Hugh Miller

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An early human was a stone ax’s way of making a bow and arrow. We make the tool, then the tool remakes us.

A modern human was a radio’s way to build a computer.

Technology creates new kinds of human beings.

I don’t think any culture evolves. Cultures that block new technology stop changing. New tech reinvents us by modifying our environment, economy, and expectations. It dissolves cultural foundations, makes new ones and we just salute.

Because we are the assistant tech monkeys. 

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I began meditating a few months back and it feels very positive, even a bit transformative. That feeling is backed up empirically.

There are a number of interesting published studies on the effects of meditation but these two are amazing! Both have high strength of evidence. Here’s the minimum nutshell summary:

  1. Long term meditation alters brain anatomy in positive ways, such as larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter
  2. Meditation and yoga can rewrite our DNA and alter the gene expression of enduring trauma and stress correlates
The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter

Although the systematic study of meditation is still in its infancy, research has provided evidence for meditation-induced improvements in psychological and physiological well-being. Moreover, meditation practice has been shown not only to benefit higher-order cognitive functions but also to alter brain activity. Nevertheless, little is known about possible links to brain structure. Using high-resolution MRI data of 44 subjects, we set out to examine the underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation with different regional specificity (i.e., global, regional, and local). For this purpose, we applied voxel-based morphometry in association with a recently validated automated parcellation approach.

We detected significantly larger gray matter volumes in meditators in the right orbito-frontal cortex (as well as in the right thalamus and left inferior temporal gyrus when co-varying for age and/or lowering applied statistical thresholds). In addition, meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus. Both orbito-frontal and hippocampal regions have been implicated in emotional regulation and response control. Thus, larger volumes in these regions might account for meditators’ singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior. We further suggest that these regional alterations in brain structures constitute part of the underlying neurological correlate of long-term meditation independent of a specific style and practice. Future longitudinal analyses are necessary to establish the presence and direction of a causal link between meditation practice and brain anatomy.


Meditation and yoga can ‘reverse’ DNA reactions which cause stress, new study suggests 

There is considerable evidence for the effectiveness of mind–body interventions (MBIs) in improving mental and physical health, but the molecular mechanisms of these benefits remain poorly understood. One hypothesis is that MBIs reverse expression of genes involved in inflammatory reactions that are induced by stress. This systematic review was conducted to examine changes in gene expression that occur after MBIs and to explore how these molecular changes are related to health. We searched PubMed throughout September 2016 to look for studies that have used gene expression analysis in MBIs (i.e., mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, relaxation response, and breath regulation). Due to the limited quantity of studies, we included both clinical and non-clinical samples with any type of research design. Eighteen relevant studies were retrieved and analyzed. Overall, the studies indicate that these practices are associated with a downregulation of nuclear factor kappa B pathway; this is the opposite of the effects of chronic stress on gene expression and suggests that MBI practices may lead to a reduced risk of inflammation-related diseases. However, it is unclear how the effects of MBIs compare to other healthy interventions such as exercise or nutrition due to the small number of available studies. More research is required to be able to understand the effects of MBIs at the molecular level.

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Maps of History and Maps of the Future

By Hugh Miller

Perception and Prediction

Every perception is rooted in relativity. Every story, no matter how grand or subtle can be traced back to its author and their personal story. Every background has a background. Every measurement suppresses other measures to capture its sample of reality. Every given describes certain limits of what can be given as it dutifully fulfills its own prophecy.

A person without history has amnesia. Though surrounded by artifacts and traces of earlier life she is powerless to interpret them. Such a person looking on the ruins of a massive heroic sculpture exposed by digging isn’t an archeologist, but a dreamer. The unknown past becomes a personal narrative built to satisfy emotional needs and balance cultural accounts. No person is without a history for long because it is a nagging need and an essential frame for self-hood. It is the nature of that history, its quality, meaning, and function that hangs in the balance.

Let me define a History as a distinct community cultural memory, the canon of stories, facts, and myths that define that local community. HISTORY (all caps) is the collection, depersonalizing, and averaging out of these highly subjective, “personal” cultural Histories. It’s like describing a thousand people rather than a single person. The truths revealed are broad and average. Patterns appear. Their view is from overhead and people are smaller in scale. The story is likelier to be true in a general way but suffers a loss of narrative buy-in as it rises too far above ground level.

