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Neuroanthropology: from Abassi to Zu

The human proclivity toward myth fascinates me. The tendency to both generate and consume stories intended to orient our existence into the context of a higher pattern is stunningly ubiquitous.

Ultimately, have the storytelling creators of our myths not projected onto gods and heroes those fears, tensions, and aspirations we feel most profoundly? And have these stories themselves not undergone a Darwinian process?–a natural selection in which the themes and ideas that strike the deepest resonance with human minds are propagated, mutated, and selected anew?

In short, our repository of myth is emergent from our psychology; and our psychology–in turn–is emergent from our neurology. Read more…

The Book of Mormon: God’s favorite musical

I had the pleasure of going this week to see my college buddy Clark Johnsen perform in the new Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon.” Having grown up Mormon myself, and having had many long, searching conversations with Clark over the years about our beliefs and upbringing in the Mormon faith, this was a particularly meaningful pilgrimage for me to the Great White Way.

I knew from my South Park patronage not to expect a musical that my mom would approve. But what I did NOT expect was a smartly-written, endearing production with the intelligence of Joseph Campbell and the heartfulness of Janice Kapp Perry. Read more…

The misnomer of “functional connectivity”

Lately I’ve actually been growing frustrated with the term “functional connectivity.”  The term is used to describe an imaging strategy known as “functional connectivity MRI,” or “fcMRI.” In short, “functional connectivity MRI” is a technique in which the intensity of blood fluctuations in small regions of interest in the brain are charted over time. Then, the synchronicity of blood fluctuations for regions of interest is calculated in order to determine the degree to which those regions of the brain operate in concert with one another.

Now don’t get me wrong: I think that fcMRI is a brilliant technique. I use it in my research, and it yields indispensable information in the collective effort to understand the human brain.

That being said, I think the term “functional connectivity” is a misnomer, and I think a lot of people are assuming that “functional connectivity” tells us something about physical wiring diagrams in the brain. It does not. If anything, “functional connectivity” tells us about the software of the brain, rather than the organ’s hardware.

By analogy, let’s say that a team of sociologists is looking at the student population of a large high school, and proposes to create a diagram of “social connectivity” for the student body, in an effort to graph the cliques, clubs, and sports teams at the school. And let’s say that their technique for “social connectivity” is to look at the number of times that any two students are talking at the same time throughout the day, regardless of their location within the school. Certainly this endeavor to chart the ebb and flow of talkativeness within the student body would be interesting, and could be used to diagram lots of dynamical trends within the Read more…

Human Connectome Project: the great controversy begins

This is one of those topics that is a *very* big deal…but for which it is going to be difficult to convey the import, owing to the technical involvement of the subject. Try to hang with me on this, though–I will do my best to make it digestible!

The necessary starting point is to understand the NIH’s push for a Human Connectome Project. The “connectome” refers to a yet-to-be-created map of the wiring connections in the human brain. This is a very big deal! I don’t think that I can overstate how essential this map will be for revolutionizing our understanding of phenomena such as human cognition and psychiatric disease. By comparison, the Human Connectome will be for neuroscience what the Human Genome is for molecular biology. And, like the Human Genome, the completion of the Human Connectome map will only be the beginning (and a darn-exciting beginning) to better unfolding the layered complexity we each carry within our skulls.

Steve Petersen at Washington University is the chair of the fMRI portion of the Human Connectome Project (hereafter “HCP”). The fMRI team has laid out a two-phase timeline for completion of the project: phase I will be a two-year period of Read more…

SfN shakedown

Hooray–the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting is underway.

The main kick-off event was Glenn Close’s opening speech to the conference goers yesterday. She did a fantastic job. It was perhaps a little self-indulgent with the high volume of movie clips that she used. Of herself. In her own talk. But I can forgive her since she really is throwing her personal celebrity into such a wonderful cause, i.e., fighting against the societal stigma of mental health disorders. (As a self-indulgent aside on my part, I TOTALLY called the punchline on her main joke…Glenn described a woman coming up to her in the airport and asking her, “Are you who I think you are.” I said to my neighbor, “Meryl Streep. The punchline is that the woman thought she was Meryl Streep.” Holluh–ten points to my conference scorecard.) Read more…

On Communion

I must begin with a confession: I am chronically religious. If religion is indeed a disorder, then I have a severe case.

