Category Archives: Psychology

THE DARK SIDE OF MEDITATION – Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm.

Aaron Alexis was in search of something.

He started attending a Buddhist temple and learned to meditate; he hoped it would bring him wisdom and peace. ‘I want to be a Buddhist monk,’ he once told a friend from the temple. His friend advised him to keep studying. Aaron did. He learned Thai and kept going to the temple chanting, meditating. But other things got in the way.

On 16 September 2013 Aaron drove into Washington’s Navy Yard. It was eight o’clock in the morning. He’d been working there not long before, and security let him in. He walked away from the car with a large bag and briefly disappeared into a toilet. Minutes later the security cameras caught him holding a shotgun.

Aaron walked briskly and hid behind a wall for a few seconds before advancing through the building. Within 30 minutes 12 people were dead. He killed randomly, first using his shotgun and then, after running out of ammunition, using the handgun belonging to a guard he’d just killed. He died after an exchange of gunfire with the police.

It took only 24 hours for a journalist to notice that Aaron had been a Buddhist, prompting her to write an article that asked, ‘Can there be a less positive side to meditation?’ Western Buddhists immediately reacted: ‘This man represented the Dharma teachings no more than 9/11 terrorists represented the teachings of Islam,’ wrote one. Others explained that he had a history of mental health problems. However, some noted that Buddhism, as other religions, has a history that links it to violence.

And meditation, for all its de-stressing and self-development potential, can take you deeper into the darkest recesses of your own mind than you may have wished for.

This chapter asks difficult questions that are seldom given a voice. They are questions I have wrestled with, both as a psychologist and in my own spiritual practice. Do I have unrealistic positive expectations about what meditation can do? Can it also have adverse effects, finding its way to non-spiritual, even non-peaceful ends?

When something goes wrong, the way it did with Aaron Alexis, we can’t look the other way rationalizing that he wasn’t a true Buddhist or meditator isn’t enough. We need relentlessly to examine the less familiar, hidden facets of meditation a technique that for centuries has been used to cultivate wisdom, clarity of mind, and selflessness. We need to ask ourselves if meditation has a dark side.


I’d come across the idea that without the guidance of an expert teacher meditation can have adverse effects, but I’d thought that this was a metaphor for the difficulties we might encounter as we venture deep into ourselves.

I hadn’t considered that the adverse effects might be literal ones. Then, one day I heard a first-hand account that opened my eyes to my naivety.

At the time l was teaching an open course on the psychology of spirituality. There were a few twenty-year-olds, but the majority of students were in their late fifties and early sixties and represented a combination of retired lawyers, Anglican priests, psychiatrists, and three or four yoga and meditation teachers. Louise was one of them.

In her late fifties and lean with dark, short hair, Louise was a quiet member of the group, who in general spoke up only when she felt she had something important to say. She had taught yoga for more than twenty years, stopping only when something unexpected happened that changed her life for ever. During one meditation retreat (she’d been on many), her sense of self changed dramatically. ‘Good,’ she thought initially, ‘it must be part of the dissolving experience.’ But she couldn’t help feeling anxious and frightened.

‘Don’t worry, just keep meditating and it will go away,’ the meditation teacher told her.

It didn’t. She couldn’t get back to her usual self. It felt like something was messing with her sense of identity, how she felt in her body, the very way she looked at the world and at other people. The last day of the retreat was excruciating: her body shook, she cried and panicked. The following day, back at home, she was in pieces her body was numb, she didn’t want to get out of bed. Louise’s husband took her to the GP and, within hours, she was being seen by a psychiatrist.

She spent the next 15 years being treated for psychotic depression; for part of this time, she had to be hospitalized.

Louise had chosen to give a presentation on the psychology of spiritual experience, as part of her assessment on the course. She talked lucidly about her illness and its possible origins, including a genetic predisposition to mental health problems. She explained that she had gradually taken up yoga practice again, but had never returned to meditation retreats. ‘I had to have electro-convulsive therapy,’ she told the class. That means strong electric shocks going through your skull, a treatment that is not only painful, but leads to memory loss in the short term.

I was stunned. I couldn’t know for sure; perhaps her mental illness could have developed in some other way but, as it happened, those three days of intense meditation are likely to have triggered it. I mentioned this to a friend who, in the 1970s, had taught meditation to 13 to 14-year-olds.

‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I once had two boys who were becoming quite emotionally disturbed; the meditation practice was unleashing emotional material that they couldn’t deal with.’ ‘So what happened?’

‘I told them to stop doing it,’ my friend told me. ‘I had twenty other children to look after. And as soon as they did, they were fine.’

Two in twenty that’s a 10 per cent probability that meditation could have an adverse effect on young adolescents. But this was anecdotal evidence taken from a single meditation class that happened forty years earlier indeed, if the hundreds of scientific articles I’d read on the effects of meditation were to go by, there seemed to be only good news. So, are cases like Louise’s and the boys in my friend’s class the exception?

I looked through the medical and psychological databases in search of articles on the possible adverse effects of meditation. There were some, most of them case studies.

One of the most striking, written in 2001 by a British psychiatrist, told the story of a 25-year-old woman who, like Louise, had a serious mental health problem following meditation retreats. The first time she was admitted to hospital her symptoms included: ‘thought disorder with flight of ideas, her mood was elevated and there were grandiose delusions including the belief that she had some special mission for the world: she had to offer “undying, unconditional love” to everyone. She had no [critical] insight?

This woman, referred to as Miss X, was diagnosed with mania. After six weeks of medication her symptoms were controlled. A psychiatrist saw her regularly for two years and she started twice-weekly psychotherapy. Then, she took part in a Zen Buddhist retreat and was hospitalized again. She couldn’t sleep for five days and, according to a psychiatrist who saw her, displayed a number of unrestrained behaviours: she was irritable, sexually disinhibited, restless, made repeated praying gestures, and attacked a member of staff. Miss X had to be transferred to an intensive psychiatric care unit for three days.

Interesting, I thought, but I was still unconvinced. All these examples could be individuals with a strong predisposition to mental illness. As I looked further into the scientific literature, though, I found other kinds of evidence.

In 1992 David Shapiro, a professor in psychiatry and human behaviour at the University of California, Irvine, published an article about the effects of meditation retreats. Shapiro examined 27 people with different levels of meditation experience. He found that 63 per cent of them had at least one negative effect and 7 per cent suffered profoundly adverse effects.

The negative effects included anxiety, panic, depression, increased negativity, pain, feeling spaced out, confusion and disorientation?

Perhaps only the least experienced felt these negative experiences. Several days of meditation might overwhelm those who were relatively new to the practice. Was that the case? The answer was no. When Shapiro divided the larger group into those with lesser and greater experience, there were no differences: all the meditators had an equal number of adverse experiences. An earlier study had arrived at a similar, but even more surprising conclusion.

Not only did those with more experience of meditating find themselves with negative symptoms particularly anxiety, confusion and restlessness they also had considerably more adverse effects than the beginners?

Amid the small pile of articles on the adverse effects of meditation, I was surprised to find two by Arnold Lazarus and Albert Ellis, co-founders of CBT.

In a 1976 article Lazarus reported that a few of his own patients had had serious disturbances after meditating; these included depression, ongoing tension and a serious suicide attempt. Lazarus strongly criticized the idea that ‘meditation is for everyone’. Instead, he argued that ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’, and that researchers and therapists need to know both the benefits and the risks of meditation for different kinds of people.

Albert Ellis shared Lazarus’ misgivings about meditation. He believed it could be used as a therapeutic tool, but not with everyone. ‘A few of my own clients,’ he writes, ‘have gone into dissociative semi-trance states and upset themselves considerably by meditating.’ Overall, he believed meditation could be used only in moderation as a ‘thought-distracting’ or ‘relaxing’ technique:

‘Like tranquilizers, it may have both good and bad effects especially, the harmful result of encouraging people to look away from some of their central problems, and to refrain from actually disputing and surrendering their disturbance-creating beliefs. It may also be perniciously used to enhance self-rating or “ego-strength”, so that people end up by believing “I am a great meditator and therefore am a good and noble person!” I therefore recommend meditation… as a palliative, a distraction method, and advise most of my clients to use it with discretion and not to take it too seriously or view it as a generally therapeutic method.’


I felt like an archaeologist digging up long forgotten artefacts. How could this literature on the adverse effects of meditation, including short but sharp comments from founding cognitive psychotherapists be completely absent in the recent research on meditation? It was conceivable that clinicians and researchers simply did not report the negative consequences of meditation in their articles, but it was more likely that the meditators themselves did not talk about it.

Many who encounter difficulties during or after their practice may feel they’re doing something wrong, or even that their distress is part of the process and will eventually pass. That was the case of Miss X, who had two manic episodes following meditation retreats, but eventually refused continuous treatment, explaining that her mania was nothing more than a release of blocked energy from years of not dealing with her emotions adequately. Many meditators thinking like Miss X could, to a certain extent, explain why negative reports didn’t make it into scientific journals adverse effects could be regarded as mere stones on the road to peace or spiritual attainment.

l was thinking about this when Jo Lal, our publisher, emailed to ask how the book was going. I told her what I had found.

‘Have you heard of Dr Russell Razzaque?’ Jo asked. I hadn’t.

‘We’re about to publish his book Breaking Down is Waking Up. You may find it helpful.’

Razzaque is a London-based psychiatrist whose own Buddhist meditation practice has led him to re-evaluate the meaning of mental illness. He argues that many of the psychotic experiences his patients describe resemble mystical experiences of ego-dissolution that are known to occur after years of meditation practice. Razzaque suggests that mental breakdowns are part of a spiritual growth process, in which we learn to see the self for what it is: an illusion. He describes his own mystical experience in the book:

‘I found myself descending into a deeply meditative state; I somehow travelled through the sensations of my body and the thoughts in my mind to a space of sheer nothingness that felt, at the same time, like it was somehow the womb of everything. I felt a sense of pure power and profound energy as I came upon a sudden brilliant light and a profound feeling of all-pervading joy I was everything and nothing at the same time.’

In the days that followed, however, life wasn’t so blissful. Razzaque found that he couldn’t contain his joyful experience and there was something deep within pulling him in the opposite direction. ‘I could sense the powerful currents in my whirling mind the self-doubts and the dents in self-esteem sucking me towards a ball of depression, the anxieties and fears threatening to balloon into full-blown panic, obsessions or defensive compulsions, and the speed of it all that risked pushing me into a manic state.’

Razzaque managed to keep grounded and, as a result of his difficult experience, felt greater sympathy towards his psychotic patients. Wait a minute, I thought; here we have a trained psychiatrist who can identify his symptoms and fight them off but the majority of people meditating know next to nothing about psychiatric diagnosis; nor are they familiar with seeing patients experiencing unusual states of mind. Can these difficult emotional experiences arising from meditation really be a sign of spiritual awakening?

Others before Razzaque have trodden a similar path and pointed out similarities between the symptoms of psychotic people and spiritual experiences. in the late 1980s Stan Grof edited with his wife a book on spiritual emergencies. They caution clinical psychologists and psychiatrists to be aware of and respect what on the surface may look like mental illness, but is, in fact, the expression of spiritual experiences that are having a profound, though momentarily stressful, effect. The Grofs mention shamanism and near-death experiences, as well as meditation and other spiritual practices, in association with spiritual emergencies.

Their pioneering work came to fruition when a new category was added to the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), used by psychiatrists worldwide, that of Religious and Spiritual Problems. This category acknowledges that some mental health problems, such as depersonalization, may arise as a temporary result of spiritual practices.

If you have ever felt a strong state of depersonalization, you wouldn’t forget it easily! The Cambridge Depersonalisation Scale, a questionnaire that measures symptoms, includes unusual experiences, such as: ‘Part of my body feels as if it didn’t belong to me’ or ‘I have the feeling of not having any thoughts at all, so that when I speak it feels as if my words were being uttered by an automaton?’ But other statements, such as ‘I feel so detached from my thoughts that they seem to have a life of their own’ might be quite familiar to mindfulness meditators.

With a category of religious and spiritual problems, clinicians are potentially able to recognize what are genuine manic, depressive or psychotic episodes and what are the non-pathological, although sometimes difficult effects of meditation. But it’s far from a straightforward distinction. David Lukoff, the clinical psychologist who co-authored this new category, admits that his interest in the topic arose in 1971 when he spent two months experiencing his own spiritual crisis, fully convinced that he was the reincarnation of Buddha and Christ with a mission to save the world.

But how many clinicians worldwide, I wonder, even those with a spiritual faith, would not deem someone whose life was dominated by delusion for two entire months to be seriously mentally ill. The problem centres around how we define mental illness as distinct from a spiritual emergency clearly, not all spirituality-related experiences are benign. The late Michael Thalbourne, an Australian psychological scientist, suffered from bipolar disorder, wherein periods of mania would trigger messianic delusions that had a spiritual element:

‘I sometimes get into this very focused state of mind that I can’t shake, where I believe I am Christ,’ he told me once, opening wide his eyes and gazing intensely ‘I don’t just believe I am in communion with Christ, but that l actually am the Christ.’

Michael Thalbourne had a deep personal interest in spirituality, but didn’t look at his mental suffering as a benign stone on the winding road to spiritual growth. It affected both his personal life and his academic career. ‘My university has never given me a proper academic post; they see me as unreliable and potentially dangerous,’ he explained.

The Grofs cautioned that not all difficult experiences associated with spiritual practices are necessarily ‘spiritual’. A psychotherapist or an expert spiritual teacher may have the power to help to turn a difficult experience into a meaningful one, but not always.

With the growing number of people interested in meditation in the West, many will walk away from their weekend meditation retreat or eightweek mindfulness course without expert guidance.

How many of them in their search for a moment of peace and quiet, I thought, can end up having a bumpy ride, not to mention the real danger of a journey into the hell of mental illness.


A number of Western Buddhists are aware that not all is plain sailing with meditation, they have even named the emotional difficulties that arise from their meditative practice, calling them the ‘dark night’.

The concept of a spiritual dark night isn’t originally Buddhist. Coined by the 16th-century Christian mystic St John of the Cross, the phrase originally described an advanced stage of prayer and contemplation characterized by an emotional dryness, in which the subject feels abandoned by God.

Buddhists, in principle, ought not to feel abandoned by God, but their accounts of the dark night associated with meditation are riddled with emotional and physical turmoil. A Buddhist blog sharing experiences of the dark night features a number of testimonies: ‘Nine years on and off of periods of deep depression, angst, anxiety and misery’; ‘there was a nausea that kept coming up, terrible sadness, aches and pain’; ‘l’ve had one pretty intense dark night, it lasted for nine months, included misery, despair, panic attacks… loneliness, auditory hallucinations, mild paranoia, treating my friends and family badly, long episodes of nostalgia and regret, obsessive thoughts (usually about death).’

Willoughby Britton, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Brown University who has conducted studies on the positive effects of mindfulness, is now trying to map these more difficult experiences, which she calls ‘The Dark Side of Dharma’.

Her interest arose from witnessing two people being hospitalized after intense meditation practice, together with her own experience after a retreat in which she felt an unimaginable terror. Reading through the classical Buddhist literature to try to understand what was happening to her, she realized that these negative experiences are mentioned as common stages of meditation.

‘l was woefully uninformed,’ she admits in an interview.

Meditation retreats easily led people to sense the world differently: the hearing gets sharper; time moves slower. But the most radical change that can occur is in what Britton calls ‘the narrative of the self’.

Try this out: focus on the present moment, nothing else than the present moment. You may be able to do it easily for a very short time. However, if you try extending this ‘presentness’ for one, two hours and keep trying for some days, your usual sense of self, that which has one foot in the past and the other in the future collapses. The practice may feel great for some, but for others it is like being continuously tossed around in a roller coaster. Vertigo, rather than blissful realization of the emptiness of the self, may be the end result.

Other unpleasant things happen, too, as Britton discovered through interviews with numerous individuals: arms flap, people twitch and have convulsions; others go through euphoria or depression, or report not feeling anything at all their physical senses go numb.

Unpleasant as they are, if these symptoms were confined to a retreat there wouldn’t be much to worry about but they’re not. Sometimes they linger, affecting work, childcare and relationships. They can become a clinical health problem, which, on average, lasts for more than three years. Some people ‘seemed to go through these experiences fairly quickly, like under a year, and in other people can last a decade’, Britton reveals.

Britton hasn’t yet published her research, but it confirms the case studies, earlier findings with groups of meditators, and Lazarus’s and Albert Ellis’s comments on the adverse effects of meditation.

These negative effects may very well turn out to be a stage in our spiritual journey, but if we don’t address them properly they can be destructive and harmful. Meditation teachers know about it Britton says but meditation researchers are usually sceptical; they ask about the prior psychiatric history of meditators who develop mental health problems, as if meditation itself had little or nothing to do with it.

I thought the same before starting the research for this book. Its title was originally going to be From Monster to Buddha, intending to highlight the astonishing possibility of personal change arising from meditation. I haven’t stopped believing in meditation’s ability to fuel change, but I am concerned that the science of meditation is promoting a skewed view: meditation wasn’t developed so we could lead less stressful lives or improve our wellbeing Its primary purpose was much more radical, to rupture your idea of who you are; to shake to the core your sense of self so that you realize there is ‘nothing there’.

But that’s not how we see meditation courses promoted in the West. Here, meditation has been revamped as a natural pill that will quieten your mind and make you happier.

I recently asked students’ in a class I was teaching on the psychology of contemplative techniques what they thought the similarities and differences were between meditation and psychotherapy. A student who was a regular meditator argued that doing psychotherapy was all about past wounds and relationships, while meditation, she said, was ‘free from all that crap; it’s all about being in the present’.

But it’s not. Repressed and traumatic material can easily resurface during intense meditation.

From the moment I accepted this and started talking to regular meditators, I kept finding more and more evidence. I discovered even more online and sometimes in the least expected places. Take Deepak Chopra’s website, for example. There is a correspondence section where readers post their questions or experiences and Chopra answers. A number of these posts concern physical or emotional symptoms that arise from meditation. On 11 April 2014 an individual who had been meditating for one year and finding in it ‘true bliss’ describes having twice experienced a deep emotional sensation, ‘like something is being ripped from me’, that left her wanting to cry and yell. Chopra’s reply is optimistic:

‘It’s both normal and okay. It just means there is some deep emotional trauma from your past that is now ready to come to the surface and be healed. After meditation I would recommend you take a few minutes and sing out loud. Find a song you love that resonates with the emotional tone of your pain. Listen to it at above normal volume so that you can really feel the sonic effect of the song and music. When you feel it has engaged your emotions, start to sing so that your voice translates your feelings into sound. If you do this every time you feel some unresolved residue of emotion after your meditation, it will facilitate the release and healing process.’

What if someone like Aaron Alexis had emailed Deepak Chopra and received a reply like this, would singing along to his favourite song, turned up nice and loud, have healed his past emotional traumas and led into the wisdom he sought, rather than a killing spree? Unlikely.

Furthermore, there is a real danger that what the person who wrote to Chopra asking for advice is feeling is not ‘normal and okay’, and that if she keeps meditating without an expert teacher, it may disturb rather than heal.


‘If every eight-year-old in the world is taught meditation, the world will be without violence within one generation.’ The Dalai Lama

When best-selling spiritual author Marian Williams tweeted the above quote, it quickly went viral. It probably helped that her friend Oprah Winfrey re-tweeted it to her 24 million followers with the comment, ‘This I believe is true. Have seen it in action?’

The notion that religious or spiritual practice is something of a cure-all isn’t unique to Eastern practices, though. Fundamentally, all religions moot that spirituality can make you a better person.

The evidence for this is ambiguous.

It is true that religions emphasize the caring part of our human nature from the ‘thou shall not kill’ of the Hebrew scriptures, through the Hindu praise in the BhagavadGita of the person who hurts nobody and is compassionate towards all beings, and the Quran’s rule to be kind to orphans, the needy and travellers, to the Buddha’s precept to ‘avoid killing, or harming any living thing’, and the Christian golden rule of treating others as you would want them to treat you. While there is psychological evidence that practising religious people are more charitable, our ability to differentiate between good and bad deeds is already in place before we acquire religious ideas.

Studies have shown that from as young as six months old, we have a preference for those we see helping another, and we’d rather be with someone neutral (who acts neither positively nor negatively) than with an uncooperative individual. And from eight months old, we are able to appreciate when a helpful individual acts against another that has behaved badly. This ingenious research was conducted with computer images and puppets, so the babies could effectively recognize positive and negative moral behaviour in strangers.

The idea that we seem to be biologically predisposed towards morality does not answer the question a 16-year-old once asked me at a public lecture in India: ‘If we are born good and kind, how come there is so much violence and evil in the world?’ Religions have dealt with such ‘problem of evil’ questions for a long time and have come up with various answers the existence of free will, disobedience to God, the work of the devil, and the concepts of illusion, karma or greed.

Psychologists rarely come up with such enticing explanations about the origins of violence and immorality. We simply know that while we are born with the ability to tell a helpful from an unhelpful gesture, a caring from a callous person, we are also rooted in our needs our desire to want things, to achieve and in trying to reach our goals we are able to hurt, and even kill. While some of us have more of a propensity towards doing this than others for example, those with psychopathic traits hurting someone else in order to meet our own needs is something we are all potentially capable of; and to at least some small degree, probably do.

While there is evidence that religion can make people act better towards others, there is also plenty of evidence to the contrary: religion can make you more prejudiced towards the non-religious or gay. But we can detach meditation from groups and religions. You can use meditation to de-stress or explore the self just as easily whether you ascribe to a set of religious beliefs or a religious group or not. The beauty of meditation is just that its separateness from the necessity of divine rules of morality and punishment. But, if we take this view, we return to the question that we asked in Chapter 5: meditation without religion might improve its attraction, but is its lack of attachment to spiritual moral guidelines is also a weakness?

I asked an old friend who runs a sociological research centre specializing in equality and racism issues what he thought of the Dalai Lama’s idea that meditation could eventually eradicate violence. He gave me a puzzled look before answering.

‘There are various factors that explain violence, right? Some psychological, others societal. Put them all together in a statistical regression model: start with level of income, education, access to health, then consider psychological factors such as the presence of childhood abuse; see how much of these explain the likelihood of my neighbour being in a fight at the pub or hitting his partner. Then, add meditation to your statistical model would it add anything in predicting violence compared to the other factors?’

‘Well …’ I started, but he interrupted me.

‘Would it have made a difference if Hitler had meditated?’ he asked grinning.

I saw what he meant. You can’t remove an individual from the larger context and one’s psychological makeup. It would not have made much of a difference if Hitler had meditated like Aaron Alexis did unless he removed himself from the society that raised him to power and he radically changed his ambitions and ideas.

On the other hand practices such as meditation and yoga are rooted in inner peacefulness, and the spiritual traditions upon which they’re built believe that radical personal changes are possible, regardless of the environment we live in.

All in all I felt I had a puzzle with quite a lot of missing or ill-fitting pieces. I couldn’t quite see the larger picture. Very soon, though, I was challenged to look in a completely different way at the question of the extent to which contemplative techniques are associated with violence.


‘KINDLY BE CALM’, read a sign in large capital letters above the reception desk. On the other side of the lounge, there was a picture on the wall of a forty-something bearded man with a pristine smile, wearing the traditional orange robes of Indian yogis. I yawned and rubbed my eyes, trying hard to keep awake. It was past midnight and I’d been travelling for eight hours on a dimly lit motorway, thick with fog, clotted with buses and trucks without rear lights.

‘Don’t go, it’s suicide,’ a friend had told me in Delhi. ‘Get the train in the morning.’

I didn’t listen. l was in awe of the driver’s night vision and his ability to notice the invisible buses and trucks just before crashing. ‘No worry, no worry,’ he said halfway through the trip. ‘My name is Bobby and everyone in India knows that no Bobby has ever been in a car accident.’

Travelling with me in the same taxi was Bishal Sitaula, a friendly and talkative professor of environment and developmental studies from Norway who had arrived from Nepal. He took out his video camera to show me footage of his Nepalese trip.

‘Then I met with this really revered Buddhist monk. Here l’m asking him a question do you want to hear?’ I looked at the screen as he pressed play. The monk had a benevolent smile. Bishal was telling him about a personal moral dilemma. ‘When my wife makes herself pretty, l look more at her. But, when I am walking up the road and see a woman with long beautiful hair and wearing nicer make up than my wife’s, and I stare at her, then, I walk five more metres and stare back at her again is this a sin or bad for my karma?’

The monk continued smiling. I imagined that if the whole world collapsed around him he would still smile.

‘No, no, it’s not a sin to look,’ he replied. ‘You may enjoy looking at a beautiful woman. That is fine. But if you crave and run after her, that is no good, no good; no good for your karma.’

Stopping the video, Bishal laughed loudly and put his arm around my shoulders.

When we arrived at the Patanjali Research Foundation, where I am taking part in a conference on the effects of yoga, I could make out only tiny fairy lights scattered around the complex. in the fog they looked like blurred dragonflies. Inside the accommodation block a sleepy lady handed me a key after I showed her my passport. The bedroom’s floor was paved in black-and-white marble. It was the coldest January recorded in Indian history; in Delhi homeless people were dying because of the low temperatures.

I took out all the blankets from the drawer and laid them on the bed. I had travelled to India on a few occasions, but had never come so far north, only a few miles away from the source of the Ganges and the river village of Rishikesh, home to a number of celebrated ashrams and yogis. It seemed the right place to build the Patanjali Research Foundation, which holds masters and PhD programs on the science of yoga and has the largest research centre in the world dedicated to the study of this millennia-old practice.

Lying under three heavy blankets, I gazed at the puffed steam coming out of my mouth and eventually fell asleep. A few hours later the radio switched on. l opened one eye and looked at my watch on the bedside table: it was 4am. ‘Where’s the damn switch?’ I thought to myself. The music poured out of the speakers within the room and out in the corridor, a smooth stream of sitar and lulling voices. I walked to the reception, but saw no one. As I turned around I noticed a man by the door with a scarf wrapped around his head.

‘The radio inside the bedroom, how do you turn it off?’ I asked.

He smiled.

‘The radio,’ I gestured, pointing at the speakers in the corridor. ‘Off, off.’

He smiled again and tilted his head from left to right repeatedly. ‘No sir, no sir. Wake up, wake up. Yoga,’ he said, still smiling and pointing outside. It was pitch black.

The music continued. At 5.30am I ventured outside. There was daylight, but the thick fog from the previous night hadn’t yet lifted. I followed some people who seemed to know where they were heading, and entered an enormous auditorium, where approximately 2,000 people were sitting on yoga mats. The spiritual guru of the Patanjali Research Foundation, Swami Ramdev, was on top of the stage, alone and wearing nothing but an orange loincloth.

A man sitting next to me whispered into my ear that he was a medical doctor at the foundation and offered to translate what Swami Ramdev was saying.

‘lt’s pranayama. We start with breathing; right breathing can heal anything.’

Yoga with machine guns

For the next hour we breathed together and listened. First, how not to breathe. Then, how to breathe through alternating nostrils, and how to use your belly and diaphragm in a syncopated way.

‘Like this!’ and ‘Don’t do this!’ he said, hyperventilating with a contracted abdomen and eyes wide open, looking like he was having a fit. ‘This breathing cures asthma; this one heals all types of arthritis; if you’re depressed, this will cure it.’

There was clapping from the audience. Steam clouds came out of people’s mouths. The list of diseases that yoga and pranayama can heal was almost endless dementia and cancer among them.

The breathing exercises went on, but my feet and hands were getting colder. After an hour of breathing, the swami stood up and began a series of asanas. ‘Finally,’ I thought, ‘we’re going to gently warm up.’ But it was far from gentle; more like a kind of yoga-onspeed mixed with aerobics. I looked around and noticed only one man among the audience who could keep up with the guru. For the last posture Swami Ramdev walked around the stage on his hands for about 1 minute. There was more clapping.

We finally moved towards a peace chant, which was interrupted by a few minutes of yoga laughter ‘very good for depression’, and followed by singing from the swami alone. ‘He has the personality of a rock star,’ I overheard someone with an American accent whisper behind me.

When the solo chant ended, Swami Ramdev uttered a shrill cry, which was imitated by most of the audience as they repeatedly raised their fists upwards. It was a strange sight. The cry and fist waving were the kind you’d see in a political or military gathering. As the session ended the translator held my hand: ‘Come, I’ll take you to Swami Ji for a blessing.’

I followed him. There was a queue of people waiting. I looked around: there were numerous posters of the Patanjali Research Foundation and university, mostly in Hindi. My translator pushed me forwards; I was now very close to the Swami. The man in front of me was carrying a beautiful, handcrafted bag. On it, next to the foundation’s name, was written ‘Self and National Character Building by Yoga’. Finally, it was my turn. Swami Ramdev smiled; I smiled back. I slowly tilted my head forwards to greet him as my translator introduced me, but halfway to the full nod, l froze.

‘Bloody hell,’ I caught myself saying. A man came from behind the Swami holding a machine gun about the length of an extended arm. He was pointing the gun at me. My translator guided me away while the Swami smiled and waved goodbye.

‘What was that?’, I thought, my eyes fixed on the gun. ‘He’s a very holy man, don’t you think?’ my translator said, still holding my arm and apparently unfazed by the bodyguard with the machine gun.

Outside I saw Bishal, the professor who had travelled with me the night before. I felt like hugging him. He was in his perennial chatty mood. ‘Hello, my friend! Chilly, huh? Did you enjoy the session?’

I asked Bishal about the sort of war cry at the end of the session and the armed bodyguard. He told me about the political influence of the swami that he’s pressured the parliament to put an end to corruption and some politicians don’t like him. ‘Look, look,’ I interrupted, pointing at the person holding a bag I’d noticed inside the yoga hall. ‘Do you see what’s written on that bag: Self and National Character Building by Yoga. What do they mean by national?’

‘Oh, that. Well, it’s all around the place. This is not only about yoga, but about social transformation.’

‘But why national?’

‘Yoga comes from India, right? It’s India’s trademark. Here, that’s part of their message, that yoga is Indian.’

I stared back in silence. As we made our way back to the accommodation hall, I noticed a large banner with a picture of the guru holding up his fist with an angry face. The writing was in Hindi. ‘And what’s that about?’

Bishal reminded me of a horrendous gang rape that had recently happened in Delhi, inside a moving bus. The girl died shortly afterwards and there had been a public outcry. My friend in Delhi had told me that Indian culture, particularly in the north, was not only sexist, but violent towards women. ‘So the banner literally asks,’ Bishar translated, ‘What shall we do with the rapists? And the red letters say: Death Penalty! Death Penalty!’

‘Are you serious?’

‘I find it strange, too,’ Bishal replied. ‘But they believe in harsh punishment.’

It was my fourth time in India, but the first that the contradictions of this country were pressing on me. Yoga, an instrument of serenity and enlightenment, was serving political purposes. The Patanjali Research Foundation is powerful: it has its own TV satellite channel, factories producing a variety of health products, a university and a leading yoga research centre. They also commission cartoons that portray Swami Ramdev as an enlightened yogi to educate children not just about the technique of yoga, but about its whole philosophy even its nationalistic and punishment views, I suspect.

There were other odd things going on. The foundation’s wireless Internet server was excellent, but it didn’t allow you to access a number of webpages. The first banned site I noticed was Facebook. I checked with a German conference participant and he couldn’t access it either. Most web searches related to drugs were forbidden, as I discovered while trying to read about the uses of morphine as a painkiller. When I asked Nandim, a Master’s student at the university, why they had censored Facebook, he laughed.

‘Very few people from the outside notice it.’

‘Why can’t you use it?’

‘Oh, you know, students were spending too much time on it.’

‘That’s rubbish,’ I said. ‘Students can spend too much time just browsing the web. Why Facebook?’

Nandim looked around before answering.

‘You know… many boys were using Facebook to talk to girls.’

‘So?’ ‘Well, that’s not allowed.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I ask. ‘The university is not sexually segregated; you have men and women.’ ‘Yes, yes, but Swamiji doesn’t like us to be together,’ Nandim said speaking in a hushed voice.

I looked at him puzzled. ‘A couple of incidents happened last year,’ he said. ‘There were boys and girls spending time together, you know, like they were a couple.’

‘Yes, it does happen.’

‘Not here, sir, not here. They were expelled from the university.’

On my way back to Delhi, this time on a sunny though heavily congested road, I saw graffiti on the wall of a tunnel. No pictures, only wide letters written in black across the extension of the wall: ‘I HATE MY LIFE.’ I felt a sudden wave of empathy for whomever had doodled it; the land that had given birth to numerous sages and yoga, the soil of nondualistic Advaita Vedanta was riddled with contradictions. At the Patanjali Research Foundation, ideals and techniques for innerpeace-making were fused together with nationalism, violence (guns and the endorsement of capital punishment), censorship and sexual repression. When I returned to my friend’s house in Delhi, he teased me for my naivety.

‘Many of these yogis are millionaires. They live in fancy air-conditioned flats. And the nationalism and violence, give me a break: do you know how many wars we, the very spiritual Indian people, have been involved in during the last fifty years?’

My doubts about meditation and yoga having a role in solving the world’s violence substantially increased after this trip.

When i returned to England, I emailed Torkel Brekkel, an Oxford colleague who specializes in the study of Asian religions. I asked what he knew about violence in the Eastern spiritual traditions. My general understanding was that in a religion such as Buddhism, which has compassion and non-violence as central principles, you would find few, if any, displays of violence among its followers.

‘That’s not the case,’ Torkel replied and added that he had lost count of the times his colleagues, students and journalists had tried telling him that Buddhism, unlike Christianity or Islam, is an essentially peaceful religion. ‘lt’s not,’ he asserted, referring me to some books on the topic, including one he’d recently edited.


During the first decade of the new millennium, while psychologists and neuroscientists were examining the positive psychological effects of Buddhist mindfulness meditation, scholars of religions were looking in the opposite direction; they were examining the violent history of Buddhism. The book edited by Torkel Brekkel is only the most recent in a number of publications looking at the use of violence by Buddhist monks and bodhisattvas (enlightened persons). The titles of the volumes are revealing: Buddhism and Violence, Buddhism and Warfare, Zen at War.

Apparently, the early Buddhist views on violence were astonishingly similar to those of the Christians who tried to follow Jesus’s saying, ‘if someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. Like the early Christians, followers of Buddha prided themselves on being different from the fallen world. One early Buddhist text recognizes that violence should be avoided:

tremble at the rod,

all are fearful of death.

Drawing the parallel to


neither kill nor get others to kill.

(Dhammapada, 129)2-7

In another early text, the Yodhajivasutra, the Buddha explains that warriors are to be reincarnated in hell or as an animal, rather than in the company of heavenly deities (devas).

There is a particularly striking story of how the Buddha personally walked into the battlefield and avoided bloodshed. Four years after he attained enlightenment, two armies were facing each other because of a dispute about access to water. The Buddha came between the armies and asked their commanders:

‘How much value do you think water has in comparison with the life of men?’

The commanders agreed that the value of water was infinitely less important than human life.

‘Why do you then destroy lives that are valuable for valueless water?’ the Buddha asked, thus preventing the oncoming bloodshed.’

Many have reiterated this view. Buddhism’s precept of non-violence has inspired people in Asian countries living under its influence, so that ‘throughout its peaceful march of 2,500 years, no drop of blood has been shed in the name of the Buddha’, writes Narada, a distinguished Sri Lankan monk and scholar.

But a cursory glance at the news broadcasts about Buddhist countries challenges this peaceful image. Let’s start with Sri Lanka. in 2013 groups of monks were holding rallies against the Muslim minority; since 1983 many Buddhist monks have been directly involved in military campaigns against a separatist faction in northern Sri Lanka. In the first half of the twentieth century, monks joined and led the struggle for independence against the British. Two thousand years ago, King Duttagamani fought a war to re-establish Buddhism in the country ‘where he used a Buddha’s relic as his banner’. One thousand miles from Sri Lanka in Burma, in May 2013 Buddhist mobs were killing Muslims and burning mosques; one Burmese monk, jailed for inciting religious hatred, likes to call himself the ‘Burmese Bin Laden’. These events, I soon found out, aren’t exceptions to the rule.

Although preaching nonviolence to his followers, the Buddha didn’t try to persuade kings to adopt a pacifist stance. He clearly separated the waters by not allowing former soldiers to become monks and forbidding his followers to preach to soldiers violence was understood as part of life and there was no attempt to eradicate it entirely from the world. The effort was in trying to contain it in Buddhist monks. But even that failed. Just as Christianity developed its ‘just war’ theory wherein, according to St Augustine, an early Christian theologian, war could be an instrument of divine justice on wickedness, Buddhism came to develop its own theory of compassionate killing.

A text written in the fourth century entitled ‘Discourse on the stages of yogic practice’ argues that under certain circumstances even an enlightened person is allowed to kill out of compassion.

‘If a bodhisattva meets an evil person who is going to kill many people… he will think to himself: if by killing this bandit I fall in hell, what does it matter? I must not let him go to hell! Then the boddhisatva will kill him, full of both the horror of the crime and compassion for that person. In doing so, he will not commit any transgression; rather, he will acquire much blessing’

The Buddha himself told the story of how, in a previous life, he had killed out of compassion. As narrated in the Mahaupaya-Kausaya sutra, there was a time when 500 merchants went to sea in search of treasures, but one of them schemed to kill the others and keep all the treasures for himself. A deity discovered this and informed the Buddha who had the following dilemma: if the other merchants learn of the evil merchant’s plot to kill them, the evil merchant will be killed and the 499 merchants will go to hell. However, if nothing is done, the merchants will be killed and their murderer will go to hell. So, the Buddha decided to kill the evil merchant and save the others. He explained to his followers that his action was the result of compassion for the sake of a greater number of living beings.

It’s not difficult to follow the Buddha’s logic, it’s similar to the tram problem first posed by British philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967, and subsequently often used in psychology experiments on moral behaviour.

In this scenario there is a runaway tram that is heading straight towards five workers. A large man is standing on a footbridge over the tracks. If you throw him off the bridge his body will block the tram and the five men will be saved. What would you do? Rationally, you ought to kill the single man on the footbridge to save the greater number of people. But this involves choice, a conscious decision to kill a man, at your will, rather than the tragic but accidental killing of the people on the track. As a result most people’s gut reaction to this moral problem is not necessarily the most reasoned one: it may rationally be better to kill the man, but intuitively you feel it’s wrong and opt against it, letting the five workers die in a tragic accident instead.

Through dilemmas such as these, psychologists have shown that many of our moral decisions are intuitive rather than rational. However, there is a problem with these findings. New studies have found that for people who display lack of empathy such as psychopaths the intuitive answer is to kill the large man, because to them the act of killing is not particularly aversive? There is a kind of indifference or amorality about killing for people with a psychopathic personality.

Although, on the surface, this seems the very opposite of what Buddhist practice is seeking to attain, something similar to this emotional indifference comes across in some Buddhist texts. One of the crucial teachings of Buddhism is that of emptiness: the self is ultimately unreal, so the bodhisattva who kills with full knowledge of the emptiness of the self, kills no one; both the self of the killer and the self of the killed are nothing more than an illusion.

In the Nirvana sutra, there is the story of a prince who murders his father, the king, so he can accede to the throne. Heavy with remorse he consults the Buddha for advice. The Buddha makes him see that he is not responsible for the killing for two reasons. First, the king was killed as the consequence of his karma in a previous life he murdered a holy man. Second, and most important, the Buddha states the unreality of killing: ‘Great King, it is like the echo of a voice in the mountain valleys. The ignorant think it is a real voice, but the wise know it is not. Killing is like this. The foolish think it is real, but the Buddha knows it is not’

Another Buddhist text (Jueguan lun) echoes the idea of the emptiness of killing; if you do it as if it were a spontaneous act of nature, then you’re not responsible for it.

‘The fire in the bush burns the mountain; the hurricane breaks trees; the collapsing cliff crushes wild animals to death; the running mountain’s stream drowns the insects.

If a man can make his mind similar [to these forces], then, meeting a man, he may kill him all the same.’

This idea is reinforced in various other texts. If you are in a selfless and detached state of mind, you can do anything, even ‘enjoy the five sensuous pleasures with unrestricted freedom’ (the Upalipariprccha explains), as your actions will have no negative karmic consequences. In other words bodhisattvas are not morally responsible for their actions because they act without self-interest. The Fifth Dalai Lama used this argument to justify the violence of the Mongol king Gushri Khan, who in the 1630s and 1640s violently unified a large portion of Tibet and converted the people to Buddhism. The Fifth Dalai Lama glorifies this because the Mongol king was an emanation ‘of Vajrapani, the bodhisattva representing perfect yogic power’, who had realized emptiness and ‘would radiate 100 rays of light in the ten directions’.

The idea that Buddhism, unlike other religions, did not force people to convert, but ‘pacified’ the new lands to which it spread, is also a myth. Just like Christianity and Islam made churches and mosques from pagan temples and fought animistic ideas as heretical, something similar happened with Buddhism. Shamanic practices were prohibited in Mongolia from the 1500s, spirit figurines were burned and replaced with Buddhist images of six-armed Mahakala. Those who continued to practise Shamanic rites were subjected to brutal punishments or executed.

These acts were justified because of the spiritual status of rulers, who were recognized as living Buddhas, accomplished in virtue and wisdom, and endowed with unbiased compassion. Mongol laws regulated the privileges of the Buddhist clergy and the punishment of any attacks on monasteries depending on the social class of the offender: if a nobleman, the punishment was exile; if a commoner, the sentence was more likely to be death?

Bernard Faure, a professor at Columbia University, suggests that forced conversion is sometimes brutally visible in religious imagery. In the case of Tibet, there is the myth that its first Buddhist king subdued the demoness who ruled the land by nailing her down to the ground. The holiest of places in Tibetan Buddhism, the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, is symbolically known as the nail that was driven into the vagina of the demoness. ‘The rape imagery,’ Faure writes, ‘could hardly be more explicit.’

The demonization, dehumanization and social discrimination of rivals seem to be as prevalent in Buddhism as in other faiths. In one sacred text often used by the current Dalai Lama (the Kalachacra-tantra), the final battle of the world will be between Buddhists and heretics the heretics are identified as Muslims.

In Thailand, Buddhism needed to tackle other classes of enemies. In 1976 a leading monk declared in an interview that ‘killing communists is not a sin’. These were his reasons:

‘First, killing communists is not really killing; second, sacrifice the lesser good for the greater good; third, the intention is not to kill but to protect the country; fourth, the Buddha allowed killing.’

And he concludes: ‘Our intention is not to kill human beings, but to kill monsters. This is the duty of all Thais.

This extraordinary statement doesn’t come out of the blue. In Thailand, as in other Asian countries, the state protects its Buddhist religion and Buddhist monks protect the Thai state. Thai temples are used as military bases and some soldiers are ordained as monks, they are known as ‘military monks’ and one of their primary duties is to protect, using violence if need be, Buddhist temples.

All of this was new to me. As a reader of books on Eastern spirituality and meditation since my teens, I had never come across any remote suggestion that Buddhism was similar to other religions when it came to justifying and using violent means.

If Buddhist monks and enlightened teachers can be violent towards others, why would Western meditators be any different?

I was coming to the conclusion that meditation is only a process: it can sharpen attention, quiet thoughts and angst, increase positive emotions towards ourselves and others and, in the extreme, it can lead to a deep alteration of our identity a kind of ecstatic annihilation of the ego. But with the wrong kind of motivation and without clear ethical rules, that very spiritual selflessness can serve all kinds of ill purposes.

That happened with Japanese Buddhism not long ago.

Zen soldiers

‘Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good?’ Adolf Hitler

In the late 1950s journalist and author Arthur Koestler travelled to the East and met with a number of leading spiritual teachers. The narrative of his travels was published as The Lotus and the Robot. In the last chapter, entitled ‘The Stink of Zen’, Koestler takes issue with Zen’s amorality and goes as far as criticizing Suzuki, the Zen scholar who made Zen known to a wide Western audience. He quotes from Suzuki’s book Zen and Japanese Culture:

‘Zen is extremely flexible in adapting itself to almost any philosophy and moral doctrine as long as its intuitive teaching is not interfered with. It may be found wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy, atheism or idealism’.

Koestler commented that this passage ‘could have come from a philosophical minded Nazi journalist, or from one of the Zen monks who became suicide pilots’.

His meetings with Zen teachers only reinforced the idea that Zen has no interest in morality or social ethics. When he asked about the persecution of religion in totalitarian countries or Hitler’s gas chambers, the answers generally showed a lack of interest in differentiating between good and ill deeds. He regarded this as a ‘tolerance devoid of charity’ and was skeptical about the contribution Zen Buddhism had to offer post-World War II to the moral recovery of Japan, or any other country. In this short chapter Koestler pointed his finger at a phenomenon of unimagined proportions.

Forty years later it became public knowledge that the ‘stink of Zen’ dominated Japan during World War II; Koestler was right.

It was Brian Victoria, a Zen priest and historian of religions, who brought the evidence to light. He has shown how, during World War II, the Japanese military used Zen Buddhist ideas and meditation techniques and how Zen Buddhist leaders showed explicit support of the war. Victoria’s verdict is as sharp as a samurai’s sword. He reveils that nearly all of Japan’s Buddhist leaders were fervent supporters of Japanese militarism. As a result, he argues, Zen Buddhism so deeply violated Buddhism’s fundamental principles that it should no longer be recognized as an expression of the Boddidharmag. Within a Western religious context, this would be the equivalent of saying that during a certain period (such as the Inquisition), the Catholic Church was not an authentic expression of Christ’s teachings.

Victoria methodically reveals how warfare and killing were regarded as manifestations of Buddhist compassion, selflessness and dedication to the Japanese emperor. The soldier’s code, which all soldiers had to learn by heart in 1941, had a section entitled ‘View of Life and Death’ which read:

‘That which penetrates life and death is the lofty spirit of self-sacrifice for the public good. Transcending life and death, earnestly rush forward to accomplish your duty. Exhausting the power of your body and mind, calmly find joy in living in eternal duty’

This is eerily familiar to us living in a post-9/11 world. The violent rhetoric of religious extremism is probably universal, but, in the case of Zen Buddhism, its very spiritual pinnacle, the attainment of enlightened selflessness was used to train soldiers during World War II, who would sacrifice themselves as if their lives were of no consequence. Thus, an army major advised his soldiers:

‘The soldier must become one with his superior. He must actually become his superior. Similarly, he must become the order he receives. That is to say, his self must disappear.’

Islam or Christianity’s promise of eternal life is here exchanged for the Buddhist idea that, by becoming selfless, life and death become undifferentiated; there is nothing to lose by dying on the battlefield once you realize the emptiness of the self. This spirit is deeply entrenched in Japanese Buddhism, going back at least to the samurai age. Takuan, a famous Zen master from the 1600s, wrote:

‘The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all emptiness. It is like a flash of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. None of them are possessed of a mind that has any substantiality. As each of them is of emptiness and has no mind, the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hands is not a sword, and the “I” who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning’.

D.T. Suzuki expressed the same view in the twentieth century. He eloquently compared the Zen master’s use of the sword to the production of an artistic masterpiece. Although it is not the intention of the Zen master to harm anybody, the enemy appears and makes himself a victim of the enlightened swordsman, Suzuki suggests; it is as if the sword acts without an agent or through a robot, if we want to use a less poetic image.

It is then no great wonder that Hitler and the Nazis were fond of the Zen. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS (Schutzstaffel), who was obsessed with esoteric ideas and sent expeditions to Tibet and India, believed that all his military had to act with ‘decency’. By decency he meant that they had to remain untouched by human weakness when staring at the thousands of corpses, lying side by side, as they tumbled into the pit at concentration camps. When he was caught and questioned after the war, he didn’t have a shred of insight about the villainy of his actions; like a Zen master, he seemed indifferent.

When Brian Victoria’s book, Zen at War, was translated into Japanese, it had an unforeseen impact. Instead of trying to deny Japanese Buddhism’s ties to militarism, a number of Zen masters admitted this had happened and formally apologized. It was a long journey for Victoria, who had been ordained as a Zen priest in 1964 because he believed Zen Buddhism was free from the violence that had marked Western religions. But he hasn’t lost his faith.

He upholds Buddhism’s non-violent principles and denies the possibility of compassionate killing, arguing that under no circumstances can a bodhisattva legitimately employ violence to the point of actually taking the life of another human being.

However, this leaves us with another, no less difficult question to answer: what do we make of a bodhisattva or, in the Zen tradition, someone who has reached satori (the realization of selflessness) and still commits violence, is this person truly enlightened? Paradoxically, yes. After the war Suzuki, although not retracting any of his former works, argued that enlightenment alone is not enough to make you a responsible Zen priest. A Zen priest also needs to use intellectual discrimination, because enlightenment in itself is just a state of being that cannot tell right from wrong.

This is not what we’re used to hearing. Enlightenment in the East is regarded very much like saintliness in the West whomever reaches such a state of being is expected to be the pinnacle of selflessness and love. Followers revere their spiritual teachers, often treating them like the living embodiment of nirvana or God. The idea that the highest attainment of spiritual development may not be enough to tell right from wrong is disturbing.

Two hypotheses come to mind: either enlightenment does not necessarily make you act in an unselfish or a peaceful way; or perhaps those whom we think of as enlightened aren’t as holy as they seem. Mystics of all times have warned against the dangers of spiritual infatuation. The Spanish Christian mystic Theresa of Avila went as far as suggesting that we should never trust the goodness of the holy people who are still living? In the Christian tradition it is a sin of vanity to believe you are holy. In the Buddhist tradition it would probably be proof that the egoless master still has some ego to shed. But in the East it’s widely accepted that some people are real embodiments of compassion or God, and it’s not unusual for the masters themselves to proclaim that. Recently, in India, one man was revered by millions and looked upon as the living God.

The most selfish man on Earth

I first heard of Sai Baba through a friend who was doing a Master’s degree in the sociology of religion. Having been raised by Marxist parents, Joana was curious about religion and went off to southern Italy to do fieldwork with a community of Sai Baba followers. It was very much like any other Hindu devotional community, she told me, with lots of chanting, praying and some meditation but there were a couple of unusual things. First, there were various gifts bracelets, watches that, apparently, the guru had produced from thin air and offered to his followers. Second, the guru often showed up in people’s dreams, an event that had been the catalyst for conversion to Sai Baba’s doctrine for many of the people Joana interviewed during her fieldwork. Joana herself, despite being an atheist, had dreams about Sai Baba while staying with the community. This frightened her, but it didn’t turn her into a believer?

The first time I considered the idea that an enlightened person could be flawed was in relation to Sai Baba. l was talking to Carlos do Carmo Silva, a philosopher of religion based at the Catholic University of Lisbon. A tall, thin and unassuming man in his late fifties, he has produced work on the parallels and tensions between Buddhist and Christian mystical attainment that is the most insightful I’ve ever encountered. l was asking what he thought of Sai Baba’s claim to being an ‘avatar’, the very embodiment of God on earth.

‘Perhaps he is,’ he said gazing upwardly. ‘But other times he can be the most selfish man on Earth.’ I looked at him, puzzled. He didn’t offer an explanation for this contradiction and I wasn’t expecting him to, he often challenged me to think out of the box.

His words popped into my mind when a few months later a BBC documentary on Sai Baba accused the guru of sexually abusing some male teenage American devotees. Shocking as the revelations were, the way an Indian minister treated the BBC journalist who confronted him with the allegations was no less brutal. The auras of devotion and power surrounding the guru were astounding.

The sexual abuse allegations probably did not harm Indian devotion to Sai Baba, but they did have an effect on Western devotees. Many centres in Europe and the USA closed down. I didn’t think about it any further, though, until one evening in Oxford I was invited to comment on a lecture by the Icelandic psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson. He was speaking about some work he had done on children who claimed to remember past lives, but I knew that Haraldsson had written a book about Sai Baba’s miracles. At the end of the event, I asked him if he had personally met the Indian holy man.

‘Oh, yes, on quite a number of occasions. I spent some time at his ashram during which we spoke on a daily basis.’ ‘And what do you make of him?’

‘I do think he has some unusual powers. I can’t tell if all the stories are real, but I think some of them are,’ he confided.

‘What about the sexual abuse allegations; what do you make of them?’

Haraldsson looked down at me (he is quite a tall man) and shrugged.

‘Well, he’s obviously a gay man …’

I stared at Haraldsson and said nothing. We stayed quiet for a moment and then changed subject.

Violence comes in many shapes. Sexual abuse is one of the most difficult forms of violence to confront; often the abuser is a powerful figure, either within a family or an organization. Spiritual organizations are not immune to this. The recent scandal of sexual abuse among the Roman Catholic clergy has stirred waves in the Western world, but Buddhist monks in the East, including leading priests, have also been found guilty of this.

Recently in the USA Sasaki, a revered Zen priest known to be Leonard Cohen’s Buddhist teacher, has been accused of sexual abuse by a number of female followers. On various occasions Sasaki asked women to show their breasts, and explained that this was part of a Zen koan or a way of showing non-attachment.

Another woman complained that the master massaged her breasts during a private session and was asked to massage his genitals; The accusations against Sai Baba were very similar, but the target of the abuse was at the time a young male adolescent.

I thought again of what Carlos do Carmo Silva, the philosopher, had said: the holiest man on earth can also be the most selfish. I also remembered German psychologist Harold Wallach telling me that he had met advanced meditators who were ‘assholes’. As hard and paradoxical as it sounds, it is very likely that no human being is immune to being cruel or taking advantage of others at times, no matter how spiritually evolved.

By the time l’d uncovered all this material, I was feeling disillusioned and somewhat nauseated. The old aphorism ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ played loudly in my mind. Meditation and spiritual teachers are coloured with a sweetened aura that distorts the reality of individuals, societies and history.

The unrealistically positive ideas associated with meditation only make people more vulnerable to either the adverse psychological effects or its enlightened-amoral teachers.

The other danger was that the cover up about the dark aspects of meditation, implicitly or explicitly endowed by scientists studying its effects, could destroy the good it had to offer. I painfully understood Koestler’s feelings of disillusion at the end of his chapter on Japanese Buddhism:

‘For a week or so I bargained with a Kyoto antique dealer for a small bronze Buddha of the Kamakura period; but when he came down to a price that I was able to afford, I backed out. I realized with shock that the Buddha smile had gone dead on me. It was no longer mysterious but empty.’

But I also realized, with a sense of relief and humility, that meditation need not be a panacea to cure every ill, nor a tool to moral perfection; perhaps we shouldn’t treat it very differently from prayer, which can quiet our minds, give us some comfort, and lead us towards a deeper place where we can explore who we are or be closer to God.

Perhaps meditation was never supposed to be more than a tool to help with self-knowledge; one that could never be divorced from a strong ethical grounding, who we are and the world we live in. In Patanjali’s sutras, when he describes the various aspects of yoga, meditation is only one of them. The first one, the very basis of a healthy and eventual selfless being is self-restraint (yama), which he defines as ‘non-violation, truthfulness, non-stealing, containment, and non-grasping’. And to be sure that these are the definite and nondebatable foundations he adds:

‘These restraints are not limited by birth, time or circumstance; they constitute the great vow everywhere.’

Only with this strong foundation, can the other limbs of yoga (as Patanjali calls them) emerge, including the asanas, pranayama, meditation and the blissful experiences of unity with the ground of being.


Re-reading this chapter I felt unhappy not to finish on a more hopeful note. Despite its dark side and the limitations of the current scientific research, I still think meditation is a technique with real potential for personal change, if properly guided and taught within a larger spiritual-ethical framework.

I was also aware that read on its own, religious extremists and proselytizers could use it to belittle Buddhism and Hinduism. I thought of looking for someone who, coming from the West, had embraced the Eastern meditation tradition without denying its darker side. I found that person in Swami Ambikananda, a South African woman who took religious Hindu vows and who teaches meditation and yoga, while also running a charity in the southwest of England. She has translated a number of Indian sacred texts from the Sanskrit; I’d read her clear and poetic translation of the Katha Upanishad, which has the very first recorded teaching on yogag.

She welcomed me at her house in Reading, about an hour west of London. It felt odd to call her Swami Am-bi-ka-nan-da, seven full syllables of a name; her direct and expansive personality seemed to require no more than two. I wondered what birth name she’d been given, but it felt odd to ask. She was dressed in the orange cloth of the Indian ascetics, but her way of speaking and gesticulating was definitely Western feminine. We walked into her living room and she invited me to sit down on a cushion on the floor.

‘We have no chairs here,’ she explained. ‘I hope you don’t mind.’

‘I don’t. Is it okay if I write down some notes?’

She offered me tea. I was happy to see her again. We’d first met at the day course on the psychology of meditation I gave with Catherine Crane. Her questions and comments stood out, very much like her orange garment. When I told her l was writing this book and looking into the potential dark side of meditation, she asked whether I had heard of Aaron Alexis; I hadn’t yet.

‘There is a new dogma about meditation: when it fails its limitations are never questioned,’ she told me. ‘We are told that they weren’t doing it right. But it may be neither the practice nor the person that is wrong. The truth about our human condition is that no one thing works for everyone. The spiritual journey is about the unmasking of oneself, being more authentically “self” and whatever path leads us there is grand for each of us, but that particular path is not necessarily good for all of us.’

She was aware of the dangers of contemplative practice and open about it. I asked how she had become interested in meditation and Indian spirituality.

‘My father was a Marxist atheist and my mum a devout Catholic. This was confusing but not too much, until I turned 11 or 12. Then, I heard about the doctrine of limbo. I don’t think the Catholic Church believes in it anymore you know, this place where the souls of unbaptized children were supposed to go and stay for eternity. That was it for me; I became an atheist. I didn’t think too much about the soul or religion for a while, until I had twins and then became depressed.

One day a friend thought it was a good distraction to take me to a lecture by a swami, so I went. The people there were very serious, try lighting a cigarette in a yoga lecture like I did! but there was something I liked about Swami Venkatesananda and kept meeting him. But I only got to the yoga and meditation later.’

‘How did that happen?’

‘I was visiting Swami Venkatesananda in Mauritius and had bought a pile of books on Indian spirituality and philosophy. One day he told me he needed some help in clearing up some junk and pointed at a ravine where people threw all kinds of stuff old fridges, cars, you name it. I said, yes, I’ll help you. He then picked up the whole pile of books I had just bought and threw them down the ravine. “Why did you do that?” I asked him. He told me the time had come to stop reading and to try out yoga and meditation. That’s how I started.’

I asked Ambikananda whether or not she believes meditation can change a person, and, if she does, how much meditation it would take to change. She told me about meeting Krishnamurti, the Indian-born writer who was heralded as the New World messiah by the Theosophical Society, but eventually walked away from the movement to become a kind of spiritual free thinker.

‘He told me two minutes a day was enough. I laughed; it takes me two hours of meditation to get two worthwhile minutes! But he was right that it’s not only about meditation; your intention counts. My teacher used to tell me: “Hunt down the self ruthlessly; this isn’t for the faint hearted.” There is an acknowledgment in all religious traditions whether it’s the spiritual work of Ignatius of Loyola or the process of St Theresa of Avila, or the Way of the Buddha, or the yoga path of Patanjali that you need more than meditation to change.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘To start with, you need to have a healthy ego; what kind of self are you surrendering if you don’t have a stable sense of who you are?’

‘What about the clinical use of mindfulness to treat depression and anxiety? I suppose you don’t have a healthy sense of self there …’

I’m uncertain about the exact value of mindfulness,’ Ambikananda told me. ‘Since it has moved out of the monastic environment into the wider secular world, meditation is being sold as that which will not only make use feel better but will make us better people more successful, stronger, convincing …’

I interrupted her. ‘But are you aware that some researchers are claiming that mindfulness meditation per se can turn you into a better, more compassionate person?’

‘No, no, no,’ she stressed. ‘Meditation needs to be embedded in its context, there are moral and emotional guidelines to be followed; Patanjali spells them out clearly in his work on yoga.’

‘But the whole purpose of meditating isn’t it meant to make you an enlightened and deeply moral individual; moral in the sense of unselfish and compassionate. Isn’t that what happens?’

‘Morality can be divorced from spirituality. My ego can dissolve while I meditate, but when I get up it’s reconstructed. You can meditate 22 hours a day, but in those two hours you have left, you are a human being living in matter, and this aspect of reality’ (she touched the ground) ‘doesn’t care too much if you’re enlightened or not.’

I told Swami Ambikananda about the evidence I’d uncovered concerning the adverse aspects of meditation and its violent history in the East; she simply nodded. Even the claims of sexual abuse by some spiritual teachers didn’t surprise her. ‘I had one of the few truly celibate Indian spiritual teachers,’ she admitted.

Ambikananda then told me the story of once travelling through the Himalayas in search of a levitating holy man. She was staying at the ashram of her teacher in Rishikesh, at the foot of the Ganges, when a friend told her about a flying hermit, who lived in a cave only a day’s journey away.

‘It took us about three days, walking in the Himalayas to find him. We were going in the wrong direction for more than a day. But we managed to find our way and met the flying baba. He asked for some rupees and went into a trance state. After a few minutes I couldn’t believe my eyes: he was really lifting off the ground! I felt rather irritated; this is not supposed to happen. I got some branches from a nearby tree and moved them beneath and above him to make sure it was not a trick. I couldn’t see the trick and asked him to do it again; he did it and still I couldn’t see how. When I asked if he could also do it standing, he said he couldn’t; he had to be sitting down. I wanted to see him doing it a third time, but he refused. He said he’d teach me if I stayed for a few days and gave him some more rupees. ‘And did you?’ I asked.

‘I wouldn’t stay alone with that man for anything in this worldl’ she said laughing. ‘He made it very clear that besides money he wanted sexual favours.’

After our talk Swami Ambikananda gave me a lift to Reading railway station. I thanked her for her time and asked again about Aaron Alexis, the man who was a regular meditator and killed 12 people.

‘Do you think it had anything to do with meditation?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t dispute that he had serious mental health problems; but meditation probably didn’t help him either. Meditation is about looking into the abyss within, it wasn’t created to make you or me happy, but to help us fight the illusions we have and find out Who we truly are. My teacher used to tell me: “This’ Is your battle, you fight it with everything you ’ve got.” He also used to say that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. I certainly do my best,’ she said, laughing.

Meeting this lively and grounded South African woman turned Hindu priest made me feel less pessimistic about the use of meditation and yoga in the West. If we admit its frailties and limits, that it takes other things for these techniques to make real positive change the right intention, a good teacher and moral framing they can still prove effective engines of personal change.

I wanted to test the effects on a population who might not often get the chance to try out yoga and meditation practice, but who might need the benefits more than your average person. Back in Oxford I rang the director of the Prison Phoenix Trust. ‘Sam, let’s go ahead with the research project. If you provide the yoga and meditation classes to prisoners, I’ll handle the science part.’



The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

by Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm

get it at

A Short History of Personality – Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm * Explaining Behaviorism: Operant and Classical Conditioning – Eric Charles Ph.D.

The study of personality is heavily focused on what psychologists call ‘traits’. These are patterns of behaviour, thoughts and feelings that we use to characterize people, think of one of your friends who is outgoing and adventurous (an extravert) and another who is often moody and over-sensitive (neurotic).

Most of the time, psychologists argue, these key personality traits will be astonishingly consistent throughout our lives.

The forefather of modern US psychology, William James, wrote in his Principles of Psychology (1890) that we are essentially creatures of habit:

“Already at the age of 25 you see the professional mannerism settling on the young commercial traveler, on the young doctor, on the young minister, on the young counselor-at-law. You see the little lines of cleavage running through the character, the tricks of thought, the prejudices, the ways of the “shop”…

It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.”

William James wrote this before the turn of the twentieth century, but his concluding sentence still reverberates through modern textbooks on the science of personality. In his own time he was not alone in thinking that many of our behaviours are particularly resistant to change.

Bells, petals and electric shocks

On the other side of the Atlantic, in 1874, Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, argued that both nature and nurture shape our personality, although nature played a major role. He was borrowing from Shakespeare, who in The Tempest first juxtaposed those two words. Referring to the beast Caliban, the magician Prospero calls him ‘A devil, a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick.’

Galton’s own perspective was very similar to Prospero’s: he believed that nature played a predominant role in the shaping of our personalities and intelligence. He based this view on his pioneering study of twins. By observing identical twins, who share all genetic makeup, and contrasting them with fraternal twins, who share only half, he noticed that identical twins were especially similar in temperament to each other. The implication was that nature, and not culture, education or the environment, played the predominant role in the making of our characters.

Not all agreed with this view. Aristotle famously spoke of the human mind as an ‘unscribed tablet’, the infant’s mind is like a blank slate on which experience etches a personality.

Among psychologists the American John Watson was one of the strongest advocates of this perspective. He thought that none of our behaviours are instinctive, and that all we do is learn though our interaction with the environment. ‘Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in,’ Watson wrote in 1924, ‘and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors?’

This perspective swung the pendulum of determinism in the other direction: we become not what nature or biology dictates, but what our environment provides and how our minds associate events with pleasant or unpleasant responses (such as relaxation or fear).

For Watson’s Behaviourism, not only is personal change possible, but it happens all the time. In effect we can learn one response, but also unlearn it and replace it with another.

