Sunday, 30 December 2012

Is Living In Cities Making Us More Intelligent?

In a discussion of the five major trends that will change the world over the next 25 years, star architect Daniel Libeskind recently told Conde Nast that the long-term trend toward urbanization will help human creativity. Living in densely populated spaces all over the globe will make us all smarter. In fact, he even went so far as to state that “already, New Yorkers are smarter than people who live in gigantic houses." If you happen to live in a city like New York, this probably squares up with your own thinking and may even appear to be so obvious as to be barely worth mentioning. But is that really the case – that living in cities will make us all smarter?
Certainly, that’s been the major thesis of at least the past decade - a decade that may be summarized as The Triumph of the City. During that time, there has been growing awareness of cities as vibrant, energizing spaces for members of the creative class (and those who would be their friends). In fact, in The Triumph of the City, urban economist Edward Glaeser even goes further than that, suggesting that cities are making us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier. Not surprisingly, we’ve seen the demographic pendulum shift – not just in the United States, where the exurbs and suburbs are being hollowed out as people move back into more densely populated urban hubs – but also abroad, where countries like China are seeing the growth of the mega-city on a scale never before imagined. For now, the city is the natural home of the creative class, and certainly the home of wonderfully talented people like Daniel Libeskind, an uber-globetrotting cultural tastemaker.
But let’s play devil’s advocate for a second. After all, wasn't it not so long ago that we viewed cities as dangerous, crime-ridden and nasty little places to live? And, let's take Darwin into account. In mid-November, Stanford researcher Gerald Crabtree made waves in the scientific community with his mischievous assertion that the continuing process of urbanization is actually making us dumber. With a nod to Darwin, Crabtree suggests that everything that makes survival easier and simpler actually reduces some of the selection pressures in the environment, and that, in turns, weakens natural selection's ability to weed out all the people with the "stupid" gene. Or, as Crabtree puts it, “A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died, along with his or her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate." 
At a time when nearly 50% of the world now lives in cities, one senses that we're at a tipping point for thinking about the future. Half of the world lives in cities, the other half doesn't. For now, cities appear to be enormous cauldrons of creativity, diversity and intelligence. Skyscrapers appear to be engines of enormous growth and vitality. At some point, however, the demographic pendulum will surely shift again - we'll decide that our urban areas are simply too dangerous, too dirty, and too unpleasant and we'll all decamp en masse to a less urbanized environment where we can all become richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier.

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Benefits of Bilingualism

Speaking two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.
This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.
They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.
Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins — one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle.
In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color, placing blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.
The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.
Why does the tussle between two simultaneously active language systems improve these aspects of cognition? Until recently, researchers thought the bilingual advantage stemmed primarily from an ability for inhibition that was honed by the exercise of suppressing one language system: this suppression, it was thought, would help train the bilingual mind to ignore distractions in other contexts. But that explanation increasingly appears to be inadequate, since studies have shown that bilinguals perform better than monolinguals even at tasks that do not require inhibition, like threading a line through an ascending series of numbers scattered randomly on a page.
The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be more basic: a heightened ability to monitor the environment. “Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.
The bilingual experience appears to influence the brain from infancy to old age (and there is reason to believe that it may also apply to those who learn a second language later in life).
In a 2009 study led by Agnes Kovacs of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, 7-month-old babies exposed to two languages from birth were compared with peers raised with one language. In an initial set of trials, the infants were presented with an audio cue and then shown a puppet on one side of a screen. Both infant groups learned to look at that side of the screen in anticipation of the puppet. But in a later set of trials, when the puppet began appearing on the opposite side of the screen, the babies exposed to a bilingual environment quickly learned to switch their anticipatory gaze in the new direction while the other babies did not.
Bilingualism’s effects also extend into the twilight years. In a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.
Nobody ever doubted the power of language. But who would have imagined that the words we hear and the sentences we speak might be leaving such a deep imprint?

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Body-building Hypnosis

Building muscle is just as much a mental activity as it is physical. The mind controls the body. If your mind does not want to go through hard and heavy workouts, your body will not want to either. You will end up solely going through the motions and training without the intensity required for maximum gains.
Many professional bodybuilders and top athletes already use psychological techniques to give them that 'edge'. Arnold Schwartzenegger used to visualise his muscles growing bigger and bigger, until they literally “filled the room”. The record breaking and 400 meter Olympic champion Lee Evans owes some of his success to visualizing every stride of the race. His strategy is to "search out and correct weaknesses in every step I take". Tiger Woods' mental coach, Jay Brunza, hypnotises him to block out distractions so that he can focus purely on his golf.
There is one hidden reason why many people fail to build muscle or improve their physical attributes. That reason is that their unconscious mind will not let them
Bodybuilding requires supreme amounts of personal discipline in the face of temptation. It demands discipline over the mind and body as you face pain and fatigue at each training session in an attempt to surpass yourself. It demands discipline to keep working and moving towards your goals for many years. There is a saying that the ‘will gives up before the muscle’. If you can increase your will with mental techniques, then you can increase your training intensity, and thus increase your gains.
Bodybuilding also requires mindfulness. You must be mindful about the foods you eat and how this will affect your mind and body.
Being present in the moment when training, and being mindful about what you are doing turns weight lifting into a meditative pursuit. Focusing on the muscle as it contracts and relaxes creates a powerful mind-body connection. This allows you to move and squeeze your muscles in a way that maximises your growth potential.
Every time you lift a weight, your mind must lift it first. You must see yourself lifting it, and believe that you can lift it. I have seen many times someone accidentally picking up a heavier weight than they intended and complete their training sets with it. They thought they could lift it, so this removed the mental block that they previously had.

