Buddhism vs Neuroscience: How did Buddhism get so much right?
I recently came across the article Buddhism and the Brain, in which the author (Dr. David Weisman – a Neurologist but not a Buddhist) discusses the significant overlap between ancient Buddhist understandings of the mind and our best modern understandings of Neuroscience. In fact, the overlap between Buddhism and science is not limited to just the realm of the brain. There are numerous parallels to Buddhism in the modern fields of cosmology and particle physics as well (for a deeper dive, I highly recommend the Dalai Lama’s book The Universe in a Single Atom). Dr. Weisman’s conclusion (with which I agree) is that the founders of Buddhism were fundamentally empiricists – they started with no preconceptions about how the world should work, but instead studied how it does work with an open mind and a willingness to be proven wrong.
The one place in which I disagree with Dr. Weisman’s article is in his hope that Buddhists will “allow neuroscience to render their idea of reincarnation obsolete.” The idea of reincarnation within Buddhism solves two fundamental human needs which science has not yet (and may never) be able to solve. The first, and most obvious, is the fear of death and the question of “where do we go after we die?” Science’s answer of “nowhere, you just cease to be” is unsatisfying to many (though not all) people.
The second need is less obvious, but much more problematic. This is the issue of “free will.” In a purely scientific understanding of the brain, there is no mechanism for free will. Our brains are entirely composed of atoms and molecules which obey the well-understood laws of chemistry and physics. Whether or not a single neuron fires is solely determined by the chemical and electrical inputs it receives. Although the combination of billions of these neurons acting in concert is far too complex for us to trace every possible pathway, in a deterministic universe, the behavior of every one of these pathways is entirely determined by the inputs it receives. Therefore, the brain as a whole operates in an entirely deterministic way based solely on the external factors operating on it from the environment.
With the advent of quantum mechanics, we now understand that the brain isn’t truly deterministic because of the probabilistic nature of quantum fluctuations within atoms. However, this just means that the actions of our brains (and thus the decisions we make) are a combination of deterministic and random. This still leaves no place for “free will” which has led some to conclude that free will does not actually exist and is merely an “illusion.”
The issue of needing free will is more fundamental than just satisfying people’s own personal belief that they have it. All societies are based on the principles of personal choice and responsibility. If free will is merely an illusion and does not actually exist, then we can no more praise Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi than we can vilify Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin or Pol Pot. Nobody can be said to be “responsible” for their actions – they are merely reacting to external forces.
The Buddhist concept of Vijñāna can solve the problem of free will while coexisting nicely with all of our modern understandings of the brain, chemistry and physics. The brain can be understood to follow all of the basic laws of science, but the Vijñāna exerts an undetectable influence over our brains which skews the quantum mechanical fluctuations of particles so that they are not purely random, but instead act in concert to influence our decisions and actions in a non-random way.
Unless, or until, science is able to explain the existence of free will (or to answer the question of how can we hold people responsible for their actions in the absence of free will), then there will always be a place for the “idea of reincarnation” within Buddhism.
Why Fiscal Conservatives Should Be Happy Today
What the supreme court upheld today was that the “individual mandate” is, legally speaking, a tax. In fact, it is exactly equivalent to the type of tax that fiscal conservatives want the social security and medicare taxes to become. (Think about it, it’s a tax where you pay into a public system, but you can opt out by paying your money into a private system instead – this is exactly the privatization of social security that Cato and Heritage have been pushing for!)
This is why the whole idea of an individual mandate for health insurance was invented by the Heritage Foundation in 1989 (it was originally created as an alternative to Clinton’s Single-Payer system) and not by the democrats. If Obama had any balls, he would have rammed through a public option, but instead, he decided to take a Republican plan and call it his own thinking (foolishly) that the Republicans couldn’t possibly slam him for promoting their own idea!
Personally, it doesn’t matter to me whether there is an individual mandate or not – I’m going to have health insurance either way – but I definitely approve of the idea of making taxes (in general, not just this one) more transparent (having tax money specifically ear-marked for particular purposes and not “dumped into the general pot”) and in having the ability to opt out of taxes if you can meet the same requirement through the private sector (think private school vouchers). If either Clinton or Obama had pushed through a single-payer system, there would be a huge republican movement to privatize it in exactly the way that the individual mandate does (think social security privatization). The only difference here is that we’re going directly to the Republican’s plan from the 1990’s without having to pass through the democrat’s plan from the 1990’s first…
Metacrap (or Why The Semantic Web Is a Pipe-Dream)
I read a couple of journal articles this afternoon on “the coming Semantic Web meta-utopia.” After I stopped laughing, I re-read Cory Doctorow’s piece from 2001 to see if all of his “insurmountable obstacles” were still relevant…. They are.
Metacrap (or Why The Semantic Web Is a Pipe-Dream) [PDF]
Welcome to the WaddellCast: The podcast where a fiscally-conservative, small-government Democrat discusses the issues.
In this episode, I discuss the importance of environmental protection and provide an effective and economically-efficient approach to it.
The theme song for the WaddellCast is Waterfall by Jeff Wahl. You can find this, and other great songs at Magnatune.com.
First of all, thank you to all of you who are listening to the WaddellCast for the first time. This is my third episode since I started last month. My goal is to publish 1 or 2 episodes each month. I have posted a list of topics on my website for future shows – please visit MWaddell.com and post any other topics that you would like me to address in this podcast.
Today, I would like to talk about environmental protection. In this episode, I will focus specifically on industrial pollution – I plan to address wildlife conservation, recycling and automobile pollution on future episodes.
Throughout the history of the industrialized world, mankind has been taking natural resources and producing waste products. As our population increases, our demands for manufactured products increases, and our methods of extracting natural resources and producing waste products become more efficient, we are putting an increasing strain on our world. In order to maintain a habitable planet, we must recognize that, as large as our world is, its size is still finite.
