Category Archives: Guest posts

The Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project ( aimed to, amongst other things, ‘identify the wellbeing equivalent of “five fruit and vegetables a day”.’ Based on an extensive review of the evidence they came up with:
1. Connect… with the people around you.
2. Be active… find a physical activity you enjoy that suits your level of mobility and fitness… and do it!
3. Take notice… be curious. Savour each moment. Reflect on your experiences to help you appreciate what really matters to you.
4. Keep learning… try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Set a challenge you enjoy achieving.
5. Give … practice intentional acts of kindness. Show gratitude.

Nice. These truths about how to live a good life are fairly obvious. It interests me how often I need to be reminded of them if I am to actually do them.

I would also add a sixth ‘serving’ – without this one, the others are pretty meaningless:
6. Develop Psychological Flexibility:

The ability to contact the present moment

fully and without defence

as a conscious human being

engaged in life as it is – not as your mind says it is –

and, based on what the situation affords,

changing or persisting in behaviour

in the service of chosen values (Steve Hayes)

The evidence for the association between psychological flexibility and emotional well being is becoming pretty compelling.

Rachel Collis is Australian, and has been working in the area of supporting people to create rich and meaningful lives for over 20 years. On she provides suggestions about building well-being based on current research in psychology, coaching and personal development.

One of the most influential books of 2009 was The Spirit Level by Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, two epidemiologists. I was really struck by how often the book was quoted in the media, on platforms and in everyday conversations.

It was Richard Wilkinson’s book The Impact of Inequality – which came out a year or so before The Spirit Level – which originally prompted me to write my book, The Tears that Made the Clyde. However, although I was taken by aspects of the argument I also thought Wilkinson’s work flawed because he completely ignores the impact of culture, beliefs and values. Thus, for example, Wilkinson’s work hardly looks at the impact of materialist values or advertising. Everything is tied to status differentials linked to income inequality. If you look at the type of solutions he proposes at the end of both books – for example, workers’ cooperatives – what you see is the culmination of a very economic determinist analysis. Indeed on page 201 of the book (figure 6.2) he sets out “How greater inequality leads to poorer social relations”. Here I’ve summarised the points as follows:

Greater income inequality > More them and us >More dominance and subordination etc >Increased status competition and emphasis on self-interest> Others as rivals/poorer social relations.

What Wilkinson doesn’t look at is where the drive for greater income inequality (the energy for the whole system comes from). What leads to this is economic growth coming from production and people putting in hours of labour. This motivation in part comes from a society’s values and beliefs about what’s important. Increasingly the motivation for this comes from the media with its relentless advertising and ratching up of expectations and preying on people’s insecurity. Societies like Japan don’t have pronounced income inequality because they have different values from Anglo-American societies. Wilkinson hardly ever looks at these kind of factors.

Right from publication The Spirit Level had its detractors, but eighteen months or so after publication the book is now coming in for some serious criticism. One of the main lines of attack is that all the authors present is correlational data on income inequality and various poor social and health outcomes yet the whole drift of their argument is that pronounced income differentials causes these problems. Others question the validity of their data and use of statistics. One of the problems seems to be that The Spirit Level is intended for a general audience and so they have simplified the empirical data. Undoubtedly if they had presented their argument and evidence in more academic, and robust, ways no-one would have heard of the book let alone spend time discussing it.

If you have an hour or so to spare, and are interested, it is worth listening to a debate convened at the RSA recently where two major critics of The Spirit Level set out their arguments and then Wilkinson and Pickett reply. While I agreed with parts of what one had to say about the importance of culture and history I thought that Wilkinson (and particularly) Pickett did a good job in defending their book. And I’m glad to see that a leader in today’s Guardian defends the book against its detractors. It writes:

The combined forces suddenly being ranged against the book are now … of a very different nature. The titles of the anti-egalitarian studies – which refer variously to The Spirit Level’s “delusion”, “illusion” and its “false prophesy” – reveal the polemical intent, a telling contrast with the book’s meticulous subtitle: “Why more equal societies almost always do better.” The most thoroughgoing of the attacks is launched by the Policy Exchange, which lands most of its punchs by rejecting “outliers” those countries – such as equal Sweden and unequal America – which most forcefully make the egalitarian point. It pays no heed to the wider literature, going back decades, that has linked ill health with poverty. As a result it fails to grapple with The Spirit Level’s underlying argument about the way that pyramid societies rot from the bottom up.

