The ‘Hard Question’ simplified?

A New Thinking Emerges About Consciousness:

“The feeling you have as you read this sentence, (Harvard neuroscientist Daniel) Wegner argues, is an illusion pulled off by a complex machine in your skull. It not only reads and understands this sentence, he says, but also makes you feel as if you have experienced the reading of the sentence. In other words, the brain, not content with being a remarkably complex machine, also convinces itself that it isn’t a machine at all.

But why would it bother? The brain, Wegner contends, produces consciousness to give itself a feeling of having done something. This feeling helps the brain recognize similar situations when they arise — the next article in the newspaper, for instance. Being aware of its actions, the brain-machine can better decide whether to read another article.” Washington Post

Truth seekers

Book review: New British Philosophy: the interviews edited by Julian Baggini and Jeremy Stangroom

Where have all the philosophers gone? Asked to name a living philosopher, most educated people in Britain might come up with Jacques Derrida. Ask them for something they know about contemporary philosophy, and they might venture the opinion that Derrida is “the one who talks nonsense”. The early 20th century witnessed a bumper crop of great figures such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Less resounding but still significant contributions were made mid-century by the likes of Hilary Putnam, Willard Quine, Saul Kripke and others. However, there is little sign of anyone under the age of 40 ready to take their place today. If there are any candidates to emerge in this country, they may well be found in the pages of New British Philosophy, an absorbing collection of interviews with 16 of the nation’s rising stars. Many of them are the right side of middle age and primed to produce their best work. New Statesman

Thanks to David Walker for pointing me to this List of American Food Holidays: “Looking to find their niche into the greeting card market, here are some food themed holidays that you should know about.” I’m always looking for another excuse to celebrate…

The World Rock Paper Scissors Society:

“The World RPS Society is dedicated to the promotion of Rock Paper Scissors as a fun and safe way to resolve disputes. We feel that conserving the roots of RPS is essential for the growth and development of the game and the players. The World RPS Society is involved in many areas of the sport, such as; research studies, workshops, tournaments at both local and international levels, book publishing, and much more.”

The site includes a history of RPS, a strategy guide and an online trainer, as well as links to additional RPS resources.

Following All the Rules in a Close Encounter With a Grizzly: “…The five-minute face-off became painful, she explained in a telephone interview, only after the grizzly released the grip of his jaws, which he had gently clamped on her right thigh.” NY Times I had a similar close encounter with a bear twenty-odd years ago in the Sierras above Yosemite Valley, although fortunately it was not a grizzly…

Hysteria Hysteria

Last fall, something peculiar began to happen at more than two dozen elementary and middle schools scattered across the country. Suddenly, groups of children started breaking out with itchy red rashes that seemed to fade away when the children went home — and to pop up again when they returned to school. Frustratingly for the federal, state and county health officials who were working to explain this ailment, it did not conform to any known patterns of viral or bacterial illness.

The children had no other symptoms: no fever, no runny noses, no headaches or joint pain or respiratory complaints. Moreover, they were not passing their rashes on to parents or siblings outside school. Large groups (a dozen here, several dozen there) came down with it simultaneously, or within hours, rather than over the course of days or weeks, as you would expect with person-to-person transmission of a contagious illness. Then there was the nagging fact that in many of the outbreaks, girls accounted for a majority of the cases. Since neither germs nor the other likely culprit, environmental poisons, make a habit of discriminating by sex, this was puzzling news indeed.


This year, rashes — or any unexplained physical symptom — made people nervous in a way they did not before 9/11. Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe it was nervousness that helped create the unexplained symptoms. And maybe children were more likely to somaticize a lingering, inchoate anxiety about 9/11. Studies completed on New York schoolchildren this spring, for example, showed that months after the terrorist attacks, many of them still suffered from recurrent nightmares and trouble sleeping. Kids in other parts of the country surely experienced similar anxieties. And maybe, just maybe, this latent disquiet sometimes manifested itself in a curious, corporeal way — in the form of an itch.

NY Times Magazine

Apart from the question of a relationship to 9-11, the article raises fascinating issues about the status of the notion of ‘epidemic hysteria’ or ‘mass psychogenic illness’, difficult to accept but certainly real, with many documented outbreaks in the medical literature, which often affect the skin. (As any dermatologist will confirm, this organ is extremely psychologically sensitive.) It is both conceptually difficult to accept and considered pejorative by most of the public to suggest that a bodily reaction can be caused solely by, and be the sole observable manifestation of, one’s psychological state. More ‘loaded’ has been the political incorrectness of the concept of hysteria from a feminist perspective. The article suggests — and I agree — that there ought to be ways to accept both that this is “all in the head” and that a preponderence of those affected were female, without pejorative connotations.

Paul Krugman:

Heart of Cheapness: “In one of the oddest enterprises in the history of development economics, Bono – the lead singer for the rock band U2 – has been touring Africa with Paul O’Neill, secretary of the treasury. For a while, the latent tensions between the two men were masked by Bono’s courtesy; but on Monday he lost his cool.”  NY Times

A reader asks:

I’m struck by your insight back in 1984 when you suggested that Reagan might be developing Alzheimer’s disease. Would you feel comfortable making such a suggestion again if you thought it were warranted?