In the U.S., our current method of environmental protection is to allow each company to pollute at no cost up to a certain point, and any pollution above that level is forbidden. There are many problems with this current solution and I will address five of them here. First, because the limits are set on a per-company basis (or a per-factory basis, per-smokestack basis, etc.), they need to be modified as the number of companies changes. Second, the current laws and policies are unnecessarily complex and poorly enforced. The reason that they are poorly enforced is because of the third and forth problems with this system. Third, companies have a lot of lobbying power to make the pollution laws weak and to add numerous loopholes that can be exploited. And fourth, if companies are caught exceeding their pollution limits, they can use their massive legal departments to reduce their fines to a minimum. And finally, we are currently allowing companies to “pollute for free,” but all of the costs of enforcement are paid for by tax money. Shouldn’t the polluters be the ones who have to cover the financial burden of polluting instead of the us taxpayers?
The approach that I will present today for solving this problem utilizes two things that businesses understand very well and are highly motivated by: the free market and financial incentives. The free market (if left to its own devices) is poorly equipped to deal properly with environmental protection. This is because, unlike other raw materials (such as iron or wood), using up clean air or water is free. In a free market, whenever raw materials are offered at no cost, they will be overused. Currently, if a power plant pollutes the air, it is effectively “using up” clean air and “creating” dirty air as a waste by-product. And, as long as the plant uses up less clean air than some arbitrary level, they don’t pay anything for it. They are in effect “polluting for free.”
An alternate system for enforcing environmental protection that would be far more effective and economically-efficient that our current system would be to charge each polluter for all of the pollution that they put out. Companies would then have a great financial incentive to work hard to limit their use of these resources in order to save money – just as companies currently work hard to use all of their other raw materials more efficiently.
One common criticism of the idea of charging companies for their pollution is that it is morally wrong to sell “licenses to pollute.” My response to this criticism is two-fold. First of all, how is selling a license to pollute worse than allowing companies to pollute for free, as we do now? Secondly, I am not proposing that we allow a company to release an arbitrary amount of pollution as long as they pay some set rate for it (for example: $100 per cubic foot of mercury released into the water). I agree completely that this would be a bad idea.
Instead, I propose that we treat clean air and water as any other valuable commodity. The EPA would set a level for each pollutant that would be the acceptable level of that pollutant to be emitted per year for the entire country. Permits would be created for each pollutant in some fixed quantity. For example, if the acceptable limit for mercury pollution is 10,000 cubic feet per year, then 10,000 permits, each for 1 cubic foot of mercury polution, would be created. Those permits would be auctioned off at the beginning of each year, and the permits could be traded in the commodities market. At the end of the year, each company would have to give the EPA enough permits to cover all of the pollution that they emitted into the environment for the entire year. Each year, another set of permits would be issued and the cycle would repeat. The EPA would use the money made from the auction to monitor the pollution level of each company so that they would know at the end of the year how many permits each company needs to have. The more effectively they monitor and enforce the permits, the fewer companies will try to get away with polluting beyond the number of permits they own, and, in turn, the more valuable the permits become. The more valuable the permits become, the larger the EPA’s budget for the next year. Thus, the EPA has a great incentive to do their job well, because if they are lax in their enforcement, then fewer companies will bother to buy permits and the EPA’s budget will go down. In fact, environmental groups could easily monitor how well the EPA is enforcing each type of pollution by simply reading the commodities section of the Wall Street Journal!
The advantages of this plan are numerous. For example, because the total amount of pollution is fixed by the number of permits sold, this amount does not need to be adjusted if the total number of polluting companies changes dramatically. Second, the EPA can gradually reduce the number of permits they sell each year, which will result in a reduction in the overall pollution. Third, environmental groups have an easy way to directly reduce pollution. They can raise money to buy up permits that they have no intention of using. This will effectively reduce the number of permits available to businesses. Fourth, this plan is very economically efficient because the money spent to reduce pollution will be spent by those companies who can reduce their emissions the most for the least cost. Fifth, all companies will have a financial incentive to reduce their emissions throughout the year because they can likely sell their unused permits at a profit later in the year to companies that were formed after the auction and need to purchase permits before the end of the year. Under our current plan, companies that are compliant with the emissions laws have no incentive to further reduce their emissions.
The only disadvantage that I can see someone bringing up with respect to this plan is that it is possible that a few companies will buy the majority of the permits and be allowed to emit a large amount of pollution in a few specific locations. My answer to this disadvantage is five-fold. First, having a few companies that produce that majority of our pollution is already what happens under our current system, so we would be no worse off than we are now. Second, because these major polluters would be forced to pay for all of their pollution, they would have a greater financial incentive than they do now to reduce their emissions. Third, the type of pollution released by these major polluters would be the primary target of environmental groups buying up permits to prevent their use. Fourth, because much of the pollution would be located in a few small areas, enforcement would be less costly and a portion of the EPA’s budget could go to cleaning up those specific areas. Finally, this entire plan could easily be implemented state-by-state instead of having one set of permits for the entire country. For reasons of ease of implementation and economic efficiency, I believe that having a single set of permits for the entire country is preferable, but I concede that a plan where each state issues it’s own set of permits may be more politically acceptable.
Another major advantage to this system of environmental protection is that it is much simpler to implement than the complex set of statues and policies currently in effect. Plus, in this system there would be no loopholes (like there are now). Currently, if a company can convince their senator or representative that it would be too hard for their company to meet the EPA’s guidelines, they are likely to get an exemption. Under this market-based system, a company’s only recourse for not reducing their emissions would be to buy more permits. This would increase the overall demand for permits and raise their price accordingly. If the company cannot afford to buy enough permits at this higher price, then they will become unprofitable and go out of business – just like any other company that cannot make enough profit to cover its cost of raw materials. If they were able to convince their senator or congressman that they should be given special treatment, the only aid they could be given would be tax credits to help offset the cost of purchasing extra permits. (I will discuss this, and other types of corporate welfare in a future episode.)