One of the things that the Guardian did not point out but which I feel is self-evident is that one of the reasons why The Spirit Level is so read and quoted by people is that it rings true. In the UK at least most people know in their bones that the country has become much more divided and unequal and they fear the consequences. This can even be seen in the recent European Social Survey data which show that the UK has the lowest trust figures in Europe. Indeed it is partly the erosion of trust in unequal societies that leads to negative consequences, even for those at the top of the hierarchy.

Carol Craig is the Chief Executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being and the author of three books including. She is the driving force of the Centre, constantly seeking new and innovative ideas to ensure that it maintains its leading role in the field of confidence and well-being. She blogs on

The discipline of positive psychology is advancing at an incredible rate and the good thing is that it means we’re rapidly understanding more about what happiness is and how we can have more happiness in our lives! We’re also understanding more and more that happiness is good for us (as individuals and as a society) so if you’re interested in knowing what’s going on then please keep reading…

Happiness leads to people doing good!

* when people experience elevation (a positive emotion) they’re significantly more likely to engage in “prosocial” responses. That is, when we’re inspired by others we’re more likely to help others! So happiness leads to more happiness via good deeds…

Happiness immunises adolescents to the impact of marketing!

* happier adolescents are less likely to form impressions of people based on superficial cues (such as brand named clothes) and happier adolescents also have a more nuanced view of others

Positive psychology interventions lead to lasting happiness!

* We’ve known for some time now that positive psychology strategies boost happiness in individuals but we now know that the happiness and related benefits last way beyond the end of the interventions

Happiness is family for teenagers!

* despite the commonly held views that young adults are always rebelling against their family the findings of a series of studies support the notion that family is a significant source of meaning in the lives of young adults

Leaders can enhance happiness at work by…eliciting positive emotions!

* and leaders can elicit positive emotions by displaying “moral excellence”

NB: this is a summary of several studies from the latest (September 2010) edition of the Journal of Positive Psychology. Further, this summary is obviously a highly simplistic one of some very sophisticated research. But I hope it’s stimulated some thought and more so, I hope you’ll go away and consider how you can apply some of these findings in your daily lives, at home and at work.

Dr. Timothy J Sharp (Dr. Happy) is an academic, clinician and coach with three degrees in psychology (including a Ph.D.). He runs one of Sydney’s largest clinical psychology practices, and founded The Happiness Institute (, Australia’s first organisation devoted solely to enhancing happiness in individuals, families and organisations.

Over the past few years I had heard the term “Mary’s Meals” but I knew nothing of the organisation or its founder Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow. I had the privilege of hearing him speak today at Crieff Hydro at a Rotary conference as I too had been asked to make a contribution. I was inspired and impressed by Magnus’s visionary yet unassuming presentation.

For those of you who, like me, haven’t heard of either the organisation or the man, let me fill you in. Magnus and his brother ran a fish farm in Dalmally in Argyll and were so moved by what was happening in Bosnia in 1992 they decided to make an appeal for food and blankets and deliver them in a jeep. This was so successful that Magnus eventually gave up fish farming, and sold his house, to concentrate on aid.

After extensive charity work in Romania and Africa Magnus embarked on famine relief work in Malawi. One boy he met told Magnus that his life’s ambition was “TO have enough to eat and to got to school one day.” This prompted Magnus to set up Mary’s meals. Now it delivers around 400,000 daily meals to school children in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. All the food is purchased locally and made by volunteers. Providing the meal at school encourages children to attend so that they can be fed. Making sure that the children are not hungry has a direct effect on their concentration and ability to learn. Educating children improves their prospects and that of their families and communities. Feeding them obviously improves their heaith.