You sometimes hear people say they want to achieve something to only then follow it up with excuses, such as “I just don’t think that it’s possible.” Or “I don’t have the genetics” They have already defeated themselves mentally. Lots of people compare their talent to someone else's, and when they see how far away they are from achieving this, they give up. The person who believes – achieves. How can you achieve anything without the belief? You will simply go about it half heartedly, if at all.
Hypnosis can help you improve all these mental approaches. Hypnosis can help you establish your goals clearly through visualisation. You can also rehearse and practice with visualisation. Hypnosis can also help you believe you can achieve your goals, and keep you motivated to stick with your plan. There is also some evidence to suggest that through hypnosis, you can direct your body’s energies to places you wish to develop. Arnie was simply telling his body to build up his muscles when he visualised them growing bigger and bigger.
It is also widely documented that hypnosis can increase emotional responses in the body. These can be harnessed to release testosterone, which can further help muscular development. If you are serious about increasing your muscular, or indeed any other sporting abilities, then hypnosis could help you unlock your potential and go that extra yard you need for success.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Out of Body Experiences and Near Death Experiences: Seeing God?

There are many carefully documented accounts in the medical literature of intense, life-altering religious experience in epileptic seizures. Hallucinations of overwhelming intensity, sometimes accompanied by a sense of bliss and a strong feeling of the numinous, can occur especially with the so-called "ecstatic" seizures that may occur in temporal lobe epilepsy. Though such seizures may be brief, they can lead to a fundamental reorientation, a metanoia, in one's life. Fyodor Dostoevsky was prone to such seizures and described many of them, including this:
The air was filled with a big noise and I tried to move. I felt the heaven was going down upon the earth and that it engulfed me. I have really touched God. He came into me myself, yes God exists, I cried, and I don't remember anything else. You all, healthy people ... can't imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit. ... I don't know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, for all the joys that life may bring, I would not exchange this one.
A century later, Kenneth Dewhurst and A. W. Beard published a detailed report in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry of a bus conductor who had a sudden feeling of elation while collecting fares. They wrote:
He was suddenly overcome with a feeling of bliss. He felt he was literally in Heaven. He collected the fares correctly, telling his passengers at the same time how pleased he was to be in Heaven. ... He remained in this state of exaltation, hearing divine and angelic voices, for two days. Afterwards he was able to recall these experiences and he continued to believe in their validity. [Three years later] following three seizures on three successive days, he became elated again. He stated that his mind had "cleared." ... During this episode he lost his faith.
He now no longer believed in heaven and hell, in an afterlife, or in the divinity of Christ. This second conversion -- to atheism -- carried the same excitement and revelatory quality as the original religious conversion.

More recently, Orrin Devinsky and his colleagues have been able to make video EEG recordings in patients who are having such seizures, and have observed an exact synchronization of the epiphany with a spike in epileptic activity in the temporal lobes (more commonly the right temporal lobe).

Both OBEs and NDEs, which occur in waking but often profoundly altered states of consciousness, cause hallucinations so vivid and compelling that those who experience them may deny the term hallucination, and insist on their reality. And the fact that there are marked similarities in individual descriptions is taken by some to indicate their objective "reality."Ecstatic seizures are rare -- they only occur in something like 1 or 2 percent of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy. But the last half century has seen an enormous increase in the prevalence of other states sometimes permeated by religious joy and awe, "heavenly" visions and voices, and, not infrequently, religious conversion or metanoia. Among these are out-of-body experiences (OBEs), which are more common now that more patients can be brought back to life from serious cardiac arrests and the like -- and much more elaborate and numinous experiences called near-death experiences (NDEs).
But the fundamental reason that hallucinations -- whatever their cause or modality -- seem so real is that they deploy the very same systems in the brain that actual perceptions do. When one hallucinates voices, the auditory pathways are activated; when one hallucinates a face, the fusiform face area, normally used to perceive and identify faces in the environment, is stimulated.

In OBEs, subjects feel that they have left their bodies -- they seem to be floating in midair, or in a corner of the room, looking down on their vacated bodies from a distance. The experience may be felt as blissful, terrifying, or neutral. But its extraordinary nature -- the apparent separation of "spirit" from body, imprints it indelibly on the mind and may be taken by some people as evidence of an immaterial soul -- proof that consciousness, personality, and identity can exist independently of the body and even survive bodily death.
Neurologically, OBEs are a form of bodily illusion arising from a temporary dissociation of visual and proprioceptive representations -- normally these are coordinated, so that one views the world, including one's body, from the perspective of one's own eyes, one's head. OBEs, as Henrik Ehrsson and his fellow researchers in Stockholm have elegantly shown, can be produced experimentally, by using simple equipment -- video goggles, mannequins, rubber arms, etc. -- to confuse one's visual input and one's proprioceptive input and create an uncanny sense of disembodiedness.

The near-death experience usually goes through a sequence of characteristic stages. One seems to be moving effortlessly and blissfully along a dark corridor or tunnel towards a wonderful "living" light -- often interpreted as Heaven or the boundary between life and death. There may be a vision of friends and relatives welcoming one to the other side, and there may be a a rapid yet extremely detailed series of memories of one's life -- a lightning autobiography. The return to one's body may be abrupt, as when, for example, the beat is restored to an arrested heart. Or it may be more gradual, as when one emerges from a coma. A number of medical conditions can lead to OBEs -- cardiac arrest or arrhythmias, or a sudden lowering of blood pressure or blood sugar, often combined with anxiety or illness. I know of some patients who have experienced OBEs during difficult childbirths, and others who have had them in association with narcolepsy or sleep paralysis. Fighter pilots subjected to high G-forces in flight (or sometimes in training centrifuges) have reported OBEs as well as much more elaborate states of consciousness that resemble the near-death experience.