Finally, I want to make clear that this plan does not sell permits for all pollutants. There are some types of pollution where the only acceptable level of pollution is zero (for instance, dumping arsenic in the water supply). For these types of pollution there are no permits sold, they are simply banned completely. Also, there are some pollutants that cannot be accurately measured and thus cannot have permits issued for them. However, under our current system, you cannot enforce pollution limits on these unmeasurable pollutants anyhow, so we are no worse off under this new system. Also, once a measurement technology becomes available, it will be simple to begin selling permits for this new pollutant as well. Since the EPA would get their funding based solely on the sales of permits, they would have a great financial incentive to develop measurement technologies for pollutants that are currently unmeasurable.
At this point, I would like to make two notes on what I have been calling the “EPA” throughout this episode. First of all, the EPA must get 100% of its funding through the sale of permits in order for it to have adequate incentives to enforce the permits effectively. It has been estimated that, if implemented correctly, this plan would provide the EPA with 5-6 times its current annual budget – and none of that would be from taxpayers! Secondly, (because I really dislike monopolies), I would personally prefer that the “EPA” actually be a group of environmental organizations that all compete for the proceeds from the sale of permits – where the organization that is most effective at enforcement of a certain pollutant would receive the proceeds from the sale of the permits for that pollutant. However, I am willing to concede this as a possible future step, since I know that breaking up the EPA into a group of smaller organizations would be a very unpopular idea politically.
Although I said at the beginning of this episode that I would not discuss automobile pollution until a future show, I would like to point out that this permit system could be applied easily to automobiles in one of two ways. One option would be to require car owners to purchase permits for all of the pollution that their car emits instead of the emissions tests that many cities now require in order to renew a car’s registration. The second option would be to require permits for the suppliers of gasoline and diesel: either the gas stations themselves, or the producers of these petroleum products.
The plan that I have presented today is not a new idea, and I can’t take credit for inventing it. If you would like to explore this plan in more detail, I highly recommend Alan Blinder’s excellent book “Hard Heads, Soft Hearts.” This is an incredibly readable economics primer for anyone interested in the disconnect between politics and economics. In chapter 5, Alan discusses this approach to environmental protection in more detail than I have provided today, and he proves how using this approach will achieve a cleaner environment for a much smaller economic cost to society as a whole.
Thank you for joining me for this episode of the WaddellCast. As always, you can contact me with any questions, comments or constructive criticism you may have by visiting my website at mwaddell.com.
Welcome to the WaddellCast!
Welcome to the first “official” episode of The WaddellCast: The podcast where a fiscally-conservative, small-government Democrat discusses the issues.
In this episode, I introduce this new podcast and follow-up on the “Economics for Righties” segment that I released earlier this month.
The theme song for the WaddellCast is Waterfall by Jeff Wahl. You can find this, and other great songs at Magnatune.com.
As you may have already noticed, the first episode of this podcast was a rebuttal to a couple episodes of the podcast Quick Hitts. I had so much fun putting that piece together that I decided to make my own podcast. So, first of all, let me thank Dave Hitt of the Quick Hitts podcast for inspiring me to start the WaddellCast.
So, by now you’re probably wondering what “The WaddellCast” is going to be. Well, let me first tell you what it is not going to be. Although I was originally inspired to create this podcast by Quick Hitts, this podcast will not just be a rebuttal to each episode of Quick Hitts.
As the tagline for this podcast indicates, this will be a show where I discuss issues from the perspective of a fiscally-conservative, small-government Democrat. What exactly is a “fiscally-conservative, small-government Democrat?”
Well, first off, all of us who want a small-government, whether we are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, etc., believe in the statement by Thomas Jefferson: “That government is best which governs least.” In other words, we want to limit the role of government to only those things which we absolutely need the government to provide in order to have a stable, functioning society. One way to limit the power of government is by limiting its spending power. Those who believe that the government must exercise prudence in spending and debt are referred to as “fiscal conservatives.”
Because all small-government fiscal-conservatives share these 2 main beliefs, we could all be considered Libertarian-leaning, or minarchist. However, there are considerable differences of opinion in how you define the statement “only those things which we absolutely need the government to provide in order to have a stable, functioning society.” It is because of how I answer this question that I consider myself a Democrat and not a Republican.
I believe that corporate welfare is a greater danger to our society than is social welfare. I believe that environmental protection is essential to our long-term survival. I believe that our civil liberties are more threatened by our government than are our economic liberties. I believe that the war on drugs is just as failed as was the 1920’s prohibition on alcohol. Finally, I believe that accessible education for everyone is the best way to ensure both our democracy and our global economic competitiveness.
Although these beliefs may sound fairly mainstream Democratic, it is in how I propose to address these issues that makes me a small-government fiscal-conservative. It is this exploration – how to address these democratic goals while reducing the size and cost of our government – that will be the focus of this podcast.
In the “Economics for Righties” segment, I addressed 2 issues very briefly: Social Security and Supply-Side economics. I plan to address these issues in more depth in future episodes. However, I did want to follow-up briefly on the email response that I got from Dave Hitt regarding this segment.
First off, Dave correctly points out that his “Economics for Lefties” segment did not mention supply-side economics, although it did deal with tax-cuts in general. However, in the introduction to “Economics for Righties,” I stated that economic misunderstanding is just as prevalent among “Righties” as it is among “Lefties.” I was using supply-side economics as an example of a concept that I believe “Righties” are greatly mistaken about.
At this point, I should pause to explain the terms “Righties” and “Lefties.” These were terms that Dave Hitt uses in his podcast to describe the extremists of the two major political parties. I am using them in this episode because of that – I will most likely not use these terms in future episodes.
Dave’s rationale for why supply-side economics supposedly works is “If someone gets more money to spend or invest, that goes into the general economy and helps people out.” Unfortunately, this statement doesn’t support supply-side economics because any tax cuts will have this effect. Whatever money the government gives out will end up in the general economy, no matter who it is given to. The government could add money to the general economy just as well by spending that money themselves on government employees and contracts (as long as it is spent domestically).