Take a biologically pleasant stimulus, such as a flower, which you might expect to look upon with joy, breathing in its scent, marvelling in its colours. With the correct kind of conditioning, you can start dreading its sight and smell. English novelist Aldous Huxley vividly portrays this concept in his novel Brave New World (1932). In the story eight month old babies are conditioned to be afraid of books and rose petals. The babies are taken to the conditioning rooms, where petals, and books with brightly coloured pages are spread all over the floor. As soon as the babies are happily playing, the director of the conditioning centre gives an order to the head nurse. A lever is switched and suddenly:

‘There was a violent explosion. Shriller and ever shriller, a siren shrieked. Alarm bells maddeningly sounded. The children started, screamed; their faces were distorted with terror. “And now,” the Director shouted (for the noise was deafening), “now we proceed to rub in the lesson with a mild electric shock.”

He waved his hand again, and the Head Nurse pressed a second lever. The screaming of the babies suddenly changed its tone. There was something desperate, almost insane, about the sharp spasmodic yelps to which they now gave utterance. Their little bodies twitched and stiffened; their limbs moved jerkily as if to the tug of unseen wires?’

The electric shocks stop. But when the director instructs the nurse again to show flowers and books, the babies shrink away in horror. ‘What man has joined,’ Huxley writes, ‘nature is powerless to put asunder.’

Of course, just as we are able to reassociate pleasant and beautiful things, such as flowers, with pain, so can we associate naturally unpleasant and dangerous stimuli, such as spiders and snakes, with positive feelings. Psychologists have used this technique countless times in the treatment of phobias.

Imagine you are terrified of spiders, so terrified that you start hyperventilating and experience blurred vision just by seeing a picture of one. A behavioural therapist would attempt to change your panic response through counter-conditioning. Slowly and systematically, a therapist shows you a picture of the dreaded spider while giving you techniques that encourage you to relax. Eventually the fear subsides and you have learned a new conditioning seeing a spider triggers a relaxation response that replaces the old one. It’s not necessarily a pleasant way to instigate change, but it is a potentially effective one.

Despite the possibilities that Behaviourism suggests for personal change, its premise that humans lack free will and rely upon conditioning to exhibit a certain behaviour has been severely criticized. Some psychologists believe that Behaviourism evades the complexity of mental life, denies the existence of unconscious motivations, and fails to explain how we develop a sense of identity, of who we are.

At the method’s heart there is a bleak determinism: the biological account of nature how the encryption of proteins at the micro-level ultimately shapes our behaviour is replaced by the mechanics of stimulus and response. It enables the possibility of personal change; but at what cost?

Extraverts, introverts and neurotics

At the same time as Watson was publishing his thoughts on behavioural change, other psychologists were developing new ideas about personality and ways to measure it. Researchers started using surveys that included lists of questions about an individual’s behaviour: ‘Are you outgoing? Do you enjoy parties? Does your mood often go up and down? Are you easily irritated?’ Questions such as these are supposed to measure personality traits that is, habitual ways to believe, think and feel.

The notion that we each have certain personality traits is not an entirely modern discovery. Around 2,500 years ago Hippocrates, the Ancient Greek physicist known as the father of Western medicine, conceived of four major temperaments choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine. In the twentieth century, British personality psychologist Hans Eysenck noted the similarities between Hippocrates’ temperaments and the modern-day theory of personality traits?

A sanguine individual, characterized as sociable, lively and carefree, combined the trait of extraversion with low neuroticism, a highly desirable pattern in Western societies. On the opposite side, a melancholic temperament, which describes someone as quiet, anxious and moody, and is characteristic of many artists, combines introversion with high neuroticism. A choleric individual is excitable, aggressive and optimistic, an explosive combination of high extraversion and neuroticism; and a phlegmatic person is controlled, reliable and calm, indicating an introvert with low neuroticism.

Looking through these personality characteristics and trying to attribute them to our own personality is not necessarily straightforward. I could say I have quite a lot of sanguine, but also some of choleric, and a small part of melancholic. Both Hippocrates’ temperaments and Eysenck’s traits are dimensions of our characters; our personalities are not black and white, and we all have elements of introversion-extraversion and neuroticism. What modern personality tests do is to quantify each and every character by positioning a person along a continuum how much of an introvert or neurotic are you from 0 to 100?

Such questions may sound like the content of quizzes in women’s magazines, rather than the measures of scientific instruments. However, the truth is they may have a place in both. Personality traits help us to make sense of other people’s behaviours, but they also help us to choose our friends and, crucially, our partners. If at 18 many of us think that we can change the person we love to better fit with our needs, by our late twenties we’re more inclined to try finding lovers and friends that match our personalities. People often say they want to ‘be loved for who they are’. It seems then that while we recognize unchangeability in our romantic partners, we also may have a deep-rooted understanding that who we are fundamentally is set in stone that nature ultimately wins out over nurture.

The idea that personality is rooted in our biology gained support with Eysenck. Like Francis Galton decades before him, Eysenck studied identical and fraternal twins. His conclusion was that our predisposition to be an extravert or a neurotic is mostly determined by the genes we inherit. Eysenck stirred the public mind when he extended the conclusions of his personality work to intelligence. He argued that it was not education or the environment that caused differences in intelligence scores between ethnic groups, but genetics. He gave the example of how Afro-Americans had lower IQ scores than white Americans, which implied that those genetically originating from northern Europe were intellectually more gifted than others. When giving public talks he was often confronted by angry protesters, and this hatred also extended to his old students and collaborators. Decades later Gordon Claridge, now a retired professor from Oxford University whom Eysenck had once supervised, told me that when in the 1970s he had applied to take up an academic position in Sweden, the student body were resistant to his appointment as a result of his (albeit past) association with ‘a racist psychologist’.

During the 1980s and 1990s, personality research evolved in different directions. Throughout the world studies looked at different age groups and did further research with twins, some of whom had been raised separately. The conclusions reinforced the nature thesis, demonstrating that personality did change from childhood, through adolescence to early adulthood, but after early adulthood it seemed that personality changed little?

Explaining Behaviorism: Operant & Classical Conditioning

Eric Charles Ph.D

There are many explanations that can be used to help people understand the Behaviorist Point of View. Some are very factual, others argue towards practical concerns, and still others are highly philosophical.

How to Explain Behaviorism: Operant and Classical Conditioning

Operant and classical conditioning are two different ways in which organisms come to reflect the order of the environment around them. They are not perfect processes and they certainly cannot explain every facet of human and non-human behavior. That said, they are surprisingly reliable processes, and they can explain much, much, more about human and non-human behavior than anyone would have thought before extensive study of those processes began.

It is probably best to think about Operant and classical conditioning as offering two different types of developmental stories. They are not stories about what a behavior is, but rather stories about how that behavior got to be that way.

Classical conditioning stories are about things happening around the animal, no matter what the animal does.

Operant conditioning stories involve consequences of the animal’s action, i.e., what happens when the animal operates upon the world as an active agent.

There is some debate about whether we need two types of stories. There are good reasons to go either way, including some recent genetic evidence that they can be disentangled. None of that really matters here; all that matters is that you understand the two types of stories and their consequences for future behavior.

Note below that “stimulus” can refer to any object, event, or situation that an organism could potentially respond to. Note also that “response” can be anything the organism does. For now a “response” could be an overt action (such as jumping up and down), a covert action (such as tensing your leg without moving it), or even a thinking or feeling, so long as we conceive of those as active, rather than passive.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning stories involve an animal doing something that changes the world in a way that produces, crudely speaking, a good or a bad outcome. When an organism does something that is followed by a good outcome, that behavior will become more likely in the future. When an organism does something that is followed by a bad outcome, that behavior will become less likely in the future. The action and outcome could coincide because of natural laws or social conventions, because someone purposely set it up that way, or it could be that the events followed due to random chance in this animals life history.

For example, in pretty much any animal’s it is good to stop touching overly, hot objects (natural law), in some worlds telling a parent you love them results in good outcomes (social convention), and in some worlds tapping a baseball bat five times on the left corner of the mound is followed by a home run (random chance).

Operant conditioning stories require that the outcome be reinforcing or punishing to the particular animal in question. (There are ways to specify that so it does not involve circular reasoning, but we don’t need to go that deep.) For example, candy might reinforce one person, but not another; some might find a graphic kill sequence in a violent video game punishing, while others find it reinforcing; etc.

Over time, the story goes, if a certain type of outcome consistently follows a particular behavior, this will affect the rate of future behaviors.

Example Traditional Story: A cat is put in a “puzzle box”. It performs a wide range of behaviors, because cats don’t like to be in cages. Eventually one of its flailing limbs pulls a lever that opens the cage door. This happens many times, and each time the lever gets pulled a little bit quicker (there is no “a ha!” moment).

Tradition vs. Necessity:

Traditionally operant conditioning stories start with a relatively “random” behavior, but they could start with any behavior. Traditionally the story then introduces an arbitrary consequence, but in real-life situations we usually care about socially mediated consequences. Traditionally many cycles for the consequence to make big changes in the frequency of future behavior, but sometimes the changes can be quite quick and others it can take a very long time.

In the traditional story the consequence always follows the behavior, but there are many cool affects that we know about when it does not, the consequence is intermittent (i.e., the “schedule of reinforcement”). Traditionally the consequence has to be immediately following the behavior, though there are some exceptions, you probably want to stick with the traditional version here.

Enhanced Traditional Story:

Often operant conditioning stories are enhanced by adding a “discriminative stimuli”, which indicates that a particular contingency (a particular connection between action and outcome) is in effect. For example, an experimenter working with rats might have a light that, when on, means that lever pressing will result in food. Similarly, a special education instructor might have a picture of a hat that, when held up, means that saying “hat” will result in an M&M.

Other Classical Conditioning Stuff:

You can do amazing things with discriminative stimuli. You can train people to respond to very specific stimuli, or to very general ”categories” of stimuli. For example, we can get pigeons to discriminate early Monet’s paintings from Picasso’s. Also, by drawing out the “schedule” of reinforcement, you can also train animals to respond for many, many times without getting reinforced. For example, we can get people to pull slot machine levers scores of times without a win.

After Conditioning:

After the events of an Operant Conditioning story, a behavior either has an increased or decreased rate of occurrence. Often there is a big increase or decrease specifically when a particular stimulus is present. So, if you know the world that a person has lived in before, you know something about why they respond now in certain ways in the presence of certain objects, events, or situations.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning stories involve (at least) two things that coincide “out there” in an animal’s world. Those things could coincide because they are causally related due to natural laws or social conventions, or it could be that the events occur at random in relation to each other and this animal just happens to be the animal that experiences them together.

For example, in pretty-much any animal’s world lightning is followed by thunder (natural law), in some worlds hearing “say cheese” might be followed by a camera flash (social convention), and in some worlds eating lamb dinners could coincide with hearing bad news from loved ones (random chance).

Classical conditioning stories also require that the organism already have a developed response to one of the two events. For example, thunder could make you flinch, a bright flash could make you wince, and bad news from loved ones could make you cry.

Over time, the story goes, if two things are repeatedly paired together out there in the world, the organism will come to respond to one as they already respond to the other.

Example Traditional Story:

When Mary was a child her father liked to take many pictures of her. He always said “Say Cheese” before he took the picture, and he always used a flash. Every time the flash hit Mary, she winced slightly. Now, whenever she hears “Say cheese“ she winces.

Tradition vs. Necessity:

Traditionally classical conditioning stories start with a response that seems unlearned (an Unconditioned Response to an Unconditioned Stimulus), but they could start with any response the animal already has. Traditionally the story then introduces something the animal has no existing response to (a Neutral Stimulus), but it usually still works for stimuli that already elicit some response. Traditionally the neutral stimulus comes to evoke the response associated with unconditioned stimulus after several pairings (thus becoming a Conditioned Stimulus), but sometimes only a single pairing is required, and sometimes neutral stimuli fail to convert to conditioned stimuli even after many, very close together in time, but sometimes you can create conditioned stimuli when the pairings are far apart.

In many cases, where the traditional story does not hold, there has been a lot of research into the exceptions, and we have very good understandings of why such exceptions should exist. For example, after a single event many animals will learn to avoid novel tastes that were associated with becoming sick quite a bit later. This makes a lot of evolutionary sense; poison food present a big risk, and one dose not normally experience the full effects until quite a bit after ingestion.

On the other hand, when dealing with fairly arbitrary pairings of stimuli, as we get all the time in our modern world, the structure of the traditional story holds. For example, why should anyone ever have become excited by hearing a computerized voice say “You’ve got mail!”? Because of several pairings, that’s why.

Other Classical Conditioning Stuff:

You can do amazing things here with generalization and discrimination training, and there are many other interesting phenomenon that scientists have discovered.

After Conditioning:

After the events of a Classical Conditioning story, the presence of a conditioned stimulus elicits a conditioned response. So, if you know the world that a person has lived in before, you know something about why they respond to certain things in certain ways now.

A Bit of Light Theory

Philosophical behaviorism can be very deep. In this context, all I will say is that most behaviorists believe we can explain a great deal about human behavior using the types of stories above. That is, the preferred style to a run of the mill “Why did he do that?!?” question will begin with “Well, in the past history of that person, doing that behavior resulted in….”

Because these explanations are all about the way the world around the person works, and the person’s past history in that world, you don’t need to include traditional “mental” explanations.

That doesn’t mean that traditional “mental” stuff doesn’t exist, but it does suggest that we can explain an awful lot about human behavior before we would need to start talking about them.


Eric Charles, Ph.D., runs the research lab at CTRL, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, at American University.

Meditation can work for everybody – Eric Klein * The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? – Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm.

“When the body can be still, the mind can be still. Spirituality is what you do with those fires that burn within you.” Sister Elaine

Seven Reasons Why Meditation Doesn’t Work, And how to fix them.

by Eric Klein

We didn’t have air conditioning, when we were living in Chicago in the 1970s. So, on hot, humid summer nights, Devi and I would ride our bikes to the shores of Lake Michigan. After securing our bikes, we‘d head for the water.

The water was nice and cool. But, to enjoy it we had to move through the twigs, paper cups, and assorted debris that had accumulated at the water’s edge.

It’s the same with meditation. The deep waters of your inner mind are pure, clear, and refreshing. But, to get there you need to move through some inner. . . um. . . debris.

This debris isn’t life threatening. Just a bit messy. It’s made up of ideas, memories, sensations, misconceptions, and reasons. Reasons why meditation doesn’t work at least for you.

Here are some of the common reasons that people give. You may find some of them familiar, if you’ve gone for a swim in the waters of meditation. Even if you’ve just dipped your toe in.

1) “Meditation is self-centered.”

As meditation has become more mainstream, pictures of people (slim, beautiful people) sitting in lotus postures show up in all kinds of advertising for spas, exotic vacations, skin cream, perfume, and jewelry.

It’s easy to get the impression that meditation is just the latest fashion accessory. Like a big spiritual mirror that you gaze into while putting on organic makeup to cover any imperfections.

But, meditation is the opposite. Meditation is about taking your self much less seriously and much more lightly. And in the process opening more fully and creatively to life.

The practice of meditation reveals that most of what’s scurrying around in the mind isn’t that significant much less real. And that all the ideas about the self are more limiting than liberating. Meditation frees you from being overly preoccupied with protecting and preserving the self.

Through practice, you discover that there really is no hard and fast line between “me” and “life”.

You discover that you are part of life, not apart from life in any way. Thus, the practice of meditation shifts you from self centered to lite centered living. Whether your attention is turned within or without it’s all life.

2) “I don’t have time to meditate.”

The scattered mind never has time for what matters most. It’s busy, busy, busy. Driven by emotion fueled thoughts. The day is filled to overflowing with activities, demands, meetings, and requirements. There’s barely time to sit down for a meal much less to spend a few moments in silence and stillness.

In the mad rush to get more done, the mind becomes more fragmented and speedy.

When things do slow down like in a traffic jam or on a grocery line it’s intolerable. The mind rails against the waste of time and against slowing down. “There’s too much to do!!” it cries.

But, everyone has exactly the same amount of time each day: 1440 minutes.

It’s the experience of time that differs. The more scattered and sped up the mind the more time seems to slip through your fingers like sand. Through meditation, the mind learns to slow down. As it does so, the feeling of pressure lifts. And with it another veil lifts as well.

The veil that concealed the richness of the moment, lifts. Through meditation you touch and are touched by the richness of the present moment. You experience fullness of time which reveals that this moment yes this very moment) is always enough.

3) “My back hurts when I meditate.”

This is likely a technical, postural issue that can be handled with some simple information about how to sit. Here are some practical guidelines.

You can sit on the floor or on a chair.

The key is to keep your spine straight but not still. Allow the chin to be parallel to the ground. When seated on the floor, elevate your body on a firm cushion or folded blanket. This reduces strain on the back. Experiment with different heights of cushion.

If you sit on a chair, make sure it is firm and not too cushiony. You don’t want to sink into it. You want to sit upright.

Once you have assumed a seated posture find your physical center of gravity.

You do this by gently rocking from side to side. As you rock from left to right, feel into the core of your body. You will notice a physical sensation I call passing through the center of gravity as your body shifts from side to side.

Slow down the shifting and feel more deeply into that center of gravity as you pass through. Then reduce the side to side movement and gradually settle your body so that it is aligned along the center of gravity. Do this all by feeling inwardly and sensing that place of balance.

As you settle the body in the center of gravity feel your spine gently lengthening. The back of your skull lifts slightly and the chin is parallel to the ground. The base of the body is grounded.

Your posture is aligned along the center of gravity and the spine is effortlessly extended. Place eyes gaze gently at the root of the nose between the eyebrows

Sitting is a skill that becomes easier with practice.

4) “I’m not religious.”

It’s easy to assume that meditation is religious. When you think about monks, yogis, nuns, and other professionally religious people, concepts like meditation come to mind. And it’s true, that meditation or similar practices have been central to those on a religious quest.

But, does that mean that meditation is religious? Not really. Religions are based on articles of faith, on beliefs.

Meditation requires no beliefs. It’s based on practice and results. In this way, meditation is more like a science experiment than a religious exercise. You don’t need to believe anything in order to conduct an experiment. You just need to follow the protocol. Do the practice. It’s a self validating process. Follow the steps and see the results.

The practitioners who developed the meditation methods used their minds and bodies as laboratories. They conducted experiments in consciousness. They recorded their results. And passed them onto their students for validation testing.

Some of these experiments have stood the test of time. People have conducted these meditation experiments for thousands of years, with reliable results. It’s these tested and validated practices that have been passed from teacher to student for thousands of years.

So, whether you’re religious or not, doesn’t matter in terms of meditation. If you are religious, meditation will enrich your understanding of your faith. If you’re not, you‘ll discover that which is deeper than believing or not believing.

5) “My mind won’t get quiet.”

If you stop the average person on the street and ask them, “Is your mind basically quiet or filled with thoughts?” most will tell you, “Basically quiet.” But, sit them down on a meditation cushion for a few minutes without anything to distract them and bam most people are shocked to discover how noisy it is in there.

It’s not that meditation made their minds noisy. Rather, the practice revealed the noise that was already there. This revelation of the running, ranting mind is a movement forward on the path. Many people drop the practice at this point thinking, “I can’t meditate.” But, they are meditating! The practice is working by revealing the actual state of the conditioned mind. Don’t stop now. The key is to keep practicing. To stay with the process which will lead to the quieting of the mind chatter.

The mind isn’t quieted by willing or by effort. You can’t quiet the mind through will power. That would be like pushing down on a spring. The harder you push the more the spring pushes back. You quiet the mind in the same way that you allow a glass of muddy water to become clear. You just let the particles settle. When you don’t stir up the water the mud settles on its own.

It’s the same in meditation.

Meditation lets the mud, the noisy thoughts settle. The glass of muddy water becomes clear as gravity draws the mud together. The mind becomes clear as you shift from thinking about thoughts to being aware of what is arising. Just by being aware, present, and mindful of the activity of the mind it settles down.

6) “Meditation is . . . boring.”

I remember when my parents would take me, as a child, to watch the sunset. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t see the beauty. To me, the sunset was boring.

Being bored is a symptom of not paying attention. If you pay attention deeply to anything it becomes very, very interesting. Meditation, which is the practice of cultivating deep attention, dissolves boredom. As the mud of the mind settles, as you discover the richness of the present moment even something as simple as a breath becomes the doorway to gratitude, wonder, and joy.

But, on the other hand, meditation is actually quite boring. I mean, you’re sitting there breathing in and breathing out. What could be more boring? In, out, in, out. Or you’re repeating the same mantra over and over. It is kind of boring by design. As the surface mind gets bored, it settles down.

And in that settling, an awareness of all encompassing, and ever present silence emerges. A sense of undisturbed stillness. This stillness and silence infuse everything with aliveness and presence. Not boring at all”

7) “I don’t want to be weird.”

There are two reasons that practicing meditation can feel weird. One is neurological, the other more psychological.

Let’s start neurologically: doing anything unfamiliar can feel weird. Your neurological patterns get used to doing things a certain way. Putting your left leg in your pants before your right ones Brushing one side of your teeth before the other. Sitting in a certain chair and in a certain posture) to watch television. The list goes on.

So, when you change a pattern of behavior even in a positive direction it feels weird. Inside your brain, new neurons are firing.

New connections are being made. And old connections, old patterns, are being restrained. Subjectively it feels weird. The new neurological circuits aren’t totally grooved in yet. so you’re clumsy at the new pattern. And this clumsiness is where the weird feeling can turn more psychological.

Being clumsy can be embarrassing (even if you’re all by yourself). Even if you’re sitting there by yourself with your eyes closed you can still be “watching” what you’re doing and wondering, “Am I doing this right? Is this weird?”

Have you ever danced in front of the mirror? If you judge what your dancing it’s no fun. To enjoy the experience, you need to cut loose from any fixed ideas of what dancing should look like and even more so what you should look like.

It’s the same with meditation. Whether you want to or not, you have an idea about the kind of person who meditates. If you don’t think of yourself as that kind of person then when you meditate, you’ll feel weird. You’ll get in your own way.

But, if you relax, take a breath, and realize that your ideas about meditation are just that ideas. You don’t have to live up to these self imposed ideas of meditation. You can just cut loose and enjoy the process. When you do, you find a whole new and wonderful kind of weirdness.

But, one of the blessings of meditation is finding out that you indeed are weird. You’re weird in the best possible sense of the word. Because, the most ancient meaning of the word weird has to do with following your unique fate, your path through life. You’re weird if you follow your path and listen to the direction of your inner soul.

So, meditation, in this most basic, ancient sense, helps you be weird. Meditation helps you find your path. Through practice, you discover how to live your true life more fully and more joyfully.

Those are the seven reasons.

Along with ideas on how to move through them.

Because, there’s no reason to let a bit of debris stop you from enjoying a refreshing swim in the deep, clear, refreshing waters of your inner mind.

Ready for the next: step?

Our recommendation is for you to subscribe to the Wisdom Heart newsletter. You’ll receive information and inspiration on how to bring meditation alive in your life. Practical ideas that you can use for peace of mind and the clarity to live with greater fulfillment and purpose.

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The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm


My interest in meditation began at the age of six when my parents did a course on Transcendental Meditation. I didn’t realize it then, but I was effectively being introduced to the idea that meditation can produce all manner of changes in who we are and in what we can achieve. Mind-over-matter stories are both inspiring and bewildering, hard to believe yet compelling. They have stirred me deeply enough to dedicate almost two decades of my life researching what attracts some people to techniques like meditation and yoga and whether, like many claim, they can transform us in a fundamental way.

This book tells the story of the human ambition for personal change, with a primary focus on the techniques of meditation and yoga. Hundreds of millions of people around the world meditate daily. Mindfulness courses, directly inspired by Buddhist meditation, are offered in schools and universities, and mindfulness-based therapies are now available as psychological treatments in the UK’s National Health Service.

Many scientists and teachers claim that this spiritual practice is one of the most efficient and economic tools of personal change. Yoga is no less popular. According to a recent survey by the Yoga Health Foundation, more than 250 million people worldwide practise it regularly. Through yoga we learn to notice thoughts, feelings and sensations while working with physical postures. Often, yoga practice includes a period of lying or sitting meditation.

Psychologists have developed an arsenal of theories and techniques to understand and motivate personal change. But it wasn’t psychology that produced the greatest surge of interest of the twentieth century in this topic, it was meditation. By the 1970s millions of people worldwide were signing up to learn a technique that promised quick and dramatic personal change. Transcendental Meditation was introduced to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and quickly spread after the Beatles declared themselves to be followers of this Indian guru. To gain respectability Maharishi sponsored dozens of scientific studies about the effects of Transcendental Meditation, in academic fields ranging from psychophysiology to sociology, showing that its regular practice changed personality traits, improved mood and wellbeing and, not least, reduced criminality rates.

The publicity images for Transcendental Meditation included young people levitating in a cross-legged position and displaying blissful smiles. I recall, as a child, staring at the photographs of the levitating meditators used in the advertising brochures and thinking ‘Can they really do that?’ My parents’ enthusiasm for meditation, though, was short-lived. When I recently asked my mum about it, she just said, ‘It was a seventies thing; most of our friends were trying it out.’

Like my parents’ interest research on meditation waned rapidly. Photos of levitating people didn’t help to persuade the scientific community that this was something worth studying. We had to wait almost thirty years before a new generation of researchers reignited interest in the field, conducting the first neuroimaging studies of Tibetan monks meditating, and the first explorations of the use of mindfulness in the treatment of depression. For yoga, too, there is increasing evidence that its practice can reduce depression?

Meditation and yoga are no longer taboo words in psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience departments. There now are dedicated conferences and journals on the topic and thousands of researchers worldwide using the most advanced scientific tools to study these techniques. Many of the studies are funded by national science agencies; just looking at the US federally funded projects, from 1998 to 2009, the number increased from seven to more than 1205. The idea of personal change is increasingly central to these studies. Recent articles show improvements in cognitive and affective skills after six to eight weeks of mindfulness, including an increase in empathy?

These are exciting findings. Meditation practices seem to have an impact on our thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Yet, these studies report only modest changes. But many who use and teach these techniques make astonishing claims about their powers. At the Patanjali Research Foundation in northern India, the world’s largest yoga research centre, I hear miraculous claims about yoga from the mouth of its director-guru, Swami Ramdev: ‘Yoga can heal anything, whether it’s physical or mental illness.’

Teasing fact from fiction is a major aim of this book.

The first part explores ideas about the effects of meditation and yoga, contrasting them with the current scientific evidence of personal change. The second part puts the theories to the test, we carry out new research and scrutinize both the upsides and downsides of these practices. We have dedicated a full chapter to the darker aspects of meditation, which teachers and researchers seldom or never mention.

Although this isn’t a self-help book, it attempts to answer crucial questions for anyone interested in contemplative techniques: can these practices help me to change? If yes, how much and how do they work? And, if they do change me, is it always for the better?

These questions have shaped a significant part of my own life. In my teenage years I believed that to seek personal growth and transformation was the central goal of human existence; this led me to study psychology. I wanted to learn how to promote change through psychological therapy, although it was only later, while undergoing therapy training, that I considered the subtlety and difficulties of this process. My undergraduate psychology degree turned out to not shed much light on our potential for transformation; it rarely touched on ideas about how to make us more whole, healed, enlightened, or just a better person.

But rather than giving up, I read more about the areas of psychology I wasn’t being taught like consciousness studies and started doing research on the effects of spiritual practices. When I decided it was probably a good idea to do a doctorate, I browsed through hundreds of psychology websites in search of potential supervisors; I found one at Oxford whom I thought was open minded enough to mentor my interests, and I moved to the city in 2000.

This is the pre-history of my motivation to write this book. Its history begins in the early summer of 2009, when Shirley du Boulay, a writer and former journalist with the BBC, invited a number of people to take part in the re-creation of a ceremony that blended Christian and Indian spirituality. Images, readings and songs from both traditions were woven together, following the instructions of Henry le Soux, a French Benedictine monk who went to live in India and founded a number of Christian ashrams that adopted the simplicity of Indian spirituality (think of vegetarian food and a thin orange habit)?

I met Catherine Wikholm, the co-author of this book, at this event. She had studied philosophy and theology at Oxford University before embarking on her psychology training, and was at the time doing research relating to young offenders. Catherine and I were both drawn to an elegant woman in her fifties called Sandy Chubb, who spoke in a gentle but authoritative manner. Sandy showed us a book she had recently published with cartoonish illustrations of yoga postures. I thought it was intended for children and asked her if kids enjoyed yoga. Sandy smiled and told us the book was meant for illiterate prisoners. That was the mission of the Prison Phoenix Trust, a small charity she directed: to teach yoga and meditation in prisons. Trying to escape my feeling of embarrassment, I praised the idea of bringing contemplative techniques to prisoners. ‘It must help them to cope with the lack of freedom,’ I suggested. Sandy frowned slightly.

‘That’s not the main purpose,’ she said. Although going to prison is a punishment, Sandy told us, with the help of meditation and yoga, being locked in a small cell can help prisoners realize their true life mission.

‘Which is?’ Catherine and I both asked at the same time. ‘To be saintly, enlightened beings,’ Sandy answered.

Catherine and I kept silent. We were mildly sceptical. But also intrigued. Sandy seemed to claim that meditation and yoga techniques could radically transform criminals. I went back to my office that same evening to search for studies of meditation and yoga in prisons and found only a handful. The results weren’t dramatic but pointed in the right direction, prisoners reported less aggression and higher self-esteem? Reading closely, I noticed there were serious methodological flaws: most had small sample sizes and none included a control group a standard research practice that ensures results are not owing to chance or some variable the researcher forgot to take into account.

I wanted to know more. If Sandy’s claims were true, if meditation and yoga could transform prisoners, this could have tremendous implications for how psychologists understand and promote personal change in all individuals, not just those who are incarcerated. Having no experience of prisons, I contacted Catherine to ask if she’d be interested in working with me on this topic.

‘l’d love to!’ she said, more enthusiastic than I imagine most would be at the prospect of interviewing numerous convicted criminals and in the process spending weeks behind bars. Having started working for the prison service in her early twenties, Catherine had a strong forensic interest, particularly in the treatment of young offenders. She was passionate about the rehabilitation of prisoners in general and was curious as to whether yoga and meditation might represent an alternative means of facilitating positive, meaningful change for those who were unable or unwilling to engage with traditional rehabilitative efforts, such as offending behaviour programs.

So Catherine and l arranged to meet with Sandy at the Prison Phoenix Trust. Walking through Oxford’s trendy Summertown, where the Trust is based, we wondered what the meeting would bring. On arriving at the offices, we received a warm welcome. Sandy gave us the guided tour of their floor of the building, which comprised four rooms: the office, where she and her colleagues had their desks; a dining room for communal meals; a meditation room with cushions on the floor; and, along a corridor, a room that was wall-to-wall lined with metal filing cabinets. These, Sandy explained, were full of the letters the Prison Phoenix Trust had received from prisoners, estimated at numbering more than ten thousand.

If we were intrigued before, we were now completely hooked. Our minds filled with questions, we sat down with Sandy as she began to reveal the unusual story of how a small charity had persuaded prison governors to let them teach meditation and yoga to a broad range of prisoners, including thieves, murderers and rapists.

This story made quite an impression on us. So much so, in fact, that it inspired us to dedicate much of the following two years to designing and implementing a study of the measurable effects of yoga and meditation on prisoners. The findings of our research (which we’ll reveal later on in the book) not only sparked a flurry of media interest, but inspired us to spend the two years after that writing this book.

Our initial focus on the potential of meditative techniques to transform the ‘worst of the worst’ broadened out, as we became increasingly interested in exploring its full potential. Might Eastern contemplative techniques have the power to change all of us? As we engaged with more and more research literature, the inspiring stories of change we uncovered compounded our broadened view of the potential of yoga and meditation. Our own personal experiences, such as those of my ongoing research and Catherine’s clinical psychology doctoral training and subsequent acquaintance with mindfulness-based therapies and their application within the NHS in turn increased our curiosity.

What began as a perhaps unlikely marriage of my interest in spirituality and Catherine’s in forensic and clinical psychology has evolved into a wider exploration of the science and delusions of personal change. Just as we worked on our research together, so we have written this book together. To reflect the dynamic process of our writing, with the combining of our ideas and to avoid any messy jumping back and forth between us as narrators we have chosen to write this book in first-person narrative, as a singular, joint ‘I’. Although inevitably it may sometimes be apparent which one of us is narrating at a particular point, if simply by virtue of our gender difference, we have sought to write as a shared voice. The personal stories, interviews and accounts depicted in this book are all drawn from our real experiences. However, when discussing any examples relating to therapeutic work, we have anonymized all names and identifying details.

Over the course of the book, we will examine the scientific evidence that actually exists for the claims of change that meditation, mindfulness and yoga practitioners, teachers and enthusiasts propagate.

We also bring together our own experiences as psychologists, one more research-oriented and one more practice oriented, as well as the stories of some of the thought-provoking characters we’ve encountered along our journey. All that is to come. But for now let us begin by letting you in on the unique story that started it all.

The Prison Phoenix Trust



‘If we forget that in every criminal there is a potential saint, we are dishonouring all of the great spiritual traditions. Saul of Tarsus persecuted and killed Christians before becoming Saint Paul, author of much of the New Testament. Valmiki, the revealer of the Ramayana, was a highwayman, a robber, and a murderer. Milarepa, one of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist gurus, killed 37 people before he became a Saint. We must remember that even the worst of us can change.’ Bo Lozoff (American prison reform activist and founder of the Prison Ashram Project and the Human Kindness Foundation)

Knocking on the door of a house in a quiet street in Oxfordshire, notepad and pen in hand, I stood and waited on the front step. A minute later the door opened. A smartly dressed, elderly lady smiled at me from inside.

‘Tigger?’ I asked. ‘Yes, do come in,’ she replied.

Still full of life at ninety years old, Tigger Ramsey-Brown was a pleasure to interview. I was there to find out from her more about the story of her late younger sister, who had founded the Prison Phoenix Trust. Over cups of tea in her sunny conservatory, Tigger began vividly to recount the story of her sister and how she had started the Trust around thirty years previously.

In the beginning

Tigger pointed out that if we were going to go right to the start, this story actually begins somewhat earlier, with the marine biologist and committed Darwinist Sir Alister Hardy. At one time a Professor of Zoology at Oxford University, Hardy had happened to teach Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist. Knighted for his work in biology, Hardy had a strong interest in the evolution of humankind, developing novel theories such as the aquatic ape hypothesis (which proposes that humans went through an aquatic or semi-aquatic stage in our evolution).

But he was also particularly interested in the evolution of religion and religious experience. Hardy viewed humans as spiritual animals, theorizing that spirituality was a natural part of our human consciousness. He mooted that our awareness of something ‘other’ or ‘beyond’ had arisen through exploration of our environment and he wanted to explore this further.

However, aware that fellow scientists and academics were likely to consider his interest in researching spirituality unorthodox, he waited until he retired from Oxford University before he delved deeper and founded the then-called Religious Experience Research Unit (RERU) at Manchester College, Oxford. (It is now the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre and is based in Wales.)

The goal of Hardy’s research was to discover if people today still had the same kind of mystical experiences they seemed to have had in the past. He began his study by placing adverts in newspapers, asking people to write in with their mystical experiences, in response to what became known as ‘The Hardy Question’: ‘Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?’

‘Thousands of people replied to the adverts, writing about their dreams and spiritual experiences. These responses were compiled into a database to enable researchers to analyze the different natures and functions of people’s religious and spiritual experiences. This is where Ann came in,’ Tigger told me. And so it was that in the mid-1980s in Oxfordshire, a woman named Ann Wetherall spent her days collecting and categorizing people’s dreams, visions and other spiritual experiences.

Looking for a link

Over time, as she examined the letters, Ann began to wonder if there was a common denominator in the accounts.

She noticed that it didn’t seem to matter whether someone was religious or atheist, but, more often than not, it was people who were feeling hopeless or helpless who reported a direct experience of spirituality.

Ann hypothesized that imprisonment might be a context that particularly inspired such despondent feelings and that it therefore might also trigger spiritual experiences. She got in touch with convicted murderer turned sculptor Jimmy Boyle, one of Scotland’s most famous reformed criminals. Boyle helped her to get an advert published in prison newspapers, asking for prisoners to write in about their religious or spiritual episodes. She got quite a response prisoners in their dozens wrote in to her describing their unusual experiences. Many of them had never mentioned these to anyone before and had wondered if they were going mad.

‘Ann wanted to write back and reassure them that they weren’t, and that these were valid spiritual experiences, which could be built on but the Alister Hardy Foundation did not reply to letters,’ Tigger explained. ‘That’s why Ann broke away from the research, so that she could start corresponding with the prisoners who were writing in, and offer support.

Because of their confinement in cells and separation from the outside world, Ann thought that prisoners’ experience was perhaps rather similar to that of monks. While for prisoners this withdrawal from society was not voluntary, she believed that they too could use their cell as a space for spiritual growth.’

‘What was her interpretation of spiritual growth?’ I asked.

‘Not only becoming more in touch with a greater power, but also becoming more aware of inner feelings and thoughts, as well as more connected and sensitive to other people’s needs,’ Tigger explained.

‘And the means of bringing about this kind of change?’ I asked, already pre-empting the answer…

‘Through meditation, of course.’

From spiritual experience to spiritual development

Tigger explained that she and Ann had spent their childhoods in India, growing up among Buddhist monasteries. Because of this upbringing, Ann had had a lifelong involvement with meditation, and believed that prisoners could benefit from learning it. In her letters back and forth to prisoners, she began sharing with them what she knew about meditation, in order to encourage and support their spiritual development.

Over the next couple of years, Ann’s correspondence with convicts came to strengthen her belief that prisoners had real potential for Spiritual development. ‘She thought they had a terrific spirituality, a hunger that wasn’t being met,’ Tigger explained, as our conversation moved onto Ann’s decision to set up a charitable trust, the Prison Ashram Project (now the Prison Phoenix Trust).

Founded in 1988, the organization was at first very small, comprising just Ann and three other volunteers, who wrote to prisoners, encouraging them to use their spiritual experiences as a springboard for future spiritual development.

‘You are more than you think you are’ was the project’s frequent message.

As the name suggests the Prison Ashram Project had the central premise that a prison cell can be used as an ashram, a Hindi word that refers to a spiritual hermitage, a place to develop deeper spiritual understanding through quiet contemplation or ascetic devotion.

Hermitage is not only an Eastern practice in Western Christian tradition, a monastery is a place of hermitage, too, because it is partially removed from the world. Furthermore, the word ‘cell’ is used in monasteries as well as in prisons, and there are a surprising number of similarities between the living conditions of monks and prisoners. Both live ascetic lives filled with restriction and limitation. Both monks and prisoners are able to meet their basic needs (but little more), both desist from sensual pleasures and the accumulation of wealth, and both follow a strict daily schedule.

Despite these parallels, however, there is undeniably a big difference in how monks and prisoners come to live in their respective cells. For monks living communally in monasteries, as well as hermits who live alone, living ascetically is an intentional choice, aimed at enabling them to better focus on spiritual goals. But for prisoners withdrawing from the world is not their choice; rather, it is imposed upon them as punishment. Which leads to the question: can involuntary confinement really open a door to inner freedom and personal change? Ann Wetherall believed so.

Being confined to a cell for much of the day, even against free will, could be a catalyst for spiritual development. The conditions were conducive; all that anyone needed was a radical shift in thinking. Rather than punishment, incarceration could be reconceived of as an opportunity for positive transformative experience. Prisoners had lost their physical liberty, but they could nevertheless gain spiritual freedom. Ann thought that meditation was the ideal tool with which prisoners could build spiritual growth, requiring only body, mind and breath.

So far, so good. But as Tigger talked something seemed to me to be a distinct obstacle to peaceful meditation behind bars: the undeniable fact that prisons are busy, noisy places. Granted, there might be some similarities between prisons, monasteries and spiritual retreats, I thought, but surely finding peace and quiet in a prison would be a bit of a mission impossible. Wouldn’t that render any attempt to meditate a bit futile?

‘No.’ Tigger smiled. ‘Ann believed this actually increased the importance and worth of meditation practice; the practice would enable prisoners to find a sense of peace despite their surroundings.’

Crossing continents

As it turned out Ann was not the first to think of encouraging prisoners’ spiritual development through in-cell meditation. A couple of years after setting up the Prison Ashram Project, she heard about Bo Lozoff, a spiritual leader and prison reform activist doing similar work in the USA.

Curiously, his organization was also called the Prison Ashram Project. Bo first had the idea that a prison cell could be a kind of ashram when his brother-in-law was sentenced to prison for drug smuggling. At the time Bo and his wife Sita were living at an ashram in North Carolina. There, their daily routine involved waking early, wearing all white, working all day without getting paid, abstaining from sex and eating communally. Visiting his brother-in-law in prison, Bo realized there were remarkable parallels between their day-to-day lives.

Around the same time he came across a book by renowned spiritual teacher Ram Dass, entitled Be Here Now. The combination of these two events inspired Bo and Sita to set up their own Prison Ashram Project in 1973, in cooperation with Ram Dass.

Just like Ann, they had begun corresponding with prisoners, offering encouragement and instruction in meditation and also in yoga. They also sent prisoners copies of Ram Dass’s book, along with the book that Bo himself went on to write: We’re All Doing Time A Guide for Getting Free. The central concept of this book is that it’s not only prisoners who are imprisoned, but that we are all ‘doing time’ because we allow ourselves to be so restricted by hang-ups, blocks and tensions. The message is that through meditation and yoga we can all learn to become free.

The birth of the Prison Phoenix Trust

Not long after meeting Bo, Ann changed her charity’s name to the Prison Phoenix Trust (PPT), in part because she was concerned that the word ‘ashram’ might prove an obstacle for the prison service. She was keen to step things up a notch from written correspondence and start setting up meditation and yoga workshops in prisons themselves. However, even with the new name, prison governors and officers were wary of the charity’s efforts. The Trust tried to get into prisons through the Chaplaincy; however, here too there was a surprising amount of resistance.

It’s worth remembering that in the late 1980s, prison chaplains were almost all Anglican. At that time the Anglican Church was still suspicious of practices such as meditation, which when compared with contemplation or silent prayer seemed ‘unChristian’. Many ministers thought that meditation centred on a spirituality that might be Hindu, Buddhist or even evil (stemming from the notion that to silence the mind also means making it available for the devil).

A 2011 article in the Daily Telegraph highlighted an extreme example of Christian opposition to yoga and meditation, reporting how a Catholic priest named Father Gabriele Amroth, appointed the Vatican’s chief exorcist in 1986, had publicly denounced yoga at a film festival where he had been invited to introduce The Rite (a film about exorcism, starring Anthony Hopkins): ‘Practising yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter,’ the priest is reported as stating, to an audience of bemused film fans?

Of course, not all devout Christians share such concerns that Christianity and Eastern spiritual practices are incompatible. Offering me another biscuit Tigger revealed the next chapter of her sister’s tale, wherein Ann would join forces with ‘a very forceful and very amazing character’.


‘Spirituality is what you do with those fires that burn within you.’ Sister Elaine

Thousands of miles away from Oxford and Ann’s fledgling charity lived a Catholic nun. As well as being a nun, Sister Elaine was a Zen master. She grew up in Canada, where in her youth she became a professional classical musician for the Calgary Symphony Orchestra. At the age of thirty, however, she realized her true calling and joined the convent of Our Lady’s Missionaries in Toronto. In 1961, after several years at the convent, she was sent to Japan for her first assignment as a Catholic missionary. Her mission was to set up a Conservatory and Cultural Centre in Osaka, where she would teach English and music to Japanese people, as well as to baptise as many of them as possible.

In order to get to know the Japanese people better, she began to practise Zen Buddhism. She started zazen (sitting meditation) and koan study, under the guidance of Yamada Koun Roshi, a well-known Zen master from the Japanese Sanbo Kyodan order. Perhaps surprisingly, it did not matter to him that Sister Elaine was a Catholic nun with no intention of becoming a Buddhist. Yamada Koun Roshi did not draw a division between different people or religions, and similarly neither does Sister Elaine, who maintains, ‘There is no separation. We make separation?

Devoted to her new discipline, Sister Elaine went on to spend some time living with Buddhist nuns in Kyoto, where the daily regime involved ten hours a day of sitting in silence.

To call the koan study lengthy would be an understatement; it took her nearly two decades of studying with her Zen teacher before she was made a roshi. This title, which translates literally as ‘old teacher’, marks the top echelon of Zen teachers. There are an estimated only 100 roshis worldwide. Very few of them are Westerners, but in 1980 Sister Elaine finally became one of them, an accredited Zen teacher of the Sanbo Kyodan order. Her achievement made her the first Canadian, and certainly the first Catholic nun, to be recognized as one of the world’s highest-ranking teachers of Zen.

In 1976, after 15 years in Japan, Our Lady’s Missionaries back in Toronto transferred Sister Elaine to the Philippines. This was during the worst years of the Marcos regime, and Sister Elaine was to be involved with animal husbandry. However, she did more than merely raise livestock. Once in the Philippines she set up a zendo (Zen meditation centre), for the Catholic Church in Manila. Word spread about her work and a leading dissident, Horacio ‘Boy’ Morales, who had headed the New People’s Army against the Marcos dictatorship, came to hear of her. Held as a political prisoner at the Bago Bantay detention centre, Morales asked Sister Elaine to come to prison to teach meditation to him and a group of fellow prisoners, each of whom had, like him, been tortured. His hope was that the practice could help them to cope with the stress of imprisonment and find inner peace.

Despite the hostility of the authorities and worrying reports of other prison visitors ‘vanishing’, Sister Elaine spent four-and-a-half years teaching meditation to those prisoners every week. During that time she witnessed a remarkable change: the prisoners transformed from being angry, tense men, trembling from torture, to being calm. This convinced her both of the therapeutic power of silent meditation and of the potential for prisoners to develop spiritually while incarcerated.

Sister Elaine’s life makes for quite an unusual story, and her work in the Philippines caught the attention of the media and subsequently of Ann Wetherall. Leaning forward in her seat, Ann’s sister, Tigger, told me of the unexpected events that would subsequently unfold.

Ann’s legacy

In 1992, four years after founding the Prison Phoenix Trust, Ann discovered she had terminal cancer. Coming to terms with this news, Ann felt fearful for the prisoners she was involved with; what would happen to her charity after she was gone? She had heard of Sister Elaine and wrote to her, asking if she would consider taking over as director after she died. Sister Elaine flew over from the Philippines to spend a week with Arm to try to come to a decision. Shortly after returning home, she phoned Ann to accept her offer, telling her ‘don’t die until I get there’.

Sadly, Ann passed away while Sister Elaine was on her way back to England. Over the six years Sister Elaine was director, the idea that yoga and meditation are beneficial for prisoners became increasingly accepted among prison governors and officers. They might not have been as interested in the potential spiritual development of prisoners, but many acknowledged the range of other, more down-to-earth benefits: prisoners doing yoga and meditation were reportedly calmer, slept better and felt less stressed and so were easier to work with.

While, like Ann, Sister Elaine believed that meditation was the key to stilling the mind, incorporating yoga into the classes was important: when the body can be still, the mind can be still.

Aged 75, Sister Elaine left the Trust not to retire, but to return to her native Canada to found a similar organization called Freeing the Human Spirit, based in Toronto.

In the years since Sister Elaine’s departure, the Prison Phoenix Trust (PPT) has continued to develop its work, with classes now running in the majority of UK prisons. Reflecting on the Trust’s progress, Sandy Chubb, the PPT’s subsequent director, remarked to me with a smile, ‘Yes, gone are the days when yoga teachers were branded yoghurt pots.’

Hearing the stories about Ann and Sister Elaine, so vividly recounted to me by Tigger and others, including the Trust’s current director Sam Settle, it made sense to me that yoga and meditation could lead to personal change in prisoners. Certainly the PPT had a whole lot of anecdotal evidence attesting to its benefits. Over the course of 25 years, PPT letter-writers have received more than 10,000 replies from prisoners reporting the positive effects of these techniques. The benefits range from increased self-esteem, better sleep and reduced dependence on drugs, medication or cigarettes, to improved emotional management and reduced stress.

Anecdote or evidence

I was invited to come and have a look through the filing cabinets that contained these letters, the amount of correspondence astounded me. Yet despite all those positive responses, as a psychologist I couldn’t help but be a little sceptical, testimonials are all very well, but what was the empirical evidence that yoga and meditation can help incarcerated criminals change for the better? Searching scientific databases I discovered there was very little rigorous research out there into the measurable psychological effects of these practices on prison populations.

The majority of studies that did exist focused specifically on meditation with some interesting results. Research into the effects of Transcendental Meditation on criminals had been taking place since the 1970s. For example, a study by US researchers Abrams and Siegel found that those prisoners who received a 14-week course of TM training showed a significant reduction in anxiety, neuroticism, hostility and insomnia compared with the control group. This would seemingly constitute early evidence for the rehabilitative effects of TM. However, the study was criticized on the grounds that it had inadequate controls, limiting the conclusions we can draw from the findings and calling into question the authors’ somewhat liberal interpretation of their statistical results.

More recent studies using other meditation techniques also yielded some promising evidence. In these studies, researchers concluded that meditation led to such positive results as improved psychosocial functioning”, a reduction in substance abuse, and decreased recidivism rates?

However, while all that sounds really promising, most of this research also had serious shortcomings. For example, sample sizes were usually very small, there was not a control group, or the research drew evidence only from questionnaire measures.

I realized that if we were to draw any realistic conclusions about whether or not yoga and meditation are effective in bringing about measureable psychological changes in incarcerated criminals, we needed better research evidence. And so the seeds were sown for our Oxford Study, the journey and findings of which we reveal in Chapter 8. While this was in the planning, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding about the PPT’s rationale for encouraging prisoners to practise yoga and meditation, and their conceptualizations of personal change.


While the PPT does believe that yoga and meditation can lead to beneficial psychological effects in prisoners, what they’re really interested in is the possibility of a radical ‘self-change’. This involves a significant shift in perspective. Sandy Chubb told me that in her experience (of teaching yoga in prisons), prisoners are lovely to work with. This didn’t surprise me all that much we all tend to be co-operative when we’re getting to do something we want to do.

What did surprise me was the comment that followed: Sandy told me that ‘prisoners are all perfect’.

Perfect is certainly not the adjective most of us would choose to describe murderers, rapists and paedophiles; for many it’s perhaps even the antonym of the word they would use. I needed Sandy to clarify. ‘What’s perfect about them?’ I asked.

The answer appears to lie in Sandy’s spiritual worldview. Like many others who believe in a universal spirituality, Sandy recognizes the divine nature of each of us including criminals and is convinced of the interconnectedness of all things. She smiles serenely when she tells me what to her is a simple, obvious truth: ‘We are a whole creation that works dynamically.’

The concept of unity or non-duality is a central premise in some Eastern spiritual belief systems, and one that effectively eliminates the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that most of us have in relation to convicted criminals. Early into my interview with Sam Settle, the current director of the PPT and a former Buddhist monk, I encountered the same belief: ‘lf prisoners realized that we are all connected,’ Sam told me, ‘then they would not commit crimes.’

So while reducing re-offending is not an asserted aim of the PPT, it is considered likely to occur as a side-effect of spiritual growth. The hypothesis is that it is criminals’ mistaken idea of separateness that allows them to act in a harmful way towards others. From Sandy and Sam’s perspective, there is no ‘other’, and there are no ‘bad’ people; we are all part of the same perfect whole and meditation and yoga can help people to realize this.

Later in the book I will discuss how many people share this perspective, people who believe that not just individual but worldwide change is possible, if only there are enough people meditating.


While we could dismiss some of these ideas about the transformative potential of meditation and yoga for prisoners as utopian, Romantic, or LaLa-Land spirituality, we can also consider them in a purely secular sense, in terms of psychological and behavioural changes.

But, even if we cast aside, for now, the spiritual dimension, the notion that yoga and meditation can produce meaningful change in prisoners might still be considered somewhat ‘out there’. The very idea of the possibility of personal change is itself a loaded topic, especially in the context of prisons. Young repeat offenders are often labelled hopeless cases, written off by the time they have barely left their teens, undermining the ethos of rehabilitation that should be central to the prison system. However, for many offenders there are myriad factors that may obstruct attempts to rehabilitate not only in terms of overcoming backgrounds of adversity, but also in terms of their perceived (lack of) prospects for the future.

The institution of home

For many who have lived in prisons from an early age, the prospect of going outside is daunting.

I once worked with a prisoner, ‘John’, who was serving his tenth prison sentence at the age of only 21 years old. He attended every session of the offending behaviour program I was facilitating, only to in the final session suddenly become aggressive and disruptive to the point where he had to be removed from the group. Talking to him afterwards, trying to understand why he had sabotaged something that could have helped him towards securing an earlier release date, he admitted he was scared of being released. ‘There is nothing for me outside,’ he said, visibly upset.

When John was a young child, one of his parents murdered the other; he went on to spend the rest of his childhood in numerous short-term foster care placements. Angry and distrusting of people, he would repeatedly run away from them. He committed his first offence aged ten and received his first custodial sentence aged 15. The frequency of his impulsive crimes meant that he had spent the majority of the past six years behind bars. There were no family or friends waiting for him on the outside. The uncertainty of how to build a meaningful life, alone, in the ‘real world’ was overwhelming. Prison was all he felt he knew.


All staff members working in prisons from officers, to psychologists, to governors are acutely aware that changing prisoners can be extraordinarily difficult but it’s not impossible. In my own work with young male offenders, I lost count of the number of times I heard ‘he’ll never change’ from prison officers, who generally would have little idea of that individual’s backstory and the factors that contributed to his offending behaviour. Often the prisoners in question were boys still in their teens, some of them coming from such difficult backgrounds that it would have been a miracle if they hadn’t ended up in prison.

The desire to reform is often unsupported, sometimes owing to budget restrictions, but other times owing to a lack of belief. Changing is hard. And it’s even harder without a helping hand.

The support of others, whether friend, therapist or institution can be fundamental in whether or not we succeed in bringing about a desired change. Feeling that others believe in us can significantly boost our sense of self-efficacy. Feeling that others don’t believe in us at all undermines our self-belief so that we may start to feel a dramatic waning of our own confidence and motivation to try to change.

Changing attitudes

It was a Thursday afternoon and I was on my lunch break, in between research interviews at a West Midlands prison. I was accompanied by an officer in his late fifties, who had been assigned to facilitate the interviews; escorting prisoners from the wings to the interview room. As our break drew to a close, the officer suddenly deviated from his impromptu monologue on the joys of pigeon fancying, my knowledge of which had substantially increased over the hour, to ask whether I really thought that yoga and meditation would do anything at all for prisoners.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘we think it might. There’s evidence that it works outside of prisons to reduce stress and increase positive emotions. So it may help prisoners to manage their emotions better and improve their self control, which might also reduce their aggression.’

‘Ha!’ said the officer. ‘I doubt it.’

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘I don’t think any of these can change,’ he told me. ‘I’m a firm believer that leopards never change their spots.’

It wasn’t just yoga and meditation the officer was dismissing as futile. He went on to say that he thought nothing could be done to change prisoners for the better; each and every one of them was a hopeless cause. ‘No matter what,’ he told me, ‘they will always revert back to what they are. It’s like a man who used to be a philanderer; he could get married to a woman and be faithful for, let’s say, ten years, but in the end, he’ll always cheat again.’

My attempts to debate failed miserably. When I maintained that I did think we could rehabilitate prisoners, he delivered his closing argument: ‘Well I’m older than you and I’ve met quite a lot of different people, so I think I know.’

Fortunately, this old-style officer is not representative of the majority of prison staff I have encountered. Over the last twenty years, a number of accredited offending behaviour programs (psychological group interventions that aim to reduce re-offending) have been developed that have been shown to be effective in bringing about improvements in prisoner behaviour, such as reducing aggression?

Despite this positive progress, with the reduction-rate for recidivism being generally around 10 per cent for program-completers, there is still clearly room for new and additional approaches particularly as many prisoners are reluctant or unable to engage with psychological treatment at all.

Arriving at a recent meeting at HMP Shrewsbury, l was escorted by a female officer who gave me a quick overview of the prison. She told me that the population was mostly sex offenders and that it was the most overcrowded prison in the country, adding, ‘We’re full of bed blockers.’

‘Bed blockers?’ I asked.

She explained that these are prisoners who had been through the sex offenders treatment program, but for one reason or another hadn’t been moved on to a different prison. The result was that they were taking up spaces that other, as yet untreated, offenders could use.

However, the main problem at Shrewsbury was not the ‘bed blockers’, who had accepted their offences and received treatment, but the many sex offenders who were in denial, and so could not be treated. Owing to the nature of their offences, such prisoners may be limited in what activities they can undertake during their sentences. Typically, for their own protection, sex offenders are segregated from ‘mainstream’ prisoners and even with good behaviour are not deemed suitable for outside work.

HMP Shrewsbury was one of the prisons that participated in our own research study. This prison had by far the biggest number of prisoners keen to do yoga and meditation, many more than we could actually manage to interview during the time we had allocated there.

As I interviewed prisoner after prisoner, all expressing a desire to do the yoga classes, it seemed to me that it could be possible that these techniques if effective could represent an alternative way to encourage positive personal change in prisoners whom the system might otherwise not be able to reach. Why? Because practising meditation and yoga doesn’t involve asking probing questions about offences of which prisoners may be deeply ashamed, feel in denial of, or simply not yet ready to address.

Sandy confirmed the particular utility of yoga and meditation for this demographic: ‘Not only is silence therapeutic and inclusive, it’s also safe for people with addiction and sex-offending histories.’ On the surface yoga is a physical activity, with desirable physiological benefits; it’s unthreatening, non-blaming and doesn’t require the admission of guilt. In this way it is possible that prisoners who would otherwise avoid explicit attempts to ‘change’ their behaviour, may nevertheless engage with a technique that could anyway bring about deep, personal transformation.


The concept of a prison cell as an ashram is an idea that captures the imagination, and the paradox of finding spiritual freedom through the loss of physical freedom is intriguing. Might there actually be truth in this unusual idea, can daily yogic sun salutations and deep breathing really make convicted rapists and murderers less violent and impulsive?

While it’s unlikely that yoga and meditation could replace traditional rehabilitative approaches, it seems possible that they may have a unique ability to reach prisoners on a different level: to make them feel more at peace, and more valued and connected. Bo Lozoff summarizes the aim of organizations that teach contemplative techniques to prisoners worldwide when he says that we should ‘allow for transformation, not merely rehabilitation’.

In other words the change that charities such as his and the PPT seek to encourage goes far beyond the cessation of offending behaviour; we are talking about a radical change in worldview. The PPT’s current director Sam Settle describes this transformation as ‘the forgetting of one’s self as one lives the forgetting of me’. In essence moving from focusing on oneself as a separate individual to seeing oneself as part of a larger whole.

Whether or not we share these ideas about the possibility of the transformation of convicted criminals from sinner to saint, from ‘monster’ to Buddha on a theoretical and anecdotal level, there does seem to be reason to think that yoga and meditation can bring about positive personal change in prisoners.

In Chaoter 8 we reveal how we put that theory to the test, but first let’s take a look at what science can tell us about the potential of Eastern techniques for bringing about meaningful change not just for prisoners, but for any of us.



‘Change is an odd process, almost contradictory: you want it, but don’t want it,’ said my clinical supervisor, playing with his curled beard and looking at me. What was he talking about? I had started my training in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) eight weeks earlier and was discussing my first client, ‘Mary’, a woman in her thirties, whose husband had died while on a family holiday. He had killed himself jumping off a cliff, right in front of his wife and their young child. Six months after the incident, Mary found herself depressed and sleepless.

‘I felt shock and disbelief,’ she told me, remembering. ‘I felt like I had been disembowelled and bricks sewn inside. I had to register his death the next day and felt terrible anger at having to describe myself as a widow, 24 hours after I had been a wife. Bureaucracy shouldn’t require that, you know?’ I nodded but felt tense, eager to show empathy. For the past eight weeks, l’d spent most . . .



The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

by Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm

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Dr Miguel Farias writes about the psychology of belief and spiritual practices, including meditation. He was a lecturer at the University of Oxford and is now the leader of the Brain, Belief and Behaviour group at Coventry University.

Dr Catherine Wikholm is a Clinical Psychologist registered with the Health Care and Professions Council (HCPC) and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society (BPS). She completed her undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University, before embarking on her psychology training and gaining a Postgraduate Diploma in Psychology, Masters in Forensic Psychology and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Catherine was previously employed by HM Prison Service where she worked with young offenders. She went on to work alongside Dr Miguel Farias at the Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University, on a randomised controlled trial that looked at the psychological effects of yoga and meditation in prisoners. The findings of this research study sparked the idea for ‘The Buddha Pill’, which she co-wrote while completing her doctorate. Catherine currently works in a NHS child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) in London, UK.

The Self Acceptance Project. How to Be Kind & Compassionate Toward Yourself in Any Situation – Tami Simon.

It’s hard to be kind to yourself. At least that is my experience, especially when difficult things happen.

Early on in my life, I discovered that there was a part of me that turned against myself when something unfortunate happened that l perceived to be my fault, perhaps a misstep or something that felt like a failure. The first time this became painfully obvious was when I was twenty-two years old and had just launched Sounds True.

It’s a long story, but the gist of it is that I decided it would be a terrific idea to produce and host a Soviet-American citizen’s summit for public radio as an extension of Sounds True’s conference-recording service. The broadcast was a chance for public radio listeners to hear Russian citizens in dialogue with Americans to illustrate how everyday people can become ambassadors of peace and goodwill. The broadcast itself was well done, and the content flowed seamlessly. There was only one problem, and it was a big problem: the translation feed did not come through to the broadcast audience. This meant when participants spoke in Russian (which was about twenty-five minutes of the hour-long production), listeners did not hear any English translation; they heard only the original Russian language. In other words, the live broadcast to tens of thousands of people was largely incomprehensible.

As producer and host, I was devastated and humiliated. People tried to console me: “It is good for people to hear a language that is unfamiliar. You provided a public service.” But inside, I felt like I wanted to die. Yes, end my life right there on the spot. I couldn’t take a full breath. I wanted to crawl under a rock and never come out. Instead, I crawled into my hotel bed (if there had been room under the bed, I would have crawled there), and l squeezed myself into a tight ball for about twentyfour hours. There was no comfort there, only a terrible voice inside that said things like “You should kill yourself now.” I made a decision at that time to never produce and host a live broadcast event again. The potential pain of that type of failure was too much for me to bear. I only wanted to work on projects that I could polish and make perfect (“perfect” being the operative word). It was just too painful to do something that carried with it the risk of public humiliation.

Years later, this event from my young life as a producer and host receded into the background, and with it, the pain. However, I was left with two important discoveries: first, that I was determined to design my life to avoid such “failures” at all cost, and second, that I had a terribly mean voice inside that responded to difficult situations by punishing me and declaring that it would be useless for me to continue living. To say this voice was self-aggressive was an understatement. This voice spoke to me in a way that I could never imagine speaking to another person, yet it lived in me and had the potential to turn on me if things didn’t go well.

As the years passed, I started to recognize this inner voice as a type of sub-personality (some people call it “the inner critic” or “the judge”) that seemed to have its own life. it would become active and vocal when something seemingly went wrong. This critical voice would even tear me to shreds over small and insignificant things, like cooking a meal for friends and putting too much salt in the food and then I would have a sleepless night listening to it berate me. “Really?” I thought, “Over something like this? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

With time, I started to take this voice less and less seriously, it was so out of step with the actual magnitude of situations. Through a lot of inner work, both in one-on-one therapy and on the meditation cushion, the voice gradually began to lose its power. I could still hear it, but it was no longer in charge of my state of being. Other capacities came on board, including the capacity to be kind to myself and offer myself comfort. I even became curious about this voice’s origin and purpose: What function might it be serving in the total ecology of my psyche? What were the emotions, and the accompanying physical sensations, that lay waiting for me underneath the voice? Could I turn toward those emotions and sensations with openness and curiosity?

I also became intensely curious about other people’s experiences with self-criticism and selfjudgment. How was it that some people made mistakes and viewed the entire experience as a learning opportunity? How could I become more like those types of people?

In parallel to my own growing curiosity about self-acceptance, I began working with people as a meditation instructor. In private meetings, people shared their innermost struggles with me. What often impacted me the most was how hard people were on themselves, how negative self-talk was more the norm than the exception. Very often, people had an overlay of self-judgment when they were in the midst of a difficult experience. Again and again, I heard people say, “I am suffering in this way, and I feel like I am a terrible person because I am suffering in this way.”

From those conversations, I saw that people judged themselves for so many different kinds of things for being too fat or too thin, for being too verbal or not verbal enough, for being closedhearted or too open and porous. People judged themselves about their past if only this or that had or hadn’t happened. People judged their sexual orientation or lack of a sexual orientation. People judged themselves for being too old, too this or too that, for not being “enough” of something or other. And people endlessly compared themselves to other people and mythic ideals. People had internalized voices of judgment about everything that they were and that they weren’t.