Our amnesiac’s problem resolves in a different kind of uncertainty if she goes to a historian for help because she will be sold a bill of goods. It’s a bit as if she’d consulted a private eye who delves into her past, and tells her what kind of person she ought to be or could be if she tried. Every historian has a model, a theory about humanity. These aren’t all equal in their depth or accuracy but they all fit someone’s bill of particulars. Even a very modest, even-handed HISTORY is a well ground ax.

Rolled up inside the skin of HISTORY is what people are, and what they are worth.

Every HISTORY is a product and has an implicit view of where the human story came from, where it stands currently and where it must go. Each HISTORY is a trajectory. We’ve got to hope our customer without a history has a critical temperament and lots of curiosity or she’s likely to accept the first story she hears or the first one that pleases her by smoothly blending into the story she already believes.

Nothing on Earth is more believable than the confirmation of our own biases. This dinky and far from complete article examines a few of the theories, paradigms, and trajectories she has to choose from. As she chooses, she accepts assumptions about the causes, meanings, and direction of her own life.

The Collapsed Golden Age:

Or: We have failed.

In The Annals, Tacitus pauses in his history of Rome to offer up one of the commonest myths of human history:

“Mankind in the earliest age lived without a single vicious impulse, without shame or guilt, and, consequently, without punishments and restraints. Rewards were not needed when everything right was pursued on its own merits; and as men desired nothing against morality, they were debarred from nothing by fear. When however they began to throw off equality, and ambition and violence usurped the place of self-control and modesty, despotisms grew up and became perpetual among many nations.”

Here we have the Golden Age and the great decline to modern man (the modern man of two millennia ago). It seems we have a latent image of ourselves as debauched weaklings in the shadow of the ancients. Never mind that the ancients stood a foot shorter and lived half as long. This Great Decline model seems like a somewhat mystical longing for the simplicity of the hunter/gatherer /free wandering life. Village and later city life will necessarily be set up differently; Cooperation will play a bigger part, and we must all dim the lights and sound of our true self in the name of getting along with strangers. The discontent of our current lives suggests a failure to honor some fundamental principle of our ancestor’s lives. The reality, of course, is that hunter-gatherer life WAS simple, pure and egalitarian compared to the complex and jarring existence we all adopted when we grouped together in huge numbers in the proto-cities of the neolithic revolution.

This basic story model can be pressed into the service of many different ends. Creative variations on this model include; Rousseau’s noble savage and Hitler’s Ice Giants for example.

By Our Own Bootstraps (or at least Grandpa’s Bootstraps)

Or: We’re succeeding!  

Charles Darwin chimes in from The Descent of Man

“To believe that man was aboriginally civilized and then suffered utter degradation in so many regions is to take a pitiably low view of human nature. It is apparently a truer and more cheerful view that progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion.”

How Victorian to stress the cheerfulness of one’s view of evolution! Every vision of the past and its implied story about the present and future supports cultural self-justification. No history will speak blatantly against the way its modern-day descendants are living. Part of the bargain we strike with our history is mutual forgiveness…or at least silence. The relationship can be like a family who are all painfully aware of “That Story” and wouldn’t dream of bringing it up.

Overcoming the Disgusting Weakness Built Into Us On Purpose by God (in His Mercy)

Or: You sinners are going toward God. Look sharp!

Holding Darwin’s map before a fun-house mirror we find St. Augustine holding its parallel ancestor, The City of God that will shape notions of cultural progress as a kind of self-improvement:

“The education of the human race…has advanced like that of an individual, through certain epochs or as it were, ages so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things and from the visible to the invisible…It was best, therefore, that the soul of man, which was still weakly desiring earthly things, should be accustomed to seek from God alone even these petty temporal boons…in order that the desire of even these things might not draw it aside from the worship of Him, to whom we come by despising and forsaking such things.”

Augustine finds the physical world loathsome yet cites examples of its beauty (in the form of flowers and plants) as evidence of God’s magnificence made manifest on earth. Oddly enough he sees none of this divinity in the beauty of women or the taste of good food (actually he did, but he wasn’t about to include that sort of thing in his official theology). Augustine was a self-indulgent man but a strict and unimaginative theologian.