Dave then provides 2 examples that he claims “prove” that supply-side economics has worked in the past. First of all, he mentions the Luxury Tax that Bush Sr. signed into law. The result of putting a 10% tax on luxury purchases was many of the rich simply bought their luxury items overseas and the domestic companies suffered as a result. However, this example doesn’t prove that taxing the rich is bad for the economy, it just proves that it is bad for certain industries. Whenever a certain product becomes more expensive relative to other similar products, that event shifts where people spend their money. If Congress taxed California wines, people would buy more of their wines from Oregon instead. If Congress taxed all wines made in the U.S., then people would buy more wine from overseas. Any tax is going to hurt the overall economy because people have less of their own money to spend, but when you preferentially tax one item over another, you are just shifting business from one group of people to the other – there is not necesarily any overall benefit or detriment to the economy as a whole.
Dave’s second example is an article on how Bush Jr.’s 2003 investment tax cut package reduced the capital gains tax rate from 20% to 15%. As a result of this, there were twice as many capital gains realizations in 2005 as in 2002. This resulted in an increase in tax revenues in 2005 despite the lower tax rate. However, again, this doesn’t prove that supply-side economics works. When capital gains tax rates were reduced, you had a huge number of people dumping stocks that they had been holding onto because of this lowered intrest rate. Generally you see major dumping of loss stocks just before the end of the fiscal year so people have a tax writeoff. Here, you see a major dumping of gain stocks because of the lowered tax rate. This does not reflect an overall increase in stock market investment or stock prices and thus is not necessarily a sustainable effect.
Finally, Dave pointed out that insurance is a method of sharing the risk for an event that may or may not happen and he still maintains that social security is fundamentally a Ponzi scheme and not a poorly-run insurance plan. And now a word from our sponsor…
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In the next couple of days, I will be posting a list of topics that I am planning on addressing in future episodes, as well as a list of other podcasts that I subscribe to and recomend, to my website. These will not appear in the podcast feed, so please visit mwaddell.com to view these lists and to add your ideas and suggestions.
As always, you can contact me with any questions, comments or constructive criticism you may have by visiting my website at mwaddell.com.
Economics for Righties!
I recently came across Quick Hitts thanks to a promo on Skepticality. Overall, I think that Quick Hitts is a great podcast, however after listening to the 2 “for Lefties” episodes [1, 2], something bothered me. That something is that Lefties clearly do not have a monopoly on economic misunderstanding – there’s more than enough of that to go around! In that vein, I present:
Economics for Righties!
Supply-side economics, also known as “trickle-down economics” by President Reagan, “voodoo economics” by President George Bush the First, and simply as “economics” by President George W. Bush, is the theory that if we give tax breaks that primarily benefit the wealthy, that they will use this money in a way that will grow the overall economy and help everyone.
This sure sounds nice, doesn’t it. Unfortunately, the real world just doesn’t work that way.
A businessman with any economic sense knows that the only reason to add an extra dollar to his company is if he can make a profit on that dollar. How much money he has sitting in his personal bank account has absolutely no bearing on the answer to that question. In fact, a smart businessman won’t invest extra money in his business if he could make more on it just by investing in an index fund.
If you want to encourage business growth, all you need to do is lower the interest rates on business loans. Now, the decision on whether to grow the business is not “will this money I’m investing make more than an index fund?,” but instead “will this money I’m investing make more than the interest rate that I’m borrowing it at?”
So, if personal finances don’t enter into a business’s investment decisions, then maybe supply-side economics works because if you give the rich tax cuts, they’ll go buy new yachts and help create jobs at the local yacht manufacturer? Unfortunately, this argument doesn’t work either because the rich spend a very small fraction of their wealth compared to the poor. If we want to increase consumer spending, we should give those tax breaks to the poor, who spend almost all of their money on consumer goods anyway.
If Righties want to give tax breaks to the rich because they think the rich pay too high of a tax rate and they want to make the tax flatter, or just because the rich helped them win that last election, then they should at least have the decency to say so and not try to pass their tax cuts off as something that they’re not.
In the episode Social Security for Lefties, Dave discussed how Social Security is a very poorly-run retirement plan, and could even be described as a Ponzi scheme.
So, what exactly is a Ponzi scheme? According to Wikipedia,
“A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that involves paying abnormally high returns to investors out of the money paid in by subsequent investors, rather than from net revenues generated by any real business…. The high returns that a Ponzi scheme advertises require an ever-increasing flow of money from investors in order to keep the scheme going.”
Does that sound like Social Security to you? When I think of Social Security, I definitely don’t think of “abnormally high returns on your investment.”
So, what exactly is Social Security? We already know that it is not a retirement plan, because if you die before you retire, you don’t get any benefits. So what is it then?
Well, with Social Security, you have a system where a group of people pay regular premiums and when a certain situation occurs, they get a pay-out, if that situation never occurs, they get nothing. You know what? That sounds like an insurance plan to me! In fact, that’s just what Social Security is – it is an insurance plan which pays out in case you become too old to work or you become disabled and cannot work.
That all sounds like a pretty good idea, right? However, just like everything else run by the government, social security is a very, very poorly-run insurance plan. The government has made it way too easy to qualify for benefits which is why it is having financial problems right now.
So, remember “Social Security is not a terrible retirement plan, it’s a terrible insurance plan!” Let’s just be clear what it is that we’re trying to fix.
If this podcast taught you just a little bit you didn’t know before, or helped you understand a different point of view, congratulations, you’ve been Smartenized! [For those of you who didn’t go listen to the relevant Quick Hitts podcasts before reading this page, this sentance is how Dave Hitt ends every Quick Hitts episode.]
If you would like to contact me, please visit my website at mwaddell.com.
If you would like to contact Dave, you can contact him at davehitt.com.