Working with meditation students, I also saw how self-judgment kept people from taking risks. It often felt like a lid that people used to keep themselves safe, small, contained, and underpotentiated. And this was painful to see how sensitive, good-hearted human beings often focus on what they supposedly lack instead of their beauty, strength, possibility, and power to create.

I started to see “unconditional selfacceptance”, being kind to ourselves no matter what is happening in our lives, as an immensely powerful life skill that most of us have not been taught.

I started to see that being kind to ourselves is actually a human capacity that changes everything. It changes how we treat ourselves day to day, how we take risks, how we love, how we create, and how we make space for what seems “unacceptable” in others.

Over time, I came to see being kind to ourselves as quite an advanced practice. I call it an “advanced practice” because I found myself in conversation with people who had been on a path of personal growth for decades, people who had been meditating or in therapy for years who still found it quite challenging to treat themselves with kindness when confronted with certain situations. And I wanted to know more about what makes self-acceptance so difficult for so many of us and, more importantly, how we can develop this capacity widely and broadly, individually and collectively, as a way to release waves and waves of kindness.

The Self-Acceptance Project was born out of this inquiry. Originally created for online broadcast hey, I started doing live broadcasts again! The Self-Acceptance Project originated as a series of interviews with psychologists, dharma teachers, neurobiologists, writers, and educators on the essential keys to being kind and compassionate toward ourselves, especially on the spot in difficult situations. The book you are reading now is derived from this original series of interviews.

The very good news that The Self-Acceptance Project delivers is that there is a lot to learn about self-acceptance that can be intensely and immediately helpful: accepting the part of ourselves that is not self-accepting, understanding how our brains are wired to look for what is wrong (known as the negativity bias), learning to immediately respond and talk to ourselves in selfloving ways when in the midst of a challenge, and more. The Self-Acceptance Project also helps us realize that feeling inadequate at times is not something unique to us; it is a feeling that many, many of us share.

When the broadcast of the original interview series was complete, I received hundreds of letters from people who listened and found the interviews extraordinarily helpful. What I learned from these letters is that people were immensely grateful that some of their favorite authors and teachers were not just offering their advice and techniques for cultivating self-acceptance, they were sharing their own struggles and journeys that had unfolded in their lives to help them develop self-acceptance first hand. The series was tremendously normalizing for listeners, and I hope this book will have the same impact on you. When we learn how our difficulties are shared, even by the people we admire (and sometimes “pedestalize”), we embrace our humanness. We see that our struggles are shared human struggles, part of the human condition. We have the opportunity to relax with being human.

I am convinced that the more accepting we are of ourselves, the more accepting we will be of other people. If there are parts of ourselves that we disown, push away, and deem unacceptable, then we will be unwilling and unable to make room to receive and embrace those aspects of other people.

Ultimately, the work of The SelfAcceptance Project is not just about you and me learning to work with ourselves in a loving and kind way. It is about learning how to relate to, and be with, anyone and I mean anyone in a loving and kind way. When we are able to be with our own difficulties and intense experiences that are seemingly unwanted, then we can be with other people’s difficulties and their seemingly unwanted experiences.

The Self-Acceptance Project is about having the bravery to open our hearts to ourselves and to everyone and everything.

When we develop a strong sense of selfacceptance, we become capable of such bravery. We may still hear critical inner voices, but they no longer hold power over us. We move forward anyway. We develop the courage to take risks and to stand in our truth because we become more confident that we can handle it if our risk-taking leads to disappointment or disapproval. We so thoroughly befriend ourselves that we can risk receiving criticism, looking like a failure, or suffering loss.

Brave people create, brave people speak up, brave people call bullshit “bullshit,” brave people bring their hearts forward and put their hearts on the line, brave people love outrageously.

May The Self-Acceptance Project help you become such a brave person!


Tara Brach

Building a true sense of self-trust comes from making contact with the deeper parts of our being, such as the truth of our loving, even when we sometimes act in ways we don’t like.

Radical Self-Acceptance

Many years ago, I began to focus on the urgent need for self-acceptance. In fact, I called it radical self-acceptance, because the notion of holding oneself with love and compassion was still so foreign.

It had become clear to me that a key part of my emotional suffering was a sense of feeling “not enough,” which, at times, escalated into full-blown selfaversion.

As I witnessed similar patterns in my students and clients, I began to realize that the absence of self-acceptance is one of the most pervasive expressions of suffering in our society. We can spend huge swaths of our life living in what I call the “trance of unworthiness,” trapped in a chronic sense of falling short.

Though we’re rarely conscious of it, we continually evaluate ourselves. So often, we perceive a gap between the person we believe we should be and our actual moment-to-moment experience.

This gap makes us feel as if we’re always, in some way, not okay. As if we’re inherently deficient. A palliative caregiver who has worked with thousands of dying people once wrote that the deepest regret expressed by her patients is that they hadn’t been true to themselves. They’d lived according to the expectations of others, according to the should, but not aligned with their own hearts.

That speaks volumes. We can move through our days so out of touch with ourselves that, at the end, we feel sorrow for not having expressed our own aliveness, creativity, and love.

So much of the time we’re simply unaware of just how pervasive that sense of something’s wrong with me is. Like an undetected toxin, it can infect every aspect of our lives. For example, in relationships, we may wear ourselves out trying to make others perceive us in a certain way smart, beautiful, spiritual, powerful, whatever our personal ideal happens to be. We want them to approve of us, love us. Yet, it’s very hard to be intimate when, at some deep level, we feel flawed or deficient. It’s hard to be spontaneous or creative or take risks or even relax in the moment if we think that we’re falling short.

Negativity Bias

From an evolutionary perspective, a sense of vulnerability is natural. Fearing that something’s wrong or about to go wrong is part of the survival instinct that keeps us safe, a good thing when we’re being chased by a grizzly bear! Although this sense of vulnerability of being threatened is innately human, all too often we turn it in on ourselves. Our self-consciousness makes it personal. We move quickly from “Something is wrong or bad,” to “I’m the one who’s wrong or bad.” This is the nature of our unconscious, selfreflexive awareness; we automatically tend to identify with what’s deficient. in psychological parlance, this scanning for and fixating on what is wrong is described as “negativity bias.”

For most of us, our feelings of deficiency were underscored by messages we received in childhood. We were told how to behave and what kinds of looks, personality, and achievements would lead to success, approval, and love. Rarely do any of us grow up feeling truly loveable and worthy just as we are.

Our contemporary culture further exacerbates our feelings of inadequacy. There are few natural ways of belonging that help to reassure us about our basic goodness, few opportunities to connect to something larger than ourselves.

Ours is a fearbased society that over-consumes, is highly competitive, and sets standards valuing particular types of intelligence, body types, and achievements.

Because the standards are set by the dominant culture, the message of inferiority is especially painful for people of color and others who are continually faced with being considered “less than” due to appearance, religion, sexual or gender orientation, or socio-economic status.

When we believe that something is inherently wrong with us, we expect to be rejected, abandoned, and separated from others. In reaction, the more primitive parts of our brain devise strategies to defend or promote ourselves. We take on chronic self-improvement projects. We exaggerate, lie, or pretend to be something we’re not in order to cover our feelings of unworthiness. We judge and behave aggressively toward others. We turn on ourselves.

Although it’s natural to try to protect ourselves with such strategies, the more evolved parts of our brain offer another option: the capacity to tend and befriend. Despite our conditioning, we each have the potential for mindful presence and unconditional love. Once we see the trance of unworthiness, how we’re suffering because we’re at war with ourself, we can commit to embracing the totality of our inner experience. This commitment, along with a purposeful training in mindfulness and compassion, can transform our relationship with all of life.

It’s helpful to understand that when we’re possessed by fearful reactivity, we can be hijacked by our primitive brain and disconnected from the neuro-circuitry that correlates with mindfulness and compassion. We become cut off from the very parts of ourselves that allow us to trust ourselves, to be more happy and free. The critical inquiry is what enables us to reconnect to regain access to our most evolved, cherished human qualities.

The gateway is the direct experience of the suffering of fear and shame that have been driving us. Not long ago, one of my students revealed that she felt as if she could never be genuinely intimate with another person because she was afraid that if anyone really knew her, they’d reject her outright. This woman had spent her whole life believing, “I’ll be rejected if somebody sees who I am.” It wasn’t until she acknowledged her pain and viewed it as a wake-up call that she could begin to stop the war against herself.

Once we recognize our suffering, the first step toward healing is learning to pause. We might think, “I’m unworthy of my partner’s love because I’m a selfish person.” Or, “I’m unworthy because I’m not a fun or spontaneous person.” Or perhaps, “I don’t deserve love because I always let people down.”

We might experience feelings of shame or fear or hopelessness. Whatever our experience, learning to pause when we’re caught in our suffering is the critical first step.

As Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously said: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” When we pause, we can respond to the prison of our beliefs and feelings in a healing way.

The second step toward healing is to deepen attention. It’s important to ask, “Beneath all of my negative thoughts, what’s going on in my body, in my heart, right now?” When we begin to bring awareness to the underlying pain, I sometimes call that the sense of “ouch.” You might even ask how long it’s been going on and realize: “Wow. I’ve been feeling not enough for as long as I can remember.” If that happens, try placing your hand on your heart as a sign of your intention to be kind toward yourself and your suffering. You might even tell yourself, “I want to be able to be gentle with this place inside me that feels so bad.”

TAMI SIMON founded Sounds True in 1985 as a multimedia publishing house with a mission to disseminate spiritual wisdom. She hosts a popular weekly podcast called Insights at the Edge, where she has interviewed many of today’s leading teachers.


The Self Acceptance Project



The Self Acceptance Project. How to Be Kind and Compassionate Toward Yourself in Any Situation

by Tami Simon.

get it at

OUR SUPEREGO. Soul without Shame. A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within – Byron Brown.

We all want to be free and happy. Many of us believe that we can attain these qualities through external success, and so we tend to see our obstacles as out there in the world, in people and situations. When we recognize that the promise of fulfillment and what stands in its way are both within us, we begin the inner journey.

It is a journey into our own consciousness and experience, a path of discovery and realization of the inner riches of human potentiality. Even though it is a thrilling adventure, the inner journey, as with any real adventure, is not an easy one, for it is full of challenges and difficulties, obstacles and barriers.

The inner obstacles have been known and discussed for thousands of years by many of the wisdom teachings and teachers. However, some of these primary obstacles could not be understood in a precise and detailed manner until the development of modern depth psychology. Now with this understanding the inner journey is assisted in ways not possible in previous times. One of these obstacles to inner work and spiritual realization is the painful and difficult one of the inner critic, the coercive agency within us that criticizes, judges, compares, condemns, blames, and attacks us and others mercilessly and constantly.

Depth psychology has demonstrated that we always develop a part of our selves to take the role of inner conscience, traditionally referred to as the superego. But this ego structure of conscience is built mostly through identification with the judging, critical, blaming, and punishing attitudes in the environment we grow up in. It becomes a harsh judge and a cruel source of punishment, instead of being the light of true conscience. It tends to develop into a rigid part of our mind that embodies inflexible rules and commandments, impermeable to understanding and deaf to reality.

The superego becomes one of the main sources of inner suffering, through low self-esteem, guilt, shame, devaluation, and self-recrimination.

It acts whenever it recognizes in our experience of ourselves, or in the perception of others, something of which it does not approve. Besides the pervasive suffering it causes in our experience, the rigidity and judgment of the inner critic make it difficult for us to go deeply into ourselves. This is because we are attacked by it every time we uncover something of which it disapproves. So in the inner journey, we either unnecessarily suffer, or to avoid this suffering we veer away from parts of our own experience. In both cases, our inner work becomes difficult and limited, and frequently comes to a halt.

Because of the greater understanding of the genesis and structure of the inner critic available in modern depth psychology, we can now deal with it more effectively than ever before. We can recognize it for what it is, address it in ways that liberate us from its cruel inner attacks, and henceforth journey inwards with greater freedom and more enjoyment of the thrill of discovery.

This book is unique in providing the reader with the understanding and methodology to do just that.

In very clear and available language, it details how to recognize the inner critic and how to effectively deal with it. Byron Brown’s presentation is useful for any individual who wishes to be free from the inner suffering and coercion of this ancient foe of our humanity, but it is specifically directed to those individuals interested and engaged in the inner journey toward realization and enlightenment.

Byron has been a student of mine for many years, and a teacher with considerable experience in the Diamond Approach to the inner journey. He has expressed his own understanding of how to work with the judge, culled from many years of his own inner work, and his work with students and groups, in a way that reveals its roots in the actual essential states of inner realization. As a result, this book is not only a study of the inner critic and how to deal with it, but a clear presentation of how this work can be done in a way that actually helps reveal our true and spiritual nature. In other words, it demonstrates how the work on the inner critic can become a path toward realizing true conscience, the essential conscience of which the inner critic is merely a limited imitation.

Byron has also succeeded in demonstrating how the work with the inner critic and the arising of inner spiritual states are related, and how they contribute to and support each other. His extensive understanding of the subject matter derives not only from his own inner work and work with students in the Ridhwan School, but also from the many classes he developed and taught, devoted specifically to working with the inner critic.

I believe the reader will find this book a unique opportunity to deal with an age-old problem, with intelligence and efficiency. The application of its knowledge will contribute significantly to one’s inner development.

A. H. Almaas


During the many years l have been teaching people how to work with self-criticism, I have witnessed a great deal of suffering resulting directly from the negative ways people treat themselves. I have also seen their surprise and concern as they come to recognize how serious this situation is. Perhaps most important, I see their hunger for a sense of personal integrity based on compassion and understanding rather than a belief in deficiency based on self-blame.

There is nothing more poignant and heartwrenching than to witness a friend treat himself badly out of a well-intentioned desire to do the best thing. It is painful to see his self-punishment, to recognize its inappropriateness, and to know you are helpless to stop it. You are helpless because the friend sees his actions as the logical and necessary outcome of who he is. Even when he recognizes the pain and struggle caused by the self-blame, he is not necessarily any closer to stopping it from happening.

You might see that he believes he is responsible for something he is not and want him to recognize that. You may try to talk to this friend about it or give him books to read. But these things will have little lasting impact on his internal world unless they awaken his hunger to know himself beyond his hopes and fears.

To challenge your own patterns of self-judgment is an equally difficult task. Simply to recognize how harsh and intolerant you can be toward yourself is uncomfortable enough. But to expose and explore this part of yourself also means questioning basic assumptions about your upbringing and the society in which you live. This may mean setting personal priorities counter to those held by friends, family, and colleagues, something that is hard to do alone.

For this reason, you can benefit greatly from doing inner critic work with like-minded souls in workshops or ongoing groups. You see that you are not alone in your patterns of self-blame, and you receive external support for challenging these patterns. Working with others can counteract the isolation that you fear will come as you begin questioning the standards of those around you as well as your own expectations.

For those who do not have the opportunity to be in a group that supports this focus, working with the inner critic can be a lonely and often discouraging process. A book can give some background, suggest ways of working, and offer some guidelines, but it cannot replace the personal contact of other people or the feedback of a teacher or therapist.

This book presents a perspective that frees you from the pervasive orientation of self-improvement, an approach that often reinforces rather than liberates you from the suffering of self-blame. I hope it will offer support for your own growth by validating the importance of challenging self-judgment on the path to selfunderstanding.

Byron Brown


This book introduces you to the lifelong process of disengaging from self-judgment and, through and beyond that work, to knowing yourself as a living soul. Specifically, it will lead you on an experiential process of unraveling the judgment in your inner life. The abundant information here is not arranged as a theoretical treatise but as an interactive process and a practical guide to help free you from self-attack. Throughout the book, personal examples from individuals and from my work with students are included to illustrate the principles presented, as well as exercises and practices to encourage discovery of your own understanding of the material. The knowledge offered will have little impact unless you actively explore its relevance to your own experience.

Working with the judge and discovering the truth is a journey of liberation. As you come to recognize that you are in a prison guarded by the judge, you appreciate the soul’s powerful longing for freedom.

Every external form of bondage in human history reflects the psychic confinement of the soul resulting from ignorance and unquestioned beliefs. You are a slave to your own ideas of who you are and how you need to be.

The ability to defend against the judge’s attacks and disengage from its activity offers you the possibility of discovering who you are independent of ideas. Actively standing up for the truth of your experience breaks the habitual patterns of your familiar identity. Where expectations and standards ruled, there can be openness and allowing. Fear of retribution can give way to self-trust and curiosity. From hopelessness and defeat can arise acceptance and confidence. And confinement and tension can be transformed into spaciousness and ease.

A Journey of Truth

And truth guides the journey. In combination with the grounding and practicality of your personal will, truth acts as an objective conscience for action in the world. One of the original functions of the judge was to act as your conscience. The judge learned standards of right and wrong from parents and society. Then, by using guilt and shame, it helped you as a child to behave and act appropriately according to that moral code. Unfortunately, this process suppressed your spontaneity, aliveness, and instinctual power in order to make you socialized and acceptable. You needed the judge’s firm support and direction as you developed your own ability to perceive, evaluate, and understand.

However, the outcome of that development was not grounded in your true nature. As an adult, you have continued to rely on the judge’s internalized standards of right and wrong. Only true maturation can replace the judge with a living conscience. This capacity of the soul depends on the recognition of your essential nature and the development of your ability to be authentically yourself.

Disengaging from the judge thus serves two functions:

To free you from the confinement of old, limiting patterns and beliefs and, at the same time,

To demand that you actively practice living in a way that eliminates the need for the judge.

You cannot simply throw off a structure that has defined and supported you unless you have something more effective with which to replace it. You must learn to function, interact, and make choices freed from the standards of the judge, which means living in alignment with the truth and reality of your own life at the present time. This creates a living conscience that is not based on rules. Such a conscience allows the fullness of your living soul to express itself. This happens when you have transformed the self-centeredness of instinctual impulses, the selfdestruction of compulsive patterns, and the rigidity of internalized authority. This is not a small task. It is the work of learning to be a responsible, mature human being. You cannot plan how to do it, you cannot only read about how to do it, you cannot simply follow someone else’s instructions. You must learn how to live spontaneously by recognizing and following the guidance of what you know to be true.

A Journey of Recovery

Working with the judge is a journey of recovery. Disengaging helps free you from the harsh oppression of the judge and also accelerates your movement into experiencing the aliveness of the soul. This is the doorway to recovery of your soul nature. You have the opportunity to recover a fresh and dynamic aliveness at the heart of your life. And aliveness means the presence of passion and spontaneity, two qualities noticeably absent in the world of judgment. It also means the experience of yourself as a life source. Life flows from and through you, taking on both familiar and unfamiliar forms. The soul’s aliveness is the sense of something conscious and unpredictable, awake and mysterious.

My desire is to support you to be directly in contact with your own lived experience without the judge as intermediary. The central practice in this process is to return to your experience of yourself in this moment. As you learn to know yourself each moment with curiosity and openness, you allow the process of self-discovery to open new doors. You find your own natural resources that have gone unrecognized because of the judge’s controlling influence. When you actively disengage, you begin to recognize what is called presence as a ground of support for being who you are from moment to moment. You are offered tastes of being a soul that is alive, dynamic, and immediate, a soul that is open, changing, and responding, but also a soul that is rooted in the reality of the truth.

The various flavors of presence arise to enrich your experience: Awareness wakes you up to the ever-changing elements of each day, and personal will brings you back to your direct experience of what is true at the present time. Acceptance encourages vulnerability to the ups and downs of your inner world, and strength gives you the courage to expand your boundaries and go beyond what you think is possible. Joy and curiosity help you appreciate and celebrate the mystery of you and your world, while compassion tenderizes you as it allows contact with the fullness of your heart, including its pain, grief, and longing. Spaciousness transforms the anxiety about lack into the allowing of openness, and value offers sweetness and satisfaction to your soul as you learn to appreciate your true nature. Peace stills the inner activity that undermines the quietness and simplicity of being yourself, allowing the truth of you and your life to be more apparent.

The soul’s journey does not take you away from the physical, emotional, and social realities of your life. It is not about otherworldly experiences. Recovery of the soul enriches the life you have by bringing in the dimension of presence and its qualities, the invisible essence of what it means to be alive. Spirituality is the heart of human life, the subtle dimension of being a soul. It gives your experience fullness and immediacy so that you feel more in contact with each moment as you live each day.

How This Book Is Structured

This book addresses the human dilemma of the soul through answering two questions:

What is this soul that you have lost touch with, and what prevents you from recognizing it?

These two questions are basic to all spiritual work, and answering them can be approached in many ways. Here, we look at the barrier by working with selfjudgment and how it blocks you from knowing yourself as soul. We explore the soul itself by focusing on some of its essential aspects that have largely been disowned or forgotten.

The following pages present a step-by-step method for confronting self-judgment. You will learn to recognize the presence of the judge, notice its effect on you, discover how it functions, explore how you support its activity, uncover its motivation, and most important, find ways to free yourself from its influence. This process is necessary for you to have the freedom to discover who you are beneath the myriad beliefs you have accumulated about yourself over the years.

The information in the book is presented in an order most useful for working on your own: gradually developing the awareness and skills to support a true and effective defense against self-judgment. If you were working with the ongoing support of a teacher or group, the presentation of the material might have a different emphasis.

The first half of the book focuses on understanding judgment and how it affects you. The second half moves you into taking steps to defend against the activity of self-judgment. Twelve chapters address the judge process, each one concluding with a summary of its significant points and one or more exercises for supporting you in pursuing the work on your own.

The second focus of this book is the reconnection with your soul, the forgotten potential of who you truly are. Complementary to the work on the judge is the process of rediscovering inherent qualities of your true nature that you lost touch with as you grew up, in particular those relevant to freeing you from self-judgment.

Traditional spiritual work tends to focus on aspects of your nature considered spiritual (meaning beyond worldly life), such as universal love, self-realization, transcendent unity, ultimate emptiness, or spiritual insight. These are important for knowing the deeper dimensions of human experience. However, you have other essential qualities, often overlooked, that are more relevant for life in the world.

Working with the judge is a particularly down to earth affair and needs the support of more basic, familiar soul qualities, freed from beliefs and personal history.

In the soul chapters, you are invited to contact the clear simplicity of awareness, the energetic expansion of strength, the solid reliability of will, and the gentle warmth of compassion. These qualities and others provide a contrast to the experience of yourself supported by the inner critic and at the same time give you access to inner resources for challenging its power. Each quality presented has a particular relevance for an aspect of your work with the judge. The soul quality chapters alternate with the judge chapters, and each contains a practice to help you reconnect with that quality.

These two dimensions, dealing with the judge and contacting soul qualities, mutually support and reinforce each other.

Seeing through the judge’s attitudes and beliefs allows you to observe yourself and your experience with fresh eyes and begin to recognize your deeper soul nature. You make space to know yourself in a different way. At the same time, directly sensing an aspect of your true nature provides a vivid and definite alternative to the reactive nature of self-judgment.

In addition, a story that follows a young couple, Frank and Sue, as they live through one Saturday together threads through the book. Their day is told in short episodes on the page just before the opening of each successive chapter. Every episode touches on the material in that chapter and helps place the subject matter of the book in the context of real life. When a judgment is arising in the characters’ minds or in their own words, it is generally preceded by the symbol * to help you learn to recognize the prevalence and variation of this element of both inner and outer activity. When Frank or Sue is engaged in inner dialogue, whether a judgment or not, the words are in italics. You may find it useful to reread an episode after you finish reading the chapter it precedes.

The Beginning of a Process

This is a lifelong journey of discovering the truth in your life as you liberate your soul. Recognizing, appreciating, and disengaging from your judge is a vital way of ensuring that it becomes your journey. This book is only a beginning, but it will provide a useful foundation for opening the prison door and stepping into the heart of life.


This book speaks to more than just your mind. It is addressed to your soul. At different times, the material will resonate in your body or your heart or in your very being. The chapters are packed with information, insights, and inquiries. It is not light reading. This is a book to work through slowly, allowing it to stimulate you, unsettle you, move you. Take it in small bites so you can absorb the tastes and textures. Go away and come back. Stop and reread.

As you read, you will find yourself responding to the ideas that are relevant to where you are in your own journey. You will draw from what is presented the nourishment you need at the moment for your own development. This means that much of what you read will pass into your mind and out again without any significant impact. This is natural. However, it also means that you can come back to any part of this book in one month, six months, or a year and you will resonate with material that was not important for you the first time.

I particularly recommend that as you read, you pay attention to your body and your energy. Notice how they are affected by your reading. If you become aware of having a hard time concentrating or feeling restless, stop and take a break. Perhaps something has struck home and stirred a physical or an emotional response. When one part of you is strongly affected, it can prevent you from taking in any more. The focus of this book on connecting with your experience in the moment makes it ideal for learning to track yourself in this way.

Making space for your responses to the process of reading will create a greater impact and also allow the material to nourish and awaken more aspects of your soul.

Do not expect instantaneous change or development; be patient with yourself as you respect your soul’s need to go at its own pace. Integrating into your life the various elements of this self-discovery process can take many years. The exercises and practices in this book are designed to expose you to different dimensions of inner experience in a gradual way. The resulting effect is cumulative: each facet of the work is reinforced by all the others.



Sue was awoken by Frank returning to bed from the bathroom. It took quite a while before she finally acknowledged that she couldn’t go back to sleep. He, meanwhile, seemed to have fallen asleep right away. The clock radio was glowing 3:30 when Sue twisted her head to the left and opened her eyes. She remembered too late what she had heard on the radio from some sleep expert: you should never look at the time when you wake up in the middle of the night because that seems to make it harder to go back to sleep. This reminded her of how often recently she had been waking up in the middle of the night. Fortunately, this time it was Saturday and she didn’t have to get up early, but she was frustrated with herself and dreaded lying awake for the rest of the night.

* So what has been your problem lately anyway, Sue? You didn’t used to have difficulty sleeping. Something’s wrong here. You know you are eating too late, and you are getting into that bad habit of black tea after dinner. I think it must have something to do with either lack of exercise or being anxious about my work. I will have to get some of that melatonin at the vitamin store tomorrow . . .

As her mind continued working, Sue was getting more and more unsettled in her body. She could feel the heaviness of sleep still in her system, and her eyes were aching. A sense of low-grade agitation was developing in her limbs, as though a subtle current of energy had been turned on and she could no longer relax. She desperately longed to shut it off and drop back into sleep.

With some effort, Sue stopped her mental obsessing and focused her attention on her arms and legs and began controlled breathing to try to relax. At first, she felt more tension than relaxation from trying to concentrate. Then, as she continued, the outline of her body slowly transformed into a vivid presence charged with a slightly prickly energy. This shifted into a pulsing flow moving through her; it was both soothing and enlivening. And then for a moment, Sue experienced herself floating in the middle of a dark, spacious field with a vibrant perimeter. She was feeling herself in an immediate and unfamiliar way, when suddenly a familiar voice broke in:

* But you’re supposed to be going to sleep!

The internal voice brought her back to being Sue lying in bed not sleeping. Where had she been? Not asleep but not anyplace familiar. She found herself yawning as she puzzled over what had just happened. Sue turned over, pulled up the covers, and was soon fast asleep.

YOU ARE A SOUL. And if you allow it, your life can become a journey of unfolding for your soul. The fact is, you do not recognize yourself as soul. You do not know the source of your own aliveness. You are not aware of the potential for freedom and responsiveness that is your true nature. In order to see your inner critic in a proper perspective, in relation to the totality of who you are, you must have some sense of being a soul. What does that mean?

What Is the Soul?

Whenever people say the word I, they generally are referring to a person who was born of certain parents, has a certain history, and acts and behaves in certain familiar ways. This is often referred to as the ego or personality.

The soul, in fact, is the true “I.” It is the present-moment experience of yourself as the agent in your life, the sense of a livingness that is here now. Can you say what you are if you don’t refer to who you have been?

The soul is the you who experiences your life, the one who perceives, acts, learns, and changes. It is not the body that was born many years ago; it is not the self-image of a person who has particular skills and capacities; and it is not the mind that thinks and worries about everything that happens. The soul includes all of these, but as the experiencer, it is more fundamental and less defined than any of them. Who is it that experiences being an ego, being a body, or being a mind? Who at this very minute is reading these words? Can you define who or what that is? This I call the soul.

All aspects of your experience emerge out of your soul. Not only is the soul the experiencer, it is also what is experienced and the locus of your experience. In other words, your soul is what underlies and unifies every part of you and your experience. The deep longing to be whole, to feel integrated, to be yourself without division, is a longing to experience the soul.

The closer you are to sensing your own immediate aliveness, the closer you are to soul. The soul is the substance of living consciousness. To feel it is to recognize the miraculous and mysterious quality of what you are, a flowing presence, dynamic, alive, and ever-changing. To feel you are a soul is to know the unboundedness of life. The soul extends beyond the usual boundaries and categories of the human mind, beyond the familiar notion of a human life. It is not limited by history, concepts, or the physical body. It defies exact definition or analysis. As such, the soul is better felt, sensed, and known in the heart than it is through the structures and perceptions of the mind.

Have you ever wished for ease and spontaneity in your heart? Have you ever felt limited by the idea of having to be or act a particular way? If so, imagine what sense of yourself would allow spontaneity, ease, and freedom. Who would you be, and how would you feel? You are imagining a fundamental quality of your soul nature.

The nature of the soul is pure consciousness, experienced as a field of awareness in relation to physical reality. This field of awareness contains your mind and your body without being bounded by either.

Normally, you experience yourself as a physical body that has a mind with awareness as one of its capacities. But your soul is more like an expanse of awareness particles condensed in your location into a solid physical presence known as a body. And these awareness particles permeate every cell, sensation, and thought you have. The most external expression of your consciousness or soul is your body, which brings your awareness into intimate contact with the physical world as you know it. How different it would be to experience your whole body made out of this consciousness with your awareness consciously inhabiting and living through every cell in your body!

The Presence of the Soul

To be in touch with your actual consciousness, which is the substance of your soul, is to be aware of your existence in each moment, to be aware of presence. Presence means the sense of immediate existence or being. And presence is a primary quality of the soul. You cannot be aware of your own soul nature unless you are present to your own experience, unless you know your reality as it exists right now. Presence is your direct knowingness of being alive in the present moment. That knowingness is not an idea or a thought but an actual felt awareness. It is what gives your body its felt sense. The soul’s presence is substantial without being physical, and that substance gives the physical body a sense of living fullness.

Presence is to the soul what wetness is to water: one is an inseparable quality of the other. However, if you only look at water or only touch it with rubber gloves, you may not know that water is wet. Similarly, the presence of the soul cannot be erased or separated out, but it can go unrecognized if you are not in touch with it. Ignorance of the presence of your own soul is a deep and painful loss that stirs the longing to know yourself more intimately. This longing may be expressed as the search for meaning and truth, the desire for self-realization, or the pursuit of freedom and liberation. All are fulfilled through experiencing the living presence of the soul, the true nature of who you are.

The soul’s presence comes in many subtle but distinct flavors that underlie the richness of life. These are the basic elements of human existence, such as strength, clarity, compassion, joy, love, intelligence, value, will, acceptance, and vulnerability. These essential aspects make up your true nature, that in you which is innate or God-given and not dependent on your parents, your appearance, your behavior, or your achievements.



Soul without Shame. A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within

by Byron Brown

get it at

William James’s Revolutionary 1884 Theory of How Our Bodies Affect Our Feelings – Maria Popova * What is an Emotion? – William James (1884).

Wat is an Emotion?

William James’s Revolutionary 1884 Theory of How Our Bodies Affect Our Feelings.

by Maria Popova

“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in her masterfull treatise on the intelligence of emotions, ”they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.” But the emotions and the intellect are just two parts of our creaturely trifecta of experience. The third, which can’t be disentwined from the other two and which is in constant dynamic dialogue with them, is the physical reality of the body.

More than a century before Nussbaum, the trailblazing psychologist William James (1842-1910) who shaped our understanding of the psychology of habit made a revolutionary case for “how much our mental life is knit up with our corporeal frame” in an 1884 essay titled “What is an Emotion? ” included in The Heart of William James.

Long before scientists came to demonstrate how our emotions affect our bodies, James argued that the relationship is bidirectional and that while “bodily disturbances” are conventionally considered byproducts or expressions of the so-called standard emotions “surprise, curiosity, rapture, fear, anger, lust, greed, and the like” these corporeal reverberations are actually the raw material of the emotion itself.

James writes:

“Our natural way of thinking about these standard emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression.

My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion.

Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect, that the one mental state is not immediately induced by the other, that the bodily manifestations must first be interposed between, and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.

Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colourless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we could not actually feel afraid or angry”.

The subtleties of our body language and physical instinct, James argues, are in concordance with the subtleties of our emotional experience:

“No shade of emotion, however slight, should be without a bodily reverberation as unique, when taken in its totality, as is the mental mood itself. The immense number of parts modified in each emotion is what makes it so difficult for us to reproduce in cold blood the total and integral expression of any one of them. Our whole cubic capacity is sensibly alive; and each morsel of it contributes its pulsations of feeling, dim or sharp, pleasant, painful, or dubious, to that sense of personality that every one of us unfailingly carries with him.”

Pointing out that we’re each familiar with the bodily experience of emotional states the instinctual furrowing of the brow when troubled, the lump in the throat when anxious James delivers the central point of his theory:

“If we fancy some strong emotion, and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its characteristic bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind, no “mind-stuff” out of which the emotion can be constituted, and that a cold and neutral state of intellectual perception is all that remains.

Can one fancy the state of rage and picture no ebullition of it in the chest, no flushing of the face, no dilatation of the nostrils, no clenching of the teeth, no impulse to vigorous action, but in their stead limp muscles, calm breathing, and a placid face? The present writer, for one, certainly cannot. The rage is as completely evaporated as the sensation of its socalled manifestations, and the only thing that can possibly be supposed to take its place is some coldblooded and dispassionate judicial sentence, confined entirely to the intellectual realm, to the effect that a certain person or persons merit chastisement for their sins.

In like manner of grief: what would it be without its tears, its sobs, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breast-bone? A feelingless cognition that certain circumstances are deplorable, and nothing more. Every passion in turn tells the same story. A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity, without its tears, its sobs, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breast-bone? A feelingless cognition that certain circumstances are deplorable, and nothing more. Every passion in turn tells the same story. A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity.”

It’s only in the past decade, more than a century after James developed his theory, that Western scientists have come to study this relationship through the field of embodied condition. But millennia-old Eastern traditions are built upon a foundational understanding of this osmotic interplay of flesh and feeling.

Ancient mind-body practices like vipassana meditation are so effective because, in bringing us back into our bodies, they decondition our mental spinning and make us better able to simply observe our emotions as we experience them rather than being wound up and dominated by them.

Noting that his theory “grew out of fragmentary introspective observations,” James offers an empirical testament from his own interior life:

“The more closely I scrutinise my states, the more persuaded I become, that whatever moods, affections, and passions I have, are in very truth constituted by, and made up of, those bodily changes we ordinarily call their expression or consequence; and the more it seems to me that if I were to become corporeally anaesthetic, I should be excluded from the life of the affections, harsh and tender alike, and drag out an existence of merely cognitive or intellectual form.”

He notes that the purely cognitive experience of things is “more allied to a judgment of right than to anything else” for instance, analyzing a symphony’s composition rather than letting the music, in the immortal words of Oliver Sacks, “pierce the heart directly.” Curiously, James argues that intellectual mastery of a specific domain blunts one’s ability to feel these physiological aesthetic ripples of emotion:

“Where long familiarity with a certain class of effects has blunted emotional sensibility thereto as much as it has sharpened the taste and judgment, we do get the intellectual emotion, if such it can be called, pure and undefiled. And the dryness of it, the paleness, the absence of all glow, as it may exist in a thoroughly expert critic’s mind, not only shows us what an altogether different thing it is from the “standard” emotions we considered first, but makes us suspect that almost the entire difference lies in the fact that the bodily sounding-board, vibrating in the one case, is in the other mute. “Not so very bad” is, in a person of consummate taste, apt to be the highest limit of approving expression.”

The great physicist Richard Feynman, of course, vehemently disagreed. But James certainly had a point: I once knew a hard scientist, in every sense of the word, who very, much embodied this withering of the expansive warmth of aesthetic appreciation in the grip of the cold intellect. On one occasion, she sent me a photograph from an autumn hike, depicting hills of trees covered in beautiful foliage at sunset. “Not bad,” she wrote.

James considers the interplay of these two faculties:

” In every art, in every science, there is the keen perception of certain relations being right or not, and there is the emotional flush and thrill consequent thereupon. And these are two things, not one. In the former of them it is that experts and masters are at home. The latter accompaniments are bodily commotions that they may hardly feel, but that may be experienced in their fulness by Crétins and Philistines in whom the critical judgment is at its lowest ebb. The “marvels” of Science, about which so much edifying popular literature is written, are apt to be “caviare” to the men in the laboratories. Cognition and emotion are parted even in this last retreat, who shall say that their antagonism may not just be one phase of the world-old struggle known as that between the spirit and the flesh? a struggle in which it seems pretty certain that neither party will definitively drive the other off the field”.

The essay, like every piece collected in The Heart of William James, is a magnificent read in its entirety. Complement it with James on choosing purpose over profit and the psychology of the second wind, then revisit immunologist Esther Sternberg on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to burnout and disease and Rilke on the relationship between the body and the soul.


According to James, only after we experience the physiological response do we interpret it cognitively and ascribe to it a particular emotion. Based on this, a cognitive recognition and categorization of a specific emotion occurs following an endocrine-generated physiological response.
Richard Yonck


What is an Emotion? William James (1884)

First published in Mind 9,188-205.

The physiologists who, during the past few years, have been so industriously exploring the functions of the brain, have limited their attempts at explanation to its cognitive and volitional performances. Dividing the brain into sensorial and motor centres, they have found their division to be exactly paralleled by the analysis made by empirical psychology, of the perceptive and volitional parts of the mind into their simplest elements.

But the aesthetic sphere of the mind, its longings, its pleasures and pains, and its emotions, have been so ignored in all these researches that one is tempted to suppose that if either Dr. Ferrier or Dr. Munk were asked for a theory in brain-terms of the latter mental facts, they might both reply, either that they had as yet bestowed no thought upon the subject, or that they had found it so difficult to make distinct hypotheses, that the matter lay for them among the problems of the future, only to be taken up after the simpler ones of the present should have been definitively solved.

And yet it is even now certain that of two things concerning the emotions, one must be true. Either separate and special centres, affected to them alone, are their brain-seat, or else they correspond to processes occurring in the motor and sensory centres, already assigned, or in others like them, not yet mapped out.

If the former be the case we must deny the current view, and hold the cortex to be something more than the surface of “projection” for every sensitive spot and every muscle in the body. If the latter be the case, we must ask whether the emotional “process” in the sensory or motor centre be an altogether peculiar one, or whether it resembles the ordinary perceptive processes of which those centres are already recognised to be the seat.

The purpose of the following pages is to show that the last alternative comes nearest to the truth, and that the emotional brain-processes no only resemble the ordinary sensorial brain-processes, but in very truth are nothing but such processes variously combined. The main result of this will be to simplify our notions of the possible complications of brain-physiology, and to make us see that we have already a brain-scheme in our hands whose applications are much wider than its authors dreamed.

But although this seems to be the chief result of the arguments I am to urge, I should say that they were not originally framed for the sake of any such result. They grew out of fragmentary introspective observations, and it was only when these had already combined into a theory that the thought of the simplification the theory might bring to cerebral physiology occurred to me, and made it seem more important than before.

I should say first of all that the only emotions I propose expressly to consider here are those that have a distinct bodily expression. That there are feelings of pleasure and displeasure, of interest and excitement, bound up with mental operations, but having no obvious bodily expression for their consequence, would, I suppose, be held true by most readers. Certain arrangements of sounds, of lines, of colours, are agreeable, and others the reverse, without the degree of the feeling being sufficient to quicken the pulse or breathing, or to prompt to movements of either the body or the face. Certain sequences of ideas charm us as much as others tire us. It is a real intellectual delight to get a problem solved, and a real intellectual torment to have to leave it unfinished.

The first set of examples, the sounds, lines, and colours, are either bodily sensations, or the images of such. The second set seem to depend on processes in the ideational centres exclusively. Taken together, they appear to prove that there are pleasures and pains inherent in certain forms of nerve-action as such, wherever that action occur. The case of these feelings we will at present leave entirely aside, and confine our attention to the more complicated cases in which a wave of bodily disturbance of some kind accompanies the perception of the interesting sights or sounds, or the passage of the exciting train of ideas. Surprise, curiosity, rapture, fear, anger, lust, greed, and the like, become then the names of the mental states with which the person is possessed. The bodily disturbances are said to be the “manifestation” of these several emotions, their “expression” or “natural language”; and these emotions themselves, being so strongly characterized both from within and without, may be called the standard emotions.

Our natural way of thinking about these standard emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression.

My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion.

Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect, that the one mental state is not immediately induced by the other, that the bodily manifestations must first be interposed between, and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.

Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colourless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we could not actually feel afraid or angry.

Stated in this crude way, the hypothesis is pretty sure to meet with immediate disbelief. And yet neither many nor far-fetched considerations are required to mitigate its paradoxical character, and possibly to produce conviction of its truth.

To begin with, readers of the Journal do not need to be reminded that the nervous system of every living thing is but a bundle of predispositions to react in particular ways upon the contact of particular features of the environment. As surely as the hermitcrab’s abdomen presupposes the existence of empty whelk-shells somewhere to be found, so surely do the hound’s olfactories imply the existence, on the one hand, of deer’s or foxes’ feet, and on the other, the tendency to follow up their tracks.

The neural machinery is but a hyphen between determinate arrangements of matter ourtside the body and determinate impulses to inhibition or discharge within its organs.

When the hen sees a white oval object on the ground, she cannot leave it; she must keep upon it and return to it, until at last its transformation into a little mass of moving chirping down elicits from her machinery an entirely new set of performances. The love of man for woman, or of the human mother for her babe, our wrath at snakes and our fear of precipices, may all be described similarly, as instances of the way in which peculiarly conformed pieces of the world’s furniture will fatally call forth most particular mental and bodily reactions, in advance of, and often in direct opposition to, the verdict of our deliberate reason concerning them. The labours of Darwin and his successors are only just beginning to reveal the universal parasitism of each creature upon other special things, and the way in which each creature brings the signature of its special relations stampted on its nervous system with it upon the scene.

Every living creature is in fact a sort of lock, whose wards and springs presuppose special forms of key, which keys however are not born attached to the locks, but are sure to be found in the world near by as life goes on. And the locks are indifferent to any but their own keys. The egg fails to fascinate the hound, the bird does not fear the precipice, the snake waxes not wroth at his kind, the deer cares nothing for the woman or the human babe.

Those who wish for a full development of this point of view, should read Schneider’s Der Thierische Wille no other book shows how accurately anticipatory are the actions of animals, of the specific features of the environment in which they are to live.

Now among these nervous anticipations are of course to be reckoned the emotions, so far as these may be called forth directly by the perception of certain facts. In advance of all experience of elephants no child can but be frightened if he suddenly find one trumpeting and charging upon him. No woman can see a handsome little naked baby without delight, no man in the wilderness see a human form in the distance without excitement and curiosity. I said I should consider these emotions only so far as they have bodily movements of some sort for their accompaniments. But my first point is to show that their bodily accompaniments are much more far-reaching and complicated than we ordinarily suppose.

In the earlier books on Expression, written mostly from the artistic point of view, the signs of emotion visible from without were the only ones taken account of. Sir Charles Bell’s celebrated Anatomy of Expression noticed the respiratory changes; and Bain’s and Darwin’s treatises went more thoroughly still into the study of the visceral factors involved, changes in the functioning of glands and muscles, and in that of the circulatory apparatus. But not even a Darwin has exhaustively enumerated all the bodily affections characteristic of any one of the standard emotions. More and more, as physiology advances, we begin to discern how almost infinitely numerous and subtle they must be.

The researches of Mosso with the plethysmograph have shown that not only the heart, but the entire circulatory system, forms a sort of sounding-board, which every change of our consciousness, however slight, may make reverberate. Hardly a sensation comes to us without sending waves of alternate constriction and dilatation down the arteries of our arms. The bloodvessels of the abdomen act reciprocally with those of the more outward parts. The bladder and bowels, the glands of the mouth, throat, and skin, and the liver, are known to be affected gravely in certain severe emotions, and are unquestionably affected transiently when the emotions are of a lighter sort.

That the heart-beats and the rhythm of breathing play a leading part in all emotions whatsoever, is a matter too notorious for proof.

And what is really equally prominent, but less likely to be admitted until special attention is drawn to the fact, is the continuous co-operation of the voluntary muscles in our emotional states. Even when no change of outward attitude is produced, their inward tension alters to suit each varying mood, and is felt as a difference of tone or of strain. In depression the flexors tend to prevail; in elation or belligerent excitement the extensors take the lead. And the various permutations and combinations of which these organic activities are susceptible, make it abstractly possible that no shade of emotion, however slight, should be without a bodily reverberation as unique, when taken in its totality, as is the mental mood itself.

The immense number of parts modified in each emotion is what makes it so difficult for us to reproduce in cold blood the total and integral expression of any one of them. We may catch the trick with the voluntary muscles, but fail with the skin, glands, heart, and other viscera. Just as an artificially imitated sneeze lacks something of the reality, so the attempt to imitate an emotion in the absence of its normal instigating cause is apt to be rather “hollow”.

The next thing to be noticed is this, that every one of the bodily changes, whatsoever it be, is felt acutely or obscurely, the moment it occurs. If the reader has never paid attention to this matter, he will be both interested and astonished to learn how many different local bodily feelings he can detect in himself as characteristic of his various emotional moods. It would be perhaps too much to expect him to arrest the tide of any strong gust of passion for the sake of any such curious analysis as this; but he can observe more tranquil states, and that may be assumed here to be true of the greater which is shown to be true of the less.

Our whole cubic capacity is sensibly alive; and each morsel of it contributes its pulsations of feeling, dim or sharp, pleasant, painful, or dubious, to that sense of personality that every one of us unfailingly carries with him. It is surprisingly what little items give accent to these complexes of sensibility.

When worried by any slight trouble, one may find that the focus of one’s bodily consciousness is the contraction, often quite inconsiderable, of the eyes and brows. When momentarily embarrassed it is something in the pharynx that compels either a swallow, a clearing of the throat, or a slight cough; and so on for as many more instances as might be named.

Our concern here being with the general view rather than with the details, I will not linger to discuss these but, assuming the point admitted that every change that occurs must be felt, I will pass on.


I now proceed to urge the vital point of my whole theory, which is this.

If we fancy some strong emotion, and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its characteristic bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind, no “mind-stuff” out of which the emotion can be constituted, and that a cold and neutral state of intellectual perception is all that remains.

It is true, that although most people, when asked say that their introspection verifies this statement, some persist in saying theirs does not. Many cannot be made to understand the question. When you beg them to imagine away every feeling of laughter and of tendency to laugh from their consciousness of the ludicrousness of an object, and then to tell you what the feeling of its ludicrousness would be like, whether it be anything more than the perception that the object belongs to the class “funny,” they persist in replying that the thing proposed is a physical impossibility, and that they always must laugh, if they see a funny object. Of course the task proposed is not the practical one of seeing a ludicrous object and annihilating one’s tendency to laugh. It is the purely speculative one of subtracting certain elements of feeling from an emotional state supposed to exist in its fulness, and saying what the residual elements are. I cannot help thinking that all who rightly apprehend this problem will agree with the proposition above laid down.

What kind of an emotion of fear would be left, if the feelings neither of quickened heart-beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of weakened limbs, neither of goose-flesh nor of visceral stirrings, were present, it is quite impossible to think. Can one fancy the state of rage and picture no ebullition of it in the chest, no flushing of the face, no dilatation of the nostrils, no clenching of the teeth, no impulse to vigorous action, but in their stead limp muscles, calm breathing, and a placid face? The present writer, for one, certainly cannot.

The rage is as completely evaporated as the sensation of its so-called manifestations, and the only thing that can possibly be supposed to take its place is some cold-blooded and dispassionate judicial sentence, conlined entirely to the intellectual realm, to the effect that a certain person or persons merit chastisement for their sins. In like manner of grief: what would it be without its tears, its sobs, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breast-bone? A feelingless cognition that certain circumstances are deplorable, and nothing more.

Every passion in turn tells the same story. A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity.

I do not say that it is a contradiction in the nature of things, or that pure spirits are necessarily condemned to cold intellectual lives; but I say that for us, emotion dissociated from all bodily feeling is inconceivable. The more closely I scrutinise my states, the more persuaded I become, that whatever moods, affections, and passions Ihave, are in very truth constituted by, and made up of, those bodily changes we ordinarily call their expression or consequence; and the more it seems to me that if I were to become corporeally anaesthetic, I should be excluded from the life of the affections, harsh and tender alike, and drag out an existence of merely cognitive or intellectual form. Such an existence, although it seems to have been the ideal of ancient sages, is too apathetic to be keenly sought after by those born after the revival of the worship of sensibility, a few generations ago.

But if the emotion is nothing but the feeling of the reflex bodily effects of what we call its “objects,” effects due to the connate adaptation of the nervous system to that object, we seem immediately faced by this objection: most of the objects of civilised men’s emotions are things to which it would be preposterous to suppose their nervous systems connately adapted. Most occasions of shame and many insults are purely conventional, and vary with the social environment. The same is true of many matters of dread and of desire, and of many occasions of melancholy and regret. In these cases, at least, it would seem that the ideas of shame, desire, regret, &c., must first have been attached by education and association to these conventional objects before the bodily changes could possibly be awakened. And if in these cases the bodily changes follow the ideas, instead of giving rise to them, why not then in all cases?

To discuss thoroughly this objection would carry us deep into the study of purely intellectual Aesthetics. A few words must here suffice. We will say nothing of the argument‘s failure to distinguish between the idea of an emotion and the emotion itself. We will only recall the well-known evolutionary principle that when a certain power has once been fixed in an animal by virtue of its utility in presence of certain features of the environment, it may turn out to be useful in presence of other features of the environment that had originally nothing to do with either producing or preserving it. A nervous tendency to discharge being once there, all sorts of unforeseen things may pull the trigger and let loose the effects. That among these things should be conventionalities of man’s contriving is a matter of no psychological consequence whatever. The most important part of my environment is my fellow-man. The consciousness of his attitude towards me is the perception that normally unlocks most of my

The consciousness of his attitude towards me is the perception that normally unlocks most of my shames and indignations and fears. The extraordinary sensitiveness of this consciousness is shown by the bodily modifications wrought in us by the awareness that our fellow-man is noticing us at all. No one can walk across the platform at a public meeting with just the same muscular innervation he uses to walk across his room at home. No one can give a message to such a meeting without organic excitement. “Stage-fright” is only the extreme degree of that wholly irrational personal self-consciousness which every one gets in some measure, as soon as he feels the eyes of a number of strangers fixed upon him, even though he be inwardly convinced that their feeling towards him is of no practical account.

This being so, it is not surprising that the additional persuasion that my fellow-man’s attitude means either well or ill for me, should awaken stronger emotions still. In primitive societies ”Well” may mean handing me a piece of beef, and “Ill” may mean aiming a blow at my skull. in our “cultured age,” “Ill” may mean cutting me in the street, and “Well,” giving me an honorary degree. What the action itself may be is quite insignificant, so long as I can perceive in it intent or animus. It is the emotion-arousing perception; and may give rise to as strong bodily convulsions in me, a civilised man experiencing the treatment of an artificial society, as in any savage prisoner of war, learning whether his captors are about to eat him or to make him a member of their tribe.

But now, this objection disposed of, there arises a more general doubt. Is there any evidence, it may be asked, for the assumption that particular perceptions 0’0 produce widespread bodily effects by a sort of immediate physical influence, antecedent to the arousal of an emotion or emotional idea?

The only possible reply is, that there is most assuredly such evidence. In listening to poetry, drama, or heroic narrative, we are often surprised at the cutaneous shiver which like a sudden wave flows over us, and at the heart-swelling and the lachrymal effusion that unexpectedly catch us at intervals. In listening to music, the same is even more strikingly true. If we abruptly see a dark moving form in the woods, our heart stops beating, and we catch our breath instantly and before any articulate idea of danger can arise. If our friend goes near to the edge of a precipice, we get the well-known feeling of “alloverishness,” and we shrink back, although we positively know him to be safe, and have no distinct imagination of his fall. The writer well remembers his astonishment, when a boy of seven or eight, at fainting when he saw a horse bled. The blood was in a bucket, with a stick in it, and, if memory does not deceive him, he stirred it round and saw it drip from the stick with no feeling save that of childish curiosity. Suddenly the world grew black before his eyes, his ears began to buzz, and he knew no more. He had never heard of the sight of blood producing faintness or sickness, and he had so little repugnance to it, and so little apprehension of any other sort of danger from it, that even at that tender age, as he well remembers, he could not help wondering how the mere physical presence of a pailful of crimson fluid occasion in him such formidable bodily effects.

Imagine two steel knife-blades with their keen edges crossing each other at rightangles, and moving too and fro. Our whole nervous organisation is “on-edge” at the thought; and yet what emotion can be there except the unpleasant nervous feeling itself, or the dread that more of it may come?

The entire fund and capital of the emotion here is the senseless bodily effect the blades immediately arouse. This case is typical of a class: where an ideal emotion seems to precede the bodily symptoms, it is often nothing but a representation of the symptoms themselves. One who has already fainted at the sight of blood may witness the preparations for a surgical operation with uncontrollable heart-sinking and anxiety. He anticipates certain feelings, and the anticipation precipitates their arrival. I am told of a case of morbid terror, of which the subject confessed that what possessed her seemed, more than anything, to be the fear of fear itself. In the various forms of what Professor Bain calls “tender emotion,” although the appropriate object must usually be directly contemplated before the emotion can be aroused, yet sometimes thinking of the symptoms of the emotion itself may have the same effect. In sentimental natures, the thought of “yearning” will produce real “yearning”. And, not to speak of coarser examples, a mother’s imagination of the caresses she bestows on her child may arouse a spasm of parental longing.

In such cases as these, we see plainly how the emotion both begins and ends with what we call its effects or manifestations. It has no mental status except as either the presented feeling, or the idea, of the manifestations; which latter thus constitute its entire material, its sum and substance, and its stock-in-trade. And these cases ought to make us see how in all cases the feeling of the manifestations may play a much deeper part in the constitution of the emotion than we are wont to suppose.

If our theory be true, a necessary corollary of it ought to be that any voluntary arousal of the socalled manifestations of a special emotion ought to give us the emotion itself. Of course in the majority of emotions, this test is inapplicable; for many of the manifestations are in organs over which we have no volitional control. Still, within the limits in which it can be verified, experience fully corroborates this test. Everyone knows how panic is increased by flight, and how the giving way to the symptoms of grief or anger increases those passions themselves. Each fit of sobbing makes the sorrow more acute, and calls forth another fit stronger still, until at last repose only ensues with lassitude and with the apparent exhaustion of the machinery. ln rage, it is notorious how we “work ourselves up” to a climax by repeated outbreaks of expression. Refuse to express a passion, and it dies. Count ten before venting your anger, and it occasion seems ridiculous.

Whistling to keep up courage is no mere figure of speech. On the other hand, sit all day in a moping posture, sigh, and reply to everything with a dismal voice, and your melancholy lingers. There is no more valuable precept in moral education than this, as all who have experience know: if we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously, and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward moi/ons of those contrary dispositions we prefer to cultivate. The reward of persistency will infallibly come, in the fading out of the sullenness or depression, and the advent of real cheerfulness and kindliness in their stead. Smooth the brow, brighten the eye, contract the dorsal rather than the ventral aspect of the frame, and speak in a major key, pass the genial compliment, and your heart and kindliness in their stead. Smooth the brow, brighten the eye, contract the dorsal rather than the ventral aspect of the frame, and speak in a major key, pass the genial compliment, and your heart must be frigid indeed if it do not gradually thaw!

The only exception to this are apparent, not real. The great emotional expressiveness and mobility of certain persons often lead us to say “They would feel more if they talked less”. And in another class of persons, the explosive energy with which passion manifests itself on critical occasions, seems correlated with the way in which they bottle it up during the intervals. But these are only eccentric types of character, and within each type the law of the last paragraph prevails.

The sentimentalist is so constructed that “gushing” is his or her normal mode of expression. Putting a stopper on the “gush” will only to a limited extent cause more “real” activities to take its place; in the main it will simply produce listlessness. On the other hand the ponderous and bilious “slumbering volcano,” let him repress the expression of his passions as he will, will find them expire if they get no vent at all; whilst if the rare occasions multiply which he deems worthy of their outbreak, he will find them grow in intensity as life proceeds.

I feel persuaded there is no real exception to the law. The formidable effects of suppressed tears might be mentioned, and the calming results of speaking out your mind when angry and having done with it. But these are also but specious wanderings from the rule. Every perceptions must lead to some nervous result. If this be the normal emotional expression, it soon expends itself, and in the natural course of things a calm succeeds. But if the normal issue be blocked from any cause, the currents may under certain circumstances invade other tracts, and there work different and worse effects. Thus vengeful brooding may replace a burst of indignation; a dry heat may consume the frame of one who fain would weep, or he may, as Dante says, turn to stone within; and then tears or a storming-fit may bring a grateful relief. When we teach children to repress their emotions, it is not that they may feel more, quite the reverse.

It is that they may think more; for to a certain extent whatever nerve-currents are diverted from the regions below, must swell the activity of the thought-tracts of the brain.

The last great argument in favour of the priority of the bodily symptoms to the felt emotion, is the ease with which we formulate by its means pathological cases and normal cases under a common scheme. In every asylum we find examples of absolutely unmotived fear, anger, melancholy, or conceit; and others of an equally unmotived apathy which persists in spite of the best of outward reasons why it should give way. In the former cases we must suppose the nervous machinery to be so “labile” in some one emotional direction, that almost every stimulus, however inappropriate, will cause it to upset in that way, and as a consequence to engender the particular complex of feelings of which the psychic body of the emotion consists.

Thus, to take one special instance, if inability to draw deep breath, fluttering of the heart, and that peculiar epigastric change felt as “precordial anxiety,” with an irresistible tendency to take a somewhat crouching attitude and to sit still, and with perhaps other visceral processes not now known, all spontaneously occur together in a certain person; his feeling of their combination is the emotion of dread, and he is the victim of what is known as morbid fear. A friend who has had occasional attacks of this most distressing of all maladies, tells me that in his case the whole drama seems to centre about the region of the heart and respiratory apparatus, that his main effort during the attacks is to get control of his inspirations and to slow his heart, and that the moment he attains to breathing deeply and to holding himself erect, the dread, ipso facto, seems to depart.

The account given to Brachet by one of his own patients of her opposite condition, that of emotional insensibility, has been often quoted, and deserves to be quoted again:

“I still continue (she says) to suffer constantly; l have not a moment of comfort, and no human sensations. Surrounded by all that can render life happy and agreeable, still to me the faculty of enjoyment and of feeling is wanting both have become physical impossibilities. In everything, even in the most tender caresses of my children, I find only bitterness. I cover them with kisses, but there is something between their lips and mine; and this horrid something is between me and all the enjoyments of life. My existence is incomplete. The functions and acts of ordinary life, it is true, still remain to me; but in every one of them there is something wanting, to wit, the feeling which is proper to them, and the pleasure which follows them…

Each of my senses, each part of my proper self, is as itwere separated from me and can no longer afford me any feeling; this impossibilityseems to depend upon a void which I feel in the front of my head, and tobe due to the diminution of the sensibility over the whole surface of mybody, for it seems to me that I never actually reach the objects whichI touch…I feel well enough the changes of temperature on my skin, but Ino longer experience the internal feeling of the air when I breathe

All this would be a small matter enough, but for its frightful result, which is that of the impossibility of any other kind of feeling and of any sort of enjoyment, although I experience a need and desire of them that render my life an incomprehensible torture. Every function, every action of my life remains, but deprived of the feeling that belongs to it, of the enjoyment that sort of enjoyment, although I experience a need and desire of them that render my life an incomprehensible torture. Every function, every action of my life remains, but deprived of the feeling that belongs to it, of the enjoyment that should follow it. My feet are cold, I warm them, but gain no pleasure from the warmth. I recognise the taste of all I eat, without getting any pleasure from it….My children are growing handsome and healthy, everyone tells me so, I see it myself, but the delight, the inward comfort I ought to feel, I fail to get. Music has lost all charm for me, I used to love it dearly. My daughter plays very well, but for me it is mere noise. That lively interest which a year ago made me hear a delicious concert in the smallest air their fingers played-that thrill, that general vibration which made me shed such tender tears,all that exists no more”.

Other victims describe themselves as closed in walls of ice or covered with an india-rubber integument, through which no impression penetrates to the sealed-up sensibility.

If our hypothesis is true, it makes us realise more deeply than ever how much our mental life is knit up with our corporeal frame, in the strictest sense of the term. Rapture, love, ambition, indignation, and pride, considered as feelings, are fruits of the same soil with the grossest bodily sensations of pleasure and of pain. But it was said at the outset that this would be affirmed only of what we then agreed to call the “standard” emotions; and that those inward sensibilities that appeared devoid at first sight of bodily results should be left out of our account. We had better, before closing, say a word or two about these latter feelings.

They are, the reader will remember, the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic feelings. Concords of sounds, of colours, of lines, logical consistencies, teleological fitnesses, affect us with a pleasure that seems ingrained in the very form of the representation itself, and to borrow nothing from any reverberation surging up from the parts below the brain. The Herbartian psychologists have tried to distinguish feelings due to the form in which ideas may be arranged. A geometrical demonstration may be as “pretty,” and an act of justice as “neat” as a drawing or a tune, although the prettiness and neatness seem here to be a pure matter of sensation, and there to have nothing to do with sensation. We have then, or some of us seem to have, genuinely cerebra/forms of pleasure and displeasure, apparently not agreeing in their mode of production with the socalled “standard” emotions we have been analysing. And it is certain that readers whom our reasons have hitherto failed to convince, will now start up at this admission, and consider that by it we give up our whole case. Since musical perceptions, since logical ideas, can immediately arouse a form of emotional feeling, they will say, is it not more natural to suppose that in the case of the so-called “standard” emotions, prompted by the presence of objects or the experience of events, the emotional feeling is equally immediate, and the bodily expression something that comes later and is added on?

But a sober scrutiny of the cases of pure cerebral emotion gives little force to this assimilation. Unless in them there actually be coupled with the intellectual feeling a bodily reverberation of some kind, unless we actually laugh at the neatness of the mechanical device, thrill at the justice of the act, or tingle at the perfection of the musical form, our mental condition is more allied to a judgment of right than to anything else. And such a judgment is rather to be classed among awarenesses of truth: it is a cognitive act. But as a matter of fact the intellectual feeling hardly ever does exist thus unaccompanied. The bodily sounding-board is at work, as careful introspection will show, far more than we usually suppose. Still, where long familiarity with a certain class of effects has blunted emotional sensibility thereto as much as it has sharpened the taste and judgment, we do get the intellectual emotion, if such it can be called, pure and undefrled. And the dryness of it, the paleness, the absence of all glow, as it may exist in a thoroughly expert critic’s mind, not only shows us what an altogether different thing it is from the “standard” emotions we considered first, but makes us suspect that almost the entire difference lies in the fact that the bodily sounding-board, vibrating in the one case, is in the other mute. “Not so very bad” is, in a person of consummate taste, apt to be the highest limit of approving expression. Rien ne me choque is said to have been Chopin’s superlative of praise of new music. A sentimental layman would feel, and ought to feel, horrified, on being admitted into such a critic’s mind, to see how cold, how thin, how void of human significance, are the motives for favour or disfavour that there prevail. The capacity to make a nice spot on the wall will outweigh a picture’s whole content; a foolish trick of words will preserve a poem; an utterly meaningless fitness of sequence in one musical composition set at naught any amount of “expressiveness” in another.

I remember seeing an English couple sit for more than an hour on a piercing February day in the Academy at Venice before the celebrated “Assumption” by Titian; and when l , after being chased from room to room by the cold, concluded to get into the sunshine as fast as possible and let the pictures go, but before leaving drew reverently near to them to learn with what superior forms of susceptibility they might be endowed, all I overheard was the woman’s voice murmuring : “What a deprecatory expression her face wears! What a self-abnegation! How unworthy she feels of the honour she is receiving!” Their honest hearts had been kept warm all the time by a glow of spurious sentiment that would have fairly made old Titian sick. Mr. Ruskin somewhere makes the (for him) terrible admission that religious people as a rule care little for pictures, and that when they do care for them they generally prefer the worst ones to the best. Yes! In every art, in every science, there is the keen perception of certain relations being right or not, and there is the emotional flush and thrill consequent thereupon. And these are two things, not one. In the former of them it is that experts and masters are at home. The latter accompaniments are bodily commotions that they may hardly feel, but that may be experienced in their fulness by Crétins and Philistines in whom the critical judgment is at its lowest ebb. The “marvels” of Science, about which so much edifying popular literature is written, are apt to be “caviare” to the men in the laboratories. Cognition and emotion are parted even in this last retreat, who shall say that their antagonism may not just be one phase of the world-old struggle known as that between the spirit and the flesh? a struggle in which it seems pretty certain that neither party will definitively drive the other off the field.