Another impressive aspect of Mary’s Meals is that the organisation spends very little on administration or marketing and Magnus masterminds the whole, international operation from a tin roofed hut in Dalmally. There’s also an office in Glasgow.

Magnus has rightly won a string of awards for his amazing charity work. Currently the American media company CNN have him as one of their TOP 10 Heroes.

The website is worth looking at and there’s very good curriculum resources/activities for schools or others working with children and young people.

Unfortunately Magnus had to leave the event today before I gave my talk on The Tears that Made the Clyde and so I didn’t get a chance to engage him on how we might tackle some of our local problems. One thing is clear, however: we need the visionary insight of people like Magnus.

You can listen and watch Magnus talk about his work on

Carol Craig is the Chief Executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being and the author of three books including. She is the driving force of the Centre, constantly seeking new and innovative ideas to ensure that it maintains its leading role in the field of confidence and well-being. She blogs on

Cameo post by Jesi Kelley, an artist with a rich background, living in New York City. She blogs on

A friend I care very much about is having some relationship drama and a generic and generally hard time. I compiled this list of mantras that I came to rely on whenever I Fell On Black Days. I’ve picked these things up in various places; from Sis when she was in Social Work School, from books, from other friends.

Here they are, in no particular order (although as of 11:30PM on Tuesday night, I added the first five because I forgot them earlier. Maybe I’ll have to keep adding–I’ve been through a lot of crap).

• Depression is Anger Turned Inward.
My mom taught me this, and she’s right. Whenever you’re *really* low, think about what’s going on in your life, and how you feel about the big issues. Or maybe it’s a small issue. Once you identify it, you’ll often realize that in reality, you’re REALLY pissed off about it, but don’t think you can/are unwilling to do something about it. Sometimes, just acknowledging your anger helps *tremendously*, and sometimes you realize you can actually let it go. And if you can’t let it go, then it’s probably time you did something — get out of that relationship, leave that job, etc. However… if your depression lingers on for months or years and nothing you do helps….GET HELP. It could be you need meds, that your depression is really chemical and you need bigger help. That being said… most of the time you’re depressed because you need to change something in your life.

• Acknowledge Your Weaknesses and Your Fears To Yourself.
When you admit to yourself what you’re scared of, you may come to see your fear is irrational. Or, you may find a way to overcome it. When you acknowledge your weakness, you can figure out a way to protect your weak spot, or strengthen it. Sometimes we don’t like to admit fear or weakness to ourselves, because we think to do so means *we* are weak. But I’ve learned that *everyone* has fear and weakness.

• “Fear Translates As Hostility”
Sometimes, you may find that people are extremely hostile towards you. But it might not mean that they are mad at you or that they don’t like you. Sometimes, it means that they are afraid of something in the situation between you and them, and so they are reacting in a hostile way. Sometimes, this is useful to know because if you can defuse *their* fear, you can get along better. Sometimes.

• Don’t Try To Negotiate or Reason With A Crazy Person.
You’ll only frustrate yourself.

• Quit Your Bitchin’
There’s “venting”, and there’s “bitchin”. “Bitchin” is long-term venting about the same things over and over and over and over again. You waste energy, you annoy your friends and you’re not really doing anything about the situation. So stop bitching, get over yourself and get a move on. DO something. “Venting” on the other hand… it’s good to vent. Vent to a therapist. Vent to God, but out of the feedback that you get from God and/or your therapist, do something useful. “Quit Your Bitchin” does NOT mean “Hold it all inside”, either. Because holding it in will kill you. So tell anyone who will listen to you (especially if you’re being bullied by an ex, or a spouse, or even a boss–bullies operate in secret, so let the secret out), but know that you are required to do some follow-up action. Because then you’re just bitchin’.