The Internet: Bridging the Gap
In 1959, C. P. Snow wrote an essay entitled The Two Cultures in which he illustrated how the scientific intellectuals and the literary intellectuals belong to two very distinct groups that do not inter-communicate. Although some have argued that there is a third culture developing in our modern society to help bridge this gap, I feel that there is still a lot to be done. A bridge of mutual understanding does not yet exist. An important factor in the existence of this gap is the very idea of an intellectual. The elite of any field of study are those who understand a subject that is very difficult for the common person to grasp. Those who attempt to explain the intricacies of their area of specialty on a level that everyone can understand are shunned by the rest of their community for belittling or oversimplifying the important concepts. Stephen Jay Gould explains, in a tribute to Carl Sagan, that “[t]his narrow-minded error — our own Philistinism — arises in part from our general ignorance of the long and honorable tradition of popular presentation of science, and our consequent mistake in equating popularization with trivialization, cheapening, or inaccuracy. Great scientists have always produced the greatest popularizations, without compromising the integrity of subject or author” (Gould).
Because of the popularly held view that ideas on the frontiers of knowledge are untouchable to all but the most elite, many people never attempt to understand even the most basic fundamentals of these areas. These areas are passed off as “too hard” or “too confusing.” Very few people take the time to understand and appreciate the fundamentals of many areas of study — the same basic concepts that the intellectual elite within that area take for granted. This apathy towards understanding challenging, engaging subjects reflects a generally-held, but misguided value system. The nightly news alerts us that our high-school seniors are falling shockingly behind those in other countries in some of the more basic realms of knowledge such as math, geography and science. Many people are all too content to say “So what?” or to argue that the students in those countries have no social life and are depressingly behind the U.S. in high-school basketball.
This illiteracy in some of the more basic realms of knowledge is not limited only to high-school students. “In American polls in the early 1990s, two-thirds of all adults had no idea what the ‘information superhighway’ was; 42 percent didn’t know where Japan is; and 38 percent were ignorant of the term ‘holocaust.’ But the proportion was in the high 90s who had heard of the Menendez, Bobbitt, and O. J. Simpson criminal cases; 99 percent had heard that the singer Michael Jackson had allegedly sexually molested a boy. The United States may be the best-entertained nation on Earth, but a steep price is being paid” (Sagan, 376).
I know that there are people in this country who, from a very young age, have felt stifled in their individual quests for knowledge — I am one of them. My hope is that the Internet will be a place where those people can venture beyond the limits of their classroom education and where those who have long since left the classroom can learn that it’s never too late to find inspiration in the wonders of the world. I hope that the Internet will provide an atmosphere where both of these groups can find challenge and intrigue in the countless realms of knowledge available to them.
Gould, Stephen Jay. “Bright Star Among Billions.” Science 275 31 Jan. 1997: 599.
Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World. New York: Random House, 1996.
Complexité Simple: Le Petit Prince par Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Traduction par Cyril Giron
“Dans ce livre, le mélange de fantaisie, de satire, de philosophie, de poésie, de science, d’imagination et de naiveté enfantine peut aussi bien atteindre les coeurs et les esprits des ‘grandes personnes’ que ceux des ‘enfants’, à travers seulement quatre-vingt-douze courtes pages”. Voici comment Anne Dodd tente de décrire un livre qui ne s’inscrira jamais dans une quelconque catégorie. Cette aventure mystique commence quand Saint-Exupéry fait un atterrissage forcé dans le Désert du Sahara. Apparaît alors un jeune visiteur blond qui demande à l’aviateur de lui dessiner un mouton. Voyageur en provenance d’un petit astéroide, le petit prince décrit son voyage vers la Terre et ses expériences vécues dessus. L’histoire prend fin avec le départ du petit prince de la Terre, un an après son arrivée. Les critiques sont d’accord pour dire que Le Petit Prince est écrit comme un livre pour enfants mais peut être analysé à de nombreux différents niveaux.
Pour commencer, Henri Peyre décrit l’oeuvre tel un conte à l’écriture pure et aux dialogues très simples. La dédicace montre même que le livre parle directement aux enfants. Mais peut-être est-il nécessaire de préciser ce mot : on n’est pas défini comme ‘enfant’ ou ‘adulte’ par son âge, mais par son état d’esprit. Peut-être vaut-il mieux expliquer que c’est une histoire pour enfants, mais qui ne leur est pas spécifiquement destinée.
L’histoire du petit prince prend place à différents niveaux, tant un conte ressemblant à d’aussi grands travaux qu’ Alice au Pays des Merveilles ou que les Voyages de Gulliver. Saint-Exupéry explique l’importance de voir au-delà de la superficialité en commençant son livre avec l’histoire sur les dessins de boas ouverts et de boas fermés. Plus tard, il relate l’histoire de l’astronome Turc qui découvre la maison du petit prince, l’Astéroide B-612. Quand il présente sa découverte au Congrès International d’Astronomie, vêtu de son comique costume Turc, personne ne le croît. L’Homme n’a pas appris à voir au-delà de la superficialité des choses, ou alors il a oublié. Parce que les adultes ne regardent pas à l’intérieur des choses, ils ne connaîtront jamais les autres ou eux-mêmes.
L’idée que l’homme est seul dans le monde incite Martin Heidegger à considéer Le Petit Prince comme “un des grands livres existentialiste de ce siècle”. Toute sa vie, Saint-Exupéry a pensé que les grandes personnes ne se préoccupent que de choses inconséquentes et sont très sots lorsqu’il s’agit de parler de choses importantes. Il n’a jamais rencontré personne avec qui il puisse discuter de ce qui est réellement important.
A travers son livre, Saint-Exupéry enseigne l’importance de regarder au-delà d’une vision superficielle pour trouver la vraie beauté. Analysé à un niveau instructif, son livre pose une mystérieuse question sur les choses communes en montrant ce qu’il y a derrière. Les choses visibles sont seulement des coquillages dans lesquels est masquée la véritable beauté, qui est à l’intérieur. Suite à la leçon du renard nous disant qu’on ne peut voir ce qui est important uniquement en regardant avec son coeur, Saint-Exupéry quitte le désert transformé. Il est d’accord avec la réflexion du petit prince : “les étoiles sont belles à cause d’une fleur que l’on ne voit pas”.