To return to our starting point, the physiology of the brain. If we suppose its cortex to contain centres for the perception of changes in each special sense-organ, in each portion of the skin, in each muscle, each joint, and each viscus, and to contain absolutely nothing else, we still have a scheme perfectly capable of representing the process of the emotions. An object falls on a sense-organ and is apperceived by the appropriate cortical centre; or else the latter, excited in some other way, gives rise to an idea of the same object. Quick as a flash, the reflex currents pass down through their pre-ordained channels, alter the condition of muscle, skin and viscus; and these alterations, apperceived like the original object, in as many specific portions of the cortex, combine with it in consciousness and transform it from an object-simply-apprehended into an objectemotionally-felt. No new principles have to be invoked, nothing is postulated beyond the ordinary reflex circuit, and the topical centres admitted in one shape or another by all to exist.

It must be confessed that a crucial test of the truth of the hypothesis is quite as hard to obtain as its decisive refutation. A case of complete internal and external corporeal anaesthesia, without motor alteration or alteration of intelligence except emotional apathy, would afford, if not a crucial test, at least a strong presumption, in favour of the truth of the view we have set forth; whilst the persistence of strong emotional feeling in such a case would completely overthrow our case. Hysterical anaesthesias seem never to be complete enough to cover the ground. Complete anaesthesias from organic disease, on the other hand, are excessibely rare. In the famous case of Remigius Leims, no mention is made by the reporters of his emotional condition, a circumstance which by itself affords no presumption that it was normal, since as a rule nothing ever was noticed without a pre-existing question in the mind. Dr. Georg Winter has recently described a case somewhat similar, and in reply to a question, kindly writes to me as follows:

“The case has been for a year and a half entirely removed from my observation. But so far as I am able to state, the man was characterised by a certain mental inertia and indolence. He was tranquil, and had on the whole the temperament of a phlegmatic. He was not irritable, not quarrelsome, went quietly about his farm-work, and left the care of his business and housekeeping to other people. In short, he gave one the impression of a placid countryman, who has no interests beyond his work.” Dr. Winter adds that in studying the case he paid no particular attention to the man’s psychic condition, as this seemed nebensächlich to his main purpose. I should add that the form of my question to Dr. Winter could give him no clue as to the kind of answer I expected.

Of course, this case proves nothing, but it is to be hoped that asylum-physicians and nervous specialists may begin methodically to study the relation between anaesthesia and emotional apathy. If the hypothesis here suggested is ever to be definitively confirmed or disproved it seems as if it must be by them, for they alone have the data in their hands.

Ps. By an unpardonable forgetfulness at the time of despatching my MS. to the Editor, I ignored the existence of the extraordinary case of total anaesthesia published by Professor Strijmpell in Ziemssen’s Deutsches Archiv für klinische Medicin xxii., 321, of which Ihad nevertheless read reports at the time of its publication. [Cf. firstreport of the case in Mind X., 263, translated from Pflüger’s Archives. Ed.] I believe that it constitutes the only remaining case of the sort in medical literature, so that with is our survey is complete. On referring to the original, which is important in many connexions, I found that the patient, a shoemaker’s apprentice of 15, entirely anaesthetic, inside and out, with the exception of one eye and one ear, had shown shame on the occasion of soiling his bed, and grief when a formerly favourite dish was set before him, at the thought that he could no longer taste its flavour. As Dr. Striimpell seemed however to have paid no special attention to his psychic states, so far as these are matter for our theory, I wrote to him in a few words what the essence of the theory was, and asked him to say whether he felt sure the grief and shame mentioned were real feelings in the boy’s mind, or only the reflex manifestations provoked by certain perceptions, manifestations that an outside observer might note, but to which the boy himself might be insensible.

Dr. Strijmpell has sent me a very obliging reply, of which I translate the most important passage.

“I must indeed confess that l naturally failed to institute with my Anoesthetiker observations as special as the sense of your theory would require. Nevertheless I think I can decidedly make the statement, that he was by no means completely lacking in emotional affections. In addition to the feelings of grief and shame mentioned in my paper, I recall distinctly that he showed ef, angec and frequently quarrelled with the hospital attendants. He also manifested fear lest I should punish him.

In short, I do not think that my case speaks exactly in favour of your theory. On the other hand, I will not affirm that it positively refutes your theory. For my case was certainly one of a very centrally conditioned anaesthesia (perception-anaesthesia, like that of hysterics) and therefore the conduction of outward impressions may in him have been undisturbed.”

I confess that I do not see the relevancy of the last consideration, and this makes me suspect that my own letter was too briefly or obscurely expressed to put my correspondent fully in possession of my own thought. For his reply still makes no explicit reference to anything but the outward manifestations of emotion in the boy. Is it not at least conceivable that, just as a stranger, brought into the boy’s presence for the first time, and seeing him eat and drink and satisfy other natural necessities, would suppose him to have the feelings of hunger, thirst, until informed by the boy himself that he did all these things with no feeling at all but that of sight and sound-is it not, I say, at least possible, that Dr. Strijmpell, addressing no direct introspective questions to his patient, and the patient not being of a class from which one could expect voluntary revelations of that sort, should have similarly omitted to discriminate between a feeling and its habitual motor accompaniment, and erroneously taken the latter as proof that the former was there? Such a mistake is of course possible, and I must therefore repeat Dr. Striimpell’s own words, that his case does not yet refute my theory. Should a similar case recur, it ought to be interrogated as to the inward emotional state that co-existed with the outward expressions of shame, anger. And if it then turned out that the patient recognised explicitly the same mood of feeling known under those names in his former normal state, my theory would of course fall. It is, however, to me incredible that the patient should have an identical feeling, for the dropping out of the organic sounding-board would necessarily diminish its volume in some way. The teacher of Dr. Striimpell’s patient found a mental deficiency in him during his anaesthesia, that may possibly have been due to the consequences resulting to his general intellectual vivacity from the subtraction of so important a mass of feelings, even though they were not the whole of his emotional life. Whoever wishes to extract from the next case of total anaesthesia the maximum of knowledge about the emotions, will have to interrogate the patient with some such notion as that of my article in his mind. We can define the pure psychic emotions far better by starting from such an hypothesis and modifying it in the way of restriction and subtraction, than by having no definite hypothesis at all. Thus will the publication of my article have been justified, even thought the theory it advocates, rigorously taken, be erroneous.

The best thing I can say for it is, that in writing it, I have almost persuaded myself it may be true.


Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. The Stress Response System – Robert M. Sapolsky.

A primer about stress, stress related disease, and the mechanisms of coping with stress.


Perhaps you’re reading this while browsing in a bookstore. If so, glance over at the guy down the aisle when he’s not looking, the one pretending to be engrossed in the Stephen Hawking book. Take a good look at him. He’s probably not missing fingers from leprosy, or covered with smallpox scars, or shivering with malaria. Instead, he probably appears perfectly healthy, which is to say he has the same diseases that most of us have, cholesterol levels that are high for an ape, hearing that has become far less acute than in a hunter-gatherer of his age, a tendency to dampen his tension with Valium.

We in our Western society now tend to get different diseases than we used to. But what’s more important, we tend to get different kinds of diseases now, with very different causes and consequences. A millennium ago, a young hunter-gatherer inadvertently would eat a reedbuck riddled with anthrax and the consequences are clear, she’s dead a few days later. Now, the control of something else. Attention turned to the pituitary gland, sitting just underneath the brain. It was known that when the pituitary was damaged or diseased, hormonea young lawyer unthinkingly decides that red meat, fried foods, and a couple of beers per dinner constitute a desirable diet, and the consequences are anything but clear-a halfcentury later, maybe he’s crippled with cardiovascular disease, or maybe he’s taking bike trips with his grandkids. Which outcome occurs depends on some obvious nuts-and-bolts factors, like what his liver does with cholesterol, what levels of certain enzymes are in his fat cells, whether he has any congenital weaknesses in the walls of his blood vessels.

But the outcome will also depend heavily on such surprising factors as his personality, the amount of emotional stress he experiences over the years, whether he has someone’s shoulder to cry on when those stressors occur.

There has been a revolution in medicine concerning how we think about the diseases that now afflict us. It involves recognizing the interactions between the body and the mind, the ways in which emotions and personality can have a tremendous impact on the functioning and health of virtually every cell in the body. It is about the role of stress in making some of us more vulnerable to disease, the ways in which some of us cope with stressors, and the critical notion that you cannot really understand a disease in vacuo, but rather only in the context of the person suffering from that disease.

This is the subject of my book. I begin by trying to clarify the meaning of the nebulous concept of stress and to teach, with a minimum of pain, how various hormones and parts of the brain are mobilized in response to stress. I then focus on the links between stress and increased risk for certain types of disease, going, chapter by chapter, through the effects of stress on the circulatory system, on energy storage, on growth, reproduction, the immune system, and so on. Next I describe how the aging process may be influenced by the amount of stress experienced over a lifetime. I then examine the link between stress and the most common and arguably most crippling of psychiatric disorders, major depression. As part of updating the material for this third edition, l have added two new chapters: one on the interactions between stress and sleep, and one on what stress has to do with addiction. In addition, of the chapters that appeared in the previous edition, I rewrote about a third to half of the material.

Some of the news in this book is grim, sustained or repeated stress can disrupt our bodies in seemingly endless ways. Yet most of us are not incapacitated by stress-related disease. Instead, we cope, both physiologically and psychologically, and some of us are spectacularly successful at it. For the reader who has held on until the end, the final chapter reviews what is known about stress management and how some of its principles can be applied to our everyday lives. There is much to be optimistic about.

I believe that everyone can benefit from some of these ideas and can be excited by the science on which they are based. Science provides us with some of the most elegant, stimulating puzzles that life has to offer. It throws some of the most provocative ideas into our arenas of moral debate. Occasionally, it improves our lives. I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means that you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.

Thus I think that any science book for nonscientists should attempt to convey that excitement, to make the subject interesting and accessible even to those who would normally not be caught dead near the subject. That has been a particular goal of mine in this book. Often, it has meant simplifying complex ideas, and as a counterbalance to this, I include copious references at the end of the book, often with annotations concerning controversies and sularge body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions. btleties about material presented in the main text. These references are an excellent entrée for those readers who want something more detailed on the subject.

I am particularly grateful to the handful of people-friends, collaborators, colleagues, and eX-teachers-who, who took time out of their immensely busy schedules to read chapters. I shudder to think of the errors and distortions that would have remained had they not tactfully told me I didn’t know what I was writing about. I thank them all sincerely.

A number of people were instrumental in getting this book off the ground and into its final shape. Much of the material in these pages was developed in continuing medical education lectures. These were presented under the auspices of the institute for Cortext Research and Development, and its director, Will Gordon, who gave me much freedom and support in exploring this material.

I thank you all, and look forward to working with you in the future.

This book has been, for the most part, a pleasure to write and I think it reflects one of the things in my life for which I am most grateful, that I take so much joy in the science that is both my vocation and avocation. I thank the mentors who taught me to do science and, even more so, taught me to enjoy science.

Michelle Pearl, Serena Spudich, and Paul Stasi have wandered the basements of archival libraries, called strangers all over the world with questions, distilled arcane articles into coherency. In the line of duty, they have sought out drawings of opera castrati, the daily menu at Japanese American internment camps, the causes of voodoo death, and the history of firing squads. All of their research was done with spectacular competence, speed, and humor. I am fairly certain this book could not have been completed without their help and am absolutely certain its writing would have been much less enjoyable. And finally, I thank my agent, Katinka Matson, and my editor, Robin Dennis, who have been just terrific to work with. I look forward to many more years of collaborations ahead.

Parts of the book describe work carried out in my own laboratory, and these studies have been made possible by funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, the Sloan Foundation, the Klingenstein Fund, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the Adler Foundation. The African fieldwork described herein has been made possible by the longstanding generosity of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. Finally, l heartily thank the MacArthur Foundation for supporting all aspects of my work.

Finally, as will be obvious, this book cites the work of a tremendous number of scientists.

Contemporary lab science is typically carried out by large teams of people. Throughout the book, i refer to the work of “Jane Doe” or “John Smith” for the sake of brevity-it, it is almost always the case that such work was carried out by Doe or Smith along with a band of junior colleagues.

There is a tradition among stress physiologists who dedicate their books to their spouses or significant others, an unwritten rule that you are supposed to incorporate something cutesy about stress in the dedication. So, to Madge, who attenuates my stressors; for Arturo, the source of my eustress; for my wife who, over the course of the last umpteen years, has put up with my stress-induced hypertension, ulcerative colitis, loss of libido, and displaced aggression. I will forgo that style in the actual dedication of this book to my wife, as l have something simpler to say.


1 Why don’t zebras get ulcers?

It’s two o’clock in the morning and you’re lying in bed. You have something immensely important and challenging to do that next day, a critical meeting, a presentation, an exam. You have to get a decent night’s rest, but you’re still wide awake. You try different strategies for relaxing, take deep, slow breaths, try to imagine restful mountain scenery, but instead you keep thinking that unless you fall asleep in the next minute, your career is finished. Thus you lie there, more tense by the second.

If you do this on a regular basis, somewhere around two-thirty, when you’re really getting clammy, an entirely new, disruptive chain of thought will no doubt intrude. Suddenly, amid all your other worries, you begin to contemplate that nonspecific pain you’ve been having in your side, that sense of exhaustion lately, that frequent headache. The realization hits you-I’m sick, fatally sick! Oh, why didn’t I recognize the symptoms, why did I have to deny it, why didn’t I go to the doctor?

When it’s two-thirty on those mornings, I always have a brain tumor. These are very useful for that sort of terror, because you can attribute every conceivable nonspecific symptom to a brain tumor and justify your panic. Perhaps you do, too; or maybe you lie there thinking that you have cancer, or an ulcer, or that you’ve just had a stroke.

Even though I don’t know you, I feel confident in predicting that you don’t lie there thinking, “I just know it; l have leprosy.” True? You are exceedingly unlikely to obsess about getting a serious case of dysentery if it starts pouring. And few of us lie there feeling convinced that our bodies are teeming with intestinal parasites or liver flukes.

Of course not. Our nights are not filled with worries about scarlet fever, malaria, or bubonic plague. Cholera doesn’t run rampant through our communities; river blindness, black water fever, and elephantiasis are third world exotica. Few female readers will die in childbirth, and even fewer of those reading this page are likely to be malnourished.

Thanks to revolutionary advances in medicine and public health, our patterns of disease have changed, and we are no longer kept awake at night worrying about infectious diseases (except, of course, AIDS or tuberculosis) or the diseases of poor nutrition or hygiene. As a measure of this, consider the leading causes of death in the United States in 1900: pneumonia, tuberculosis, and influenza (and, if you were young, female, and inclined toward risk taking, childbirth). When is the last time you heard of scads of people dying of the flu? Yet the flu, in 1918 alone, killed many times more people than throughout the course of that most barbaric of conflicts, WWar 1.

Influenza pandemic, 1918.

Our current patterns of disease would be unrecognizable to our great-grandparents or, for that matter, to most mammals. Put succinctly, we get different diseases and are likely to die in different ways from most of our ancestors (or from most humans currently living in the less privileged areas of this planet). Our nights are filled with worries about a different class of diseases; we are now living well enough and long enough to slowly fall apart.

The diseases that plague us now are ones of slow accumulation of damage, heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disorders. While none of these diseases is particularly pleasant, they certainly mark a big improvement over succumbing at age twenty after a week of sepsis or dengue fever. Along with this relatively recent shift in the patterns of disease have come changes in the way we perceive the disease process. We have come to recognize the vastly complex intertwining of our biology and our emotions, the endless ways in which our personalities, feelings, and thoughts both reflect and influence the events in our bodies. One of the most interesting manifestations of this recognition is understanding that extreme emotional disturbances can adversely affect us. Put in the parlance with which we have grown familiar, stress can make us sick, and a critical shift in medicine has been the recognition that many of the damaging diseases of slow accumulation can be either caused or made far worse by stress.

In some respects this is nothing new. Centuries ago, sensitive clinicians intuitively recognized the role of individual differences in vulnerability to disease. Two individuals could get the same disease, yet the courses of their illness could be quite different and in vague, subjective ways might reflect the personal characteristics of the individuals. Or a clinician might have sensed that certain types of people were more likely to contract certain types of disease.

But since the twentieth century, the addition of rigorous science to these vague clinical perceptions has made stress physiology, the study of how the body responds to stressful events-a real discipline. As a result, there is now an extraordinary amount of physiological, biochemical, and molecular information available as to how all sorts of intangibles in our lives can affect very real bodily events. These intangibles can include emotional turmoil, psychological characteristics, our position in society, and how our society treats people of that position. And they can influence medical issues such as whether cholesterol gums up our blood vessels or is safely cleared from the circulation, whether our fat cells stop listening to insulin and plunge us into diabetes, whether neurons in our brain will survive five minutes without oxygen during a cardiac arrest.

This book is a primer about stress, stress related disease, and the mechanisms of coping with stress.

How is it that our bodies can adapt to some stressful emergencies, while other ones make us sick? Why are some of us especially vulnerable to stress-related diseases, and what does that have to do with our personalities? How can purely psychological turmoil make us sick? What might stress have to do with our vulnerability to depression, the speed at which we age, or how well our memories work? What do our patterns of stress-related diseases have to do with where we stand on the rungs of society’s ladder?

Finally, how can we increase the effectiveness with which we cope with the stressful world that surrounds us?

Some Initial Concepts

Perhaps the best way to begin is by making a mental list of the sorts of things we find stressful. No doubt you would immediately come up with some obvious examples traffic, deadlines, family relationships, money worries.

But what if I said, “You’re thinking like a speciocentric human. Think like a zebra for a second.” Suddenly, new items might appear at the top of your list, serious physical injury, predators, starvation. The need for that prompting illustrates something critical, you and l are more likely to get an ulcer than a zebra is. For animals like zebras, the most upsetting things in life are acute physical crises. You are that zebra, a lion has just leapt out and ripped your stomach open, you’ve managed to get away, and now you have to spend the next hour evading the lion as it continues to stalk you. Or, perhaps just as stressfully, you are that lion, half-starved, and you had better be able to sprint across the savanna at top speed and grab something to eat or you won’t survive. These are extremely stressful events, and they demand immediate physiological adaptations if you are going to live. Your body’s responses are brilliantly adapted for handling this sort of emergency.

An organism can also be plagued by chronic physical challenges. The locusts have eaten your crops, and for the next six months, you have to wander a dozen miles a day to get enough food. Drought, famine, parasites, that sort of unpleasantness, not the sort of experience we have often, but central events in the lives of nonwesternized humans and most other mammals. The body’s stress-responses are reasonably good at handling these sustained disasters.

Critical to this book is a third category of ways to get upset, psychological and social disruptions. Regardless of how poorly we are getting along with a family member or how incensed we are about losing a parking spot, we rarely settle that sort of thing with a fistfight. Likewise, it is a rare event when we have to stalk and personally wrestle down our dinner.

Essentially, we humans live well enough and long enough, and are smart enough, to generate all sorts of stressful events purely in our heads.

How many hippos worry about whether Social Security is going to last as long as they will, or what they are going to say on a first date? Viewed from the perspective of the evolution of the animal kingdom, sustained psychological stress is a recent invention, mostly limited to humans and other social primates. We can experience wildly strong emotions (provoking our bodies into an accompanying uproar) linked to mere thoughts? Two people can sit facing each other, doing nothing more physically strenuous than moving little pieces of wood now and then, yet this can be an emotionally taxing event: chess grand masters, during their tournaments, can place metabolic demands on their bodies that begin to approach those of athletes during the peak of a competitive event.

Or a person can do nothing more exciting than sign a piece of paper: if she has just signed the order to fire a hated rival after months of plotting and maneuvering, her physiological responses might be shockingly similar to those of a savanna baboon who has just lunged and slashed the face of a competitor. And if someone spends months on end twisting his innards in anxiety, anger, and tension over some emotional problem, this might very well lead to illness.

This is the critical point of this book: if you are that zebra running for your life, or that lion sprinting for your meal, your body’s physiological response mechanisms are superbly adapted for dealing with such short-term physical emergencies.

For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about a short-term crisis, after which it’s either over with or you’re over with.

When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses, but they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically. A large body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions.

This difference between the ways that we get stressed and the ways a zebra does lets us begin to wrestle with some definitions. To start, I must call forth a concept that you were tortured with in ninth-grade biology and hopefully have not had to think about since-homeostasis. Ah, that dimly remembered concept, the idea that the body has an ideal level of oxygen that it needs, an ideal degree of acidity, an ideal temperature, and so on. All these different variables are maintained in homeostatic balance, the state in which all sorts of physiological measures are being kept at the optimal level. The brain, it has been noted, has evolved to seek homeostasis.

This allows us to generate some simple initial working definitions that would suffice for a zebra or a lion. A stressor is anything in the outside world that knocks you out of homeostatic balance, and the stress-response is what your body does to reestablish homeostasis.

But when we consider ourselves and our human propensity to worry ourselves sick, we have to expand on the notion of stressors merely being things that knock you out of homeostatic balance. A stressor can also be the anticipation of that happening. Sometimes we are smart enough to see things coming and, based only on anticipation, can turn on a stress-response as robust as if the event had actually occurred.

Some aspects of anticipatory stress are not unique to humans whether, you are a human surrounded by a bunch of thugs in a deserted subway station or a zebra face to face with a lion, your heart is probably racing, even though nothing physically damaging has occurred (yet). But unlike less cognitively sophisticated species, we can turn on the stress-response by thinking about potential stressors that may throw us out of homeostatic balance far in the future. For example, think of the African farmer watching a swarm of locusts descend on his crops. He has eaten an adequate breakfast and is not suffering the homeostatic imbalance of starving, but that farmer will still be undergoing a stress-response. Zebras and lions may see trouble coming in the next minute and mobilize a stress-response in anticipation, but they can’t get stressed about events far in the future.

And sometimes we humans can be stressed by things that simply make no sense to zebras or lions. It is not a general mammalian trait to become anxious about mortgages or the Internal Revenue Service, about public speaking or fears of what you will say in a job interview, about the inevitability of death. Our human experience is replete with psychological stressors, a far cry from the physical world of hunger, injury, blood loss, or temperature extremes. When we activate the stress-response out of fear of something that turns out to be real, we congratulate ourselves that this cognitive skill allows us to mobilize our defenses early. And these anticipatory defenses can be quite protective, in that a lot of what the stress-response is about is preparative. But when we get into a physiological uproar and activate the stress-response for no reason at all, or over something we cannot do anything about, we call it things like “anxiety,” “neurosis, paranoia,” or “needless hostility.”

Thus, the stress-response can be mobilized not only in response to physical or psychological insults, but also in expectation of them. It is this generality of the stress-response that is the most surprising, a physiological system activated not only by all sorts of physical disasters but by just thinking about them as well. This generality was first appreciated about sixty-five years ago by one of the godfathers of stress physiology, Hans Selye. To be only a bit facetious, stress physiology exists as a discipline because this man was both a very insightful scientist and lame at handling lab rats.

In the 1930s, Selye was just beginning his work in endocrinology, the study of hormonal communication in the body. Naturally, as a young, unheard-of assistant professor, he was fishing around for something with which to start his research career. A biochemist down the hall had just isolated some sort of extract from the ovary, and colleagues were wondering what this ovarian extract did to the body. So Selye obtained some of the stuff from the biochemist and set about studying its effects. He attempted to inject his rats daily, but apparently not with a great display of dexterity. Selye would try to inject the rats, miss them, drop them, spend half the morning chasing the rats around the room or vice versa, flailing with a broom to get them out from behind the sink, and so on. At the end of a number of months of this, Selye examined the rats and discovered something extraordinary: the rats had peptic ulcers, greatly enlarged adrenal glands (the source of two important stress hormones), and shrunken immune tissues. He was delighted; he had discovered the effects of the mysterious ovarian extract.

Being a good scientist, he ran a control group: rats injected daily with saline alone, instead of the ovarian extract. And, thus, every day they too were injected, dropped, chased, and chased back. At the end, lo and behold, the control rats had the same peptic ulcers, enlarged adrenal glands, and atrophy of tissues of the immune system.

Now, your average budding scientist at this point might throw up his or her hands and furtively apply to business school. But Selye, instead, reasoned through what he had observed. The physiological changes couldn’t be due to the ovarian extract after all, since the same changes occurred in both the control and the experimental groups. What did the two groups of rats have in common? Selye reasoned that it was his less than trauma free injections. Perhaps, he thought, these changes in the rats’ bodies were some sort of nonspecific responses of the body to generic unpleasantness. To test this idea, he put some rats on the roof of the research building in the winter, others down in the boiler room. Still others were exposed to forced exercise, or to surgical procedures. In all cases, he found increased incidences of peptic ulcers, adrenal enlargement, and atrophy of immune tissues.

We know now exactly what Selye was observing. He had just discovered the tip of the iceberg of stress-related disease. Legend (mostly promulgated by Selye himself) has it that Selye was the person who, searching for a way to describe the nonspecificity of the unpleasantness to which the rats were responding, borrowed a term from physics and proclaimed that the rats were undergoing “stress.” In fact, by the 1920s the term had already been introduced to medicine in roughly the sense that we understand it today by a physiologist named Walter Cannon. What Selye did was to formalize the concept with two ideas:

1. The body has a surprisingly similar set of responses (which he called the general adaptation syndrome, but which we now call the stress-response) to a broad array of stressors.

2. If stressors go on for too long, they can make you sick.

Appropriate Concept of Allostasis

The homeostasis concept has been modified in recent years in work originated by Peter Sterling and Joseph Eyer of the University of Pennsylvania and extended by Bruce McEwen of Rockefeller University. They have produced a new framework that I steadfastly tried to ignore at first and have now succumbed to, because it brilliantly modernizes the homeostasis concept in a way that works even better in making sense of stress (although not all folks in my business have embraced it, using “old wine in a new bottle” imagery).

The original conception of homeostasis was grounded in two ideas. First, there is a single optimal level, number, amount for any given measure in the body. But that can’t be true, after all, the ideal blood pressure when you’re sleeping is likely to be different than when you’re ski jumping. What’s ideal under basal conditions is different than during stress, something central to allostatic thinking. (The field uses this Zen-ish sound bite about how allostasis is about “constancy through change.” I’m not completely sure I understand what that means, but it always elicits meaningful and reinforcing nods when I toss it out in a lecture.)

The second idea in homeostasis is that you reach that ideal set point through some local regulatory mechanism, whereas allostasis recognizes that any given set point can be regulated in a zillion different ways, each with its own consequences. Thus, suppose there’s a water shortage in California. Homeostatic solution: mandate smaller toilet tanks; Allostatic solutions: smaller toilet tanks, convince people to conserve water, buy rice from Southeast Asia instead of doing water-intensive farming in a semi-arid state. Or suppose there’s a water shortage in your body. Homeostatic solution: kidneys are the ones that figure this out, tighten things up there, produce less urine for water conservation. Allostatic solutions: brain figures this out, tells the kidneys to do their thing, sends signals to withdraw water from parts of your body where it easily evaporates (skin, mouth, nose), makes you feel thirsty. Homeostasis is about tinkering with this valve or that gizmo. Allostasis is about the brain coordinating body-wide changes, often including changes in behavior.

A final feature of allostatic thinking dovetails beautifully with thinking about stressed humans. The body doesn’t pull off all this regulatory complexity only to correct some set point that has gone awry. It can also make allostatic changes in anticipation of a set point that is likely to go awry. And thus we hark back to the critical point of a few pages backwards, don’t get stressed being chased by predators. We activate the stressresponse in anticipation of challenges, and typically those challenges are the purely psychological and social tumult that would make no sense to a zebra. We’ll be returning repeatedly to what allostasis has to say about stress-related disease.

What Your Body Does to Adapt To an Acute Stressor

Within this expanded framework, a stressor can be defined as anything that throws your body out of allostatic balance and the stress-response is your body’s attempt to restore allostasis. The secretion of certain hormones, the inhibition of others, the activation of particular parts of the nervous system, and so on. And regardless of the stressor, injured, starving, too hot, too cold, or psychologically stressed, you turn on the same stress-response.

It is this generality that is puzzling. If you are trained in physiology, it makes no sense at first glance. ln physiology, one is typically taught that specific challenges to the body trigger specific responses and adaptations. Warming a body causes sweating and dilation of blood vessels in the skin. Chilling a body causes just the opposite, constriction of those vessels and shivering. Being too hot seems to be a very specific and different physiological challenge from being too cold, and it would seem logical that the body’s responses to these two very different states should be extremely different. Instead, what kind of crazy bodily system is this that is turned on whether you are too hot or too cold, whether you are the zebra, the lion, or a terrified adolescent going to a high school dance? Why should your body have such a generalized and stereotypical stress-response, regardless of the predicament you find yourself in?

When you think about it, it actually makes sense, given the adaptations brought about by the stress-response. If you’re some bacterium stressed by food shortage, you go into a suspended, dormant state. But if you’re a starving lion, you’re going to have to run after someone. If you’re some plant stressed by someone intent on eating you, you stick poisonous chemicals in your leaves. But if you’re a zebra being chased by that lion, you have to run for it.

For us vertebrates, the core of the stress-response is built around the fact that your muscles are going to work like crazy. And thus the muscles need energy, right now, in the most readily utilizable form, rather than stored away somewhere in your fat cells for some building project next spring. One of the hallmarks of the stress-response is the rapid mobilization of energy from storage sites and the inhibition of further storage. Glucose and the simplest forms of proteins and fats come pouring out of your fat cells, liver, and muscles, all to stoke whichever muscles are struggling to save your neck.

If your body has mobilized all that glucose, it also needs to deliver it to the critical muscles as rapidly as possible. Heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate increase, all to transport nutrients and oxygen at greater rates.

Equally logical is another feature of the stress response. During an emergency, it makes sense that your body halts long-term, expensive building projects. If there is a tornado bearing down on the house, this isn’t the day to repaint the garage. Hold off on the long-term projects until you know there is a long term. Thus, during stress, digestion is inhibited-there isn’t enough time to derive the energetic benefits of the slow process of digestion, so why waste energy on it? You have better things to do than digest breakfast when you are trying to avoid being someone’s lunch. The same thing goes for growth and reproduction, both expensive, optimistic things to be doing with your body (especially if you are female). If the lion’s on your tail, two steps behind you, worry about ovulating or growing antlers or making sperm some other time. During stress, growth and tissue repair is curtailed, sexual drive decreases in both sexes; females are less likely to ovulate or to carry pregnancies to term, while males begin to have trouble with erections and secrete less testosterone.

Along with these changes, immunity is also inhibited. The immune system, which defends against infections and illness, is ideal for spotting the tumor cell that will kill you in a year, or making enough antibodies to protect you in a few weeks, but is it really needed this instant? The logic here appears to be the same, look for tumors some other time; expend the energy more wisely now. (As we will see, there are some major problems with this idea that the immune system is suppressed during stress in order to save energy. But that idea will suffice for the moment.)

Another feature of the stress-response becomes apparent during times of extreme physical pain. With sufficiently sustained stress, our perception of pain can become blunted. It’s the middle of a battle; soldiers are storming a stronghold with wild abandon. A soldier is shot, grievously injured, and the man doesn’t even notice it. He’ll see blood on his clothes and worry that one of his buddies near him has been wounded, or he’ll wonder why his innards feel numb. As the battle fades, someone will point with amazement at his injury-didn’t it hurt like hell? It didn’t. Such stress-induced analgesia is highly adaptive and well documented. If you are that zebra and your innards are dragging in the dust, you still have to escape. Now would not be a particularly clever time to go into shock from extreme pain.

Finally, during stress, shifts occur in cognitive and sensory skills. Suddenly certain aspects of memory improve, which is always helpful if you’re trying to figure out how to get out of an emergency (Has this happened before? Is there a good hiding place?). Moreover, your senses become sharper. Think about watching a terrifying movie on television, on the edge of your seat at the tensest part. The slightest noise, a creaking door, and you nearly jump out of your skin. Better memory, sharper detection of sensations-all quite adaptive and helpful.

Collectively, the stress-response is ideally adapted for that zebra or lion. Energy is mobilized and delivered to the tissues that need them; longterm building and repair projects are deferred until the disaster has passed. Pain is blunted, cognition sharpened.

Walter Cannon, the physiologist who, at the beginning of the century, paved the way for much of Selye’s work and is generally considered the other godfather of the field, concentrated on the adaptive aspect of the stress-response in dealing with emergencies such as these. He formulated the well-known “fight-or-flight” syndrome to describe the stress-response, and he viewed it in a very positive light. His books, with titles such as The Wisdom of the Body, were suffused with a pleasing optimism about the ability of the body to weather all sorts of stressors.

Yet stressful events can sometimes make us sick. Why?

Selye, with his ulcerated rats, wrestled with this puzzle and came up with an answer that was sufficiently wrong that it is generally thought to have cost him a Nobel Prize for all his other work.

He developed a three-part view of how the stress response worked. In the initial (alarm) stage a stressor is noted; metaphorical alarms go off in your head, telling you that you are hemorrhaging, too cold, low on blood sugar, or whatever.

The second stage (adaptation, or resistance) comes with the successful mobilization of the stressresponse system and the reattainment of allostatic balance.

It is with prolonged stress that one enters the third stage, which Selye termed “exhaustion,” where stress-related diseases emerge. Selye believed that one becomes sick at that point because stores of the hormones secreted during the stress-response are depleted. Like an army that runs out of ammunition, suddenly we have no defenses left against the threatening stressor.

It is very rare, however, as we will see, that any of the crucial hormones are actually depleted during even the most sustained of stressors. The army does not run out of bullets. Instead, the body spends so much on the defense budget that it neglects education and health care and social services (okay, so I may have a hidden agenda here).

It is not so much that the stress-response runs out, but rather, with sufficient activation, that the stress-response can become more damaging than the stressor itself, especially when the stress is purely psychological. This is a critical concept, because it underlies the emergence of much stress-related disease.

That the stress-response itself can become harmful makes a certain sense when you examine the things that occur in reaction to stress. They are generally shortsighted, inefficient, and pennywise and dollar-foolish, but they are the sorts of costly things your body has to do to respond effectively in an emergency. And if you experience every day as an emergency, you will pay the price.

If you constantly mobilize energy at the cost of energy storage, you will never store any surplus energy. You will fatigue more rapidly, and your risk of developing a form of diabetes will even increase. The consequences of chronically activating your cardiovascular system are similarly damaging: if your blood pressure rises to 180/100 when you are sprinting away from a lion, you are being adaptive, but if it is 180/100 every time you see the mess in your teenager’s bedroom, you could be heading for a cardiovascular disaster.

If you constantly turn off long-term building projects, nothing is ever repaired. For paradoxical reasons that will be explained in later chapters, you become more at risk for peptic ulcers. In kids, growth can be inhibited to the point of a rare but recognized pediatric endocrine disorder, stress dwarfism, and in adults, repair and remodeling of bone and other tissues can be disrupted. If you are constantly under stress, a variety of reproductive disorders may ensue. In females, menstrual cycles can become irregular or cease entirely; in males, sperm count and testosterone levels may decline. In both sexes, interest in sexual behavior decreases.

But that is only the start of your problems in response to chronic or repeated stressors. If you suppress immune function too long and too much, you are now more likely to fall victim to a number of infectious diseases, and be less capable of combating them once you have them.

Finally, the same systems of the brain that function more cleverly during stress can also be damaged by one class of hormones secreted during stress. As will be discussed, this may have something to do with how rapidly our brains lose cells during aging, and how much memory loss occurs with old age.

All of this is pretty grim. In the face of repeated stressors, we may be able to precariously reattain allostasis, but it doesn’t come cheap, and the efforts to reestablish that balance will eventually wear us down.

Here’s a way to think about it: the “two elephants on a seesaw” model of stressrelated disease. Put two little kids on a seesaw, and they can pretty readily balance themselves on it. This is allostatic balance when nothing stressful is going on, with the children representing the low levels of the various stress hormones that will be presented in coming chapters. In contrast, the torrents of those same stress hormones released by a stressor can be thought of as two massive elephants on the seesaw. With great effort, they can balance themselves as well. But if you constantly try to balance a seesaw with two elephants instead of two little kids, all sorts of problems will emerge:

– First, the enormous potential energies of the two elephants are consumed balancing the seesaw, instead of being able to do something more useful, like mowing the lawn or paying the bills. This is equivalent to diverting energy from various long-term building projects in order to solve short-term stressful emergencies.

– By using two elephants to do the job, damage will occur just because of how large, lumbering, and unsubtle elephants are. They squash the flowers in the process of entering the playground, they strew leftovers and garbage all over the place from the frequent snacks they must eat while balancing the seesaw, they wear out the seesaw faster, and so on. This is equivalent to a pattern of stress-related disease that will run through many of the subsequent chapters: it is hard to fix one major problem in the body without knocking something else out of balance (the very essence of allostasis spreading across systems throughout the body). Thus, you may be able to solve one bit of imbalance brought on during stress by using your elephants (your massive levels of various stress hormones), but such great quantities of those hormones can make a mess of something else in the process. And a long history of doing this produces wear and tear throughout the body, termed allostatic load.

– A final, subtle problem: when two elephants are balanced on a seesaw, it’s tough for them to get off. Either one hops off and the other comes crashing to the ground, or there’s the extremely delicate task of coordinating their delicate, lithe leaps at the same time. This is a metaphor for another theme that will run through subsequent chapters, sometimes stress-related disease can arise from turning off the stress response too slowly, or turning off the different components of the stress response at different speeds. When the secretion rate of one of the hormones of the stress response returns to normal yet another of the hormones is still being secreted like mad, it can be the equivalent of one elephant suddenly being left alone on the seesaw, crashing to earth?

The preceding pages should allow you to begin to appreciate the two punch lines of this book:

The first is that if you plan to get stressed like a normal mammal, dealing with an acute physical challenge, and you cannot appropriately turn on the stress-response, you’re in big trouble. To see this, all you have to do is examine someone who cannot activate the stress-response. As will be explained in the coming chapters, two critical classes of hormones are secreted during stress. In one disorder, Addison’s disease, you are unable to secrete one class of these hormones.

In another, called Shy-Drager syndrome, it is the secretion of the second class of hormones that is impaired. People with Addison’s disease or Shy Drager syndrome are not more at risk for cancer or diabetes or any other such disorders of slow accumulation of damage. However, people with untreated Addison’s disease, when faced with a major stressor such as a car accident or an infectious illness, fall into an “Addisonian” crisis, where their blood pressure drops, they cannot maintain circulation, they go into shock. In Shy-Drager syndrome, it is hard enough simply to stand up, let alone go sprinting after a zebra for dinner-mere standing causes a severe drop in blood pressure, involuntary twitching and rippling of muscles, dizziness, all sorts of unpleasantness.

These two diseases teach something important, namely, that you need the stress-response during physical challenges. Addison’s and Shy-Drager represent catastrophic failures of turning on the stress-response. In coming chapters, I will discuss some disorders that involve subtler undersecretion of stress hormones. These include chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, a subtype of depression, critically ill patients, and possibly individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder.

That first punch line is obviously critical, especially for the zebra who occasionally has to run for its life. But the second punch line is far more relevant to us, sitting frustrated in traffic jams, worrying about expenses, mulling over tense interactions with colleagues. If you repeatedly turn on the stress-response, or if you cannot turn off the stress-response at the end of a stressful event, the stress-response can eventually become damaging.

A large percentage of what we think of when we talk about stress related diseases are disorders of excessive stress-responses.

A few important qualifications are necessary concerning that last statement, which is one of the central ideas of this book. On a superficial level, the message it imparts might seem to be that stressors make you sick or, as emphasized in the last few pages, that chronic or repeated stressors make you sick. It is actually more accurate to say that chronic or repeated stressors can potentially make you sick or can increase your risk of being sick. Stressors, even if massive, repetitive, or chronic in nature, do not automatically lead to illness. And the theme of the last section of this book is to make sense of why some people develop stress-related diseases more readily than others, despite the same stressor.

An additional point should be emphasized. To state that “chronic or repeated stressors can increase your risk of being sick” is actually incorrect, but in a subtle way that will initially seem like semantic nit-picking. It is never really the case that stress makes you sick, or even increases your risk of being sick. Stress increases your risk of getting diseases that make you sick, or if you have such a disease, stress increases the risk of your defenses being overwhelmed by the disease. This distinction is important in a few ways.

First, by putting more steps between a stressor and getting sick, there are more explanations for individual differences, why only some people wind up actually getting sick. Moreover, by clarifying the progression between stressors and illness, it becomes easier to design ways to intervene in the process.

Finally, it begins to explain why the stress concept often seems so suspect or slippery to many medical practitioners, clinical medicine is traditionally quite good at being able to make statements like “You feel sick because you have disease X,” but is usually quite bad at being able to explain why you got disease X in the first place. Thus, medical practitioners often say, in effect, “You feel sick because you have disease X, not because of some nonsense having to do with stress; however, this ignores the stressors’ role in bringing about or worsening the disease in the first place.

With this framework in mind, we can now begin the task of understanding the individual steps in this system. Chapter 2 introduces the hormones and brain systems involved in the stress response: which ones are activated during stress, which ones are inhibited? This leads the way to chapters 3 through 10, which examine the individual systems of your body that are affected.

How do those hormones enhance cardiovascular tone during stress, and how does chronic stress cause heart disease? How do those hormones and neural systems mobilize energy during stress, and how does too much stress cause energetic diseases (chapter 4)?

Chapter 11 examines the interactions between stress and sleep, focusing on the vicious circle of how stress can disrupt sleep and how sleep deprivation is a stressor.

Chapter 12 examines the role of stress in the aging process and the disturbing recent findings that sustained exposure to certain of the hormones secreted during stress may actually accelerate the aging of the brain. As will be seen, these processes are often more complicated and subtle than they may seem from the simple picture presented in this chapter.

Chapter 13 ushers in a topic obviously of central importance to understanding our own propensity toward stress-related disease: why is psychological stress stressful? This serves as a prelude to the remaining chapters.

Chapter 14. reviews major depression, a horrible psychiatric malady that afflicts vast numbers of us and is often closely related to psychological stress.

Chaptrr 15 discusses what personality differences have to do with individual differences in patterns of stress-related disease. This is the world of anxiety disorders and Type A-ness, plus some surprises about unexpected links between personality and the stress-response.

Chapter 16 considers a puzzling issue that lurks throughout reading this book, sometimes stress feels good, good enough that we’ll pay good money to be stressed by a scary movie or roller-coaster ride. Thus, the chapter considers when stress is a good thing, and the interactions between the sense of pleasure that can be triggered by some stressors and the process of addiction.

Chapter 17 focuses above the level of the individual, looking at what your place in society, and the type of society in which you live, has to do with patterns of stress-related disease. If you plan to go no further, here’s one of the punch lines of that chapter:

If you want to increase your chances of avoiding stress-related diseases, make sure you don’t inadvertently allow yourself to be born poor.

In many ways, the ground to be covered up to the final chapter is all bad news, as we are regaled with the evidence about new and unlikely parts of our bodies and minds that are made miserable by stress.

The final chapter is meant to give some hope. Given the same external stressors, certain bodies and certain psyches deal with stress better than others. What are those folks doing right, and what can the rest of us learn from them? We’ll look at the main principles of stress management and some surprising and exciting realms in which they have been applied with stunning success. While the intervening chapters document our numerous vulnerabilities to stress-related disease, the final chapter shows that we have an enormous potential to protect ourselves from many of them. Most certainly, all is not lost.


2 Glands, Gooseflesh, and Hormones

In order to begin the process of learning how stress can make us sick, there is something about the workings of the brain that we have to appreciate. It is perhaps best illustrated in the following rather technical paragraph from an early investigator in the field:

As she melted small and wonderful in his arms, she became infinitely desirable to him, all his blood vessels seemed to scald with intense yet tender desire, for her, for her softness, for the penetrating beauty of her in his arms, passing into his blood. And softly, with that marvelous swoon-like caress of his hand in pure soft desire, softly he stroked the silky slope of her loins, down, down between her soft, warm buttocks, coming nearer and nearer to the very quick of her. And she felt him like a flame of desire, yet tender, and she felt herself melting in the flame. She let herself go. She felt his penis risen against her with silent amazing force and assertion, and she let herself go to him. She yielded with a quiver that was like death, she went all open to him.

Now think about this. If D. H. Lawrence is to your taste, there may be some interesting changes occurring in your body. You haven’t just run up a flight of stairs, but maybe your heart is beating faster. The temperature has not changed in the room, but you may have just activated a sweat gland or two. And even though certain rather sensitive parts of your body are not being overtly stimulated by touch, you are suddenly very aware of them.

You sit in your chair not moving a muscle, and simply think a thought, a thought having to do with feeling angry or sad or euphoric or lustful, and suddenly your pancreas secretes some hormone. Your pancreas? How did you manage to do that with your pancreas? You don’t even know where your pancreas is. Your liver is making an enzyme that wasn’t there before, your spleen is text-messaging something to your thymus gland, blood flow in little capillaries in your ankles has just changed. All from thinking a thought.

We all understand intellectually that the brain can regulate functions throughout the rest of the body, but it is still surprising to be reminded of how far-reaching those effects can be. The purpose of this chapter is to learn a bit about the lines of communication between the brain and elsewhere, in order to see which sites are activated and which are quieted when you are sitting in your chair and feeling severely stressed.

This is a prerequisite for seeing how the stressresponse can save your neck during a sprint across the savanna, but make you sick during months of worry.

Stress and the Autonomic Nervous System

Outline of some of the effects of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems on various organs and glands.

The principal way in which your brain can tell the rest of the body what to do is to send messages through the nerves that branch from your brain down your spine and out to the periphery of your body. One dimension of this communication system is pretty straightforward and familiar. The voluntary nervous system is a conscious one. You decide to move a muscle and it happens. This part of the nervous system allows you to shake hands or fill out your tax forms or do a polka.

It is another branch of the nervous system that projects to organs besides skeletal muscle, and this part controls the other interesting things your body does, blushing, getting gooseflesh, having an orgasm. In general, we have less control over what our brain says to our sweat glands, for example, than to our thigh muscles. (The workings of this automatic nervous system are not entirely out of our control, however; biofeedback, for example, consists of learning to alter this automatic function consciously. Potty training is another example of us gaining mastery. On a more mundane level, we are doing the same thing when we repress a loud burp during a wedding ceremony. The set of nerve projections to places like sweat glands carry messages that are relatively involuntary and automatic.

It is thus termed the autonomic nervous system, and it has everything to do with your response to stress. One half of this system is activated in response to stress, one half is suppressed. The half of the autonomic nervous system that is turned on is called the sympathetic nervous system. Originating in the brain, sympathetic projections exit your spine and branch out to nearly every organ, every blood vessel, and every sweat gland in your body. They even project to the scads of tiny little muscles attached to hairs on your body. If you are truly terrified by something and activate those projections, your hair stands on end; gooseflesh results when the parts of your body are activated where those muscles exist but lack hairs attached to them.

The sympathetic nervous system kicks into action during emergencies, or what you think are emergencies. It helps mediate vigilance, arousal, activation, mobilization. To generations of firstyear medical students, it is described through the obligatory lame joke about the sympathetic nervous system mediating the four F’s of behavior -flight, fight, fright, and sex. It is the archetypal system that is turned on at times when life gets exciting or alarming, such as during stress. The nerve endings of this system release adrenaline. When someone jumps out from behind a door and startles you, it’s your sympathetic nervous system releasing adrenaline that causes your stomach to clutch. Sympathetic nerve endings also release the closely related substance noradrenaline. (Adrenaline and noradrenaline are actually British designations; the American terms, which will be used from now on, are epinephrine and norepinephrine.)

Epinephrine is secreted as a result of the actions of the sympathetic nerve endings in your adrenal glands (located just above your kidneys); norepinephrine is secreted by all the other sympathetic nerve endings throughout the body. These are the chemical messengers that kick various organs into gear, within seconds.

The other half of the autonomic nervous system plays an opposing role. This parasympathetic component mediates calm, vegetative activities everything but the four F’s. If you are a growing kid and you have gone to sleep, your parasympathetic system is activated. It promotes growth, energy storage, and other optimistic processes. Have a huge meal, sit there bloated and happily drowsy, and the parasympathetic is going like gangbusters. Sprint for your life across the savanna, gasping and trying to control the panic, and you’ve turned the parasympathetic component down.

Thus, the autonomic system works in opposition: sympathetic and parasympathetic projections from the brain course their way out to a particular organ where, when activated, they bring about opposite results. The sympathetic system speeds up the heart; the parasympathetic system slows it down. The sympathetic system diverts blood flow to your muscles; the parasympathetic does the opposite. It’s no surprise that it would be a disaster if both branches were very active at the same time, kind of like putting your foot on the gas and brake simultaneously. Lots of safety features exist to make sure that does not happen. For example, the parts of the brain that activate one of the two branches typicaliy inhibit the other.

Your Brain: The Real Master Gland

The neural route represented by the sympathetic system is a first means by which the brain can mobilize waves of activity in response to a stressor. There is another way as well-through the secretion of hormones.

If a neuron (a cell of the nervous system) secretes a chemical messenger that travels a thousandth of an inch and causes the next cell in line (typically, another neuron) to do something different, that messenger is called a neurotransmitter. Thus, when the sympathetic nerve endings in your heart secrete norepinephrine, which causes heart muscle to work differently, norepinephrine is playing a neurotransmitter role. If a neuron (or any cell) secretes a messenger that, instead, percolates into the bloodstream and affects events far and wide, that messenger is a hormone. All sorts of glands secrete hormones; the secretion of some of them is turned on during stress, and the secretion of others is turned off.

What does the brain have to do with all of these glands secreting hormones? People used to think, “Nothing.”

The assumption was that the peripheral glands of the body, your pancreas, your adrenal, your ovaries, your testes, and so on, in some mysterious way “knew” what they were doing, had “minds of their own.” They would “decide” when to secrete their messengers, without directions from any other organ. This erroneous idea gave rise to a rather silly fad during the early part of the twentieth century. Scientists noted that men’s sexual drive declined with age, and assumed that this occurs because the testicles of aging men secrete less male sex hormone, testosterone. (Actually, no one knew about the hormone testosterone at the time; they just referred to mysterious “male factors” in the testes. And in fact, testosterone levels do not plummet with age. Instead, the decline is moderate and highly variable from one male to the next, and even a decline in testosterone to perhaps 10 percent of normal levels does not have much of an effect on sexual behavior.)

Making another leap, they then ascribed aging to diminishing sexual drive, to lower levels of male factors. (One may then wonder why females, without testes, manage to grow old, but the female half of the population didn’t figure much in these ideas back then.) How, then, to reverse aging? Give the aging males some testicular extracts.

Soon, aged, monied gentlemen were checking into impeccable Swiss sanitariums and getting injected daily in their rears with testicular extracts from dogs, from roosters, from monkeys. You could even go out to the stockyards of the sanitarium and pick out the goat of your choicejust like picking lobsters in a restaurant (and more than one gentleman arrived for his appointment with his own prized animal in tow).

This soon led to an offshoot of such “rejuvenation therapy,” namely, “organotherapy”, the grafting of little bits of testes themselves. Thus was born the “monkey gland” craze, the term gland being used because journalists were forbidden to print the racy word testes. Captains of industry, heads of state, at least one pope, all signed up. And in the aftermath of the carnage of World War I, there was such a shortage of young men and such a surfeit of marriages of younger women to older men, that therapy of this sort seemed pretty important.

Advertisement, New York Therapeutic Review, 1893.

Naturally, the problem was that it didn’t work. There wasn’t any testosterone in the testicular extracts-patients would be injected with a waterbased extract, and testosterone does not go into solution in water. And the smidgens of organs that were transplanted would die almost immediately, with the scar tissue being mistaken for a healthy graft. And even if they didn’t die, they still wouldn’t work, if aging testes are secreting less testosterone, it is not because the testes are failing, but because another organ (stay tuned) is no longer telling them to do so. Put in a brand-new set of testes and they should fail also, for lack of a stimulatory signal. But not a problem. Nearly everyone reported wondrous results anyway. If you’re paying a fortune for painful daily injections of extracts of some beast’s testicles, there’s a certain incentive to decide you feel like a young bull. One big placebo effect.

With time, scientists figured out that the testes and other peripheral hormone-secreting glands were not autonomous, but were under the control of something else. Attention turned to the pituitary gland, sitting just underneath the brain. It was known that when the pituitary was damaged or diseased, hormone secretion throughout the body became disordered. In the early part of the century, careful experiments showed that a peripheral gland releases its hormone only if the pituitary first releases a hormone that kicks that gland into action.

The pituitary contains a whole array of hormones that run the show throughout the rest of the body; it is the pituitary that actually knows the game plan and regulates what all the other glands do. This realization gave rise to the memorable cliché that the pituitary is the master gland of the body.

This understanding was disseminated far and wide, mostly in the Reader’s Digest, which ran the “I Am Joe’s” series of articles (“I Am Joe’s Pancreas,” “I Am Joe’s Shinbone,” “I Am Joe’s Ovaries,” and so on). By the third paragraph of “I Am Joe’s Pituitary,” out comes that master gland business. By the 1950s, however, scientists were already learning that the pituitary wasn’t the master gland after all.

The simplest evidence was that if you removed the pituitary from a body and put it in a small bowl filled with pituitary nutrients, the gland would act abnormally. Various hormones that it would normally secrete were no longer secreted. Sure, you might say, remove any organ and throw it in some nutrient soup and it isn’t going to be good for much of anything. But, interestingly, while this “explanted” pituitary stopped secreting certain hormones, it secreted others at immensely high rates. It wasn’t just that the pituitary was traumatized and had shut down. It was acting erratically because, it turned out, the pituitary didn’t really have the whole hormonal game plan. It would normally be following orders from the brain, and there was no brain on hand in that small bowl to give directions.

The evidence for this was relatively easy to obtain. Destroy the part of the brain right near the pituitary and the pituitary stops secreting some hormones and secretes too much of others. This tells you that the brain controls certain pituitary hormones by stimulating their release and controls others by inhibiting them.

The problem was to figure out how the brain did this. By all logic, you would look for nerves to project from the brain to the pituitary (like the nerve projections to the heart and elsewhere), and for the brain to release neurotransmitters that called the shots. But no one could find these projections.

In 1944, the physiologist Geoffrey Harris proposed that the brain was also a hormonal gland, that it released hormones that traveled to the pituitary and directed the pituitary’s actions. in principle, this was not a crazy idea; a quarter-century before, one of the godfathers of the field, Ernst Scharrer, had shown that some other hormones, thought to originate from a peripheral gland, were actually made in the brain. Nevertheless, lots of scientists thought Harris’s idea was bonkers. You can get hormones from peripheral glands like ovaries, testes, pancreas-but, but your brain oozing hormones? Preposterous! This seemed not only scientifically implausible but somehow also an unseemly and indecorous thing for your brain to be doing, as opposed to writing sonnets.

Two scientists, Roger Guillemin and Andrew Schally, began looking for these brain hormones. This was a stupendously difficult task. The brain communicates with the pituitary by a minuscule circulatory system, only slightly larger than the period at the end of this sentence. You couldn’t search for these hypothetical brain “releasing hormones” and “inhibiting hormones” in the general circulation of blood; if the hormones existed, by the time they reached the voluminous general circulation, they would be diluted beyond detection. Instead, you would have to search in the tiny bits of tissue at the base of the brain containing those blood vessels going from the brain to the pituitary.

Not a trivial task, but these two scientists were up to it. They were highly motivated by the abstract intellectual puzzle of these hormones, by their potential clinical applications, by the acclaim waiting at the end of this scientific rainbow. Plus, the two of them loathed each other, which invigorated the quest. Initially, in the late 1950s, Guillemin and Schally collaborated in the search for these brain hormones. Perhaps one tired evening over the test tube rack, one of them dissed the other in some way, the actual events have sunk into historical obscurity; in any case a notorious animosity resulted, one enshrined in the annals of science at least on a par with the Greeks versus the Trojans, maybe even with Coke versus Pepsi. Guillemin and Schally went their separate ways, each intent on being the first to isolate the putative brain hormones.

How do you isolate a hormone that may not exist or that, even if it does, occurs in tiny amounts in a minuscule circulation system to which you can’t gain access? Both Guillemin and Schally hit on the same strategy. They started collecting animal brains from slaughterhouses. Cut out the part at the base of the brain, near the pituitary. Throw a bunch of those in a blender, pour the resulting brain mash into a giant test tube filled with chemicals that purify the mash, collect the droplets that come out the other end. Then inject those droplets into a rat and see if the rat’s pituitary changes its pattern of hormone release. If it does, maybe those brain droplets contain one of those imagined releasing or inhibiting hormones. Try to purify what’s in the droplets, figure out its chemical structure, make an artificial version of it, and see if that regulates pituitary function. Pretty straightforward in theory. But it took them years.

One factor in this Augean task was the scale. There was at best a minuscule amount of these hormones in any one brain, so the scientists wound up dealing with thousands of brains at a time. The great slaughterhouse war was on. Truckloads of pig or sheep brains were collected; chemists poured cauldrons of brain into monumental chemical-separation columns, while others pondered the thimblefuls of liquid that dribbled out the bottom, purifying it further in the next column and the next…. But it wasn’t just mindless assembly-line work. New types of chemistry had to be invented, completely novel ways of testing the effects in the living body of hormones that might or might not actually exist. An enormously difficult scientific problem, made worse by the fact that lots of influential people in the field believed these hormones were fictions and that these two guys were wasting a lot of time and money.

Guillemin and Schally pioneered a whole new corporate approach to doing science. One of our clichés is the lone scientist, sitting there at two in the morning, trying to figure out the meaning of a result. Here there were whole teams of chemists, biochemists, physiologists, and so on, coordinated into isolating these putative hormones.

And it worked. A “mere” fourteen years into the venture, the chemical structure of the first releasing hormone was published; Two years after that, in 1971, Schally got there with the sequence for the next hypothalamic hormone, and Guillemin published two months later. Guillemin took the next round in 1972, beating Schally to the next hormone by a solid three years. Everyone was delighted, the by-then deceased Geoffrey Harris was proved correct, and Guillemin and Schally got the Nobel Prize in 1976.

One of them, urbane and knowing what would sound right, proclaimed that he was motivated only by science and the impulse to help mankind; he noted how stimulating and productive his interactions with his co-winner had been. The other, less polished but more honest, said the competition was all that drove him for decades and described his relationship with his co-winner as “many years of vicious attacks and bitter retaliation.”

The master gland

So hooray for Guillemin and Schally; the brain turned out to be the master gland. It is now recognized that the base of the brain, the hypothalamus, contains a huge array of those releasing and inhibiting hormones, which instruct the pituitary, which in turn regulates the secretions of the peripheral glands. In some cases, the brain triggers the release of pituitary hormone X through the action of a single releasing hormone. Sometimes it halts the release of pituitary hormone Y by releasing a single inhibiting hormone. In some cases, a pituitary hormone is controlled by the coordination of both a releasing and an inhibiting hormone from the brain-dual control. To make matters worse, in some cases (for example, the miserably confusing system that I study) there is a whole array of hypothalamic hormones that collectively regulate the pituitary, some as releasers, others as inhibitors.

Hormones of the Stress-Response

As the master gland, the brain can experience or think of something stressful and activate components of the stress-response hormonally. Some of the hypothalamus-pituitary-peripheral gland links are activated during stress, some inhibited.

Two hormones vital to the stress-response, as already noted, are epinephrine and norepinephrine, released by the sympathetic nervous system. Another important class of hormones in the response to stress are called glucocorticoids. By the end of this book you will be astonishingly informed about glucocorticoid trivia, since I am in love with these hormones.

Glucocorticoids are steroid hormones. (Steroid is used to describe the general chemical structure of five classes of hormones: androgens, the famed “anabolic” steroids like testosterone that get you thrown out of the Olympics, estrogens, progestins, mineralocorticoids, and glucocorticoids.) Secreted by the adrenal gland, they often act, as we will see, in ways similar to epinephrine. Epinephrine acts within seconds; glucocorticoids back this activity up over the course of minutes or hours.

Outline of the control of glucocorticoid secretion. A stressor is sensed or anticipated in the brain, triggering the release of CRH (and related hormones) by the hypothalamus. These hormones enter the private circulatory system linking the hypothalamus and the anterior pituitary, causing the release of ACTH by the anterior pituitary. ACTH enters the general circulation and triggers the release of glucocorticoids by the adrenal gland.

Because the adrenal gland is basically witless, glucocorticoid release must ultimately be under the control of the hormones of the brain. When something stressful happens or you think a stressful thought, the hypothalamus secretes an array of releasing hormones into the hypothalamic-pituitary circulatory system that gets the ball rolling.

The principal such releaser is called CRH (corticotropin releasing hormone), while a variety of more minor players synergize with CRHF Within fifteen seconds or so, CRH triggers the pituitary to release the hormone ACTH (also known as corticotropin). After ACTH is released into the bloodstream, it reaches the adrenal gland and, within a few minutes, triggers glucocorticoid release. Together, glucocorticoids and the secretions of the sympathetic nervous system (epinephrine and norepinephrine) account for a large percentage of what happens in your body during stress. These are the workhorses of the stress-response.



Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

by Robert M. Sapolsky

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The Mindful path to Self-Compassion. Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions – Christopher K. Germer Ph.D.

Why is it so hard to extend the same kindness to ourselves that many of us gladly offer to others?

Maybe it’s because in our conventional way of thinking in the West we tend to view compassion as a gift, and bestowing it on ourselves seems selfish or inappropriate. But the ancient wisdom of the East tells us that loving-kindness is something everyone needs and deserves, and that includes the compassion we can give to ourselves. Without it, we blame ourselves for our problems, for our inability to solve them all, for feeling pain when painful events occur-all of which usually end in our feeling even more pain.

The idea of self-compassion may seem so alien that we would not know where to begin even if we decided it might be a good capacity to develop. Modern neuroscience and psychology are just beginning to explore what meditative traditions have accepted for ages: that compassion and loving-kindness are skills-not gifts that we’re either born with or not, and each one of us, without exception, can develop and strengthen these skills and bring them into our everyday lives.

This is where The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion steps to the fore. In this book Dr. Christopher Germer lays out the architecture of this skill development: the vision of freedom compassion can offer, the essential role of self-compassion, the path to realizing it rather than just thinking about it, and the practical tools, such as mindfulness, we need to effect that transformation.

Buddhist psychological analysis regards qualities like loving-kindness as the direct antidote to fear. Whether hampered by the inhibiting fear of feeling we are not enough and could never be enough, or the raging fear that courses through us when we see no options whatsoever, or the pervasive fear we sometimes feel when we must take a next step and cannot sense how or where, in the midst of fear we suffer.

Loving-kindness and compassion, in contrast to fear, reaffirm the healing power of connection, the expansiveness of a sense of possibility, the efficacy of kindness as a catalyst for learning. Whether extended to ourselves or others, the intertwined forces of loving-kindness and compassion are the basis for wise, powerful, sometimes gentle, and sometimes fierce actions that can really make a difference, in our own lives and those of others. The true development of self-compassion is the basis for fearlessness, generosity, inclusion, and a sustained loving-kindness and compassion for others.

Whether you have already begun to seek relief from suffering through meditative traditions like mindfulness or you are simply open to anything that might free you from chronic emotional pain and mental rumination, this book will serve as an inspiring road-map.

In the following pages you will find a scientific review, an educational manual, and a practical step-by-step guide to developing greater loving-kindness and self-compassion every day.


Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts.



Life is tough. Despite our best intentions, things go wrong, sometimes very wrong. Ninety percent of us get married, full of hope and optimism, yet 40% of marriages and in divorce. We struggle to meet the demands of daily life, only to find ourselves needing care for stress-related problems like high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, alcoholism, or a weakened immune system.

How do we typically react when things fall apart? More often than not, we feel ashamed and become self-critical: “What’s wrong with me?” “Why can’t I cope?” “Why me?” Perhaps we go on a mission to fix ourselves, adding insult to injury. Sometimes we go after others. Rather than giving ourselves a break, we seem to find the path of greatest resistance.

Yet no matter how hard we try to avoid emotional pain, it follows us everywhere. Difficult emotions-shame, anger, loneliness, fear, despair, confusion, arrive like clockwork at our door. They come when things don’t go according to our expectations, when we’re separated from loved ones, and as a part of ordinary sickness, old age, and death. It’s just not possible to avoid feeling bad.

But we can learn to deal with misery and distress in a new, healthier way. Instead of greeting difficult emotions by fighting hard against them, we can bear witness to our own pain and respond with kindness and understanding. That’s self-compassion, taking care of ourselves just as we’d treat someone we love dearly.

If you’re used to beating yourself up during periods of sadness or loneliness, if you hide from the world when you make a mistake, or if you obsess over how you could have prevented the mistake to begin with, self-compassion may seem like a radical idea. But why should you deny yourself the same tenderness and warmth you extend to others who are suffering?

