, genetically vulnerable individuals are more prone to developing depression, whereas in the absence of life stressors, these individuals may be no more likely to develop depression. In essence, it is only when adverse environmental conditions are experienced that the genes “come on-line.”

Gene-environment interactions in the area of adolescent substance use are also hypothesized to be fan-shaped, where some environmental conditions will allow greater opportunity to express genetic predispositions, allowing for more variation by genotype, and other environments will exert social control in such a way as to curb genetic expression (Shanahan & Hofer 2005), leading to reduced genetic variance.

Twin analyses yielding evidence of genetic influences being more or less important in different environmental contexts are generally suggestive of fan-shaped interactions. Changes in the overall heritability do not necessarily dictate that any one specific susceptibility gene will operate in a parallel manner; however, a change in heritability suggests that at least a good portion of the involved genes (assuming many genes of approximately equal and small effect) must be operating in that manner for a difference in heritability by environment to be detectable.

The diathesis-stress model has largely been the dominant model in psychiatry. Gene-finding efforts have focused on the search for vulnerability genes, and gene-environment interaction has been discussed in the context of these genetic effects becoming more or less important under particular environmental conditions.

Different types of gene-environment interactions.

More recently, an alternative framework has been proposed by Belsky and colleagues, the differential susceptibility hypothesis, in which the same individuals who are most adversely affected by negative environments may also be those who are most likely to benefit from positive environments. Rather than searching for “vulnerability genes” influencing psychiatric and behavioral outcomes, they propose the idea of “plasticity genes,” or genes involved in responsivity to environmental conditions (Belsky et al. 2009).

Belsky and colleagues reviewed the literatures surrounding gene-environment interactions associated with three widely studied candidate genes, MAOA, 5-HTT, and DRD4, and suggested that the results provide evidence for differential susceptibility associated with these genes (Belsky et al. 2009).

Their hypothesis is closely related to the concept of biological sensitivity to context (Ellis & Boyce 2008). The idea of biological sensitivity to context has its roots in evolutionary developmental biology, whereby selection pressures should favor genotypes that support a range of phenotypes in response to environmental conditions because this flexibility would be beneficial from the perspective of survival of the species. However, biological sensitivity to context has the potential for both positive effects under more highly supportive environmental conditions and negative effects in the presence of more negative environmental conditions. This theory has been most fully developed and discussed in the context of stress reactivity (Boyce & Ellis 2005), where it has been demonstrated that highly reactive children show disproportionate rates of morbidity when raised in adverse environments, but particularly low rates when raised in low-stress, highly supportive environments (Ellis et al. 2005). In these studies, high reactivity was defined by response to different laboratory challenges, and the authors noted that the underlying cellular mechanisms that would produce such responses are currently unknown, though genetic factors are likely to play a role (Ellis & Boyce 2008).

Although fan-shaped and crossover interactions are theoretically different, in practice, they can be quite difficult to differentiate. One can imagine several “variations on the theme” for both fan-shaped and crossover interactions. In general for a fan-shaped interaction, a main effect of genotype will be present as well as a main effect of the environment. There is a main effect of genotype at both environmental extremes; it is simply far stronger in environment 5 (far right side of the graph) as compared to environment 1 (far left side). But one could imagine a fan-shaped interaction where there was no genotypic effect at one extreme (e.g., the lines converge to the same phenotypic mean at environment).

Further, fan-shaped interactions can differ in the slope of the lines for each genotype, which indicate how much the environment is modifying genetic effects. In the crossover interaction shown above, the lines cross at environment 3 (i.e., in the middle). But crossover interactions can vary in the location of the crossover. It is possible that crossing over only occurs at the environmental extreme.

As previously noted, the crossing over of the genotypic groups in the Caspi et al. publications of the interactions between the 5-HTT gene, life events, and depression (Caspi et al. 2003) and between MAOA, maltreatment, and antisocial behavior (Caspi et al. 2002) occurred at the extreme low ends of the environmental measures, and the degree of crossing over was quite modest. Rather, the shape of the interactions (and the way the interactions were conceptualized in the papers) was largely fan-shaped, whereby certain genotypic groups showed stronger associations with outcome as a function of the environmental stressor.

Also, in both cases, the genetic variance was far greater under one environmental extreme than the other, rather than being approximately equivalent at both ends of the distribution, but with genotypic effects in opposite directions. In general, it is assumed that main effects of genotype will not be detected in crossover interactions, but this will actually depend on the frequency of the different levels of the environment. This is also true of fan-shaped interactions, but to a lesser degree.

Evaluating the relative importance, or frequency of existence, of each type of interaction is complicated by the fact that there is far more power to detect crossover interactions than fan-shaped interactions. Knowing that most of our genetic studies are likely underpowered, we would expect a preponderance of crossover effects to be detected as compared to fan-shaped effects purely as a statistical artifact. Further, even when a crossover effect is observed, power considerations can make it difficult to determine if it is “real.” For example, an interaction observed in our data between the gene CHRM2, parental monitoring, and adolescent externalizing behavior yielded consistent evidence for a gene-environment interaction, with a crossing of the observed regression lines. However, the mean differences by genotype were not significant at either end of the environmental continuum, so it is unclear whether the crossover reflected true differential susceptibility or simply overfitting of the data across the environmental levels containing the majority of the observations, which contributed to a crossing over of the regression lines at one environmental extreme (Dick et al. 2011).

Larger studies would have greater power to make these differentiations; however, there is the unfortunate paradox that the samples with the greatest depth of phenotypic information, allowing for more complex tests about risk associated with particular genes, usually have much smaller sample sizes due to the trade-off necessary to collect the rich phenotypic information. This is an important issue for gene-environment interaction studies in general: Most have been underpowered, and this raises concerns about the likelihood that detected effects are true positives. There are several freely available programs to estimate power (Gauderman 2002, Purcell et al. 2003), and it is critical that papers reporting gene-environment interaction effects (or a lack thereof) include information about the power of their sample in order to interpret the results.

Another widely contested issue is whether gene-environment interactions should be examined only when main effects of genotype are detected. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is the approach most commonly advocated by statistical geneticists (Risch et al. 2009) and that was recommended by the Psychiatric GWAS Consortium (Psychiatr. GWAS Consort. Steer. Comm. 2008). However, this strategy could preclude the detection of crossover interaction effects as well as gene-environment interactions that occur in the presence of relatively low-frequency environments. In addition, if genetic effects are conditional on environmental exposure, main effects of genotype could vary across samples, that is to say, a genetic effect could be detected in one sample and fail to replicate in another if the samples differ on environmental exposure.

Another issue with the detection and interpretation of gene-environment interaction effects involves the range of environments being studied. For example, if we assume that the five levels of the environment shown above represent the true full range of environments that exist, if a particular study only included individuals from environments 3–5, it would conclude that there is a fan-shaped gene-environment interaction. Belsky and colleagues (2009) have suggested this may be particularly problematic in the psychiatric literature because only in rare exceptions (Bakermans-Kranenburg & van Ijzendoorn 2006, Taylor et al. 2006) has the environment included both positive and negative ends of the spectrum. Rather, the absence of environmental stressors has usually constituted the “low” end of the environment, e.g., the absence of life stressors (Caspi et al. 2003) or the absence of maltreatment (Caspi et al. 2002). This could lead individuals to conclude there is a fan-shaped interaction because they are essentially failing to measure, with reference to figure above, environments 0-3, which represent the positive end of the environmental continuum. One can imagine a number of other incorrect conclusions that could be drawn about the nature of gene-environment interaction effects as a result of restricted range of environmental measures. For example, in B, measurement of individuals from environments 0-3 would lead one to conclude that genetic effects play a stronger role at lower levels of environmental exposure. Measurement of individuals from environments 3-5 would lead one to conclude that genetic effects play a stronger role at higher levels of exposure to the same environmental variable. In Figure A, if measurement of individuals was limited to environments 0-3, depending on sample size, there may be inadequate power to detect deviation from a purely additive genetic model, e.g., the slope of the genotypic lines may not be significantly different.

It is also important to note that not only are there several scenarios that would lead one to make incorrect conclusions about the nature of a gene-environment interaction effect, there are also scenarios that would lead one to conclude that a gene-environment interaction exists when it actually does not. Several of these are detailed in a sobering paper by my colleague Lindon Eaves, in which significant evidence for gene-environment interaction was detected quite frequently using standard regression methods, when the simulated data reflected strictly additive models (Eaves 2006). This was particularly problematic when using logistic regression where a dichotomous diagnosis was the outcome. The problem was further exaggerated when selected samples were analyzed.

An additional complication with evaluating gene-environment interactions in psychology is that often our environmental measures don’t have absolute scales of measurement. For example, what is the “real” metric for measuring a construct like parent-child bonding, or maltreatment, or stress? This becomes critical because fan-shaped interactions are very sensitive to scaling. Often a transformation of the scale scores will make the interaction disappear. What does it mean if the raw variable shows an interaction but the log transformation of the scale scores does not? Is the interaction real? Is one metric for measuring the environment a better reflection of the “real” nature of the environment than another?

Many of the environments of interest to psychologists do not have true metrics, such as those that exist for measures such as height, weight, or other physiological variables. This is an issue for the study of gene-environment interaction. It becomes even more problematic when you consider that logistic regression is the method commonly used to test for gene-environment interactions with dichotomous disease status outcomes. Logistic regression involves a logarithmic transformation of the probability of being affected. By definition, this changes the nature of the relationship between the variables being modeled. This compounds problems associated with gene-environment interactions being scale dependent.


An enduring question remains in the study of gene-environment interaction: how does the environment “get under the skin”? Stated in another way:

What are the biological processes by which exposure to environmental events could affect outcome?

Epigenetics is one candidate mechanism. Excellent recent reviews on this topic exist (Meaney 2010, Zhang & Meaney 2010), and I provide a brief overview here.

It is important to note, however, that although epigenetics is increasingly discussed in the context of gene-environment interaction, it does not relate directly to gene-environment interaction in the statistical sense, as differentiated previously in this review. That is to say that epigenetic processes likely tell us something about the biological mechanisms by which the environment can affect gene expression and impact behavior, but they are not informative in terms of distinguishing between additive versus interactive environmental effects.

Although variability exists in defining the term, epigenetics generally refers to modifications to the genome that do not involve a change in nucleotide sequence. To understand this concept, let us review a bit about basic genetics.

The expression of a gene is influenced by transcription factors (proteins), which bind to specific sequences of DNA. It is through the binding of transcription factors that genes can be turned on or off. Epigenetic mechanisms involve changes to how readily transcription factors can access the DNA. Several different types of epigenetic changes are known to exist that involve different types of chemical changes that can regulate DNA transcription.

One epigenetic process that affects transcription binding is DNA methylation. DNA methylation involves the addition of a methyl group (CH3) onto a cytosine (one of the four base pairs that make up DNA). This leads to gene silencing because methylated DNA hinders the binding of transcription factors.

A second major regulatory mechanism is related to the configuration of DNA. DNA is wrapped around clusters of histone proteins to form nucleosomes. Together the nucleosomes of DNA and histone are organized into chromatin. When the chromatin is tightly condensed, it is difficult for transcription factors to reach the DNA, and the gene is silenced. In contrast, when the chromatin is opened, the gene can be activated and expressed. Accordingly, modifications to the histone proteins that form the core of the nucleosome can affect the initiation of transcription by affecting how readily transcription factors can access the DNA and bind to their appropriate sequence.

Epigenetic modifications of the genome have long been known to exist. For example, all cells in the body share the same DNA; accordingly, there must be a mechanism whereby different genes are active in liver cells than, for example, brain cells. The process of cell specialization involves silencing certain portions of the genome in a manner specific to each cell. DNA methylation is a mechanism known to be involved in cell specialization.

Another well known example of DNA methylation involves X-inactivation in females. Because females carry two copies of the X chromosome, one must be inactivated. The silencing of one copy of the X chromosome involves DNA methylation.

Genomic imprinting is another long established principle known to involve DNA methylation. In genomic imprinting the expression of specific genes is determined by the parent of origin. For example, the copy of the gene inherited from the mother is silenced, while the copy inherited from the father is active (or vice versa). The silent copy is inactive through processes involving DNA methylation. These changes all involve epigenetic processes parallel to those currently attracting so much attention.

However, the difference is that these known epigenetic modifications (cell specialization, X inactivation, genomic imprinting) all occur early in development and are stable.

The discovery that epigenetic modifications continue to occur across development, and can be reversible and more dynamic, has represented a major paradigm shift in our understanding of environmental regulation of gene expression.

Animal studies have yielded compelling evidence that early environmental manipulations can be associated with long-term effects that persist into adulthood. For example, maternal licking and grooming in rats is known to have long-term influences on stress response and cognitive performance in their offspring (Champagne et al. 2008, Meaney 2010). Further, a series of studies conducted in macaque monkeys demonstrates that early rearing conditions can result in long-term increased aggression, more reactive stress response, altered neurotransmitter functioning, and structural brain changes (Stevens et al. 2009). These findings parallel research in humans that suggests that early life experiences can have long-term effects on child development (Loman & Gunnar 2010). Elegant work in animal models suggests that epigenetic changes may be involved in these associations (Meaney 2010, Zhang & Meaney 2010).

Evaluating epigenetic changes in humans is more difficult because epigenetic marks can be tissue specific. Access to human brain tissue is limited to postmortem studies of donated brains, which are generally unique and unrepresentative samples and must be interpreted in the context of those limitations. Nonetheless, a recent study of human brain samples from the Quebec Suicide Brain Bank found evidence of increased DNA methylation of the exon 1F promoter in hippocampal samples from suicide victims compared with controls, but only if suicide was accompanied with a history of childhood maltreatment (McGowan et al. 2009). Importantly, this paralleled epigenetic changes originally observed in rat brain in the ortholog of this locus.

Another line of evidence suggesting epigenetic changes that may be relevant in humans is the observation of increasing discordance in epigenetic marks in MZ twins across time. This is significant because MZ twins have identical genotypes, and therefore, differences between them are attributed to environmental influences. In a study by Fraga and colleagues (2005), MZ twins were found to be epigenetically indistinguishable during the early years of life, but older MZ twins exhibited remarkable differences in their epigenetic profiles. These findings suggest that epigenetic changes may be a mechanism by which environmental influences contribute to the differences in outcome observed for a variety of psychological traits of interest between genetically identical individuals.

The above studies complement a growing literature demonstrating differences in gene expression in humans as a function of environmental experience. One of the first studies to analyze the relationship between social factors and human gene expression compared healthy older adults who differed in the extent to which they felt socially connected to others (Cole et al. 2007). Using expression profiles obtained from blood cells, a number of genes were identified that showed systematically different levels of expression in people who reported feeling lonely and distant from others.

Interestingly, these effects were concentrated among genes that are involved in immune response.

The results provide a biological mechanism that could explain why socially isolated individuals show heightened vulnerability to diseases and illnesses related to immune function.

Importantly, they demonstrate that our social worlds can exert biologically significant effects on gene expression in humans (for a more extensive review, see Cole 2009).


This review has attempted to provide an overview of the study of gene-environment interaction, starting with early animal studies documenting gene-environment interaction, to demonstrations of similar effects in family, adoption, and twin studies.

Advances in twin modeling and the relative ease with which gene-environment interaction can now be modeled has led to a significant increase in the number of twin studies documenting changing importance of genetic influence across environmental contexts. There is now widespread documentation of gene-environment interaction effects across many clinical disorders (Thapar et al. 2007).

These findings have led to more integrated etiological models of the development of clinical outcomes. Further, since it is now relatively straightforward and inexpensive to collect DNA and conduct genotyping, there has been a surge of studies testing for gene-environment interaction with specific candidate genes.

Psychologists have embraced the incorporation of genetic components into their studies, and geneticists who focus on gene finding are now paying attention to the environment in an unprecedented way. However, now that the initial excitement surrounding gene-environment interaction has begun to wear off, a number of challenges involved in the study of gene-environment interaction are being recognized.

These include difficulties with interpreting interaction effects (or the lack thereof), due to issues surrounding the measurement and scaling of the environment, and statistical concerns surrounding modeling gene-environment interactions and the nature of their effects.

So where do we go from here? Individuals who jumped on the gene-environment interaction bandwagon are now discovering that studying this process is harder than it first appeared. But there is good reason to believe that gene-environment interaction is a very important process in the development of clinical disorders. So rather than abandon ship, I would suggest that as a field, we just need to proceed with more caution.


– Gene-environment interaction refers to the phenomenon whereby the effect of genes depends on the environment, or the effect of the environment depends on genotype. There is now widespread documentation of gene-environment interaction effects across many clinical disorders, leading to more integrated etiological models of the development of clinical outcomes.

– Twin, family, and adoption studies provide methods to study gene-environment interaction with genetic effects modeled latently, meaning that genes are not directly measured, but rather genetic influence is inferred based on correlations across relatives. Advances in genotyping technology have contributed to a proliferation of studies testing for gene-environment interaction with specific measured genes. Each of these designs has its own strengths and limitations.

– Two types of gene-environment interaction have been discussed in greatest detail in the literature: fan-shaped interactions, in which the influence of genotype is greater in one environmental context than in another; and crossover interactions, in which the same individuals who are most adversely affected by negative environments may also be those who are most likely to benefit from positive environments. Distinguishing between these types of interactions poses a number of challenges.

– The range of environments studied and the lack of a true metric for many environmental measures of interest create difficulties for studying gene-environment interactions. Issues surrounding power, and the use of logistic regression and selected samples, further compound the difficulty of studying gene-environment interactions. These issues have not received adequate attention by many researchers in this field.

– Epigenetic processes may tell us something about the biological mechanisms by which the environment can affect gene expression and impact behavior. The growing literature demonstrating differences in gene expression in humans as a function of environmental experience demonstrates that our social worlds can exert biologically significant effects on gene expression in humans.

– Much of the current work on gene-environment interactions does not take advantage of the state of the science in genetics or psychology; advancing this area of study will require close collaborations between psychologists and geneticists.

Differential Susceptibility to Environmental Influences

Jay Belsky

Evidence that adverse rearing environments exert negative effects particularly on children and adults presumed “vulnerable” for temperamental or genetic reasons may actually reflect something else: heightened susceptibility to the negative effects of risky environments and to the beneficial effects of supportive environments.

Building on Belsky’s (Belsky & Pluess) evolutionary inspired differential susceptibility hypothesis, stipulating that some individuals, including children, are more affected, both for better and for worse, by their environmental exposures and developmental experiences, recent research consistent with this claim is reviewed. It reveals that in many cases, including both observational field studies and experimental intervention ones, putatively vulnerable children and adults are especially susceptible to both positive and negative environmental effects. In addition to reviewing relevant evidence, unknowns in the differential susceptibility equation are highlighted.


Most students of child development probably do not presume that all children are equally susceptible to rearing (or other environmental) effects; a long history of research on interactions between parenting and temperament, or parenting by temperament interactions, clearly suggests otherwise. Nevertheless, it remains the case that most work still focuses on effects of environmental exposures and developmental experiences that apply equally to all children so-called main effects of parenting or poverty or being reared by a depressed mother, thus failing to consider interaction effects, which reflect the fact that whether, how, and how much these contextual conditions influence the child may depend on the child’s temperament or some other characteristic of individuality.

Research on parenting-by-temperament interactions is based on the premise that what proves effective for some individuals in fostering the development of some valued outcome, or preventing some problematic one may simply not do so for others. Commonly tested are diathesis-stress hypotheses derived from multiplerisk/transactional frameworks in which individual characteristics that make children “vulnerable” to adverse experiences placing them “at risk” of developing poorly are mainly influential when there is at the same time some contributing risk from the environmental context (Zuckerman, 1999).

Diathesis refers to the latent weakness or vulnerability that a child or adult may carry (e.g., difficult temperament, particular gene), but which does not manifest itself, thereby undermining well-being, unless the individual is exposed to conditions of risk or stress.

After highlighting some research consistent with a diathesis-stress or dual-risk perspective, I raise questions on the basis of other findings about how the first set of data has been interpreted, advancing the evolutionary inspired proposition that some children, for temperamental or genetic reasons, are actually more susceptible to both (a) the adverse effects of unsupportive parenting and (b) the beneficial effects of supportive rearing.

Finally, I draw conclusions and highlight some “unknowns in the differential-susceptibility equation.”

Diathesis-Stress, Dual-Risk and Vulnerability

The view that infants and toddlers manifesting high levels of negative emotion are at special risk of problematic development when they experience poor quality rearing is widespread.

Evidence consistent with this view can be found in the work of Morrell and Murray, who showed that it was only highly distressed and irritable 4-month-old boys who experienced coercive and rejecting mothering at this age who continued to show evidence, 5 months later, of emotional and behavioural dysregulation. Relatedly, Belsky, Hsieh, and Cernic observed that infants who scored high in negative emotionality at 12 months of age and who experienced the least supportive mothering and fathering across their second and third years of life scored highest on externalizing problems at 36 months of age. And Deater, Deckard and Dodge reported that:

Children rated highest on externalizing behavior problems by teachers across the primary school years were those who experienced the most harsh discipline prior to kindergarten entry and who were characterized by mothers at age 5 as being negatively reactive infants.

The adverse consequences of the co-occurrence of a child risk factor (ie, a diathesis; e.g., negative emotionality) and problematic parenting also is evident in Caspi and Moflitt’s ground breaking research on gene-by-environment (GXE) interaction. Young men followed from early childhood were most likely to manifest high levels of antisocial behavior when they had both (a) a history of child maltreatment and (b) a particular variant of the MAO-A gene, a gene previously linked to aggressive behaviour. Such results led Rutter, like others, to speak of “vulnerable individuals,” a concept that also applies to children putatively at risk for compromised development due to their behavioral attributes. But is “vulnerability” the best way to conceptualize the kind of person-environment interactions under consideration?