Saint-Exupéry, l’auteur, nous apprend aussi comment aimer — la seule façon de dépasser le blocage existentiel entre les hommes. “L’amour, pour Saint-Exupéry, n’est pas un problème de choix, c’est une question de conséquence; en fait, c’est une façon de survivre. Les hommes doivent apprendre à s’aimer les uns les autres ou périr”. L’amour est ce qui donne à la vie sa raison d’être. L’amour du petit prince pour sa rose est tellement important pour lui que l’aviateur ému commente:
“Ce qui m’émeut si fort de ce petit prince endormi, c’est sa fidélité pour une fleur, c’est l’image d’une rose qui rayonne en lui comme la flamme d’une lampe, même quand il dort…”.
Son amour donne à sa vie un sens et une direction.
Le renard apprend au petit prince comment aimer — une leçon pour nous tous. C’est le temps que l’on ‘gâche’ pour quelque chose ou quelqu’un qui le rend important. C’est le renard qui nous dit comment l’amour dépasse l’existentialisme: “on ne connaît que les choses que l’on apprivoise…. les hommes achètent des choses toutes faites chez les marchands. Mais comme il n’existe point de marchands d’amis, les hommes n’ont plus d’amis”. La joie et le plaisir ne doivent être ni donnés ni reçus, comme la joie que l’eau du puit donne au petit prince et au pilote. Sa douceur est “née de la marche sous les étoiles, du chant de la poulie, de l’effort de ses bras”.
Le Petit Prince peut aussi être analysé comme une satire. Il présente une caricature des préoccupations des hommes avec leurs inutiles passe-temps, richesse et pouvoir. Ce sont ces caractéristiques humaines qui font que l’homme “manque les choses essentielles dans la vie : la beauté, l’amour et l’amitié”.
Saint-Exupéry méprise l’alcoolisme comme unique activité. La logique ‘qui se mord la queue’ du buveur montre la stupidité de cette activité. Le buveur explique au petit prince pourquoi il boit:
“Pour oublier quoi?” s’enquit le petit prince qui déjà le plaignait.
“Pour oublier que j’ai honte” avoua le buveur en baissant la tête.
“Honte de quoi?” s’informa le petit prince qui désirait le secourir.
“Honte de boire!” acheva le buveur qui s’enferma définitivement dans le silence.
Saint-Exupéry méprise aussi l’obsession de l’homme pour la richesse et la puissance, ceci à travers le Roi et le Businessman. Le roi apporte une grande importance au fait d’être obéi quand les ordres sont tels qu’ils ne pouvaient qu’être réalisés. Le businessman juge important, lui, de posséder toutes les étoiles, un collectionneur trop occupé à les compter pour tirer un quelconque plaisir de leur beauté. Le petit prince essaie de faire valoir son point de vue, en expliquant que les étoiles ne peuvent être possédées, il ne leur apporte rien. Le petit prince dit alors qu’il possède une fleur et trois volcans. Le fait qu’il les possède et qu’il en prend soin leur fait du bien. Le businessman n’aide pas les étoiles.
Le petit prince méprise également la fascination de l’homme pour la science et la technologie. Philip Mooney nous dit que “la technologie en soi-même ne peut jamais apporter de bonheur humain car elle ne peut pas plus créer de relations humaines que révéler une personne à une autre”. Cette apathie est illustrée par l’histoire de l’aiguilleur. Des tas et des tas de passagers font route dans des directions differentes, ne sachant jamais vraiment ce qu’ils cherchent et où ils vont.
En dernier lieu, on peut analyser Le Petit Prince comme une profession de foi. L’oeuvre a été appelé une ‘transposition en conte de certains épisodes de la vie du Christ’. Le petit prince arrive sur Terre, dans le désert sous ‘son’ étoile pendant une période de conflit spirituel. Il est réputé être sans maladie, même face au serpent, un symbole biblique du diable. Comme Christ dans le temple, il surprend l’auteur par sa précocité. Il reconnaît immédiatement le dessin du boa fermé et sait que l’auteur a réparé son moteur avant que Saint-Exupéry le lui ait dit. Quand l’auteur arrive à cours d’eau dans le désert, le petit prince le guide ‘miraculeusement’ vers un puit de village -même si ils sont au milieu du désert sans aucun village en vue. Au puit, ils partagent leur ‘dernier dîner’ et le petit prince donne à l’auteur une leçon très similaire au très Chrétien ‘Aimez-vous les uns les autres’. Le moment du départ du petit prince de la Terre est prémédité. Il dit à l’auteur qu’il aura l’air d’être mort, mais qu’il vivra. Le petit prince se sacrifie lui-même à cause de son amour pour toute l’humanité. Quand l’auteur ne trouve plus le corps du petit prince au lever du jour, il sait que le petit prince est retourné sur sa planéte “paradisiaque”, le quittant avec une sorte de ‘fantôme sacré’ — son étoile au paradis et dans sa mémoire. il laisse aussi à l’aviateur son ‘Gospel à réécrire et à transmettre’.
La magnifique et poétique description de la mort du petit prince par l’auteur aviateur illustre sa foi en une vie dans l’Au-Delà. Le petit prince, laissant son ‘corps’ derrière, est parti vers l’endroit le plus beau qu’il puisse imaginer — son étoile et son amour — son propre petit paradis.
Is There a Relationship Between Learning and Neurochemical Changes in Rodents?
“Memory refers to an organized collection of representations of events and of relationships between events. The formation of sensory or mnemonic representations is the result of a process of internalization of the properties of the world…” (Doyère et al. 1993). But just how are these representations encoded in the brain on a chemical level? This is the question that I asked when I began researching. But there is a problem with this research question – how does one study a memory? Memories are very complex and multifarious things; it would be impossible to isolate one type of memory to study. It would also be impossible to control how an event is represented as a memory and even whether or not a memory has been formed. Therefore, I modified my research question slightly to a form that is more realistically studied: “What is the relationship between learning and changes in neurochemistry in rodents?”
