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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…

The neuroscience of Lady Gaga

“I was always not a cool kid, and then I suddenly feel like the cool kid,” she tells her screaming fans, all of whom are making monster claws into the air. “Tonight, you’re a cool kid,” she concludes with a giggle, blessing her thousands of adorers with approval that can only come from the Ga.

It’s becoming a point of conversation and agreement across the country: Lady Gaga is not just a pop-star–she is a pop phenomenon. She’s soared past the likes of Katy Perry. She’s bigger than Britney. And many say she’s passing up Madonna’s Read more…