Not infrequently, an OBE turns into an NDE -- as happened with Tony Cicoria, a surgeon who told me how he had been struck by lightning. He gave me a vivid account of what then followed, as I wrote in Musicophilia:
"I was flying forwards. Bewildered. I looked around. I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, 'Oh shit, I'm dead.' I saw people converging on the body. I saw a woman -- she had been standing waiting to use the phone right behind me -- position herself over my body, give it CPR. . . . I floated up the stairs -- my consciousness came with me. I saw my kids, had the realization that they would be okay. Then I was surrounded by a bluish-white light . . . an enormous feeling of well-being and peace. The highest and lowest points of my life raced by me . . . pure thought, pure ecstasy. I had the perception of accelerating, being drawn up . . . there was speed and direction. Then, as I was saying to myself, 'This is the most glorious feeling I have ever had' -- SLAM! I was back."
Dr. Cicoria had some memory problems for a month or so after this, but he was able to resume his practice as an orthopedic surgeon. Yet he was, as he put it, "a changed man." Previously he had no particular interest in music, but now he was seized by an overwhelming desire to listen to classical music, especially Chopin. He bought a piano and started to play obsessively and to compose. He was convinced that the entire episode -- being struck by lightning, having a transcendent vision, then being resuscitated and gifted so that he could bring music to the world, was part of a divine plan.

Cicoria has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and he also felt that his sudden accession of spirituality and musicality must have gone with changes in his brain -- changes which we might be able to clarify, perhaps, with neuroimaging. He saw no contradiction between religion and neurology -- if God works on a man, or in a man, Cicoria felt, He would do so via the nervous system, via parts of the brain specialized, or potentially specializable, for spiritual feeling and belief.

Alexander makes much of his experience as a neurosurgeon and an expert on the workings of the brain. He provides an appendix to his book detailing "Neuroscientific Hypotheses I considered to explain my experience" -- but all of these he dismisses as inapplicable in his own case because, he insists, his cerebral cortex was completely shut down during the coma, precluding the possibility of any conscious experience. Cicoria's reasonable and (one might say) scientific attitude to his own spiritual conversion is in marked contrast to that of another surgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, who describes, in his recent book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, a detailed and complex NDE which occurred while he spent seven days in a coma caused by meningitis. During his NDE, he writes, he passed through the bright light -- the boundary between life and death -- to find himself in an idyllic and beautiful meadow (which he realized was Heaven) where he met a beautiful but unknown woman who conveyed various messages to him telepathically. Advancing farther into the afterlife, he felt the ever-more-embracing presence of God. Following this experience, Alexander became something of an evangelist, wanting to spread the good news, that heaven really exists.

It is not so easy, however, to dismiss neurological processes. Dr. Alexander presents himself as emerging from his coma suddenly: "My eyes opened ... my brain ... had just kicked back to life." But one almost always emerges gradually from coma; there are intermediate stages of consciousness. It is in these transitional stages, where consciousness of a sort has returned, but not yet fully lucid consciousness, that NDEs tend to occur.Yet his NDE was rich in visual and auditory detail, as many such hallucinations are. He is puzzled by this, since such sensory details are normally produced by the cortex. Nonetheless, his consciousness had journeyed into the blissful, ineffable realm of the afterlife--a journey which he felt lasted for most of the time he lay in coma. Thus, he proposes, his essential self, his "soul," did not need a cerebral cortex, or indeed any material basis whatever.

Alexander insists that his journey, which subjectively lasted for days, could not have occurred except while he was deep in coma. But we know from the experience of Tony Cicoria and many others, that a hallucinatory journey to the bright light and beyond, a full-blown NDE, can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer. Subjectively, during such a crisis, the very concept of time may seem variable or meaningless. The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander's case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.

To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific -- it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.

Kevin Nelson, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky, has studied the neural basis of NDEs and other forms of "deep" hallucinating for many decades. In 2011, he published a wise and careful book about his research, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience.
Nelson feels that the "dark tunnel" described in most NDEs represents constriction of the visual fields due to compromised blood pressure in the eyes, and the "bright light" represents a flow of visual excitation from the brainstem, through visual relay stations, to the visual cortex (the so-called pons-geniculate-occipital or PGO pathway).

Simpler perceptual hallucinations -- of patterns, animals, people, landscapes, music, etc. -- as one may get in a variety of conditions (blindness, deafness, epilepsy, migraine, sensory deprivation, etc.) do not usually involve profound changes in consciousness, and while very startling, are nearly always recognized as hallucinations. It is different with the very complex hallucinations of ecstatic seizures or NDEs -- which are often taken to be veridical, truth-telling and often life-transforming revelations of a spiritual universe, and perhaps of a spiritual destiny or mission.

Some religious people come to experience their proof of heaven by another route -- the route of prayer, as the anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann has explored in her book When God Talks Back. The very essence of divinity, of God, is immaterial. God cannot be seen, felt, or heard in the ordinary way. Luhrmann wondered how, in the face of this lack of evidence, God becomes a real, intimate presence in the lives of so many evangelicals and other people of faith.The tendency to spiritual feeling and religious belief lies deep in human nature and seems to have its own neurological basis, though it may be very strong in some people and less developed in others. For those who are religiously inclined, an NDE may seem to offer "proof of heaven," as Eben Alexander puts it.
She joined an evangelical community as a participant-observer, immersing herself in particular in their disciplines of prayer and visualization -- imagining in ever-richer, more concrete detail the figures and events depicted in the Bible. Congregants, she writes:
Practice seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching in the mind's eye. They give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events. What they are able to imagine becomes more real to them.
Sooner or later, with this intensive practice, for some of the congregants, the mind may leap from imagination to hallucination, and the congregant hears God, sees God, feels God walking beside them. These yearned-for voices and visions have the reality of perception, and this is because they activate the perceptual systems of the brain, as all hallucinations do. These visions, voices, and feelings of "presence" are accompanied by intense emotion -- emotions of joy, peace, awe, revelation. Some evangelicals may have many such experiences; others only a single one -- but even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith. (For those who are not religiously inclined, such experiences may occur with meditation or intense concentration on an artistic or intellectual or emotional plane, whether this is falling in love or listening to Bach, observing the intricacies of a fern, or cracking a scientific problem.)

