Socratic Conversation: The Changing Face of Time

Tuesday November 19, 5pm to 7pm

Boston University’s School of Theology Building, room 625

Socratic Conversations bring together scholars and researchers from diverse fields in the Boston academic community to discuss topics of common interest whose scope necessarily crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries.

On Tuesday, November 19, Boston University PhD Candidate, Mark Simes, will present selections of his dissertation research, “Tempora Mutantur: An examination of time in physics, biology and human mental experience”.  

As an advanced PhD candidate in Boston University’s University Professors Program, Mark Simes has been designing a unique and multifaceted research program at the nexus of social neuroscience, history and philosophy of science and social theory/cultural anthropology.  

The work that will be presented is a transdisciplinary analysis of time – both the concept in physics, biology and philosophy and the phenomenon in life and culture – with the ultimate goal of deepening our understanding of the empirical manifestation of time in human mental processes.

A Little Love Affair

By Liah Greenfeld

My mother just turned 85. Her mind is sharp and her will is strong, but she is ill and tired of life, and has been dying, I feel, since my father’s death almost eleven years ago. She has breast cancer, which she does not want to treat, and barely walks. She was a doctor. Therefore, she does not see doctors. But she still lives in the large apartment she shared with my father and their last cat and insists on taking care of all her daily needs. Since the cat died – at the age of eighteen – three years ago, she lives completely alone.

For many years, from long before she retired at 73, a part of her routine has been feeding alley cats in her neighborhood. She lives in Israel where though one very rarely sees homeless dogs, homeless cats proliferate, eking their meager existence on the streets. Those who survive their first year around garbage containers of apartment houses, which are their natural food source, usually live for another two or three years, and, among them, my mother’s cats are an exception – some of them have reached the age of ten and even more. But kittens are very vulnerable, most of them die before they ever venture with their mothers on their scavenging expeditions – even cats my mother feeds at best succeed in raising one kitten out of every litter.

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The Maddening of America

The relative global decline of the United States has become a frequent topic of debate in recent years. Proponents of the post-American view point to the 2008 financial crisis, the prolonged recession that followed, and China’s steady rise. Most are international-relations experts who, viewing geopolitics through the lens of economic competitiveness, imagine the global order as a seesaw, in which one player’s rise necessarily implies another’s fall.

But the exclusive focus on economic indicators has prevented consideration of the geopolitical implications of a US domestic trend that is also frequently discussed, but by a separate group of experts: America’s ever-increasing rates of severe mental disease (which have already been very high for a long time).

The claim that the spread of severe mental illness has reached “epidemic” proportions has been heard so often that, like any commonplace, it has lost its ability to shock. But the repercussions for international politics of the disabling conditions diagnosed as manic-depressive illnesses (including major unipolar depression) and schizophrenia could not be more serious.–Liah Greenfeld

Mind, Brain, and Culture

“You cannot understand the mind without understanding how the brain works”—Patricia S. Churchland, Touching a Nerve

“Each human brain is part of a dynamic, interacting system  of other brains embedded in culture… why are the shops full of books such as Touching a Nerve, which show that it is the brain that makes decisions, determines moral values and explains political attitudes?  I can only assume that these are the modern equivalent of Gothic horror stories. We love to be frightened by the thought that we  are nothing more than the 1.5 kilograms of sentient meat that is our brain, but we don’t  really believe it”—Chris Frith, “My Brain and I,” Nature

“While culture can be referred to as “collective mind,” the mind can be conceptualized as “culture in the brain,” or “individualized culture.” These are not just two elements of the same—symbolic and mental—reality, they are one and the same process occurring on two different levels—the individual and the collective, similar to the life of an organism and of the species to which it belongs in the organic world. The fundamental laws governing this process on both levels are precisely the same laws and at every moment, at every stage in it, it moves back and forth between the levels; it cannot, not for a split second, occur on only one of them. The mind constantly borrows symbols from culture, but culture can only be processed—i.e., symbols can only have significance and be symbols—in the mind”—Liah Greenfeld

