Friday, October 13, 2017

A Seneca transition for the human mind? My third presentation in Paris

One more day in Paris, one more presentation. This one was given on Oct 12th, at the "Ecole Centrale d'Electronique" (ECE) for the members of the system dynamics group of the French Association of System Science ((

This one was a rather technical presentation, starting with the concept of "Mind Sized" system dynamics models to describe the "Seneca Effect", all the way to show some recent results of world modeling obtained by the MEDEAS project.

Overall, most (although not all) the people working in system dynamics are perfectly aware of the situation and of the difficulties associated with the transition. Perhaps the most interesting comment was about the Seneca effect applied to the human mind. Would it be possible, someone said, that an abrupt Seneca transition would affect human minds and somehow force them to take reality into account? It is another way to express the concept, common among the concerned, that at some moment some truly big event will force people to accept the reality of climate change (and of other related, occurring disasters).

Indeed, some people recently pushed the connection between hurricanes and climate change trying to move people into recognizing the existence of climate change. But it doesn't seem to have produced a noticeable effect on the public perception of the problem.

Maybe, someday, some really big event - a truly enormous one - will generate the needed mental transition, but it will not be easy. In my answer to the comment, I noted several cases, for instance the American whaling industry in the 19th century, where the operators went through the complete destruction of the system they were exploiting without ever realizing (or at least admitting) what they were doing. According to this example, the human civilization might be very well destroyed by climate change without realizing (or at least admitting) the existence of the problem. But so is the way humans behave.

H/t Didier Cumenal for organizing this seminar


  1. I am inclined to go with the utter denial concept. We are in the denial mode right now, I see no way we can get out of that, because our employment--and thus our existence depends on BAU.

    We all raise our hands in horror at the certain future if we go on like this, but we all travel, switch lights/heating/aircon on at will---and our leaders insist that this is the right thing to do, because we must have growth---and we vote for prosperity

  2. Ugo
    This will be a rather long comment, and will suggest rather than explain in detail, but due to the criticality of the subject, I hope you will accept it for what it is worth and perhaps find something useful.

    In her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Barrett offers evidence that our classical way of viewing emotions as something fixed which overtakes us (e.g., falling in love or getting angry) is incorrect. She instead offers a theory of ‘constructed emotions’, which are assembled by core systems in the body and brain. The core systems respond to our environment, from the state of our gut to the state of our society. Page 174: 'If your brain operates by prediction and construction and rewires itself through experience, then it’s not overstatement to say that if you change your current experiences today, you can change who you become tomorrow.’

    Observation #1: Don’t expect very many people to attend a lecture and change, if their environment does not change. On the other hand, as we learned from drug addicts in the US Military who came back from Viet-Nam, put the addict back into his ‘normal’ society and the addiction quickly goes away. Randers Jorgen should not expect a couple of years of schooling (an artificial environment) to change the behavior of students who are going out into ‘the real world’.

    Page 55: ‘Concepts change perception’. Barrett recommends, among other things, learning new words, including words in a foreign language.

    Observation #2: Education IS important, in that it provides us with concepts with which to parse the raw material coming at us. It is the difference between a novice piano student playing notes and an advanced pianist playing phrases. The contrast between US education and Finnish education may be edifying. When Michael Moore went to Finland to find out why Finland has advanced in education while the US has lagged, one of the students he talked with, who had been an exchange student in the US, said ‘multiple choice tests’. The US insistence that long hours spent preparing for multiple choice tests is seen as having little connection to learning to use concepts.

  3. Page 176: ‘The major ingredients in that recipe (for change) are your body budget and your concepts. If you maintain a balanced body budget, you’ll feel better in general, so that’s where we’ll start. And if you develop a rich set of concepts, you’ll have a toolbox for a meaningful life.’