Beyond Diathesis, Stress, DualRisk and Vulnerability

Working from an evolutionary perspective, Belsky (Belsky & Pluess) theorized that children, especially within a family, should vary in their susceptibility to both adverse and beneficial effects of rearing influence. Because the future is uncertain, in ancestral times, just like today, parents could not know for certain (consciously or unconsciously) what rearing strategies would maximise reproductive fitness, that is, the dispersion of genes in future generations, the ultimate goal of Darwinian evolution.

To protect against all children being steered, inadvertently, in a parental direction that proved disastrous at some later point in time, developmental processes were selected to vary children’s susceptibility to rearing (and other environmental influences).

In what follows, I review evidence consistent with this claim which highlights early negative emotionality and particular candidate genes as “plasticity factors” making individuals more susceptible to both supportive and unsupportive environments, that is, “for better and for worse”.

Negative Emotionality as Plasticity Factor

The first evidence which Belsky could point to consistent with his differential susceptibility hypothesis concerned early negative emotionality. Children scoring high on this supposed “risk factor”, particularly in the early years, appeared to benefit disproportionately from supportive rearing environments.

Feldman, Greenbaum, and Yirmiya found, for example, that 9-month-olds scoring high on negativity who experienced low levels of synchrony in mother-infant interaction manifested more noncompliance during clean-up at age two than other children did. When such infants experienced mutually synchronous mother-infant interaction, however, they displayed greater self-control than did children manifesting much less negativity as infants. Subsequently, Kochanska, Aksan, and Joy observed that highly fearful 15-month-olds experiencing high levels of power-assertive paternal discipline were most likely to cheat in a game at 38 months, yet when cared for in a supportive manner such negatively emotional, fearful toddlers manifested the most rule-compatible conduct.

In the time since Belsky and Pluess reviewed evidence like that just cited, highlighting the role of negative emotionality as a “plasticity factor”, even more evidence to this effect has emerged in the case of children. Consider in this regard work linking (1) maternal empathy and anger with externalizing problems; (2) mutual responsiveness observed in the mother-child dyad with effortful control; (3) intrusive maternal behavior and poverty with executive functioning; and (4) sensitive parenting with social, emotional and cognitive-academic development.

Experimental studies designed to test Belsky’s differential susceptibility hypothesis are even more suggestive than the longitudinal correlational evidence just cited. Blair discovered that it was highly negative infants who benefited most in terms of both reduced levels of externalizing behavior problems and enhanced cognitive functioning from a multi-faceted infant-toddler intervention program whose data he reanalyzed. Thereafter, Klein Velderman, Bakermans-Kranenburg, Juffer, and van Ijzendoorn found that experimentally induced changes in maternal sensitivity exerted greater impact on the attachment security of highly negatively reactive infants than it did on other infants. In both experiments, environmental influences on “vulnerable” children were for better instead of for worse.

As it turns out, there is ever growing experimental evidence that early negative emotionality is a plasticity factor. Consider findings showing that it is infants who score relatively low on irritability as newborns who fail to benefit from an otherwise security promoting intervention and infants who show few, if any, mild perinatal adversities known to be related to limited negative emotionality who fail to benefit from computer based instruction otherwise found to promote preschoolers’ phonemic awareness and early literacy.

In other words, only the putatively “vulnerable”, those manifesting or likely to manifest high levels of negativity experienced developmental enhancement as a function of the interventions cited. Similar results emerge among older children, as Scott and O’Connor’s parenting intervention resulted in the most positive change in conduct among emotionally dysregulated children (i.e., loses temper, angry, touchy).

Genes as Plasticity Factors

Perhaps nowhere has the diathesis-stress framework informed person-X-environment interaction research more than in the study of GXE interaction. Recent studies involving measured genes and measured environments also document both for better and for worse environmental effects, in the case of susceptible individuals as it turns out. Here I consider evidence pertaining to two specific candidate genes before turning attention to research examining multiple genes at the same time.


One of the most widely studied genetic polymorphisms in research involving measured genes and measured environments pertains to a particular allele (or variant) of the dopamine receptor gene, DRD4. Because the dopaminergic system is engaged in attentional, motivational, and reward mechanisms and one variant of this polymorphism, the 7-repeat allele, has been linked to lower dopamine reception efficiency. Van Ijzendoorn and Bakerman Kranenburg predicted this allele would moderate the association between maternal unresolved loss or trauma and infant attachment disorganization. Having the 7-repeat DRD4 allele substantially increased risk for disorganization in children exposed to maternal unresolved loss/trauma, as expected, consistent with the diathesis-stress framework; yet when children with this supposed “vulnerability gene” were raised by mothers who had no unresolved loss, they displayed significantly less disorganization than agemates without the allele, regardless of mothers’ unresolved loss status.

Similar results emerged when the interplay between DRD4 and observed parental insensitivity in predicting externalizing problems was studied in a group of 47 twins. Children carrying the 7-repeat DRD4 allele raised by insensitive mothers displayed more externalizing behaviors than children without the DRD4 7-repeat (irrespective of maternal sensitivity), whereas children with the 7-repeat allele raised by sensitive mothers showed the lowest levels of externalizing problem behavior.

Such results suggest that conceptualizing the 7-repeat DRD4 allele exclusively in risk-factor terms is misguided, as this variant of the gene seems to heighten susceptibility to a wide variety of environments, with supportive and risky contexts promoting, respectively, positive and negative functioning.

In the time since I last reviewed such differential susceptibility related evidence, ever more GXE findings pertaining to DRD4 (and other polymorphisms) have appeared consistent with the notion that there are individual differences in developmental plasticity. Consider in this regard recent differential susceptibility related evidence showing heightened or exclusive susceptibility of individuals carrying the 7repeat allele when the environmental predictor and developmental outcome were, respectively, (a) maternal positivity and prosocial behavior; (b) early nonfamilial childcare and social competence; (c) contextual stress and support and adolescent negative arousal; (d) childhood adversity and young adult persistent alcohol dependence; and (e) newborn risk status (i.e., gestational age, birth weight for gestational age, length of stay in NICU) and observed maternal sensitivity.

Especially noteworthy, perhaps are the results of a meta-analysis of GXE research involving dopamine related genes showing that children eight and younger respond to positive and negative developmental experiences and environmental exposures in a manner consistent with differential susceptibility.

As in the case of negative emotionality, intervention research also underscores the susceptibility to 7-repeat carriers of the DRD4 gene to benefit disproportionately from supportive environments. Kegel, Bus and van I]zendoorn tested and found support for the hypothesis that it would be DRD4-7R carriers who would benefit from specially designed computer games promoting phonemic awareness and, thereby, early literacy in their randomized control trial (RCT). Other such RCT results point in the same direction with regard to DRD4-7R, including research on African American teenagers in which substance use was the outcome examined.


Perhaps the most studied polymorphism in research on GXE interactions is the serotonin transporter gene, 5-HTTLPR. Most research distinguishes those who carry one or two short alleles (8/3, 3/1) and those homozygous for the long allele (1/1). The short allele has generally been associated with reduced expression of the serotonin transporter molecule, which is involved in the reuptake of serotonin from the synaptic cleft and thus considered to be related to depression, either directly or in the face of adversity. Indeed, the short allele has often been conceptualized as a “depression gene”.

Caspi and associates were the first to show that the 5-HTTLPR moderates effects of stressful life events during early adulthood on depressive symptoms, as well as on probability of suicide ideation/attempts and of major depression episode at age 26 years. Individuals with two 3 alleles proved most adversely affected whereas effects on 1/1 genotypes were weaker or entirely absent. Of special significance, however, is that carriers of the 3/3 allele scored best on the outcomes just mentioned when stressful life events were absent, though not by very much.

Multiple research groups have attempted to replicate Caspi et al.’’s findings of increased vulnerability to depression in response to stressful life events for individuals with one or more copies of the 5 allele, with many succeeding, but certainly not all. The data presented in quite a number of studies indicates, however, that individuals carrying short alleles (s/s, s/l) did not just function most poorly when exposed to many stressors, but best, showing least problems when encountering few or none. Calling explicit attention to such a pattern of results, Taylor and associates reported that young adults homozygous for short alleles (s/s) manifested greater depressive symptomatology than individuals with other allelic variants when exposed to early adversity (i.e., problematic child rearing history), as well as many recent negative life events, yet the fewest symptoms when they experienced a supportive early environment or recent positive experiences. The same for-better-and-for-worse pattern of results concerning depression are evident in Eley et al.’s research on adolescent girls who were and were not exposed to risky family environments.

The effect of 5-HTTLPR in moderating environmental influences in a manner consistent with differential susceptibility is not restricted to depression and its symptoms. It also emerges in studies of anxiety and ADHD, particularly ADHD which persists into adulthood. In all these cases, emotional abuse in childhood or a generally adverse childrearing environment, it proved to be those individuals carrying short alleles who responded to developmental or concurrent experiences in a for-better-and-for-worse manner, depending on the nature of the experience in question.

Since last reviewing such 5-HTTLPR-related GXE research consistent with differential susceptibility, ever more evidence in line with the just cited work has emerged. Consider in this regard evidence showing for-better-and-for-worse results in the case of those carrying one or more short alleles of 5-HTTLPR when the rearing predictor and child outcome were, respectively, (a) maternal responsiveness and child moral internalization, (b) child maltreatment and children’s antisocial behavior, and (c) supportive parenting and children’s positive affect.

Differential susceptibility related findings also emerged (among male African-American adolescents) when (d) perceived racial discrimination was used to predict conduct problems; (e) when life events were used to predict neuroticism, and (f) life satisfaction of young adults; and (g) when retrospectively reported childhood adversity was used to explain aspects of impulsivity among college students (e.g., pervasive influence of feelings, feelings trigger action). Especially noteworthy are the results of a recent meta-analysis of GXE findings pertaining to children under 18 years of age, showing that short allele carriers are more susceptible to the effects of both positive and negative developmental experiences and environmental exposures, at least in the case of Caucasians.

As was the case with DRD4, there is also evidence from intervention studies documenting differential susceptibility. Consider in this regard Drury and associates data showing that it was only children growing up in Romanian orphanages who carried 5-HTTLPR short alleles who benefited from being randomly assigned to high quality foster care in terms of reductions in the display of indiscriminant friendliness. Eley and associates also documented intervention benefits restricted to short allele carriers in their study of cognitive behavior therapy for children suffering from severe anxiety, but their design included only treated children (i.e., did not involve a randomly assigned control group).

Polygenetic Plasticity

Most GxE research, like that just considered, has focused on one or another polymorphism, like DRD4 or 5-HTTLPR. In recent years, however, work has emerged focusing on multiple polymorphisms and thus reflecting the operation of epistatic (i.e., GXG) interactions, as well as GxGxE ones.

One can distinguish polygenetic GxE research in terms of the basis used for creating multigene composites. One strategy involves identifying genes which show main effects and then compositing only these to then test an interaction with some environmental parameter. Another approach is to composite genes for a secondary, follow-up analysis that have been found in a first round of inquiry to generate significant GxE interactions.

When Cicchetti and Rogosch applied this approach using four different polymorphisms, they found that as the number of sensitivity-to-the-environment alleles increased, so did the degree to which maltreated and non-maltreated low-income children differed on a composite measure of resilient functioning in a for-better-and-for-worse manner.

A third approach which has now been used successfully a number of times to chronicle differential susceptibility involves compositing a set of genes selected on an apriori basis before evaluating GxE. Consider in this regard evidence indicating that 2-gene composites moderate links (a) between sexual abuse and adolescent depression/anxiety and somatic symptoms (b) between perceived racial discrimination and risk related cognitions reflecting a fast vs. slow life-history strategy (c) between contextual stress/support and aggression in young adulthood and (d) between social class and post-partum depression.

Of note, too is evidence that a 3-gene composite moderates the relation between a hostile, demoralizing community and family environment and aggression in early adulthood and that a 5-gene composite moderates the relation between parenting and adolescent self-control.

Given research already reviewed, it is probably not surprising that there is also work examining genetically moderated intervention effects focusing on multi-gene composites rather than singular candidate genes. Consider in this regard the Drury et al.’s findings showing that even though the genetic polymorphism brain derived neurotrophic factor, BDNF, did not all by itself operate as a plasticity factor when it came to distinguishing those who did and did not benefit from the aforementioned foster-care intervention implemented with institutionalized children in Romania, the already-noted moderating effect of 5-HTTLPR was amplified if a child carried Met rather than Val alleles of BDNF along with short 5-HTTLPR alleles. In other words, the more plasticity alleles children carried, the more their indiscriminate friendliness declined over time when assigned to foster care and the more it increased if they remained institutionalized.

Consider next Brody, Chen and Beach’s confirmed prediction that the more GABAergic and Dopaminergic genes African American teens carried, the more protected they were from increasing their alcohol use over time when enrolled in a whole-family prevention program. Such results once again call attention to the benefits of moving beyond single polymorphisms when it comes to operationalizing the plasticity phenotype. They also indicate that even if a single gene may not by itself moderate an intervention (or other environmental) effect, it could still play a role in determining the degree to which an individual benefits. These are insights future investigators and interventionists should keep in mind when seeking to illuminate “what works for whom?”

Unknowns in the Differential Susceptibility Equation

The notion of differential susceptibility, derived as it is from evolutionary theorizing, has gained great attention in recent years, including a special section in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

Although research summarized here suggests that the concept has utility, there are many “unknowns,” several of which are highlighted in this concluding section.

Domain General or Domain Specilic?

Is it the case that some children, perhaps those who begin life as highly negatively emotional, are more susceptible both to a wide variety of rearing influences and with respect to a wide variety of developmental outcomes as is presumed in the use of concepts like “fixed” and “plastic” strategists, with the latter being highly malleable and the former hardly at all? Boyce and Ellis contend that a general psychobiological reactivity makes some children especially vulnerable to stress and thus to general health problems. Or is it the case, as Belsky wonders and Kochanska, Aksan, and Joy argue, that different children are susceptible to different environmental influences (e.g., nurturance, hostility) and with respect to different outcomes? Pertinent to this idea are findings of Caspi and Mofiitt indicating that different genes differentially moderated the effect of child maltreatment on antisocial behavior (MAO-A) and on depression (5HTT).

Continuous Versus Discrete Plasticity?

The central argument that children vary in their susceptibility to rearing influences raises the question of how to conceptualize differential susceptibility: categorically (some children highly plastic and others not so at all) or continuously (some children simply more malleable than others)? It may even be that plasticity is discrete for some environment-outcome relations, with some individuals affected and others not at all (e.g., gender specific effects), but that plasticity is more continuous for other susceptibility factors (e.g., in the case of the increasing vulnerability to stress of parents with decreasing dopaminergic efficiency. Certainly the work which composites multiple genotypes implies that there is a “plasticity gradient”, with some children higher and some lower in plasticity.


Susceptibility factors are the moderators of the relation between the environment and developmental outcome, but they do not elucidate the mechanism of differential influence.

Several (non-mutually exclusive) explanations have been advanced for the heightened susceptibility of negatively emotional infants. Suomi posits that the timidity of “uptight” infants affords them extensive opportunity to learn by watching, a view perhaps consistent with Bakermans-Kranenburg and van Ijzendoorn’s aforementioned findings pertaining to DRD4, given the link between the dopamine system and attention. Kochanska et al., contend that the ease with which anxiety is induced in fearful children makes them highly responsive to parental demands.

And Belsky speculates that negativity actually reflects a highly sensitive nervous system on which experience registers powerfully negatively when not regulated by the caregiver but positively when coregulation occurs, a point of view somewhat related to Boyce and Ellis’ proposal that susceptibility may reflect prenatally programmed hyper-reactivity to stress.


Why the Only Answer is to Break Up the Biggest Wall Street Banks – Robert Reich * Twenty Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Rethinking the Role of Money and Markets in the Global Economy – W. Lee Hoskins and Walker F. Todd.

If you took the greed out of Wall Street all you’d have left is pavement.

Trump would rather stir up public rage against foreigners than address the true abuses of power inside America.

Why should banks ever be permitted to use peoples’ bank deposits insured by the federal government to place risky bets on the banks’ own behalf?

Government managed intervention in financial markets around the world and unpredictable monetary policy continue to encourage inappropriate risk taking.

What, if anything, should those who do not want to be serfs or slaves do about this situation?

Congress needs to prohibit regulators from bailing out failed banks, other types of financial institutions, and nonfinancial institutions (or foreign banking systems), be they large or small.

On Wednesday, Federal bank regulators proposed to allow Wall Street more freedom to make riskier bets with federally insured bank deposits such as the money in your checking and savings accounts.

The proposal waters down the so-called “Volcker Rule” (named after former Fed chair Paul Volcker, who proposed it). The Volcker Rule was part of the Dodd-Frank Act, passed after the near meltdown of Wall Street in 2008 in order to prevent future near meltdowns.

The Volcker Rule was itself a watered down version of the 1930s Glass Steagall Act, enacted in response to the Great Crash of 1929. Glass Steagall forced banks to choose between being commercial banks, taking in regular deposits and lending them out, or being investment banks that traded on their own capital.

Glass-Steagall’s key principle was to keep risky assets away from insured deposits. It worked well for more than half century. Then Wall Street saw opportunities to make lots of money by betting on stocks, bonds, and derivatives (bets on bets) and in 1999 persuaded Bill Clinton and a Republican congress to repeal it.

Nine years later, Wall Street had to be bailed out, and millions of Americans lost their savings, their jobs, and their homes.

Why didn’t America simply reinstate Glass Steagall after the last financial crisis? Because too much money was at stake. Wall Street was intent on keeping the door open to making bets with commercial deposits. So instead of Glass Steagall, we got the Volcker Rule almost 300 pages of regulatory mumbo jumbo, riddled with exemptions and loopholes.

Now those loopholes and exemptions are about to get even bigger, until they swallow up the Volcker Rule altogether. If the latest proposal goes through, we’ll be nearly back to where we were before the crash of 2008.

Why should banks ever be permitted to use peoples’ bank deposits insured by the federal government to place risky bets on the banks’ own behalf? Bankers say the tougher regulatory standards put them at a disadvantage relative to their overseas competitors.

Baloney. Since the 2008 Bnancial crisis, Europe has been more aggressive than the United States in clamping down on banks headquartered there. Britain is requiring its banks to have higher capital reserves than are so far contemplated in the United States.

The real reason Wall Street has spent huge sums trying to water down the Volcker Rule is that far vaster sums can be made if the Rule is out of the way. If you took the greed out of Wall Street all you’d have left is pavement.

As a result of consolidations brought on by the Wall Street bailout, the biggest banks today are bigger and have more clout than ever. They and their clients know with certainty they will be bailed out if they get into trouble, which gives them a financial advantage over smaller competitors whose capital doesn’t come with such a guarantee. So they’re becoming even more powerful.

The only answer is to break up the giant banks. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was designed not only to improve economic efficiency by reducing the market power of economic giants like the railroads and oil companies but also to prevent companies from becoming so large that their political power would undermine democracy.

The sad lesson of Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule is that Wall Street is too powerful to allow effective regulation of it. America should have learned that lesson in 2008 as the Street brought the rest of the economy and much of the world to its knees.

If Trump were a true populist on the side of the people rather than powerful financial interests, he’d lead the way, as did Teddy Roosevelt starting in 1901.

But Trump is a fake populist. After all, he appointed the bank regulators who are now again deregulating Wall Street. Trump would rather stir up public rage against foreigners than address the true abuses of power inside America.

So we may have to wait until we have a true progressive populist president. Or until Wall Street nearly implodes again robbing millions more of their savings, jobs, and homes. And the public once again demands action.

Twenty Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Rethinking the Role of Money and Markets in the Global Economy

W. Lee Hoskins, Pacific Research Institute

Walker F. Todd, Middle Tennessee State University

June 2018

Many of the hopes arising from the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall were still unrealized in 2010 and remain so today, especially in monetary policy and financial supervision. The major players that helped bring on the 2008 financial crisis still exist, with rising levels of moral hazard, including Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the too big to fail banks, and even AIG. In monetary policy, the Federal Reserve has only just begun to reduce its vastly increased balance sheet, while the European Central Bank has yet to begin.

The Dodd Frank Act of 2010 imposed new conditions but did not contract the greatly expanded federal safety net and failed to reduce the substantial increase in moral hazard. The larger budget deficits since 2008 were simply decisions to spend at higher levels instead of rational responses to the crisis. Only an increased reliance on market discipline in financial services, avoidance of Federal Reserve market interventions to rescue financial players while doing little or nothing for households and firms, and elimination of the Treasury’s backdoor borrowings that conceal the real costs of increasing budget deficits, can enable the American public to achieve the meaningful improvements in living standards that were reasonably expected when the Berlin Wall fell.

My comments focus on the continuing failure of regulations to limit disruptions in financial markets and the concomitant increase in moral hazard, as well as the purely discretionary monetary policy conducted by the Federal Reserve. State managed intervention in financial markets and a disruptive monetary policy combined to impose large costs on the economy. Yet Congress is likely to reward the Fed with more power and continues to rely on regulatory intervention. Lawmakers and regulators do not follow thoughtful economic advice that focuses on market solutions because it is rarely in their self interest to do so. Only a citizenry, educated about the values of free markets, private enterprise, and a stable monetary order, can roll back the tide of government intervention by exercising its power at the ballot box.


The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. The United States was embroiled in a financial disruption involving commercial banks and savings and loan associations. When it was over, some 1,400 banks and over 1,000 savings and loan associations failed at a then estimated present value cost of $150 billion dollars to taxpayers. Two pieces of legislation were passed to deal with the problem. The Financial Institutions Reform Recovery and Enforcement Act was enacted in August 1989, followed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act in December 1991.

These statutes were enacted to deal with the worst collapse of financial institutions since the 1930s (at the time). They relied on more regulation, more capital, and more diligent regulators. Yet it was clear that this set of regulations would fare no better than the mountain of regulations already on the books. Loopholes would develop, and regulators would forbear. At the time, those of us who were hopeful about reform thought that the regulators would heed the message from Congress, especially the House of Representatives. The too big to fail doctrine, in which the regulators colluded throughout the 1980s, was declared against public policy by the words of the 1991 statute.