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience. This is not to say that they cannot play a part in the spiritual life, or have great meaning for an individual. Yet while it is understandable that one might attribute value, ground beliefs, or construct narratives from them, hallucinations cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain's power to create them.In the last decade or two, there has been increasingly active research in the field of "spiritual neurosciences." There are special difficulties in this research, for religious experiences cannot be summoned at will; they come, if at all, in their own time and way -- the religious would say in God's time and way. Nonetheless, researchers have been able to demonstrate physiological changes not only in pathological states like seizures, OBEs, and NDEs, but also in positive states like prayer and meditation. Typically these changes are quite widespread, involving not only primary sensory areas in the brain, but limbic (emotional) systems, hippocampal (memory) systems, and the prefrontal cortex, where intentionality and judgement reside.

By Olliver Sacks

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Merry Christmas...Psychology

(Congratulations to all those who survived the end of the world! I hope you live peacefully... until the next one of arrives...)

It’s that time of the year again. Christmas carols, mince pies, endless queues at the local post office, Starbucks red cups, Doctor Who..  Thankfully, psychologists are curious creatures that study almost every aspect of human behaviour including… Christmas. So here are a few Christmas related studies/links:
1) Most people like decorating their house for Christmas. Some of them go too far, as you can see in this video. One possible reason for this behaviour could be the desire to communicate friendliness and cohesiveness with neighbours. Werner et al. examined whether strangers can accurately identify the more friendly residents, and what aspects of the homes’ exteriors contribute to their impressions. They also examine the possibility that residents who decorate for Christmas but who have few friends on the block may be using the decorations and other cues as a way of communicating their accessibility to neighbours.
Participants rated residents based only on photographs of their home and front yard. Stimulus homes had been preselected to represent the four cells of a two by two factorial design crossing the presence/absence of Christmas decorations with the resident’s self-rated social contact with neighbors (low/high). As expected, a main effect for the decorated factor indicated that raters used Christmas decorations as a cue that the residents were friendly and cohesive. Decoration interacted with sociability in a complex but interpretable way. In the absence of Christmas decorations, raters accurately distinguished between the homes of sociable and nonsociable residents; in open ended comments, they attributed their impressions to the relatively more ‘open’ and ‘lived in’ look of the sociable residents’ homes. When Christmas decorations were present, raters actually attributed greater sociability to the nonsociable residents, citing a more open appearance as the basis for their judgments. The results support the idea that residents can use their home’s exterior to communicate attachment and possibly to integrate themselves into a neighborhood’s social activities.
I have a feeling that extreme Christmas decorations probably fail to achieve this purpose and result in (further) alienation.
2)  What makes for a Merry Christmas? Not consumerism according to a study by Kasser et al. More specifically:
More happiness was reported when family and religious experiences were especially salient, and lower well-being occurred when spending money and receiving gifts predominated. Engaging in environmentally conscious consumption practices also predicted a happier holiday, as did being older and male. In sum, the materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may undermine well-being, while family and spiritual activities may help people to feel more satisīŦed.
You can read the full study here.
3) Christmassy stuff make you feel better if you’re a Christian or if you celebrate Christmas. Schmitt et al. examined the differential psychological consequences of being in the presence of a Christmas display on participants who did or did not celebrate Christmas, or who identified as Christian, Buddhist, or Sikh. Participants completed measures of psychological well-being while they were in a cubicle that was either decorated or not with a Christmas display. The Christmas decorations harmed non-celebrators and non-Christians well-being scores. The opposite effect was found on Christians. I’m wondering what’s the effect on atheists that were raised in Christian families/societies..
4) If you still believe in Santa Claus you might have to skip this one. Still here? You’re probably over 8. According to a (locked) study by Blair et al. this is the mean age at which disbelief in Santa Claus occurs  for both boys and girls. Another study (Anderson et al., 1994) examined the children’s reactions on discovering the Santa Claus myth.
Children reported predominantly positive reactions on learning the truth. Parents, however, described themselves as predominantly sad in reaction to their child’s discovery.
5) And finally, Christmas phobias, or the 12 neuroses of Christmas. Not very scientific but funny (unless you’re suffering from Ho-Ho-Phobia).
 PS: I’m a bit surprised by the lack of neuroimaging studies on Christmas! I was hoping for something catchy and pointless like “Your brain on Santa Claus” or “The neuroscience of Christmas Carols”.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Doomsday Mindset

While NASA is trying to calm fears of the impending December 21, 2012 doomsday prediction, some media continue spreading the news about the end date on the Mayan Calendar, adding different versions and interpretations of what is popularly conceived as a prophecy of the end of the world.
Response to these apocalypse theories ranges from total dismissal or denial (even jokes relating it with the end of Twinkies!) to people suffering serious psychotic breaks and having suicidal ideations.
In Latvia, for example, insurers were requested to insure against abduction by aliens and the “breaking of the space-time continuum.”
For others, the French village of Bugarach will be the only safe place to be on December 21, hoping extraterrestrials will come to save the chosen ones from the end of the world.
But both the researchers studying the possibility of catastrophes and scholars on Mayan culture agree that the imminent destruction of our world, in other words ‘doomsday’, is baseless and the interpretation of the calendar, erroneous.

Doomsday: It’s a collective delirium

NASA has clearly stated that, “Nothing bad will happen to the Earth in 2012. Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012.”
Mayan scholar Mark Van Stone stated, “There is nothing in the Maya or Aztec or ancient Mesoamerican prophecy to suggest that they prophesied a sudden or major change of any sort in 2012.”
Astronomer Don Yeomans, from NASA’s Near-Earth Object program in Pasadena, CA, told that, “Nibiru is ridiculous because it doesn’t exist–it never existed as anything other than a figment of the imagination by pseudo-scientists who don’t seem bothered by a complete lack of evidence.”
Still, people’s minds have been impressed by the end of the world theories. Hundreds are building bunkers and pyramids; moving to a more secure ground; scouting the sky for approaching comets or planets, collecting seeds, and buying survival kits, while others are cashing millions with books and movies predicting or depicting doomsday.

