PoW: Friday round-up of philosophy, psychology and politics of well-being

Emotions are one of the most vibrant areas of research, in neuroscience, in psychology, in philosophy, history and literature. But what exactly do we mean by emotions? In this journal article (behind a pay-wall alas) leading neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux laments neuro-psychology’s failure to find exact neural circuits corresponding to discrete emotions, and suggests that neuroscience should use the term ‘survival-circuits’ instead. A very functionalist view of emotions – but what is the ‘survival-circuit’ function for the feeling of awe and oneness in the face of the sublime?

Here’s another piece
on the difficulty of defining one’s terms in emotion research. The authors look back on 20 years of work on ‘Emotional Intelligence’, in laboratories, schools and corporations, and decide it has been a ‘promise unfulfilled’, partly because EI was such a loose and baggy term incorporating several different ideas (self-regulation, social skills, information-processing etc), and partly because the term failed to pay any attention to cultural differences in emotional definitions and expressions. The authors suggest breaking the concept up into five different domains.Here’s a piece I wrote, suggesting that while the definition and expression of emotions might be individual, social and culturally-constructed, the mechanisms by which emotions arise might be biological and universal. In other words, there is a hardware that all our species share by which emotions arise and through which we can change them. All kinds of different software – different emotions and attitudes and values – might then be constructed on that hardware, but the underlying mechanisms for how emotions arise and can be changed is universal. I suggest the hardware has been well-described by cognitive psychotherapy (and ancient Greek philosophy), and point to the appearance of the cognitive theory of the emotions not just in western culture, but also in Hinduism, Buddhism and beyond.On April 4, for any of you who will be in London, the London Philosophy Club is holding an event asking whether we should teach emotional well-being in schools. We’re hosting the authors of a new book that explores the philosophical confusion around attempts to teach ‘social and emotional well-being’; and the Centre for the History of the Emotions’ Thomas Dixon will also be talking on the history of society’s attempts to ‘school the emotions’.

Here’s one man who has no doubt or confusion about what emotional well-being is and how we should teach it: Lord Richard Layard. In this recent talk, he discusses the ‘emotional resilience’ programme which was designed by University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman and piloted in UK schools over three years, and which failed to show a significant long-lasting impact. He says:

This problem of fading effects arises in many programmes and for most of them we have no idea of their long-term effects because they have simply not been followed up. One encouraging exception is the so-called Good Behaviour Game piloted in Baltimore. Each beginning primary school class is divided into 3 teams and each team is scored according to the number of times a member of the team breaks one of the behaviour rules. If there are fewer than 5 infringements all members of the team get a reward. Children in the treatment and control groups were followed up right up to age 19-21 and those in the treatment group had significantly lower use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco and significantly lower frequency of anti-social personality disorder. I mention this study for two reasons. First, the long follow-up. But, secondly, the amount of time when the game was played totalled around 200 hours.

My guess is that Aristotle was right – habit is central to the development of character and we shall only produce a more mentally healthy school population if we spend more time on it. First we need a more values-based school ethos, but second we need a sustained evidence-based curriculum for personal, social and health education lasting throughout the school life. Our Centre has now devised a balanced mix of evidence-based programmes that would provide 140 hours of the curriculum in secondary schools, and we are hoping to pilot it over a 5 year period.

Here’s a Washington Post storyabout a fascinating-sounding philosophy / humanities course run in the US, called the Aspen Institute, where people study and discuss books by the likes of Plato, Machiavelli and Chekhov. A week-long course costs a mere $10,000. Apparently the course is very popular with CEOs and politicians, and some of them have tried to roll it out to poorer people who can’t quite reach that price-tag.Meanwhile, here’s an interview I did with Geoffrey Klempner, who set up his own online philosophy school, Pathways, in 1995 – and it’s been going ever since. A course there only costs £240 and runs longer than a week. He’s a fascinating guy. And here’s a man who is taking philosophy beyond the elite and back to the streets: KRS One! He tells an Australian newspaper he considers himself a philosopher, and sometimes he just gives talks or lectures at his concerts. And here’s his hip-hop classic, ‘My philosophy‘.Here’s an Economist piece comparing books on religion by Alain De Botton and Roger Scruton (it prefers Scruton’s book).

I’ve been researching the rise of philosophy groups, cafes and organisations since the 18th century, and how they sort of replaced religious organisations. One of the things that fascinates me is the rise of Freemasonry from the early 18th century. Masonic lodges are known as ‘temples of philosophy’, and they seem to embed and propagate Stoic or Deist values – the idea of a ‘great architect of the universe’, the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Freemasons’ resistance to monarchies seem to me parallel to ancient Stoics’ resistance to imperial tyranny. Though of course, Freemasons added the rituals of an organised religion – charitable activities, initiation rituals, buildings, arcane terminology, plus the whole secrecy thing, which is reminiscent of ancient mystic cults. I find it fascinating.

Anyway, several Masonic lodges around the world have been trying to improve and modernise their image. Here’s a piece from this week’s BBC News magazine about a new drive by British Freemasons to modernise and dispel certain myths. I’m hoping to get the Grand-Master to come and speak to the London Philosophy Club.

Here’s a strange NYT blog-piece where philosopher Colin McGinn says we should dump the name ‘philosophy’ because it makes us sound out of touch with the sciences. And here’s a nice interview by Jonah Lehrer with the novelist and neuroscientist Charles Ferneyhough, about the ‘Fourth Culture’ that can be built between the sciences and humanities.

Finally, my No Shit Sherlock award for the most stunningly obvious psychology study of the week goes to ‘Study finds that feeling valued at work is linked to well-being‘. Next up: study proves sticking face in fan ‘can impact well-being’.

See you next week,

Jules

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