When we fight emotional pain, we get trapped in it. Difficult emotions become destructive and break down the mind, body, and spirit. Feelings get stuck, frozen in time, and we get stuck in them. The happiness we long for in relationships seems to elude us. Satisfaction at work lies just beyond our reach. We drag ourselves through the day, arguing with our physical aches and pains. Usually we’re not aware just how many of these trials have their root in how we relate to the inevitable discomfort of life.

Change comes naturally when we open ourselves to emotional pain with uncommon kindness. Instead of blaming, criticizing, and trying to fix ourselves (or someone else, or the whole world) when things go wrong and we feel bad, we can start with self-acceptance. Compassion first! This simple shift can make a tremendous difference in your life.

Imagine that your partner just criticized you for yelling at your daughter. This hurts your feelings and leads to an argument. Perhaps you felt misunderstood, disrespected, unloved, or unlovable? Maybe you didn’t use the right words to describe how you felt, but more likely your partner was being too angry or defensive to hear what you had to say. Now imagine that you took a deep breath and said the following to yourself before the argument: “More than anything, I want to be a good parent. It’s so painful to me when l yell at my child. I love my daughter more than anything in the world, but sometimes I just lose it. I’m only human, I guess. May I learn to forgive myself for my mistakes, and may we find a way to live together in peace.” Can you feel the difference?

A moment of self-compassion like this can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life. Freeing yourself from the trap of destructive thoughts and emotions through self-compassion can boost your self-esteem from the inside out, reduce depression and anxiety, and even help you stick to your diet. And the benefits aren’t just personal. Self-compassion is the foundation of compassion for others.

It makes sense, doesn’t it, that we won’t be able to empathize with others if we can’t tolerate the same feelings, despair, fear, failure, shame-occurring within ourselves? And how can we pay the slightest attention to others when we’re absorbed in our own internal struggles? When our problems become workable again, we can extend kindness to others, which can only help improve relationships and enhance our overall contentment and satisfaction with life.

Self-compassion is really the most natural thing in the world. Think about it for a minute. If you cut your finger, you’ll want to clean it, bandage it, and help it heal. That’s innate self-compassion. But where does self-compassion go when our emotional well-being is at stake?

What’s effective for survival against a saber-tooth tiger doesn’t seem to work in emotional life.

We instinctively go to battle against unpleasant emotions as if they were external foes, and fighting them inside only makes matters worse. Resist anxiety and it can turn into full-blown panic. Suppress grief and chronic depression may develop. Struggling to fall asleep can keep you awake all night long.

When we’re caught up in our pain, we also go to war against ourselves. The body protects itself against danger through fight, flight, or freeze (staying frozen in place), but when we’re challenged emotionally, these reactions become an unholy trinity of selfcriticism, self-isolation, and self-absorption. A healing alternative is to cultivate a new relationship with ourselves described by research psychologist Kristin Neff as self-kindness, a sense of connection with the rest of humanity, and balanced awareness. That’s self-compassion.

In this book you’ll discover how to bring self-compassion to your emotional life when you need it most-when you’re dying of shame, when you grind your teeth in rage or fear, or when you’re too fragile to face yet another family gathering. Self-compassion is giving yourself the love you need by boosting your innate wish to be happy and free from suffering.

Dealing with emotional pain without making it worse is the essence of Buddhist psychology. The ideas in this book draw from that tradition, particularly those concepts and practices that have been validated by modern science. What you’ll read is essentially old wine in new bottles, ancient insights in modern psychological idiom. You don’t have to believe in anything to make the practices work for you, you can be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a scientist, or a skeptic. The best approach is to be open-minded, experimental, and flexible.

Clinical scientists discovered meditation in the 1970s, and it’s now one of the the most thoroughly researched of all psychotherapy methods . Over the past 15 years, research has focused primarily on mindfulness, or “ awareness of present experience, with acceptance.” Mindfulness is considered an underlying factor in effective psychotherapy and emotional healing in general. When therapy goes well, patients (or clients) develop an accepting attitude toward whatever they’re experiencing in the therapy room, fear, anger, sadness, joy, relief, boredom, love, and this benevolent attitude gets transferred to daily life. A special bonus of mindfulness is that it can be practiced at home in the form of meditation.

Mindfulness tends to focus on the experience of a person, usually a sensation, thought, or feeling. But what do we do when the experiencer is overcome with emotion, perhaps with shame or self-doubt? When that happens, we don’t just feel bad, we feel we are bad. We can become so rattled that it’s hard to pay attention to anything at all. What do we do when we’re alone in the middle of the night, twisting the sheets around us in bed, sleep medication isn’t working, and therapy is a week away? Mostly we need a good friend with a compassionate heart. If one isn’t immediately available, we can still give kindness to ourselves, self-compassion.

I encountered self-compassion from two directions, one professional and one personal. I’ve practiced psychotherapy for 30 years with patients ranging from the worried well to those overwhelmed by anxiety, depression, or trauma. I also worked in a public hospital with people suffering from chronic and terminal illnesses. Over the years, I’ve witnessed the power of compassion, how it opens the heart like a flower, revealing and healing hidden sorrow.

After therapy, however, some patients feel like they’re walking into a void with the voice of the therapist trailing far behind. I wondered, “What can people do between sessions to feel less vulnerable and alone?” Sometimes I asked myself, “Is there any way to make the therapy experience rub off more quickly-to make it portable?” Selfcompassion seems to hold that promise for many people.

Personally, I was raised by a devout Christian mother and a father who spent 9 years in India during early adulthood, mostly interned by the British during World War II because he was a German citizen. There my father met a mountaineer, Heinrich Harrer, who later escaped the internment camp and traveled across the Himalayan mountains to Tibet to became the 14th Dalai Lama’s English tutor. As a child, my mother read me magical tales of India, so it seemed natural to go there myself after I graduated from college. From 1976 to 1977, I traveled the length and breadth of India, visiting saints, sages, and shamans, and I learned Buddhist meditation in a cave in Sri Lanka. Thus began a lifelong interest in meditation and over a dozen return trips to India.

I currently practice meditation in the insight meditation tradition found in the American centers established by Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Jack Kornfield. Those rich and nuanced teachings inform this entire book, and any unwarranted deviation from them is my responsibility alone. I also owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to my colleagues at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, with whom I’ve been in monthly conversation for almost 25 years, and to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who introduced the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and compassion into modern health care. My other teachers are my patients, who have generously offered their life stories to give substance to the concepts and practices that follow. They made this a labor of love. Their names and other details have been changed to ensure confidentiality, and some clinical vignettes are composites of a few individuals.

This book is divided into three parts, and the chapters build on one another.

Part I, Discovering Self-Compassion, shows you how to develop mindfulness and describes precisely what we mean and don’t mean by self-compassion.

Part II, Practicing Loving Kindness, gives in-depth instruction in one particular self-compassion practice-loving-kindness meditation, to serve as a foundation for a compassionate way of life.

Part III, Customizing Self-Compassion, offers tips for adjusting the practice to your particular personality and circumstances and shows you how to achieve maximum benefit from the practice.

Finally, in the appendices, you’ll find additional self-compassion exercises and resources for further reading and more intensive practice.

This book will not be a lot of work. The hard work is actually behind you-fighting and resisting difficult feelings, blaming yourself for them and their causes. You’ll actually learn to work less. It’s an “un-selfhelp book.” Instead of beginning with the notion that something about you is broken and needs to be fixed, I hope to show you how to respond to emotional pain in a new, more compassionate, and loving way. I recommend you try the exercises for 30 days and see how it goes. You might notice yourself feeling lighter and happier, but that will simply be a by-product of accepting yourself just as you are.


Part I

Discovering Self-compassion

Being kind to yourself

The suffering itself is not so bad; it’s the resentment against suffering that is the real pain. ALLEN GINSBERG, poet

I’m afraid of what you’re about to tell “me, ’cause it probably won’t work!” Michelle blurted out, fully expecting to be disappointed by what I had to say. Michelle had just finished telling me about her years of struggle with shyness, and I was taking a deep breath.

Michelle struck me as an exceptionally bright and conscientious person. She had read many books on overcoming shyness and tried therapy four times. She didn’t want to be let down again. She’d recently received an MBA from a prestigious university and gotten a job as a consultant to large firms in the area. The main problem for Michelle was blushing. She believed it signaled to others that she wasn’t competent and that they shouldn’t trust what she had to say. The more she worried about blushing, the more she actually blushed in front of others. Her new job was an important career opportunity, and Michelle didn’t want to blow it.

I assured Michelle that she was right: whatever I suggested wouldn’t work. That’s not because she was a lost cause, far from it, but rather because all well-intentioned strategies are destined to fail. It’s not the fault of the techniques, nor is it the fault of the person who wants to feel better. The problem lies in our motivation and in a misunderstanding of how the mind works.

As Michelle knew only too well from her years of struggle, a lot of what we do to not feel bad is likely to make us feel worse. It’s like that thought experiment: “Try not to think about pink elephants the kind that are very large and very pink.” Once an idea is planted in our minds, it’s strengthened every time we try not to think about it. Sigmund Freud summed up the problem by saying there’s “no negation” in the unconscious mind . Similarly, whatever we throw at our distress to make it go away relaxation techniques, blocking our thoughts, positive affirmations, will ultimately disappoint, and we’ll have no choice but to set off to find another option to feel better.

While we were discussing these matters, Michelle began to weep gently. I wasn’t sure whether she was feeling more disheartened or in some way the truth of her experience was being articulated. She told me that even her prayers were going unanswered. We talked about two types of prayers: the kind where we want God to make bad things go away and the kind where we surrender “Let go and let God.” Michelle said it had never occurred to her to surrender her troubles to God. That wasn’t her style.

Gradually we came around to what could be done for Michelle that might actually decrease her anxiety and blushing, not deep breathing, not pinching herself, not drinking cold water, not pretending to be unflappable. Since Michelle wasn’t the kind of person to relax her efforts, she needed to find something entirely different. Michelle recognized that her anxiety decreased the more she accepted it, and it increased the less she accepted it. Hence, it made sense to Michelle to dedicate herself to a life of accepting anxiety and the fact that she was simply an anxious person. Our therapy was to be measured not by how often she blushed, but by how accepting she was of her blushing. That was a radical new idea for Michelle. She left our first session elated, if a bit perplexed.

She sent me an e-mail during the following week, happily announcing that “it worked.” Since we hadn’t discussed any new practices, I wasn’t sure what Michelle meant. Later I learned that she had begun saying to herself “just scared, just scared” whenever she noticed she was anxious. Labeling her fear seemed to take Michelle’s mind off how flushed her face felt, and she was able to chat briefly with colleagues in the lunchroom without incident, for example. She was relieved to feel more like “a scared person getting lunch” than like a “weak, overly sensitive, ridiculous person who didn’t know what she was talking about.” I marveled at how Michelle had taken the concept of “acceptance” and invented a useful technique in such a short time.

At our next meeting, however, Michelle was discouraged again. Her forays into the lunchroom once again became a battle against the blush. Her original wish to “stop looking anxious” reasserted itself. Acceptance had begun to “work” for Michelle, but she’d let go of her newfound commitment to cultivate acceptance. She mistakenly believed she’d found a clever bypass to her problem.

Unfortunately, we can’t trick ourselves. There was a part of Michelle that was saying, “I’m practicing acceptance in order to reduce anxiety.” But that’s not acceptance. Within modern psychology, acceptance means to embrace whatever arises within us, moment to moment, just as it is. Sometimes it’s a feeling we like; sometimes it’s a bad feeling. We naturally want to continue the good feelings and stop the bad ones, but setting out with that goal doesn’t work. The only answer to our problems is to first have our problems, fully and completely, whatever they may be. Michelle was hoping to skip that part.

This story has a happy ending, which was reached slowly over the course of 2 years. Michelle discovered how to live in accord with her sensitive nervous system. Relapses reliably occurred when Michelle tried not to blush, but she hardly blushed at all when she was ready to let blushing take its course. As Michelle made her peace with blushing, she found she could apply the same principles to other stress symptoms that inevitably arose during her day, tension in her chest, headaches, heart palpitations and her life became much easier.

This is a book about how we can benefit by turning toward our emotional pain. That’s a tall order. Any thinking person is likely to ask, “Why would I want to do that?” In this chapter, you’ll see why it’s often the best thing to do. The rest of the book will show you how to accomplish this improbable task. First you’ll learn how to bring mindful awareness to what’s bothering you. Then you’ll discover how to bring kindness to yourself, especially when you’re feeling really bad. That combination, mindfulness and self-compassion can transform even the worst times of our lives.


From the moment of our birth, we’re on a quest for happiness. It may take no more than mother’s milk to satisfy us in the first days of our lives, but our needs and desires multiply as we age. By adulthood, most of us don’t expect to be happy unless we have a nice family, a good job, excellent health, lots of money, and the love and admiration of others.

But pain still strikes even under the best of circumstances. Billionaire Howard Hughes found himself desperate and alone at the moment of his death. And our circumstances inevitably change; one person’s marriage may fall apart, another may have a child with a developmental disability, and yet another may lose everything in a flood. People differ from one another in the amount of suffering they endure over a lifetime, or in the type of suffering, but none of us gets off without any. Pain and suffering are common threads that unite all of humanity.

Pain creates a conflict between the way things are and how we’d like them to be and that makes our lives feel unsatisfactory. The more we wish our lives were different, the worse we feel. For example, if a car accident lands someone in a wheelchair for life, the first year is usually the toughest. As we learn to adapt, we typically return to our former level of happiness. We can measure our happiness by the gap between what we want and how things are.

The Hedonic Treadmill

In 1971, Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell proposed that we’re on a pleasure-seeking treadmill, vainly trying to achieve happiness by seeking what’s just around the corner, a better relationship, an easier job, a nicer car. The problem is that our nervous systems quickly adapt to anything familiar. Once you get a nice new car, how long do you enjoy it before thinking about renovating your home? Studies show that most lottery winners are ultimately no happier than nonwinners, and paraplegics usually become as content as people who can walk. For better or worse, we adapt to both good and bad life events. This general adaptation theory has held up empirically for decades, with some recent modifications that you will read about in Qhapter 5.

When we’re on the hedonic treadmill for too long, though, it can lead to exhaustion and disease. In his immensely entertaining and informative book on the causes and consequences of stress, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky describes how animals are perfectly adapted to respond to physical crises. Consider a zebra running from a lion that wants to rip out its stomach; when the danger passes, the zebra goes back to grazing peacefully. But what do humans do? We anticipate danger lurking around the corner. Sapolsky asks, “ How many hippos worry about whether Social Security is going to last as long as they will, or what they are going to say on a first date?” Our bodies react to psychological threats the same way they react to physical threats, and a sense of constant danger raises our overall stress level and the risk of heart disease, immune dysfunction, depression, colitis, chronic pain, memory impairment, sexual problems, and much more.

The exact mechanism by which psychological stress leads to disease is unclear, but preliminary evidence shows that it may be related to your telomems DNA protein complexes at the ends of chromosomes. Cells age-they stop dividing-when they lose their telo-meric DNA. Life stress has been shown to shorten the telomeres in the immune system, and fewer immune cells can lead to disease and shorten your lifespan.

Most of us believe that our happiness depends on the external circumstances of our lives. Therefore, we spend our lives on a treadmill, continually arranging to have pleasure and avoid pain. When we experience pleasure, we grasp for more of it. When we experience pain, we avoid it. Both of these reactions are instinctive, but they’re not successful strategies for emotional wellbeing.

The problem with pleasure seeking is that the pleasure will end at some point and we’ll become disappointed: we fall out of love, our bellies become full, our friends go home.

The problem with avoiding pain is that it’s just not possible to do, and it often gets worse with our increased efforts to try. For example, eating to reduce stress can cause obesity, and working excessively to overcome low self-esteem can land you in the grave.



The Mindful path to Self-Compassion. Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions

by Christopher K. Germer Ph.D.

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TED Talk. Self-Compassion vs Self-esteem – Dr Kristin Neff.

In contrast to self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations.

People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on).

This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself.

“How do we get off this treadmill? This constant need to feel better than others so that we can feel good about ourselves?

That’s where self-compassion comes in.
Self-compassion in not a way of judging ourselves positively.
Self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves kindly.
Embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all.
To treat ourselves like we treat a good friend with encouragement, empathy, patience, understanding, love and gentleness.

If we stop to think about how we treat ourselves, especially on a bad day, we are often harsher and more cruel to ourselves in the language we use.
We say things to ourselves that we would never say to someone we cared about.
We say things to ourselves that we probably even wouldn’t say to someone we didn’t like very much.

We are often our own worst enemies”.

Look at me: why attention-seeking is the defining need of our times – Leo Benedictus.

The urge to belong is universal. So would a better understanding of it help tackle loneliness – and explain why stalkers, spree killers and jihadists turn their pain on others?

There is a famous Jewish mother joke. You’ve heard it before. Question: How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: “Ah no, I’ll just sit in the dark. Don’t worry about me.” It’s funny, at least the first time, because people do behave like this. “Hey, over here!” they shout. “Ignore me! Ignore me!”

Everyone needs attention, like we need to eat. This is not controversial, nor is it hard to understand. But the idea must be slippery, because it will not stick. If we could keep in mind that people need attention, it would change the way we see almost everything they do, from art to crime, from romance to terrorism. And we must. Facebook alone harvests and sells the attention of 1.4 billion people every day. That’s about a fifth of the world. This alarms some people, and it is a big change. But we can’t know what to make of it until we understand what people need attention for.

Attention is other people thinking about you, and if there were ever humans who didn’t need it, they are now extinct. “Attention is one of the most valuable resources in existence for social animals,” says Dr Geoff MacDonald, a psychologist at the University of Toronto with an interest in human connection. “It was literally a matter of life and death. The people who didn’t feel good around others, or didn’t feel bad when they were separated from others, wouldn’t have the motivation to do the things that are required to pass their genes down the generations.”

Specifically, people have been shown to need a type of attention that psychologists call belonging. Abraham Maslow put belonging into his famous hierarchy of needs in 1943. In 1995, Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary concluded in their paper The Need to Belong that the available research did indeed show that everyone has a “strong desire to form and maintain interpersonal attachments”. In particular, they identified that belonging means getting positive attention from people who know you well.

This isn’t hard to understand either. Someone who thinks well of you is more likely to cooperate with you. Or even mate with you, if you’re lucky. But their opinion only really counts if they’ve spent a lot of time with you, because that makes their idea of who you are more accurate, and only accurate approval is secure. “If you feel like you’re accepted for false reasons then that’s bound to create anxiety,” MacDonald says.

People who feel they don’t belong suffer terribly, and experience health problems comparable to smoking or obesity. They are the 18% of British adults who reported always (4%) or often (14%) feeling lonely, in a study published last year by the British Red Cross and Co-op. There are more lonely people in Britain than live in London. The problem is now obvious enough for the government to appoint a so-called “minister of loneliness”, Tracey Crouch.

The word loneliness is a good description of the feeling, but not its cause, which in reality has little to do with being alone. According to the report, just 22% of people who live alone feel lonely always or often, not much more than the 18% national average. Among 16-to-24-year-olds, on the other hand, the proportion is 32%. This shouldn’t be surprising. “Generally, loneliness seems to be a matter more of a lack of intimate connections than of a lack of social contact,” Baumeister and Leary wrote. Lonely people lack attention that is positive and accurate, in short.

So why don’t they ask for more? Because attention can be harvested only from the minds of other people, and high-quality attention won’t come by force. “In anthropological terms, it’s a gift economy,” says Dr Amy Pollard of the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), a charity that campaigns on loneliness. “You’re creating bonds of reciprocity, which is where the belonging comes from.” This means you only have as much high-quality attention as people want to give you. And asking for more – attention-seeking – is a signal that, in your case, they don’t want to give much. This isn’t fair. Nor is it reliable. (People can misjudge you.) But the idea that lonely people don’t deserve attention comes to us instinctively, as when we see an empty restaurant with a busy one next door.

Some lonely people themselves conclude that they aren’t worthy of attention, and withdraw from the world still further. Others search for a feeling of belonging, not always in the best way. Seek positive attention too openly and you get called “narcissist”. Seek attention from your family with great displays of wanting to be ignored, and they’ll put you in a Jewish mother joke. There are many ways of asking without asking, if we are prepared to notice. Why, for instance, is it taboo to suggest that people who self-harm, or have anorexia, might want attention? Is that not a source of pain worth taking seriously?

One way to seek attention is to do something that gets lots of it – art, politics, crime, journalism maybe – but that seems to have another purpose. The purpose matters. Otherwise you risk the special scorn reserved for people who are “famous for being famous”.

When Jamie Jewitt entered Love Island on ITV2 last July, he was depressed. A successful model based in New York, he had returned to Essex to live with his parents, then did nothing for years. His family all but forced him to join the show, aged 27, in the hope that it would shake him from his torpor.

In modelling, Jewitt explains over coffee, Instagram is non-negotiable. “You wouldn’t get work,” he says, “if you didn’t get a following.” In practice, this is quite easy for a model to do: just feed the public appetite for carefully posed and manipulated “snapshots”. Over time Jewitt gathered 13,000 followers. He enjoyed their compliments and exchanged messages with some. It was almost friendship. “You tell yourself you’re getting the real thing,” he says, “but it’s so hard to tell the difference.” He found he’d switch between bursts of activity and guilty silences. “I felt like a hypocrite, like a sellout. It was a big part of why I got unhappy. You feel isolated, but you don’t know why.”

When arriving on Love Island, all contestants must surrender their phones. Inside, there are no TVs, no iPads, no contact at all with the outside. “You have to talk to people,” Jewitt says. “Get to know them, make friends.” What we never saw on Love Island were the hours upon hours of intense conversation. “On mine and Camilla [Thurlow]’s dates, all we’d talk about was books,” Jewitt recalls, “and none of that made it! People don’t want to hear that crap, do they?”

It’s funny that it took a reality show to make Jewitt live authentically again. “After two days I would wake up in the morning feeling so relieved,” he says. “It was unbelievable. A fresh start. The sad thing was I could have done it at any point on the outside.” Today he and Thurlow are still together, and the islanders remain close friends.

Now Jewitt has 801,000 Instagram followers, and mostly promotes good causes. These posts aren’t popular. “When I post about the things I care about, I lose close to a thousand followers,” he says. So far he has lost around 20,000 since his peak after Love Island, and has come to take a strange pleasure in the process. “I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he says, “because I want the people who follow me to know who I am, and like who I am. I’m trying to depict a more real version of myself.”

Social media is bewitching because there’s time to lie, not like in real life. The opportunity for positive attention is enormous, but accuracy is the price. “When you present a curated version of yourself to the world, any approval that you get is not for your full and whole self,” MacDonald says. As Jewitt found out, this corrodes your feeling of belonging.

We don’t know yet whether social media makes people lonely. Even if it does, we should remember that it is also useful to keep real friendships going. But an MHF survey last month found that 30% of young Scots say social media makes them feel isolated. The 2015 Pisa schools report showed a dramatic fall across the developed world since 2012 in the number of children who would say that “I make friends easily at school”. By a small margin, those who use the internet the most were also most likely (17%) to say that they felt lonely – although we don’t know which was causing which, if either. We also don’t know how much of their time online was spent on social media.

Even if offline time is good for you, it can be stressful, which might make people hide behind their screens. “I always say to my students,” MacDonald says, “‘If only in real life we had a backspace button.’ But no. Once you say something, it’s out there. You don’t get that kind of control.” Until recently, in other words, most of us were simply too socially clumsy to avoid being ourselves.

For some people, usually those who had a hard time growing up, this stress can be unbearable. A fixed belief that you aren’t worth liking creates a loneliness and craving for attention that they struggle to satisfy. If desperate enough, they may even force other people to notice them, preferring to be hated than ignored. These people are unhappy, and can be dangerous. They commit crimes of attention.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of stalker. “One is the intimacy-seeking stalker,” says Dr Brian Spitzberg, a leading authority on stalking behaviour at San Diego State University. “They are trying to get back to a person who has rejected them in some way.” Often these people used to be in a relationship with their victim, the end of which they cannot accept. “They are enveloped by the sense that this is the right person for them. They feel injured and rejected … but underlying that is a desire for the attention they think they deserve.”

The other type he calls “public figure stalkers”, who usually do not know their victim personally, but pester them in order to achieve a goal of some kind. “There is something they want done that they perceive public figures aren’t doing,” Spitzberg says. “Some of them simply want someone in an authoritative position to pay attention to their voice.”

Loneliness is common among stalkers. (One of them narrates my novel, for which this article is in part a bid for attention.) However, attention is not often considered to be their motive. What a stalker wants seems obvious: to be part of their victim’s life. Their behaviour is irrational; it only makes the victim reject them even more, but the stalker either insists that the woman (about three-quarters of the time) will change her mind, or persists in a spirit of revenge. And he does become part of the victim’s life, of course. A big part.

After a firm rejection, the approach most experts recommend is to ignore the stalker. They work on the basis, as Spitzberg puts it, that “any kind of attention is still attention”. With this in mind, stalking behaviour seems half-rational in someone who is desperate for a feeling of belonging. Certainly most stalkers are not mentally ill in a way that a psychiatrist would recognise. According to Spitzberg, only 30-50% of all stalkings that become criminal cases can be traced to some kind of diagnosable disorder. Among intimacy-seeking stalkers, it’s even less. “Most intimacy-seeking stalking is something that almost anyone is capable of,” Spitzberg says, “if they meet the wrong person under the wrong circumstances.”

Sadly, some people feel not just ignored by their ex, but ostracised by the whole world. For them, life with almost no attention is sheer torture. A recent workplace study in Canada found that ostracism was worse than the negative attention of being bullied. The work of Professor Kip Williams at Purdue University in Indiana shows how ostracism causes pain, and can lead to antisocial behaviour. Another Mark Leary study shows it is a key factor in school shootings.

Like stalking, this is a crime that seems utterly irrational. Usually it suffices to say that the killer was angry, perhaps just insane. They are always lonely. Spree killers are fond of leaving documents that explain their feelings. Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech, 2007) claimed he was bullied, which baffled those who knew him. Elliot Rodger (Isla Vista, 2014): “I felt depressed because I wanted sex yet I felt unworthy of it”. Often a grotesque spirit of belonging exists between them. Vester Flanagan (Moneta, 2015) was a fan of Cho (“That’s my boy, right there”). Matti Junahi Saari (Kauhajoki, 2008) and Pekka-Eric Auvinen (Jokela High School, 2007) swapped videos on YouTube. Auvinen quoted the manifesto of “the martyrs Dylan [Klebold] and Eric [Harris]” (Columbine, 1999), who also inspired Todd Cameron-Smith (Alberta, 1999), Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook, 2012) and everyone else. Needless to say, if they hadn’t killed anyone, we would have paid less attention to their feelings.

There was a time when spree killing almost did not exist. Guns existed. So did bombs and knives and vans. So did violent and disturbed people. Indeed the world is now generally less violent than it used to be. Yet spree killings grow more frequent. A study at the Harvard School of Public Health found that mass shootings in the US in which at least four people died occurred, on average, once every 200 days between 1982 and 2011. Then once every 64 days between 2011 and 2014. Eighteen of the 30 deadliest mass shootings in the US since 1949 have occurred in the past 10 years, including all of the worst five.

What else can we call these but crimes of attention, made possible by new media? Filmed on camcorders, then on phones. Seen live around the world. Stored on Wikipedia and YouTube for posterity. Where would you have found a copy of a killer’s manifesto in 1990, let alone a video? The truth is that if you want the world’s attention badly enough, you can have it tomorrow. It is easy. Before the internet, it was not.

Jihadists love to leave speeches too, but theirs claim grander motives. Their killing sprees, they say, are part of a plan to reach paradise and bring about the triumph of their beliefs. Yet many of them hardly live with the piety they die for. Shehzad Tanweer, one of the London tube bombers, had a secret girlfriend. Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked the kosher supermarket in Paris, kept paedophile material on his computer. According to Demos interviews with 62 former jihadists in 2010, they “had a simpler, shallower conception of Islam than [nonviolent] radicals”. Does it seem likely that they were forced into violence by their devotion to scripture? Or is it more plausible that their violence, which obsesses the world, feeds a craving for attention that they clothe in phoney zealotry?

It is hard to imagine crimes of attention disappearing, but admitting that’s what they are should help. Perhaps then we’ll stop rewarding criminal behaviour with so much of the attention that it seeks. There are other simple solutions to our attention crisis. Ideas like the Big Lunch, or the MHF’s “Tea and Talk” events may improve access to high-quality attention by helping people get to know each other better. Eventually the moment may come when we are officially urged to get a minimum dose of offline conversation every week, like exercise or our five-a-day. When we talk more freely about our attention-seeking, maybe then at last we’ll get the attention we need.


Leo Benedictus is an award-winning Guardian features writer. He was born in London in 1975, and studied English at Oxford University.

The Guardian

Evolutionary Psychology

What Is Evolutionary Psychology?

Our bodies evolved over eons, slowly calibrating to the African savanna on which 98 percent of our ancestors lived and died. So, too, did our brains. Evolutionary psychology postulates that the mind is shaped by pressure to survive and reproduce.

We jealously guard romantic partners and cherish our closest relatives above all others, lest we fail to pass on our genes.

We easily acquire language, which is critical for cooperation and hence survival. Evolutionary psychology acknowledges these forces but stresses the ultimate (and largely unconscious) gene’s eye view of behavior.

Psychology Today


Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach in the social and natural sciences that examines psychological structure from a modern evolutionary perspective. It seeks to identify which human psychological traits are evolved adaptations – that is, the functional products of natural selection or sexual selection in human evolution. Adaptationist thinking about physiological mechanisms, such as the heart, lungs, and immune system, is common in evolutionary biology. Some evolutionary psychologists apply the same thinking to psychology, arguing that the modularity of mind is similar to that of the body and with different modular adaptations serving different functions. Evolutionary psychologists argue that much of human behavior is the output of psychological adaptations that evolved to solve recurrent problems in human ancestral environments.

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that it is not simply a subdiscipline of psychology but that evolutionary theory can provide a foundational, metatheoretical framework that integrates the entire field of psychology in the same way evolution has for biology.

Evolutionary psychologists hold that behaviors or traits that occur universally in all cultures are good candidates for evolutionary adaptations including the abilities to infer others’ emotions, discern kin from non-kin, identify and prefer healthier mates, and cooperate with others. They report successful tests of theoretical predictions related to such topics as infanticide, intelligence, marriage patterns, promiscuity, perception of beauty, bride price, and parental investment.

The theories and findings of evolutionary psychology have applications in many fields, including economics, environment, health, law, management, psychiatry, politics, and literature.

Criticism of evolutionary psychology involves questions of testability, cognitive and evolutionary assumptions (such as modular functioning of the brain, and large uncertainty about the ancestral environment), importance of non-genetic and non-adaptive explanations, as well as political and ethical issues due to interpretations of research results.


Evolutionary psychology is an approach that views human nature as the product of a universal set of evolved psychological adaptations to recurring problems in the ancestral environment. Proponents suggest that it seeks to integrate psychology into the other natural sciences, rooting it in the organizing theory of biology (evolutionary theory), and thus understanding psychology as a branch of biology. Anthropologist John Tooby and psychologist Leda Cosmides note:

“Evolutionary psychology is the long-forestalled scientific attempt to assemble out of the disjointed, fragmentary, and mutually contradictory human disciplines a single, logically integrated research framework for the psychological, social, and behavioral sciences – a framework that not only incorporates the evolutionary sciences on a full and equal basis, but that systematically works out all of the revisions in existing belief and research practice that such a synthesis requires.”

Just as human physiology and evolutionary physiology have worked to identify physical adaptations of the body that represent “human physiological nature,” the purpose of evolutionary psychology is to identify evolved emotional and cognitive adaptations that represent “human psychological nature.” According to Steven Pinker, it is “not a single theory but a large set of hypotheses” and a term that “has also come to refer to a particular way of applying evolutionary theory to the mind, with an emphasis on adaptation, gene-level selection, and modularity.” Evolutionary psychology adopts an understanding of the mind that is based on the computational theory of mind. It describes mental processes as computational operations, so that, for example, a fear response is described as arising from a neurological computation that inputs the perceptional data, e.g. a visual image of a spider, and outputs the appropriate reaction, e.g. fear of possibly dangerous animals.

While philosophers have generally considered the human mind to include broad faculties, such as reason and lust, evolutionary psychologists describe evolved psychological mechanisms as narrowly focused to deal with specific issues, such as catching cheaters or choosing mates. The discipline views the human brain as comprising many functional mechanisms, called psychological adaptations or evolved cognitive mechanisms or cognitive modules, designed by the process of natural selection. Examples include language-acquisition modules, incest-avoidance mechanisms, cheater-detection mechanisms, intelligence and sex-specific mating preferences, foraging mechanisms, alliance-tracking mechanisms, agent-detection mechanisms, and others. Some mechanisms, termed domain-specific, deal with recurrent adaptive problems over the course of human evolutionary history. Domain-general mechanisms, on the other hand, are proposed to deal with evolutionary novelty.

Evolutionary psychology has roots in cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology but also draws on behavioral ecology, artificial intelligence, genetics, ethology, anthropology, archaeology, biology, and zoology. It is closely linked to sociobiology, but there are key differences between them including the emphasis on domain-specific rather than domain-general mechanisms, the relevance of measures of current fitness, the importance of mismatch theory, and psychology rather than behavior. Most of what is now labeled as sociobiological research is now confined to the field of behavioral ecology.

Nikolaas Tinbergen’s four categories of questions can help to clarify the distinctions between several different, but complementary, types of explanations. Evolutionary psychology focuses primarily on the “why?” questions, while traditional psychology focuses on the “how?” questions.


Evolutionary psychology is founded on several core premises.

The brain is an information processing device, and it produces behavior in response to external and internal inputs.
The brain’s adaptive mechanisms were shaped by natural and sexual selection.
Different neural mechanisms are specialized for solving problems in humanity’s evolutionary past.

The brain has evolved specialized neural mechanisms that were designed for solving problems that recurred over deep evolutionary time, giving modern humans stone-age minds. This is now being challenged by Cecilia Heyes.
Most contents and processes of the brain are unconscious; and most mental problems that seem easy to solve are actually extremely difficult problems that are solved unconsciously by complicated neural mechanisms.

Human psychology consists of many specialized mechanisms, each sensitive to different classes of information or inputs. These mechanisms combine to produce manifest behavior.

History of Evolutionary Psychology

The history of evolutionary psychology began with Charles Darwin, who said that humans have social instincts that evolved by natural selection.
Darwin’s work inspired later psychologists such as William James and Sigmund Freud but for most of the 20th century psychologists focused more on behaviorism and proximate explanations for human behavior.

E.O. Wilson’s landmark 1975 book, Sociobiology, synthesized recent theoretical advances in evolutionary theory to explain social behavior in animals, including humans.
Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby popularized the term “evolutionary psychology” in their 1992 book The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and The Generation of Culture.

Like sociobiology before it, evolutionary psychology has been embroiled in controversy, but evolutionary psychologists see their field as gaining increased acceptance overall.

After his seminal work in developing theories of natural selection, Charles Darwin devoted much of his final years to the study of animal emotions and psychology.
He wrote two books; The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871 and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872 that dealt with topics related to evolutionary psychology.
He introduced the concepts of sexual selection to explain the presence of animal structures that seemed unrelated to survival, such as the peacock’s tail. He also introduced theories concerning group selection and kin selection to explain altruism.
Darwin pondered why humans and animals were often generous to their group members. Darwin felt that acts of generosity decreased the fitness of generous individuals. This fact contradicted natural selection which favored the fittest individual.
Darwin concluded that while generosity decreased the fitness of individuals, generosity would increase the fitness of a group. In this case, altruism arose due to competition between groups.

The following quote, from Darwin’s Origin of Species, is often interpreted by evolutionary psychologists as indication of his foreshadowing the emergence of the field:

“In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.”
Charles Darwin 1859
The Origin of Species, p.488

Darwin’s theory inspired William James’s functionalist approach to psychology. At the core of his theory was a system of “instincts.” James wrote that humans had many instincts, even more than other animals. These instincts, he said, could be overridden by experience and by each other, as many of the instincts were actually in conflict with each other.

In their Evolutionary Psychology Primer Tooby and Cosmides make note of James’ perspective, and also quote him:

“We do not realize that ‘normal’ behavior needs to be explained at all. This “instinct blindness” makes the study of psychology difficult. To get past this problem, James suggested that we try to make the “natural seem strange”:

William James “It takes…a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange, so far as to ask for the why of any instinctive human act. To the metaphysician alone can such questions occur as: Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down? The common man can only say, Of course we smile, of course our heart palpitates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made for all eternity to be loved!
And so, probably, does each animal feel about the particular things it tends to do in the presence of particular objects. … To the lion it is the lioness which is made to be loved; to the bear, the she-bear. To the broody hen the notion would probably seem monstrous that there should be a creature in the world to whom a nestful of eggs was not the utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much-sat-upon object which it is to her.
Thus we may be sure that, however mysterious some animals’ instincts may appear to us, our instincts will appear no less mysterious to them. (William James, 1890)”

“In our view, William James was right about evolutionary psychology. Making the natural seem strange is unnatural — it requires the twisted outlook seen, for example, in Gary Larson cartoons. Yet it is a pivotal part of the enterprise. Many psychologists avoid the study of natural competences, thinking that there is nothing there to be explained.”

According to Noam Chomsky, perhaps Anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin could be credited as having founded evolutionary psychology, when in his 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution he argued that the human instinct for cooperation and mutual aid could be seen as stemming from evolutionary adaption.

William McDougall made a reference to “evolutionary psychology” in his 1919 book An Introduction to Social Psychology: “It is only a comparative and evolutionary psychology that can provide the needed basis (for psychology); and this could not be created before the work of Darwin had convinced men of the continuity of human with animal evolution as regards all bodily characters, and had prepared the way for the quickly following recognition of the similar continuity of man’s mental evolution with that of the animal world.”

While Darwin’s theories on natural selection gained acceptance in the early part of the 20th century, his theories on evolutionary psychology were largely ignored. Only after the second world war, in the 1950s, did interest increase in the systematic study of animal behavior. It was during this period that the modern field of ethology emerged. Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen were pioneers in developing the theoretical framework for ethology for which they would receive a Nobel prize in 1973.

Desmond Morris’s book The Naked Ape attempted to frame human behavior in the context of evolution, but his explanations failed to convince academics because they were based on a teleological (goal-oriented) understanding of evolution. For example, he said that the pair bond evolved so that men who were out hunting could trust that their mates back home were not having sex with other men.


In 1975, E.O. Wilson built upon the works of Lorenz and Tinbergen by combining studies of animal behavior, social behavior and evolutionary theory in his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Wilson included a chapter on human behavior. Wilson’s application of evolutionary analysis to human behavior caused bitter debate.

With the publication of Sociobiology, evolutionary thinking for the first time had an identifiable presence in the field of psychology. E.O. Wilson argues that the field of evolutionary psychology is essentially the same as “human sociobiology”.

Edward H. Hagen writes in The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology that sociobiology is, despite the public controversy regarding the applications to humans, “one of the scientific triumphs of the twentieth century.” “Sociobiology is now part of the core research and curriculum of virtually all biology departments, and it is a foundation of the work of almost all field biologists” Sociobiological research on nonhuman organisms has increased dramatically and appears continuously in the world’s top scientific journals such as Nature and Science. The more general term behavioral ecology is commonly used as substitute for the term sociobiology in order to avoid the public controversy.

Modern use of the term “evolutionary psychology”

The term evolutionary psychology was used by American biologist Michael Ghiselin in a 1973 article published in the journal Science. Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby popularized the term “evolutionary psychology” in their 1992 book The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and The Generation of Culture.

In contrast to sociobiology and behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology emphasizes that organisms are “adaptation executors” rather than “fitness maximizers.” In other words, organisms have emotional, motivational and cognitive adaptations that generally increased inclusive fitness in the past but may not do so in the present. This distinction may explain some maladaptive behaviors that are the result of “fitness lags” between ancestral and modern environments. For example, our ancestrally developed desires for fat, sugar and salt often lead to health problems in modern environment where these are readily available in large quantities.

Also, in contrast to sociobiology and behavioral ecology (which mostly study non-human animal behavior), rather than focus primarily on overt behavior, EP attempts to identify underlying psychological adaptations (including emotional, motivational and cognitive mechanisms), and how these mechanisms interact with the developmental and current environmental influences to produce behavior.

Before 1990, introductory psychology textbooks scarcely mentioned Darwin. In the 1990s, evolutionary psychology was treated as a fringe theory, and evolutionary psychologists depicted themselves as an embattled minority. Coverage in psychology textbooks was largely hostile. According to evolutionary psychologists, current coverage in psychology textbooks is usually neutral or balanced.

The presence that evolutionary theory holds in psychology has been steadily increasing. According to its proponents, evolutionary psychology now occupies a central place in psychological science.

Theoretical foundations of evolutionary psychology

The theoretical foundations of evolutionary psychology are the general and specific scientific theories that explain the ultimate origins of psychological traits in terms of evolution. These theories originated with Charles Darwin’s work, including his speculations about the evolutionary origins of social instincts in humans. Modern evolutionary psychology, however, is possible only because of advances in evolutionary theory in the 20th century.

Evolutionary psychologists say that natural selection has provided humans with many psychological adaptations, in much the same way that it generated humans’ anatomical and physiological adaptations. As with adaptations in general, psychological adaptations are said to be specialized for the environment in which an organism evolved, the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, or EEA. Sexual selection provides organisms with adaptations related to mating. For male mammals, which have a relatively fast reproduction rate, sexual selection leads to adaptations that help them compete for females. For female mammals, with a relatively slow reproduction rate, sexual selection leads to choosiness, which helps females select higher quality mates. Charles Darwin described both natural selection and sexual selection, but he relied on group selection to explain the evolution of self-sacrificing behavior. Group selection is a weak explanation because in any group the less self-sacrificing animals will be more likely to survive and the group will become less self-sacrificing.

In 1964, William D. Hamilton proposed inclusive fitness theory, emphasizing a “gene’s-eye” view of evolution. Hamilton noted that individuals can increase the replication of their genes into the next generation by helping close relatives with whom they share genes survive and reproduce. According to “Hamilton’s rule”, a self-sacrificing behavior can evolve if it helps close relatives so much that it more than compensates for the individual animal’s sacrifice. Inclusive fitness theory resolved the issue of how “altruism” evolved. Other theories also help explain the evolution of altruistic behavior, including evolutionary game theory, tit-for-tat reciprocity, and generalized reciprocity. These theories not only help explain the development of altruistic behavior but also account for hostility toward cheaters (individuals that take advantage of others’ altruism).

Several mid-level evolutionary theories inform evolutionary psychology. The r/K selection theory proposes that some species prosper by having many offspring while others follow the strategy of having fewer offspring but investing much more in each one. Humans follow the second strategy. Parental investment theory explains how parents invest more or less in individual offspring based on how successful those offspring are likely to be, and thus how much they might improve the parents’ inclusive fitness. According to the Trivers-Willard hypothesis, parents in good conditions tend to invest more in sons (who are best able to take advantage of good conditions), while parents in poor conditions tend to invest more in daughters (who are best able to have successful offspring even in poor conditions). According to life history theory, animals evolve life histories to match their environments, determining details such as age at first reproduction and number of offspring. Dual inheritance theory posits that genes and human culture have interacted, with genes affecting the development of culture and culture, in turn, affecting human evolution on a genetic level (see also the Baldwin effect).

Critics of evolutionary psychology have sometimes challenged its theoretical underpinnings, saying that humans never developed powerful social instincts through natural selection and that the hypotheses of evolutionary psychologists are merely just-so-stories.

General Evolutionary Theory

Evolutionary psychology primarily uses the theories of natural selection, sexual selection, and inclusive fitness to explain the evolution of psychological adaptations.

Evolutionary psychology is sometimes seen not simply as a subdiscipline of psychology but as a metatheoretical framework in which the entire field of psychology can be examined.

Natural selection

Evolutionary psychologists consider Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection to be important to an understanding of psychology. Natural selection occurs because individual organisms who are genetically better suited to the current environment leave more descendants, and their genes spread through the population, thus explaining why organisms fit their environments so closely. This process is slow and cumulative, with new traits layered over older traits. The advantages created by natural selection are known as adaptations. Evolutionary psychologists say that animals, just as they evolve physical adaptations, evolve psychological adaptations.

Evolutionary psychologists emphasize that natural selection mostly generates specialized adaptations, which are more efficient than general adaptations. They point out that natural selection operates slowly, and that adaptations are sometimes out of date when the environment changes rapidly. In the case of humans, evolutionary psychologists say that much of human nature was shaped during the stone age and may not match the contemporary environment.

Sexual selection

Sexual selection favors traits that provide mating advantages, such as the peacock’s tail, even if these same traits are usually hindrances. Evolutionary psychologists point out that, unlike natural selection, sexual selection typically leads to the evolution of sex differences. Sex differences typically make reproduction faster for one sex and slower for the other, in which case mates are relatively scarce for the faster sex. Sexual selection favors traits that increase the number of mates for the fast sex and the quality of mates for the slow sex. For mammals, the female has the slower reproduction rate. Males typically evolve either traits to help them fight other males or traits to impress females. Females typically evolve greater abilities to discern the qualities of males, such as choosiness in mating.

Inclusive fitness

Inclusive fitness theory, proposed by William D. Hamilton, emphasized a “gene’s-eye” view of evolution. Hamilton noted that what evolution ultimately selects are genes, not groups or species. From this perspective, individuals can increase the replication of their genes into the next generation not only directly via reproduction, by also indirectly helping close relatives with whom they share genes survive and reproduce. General evolutionary theory, in its modern form, is essentially inclusive fitness theory.

Inclusive fitness theory resolved the issue of how “altruism” evolved. The dominant, pre-Hamiltonian view was that altruism evolved via group selection: the notion that altruism evolved for the benefit of the group. The problem with this was that if one organism in a group incurred any fitness costs on itself for the benefit of others in the group, (i.e. acted “altruistically”), then that organism would reduce its own ability to survive and/or reproduce, therefore reducing its chances of passing on its altruistic traits.

Furthermore, the organism that benefited from that altruistic act and only acted on behalf of its own fitness would increase its own chance of survival and/or reproduction, thus increasing its chances of passing on its “selfish” traits. Inclusive fitness resolved “the problem of altruism” by demonstrating that altruism can evolve via kin selection as expressed in Hamilton’s rule:

cost < relatedness × benefit

In other words, altruism can evolve as long as the fitness cost of the altruistic act on the part of the actor is less than the degree of genetic relatedness of the recipient times the fitness benefit to that recipient. This perspective reflects what is referred to as the gene-centered view of evolution and demonstrates that group selection is a very weak selective force.

Middle-level evolutionary theories

Middle-level evolutionary theories are consistent with general evolutionary theory, but focus on certain domains of functioning (Buss, 2011) Specific evolutionary psychology hypotheses may be derivative from a mid-level theory (Buss, 2011). Three very important middle-level evolutionary theories were contributed by Robert Trivers as well as Robert MacArthur and E. O. Wilson

The theory of parent-offspring conflict rests on the fact that even though a parent and his/her offspring are 50% genetically related, they are also 50% genetically different. All things being equal, a parent would want to allocate their resources equally amongst their offspring, while each offspring may want a little more for themselves. Furthermore, an offspring may want a little more resources from the parent than the parent is willing to give. In essence, parent-offspring conflict refers to a conflict of adaptive interests between parent and offspring. However, if all things are not equal, a parent may engage in discriminative investment towards one sex or the other, depending on the parent’s condition.

The Trivers–Willard hypothesis, which proposes that parents will invest more in the sex that gives them the greatest reproductive payoff (grandchildren) with increasing or marginal investment. Females are the heavier parental investors in our species. Because of that, females have a better chance of reproducing at least once in comparison to males, but males in good condition have a better chance of producing high numbers of offspring than do females in good condition. Thus, according to the Trivers–Willard hypothesis, parents in good condition are predicted to favor investment in sons, and parents in poor condition are predicted to favor investment in daughters.

r/K selection theory, which, in ecology, relates to the selection of traits in organisms that allow success in particular environments. r-selected species, i.e., species in unstable or unpredictable environments, produce many offspring, each of which is unlikely to survive to adulthood.
By contrast, K-selected species, i.e., species in stable or predictable environments, invest more heavily in fewer offspring, each of which has a better chance of surviving to adulthood.

Life history theory posits that the schedule and duration of key events in an organism’s lifetime are shaped by natural selection to produce the largest possible number of surviving offspring.
For any given individual, available resources in any particular environment are finite. Time, effort, and energy used for one purpose diminishes the time, effort, and energy available for another.
Examples of some major life history characteristics include: age at first reproductive event, reproductive lifespan and aging, and number and size of offspring.
Variations in these characteristics reflect different allocations of an individual’s resources (i.e., time, effort, and energy expenditure) to competing life functions.
For example, attachment theory proposes that caregiver attentiveness in early childhood can determine later adult attachment style. Also, Jay Belsky and others have found evidence that if the father is absent from the home, girls reach first menstruation earlier and also have more short term sexual relationships as women.

Evolved psychological mechanisms

Evolutionary psychology is based on the hypothesis that, just like hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys, and immune systems, cognition has functional structure that has a genetic basis, and therefore has evolved by natural selection.
Like other organs and tissues, this functional structure should be universally shared amongst a species, and should solve important problems of survival and reproduction.

Evolutionary psychologists seek to understand psychological mechanisms by understanding the survival and reproductive functions they might have served over the course of evolutionary history.
These might include abilities to infer others’ emotions, discern kin from non-kin, identify and prefer healthier mates, cooperate with others and follow leaders. Consistent with the theory of natural selection, evolutionary psychology sees humans as often in conflict with others, including mates and relatives.
For instance, a mother may wish to wean her offspring from breastfeeding earlier than does her infant, which frees up the mother to invest in additional offspring.
Evolutionary psychology also recognizes the role of kin selection and reciprocity in evolving prosocial traits such as altruism.
Like chimpanzees and bonobos, humans have subtle and flexible social instincts, allowing them to form extended families, lifelong friendships, and political alliances.
In studies testing theoretical predictions, evolutionary psychologists have made modest findings on topics such as infanticide, intelligence, marriage patterns, promiscuity, perception of beauty, bride price and parental investment.

Historical topics

Proponents of evolutionary psychology in the 1990s made some explorations in historical events, but the response from historical experts was highly negative and there has been little effort to continue that line of research.
Historian Lynn Hunt says that the historians complained that the researchers:

“have read the wrong studies, misinterpreted the results of experiments, or worse yet, turned to neuroscience looking for a universalizing, anti-representational and anti-intentional ontology to bolster their claims”

Hunt states that, “the few attempts to build up a subfield of psychohistory collapsed under the weight of its presuppositions.” She concludes that as of 2014 the “‘iron curtain’ between historians and psychology…remains standing.”

Products of evolution: adaptations, exaptations, byproducts, and random variation

Not all traits of organisms are evolutionary adaptations. As noted in the table below, traits may also be exaptations, byproducts of adaptations (sometimes called “spandrels”), or random variation between individuals.

Psychological adaptations are hypothesized to be innate or relatively easy to learn, and to manifest in cultures worldwide. For example, the ability of toddlers to learn a language with virtually no training is likely to be a psychological adaptation.
On the other hand, ancestral humans did not read or write, thus today, learning to read and write require extensive training, and presumably represent byproducts of cognitive processing that use psychological adaptations designed for other functions.
However, variations in manifest behavior can result from universal mechanisms interacting with different local environments. For example, Caucasians who move from a northern climate to the equator will have darker skin. The mechanisms regulating their pigmentation do not change; rather the input to those mechanisms change, resulting in different output.

One of the tasks of evolutionary psychology is to identify which psychological traits are likely to be adaptations, byproducts or random variation.
George C. Williams suggested that an “adaptation is a special and onerous concept that should only be used where it is really necessary.”
As noted by Williams and others, adaptations can be identified by their improbable complexity, species universality, and adaptive functionality.

Obligate and facultative adaptations

A question that may be asked about an adaptation is whether it is generally obligate (relatively robust in the face of typical environmental variation) or facultative (sensitive to typical environmental variation).
The sweet taste of sugar and the pain of hitting one’s knee against concrete are the result of fairly obligate psychological adaptations; typical environmental variability during development does not much affect their operation.
By contrast, facultative adaptations are somewhat like “if-then” statements. For example, adult attachment style seems particularly sensitive to early childhood experiences. As adults, the propensity to develop close, trusting bonds with others is dependent on whether early childhood caregivers could be trusted to provide reliable assistance and attention.
The adaptation for skin to tan is conditional to exposure to sunlight; this is an example of another facultative adaptation. When a psychological adaptation is facultative, evolutionary psychologists concern themselves with how developmental and environmental inputs influence the expression of the adaptation.

Cultural universals

Evolutionary psychologists hold that behaviors or traits that occur universally in all cultures are good candidates for evolutionary adaptations.[5] Cultural universals include behaviors related to language, cognition, social roles, gender roles, and technology.
Evolved psychological adaptations (such as the ability to learn a language) interact with cultural inputs to produce specific behaviors (e.g., the specific language learned).
Basic gender differences, such as greater eagerness for sex among men and greater coyness among women, are explained as sexually dimorphic psychological adaptations that reflect the different reproductive strategies of males and females.
Evolutionary psychologists contrast their approach to what they term the “standard social science model,” according to which the mind is a general-purpose cognition device shaped almost entirely by culture.

Environment of evolutionary adaptedness

Evolutionary psychology argues that to properly understand the functions of the brain, one must understand the properties of the environment in which the brain evolved. That environment is often referred to as the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness”.

The idea of an environment of evolutionary adaptedness was first explored as a part of attachment theory by John Bowlby.
This is the environment to which a particular evolved mechanism is adapted. More specifically, the environment of evolutionary adaptedness is defined as the set of historically recurring selection pressures that formed a given adaptation, as well as those aspects of the environment that were necessary for the proper development and functioning of the adaptation.

Humans, comprising the genus Homo, appeared between 1.5 and 2.5 million years ago, a time that roughly coincides with the start of the Pleistocene 2.6 million years ago. Because the Pleistocene ended a mere 12,000 years ago, most human adaptations either newly evolved during the Pleistocene, or were maintained by stabilizing selection during the Pleistocene. Evolutionary psychology therefore proposes that the majority of human psychological mechanisms are adapted to reproductive problems frequently encountered in Pleistocene environments.
In broad terms, these problems include those of growth, development, differentiation, maintenance, mating, parenting, and social relationships.

The environment of evolutionary adaptedness is significantly different from modern society.
The ancestors of modern humans lived in smaller groups, had more cohesive cultures, and had more stable and rich contexts for identity and meaning.
Researchers look to existing hunter-gatherer societies for clues as to how hunter-gatherers lived in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness.
Unfortunately, the few surviving hunter-gatherer societies are different from each other, and they have been pushed out of the best land and into harsh environments, so it is not clear how closely they reflect ancestral culture.

Evolutionary psychologists sometimes look to chimpanzees, bonobos, and other great apes for insight into human ancestral behavior. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá argue that evolutionary psychologists have overemphasized the similarity of humans and chimps, which are more violent, while underestimating the similarity of humans and bonobos, which are more peaceful.


Since an organism’s adaptations were suited to its ancestral environment, a new and different environment can create a mismatch. Because humans are mostly adapted to Pleistocene environments, psychological mechanisms sometimes exhibit “mismatches” to the modern environment.
One example is the fact that although about 10,000 people are killed with guns in the US annually, whereas spiders and snakes kill only a handful, people nonetheless learn to fear spiders and snakes about as easily as they do a pointed gun, and more easily than an unpointed gun, rabbits or flowers.
A potential explanation is that spiders and snakes were a threat to human ancestors throughout the Pleistocene, whereas guns (and rabbits and flowers) were not. There is thus a mismatch between humans’ evolved fear-learning psychology and the modern environment.

This mismatch also shows up in the phenomena of the supernormal stimulus, a stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which the response evolved.
The term was coined by Niko Tinbergen to refer to non-human animal behavior, but psychologist Deirdre Barrett said that supernormal stimulation governs the behavior of humans as powerfully as that of other animals. She explained junk food as an exaggerated stimulus to cravings for salt, sugar, and fats, and she says that television is an exaggeration of social cues of laughter, smiling faces and attention-grabbing action.
Magazine centerfolds and double cheeseburgers pull instincts intended for an EEA where breast development was a sign of health, youth and fertility in a prospective mate, and fat was a rare and vital nutrient.
The psychologist Mark van Vugt recently argued that modern organizational leadership is a mismatch. His argument is that humans are not adapted to work in large, anonymous bureaucratic structures with formal hierarchies. The human mind still responds to personalized, charismatic leadership primarily in the context of informal, egalitarian settings. Hence the dissatisfaction and alienation that many employees experience. Salaries, bonuses and other privileges exploit instincts for relative status, which attract particularly males to senior executive positions.

Evolutionary psychology and culture

Evolutionary psychology has traditionally focused on individual-level behaviors, determined by species-typical psychological adaptations. Considerable work, though, has been done on how these adaptations shape and, ultimately govern, culture (Tooby and Cosmides, 1989).
Tooby and Cosmides (1989) argued that the mind consists of many domain-specific psychological adaptations, some of which may constrain what cultural material is learned or taught.
As opposed to a domain-general cultural acquisition program, where an individual passively receives culturally-transmitted material from the group, Tooby and Cosmides (1989), among others, argue that: “the psyche evolved to generate adaptive rather than repetitive behavior, and hence critically analyzes the behavior of those surrounding it in highly structured and patterned ways, to be used as a rich (but by no means the only) source of information out of which to construct a ‘private culture’ or individually tailored adaptive system; in consequence, this system may or may not mirror the behavior of others in any given respect.” (Tooby and Cosmides 1989).

Epidemiological culture

The Epidemiology of representations, or cultural epidemiology, is a broad framework for understanding cultural phenomena by investigating the distribution of mental representations in and through populations.
The theory of cultural epidemiology was largely developed by Dan Sperber to study society and cultures. The theory has implications for psychology and anthropology. Mental representations are transferred from person to person through cognitive causal chains. Sperber (2001) identified three different, yet interrelated, cognitive causal chains.
A cognitive causal chain (CCC) links a perception to an evolved, domain-specific response or process. For example:

“On October 31, at 7:30 p.m., Mrs. Jones’s doorbell rings. Mrs. Jones hears the doorbell, and assumes that there is somebody at the door. She remembers it is Halloween: she enjoyed receiving treats as a child, and now, as an adult, she enjoys giving them. She guesses that there must be children at the door ready to trick-or-treat, and that, if she opens, she will be able to give them the candies she has bought for the occasion. Mrs. Jones decides to open the door, and does so.”

Social Cognitive Causal Chains (SCCC) are inter-individual CCCs. Here, a CCC is used as an act of communication between people (i.e. the mental representation is shared between multiple people). Elaborating on the previous example:

“On October 31, at 7:30 p.m., Mrs. Jones’s doorbell rings. Mrs. Jones hears the doorbell, and assumes that there is somebody at the door. She remembers it is Halloween: she enjoyed receiving treats as a child, and now, as an adult, she enjoys giving them. She guesses that there must be children at the door ready to trick-or-treat, and that, if she opens, she will be able to give them the candies she has bought for the occasion. Mrs. Jones decides to open the door, and does so.”

Cultural Cognitive Causal Chains (CCCCs) are those SCCCs which are shared and reproduced widely among a population.

The stability and longevity of these representations relies on their relevance and domain-specificity. This separates the epidemiology of representations from other evolutionary accounts of cultural transmission, namely memetics.

Evolutionary psychology and cultural evolution

Evolutionary psychological accounts of culture, especially cultural epidemiology, may seem at odds with other disciplines in psychology and anthropology, especially research in cultural evolution (e.g. Boyd and Richerson, 1985, 2005).

Cultural evolution, the domain of research focused on how culture changes through time due to different individual transmission mechanisms and population-level effects, often uses models derived from population genetics, in which agents are passive recipients of cultural traits (e.g. Bentley et al., 2004).

While evolutionary psychology has focused on how behavior may result from species-typical psychological programs which led to greater fitness in ancestral environments, this work has been criticized for neglecting how behavior may be shaped by culturally transmitted information. In contrast to genetic programs, cultural evolution investigates how culture itself may evolve (Mesoudi, 2009).
Gene-culture coevolution studies how culture and genetic evolution influence each other, ultimately shaping behavior, as well. Cultural evolution and evolutionary psychology may not be as disparate as one may think, though. Rather than a passive receptacle of cultural material, Boyd and Richerson (1985, 2005) suggest that our minds consist of psychological mechanisms which direct our attention to and imitate cultural traits depending on the frequency of that trait, the content of it, who carries it, etc. In this way, cultural evolution may be viewed as a particular kind of “scaling up” from the individual-level processes to population-level ones.

In neither account of culture is the mind a blank slate or empty bin for cultural material (Tooby and Cosmides, 1992). Some evolutionary psychologists have suggested that culturally-transmitted culture may pass through a number of lenses and filters shaped by natural selection to catch fitness-relevant information and behaviors; these filters may change due to local environmental conditions, sex, and other factors (Gangestad et al., 2006).
Boyer (2000) argued that evolutionary psychology, and anthropology in general, should investigate how these cognitive predispositions to cultural material affect their representation in following generations.
This research program may help to unify the two fields (Boyer, 2000). Others have suggested that evolutionary psychology, human behavioral ecology, and cultural evolution all fit nicely with each other, ultimately answering different questions on human behavioral diversity; gene-culture coevolution may be at odds with other research programs though by placing more emphasis on socially-learned behavior and its influence on human evolution (Brown et al., 2011)

Evolutionary psychology and human behavioral ecology

Human Behavioral Ecology (HBE) studies how ecology and social factors shape human behavioral variability. A key assumption of human behavioral ecology is that individuals will act in response to environmental factors in ways that enhance their fitness.
While both HBE and evolutionary psychology are both concerned with fitness benefits and natural selection, HBE is not typically concerned with mechanisms or how humans display adaptive behaviors in novel environments.

If the human mind took its present form and evolved in the African Pleistocene, why should one expect to behave adaptively in the present and in so many new environments?
Human Behavioral Ecologists may respond by stating that humans evolved as ecological generalists and display a wide range of variable behaviors to maximize fitness.
Where cooperation and food-sharing among extant hunter-gatherers may be seen as the result of kin-selection psychological mechanisms by an evolutionary psychologist, a human behavioral ecologist may attribute this behavior to optimal risk-reduction strategies and reciprocal altruism.

For Human Behavioral Ecology, cultural behaviors should tend towards optimality (i.e. higher fitness) in their current environment. For evolutionary psychology, cultural behaviors are the result of psychological mechanisms which were selected for in ancestral environments.

Evoked and transmitted culture

The difference between cultural behaviors acquired through selective transmission mechanisms and behaviors resulting from psychological adaptations has resulted in some researchers differentiating between evoked and transmitted culture (Tooby and Cosmides, 1992).

Evoked cultural behaviors are those that are the outputs of shared psychological mechanisms in response to local environmental cues Fessler et al., 2015).

Transmitted cultural behaviors are those behaviors which are learned from one’s social group, regardless of environment.

As such, investigating evoked culture may well rest in the domain of evolutionary psychology and transmitted culture studied by culture evolution, social psychology, and other disciplines.
Differentiating between the two is more difficult than it may appear, however. For example, given the level of cross-cultural variation in human societies, variation between any two cultures may result from separate histories and cultural evolutionary pathways or different evoked cultures, based on different local environmental cues, while uniformity across cultures could result from convergent cultural evolution or similarly functioning psychological adaptations (Fessler et al., 2015).
Specifically, if two cultures exhibit similar behaviors to avoid pathogens, can one differentiate between either the two groups independently inventing similar behaviors or the groups displaying the same underlying psychological adaptation for pathogen avoidance?

As well, the issue of behavioral variation and transmitted culture may be seen as a major point of contention between evolutionary psychology and other disciplines, especially gene-culture coevolution. Evolutionary psychology and human behavioral ecology both admit to cultural transmission as a source of behavioral variation but do not see it as an evolutionary process or its potential to have significantly affected human evolution.

Gene-culture coevolution would argue that culture traits may have altered genetic change and selection pressures, ultimately affecting cognition. However, as Brown et al. (2011) states:”Whether human behavioural ecologists and evolutionary psychologists are willing to accommodate the idea that some portion of human behavioural diversity could result from genetic differences that have arisen via selection pressures imposed by socially transmitted behaviour remains to be seen.”

While this may difficult, some evolutionary psychologists, such as Gangestad, Haselton, and Buss (2006) have argued that the future of the discipline rests on unifying transmitted and evoked culture. In order to do so, the authors suggest that a more comprehensive definition of culture needs to be developed since different cultural phenomena need different kinds of analysis to investigate their effects.
As they state, “Culture, however, is not a “thing” with singularity; it’s an umbrella concept subsuming a collection of extraordinarily varied phenomena, each of which requires scientific analysis” (Gangestad et al., 2006), the issues of behavioral variation through evoked or transmitted culture must rest on empirical evidence.