End of the world’s biggest impact: Not on the Earth but on our psyches

A global research company, Ipsos, polled 16,262 adults in 21 countries. According to the firm, one in seven people (14 percent) believes the world will come to an end during their lifetime and one in 10 people believes that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world. Another 10 percent of the participants in the survey confessed they are experiencing fear and anxiety from doomsday talks.
Interestingly enough, it’s China not the U.S., that hosts the largest percentage of believers in the end of the world in 2012, while Indonesia and Germany have the lowest percentages. In the U.S., 12 percent of the people are believers.
The survey did not account however for those people that instead of predicting the apocalypse, are preparing for a spiritual collective awakening or a metamorphosis on December 2012 – another generalized theory that has made Facebook groups and event pages bloom.

A doomsday is about darkness vs. light

The light – rebirthing, transformation, goodness, and dark – destruction, catastrophe, evil – archetypes play significant roles in all cultures. They are the core of novels, plays and movies.
The term “archetype” in Jungian psychology refers to a collective unconscious idea, pattern of thought or image that is universally imprinted in our minds.
Doomsday and apocalypse theories pervade all cultures and religions on Earth.
In modern days, the apocalyptic fear translates into beliefs of zombie pandemics, dread of nuclear war or environmental disasters, and also calamities caused by climate change. Since they’re rooted in true events, believers distrust authorities’ placatory efforts.
You might remember the big fear of the arrival of year 2000 and the two preceding decades where Zoroastrian and Nostradamus prophecies became a common subject for TV shows, lectures and books. And 2000 years ago, early Christians were also preparing for Armageddon.
This fear of the end of the world mirrored the terror previously experienced as the year 1000 approached. Delirious preaching, extreme penance and warning signs and wonders accompanied apocalyptic panic. People stopped working, gave up their belongings, abandoned their families and prepared for the Last Judgment.
Christianity and other religions – probably based on old Zoroastrian prophecies – include this idea of a Judgment Day that involves a collective resurrection and eternal paradise or everlasting punishment for saints and sinners respectively.

End of the world: Why human mind expects devastation instead of Nirvana

Our mind has a proclivity to believe that everything has a purpose, which implies a belief in destiny – a precondition to brew apocalyptic beliefs. But, why – researchers ponder – is it that humans tend to believe first in devastation and then in Nirvana?
Unconscious guilt, psychoanalysts would guess.
Much like Raskolnikov in Fedor Dostoyevsky’s literary masterpiece Crime and Punishment, humans expect (even unconsciously seek) punishment for their “bad deeds.” Apocalypse would be the opportunity to sort righteousness from evil, exterminate malevolence, purify the sinful and arise as a phoenix from the ashes.
Fears and guilt associated to an end of the world are fed up by religions promising Heaven or Nirvana to the well-behaved. But they’re also probably ingrained psychological mechanisms aiming at inhibiting antisocial behavior.
So before you panic about doomsday arriving this December 21, inform yourself through reliable sources and don’t succumb to unsubstantiated fears.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The 12 Neuroses of Christmas

The countdown begins to Christmas... but what about the psychological impact??

Over the years, self-help authors have bent themselves into a pop-psych pretzel trying to identify and cure a battery of seasonal ailments—from the midsummer doldrums to spring fever to back-to-school blahs. What surprises me is that, with all this credentialed attention paid to the emotional distresses that seem to come and go with the equinoxes, nowhere has there been a serious exploration of Thanksgiving-to-Christmastime angst.
Oh, sure, you've read the homespun tips for coping with the upcoming seasonal stress (e.g., relentless familial interaction, gift-giving anxiety, Bowl Game viewing selection). But where is a down-and-dirty checklist of those real turkey-to-mistletoe neuroses—you know, the ones that linger in the pit of your stomach like a lump of coal in the toe of a stocking?
Having celebrated 47 Christmases in my lifetime—18 of them as the youngest son in a Jewish family, 19 as a carefree agnostic and the past ten holed up in the guest room of my Episcopalian in-laws' house in Cleveland—I know a thing or two about how the yuletide brings out the fruitcake in all of us.

Deck the halls, America. Carefully.

Orderline Personality Disorder (OPD): The inability to stop calling 1-800 numbers in pursuit of last-minute holiday sales. Hopelessly devoted to low-budget, late-night infomercials—and secure in the knowledge that operators are, indeed, standing by—OPD sufferers commonly exhibit three telltale symptoms of their buy-by-phone disorder: an unusually flat ear; the inability to recite numbers without also mentioning a cardholder name and expiration date; and a sudden addiction to 3 a.m. reruns of Three's Company on Nick at Nite. (Technophobes who still own rotary phones also run the risk of developing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.)

Ho-Ho-Phobia (HHP): A profound fear of rotund, bearded men in red suits and black boots. HHP outbreaks usually surface in late November, when sufferers begin to report frequent sightings of their most feared apparition on street corners, in shop windows and on TV commercials for local car dealerships. Often referring to these men as Santa Claus, St. Nick or "chortling fatboy," the afflicted appear most unsettled by what they call "department store Santas," whom they insist "are constantly surrounded by cranky little men in green outfits who keep glancing at their watches." (See following related disorders.)

North-Polar Disorder (NPD): The chronic fear that someone is on the roof.

Blitzen Fits (BF): Uncontrollable tantrums resulting from the belief that reindeer have befouled one's driveway.