Women and Sex

By Liah Greenfeld

The July issue of Vogue magazine carries an article on a significant change occurring in the sex-lives of American women. Many of them, the article claims, must now choose between good mood and good sex, and, in some cases, between having a life and having sex altogether. Many, obviously, choose life. Some of the husbands, as one may well expect, object. Such choice must be made because more and more women (over 20 percent at present, the article points out) are suffering from depression severe enough to seek help; they are medicated; and practically all effective anti-depressants have serious sexual side-effects–they destroy libido. Fully one-third of this over-20-percent of sexually active American women on antidepressants are deprived of sexual pleasures as a result. One thinks with sympathy about American men too, who also often suffer from depression, take medications, and suffer from similar side-effects. Since the 20 percent or so of depressed women do not completely overlap with the 20 percent or so of depressed men, it stands to reason that more than one-third of 20 percent in each group are deprived of sex and its pleasures as a result of medication. Add to this that untreated depression does not encourage sexual activity either, because it discourages any activity, and that it prevents enjoying sex, because it makes any enjoyment impossible, and we end with a pretty large group of people, women and men, who are, we may say, sexually disabled. Of course, they suffer from this disability.

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The Mind as Culture in the Brain

By Liah Greenfeld

In previous posts I have already began the discussion of the possibility that humanity is a reality of its own kind, an emergent phenomenon, based on our animal (biological) nature, but irreducible to it and, instead, defined by culture (on the collective level) and the mind, or as some other languages refer to it, the soul (on the level of the individual). There are three biological conditions for the emergence of this autonomous reality, I suggested: a highly developed brain, signs, and the larynx specific to our species. The first two, I further argued, are reflected in the widespread proofs of the animal abilities for what neuroscientists call “learning” and “memory,” to which I added “imagination.” We share these cognitive abilities with numerous animal species. In this post, I want to continue the discussion of the special human reality, going beyond its biological conditions.

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Would You Like to Live Forever?

By Liah Greenfeld

Last month, Johan P. Mackenbach, an economist from Rotterdam, published on Project Syndicate an article on disparities in life expectancy between people in lower vs. upper strata in advanced industrialized countries, with the title “Only the Poor Die Young” and arguing that life estimates of one’s life expectancy at birth today varies as much as 5 to 10 years, depending on whether one is born in the lower socio-economic strata or in the upper ones. Much of this discrepancy, apparently, is attributed to behavioral differences: people of the lower socio-economic background are less likely to follow healthy living advice–to abstain from smoking, avoid high-cholesterol foods, etc.

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Linking the Mind and the Brain

“An important task these days is to harvest the exciting gains made by science and data while understanding the limits of science and data. The next time somebody tells you what a brain scan says, be a little skeptical. The brain is not the mind”–David Brooks

“The basic elements of psychology, like beliefs, desires, goals, and thoughts, will likely always play a key role in our understanding of human behavior, which is why science needs researchers who study the mind every bit as much as it needs researchers who study the brain. Our aim should not be to pick the brain over the mind, or vice versa, but to build stronger bridges between our understandings of the two”–Gary Marcus

“What most distinguishes Greenfeld’s model of the mind from so much else in the field is that she brings together biological and cultural approaches to mental illness inclusively rather than exclusively, in a way that enlarges rather than diminishes both. While accepting the biological reality of major mental illnesses, her analysis is focused not simply on the brain, in a reductive sense, but on the mind as a product of experience and learning as well as biology. Likewise, she applies cultural concepts to psychiatry not in the reductive, purely social-constructionist manner of Laing, Foucault, and Szasz, but so as to foster understanding of cultural and historical variations in the incidence and expression of mental illness that biology alone cannot explain”Harold J. Bursztajn, M.D., Harvard Medical School