Representatives of large banks (lobbyists), however, acting through the regulators and the Treasury Department, managed to have the “systemic risk exception” codified. That exception has been invoked several times now since early 2008. Simultaneously, Senator Christopher Dodd, acting on behalf of lobbyists for the Securities Industry Association, introduced an amendment of Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act that appeared to enable the Fed to make emergency loans to securities firms and other nonbanks, a power that had not been used since 1936. In the next session of Congress, the lobbyists began their multi decade rout of the forces of reform by enacting the Riegle-Neel Act of 1993.

The Founding Fathers of the Republic might have been misguided, but they were persuaded profoundly that a system of checks and balances, including preservation of the capacity of minority forces (which they called “factions”) to push back against excess on the part of other forces, was essential to preserve the forms and processes of a constitutional Republic. They clearly did not contemplate that one force or faction always would win all the battles for decades on end. Those who wanted to game the system did, in fact, win all the legislative and regulatory battles from 1992 forward. The outcome of their victories is plain for all to see after 2008.

What, if anything, should those who do not want to be serfs or slaves do about this situation?

Classical constitutional theory, which is at odds with utilitarian economic theories of efficiency on this point, says, “Make sure that those who would resist the gamers retain the capacity to push back effectively within the legitimate processes of the system.” It is not necessarily more efficient, and certainly not constitutional, to argue that nothing should stand in the way of those who advocate more and bigger games at public risk or public expense.

For decades before the 2016 election, a large section of the public was asking for a choice other than, “Decide whose boots you want to lick.” At least at the beginning, around 2010, the Tea Parties essentially were saying, “We don’t want to lick bankers’ boots.” The Republican leaders, unfortunately, essentially began to say, “When you lick, we’ll make them taste better.” The Democrat leaders of that day gave lip service to part of the public’s pleas (they enacted the Consumer Financial Protection Board [CFPB]), but they did not really want to turn aside bankers’ financial offerings as campaign contributions either (they structured the CFPB so as to leave it vulnerable to constitutional challenge).

The only good news was that government authorities still had the backbone as late as the early 1990s to let large financial institutions fail and to punish their shareholders, counterparties, and creditors.

Of course, most of the institutions that failed were relatively small. Three months after the Berlin Wall went down, Drexel Burnham, a large investment bank that served as the lynchpin for the junk bond market, was allowed to fail with the blessings of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors. At the March 1990 Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, Peter Stemlight of the New York Fed (FRBNY) remarked on how smoothly the markets handled the Drexel bankruptcy. Yet too big to fail policy already began for large commercial banks, beginning with Franklin National Bank of New York in 1974 and culminating with the failure of Continental Illinois in 1984. The moral hazard problem associated with bank bailouts became well known.

Many academics and at least two Federal Reserve Bank presidents argued in the early 1990s for limiting federal deposit insurance and pricing it for the risk of the institution, as well as reducing the rest of the federal safety net, in particular dumping the too big to fail policy. The essence of financial exchange is creditor and counterparty scrutiny, knowing one’s customer and bearing the costs and benefits of doing so. Government intervention that shields depositors, creditors, and counterparties from losses weakens the market restraint on inappropriate risk taking. By the mid 1990s, the federal safety net no longer was reduced; instead, more regulation and more empowered (but more spineless) regulators was the congressional solution.

This choice by Congress in the 1990s proved to be a bad one, for in fewer than two decades we arrived at another “worst banking crisis since the 1930s.”

When the Berlin Wall fell, central banks were focusing on lower inflation rates and exchange rate stability. At the December 1989 FOMC meeting, the Board’s staff presented a model simulation of the cost of reaching zero inflation by 1995 from the then prevalent 4.5 percent inflation rate. The Committee had not agreed on a target inflation rate, but most members seemed to prefer something between zero and 2 percent.

At the same FOMC meeting, Sam Cross of the FRBNY reported that the German mark (this was in pre euro days) had soared against the dollar and that there was some speculation in the market that the Fed might intervene. The Fed already had intervened to the tune of $20 billion, and the Treasury, using its Exchange Stabilization Fund and the Fed’s warehousing facility, also held that same amount of foreign currency from interventions. This warehousing facility (the Fed lent the Treasury dollars in exchange for its foreign currencies) was simply a way for the Treasury to evade Congressional appropriations. In short, it was and still is a way for the Fed to fund the Treasury directly. While the warehouse is dormant now, it is still on the statute books and could be used again. The Fed’s former sterilized interventions in currency markets produced nothing but uncertainty.

During the 1990s the Fed did manage to lower the inflation rate. It did so with no monetary rules or targets, nothing but pure discretion. But the Fed developed a pattern of lowering interest rates at every potential downturn in GDP and every dislocation in financial markets. This practice encouraged investors to take on riskier assets, knowing that the Fed would bail them out with lower interest rates should a problem occur.

This practice came to be known as the “Greenspan put,” and monetary policy began to produce moral hazard on a grand scale.


Today we bear the fruits of state managed intervention and seat of the pants monetary policy. Many of the interventions from the 1930s are still with us, the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, to name just a few, and they all played a major role in the housing bubble and its collapse in 2008.

Many new housing and mortgage programs were put in place during the recent troubles, and they will probably be around for the next financial disruption. Financial Services committee chairmen Dodd and Frank chose to travel the road of more regulation despite the fact that a mountain of regulation on the books failed to prevent the 1980s savings and loan and banking debacles, as well as the latest meltdown in financial markets. The integrated nature of global financial markets means that our problems quickly can become theirs. Governments around the globe are also going down the regulation road, despite the post 2007 failure of the Basel bank regulatory agreements and their own homegrown regulations.

Meanwhile, government guarantees and insurance programs for financial assets, along with bank bailouts, have produced, arguably, the largest increase in moral hazard in the history of financial markets. The Fed’s zero interest rate policy lasted so long (2008-15) that it encouraged excessive risk taking, certainly riding the yield curve for banks (funding short and lending long). Unless reversed, these policies will plant the seeds for the next bubble. A major consequence of these policies has been a surge in the already troubling problem of growing federal debt. Public debt levels abroad also have increased as a result of these failed policies.

The bailouts by the Federal Reserve doubled its balance sheet (emergency lending) with dubious assets, but also made it more of a development bank than a modern central bank. The bailouts of Bear Stearns and AIG put the Fed in the business of making fiscal policy, a function that belongs to Congress.

The Fed’s purchase of $1.7 trillion of mortgage backed securities was pure credit allocation that favored one sector of the economy over another.

Will Congress learn that if the Fed can allocate credit for the mortgage market, it also can do so for the municipal securities market or small business loans? Credit allocation also is something that Congress does, usually unsuccessfully, as with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac before 2008, which were predicted to cost taxpayers upward of $400 billion, ignoring subsequent recoveries, before the housing bust ran its course (Morgenson and Rosner 2011).

The terrible decision to bail out the creditors of Bear Stearns set a precedent that did much damage. Other banks with troubled portfolios did not feel the urgency to clean themselves up. Creditors did not run on troubled institutions because they believed that they would be bailed out. Buyers of other troubled banks expected the Fed to be an investor for $30 billion, as it was with Bear Steams, and sellers expected to receive $10 a share instead of nothing, the same as Bear’s stockholders. This market expectation was not met with the failure of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, which is one very big reason why potential buyers of Lehman walked away.

Monetary policy at the Fed for nearly a decade now [2010] has been to hold short term rates near zero until the unemployment rate falls. Because unemployment is a lagging indicator, the Fed ran the risks of rising inflation and inflation expectations. Because the Fed essentially operated as an arm of the Treasury, its credibility as an inflation fighter fell into doubt.

Unwinding the balance sheet is going to be tricky because of the mortgage backed securities that dominate the Fed’s balance sheet. As interest rates rise, these long term assets will fall in value, leaving the Fed with large losses. The Fed needs to sell these assets now before it raises rates, as some in the Fed have argued. A governance issue for the Fed as it anticipates raising interest rates is which body within the Fed makes the decision on changes in excess reserve interest rates. Congress gave the power to the Board of Governors, not the FOMC, which makes monetary policy decisions. These decisions need to be linked (i.e., the same entity, preferably the FOMC, needs to decide on both monetary policy and excess reserve interest rates) if monetary policy is to have any chance of success.

In sum, today we have a greatly expanded federal safety net, a substantial increase in moral hazard, and a surge in federal debt that can be attributed only partially to the recession. A higher inflation rate must seem appealing to many in Washington. Much the same can be said for the majority of our friends abroad. The universal response so far is a call for more regulation, more capital and more far seeing regulators. The lessons from past banking busts go unlearned.

Government managed intervention in financial markets around the world and unpredictable monetary policy continue to encourage inappropriate risk taking.


The principled economic position is to have government remove itself from intervening in financial markets and move to some form of a commodity standard for money or perhaps a regime of competitive money supplies. Over time, creditors, counterparties, and depositors would seek out prudent banks with high capital ratios. Weaker banks would adjust or fail. Some institutions might drop limited liability corporate charters and put stockholders at risk for capital calls. Existing clearing houses would provide risk sharing arrangements and thus would play a much stronger role in supervising the practices of participating banks. There would be no central bank to feed bubbles and busts.

Market disruptions still would occur, but they would be fewer, smaller, and quickly self correcting. The day the public and politicians are ready to accept such a system is probably some time off, perhaps after the bankruptcy of some major governments.

In the meantime, doing what is politically achievable, guided by the principled economic position, is about our best hope. Start by debunking the notion that only the government can prevent systemic risk. There is no bank that is too big to fail. That idea exists in the minds of regulators and politicians. If the failure of a large, insolvent bank causes runs on solvent institutions, then a lender of last resort lends freely at penalty rates against sound collateral until the run stops.

The second source of systemic risk is related to the effects of a bank failure on the payment system. The fear is that the failure of a large bank could cause failure of other banks connected to the payment system. Participants in clearing houses routinely limit their risk to individual counterparties so that the loss for each bank would be small. Also, risk sharing arrangements are in place in many clearing houses.

Congress needs to prohibit regulators from bailing out failed banks, other types of financial institutions, and nonfinancial institutions (or foreign banking systems), be they large or small.

Federal guarantees and deposit insurance need to be scaled back drastically. Mandatory closure rules are needed and should be enforced by bankruptcy judges and not a gaggle of regulators. Federal Reserve emergency lending powers should be removed [Section 13(3)]. This would prevent future bailouts of any company, banking or otherwise, by the Fed. The Fed also needs to have its warehousing relationship with the Treasury closed permanently. It is a nonstatutory arrangement that has been used since the 1960s for foreign exchange holdings of the Treasury, but it could be used for any Treasury asset for as long as this facility exists. All of these arrangements amount to backdoor Treasury borrowing. In the conduct of monetary policy, arrangements that provide backdoor funding for Treasury intervention in financial markets are particularly objectionable.

The Fed’s monetary policy should have a single objective, domestic price level stability. No more chasing after short term fluctuations in the real economy with a Section 13(3) fire extinguisher or after financial market disruptions with the fire hose of large changes in interest rates.

The Fed’s policy independence should not be unconditional. It should be expected to achieve its monetary policy objective in a defined amount of time and should face a penalty for failure, such as replacing members of the FOMC (preferably those whose policy choices led to or exacerbated the failure).


Pushing even the modest reforms proposed here through Congress will prove difficult without an educated public changing the political calculus at the ballot box. In the United States, an already restless public became even more so after 2008 regarding the size of government, the amount of debt (both foreign and domestic) that it is creating, and its intrusions into the private sector, particularly bank bailouts perceived as doing little or nothing to alleviate pressures on households and most firms.

The midterm elections of 2010 (the first Tea Party election) offered the first opportunity for the public to send a message to politicians that it was in their self interest to reduce the role of the state in our lives and in our economic affairs. The failure of the governing elites of both major parties to restrain the intrusive government that they had created led to the election of 2016, when the populist revolt erupted in both parties (Sanders for the Democrats and Trump for the Republicans). Those wishing for a different outcome in 2018 or 2020 need to explain what they propose to do about the factors causing public restlessness already in 2010.

Avoiding meat and dairy is the ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth – Damian Carrington.

Biggest analysis to date reveals huge footprint of livestock, it provides just 18% of calories but takes up 83% of farmland.

86% of all land mammals are now livestock or humans.

Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to Earth.

The new research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75%, an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.

The new analysis shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority, 83%, of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Other recent research shows 86% of all land mammals are now livestock or humans. The scientists also found that even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing.

The study, published in the journal Science, created a huge dataset based on almost 40,000 farms in 119 countries and covering 40 food products that represent 90% of all that is eaten. It assessed the full impact of these foods, from emissions, freshwater use and water pollution (eutrophication) and air pollution (acidification).

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems,” he said. “Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.”

The analysis also revealed a huge variability between different ways of producing the same food. For example, beef cattle raised on deforested land result in 12 times more greenhouse gases and use 50 times more land than those grazing rich natural pasture. But the comparison of beef with plant protein such as peas is stark, with even the lowest impact beef responsible for six times more greenhouse gases and 36 times more land.

The large variability in environmental impact from different farms does present an opportunity for reducing the harm, Poore said, without needing the global population to become vegan. If the most harmful half of meat and dairy production was replaced by plant based food, this still delivers about two-thirds of the benefits of getting rid of all meat and dairy production.

Cutting the environmental impact of farming is not easy, Poore warned: “There are over 570m farms all of which need slightly different ways to reduce their impact. It is an [environmental] challenge like no other sector of the economy.” But he said at least $500bn is spent every year on agricultural subsidies, and probably much more: “There is a lot of money there to do something really good with.”

Labels that reveal the impact of products would be a good start, so consumers could choose the least damaging options, he said, but subsidies for sustainable and healthy foods and taxes on meat and dairy will probably also be necessary.

One surprise from the work was the large impact of freshwater fish farming, which provides two-thirds of such fish in Asia and 96% in Europe, and was thought to be relatively environmentally friendly. “You get all these fish depositing excreta and unconsumed feed down to the bottom of the pond, where there is barely any oxygen, making it the perfect environment for methane production,” a potent greenhouse gas, Poore said.

The research also found grass fed beef, thought to be relatively low impact, was still responsible for much higher impacts than plant based food. “Converting grass into meat is like converting coal to energy. It comes with an immense cost in emissions,” Poore said.

The new research has received strong praise from other food experts. Prof Gidon Eshel, at Bard College, US, said: “I was awestruck. It is really important, sound, ambitious, revealing and beautifully done.”

He said previous work on quantifying farming’s impacts, including his own, had taken a topdown approach using national level data, but the new work used a bottom-up approach, with farm-by-farm data. “It is very reassuring to see they yield essentially the same results. But the new work has very many important details that are profoundly revealing.”

Prof Tim Benton, at the ‘ University of Leeds, UK, said: “This is an immensely useful study. It brings together a huge amount of data and that makes its conclusions much more robust. The way we produce food, consume and waste food is unsustainable from a planetary perspective. Given the global obesity crisis, changing diets, eating less livestock produce and more vegetables and fruit has the potential to make both us and the planet healthier.”

Dr Peter Alexander, at the University of Edinburgh, UK, was also impressed but noted: “There may be environmental benefits, eg for biodiversity, from sustainably managed grazing and increasing animal product consumption may improve nutrition for some of the poorest globally. My personal opinion is we should interpret these results not as the need to become vegan overnight, but rather to moderate our meat consumption.”

Poore said: “The reason I started this project was to understand if there were sustainable animal producers out there. But I have stopped consuming animal products over the last four years of this project. These impacts are not necessary to sustain our current way of life. The question is how much can we reduce them and the answer is a lot.”

‘Don’t be afraid to shoot’: A former Israeli soldier’s account of Gaza – Matthew Hall * The Biggest Prison on Earth. The History of the Occupied Territories – Ilan Pappe.

“This is basically a prolonged military occupation,”

The killing of more than 100 Palestinians by the Israeli Defence Force during recent protests in the Gaza Strip is the latest example of routine violence and abuse by the military and part of an aggressive strategy to control the occupied territories.

That is the view of a former Israeli sergeant and paratrooper who now serves as the executive director of Breaking the Silence, a not-for-profit organisation founded by former soldiers known for documenting “the reality of everyday life in the occupied territories”.

The bloodshed earlier this month saw demonstrators shot dead by Israel Defence Force (IDF) snipers and, according to Avner Gvaryahu, is emblematic of IDF abuse against Palestinians.

“It makes no sense to bring a sniper rifle to an unarmed protest,” Gvaryahu said from Tel Aviv.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 104 Palestinians, including 12 children, were killed by the Israeli military during the recent demonstrations.

Another 12 Palestinians including two children were killed in what were classified as ”other circumstances”. The OCHA said 12,600 Palestinians were injured during the demonstrations along with one Israeli soldier.

“I am not a pacifist,” Gvaryahu says. “I believe in a right to self-determination for Israel and I believe in Israel’s right to self defence but I don’t think what is happening in Gaza is self defence. I think it is occupation defence.”

“This is basically a prolonged military occupation,” he says.

“Yes, there are borders to defend but the vast majority of the friction and the combat is in the West Bank. The military does semi-police work there but with limitless power. We are controlling people who do not want to be controlled by us.”

Since it was founded in 2004 by soldiers who served in Hebron, Breaking the Silence has received thousands of testimonies from IDF veterans documenting Israeli military interactions with Palestinians in the occupied territories.

In one account, an infantry soldier participating in 2014’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza recalled that commanders told them ‘Don’t be afraid to shoot , and “There were no uninvolved civilians.”

A female officer detailed an incident near the Gaza Strip where an “old Palestinian farmer who got too close to the fence by mistake” was killed. “You simply see the tank shell coming and blowing him up,” she recalled. Other female officers recalled how they felt they needed to go beyond what was expected of male soldiers to prove themselves. Being a ”ball-breaker”, capable of “humiliating Arabs” earned them immediate kudos.

A sergeant who served in Ramallah in 2007 said: “Soldiers got out with army clubs and beat people to a pulp. We were told not to use it on people’s heads. I don’t remember where we were told to hit but as soon as a person on the ground is beaten with such a club, it’s difficult to be particular.”

An air force captain recalled: “We see a tsunami in Thailand and we’re all very saddened by what happens to all the civilians the day after. You know, they don’t have a home. But we’re carrying out a f…ing tsunami 70 kilometres from Tel Aviv and we aren’t even aware of it.”

Gvaryahu says that commanding officers tell soldiers who are new to an area “to show there is a new sheriff in town”. ”A soldier is given orders to instil in the Palestinians a sense that they are being chased,” he adds.

Gvaryahu says he underwent his own awakening during a night mission where his unit took over a Palestinian house.

“You pick a house, you kick in the windows, you barge in the house, you wake up the family. You usually handcuff the head of the family and you throw the family in a room and say if they want to use their own house they need permission from you.

”There are good soldiers, bad soldiers, moral soldiers, and immoral soldiers but the problem is not the soldier,” Gvaryahu says. “The problem is what the soldiers are ordered to uphold.”

Breaking the Silence’s research is funded by individual donors and international organisations and governments including Switzerland’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Norway’s embassy in Tel Aviv, Christian Aid, and the European Union. Unsurprisingly, its published testimonies divide opinion across Israel and Jewish communities around the world.

“Our view is far from being a majority view in Israel but it is also a view that cannot be totally dismissed,” Gvaryahu says.

Efforts to discredit Breaking the Silence have gone beyond the expected media counterpoints and online videos. Rightwing activist group Ad Kan unsuccessfully attempted to infiltrate the group and plant false testimonies. Other groups have taken to social media to counter Gvaryahu’s accounts, including an open letter claiming to be by soldiers of his same army unit.

Veteran accounts published by BTS are vetted and approved by the IDF censor but that didn’t stop Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claiming the testimonies crossed “a red line”. In 2016 the Israeli government made unsuccessful attempts through the courts to force BTS to reveal the identity of one of its sources.

“I am proud they see a group of young former soldiers working out of a small office with less than 20 workers as a critical voice that they have to respond to,” Gvaryahu says.

In an email an lDF spokesperson said its rules of engagement vary ”in accordance with the circumstances on the ground, the nature of the threat, lessons learnt, and intelligence gathered in contending with the violent riots and attacks from Gaza.”

The spokesperson said Hamas, the de facto governing party in Gaza designated as a terrorist organisation by Israel, Australia and the United States, incited violence and used “riots” as cover for carrying out attacks on Israel.

”When dealing with violent riots, the IDF uses live fire as a last resort, when all other means have not been successful in contending with the threat. The use of live fire… is approved by a commander in the field who assesses the threat in each individual case. Only in the case of an immediate threat, may the soldiers use live fire.”

The IDF did not respond to requests to comment on testimonies published by BTS.

Gvaryahu says killing Palestinians had far reaching consequences for those on both sides of the fence. “Taking someone’s life is a big responsibility. We know from our experience that killing someone is not something that leaves you.

“It is immoral and irresponsible to put snipers with live ammunition in front of unarmed protesters. There have to be other tools as well. If you walk around with a hammer in your hand everything begins to look like a nail.

“I care deeply about Israel,” Gvaryahu says. I love my country. I wake up, go to sleep, eat and drink thinking about how to make this place better.”

See also:

The Biggest Prison on Earth. The History of the Occupied Territories

by Ilan Pappe

The ‘Shacham Plan’, ‘The Organization of Military Rule in the Occupied Territories’.

The Venus Project. The Best That Money Can’t Buy, Beyond Politics, Poverty, and War – Jacque Fresco.

Few technological achievements are as impressive as the ability to see our own planet from outer space. The beautiful sphere suspended against the black void of space makes plain the bond that the billions of us on Earth have in common. This global consciousness inspires space travelers who then provide emotional and spiritual observations. Their views from outer space awaken them to a grand realization that all who share our planet make up a single community. They think this viewpoint will help unite the nations of the world in order to build a peaceful future for the present generation and the ones that follow.