• “Bubbles and Fireflies”
When things look really bad, or you feel overwhelmed, hold on to every bright spot you find in your day. If you’ve ever seen fireflies at night–how it’s dark and all of a sudden there’s a bright spot, even though it’s very brief, you’ll know what I mean. Or how children get excited when they see bubbles, and how that makes you laugh. If the one bright spot in your day is simply that you got out of bed, or that you survived, then be thankful for that because not everyone gets out of bed or survives. When you feel really bad, sometimes it helps to repeat quietly to yourself “Bubbles and fireflies. Bubbles and fireflies.”

• Accept the situation for what it is.
Don’t try to hold on to what it was, or rationalize that it’s something else. It has changed and that’s it, but….

• If you don’t like the situation you’re in, change it!
And if you can’t change it, walk away from it. Come back to it later. Find a way to make the situation bearable in the meantime, until you *can* change it.

• If you’re feeling overwhelmed by a bunch of different things, concentrate on one thing at a time.
Pick the thing you think you can change. Hold on to that and concentrate on that. When you’ve accomplished something, then move on to the next thing.

• You cannot control what other people do.
You can only control your reaction to it.

• Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated into playing a losing game.
Don’t think that the other person is going to be fair and that you can survive or win by playing on their terms. They will change the rules on you. So make up your own. Who put them in charge, anyway? If the current game is to get into a screaming fight, don’t play. There’s no law that says you have to accept bad language, name-calling or old issues brought up and thrown in your face. And for your part, don’t do those things.

• ALWAYS take the “high road”.
No matter how “dirty” the other person is playing. No matter how tempting. In the end, you only get dragged down to their level, and you probably won’t like yourself for doing it.

• Don’t “telegraph” your moves.
You’re not being dishonest by not telling what you’re going to do; you are protecting your position.

This is extremely important. We all make mistakes. Sometimes we make really really big ones. You are a conscientious person, and you care about what you do. This is a good thing, but you are not perfect, and you are not the only one to make a mistake. It’s OK to accept blame and responsibility, but it is also OK to learn from your mistake, forgive yourself and MOVE ON.

Don’t suffer because you feel guilty or allow other people to make you suffer. But…

• Allow yourself to feel bad or sad, or even cry.
Crying is good. Crying is NOT for suckers. Crying releases bad feelings. (And don’t be fooled when you see women crying; this doesn’t mean you’ve beaten them. It could mean you’ve pissed them off, and they are regrouping before they come back to kick your ass.)

• Count on your friends.
And/or family. That’s what their for; that’s what makes them your friends. Ask for help. You don’t have to do everything by yourself, and you know that you will repay them when you can.

• Be confident that you are entitled to happiness.

• Make Lists.
If there’s a lot going on, make a list. Put a date next to it. Don’t feel that you have to stick to the list or do things in order, but just putting things down means you won’t forget. It’s also a great feeling when you get to cross something off of your list. Watch “My Name Is Earl” for good uses of a list.

• Living Well is the Best Revenge.
So live every day to the best of your ability. For yourself. And you will prove in the end that you were the better person.

Thanks for this guest-post to Tracey Jackson. Tracey is a screenwriter and author who blogs on her own site, as well as guest blogging for HuffPo, Tiny Buddha and Society for Drug Free America, she attempts daily to live as mindful a life as is possible.

It’s been awhile since I did a bossy Tracey posting but I realized today that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is coming to an end and I have not addressed it.

It’s not like me and I have actually had an “in the future posting” on the books since I got my last mammogram.

But the message is very clear and the question astoundingly simple, if you are a woman forty or older or a woman any age with a family with a history of breast cancer have you had a mammogram in the past twelve months? Just like the mole check, I’m not interested in 18 months or 20 months ~ 12 months: in the last year.