    Observation #3: Barrett’s notion of a body budget is close to a number of other research inspired books recently published. For example, Dan Siegel, MD, a psychiatrist, published the book Mind: A Journey into the Art of Being Human. Dan recommends a systematic scan of one’s body organs and relationships with external reality. Robert Lustig M.D., the author of The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Bodies and Minds says that we must achieve a balance in our body, especially between dopamine and serotonin. John Day, MD, author of The Longevity Plan: Seven Life-Transforming Lessons from Ancient China lists these lessons:
    *Eat good food
    *Master your mindset
    *Build your place in a positive community
    *Be in motion
    *Find your rhythm
    *Make the most of your environment
    *Proceed with purpose
    All these authors are united in recommending a way of living that your great-grandmother would enthusiastically endorse.

    I see that 40 percent of American adults are now categorized as ‘obese’. Chronic disease is, well, ‘chronic’ in the US. So if our body budgets are so screwed up, why would you expect someone to change in the midst of a hostile environment?

  4. I want to elaborate a little more on Day’s book about a remote village in China where centenarians in excellent health are common, and chronic disease is very rare. The village, until very recently, had only a footbridge connection to the outside world. They ate what they grew, fished in the river, made their houses out of local materials, and had an annual income of about 20 dollars. Many of the centenarians had never been to a doctor.

    Observation #4: Higher incomes are essential if one wants to support a high-tech medical industry for the treatment of the symptoms of chronic disease. But the diseases themselves are made possible by the higher incomes which permit us to buy industrial food, to have a dopamine dependent mindset, to ignore community, to live sedentary lives, to let electronic media rather than our internal rhythms govern our lives, to pollute the environment, and to lead an aimless life.

    Dr. Lustig makes the point that a key ingredient in health is a balance between dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine gives us pleasure, while serotonin is associated with contentment. Dopamine works through dopamine receptors, which when over-stimulated, become down-regulated or may actually die. Thus, the dose of dopamine required to get the reward feeling increases…as has been observed for many years in drug addicts. A common outcome of dopamine receptor down-regulation is depression…an epidemic in the US. By contrast, we essentially can’t get too much serotonin through natural means. At the present time, some of the troublesome dopamine sources in the US are alcohol, opioids, marijuana, and sugar. Sugar is by far the cheapest and is the street-legal method of choice for overdosing on dopamine. While dopamine is a necessary part of a life well lived, our industrial society has made it possible to experience so much pleasure from dopamine that we become chronically diseased.

    Observation #5: Government statistics count the bad effects from dopamine as part of the ‘virtuous’ GDP. In fact, they are a subtraction from human flourishing. Many of the activities which promote global warming are also connected with dopamine. But since our dopamine receptors are mostly down-regulated, it now takes a voyage in space to achieve the same effect as a train-ride to Rome formerly elicited. The global warming problem probably cannot be solved unless we can solve the dopamine problem.

    We could write a whole volume on this subject. I have tried to give just enough detail to sketch the issues as I see them. They all spring from Barrett’s initial comment that we can change who we become tomorrow by changing our perceived experiences today. That turns out to be quite hard to do, living in the society we live in.

    Don Stewart

    1. A very interesting series of concepts, Don. Why don't you make a post to be published on Cassandra's legacy?

    2. I agree with Ugo - 'a very interesting series of concepts'.
      As a footnote; Elizabeth Blackburn (who got a Nobel Prize for her earlier science) makes the case that there is a putative 'biomarker' measure of the ongoing aggregate of lifestyle effects over a lifetime - or 'healthspan' as she and her co-author call it. It seems wholly in line with the longevity concepts. This book is a very reasonable accessible review of current scientific evidence - remembering we are looking at a 'marker' rather than a 'mechanism'. "The Telomere Effect", Blackburn & Epel, (2017).

  5. UFO, is a Seneca Collapse of the mind otherwise known as a paradigm shift?

    1. Yes.... I would say so. Still, something difficult to obtain

    2. I must be feeling particularly pessimistic, because instead what the phrase "Seneca Collapse of the mind" suggests to me is the onset of senility. One can spend one's whole life learning and gaining wisdom, but spiral quickly into dementia in one's final years.

    3. That's a very sad truth. I saw it happening with my father. It was slow at the beginning, then very quick (mercifully). But the idea, here, was of a shake-up to get rid of old ideas, like Paolus struck on the way to Damascus. In a way, it was a Seneca collapse for him, but he recovered very well



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017