The future is our responsibility, but change will not take place until the majority loses confidence in their dictators’ and elected officials’ ability to solve problems. It will likely take an economic catastrophe resulting in enormous human suffering to bring about true social change.

Unfortunately, this does not guarantee that the change will be beneficial.

The purpose of this book is to explore visions and possibilities for the future that will nurture human growth and achievement, and make that the primary goal of society.

Many poets, philosophers, and writers have criticized the artificial borders that separate people preoccupied with the notion of nationhood. Despite the visions and hopes of astronauts, poets, writers, and visionaries, the reality is that nations are continuously at war with one another, and poverty and hunger prevail in many places throughout the world, including the United States.

So far, no astronaut arriving back on Earth with this new social consciousness has proposed to transcend the world’s limitations with a world where no national boundaries exist. Each remains loyal to his/her particular nation-state, and doesn’t venture beyond patriotism “my country, right or wrong” because doing so may risk their positions.

Most problems we face in the world today are of our own making. We must accept that the future depends upon us. Interventions by mythical or divine characters in white robes descending from the clouds, or by visitors from other worlds, are illusions that cannot solve the problems of our modern world.

The future of the world is our responsibility and depends upon decisions we make today. We are our own salvation or damnation. The shape and solutions of the future depend totally on the collective effort of all people working together.

Science and technology race into the future revealing new horizons in all areas. New discoveries and inventions appear at a rate never seen before in history and the rate of change will continue to increase in the years to come. Unfortunately, books and articles attempting to describe the future have one foot rooted in the past, and interpret the future through today’s concepts of technology. Most people are comfortable and less threatened with this perspective on change. But they often react negatively to proposals suggesting changes in the way they live. For this reason, when speaking of the future, very few explore or discuss changes in our social structure, much less our values. People are used to the structures and values of earlier times when stresses and levels of understanding were different. An author who wants to publish steers clear of such emotional and controversial issues. But we feel it is time to step out of that box. In this book we will freely explore a new future, one that is realistically attainable and not the doom and gloom so often presented today.

Few can envision a social structure that enables a Utopian life style as compared to today’s standards, or that this lifestyle could be made available without the sweat of one’s brow.

Yet thanks to our labor-saving machines and other technological advances, the lifestyle of a middle class person today far exceeds anything that even kings of the past could have experienced.

Since the beginning of the machine age, humankind has had a love/hate relationship with its mechanical devices. We may like what the machines do for us, but we don’t like what they do to us. They take away our means of making a living, and sometimes our sense of purpose which derives from thousands of years in which hand labor was the primary means of meeting human needs.

Many fear that machines are becoming more and more complex and sophisticated. As dependence on them grows, we give up much of our own independence and come to resemble them as passionless unfeeling automatons whose sole purpose is work, work, work. Some fear that these mechanical children may develop minds and wills of their own and enslave humanity.

Many worry about conformity and that our values and behaviors will change so that we lose the very qualities which make us human. The purpose of this book is to explore visions and possibilities for the future that will nurture human growth and achievement, and make that the primary goal of society. We will discuss the many options and roles individuals will play in this cybernated age in which our world is rebuilt by prodigious machines and governed by computers.

Most writers of the twentieth century who presented a vision of the future were blinded by national ego or selfcenteredness, and didn’t grasp the significance and meaning of the methods of science as they might be applied to the social system. Although it may appear that the focus of this book is the technology of the future, our major concern is the effect a totally cybernated world would have on humanity and on the individual. Of course no one can predict the future with precision. There are simply too many variables. New inventions, natural and man-made disasters, and new uncontrollable diseases could radically alter the course of civilization. While we cannot predict the future, we will most surely live it. Every action and decision we take or don’t ripples into the future. For the first time we have the capability, the technology, and the knowledge to direct those ripples.

When applied in a humane manner, the coming cybernated age could see the merging of technology and cybernetics into a workable synergy for all people. It could achieve a world free of hunger, war, and poverty a world humanity has failed to achieve throughout history. But if civilization continues on its present course, we will simply repeat the same mistakes all over again.

If we apply what we already know to enhance life on Earth, we can protect the environment and the symbiotic processes of living systems. It is now mandatory that we intelligently rearrange human affairs so as to live within the limits of available resources. The proposals of this book show limitless untapped potentials in the future application of new technologies where our health, intellect, and well being are involved. These are potentials not only in a material sense, but they also involve a deep concern for one another. Only in this way can science and technology support a meaningful and humane civilization.

Many of us who think seriously about the future of human civilization are familiar with stark scenarios of this new millennium, a world of growing chaos, disorder, soaring populations, and dwindling natural resources. Emaciated children cry out from decayed cities and villages with mouths agape and bellies swollen from malnutrition and disease. In more affluent areas urban Sprawl, air and water pollution, and escalating crime take a toll on the quality of life even for those who consider themselves removed from these conditions. Even the very wealthy are at a tremendous disadvantage because they fail to grasp the damage from technology applied without social concern.

Given the advances in science and technology over the last two hundred years, one may well ask, “Does it have to be this way?” There is no question that the application of science and technology can carry us with confidence and assurance into the future. What is needed is a change in our direction and purpose.

Our main problem is a lack of understanding of what it means to be human and that we are not separate from nature. Our values, beliefs, and behaviors are as much a part of natural law as any other process. We are all an integral part of the chain of life.

In this book we present an alternative vision of a sustainable new world civilization unlike any social system that has gone before. Although this vision is highly compressed, it is based upon decades of study and experimental research.

We call for a straightforward redesign of our culture in which the age-old problems of war, poverty, hunger, debt, and unnecessary suffering are viewed not only as avoidable, but also as totally unacceptable. Anything less results in a continuation of the same catalog of problems inherent in the present system.


The future is fluid. Each act, each decision, and each development creates new possibilities and eliminates others. The future is ours to direct. In the past, change came so slowly that generations saw minimal difference in the daily business of surviving. Social structures and cultural norms remained static for centuries. In the last fifty to a hundred years, technology and social change accelerated to such an extent that governments and corporations now consider change management a core process.

Hundreds of books address technological change, business process management, human productivity, and environmental issues. Universities offer advanced degrees in public and environmental affairs. Almost all overlook the major element in these systems, human beings and their social structures and culture. Technology, policy, and automation count for nothing until humans accept them and apply them to their daily lives. This book offers a blueprint to consciously fuse these elements into a sustainable future for all, as well as provides for fundamental changes in the way we regard ourselves, one another, and our world. This can be accomplished with technology and cybernetics being applied with human and environmental concern to secure, protect, and encourage a more humane world for all.

How can such a prodigious task be accomplished? First, we must survey and inventory all of our available planetary resources. Discussions about what is scarce and what is plentiful is just talk until we actually measure our resources. We must first baseline what there is around the world. This information must be compiled so we know the parameters for humanizing social and technological development.

This can be accomplished using computers to assist in defining the most humane and appropriate ways to manage environmental and human affairs. This is basically the function of government. With computers processing trillions of bits of information per second, existing technologies far exceed the human capacity for arriving at equitable and sustainable decisions concerning the development and distribution of physical resources. With this potential, we can eventually surpass the practice of political decisions being made on the basis of power and advantage.

Eventually, with artificial intelligence, money may become irrelevant, particularly in a high-energy civilization in which material abundance eliminates the mindset of scarcity. We have arrived at a time when the methods of science and technology can provide abundance for all. It is no longer necessary to consciously withhold efficiency through planned obsolescence, or to utilize an old and obsolete monetary system.

Although many of us consider ourselves forward thinkers, we still cling tenaciously to the old values of the monetary system. We accept, without sufficient consideration, a system that breeds inefficiencies and actually encourages the creation of shortages. For example, while many concerns about environmental destruction and the misuse of technology are justified, many environmentalists draw bleak scenarios about the future based on present day methods and shortages. They view environmental destruction from the point of view that existing technologies are wasteful and used irresponsibly. They are accustomed to outmoded concepts and the economic imperatives of sales turnover and customer appeal.

Although we recognize that technological development has been misdirected, the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

Only the most diehard environmental activist would turn his back on the many elevating advances made in areas like medicine, communications, power generation, and food production. If human civilization is to endure, it must outgrow our conspicuous waste of time, effort, and natural resources. One area in which we see this is architecture. Resource conservation must be incorporated into our structures.

With a conscious and intelligent application of today’s science and technology, we can recreate the wetlands and encourage the symbiotic process between and among the elements of nature. This was not achievable in earlier times. While many urban centers grapple with retrofitting new, more efficient technologies into their existing infrastructures, these efforts fall far short of the potentials of technology. Not only must we rebuild our thought patterns, but much of our physical infrastructure, including buildings, waterways, power systems, production and distribution processes, and transportation systems must be reconstructed from the ground up. Only then can our technology overcome resource deficiencies and provide universal abundance.

If we are genuinely concerned about the environment and fellow human beings, and want to end territorial disputes, war, crime, poverty, hunger, and the other problems that confront us today, the intelligent use of science and technology are the tools with which to achieve a new direction. An approach which will serve all people, and not just a select few.

The purpose of this technology is to free people from repetitive and boring jobs and allow them to experience the fullness of human relationships, denied to so many for so long. This will call for a basic adjustment in the way we think about what makes us human.

Our times demand the declaration of the world’s resources as the common heritage of all people.

In a hundred years, historians may look back on our present civilization as a transition period from the dark ages of ignorance, superstition, and social insufficiency just as we view the world of one hundred years ago. If we arrive at a saner world in which the maximum human potential is cultivated in every person, our descendants will not understand why our world produced only one Louis Pasteur, one Edison, one Tesla, or one Salk, and why great achievements in our age were the products of a relative few.

In looking forward to this new millennium, and back at the dimmest memories of human civilization, we see that the thoughts, dreams, and visions of humanity are limited by a perception of scarcity.

We are products of a culture of deficiency which expects each confrontation and most activities to end with a winner and a loser. Funding restricts even technological development, which has the best potential to liberate humanity from its past insufficiencies. We can no longer afford the luxury of such primitive thinking.

There are other ways of looking at our lives and the world.

Either we learn to live together in full cooperation or we will cause our own extinction.

To fully understand and appreciate this coming age, we must understand the relationship between creation and creator: the machine and, as of this writing, that most marvelous of mechanisms the human being.


Any attempt to depict the future direction of civilization must include a description of the probable evolution of our culture without embellishment, propaganda, or national interest. We must reexamine our traditional habits of thought if we wish to avoid the consequences that will occur if we do not prepare for the future. It is unfortunate that most of us envision this future within our present social framework, using values and traditions that come from the past. Superficial changes perpetuate the problems of today. The challenges we face now cannot be addressed with antiquated notions and values that are no longer relevant.

Imagine a new planet with the same carrying capacity as Earth, and that you are free to design a new direction for the society on this planet. You can choose any shape or form. The only limitation imposed upon you is that your social design must correspond to the carrying capacity of that planet. This new planet has more than adequate arable land, clean air and water, and an abundance of untapped resources. This is your planet. You can rearrange the entire social order to correspond to whatever you consider the best of all possible worlds. Not only does this include environmental modification, but also human factors, interpersonal relationships, and the structuring of education.

This need not be complicated. It can be an uncluttered approach, not burdened by any past or traditional considerations, religious or otherwise. This is a prodigious project calling for many disciplines, determining the way inhabitants of your planet conduct their lives, keeping in mind for whom and for what ends this social order is being designed. Feel free to transcend present realities and reach for new and inventive ideas to shape your world of the future. An exciting exercise isn’t it? What we propose is nothing more, and nothing less, than applying that exercise to our planet.

To prepare for the future we must be willing to test new concepts. This means we must acquire enough information to evaluate these concepts, and not be like travelers in a foreign land who compare everything with their own hometown. To understand people of another place, we must set aside our usual expectations of behavior, and not judge by the values to which we are accustomed.

If you believe today’s values and virtues are absolute and ultimate for all times and all civilizations, then you may find our projection of the future shocking and unacceptable. We must feel and think as freshly as possible about the limitless possibilities of life patterns humankind may explore for attaining even higher levels of intelligence and fulfillment in the future.

Although individuals like Plato, Edward Bellamy, HG. Wells, Karl Marx, and Howard Scott have all made attempts to plan a new civilization, the established social order considered them impractical dreamers with Utopian designs that ran contrary to human nature. Against these social pioneers was a status quo of vested interests comfortable with the way things were. The populace at large, because of years of indoctrination, went along without thinking for the ride. Vested interests were unappointed guardians of the status quo. The outlook and philosophy of the leaders were consistent with their positions of advantage.

Despite advances achieved through objective scientific investigation, and the breaking down of longstanding fears and superstitions, the world is still not a reasonable place. Many attempts to make it so have failed because of selfish individual and national interests. Deeply rooted cultural norms that assume someone must lose for someone else to gain (scarcity at it’s most basic) still dictate most of our decisions. For example, we still cling to the concept of competition and accept inadequate compensation for people’s efforts, (i.e. the minimum wage), when such concepts no longer apply to our capabilities and resources, never mind their effect on human dignity and any possible elevation of the human condition.

At this turning point in our civilization, we find problems complicated by the fact that many of us still wait for someone, a messiah perhaps, the elusive “they”, or an extraterrestrial to save us. The irony of this is that, as we wait for someone to do it for us, we give up our freedom of choice and movement. We react rather than act toward events and issues.

The future is our responsibility, but change will not take place until the majority loses confidence in their dictators’ and elected officials’ ability to solve problems. It will likely take an economic catastrophe resulting in enormous human suffering to bring about true social change. Unfortunately, this does not guarantee that the change will be beneficial.

In times of conflict between nations, we still default to answering perceived threats with threats, developing weapons of mass destruction, and training people to use them against others whom we regard as enemies. Many social reformers try to solve problems of crime within the framework of the monetary system by building more prisons and enacting new laws.

There is gun legislation and a “three times and you’re out” provision in an attempt to govern crime and violence. This accomplishes little, yet requests for funding to build more prisons and hire more policemen fare far better in legislatures and voting referendums than do pleas for education or aid to the poor. Somehow in an era of plenty, we approve punishment as an answer to all problems. One symptom of insanity is repeating the same mistake over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Our society is, in this sense, truly insane.

The Manhattan Project developed the first atomic device to be used against human populations, and launched the most intensive and dangerous weapons build-up in history. The Manhattan Project was also one of the largest and best financed projects ever undertaken. If we are willing to spend that amount of money, resources, and human lives in time of war, why don’t we commit equal resources to improving lives and anticipating the humane needs of the future? The same energies that went into the Manhattan Project could be used to improve and update our way of life, and to achieve and maintain the optimal symbiotic relationship between nature and humankind.

If our system continues without modification involving environmental and social concern we will face an economic and social breakdown of our out-dated monetary and political system. When this occurs, the established government will likely enact a state of emergency or martial law in an attempt to prevent total chaos. I do not advocate this, but without the suffering of millions it may be nearly impossible to shake our complacency about the current ways of life.


Scientists in the space program face different challenges. For example, space scientists must develop new ways of eating in outer space. Astronauts’ clothing must withstand the vacuum of outer space, enormous temperature differentials, and radiation; yet remain lightweight and highly flexible. This new clothing design even calls for the development of self-repairing systems. Their challenge is to conceive of common items in completely new ways. In space for example clothing no longer functions as just body covering and adornment, it becomes a mini-habitat.

The space age is a good example of the search for newer and better ways of doing things. As scientists probe the limits of our universe, they must generate newer techniques and technologies for unexplored frontiers and never before encountered environments. If scientists cling to the concepts of their earlier training, their explorations will fail. Had our ancestors refused to accept new ideas, the physical sciences would have progressed little beyond the covered wagon.

Many young engineers, scientists, and architects face this dilemma. Bold and creative, they exit institutions of higher learning and step out into the world eager for change. They set out with great enthusiasm but are often beaten back and slowed by the established institutions and self-appointed guardians of tradition. Occasionally, some break away from traditional concepts and become innovators. They meet such tremendous resistance by antiquated building codes and other restrictions that their daring concepts are soon reduced to mediocrity.

Many of the dominant values shaping our present society are medieval. The idea that we live in an enlightened age, or an age of reason, has little basis in fact. We are overwhelmed with valid information concerning ourselves and our planet, but have no inkling of how to apply it. Most of our customs and modes of behavior have been handed down to us from the Dark Ages.

It was difficult for early forms of life to crawl out of the primordial slime without dragging some of it with them. So it is with entrenched value systems. The most appropriate place for traditional concepts is a museum or in books about the history of civilization.

The twenty first century will reveal what most people never suspected, which is that the majority of us have the potential of people like Leonardo da Vinci, Alexander Graham Bell and Madam Curie, if we are raised in an environment that encourages genuine individuality and creativity. This includes all the other characteristics thought of as the special and privileged heredity of great men and women. Even in today’s so called democratic society, fewer than four percent of the world’s people have supplied us with the scientific and artistic advances that sustain social systems.


Humans of the future, though similar in appearance, will differ considerably in their outlook, values, and mindset. Social orders of the past that have continued into the twenty first century consistently seek to generate loyalty and conformity to established institutions as the only means to sustain a workable society. Countless laws, often passed after a misdeed has occurred, have been enacted in an attempt to govern the conduct of people. Those who do not conform are ostracized or imprisoned.

In the past, many social reformers and those called agitators by their detractors were not generally angry maladjusted individuals. They were often people with a sensitivity and concern for the needs of others who envisioned a better life for all. Among these were abolitionists, advocates for women’s suffrage and child labor laws, those who practiced non-violent resistance to oppression, and so called “freedom fighters”.

Today we accept without question the achievements of these reformers who faced violent opposition, imprisonment, ridicule, and even death from vested interests and the established order. Unfortunately most people are unaware of the identities of those individuals who helped pave the way toward social enlightenment.

Many of our parks have statues of warriors and statesman, but few have any monuments to the great social innovators. Perhaps when the history of the human race is finally written, it will be from the viewpoint of individuals in an alien and primitive culture who sought change in a world that had great tenacity to maintain things as they were.

Conformity in a population makes control of society much easier for its leaders. Our leaders pay lip service to the freedoms that democracy provides, while actually supporting an economic structure that imprisons it citizens under more and more debt. They claim that all have the opportunity to rise to the top through individual initiative and incentive. To appease those who work hard but do not achieve the good life, religion is there to assure them that if not in this life, they will obtain it in the next.

Our habits of thought and conduct show the effectiveness of constant and unrelenting propaganda on radio, on television, in publications, and in most other media. The propaganda is so effective that the average citizen is not insulted when categorized as a consumer as if a citizen’s only worth to society was as a user of goods. These patterns are gradually being modified and challenged by the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Most people expect that our televisions, computers, communications systems, methods of production and delivery of services, and even our concepts of work and reward, will continue to improve without any disruption or distress within our present value systems. But this is not necessarily so.

Our dominant values that emphasize competition and scarcity limit continued progress.

The most disruptive period in a transition from an established social order to an emergent system comes when people are not prepared emotionally or intellectually to adjust to change. People cannot simply erase all the beliefs and habits acquired in the past, which constitute their self-identity. Sudden changes in values without some preparation will cause many to lose their sense of identity and purpose, isolating them from a society they feel has passed them by. Another factor limiting the evaluation of alternative social proposals is a lack of understanding of basic scientific principles and the factors which shape culture and behavior.

The conflicts today between human beings are about opposing values. If we manage to arrive at a saner future, conflicts will be about problems common to all humans. In a vibrant and emergent culture, instead of conflicts between nations, the challenges will be overcoming scarcity, reclaiming damaged environments, creating innovative technologies, increasing agricultural yield, improving communications, building communications between nations, sharing technologies, and living a meaningful life.


From early civilizations to the present most humans had to work to earn a living. Most of our attitudes about work are a carry-over from these earlier times. In the past, and still in many low-energy cultures, it was necessary to fetch water and carry it to one’s dwelling place. People gathered wood to make fires for heating and cooking, and fuel to burn in their lamps. It would have been very difficult and still is for some to imagine a time when water would rush forth in your own dwelling at the turn of a handle; to press a button for instant light would have seemed to be magic. People of ancient times probably wondered what they would do with their time if they did not have to engage in these burdensome tasks that were so necessary to sustain their lives. In most developed countries, tasks that were once so vital to people’s very survival are no longer necessary, thanks to modern technology.

Today people attend schools to acquire marketable skills that enable them to earn a living in the “work-a-day” world. Recently, the belief that one must work to earn a living has been challenged. Working for a living to supply the necessities of life may soon be irrelevant as modern technology can provide most of these needs. As a result, many jobs have gone the way of the iceman and the elevator operator. Perhaps we have a semantic problem with the word “work.” The idea of “freedom from work” should include the elimination of repetitive and boring tasks that hold back our intellectual growth. Most jobs, from blue-collar assembly worker to professional, entail repetitious and uninteresting tasks. Human beings possess an untapped potential that they will finally be able to explore once they are free of the burden of having to work to earn a living.

At present there are no plans in government or industry to make economic adjustments to deal with the displacement of people by automated technology. It is no longer the repetitious work of laborers that cybernation is able to phase out, but also many other vocations and professions. Engineers, technicians, scientists, doctors, architects, artists, and actors will all have their roles altered, sometimes drastically. Therefore, it is imperative that we explore alternatives so as to improve our social constructs, beliefs, and quality of life to secure and sustain a future for all.


Of the many entrenched barriers to positive change, communication is one of the most intractable. Language has evolved over centuries through ages of scarcity, superstition, and social insufficiency, and it is continuing to evolve. However, language often contains ambiguity and uncertainty when important issues are at stake, and fails to use a precise and universally intelligible means of conveying knowledge. It is difficult for the average person, or even those considered above average, including leaders of nations, to share ideas with others whose worldview may be at considerable variance with their own. Also, because of semantic differences and different experiences, words have various shades of meaning.