Psychology, culture, and human evolution

While most researchers would accept the notion that psychological adaptations, shaped by natural selection, underlie culture, some would stress the strength of cultural behaviors on shaping selection pressures (Boyd and Richerson, 2005) or emphasize cultural niche construction (Laland et al., 2000).
Still others have argued for a kind of cognitive niche construction, where culture changes the selection pressures on cognition, resulting in emergent psychological modules (e.g. Wheeler and Clark, 2008).
Wheeler and Clark (2008) have named this interplay between genes, culture, and embodiment the “triple helix.” The authors suggest that self-created environmental structures and reliance on culturally-transmitted information selected for cognitive modules for continual bootstrapping and increases in computational complexity. Their argument relies on cognitive niche construction, where culturally-learned behaviors create a space for new feedback cycles. By shaping the physical space around oneself, for example, the culturally-transmitted practice transform problem solving for new forms of thought.

The feedback cycle, as they and others argue, will alter selection pressures for cognitive developmental programs which bolster these abilities. As they state, “Triple helix models of mind recognize the role of genetic biases in sculpting key developmental trajectories, and the resulting space both for strong forms of genetically specified cognitive modularity and for weaker forms of emergent modularity resulting from trajectories marked by multiple bouts of culturally scaffolded experience and the self- selection of environments” (Wheeler and Clark, 2008.
Other authors have suggested that borrowing methods of dynamical systems analysis may help unravel this tangled web of genes, cognition, and culture (Kenrick et al., 2003). The answers to these type of questions have impacts on anthropology, social psychology, and other behavioral sciences (Mesoudi, 2009).



CFT: Focusing on Compassion In Next Generation CBT Dennis Tirch Ph.D * Compassion Focused Therapy For Dummies – Mary Welford * Compassion Focused Therapy – Paul Gilbert.

Compassion Focused Therapy offers therapists new options.

Dennis Tirch Ph.D

Compassion is currently being studied and used as an evidence based ingredient in effective psychotherapy more than ever before. This might not seem surprising, given that practicing compassion has been at the center of emotional healing in global wisdom traditions for at least 2,600 years. Empathy and emotional validation have been identified as some of the most important components of psychotherapy effectiveness for decades. However, compassion, as a process in itself, has only recently come to be seen as a core focus of psychotherapeutic work. A growing body of research continues to demonstrate how cultivating our compassionate minds can help us to alleviate and prevent a range of psychological problems, including anxiety and shame (Tirch and Gilbert, 2014). Rather than being a soft option, the deliberate activation of our compassion system can generate the courage and psychological flexibility we need to face life’s challenges, and step forward into lives of meaning, purpose and vitality.

Paul Gilbert (2009) has drawn upon developmental psychology, affective neuroscience, Buddhist practical philosophy, and evolutionary theory to develop a comprehensive form of experiential behavior therapy known as Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT). Gilbert describes compassion as a multifaceted process that has evolved from the caregiver mentality found in human parental care and child rearing. As such, compassion includes a number of emotional, cognitive, and motivational elements involved in the ability to create opportunities for growth and change with warmth and care. CFT involves training and enhancing this evolved capacity for compassion.

Gilbert defines the essence of compassion as “a basic kindness, with deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it” (2009, p. xiii). This definition involves two central dimensions of compassion. The first is known as the psychology of engagement and involves sensitivity to and awareness of the presence of suffering and its causes. The second dimension is known as the psychology of alleviation and constitutes both the motivation and the commitment to take actual steps to alleviate the suffering we encounter (Gilbert and Choden, 2013).

Over the last few years, the research base for compassion psychology generally and CFT specifically has been growing at a remarkable rate, with a rapid increase in the number of research and clinical publications addressing compassion. For example, the last ten years have seen a major upsurge in exploration into the benefits of cultivating compassion, especially through imagery practice (Fehr, Sprecher, and Underwood, 2008). Neuroscience and imaging research has demonstrated that practices of imagining compassion for others produce changes in the frontal cortex, the immune system, and overall well-being (Lutz et al., 2008). Notably, one study (Hutcherson, Seppala, and Gross, 2008) found that even just a brief loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of social connectedness and affiliation toward strangers.

Several compassion-focused intervention components have been found to enhance psychotherapy outcomes, and to serve as mediator variables in outcomes. For example, one study (Schanche, Stiles, McCullough, Svartberg, and Nielsen, 2011) found that self-compassion was an important mediator of reduction in negative emotions associated with personality disorders. In a study of the effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression (Kuyken et al., 2010), researchers found that self-compassion was a significant mediator between mindfulness and recovery. In fact, in a meta-analysis of research concerning both clinical and nonclinical settings, compassion-focused interventions were found to be significantly effective (Hofmann et al., 2011).

CFT is also seeing increasing empirical supported through outcome research. An early clinical trial involving a group of people with chronic mental health problems who were attending a day hospital (Gilbert and Procter, 2006) found that CFT significantly reduced self-criticism, shame, sense of inferiority, depression, and anxiety. In other outcome research, CFT has been found to be significantly effective for the treatment of personality disorders (Lucre and Corten, 2012), eating disorders (Gale, Gilbert, Read, and Goss, 2012), psychosis (Braehler, Harper, and Gilbert, 2012) and in people presenting to community mental health teams (Judge, Cleghorn, McEwan, and Gilbert, 2012). As CFT continues to become more widely disseminated and growing numbers of clinicians and researchers acquire understanding and skill in its methods and philosophy, increasing outcome research will further test the model, leading to innovation and improvement.

The following brief tips can help psychotherapists begin to appreciate how useful a compassion focus can be in practicing ACT, CBT or, in fact, any form of psychotherapy. Furthermore, we can see how remembering to practice compassion for ourselves might help to restore the energy and attention we bring to our work, of sharing compassion with our clients. Feel free to experiement with the following:

1. “It is not your fault…”

From a perspective of compassion, we remember how much of the pain and suffering in life is not of our choosing, and couldn’t really be our fault. In CFT we practice the “wisdom of no-blame” which means that taking responsibility for the direction you choose in life is essential, while languishing in shame, social fears and self-blame seldom leads to effective action. We know we didn’t choose our place in the genetic lottery. We didn’t choose to have a tricky human brain that is set up with a hair-trigger threat detection system and confusing loops of thoughts and actions. We didn’t choose our parents, our childhood or the myriad of social circumstances of life. By realizing that much of what we suffer with is simply not our fault, we can begin to activate compassion for ourselves and others, as we contact and engage with the tragedies of life.

2. Holding ourselves and others in warmth and kindness

When humans are in the presence of warmth, acceptance and affiliative emotions, we are likely to be at our most flexible, empathic, responsive and healthiest mode of operation. From the day we are born and throughout our lives the presence of kindess, support and emotional strength will have powerful impacts on every aspect of our health and behavior. In CFT, we use methods drawn from ancient visualization practices, and also modern techniques drawn from method acting to create the conditions and context that can allow for the experience of compassion. So, when we practice compassion for ourselves and others, we remember to slow down, to have a warm and caring expression on our face, and to use open and centered body language. Adopting a slow pace of our breathing and a warm tone of voice, we do all that we can to invite an experience of compassion. Images that evoke compassion are also used to bring us into contact with our compassionate mind. Can you imagine the most elegant cognitive reframe shouted at you with a cruel voice, such as a depressed client telling themselves, “The evidence doesn’t add up that you are a loser, so stop being so stupid about everything and suck it up and deal with life!” Perhaps even worse, can you imagine the condeming inner monologue of a mindfulness practitioner saying something like, “You’re not supposed to be judgemental about judging your thoughts! My God, you are terrible at this!” No matter how clever the content of our minds may seem to be, an emotional tone of acceptance, kindess and compasion is an essential ingredient to our experience of well-being.

3. Practicing compassion as a flow

We all can feel distressed in our work as psychotherapists, when we repeatedly encounter the suffering of others, which activates sympathetic emotional pain that we experience within our own minds, hearts and brains. Practicing deliberate, consistent compassion for ourselves and for others can help us to prevent empathic distress fatigue, and can build our inner architecture of compassionate strength. When you find yourself feeling that your reservoir of empathy, wisdom and warmth is slightly drained, deliberately breathe in compassionate intentions for yourself. As you exhale, direct compassionate intentions towards your client. This can be done silently, secretly, and consistently. As we breathe in, we wish for our suffering to cease and for ourselves to find peace and happiness. As we breathe out, we wish for our clients suffering to cease also, and we wish them happiness, wellness and an end to needless struggles. When this simple gesture becomes a therapist’s habit, they can quickly activate affiliative emotions to help them work towards their own compassionate mission of alleviating and preventing the suffering that they find in themselves and in others.


Dennis Tirch, Ph.D., is a compassion-focused psychologist, the author of The Compassionate Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety, and a faculty member at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., is currently a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Derby in the United Kingdom, and director of the Mental Health Research Unit at Derbyshire Mental Health Trust.


Compassion Focused Therapy For Dummies
Mary Welford.


You can work through a never-ending list of things you could do to improve your wellbeing. Getting more sleep, taking regular exercise, eating a healthier diet, developing a positive mental attitude and drinking less alcohol are just some of the things you may benefit from. Advice comes from the TV, newspapers, self-help books, friends, relatives, colleagues, healthcare professionals and even the chats we have with ourselves! But it’s hard to motivate ourselves to make helpful changes. It’s even harder to maintain them.

Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) is here to help. This approach offers life-changing insights into our amazing capacities and also the challenges we face in our everyday lives. By understanding ourselves, we become motivated to act out of true care for our wellbeing. This changes the relationship we have with ourselves and others. Practicing CFT won’t mean you suddenly turn into a ‘perfect’version of yourself. It does however mean that you become more aware of the choices you have and you’re motivated to make ones that are more helpful to you. And yes, you find plenty of advice in here to guide you on your way too!

About This Book

Compassion Focused Therapy For Dummies contains a wealth of important information that can help you to understand yourself, and others, better. It also introduces you to practices that you can integrate into your everyday life, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day…. I’ve used as little jargon and off-putting technical terms as possible, and so you don’t need to approach this book with a background knowledge of psychology. Simply put, if you’re in possession of a human brain and you’d like to discover more about CFT, this book is written for you.

That said, two factors may motivate you to continue developing your understanding of CFT once you finish this book: CFT is rooted in a scientific understanding of what it is to be human. As such, the approach constantly evolves to reflect the science. In the same way as it’s helpful to keep up with advancing technology, it’s also good to keep up with advancing our understanding of ourselves. We humans are highly complex.

This book simply doesn’t have the room to do CFT complete justice –not if you want to be able to lift it up! When you finish reading, you may want to move on to explore the comprehensive work of Paul Gilbert (the originator of the CFT approach), his colleagues and collaborators.

Foolish Assumptions In writing this book

I’ve had to make a few assumptions about you. I’ve assumed that: You’re interested in improving your wellbeing. You appreciate that CFT is based on an incredible amount of research –but you don’t necessarily want to plough through it all! You realise that I’ve had to make some tough decisions about what to include and what to leave out. Hopefully most of the choices I’ve made are right (but thankfully I won’t criticise myself if I’ve made a mistake; I hope you don’t either!). You recognise that I’m not trying to pass CFT off as my own creation. Instead, I set out to describe the work of Paul Gilbert and colleagues (of whom I am privileged to be one).

You may be selective about which parts of the book you read. As such, I’ve written this book in a way that allows each chapter to ‘stand alone’ so that you can pick and choose the content you want to read, and when you want to read it. You’re prepared to give new things a go! If you’re a therapist or studying CFT, I also assume that you recognise the importance of learning the approach ‘from the inside out’, and as such that you’ll work through the book with this in mind.

Beyond the Book

In addition to the material in this book, I also provide a free access-anywhere Cheat Sheet that offers some helpful reminders about the many benefits of CFT. To get this Cheat Sheet, simply go to and search for ‘Compassion Focused Therapy For Dummies Cheat Sheet’ in the Search box.

Where to Go from Here

If you’re new to CFT, you may find it helpful to start with Chapter 1 before you decide how to tackle the rest of the chapters (you may even decide that you want to read the book from start to finish –but you don’t have to take that approach, as you find plenty of helpful cross-references to other useful chapters as you work through each chapter).

However you decide to begin, do this at a pace to suit both your understanding and emotional experience. If you have some experience of CFT, you may choose to skip to a particular topic due to a need or question you may have. If this is the case, use the table of contents and the index to help you find your way to the required information. Regardless of how you find your way around this book, I hope you appreciate the journey.

Finally, CFT aims to assist you to develop a compassionate understanding and relationship with yourself and others. If you find the approach helpful, it’s likely to become a way of life. To support your journey, you can access a number of courses to assist you. These course can also connect you with a wider group of people. You can find suitable courses advertised on a range of websites, including, and

Part 1

Getting Started with Compassion Focused Therapy

IN THIS PART Discover what CFT is all about and how it can be helpful. Explore what compassion is, including the skills and attributes of compassion. Find out about the challenges we face and how our minds are organised.

Chapter 1
Introducing Compassion Focused Therapy

– Understanding how Compassion Focused Therapy works
– Discovering the benefits of compassion
– Exploring the effects of shame and self-criticism
– Beginning your journey
– Reaching out to others with compassion

People are more similar than different. We’re all born into a set of circumstances that we don’t choose, and in possession of a phenomenal yet very tricky brain. We’re all trying to get by, doing the best we can. The sooner we wake up to this reality the better.

Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) is here to help. This approach aims to liberate you from shame and self-criticism, replacing these feelings with more helpful ways of relating to yourself. It helps you to choose the type of person you want to be and to develop ways to make this choice a reality. In this chapter, I introduce you to CFT, offering you an understanding of how it works and helping you to understand the benefits. I also point out the steps you may take along the way as you work with the information in this book. Finally, I take a moment to help you connect to the wider community around you as you begin this journey.

CFT advocates that you don’t rush to ‘learn’ about the approach but instead allow space to experience and ‘feel’ it. So take your time with this book as you apply it to your life, and really discover the benefits.

Getting to Grips with Compassion Focused Therapy

CFT was founded by UK clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert, OBE.

The name of the approach was chosen to represent three important aspects:

Compassion, in its simplest yet potentially most powerful definition, involves a sensitivity to our own, and other people’s, distress, plus a motivation to prevent or alleviate this distress. As such, it has two vital components. One involves engaging with suffering while the other involves doing something about it. Chapter 2 delves into the ins and outs of compassion in more detail.

Focused means that we actively develop and apply compassion to ourselves. It also involves accepting and experiencing compassion from and for others.

Therapy is a term to describe the processes and techniques used to address an issue or difficulty.

CFT looks to social, developmental and evolutionary psychology and neuroscience to help us understand how our minds develop and work, and the problems we encounter. This scientific understanding (of ourselves and others) calls into question our experiences of shame and self-criticism and helps us to develop the motivation to make helpful changes in our lives.

CFT utilises a range of Eastern and Western methods to enhance our wellbeing. Attention training, mindfulness and imagery combine with techniques used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and Person Centred, Gestalt and Narrative therapies (to name but a few), resulting in a powerful mix of strategies that can help you become the version of yourself you wish to be.

CFT is often referred to as part of a ‘third-wave’ of cognitive behavioural therapy because it incorporates a number of CBT techniques. However, CFT derives from an evolutionary model (which you find out more about in Chapters 3, 4 and 5) and it uses techniques from many other therapies that have been found to be of benefit. As such, CFT builds upon and integrates with other therapies. As therapies become more rooted in science, we may see increasing overlap rather than diversification.

Compassion can involve kindness and warmth, but it also takes strength and courage to engage with suffering and to do something about it. CFT is by no means the easy or ‘fluffy’ option. Head to Chapter 6 to address some of the myths associated with compassion.

You may be reading this book because you want to find out more about this form of therapy. Alternatively, you may want to develop your compassionate mind and compassionate self out of care for your own wellbeing. The why or your motivation for reading this book has a big effect on the experience and, potentially, the outcome. Personally, I hope that whatever your motivation, you consider applying the approach to yourself in order that you can learn it ‘from the inside out’.

Defining common terms

You may find that some of the terms used in CFT are new to you. Here are a few common terms that I use throughout this book, along with an explanation of what they mean:

Common humanity: This refers to the fact that, as human beings, we all face difficulties and struggles. We’re more alike than different, and this realisation brings with it a sense of belonging to the human family.

Tricky brain: Our highly complex brains can cause us problems. For example, our capacity to think about the future and the past makes us prone to worry and rumination, while our inbuilt tendency to work out our place in a hierarchy can have a huge impact on our mood and self-esteem. In CFT, we use the term tricky brain to recognise our brain’s complexity and the problems this complexity can lead to. We consider our tricky brain in more detail in Chapter 3.

Compassionate mind: This is simply an aspect of our mind. It comes with a set of attributes and skills that are useful for us to cultivate (I introduce these attributes and skills in Chapter 2). This frame of mind is highly important for our wellbeing, relationships and communities. But just as we have a compassionate mind, we also have a competitive and threat-focused mind –which is highly useful, if not a necessity, at certain times (Chapter 4 takes a look at our threat-focused mind).

Compassionate mind training: This describes specific activities designed to develop compassionate attributes and skills, particularly those that influence and help us to regulate emotions. Attention training and mindfulness are used as a means to prepare us for this work, and we look at these practices in Part 3.

Compassionate self: This is the embodiment of your compassionate mind. It’s a whole mind and body experience. Your compassionate self incorporates your compassionate mind but also moves and interacts with the world.

Compassionate self cultivation: Your compassionate self is an identity that you can embody, cultivate and enhance. Compassionate self cultivation describes the range of activities that help you develop your compassionate self. Head to Chapter 10 for more on the cultivation of your compassionate self.

Engagement in the compassionate mind training and compassionate self cultivation activities provided in this book is often referred to as ‘physiotherapy for the brain’, as their use has been found to literally change the brain! Compassionate mind training and compassionate self cultivation are integral to CFT, but there’s so much more to CFT.

For many, getting to a point at which you can see the relevance and benefits of compassionate mind training and compassionate self cultivation, and overcome blocks and barriers to compassion, is the most significant aspect of your compassionate journey.

Exercises: These are activities for you to try. Sometimes they help to illustrate a point or provide a useful insight. Other exercises can give you an idea of what helps you to develop and maintain your compassionate mind.

Practice: Once you’re aware of which exercises are helpful to you, you can then incorporate these into your everyday life. Regular use of these exercises becomes your practice.

Observing the origins of CFT

CFT is closely tied to advances in our understanding of the mind and, because scientific advances never stop, the therapy continues to adapt and change based upon it. Much of this book focuses on sharing the science to help develop a compassionate understanding of yourself and a sense of connection with fellow travellers on this mortal coil.

CFT is also born out of a number of clinical observations:

– People demonstrating high levels of shame and self-criticism often struggle with standard psychological therapies. For example, using CBT, many find that they’re not reassured by the generation or discovery of alternative beliefs and views and that this doesn’t result in changes to the way they feel. Individuals may say ‘Logically, I know I’m not bad/not to blame, but I still feel it’ and ‘I know it’s unlikely that things will go wrong, but I still feel terrible’.

– What we say to ourselves is important, but how we say it is even more important.

Ever called yourself ‘idiot’ in a light-hearted and jovial manner? You probably did so without feeling any negative effects. But, have you ever called yourself an idiot in a harsh and judgemental manner? You probably felt much worse on that occasion, perhaps resulting in an urge to withdraw or isolate yourself.

Consider phrases such as, ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘count your blessings’.

Sometimes these phrases can be said in a life-affirming way, but using a condescending, frustrated or angry tone represents a whole different ball game. This helps illustrate that your emotional tone is important. Therapy can result in improvement in mood, self-esteem, sense of control and achievement, alongside a reduction in difficulties.

However, life events can trigger relapse. How we relate to ourselves, especially when life doesn’t go the way we hope, is pivotal to our ongoing wellbeing. Post therapy, many people report that they never disclosed to their therapist the things that caused them the most distress. This resulted from their sense of shame and the way they believed others (the therapist) would feel about them.

In addition to this, consider how many people simply don’t seek help at all because they fear what others think. People struggle to feel loved, valued, safe or content if they’ve never experienced these feelings. For some people, these feelings are alien concepts and, most of all, alien experiences, difficult to generate by discussion alone. As such, it’s important to develop the emotional resources and skills to deal with difficult emotions without turning to alcohol, food, drugs, work, excessive exercise or particular fixations.

– Most of us struggle with emotions such as anger, anxiety and vulnerability, but many also find positive emotions extremely difficult, even frightening. For some people, care, kindness, love and intimacy are terrifying, and to be avoided.

– People experiencing depression often worry that something bad will happen when their mood lifts.

– Likewise, feelings of connection and trust often stir up feelings of isolation and rejection, and a fear of loss.

These difficulties can interfere with the goals we set ourselves unless we address them.

CFT is an accumulation of years of research, clinical insights and teachings drawn from a broad range of areas. Much of this research and study is summarised and published in scientific papers, textbooks and self-help books by Paul Gilbert and colleagues. A number of websites also provide additional resources. You can find details of these in the Appendix. This book provides you with a starting point for your CFT journey and offers a framework upon which you can hang your future CFT practice –use these resources to develop your practice further.


It has long been established that compassionate, respectful and supportive relationships are key to our wellbeing and integral to effective psychotherapies. A key goal of many therapies is the development of a better relationship with yourself. However, different therapies place emphasis on different methods to account for and produce change, for example: CBT focuses primarily (but not exclusively) on the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviours and helps you generate new thoughts and behaviours in order to change your feelings. Interpersonal therapy focuses on your relationships and how they affect you. Psychodynamic therapy aims to bring the unconscious mind into consciousness, helping you to experience and understand your true feelings in order to resolve them.

In contrast, CFT begins with your experience of compassion from your therapist (in person or through books like this one). This relationship with your therapist is pivotal. It then focuses on the personal development and cultivation of compassion to help you to make beneficial choices for yourself and for others.

With this in mind, this book contains quite a bit of me –as an author, as a psychologist and, most of all, as a human being who struggles too. I hope that the bits of me enhance your experience of reading the words I have chosen to write for you.

Making the Case for Compassion

If we view compassion as ‘a sensitivity to our own and other people’s distress plus a motivation to prevent or alleviate it’, we can easily appreciate the many individual, group and societal benefits to developing and maintaining compassion in our lives. It makes intuitive sense and it’s the reason why compassion has been a central component of many religious and spiritual traditions across the centuries.

Research studies support the benefits of bringing compassion into your life. Higher levels of compassion are associated with fewer psychological difficulties. Compassion enhances our social relationships and emotional wellbeing: it alters our neurophysiology in a positive way and can even strengthen our immune systems. Research also suggests that CFT can be successfully used to address difficulties associated with eating, trauma, mood and psychosis.

However, for me, you can observe the power of the CFT approach in training clinicians. As they discover this approach to help their clients, they often report that the application of CFT in their personal lives can be transformative, leading many clinicians to develop and maintain their own personal practice. I believe that personal practice is vital for any clinician. I attribute much of my wellbeing and my ability to engage with other people’s suffering to the application of this approach in my life.


CFT won’t rid you of life’s difficulties. You won’t find yourself day after day serenely swanning around, impervious to life’s difficulties. We practise compassion because life is hard. Compassion can assist us to make helpful choices and, when ready, create a space in which we can work through strong emotions, and grieve for things we’ve lost and wish had been different. With compassion, we relate to our anger, anxiety and sadness with kindness, warmth and non-judgement. This allows us to consider the reasons such emotions are there, work through them and face the issues they are alerting us to. The development and cultivation of compassion isn’t a quick fix. It’s a way of living our lives.

Understanding the Effects of Shame and Self-Criticism

Shame and self-criticism are common blocks to wellbeing, and CFT is designed to overcome them. The following sections help you consider how shame and self-criticism can affect you and what you can do to address and overcome these issues.

The isolating nature of shame

Shame is an excruciatingly difficult psychological state. The term comes from the Indo-European word ‘sham’meaning ‘to hide’, and, as such, the experience of shame is isolating. When we feel shame, we feel bad about ourselves. We believe others judge us as inadequate, inferior or incompetent.


The next exercise helps you to explore the nature of shame and how it may affect you.

Begin by finding a place you can sit for a short time that is free of distractions. Allow yourself to settle for a few moments. It may help to lower your gaze or close your eyes during the exercise. Bring to mind a time when you felt ashamed (nothing too distressing, but something you feel okay to revisit briefly). Allow the experience to occupy your mind for a few moments.
Slowly ask yourself the following questions, allowing time after each question to properly explore your experience:
– How (and where) does shame feel as a sensation in your body?
– What thoughts go through your mind about yourself?
– What do you think other people thought/would think or make of you if they knew this about you?
– What emotions do you feel? What does it make you want to do?

Allow the experience to fade from your mind’s eye. Recall a time you’ve felt content or happy, perhaps on your own or with someone else, and let this memory fill your mind and body.

Depending upon the situation you brought to mind, a sense of anxiety, disgust or anger may have come to the fore. You may feel exposed, flawed, inadequate, disconnected or bad. Maybe you experience the urge to curl up, hide or run away, or perhaps feelings of anger and injustice leave you with the urge to defend yourself or confront someone.


Often, shame results in a feeling of disconnection. We don’t like ourselves (or a part of ourselves) and we don’t want to experience closeness to others because this may result in rejection. Our head goes down and we want to creep away. In addition, shame can affect our bodily sensations, maybe leading to tension, nausea or hotness. When you combine these negative views of yourself with predicted negative views from others, you create a very difficult concoction of experiences.

Shame brings with it a range of difficult experiences. Strong physical sensations, thoughts and images are just some of them. Emotions such as anxiety, sadness and anger can race through you as you feel the urge to withdraw, isolate or defend yourself.

Some of the things we feel shame about include:
– Our body (for example, its shape, or our facial features, hair or skin)
– Our body in action (for example, when sweating, urinating, defecating, burping, shaking, walking or running)
– Our health (for example, illnesses, infections, diseases or genetic conditions)
– Our mind (for example, our thoughts, including any intrusive images in our heads, our impulses, forgetfulness and our psychological health)
– Our emotions (for example, anxiety, anger, disgust, sadness, jealousy or envy)
– Our behaviour (for example, things we’ve said and the way we’ve said them, our use of alcohol and drugs, our compulsions, our eating patterns, or our tendency to avoid other people)
– Our environment (for example, our house, neighbourhood, car or bedroom)
– Other people (for example, our friends, family, cultural or religious group, or community)

Exploring why we feel shame

Human beings are social animals and need the protection, kindness and caring of others. Our brains are social organs. We like to feel valued, accepted and wanted by those around us in order to feel safe. There’s no shame in this. These needs represent a deep-rooted part of us that’s been highly significant in our evolution and survival. Shame begins in how you feel you live in the mind of another –and it is a social regulator. In other words, we’re programmed to try to work out, ‘What are they thinking about or feeling toward me?’, ‘Do they like me?’ and ‘Who can I trust?’

Just to add a further layer of complexity, we also try to work out, ‘Do I like myself or this aspect of me?’ and ‘Can I trust myself?’ If we perceive rejection from our social group or reject an aspect of ourselves, shame can be the result.

Although difficult to experience, shame can trigger us to make helpful changes and others to come to our aid in order to soothe the difficulties we experience. But what happens if we feel shame about things we are unable to change (such as our appearance, an aspect of our personality or our culture)? What happens if shame is attached to historical events that we blame ourselves for and can do nothing about? What happens when nobody comes to our assistance or we’re unable to accept the help offered to us?


Dr. Mary Welford, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, lives and works in the South West of England. She is a founding member of the Compassionate Mind Foundation, Chair to the charity from 2009-2015 and authored the Compassionate Mind Guide to Building Self Confidence.



Compassion Focused Therapy For Dummies

by Mary Welford

get it at



Paul Gilbert

Research into the beneficial effect of developing compassion has advanced enormously in the last ten years, with the development of inner compassion being an important therapeutic focus and goal.

This book explains how Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)—a process of developing compassion for the self and others to increase well-being and aid recovery—varies from other forms of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.

Comprising 30 key points this book explores the founding principles of CFT and outlines the detailed aspects of compassion in the CFT approach. Divided into two parts—Theory and Compassion Practice—this concise book provides a clear guide to the distinctive characteristics of CFT. Compassion Focused Therapy will be a valuable source for students and professionals in training as well as practising therapists who want to learn more about the distinctive features of CFT.

Paul Gilbert is Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Derby and has been actively involved in research and treating people with shame-based and mood disorders for over 30 years. He is a past President of the British Association for Cognitive and Behavioural Psychotherapy and a fellow of the British Psychological Society and has been developing CFT for twenty years.

Part 1


1 Some basics

All psychotherapies believe that therapy should be conducted in a compassionate way that is respectful, supportive and generally kind to people (Gilbert, 2007a; Glasser, 2005). Rogers (1957) articulated core aspects of the therapeutic relationship involving positive regard, genuineness and empathy—which can be seen as “compassionate”. More recently, helping people develop self-compassion has received research attention (Gilbert & Procter, 2006; Leary, Tate, Adams, Allen, & Hancock, 2007; Neff, 2003a, 2003b) and become a focus for self-help (Germer, 2009; Gilbert, 2009a, 2009b; Rubin, 1975/ 1998; Salzberg, 1995).

Developing compassion for self and others, as a way to enhance well-being, has also been central to Buddhist practice for the enhancement of well-being for thousands of years (Dalai Lama, 1995; Leighton, 2003; Vessantara, 1993).

After exploring the background principles for developing Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), Point 16 outlines the detailed aspects of compassion in the CFT approach. We can make a preliminary note, however, that different models of compassion are emerging based on different theories, traditions and research (Fehr, Sprecher, & Underwood, 2009).

The word “compassion” comes from the Latin word compati, which means “to suffer with”. Probably the best-known definition is that of the Dalai Lama who defined compassion as “a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a deep commitment to try to relieve it”, i.e., sensitive attention-awareness plus motivation. In the Buddhist model true compassion arises from insight into the illusory nature of a separate self and the grasping to maintain its boundaries—from what is called an enlightened or awake mind.

Kristin Neff (2003a, 2003b; see, a pioneer in the research on self-compassion, derived her model and self-report measures from Theravada Buddhism. Her approach to self-compassion involves three main components:
– 1 being mindful and open to one’s own suffering;
– 2 being kind, and non self-condemning; and
– 3 an awareness of sharing experiences of suffering with others rather than feeling ashamed and alone—an openness to our common humanity.

In contrast, CFT was developed with and for people who have chronic and complex mental-health problems linked to shame and self-criticism, and who often come from difficult (e.g., neglectful or abusive) backgrounds.

The CFT approach to compassion borrows from many Buddhist teachings (especially the roles of sensitivity to and motivation to relieve suffering) but its roots are derived from an evolutionary, neuroscience and social psychology approach, linked to the psychology and neurophysiology of caring—both giving and receiving (Gilbert, 1989, 2000a, 2005a, 2009a). Feeling cared for, accepted and having a sense of belonging and affiliation with others is fundamental to our physiological maturation and well-being (Cozolino, 2007; Siegel, 2001, 2007). These are linked to particular types of positive affect that are associated with well-being (Depue & Morrone-Strupinsky, 2005; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007; Panksepp, 1998), and a neuro-hormonal profile of increased endorphins and oxytocin (Carter, 1998; Panksepp, 1998).

These calm, peaceful types of positive feelings can be distinguished from those psychomotor activating emotions associated with achievement, excitement and resource seeking (Depue & Morrone-Strupinsky, 2005). Feeling a positive sense of well-being, contentment and safeness, in contrast to feeling excited or achievement focused, can now be distinguished on self-report (Gilbert et al., 2008). In that study, we found that emotions of contentment and safeness were more strongly associated with lower depression, anxiety and stress, than were positive emotions of excitement or feeling energized. So, if there are different types of positive emotions—and there are different brain systems underpinning these positive emotions—then it makes sense that psychotherapists could focus on how to stimulate capacities for the positive emotions associated with calming and well-being.

As we will see, this involves helping clients (become motivated to) develop compassion for themselves, compassion for others and the ability to be sensitive to the compassion from others. There are compassionate (and non-compassionate) ways to engage with painful experiences, frightening feelings or traumatic memories.

CFT is not about avoidance of the painful, or trying to “soothe it away”, but rather is a way of engaging with the painful. In Point 29 we’ll note that many clients are fearful of compassionate feelings from others, and for the self, and it is working with that fear that can constitute the major focus of the work.

A second aspect of the CFT evolutionary approach suggests that self-evaluative systems operate through the same processing systems that we use when evaluating social and interpersonal processes (Gilbert, 1989, 2000a).

So, for example, as behaviourists have long noted, whether we see something sexual or fantasise about something sexual, the sexual arousal system is the same—there aren’t different systems for internal and external stimuli. Similarly, self-criticism and self-compassion can operate through similar brain processes that are stimulated when other people are critical of or compassionate to us. Increasing evidence for this view has come from the study of empathy and mirror neurons (Decety & Jackson, 2004) and our own recent fMRI study on self-criticism and self-compassion (Longe et al., 2010).


CFT is a multimodal therapy that builds on a range of cognitive-behavioural (CBT) and other therapies and interventions.

Hence, it focuses on attention, reasoning and rumination, behaviour, emotions, motives and imagery.

It utilizes: the therapeutic relationship (see below); Socratic dialogues, guided discovery, psycho-education (of the CFT model); structured formulations; thought, emotion, behaviour and “body” monitoring; inference chaining; functional analysis; behavioural experiments; exposure, graded tasks; compassion focused imagery; chair work; enactment of different selves; mindfulness; learning emotional tolerance, learning to understand and cope with emotional complexities and conflicts, making commitments for effort and practice, illuminating safety strategies; mentalizing; expressive (letter) writing, forgiveness, distinguishing shame-criticizing from compassionate self-correction and out-of-session work and guided practice—to name a few! Feeling the change CFT adds distinctive features in its compassion focus and use of compassion imagery to traditional CBT-type approaches.

As with many of the recent developments in therapy, special attention is given to mindfulness in both client and therapist (Siegel, 2010). In the formulation CFT is focused on the affect-regulation model outlined in Point 6, and interventions are used to develop specific patterns of affect regulation, brain states and self-experiences that underpin change processes.

This is particularly important when it comes to working with self-criticism and shame in people from harsh backgrounds. Such individuals may not have experienced much in the way of caring or affiliative behaviour from others and therefore the (soothing) emotion-regulation system is less accessible to them. These are individuals who are likely to say, “I understand the logic of [say] CBT, but I can’t feel any different”. To feel different requires the ability to access affect systems (a specific neurophysiology) that give rise to our feelings of reassurance and safeness. This is a well-known issue in CBT (Leahy, 2001; Stott, 2007; Wills, 2009, p. 57).

Over twenty years ago I explored why “alternative thoughts” were not “experienced” as helpful. This revealed that the emotional tone, and the way that such clients “heard” alternative thoughts in their head, was often analytical, cold, detached or even aggressive. Alternative thoughts to feeling a failure, like: “Come on, the evidence does not support this negative view; remember how much you achieved last week!” will have a very different impact if said to oneself (experienced) aggressively and with irritation than if said slowly and with kindness and warmth. It was the same with exposures or home-works—the way they are done (bullying and forcing oneself verses encouraging and being kind to oneself) can be as important as what is done.

So, it seemed clear that we needed to focus far more on the feelings of alternatives not just the content—indeed, an over focus on content often was not helpful.

So, my first steps into CFT simply tried to encourage clients to imagine a warm, kind voice offering them the alternatives; or working with them in their behavioural tasks. By the time of the second edition of Counselling for Depression (Gilbert, 2000b) a whole focus had become concentrated on “developing inner warmth”(see also Gilbert, 2000a).

So, CFT progressed from doing CBT and emotion work with a compassion (kindness) focus and, then, as the evidence for the model developed and more specific exercises proved helpful, on to CFT.

The therapeutic relationship

The therapeutic relationship plays a key role in CFT (Gilbert, 2007c; Gilbert & Leahy, 2007), paying particular attention to the micro-skills of therapeutic engagement (Ivey & Ivey, 2003), issues of transference/countertransference (Miranda & Andersen, 2007), expression, amplification, inhibition and/or fear of emotion (Elliott, Watson, Goldman, & Greenberg, 2003; Leahy, 2001), shame (Gilbert, 2007c), validation (Leahy, 2005), and mindfulness of the therapist (Siegel, 2010).

When training people from other approaches, particularly CBT, we find that we have to slow them down; to allow spaces, and silences for reflection, and experiencing within the therapy rather than a series of Socratic questions or “target setting”. We teach how to use one’s voice speed and tone, nonverbal communication, the pacing of the therapy, being mindful (Katzow & Safran, 2007; Siegel, 2010) and the reflective process in the service of creating “safeness” to explore, discover, experiment and develop.

Key is to provide emotional contexts where the client can experience (and internalize) therapists as “compassionately alongside them”—no easy task because as we will discuss below (see Point 10) shame often involves clients having emotional experiences (transference) of being misunderstood, getting things wrong, trying to work out what the other person wants them to do and intense aloneness.

The emotional tone in the therapy is created partly by the whole manner and pacing of the therapist and is important in this process of experiencing “togetherness”. CF therapists are sensitive to how clients can actually find it hard to experience “togetherness” or “being cared about”, and wrap themselves in safety strategies of sealing the self off from “the feelings of togetherness and connectedness” (see Point 29; Gilbert, 1997, 2007a, especially Chapters 5 and 6, 2007c). CBT focuses on collaboration, where the therapist and client focus on the problem together—as a team.

CFT also focuses on (mind) “sharing”.

The evolution of sharing (and motives to share), e.g., not only objects but also our thoughts, ideas and feelings, is one of humans’ most important adaptations and we excel at wanting to share. As an especially social species, humans have an innate desire to share—not only material things but also their knowledge, values and the content of their minds—to be known, understood and validated. Thus, issues of motivation to share versus fear of sharing (shame), empathy and theory of mind are important evolved motives and competencies. It is the felt barriers to this “flow of minds” that can be problematic for some people and the way that the therapist “unblocks” this flow that can be therapeutic.

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT; Linehan, 1993) addresses the key issue of therapy-interfering behaviours. CFT, like any other therapy, needs to be able to set clear boundaries, and use authority as a containing process. Some clients can be “emotional bullies”, threatening the therapist (e.g., with litigation or suicide) and are demanding. Frightened therapists may submit or back off. The client, at some level, is frightened of their own capacity to force others away from them.

For other clients, during painful moments, therapists might try to rescue rather than be silent. So, clarification of the therapeutic relationship is very important. This is why DBT wisely recommends a support group for therapists working with these kinds of clients. Research has shown that compassion can become a genuine part of self-identity but it can also be linked to self-image goals where people are compassionate in order to be liked (Crocker & Canevello, 2008). Compassion focused self-image goals are problematic in many ways.

Researchers are also beginning to explore attachment style and therapeutic relationships with evidence that securely attached therapists develop therapeutic alliances easier and with less problems than therapists with an insecure attachment style (Black, Hardy, Turpin, & Parry, 2005; see also Liotti, 2007). Leahy (2007) has also outlined how the personality and schema organization of the therapist can play a huge role in the therapeutic relationship—for example, autocratic therapists with dependent patients, or dependent therapists with autocratic patients. So, compassion is not about submissive “niceness”—it can be tough, setting boundaries, being honest and not giving clients what they want but what they need. An alcoholic wants another drink—that is not what they need; many people want to avoid pain and may try to do so in a variety of ways—but (kind) clarity, exposure and acceptance may be what actually facilitates change and growth (Siegel, 2010).

Evidence for the benefits of compassion

Although CFT is rooted in an evolutionary, neuro- and psychological science model, it is important to recognize its heavy borrowing from Buddhist influences. For over 2500 years Buddhism has focused on compassion and mindfulness as central to enlightenment and “healing our mind”. While Theravada Buddhism focuses on mindfulness and loving-( friendly)-kindness, Mahayana practices are specifically compassion focused (Leighton, 2003; Vessantara, 1993).

At the end of his life the Buddha said that his main teachings were mindfulness and compassion—to do no harm to self or others. The Buddha outlined an eight-fold path for practice and training one’s mind to avoid harming and promote compassion. This includes: compassionate meditations and imagery, compassionate behaviour, compassionate thinking, compassionate attention, compassionate feeling, compassion speech and compassionate livelihood.

It is these multimodal components that lead to a compassionate mind. We now know that the practice of various aspects of compassion increases well-being and affects brain functioning, especially in areas of emotional regulation (Begley, 2007; Davidson et al., 2003).

The last 10 years have seen a major upsurge in exploring the benefits of cultivating compassion (Fehr et al., 2009). In an early study Rein, Atkinson and McCraty (1995) found that directing people in compassion imagery had positive effects on an indictor of immune functioning (S-IgA) while anger imagery had negative effects. Practices of imagining compassion for others, produce changes in the frontal cortex, immune system and wellbeing (Lutz, Brefczynski-Lewis, Johnstone, & Davidson, 2008). Hutcherson, Seppala and Gross (2008) found that a brief loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of social connectedness and affiliation towards strangers. Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek and Finkel (2008) allocated 67 Compuware employees to a loving-kindness meditation group and 72 to waiting-list control.

They found that six 60-minute weekly group sessions with home practice based on a CD of loving kindness meditations (compassion directed to self, then others, then strangers) increased positive emotions, mindfulness, feelings of purpose in life and social support, and decreased illness symptoms. Pace, Negi and Adame (2008) found that compassion meditation (for six weeks) improved immune function and neuroendocrine and behavioural responses to stress. Rockliff, Gilbert, McEwan, Lightman and Glover (2008) found that compassionate imagery increased heart rate variability and reduced cortisol in low self-critics, but not in high self-critics.

In our recent fMRI study we found that self-criticism and self-reassurance to imagined threatening events (e.g., a job rejection) stimulated different brain areas, with self-compassion but not self-criticism stimulating the insula—a brain area associated with empathy (Longe et al., 2010). Viewing sad faces, neutrally or with a compassionate attitude, influences neurophysiological responses to faces (Ji-Woong et al., 2009). In a small uncontrolled study of people with chronic mentalhealth problems, compassion training significantly reduced shame, self-criticism, depression and anxiety (Gilbert & Procter, 2006). Compassion training has also been found to be helpful for psychotic voice hearers (Mayhew & Gilbert, 2008). In a study of group-based CFT for 19 clients in a high-security psychiatric setting, Laithwaite et al. (2009) found “…a large magnitude of change for levels of depression and self-esteem…. A moderate magnitude of change was found for the social comparison scale and general psychopathology, with a small magnitude of change for shame,…. These changes were maintained at 6-week follow-up”(p. 521).

In the field of relationships and well-being, there is now good evidence that caring for others, showing appreciation and gratitude, having empathic and mentalizing skills, does much to build positive relationships, which significantly influence well-being and mental and physical health (Cacioppo, Berston, Sheridan, & McClintock, 2000; Cozolino, 2007, 2008).

There is increasing evidence that the kind of “self” we try to become will influence our well-being and social relationships, and compassionate rather than self-focused self-identities are associated with the better outcomes (Crocker & Canevello, 2008).

Taken together there are good grounds for the further development of and research into CFT.

Neff (2003a, 2003b) has been a pioneer in studies of self-compassion (see pages 3–4). She has shown that self-compassion can be distinguished from self-esteem and predicts some aspects of well-being better than self-esteem (Neff & Vonk, 2009), and that self-compassion aids in coping with academic failure (Neff, Hsieh, & Dejitterat, 2005; Neely, Schallert, Mohammed, Roberts, & Chen, 2009). Compassionate letter writing to oneself, improves coping with life events and reduces depression (Leary et al., 2007).

As noted, however, Neff’s concepts of compassion are different from the evolutionary and attachment-rooted model outlined here and, as yet, there is no agreed definition of compassion—indeed, the word compassion can have slightly (but important) different meanings in different languages. So, here compassion will be defined as a “mind set”, a basic mentality, and explored in detail in Point 16.

2 A personal journey

My interest in developing people’s capacities for compassion and self-compassion was fuelled by a number of issues:
• First, was a long interest in evolutionary approaches to human behaviour, suffering and growth (Gilbert, 1984, 1989, 1995, 2001a, 2001b, 2005a, 2005b, 2007a, 2007b, 2009a). The idea that cognitive systems tap underlying evolved motivation and emotional mechanisms has also been central to Beck’s cognitive approach (Beck, 1987, 1996; Beck, Emery, & Greenberg, 1985), with a special edition dedicated to exploring the evolutionary-cognitive interface (Gilbert, 2002, 2004).
• Second, evolutionary psychology has focused significantly on the issue of altruism and caring (Gilbert, 2005a) with increasing recognition of just how important these have been in our evolution (Bowlby, 1969; Hrdy, 2009) and now are to our physical and psychological development (Cozolino, 2007) and well-being (Cozolino, 2008; Gilbert, 2009a; Siegel, 2007).
• Third, people with chronic mental-health problems often come from backgrounds of high stress and/ or low altruism and caring (Bifulco & Moran, 1998), backgrounds that significantly affect physical and psychological development (Cozolino, 2007; Gerhardt, 2004; Teicher, 2002).
• Fourth, partly as a consequence of these life experiences, people with chronic and complex problems can be especially, deeply troubled by shame and self-criticism and/ or self-hatred and find it enormously difficult to be open to the kindness of others or to be kind to themselves (Gilbert, 1992, 2000a, 2007a, 2007c; Gilbert & Procter, 2006).
• Fifth, as noted on page 6, when using CBT they would typically say, “I can see the logic of alternative thoughts but I still feel X, or Y. I can understand why I wasn’t to blame for my abuse but I still feel I’m to blame”, or, “I still feel there is something bad about me”.
• Sixth, there is increasing awareness that the way clients are able to think about and reflect on the contents of their own minds (e.g., competencies to mentalize in contrast to being alexithymic) has major implications for the process and focus of therapy (Bateman & Fonagy, 2006; Choi-Kain & Gunderson, 2008; Liotti & Gilbert, in press; Liotti & Prunetti, 2010).
• Last, but not least, is a long personal interest in the philosophies and practices of Buddhism—although I do not regard myself as a Buddhist as such. Compassion practices, such as becoming the compassionate self (see Part 2), may create a sense of safeness that aides the development of mindfulness and mentalizing.

In Buddhist psychology compassion “transforms” the mind.

Logic and emotion

It has been known for a long time that logic and emotion can be in conflict. Indeed, since the 1980s research has shown that we have quite different processing systems in our minds.

One is linked to what is called implicit (automatic) processing, which is non-conscious, fast, emotional, requires little effort, is subject to classical conditioning and self-identify functions, and may generate feelings and fantasies even against conscious desires. This is the system which gives that “felt sense of something”.

This can be contrasted with an explicit (controlled) processing system, which is slower, consciously focused, reflective, verbal and effortful (Haidt, 2001; Hassin, Uleman, & Bargh, 2005).

These findings have been usefully formulated for clinical work (e.g., Power & Dalgleish, 1997) with more complex models being offered by Teasdale and Barnard (1993).

But the basic point is that there is no simple connection of cognition to emotion, and there are different neurophysiological systems underpinning them (Panksepp, 1998).

So, one of the problems linking thinking and feeling (“I know it but I don’t feel it”) can be attributed to (different) implicit and explicit systems coming up with different processing strategies and conclusions.

Cognitive, and many other, therapists and psychologists have not helped matters by using the concept of cognition and information processing interchangeably as if they are the same thing. They are not.

Your computer and DNA—indeed every cell in your body—are information processing mechanisms but I don’t think that they have “cognitions”.

This failure to define what is and is not “a cognition” or “cognitive” in contrast to a motive or an emotion has caused difficulties in this area of research.

Various solutions have been offered to work with the problems of feelings not following cognitions or logical reasoning, such as: needing more time to practise; most change is slow and hard work; more exposure to problematic emotions; identifying “roadblocks” and their functions (Leahy, 2001); a need for a particular therapeutic relationship (Wallin, 2007); or developing mindfulness and acceptance (Hayes, Follette, & Linehan, 2004; Liotti & Prunetti, 2010).

CFT offers an additional position

CFT suggests that there can be a fundamental problem in an implicit emotional system that evolved with mammalian and human caring systems and which gives rise to feelings of reassurance, safeness and connectedness (see Point 6).

The inability to access that affect system is what underpins this problem. Indeed, as noted (page 6), some people can cognitively (logically) generate “alternative thoughts” but hear them in their head as cold, detached or aggressive. There is no warmth or encouragement in their alternative thoughts—the emotional tone is more like cold instruction.

I have found that the idea of feeling (inner) kindness and supportiveness as part of generating alternative “thoughts” is an anathema to them. So, they just cannot “feel” their alternative thoughts and images.


Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., is currently a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Derby in the United Kingdom, and director of the Mental Health Research Unit at Derbyshire Mental Health Trust.



Compassion Focused Therapy

by Paul Gilbert

get it at


Authoritative Websites on CFT

Centre for Mindful Self Compassion

Mindful Self Compassion for Teens

Chris Germer

The Mindfulness

The Compassion

Center For Healthy Minds

Mindfulness Research

Mindfulness Exercises

Compassionate Living

Foundation For Active Compassion

Mindsight Institute

Center For Nonviolent Communication

Awareness In Action

Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education

Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life

Charter For Compassion

Compassionate Mind Foundation

Christopher Germer, PhD, Author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

Mindful Awareness Research Center at University of California Los Angeles

University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness

Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy

University of California at San Diego Center for Mindfulness

Mind And Life Institute

Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice

Mindfulness page maintained by David Fresco

Mindfulness page maintained by Christopher Walsh

Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom

Centre for Mindfulness Studies

Recommended Reading:

  • Highly Recommended: Germer, C. K. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions.New York: Guilford Press.
  • Bennett-Goleman, T. (2001). Emotional alchemy: How the mind can heal the heart.New York: Three Rivers Press.
  • Brach, T. (2003) Radical Acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha. New York: Bantam.
  • Brown, B. (1999). Soul without shame: A guide to liberating yourself from the judge within. Boston: Shambala.
  • Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
  • Feldman, C. (2005). Compassion: Listening to the cries of the world.Berkeley: Rodmell Press.
  • Gilbert, P. (2009). The compassionate mind. London: Constable.
  • Goldstein, E. (2015). Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Goldstein, J., & Kornfield, J. (1987). Seeking the heart of wisdom: The path of insight meditation. Boston: Shambhala.
  • Hanh, T. N. (1997). Teachings on love.Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
  • Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart.New York: Bantam Books.
  • Marlowe, S. (2016). My new best friend. Summerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
  • Rosenberg, M. (2003). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press.
  • Salzberg, S. (1997). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness.Boston: Shambala.
  • Salzberg, S. (2005). The force of kindness: change your life with love and compassion. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

What really happens when you age? A scientist debunks popular myths about sex and brain power – Dana Rosenfeld.

People over the age of 65 make up a larger percentage of the global population than ever before. As this ageing of society only really took off in the last century, it’s unsurprising that much of what we think we know about ageing is untrue.

The “facts” about ageing depict people as becoming somehow less – less capable, less vibrant, less flexible, less sexual and less fulfilled. But how many of these “facts” hold up to scrutiny? Let’s investigate five common beliefs.

Libido and sexual activity decrease

This is not true. Hormone levels change as we age, but this doesn’t necessarily decrease libido. Indeed, for women, libido often increases after the menopause.

Older people’s libido may be lowered by chronic illness (such as diabetes and heart disease), drug side effects (antihypertensive drugs, for example) and marital unhappiness and boredom. So decreases in sexual desire in old age are often due to events and circumstances, not to physical changes that come with age.

Having a sexual partner, however, is the strongest factor for determining how often older people have sex. Because women tend to marry older men, who die younger, older women’s reduced sexual activity is largely due to widowhood. Again, it’s not ageing per se that lowers libido and sexual activity, but events and circumstances that typically accompany ageing.

Brain function decreases because of age

Not true. Our neurons work differently in older age, and older people can have difficulties with thinking and remembering. But, as with sex, these abilities are strongly influenced by our social circumstances. For example, mental abilities are closely linked to supportive social relationships and physical and mental activity. Because we can change our social circumstances, we are likely able to offset the physical effects of ageing on our mental abilities.

We often treat young and middle-aged people’s mental abilities as the gold standard, but this is biased and leads to false conclusions. As we get older, we may think differently and at different speeds (we have more to remember), but this doesn’t make our thinking less keen, deep, creative, productive or meaningful. After all Peter Roget invented the thesaurus at 76 and Michelangelo drew up architectural plans for the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs at 88.

You become more conservative

Not so. Imagine ten people: one aged ten, one 20, one 30 and so on. The oldest is less liberal than the 60-year-old, who is less liberal than the 40-year-old, and so on. You might conclude people get more conservative with age. But you’d be incorrectly assuming that each person started out with the same political outlook.

A 100-year-old woman, born in 1918, formed her baseline political opinions in a very different time. What was liberal in the 1940s is conservative now (consider race relations, feminism and sexual norms). What you’re seeing is a 100-year-old whose political opinions have become less conservative, but remain more conservative than her children’s or grandchildren’s opinions, who began their lives on a more liberal footing. This is what researchers in the US found in their study* of political attitudes among different age groups over 30 years. They concluded that “change is as common among older adults as younger adults”.

You become less happy

Happily, this is untrue. As a sociologist at the University of Chicago found, while happiness dips between the ages of 30 to 40, “overall levels of happiness increase with age, net of other factors”.

Why? First, younger people may be exposed to stressful events that older, retired, people are protected from, such as dips in wages or periods of unemployment. Second, the older we get, the more we tend to focus on positive memories and information, and the better we become at regulating our emotions. And this upward trend continues until we’re “essentially dying”.

Your immune system weakens.

It does, overall, but older people’s immune systems vary enormously. Remember the 100-year-old who become more liberal over time? She would have been 11 when the Great Depression began. As a result, she would probably have undergone puberty while financially, socially and nutritionally stressed. Poor nutrition would have weakened her immune system in the immediate and the longer term.

As researchers in France have found, being malnourished weakens the immune system, especially the very young and the very old, so if our 100-year-old woman was undernourished as an older woman, she’d be doubly disadvantaged on the immunity front.

But she might also be less likely to catch a cold. We become immune for years, and sometimes even for a lifetime, to a specific virus after we are infected with it. Over time, we become immune to more and more viruses, so, the older we get, the fewer viruses can make use sick – assuming, of course, that we’re not deluged by a mass of new viruses. Again, it’s how we connect – and have connected – with the outside world that shapes our older age.

The Conversation


Abstract from the study of political attitudes among different age groups.

Prevailing stereotypes of older people hold that their attitudes are inflexible or that aging tends to promote increasing conservatism in sociopolitical outlook. In spite of mounting scientific evidence demonstrating that learning, adaptation, and reassessment are behaviors in which older people can and do engage, the stereotype persists. We use U.S. General Social Survey data from 25 surveys between 1972 and 2004 to formally assess the magnitude and direction of changes in attitudes that occur within cohorts at different stages of the life course.

We decompose changes in sociopolitical attitudes into the proportions attributable to cohort succession and intracohort aging for three categories of items: attitudes toward historically subordinate groups, civil liberties, and privacy. We find that significant intracohort change in attitudes occurs in cohorts-in-later-stages (age 60 and older) as well as cohorts-in-earlier-stages (ages 18 to 39), that the change for cohorts-in-later-stages is frequently greater than that for cohorts-in-earlier-stages, and that the direction of change is most often toward increased tolerance rather than increased conservatism. These findings are discussed within the context of population aging and development.

Research Paper available at

The enduring appeal of conspiracy theories – Melissa Hogenboom.

While some conspiracy theories are largely harmless, others have damaging ripple-effects. With new insights, researchers are getting closer to understanding why so many people believe things which are not true.

In certain pockets of America, measles diagnoses have been spreading at previously unprecented rates.

In 2017 there were 58 confirmed cases of the illness in Minnesota – the largest outbreak the state had seen in 30 years. Similarly, in 2008, a large outbreak occurred in California, which was thought to originate from a seven-year-old boy, who had not been vaccinated.

Less than a decade earlier, measles had been largely eliminated in the US. The gradual resurgence can, researchers say, be directly attributed to people who were not vaccinated.

Before measles vaccinations were introduced in 1963, the illness could be deadly. In the 1960s, there were several million cases, thousands of hospitalisations and 500 deaths per year. Meanwhile in Australia, a 2016 report concluded that 23 deaths from a host of diseases could have been prevented by vaccination between 2005 and 2014. And what’s more, such vaccinations were readily available.

Those that do not vaccinate often choose not to. They are called “anti-vaxxers” and they largely believe that vaccinations are harmful – and, often, that pharmaceutical companies (and others) cover up damaging effects of vaccinations. It is but one of many conspiracy theories that flies in the face of scientific evidence – a quick internet search throws up hundreds.

Similarly, climate change deniers are convinced that the Earth is not warming, and some say that scientists are tweaking evidence to make it appear so. Those that believe in one conspiracy, are in turn more susceptible to believing others.

While some conspiracy theories are relatively harmless – the argument that Nasa faked the Moon landing, or bizarrely, that Beatle Sir Paul McCartney died long ago with a doppelganger taking his place ever since – others have damaging ripple-effects.

With new insights, researchers are getting closer to understanding more of the factors involved. This will, they hope, help mitigate some of the very real dangers and societal divides that conspiracy theories encourage.

Anti-vaxxers believe that vaccinations can be harmful

There is nothing new about conspiracy theories. As early as the 3rd Century BC, a once-lost Gospel of Philip purported that Jesus and Mary Magdalen were married, a myth which has been perpetuated in popular fiction, such as The Da Vinci Code. Some trace the mysterious brain-washing Illuminati conspiracy to a secret society in 1776, but that society was nothing like the ‘Illuminati’ of today. More recently, some even deny that the Holocaust happened. Despite the harrowing evidence, they maintain that the Nazis did not kill six million Jews during World War Two.

The question psychologists like Karen Douglas, a professor at the University of Kent, ask themselves is why do such beliefs persist?

There is no simple answer. Considering the range of conspiracy theories that abound and the fact that up to half of all US citizens believe at least one of them, there is no immediate set of unifying traits that makes up a “profile” of such a person. Who hasn’t at some point wanted to believe that a deceased favourite artist might still be alive? Elvis Presley and Tupac Shakur have both been subjects of such debate.

“On some level, we are all predisposed to be suspicious or mistrustful of government,” says Douglas. That we are wary of groups or people we do not understand makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. “In some ways, it is quite adaptive to be suspicious of other groups for your own personal safety,” she says.

The Da Vinci Code suggests that Jesus married Mary Magdalene

But when Douglas probed a little deeper, she started to uncover a smorgasbord of explanations for why some people are more drawn to conspiracies than others. For one, they seem to have an intrinsic and almost narcissistic need for uniqueness, one study showed. This is the idea that a person feels like they have access to scarce information or alternative ‘secret’ explanations about certain world events, such as the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris.

As the scholar and author Michael Billig put it in 1984: “The conspiracy theory offers the chance of hidden, important, and immediate knowledge, so that the believer can become an expert, possessed of a knowledge not held even by the so-called experts.” Douglas’ work has now shown what Billig alluded to.

Other studies reveal that conspiracy theories help people make sense of the world when they feel out of control, are anxious or feel powerless if their needs are threatened. People can find it difficult to accept that we live in a world where random acts of violence, such as mass-murder, can take place. That is why, says University of Bristol professor of psychology Stephan Lewandowsky, it can be psychologically comforting for some to believe that “powerful people” are behind random events. People are literally “addicted to answers,” according to one study.

Take the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest mass-shooting in US history in which 58 people were killed. It has been blamed on Muslim terrorists, the violent group Antifa, and it has been suggested it was part of an Illuminati blood-sacrifice ritual. The fact-checking website Snopes has a longer list of falsehoods it has debunked.

“We do not like the idea that out of the blue something terrible can happen, therefore, it is psychologically comforting for some people to believe in a well-organised conspiracy of powerful people who are responsible for those events,” says Lewandowsky.

Upbringing may also play a role in world beliefs. Individuals who grew up insecurely attached to their parents – where they experienced a negative relationship with one or both of them, also seem to be more likely to support conspiracy theories. That’s according to a study being published in April 2018 in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Some people believe that Elvis Presley faked his own death

“These people exaggerate threats compared to others,” explains Douglas, in part because they use an inflated perception of global threats as a coping mechanism. “They help people explain or justify their anxieties.” Whether or not it works is another matter. The current evidence at least, suggests it does not help with anxiety. It might even make people feel less in control. In fact, conspiracy theories can make people feel more uncertain, powerless, and disillusioned. Once in that state, they are then also more likely to continue believing them.

That so many people do choose to believe conspiracy theories, comes with potentially dangerous consequences, despite the fact that some are absurdly silly or even comical.

People who are party to them feel more disengaged politically and are therefore less likely to vote. Climate sceptics are also less inclined to reduce their carbon footprint and support the politicians who promise to do so. Similarly, anti-vaxxers contribute to the spread of disease, which can harm and even kill the very young or those with compromised immune systems. These are the very real effects of an age where there is a “blizzard of misinformation” out there, says Lewandowsky, where the nobility of truth itself is being undermined.

There does not seem to be an easy way for the truth to rule supreme. Frustratingly for scientists, presenting accurate facts which “disprove” a conspiracy theory does not usually help. In fact, it can even make a false belief stronger. Lewandowsky found that the stronger a person believes in a conspiracy, the less likely they are to trust scientific facts. It is more likely they will think the person attempting to reason with them is in on it. “What that means is that any evidence against a conspiracy theory is reinterpreted as evidence in favour of it.” The rejection of science is, in part, fuelled by conspiracy theorists, he further found.

Conspiracy theorists say signs on the US dollar bill shows Illuminati influence

This highlights the extent to which we live in a polarised world. One study looking at how conspiracy theories spread online, revealed that there is no overlap between those who share scientific news, and those who share conspiracies or fake news. “We are living in separate echo chambers,” says physicist David Grimes, from Queens University, Belfast. He was so frequently trolled by conspiracy theorists in his science writing that he developed an algorithm to show how unlikely it is that big secrets can be kept for any significant length of time. The more people involved in a cover-up, the quicker it would unravel, he showed.

“We all share a single world, and the consequences of what we decide from a policy or ethics perspective, affect all of us. If we cannot even agree on basic science, things that shouldn’t even be controversial, we [will] have serious problems making decisions,” says Grimes.

While there may not be a single solution, research looking into the psychology behind conspiracy theory participation is a start. We now know that a person’s ideology is often related to their beliefs.

The strongest predictor of climate denial, for instance, is a free-market ideology, Lewandowsky discovered.

Through the work of Douglas and others, we now also know many of the traits that make people more susceptible to believing something without evidence. We need to realise that we are “drawn to patterns,” even when there are none, says Grimes. “The reality is, we live in a stochastic Universe. It’s tempting to draw a narrative, but there’s no narrative, there are no waves, we are joining dots in the sand,” says Grimes.

The vast majority of scientists agree that climate change today is caused by humans

Although technology has created the many echo chambers and filter bubbles we see today, it could also help overcome them. One pioneering experiment in Norway introduced a quiz to make sure the person understood what they had read before they were able to comment on an article. This might help people “calm down” before distributing random noise, says Lewandowsky, but at the same time it is not censoring anyone from having a voice.

Another strategy that could help is educating people to better understand trusted sources, as well as holding public figures to account when they spread misinformation. Several fact-checking websites and journalists already attempt to do this, but it doesn’t always work. Grimes has found that people set in their beliefs are unlikely to change their opinions, but those who “aren’t fully committed” can be swayed when presented with evidence. That, he hopes, means we can overturn many conspiracies if people are provided with compelling, fact-based evidence.

Lastly, we can all look more closely at what we share on social media ourselves. People often share a clever-sounding headline without actually reading the contents of the article.

“We’ve got the information of the world at our finger tips and yet we’re obsessed with empty fictions,” says Grimes. That’s exactly how misinformation and conspiracy theories can so easily spread.

This means that we really cannot always believe what we read and hear. If something sounds peculiar or contrived, chances are it might well be. If you are aware of just how many conspiracy theories circulate, then you are already ahead of the game in preventing them from spreading further.


How to Spot a Psychopath: Three Traits You Should Look For – Melissa Burkley Ph.D.

When we think of the word “psychopath,” what usually comes to mind first are commonplace media portrayals of crazed killers. The kind you see in Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But these depictions are a far cry from what actual psychopaths are like. In fact, most psychopaths are not murderers. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that this fact makes psychopaths harder to spot in a crowd than you might think (Hint: He’s usually not the crazy-eyed guy in the black trench coat walking down the abandoned street). Research suggests that 1 percent of the population meets the criteria for psychopathy. That may not sound like a lot, but it means that 1 in every 100 people you know is a psychopath. They could be your neighbor, your co-worker, your friend, or maybe even your favorite blogger. Perhaps there’s one sitting next to you right now as you read this! And to make things worse, the percentage doubles or even quadruples if we are talking about people in high-power positions, like business leaders, lawyers, and surgeons.

With all these psychopaths running around, how do you spot one? After all, the quicker you can identify a psychopath in your midst, the less likely you are to become one of their victims. Fortunately, psychologists have been conducting research on psychopathic traits for years.