Let me explain.

There are amazing moments in my life when I vibrate at the core with wonderment for this mysterious universe in which we live. The intricacies of its systems graced by the elegance of its functionality–all of it leaves me, at times, emotionally breathless. And I am so delighted by the universe–by the fact of reality–that there are instances in which I want to explode…perhaps literally…into a supernova of praise and adulation and become forever absorbed by an oneness with the universe. (Wipes entrails off screen.) Nothing I know expresses an exuberance for the totality of it all quite like religion does for me. That highest yearning for communion and the loftiest reaching for a cosmic tao–I relish the Bronze Age striving for something bigger than the metalworking–for a connectedness that is transcendent of our day-to-day manipulation and immediacy. Read more…

Transhumanism: the meme that defeats itself?

It’s ironic to me that transhumanists–on one hand asserting an enlightened understanding of memes and what makes cultural concepts virulent–often seem to do so very little to apply the principles of effective memetic dissemination. Outspoken voices in the movement gleefully flip the bird at religious persons, then scramble to figure out why membership in transhumanist organizations is stagnant.

The movement has been hard-pressed for growth in the past 20+ years of its existence. I’m starting to suspect that part of the problem is the rabid anti-religiosity in much of transhuman rhetoric. My suspicion is that the level of propagandism turns off not just religious persons themselves, but clear-thinking non-theists who are sincere in trying to understand what it is about religion that speaks so deeply to the human soul. On principle, it’s hard to take seriously an initiative which claims to be ultra-rational when the dialog is decidedly anything but. Read more…

Trinitarian Archetypes in Darwinian Processes

The following are the text and video of my talk from the 2010 Transhumanism & Spirituality Conference, delivered on October 1, 2010 at the University of Utah. (The first half of the talk is adapted from my 8/24/10 blog post entitled ‘Narrative and the Brain’–my apologies for the resultant redundancy of blog content.)

Trinitarian Archetypes: A Transhumanist Mythos by Michael Ferguson on Vimeo.

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The title of my talk is “Trinitarian Archetypes in Darwinian Processes.”

I want to start my presentation by examining the power of the stories that we tell. Consider the following:

“Our ancestors have been human for a very long time. If a normal baby girl born forty thousand years ago were kidnapped by a time traveler and raised in a normal family in New York, she would be ready for college in eighteen years. She would learn English (along with—who knows?—Spanish or Chinese), understand trigonometry, follow baseball and pop music; she would probably want a pierced tongue and a couple of tattoos. And she would be unrecognizably different from the brothers and sisters she left behind.” –Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism (2006, emphasis added)

What is this all about? What is the differentiation between genetically identical, yet interpersonally unrecognizable individuals like the girl in our time traveling kidnapper scenario and her siblings? Implicitly, the differences are not biological. They are ultimately differences in the collective, accumulated storied contexts for the humans we are considering. What is story, and why is it so powerful and persuasive in our development into mature individuality?

The human capacity for narrative—like all of our intelligence capacities—is grounded in our biological make up. For us human beings Read more…

Narrative and the brain

“Our ancestors have been human for a very long time. If a normal baby girl born forty thousand years ago were kidnapped by a time traveler and raised in a normal family in New York, she would be ready for college in eighteen years. She would learn English (along with—who knows?—Spanish or Chinese), understand trigonometry, follow baseball and pop music; she would probably want a pierced tongue and a couple of tattoos. And she would be unrecognizably different from the brothers and sisters she left behind.” –Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism (2006)

What is this all about? Why the stark differentiation between genetically identical, yet unrecognizably distinct individuals like the girl in our time traveling kidnapper scenario and her siblings? Explicitly, the differences are not biological. They are ultimately Read more…

The neuroscience of the Holy Ghost

I should begin this post with a disclaimer that I have no delusions that this is a “final theory” on religious experience, nor do I even assert that this is a comprehensive model for the highly variable phenomena which people ascribe to Christianity specifically, much less religion generally. I’ve had several people comment that I would do well to read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, which I well may do.

That being said, I wanted to jot down a couple of ideas about the neural underpinnings of certain religious and spiritual experiences. The bottom line for my budding thoughts about the phenomenon of the Holy Ghost–commonly referred to in Christian parlance as the “fruit of the Spirit”–is that it is the affective resonance of cognitive prediction. Read more…