This topic is of particular interest to me and to the field of psychology because the knowledge of how learning takes place in rodents would help give researchers a starting point in the quest to discover how higher order thinking is represented on a neurochemical level in humans and our closer relatives. Learning and the formation of memories are very basic – and essential – functions of the brain. Imagine how useless the brain would be if it could never retain anything that one has experienced. Incoming stimuli would be meaningless because they couldn’t be related to previous stimuli. But what kind of changes lead to learning and the formation of memories? This article will address part of this question: whether or not these changes are neurochemical changes – either partially or entirely.
In the studies that I found, learning refers to classical conditioning or active avoidance learning. Classical conditioning is the learned association between two paired stimuli – for instance a tone and a footshock – in which the unconditioned response (UCR) to the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) will be elicited by a previously neutral stimulus (NS) after the conditioning (Tocco et al. 1992). A slight variation to classical conditioning that is used in one study is called differential classical conditioning. In this case, the subject is randomly presented two stimuli – a reinforced stimulus (CS+) and a nonreinforced stimulus (CS-). In the case of the tone and footshock, two tones of different frequencies would be randomly presented, but the footshock would only follow one of the two. The subject learns to discriminate between the two stimuli as only one of them predicts the footshock (Edeline et al. 1990). Active avoidance learning refers to the learning to avoid a punishment that is consistently presented a few seconds after a stimulus. This type of learning involves more participation on the part of the subject than classical conditioning because now, instead of the response being unconditioned, the subject must discover how to avoid the punishment and actively perform this behavior when the stimulus is presented (Pöǧün et al. 1992).
Pöǧün et al. 1992
This study was conducted to investigate how the level of D2 receptor binding changes in a rat’s brain following active avoidance learning. Seven areas of the brain were studied for changes in binding: the cerebellum, hippocampus, corpus striatum, frontal lobe, occipital lobe, parietal lobe, and temporal lobe. Active avoidance learning was used on the experimental group with a tone preceding a footshock and a vertical pole as an area safe from the shock. The control group received identical learning trials except that the pole was removed. This corrected for any changes that were due to classical conditioning and not active avoidance learning. Chemical tests were used at the termination of the experiment to determine the level of D2 receptor binding in different parts of the brain in the two groups. The results of this experiment showed an increase in D2 receptor binding in the experimental group over the control group only in the hippocampus and the corpus striatum.
In this study, only the D2 receptor binding was studied. So although there appears to be a causal relationship between learning and D2 receptor binding, this knowledge may be useless. One reason for this is that the level of D2 binding and the availability of dopamine are inversely related (Pöǧün et al. 1992). Therefore it may be that the availability of dopamine is affected by learning and the level of dopamine affects D2 receptor binding. In this case, variations in D2 receptor binding would be just a “byproduct” of the changes that take place during learning. A flaw that I found with this study deals with the experimental procedure. Although the rats were divided up randomly into two groups, the groups were not treated equally. The rats that were to undergo active avoidance learning were kept in an enriched environment for 100 days prior to the learning trials whereas the control group was kept in a standard environment for the 100 days prior to the trials (Pöǧün et al. 1992). This created a preexisting difference between the groups – a second variable that isn’t dealt with. Because of this confound, the results of this study cannot show a causal relationship between learning and D2 receptor binding.
Tocco et al. 1992
This research studies the regional changes in binding of the NMDA and AMPA receptors following nictitating membrane (NM) classical conditioning. The rabbits were divided up into 3 groups: rabbits in group I were conditioned classically with the CS being a tone, the NS being an air puff and the UCR being NM and eyelid response; those in group II received pseudoconditioning where their conditioning trials were identical to the rabbits in group I except that the NS and UCS were unpaired; and the rabbits in group III received no handling. Tritiated AMPA, CNQX and TCP were used to study binding through autoradiography (locating a radiolabel within a solid specimen by exposure to a layer of detector material) with a tritium-sensitive film. The results of this study showed no difference between groups II and III, illustrating that any experiment-related stress did not affect the results. In group I, there was an increase in AMPA binding in the hippocampus and a decrease in CNQX binding in the hippocampus after classical conditioning. There was no difference between any of the three groups in TCP binding nor any significant difference in binding of the three chemicals in any other areas of the brain.
In analyzing this study, it is important to understand the chemicals involved and their roles. NMDA and AMPA are two subtypes of glutamate receptors. TCP is a ligand that binds specifically to the NMDA receptors. AMPA is an agonist for the AMPA receptors whereas CNQX is an antagonist for the AMPA receptors. With this knowledge, this study clearly shows that classical conditioning leads to an increase in the binding of the AMPA receptors in the hippocampus and no modification of the binding of the NMDA receptors. The fact that the agonist binding is increased while the antagonist binding is decreased suggests a modification of the configuration of the AMPA receptors during classical conditioning – not a change in the number of binding sites. This is because a change in the number of binding sites would push both AMPA and CNQX binding in the same direction while maintaining the same ratio between them – not in opposite directions like the results of this study showed (Tocco et al., 1992). This knowledge that learning involves a change in configuration and not just a change in number of receptors suggests possible future experiments: What is the spatial change in configuration (as opposed to the quantitative one)? Are these changes consistent over time, and if not, how do they change with time? Will extinction of the classical conditioning reverse these changes?
Edeline et al. 1990
The purpose of these investigations was to test the retention of learning induced changes formed during classical conditioning. Differential classical conditioning sessions were held for two groups with the CS+ being a 1 kHz tone and the CS- being a 7kHz tone for one group. The second group received the same two tones, but with the opposite frequency corresponding to the CS+ and the CS-. The UCS was a footshock for both groups and the UCR was any neurochemical responses. Extinction sessions were held forty-five days after discriminatory classical conditioning. Responses in the hippocampus, medial geniculate and auditory cortex were recorded throughout the habituation, conditioning and extinction sessions. On the first day of conditioning, the hippocampus showed no difference in response to the CS+ versus the CS-. The response to the CS+ progressively increased above that for the CS- throughout the twelve days of conditioning. On the first day of extinction, the CS+ response in the hippocampus was considerably larger than the almost imperceptible CS- response, and by the second day of extinction, there was absolutely no response to the CS-. These same responses were also shown in the auditory cortex. In the magnocellular nucleus of the medial geniculate body (MGm), the CS+ was much greater than the CS- response from the first day, and neither one changed throughout the conditioning trials. On the first and second days of the extinction, the CS+ response was less than during conditioning, but present, whereas the CS- response was nonexistent.