Although theories of psychopathy may vary, most researchers tend to agree that real-world psychopaths demonstrate a cluster of three personality characteristics. This cluster is referred to as the “Dark Triad,” because people who possess these three traits often exhibit malevolent behaviors (e.g., crime, ethical violations, etc.).

1. Machiavellianism

People high in Machiavellianism are duplicitous, cunning, and manipulative. They place a higher priority than most on power, money, and winning. They easily disregard moral and social rules, and as a result, lie to others and manipulate them with little to no guilt. Think Gordon Gekko from Wall Street or Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards.
For people high in this trait, manipulating others is an impulse, much like an alcoholic has an impulse to drink. Sometimes this manipulation is done to achieve personal gain (e.g., to get a promotion), but other times it is just done for fun, or because they can’t stop themselves (e.g., internet trolling). Depending on type, these people’s tools of the trade are deception, guilt, bullying, feigned weakness, or flattery. But whichever they choose, they regularly wield these tools in an attempt to twist the emotions and behaviors of those around them.

Because such people are master manipulators, they are often charming and well-liked, at least on a superficial level. They may feign interest and compassion for a short time, but that façade wears off quickly, and it becomes clear that they only really care about themselves.
A perfect literary example of this trait is Amy Dunne from Gone Girl. Amy Dunne goes to extreme lengths to victimize the men in her life, often because their only sin was not giving her the attention she thought she deserved. Her particular tools of manipulation are sex, lies, guilt, fame, and of course her well-crafted diary. Even we as the readers get duped by Amy’s lies, and it isn’t until midway through the book that we see her for what she really is: a master manipulator.

2. Lack of Conscience or Empathy

You know that little voice in your head that tells you to return a found wallet or treat others as you want to be treated? Well, people high in psychopathy don’t have that voice, or if they do, its volume is turned down very low. As a result, they lack many of the social emotions that normal people take for granted, including guilt, remorse, sympathy, and pity.
It is this lack of a conscience that enables psychopaths to engage in behaviors that normal people may secretly fantasize about, but never actually do. When someone hurts us or makes us mad, we may think, “I just want to punch him!” or “I could kill him!” but we would never actually do it. Psychopaths don’t have that brake pedal. Generally speaking, if they want to do it, they’ll do it.
This also hints at another quality associated with psychopathy — low impulse control. People high in psychopathy are quick to violence and aggression, they have many casual sex partners, and they engage in risky or dangerous behaviors. Their mantra is “Act first, think later.”
Once again, Gillian Flynn crafted an excellent representation of this trait with Amy Dunne. Amy is cold and calculating and almost reptilian-like in her lack of compassion. She seems to lack any sense of right and wrong or empathy for what she puts others through. Instead, she has a calculating, pragmatic nature, regardless of whether she is lying to the police or getting rid of a human obstacle. Through her actions and lack of emotions, the reader finally sees Amy Dunne as a glacial beauty who lacks even a hint of warmth or humanity underneath.

3. Narcissism

People high in narcissism are self-centered, vain, and have an inflated sense of their qualities and achievements. They see themselves as perfect. Any flaws they may have they refuse to see in themselves and instead project onto those around them. For example, a narcissist who secretly worries she isn’t smart enough will accuse those around her of being dumb as a way to boost her own ego.

Narcissists love compliments — they can’t get enough and lavishly praise anyone who admires or affirms them. The flip side of this coin means they are extremely sensitive to insults and often respond to criticism with seething rage and retribution. They have what psychologists refer to as “unstable self-esteem.” This means they put themselves on a very high pedestal, but it doesn’t take much to topple them to the ground. What a normal person would perceive as constructive criticism, narcissists see as a declaration of war.

Because of their self-focus, they don’t get along well with others. They have problems sustaining healthy, satisfying relationships, and so they tend to seek positions of authority where they can work over, rather than beside, their colleagues. Such authority also helps, because narcissists never blame themselves for their problems. It is ALWAYS someone else’s fault.

There are lots of examples of narcissists in popular literature (and many more in historical literature), but in my opinion, one that holds true to this description in a non-obvious and non-stereotypical way is Annie Wilkes from Misery. Annie doesn’t immediately come off as arrogant or boastful (although her claim to be Paul Sheldon’s “number-one fan” is our first hint of her inflated sense of self). But as the book unfolds, we are subjected to her constant complaining about the world and those in it. These rants demonstrate that she does see herself as superior. Everyone else is a “lying ol’ dirty birdy,” and anyone who falls into this dreaded category is not worthy of sympathy or even basic human dignity. The character of Annie Wilkes is an excellent example of how to incorporate narcissism (or any of these three traits) in a way that is subtle and unique, but still clearly present.

Now, let’s put it all together. Keep in mind that just being high in one of these traits doesn’t automatically mean a person is a psychopath. People can be risk-seekers or arrogant and not necessarily engage in malevolent behavior. In fact, some research suggests that real-world heroes share some, but not all, of these traits. What matters is the combination of these three traits. Real-world psychopaths are the perfect storm of egotism, manipulation, and a lack of conscience.

Psychology Today 

Mirror Neuron Activity May Predict How We Respond to Moral Dilemmas – Traci Pedersen. 

In a new study published in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, researchers found that they were able to predict a person’s ethical actions based on their mirror neuron activity.

Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire equally whether a person is performing an action or watching another person perform the same action. These neurons play a vital role in how people feel empathy for others or learn through mimicry. For example, if you wince while seeing another person in pain — a phenomenon called “neural resonance” — mirror neurons are responsible.

For the study, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA) wanted to know whether neural resonance might play a role in how people make complicated choices that require both conscious deliberation and consideration of another’s feelings.

The findings suggest that by studying how a person’s mirror neurons respond while watching someone else experience pain, scientists can predict whether that person will be more likely to avoid causing harm to others when faced with a moral dilemma.

“The findings give us a glimpse into what is the nature of morality,” said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, director of the Neuromodulation Lab at UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center and the study’s senior author. “This is a foundational question to understand ourselves, and to understand how the brain shapes our own nature.”

The researchers showed 19 volunteers two videos: one of a hypodermic needle piercing a hand, and another of a hand being gently touched by a cotton swab. During both videos, the scientists used a functional MRI machine to measure activity in the participants’ brains.

The participants were later asked how they would behave in a variety of moral dilemmas: Would they smother and silence a baby to keep enemy forces from finding and killing everyone in their group? Would they torture another person to prevent a bomb from killing several other people? Would they harm research animals to cure AIDS?

Participants also responded to scenarios in which causing harm would make the world worse — for example, causing harm to another person in order to avoid two weeks of hard labor — to gauge their willingness to inflict harm for moral reasons as well as less-noble motives.

As expected, the findings reveal that people who showed greater neural resonance while watching the hand-piercing video were less likely to choose direct harm, such as smothering the baby in the hypothetical dilemma.

No link was found between brain activity and participants’ willingness to hypothetically harm one person in the interest of the greater good, such as silencing the baby to save more lives. Those decisions are thought to stem from more cognitive, deliberative processes.

The findings confirm that genuine concern for others’ pain plays a causal role in moral dilemma judgments, Iacoboni said. In other words, a person’s refusal to silence the baby is due to concern for the baby, not just the person’s own discomfort in taking that action.

Iacoboni’s next study will investigate whether a person’s decision-making in moral dilemmas can be influenced by decreasing or enhancing activity in the areas of the brain that were targeted in the current study.

“It would be fascinating to see if we can use brain stimulation to change complex moral decisions through impacting the amount of concern people experience for others’ pain,” Iacoboni said. “It could provide a new method for increasing concern for others’ well-being.”

The research could point to a way to help people with mental disorders such as schizophrenia that make interpersonal communication difficult, Iacoboni said.

Source: University of California. Los Angeles

Psych Central 


Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand 


When a person has schizophrenia they go through patches where it is hard to think clearly, manage their emotions, distinguish what is real and what is not, and relate to others.

They may have times when they lose contact with reality. This can all be very frightening.

Schizophrenia most often begins between the ages of 15 and 30 years, occurring for the first time slightly earlier in men than in women. Schizophrenia happens in approximately the same numbers across all ethnic groups.

The onset of schizophrenia can be quite quick. Someone who has previously been healthy and coped well with their usual activities and relationships can develop psychosis (loss of contact with reality) over a number of weeks. That said, symptoms may also develop slowly, with the ability to function in everyday life declining over a number of years.

The course of schizophrenia is very variable

Everyone experiences it differently and most will make a reasonable recovery, going on to lead a fulfilling life. About one third of people experiencing schizophrenia will have ongoing problems, perhaps with continuing symptoms such as hearing voices.

The effects of the illness do reduce with time. With early, effective, recovery-oriented treatment and care (including knowing how to look after yourself well), schizophrenia can be successfully managed. There is also some suggestion that as people progress into their later years, that the signs and symptoms of schizophenia may lessen.

It’s very important to get a diagnosis and treatment as early as possible. Schizophrenia can be effectively treated and you can recover. It is now an accepted fact that the earlier effective treatment is started, the better your chances of recovery.

Recovery is not defined as the complete absence of symptoms, but living well with or without symptoms – and will have a different meaning for each person.

If you think you have schizophrenia, or you are worried about a loved one, it’s important to talk to your doctor or counsellor, or someone else you can trust as a first step to getting the important help you or they need.

Myths about schizophrenia

Schizophrenia means the person has a split personality.

NOT TRUE Split or multiple personality is an extremely rare condition that does not cause psychosis. So this statement is untrue. On the other hand, the behaviour of people with acute psychosis does change, but this is due to the illness not to any personality change. When the illness resolves the behaviour returns to normal.

People with schizophrenia are aggressive violent people.

NOT TRUE It is clear that outside times of acute illness, people with schizophrenia are no more violent than any other member of the community. With good care and treatment, risk during times of acute illness can be minimised. However, people with schizophrenia, especially if it’s not treated well, can be violent or victims of violence.

What causes schizophrenia?

The exact cause of schizophrenia is unknown. Different causes may operate in different people. This may be why there is wide variation in the way the condition develops, in its symptoms and in the way it develops.

It is known that there is genetic (inherited) component to schizophrenia. If someone in your family/whānau has schizophrenia, you and your relatives have an increased chance of developing it – about a one in 10 chance. Childhood stresses and trauma, such as abuse, are also being shown to be linked to increased chance of developing mental illnesses in adults.

Signs to look for (symptoms)

The symptoms of schizophrenia can vary between individuals and, over time, within an individual. They are often divided into two categories – psychotic symptoms and mood symptoms.

Psychotic symptoms

These symptoms are not there all the time and occur when you are having a severe, or acute episode. They include the following:

– Delusions – an unusual belief that seems quite real to you, but not to those around you. A delusional person is convinced their belief is true. An example might be they strongly believe the FBI are trying to hunt them down.

– Thought disturbances – how you process thoughts or your ability to concentrate and maintain a train of thought may be affected. For example, you may feel like your thoughts are racing and friends may notice you constantly changing the topic of conversation or that you are easily distracted, or may laugh at irrational times. Your speech may become quite disorganised, and you may use made up words that only you understand.

– Hallucinations – this is when someone hears, sees, feels or smells something that is not there. Hearing voices that others cannot hear or when there is no-one else in the room is very typical of psychosis. Sometimes these voices will talk about or to you. They will sometimes command you to do things. For some, these voices can be inside their head; occasionally they may seem to come from within their body.

Mood symptoms

These could include:

– Loss of motivation, interest or pleasure in things. Everyday tasks such as washing up become difficult.

– Mood changes –You’ll tell friends you’re feeling great or never better. However, your ‘happy’ behaviour will be recognised as excessive by friends or family. You may also be quite unresponsive and be unable to express joy or sadness.

– Social withdrawal –people may notice that you become very careless in your dress and self-care, or have periods of seeming to do little and periods of being extremely active.

Other symptoms include subtle difficulties with tasks like problem solving or you may show signs of depression – commonly experienced by people with schizophrenia.

The strongest feature of schizophrenia is loss of insight – the loss of awareness that the experiences and difficulties you have are the result of your illness. It is a particular feature of psychotic illnesses, and is the reason why the Mental Health Act (1992) has been developed to ensure people with these conditions can get the assessment and treatment they need.

How the doctor tests for schizophrenia (diagnosis)

Once you have spent some time talking to your doctor, they will refer you to a psychiatrist qualified to diagnose and treat people with this condition. Psychiatrists diagnose schizophrenia when a person has some or all of the typical symptoms described above. For this reason it is important the psychiatrist gets a full picture of the difficulties you have had, both from you and your family/whānau or others who know you well.

Before schizophrenia can be diagnosed, the symptoms or signs must have been present for at least six months, with symptoms of psychosis for at least one month.

Treatment options

The best treatment for schizophrenia involves a number of important components, each of which can be tailored to your needs and the stage of the condition. The main components are psychosocial (talking) therapies, medication, with complementary therapies potentially valuable as well.

Talking therapies and counselling (psychosocial treatments)

Talking therapies are effective in the treatment of schizophrenia, especially for the treatment of depressive symptoms. Sessions may be held on a one to one basis, sometimes include partners or family, or be held in a group.

The focus of psychological therapy or counselling is on education and support for you to understand what is happening to you, to learn coping strategies and to pursue a path of recovery. Sessions help you regain the confidence and belief in yourself that is critical to recovery.

All types of therapy/counselling should be provided in a manner which is respectful to you and with which you feel comfortable and free to ask questions. It should be consistent with and incorporate your cultural beliefs and practices.


In treating schizophrenia, medicines are most often used for making your mood more stable and for helping with depression (anti-depressants). If you are prescribed medication, you are entitled to:

– know the names of the medicines

– what symptoms they are supposed to treat

– how long it will be before they take effect

– how long you will have to take them for

– and understand the side effects.

Finding the right medication can be a matter of trial and error. There is no way to predict exactly how medicines will affect you but it is worth persevering to find what medication works best for you.

If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding no medication is entirely safe. Before making any decisions about taking medication in pregnancy you should talk with your doctor.

Complementary therapies

The term complementary therapy is generally used to indicate therapies and treatments that differ from conventional western medicine and that may be used to complement and support it.

Certain complementary therapies may enhance your life and help you to maintain wellbeing. In general, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, yoga, exercise, relaxation, massage, mirimiri and aromatherapy have all been shown to have some effect in alleviating mental distress.

When considering taking any supplement, herbal or medicinal preparation you should consult your doctor to make sure it is safe and will not harm your health, for example, by interacting with any other medications you are taking.

Physical health

It’s also really important to look after your physical wellbeing. Make sure you get an annual check up with your doctor. Being in good physical health will also help your mental health.

Thanks to Janet Peters, Registered Psychologist, for reviewing this content. Date last reviewed: September, 2014.

Big Mind. How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World – Geoff Mulgan. 


THIS BOOK HAS BEEN SEVERAL DECADES in the making. It grows out of both experience and research. The experience has been the practical work of trying to help businesses, governments, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) solve problems, use technologies, and act smarter. 

Alongside that, much of my research and writing has essentially been about how thought happens on a large scale. 
Communication and Control: Networks and the New Economies of Communication (Blackwell, 1990) was about the nature of the new networks being made possible by digital technologies and the kinds of control they brought with them. It showed how networks could both empower and disempower (and was intended as a corrective to the hopes that networks would automatically usher in an era of greater democracy, equality, and freedom). 

Connexity: How to Live in a Connected World (Harvard Business Press, 1997) was a more philosophical essay about the morality of a connected world, and the types of people and character that would be needed in a networked environment. 
Good and Bad Power: The Ideals and Betrayals of Government (Penguin, 2005) and The Art of Public Strategy: Mobilizing Power and Knowledge for the Common Good (Oxford University Press, 2009) were about how the state could use its unique powers to the greatest good, including mobilizing and working with the brainpower of citizens. 

The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future (Princeton University Press, 2013) set out a new agenda for economics, suggesting how economies could expand collective intelligence and creative potential while reining in predatory tendencies. 
What follows here builds on each of these, weaving them into what I hope is both a convincing theory and useful guide. The ideas draw on my previous work , but have also benefited greatly from many conversations, readings, and arguments.




Collective Intelligence as a Grand Challenge 

THERE ARE LIBRARIES FULL OF BOOKS on individual intelligence, investigating where it comes from, how it manifests, and whether it’s one thing or many. 
Over many years, I’ve been interested in a less studied field. Working in governments and charities, businesses and movements, I’ve been fascinated by the question of why some organizations seem so much smarter than others—better able to navigate the uncertain currents of the world around them. 

Even more fascinating are the examples of organizations full of clever people and expensive technology that nevertheless act in stupid and self-destructive ways. 
I looked around for the theories and studies that would make sense of this, but found little available. And so I observed, assessed, and drew up hypotheses. I was helped in this study by having been trained in things digital, completing a PhD in telecommunications. Digital technologies can sometimes dumb people down. But they have the virtue of making thought processes visible. Someone has to program how software will process information, sensors will gather data, or memories will be stored. 

All of us living in a more pervasively digital age, and those of us who have to think digitally for our work, are inevitably more sensitive to how intelligence is organized, where perhaps in another era we might have thought it a fact of nature, magical, and mysterious. 

The field that led me to has sometimes been given the label collective intelligence. In its narrow variants, it’s mainly concerned with how groups of people collaborate together online. In its broader variants it’s about how all kinds of intelligence happen on large scales. At its extreme, it encompasses the whole of human civilization and culture, which constitutes the collective intelligence of our species, passed down imperfectly through books and schools, lectures and demonstrations, or by parents showing children how to sit still, eat, or get dressed in the morning. 

My interest is less ambitious than this. I’m concerned with the space between the individual and the totality of civilization—an equivalent to the space in biology between individual organisms and the whole biosphere. Just as it makes sense to study particular ecologies—lakes, deserts, and forests—so it also makes sense to study the systems of intelligence that operate at this middle level, in individual organizations, sectors, or fields. 
Within this space, my primary interest is narrower still: How do societies, governments, or governing systems solve complex problems, or to put it another way, how do collective problems find collective solutions? 

Individual neurons only become useful when they’re connected to billions of other neurons. In a similar way, the linking up of people and machines makes possible dramatic jumps in collective intelligence. When this happens, the whole can be much more than the sum of its parts. Our challenge is to understand how to do this well; how to avoid drowning in a sea of data or being deafened by the noise of too much irrelevant information; how to use technologies to amplify our minds rather than constrain them in predictable ruts. 
What follows in this book is a combination of description and theory that aims to guide design and action. 

Its central claim is that every individual, organization, or group could thrive more successfully if it tapped into a bigger mind—drawing on the brainpower of other people and machines. 

There are already some three billion people connected online and over five billion connected machines. But making the most of them requires careful attention to methods, avoidance of traps, and investment of scarce resources. 
As is the case with the links between neurons in our brain, successful thought depends on structure and organization, not just the number of connections or signals. This may be more obvious in the near future. Children growing up in the twenty-first century take it for granted that they are surrounded by sensors and social media, and their participation in overlapping group minds—hives, crowds, and clubs—makes the idea that intelligence resides primarily in the space inside the human skull into an odd anachronism. 

Some feel comfortable living far more open and transparent lives than their parents, much more part of the crowd than apart. The great risk in their lifetimes, though, is that collective intelligence won’t keep up with artificial intelligence. As a result, they may live in a future where extraordinarily smart artificial intelligence sits amid often-inept systems for making the decisions that matter most. 

To avoid that fate we need clear thinking. For example, it was once assumed that crowds were by their nature dangerous, deluded, and cruel. More recently the pendulum swung to an opposite assumption: that crowds tend to be wise. 
The truth is subtler. There are now innumerable examples that show the gains from mobilizing more people to take part in observation, analysis, and problem solving. But crowds, whether online or off-line, can also be foolish and biased, or overconfident echo chambers. Within any group, diverging and conflicting interests make any kind of collective intelligence both a tool for cooperation and a site for competition, deception, and manipulation. 

Taking advantage of the possibilities of a bigger mind can also bring stark vulnerabilities for us as individuals. We may, and often will, find our skills and knowledge quickly superseded by intelligent machines. If our data and lives become visible, we can more easily be exploited by powerful predators. 

For institutions, the rising importance of conscious collective intelligence is no less challenging, and demands a different view of boundaries and roles. Every organization needs to become more aware of how it observes, analyses, remembers, and creates, and then how it learns from action: correcting errors, sometimes creating new categories when the old ones don’t work, and sometimes developing entirely new ways of thinking. 

Every organization has to find the right position between the silence and the noise: the silence of the old hierarchies in which no one dared to challenge or warn, and the noisy cacophony of a world of networks flooded by an infinity of voices. That space in between becomes meaningful only when organizations learn how to select and cluster with the right levels of granularity—simple enough but not simplistic; clear but not crude; focused but not to the extent of myopia. 

Few of our dominant institutions are adept at thinking in these ways. Businesses have the biggest incentives to act more intelligently, and invest heavily in hardware and software of all kinds. But whole sectors repeatedly make big mistakes, misread their environments, and harvest only a fraction of the know-how that’s available in their employees and customers. 

Many can be extremely smart within narrow parameters, but far less so when it comes to the bigger picture. Again and again, we find that big data without a big mind (and sometimes a big heart) can amplify errors of diagnosis and prescription. 

Democratic institutions, where we, together, make some of our most important decisions, have proven even less capable of learning how to learn. Instead, most are frozen in forms and structures that made sense a century or two ago, but are now anachronisms. A few parliaments and cities are trying to harness the collective intelligence of their citizens. But many democratic institutions—parliaments, congresses, and parties—look dumber than the societies they serve. 
All too often the enemies of collective intelligence are able to capture public discourse, spread misinformation, and fill debates with distractions rather than facts. 

So how can people think together in groups? How might they think and act more successfully? How might the flood of new technologies available to help with thinking—technologies for watching, counting, matching, and predicting—help us together solve our most compelling problems? 

In this book, I describe the emerging theory and practice that points to different ways of seeing the world and acting in it. Drawing on insights from many disciplines, I share concepts with which we can make sense of how groups think, ideas that may help to predict why some thrive and others falter, and pointers as to how a firm, social movement, or government might think more successfully, combining the best of technologies with the best of the gray matter at its disposal. 

I sketch out what in time could become a full-fledged discipline of collective intelligence, providing insights into how economies work, how democracies can be reformed, or the difference between exhilarating and depressing meetings. 
Hannah Arendt once commented that a stray dog has a better chance of surviving if it’s given a name, and in a similar way this field may better thrive if we use the name collective intelligence to bring together many diverse ideas and practices. 
The field needs to be both open and empirical. Just as cognitive science has drawn on many sources—from linguistics to neuroscience, psychology to anthropology—to understand how people think, so will a new discipline concerned with thought on larger scales need to draw on many disciplines, from social psychology to computer science, economics to sociology, and use these to guide practical experiments. 

Then, as the new discipline emerges—and is hopefully helped by neighboring disciplines rather than attacked for challenging their boundaries—it will need to be closely tied into practice: supporting, guiding, and learning from a community of practitioners working to design as well as operate tools that help systems think and act more successfully. 

Collective intelligence isn’t inherently new, and throughout the book I draw on the insights and successes of the past, from the nineteenth-century designers of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to the Cybersyn project in Chile, from Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), from Taiwanese democracy to Finnish universities, and from Kenyan web platforms to the dynamics of football teams. 

In our own brains, the ability to link observation, analysis, creativity, memory, judgment, and wisdom makes the whole much more than the sum of its parts. In a similar way, I argue that assemblies that bring together many elements will be vital if the world is to navigate some of its biggest challenges, from health and climate change to migration. Their role will be to orchestrate knowledge and also apply much more systematic methods to knowledge about that knowledge—including metadata, verification tools, and tags, and careful attention to how knowledge is used in practice. 

Such assemblies are multiplicative rather than additive: their value comes from how the elements are connected together. Unfortunately they remain rare and often fragile. 

To get at the right answers, we’ll have to reject appealing conventional wisdoms. One is the idea that a more networked world automatically becomes more intelligent through processes of organic self-organization. Although this view contains important grains of truth, it has been deeply misleading. 

Just as the apparently free Internet rests on energy-hungry server farms, so does collective intelligence depend on the commitment of scarce resources. Collective intelligence can be light, emergent, and serendipitous. But it more often has to be consciously orchestrated, supported by specialist institutions and roles, and helped by common standards. 

In many fields no one sees it as their role to make this happen, as a result of which the world acts far less intelligently than it could. 

The biggest potential rewards lie at a global level. We have truly global Internet and social media. But we are a long way short of a truly global collective intelligence suitable for solving global problems—from pandemics to climate threats, violence to poverty. There’s no shortage of interesting pilots and projects. Yet we sorely lack more concerted support and action to assemble new combinations of tools that can help the world think and act at a pace as well as scale commensurate with the problems we face. 

Instead, in far too many fields the most important data and knowledge are flawed and fragmented, lacking the organization that’s needed to make them easy to access and use, and no one has the means or capacity to bring them together. 

Perhaps the biggest problem is that highly competitive fields—the military, finance, and to a lesser extent marketing or electoral politics—account for the majority of investment in tools for large-scale intelligence. Their influence has shaped the technologies themselves. Spotting small variances is critical if your main concern is defense or to find comparative advantage in financial markets. So technologies have advanced much further to see, sense, map, and match than to understand. 

The linear processing logic of the Turing machine is much better at manipulating inputs than it is at creating strong models that can use the inputs and create meanings. In other words, digital technologies have developed to be good at answers and bad at questions, good at serial logic and poor at parallel logic, and good at large-scale processing and bad at spotting nonobvious patterns. Fields that are less competitive but potentially offer much greater gains to society—such as physical and mental health, environment, and community—have tended to miss out, and have had much less influence on the direction of technological change. 

The net result is a massive misallocation of brainpower, summed up in the lament of Jeff Hammerbacher, the former head of data at Facebook, that “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” 

The stakes could not be higher. Progressing collective intelligence is in many ways humanity’s grandest challenge since there’s little prospect of solving the other grand challenges of climate, health, prosperity, or war without progress in how we think and act together. 

We cannot easily imagine the mind of the future. The past offers clues, though. Evolutionary biology shows that the major transitions in life—from chromosomes to multicellular organisms, prokaryotic to eukaryotic cells, plants to animals, and simple to sexual reproduction—all had a common pattern. Each transition led to a new form of cooperation and interdependence so that organisms that before the transition could replicate independently, afterward could only replicate as “part of a larger whole.”
Each shift also brought with it new ways of both storing and transmitting information. 
It now seems inevitable that our lives will be more interwoven with intelligent machinery that will shape, challenge, supplant, and amplify us, frequently at the same time. The question we should be asking is not whether this will happen but rather how we can shape these tools so that they shape us well—enhancing us in every sense of the word and making us more of what we most admire in ourselves. 

We may not be able to avoid a world of virtual reality pornography, ultrasmart missiles, and spies. But we can create a better version of collective intelligence alongside these—a world where, in tandem with machines, we become wiser, more aware, and better able to thrive and survive. 



The rest of this book is divided into four main sections. 

The first section (chapters 1 and 2) maps out the issue and explains what collective intelligence is. I offer illustrations of collective intelligence in practice, outline ways of thinking about it, and describe some of the most interesting contemporary examples. 

The next section focuses on how to make sense of collective intelligence (chapters 3 to 10). It provides a theoretical framework that describes the functional elements of intelligence and how they are brought together, how collectives are formed, and how intelligence struggles with its enemies. 

Chapters 11 to 17 then look at collective intelligence in the wild along with the implications of the theories for specific fields: the organization of meetings and places, business and the economy, democracy, the university, social change, and the new digital commons. In each case, I show how thinking about collective intelligence can unlock new perspectives and solutions. 

Finally, in chapter 18, I pull the themes together and address the politics of collective intelligence, demonstrating what progress toward greater collective wisdom might look like.



What Is Collective Intelligence? 

IN THIS FIRST SECTION, I explain what collective intelligence means in practice and how we can recognize it in the world around us, helping us to plan a journey, diagnose an illness, or track down an old friend. 

It’s an odd paradox that ever more intelligent machines can be found at work within systems that behave foolishly. Despite the unevenness of results, however, there are many promising initiatives to support intelligence on a large scale that have drawn on a cascade of advances in computing, from web science to machine learning. These range from household names like Google Maps and Wikipedia to more obscure experiments in math and chess. 
Connecting large numbers of machines and people makes it possible for them to think in radically new ways—solving complex problems, spotting issues faster, and combining resources in new ways.
How to do this well is rarely straightforward, and crowds aren’t automatically wise. But we are beginning to see subtler forms of what I call assemblies emerge. These bring together many elements of collective intelligence into a single system. They show how the world could think on a truly global scale, tracking such things as outbreaks of disease or the state of the world’s environments, and feeding back into action. For example, an observatory that spots global outbreaks of Zika can predict how the virus might spread and guide public health services to direct their resources to contain any outbreaks. 

Within cities, combining large data sets can make it easier to spot which buildings are at most risk of fires or which hospital patients are most at risk of becoming sick, so that government can be more adept at predicting and preventing rather than curing and fixing. These ways of organizing thought on a large scale are still in their infancy. They lack a convincing guiding theory and professional experts who know the tricks of the trade. In many cases, they lack a reliable economic base. Yet they suggest how in the future, almost every field of human activity could become better at harnessing information and learning fast.


The Paradox of a Smart World 

WE LIVE SURROUNDED BY NEW WAYS of thinking, understanding, and measuring that simultaneously point to a new step in human evolution and an evolution beyond humans. Some of the new ways of thinking involve data—mapping, matching, and searching for patterns far beyond the capacity of the human eye or ear. Some involve analysis—supercomputers able to model the weather, play chess, or diagnose diseases (for example, using the technologies of firms like Google’s DeepMind or IBM’s Watson). Some pull us ever further into what the novelist William Gibson described as the “consensual hallucination” of cyberspace. 

These all show promise. But there is a striking imbalance between the smartness of the tools we have around us and the more limited smartness of the results. The Internet, World Wide Web, and Internet of things are major steps forward in the orchestration of information and knowledge. Yet it doesn’t often feel as if the world is all that clever. Technologies can dumb down as well as smarten up. 

Many institutions and systems act much more stupidly than the people within them, including many that have access to the most sophisticated technologies. 
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “guided missiles but misguided men,” and institutions packed with individual intelligence can often display collective stupidity or the distorted worldview of “idiots savants” in machine form. New technologies bring with them new catastrophes partly because they so frequently outstrip our wisdom (no one has found a way to create code without also creating bugs, and as the French philosopher Paul Virilio put it, the aircraft inevitably produces the air disaster). 

In the 1980s, the economist Robert Solow commented, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” Today we might say again that data and intelligence are everywhere—except in the productivity statistics, and in many of the things that matter most. The financial crash of the late 2000s was a particularly striking example. 

Financial institutions that had spent vast sums on information technologies failed to understand what was happening to them, or understood the data but not what lay behind the data, and so brought the world to the brink of economic disaster. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet government had at its disposal brilliant minds and computers, but couldn’t think its way out of stagnation. During the same period, the US military had more computing power at its disposition than any other organization in history, but failed to understand the true dynamics of the war it was fighting in Vietnam. A generation later the same happened in Iraq, when a war was fought based on a profound error of intelligence launched by the US and UK governments with more invested than any other countries in the most advanced intelligence tools imaginable. 

Many other examples confirm that having smart tools does not automatically lead to more intelligent results. 

Health is perhaps the most striking example of the paradoxical combination of smart elements and often-stupid results. We now benefit from vastly more access to information on diseases, diagnoses, and treatments on the Internet. There are global databases of which treatments work; detailed guidance for doctors on symptoms, diagnoses, and prescriptions; and colossal funds devoted to pushing the frontiers of cancer, surgery, or pharmaceuticals. But this is far from a golden age of healthy activity or intelligence about health. The information available through networks is frequently misleading (according to some research, more so than face-to-face advice).  

There are well over 150,000 health apps, yet only a tiny fraction can point to any evidence that they improve their users’ health. The dominant media propagate half-truths and sometimes even lies as well as useful truths. And millions of people make choices every day that clearly threaten their own health. 

The world’s health systems are in many ways pioneers of collective intelligence, as I will show later, but much doesn’t work well. It’s estimated that some 30 to 50 percent of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary, 25 percent of medicines in circulation are counterfeit, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of diagnoses are incorrect, and each year 250,000 die in the United States alone because of medical error (the third leading cause of death there). 

In short, the world has made great strides in improving health and has accumulated an extraordinary amount of knowledge about it, yet still has a long way to go in orchestrating that knowledge to best effect. 

Similar patterns can be found in many fields, from politics and business to personal life: unprecedented access to data, information, and opinions, but less obvious progress in using this information to guide better decisions. 

We benefit from a cornucopia of goods unimaginable to past generations, yet still too often spend money we haven’t earned to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. 

We have extraordinary intelligence in pockets, for specific, defined tasks. Yet there has been glacial, if any, progress in handling more complex, interconnected problems, and paradoxically the excitement surrounding new capacities to sense, process, or analyze may distract attention from the more fundamental challenges. 

In later chapters, I address what true collective intelligence would look like in some of the most important fields. How could democracy be organized differently if it wanted to make the most of the ideas, expertise, and needs of citizens? Various experiments around the world suggest what the answers might be, but they baffle most of the professionals brought up in traditional politics. 

How could universities become better at creating, orchestrating, and sharing knowledge of all kinds? There are seeds of different approaches to be found, but also extraordinary inertia in the traditional models of three-year degrees, faculty hierarchies, lecture halls, and course notes. 

Or again, how could a city administration, or national government, think more successfully about solving problems like traffic congestion, housing shortages, or crime, amplifying the capabilities of its people rather than dumbing them down? 
We can sketch plausible and achievable options that would greatly improve these institutions. In every case, however, the current reality falls far short of what’s possible, and sometimes tools that could amplify intelligence turn out to have the opposite effect. 

Marcel Proust wrote that “nine tenths of the ills from which intelligent people suffer spring from their intellect.” The same may be true of collective intelligence. 


The Nature of Collective Intelligence in Theory and Practice 


In medieval times, the intellect was understood as an aspect of our souls, with each individual intellect linked into the divine intellect of the cosmos and God. 

Since then, understandings of intelligence have reflected the dominant technologies of the era. René Descartes used hydraulics as a metaphor for the brain and believed that animating fluids connected the brain to limbs. Sigmund Freud in the age of steam power saw the mind in terms of pressure and release. The age of radio and electrics gave us the metaphors of “crossed wires” and being “on the same wavelength,” while in the age of computers the metaphors turned to processing and algorithmic thinking, and the brain as computer. 

There are many definitions of intelligence. But the roots of the word point in a direction that is rather different from these metaphors. Intelligence derives from the Latin word inter, meaning “between,” combined with the word legere, meaning “choose.” This makes intelligence not just a matter of extraordinary memory or processing speeds. Instead it refers to our ability to use our brains to know which path to take, who to trust, and what to do or not do. It comes close in this sense to what we mean by freedom. 

The phrase collective intelligence links this with a related idea. The word collective derives from colligere. This joins col, “together,” and once again, legere, “choose.” The collective is who we choose to be with, who we trust to share our lives with. 

So collective intelligence is in two senses a concept about choice: who we choose to be with and how we choose to act. The phrase has been used in recent years primarily to refer to groups that combine together online. But it should more logically be used to describe any kind of large-scale intelligence that involves collectives choosing to be, think, and act together. 

That makes it an ethical as well as technical term, which also ties into our sense of conscience—a term that is now usually understood as individual, but is rooted in the combination of con (with) and scire (to know). 


We choose in a landscape of possibilities and probabilities. In every aspect of our lives we look out into a future of possible events, which we can guess or estimate, though never know for certain. Many of the tools I describe through the course of this book help us make sense of what lies ahead, predicting, adapting, and responding. We observe, analyze, model, remember, and try to learn. Although mistakes are unavoidable, repeated mistakes are unnecessary. But we also learn that in every situation, there are possibilities far beyond what data or knowledge can tell us—possibilities that thanks to imaginative intelligence, we can sometimes glimpse. 


One of the first historical accounts of collective intelligence is Thucydides’s description of how an army went about planning the assault on a besieged town. “They first made ladders equal in length to the height of the enemy’s wall, which they calculated by the help of the layers of bricks on the side facing the town, at a place where the wall had accidentally not been plastered. A great many counted at once, and, although some might make mistakes, the calculation would be more often right than wrong; for they repeated the process again and again, and, the distance not being great, they could see the wall distinctly enough for their purpose. In this manner they ascertained the proper length of the ladders, taking as a measure the thickness of the bricks.”

Understanding how we work together—the collective part of collective intelligence—has been a central concern of social science for several centuries. Some mechanisms allow individual choices to be aggregated in a socially useful way without requiring any conscious collaboration or shared identity. This is the logic of the invisible hand of the market and some of the recent experiments with digital collective intelligence like Wikipedia. 

In other cases (such as communes, friends on vacation, or work teams), there is the conscious mutual coordination of people with relatively equal power, which usually involves a lot of conversation and negotiation. Loosely networked organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous are similar in nature. In others (for instance, big corporations like Google or Samsung, ancient Greek armies, or modern global NGOs), hierarchy organizes cooperation, with a division of labor between different tiers of decision making. Each of these produces particular kinds of collective intelligence. Each feels radically different, and works well for some tasks and not others. 

In some cases there is a central blueprint, command center, or plan—someone who can see how the pieces fit together and may end up as a new building, a business plan, or initiative. In other cases the intelligence is wholly distributed and no one can see the big picture in advance. But in most cases the individual doesn’t need to know much about the system they’re part of: they can be competent without comprehension. 

The detailed study of how groups work shows that we’re bound together not just by interests and habit but also by meanings and stories. But the very properties that help a group cohere can also impede intelligence. These include shared assumptions that don’t hold true, a shared willingness to ignore uncomfortable facts, groupthink, group feel, and mutual affirmation rather than criticism. Shared thought includes not only knowledge but also delusions, illusions, fantasies, the hunger for confirmation of what we already believe, and the distorting pull of power that bends facts and frames to serve itself. 

The Central Intelligence Agency informing President George H. W. Bush that the Berlin Wall wouldn’t fall, just as the news was showing it doing just that; investment banks in the late 2000s piling into subprime mortgages when all the indicators showed that they were worthless; Joseph Stalin and his team ignoring the nearly ninety separate, credible intelligence warnings that Germany was about to invade in 1941—all are examples of how easily organizations can be trapped by their frames of thinking. 

We succumb all too readily to illusions of control and optimism bias, and when in a crowd can suspend our sense of moral responsibility or choose riskier options we would never go for alone. And we like to have our judgments confirmed, behaving all too often like the Texas sharpshooter who sprays the walls with bullets and then draws the target around where they hit. 

These are just a few reasons why collective intelligence is so frequently more like collective stupidity. They show why most groups face a trade-off between how collective they are and how intelligently they can behave. The more they bond, the less they see the world as it really is. Yet the most successful organizations and teams learn how to combine the two—with sufficient suspension of ego and sufficient trust to combine rigorous honesty with mutual commitment. 


How we think can then be imagined as running in a continuum from general, abstract intelligence to intelligence that is relevant to specific places, people, and times. 

At one extreme there are the general laws of physics or the somewhat less general laws of biology. There are abstracted data, standardized algorithms, and mass-produced products. Much of modernity has been built on an explosion of this kind of context-free intelligence. 

At the other end of the spectrum there is rooted intelligence—intelligence that understands the nuances of particular people, cultures, histories, or meanings, and loses salience when it’s removed from them. 

The first kinds of intelligence—abstract, standardized, and even universal—are well suited to computers, global markets, and forms of collective intelligence that are more about aggregation than integration. By contrast, the ones at the other extreme—like knowing how to change someone’s life or regenerate a town—entangle multiple dimensions, and require much more conscious iteration and integration along with sensitivity to context. 


The simplest way to judge individual intelligence is by how well it achieves goals and generates new ones. But this is bound to be more complex for any large group, which is likely to have many different goals and often-conflicting interests. This is obviously true in the economy, since information is usually hoarded and traded rather than shared  .  .  .


Big Mind. How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World


Geoff Mulgan

get it at


Work and the Loneliness Epidemic – Vivek H. Murthy. 

On August 24, 1992, in the early hours of the morning, my family and I stepped out of our temporary shelter to find our city, and our lives, forever changed. We had spent the past several hours huddled together as Hurricane Andrew battered our South Florida neighborhood with torrential rain and winds near 170 miles per hour. We saw pieces of homes strewn across the landscape, power lines flung about like pieces of string, and sea creatures stranded in trees, having been blown far inland by the storm.

Like thousands of others, we survived the storm and the many dark days that followed because of the kindness of strangers who brought food, water, and comfort. Hurricane Andrew forged a deep sense of connection and community in South Florida as the nation rallied around us and as we supported each other. But slowly, as normal life resumed, the distance between people returned. We went back to our homes, our work, our schools, and our lives, and once again we grew apart.

Looking today at so many other places around the world ravaged by disasters of all kinds, I think about how often tragedy brings us together — and how fleeting that connection often is.

There is good reason to be concerned about social connection in our current world. Loneliness is a growing health epidemic. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher. Additionally, the number of people who report having a close confidante in their lives has been declining over the past few decades. In the workplace, many employees, and half of CEOs, report feeling lonely in their roles.

During my tenure as U.S. surgeon general, I saw firsthand how loneliness affected people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds across the country. I met middle and high school students in urban and rural areas who turned to violence, drugs, and gangs to ease the pain of their loneliness. I sat with mothers and fathers who had lost sons and daughters to drug overdoses and were struggling to cope alone because of the unfortunate stigma surrounding addiction. And I met factory workers, doctors, small business owners, and teachers who described feeling alone in their work and on the verge of burnout.

During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness. The elderly man who came to our hospital every few weeks seeking relief from chronic pain was also looking for human connection: He was lonely. The middle-aged woman battling advanced HIV who had no one to call to inform that she was sick: She was lonely too. I found that loneliness was often in the background of clinical illness, contributing to disease and making it harder for patients to cope and heal.

This may not surprise you. Chances are, you or someone you know has been struggling with loneliness. And that can be a serious problem. Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. But we haven’t focused nearly as much effort on strengthening connections between people as we have on curbing tobacco use or obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.

Once we understand the profound human and economic costs of loneliness, we must determine whose responsibility it is to address the problem. The government and health care system have important roles to play in helping us understand the impact of loneliness, identifying who is affected, and determining which interventions work. But to truly solve loneliness requires the engagement of institutions where people spend the bulk of their time: families, schools, social organizations, and the workplace. Companies in particular have the power to drive change at a societal level not only by strengthening connections among employees, partners, and clients but also by serving as an innovation hub that can inspire other organizations to address loneliness.

The Roots of Loneliness

Loneliness is the subjective feeling of having inadequate social connections. Why has this feeling increased over past decades? Partly because people are more geographically mobile and are thus more likely to be living apart from friends and family. Indeed, more people report living alone today than at any time since the census began collecting this data. In the workplace, new models of working — such as telecommuting and some on-demand “gig economy” contracting arrangements — have created flexibility but often reduce the opportunities for in-person interaction and relationships. And even working at an office doesn’t guarantee meaningful connections: People sit in an office full of coworkers, even in open-plan workspaces, but everyone is staring at a computer or attending task-oriented meetings where opportunities to connect on a human level are scarce.

Happy hours, coffee breaks, and team-building exercises are designed to build connections between colleagues, but do they really help people develop deep relationships? On average, we spend more waking hours with our coworkers than we do with our families. But do they know what we really care about? Do they understand our values? Do they share in our triumphs and pains?

These aren’t just rhetorical questions; from a biological perspective, we evolved to be social creatures. Long ago, our ability to build relationships of trust and cooperation helped increase our chances of having a stable food supply and more consistent protection from predators. Over thousands of years, the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that the absence of such a protective force creates a stress state in the body. Loneliness causes stress, and long-term or chronic stress leads to more frequent elevations of a key stress hormone, cortisol. It is also linked to higher levels of inflammation in the body. This in turn damages blood vessels and other tissues, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, joint disease, depression, obesity, and premature death. Chronic stress can also hijack your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which governs decision making, planning, emotional regulation, analysis, and abstract thinking.

This isn’t just bad for our health; it’s also bad for business. Researchers for Gallup found that having strong social connections at work makes employees more likely to be engaged with their jobs and produce higher-quality work, and less likely to fall sick or be injured. Without strong social connections, these gains become losses. Connection can also help indirectly by enhancing self-esteem and self-efficacy while also shifting our experience toward positive emotions — all of which can buffer an individual during stressful situations and have positive effects on health. Indeed, studies have found that companies whose workers feel they have high-stress jobs have markedly higher health care expenditures than their counterparts with low-stress employees.

Our understanding of biology, psychology, and the workplace calls for companies to make fostering social connections a strategic priority. A more connected workforce is more likely to enjoy greater fulfillment, productivity, and engagement while being more protected against illness, disability, and burnout.

Forging Connections at Work

My experience has been that people bring the most to their work when they feel connected to the mission and the people around them. While I was at the Surgeon General’s Office, our staff grew quickly as we sought to build a team that could address an array of pressing public health issues. Although team members got along well, it soon became clear that we didn’t fully recognize the rich life experience that each person brought to the team. We had a decorated Army nurse, a woman who had spent years providing medical care to prison inmates, an accomplished pianist and preacher, an Olympic-level runner, and several team members who had struggled with addiction in their family. Even though we were operating with the formality and hierarchy of a uniformed service, my team was hungry to know more about each other.

To bring us closer, we developed “Inside Scoop,” an exercise in which team members were asked to share something about themselves through pictures for five minutes during weekly staff meetings. Presenting was an opportunity for each of us to share more of who we were; listening was an opportunity to recognize our colleagues in the way they wished to be seen.

The impact was immediate. These sessions quickly became many people’s favorite time of the week, and they were more enthusiastic about participating at staff meetings. People felt more valued by the team after seeing their colleagues’ genuine reactions to their stories. Team members who had traditionally been quiet during discussions began speaking up. Many began taking on tasks outside their traditional roles. They appeared less stressed at work. And most of them told me how much more connected they felt to their colleagues and the mission they served.

I remember one Inside Scoop from a team member who had proudly served in the U.S. Marine Corps. I expected him to talk about his experiences in the military. Instead, he spoke about the complex relationship he had had with his father and how he could see his father’s spirit living on in the musical talent of his grandchildren. He described his mother as his hero and shared how remembering her in the face of a challenge would transform his doubts into strength. As he spoke, his eyes glistened. I felt a deep connection to him in that moment and was inspired by his honesty and compelled to reflect on my own relationships. Even though we were close before, my relationship with him became even stronger after that day.

I share what my office did not as the antidote to loneliness but as proof that small steps can make a difference. And because small actions like this one are vital to improving our health and the health of our economy.

Creating Connection

We know that if we are to prioritize our health and the health of our companies, the workplace is one of the most important places to cultivate social connections. And while it may seem easy enough to organize a team-building event, grab a cup of coffee with a colleague, or chat with people around the water cooler about Game of Thrones, real connection requires creating an environment that embraces the unique identities and experiences of employees inside and outside the workplace. Here are five deliberate steps that can help build healthy and productive relationships:

Evaluate the current state of connections in your workplace.

Strong social connections are not simply about the number of friends and family members one has; it’s the quality of those connections that matters more. You can be surrounded by many people and have thousands of connections on LinkedIn or Facebook and still be lonely. Conversely, you can have just a handful of people with whom you interact and feel very connected. To assess the quality of the relationships at your organization, here are some questions to consider: Do employees feel that their colleagues genuinely value and care for them? Do they believe their institution has a culture that supports giving and receiving kindness? Would they characterize their relationships with colleagues as being driven more by love or by fear?

Build understanding of high-quality relationships.

Strong social connections are characterized by meaningful shared experiences and mutually beneficial two-way relationships, where both individuals give and receive. High-quality relationships must be grounded in love and informed by kindness, compassion, and generosity. There is a tendency to look at such positive emotions as “soft” and even as a liability that distorts judgment and impairs tough decision making. But research increasingly shows that positive emotions enhance performance and resilience. Be clear with employees and colleagues about the types of relationships you want to see at work and what types of actions, like generosity, foster those relationships.

Make strengthening social connections a strategic priority in your organization.

Designing and modeling a culture that supports connection is more important than any single program. It will require buy-in and engagement from all levels of the organization, particularly leadership. Having senior members of an organization invest in building strong connections with other team members can set a powerful example, especially when leaders are willing to demonstrate that vulnerability can be a source of strength, not weakness. Ask yourself if the current culture and policies in your institution support the development of trusted relationships.

Encourage coworkers to reach out and help others — and accept help when it is offered.

Although it may seem counterintuitive to assist others when you are feeling lonely, extending help to others and allowing yourself to receive help builds a connection that is mutually affirming. Late one night during my residency training, I was managing a busy intensive care unit when one of my colleagues stopped and offered to help with a sudden influx of critically ill patients. Because of his generosity, we were able to rapidly place specialized catheters in patients with bloodstream infections and get them life-saving antibiotics quickly. We worked together for only an hour that night, but the connection we built lasted years. Giving and receiving help freely is one of the most tangible ways we experience our connections with each other.

Create opportunities to learn about your colleagues’ personal lives.

The likelihood that authentic social connections will develop is greater when people feel understood and appreciated as individuals with full lives — as mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, individuals with passions outside of work, concerned citizens and community members. Everyone in an organization has the power to create spaces for sharing, whether it is in a formal gathering or an informal conversation over lunch.

Healing One Another

When I think of loneliness, I think about the first day of my internal medicine residency program. A faculty member advised us to call the people we love and tell them that they wouldn’t be hearing from us much over the next year. As medical students, we’d heard about the trials of residency training: the unforgiving hours, the grueling intensity, and the crushing isolation. That morning, the idea of stepping away from our most trusted social relationships felt unnerving.

Despite my initial fears about loneliness, those three years ended up being the best of my life. The hours and intensity were just as billed, if not even more so. As predicted, it was very difficult to stay in touch with friends. But in time I developed rich and fulfilling relationships with my colleagues in the hospital.

Coming to work came to feel like spending time with friends. There were plenty of difficult moments when our emotional, intellectual, and physical reserves were tested — navigating a difficult end-of-life conversation, trying to find an elusive source of infection in a critically ill patient, or simply fighting back our own exhaustion — but my bonds with my colleagues softened the blows and saved me from plenty of others. Those bonds enabled me to do more, give more, appreciate more, and be a better doctor to thousands of patients. Today, years later, I wonder if these relationships provided deeper healing: if they made me not just a better doctor but a better colleague and leader, too.

The world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. If we cannot rebuild strong, authentic social connections, we will continue to splinter apart — in the workplace and in society. Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we will retreat to our corners, angry, sick, and alone. We must take action now to build the connections that are the foundation of strong companies and strong communities — and that ensure greater health and well-being for all of us.

Harvard Business Review 

Why Men Rebel. An analysis of political violence – Ted Robert Gurr. 

Introduction to the Fortieth Anniversary Paperback Edition

Why Men Rebel was written in the late 1960s when observers in the Western world were deeply concerned about political violence in postcolonial states, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia, and mass protest movements, especially against racial discrimination in the United States and military intervention in Vietnam.

Looking backward, the question is how well its arguments help us understand later waves of violent conflict within societies. This introduction reviews and updates some of Why Men Rebel’s arguments and, in a concluding section, applies it to the wave of pro-democracy protests that swept through the Middle East from 2009 in Iran to 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and beyond.

Why Men Rebel was first published in 1970 by Princeton University Press and was awarded the American Political Science Association’s Woodrow Wilson Award as the best book of 1970 in political science and international relations. In the next few years it was translated into German, Spanish, and Thai. In the first decade of the twenty-first century it attracted a new Hurry of intellectual interest that led to the appearance of editions in Arabic and Russian. 

In my late twenties, when the Why Men Rebel arguments were first formulated in a New York University dissertation, I thought it was possible to provide a general explanation for political protest and rebellion that could help readers understand not only the violent conflicts of the 1960s but a great many others as well.

I was convinced then, and am convinced now, that to build a more peaceful and secure world, we need to begin by analyzing the minds of men—and women—who oppose bad governments and unpopular policies. But equally we need to know about the societies in which they live, their beliefs and cultural traditions, and the governments they oppose.

The essential argument of the Why Men Rebel model is that to understand protest and rebellion in general, and in specific instances, we should analyze three general factors.

First is popular discontent (relative deprivation), along with an analysis of its sources.

Second are people’s justifications or beliefs about the justifiability and utility of political action.

Third is the balance between discontented peoples capacity to act—that is, the ways in which they are organized—and the government’s capacity to repress or channel their anger.

In the present era, people almost everywhere worry about international terrorism, instability in Africa and the Islamic world, and the risks that political conflict will lead to genocidal massacres of dissidents. Does an analytic framework from 1970 also apply in the second decade of the twenty-first century?

The Why Men Rebel model has been tested by many researchers during the last forty years, including its author.

Comparative analyses have asked how political violence is affected by relative deprivation, group organization, regime repression, and international support, and whether it takes shape as political protest or rebellion. Detailed case studies have applied the model, and modified it, to explain particular events such as the Hungarian revolution of 1957 and the Tiananmen Square uprising in China in 1989.

In the 1990s, Stephen G. Brush, a historian of science, analyzed several hundred publications in the social sciences that addressed the scientific agenda laid out in Why Men Rebel and published his findings in 1996 in the Journal of Conflict Resolution. This is his summary:

“The extent to which theories in the social sciences are accepted or rejected on the basis of empirical tests can be shown only by a detailed analysis of specific cases. [This study] examines the reception in the 1970s and early 1980s of T. R. Gurr’s theory of collective violence based on the concept of relative deprivation.

The history of this theory may be considered an example of definite progress in social science: A hypothesis widely accepted at one time has been tested and rejected, thus making room for the development of alternative hypotheses. But although Gurr and other advocates of the theory have abandoned it in its original form following the mostly negative results of empirical tests, many social scientists (especially psychologists) have continued to cite it favorably. Slightly less than half of the unfavorable citations have been supported by references to empirical evidence. He points out that less than half of the unfavorable citations were supported by references to empirical evidence—in other words, negative judgments had other bases, such as a preference for different approaches to explanation.”

Brush adds that a shift toward more favorable citations in the American social science literature was evident by the early 1990s. The argument prompted strong theoretical critiques. Prominent scholars such as Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, and Sidney Tarrow argued that we should begin explanations by examining social and political structures (Skocpol), political mobilization (Tilly), and mass social movements (Tarrow).

Mark Irving Lichbach showed that the anger-grievance-rebellion sequence could be explained within a rational choice framework.

In light of forty years of research and reflection, I think the core of the Why Men Rebel model remains valid but is incomplete. First, I continue to think that people, with all their diverse identities, desires, and beliefs, should be central to our analyses of conflict. This means using individuals as the prism through which to examine the effects of social structures, beliefs, and the possibilities for mobilization and political action. Is “relative deprivation” the best concept for doing so? In my own later research, I have used the words grievances and sense of injustice to capture tile essence of the state of mind that motivates people to political action. Whichever phrase is used, the essential first step in analysis is to understand what people’s grievances are and where they come from.

This brings me to my second point, which is that to understand grievances, we must first examine where people stand in society and what goods and bads they experience from governments. It is not enough to point to big economic and social structures as the “explanation.” We need to understand how people interpret the situations in which they find themselves. Protestors against the effects of globalization, for example, are mainly young people in advanced industrial societies who, objectively, benefit from globalization. Why do they protest, and not the poor of the global South?

Some young men in the Islamic world are attracted to militant movements like the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and elsewhere in the Middle East that justify political violence by appealing to a perversion of Islamic doctrine. Some seek opportunities in the modern world in cities, in the Gulf States, and in Europe and North America. And tens of thousands of young people have led a virtual tsunami of protests against autocratic rulers in North Africa and the Middle East.

Why do they respond in such different ways to political appeals and opportunities?

My third point is that Why Men Rebel does not analyze carefully enough the sources of people’s beliefs about justice and injustice. The phrase “relative deprivation” implies that they feel unjustly treated by comparison with other groups, but explanation does not stop there. The content of ideologies and revolutionary or militant Islamist doctrines also help shape their expectations.

Group identity is even more important; To understand grievances we need to understand peoples clan, ethnic, religious, and political identities. With what people do they feel kindred, what networks of social interaction and communication connect them? The politics of identity are central to understanding people’s reference groups, their sense of collective injustice, and their susceptibility to appeals for political action.

In my more recent writings about the sources of protest and rebellion by ethnic groups, summarized in Peoples versus States (2000), the theoretical beginning point is analysis of group identity, The question is:

With whom do people identify and in what circumstances does a particular identity become more or less salient for them?

This approach does not abandon the essential “understand people first” principle of Why Men Rebel. But it recognizes that in most of the world, including the West despite its emphasis on the individual, group context and identity shape people’s hopes and grievances.

My fourth point concerns group mobilization. Empirical analyses of the causes of political protest and rebellion mostly confirm the late Charles Tilly’s contention in From Mobilization to Revolution (1978) that whether and how people are organized is the immediate source of political action. The greater the extent of mobilization in a group, a city, or a country, the greater the extent of political protest and rebellion.

The Why Men Rebel model also looks at the extent and structures of group organization, in chapter 8, but does not provide a full account of the processes by which they become organized. Tilly gives much more attention to process, but with one major omission: He does not analyze carefully how a group’s grievances and beliefs shape the mobilization process. Therefore, a full analysis of group mobilization and ensuing political action requires a synthesis of a Why Men Rebel analysis of grievances and beliefs with Tilly’s analysis of mobilization as a process.

In summary, to understand when and how people are politically mobilized, and which kinds of people are prepared to take risky political action, we need to begin with group identities and shared grievances.

Fifth, we need to examine the ways in which communication of ideas and personal mobility are transforming political action in the twenty-first century. When Why Men Rebel was written, most protest and revolutionary movements were specific to one country, or even one region within a country. The Internet and social networking make for much and more rapid communication of ideas, air travel gives organizers greater mobility. It is much easier now than it was forty years ago to establish a transnational movement in support of indigenous rights, or environmental protection, or democratic governance. It also is easier to create a transnational network of revolutionaries using a strategy of terrorism.

In other words, political action no longer stops at national borders.

To understand why and how this occurs, it remains useful to begin with some of the Why Men Rebel arguments, which include an analysis (in chapter 4) of the role of the communication media in spreading political ideas. We understand the mechanisms. What we do not understand as well is how skillful communicators can create a sense of identity and common purpose that transcends national boundaries and then use it to mobilize people in many different places for coordinated political action. Sidney Tarrow’s work provides a good starting point for analyzing the formation and effects of social movements.

Next are some observations about the rationality of political action. Why Men Rebel was written on the psychological assumption that non-rational responses to frustration help motivate episodes of political violence. An effort was made in chapter 6 to incorporate elements of rational-choice analysis, showing how cost-benefit calculations are used—especially by leaders—to put anger to strategic political purposes.

In retrospect, I think it was a mistake to suggest that people who react violently to their sense of injustice are non-rational. It is true that the consequences of violent political action are more often destructive than constructive and can lead to great suffering for those who take the step to violence. An important complement to Why Men Rebel is Mark Irving Lichbach’s The Rebel’s Dilemma (1995), which shows that elements of rational calculation permeate the entire process of political conflict.

I do not now think it makes sense to assume a priori that conflict behavior is either rational or irrational. Instead, one should focus on the identities, grievances, and objectives of people who initiate political action and ask, critically, whether and how their actions contribute to the attainment of their goals.

Let me turn next to the role of governments in the process of conflict. Why Men Rebel points out, in chapter 5, that the legitimacy of governments is a major determinant of whether people’s anger is directed against authorities or channeled into other kinds of action. This argument has been verified in many subsequent studies: legitimate governments are Seldom targets of rebellion. But the model also simplifies reality by making a linear argument that people rebel and governments respond. This seems to imply that rebels are the problem and government the solution. A more careful reading shows that governments are implicated in creating the conditions for conflict at every step in the process.

Government-imposed inequalities are a major source of grievances, repressive policies increase anger and resistance, denial of the right to use conventional politics and protest pushes activists underground and spawns terrorist and revolutionary resistance.

But this leads to a big set of questions that Why Men Rebel does not attempt to answer. Why do some governments rule by repression, thus reproducing the conditions of future rebellion, while others govern with policies and concessions that contribute to social peace? No specific explanations are proposed in Why Men Rebel or in this new introduction about why and how governments respond to political action or the grievances from which it springs, but here are a few suggestions.

Democracies generally do better because their leaders have to face reelection and therefore are encouraged to compromise. Nonetheless some democracies suppress minorities and some autocratic leaders carry out long-term programs of social reform, so democratic governance is not the only factor.

Equally important are the beliefs or ideology of political leaders. Some have fundamental commitments to protecting all citizens’ rights and well-being; others are ideologically committed to objectives such as radical nationalism or religious purification. Exclusionary ideologies like the latter can be used to justify discrimination, repression, and in extreme cases the physical annihilation of offending minorities, as Barbara Harff has shown in her analysis of the causes of genocide and political mass murder.

We need also to recognize that all leaders, in whatever kind of political system, have strong survival instincts and, if their and their supporters’ security is seriously and repeatedly threatened, they will resort to almost any means to defeat challengers.

Lastly, governments and political movements alike are increasingly exposed to international influences. One of the good consequences of globalization is that most governments now are dependent on international trade, investment, and external political support. Therefore they face political pressures to respect human rights, to rely on reform rather than repression to contain discontent, and to open up their political systems to popular participation and power sharing. Failure to do so is risky because it often leads to international criticism, diplomatic pressures, reduced trade and investment, and in response to the worst abuses, international intervention.

Why Men Rebel continues to be recognized as a classic because it helped lead the way to a systematic, people-based understanding of the causes of political protest and rebellion. The book itself and forty years of critical analysis also point to additional questions. I encourage readers in the contemporary world to keep these guidelines in mind when seeking to understand and to respond to popular discontents:

Begin by examining the group identities and grievances of disadvantaged people, including the poor, underemployed urban youth, and members of ethnic, national, and religious minorities. Understand the sources of people’s grievances by examining their status and their treatment by governments and by other groups. Listen to what people say, not just what others say about them. Ask why group identities and disadvantages make their members susceptible to different kinds of political appeals and ideologies that justify protest or rebellion. Analyze the motives and strategies of leaders who seek to build political movements among aggrieved people.

Study the motives and strategies of governments in dealing with disadvantaged groups. Are governments open to political participation by such groups? Do government policies increase or reduce the potential for disruptive conflict?

Look for evidence about international factors—transnational movements, ideologies, examples of successful political action—that affect group grievances, mobilization, and choices among different political strategies. Analyze the international pressures and constraints that influence the way governments respond to political action. Consider how political action and government responses affect the groups involved. How much does a group gain or lose? Do governmental policies restore public order or do they provoke further resistance?

Let me sketch an analysis of pro-democracy protests in the contemporary Middle East that helps illustrate many of these points. The analysis should begin in Iran in mid-June 2009, with eight weeks of massive protests (reaching a peak of nearly two million on July 17) in the streets of Tehran and other cities against the fraud-tainted national election that returned President Ahmadinejad to power for a second term. Security forces and most senior clergy supported him and the campaign of repression that followed.

Censorship, scapegoating protestors as Western stooges in the government-controlled media, random shootings, arrests, and show trials won the day and Ahmadinejad was sworn in on August 7.

There was a very different outcome of protests in Tunisia, where urban protests by young men began in December 2010 against economic conditions and corruption in the government of President Ben Ali. In power for twentythree years, Ben Ali soon lost the support of the military and went into exile in January 2011. Protests escalated until a caretaker regime was purged of his close associates.

Anti-government protests followed in almost every Middle Eastern country. In Egypt President Mubarak, in power for forty-two years, was prompted to resign by the military establishment. In Yemen urban protest against President Saleh’s long-standing autocratic rule worsened the stresses of long-standing regional and sectarian conflicts. In Bahrain the disadvantaged Shi’a majority challenged the ruling Al Khalifa family in demonstrations that mobilized as many as 100,000 people. In Libya urban protest escalated into east-west civil war. Protests in Syria against the repressive government of Basilar al-Assad began in the southern city of Daraa and, in reaction to the regime’s deadly responses, spread to cities throughout the country.

There Were other echoes of anti-government protest in almost every country in the region, from Morocco to Iran, with governments seeking to preempt them with a mix of concessions and arrests.

The outcomes of this wave of protest will be uncertain for some time, even in Tunisia and Egypt, where military officers are overseeing transitions to more participatory and reformist governments. From an analytic perspective, the primal cause of virtually all protests has been the cumulation of economic and political grievances, especially among the rapidly growing population of city-dwelling youth, against corrupt and repressive regimes and their sclerotic leaders.

Decades of research aimed at testing the Why Men Rebel arguments about the primacy of relative deprivation have foundered on the lack of reliable means of assessing the depth and content of grievances across diverse populations, especially in tightly controlled autocracies. Yet no close observer or distant analyst doubts the depth of smoldering anger and resentment among young people in Middle Eastern societies. It was the perceptions of aggrieved populations in the Middle East that changed in early 2011, not their objective situations. The power of the ideal of participatory democracy, spread through the global media and personal contacts with friends abroad, had gradually eroded the legitimacy of autocratic regimes. Government violence against protestors intensified anger and eroded the last shreds of legitimacy.