I ask because I believe you’ve cautioned against long-distance diagnoses (unless I’m confusing stuff you’ve written from other things I’ve read online and off). You’ve gained 18 years of experience and wisdom since 1984, and I wonder whether you still think it was a good idea to make your long-distance diagnosis about Reagan.

It’s a tricky question because you were correct back then. But, generally speaking, do you think it’s a good idea for a doctor to say of a presidential candidate, “I think he should be checked out because, from what I see on TV, he exhibits signs of X disease or Y malfunction.”? That’s much different from saying, “I believe he should be checked out mentally and physically as a matter of policy.”

Thanks for the question. It is at times like these that I wish I were satisfied by any of the online comment systems for blogs [having flirted with a few, as readers will recall, and uninstalling each for one reason or another…]

In any case, I do indeed have qualms about diagnosing without doing a face-to-face history and examination of a patient. Probably, the public comments I’ve made (on FmH) have been cavils about the ‘parlor games’ of explaining the behavior of long-dead historical personages by a brilliant stroke of diagnosis without any medical evidence, as well as the worrisome proliferation of web-based psychotherapeutic treatment and medication prescribing sight unseen by physicians and allied health professionals I consider unscrupulous and unethical for doing so. Since I’m ‘out’ as a psychiatrist on the web, I have also — not very frequently, it turns out — received emails privately requesting medical or psychiatric advice and have demurred on those same grounds. In essence, my position is that it is (a) unethical to diagnose outside the confines of the doctor-patient treatment contract; (b) more likely to be inaccurate without the iterative process a face-to-face presence allows; and, finally, (c) it may interfere significantly with some existing treatment relationship the patient already has. [This is for a different discussion altogether, but this last point follows from my conviction that much diagnosis is not the delivery of an incontrovertible medical fact to the patient, but rather the weaving of a web of consensus with them. A diagnosis is one, shared, way of making sense of the data the patient has brought you about their current suffering, and its value depends on its explanatory power, which involves not only its scientific plausibility but the interpersonal context in which it is embedded.]

While I turned out to be correct in worrying in 1984 that Reagan had Alzheimer’s Disease, I don’t think I was prescient — now that I know more (much more!) about the diagnosis of dementia — so much as lucky. So much for accuracy, although I was pretty certain he was having some nature of cognitive difficulties by that time. Of course, the public exposure of a political candidate or leader, also, gives a great deal more opportunity for observation and ongoing refinement of diagnostic hypotheses than either a deceased historical personage or a private individual without public visibility.

As for the ethical concerns, I think we have to have a different, a lower, threshold for worrying about the intellectual wherewithal of any man with his finger on the nuclear trigger (or, for that matter, senior officials around him). For purposes of raising public concern, influencing people’s comfort electing someone President and Commander-in-Chief, or provoking interest in further formal examination of his mental status, I would continue today to be far more comfortable suggesting he might have a troubling medical condition than I would with a private individual where the concern was merely the treatment implications of the diagnostic hypothesis.

‘During a conversation between the two presidents, George W. Bush, 55, (USA) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, 71, (Brazil), Bush bewildered his colleague with the question “Do you have blacks, too?” ‘ Der Spiegel [thanks, Jeff]

When good food goes bad:

‘More than 90% of Americans take leftovers home from a restaurant at least occasionally and 32% take home leftovers on a regular basis. However, when it comes to proper leftover storage and reheating temperatures, or determining if food is still edible, consumers “are playing a guessing game,” according to a new survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the ConAgra Foods Foundation.

Among other findings, the “ADA/ConAgra Foods Home Food Safety” survey reports that (69%) of Americans are eating at restaurants at least once a week and about 57% are ordering take-out. Yet, barely 6% label and date restaurant leftovers to help them know when to throw foods out. Considering that food may spoil long before it looks, smells or tastes bad, 48% of respondents admit to relying on their senses to determine whether or not to consume leftovers, according to the survey.’ Brandweek [via Spike]

Announcement of the birth of Daniel and Mariane Pearl’s son Adam, with photo of mother and newborn. The Daniel Pearl Foundation [thanks, David]

Related: The unedited video of journalist Daniel Pearl being murdered is back online. An Internet hosting company in Virginia, which the FBI threatened last week with federal obscenity charges, said on Monday afternoon that it would resume distribution of the horrific 4-minute video.” Wired Make sure you’re really prepared to watch this before clicking on this blink. It is an obscenity but not that kind of obscenity. Having been away for several weeks, I’m not sure — is this old hat? has everyone who wants to already in fact viewed this?

Why is the Mona Lisa smiling?

Learning About Leonardo: “…rich multilingual cultural

perspectives on the identity of Mona Lisa, …lesson plans, museum links, current articles online about the

celebration of Leonardo’s Bronze Horse in Milan, as well as a view of

the Mona Lisa Bridge now built in Oslo, Norway.

Our project presents music composed by Leonardo da Vinci, and

we’ve also identified Leonardo’s portrait of an “unknown” Musician. [via an FmH reader]