In these experiments, the MGm showed markedly faster effects than the other two areas studied, but it showed no increase in response after more conditioning trials like the other two areas, and it also showed a decrease in response from the last day of conditioning until the first day of extinction (Edeline et al., 1990). This shows the MGm’s ability to quickly distinguish between two stimuli, but that its discriminatory response is also the first one to erode with time. These properties may lead to evidence that the MGm is responsible for certain types of learning that are initiated very quickly such as the development of phobias. This study suggests that the changes caused by learning are not associated with one particular structure that is designed for long-term storage of information – but rather with many of the structures of the brain where changes can be detected during learning. This is a valuable piece of knowledge in understanding the workings of the brain – memory is not centralized like in a computer, but rather it is localized in multiple areas of the brain.
Hennevin et al. 1993
The purpose of this study was to determine whether or not neurons in the medial geniculate nucleus (MG) respond to a conditioned tone during paradoxical sleep. Rats were divided up into two groups – a conditioned group and a pseudoconditioned group. The conditioned group received classical conditioning in which the UCS was a footshock, the NS was a tone and the UCR was the response of the MG neurons. The rats were then presented the same tones during paradoxical sleep. The results of this study show that during conditioning the level of evoked discharges in the MG increased above the baseline, whereas there was no change in the pseudoconditioned group.
This study showed the responsiveness of the MG during classical conditioning by studying the evoked discharges that take place during classical conditioning. This confirms some of the findings that Edeline et al. (1990) made regarding the changes that take place in the MG during classical conditioning.
Weinberger et al. 1995
This research studied whether facilitation of the magnocellular nucleus of the medial geniculate body (MGm) affects the receptive field plasticity in the auditory cortex. The experiment paired electrical stimulation of the MGm – or Sham stimulation in the case of the control group – with an auditory stimulus and recorded changes in the contralateral auditory cortex. In this case the UCS was the stimulation, the NS was the tone and the UCR was the plasticity of the primary auditory cortex. Classical conditioning was used in this experiment because it has previously been shown to produce a highly specific receptive field plasticity in the primary auditory cortex. The research showed that all subjects who received MGm stimulation had long-term facilitation of click-evoked potentials (EPs). Facilitation occurred as early as 1.3 minutes into the two hour session – but more often at 2.6 minutes – and continued to increase throughout the entire session. The control group developed no facilitation of click EPs. In fact the control group developed a reduction in click EPs throughout the two hours.
In looking at these results, one immediately notices the reduction in click EPs in the control group. The researchers used this to improve the correlation that they found. If the control group is considered the baseline from which all measurements are made, then the MGm stimulation group appears to have a decreasing baseline. When this is corrected for, the correlation is even better (Weinberger et al., 1995). It is important to raise the point made in this article that the MGm facilitation may not have directly facilitated the click-evoked potentials. It is very possible that the MGm affected other nuclei in the thalamus that actually caused the facilitation. Another explanation is that the MGm played no part in facilitation whatsoever, that the current actually spread to the nearby ventral nucleus of the medial geniculate body (MGv) – which also projects directly to the primary auditory cortex – and it is the MGv that actually caused the click EP facilitation (Weinberger et al.). A possible course of further study to address some of these issues would be to study the effects of MGm stimulation on the MGv and other surrounding nuclei.
From these studies, one can learn a lot about the relationship between learning and neurochemical changes. For one, these studies illustrate that the areas in the brain that show the highest level of responses during learning are the medial geniculate body (Edeline et al. 1990m Hennevin et al. 1993), the hippocampus (Edeline et al. 1990, Pöǧün et al. 1992, Tocco et al. 1992) and the corpus striatum (Edeline et al. 1990, Pöǧün et al. 1992). These studies also show that the D2 and AMPA receptors in the hippocampus and the D2 receptors in the corpus striatum play a major role in these changes (Pöǧün et al. 1992, Tocco et al. 1992). Although these studies only show a quantitative change in binding and click-evoked potentials, they do show that, in the case of the AMPA receptors, this change is due to a modification of the configuration of the receptors and not a change in the overall number (Tocco et al. 1992). These studies do not show, however, just how these changes take place or what types of configuration changes they are. Another piece of information that comes out of these studies is the fact that learning takes place in multiple areas – that information can be stored in the same place that it is detected and/or needed (Edeline et al. 1990). This is very useful when thinking about how learning is represented in the brain and when designing future experiments to further explore learning.
Based on these studies, I can confidently answer my research question that yes, there is a relationship between learning and neurochemical changes in rodents. The only qualification of this answer that I need to make is that these studies cannot answer just what types of changes take place or how these changes occur. This is because of the complexity of the brain and the chemicals it contains. Changing one chemical in one part of the brain may affect other chemicals that have not been studied yet in parts of the brain that are spatially unrelated. The complexity of a system where any chemical change can lead to countless other ones makes it very difficult to draw any conclusions from this type of research. As in many of these studies, one can safely say that learning leads to a certain change in receptor binding or neurotransmitter availability, but that may simply be the result of some other change in chemical availability. In the research of Weinberger et al. (1995), the MGm is directly stimulated and the auditory cortex plasticity is directly measured, but the actual mechanism for this change in plasticity may be a result of countless other thalamic nuclei that cannot be disregarded. Because of the incredible complexity of this system, one can safely say that learning causes a neurochemical change, but as far as the actual mechanism is concerned, there is – as of yet – no way to tell.
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