What would happen if we made contact with an alien civilization, when we have such difficulty making contact with our fellow human beings? We are not ready for such an encounter. We haven’t yet learned to resolve international differences by peaceful methods, so peace is simply a pause between wars.

Even in the United States, supposedly the most technologically advanced country in the world, we lack a unified, definitively stated direction. Our policies and goals are fragmented and contradictory. The Democrats cannot communicate meaningfully with the Republicans. Elsewhere, the Israelis oppose the Arabs, the Irish Catholics clash with the Irish Protestants, the Serbs with the Muslims. Everywhere there is interracial and interpersonal disharmony, an inability of husbands and wives to communicate with each other or their children, labor and management strife, and communists differing with capitalists. How then can we hope to establish any meaningful communication with an alien civilization, with beings possessing intelligence, social coherence, and technologies far in advance of our own?

The aliens might well wonder whether there really is intelligent life on Earth.

Most world leaders seek to achieve greater communication and understanding among the nations of the world. Unfortunately, their efforts have met with little success. One reason is that each comes to the table determined to achieve the optimal advantage for their own nation. We talk a lot about global development and global cooperation. But the “global” in each case reflects the individual nation’s interests and not those of all people.

In addition, we are trapped within old ways of looking at our world. While most agree change is necessary, many limit change if it threatens their advantage, just as on a personal basis they seek change in others, but not in themselves.

Many of us lack the skills to communicate logically when we are emotionally invested in an outcome. If a person or group has difficulty in communicating a point in question, rather than seek clarification, then they will raise their voices. If this does not produce the desired effect, they may include profanity or intimidating language. If this doesn’t work, they may resort to physical violence, punishment, or deprivation as a means of achieving the desired behavior. In some instances, deprivation of the means of earning a living has been, and continues to be, used.

These tactics have never produced a heightened level of understanding. In fact, many of these attempts to control behavior actually increased violence and drive the parties farther apart. It will be difficult for a future historian to understand why the language of science and technology was not incorporated into everyday communication.


Ambiguity may help lawyers, preachers, and politicians, but it doesn’t work in building bridges, dams, power projects, flying machines, or in space travel. For these activities we need the language of science. Despite a maze of ambiguity in normal conversation, the more serviceable language of science is coming into use throughout the world, particularly in technologically advanced countries. If communication is to improve, we need a language that correlates highly with the environment and human needs. We already have such a language in the scientific and technological communities and it’s easily understood by many.

In other words, it is already possible to use a coherent means of communication without ambivalence. If we apply the same methods used in the physical sciences to psychology, sociology, and the humanities, a lot of unnecessary conflict could be resolved. In engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and other technical fields, we have the nearest thing to a universal descriptive language that requires little in the way of individual interpretation. For instance, if a blueprint for an automobile is used in any technologically developed society anywhere in the world, the finished product would be the same as that in other areas receiving the same blueprint, regardless of their political or religious beliefs.

The language used by the average person is inadequate for resolving conflict, but the language of science is relatively free of ambiguities and the conflicts prevalent in our everyday, emotionally driven language. It is deliberately designed as opposed to evolving haphazardly through centuries of cultural change to state problems in terms that are verifiable and readily understood by most.

Most technical strides would have been unattainable without this type of improved communication. Without a common descriptive language, we would have been unable to prevent disease, increase crop yields, talk over thousands of miles, or build bridges, dams, transportation systems, and the many other technological marvels of this computerized age. Unfortunately, the same is not true of conversational language. Attempts to discuss or evaluate newer concepts in social design are greatly limited by our habit of comparing newer concepts to existing systems and beliefs.


Utopian ideals have existed for as long as humans have dealt with problems and reflected upon a world free of them. The writers of scriptural references to Eden, Plato’s Republic, HG. Wells’ Shape of Things to Come, and such concepts as socialism, communism, democracy, and the ultimate expression of bliss, Heaven, have all shared this Utopian dream. All attempts at creating such a world have fallen far short of their vision, because the dreamers and visionaries who projected their Utopian concepts did so mostly within the framework and values of their existing culture. The language they used was limited and subject to a wide range of individual interpretation.



The Best That Money Can’t Buy, Beyond Politics, Poverty, and War

by Jacque Fresco

get it at Amazon.com

Education Saved My Life – Mohamed Sidibay * 260 million children aren’t in school. This $10bn plan could change that – Gordon Brown.

Developing countries receive just $10 per child annually in global education support, barely enough to cover the cost of a single textbook. In an age of self-driving cars and smart refrigerators, this dearth of funding is simply unacceptable.

The world is in the midst of an education crisis, as half of the planet’s young people are failing to learn the basic skills needed to secure a more prosperous future. One former child soldier and soon-to-be law student promotes a strategy for putting money behind politicians’ platitudes.

New York

My family was murdered before I could tie my shoes. As a young boy in Sierra Leone, years that should have been playful and carefree were spent fighting in someone else’s war. For me, childhood was a nightmare; escape always seemed impossible. But when the war officially ended, in 2002, I began finding ways to recover.

One of the most important has been an opportunity I couldn’t have imagined as an angry, illiterate, nine year old soldier: school.

I am living proof of the transformative power of education.

Thanks to hard work and lots of good fortune, I managed to graduate from high school and then university. Now, in just a few months, I will begin graduate classes at the Fordham University School of Law, an unimaginable destination for most of the former child soldiers in my country.

And yet, throughout my brief educational journey, one question has always nagged me: why did luck play such a crucial role? After all, education is supposed to be a universal human right. If only it were that simple.

Today, more than 260 million children are out of school, and over 500 million boys and girls who do attend are not receiving a quality education, as the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity discovered.

By 2030, more than half of the world’s school age children some 800 million kids will lack the basic skills needed to thrive or secure a job in the workplace of the future.

Addressing this requires money. But while education may be the best investment a government can make to ensure a better future for its people, education financing worldwide is far too low. In fact, education accounts for just 10% of total international development aid, down from 13% a decade ago. To put this in perspective:

Developing countries receive just $10 per child annually in global education support, barely enough to cover the cost of a single textbook. In an age of self-driving cars and smart refrigerators, this dearth of funding is simply unacceptable.

Over the past few years, I have advocated on behalf of three global education initiatives the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (Education Commission), the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), and the Education Cannot Wait fund (ECW). I have done so eagerly, because these organizations are working collectively toward the same goal: to raise funds to make quality education for every child, everywhere, more than a matter of luck.

One of the best ways to do this is by supporting the International Finance Facility for Education, an initiative spearheaded by the Education Commission that could unlock the greatest global investment in education ever recorded. Young people around the world understand what’s at stake. Earlier this month, Global Youth Ambassadors presented a petition, signed by more than 1.5 million children in some 80 countries, to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, calling for the UN to support the finance facility.

By leveraging roughly $2 billion in donor guarantees, the finance facility aims to make $8 billion in new funding available to countries that need it most. If adopted widely, the program could make it possible for developing countries to provide quality education to millions more children, including refugees, young girls, and former child soldiers like me.

Politicians often say that young people are the leaders of tomorrow. That’s true; we are. But platitudes not backed by financial support are meaningless. Simply put, the world must unite to fund quality education for everyone.

The International Finance Facility for Education which is already backed by the World Bank, regional development banks, GPE, ECW, and numerous UN agencies is among the best ways to make that happen.

Twenty years ago, law school was an impossible dream for me. Today, thanks to hard work, global support, and much good fortune, my future is brighter than it has ever been. But my story should not be an exception.

To ensure that others can gain a quality education and follow the path that has opened up to me, we must remove luck from the equation.

Mohamed Sidibay is a youth representative to the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, a peace activist at the Global Partnership for Education, and a former peace ambassador with the My Hero Project.

260 million children aren’t in school. This $10bn plan could change that Gordon Brown.

Chronic Childhood Stress and a Dysfunctional Family – Kylie Matthews * Different Adversities Lead to Similar Health Problems – Donna Jackson Nakazawa.

Children from unhappy, dysfunctional families who experience chronic adversity undergo changes in brain architecture that create lasting physical scars, that look pretty similar no matter who you are, where you lived, or what happened to make you unhappy when you were growing up.

Happy families may succeed not because of what they do right, but because of everything they don’t do wrong.

The stress of Adverse Childhood Experiences causes toxicity to the neurons and neural pathways that integrate different areas of the brain. These brain changes have a profound effect on our decision making abilities, self regulatory processes, attention, emotional regulation, thoughts, and behavior.

Cutting her mother out of her life was the only conceivable way she could survive.
Janet Camilleri reveals why she cut ties with her mother.

Kylie Matthews

What do you do when a close family relationship, such as a parent or sibling, becomes so dysfunctional it’s toxic?

For some, completely cutting off from that person can be the only solution for them to heal and move forward but it‘s by no means ever an easy one.

Blogger and mother of two Janet Camilleri, 51, is a survivor of a childhood overshadowed by violence and psychological abuse so profound that cutting her mother out of her life was the only conceivable way she could survive.

“My mother was violent, irrational her mood could change at the drop of a hat,” she recalls. “I call it the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality because she was a very outgoing, extroverted, life of the party type person in the company of others but at home she was like the devil and you just never knew what would trigger her.

I would have ended up a basket case if I’d kept her in my life as just a phone call with her would reduce me to a quivering lump of jelly, that was the effect she had on me. For the sake of my own marriage and children, I had to cut her off to look after my own mental health.”

My Mum, the narcissist

Janet describes her mother regularly sabotaging her school work, throwing things around the room in a rage, embarrassing her at school and in front of friends, playing favourites with her siblings, using her as a gobetween to pitch venom at her father and regularly inflicting physical violence in the home.

In hindsight, Janet says she recognises that her mother had many severe narcissistic traits exacerbated by other personality disorders, and underlined by a clinical diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Helen Gibbons, Director and Principal Psychologist of Australia’s Autogenic Therapy and Training Institute, says that toxic behaviour in families can be identified by dysfunctional dynamics.

“Most commonly you see in any dysfunctional set up narcissistic traits in one or more family members that, in its most severe form, can result in premeditated abusive, manipulative and controlling behaviours,” she says.

Narcissism is a condition that presents a set of personality traits such as arrogance, selfcentredness, manipulation, a lack of empathy and remorse, dishonesty, dominance, a strong sense of entitlement, an inability to handle criticism and a grandiose sense of self.

When children grow up in the shadow of a severe narcissist, Ms Gibbons says their emotional needs are seldom met.

“These children are having their brains shaped based on a lack of positive stimulation, love and validation, which does seem to impact heavily on the formation of their limbic system and, in particular, the amygdala, the centre of emotional control in the brain,” she says.

Janet describes her mother’s behaviour becoming increasingly worse after her parents separated and, as her mother’s mental health continued to deteriorate, at the age of just 10 years old, Janet was thrust into the role of ‘carer’ for her younger siblings.

“For a lot of it I protected the younger ones; I was like a mother figure to them because Mum just wasn’t capable of it,” she explains. “It was a lot of responsibility Mum dumped a lot of stuff on me that a kid that age should never be exposed to.”

Leaving home

One Christmas, things came to a head and Janet says she stood up to her mother for the first time and told her she was leaving, to which her mother replied, ‘If you leave, you will never be able to come back’.

“I was nearly 20 years old and I was like, ‘I just can’t do this anymore’. I cut off from her then and we didn’t talk after that for about eight months,” she says. “I had no money, no job and very little support; I just had to survive.”

Janet tried to reinstate contact with her mum at least three times after that. “I tried really hard but it was always awkward and strained,” she says. ”She always upset me whenever we spoke on the phone.”

Janet continued to walk on eggshells, as she had always done, and accommodated poor behaviour to keep the peace, even forgiving her mother for not attending her wedding. But just prior to the birth of her first child, after yet another argument, Janet decided enough was enough and cut off from her mother for the last time.

Cutting off communication

Ms Gibbons says that for people like Janet, any attempt to communicate and rectify problems in a rational way with the narcissistic family member would most likely result in even more abusive behaviour.

“Malignant narcissists are experts at blaming others and the family scapegoat is always the easiest target so cutting off contact may be the only option available to them for a peaceful life,” she says. “No contact literally means no contact ..You don’t explain yourself, you disappear, block them on Facebook and don’t return phone calls.”

Once you’ve gone ‘no contact’, however, you can go into shock and potentially suffer from acute stress symptoms.

“It can be a very lonely and confusing time going no contact because you may find that you are not getting the understanding, support and validation you so desperately need from those around you,” Ms Gibbons says. “When you tell your friends, a lot of people, even though they’re well meaning, believe that all mothers love their children.

“A very common experience is that the friends that you want to believe and validate you will immediately try and support the mother in some way, by saying, ‘Oh yes, but she loves you’ or, ‘Being a parent is difficult’, so it can be very lonely and confusing.”

Janet says the pressure she felt from her family, friends and colleagues to reconcile with her mother was significant. “I was part of a church and the pressure I felt was huge,” she says. “In church, nobody could understand because it’s like, ‘Honour thy father and thy mother’ and all that and I felt like the lowest of the low for not being able to do that.

“I remember talking to somebody at work once, an older fellow, I was pretty bitter and upset at the time, and I mentioned something about my mum that was probably not very nice and he turned to me and said, ‘I think it’s disgusting the way you talk about your mother’. I was just gobsmacked.”

The toxic devastation

Janet went on to survive her childhood but says by the time she managed to escape it, the damage had already been done. “I just tried to be a good kid and to stay out of trouble … I didn’t want to attract her attention because she’d thump me if I did,” she says. “Growing up in a household like mine leads to a few issues so I’ve been and seen a psychologist to help me out at different times.”

Ms Gibbons can’t stress enough the importance of therapy for people who have experienced this kind of trauma.

“Therapy is really important for someone who has suffered abuse from narcissistic family members,” she says. ”it’s so important to speak with a psychologist who is experienced in psychological abuse and to work through the impact that those relationships have had on you so that you can start to make better, healthier choices.”

Janet suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after leaving home, which later developed into postnatal depression after the birth of both her children.

“I remember going shopping with my kids and seeing other young women with their babies and their mums by their side and just bursting into tears,” she says. “I was like, ‘Why don’t I have a mum like that?‘ I have a wonderful, supportive husband but it very much felt like I was on my own at that time.”

The final blow

It was five years after her mother’s death that Janet first learnt of her passing by accident. And despite having been estranged from her mother for almost 20 years, her grief sent her into a spiral of total despair.

“I was just devastated, I always thought I’d done my mourning when the kids were little because that was a really tough time and I’d grieved the loss of the relationship then, but I think deep down I always hoped that one day a miracle would happen and we’d work it out,” she says. “Even though we were estranged, I never wished ill for her and I sincerely wanted Mum to be happy, despite everything.”

To add insult to injury, Janet learned that she hadn’t been told of her mother’s death at the time because her mum had specifically requested she and her siblings not be. “To learn that she had been so bitter, so twisted and angry, right up until the moment of her death makes me very sad,” she says.

Hope and healing

Despite the devastation she felt over her mother’s passing, Janet says she has no regrets about cutting off communication.

“I didn’t feel guilty when I found out because I knew I’d done everything I humanly could to try and have a relationship with my mother and that no matter what I did, I would never, ever have pleased her so it was never going to work,” she says.

“It helped that I had my wonderful husband beside me saying, ‘You need to get rid of this influence in your life’ and he helped me to be strong and to realise that other people might not approve but that it was something I had to do.”

Some years ago, while driving her young children to school, Janet recalls pulling up beside a bus that had an advertisement about child abuse. “A little voice from the back seat asked, ‘That’s what happened to you, didn’t it, Mummy?‘ and I said, ‘Yes, it was, she says.

“And they’d replied, ‘It’s OK, Mummy, we love you now’.”

Different Adversities Lead to Similar Health Problems

Donna Jackson Nakazawa

The opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”, has inspired a philosophical dictum called “The Anna Karenina Principle.” The idea is this: it’s possible to fail at something in many ways; it’s far harder to succeed at something, because success requires not failing in any of those ways.

Happy families may succeed not because of what they do right, but because of everything they don’t do wrong.

And according to ACE research, 64 percent of us grew up in families in which at least one thing went wrong: we’ve had at least one Adverse Childhood Experience. Every one of these unhappy families may be unhappy in its own, unique way. But there is one way in which unhappy families are alike, according to neurobiologists who study childhood adversity:

Children from unhappy, dysfunctional families who experience chronic adversity undergo changes in brain architecture that create lasting physical scars that look pretty similar no matter who you are, where you lived, or what happened to make you unhappy when you were growing up.

How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology

To better understand how toxic childhood stress changes our brain, let’s first review how our stress response is supposed to work when it’s functioning optimally.

Let’s say you’re lying in bed and everyone else in the house is asleep. It’s one am. You hear a creak on the steps. Then another creak. Now it sounds as if someone is in the hallway. You feel a sudden rush of alertness, even before your conscious mind weighs the possibilities of what might be going on. A small region in your brain known as the hypothalamus releases hormones that stimulate two little glands, the pituitary and adrenal glands, to pump chemicals throughout your body. Adrenaline and cortisol trigger immune cells to secrete powerful messenger molecules that whip up your body’s immune response.

Your pulse drums under your skin as you lie there, listening. The hair on the surface of your arms stands up. Muscles tighten. Your body gets charged up to do battle in order to protect life and limb.

Then you recognize those footsteps as those of your teenager coming up the steps after finishing his midnight bowl of cereal. Your body relaxes. Your muscles loosen. The hair on your arms flattens back down. Your hypothalamus, as well as your pituitary and adrenal glands, the “HPA stress axis”, calm down. And, whew, so do you.

When you have a healthy stress response, you respond quickly and appropriately to stress. After the stressful event, your body dampens down the fight-or-flight response. Your system recovers and returns to a baseline state of rest and recovery. In other words, you pass through both the first and the second half of the human stress cycle, coming full circle.

Even so, emotions affect our body in real and significant ways. Emotions are physical. We feel a “knot in our stomach,” or get “all choked up,” or see a relative or coworker as a “big pain in the neck.”

There is a powerful relationship between mental stress and physical inflammation. When we experience stressful emotions, anger, fear, worry, anxiety, rumination, grief, loss, the HPA axis releases stress hormones, including cortisol and inflammatory cytokines, that promote inflammation.

Let’s say your immune system has to fight a viral or bacterial infection. Lots of white blood cells charge to the site of the infection. Those white blood cells secrete inflammatory cytokines to help destroy the infiltrating pathogens and repair damaged tissues. However, when those cytokines aren’t well regulated, or become too great in number, rather than repair tissue, they cause tissue damage. Toxic shock syndrome is an extreme example of how this can happen in the body very quickly.

More subtle types of tissue damage can happen slowly, over time, in response to chronic stress. When your system is repeatedly overstimulated, it begins to downshift its response to stress. On the face of it, that might sound like it’s a good thing, as if a downshifted stress response should translate into less inflammation, right?

But remember, this stress response is supposed to react to a big stressor, pump into defensive action, then quickly recover and return to a state of quiet homeostasis, relaxing into rest and recovery.

The problem is, when you are facing a lot of chronic stress, the stress response never shuts off. You’re caught, perpetually, in the first half of the stress cycle. There is no state of recovery. Instead, the stress response is always mildly on, pumping out a chronic low dose of inflammatory chemicals.

The stress glands, the hypothalamus, the HPA axis, secrete low levels of stress hormones all the time, leading to chronic cytokine activity and inflammation.

In simplest terms: chronic stress leads to a dysregulation of our stress hormones, which leads to unregulated inflammation. And inflammation translates into symptoms and disease.

This is the basic science on how stress hormones play a part in orchestrating our immune function and the inflammatory process. And it explains why we see such a significant link between individuals who experience chronic stress and significantly higher levels of inflammation and disease.

As Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky, PhD, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient for his research on the neurobiological impact of emotional stress on the immune system, has said:

“The stress response does more damage than the stressor itself as we wallow in stress hormones.”

Research bears out the relationship between stress and physical inflammation. For example, adults under the stress of taking care of spouses with dementia display increased levels of a cytokine that increases inflammation. Likewise, if an adult sibling dies, your risk of having a heart attack rises greatly. If you’re pregnant and face a big, stressful event, your chance of miscarrying doubles. Encountering serious financial problems raises a man’s risk of falling down and being injured in the months that follow. A child’s death triples a parent’s chance of developing multiple sclerosis. States of intense emotional fear or loss can precipitate a type of cardiomyopathy known as “broken heart syndrome,” a severe physical weakening of the heart muscle that presents almost exactly like, and is often misdiagnosed as, a full-blown heart attack.

Why Stress Is More Damaging to a Child

Emotional stress in adult life affects us on a physical level in quantifiable, life-altering ways.

But when children or teens meet up with emotional stressors and adversity, they leave even deeper scars.

These potential stressors include chronic put-downs, emotional neglect, parental divorce, a parent’s death, the mood shifts of a depressed or addicted parent, sexual abuse, medical trauma, the loss of a sibling, and physical or community violence. In each case, the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) stress response can become reprogrammed so that it revs up one’s inflammatory stress hormone response for the rest of one’s life.

In young and growing children, the HPA stress axis is developing, and healthy maturation is heavily influenced by the safety or lack of safety we encounter in the day-to-day environment. When a young brain is repeatedly thrust into a state of hyperarousal or anxiety because of what’s happening at a child’s home, community, or school, the stress axis gets tipped into reaction over and over again, and the body becomes routinely flooded with inflammatory stress neurochemicals. This can lead to deep physiological changes that lead to long lasting inflammation and disease.

More than half of women suffering from irritable bowel syndrome report childhood trauma. Children whose parents divorce are far more likely to have strokes as adults. ACE Scores are linked to a far greater likelihood of diseases including cancer, lung disease, diabetes, asthma, headaches, ulcers, multiple sclerosis, lupus, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic fatigue.