The stamp of his thought-forms still marks “The West” not by people desiring the things of this world less but by respecting them less. Augustine’s criteria defining a deserving citizen of the city of god will eventually lead to the breaking of uncooperative bodies to release the indwelling spooks known as their immortal souls. Freed from the failure of their gross earthly selves they are fit at last to join his one dimensional “City of God”.

Even detesting this stuff as I do, I suspect that the overall impossible expectations placed on the Christian conscience lead some western minds to strain against their philosophical limits… leading toward a new vision of humanistic values. I believe there may have been a bit of a counter-intuitive payoff for humankind. It doesn’t hurt that this would have pissed off Augustine something awful.

God in Everything: Meaning in the Noise

Or: We are part of an amazing system.

Here is Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace:

“You say you can’t see a reign of goodness and truth on earth. Nor could I, and it cannot be seen if one looks on our life here as the end of everything. On earth, here, on this earth there is no truth, all is false and evil; but in the universe, in the whole universe, there is a kingdom of truth and we who are now the children of the earth are-eternally-children of the whole universe… Don’t I feel that I form one link, one step between the lower and higher beings in this vast, harmonious multitude of beings in whom the Supreme Power is manifest? If I see, clearly see, that ladder leading from plant to man, why should I suppose it breaks off at me and does not go farther and farther?”

Why indeed? Tolstoy has madly wedded Christianity to Darwinism but he has done it forthrightly, choosing what he wants, leaving what he does not. He will not be the first or the last to advance a kind of inspired evolutionary spirituality. I admit I feel somewhat at home in this vision. However, in the culture at large, it will never catch on. Making sense of a shotgun marriage of fundamentalist materialism and hard-rock religion is a big ask. The beauty in this idea is never revealed by coercion and social pressure, it must be discovered for oneself.

Pivoting into a New Paradigm

Augustine diminished humanity by hating and denying all that was animal in us. Early evolutionary science diminished us by denying all that was not.

In a cautious defense against the powerful, relentless forces of organized religion, the followers of Darwin advanced a sensible restriction: “We must not speculate beyond the data,” they say. Well, in the fossil record and the bodies of living organisms there is not the slightest evidence for or against divinity, using modern methods of detection. Solid scientific answers require a replicable experiment which always includes a means of relevant measuring. Continue reading

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Tardigrades, known colloquially as water bears or moss piglets, are a phylum of water-dwelling eight-legged segmented micro-animals. He may be scratching his back just like bears do with trees or he may be temporarily stuck to the little bubble because of surface tension, the physics of the microbial world are very different than those of our daily life.

They are one of the most structurally complex organisms of their size. They have brains, nerves, and even simple eyespots. That might not seem like much, but they are so tiny that amoebas are a mouthful to them, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for extra parts.

These little guys are believed to have survived every major extinction event on Earth. There’s more Tardigrade fun over here! (slightly NSFW)

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Not my writing or source. I thought their title was a bit much and rewrote it in Hugh language. This is an intriguing step toward creative innovation in artificial intelligence. To this point AI creativity has been sleight of hand, working within the “variety tolerances” of very complex algorithms. This is an interesting innovation but just the beginning.

And as usual, let’s hope they don’t kill us all.

Computers Evolve a New Path Toward Human Intelligence

Jeff Clune / Quanta Magazine

In 2007, Kenneth Stanley, a computer scientist at the University of Central Florida, was playing with Picbreeder, a website he and his students had created, when an alien became a race car and changed his life. On Picbreeder, users would see an array of 15 similar images, composed of geometric shapes or swirly patterns, all variations on a theme. On occasion, some might resemble a real object, like a butterfly or a face. Users were asked to select one, and they typically clicked on whatever they found most interesting. Once they did, a new set of images, all variations on their choice, would populate the screen. From this playful exploration, a catalog of fanciful designs emerged…

…One day Stanley spotted something resembling an alien face on the site and began evolving it, selecting a child and grandchild and so on. By chance, the round eyes moved lower and began to resemble the wheels of a car. Stanley went with it and evolved a spiffy-looking sports car. He kept thinking about the fact that if he had started trying to evolve a car from scratch, instead of from an alien, he might never have done it, and he wondered what that implied about attacking problems directly. “It had a huge impact on my whole life,” he said. He looked at other interesting images that had emerged on Picbreeder, traced their lineages, and realized that nearly all of them had evolved by way of something that looked completely different. “Once I saw the evidence for that, I was just blown away.”

Read on: Link to the article 

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