The trigger for Muslim youth was the demonstration effect of successful political action elsewhere—not Iran 2009, where protest failed, but Tunisia and Egypt, where it helped push entrenched leaders from power.

Mobilization, that is, the capacity of the pro-democracy forces to turn out tens and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, developed very rapidly in response to external cues.

Newborn civil society organizations in most Middle Eastern societies had long been suppressed by autocratic rulers. Those that survived did so clandestinely, or, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, were constrained by harassment and sharp restrictions on their political activities. Political networks, facilitated by Internet-based means of social communication, provided an alternative basis for mass mobilization.

Max Rodenbeck reports that in Cairo an antigovernment protest group called April 6 had organized small, ineffective antigovernment demonstrations in 2009 and 2010. In January 2011 it linked up with a Facebook-based group of some 300,000 established the previous summer to protest the killing of a young businessman. Members of April 6, activists from the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing, and a mix of socialists and secularists called a protest for January 25 using the social media to spread the word. Between their planning session and January 25, protests in Tunisia led Ben Ali to resign. Rally turnouts were unexpectedly large—25,000 in Cairo, 20,000 in Alexandria. And they snowballed from there.

Once detailed accounts emerge from other countries in the region, we can expect similar accounts—the very rapid emergence of mass protest from informal networks that rely on social networking rather than formal organization.

The Cairo example also suggests the importance of new communication networks in shaping ideologies of resistance and persuading people of the feasibility of political action—the subjects of chapter 7 in Why Men Rebel.

Grievances about acts of regime violence are reinforced, successes elsewhere are publicized, scenarios for action are planned. Once mass demonstrations begin they become self-sustaining: they build solidarity and provide the protection of numbers, unless and until the regime responds with massive and deadly force. Solidarity provides normative satisfactions, numbers increase utilities—individuals feel safer about participation and more hopeful about winning.

The outcomes of pro-democracy protest are shaped by what are called “the coercive balance” between regimes and dissidents and their “balance of institutional support” (Why Men Rebel, chapters 8 and 9).

Protestors’ only significant coercive power is to paralyze cities, a short-term tactic that ultimately hurts them economically. But their symbolic power is enormous, an issue not much discussed in Why Men Rebel. They attract international media attention and generate political pressures on regimes, giving dramatic evidence that regimes lack the capacity to satisfy their subjects or to maintain public order. These pressures often reveal, or create, fissures in elite support for the regime. The loyalty of the military and security forces are critical: If they defect, or pressure autocrats to step down, the pro-democracy forces have won half the game.

A general autocratic fatigue effect also may be at work. The longer a Ben Ali, Mubarak, or Qaddafi is in power, the less effective he becomes and the more likely to be challenged by restless and ambitious members of his inner circle. Public protest thus can be a pretext for ousting him.

Iran in 2009 gives challenged autocrats in the Middle East one alternative scenario. The Ahmadinejad government, much younger than that of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or Yemen, orchestrated a campaign of intimidation and repression that kept it securely in power. By contrast, Jordan’s King Abdullah II responded to the first evidence of protests in early 2011 by dismissing his cabinet and promising further reforms. Protests gradually diminished.

The countries that escaped serious protest in the first quarter of 2011 included Oman, led by a rapidly modernizing monarch; the prosperous Emirates of the Gulf; and Saudi Arabia.

Repression was the principal strategy of regimes in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, sometimes accompanied by proposals for reform. The risk is that concessions often signal regime weakness and embolden dissidents. Repression failed in Libya when the rebels violently ousted the Qaddafi regime in August 2011. The outcomes in the other three countries remain to be seen.

Why Men Rebel gives little attention to the effects of international intervention on the balance of coercion and institutional support between regimes and dissidents, or how it can shape outcomes. In the late 1960s there was little relevant scholarship or evidence on the issue, though it was commonly thought in U.S. and British policy circles that Communist-led rebellions could and should be defeated by military assistance to the regimes they attacked. Later empirical research, done in the context of the Cold War, suggested that military intervention on behalf of one party to an internal war was more likely to prompt reciprocal support for the opposing party and thus to lead to an escalating proxy war rather than a decisive outcome.

The post-Cold War experience is very diverse, and complicated greatly by international advocacy, and occasional practice, of “humanitarian intervention” justified by a normative responsibility to protect civilians.

It is far too soon to analyze or assess the effects of international responses to anti-government protests in the Middle East. When they began, most Western democracies gave them cautious symbolic support. When the Qaddafi regime responded with indiscriminate violence against civilians, international sanctions were imposed, followed by the UN-authorized imposition of a no-fly zone to shield civilians in eastern Libya. Western military intervention in support of the rebels was widely criticized as war without an exit strategy, but in fact it decisively tipped the coercive balance. It enabled the rebels to reorganize, arm, and mount a winning offensive.

Less attention has been given to the international response in Bahrain, site of a major U.S. naval base. The United States reportedly has encouraged the Al-Khalifa regime to make significant concessions. Some members of the ruling family favored this approach but they were overruled by hard-liners. The Saudis, fearing a new center of Iran-backed Shi’a influence in the Gulf, has sent troops to help maintain public order. In Bahrain, as in Syria, there is no basis for predicting outcomes.

Most conflict researchers cited here, including the author, try to be objective in their analyses. The ultimate normative purpose of this kind of conflict analysis, the objective that attracted most scholars to the subject, is to help all of us—political activists, policy makers, and scholars—understand how to build more just and peaceful societies. The Middle East example shows that protest movements, like internal wars, are now subject to major international influences at every level analyzed in Why Men Rebel. Analysis thus has become more complex and the goal of giving research-based guidance to those who would make peace is ever more challenging.

Ted Robert Gurr

Distinguished University Professor, Emeritus Founding Director, Minorities at Risk Project Center for International Development and Conflict Management University of Maryland


Introduction 1970

Do we really know so little about the causes of riot and rebellion that we must invoke contemporary exorcisms like “aggressive instincts” or “conspiracy” to explain them?

I think not.

Men have rebelled against their rulers for millennia, and during those millennia many perceptive observers have offered careful explanations of why they did so, in particular instances and in general. In a way we know too much about our inclination to violence. The accumulation of monographs and reports and data about this revolution and that, this theory and that, tends to obscure our view of some basic mental and social uniformities.

This study tries to identify and order some of those uniformities. Are men inherently aggressive, or aggressive only in response to specific social conditions? We will examine psychological evidence that suggests that men have a capacity but not a need for aggression, and other evidence about the patterns of social circumstance in which men exercise that capacity collectively.

Do some men learn to use violence? The answer is obviously yes; what is less obvious is why and how some groups adopt while others eschew violence. Certainly the use of public force to counter private violence, and the nature of human organization, make a difference in the shape and extent of violence. Here again we will discern patterns in much of the reporting and rhetoric; certain uses of force and some kinds of association among people have generally foreseeable effects on political violence.

This book is an exercise in simplification of the kind known as theory-building. I will try to point out the more important uniformities in the causes of violence in politics, drawing from the work of all the human sciences. I will attempt to be precise in describing and defining these uniformities, even at the risk of elaborating some truisms, on grounds that a precisely stated principle is a better tool for understanding than a dull analogy.

The uniformities are also documented with a sample of the evidence for them: the laboratory work of experimental psychologists, the speculation of grand and lesser theorists, the case studies of rebellions, the comparative evidence of those who count demands and deaths, and a measure of logical deduction.

The tentative explanations that emerge from this process are still complex, not simple. Violence, like those who use it, is complex, but it is not indecipherable. At least that is what I hope this book will demonstrate. A general explanation of political violence can become a guide to action as well as comprehension, even if it is not ideally precise. It can be used to evaluate, for policy purposes, the “revolutionary potential” of specific nations, and to estimate the effects of various actions on that potential.

This theory is not devised for these applications, but many of the characteristics that make it suitable for scholarly inquiry similarly suit it to policy purposes. Social theory can be put to unethical as well as ethical ends, and an author has little control over the use of his work short of refusing to publish. But I am persuaded that insofar as this study has policy uses, it should contribute more to the alleviation of human misery than its perpetuation. There is more than conceit in this concern.

The study’s impact can at most be marginal, but the world is large and “marginal” impacts can affect thousands of lives. This book is as likely to be read by rebels as by rulers and suggests as many courses of effective action for one as the other. Rebels should read it, for I think it implies means for the attainment of human aspirations that are more effective and less destructive to themselves and others than some of the tactics they now use.

The study will surely be read by men seeking means for the preservation of public order. They will find in it a number of implications for strategies to that end, but they will find little justification for reliance on tactics of repressive control. There is a wealth of evidence and principle that repressive policies defeat their purposes, in the long run if not necessarily in the short run.

The public order is most effectively maintained—it can only be maintained—when means are provided within it for men to work toward the attainment of their aspirations.

This is not an ethical judgment, or rather not just an ethical judgment. It approaches the status of a scientific law of social organization. Some kinds of force maybe necessary if revolutionaries or ruling elites are to create and maintain social order in time of crisis, so that constructive means can be established.

But exclusive reliance on force eventually raises up the forces that destroy it.

This study is in any case not designed for policy ends but for explanation, and that at a general level. If it clarifies the reasons for and consequences of men’s violent actions, it will have served its purpose.

The uses of illustrative materials in this study may require a note of explanation.

Many of the general relationships to be examined operate in the genesis of each occurrence of violent political conflict. No case of political violence is comprehensively described or analyzed, however. Particular aspects of many specific events, and comparative generalizations about sets of them, are cited to support or illustrate specific hypotheses. None of these references are complete descriptions of the events cited or, unless so specified, are they evidence that the aspects cited are more important than others.

For example, a phase of the French Revolution maybe summarized in one or two sentences without reference to the fact that it is only one of its facets. The study can justly be criticized according to whether such characterizations are true in the narrow sense. If it is criticized on grounds that specific events are misrepresented because only partly analyzed, the object of the study is misunderstood.

I am indebted to a number of scholars for their advice and criticism in the development of this study. My work on the subject began with my doctoral dissertation, “The Genesis of Violence: A Multivariate Theory of Civil Strife,” Department of Government and International Relations, New York University, 1965, work in which I was encouraged and guided by Alfred de Grazia and Thomas Adam.

My greatest obligation during the intervening years in which this study was written is to Harry Eckstein, who has been a consistent source of moral support and intellectual sustenance, and who provided detailed criticisms of a draft of the manuscript.

A number of other scholars at the Center of International Studies and elsewhere also provided thoughtful and useful commentaries, including Leonard Berkowitz, Mohammed Guessous, Chalmers Johnson, John T. McAlister, Jr., Mancur L. Olson, Jr., J. David Singer, Bryant Wedge, and David Williams. William J. McClung of the University Press gave especially helpful and competent editorial guidance.

Responsibility for inadequacies of fact, interpretation, judgment, and logic is of course my own, and in a study of this scope they will no doubt be found in some measure.

I also wish to thank June Traube and Mary Merrick of the staff of the Center of International Studies, who spent many laborious hours preparing the manuscript, and James Bledsoe and Mary Fosler, who helped prepare the bibliography.

Initial theoretical work was supported by an award from a National Science Foundation institutional grant to New York University. Empirical work, which contributed to some of the revisions in the theoretical framework, was supported by the Center for Research on Social Systems (formerly SORO) of American University.

Writing of the final manuscript was made possible by support of the Center of International Studies and by a basic research grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense. Support from the last source implies neither that agency’s acceptance of this study and its conclusions nor my approval of policies of the U.S. government toward political violence.



1. Explanations of Political Violence Conflict … is a theme that has occupied the thinking of man more than any other, save only God and love. Anatol Rapoport, Fights, Games, and Debates

THE INSTITUTIONS, persons, and policies of rulers have inspired the violent wrath of their nominal subjects throughout the history of organized political life. A survey of the histories of European states and empires, spanning twenty-four centuries, shows that they averaged only four peaceful years for each year of violent disturbances.

Modern nations have no better record: between 1961 and 1968 some form of violent civil conflict reportedly occurred in 114 of the world’s 121 larger nations and colonies. 

Most acts of group violence have negligible effects on political life; but some have been enormously destructive of human life and corrosive of political institutions. Ten of the world’s thirteen most deadly conflicts in the past 160 years have been civil wars and rebellions; 3 since 1945, violent attempts to overthrow governments have been more common than national elections.

The counterpoise to this grim record is the fact that political violence has sometimes led to the creation of new and more satisfying political communities. The consequences of the American, Turkish, Mexican, and Russian revolutions testify in different ways to the occasional beneficence of violence.

In this study political violence refers to all collective attacks within a political community against the political regime, its actors —including competing political groups as well as incumbents —or its policies. The concept represents a set of events, a common property of which is the actual or threatened use of violence, but the explanation is not limited to that property.

The concept subsumes revolution, ordinarily defined as fundamental sociopolitical change accomplished through violence. It also includes guerrilla wars, coups d’état, rebellions, and riots. Political violence is in turn subsumed under “force,” the use or threat of violence by any party or institution to attain ends within or outside the political order.

The definition is not based on a prejudgment that political violence is undesirable. Like the uses of violence qua force by the state, specific acts of political violence can be good, bad, or neutral according to the viewpoint of the observer. Participants in political violence may value it as a means of expressing political demands or opposing undesirable policies.

Limited violence also can be useful for rulers and for a political system generally, especially as an expression of social malaise when other means for making demands are inadequate.

Ethical judgments are held in abeyance in this study to avoid dictating its conclusions. But it does not require an ethical judgment to observe that intense violence is destructive: even if some political violence is valued by both citizens and rulers, the greater its magnitude the less efficiently a political system fulfills its other functions. Violence generally consumes men and goods, it seldom enhances them.

Despite the frequency and social impact of political violence, it is not now a conventional category of social analysis. Yet some common properties of political violence encourage attention to it rather than more general or more specific concepts. Theoretically, all such acts pose a threat to the political system in two senses: they challenge the monopoly of force imputed to the state in political theory; and, in functional terms, they are likely to interfere with and, if severe, to destroy normal political processes.

Empirical justification for selecting political violence as a universe for analysis is provided by statistical evidence that political violence comprises events distinct from other measured characteristics of nations, and homogeneous enough to justify analysis of their common characteristics and causes. For example, countries experiencing extensive political violence of one kind—whether riots, terrorism, coups d’etat, or guerrilla war—are rather likely to experience other kinds of political violence, but are neither more or less likely to be engaged in foreign conflict. 

The properties and processes that distinguish a riot from a revolution are substantively and theoretically interesting, and are examined at length in this study, but at a general level of analysis they seem to be differences of degree, not kind.

The search for general causes and processes of political violence is further encouraged by the convergence of recent case, comparative, and theoretical studies. One striking feature of these studies is the similarity of many of the causal factors and propositions they identify, whether they deal with revolution, urban rioting, or other forms of political violence. This similarity suggests that some of their findings can be synthesized in a more efficient set of testable generalizations.

However good the prospects seem for a general analysis of political violence, research on it has been quite uneven, both in substance and in disciplinary approach. There is considerable European historical scholarship on segments of the subject, notably the peasant rebellions of the twelfth through nineteenth centuries and the great revolutions of England, France, and Russia. American and European scholars, most of them also historians, have in recent years contributed a modest case-study literature. American policy scientists have written a small flood of treatises on the causes and prophylaxis of subversive warfare, most of which seem to have had neither academic nor policyimpact.

The lapses of attention are striking by comparison. Of all the riotous mobs that have clamoured through the streets of history, only the revolutionary crowds of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and the ghetto rioters of twentieth-century America have attracted much scholarly attention. There are relatively few case studies of political violence in the non-Western world, and fewer systematic comparative studies or attempts at empirical theory. Experimental studies dealing with social-psychological mechanisms of collective violence can be counted on one hand.

Among social scientists the historians have been by far the most active; American political scientists have until recently neglected the subject. Of 2,828 articles that appeared in the American Political Science Review from its establishment in 1906 through 1968, only twenty-nine appear from their titles to be concerned with political disorder or violence. Moreover twelve of the twenty-nine were concerned specifically with revolution, and fifteen appeared after 1961.

Political scientists might be expected to have a greater concern with political violence than others. Authoritative coercion in the service of the state is a crucial concept in political theory and an issue of continuing dispute.

Some have identified the distinctive characteristic of the state as its monopoly of physical coercion. Max Weber, for example, wrote that violence is a “means specific” to the state and that “the right of physical violence is assigned to all other associations or individuals only to the extent permitted by the state; it is supposed to be the exclusive source of the ‘right’ to use violence.” 

Thomas Hobbes, dismayed by the brutish anarchy of men living outside the restraint of commonwealths, conceived the sovereign’s control of coercion to be the foundation of the state and the social condition.  Schattschneider sees conflict, which subsumes violence, as the central concept of political science.

Nieberg emphasizes the positive functions of non-authoritative violence and its threatened use as an instrument of social change.

From any of these perspectives the occurrence of collective, nonauthoritative violence appears to pose two fundamental questions for political science: From what sources and by what processes does it arise, and how does it affect the political and social order?

What Is to Be Explained?

This study proposes some general answers to three basic questions about our occasional disposition to disrupt violently the order we otherwise work so hard to maintain:

What are the psychological and social sources of the potential for collective violence?

What determines the extent to which that potential is focused on the political system?

And what societal conditions affect the magnitude and form, and hence the consequences, of violence?

The study has four primary objects of analysis. Two are intervening variables: the potential for collective violence and the potential for political violence. Propositionally, potential for collective violence is a function of the extent and intensity of shared discontents among members of a society; the potential for political violence is a function of the degree to which such discontents are blamed on the political system and its agents.

The remaining objects of analysis are dependent variables: the magnitude of political violence and the forms of political violence, both of which are discussed below.

Theories of revolution are usually concerned with specifying a relationship between some set of preconditions and the occurrence of revolution. Political violence, however, is a pervasive phenomenon, as was suggested above: few contemporary or historical societies have been free of it for long. It may be useful for microanalysis to specify whether political violence is likely in a given society at a particular point in time.

For macroanalysis, however, the more interesting questions are the determinants of the extent of violence and of the forms in which it is manifested. If one’s interest is the effects of political violence on the political system, the questions of its magnitude and kind are both highly relevant. And if one is concerned in an ethical way with political violence, then almost certainly one wants to assess its human and material costs, and consequently the determinants of its magnitude.

Various measures of the relative extent of political violence have been used in recent comparative studies. Sorokin combined measures of the proportion of a nation affected (social area), proportion of population actively involved, duration, intensity, and severity of effects of violence in assessing the magnitude of internal disturbances. Tilly and Rule make use of man-days of participation. Rummel and Tanter have used counts of numbers of events. The Feierabends have developed a scaling procedure that takes account of both number of events and a priori judgments about the severity of events of various types.

Some researchers have used the grisly calculus of number of deaths resulting from violence.

The proposed relation between perceived deprivation and the frustration concept in frustration-anger-aggression theory, to be discussed in chapter 2, provides a rationale for a more general definition of magnitude of violence and a more precise specification of what it comprises. The basic frustration-aggression proposition is that the greater the frustration, the greater the quantity of aggression against the source of frustration. This postulate provides the motivational base for an initial proposition about political violence: the greater the intensity of deprivation, the greater the magnitude of violence. (Other perceptural and motivational factors are also relevant to political violence, but many of them can be subsumed by the deprivation concept, as is suggested in chapter 2.)

Intense frustration can motivate men either to intense, short-term attacks or to more prolonged, less severe attacks on their frustrators. Which tactic is chosen is probably a function of anticipated gain, opportunity, and fear of retribution, which in political violence are situationally determined. Hence the severity of deprivation affects both the intensity of violence, i.e. in the extent of human and physical damage incurred, and its duration. Moreover there are evidently individual differences—presumably normally distributed—in the intensity of frustration needed to precipitate overt aggression.

Extension of this principle to the deprivation-violence relationship suggests that the proportion of a population that participates in violence ought to vary with the average intensity of perceived deprivation. Mild deprivation will motivate few to violence, moderate deprivation will push more across the threshold, very intense deprivation is likely to galvanize large segments of a political community into action.

This argument suggests that magnitude of political violence has three component variables that ought to be taken into account in systematic analysis: the extent of participation within the political unit being studied (scope), the destructiveness of action (intensity), and the length of time violence persists (duration).

Sorokin’s empirical work takes all three aspects into account; so does mine.

The intensity and scope of relative deprivation and magnitude of violence are unidimensional variables. Theoretically, and empirically, one can conceive of degrees or quantities of each in any polity.

The forms of violence, however, are attributes that do not form a simple dimension. A society may experience riots but not revolution, revolution but not coups d’état, coups d’état but not riots. Hypotheses about forms of violence as dependent variables thus are necessarily different from those about deprivation and magnitude of violence. They are expressed in terms of probabilities (the greater x, the more likely y) rather than strict concomitance.

The question is how many forms of political violence ought to be accounted for in a general theory. The principle of parsimony, which should apply to dependent as well as independent variables, suggests using a typology with a small number of categories, events in each of which are fairly numerous. Conventional taxonomies, of which there are many, provide little help. Some, like that of Lasswell and Kaplan, provide simple typologies for revolutions but not for political violence generally.

Eckstein proposes a composite typology comprising unorganized, spontaneous violence (riots), intraelite conflicts (coups), two varieties of revolution, and wars of independence.

Perhaps the most complex typology is Rummel’s list of twenty-five types of domestic conflict, the analysis of which provides an empirical solution to the problem of a parsimonious typology. In Rummel’s analysis, and in a number of subsequent studies, data on the incidence and characteristics of various types of political violence were collected and tabulated by country and the “country scores” (number of riots, assassinations, coups, mutinies, guerrilla wars, and so on, in a given time period) were factor analyzed.

Whatever the typology employed, the period of reference, or the set of countries, essentially the same results were reported. A strong turmoil dimension is characterized by largely spontaneous strife such as riots and demonstrations. It is quite distinct both statistically and substantively from what can be called a revolutionary dimension, characterized by more organized and intense strife.

This revolutionary dimension has two components that appear in some analyses as separate dimensions: internal war, typically including civil war, guerrilla war, and some coups; and conspiracy, typically including plots, mutinies, and most coups.

These types are not absolutely distinct. The analyses mentioned on pp. 4-5 indicate that, at a more general level of analysis, political violence is a relatively homogenous universe. Within that universe, however, some kinds of violence tend to occur together, and the occurrence of some types tends to preclude the occurrence of other types.

The principal distinction between turmoil and revolution is the degree of organization and focus of violence, a distinction also made by Eckstein in his composite typology.

A major difference between the internal war and conspiracy components of the revolutionary dimension is one of scale. General definitions of the three forms of political violence examined in this analysis are as follows:

Turmoil: Relatively spontaneous, unorganized political violence with substantial popular participation, including violent political strikes, riots, political clashes, and localized rebellions.

Conspiracy: Highly organized political violence with limited participation, including organized political assassinations, small-scale terrorism, small-scale guerrilla wars, coups d’etat, and mutinies.

Internal war: Highly organized political violence with widespread popular participation, designed to overthrow the regime or dissolve the state and accompanied by extensive violence, including large-scale terrorism and guerrilla wars, civil wars, and revolutions.

In summary, this study is an attempt to analyze, and develop testable general hypotheses about, three aspects of political violence: its sources, magnitude, and forms. The processes by which the potential for violence develops and the kinds of conditions and events that channel its outcome are examined as part of this analysis.

Two topics often examined in theories of revolution are examined here only in passing: the immediate precipitants of violence, about which most generalizations appear trivial; and the long-run outcomes of various kinds of political violence, about which there is little empirical evidence or detailed theoretical speculation.

Toward an Integrated Theory of Political Violence The basic model of the conditions leading to political violence used in this study incorporates both psychological and societal variables. The initial stages of analysis are actor-oriented in the sense that many of the hypotheses about the potential for collective action are related to, and in some instances deduced from, information about the dynamics of human motivation. The approach is not wholly or primarily psychological, however, and it would be a misinterpretation of the arguments and evidence presented here to categorize it so.

Most of the relationships and evidence examined in subsequent stages of analysis are those that are proposed or observed to hold between societal conditions and political violence. The psychological materials are used to help provide causal linkages between and among societal variables and the dependent variables specified above: the potential for collective and political violence; the magnitude of political violence; and the likelihood that political violence will take the form of turmoil, conspiracy, or internal war.

Use of psychological evidence in this way makes certain kinds of social uniformities more clearly apparent and comprehensible, and contributes to the simplification of theory. At the same time the analysis of societal relationships is crucial for identifying the sources of some common psychological properties of violence-prone men and for generalizing about the many facets of political violence that have no parallels in psychological dynamics.

The goal of this analysis, at best only partly realized, was proposed by Inkeles in the context of a discussion of social structure and personality: “What is required … is an integration or coordination of two basic sets of data in a larger explanatory scheme—not a reduction of either mode of analysis to the allegedly more fundamental mode of the other.”

The outlines of the theory can now be sketched briefly.

The primary causal sequence in political violence is first the development of discontent, second the politicization of that discontent, and finally its actualization in violent action against political objects and actors.

Discontent arising from the perception of relative deprivation is the basic, instigating condition for participants in collective violence. The linked concepts of discontent and deprivation comprise most of the psychological states implicit or explicit in such theoretical notions about the causes of violence as frustration, alienation, drive and goal conflicts, exigency, and strain (discussed in chapter 2).

Relative deprivation is defined as a perceived discrepancy between men’s value expectations and their value capabilities.

Value expectations are the goods and conditions of life to which people believe they are rightfully entitled.

Value capabilities are the goods and conditions they think they are capable of attaining or maintaining, given the social means available to them.

Societal conditions that increase the average level or intensity of expectations without increasing capabilities increase the intensity of discontent.

Among the general conditions that have such effects are the value gains of other groups and the promise of new opportunities (chapter 4). Societal conditions that decrease men’s average value position without decreasing their value expectations similarly increase deprivation, hence the intensity of discontent.

The inflexibility of value stocks in a society, short-term deterioration in a group’s conditions of life, and limitations of its structural opportunities have such effects (chapter 5).

Deprivation-induced discontent is a general spur to action. Psychological theory and group conflict theory both suggest that the greater the intensity of discontent, the more likely is violence. The specificity of this impulse to action is determined by men’s beliefs about the sources of deprivation, and about the normative and utilitarian justifiability of violent action directed at the agents responsible for it.

Societal variables that affect the focusing of discontent on political objects include the extent of cultural and subcultural sanctions for overt aggression, the extent and degree of success of past political violence, the articulation and dissemination of symbolic appeals justifying violence, the legitimacy of the political system, and the kinds of responses it makes and has made to relative deprivation (chapters 6 and 7).

The belief that violence has utility in obtaining scarce values can be an independent source of political violence, but within political communities it is most likely to provide a secondary, rationalizing, rather than primary, motivation. Widespread discontent provides a general impetus to collective violence.

However, the great majority of acts of collective violence in recent decades have had at least some political objects, and the more intense those violent acts are, the more likely they are to be focused primarily or exclusively on the political system. Intense discontent is quite likely to be politicized; the primary effect of normative and utilitarian attitudes toward violence is to focus that potential.

The magnitude of political violence in a system, and the forms it takes, are partly determined by the scope and intensity of politicized discontent. Politicized discontent is a necessary condition for the resort to violence in politics. But however intense and focused the impetus to violence is, its actualization is strongly influenced by the patterns of coercive control and institutional support in the political community.

Political violence is of greatest magnitude, and most likely to take the form of internal war, if regimes and those who oppose them exercise approximately equal degrees of coercive control, and command similar and relatively high degrees of institutional support in the society. The coercive capacities of a regime and the uses to which they are put are crucial variables, affecting the forms and extent of political violence in both the short and long run. There is much evidence, some of it summarized in chapters 8 and 10, that some patterns of regime coercive control increase rather than decrease the intensity of discontent, and can facilitate the transformation of turmoil into full-scale revolutionary movements.

Dissidents, by contrast, use whatever degree of coercive capacities they acquire principally for group defense and for assaults on the regime. The degree of institutional support for dissidents and for regimes is a function of the relative proportions of a nation’s population their organizations mobilize, the complexity and cohesiveness of those organizations, their resources, and the extent to which they provide regularized procedures for value attainment, conflict resolution, and channeling hostility (chapter 9).

The growth of dissident organization may in the short run facilitate political violence, but it also is likely to provide the discontented with many of the means to alleviate deprivation in the long run, thus minimizing violence.

The preceding paragraphs are an outline of the framework in which the hypotheses and definitions of this study are developed, and a summary of some of its generalizations. The hypotheses and their interrelationships are summarized more fully and systematically in chapter 10.

The Appendix lists all hypotheses developed, categorized according to their dependent variables, and the chapters in which they are proposed. The three stages in the process of political violence—those in which discontent is generated, politicized, and actualized in political violence—are each dependent on the preceding one, as the outline indicates.

It is likely but not necessarily the case that there is a temporal relationship among the three stages, whereby a sharp increase in the intensity of discontent precedes the articulation of doctrines that justify politically violent action, with shifts in the balances of coercive control and institutional adherence occuring subsequently.

The conditions can be simultaneously operative, however, as the outbreak of the Vendee counterrevolution in 1793 demonstrates: implementation of procedures for military conscription intensified the discontent of workers and peasants already sharply hostile to the bourgeoisie and the government it ruled. Mass action against the bourgeoisie began in a matter of days; the social context for dissident action was provided in part by preexisting communal and political organization, action that was facilitated by the concurrent weakness of government forces and institutions in the region.

The point is that many of the attitudes and societal conditions that facilitate political violence may be present and relatively unchanging in a society over a long period; they become relevant to or operative in the genesis of violence only when relative deprivation increases in scope and intensity.

Intense politicized discontent also can be widespread and persistent over a long period without overt manifestation because a regime monopolizes coercive control and institutional support. A weakening of regime control or the development of dissident organization in such situations is highly likely to lead to massive violence, as it did in Hungary in 1956 and China in 1966-68, and as is likely at some future date in South Africa.

The concepts, hypotheses, and models of causes and processes developed in the following chapters are not intended as ends in themselves. Intellectually pleasing filters through which to view and categorize the phenomena of a disorderly world are not knowledge. Systematic knowledge requires us to propose and test and reformulate and retest statements about how and why things happen. We know enough, and know it well enough, only when we can say with some certitude not just why things happened yesterday, but how our actions today will affect what happens tomorrow, something we can always hope to know better, though never perfectly.

This analysis may demonstrate that too little is known about the violence men do one another, and that it is known too weakly and imprecisely. It is designed to facilitate the processes by which that knowledge can be increased. 



Why Men Rebel


Ted Robert Gurr. 

get it from

Cognitive Economics: How Self-Organization and Collective Intelligence Works – Geoff Mulgan. 

First an Introduction – Sarah Sloan. 

What Is Cognitive Economics? Understanding the World Through New Types of Data. 

Economics isn’t just a number’s game. Human irrationality is so intrinsically tied up in the human need to rationalize that financial decisions are often made when our conscious brains are held for ransom by our emotions. Because of this, the study of money has specific branches devoted to the study of Homo sapiens interacting with money. The dismal science has genetic, experimental, and neurological branches. 

Then there is Cognitive Economics, the economics of what is going on in people’s minds.

Cognitive economics is characterized by its unique use of data. Rather than skimming from markets or hooking up sensors to subjects, cognitive economists rely on surveys, interviews, and attitudes. Still, the internal dynamics of cognitive economics still hinges more on the numbers-side of economics, rather than psychology. This area of study can help researchers understand what people are looking for, whether it’s a successful retirement or just general happiness and how policy can shape or reshape that search.

Inverse spoke with Miles Kimball, professor of economics and survey research at the University of Michigan, about his chosen field. A research affiliate at the Populations Studies Center and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Kimball sometimes moonlights as a columnist for Quartz. He spends a lot of time thinking about the role of cognition in our internal and financial systems.

This interview has been edited and condensed, but not too much because Kimball is super interesting.

Why is this field of study called cognitive economics and how is it an analogy to cognitive psychology?

The definition that I came up with is that cognitive economics is what is in people’s minds. This is basically a branch of behavioral economics. 

Behavioral economics is a very broad area of studying all the things that shouldn’t happen according to traditional economic theory. 

Economists are trained to identify when someone is doing something strange — their behavior seems confused, they don’t quite understand the situation. The goal of the economist is to talk about people’s motivations, what they’re trying to accomplish; their preferences.

Historically, the first thing that a behavioral economist did was try to document the things people do when their actions look strange from the standpoint of standard economic theory. My way, as a cognitive economist, is to look at the reasons why they have these preferences. The first category of explanation is that standard economics is fine, but there may be something deeper going on that you just didn’t see, even though what you’re doing makes perfect sense according to standard economic theory. Like any scientific discipline, one of the jobs of economics is to understand how the world works. Trying to understand why people do what they do, how society fits together, and how that fits into a policy point of view — economics has taken on the job of helping people get more of what they want. And we can use data to actually get a good idea of what that is. For example, a goal would be to use this data to influence public policy so that people understand when to claim their social security benefits.

So, is the job of cognitive economics, in part, to figure out what people want and then try to help them achieve that?

That’s certainly an element. If people don’t know something — what economists call imperfect information — we now have models that are very good with dealing with that imperfect information processing. There are certainly many choices in life that are really tough, especially in the financial market, that you may not figure out correctly. Deception doesn’t necessarily rely on lying — you can reveal everything in the fine print and still deceive people. How many of us have clicked yes on user agreements without understanding the real cost of what’s happening? Certain institutions of the government, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, incorporates cognitive economics to deliver good results to people who may not have a handle on the complications of financial products.

It’s interesting because the image that people have of companies is that they have tricky products, and from there are able to make big profits off of people. It’s actually trickier than that. It is possible to make profits by tricking people, which will cause more firms to make profits in the industry. At the end of the day what happens is that people who are smarter than average get these products cheaper, and the people who are easily tricked are paying through the nose. You see this with credit card grace periods. People who are really smart about how they use their credit card actually get the zero interest loans. But this is at the expense of the people who go in thinking they’re going to be sensible using their credit card, but then don’t realize how many things are going to come up, that are going to make that hard to do. That’s a simple example, but there are plenty more you can go through! Companies may come off like they’re just trying to make a profit by tricking people, but interestingly enough it ends up being less smart people subsidizing smart people.

In what ways is cognitive economics different than other fields of economic research?

Different branches of economics have different characteristic data types. There is a field called neuroeconomics where you do brain scans on people. You have them make economic decisions, and you utilize scull caps that will record brain activity with EEGs. Somewhat more modestly, cognitive economics is a survey. It can be combined with lab data and neuroeconomics, but its bread and butter is survey data. You ask people what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, and you have access to their minds by asking.

So surveys are the key?

Well, cognitive economics is all about humans! It’s a branch of behavioral economics, and economics itself is really on the border with psychology. In fact, some people wanted to call this “psychology and economics” but I think cognitive economics is more descriptive. I don’t want to downplay the influence of psychology in economics, I’m just saying that if somehow economists have never read psychology literature, behavioral economics would have still emerged

How do you conduct your research?

By designing surveys and analyzing the answers with a team. Dan Benjamin and I started this initiative and we just finished designing a survey about how people rate presidential candidates and use a scale in a sophisticated way. The idea is to compare whether you would rather have, say, Bernie Sanders become president for sure or wake up on election day with an election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, in which either has a real chance to win.

We work very hard to make the question understandable — it’s a balancing act. On the one hand we have an economic concept we want to get. This is called an expected utility rating. We’re trying to get a rating of exactly, in between your best and worst candidate, where the other candidates are. This is economic theory in a powerful way and we can’t compromise on that. You could maybe think of a question that is worded in an easier way, but then we wouldn’t have an economic concept at the end. Trying to get survey questions that have a certain precision to them is quite a trick.

If you’re only surveying people about what they did or if you’re using data from firms about what they bought, that’s considered standard economics, not cognitive economics. But if you’re asking them about what they’re thinking about, what they want, then it gets to be cognitive economics. We sometimes end up working on one question for a week.

On your blog you have one section titled “So You Want to Save the World.” What role do you think cognitive economics has in making society a more fruitful place for everyone?

The initiative that I mentioned earlier is the Wellbeing Measurement Initiative. We view the economics of happiness as a part of cognitive economics. When asking about what is in people’s minds, it’s not just the math they’re doing, but their feelings while they do this. There has been quite a big push by many governments to essentially have a national well-being measurement. There’s wide recognition that gross domestic product is inadequate in representing the things that people care about. We have to incorporate things like people’s relationship with their family, their romantic relationships, the want to have meaning in life — we could go on and on. For these projects, we sit down and try to design survey questions for everything we can think of that is somewhat at the abstract level. Right now we have a list of 120 — there are a lot of things that people want!

In regard to what governments have done so far, the United Kingdom, for example, has questions that look at how happy you are, how satisfied you are with your life, how anxious you have been, do you feel your life is worthwhile, etcetera. They’ve collected a lot of data on that, but we don’t think those few questions are enough to cover the waterfront. We’re hoping that 120 will do an okay job at measuring how well somebody is.

People look at how money is spent, because money creates data. But this is only one element — that score card needs to include factors like if the person feels they’re doing better than last year; how they feel affected by different government policies. You also need to do randomized trials and try different options to see what makes people feel better off.

You’ve got to face the facts that most government policies, if you have an A/B001FSJCOQ test, doing it one way is going to make it better for some people, and worse for other people — especially when you think about something like taxes. There are only a few ways of making everybody better off, and even then you’ll probably have a few individuals who end up worse off. However, things do get better in society when individuals have statistical agency — you start identifying the subtle ways that can make everybody better off.


Cognitive Economics: How Self-Organization and Collective Intelligence Works – Geoff Mulgan. 

The study of self-organizing groups points toward what could be called a cognitive economics. 

The organization of thought as a series of nested loops, each encompassing the others, is a general phenomenon. It can be found in the ways in which intelligence is organized in our bodies and within the groups we’re part of. The efficient deployment of energy to intelligence depends on a similar logical hierarchy that takes us from the automatic and mindless (which require little energy) to the intensely mindful (which require a lot). With each step up from raw data, through information to knowledge, judgment, and wisdom, quantity is more integrated with qualitative judgment, intelligence becomes less routine and harder to automate, and crucially, the nature of thought becomes less universal and more context bound. With each step up the ladder, more energy and labor are required.

What Is the Organization in Self-Organization?

Seeing large-scale thought through this lens provides useful insights into the idea of self-organization. The popularity of this idea reflects the twentieth- century experience of the limits of centralized, hierarchical organizations— even if the world is still dominated by them, from Walmart and Google to the People’s Liberation Army and Indian Railways. We know that a central intelligence simply can’t know enough, or respond enough, to plan and manage large, complex systems.

Widely distributed networks offer an alternative. As with the Internet, each link or node can act autonomously, and each part of the network can be a fractal, self-similar on multiple scales.

There are obvious parallels in human systems. The term stigmergy has been coined to describe the ways in which communities—such as Wikipedia editors or open-software programmers—pass tasks around in the form of challenges until they find a volunteer, a clear example of a community organizing itself without the need for hierarchy.

Friedrich Hayek gave eloquent descriptions of the virtues of self- organization, and counterposed the distributed wisdom of the network to the centralized and hierarchical wisdom of science or the state: “It is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But there is a body of very important but unorganized knowledge: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. Practically everyone has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his . . . cooperation.” 

More recently, Frederick Laloux wrote the following lines, capturing a widely held conventional wisdom: “Life in all its evolutionary wisdom, manages ecosystems of unfathomable beauty, ever evolving towards wholeness, complexity and consciousness. Change in nature happens everywhere, all the time, in a self-organizing urge that comes from every cell and every organism, with no need for central command and control to give orders or pull levers.” Here we find the twenty-first- century version of the late nineteenth-century notion of the élan vital, a mystical property to be found in all things.

It’s an appealing view. But self-organization is not an altogether-coherent concept and has often turned out to be misleading as a guide to collective intelligence. It obscures the work involved in organization and in particular the hard work involved in high-dimensional choices. If you look in detail at any real example—from the family camping trip to the operation of the Internet, open-source software to everyday markets, these are only self-organizing if you look from far away. Look more closely and different patterns emerge. You quickly find some key shapers—like the designers of underlying protocols, or the people setting the rules for trading. There are certainly some patterns of emergence. Many ideas may be tried and tested before only a few successful ones survive and spread. To put it in the terms of network science, the most useful links survive and are reinforced; the less useful ones wither. The community decides collectively which ones are useful. Yet on closer inspection, there turn out to be concentrations of power and influence even in the most decentralized communities, and when there’s a crisis, networks tend to create temporary hierarchies—or at least the successful ones do—to speed up decision making. As I will show, almost all lasting examples of social coordination combine some elements of hierarchy, solidarity, and individualism.

From a sufficient distance, almost anything can appear self-organizing, as variations blur into bigger patterns. But from close-up, what is apparent is the degree of labor, choice, and chance that determines the difference between success and failure. The self-organization in any network turns out to be more precisely a distribution of degrees of organization.

Cognitive Economics

The more detailed study of apparently self-organizing groups points toward what could be called a cognitive economics: the view of thought as involving inputs and outputs, costs and trade-offs. This perspective is now familiar in the evolutionary analysis of the human brain that has studied how the advantages of an energy-hungry brain, which uses a quarter of all energy compared to a tenth in most other species, outweighed the costs (including the costs of a prolonged childhood, as children are born long before they’re ready to survive on their own, partly an effect of their large head size).

Within a group or organization, similar economic considerations play their part. Too much thought, or too much of the wrong kind of thought, can be costly. A tribe that sits around dreaming up ever more elaborate myths may be easy pickings for a neighboring one more focused on making spears. A city made up only of monks and theologians will be too. A company transfixed by endless strategy reviews will be beaten in the marketplace by another business focused on making a better product.

Every thought means another thought is unthought. So we need to understand intelligence as bounded by constraints. Cognition, memory, and imagination depend on scarce resources. They can be grown through use and exercise, and amplified by technologies. But they are never limitless.

This is apparent in chaotic or impoverished lives, where people simply have little spare mental energy beyond what’s needed for survival. As a result, they often make worse choices (with IQ falling by well over ten points during periods of intense stress—one of the less obvious costs of poverty). But all of us in daily life also have to decide how much effort to devote to different tasks—more for shopping or your job; more time finding the ideal spouse, career or holiday, frequently with options disappearing the longer you take.

So we benefit from some types of decision becoming automatic and energy free, and using what Kahneman called System 1 and 2. Walking, eating, and driving are examples that over time become automatic. With the passage of time, we pass many more skills from the difficult to the easy by internalizing them. We think without thinking—how and when to breathe, instinctive responses to danger, or actions learned in childhood like how to swim. We become more automatically good at playing a tune on the piano, kicking a football, or riding a bicycle. Learning is hard work, but once we’ve learned the skill, we can do these things without much thought. There are parallels for organizations that struggle to develop new norms and heuristics that then become almost automatic—or literally so when supported by algorithms. This is why so much effort is put into induction, training, and inculcating a standardized method.

Life feels manageable when there is a rough balance between cognitive capacity and cognitive tasks. We can cope if both grow in tandem. But if the tasks outgrow the capacity, we feel incapable. Similarly, we’re in balance if the resources we devote to thinking are proportionate to the environment we’re in. The brain takes energy that would otherwise be used for physical tasks like moving around. In some cases, evolution must have gone too far and produced highly intelligent people who were too weak to cope with the threats they faced. What counts as proportionate depends on the nature of the tasks and especially how much time is a constraint. Some kinds of thought require a lot of time, while others can be instantaneous. Flying aircraft, fighting battles and responding to attack, and flash trading with automated algorithmic responses are all examples of quick thought. They work because they have relatively few variables or dimensions, and some simple principles can govern responses.

Compare personal therapy to work out how to change your life, a multistakeholder strategy around a new mine being built in an area lived in by aboriginal nomads, or the creation of a new genre of music. All these require by their nature a lot of time; they are complex and multilayered. They call out for many options to be explored, before people can feel as well as logically determine which one should be chosen.

These are much more costly exercises in intelligence. But they happen because of their value and because the costs of not doing them are higher.

Here we see a more common pattern. The more dimensional any choice is, the more work is needed to think it through. If it is cognitively multidimensional, we may need many people and more disciplines to help us toward a viable solution. If it is socially dimensional, then there is no avoiding a good deal of talk, debate, and argument on the way to a solution that will be supported. And if the choice involves long feedback loops, where results come long after actions have been taken, there is the hard labor of observing what actually happens and distilling conclusions. The more dimensional the choice in these senses, the greater the investment of time and cognitive energy needed to make successful decisions.

Again, it is possible to overshoot: to analyze a problem too much or from too many angles, bring too many people into the conversation, or wait too long for perfect data and feedback rather than relying on rough-and-ready quicker proxies. All organizations struggle to find a good enough balance between their allocation of cognitive resources and the pressures of the environment they’re in. But the long-term trend of more complex societies is to require ever more mediation and intellectual labor of this kind.

This variety in types of intelligence, the costs they incur, and the value they generate (or preserve) gives some pointers to what a more developed cognitive economics might look like. It would have to go far beyond the simple frames of transaction costs, or traditional comparisons of hierarchies, markets, and networks. It would analyze the resources devoted to different components of intelligence and different ways of managing them—showing some of the trade-offs (for example, between algorithmic and human decision making) and how these might vary according to the environment. More complex and fast-changing environments would tend to require more investment in cognition. It would also analyze how organizations change shape in moments of crisis—for instance, moving to more explicit hierarchy, with less time to consult or discuss, or investing more in creativity in response to a fast-changing environment.

Economics has made significant progress in understanding the costs of finding information, such as in Herbert Simon’s theories of “satisficing,” which describe how we seek enough information to make a good enough decision. But it has surprisingly thin theories for understanding the costs of thought. Decision making is treated largely as an informational activity, not a cognitive one (though greater attention to concepts such as “organization capital” is a move in the right direction).

A more developed cognitive economics would also have to map the ways in which intelligence is embodied in things—the design of objects, cars, and planes—and in systems—water, telecommunications, and transport systems—in ways that save us the trouble of having to think.

It would need to address some of the surprising patterns of collective intelligence in the present, too, many of which run directly counter to conventional wisdom. For example, organizations and individuals appear to be investing a higher, not lower, proportion of their wealth and income in the management of intelligence in all its forms, particularly those operating in competitive environments. Digital technologies disguise this effect because they have dramatically lowered the costs of processing and memory. But this rising proportion of spending appears close to an iron law, and may be a hallmark of more advanced societies and economies. Much of the spending helps to orchestrate the three dimensions of collective intelligence: the social (handling multiple relationships), cognitive (handling multiple types of information and knowledge), and temporal (tracking the links between actions and results).

A related tendency is toward a more complex division of labor to organize advanced forms of collective intelligence. More specialized roles are emerging around memory, observation, analysis, creativity, or judgment, some with new names like SEO management or data mining. Again, this effect has been disguised by trends that appear to make it easier for anyone to be a pioneer and for teenagers to succeed at creating hugely wealthy new companies. Linked to this is a continuing growth in the numbers of intermediaries helping to find meaning in data or link useful knowledge to potential users. This trend has been disguised by the much-vaunted trends toward disintermediation that have cut out a traditional group of middlepersons, from travel agencies to bookshops. But another near iron law of recent decades—the rising share in employment of intermediary roles, and the related rise of megacompanies based on intermediary platforms such as Amazon or Airbnb—shows no signs of stopping. In each case, there appear to be higher returns to investment in tools for intelligence.

A cognitive economics might also illuminate some of the debates under way in education, as education systems grapple with how to prepare young people for a world and labor market full of smart machines able to perform many more mundane jobs. Schools have not yet adopted Jerome Bruner’s argument that the primary role of education is to “prepare students for the unforeseeable future.” Most prefer the transmission of knowledge—and in some cases rightly so, because many jobs do require deep pools of knowledge. But some education systems are concentrating more on generic abilities to learn, collaborate, and create alongside the transmission of knowledge, in part because the costs of acquiring these traits later on are much higher than the costs of accessing knowledge. Th traits generally associated with innovation—high cognitive ability, high levels of task commitment, and high creativity—which were once thought to be the preserve of a small minority, may also be the ones needed in much higher proportions in groups seeking to be collectively intelligent.

An even more ambitious goal for cognitive economics would be to unravel one of the paradoxes that strikes anyone looking at creativity and the advance of knowledge. On the one hand, all ideas, information, and thoughts can be seen as expressions of a collective culture that finds vehicles—people or places that are ready to provide fertile soil for thoughts to ripen. This is why such similar ideas or inventions flower in many places at the same time. It is why, too, every genius who, seen from afar, appears wholly unique looks less exceptional when seen in the dense context of their time, surrounded by others with parallel ideas and methods. Viewed in this way, it is as odd to call the individual the sole author of their ideas as it is to credit the seed for the wonders of the flowers it produces. That some upbringings, places, and institutions make people far more creative and intelligent than others proves the absurdity of ascribing intelligence solely to genes or individual attributes.

But to stop there is also untenable. All thought requires work—a commitment of energy and time that might otherwise have been spent growing crops, raising children, or having a drink with friends. Anyone can choose whether to do that work or not, where to strike the balance between activity and inertia, engagement and indolence. So thought is always both collective and individual, both a manifestation of a wider network and something unique, both an emergent property of groups and a conscious choice by some individuals to devote their scarce time and resources. The interesting questions then center on how to understand the conditions for thought. How does any society or organization make it easier for individuals to be effective vehicles for thought, to reduce the costs and increase the benefits? Or to put it in noneconomic language, how can the collective sing through the individual, and vice versa?

The current state of understanding these dynamics is limited. We know something about clusters and milieus for innovation and thought. It’s clearly possible for the creative and intellectual capability of a place to grow quickly, and using a combination of geography, sociology, and economics, it is easy to describe the transformation of, say, Silicon Valley, Estonia, or Taiwan. Yet there are few reliable hypotheses that can make predictions, and many of the claims made in this area—for example, about what causes creativity—have not stood up to rigorous analysis. For now, this is a field with many interesting claims but not much solid knowledge.


ALONE. The Badass Psychology of People Who Like Being Alone – Bella DePaulo, Ph.D.

A loneliness panic has swept the nation and the world. 

For years, the popular press and the annals of academia have been spewing out warnings, in increasingly alarmist tones, that loneliness has reached epic proportions, and that it is killing us. But amidst all the angst about loneliness, something profoundly important has been overlooked: Some people like being alone. 

They like their time alone. They like living alone. In many nations all around the world, the number of people living alone has reached record levels. More and more people are also dining alone, traveling alone, and making their way in public places alone. 

Studies of married couples in the U.S. show that their lives are less enmeshed than they once were. Some couples are even living apart, in places of their own, not because far-flung jobs or other externalities have forced that upon them, but because they want their own space. 

For unknown numbers of people, being alone is not just a preference –it is a craving, a need. Deprived of their time alone for too long, they begin to fantasize about it. Nothing feels quite right until their need for solitude is replenished. Who are these people who like being alone? 

Stereotypically, they are the weirdos and the freaks, the scary loners planning shocking acts of violence. New thinking and fresh research upends those caricatures. We now have a better idea of the true personalities of people who like being alone, and they are, well, totally badass. 

In June of 2017, I published a post to my “Living Single” blog at Psychology Today called “The badass personalities of people who like being alone.” 

Immediately, it took off. It was shared and re-shared. It was republished over and over again, with and without permission. It got picked up nationally and internationally. That made me realize that there is a real hunger for a different story about the time we spend alone, one that acknowledges that not all people who live alone or spend time alone are lonely or doomed to an early death. Some, in fact, are spectacularly happy and healthy. 

I’ve been writing about people who live single or live alone or like their time alone for decades. In Alone: The Badass Psychology of People Who Like Being Alone, I have collected more than 60 of the articles I have published at places such as Psychology Today, Psych Central, and the Washington Post. Sample what you like or read it cover to cover. Either way, you will come away with a whole new understanding, grounded in research, of what it means to like being alone. 


The True Meanings of Alone, Loner, and Lonely 

The Happy Loner 

“Loners” get a bad rap. “Loner”is the label we affix to criminals, outcasts, and just about everyone else we find scary or unsettling. In my all-time favorite book on the topic – Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto – author Anneli Rufus offers a whole different take on the true meaning of “loner.” 

A loner, she says, is “someone who prefers to be alone.” That person is so very different than all those who remain on the outside feeling isolated but so desperately wanted to be on the inside, feeling that they belong. The intense but thwarted craving for “acceptance, approval, coolness, companionship” is what sometimes sets off people who go ballistic on their objects of their desires. 

In an essay in the Guardian, Barbara Ellen lets us know that she has also had enough of the fear and the pity for people who actually like their time alone. Here’s how she opens her commentary: There used to be a fashion for scaremongering surveys about single women, saying things like: “Eight out of 10 women are going to die alone, surrounded by 17 cats.” But to that I would mentally add: “Or it could all go horribly wrong.” 

To my mind, aloneness never necessarily equated with loneliness. It wasn’t a negative, something to be avoided, feared or endured. In the tradition of Anneli Rufus (and everyone else who recognizes that alone and lonely are not the same thing), Ellen know that the kind of solitude that is chosen is a whole different experience than the type that is unwelcome. 

Riffing on a headline proclaiming that “Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe,” Ellen offers an alternative perspective: This study could just as well be interpreted as saying that many Britons are self-reliant problem-solvers, respectful of other people’s privacy –and what’s wrong with that? Isn’t this the modern British definition of neighbourliness: not over-chummy and intrusive, but friendly, considerate and, most importantly, happy to sign for your Amazon parcels? 

Barbara Ellen also poses a question that we should all ponder: Why is it that sociability is considered a skill, whereas the ability to be alone is seen as weird? As she notes: Personally, I’d be more likely to distrust people who can’t bear time with themselves. What’s wrong with them that they can’t abide their own company – what are they trying to hide in the crowd? 

Alone in the World or Alone in Solitude? 

For such a little word, “alone” carries some big meanings. Sometimes “alone” is used to mean “single,” and I have often found that troubling. When other people are discussing a single person and they say, “she’s alone,” they often do so with sadness and pity. What they mean is, “She doesn’t have anyone”or “He’s alone in the world.” There are single people who truly are alone in the world, just as there are married people who fit that description. (Having a spouse is no guarantee of having someone who cares about you or even talks to you.) 

On the average, though, single people are more connected to other people than married people are. I’ve written often about how single people have more friends, do more to maintain their ties with siblings and parents and friends and neighbors, do more to participate in the life of their cities and towns, and do more than their share of caring for aging parents and others who need help. 

In contrast, when couples move in together or get married, they tend to become more insular. That happens even if they don’t have children. Single people who fit this typical pattern of maintaining a diversity of personal relationships are probably less vulnerable than, say, married people who invest all their relationship capital in their spouse. Research on susceptibility to depression is consistent with that suggestion. 

So is research on “emotionships,” which are the relationships we have with other people that are emotion-specific (for example, looking to different people when we are angry vs. happy vs. sad). “Alone in the world” is the ominous meaning of “alone.” There is another, more uplifting meaning, that many people embrace –single people in particular, and especially those who are single at heart. “Alone” can mean alone in solitude –having time and space to yourself. 

To the many people who savor their solitude, time alone is a blessing and a gift. To some (myself included), it may even feel like a necessity. To those who crave solitude rather than fearing it, time alone can offer wonderful opportunities for creativity, relaxation, rejuvenation, reflection, and spirituality. 

When I spent some time asking people about their ideal living situations, I found that everyone wants some time alone and some time with other people, but the proportions vary enormously from person to person. When seeking time to themselves, people are making room in their lives for that positive, nourishing, and uplifting sense of being alone. When seeking meaningful connections with other people, they are trying to keep that other sense of aloneness, being alone in the world, at bay. When we find just the right balance of time alone and time with others, it is magical.


Why Alone is Not the Same as Lonely 

With more and more people living single and living alone, and so much hand-wringing about loneliness, it has never been more important to understand the difference between the kind of aloneness that people seek out and savor (not loneliness) and the kind of aloneness that hurts (loneliness). 

That’s what I talked about when Peace Talks Radio asked me to participate in their special show, “Considering Loneliness.” Here’s the transcript of my part of the show. 

Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Dr. Bella DePaulo, Project Scientist, University of California at Santa Barbara, author of “Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.

Paul Ingles: Dr. Bella DePaulo is an author and visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. 

Dr. DePaulo, you’ve also authored a blog called “The Happy Loner” that begins: “Loners get a bad rap. Loner is the label we affix to criminals, outcasts and just about everyone else we find scary or unsettling.” 

Then you quote author Anneli Rufus who wrote a different take that a loner is quote “someone who prefers to be alone” which you say is different from those who remain on the outside feeling isolated but desperately want to be on the inside. 

Help me understand the distinction. It sounds to me like you accept the more troubling definition of loner, but just want to make room for Loner 2.0 or Loner B who just prefers to be alone. Is that fair? 

Bella DePaulo: Yes. Well, Anneli Rufus says that a loner is someone who prefers to be alone, so that’s her central basic definition and she thinks that when we call these serial killers “loners” and we affix that kind of dark, menacing meaning to loner, we’re distorting the true meaning of loner. 

But let me say that whether being alone, living alone is a good or bad thing depends on how you got there. So if you got there because you want it and you love it and you crave it, that’s great. If you got there because, let’s say a spouse died, that’s more difficult although some people find that once a spouse dies, they come into their own in their own space and time. 

The real problematic person living alone is the one who has been rejected, who has been ostracized, particularly if they’ve been chronically ostracized. I think that can be an ingredient to real deep anger and the potential for violence. 

Ingles: So let’s say your “Loner B” in our little construct here, you prefer to be alone. Is it valuable to be even concerned about the claims of researchers that they might be at risk of becoming “ Loner A” like distrustful of society or prone to feeling rejected? Is it valuable, if you choose to be alone, to be aware of your place on the continuum and have an awareness of this conversation? 

DePaulo: I suppose so, but you know what’s really interesting? There’s a whole cottage industry of loneliness. If you went on Google and typed “loneliness,” you’d probably get tens of thousands of returns and yet the kind of research that would look at whether people have chosen to be alone or not is strikingly missing. So we really don’t know if the people who choose to be alone, who savor their solitude, who get great creative work done, get great restorative benefits, we don’t know if they are prone to some of the same negative risks that we’ve heard about so often in the general literature on loneliness. We just don’t know. That’s my scientific answer. 

Ingles: Okay and do you have another answer? 

DePaulo: Yes, I wonder about it. Imagine if we tried to force everyone to live with other people because we think that would somehow cure loneliness. Would it really? 

I think especially about the change over time and how older people live. It used to be that older people, say if a spouse died, they would almost automatically end up living with other people, often their grown children. Now that older people have Social Security and other ways of actually buying their own independence, more and more of them are choosing to live alone and they’re certainly choosing to stay outside of institutions if they can possibly afford it and so it seems like people are making a choice and so I think we should be cautious about demonizing people who live alone or thinking: you poor thing. Your life is going to be nasty, brutish and short because they’ve chosen this. 

Many people who live alone could find other people to live with, but that’s not what they want to do. 

Ingles: Well let’s see, let me go here with this then; one of your books is entitled Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After, so let me look at the first half of that title to start because it sounds like it’s kind of what we were talking about here. It sounds like that you’re citing a societal preference for coupling. 

DePaulo: Yes, absolutely. 

Ingles: Are you suggesting that by stereotyping, stigmatizing and ignoring signals that society could be amplifying feelings of loneliness? 

DePaulo: Yes, it is, and ironically, what it could also be doing is pushing people to marry who really don’t feel like it’s right for them and what happens then is you have people who end up lonelier than they would have been because they’re marrying because they think they should marry, because they think it’s the only legitimate, respected, celebrated option and so then they end up with what is probably the most painful kind of loneliness; the loneliness you experience when there is someone lying there right beside you. 

Ingles: What would you call on society to do for its part in quelling loneliness brought on in part by those attitudes about singles? I mean if someone listening says, “Oh yeah, I guess I have thought that about singles,” what would you suggest they change in their behavior or their attitude that might tone it down a little bit? 

DePaulo: I think they should realize that there are so many ways to live in contemporary American society. That’s one of the joys of living in this time and place.


What is the Opposite of Loneliness? 

On the eve of her graduation from Yale, Marina Keegan wrote an essay that, within about a week, would be read by well over a million people from 98 nations. It was called “The Opposite of Loneliness.” 

But what is the opposite of loneliness? Keegan opened her essay by noting that we don’t have a word for it, but whatever it is, she found it at Yale: “It is not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. 

When it’s four A.M. and no one goes to bed…“Yale is full of tiny circles we pull around ourselves. A cappella groups, sports teams, houses, societies, clubs. These tiny groups that make us feel loved and safe and part of something even on our loneliest nights…”

That essay now opens a collection of Keegan’s writings published under the same title, “The Opposite of Loneliness.” 

The question it poses, what is the opposite of loneliness, still resonates. For people who are “single at heart,” I think the opposite of loneliness is single life. People who are single at heart live their best, most meaningful, and most authentic lives as single people. I’m one of them. I rarely feel lonely, and when I do, it is usually when I’m with other people. 

One time, when I was living in Charlottesville, I was walking the downtown mall with a friend I always loved talking to – she’s smart, wryly funny, and great at getting to matters of depth. We happened upon a big table of colleagues who were laughing and talking. She wanted to join them. I sat for a while, but their conversation was so superficial and so inane, it made me feel lonely. I made an excuse and left. 

Another time, two couples wanted to treat me for my birthday. I looked forward to it. But they spent the night talking about babies and daycare. The whole night. 

That, rather spending my birthday home alone, is the definition of loneliness. I like the examples Keegan gives of the opposite of loneliness. But I’d add to them the experiences of being all by yourself, and feeling so engaged in whatever you are doing that you don’t even notice how much time has passed or that you’re actually pretty tired. (I think it is an example of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”)

The opposite of loneliness is realizing the answer to what you were puzzling over when you weren’t trying to figure it out –during a long walk, for instance, or in the shower or just as you are falling asleep or waking up. The opposite of loneliness is feeling grateful for all the people in your life you cherish, even (especially?) when you don’t see them all the time. 

The opposite of loneliness is JOMO – the Joy of Missing Out. For me, that’s when I’m so delighted not to feel obligated to participate in social events that don’t interest me. I stay home and revel in my solitude, or pursue the social engagements that really do engage me. 

Alone is not lonely. Alone is a neutral description of a state that can be experienced any number of ways. Loneliness is, by definition, painful. The opposite of loneliness is contentment or joy. It is living your most meaningful life, the life you want to live rather than the life you think you should be living. For me, the opposite of loneliness is living single.


Six Psychological Insights About Solitude 

People who are single-at-heart love the time they have to themselves. In fact, when thinking about spending time alone, just about all of them react with something like, “Ah, sweet solitude,” and almost none of them react with, “Oh, no, I might be lonely!” 

With more and more people living single, and more and more people living alone, a better understanding of solitude is becoming increasingly important. 

In 2014, The Handbook of Solitude was published. One of my favorite chapters in the book is “Experiences of Solitude,” by James Averill and Louise Sundararajan. It is a chapter that acknowledges the potential negative experiences of solitude, such as loneliness and boredom, but has far more to say about what can make solitude so sweet. Here are six of the authors’insights. 

#1 There is a difference between authentic solitude, in which the experience of being alone is mostly positive, and pseudo-solitude, which feels mostly like loneliness. Do you know what it is? It’s choice: “…authentic solitude is typically based on a decision to be alone; in contrast, pseudo-solitude, in which loneliness predominates, involves a sense of abandonment or unwanted isolation.”

#2 Loneliness is not all negative. It can actually be part of an authentic solitude experience, as, for example, when people drift in and out of different feelings, including feelings of loneliness, when they are alone. Loneliness can also be motivating, as when it pushes people to figure out solutions to their problems. Only when loneliness dominates the experience of being alone and seems insurmountable does the experience get classified as pseudo-solitude. 

#3 Do we appreciate solitude more as we grow older? I don’t know of any definitive data on this, but the authors believe that we do, as did Einstein when he said, “I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in years of maturity.” Averill and Sundararajan believe that “the sentiment is true of many people of advanced age, who have learned to find solitude delicious but who are reluctant to admit the fact due to cultural prejudices.”

#4 How can we understand how some people come to be good at being alone and others just can’t handle it? Again, I don’t know any great data on that, but the authors point to the 20th century psychoanalyst, Donald Winnocott, who believed that experiences during infancy are important. As the authors explained, “he posited that only those people who as infants were free to explore and independently occupy themselves in the security of their mothers’ presence will as adults have the capacity to be alone.”

#5 It is possible to experience solitude vicariously – for example, through art or poetry. Certain portrayals of nature can be especially effective. 

#6 The kinds of opportunities we now have to experience solitude were largely missing in the past. “For example, in colonial America, young people were expected to establish a household as soon as they had the means to live independently. Within a household privacy was rarely