Most people think this is a lame question as it is just assumed most women are religious in getting their mammograms: Surprisingly the opposite is true. When I was in for mine in July I asked my doctor the stats on how many women DON’T get checked and she told me around 40% do not get them. And this often times despite what you might think has nothing to do with socio-economic status, it has to do with stupidity and fear.

In the last year alone, especially since I started Between A Rock and a Hot Place I have come across many women whom you would think were diligent about this part of their health care, but some how, some way let it slide.

Well, guess what you can’t “let it slide.” I know it doesn’t help that the insurance companies and various reports keep switching the rules, some say every year, now they’re saying women over fifty only need it every two years. They all say don’t start until you’re in your forties. I think much of this comes from the insurance companies as let’s face they don’t want to pony up the dough.

Breast cancer hits many women in their thirties and some in their twenties. I’ve been getting regular mammograms since I was 35 and there is no history in my family. But my long time doctor Ed Liu said when I hit thirty-five “ The technology is there, why not take advantage of it, it could save your life.” And I’ve been going the same time every year ever since.

I’m not looking for brownie points and believe me I don’t like going anymore than anyone else: But you have to do it. And you can’t say I can’t afford it as there are clinics where you can go that charge small fees and sometimes do it for free. I know this as I have spoken with women who go each year and pay little or next to nothing.
And the real shocker is the high-income, well educated group with insurance who don’t go.

I will tell you a brief story that proves my point.

Last summer we were having people over for dinner. Someone brought along a friend, handsome women in her mid-fifties. It was immediately made known she went to Yale and had a very impressive job that only someone with a great mind and educational pedigree could pull off.

I instantly went to my Oh Christ; this is one of those women who will find me to be the blonde bimbo with too much cleavage who didn’t go to college. So I was polite but went to the kitchen to make some guacamole, for some reason she followed me.

We started talking and within minutes our conversation led to what I did and the topic of the book came out, and menopause and within minutes we were chatting like old friends.

The upshot of the story is this woman is fifty-six years old. She has not been to see a gynecologist or had a mammogram in over four years. I almost dropped the skillet I was holding. “Are you crazy?” I asked her. “ No, just scared,” she said. “It’s been a difficult few years and I think any bad news will make it worse.”

Well, that is one demented way of looking at it. I didn’t say that. But I did say, “If you get news that something that could have been minor is now major it’s going to be a whole lot worse”. She agreed and admitted she didn’t want the doctor to see her because she had gained 40 pounds as well. SHE WENT TO YALE. SHE HAS INSURANCE. When it comes to health often times rational thinking flies out the window.

I immediately gave her the name of my gynecologist Robin Phillips who is a menopause specialist, this woman was suffering terribly from lack of estrogen and I gave her the number of my radiologist. I told her to call in the morning and use my name, as she is hard to get into. I even offered to go with her.

I had come far from being intimidated by her to realizing this very competent women was paralyzed by the fear that her body was somehow a time bomb and that she needed help. She promised she would take care of it all and email me.

I never heard from her again. I know Robin didn’t see her as Robin always writes a thank you note whenever she gets a new patient I send her way. And my guess is she didn’t get her mammogram. My hope is she doesn’t wait too much longer. Eighteen months at her age is a long time to go between appointments, five years is an eternity.

So please, don’t assume all is fine and don’t’ be afraid of them finding something. Their job is to find something if it’s there and get it in time.

The best thing you can do is book your appointment for the same time every year. That way you don’t miss a month and it becomes part of your permanent health care regime. Often times people miss a few months and before you know it an extra year has been tacked on. I’ve heard too many stories of women with advanced breast cancer who “Got so busy they hadn’t been checked in several years.”

The other thing to do is spread your doctor’s visits apart by four months each. By this I mean go see your GP who will give you a manual breast exam, four months later do the annual gynecological visit and he/she will give you a manual exam and then have your ANNUAL mammogram. That way every four months someone in the know is feeling your boobs. It’s important. Your life could depend on it.