The more categories of Adverse Childhood Experiences a child has faced, the greater the chances of developing heart disease as an adult. Again, a child who has 7 or more ACEs grows up with a 360 percent higher chance of developing heart disease.

Medical Adverse Experience

Not all Adverse Childhood Experiences are about poor parenting.

Michele had the kind of lovely parents who created a home life that fits the happy family mold; they gave their son and daughter all the parental love and support that every child deserves. “Life was good,” Michele says. Then, when she was thirteen years old, she had a bladder infection and was placed on a routine course of antibiotics. “Within twenty-four hours I had a headache and rash.”

Michele’s doctor told Michele’s mom, “it’s a virus.”

But the rash didn’t go away. Michele started wincing at bright lights. The eye doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Blisters began developing along her upper lip. The pediatrician didn’t know what to do, so Michele’s parents took her to the hospital. They saw a dermatologist who had read about Michele’s symptoms in an article. He thought she might have Stevens-Johnson syndrome, or SJS, a rare illness caused by a severe allergic reaction to a medication.

Michele was admitted to Columbia Presbyterian hospital in New York City. Within twenty four hours blisters the size of large hands broke out across her body. At first, they covered “30 percent of my body, then 100 percent,” Michele says. She was diagnosed with an advanced form of SJS, known as toxic epidermal necrolysis syndrome, or TENS. The bowl sized blisters began to “connect and combine until my entire torso was one enormous blister. Even my corneas were blistered.”

Today, when patients develop TENS, they’re put in an induced coma, because the physical pain is simply too unbearable. But in 1981, when Michele was diagnosed with the illness, doctors “just watched the progression.” Her physicians converted Michele’s hospital room into a burn unit, she looked like a burn victim, so she was treated as if she’d been rescued from a fire. “I felt as if I were being scalped over every inch of my skin.” Michele says she started dissociating from her body. “My body and l parted ways in that hospital, we stopped talking to each other. I couldn’t bear to feel that pain.”

Miraculously, Michele survived. She missed two months of school, while her mom helped to nurse her back to health. Little by little, life began to regain a rhythm of normality, except for the fear Michele still carried within. Every year on the anniversary of the day she was first admitted to the hospital, “my hair would fall out,” she says. “Then it would grow slowly back in.” Michele attended the University of Pennsylvania and held it together, but the whole time, she says, “I was having insomnia and recurring nightmares.” In her late twenties she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue, Epstein-Barr virus, and irritable bowel syndrome. “I had terrible muscle pains all over my body and chronic sinus infections. I had trouble sitting still for even five minutes because of the pain.” Her liver enzymes went “sky high.” It was, she says, “one mysterious illness after another.”

And then, at the age of thirty five, Michele’s doctor sat her down and told her that she had “severe, advanced osteoporosis.” Her bones were going to start disintegrating, he said. “If we don’t get this under control, sometime in the next ten years your bones are going to spontaneously crumble.”

Michele’s early adversity had nothing to do with bad parenting. But her early life stress was extreme, and the damage that stress did to her developing immune system and cells was just as corrosive.

Life is complex and messy, and suffering comes in many forms. Bad things happen. Parents get sick or pass away. Accidents come out of nowhere, as do medical crises.

How do the biophysical changes and inflammation triggered by very different types of early childhood adversity translate years later into autoimmune diseases, heart disease, and cancer?

Flipping Crucial Genetic Switches

On an unusually brisk December morning, Margaret McCarthy, PhD, professor of neuroscience at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, meets me at a downtown Baltimore coffee shop. Her schedule is tight, so we pick up two cups of soup to go and head to her office. As we enter the hall that serves as the main artery for McCarthy’s four room lab, we pass a sign that says, “Research saves lives,” on a large photo of a young, smiling girl holding a stuffed bunny. McCarthy has taught science for years to med students, grad students, and even high schoolers, whom she takes on as lab assistants to help “turn them on to science.”

She offers a primer on what research has unveiled about childhood adversity and altered brain development.

“Early stress causes changes in the brain that reset the immune system so that either you no longer respond to stress or you respond in an exacerbated way and can’t shut off that stress response,” she says.

This change to our lifelong stress response happens through a process known as epigenetics. Epigenetic changes occur when early environmental influences both good (nurturing caregivers, a healthy diet, clean air and water) and bad (stressful conditions, poor diet, infections, or harmful chemicals) permanently alter which genes become active in the body.

These epigenetic shifts take place due to a process called gene methylation. McCarthy explains, “Our DNA is not just sitting there. It’s wrapped up very tightly and coated in protected proteins, which together make up the chromosome. It doesn’t matter what your genome is; what matters is how your genome is expressed. And for genes to be expressed properly, the chromosome has to be unwound and opened up, like a flower, right at that particular gene.”

McCarthy unfurls the fingers of both hands. “Imagine this,” she says. “You’re watching a flower bloom, and as it opens up, it’s covered with blemishes.” She folds several of her fingers back in, as if they’re suddenly unable to budge. “Those blemishes keep it from flourishing as it otherwise would. If, when our DNA opens up, it’s covered with these methylation marks, that gene can’t express itself properly in the way that it should.”

When such “epigenetic silencing” occurs, McCarthy continues, these small chemical markers, also known as methyl groups, adhere to specific genes that are supposed to govern the activity of stress hormone receptors in our brain. These chemical markers silence important genes in the segment of our genome that oversees our hippocampus’s regulation of stress hormones in adulthood. When the brain can’t moderate our biological stress response, it goes into a state of constant hyperarousal and reactivity. Inflammatory hormones and chemicals keep coursing through the body at the slightest provocation.

In other words, when a child is young and his brain is still developing, if he is repeatedly thrust into a state of fight or flight, this chronic stress state causes these small, chemical markers to disable the genes that regulate the stress response, preventing the brain from properly regulating its response for the rest of his life.

Researcher Joan Kaufman, PhD, director of the Child and Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) program at Yale School of Medicine, analyzed the DNA in the saliva of ninety six children who’d been taken away from their parents due to abuse or neglect as well as that of ninety six other children who were living in what we might think of as seemingly happy family settings. Kaufman found significant differences in epigenetic markers in the DNA of the children who’d faced hardship, in almost three thousand sites on their DNA, and on all twenty three chromosomes.

The children who’d been maltreated and separated from their parents showed epigenetic changes in specific sites on the human genome that determine how appropriately and effectively they will later respond to life’s stressors.

Seth Pollak, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Child Emotion Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, found that fifty children with a history of adversity and trauma showed changes in a gene that helps to manage stress by signaling the cortisol response to quiet down so that the body can return to a calm state after a stressor. But because this gene was damaged, the body couldn’t rein in its heightened stress response. Says Pollak:

“A crucial set of brakes are off.”

This is only one of hundreds of genes that are altered when a child faces adversity.

When the HPA stress axis is overloaded in childhood or the teenage years, it leads to long lasting side effects, not just because of the impact stress has on us at that time in our lives, but also because early chronic stress biologically reprograms how we will react to stressful events for our entire lives. That long term change creates a new physiological set point for how actively our endocrine and immune function will churn out a damaging cocktail of stress neurochemicals that barrage our bodies and cells when we’re thirty, forty, fifty, and beyond. Once the stress system is damaged, we overrespond to stress and our ability to recover naturally from that reactive response mode is impaired. We’re always responding.

Imagine for a moment that your body receives its stress hormones and chemicals through an IV drip that’s turned on high when needed, and when the crisis passes, it’s switched off again. Now think of it this way: kids whose brains have undergone epigenetic changes because of early adversity have an inflammation promoting drip of fight-or-flight hormones turned on high every day, and there is no off switch.

When the HPA stress system is turned on and revved to go all the time, we are always caught in that first half of the stress cycle. We unwittingly marinate in those inflammatory chemicals for decades, which sets the stage for symptoms to be at full throttle years down the road, in the form of irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, fibroid tumors, ulcers, heart disease, migraines, asthma, and cancer.

These changes that make us vulnerable to specific diseases are already evident in childhood. Joan Kaufman and her colleagues discovered, in the first study to find such direct correlations, that:

Children who had been neglected showed significant epigenetic differences “across the entire genome” including in genes implicated in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer.

Yet by the time signs of an autoimmune condition creep up at forty or a heart condition rears its head at fifty, we often can’t link what happened when we were children to our adult illness. We become used to that old sense of emotional stress, of not being okay. It just seems normal. We have a long daily commute, a thirty year mortgage, and our particular mix of family dynamics. We generally deal with it and we’re usually okay. Then something minuscule happens: we have an argument with our sister over something said at a family dinner; we get a notice in the mail that our insurance isn’t going to cover a whopping medical bill; the refrigerator tanks the day before a big dinner party; our boss approves a colleague’s ideas in a meeting and ignores ours; a car honks long and hard as it swerves from behind to cut in front of us on the freeway. We react to these events as if they are a matter of life or death. We trigger easily. We begin to realize that we’re not so fine.

An adult who came of age without experiencing traumatic childhood stress might meet the same stressor and experience that same spike in cortisol, but once that stressor has passed, he or she quickly returns to a state of rest and relaxation. But if we had early trauma, our adult HPA stress axis can’t distinguish between real danger and perceived stress. Each time we get sidetracked by a stressful event, it sends split-second signals that cause our immune system to rev into high gear. We get that adrenaline rush but the genes that should tell our stress system to return to a state of rest and relaxation don’t do their job.

Over days and years, the disparity between a long “cortisol recovery” period and a short one makes a significant, life changing difference in the number of hours we spend marinating in our own inflammatory stress hormones. And over time, that can deeply distort your life.

The Ever Alert Child

Adults with Adverse Childhood Experiences are on alert. It’s a habit they learned in childhood, when they couldn’t be sure when they’d face the next high tension situation.

After her terrifying childhood illness, Michele never felt at peace, or whole, as an adult: “I was afraid I could be blindsided by any small medical crisis that could morph and change my entire life.”

Laura, as an adult, holds a high profile DC job that requires lightning decisions and heightened awareness. She’s good at it since, as a child, Laura and her brain learned to always be on high alert for the next snipe from her mother, as if being prepared could make it hurt less. “I became an expert at gauging my mom’s moods,” she says. “Whenever I was in the same room with her, I was thinking about how to slink away.”

By the time she was nine, Laura had learned to be “unconsciously on the lookout for a very subtle narrowing of my mom’s eyes,” which would tell her that she was about to be blamed for “something I didn’t even know that I’d done, like eating half of a sandwich in the fridge or taking too long to tie my shoe.” Laura grew up “learning to toe my way forward, as if blindfolded, to figure out what was coming next, where the next emotional ledge might be, so I wouldn’t get too near to my mother’s sharp edges?

From Laura’s perspective, her mom was dangerous. “I knew she would never physically hurt me,” she explains. “But I was terrified, even when she was in a good mood. At night, when I would hear her lightly snoring, I would feel this overwhelming sense of freedom, relief.”

Laura’s life was never at risk of course, she lived in a safe suburban neighborhood, had food to eat, clothes to wear. But she felt as if her life was at stake. Like all children whose parents display terrifying behavior, Laura carried the overwhelming biological fear that if her primary caregiver turned against her, she would not survive. After all, if the person upon whom you depend for food, shelter, and life itself, turns on you, how are you going to stay alive in the world? You feel as if your life depends on the adult’s goodwill, because when you were very small, how your caregiver treated you really was a matter of life or death.

As an adult, Laura “schooled” herself to believe that the early adversity she faced wasn’t that bad compared with that of other people who also grew up with alcoholic, angry, divorced, or depressed parents. She keeps telling herself that she’s over her childhood troubles.

But her body is far from over them. Laura lives with heart disease and a defibrillator in her chest. Like Michele, her anxiety sensors are set on high alert, and she doesn’t know how to turn them off.

The Rattled Cage

We might reasonably intuit that some types of childhood adversity are more damaging to us than others. For instance, we’d expect that the trauma that Kat experienced in knowing that her father murdered her mother would have a dramatically worse biological impact on her than Laura’s having been chronically put down by her depressive mom.

We’d certainly assume that Kat’s story would be more biologically damaging than that of Ellie, who was the second youngest of five children and grew up in a quiet suburban neighborhood outside Philadelphia. Ellie remembers having a very close relationship with her parents, but, as she got older, she says, “I knew something wasn’t right. My two oldest brothers were time bombs of violent emotion, just waiting to go off. Sitting at the dinner table with my parents, talking about politics, they’d start fighting each other over nothing at all, and the fights got ugly.”

Soon the boys were getting into trouble with alcohol and drugs, “and the police started showing up.” Ellie recalls, “I’d often hear my parents and my brothers screaming at each other at two in the morning. My mom and dad would come in my room and tell my little sister and me not to be scared, that everything was okay, but it was terrifying,” especially when her older brother ended up in jail.

Ellie got good grades, despite the stressors at home, and went to college in California on an athletic scholarship. But, after college, she began having suicidal thoughts and, at age twenty-four, was diagnosed with severe autoimmune psoriasis. “My body was attacking itself,” she says.

According to ACE research, growing up with a family member who is in jail is related to a much higher risk of poor health related outcomes as an adult.

Chronic unpredictable stress

Laura, John, Georgia, Kat, Michele, and Ellie tell six unique stories of childhood adversity. And yet their brains reacted to these different levels of trauma in a similar biological way. The developing brain reacts to different types and degrees of trauma so similarly because all the categories of Adverse Childhood Experience stressors have a very simple common denominator: they are all unpredictable. The child can’t predict exactly when, why, or from where the next emotional or physical hit is coming.

Researchers refer to stress that happens in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable times as “chronic unpredictable stress,” and they have been studying its effects on animal development for decades, long before Felitti and Anda’s investigation into ACEs first began.

In classic studies, investigators expose animals to different types of stressors for several weeks, to see how those stressful stimuli affect their behavior. In one experiment, McCarthy and her postdocs exposed male and female rats to three weeks of chronic unpredictable mild stress. Every day, rats were exposed to a few low grade stressors: their cage was rotated; they were given a five minute swim, their bedding was dampened; they went for a day without food; they were physically restrained for thirty minutes; or they were exposed to thirty minutes of strobe lights.

At the end of the three weeks, McCarthy’s team examined the rats to evaluate brain differences. In the group exposed to chronic unpredictable mild stress, she and her team found significant changes in the receptors in the brain’s hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with emotion, which would normally help modulate stress hormone production and put the brakes on feelings of stress and anxiety after a stressor has passed.

The rats who’d been exposed to chronic unpredictable stress weren’t able to turn off the stress response, but the control group that experienced no stress showed no brain changes.

However, when stress is completely predictable, even if it is more traumatic, such as giving a rat a regularly scheduled foot shock accompanied by a sharp, loud sound, the stress does not create these exact same brain changes. “Rats exposed to a much more traumatic stressor get used to it if it happens at the same time and in the same way every day,” says McCarthy. “They manage. They know it’s coming, then it’s over.” Moreover, she says, “They don’t show signs of these same brain changes, or inflammation, or illness.”

On the other hand, she adds, “if you introduce more moderate but unpredictable stressful experiences at a different time each day, with different levels of intensity, adding in different noises, such as loud clapping at unpredictable intervals, those rats show significant changes to the brain. And they get physically sick; they get ulcers.”

This is why researchers believe that it is the unpredictability of stress that is particularly damaging.

On a walking tour of her lab, McCarthy points out the metal stand on which rodents’ cages can be gently shaken for a short time. “Even the most mild unpredictable stressors, something as simple as gently shaking the cage, playing rock music, putting a new object in the cage that they aren’t used to, all these cause very specific changes in the brain when we do them without warning.”

The bottom line, McCarthy says, is that the brain can “tolerate severely stressful events if they are predictable, but you cannot tolerate even mild stressful events if they are very unpredictable.”

Yet even though researchers have known for years about the effects of chronic unpredictable stress on the adult brain, only recently have they examined what happens to the brains of children exposed to chronic unpredictable stressors.

The Difficulty of Not Knowing

Mary, now in her midfifties, grew up as the oldest of four kids in a small town in Oregon. Life with her artist parents was a lot like living with unpredictable cage rattling, shaking, and odd, loud noises. Mary’s dad had his own damaged childhood. He’d grown up never knowing who his own dad was, and his mom died when he was seven. His maternal grandparents adopted his brother, but not him because his parents hadn’t married, and he was seen as damaged goods. (His ACE Score was very high.)

Years later, when he was a father of four, he drank heavily, partied, and played cards. “I remember hearing my dad and friends, up all night drinking and swearing really loud in the living room outside my bedroom, even on school nights. I didn’t feel safe.” Mary has large, sympathetic eyes and shoulder length brown hair that she neatly tucks behind her ears with long, graceful fingers. “I can remember my mother yelling at him, ‘You need to make them leave. Your children can’t sleep!’ And he’d yell back, ‘I can’t make them leave, these are my friends!’ My sleep, and sense of being safe, weren’t important to him.”

Mary’s mother was managing her own anxiety that came with having four children and being stuck in a marriage with an alcoholic, so she, too, was emotionally absent. “I got bullied a lot in grade school,” Mary tells me. “I was scrawny and short and kids would terrorize me.” Her mom was preoccupied with an affair her dad was having and didn’t listen to Mary’s problems; eventually she took Mary and her younger siblings to the East Coast to live with her own mother.

“A part of me quite enjoyed that time away from all the partying and the tension in their marriage, the fighting,” says Mary.

After her parents got back together, at first Mary was happy and hopeful. But her dad was still drinking heavily. He’d get so drunk that “my mom would literally kick him out of bed and he’d come sleep with me.” Nothing happened, Mary says, “nothing like that.” But still, it was disconcerting to sometimes wake in the night at age ten to find her dad in bed with her, sleeping off another drunken stupor.

At school things hadn’t improved much. “We were still wearing dresses back then,” says Mary. “All the boys called me ‘Gladiator’ because when they’d tease me I’d go at them, I’d fight back.” That made the bullying worse. “They’d chase me and hold me down on the ground and forcibly pull off my underwear.”

Mary didn’t even think of telling her father about the bullying. “When he was drunk, he would spank us really hard. Once when my sister was in second grade, he pulled down her pants and spanked her in front of all his drunken friends.”

Mary’s sensors were always on high alert, getting ready for the next unpredictable, incoming emotional bomb. Her stress axis was constantly kicking into high gear; her immune system, in overdrive. By then, Mary had started to show signs of an autoimmune disorder called vitiligo, in which the body’s immune cells attack the pigmentation in the skin. Areas of her skin turned white, as if the skin had been bleached or burned in the past and new skin was trying to form over it.

“Our skin is our first line of defense against the world, the thing that’s supposed to keep us safe, secure our physical boundaries,” Mary says. “And yet my parents hadn’t set any boundaries to keep me or my siblings safe.” It was as if her skin were pleading for her parents to set those boundaries, the kind of safe zone parents are supposed to set for kids.

Even worse than the skin disorder, however, “were my constant stomachaches,” she recalls. “I’d have chronic constipation and cramping, and then terrible diarrhea, all the symptoms of irritable bowel, though we didn’t know what to call it back then.” Sometimes, she’d find herself getting physically jittery and nervous “seemingly for no reason. I’d just be standing there and I’d get these rushes of fear, ripping and prickling through my body.”

Over time, her father’s boundaryless behavior grew more bizarre. When Mary was fourteen, he cut out hundreds of naked bodies from a stack of old Playboys, took off their heads, and pasted their disembodied boobs, legs, butts, and crotches on the walls of the kitchen. Andrea, one of Mary’s few friends, told her parents about the “wallpaper.” “After that, Andrea wasn’t allowed at my house,” Mary says. “I started to realize that other kids weren’t comfortable around me because of my dad.”

When she was fifteen, her parents moved to a house in the country. “I think they were trying to salvage their marriage.” One crisp winter night, when Mary was coming out of the garage, one of her dad’s drunken friends was standing by his car in the driveway. “As I walked by to go in the house he stared at me hard and said, ‘You are so beautiful!’ Then he threw me into the backseat of his car and got on top of me. He stuck his tongue down my throat and was groping me.”

Mary forced him off and ran in to tell her dad, who was also drunk. “He told me to stop making such a big deal about it.”

And yet, at other times, Mary’s dad did show concern for her. Once, when Mary was in a car accident, “he got in the ambulance with me and cried the whole way to the hospital.” He was completely unpredictable.

By the time she was eighteen, Mary had developed “unwavering depression,” which would progress over the next thirty years, getting worse after she married and had her four children. She developed a severe lower back problem that worsened every year. And her autoimmune vitiligo started to cover her arms and neck.

“I fell into a postpartum depression after each birth, and after my fourth son, I was suicidal. My physical and emotional pain had snowballed. If I was driving without any of my kids in the car, I’d find myself thinking, ‘How can I crash this car into a tree in such a way that no one will know it’s suicide, and so that I’m not just impaired and a burden to my family afterward?”

And that was when, says Mary, “I realized something potent was haunting me; something was terribly wrong with how unsafe I felt in the world. I had these beautiful sons and I just didn’t feel okay inside in any way, shape, or form.”

To the developing brain, knowing what’s coming next matters most. This makes sense if you think back to how the stress response works optimally. You meet a bear in the woods and your body floods with adrenaline and cortisol so that you can decide quickly: do you run away or try to frighten away the bear? After you deal with the crisis, you recover, your stress hormones abate, and you go home with a great story.

McCarthy presents another situation. “What if that bear is circling the house and you can’t get away from it and you never know if it’s going to strike, or when, or what it will do next? There it is, threatening you every single day. You can’t fight or flee.” Then, she says, “Your emergency response system is set into overdrive over and over again. Your anxiety sensors are always going full blast.”

Even subtle, common forms of childhood stress, e.g., a hypercritical, narcissistic, or manic depressive parent can cause just as much damage as a parent who deals out angry, physical beatings or just disappears.

And in that sense, Kat’s story and Mary’s story are very similar to Laura’s, John’s, Georgia’s, Michele’s, and Ellie’s. All of them, even in adult life, felt that the bear was still out there, somewhere, circling in the woods, stalking, and might strike again any day, anytime.