Calendar Countdown Condition (CCC): An unyielding obsession with how many shopping days are left until Christmas. Constantly reaching for PDAs and notepads, CCC sufferers feel a pressing need to absorb and retain a daunting litany of time zones, store hours and driving mileage in support of their shop-or-drop obsession. "It's amazing," notes Harvard University's Arnold Belfry, who has studied CCC. "Some of these people can't even balance their checkbooks. But can they number-crunch the time it takes to get to the Radio Shack on Route 40? Down to the millisecond." CCC is most commonly found among former math majors, chronic coupon-clippers and old ladies who still use tiny change purses.

Saksual Dysfunction (SD) (also known as Saks Addiction): A disabling sense of disappointment upon receiving a gift that wasn't purchased at Saks Fifth Avenue. Unable to control winces, grimaces and stony pouts after opening their presents, SD sufferers were previously thought to be incurable. Yet new hope emerged last year when, in an experimental trial, Geraldine Koop of Bellport, Long Island, was gradually exposed to lesser-quality Christmas gifts during a two-week period. Successfully uttering half-convincing thank-yous after receiving a toaster oven from Macy's and a pair of Isotoner driving gloves from the Fashion Bug, Koop was pronounced entirely cured when she actually screamed, "Just what I've always wanted!" after getting a Weed Whacker from Wal-Mart. (See following related disorder.)

Angoraphobia (AP): A chronic fear that cousin Harriet from Omaha sent you another homemade sweater for Christmas.

OCD-AAA: A variation on obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which sufferers are constantly on the verge of panic for fear that they forgot to buy triple-A batteries for their kid's Game Boy. Although researchers once believed OCD-AAA was chiefly a male syndrome passed from father to son, new data point to a variant in married women. Currently classified OCD-BVD, the affliction manifests in wives' inability to choose between boxers and briefs when underwear shopping for their spouses. (Further studies are currently being conducted under a joint grant from the AMA, NIH and the Fruit of the Loom Foundation.)

Semitic Phlegm Syndrome (SPS): The inability to make the guttural, Hebraic 'ch' sound when pronouncing the word Chanukah. Primarily afflicting children, gentiles and seriously lapsed Jews, SPS sufferers become paralyzed with fear that a passing remark about Chanukah at the dinner table will cause them to launch unexpected throat projectiles into the mashed potatoes. Sufferers typically isolate themselves from family members during spontaneous 'round-the-piano sing-alongs, particularly during the number "(C)happy (C)holidays."

Tongue-Tied Terror (TTT): The inability to speak normally in the presence of one's in-laws at the holiday dinner table. Often referred to by its clinical name, "selective relational mutism," TTT renders sufferers with a sudden loss of speech during family meals, primarily when potential in-laws make such passing inquiries as, "So what are your intentions?" "How soon can you give us grandkids?" and the more pointed "How much did you say you make?"

Dick Clark Syndrome (DCS): Named for the American entertainer most famously associated with New Year's, DCS encompasses a host of fixations in which celebrants find their calendar-turning revelry marked more by lid-flipping than cork-popping. Sub-ailments include Fez-o-Phobia, a fear of silly paper hats; Midnight Madness, the dread of being kissed as the clock strikes 12 by a slobbering stranger with beer breath; and Synusitis, the inability to accurately define the words auld, lang and/or syne.

Walking Winter-Wonderland Disease (WWW): The inability to be giddy or mirthful at the sight of a new snowfall. Constantly complaining about the clatter of snow chains and expressing a sudden need to shovel the walk, the WWW-afflicted often remain debilitated by this wet-white-blanket disorder until the first spring thaw. For further information on WWW disease, log on to the national Web site at

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Inside The Mind of a School Shoot-out Killer

The killer behind the horrific elementary school killing spree would have seen the children he shot dead as ‘little more than trophies’, an expert psychologist has said. A lone gunman – believed to be 20-year-old Adam Lanza - opened fire at around 9.30am this morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It is understood at least 29 people have been killed – including 22 children - and is the worst spree shooting in American history. Professor Craig Jackson, head of psychology at Birmingham City University and an expert in spree killings, said the murderer would have seen killing the children as a way of enacting revenge on those he was angry with.
‘To him the children are just a lump of meat that happen to help him prove his point,’ he explained.
‘If this was a revenge spree then he would see the children as useful trophies because each death would injure those he wanted to hurt.
‘This was the case in the Dunblane school massacre. Thomas Hamilton had no connection to the school but saw the killing of the children as a way to punish the community as a whole.’
It is understood Lanza headed to the elementary school where he killed the head teacher before targeting a class taught by his mother. Professor Jackson said: 
‘It is possible that this spree stemmed from a domestic row and after he killed once, he decided to continue shooting.
'As he had already killed one person, he may have seen keeping on going as the only option.
‘But then the main question is, why shoot the children? There must have been a motive for that. He must have felt he had a grievance with the community that he wanted to punish.
‘Many spree killers target children as a way to get even with the local community.
‘I’m sure many survivors will report that he was calm and focused. These sort of killers aren’t crazed, they know what they are doing and choose who they kill.
'Victim selection is not random, and statements from many spree survivors describe how something about them, their looks, their history with the killer, or even how they pleaded for their life was able to make the killer's attention shift from them.
‘The Columbine High School massacre is an example of this, where the killers let some people go but shot others dead.
'This makes them feel powerful and in control.’
Professor Jackson explained that all spree killers have certain things in common – they are unstable, narcissistic, immature and consistently blame others for their failures.
He continued: ‘They often believe they should be doing better in life than they are doing and believe it is others’ fault that they are not.
‘They may believe teachers held them back, or blame their parents, but it is never their fault.
‘This outlook builds throughout their lives and then it comes to a point that something tips them over the edge.’
He said the killing of his mother points to trouble at home but the thing that sent the killer over the edge could also be down to problems at work or university.
The Batman killer James Holmes had been kicked out of his university for failing his exams shortly before his shooting rampage at the midnight screening of the Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20.
Professor Jackson added that spree killers are often loners who don’t have partners or children – though there are some exceptions to the rule, such as Derrick Bird who killed 12 people and injured 11 others before killing himself in Cumbria, England, in 2010.
He said: ‘Spree killers are normally aged between their 30s and 40s. This killer is in his early twenties, so it is unlikely that he had a partner or a child, but not impossible.
‘It is unusual at his young age to carry out a spree killing at an elementary school. When they are this young, they tend to carry out their shootings at their university campus.
‘A prime example is Seung-Hui Cho, a South Korean student, who killed more than 30 people in a spree killing at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia, United States, in 2007.
'There have also been two spree killings at universities in Germany and another two in Finland in the last eight years.
‘So it is unusual for a man his age to choose an elementary school. It appears the main connection must be because of his mother.'
But he added it wasn’t surprising that the killer was not taken alive.
‘Many spree killers don’t intend to survive and often will stay alive until police arrive who they will force to shoot them.
‘It is then that police, particularly in America, will start checking the killer’s home for booby traps and weapons. The Batman killer left pipe bombs and booby traps in his apartment.
‘They often evacuate the street in case of this but it seems unlikely any would have been set in this case if he lived with his parents.
‘It also seems that an argument may have triggered the killings rather than a well-thought-out attack.’
But Professor Jackson said his main concern is that the killings will spark a copycat attack.
He continued: ‘It is often the case with spree killings that get wide-spread media coverage that another will happen a few weeks afterwards.
‘This was the case with the Batman killer and Dunblane. Three weeks after Dunblane, Martin Bryant murdered 35 people and injuring 21 others in the Port Arthur massacre, in Tasmania, Australia, in 1996. He said he had hoped to beat the number of people that Thomas Hamilton had killed.’