The other thing you can do and I do this every day is click on the link for The National Breast Cancer site. One push of the mouse gives a mammogram to someone who can’t afford it.

And that makes every day Breast Cancer Awareness Day.

By guest blogger Dr. Bernard J. Baars, former Senior Research Fellow in Theoretical Neurobiology at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, and founding President of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness.

To the best of our knowledge, consciousness depends upon brains, and brains are biological organs. In a boxing match, a blow to the jaw often leads to a loss of consciousness, but the same impact to the torso does not. More specifically, scientists have long thought that human consciousness depends upon two large brain structures, the cortex and the thalamus. The daily cycle of waking, dreaming and sleep depends on distinctive global rhythm generators in the thalamus and cortex. (, Chapter 8)

While deep brain nuclei control the daily sleep-waking cycle, the specific contents of conscious vision, like the sight of a coffee cup, are directly supported by known regions of the cortex and corresponding nuclei in the thalamus. Cortex and its satellites underlie speech and hearing, vision, hearing and touch, the ability to make decisions and to control our voluntary muscles.

In contrast, medical students have long learned that the two large lobes of the cerebellum, hanging from the rear of the cortex, can be damaged in humans without impairing consciousness significantly. Since the cerebellum has nearly the same numbers of neurons as cortex, the question therefore becomes: How it is that cortex supports conscious contents? Why not the cerebellum? (Figure 1).

Brain rhythms
Whether you and I are conscious seems to depend entirely on a particular oscillatory regime of the thalamus and cortex. While observable rhythms of (conscious) waking and (unconscious) sleep have been known for many years, the rhythm generators of sleep, waking and dreaming have only been worked out in the last decade or two by a number of distinguished scientists, including a Canadian group directed by Mircea Steriade and Alain Destexhe.

Using implanted electrodes in human and animals, we can now see fast inter-regional signals zipping back and forth during waking and dreaming, compared to much more local and stop-and-go signal traffic in sleep and other unconscious states.

The high, regular delta waves of unconscious sleep reflect billions of neurons firing and pausing in unison every second or so. Epileptic seizures show the same massive stop-and-go activity in large parts of the cortex. Unconscious states often have this widespread stop-and-go character.

In contrast, during conscious states, signal traffic flows much more freely in the hubs and highways of the brain, in what Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi have called “the dynamic core.” Individual conscious experiences seem to reflect moment-to-moment signaling in this dynamic core. (Baars & Gage, 2010)

Consciousness has an evolutionary history
A few decades ago the Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes speculated that consciousness is a recent phenomenon – just a few thousand years old. Jaynes thought so based on a difference between the language of Homer’s Illiad and the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, he claimed, the voices of the gods are perceived to come from the outside world. In the Illiad, on the other hand, the gods are thought to speak inside of the heroes’ heads.

But fully formed language is now believed to date back some 50,000 to 100,000 years, and as for consciousness, at least sensory consciousness seems to be much, much more ancient. Hemispheric lateralization such as we find in language can be observed in guinea pigs and song birds. The hoped-for “language gene” of FOXP2 is known to exist in alligators. Human cognitive faculties are spun off from much more ancient adaptations.

Humans are not the sole possessors of the core thalamocortical brain. We share it with all mammals, going back to the earliest ones some 200 million years ago.

The characteristic rhythm pumps of the T-C (thalamocortical) system are therefore shared with cats and dogs, with mice and the duck-billed platypus – and perhaps earlier. In the words of Edelman and Tononi, from a brain point of view we may be living in “a universe of consciousness.” If true, that idea throws an extraordinary new light on the biosphere.

That is not to say that tree shrews have “higher level consciousness” (Edelman, 1989), which is heavily dependent on language, executive and social functions, the brain bases of human culture. Other mammals share our sensorimotor cortex and thalamus, but relatively smaller frontal lobes.

Nonetheless, primates like macaques are routinely studied for insights into human visual consciousness, because our visual brains seem so similar. We will look at this scientific literature in a forthcoming issue.