According to Vincent Felitti, the one area in which a “yes” answer on the Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire has been correlated to a slightly higher level of adult negative health outcomes is in response to ACE question number 1, which addresses the issue of “chronic humiliation.” Would adults in the home often swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you?

This strong correlation between adverse health problems and unpredictable, chronic humiliation by a parent suggests that it is not knowing if you are safe from the “bear” that matters most.

There are a lot of bears out there. Depression, bipolar disease, alcohol, and other addictions are remarkably prevalent adult afflictions. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 18 percent of adults, or nearly forty four million Americans, suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder in any given year. Twenty three million adult Americans suffer from an alcohol or drug addiction. Indeed, according to the original ACE Study, one in four people with Adverse Childhood Experiences had a parent who was addicted to alcohol.

Often, alcoholism and depression go hand in hand, addiction can be an unconscious effort to self medicate a mood disorder. But even when they are not working in tandem, mood disorders and alcoholism share one thing: both make adults behave in emotionally undependable ways. The parent who hugs you one day when picking you up from school might humiliate you in front of your friends the next afternoon. The sense of not knowing what’s coming next never goes away.

The Sadness Seed

Adversity in childhood can be the precursor to deep depression and anxiety later in life. A growing body of research shows that there is a close correlation between Adverse Childhood Experiences and emotional health disorders in adulthood. In Felitti and Anda’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, 18 percent of individuals with an ACE Score of 1 had suffered from clinical depression, and the likelihood rose sharply with each ACE Score. Thirty percent of those with an ACE Score of 3 and nearly 50 percent of those with an ACE Score of 4 or more had suffered from chronic depression.

Twelve and a half percent of respondents to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study cite having an ACE Score of 4 or more.

For women, the correlation is even more disturbing. While 19 percent of men with an ACE Score of 1 suffered from clinical depression, 24 percent of women with that score did. Likewise, while 24 percent of men with a score of 2 developed adult clinical depression, 35 percent of women did. Thirty percent of men with a score of 3 developed clinical depression, compared to 42 percent of women who had three categories of Adverse Childhood Experiences. And 35 percent of men, versus nearly 60 percent of women, with a score of 4 or more suffered from chronic depression.

The strongest precursor of adult depression turned out to be Adverse Childhood Experiences that fell into the category of “childhood emotional abuse.”

Whether you are male or female, the loss of a parent in childhood triples your chances of depression in adulthood. Being raised by a mother who suffers from depression puts you at a higher risk of living with chronic pain as an adult. Children who experienced severe trauma before the age of sixteen are three times more likely to develop schizophrenia later in life.

Most disturbing are the statistics on suicide: while only 1 percent of those with an ACE Score of 0 have ever attempted suicide, almost one in five individuals with an ACE Score of 4 or more has tried to end his or her life. Indeed, a person with an ACE Score of 4 or more is, statistically, 1,220 percent more likely to attempt suicide than someone with an ACE Score of 0.

It certainly makes sense that childhood emotional trauma will spill out in our adulthood. Psychology and psychotherapy help us understand the link between our childhood wounds and adult emotional problems, and making this connection can help free us from the pain of our past.

But research tells us that often, childhood adversity leads to more deep seated changes within the brain, and that depression and mood dysregulation are also set in motion on a cellular and neurobiological level.

So what is causing neurobiological changes inside the brain itself?

How Early Adversity Changes the Shape and Size of the Brain

When a young child faces emotional adversity or stressors, cells in the brain release a hormone that actually shrinks the size of the brain’s developing hippocampus, altering his or her ability to process emotion and manage stress. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies show that the higher an individual’s childhood trauma score, the smaller the cerebral gray matter, or brain volume, is in key processing areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, an area related to decision making and self regulatory skills; the amygdala, or fear processing center of the brain; and the sensory association cortices and cerebellum, both of which affect how we process and regulate emotions and moods.

MRIs also show that kids raised in orphanages have much smaller brains than those of others. That smaller brain volume may be due to a reduction in the brain’s gray matter which is made up of brain cells, or neurons, as well as white matter, which includes nerves (with coated, or myelinated, axons) that allow for the fast transmission of messages in the brain. Other studies show that this smaller sized amygdala in adults who’ve experienced childhood maltreatment shows marked “hyperactivity.” Frontal regions of the brain display “atypical activation” throughout daily life making individuals hyperreactive to even very small stressors.

The lnflamed Brain

“Early stress impacts the developing brain in a way that, until very recently, we just didn’t think was possible,” McCarthy says. “It turns out that chronic, early unpredictable stress can trigger a process of low grade inflammation within the brain itself.”

That is pretty revolutionary news. Until recently, most scientists thought that inflammation could not be generated by the brain. “We thought that the brain was what we call ‘immune-privileged,’ ” explains McCarthy. “Inflammation in the brain occurred only when there was an external event, such as a brain injury or head trauma, or an infection such as meningitis.”

But, “That has turned out not to be the case. When we are chronically stressed, the brain responds by creating a state of neuro inflammation. And that neuro inflammation can be present at levels that, until very recently, we could not even detect.”

This type of inflammation develops due to a type of non neuronal brain cell known as microglia. Our microglial cells make up about one tenth of our brain cells. For years, researchers thought that these microglia cells were “just there to get rid of stuff we didn’t need,” explains McCarthy. “They were taking out the trash, so to speak?

Microglia play an integral role in pruning our brain’s neurons and in brain development. They are crucial to the normal processing of the brain all the time, continuously scanning their environment, determining, Are we good here? Or not so good? Are we safe? Or not safe?

Shake the cage. Flash the lights. The microglia in the brain take note, fast. They don’t like chronic, unpredictable stress. They don’t like it at all.

“Microglia go off kilter in the face of chronic unpredictable stress,” says McCarthy. “They get really worked up, they crank out neurochemicals that lead to neuro inflammation. And this below-the-radar state of chronic neuro inflammation can lead to changes that reset the tone of the brain for life.”

“It is very possible that when microglia go off kilter, they are actually pruning away neurons,” McCarthy says. That is, they are killing off brain cells that we need.

In a healthy brain, microglia control the number of neurons that the cerebral cortex needs, but unhappy microglia can excessively prune away cells in areas that would normally play a key role in basic executive functions, like reasoning and impulse control. They are essential in a healthy brain, but in the face of chronic unpredictable stress, they can start eating away at the brain’s synapses.

“In some cases, microglia are engulfing and destroying dying neurons, and they are taking out the trash, just as we always thought,” says McCarthy. “But in other cases, microglia are destroying healthy neurons and in that case, it’s more like murder.” This excessive pruning can lead to what McCarthy refers to as a “reset tone” in the brain. You might think of that stressed brain as a muscle that’s lost its tone and is atrophying. And that loss of gray and white matter can trigger depression, anxiety disorders, and even more extreme psychopathology such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Microglia may also prune a special group of neurons in the hippocampus that are capable of regenerating. “We used to think that you could never make new neurons but one of the most revolutionary new findings in the last decade is the discovery that there are new neurons being born in the hippocampus all the time,” says McCarthy. The growth of new neurons is very important to adult mental health. “If something interferes with their growth, depression can set in.” Indeed research suggests, says McCarthy, that “microglia, when they are overly exuberant, may kill these new neurons as soon as they are born.”

Scientists have introduced healthy microglia back into the mouse brain. The results have been stunning: once mice brains are repopulated with microglia, all signs of depression completely disappear.

So much depends on the microglia in our brain being happy, unrattled. So much depends on our microglia not pruning away too many neurons.

We might hypothesize that “angry, worked-up microglia could impair the growth of healthy new neurons in the brain’s hippocampus,“ says McCarthy. “When healthy neurons in the hippocampus die, our emotional well-being would be impaired over the long term.”

Facing situation after situation of sudden and unpredictable stress in childhood can trigger microglia to prune away important neurons and initiate a state of neuroinflammation that resets the tone of the brain, creating the conditions for long lasting anxiety and depression.

A Perfect Storm: Childhood Stress, Brain Pruning, and Adolescence

When children come into adolescence, they naturally undergo a period of developmental pruning of neurons. When we are very young, we have an overproduction of neurons and synaptic connections. Some of them die off naturally to allow us to “turn down the noise in the brain,” says McCarthy, and to increase our mastery in skills that interest us. The brain prepares for becoming more specialized at the things we’re good at and interested in, while we lose what we don’t need.

But if, due to childhood stress, lots of neurons and synapses have already been pruned away, then when the natural pruning that occurs during adolescence begins to take place, and the brain starts to naturally prune neurons it doesn’t need so that a teenager can focus on building particular skills, baseball, singing, poetry, then suddenly, there may be too much pruning going on.

Dan Siegel, MD, child neuropsychiatrist and clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is the pioneer of a growing field known as “interpersonal biology,” which integrates the fields of neuroscience and psychology. According to Siegel, “The stress of Adverse Childhood Experiences causes toxicity to the neurons and neural pathways that integrate different areas of the brain.” When adolescent pruning occurs in the integrated circuitry between the hippocampus, which is important in storing memories; the corpus callosum, which links the left and right hemispheres of the brain; and the prefrontal cortex, these brain changes, says Siegel, have a profound effect on our decision making abilities, self-regulatory processes, attention, emotional regulation, thoughts, and behavior.

When these integrated circuits are affected by adversity, or genetic vulnerability, or both, during preadolescence, says Siegel, and then puberty hits, “adolescent pruning pares down the existing but insufficient number of integrated fibers, which makes a child vulnerable to mood dysregulation. It is when this brain integration is impaired that a dysfunction in mood regulation may emerge.”

Imagine, hypothetically speaking, that all kids start with 4,000 neurons (that’s a made-up number, for illustration purposes). Now, let’s say that we have two five year old boys, Sam and Joe. Sam faces early adversity and Joe doesn’t. As Sam meets up with chronic unpredictable stress in his childhood, his neurons are slowly pruned away. By the time Sam is twelve, after a lot of stress-related neuronal pruning, he has 1,800 neurons left. He is still okay, functioning well; 1,800 neurons are enough (using our hypothetical numbers) to get by on, since kids start out with so many more than they need in the first place.

But then Sam and Joe both go through the adolescent period of neuronal pruning. Let’s say that Sam and Joe, like all kids, each lose a hypothetical 1,000 more neurons during adolescence. Sam, who grew up with early chronic unpredictable stress, begins to emerge with a notably different brain from Joe.

Suddenly, the difference between Sam’s brain and Joe’s trauma free brain becomes extreme. Joe, who’s grown up fairly adversity free, still has his 3,000 neurons, plenty to go forward and live a healthy and happy life.

Meanwhile, Sam is left with only 800 neurons.

And that makes all the difference. It is not enough for the brain to function in a healthy manner.

For kids who have already had pruning due to early stress, Siegel explains, “when average adolescent pruning occurs, what remains may be insufficient for mood to be kept in balance. If stressors are high, this pruning process may be even more intense, and more of the at risk circuits may be diminished in number and effectiveness.”

The child who faced Adverse Childhood Experiences will be more likely to develop depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, or poor executive function and decision making, many of which can lead to substance abuse. This may be why, statistically, so many young people first show signs of depression or bipolar disorders in high school, and in college, even kids who just a year or two earlier seemed absolutely fine.

Stephen’s parents, both investment bankers, were hardly around when he was growing up in New York City. Stephen ate dinner at night with his older sister and their nanny. When his parents came home around nine o’clock, a time when most kids were getting tucked into bed and kissed good night, they’d all sit down together at the kitchen table, and the nanny would give her daily report. She was an older woman who loved to “give a laundry list of what we’d done wrong.” Stephen “lived in fear of that moment. Especially for my sister.”

His sister, who was five years older, was “already expected to be a genius like our parents, by the time she was in fourth grade. If she brought home an eighty-five on a math test, my parents would drill her on math problems until eleven o’clock.” Then, they’d tell their friends at the next weekend party at our country house how “Alexis is already doing algebra!”

Stephen, as the baby, often got off lightly when he was young, and recalls feeling “that my parents loved me and wanted everything for me. But they were also terrifying.”

As Stephen got older, his parents stopped “treating me like the cute baby.” He did well academically and his standardized test scores were sometimes off the charts. “My parents decided that I must be the genius they’d been waiting for. I got their laser focus.”

But he soon started to feel that “I wasn’t as smart as my parents hoped I’d be.” When he was nine, Stephen started having acute asthma attacks. He was also “perpetually forgetful. I’d lose everything. I’d forget to bring my sweater or my Spanish book home. I’d leave my clarinet in the band room. It made my parents furious. They’d tell me, ‘Get it together! We don’t have time for your nonsense, Stephen!’ ”

Once, while staying at a plush lakeside resort, he walked into water with his flip-flops on to look for tadpoles. As he walked out, one flip-flop got stuck in the mud. “I tried to find it. I was digging in the muck. My dad just lost it. He stood on the edge of the lake yelling, ‘You lost your flip-flop? Really, Stephen? You can’t take a walk without losing your shoes? You think we’re going to just buy you another pair? We’re not buying you anything!’ ” On the ride home, Stephen had a full-blown asthma attack.

Stephen was also a “nonjock.” He liked to read more than he liked to play ball. “My dad started calling me ‘pretty boy.’ I’d come in the door from being at a concert with my friends and he’d say, ‘Hey, pretty boy, good time?’ He was pissed that I hadn’t spent the weekend on an athletic field the way he had when he was seventeen, the way his colleagues’ and friends’ kids were.”

As many adult children recall, “It wasn’t all bad. My dad taught me how to fish, how to sail, and how to analyze the financial pages of the newspaper. My mom left work to come to every single concert I was in when I played in the state youth orchestra. Sometimes when my dad was out of town, she’d let my sister and me snuggle in her bed and we’d watch movies and eat sandwiches from the deli downstairs. She’d tell me, ‘Your dad loves you so much, he’s just very stressed with work, it’s not about you, Stevie.’ She was not affectionate. But she tried.”

In high school Stephen, despite high test scores, couldn’t seem to manage his workload and get papers in on time, and was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, high stakes performance anxiety, and depression. “I just stopped wanting to go out with my friends, or do anything. I wanted the world to just let me be.” Then he developed a condition known as alopecia areata, in which the immune system attacks the hair follicles and segments of hair fall out, leaving bald patches. “My hair started falling out in huge chunks.’ ”

Stephen went on to grad school, getting his PhD in psychology. Today, Stephen is forty-two, a high school counselor. He shaves his head so that he doesn’t have to deal with the recurring bald spots from alopecia. “For me, knowing what not to do with the kids I teach, I like to think that’s the gift my parents gave me. I can see when a kid is showing signs of anxiety or depression. I see how at this age, some kids who have been struggling to hold it together for so long just can’t anymore. Things start to fall apart, and they just can’t understand what’s happening to them. I was that kid.”

The research on neuro inflammation, pruning, and the brain helps to explain why adverse experiences in childhood are so highly correlated to depression and anxiety disorders in adulthood. It also sheds light on why, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), depression affects eighteen million Americans. The World Health Organization recently cited depression as “the leading cause of disability worldwide,” responsible for more years of disability than cancer, HIV/AIDS, and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases combined.

This also may explain other brain based health disorders. For instance, a recent study of brain scans of people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS, myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME, show higher levels of inflammation in specific parts of the brain, including the hippocampus and amygdala. The greater a patient’s level of self-reported CFS symptoms, the greater the degree of visible brain inflammation.

This may also help to account for why it is that those who faced Adverse Childhood Experiences are six times more likely to develop chronic fatigue in the first place.

The Walking Wounded

It’s impossible to estimate how many adults who experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences are getting by, day by day, unwittingly navigating a state of low grade neuro inflammation, functioning despite their “reset tone” in the brain, dealing with general low mood, depression, and anxiety.

This lowered “set point of well-being,” this generalized emotional misery, predicts with startling accuracy how likely we are to find ourselves as adults navigating mood fluctuations, anxiety, sadness, fear-reacting to life without resilience, rather than really living life fully.

It’s kind of the proverbial cat chasing its tail. Epigenetic changes in life cause inflammatory chemicals to increase. Chronic unpredictable stress sends microglia off kilter. Microglia murder neurons. Neurons die, synapses are less able to connect. Microglia proliferate and create a state of neuro inflammation. Essential gray matter areas of the brain lose volume and tone. White matter, the myelin in the brain that allows for synapses to connect between neurons is lost. This lack of brain tone impairs thought processes, making negative thoughts, fears, reactivity, and worries more likely over time. An Uberalert, fearful brain leads to increased negative reactions and thoughts, creating more inflammatory hormones and chemicals that lead to more microglial dysfunction and pruning and chronic inflammation in the brain. The cycle continues.

As McCarthy puts it, “Neuro inflammation becomes a runaway process.”

This, she says, “contributes to a chronic overreactivity. Things that most people would get over quickly would send someone with a low level of inflammation into a tailspin. They may not be able to sort out rational thought about what’s happening around them, is what’s happening right now good, or is it bad? They may be far more prone to see everything as bad.”

This is the new psychosocial theory of everything: our early emotional stories determine the body and brain’s operating system and how well they will be able to guard our optimal physical and emotional health all of our adult lives.

We take whatever reactive brain and increased sensitivity to stress we develop in childhood with us wherever we go, at any age. We’re likely to feel bad mentally and physically a lot of the time. That state of neuro inflammation means we are more likely to walk around in an irritable mood, be easily ticked off and annoyed.

Our relationships will suffer. We see hurt where none is intended. We’ll likely find the world more aggravating than gratifying. Our chances for a healthy, stable, and satisfying life narrow, and continue to narrow as the years go by. But we can take action to remove the early “fingerprints” that childhood adversity leaves on our neurobiology so that imprint does not stay with us.

The Really Good News

As scientists have learned more about how childhood adversity becomes biologically embedded, they have also learned how we can intervene in this process to reverse the damage of early stress, no matter whether we grew up in a happy, functional family or an often unhappy, dysfunctional one. And no matter what happened to us when we were young.

“The beauty of epigenetics is that it’s reversible, and the beauty of the brain is that it’s plastic,” says McCarthy:

“There are many ways that we can immuno-rehabilitate the brain to overcome early negative epigenetic changes so that we can respond normally to both pleasure and pain. The brain can restore itself.”

We can heal those early scars to get back to who it is we really are, who we might have been had we not faced so much adversity in the first place. But to do that, we first have to understand why we may be more prone to epigenetic changes than others in the first place, even though we are no less capable of epigenetic reversal and change.


Childhood Disrupted. How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal

by Donna Jackson Nakazawa

get it at Amazon.com

The future of AI lies in replicating our own neural networks – Ben Medlock.

Long before we were conscious, thinking beings, our cells were reading data from the environment and working together to mould us into robust, self-sustaining agents.

We think with our whole body, not just with the brain.

In ways that we’re only just beginning to understand, our body and brain, from the cellular level upwards, have already built a model of the world that we can apply almost instantly to a wide array of challenges. But for an AI algorithm, the process begins from scratch each time.

It’s tempting to think of the mind as a layer that sits on top of more primitive cognitive structures. We experience ourselves as conscious beings, after all, in a way that feels different to the rhythm of our heartbeat or the rumblings of our stomach. If the operations of the brain can be separated out and stratified, then perhaps we can construct something akin to just the top layer, and achieve humanlike artificial intelligence, AI, while bypassing the messy flesh that characterizes organic life.

I understand the appeal of this view because I co-founded SwiftKey, a predictive-language software company that was bought by Microsoft. Our goal is to emulate the remarkable processes by which human beings can understand and manipulate language. We’ve made some decent progress: I was pretty proud of the elegant new communication system we built for the physicist Stephen Hawking between 2012 and 2014. But despite encouraging results, most of the time I’m reminded that we’re nowhere near achieving human-like AI. Why? Because the layered model of cognition is wrong. Most AI researchers are currently missing a central piece of the puzzle: embodiment.

Things took a wrong turn at the beginning of modern AI, back in the 1950s. Computer scientists decided to try to imitate conscious reasoning by building logical systems based on symbols. The method involves associating real-world entities with digital codes to create virtual models of the environment, which could then be projected back onto the world itself. For instance, using symbolic logic, you could instruct a machine to ‘learn’ that a cat is an animal by encoding a specific piece of knowledge using a mathematical formula such as ‘cat > is > animal’. Such formulae can be rolled up into more complex statements that allow the system to manipulate and test propositions such as whether your average cat is as big as a horse, or likely to chase a mouse.

This method found some early success in simple contrived environments: in ‘SHRDLU’, a virtual world created by the computer scientist Terry Winograd at MIT between 1968-1970, users could talk to the computer in order to move around simple block shapes such as cones and balls. But symbolic logic proved hopelessly inadequate when faced with real world problems, where fine tuned symbols broke down in the face of ambiguous definitions and myriad shades of interpretation.

In later decades, as computing power grew, researchers switched to using statistics to extract patterns from massive quantities of data. These methods are often referred to as ‘machine learning’. Rather than trying to encode high-level knowledge and logical reasoning, machine learning employs a bottom-up approach in which algorithms discern relationships by repeating tasks, such as classifying the visual objects in images or transcribing recorded speech into text. Such a system might learn to identify images of cats, for example, by looking at millions of cat photos, or to make a connection between cats and mice based on the way they are referred to throughout large bodies of text.

Machine learning has produced many tremendous practical applications in recent years. We’ve built systems that surpass us at speech recognition, image processing and lip reading; that can beat us at chess, Jeopardy! and Go; and that are learning to create visual art, compose pop music and write their own software programs. To a degree, these selfteaching algorithms mimic what we know about the subconscious processes of organic brains.

Machine-learning algorithms start with simple ‘features’ (individual letters or pixels, for instance) and combine them into more complex ‘categories’, taking into account the inherent uncertainty and ambiguity in real-world data. This is somewhat analogous to the visual cortex, which receives electrical signals from the eye and interprets them as identifiable patterns and objects.