Friday, 14 December 2012

The Psychology Behind: End Of The World Theories

What do:
...have in common?

They are all end of the world movements. They all preach apocalypse.
But why is the vision of apocalypse so compelling? Why does it work as a hook for the human spirit over and over again? Why would susceptibility to such a strange fascination become so basic to us that it may well be seated in our genes, seated in our biology? Why would evolution keep catastrophe belief alive in generation after generation and in cultures scattered all over the planet?

Just how widespread are catastrophe obsessions anyway? Does the sweet tooth for catastrophe scenarios really span eras and continents? Or is it just one of our self-defeating Western eccentricities?

First off, apocalypse obsession goes back a long way. Early Christians were certain that Jesus had predicted the end of the world as we know it, certain that Jesus had foretold sweeping disasters that would usher in the coming of a Kingdom of God. These first century AD Christian believers expected to see Jesus return from the grave bringing a new world order any day or week. That was nearly 2,000 years ago and 5,700 miles away in the heart of a Jewish territory in the Middle East. But when Christ failed to show up, that didn't discredit his religion. In fact, the belief system based on a faulty prediction has grown by leaps and bounds.

Two millennia down the line and 8,200 miles away on the West Coast of the United States, in Hollywood, there arose another such prediction. And it proved even more instantly popular than early Christianity. It was bequeathed to us in the form of a feature film-2012-the film whose maker, Sony Pictures, claims it's the number one movie on the globe today. 2012 sums up its message in its tagline-"Who will survive the end of the world?"

But 2012 is not the only apocalypse-centered bit of Western pop culture enjoying runaway success. If you manage to plow through the more than a hundred 2012 books on and are still starved for armageddon, you can quaff your thirst for fire and brimstone with Tim LaHaye's sixteen right wing Christian apocalypse novels, The Left Behind series, books that have sold 65 million copies in a publishing market that feels it's done well if it sells a mere 50,000 books.

Where does the concept that the world will end in 2012 come from? Why 2012? The date allegedly comes from the Mayan calendar and from Mayan mythology. According to the Mayans, the gods tried three creations of mankind and failed in each. Then they got the hang of human-making and pulled off the creation of creatures like you and me, creatures capable of singing their praises. That was in August 11, 3114 BC. But according to the Mayans, a creation can only survive for 5,126 years, then it collapses and makes way for yet another try. Ours, the fourth creation, is due to end on December 20, 2112. Or so the story goes. Some Mayan experts say that this is a wild and frenzied fabrication. In other words, there is a good chance that we Western connoisseurs of calamity have concocted the concept of a cataclysmic 2012 using the Mayans as an excuse.

To a historian of religion, all of this would sound eerily familiar. Americans have hungered for the thrill of imminent disaster for a long time. In the early 19th century, an upstate New York farmer, William Miller, preached that the globe would collapse cataclysmically in 1843. Then, when the end failed to arrive on time, Miller's followers reworked his prediction and claimed the world would cease its comfy existence in 1844. That should have been the end of Miller's credibility. But it wasn't. Miller's predictions were so compelling that his followers today number sixteen million. They're called Seventh Day Adventists.

But that's just our nutty Western civilization. Surely other cultures are not so cataclysm obsessed. Especially the wisest cultures on the planet, those of indigenous peoples. But once there was an indigenous people in Meso-America, a people totally isolated from Western influence. So isolated that Westerners didn't have a clue that this tribe and its lands existed. Nor did these native folk have any suspicion that other continents lay across the seas. These indigenes were sophisticated city-builders and empire-crafters. But they were also so end-of-the-world obsessed that they helped bring about a real apocalypse-the end of the world as they knew it.

They did it with their religion's self-destructive prediction that white gods would come from the East bringing the strife of end-times. When Cortez and his conquistadors showed up, the pale strangers seemed to fulfill the prediction. And in the beginning, Moctezuma, the indigenous emperor, made the mistake of welcoming these Spanish killers into the heart of his city. The name of the civilization that made this great mistake? The Aztecs. And their self-defeating predictions were so powerful that there are no more Aztecs left today.