Like other major life functions, consciousness has an evolutionary history.

Consciousness in other species
Philosophers like Gilbert Ryle and Ludwig Wittgenstein warned that we can’t even be sure that other humans are conscious, but these basic biological links suggest otherwise. If all humans share the same basic brain anatomy, physiology, and behavioral functions, chances are that you and I are not lone conscious beings in a solipsistic universe. Nor is it likely that consciousness is “epiphenomenal” – that it has no biological or psychological function at all. After all, how many bodily functions play no biological role? The Darwinian answer has to be: probably none. Without survival and reproductive benefits no major function can last.

Traditionally we have been warned not to generalize lightly from humans to other species. That is still an important caution to keep in mind. But it has been relaxed somewhat with major advances in the genetic code. We can begin to read the genetic code for neurons and their many roles in evolution, and if a set of genes are similar, their phenotypic expression is also likely to be similar. While Darwin was already convinced about striking similarities among mammalian emotions, we are now beginning to add the DNA code for structures like the thalamus and cortex, and for biological states like sleep, waking, and dreams. The transition between sleep and waking is now known to alter gene expression in hundreds of DNA locations.

When it comes to conscious waking, the thalamocortical system is shared among mammals. The oscillatory regimes of waking and sleeping are also widely shared: Conscious waking is a fast-changing state with large numbers of phase-locked oscillations zipping back and forth, while sleep involves regular, global halting in the flow of signal traffic. During conscious waking animals engage in adaptive, purposeful behavior. Sleep makes us vulnerable to predation, so we retreat into the relative safety of trees, caves, and human settlements.

Neurobiologists now suggest that the brains of birds are much closer to mammals than they have been thought to be. Specifically the “pallium” in birds seems to be homologous to cortex in mammals. That raises the question: Are they also conscious? Irene Pepperberg’s famous African Grey parrot Alex certainly seems to suggest so.

A biological view of conscious (and unconscious) brains reveals a trove of new insights. And unanswered questions, of course.

Subjectivity and Occam’s razor
Can we attribute subjectivity to other animals? Do monkeys and kitty cats have a point of view on a world of conscious objects, events and scenes? Is it like something to be a bat?

During seven decades of behavioristic dominance Occam’s Razor was often wielded against that notion. (About 1920 to 1990). If behavior could be explained without consciousness, it was argued, there is no reason to postulate any more “entities” than are strictly needed. Occam’s Razor lopped off subjectivity.

Today, a vast body of evidence indicates that consciousness is a brute biological fact. It occurs in highly predictable ways in certain kinds of brains, under well-studied conditions. Conscious brains have numerous established properties (e.g. Baars, 1988; Edelman, 1989; Seth et al, 2005). The same is true for unconscious brain states and processes. Occam’s Razor cannot be used to lop off a brute fact. Facts are what we are trying to understand.

It has now become ethically required for scientists to describe their laboratory animals as “conscious.” Along with a vast body of evidence, the scientific presumption has swung toward consciousness in animals like ourselves. That swing of opinion may turn out to be wrong, but it reflects a great weight of evidence. Arguments against animal consciousness should be fully informed about that body of behavioral and neurobiological evidence. Animal consciousness is no longer based upon speculation or abstract philosophy.

Selected References
Baars, B.J. (1988) A cognitive theory of consciousness. NY: Cambridge University Press. Available online in text format.

Baars, B.J. & N.M. Gage (2010) Cognition, brain and consciousness: An introduction to cognitive neuroscience. 2nd edition. Elsevier, Inc./ Academic Press. See

Edelman, G.M. (1989) The remembered present. NY: Basic Books.

Edelman, G.M. & G. Tononi (2000) A universe of consciousness: How matter becomes imagination. NY: Basic Books.

Seth, A.S., B. J. Baars, D. B. Edelman (2005) Criteria for consciousness in humans and other mammals. Consciousness & Cognition, 14, 119-139. Available for download at

Grateful to Whom?