But algorithms are a long way from being able to think like us. The biggest distinction lies in our evolved biology, and how that biology processes information. Humans are made up of trillions of eukaryotic cells, which first appeared in the fossil record around 2.5 billion years ago. A human cell is a remarkable piece of networked machinery that has about the same number of components as a modern jumbo jet all of which arose out of a longstanding, embedded encounter with the natural world. In Basin and Range (1981), the writer John McPhee observed that, if you stand with your arms outstretched to represent the whole history of the Earth, complex organisms began evolving only at the far wrist, while ‘in a single stroke with a medium-grade nail file you could eradicate human history’.

The traditional view of evolution suggests that our cellular complexity evolved from early eukaryotes via random genetic mutation and selection. But in 2005 the biologist James Shapiro at the University of Chicago outlined a radical new narrative. He argued that eukaryotic cells work ‘intelligently’ to adapt a host organism to its environment by manipulating their own DNA in response to environmental stimuli. Recent microbiological findings lend weight to this idea. For example, mammals’ immune systems have the tendency to duplicate sequences of DNA in order to generate effective antibodies to attack disease, and we now know that at least 43% of the human genome is made up of DNA that can be moved from one location to another, through a process of natural ‘genetic engineering’.

Now, it’s a bit of a leap to go from smart, self-organizing cells to the brainy sort of intelligence that concerns us here. But the point is that long before we were conscious, thinking beings, our cells were reading data from the environment and working together to mould us into robust, self-sustaining agents. What we take as intelligence, then, is not simply about using symbols to represent the world as it objectively is. Rather, we only have the world as it is revealed to us, which is rooted in our evolved, embodied needs as an organism. Nature ‘has built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it’, wrote the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in Descartes’ Error (1994), his seminal book on cognition. In other words, we think with our whole body, not just with the brain.

I suspect that this basic imperative of bodily survival in an uncertain world is the basis of the flexibility and power of human intelligence. But few AI researchers have really embraced the implications of these insights. The motivating drive of most AI algorithms is to infer patterns from vast sets of training data so it might require millions or even billions of individual cat photos to gain a high degree of accuracy in recognizing cats. By contrast, thanks to our needs as an organism, human beings carry with them extraordinarily rich models of the body in its broader environment. We draw on experiences and expectations to predict likely outcomes from a relatively small number of observed samples. So when a human thinks about a cat, she can probably picture the way it moves, hear the sound of purring, feel the impending scratch from an unsheathed claw. She has a rich store of sensory information at her disposal to understand the idea of a ‘cat’, and other related concepts that might help her interact with such a creature.

This means that when a human approaches a new problem, most of the hard work has already been done.

In ways that we’re only just beginning to understand, our body and brain, from the cellular level upwards, have already built a model of the world that we can apply almost instantly to a wide array of challenges. But for an AI algorithm, the process begins from scratch each time.

There is an active and important line of research, known as ‘inductive transfer’, focused on using prior machine-learned knowledge to inform new solutions. However, as things stand, it’s questionable whether this approach will be able to capture anything like the richness of our own bodily models.

On the same day that SwiftKey unveiled Hawking’s new communications system in 2014, he gave an interview to the BBC in which he warned that intelligent machines could end mankind. You can imagine which story ended up dominating the headlines.

I agree with Hawking that we should take the risks of rogue AI seriously. But I believe we’re still very far from needing to worry about anything approaching human intelligence and we have little hope of achieving this goal unless we think carefully about how to give algorithms some kind of long-term, embodied relationship with their environment.

American Islamophobia. Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear – Khaled A. Beydoun.

I remember the four words that repeatedly scrolled across my mind after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. “Please don’t be Muslims, please don’t be Muslims,”

These four words reverberated through the mind of every Muslim American that day and every day after, forming a unifying prayer for Muslim Americans after every attack.

This system of inculcating fear and calculated bigotry was not entirely spawned in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks but is a modern extension of a deeply embedded and centuries old form of American hate.

Now more than ever, Islamophobia is not limited to the irrational views or hateful slurs of individuals, but is an ideology that drives the president’s political worldview and motivates the laws, policies, and programs he seeks to push forward.

Crossroads and Intersections

“Nobody’s going to save you. No one’s going to cut you down, out the thorns thick around you. . . . There is no one who will feed the yearning. Face it. You will have to do, do it yourself.” Gloria AnzaldUa, Borderlands/La Frontera

“If you know who you are, nobody can tell you what you are or what you are not.” My momma, Fikrieh Beydoun

I took my seat in the back of the Uber car, plugged in my phone and reclined my head to recharge on the way to the hotel. The road ahead is going to be a long one, I thought as I sank into the backseat, settling in for a temporary respite from the oncoming storm. “As-salamu ‘alaikum,” the young driver greeted me in Spanish-inflected Arabic, abruptly ending my break.

“Wa ‘alaikum aI-salam,” I responded, thoroughly surprised that these familiar words came out of the mouth of my tattooed Latino Uber driver, Juan. Was he Muslim? I pondered, wondering whether his neat beard signified more than a recent fad or fashionable grooming.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Professor,” he said, and continued, “I’m very familiar with your writing and work, and I’m happy you’re here speaking at Cal State LA. I wish I could’ve been there to hear your talk.” Another sign that Juan might in fact be Muslim, given that my work centers on Muslim American identity and, increasingly, Islamophobia.

“Thank you so much,” I responded, taken aback by the fact that he knew who I was, and still contemplating whether he was a recent Muslim convert or born into a Muslim family. As a longtime resident of Los Angeles and a scholar familiar with Muslim American demographics, I was well aware that Latinx Muslims were the fastest growing segment of the Muslim American population. I had attended Friday prayers with sermons delivered en espanol in California and in Florida, where I lived and taught law for two years, and prayed alongside brothers from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico as often as I did next to Muslims from Egypt, Syria, or Pakistan. However, I was still unsure about Juan’s religious identity, and to which destination he might steer this conversation.

I learned, en route from the East Los Angeles campus to my downtown hotel, that Juan was neither born to a Muslim family nor a convert. He was, rather, a man on the cusp of embracing Islam at a moment of unprecedented Islamophobia and rabid xenophobia, of imminent Muslim bans and Mexican walls.

“I have been studying Islam closely for some time now, and try to go to the mosque on some Fridays,” he shared. “I am considering making my shahada,” Juan continued, referencing the oath of induction whereby a new Muslim proclaims that “there is only one God, and Mohammed is his final messenger.” “Everybody assumes that I am a Muslim already,” he said, with a cautious laugh that revealed discomfort with his liminal status. Juan turned down the radio, and the voice of Compton native Kendrick Lamar rapping, “We gon’ be alright,” to engage in a more fluid conversation. And, it appeared, to seek a response from me about his spiritual direction.

“That’s wonderful,” I responded to Juan, who was likely no more than twenty-three or twenty-four years old, trying to balance my concern for the challenges his new religious affiliation would present with the answer that I thought he wanted to hear, and perhaps expected, from a Muslim American scholar and activist whose name and work he recognized.

As he drove, we discussed the political challenges posed by the Trump administration, and specifically, the policies that would directly or disproportionately target Muslim and Latinx communities. Indeed, Trump capitalized heavily on demonizing these vulnerable groups, as evidenced most clearly by the two proposals, the Muslim ban and the Mexico Wall, that became the rallying cries of his campaign. We also discussed how our kindred struggles with poverty complicated our pursuit of education, and how Trump’s economic vision exacerbated conditions for indigent Americans, including the 45 percent of Muslim Americans living below, at, or dangerously close to the federal poverty line. The city’s infamous, slow moving traffic enabled a fast paced conversation between my new friend and me and gave rise to an LA story seldom featured in newspapers or on television.

Juan’s responses focused on his everyday struggles living in LA and the stories of family and friends from his Pico Union neighborhood. He pointed out that the onslaughts on Muslims and Latinx communities were hardly separate and independent, or parallel and segregated. Rather, they were, and are, overlapping, intersecting, and, for him, very intimate.

“As an undocumented Latino from El Salvador living in Pico Union”, a heavily concentrated Latinx community on the margins of downtown Los Angeles, “I am most fearful about the pop-up checkpoints and the immigration raids,” he told me. These fears were more than imminent under the administration of President Obama, dubbed the “Deporter in Chief” by critics who opposed the accelerated mass deportations carried out during the final stages of his second term. But without question, Juan’s fears have become more visceral, more palpable during the Trump administration.

“I think about this every time I drive to school, work, or visit a family member,” Juan recounted, reminding me of the debilitating fear that comes over me after any terror attack. Yet his fear was far more immediate and frequent than mine, and loomed over him at every moment, including this one while he and I weaved through Los Angeles traffic, talking animatedly about politics, faith, and fear. He could be stopped at any time, whether alone or while whizzing customers through the city he knew better than the life lines on his palms.

I thought about the very imminent dangers these xenophobic policies and programs posed for Juan and people in similar situations in Los Angeles and throughout the country. I knew this city well and understood that the armed and irrational fear directed at nonwhite, non-Christian people was intense in LA, descending (among other places) on the city’s galaxy of dense and large Latinx neighborhoods. This armed xenophobia was aimed particularly at those communities gripped by poverty, where Spanish was spoken primarily, and was concentrated on people and families lacking legal documentation, indeed, the very intersection where Juan began and ended each day, and lived most of his hours in between.

Years before I rode with Juan, Los Angeles was my home away from my hometown of Detroit, the city where I began my career as a law professor, earned my law degree, and only two weeks into my first year of law school at UCLA, the setting from which I witnessed the 9/11 terror attacks. I remember the events of that day more clearly than I do any other day, largely because every terror attack that unfolds in the United States or abroad compels me to revisit the motions and emotions of that day.

For Muslim Americans, 9/11 is not just a day that will live in infamy or an unprecedented tragedy buried in the past; it is a stalking reminder that the safeguards of citizenship are tenuous and the prospect of suspicion and the presumption of guilt are immediate.

My phone kept ringing that morning, interrupting my attempt to sleep in after a long night of studying. As I turned to set the phone to vibrate, I noticed that my mother had called me six times in a span of fifteen minutes. My eyes widened. Was something wrong at home? Three hours behind in California, I called her back to make sure everything at home in Detroit was alright, still in the dark about the tragedy that would mark a crossroads for the country, my community, and indeed, my life.

“Turn on the TV,” she instructed, in her flat but authoritative Arabic that signaled that something serious was unfolding: “Go to your TV right now.” I had an eerie sense of what she was alluding to before I clicked the television on and turned to the news, but I could not have imagined the scale of the terror that unfolded that early Tuesday morning. My eyes were glued to the screen as I awoke fully to what it would mean for me, my family, and Muslim Americans at large if the perpetrators of the attacks looked like us or believed like us.

I recall the surreal images and events of that day as if they happened yesterday. And just as intimately, I remember the four words that repeatedly scrolled across my mind after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. “Please don’t be Muslims, please don’t be Muslims,” I quietly whispered to myself over and again, standing inside my small apartment, surrounded by bags and boxes not yet unpacked, a family portrait of my mother, sister, and brother hanging on an otherwise barren white wall. I was alone in the apartment, far from home, but knew in that very moment that the same fear that left me frozen and afraid gripped every Muslim in the country.

The four words I whispered to myself on 9/11 reverberated through the mind of every Muslim American that day and every day after, forming a unifying prayer for Muslim Americans after every attack.

Our fear, and the collective breath or brace for the hateful backlash that ensued, symbolize the existential tightrope that defines Muslim American identity today. It has become a definitive part of what it means to be Muslim American when an act of terror unfolds and the finger-pointing begins.

Indeed, this united state of fear converges with a competing fear stoked by the state to galvanize hatemongers and mobilize damaging policies targeting Islam and Muslims. That state stoked fear has a name: Islamophobia.

This system of inculcating fear and calculated bigotry was not entirely spawned in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, I have gradually learned, but is a modern extension of a deeply embedded and centuries old form of American hate.

Following 9/11 it was adorned with a new name, institutionalized within new government structures and strident new policies, and legitimized under the auspices of a “war on terror” that assigned the immediate presumption of terrorism to Islam and the immediate presumption of guilt to Muslim citizens and immigrants.

Thousands of miles away from home and loved ones, my world unraveled. Islamophobia and what would become a lifelong commitment to combating it were thrust to the fore. Although raised in Detroit, home to the most concentrated, celebrated, and scrutinized Muslim American population in the country, my activism, advocacy, and intellectual mission to investigate the roots of American Islamophobia and its proliferation after the 9/11 terror attacks were first marshaled on the other side of the country. For me, 9/11 was both a beginning and an end, putting to rest my romantic designs on an international human rights law career for the more immediate challenges unfolding at home.

I left for Los Angeles a wide-eyed twenty two year old in the late summer of 2001. I was the first in my family to attend university an graduate school, the first to pack his bags for another city, not knowing what direction his career or life would take. After three years and three wars, those in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the amorphous, fluidly expanding war on terror on the home front, I was fully resolved to take on the rising tide of Islamophobia ravaging the country and ripping through concentrated Muslim American communities like the one I called home. I learned about the law at a time when laws were being crafted to punish, persecute, and prosecute Muslim citizens and immigrants under the thinnest excuses, at an intersection when my law professors, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, and Devon Carbado, were equipping me with the spirit and skill to fight Islamophobia in the middle grounds it rose from, and even more importantly, at the margins.

On February 22, 2017, more than a decade and a half after 9/11, I found myself back in Los Angeles. I was now a law professor and a scholar researching national security, Muslim identity, and constitutional law. I was to give a series of lectures on Islamophobia at several colleges and community centers in the LA area. My expertise was in high demand as a result of the 2016 presidential election and the intense lslamophobia that followed. I delivered the lectures roughly one month after newly elected President Donald Trump signed the executive order widely known as the “Muslim ban.”

Seven days into his presidency, Trump delivered on the promise he first made on the campaign trail on December 7, 2015, enacting a travel ban that restricted the entry of nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations: Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. To me, the Muslim ban was not merely a distant policy signed into law in a distant city; it was personal in a myriad of ways. First, I am a Muslim American, and second, I had close friends from several of the restricted nations and had visited several of those nations. Moreover, since the war on terror had been rolled out in 2001, all of the countries on the list had been either sites of full-scale American military aggression or strategic bombings.

“The bombs always precede the bans,” my mother said out loud as she watched the news one day, observing a truism that ties American foreign policy to immigration policy, particularly in relation to Muslim majority countries.

The Muslim ban was the first policy targeting Muslims enacted by the man I formally dubbed the “Islamophobia President.” It certainly would not be the last law, policy, or program implemented by the man who capitalized on Islamophobia as a “full-fledged campaign strategy” to become the forty-fifth president of the United States.

President Trump promised a more hardline domestic surveillance program, which he called Countering Islamic Violence; a registry to keep track of Muslim immigrants within the United States; legislation that would bludgeon the civic and advocacy programs of Muslim American organizations; and other measures that would threaten Muslim immigrants, citizens, and institutions. He was poised to integrate Islamophobia fully into the government he would preside over and to convert his bellicose rhetoric into state sanctioned policy.

If Trump demonstrated anything during his first week in office, it was an ability to follow through on the hateful promises most pundits had dismissed as “mere campaign rhetoric” months earlier. He kept his promises. Islamophobia was not merely an appeal for votes, but a resonant message that would drive policy and inform immigration and national security policing. His electioneering was not mere bluster, but in fact a covenant built on Islamophobia, an Islamophobia that motivated large swaths of Americans to vote for him. In exchange, he delivered on his explicit and “dog whistle” campaign messaging by generating real lslamophobic policies, programs, and action.

Trump, like many candidates before him and others who will follow, traded a grand narrative of nativism and hate for votes, which registered to great success at the ballot box.

Memories of the trials and wounds Muslim Americans endured in the wake of 9/11, which I witnessed firsthand and examined closely as a scholar, and those unfolding in this era of trumped-up, unhinged Islamophobia raced through my head as I walked to the Uber waiting for me outside the California State University, Los Angeles campus. Scores of mosques vandalized, immigrants scapegoated and surveilled, citizens falsely profiled and prosecuted, the private confines of Muslim American households violated in furtherance of baseless witch hunts, immigration restrictions and registries imposed, and innocent mothers and children killed.

Yesterday, and with this intensified third phase of the war on terror, again today. I set my bag down in the car, thinking about the turbulent road ahead. I thought about how the challenges ahead compared and contrasted with those that ravaged Muslim Americans following 9/11. More than fifteen years had passed, and the face of the country, the composition of the Muslim American population, and I myself had all undergone radical, transformative change. I had recently bid farewell to and buried my father, Ali, who in 1981 brought his three children and wife to the United States in search of all the things Donald Trump stood against, values his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” sought to erode. Life after loss is never the same, and my season of mourning was punctuated by the fear and hysteria that followed Donald Trump all the way to the White House.

The world and the country were spinning faster and more furiously than ever before, it seemed. Locked in between the two, my life raced forward at a rate I had never experienced. The Black Lives Matter movement unveiled institutional racism that was as robust and violent as ever, as evidenced by the killing of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, and a rapidly growing list of unarmed black children, men, and women gunned down by police, all of them memorialized and uplifted as martyrs by youth and adult, black and non-black activists marching up and down city blocks or taking protests to the virtual sphere on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms.

Black Lives Matter inspired mass actions across the country and an ongoing march of social media protests that spawned new generations of activists and trenchant thought leaders. I saw this unfold, in dynamic fashion, on city blocks, in neighborhoods, on college campuses, and on social media feeds. It left an indelible impression on my activism, writing, and worldview.

In the face of a political world seemingly spinning out of control, I decided to write this book. I hope to provide general readers, students, and activists an intimate and accessible introduction to Islamophobia, what it is, how it evolved, how we can combat it in Trump’s America, and most importantly, how to fight it beyond the current administration.

As a Muslim American law professor and civil rights activist, I hope to help readers view Islamophobia through a unique lens. I draw on a range of sources, from court cases, media headlines, and scholarship to my own experiences in walking the walk every day. Along the way, I make links and assertions that might be new to many readers: pointing out how Islamophobia has a long, notorious history in the United States, for example, and showing how the Black Lives Matter movement intersects with, and inspires, activism against Islamophobia. My aim is to offer a succinct, informed handbook for anyone interested in Islamophobia and its prolific growth at this definitive juncture in our country’s history.

I wrote this book at a time when American Islamophobia was intensifying at a horrific clip, giving immediate importance to my research and expertise and simultaneously endangering the people I love most. In addition to examining the roots and rise of American Islamophobia, this book also looks to humanize the individuals and communities impacted by it, so they can be seen beyond the frame of statistics. Many stories are interwoven, some are well known and others are not, to facilitate an understanding of Islamophobia that treats Muslim Americans not as distant subjects of study or analysis, but as everyday citizens. Citizens who, like members of other faith groups, are not only integral and contributing members of society, but are also part of a group that will define the future of the United States moving forward.

The United States is indeed at a crossroads. The rise of mass social protest movements fueled by calls for dignity, justice, and an end to structural racism have been met by an opposing front galvanized by demographic shifts toward a majority minority population and eight years of scapegoating and systematic obstruction of the first black president. Echoing through it all is the dread of an “end of white America,” a fear that politicians on the right readily stoked and fervently fed to the masses.

Much of this opposing front is fully wed to racism and xenophobia, and it backed a businessman who peddled a promise to “Make American Great Again”, a promise that was not just a campaign slogan, but was also a racial plea evoked at a time when whiteness was the formal touchstone of American citizenship and white supremacy was endorsed and enabled by law. Trump dangled before the electorate studies that project that people of color will outnumber whites by 2044, and that over half (50.2 percent) of the babies born in the United States today are minorities, and he inflamed the ever present fear that foreigners are stealing our jobs.

As a cure for these supposed ills, Trump’s campaign offered to a primed and ready audience a cocktail of nativism, scapegoating, and racism; his campaign met with resounding success and helped polarize the nation along the very lines that colored his stump speeches. Much of Trump’s fearmongering centered again on Islam and the suspicion, fear, and backlash directed at its more than eight million adherents living in Los Angeles, Detroit, and big and small American towns beyond and in between.

Islamophobia was intensifying throughout the country, relentlessly fueled on the presidential campaign trail, and after the inauguration of President Trump on January 20, 2017, it was unleashed from the highest office in the land.

Now more than ever, Islamophobia was not limited to the irrational views or hateful slurs of individuals, but was an ideology that drove the president’s political worldview and motivated the laws, policies, and programs he would seek to push forward.

This had also been the case during the Bush and Obama administrations, but the Trump moment marked a new phase of transparency in which explicit rhetorical Islamophobia aligned, in language and spirit, with the programs the new president was poised to implement.

I found myself wedged between the hate and its intended victims. Muslim Americans like myself were presumptive terrorists, not citizens; unassimilable aliens, not Americans; and the speeches I delivered on campuses and in community centers, to Muslims and non-Muslims, cautioned that the dangers Islamophobia posed yesterday were poised to become even more perilous today. The road ahead was daunting, I warned audiences after each lecture, hoping to furnish them with the awareness to be vigilant, and the pale consolation that today’s Islamophobia is not entirely new.

I was feeling alarmed for Juan, my Uber driver, even as I felt I should celebrate his being drawn toward Islam. I could not help but fear the distinct and convergent threats he would face if he embraced Islam. As an undocumented Latino Muslim in Los Angeles, Juan would be caught in the crosshairs of “terrorism” and “illegality.” Los Angeles was not only ground zero for a range of xenophobic policies targeting undocumented (and documented) Latinx communities, but also a pilot city where, in 2014, the Department of Homeland Security launched its counter radicalization program, Countering Violent Extremism, in partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department.

This new counterterror program, which effectively supplanted the federal surveillance model ushered in by the USA PATRIOT Act, deputized LAPD members to function as national security officers tasked with identifying, detaining, prosecuting, and even deporting “home