But what about peoples who actively oppose the Western way of life? Peoples who believe in radically different truths? Surely they are not so twisted that disaster scenarios appeal to them. Right? One of the two great cultures opposing Western ways today is the empire of Islam, an empire whose conquests span a territory eleven times the size of the conquests of Alexander the Great, five times the size of the Roman Empire, and seven times the size of the United States. From 622 AD onward, militant Islam pieced together the greatest empire in the history of the world, one that maintains its hold on believers from Nigeria and Algeria to Indonesia and Malaysia, 11,300 miles apart, with or without a united political structure. Surely a belief system that has supported such astonishing achievements is not weakened by catastrophe fixation. Or is it?

Eighty five percent of Muslim Shiites-the Islamic Twelvers--believe in the appearance of a 12th imam who disappeared in the ninth century and who will show up any day now to bring the light and truth of Islam to the entire world. How will that imam cleanse the planet of its old and radically incorrect ideas-sins like democracy, secularism, Western human rights, and tolerance? With end-of-the-world catastrophe. Catastrophe followed by a new world order in which the laws of Islam will rule from one end of the planet to another. Bringing you and me to Islam...or eliminating us entirely. What's chilling is that one of these catastrophe believers is Ahmad Ahmadinejad, the current president of Iran, a man who seems to be racing to pocket one of the keys to apocalypse-nuclear weaponry.

We won't go into the Native American Ghost Dance religion. Or into Japan's Aum Shinrikyo. Take my word for it. They are catastrophe-beliefs. Instead, let me take you back to the question that's been puzzling me. Why are we so often hooked on millennial movements, movements that say the world is about to end? What's the underlying biology of this seemingly whacky and counter-productive addiction? A belief that sucks up our energies, saps our resources, and almost always turns out to be wrong? Surely in a world where each organism is tuned to survival, such wrenching belief systems should not exist. Right?

Try this out as answer number one. Sometimes disaster predictions come true. They have to. War, earthquake, and famine happen fairly regularly on this bleak and threatening earth. So even if you toss dice to see when the world will end, your toss will sometimes be on target. That lucky toss of the dice happened to a would-be 19th century prophet from Pittsburgh, a preacher named Charles Taze Russell, who predicted that collapse and disaster would arrive before 1910 and culminate in 1914. In a sense, Russell was right. In 1914, Europe entered the very first World War, the very first industrial war to engulf the globe. That war killed an unprecedented 40 million. And in the view of many historians, that war-the War to End All Wars-wiped out the old European views of the world and ushered in a very new weltanschauung. But there was a snag. A big one. Catastrophe did not usher in the rule of Christ that Russell had predicted. This central glitch, however, didn't stop Russell's millennial belief system, his predictions of imminent catastrophe. Today his followers are called Jehovah's Witnesses. And there are seventeen million of them.

Accidental accuracy doesn't seem a strong enough reason to keep a catastrophe fixation alive in humans all through historic time and in cultures seated on opposite sides of a planet. Surely biology and evolution must have a greater reason for holding on to such a deep disaster passion. Try this out as answer number two to the riddle of rapture and end-of-the-world-in-a-ball-of-flame visions. It's in a 60-year old experiment that plays a key role in my first book, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History. Here's the description from The Lucifer Principle:

"In the late 1940's, the German researcher F. Steiniger put fifteen brown rats who had never met each other into a cage. At first the creatures cowered in the corners, frightened and apprehensive. If they accidentally bumped into each other, they bared their teeth and snapped. Gradually, however, it dawned on some of the males that among this batch of strangers were attractive young females. The gentleman rodents became budding Don Juans and went a courting.

"The first male and female to win each others' hearts now had something all the others lacked - an ally. The pair took full advantage of the situation: they terrorized their cagemates. At first, the lovers simply chased their fellow rodents away from food, sending them scurrying to the safety of the far end of the enclosure. Later, the romantic duo hunted down their neighbors one by one. The female was a particularly quick killer. She would sneak up on a victim as it was quietly chewing a bit of chow, spring with a sudden speed, and bite the unfortunate in the side of the neck, often opening a wound in the carotid artery. Some of the attacked died of infection. Others, mauled and worn down by frantic efforts to escape, succumbed to exhaustion. When the happy couple had finished, they were the only survivors.

"The rats had cleared the new territory of competitors, transforming the cage into a spacious land of milk and honey for themselves. A new promised land. Now, they could found a tribe that might if left to its own devices thrive for generations to come. A tribe that would carry the parental line of genes."

How does this relate to the popularity of notions that the world is about to end? Think for a second. Every millennial end-of-the-world movement has a hitch. We'll all be broiled, fried, or caught in the crossfire of apocalyptic battles and plague. WE'LL be wiped out. But not the true believers. They'll be saved. And they'll have a fresh new world, a world purged of us, a world they can turn into their own private paradise.

Apocalypse-beliefs, I suspect, are land-clearance and land-grab dreams in disguise-dreams left over from our time as beasts.

Now for a few closing suspicions. One of the most popular apocalyptic belief systems of the last 30 years has been the idea that we humans are bringing the destruction of the planet. The greenhouse-gas scenario is partly a scientific hypothesis and partly a deeply appealing myth. Climate-change-beliefs are a secular expression of an antique pattern...perhaps an instinctual pattern. They are a new way of saying that the end is coming and that only the believers will be saved. Only those who've embraced the right god or the right philosophy will survive. Only they will know the truth behind the new world order. And they will do more than remain alive, they will come out on top. They will flourish and thrive.

Which leaves us with three simple questions. Questions whose answers can have a powerful effect on your life and mine:

1.) Are the climate change believers right? Or will they force us to cripple our civilization so badly that the second great civilization we're competing with today-the 2,200-year old empire of China-will come out on top?

2.) could the apocalypse obsession that rules Iran today end in the fire of nuclear war?

And 3.) How do we evade the fate of the Aztecs? How do we make sure that our end-of-the-world predictions do not become an end-of-the-world reality? How do we make sure that the kind of world we would like to live in survives?

By Howard Bloom