October 21, 2010

Reader: Your web site is very informative and interesting. I believe in living in gratitude and I try to practice it every day. My question is: to whom are you asking us to be grateful? God, god, gods, nature, the universe? Thank you for your help. — Danny

Answer: Dear Danny,

Thank you for your kind words about the website and for your commitment to practice gratitude. Let me turn your question around and ask: To whom are you grateful? The answer differs from person to person. One person may come from a strong religious tradition which praises God for all the gifts of this life. Another may recognize how much has been given by her ancestors or the Earth, and she may direct her gratitude to these abundant sources. Yet another may say, “I don’t know to whom I am grateful! All I know is that sometimes my life seems to overflow with a feeling of fundamental well-being, even – oddly enough – in the most difficult moments.” There is no rule book that deems one of these approaches as more valid than another.

Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon speak of turning to a Higher Power, “whatever you conceive that to be.” To understand this from a gratitude perspective, you can use the metaphor of receiving a gift. Sometimes the source is obvious. You are grateful to water for quenching your thirst. You are grateful to the golden oak for the inspiration that its beauty is to you. You are grateful to your best friend for his companionship.

But some gifts are less obvious: To whom do i owe my ability to love? To whom do i owe my very life? Throughout time these gifts have evoked in the hearts of human beings a great sense of wonder. You may even wonder why there is anything at all! If you do not already have a perspective on who the Giver of All Good Gifts is, then why not live in amazement, as you would if someone gave you a diamond but did not leave their name? Is not your very astonishment at this overwhelming, secret generosity its own form of gratefulness?

Imagine what a different world this would be even if we were just grateful to the obvious sources: If we valued and respected the Earth for her bounty! If we revered elders for their years of hard-earned experience ripening into wisdom! If we appreciated children for their refreshing insights, sheltering them as we would a rose given to us by an angel! If we could affirm ourselves for our attempts to know and understand life better! Whether or not we believe in an unseen benevolent Power, we need only look right before our eyes to get started on a journey of thanks-giving.

Kind regards,
Patricia Carlson

Patricia Campbell Carlson and Br. David Steindl-Rast contribute to A Network for Grateful Living (ANG*L), dedicated to providing education and support for the practice of grateful living as a global ethic. Visit

Phackchok Rinpoche presented a well-known orientation in Buddhist social engagement: that by developing the self, one can develop society. Helping others begins by developing a self endowed with 7 good qualities, including compassion, meditation, intelligence, diligence, generosity, and patience. Those familiar with Buddhist thought found Rinpoche’s lists familiar, as he drew from the 4 divine abidings and 6 perfections for a modern audience.

Phakchok Rinpoche has taken his humor and insight to audiences around the world. He is the head of the Taklung Kagyu lineage and, like many well-known Tibetan leaders today, has kinship ties to many of the 20th century’s most influential Tibetan Buddhist teachers and families. These ties are strengthened by Buddhist rituals of empowerment and ordination—rituals which also provide foundation for an individual’s practice and learning.

In addition to his individual training and his studies of Buddhist philosophy, Phakchok Rinpoche, is involved in his local community (and in communities around the world, such as Cooperstown, Toronto, and Vancouver). He works and lives in Nepal, sustaining a variety of projects in the Kathmandu Valley area—including several monasteries, a nunnery, a clinic, and a monastic welfare program, and boarding school. He also heads a Buddhist NGO that organizes volunteer labor to aid the impoverished in the areas of health, education, vocational training, and in finding homes. He spoke about the relationship of Buddhist philosophy and practice to contemporary society, specifically, to social development.

Jessica L. Main leads the Tung Lin Kok Yuen Canada Foundation Chair on Buddhism and Contemporary Society (UBC Buddhism and Contemporary Society Program). Her research includes modern Buddhist ethics, and social action. She worked with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), investigating possible contributions of Buddhism to a physician’s ethic. Her posts here: