About consciousness

blink

Initially, I expected something of more depth from this book, but I ended up enjoying the book and the story telling style of Malcolm Gladwell.  He narrated the  Audilbe edition of his book ‘BLINK’. At times he was irksome with his repeated reference to the story of the buying of the Greek kouros by the Getty Museum. The blink referred to by Malcolm is that quick subconscious impression or decision we make about things for which we later find rational reasons to justify. 

Malcolm is not very familiar with recent developments in neuroscience and makes little attempt to drill deeper into the possible dynamics by which Blink might work. The subconscious remains unfathomable. He refers to it as ‘thin slicing’ and the ability of the mind to recognize patterns given the bare minimum of information. 

A better explanation of ‘thin slicing’ is given by the Nobel Prize winner (2011), Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. The fast system is intuitive, and emotional; the slow system is more deliberate, and more logical.

Kahneman reveals where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and our personal lives―and how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble. 

Gladwell on the other hand taps into a deep mystical yearning to be healed by nature, Blink exploits popular new-age beliefs about the power of the subconscious, intuition, even the paranormal. Blink devotes a significant number of pages to the so-called theory of mind reading. While allowing that mind-reading can "sometimes" go wrong, the book enthusiastically celebrates the apparent success of the practice, despite many scientific studies showing that claims of clairvoyance rarely beat the odds of random chance guessing.

Gladwell does acknowledge that intuitive judgment is developed by experience, training, and knowledge. This is the key to the understanding of ‘thin slicing’, or Blink. The brain receives billions of bits of information and where possible it fits them into patterns, much like the ‘training data’ in machine learning —  the field of study that gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed (see previous post) -- the quality of the subconscious brain knowing without knowing. Also there would be the genetic bias as to how your brain works depending on what ‘traits’ you have (see previous post). 

In summary then, Blink is not that mysterious, but Malcolm Gladwell knows how to spin a good yarn

the urban monkThis is a review of the book The Urban Monk by Pedram Shojai -- in this case it was the Audible version which made it easy to listen to at sporadic intervals on my iPhone. This turned out to be a practice entirely in keeping with Pedram's approach to being an urban monk. The book is filled with practices that you can do while waiting for an appointment, being stuck in traffic or walking in the park. You can bookmark it, make notes or send extracts to your friends. The Urban Monk is designed to become your own personal trainer and companion in your day-to-day life and to bring peace to chaos.

It reminds me of the book by Robert Pirsig - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and his elaborate discussions on the  metaphysics of Quality -- a book I took on my world travels in the mid-70's.

Pedram received his Master’s in Oriental Medicine from Emperor’s College and then his OMD from the PanAmerican University. He's studied Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Yoga, Meditation, and medicine diligently for the past 20+ years. He reveals the secrets to finding an open heart, sharp mind, and grounded sense of well-being, even in the most trying circumstances.

Here is a video clip with Pedram being interviewed by Jason Prall.

For those with a Taoist inclination, you may be interested in a blog post Pedram made in 2012.

We can’t learn meditation from a book or a series of workshops that teach us to focus our minds because true meditation happens OUTSIDE of the mind. When we allow our true nature to simply BE and let go of doing anything, we can slip into this realm of pure consciousness.

……. we can proceed to unlearn what is inhibiting us and actually grow in awareness. The essence of Taoist practice lies in this.

I highly recommend this book.

For The Urban Monk 7-Day Reboot  Course -- Click here.

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Me-Myself-Us

This book by Professor Brian Little is about the new science of personality psychology.

Ever since the ancient Greeks, human traits have been described and studied in different ways. We had the Greek four bodily humours which were: air (phlegmatic - relaxed and peaceful), black bile (melancholic - analytical and quiet) blood (sanguine - optimistic and social) and yellow bile (choleric - short-tempered and irritable). In more modern times we had the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who focused on subconscious forces, our dreams and our primordial sex drives.

In the mid-20th century the humanistic psychology of Carl Rodgers and Abraham Maslow flourished where scientific objectivity itself was seen as a barrier to understanding human nature. This was a prominent view of the New Age understanding of self and we have the Maslow pyramid of human needs (like a food pyramid!). They believed deeply in the human capacity both individually and collectively to shape our own futures. Scientific research did not match the rhetoric of this movement.

Today we have positive psychology — it explores factors that enhance individual lives, communities or nations. It is committed to a scientific analysis of personality psychology from neurons to narratives, from biochemistry to literary biography. The study of the human triats has been revitalised and there is a consensus among psychologists, namely — OCEAN — Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.

In previous my posts - My Genes Made Me Do It - the genetic aspects of these traits were explored and along with their associated neurotransmitters. In Brian’s book these traits are seen as flexible points around which our psychology pivots balancing different aspects within each trait: Openness: (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious); Conscientiousness: (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless); Extraversion: (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved); Agreeableness: (friendly/compassionate vs. analytical/detached); Neuroticism: (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident).

Brian Little, who describes himself as an extreme introvert, provides a framework for thinking about the personal implications of this new science of personality psychology. Throughout the book there are mini-questionaries that facilitate self-exploration of ourselves and other selves and examines the biogenic, sociogenic and idiogenic factors that contribute to who we are. He illustrates how we function on a day-to-day basis using our personal constructs and following our ‘core projects’. We create a confederation of ‘mini-selves’ in our interactions with our spouse, our work colleagues. our children, our parents.

In the final chapter he summarises some of the main points in his book by evoking the image of  a dance -- “Save the Last Dance for Me”. Listen to the audio below.


As an aside: The OCEAN model has been criticised for not being theory-driven. It has been argued that it is a collection of data that has been clustered together for statistical descriptions of the observations. In this regard it reminds me of the previous posting on Machine Learning. A BIG Data analysis of observations without a theoretical basis or a predictive model of their underlying mechanisms. Another criticism is that the five factors are not independent of each other — are not fully orthogonal to one another. Furthermore the factor analysis is linear and does not capture nonlinear, feedback and contingent relationships between the individual differences. Finally there is lexical issue — the use of verbal descriptors for individual differences. The use of language creates sociability bias in verbal descriptors of human behaviour. For instance, there are more words in the language to describe negative rather than positive emotions. Still OCEAN seems to be the only game in town that is worth watching.

In summary: The book is an excellent read — I bought the Audible version - it is full of illustrative and witty stories about people that you would easily recognise. I highly recommend the book.

(For further information, visit: kalmakconsultancy.com)

If you think you are being surrounded by idiots, you are probably right. A leading Stanford University scientist, Gerald Crabtree, would confirm your view. His idea is that since individuals are no longer exposed to nature’s raw selection mechanism on a daily basis that nearly all of us are genetically compromised compared to our ancestors of 3,000 years ago.

Gene&Human-Condition
This and the previous blog are notes from the Coursera: ’Genes and the Human Condition’, University of Maryland, lectures on “My Genes Made Me Do It”. What follows is from lecture 5.

Crabtree gives the following example: "If a hunter-gatherer did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food and shelter probably died along with his or her progeny. Whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would probably receive a substantial bonus and a be a more attractive mate". In other words, the consequences of being stupid were much worse in the Stone Age.

What is Self-domestication? - it is a process of transforming ourselves through self selection. What are some of the traits? We are selecting against aggression and favoring the juvenile behaviors  of trust, playfulness, and creativity. Both in brain size and physiology, we can be considered to be sexually mature baby chimps. This process is called paedomorphism, where the adult retains their infantile or juvenile features. Like most domesticated animals we have a smaller brain than our progenitors. Our brains have shrunk by about 20% in the last 10,000 years. The area that seems to have decreased in size is Area 13 which is the part of the limbic brain that establishes adult emotional reactions such as aggression.

Gerald Crabtree thinks we reached a peak in our intelligence about 7,000 years ago, but he doesn’t think our decline relates to our domesticating of ourselves. His argument is based on the idea that for more than 99% of human evolutionary history, we lived as hunter-gatherer article-crabtree-1112communities, surviving on our wits. However, since the invention of agriculture and cities and technology, natural selecting on our intellect has effectively stopped. He suggests that this has allowed mutations to accumulate in the genes involved in intelligence on average 25 - 65 per generation. He predicts the 5,000 new mutations in the last 120 generations, which is about 3,000 years, are the cause of our decline. He gives an interesting illustration: “I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues. Furthermore, I would guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues. I would also make this wager for the ancient inhabitants of Africa, Asia, India or the Americas, of perhaps 2000–6000 years ago. The basis for my wager comes from new developments in genetics, anthropology, and neurobiology that make a clear prediction that our intellectual and emotional abilities are genetically surprisingly fragile.”

In today’s world we compensate for having a smaller brain or a more mutated one by using computers and technology. We also have an education system that provides the supportive environment to allow what brain power that remains to attain its potential. Education allows those strengths to be rapidly distributed to all members of our society. What we need to do is educate Athenians.

For a mash up of the video from Coursera; Genes and the Human Condition, University of Maryland by Professor Raymond St. Leger -- see below:

A groundbreaking experiment on quantum entanglement puts the final nail in the coffin of our ordinary view of the universe, settling an argument that has raged for nearly a century.

(from the NewScientist | 5 September 2015 pp 8-9)

To understand the experiment, we have to go back to the 1930s, when physicists were struggling to come to terms with the strange predictions of the nascent science of quantum mechanics. The theory suggested that particles could become entangled, so that measuring one would instantly the measurement of the other, even if they were far apart.

Einstein famously proclaimed that God does not play dice with the universe and called entanglement "spooky action at a distance". He and others favoured the principle of local realism, which broadly says that only nearby objects can influence each other and that the universe is "real" - observing it doesn't bring it into existence by crystallising vague probabilities.

They argued that hidden variables at some deeper layer of reality could explain quantum theory's apparent weirdness. On the other side, physicists like Niels Bohr insisted that we accept the new quantum reality, because it explained problems that classical theories of light and energy couldn't handle.

Quantum-weirdness

In this set-up, Alice and Bob sit in two laboratories 1.3 kilometres apart, far enough to close the locality loophole. Each laboratory has a diamond containing an electron with a property called spin. The team hits the diamonds with randomly produced microwave pulses. This makes them each emit a photon that is entangled with the electron's spin. These photons are sent to a third location, C, where a device clocks their arrival time. If photons arrive from Alice and Bob at exactly the same time, the two electron spins become entangled with each other. The result was clear: they detected more highly correlated spins than local realism would allow. (For the Abstract, click here). The weird world of quantum mechanics is our world.

This raises the bar for other possibilities; Is the brain a quantum computer?

Professor Stuart Hameroff

On the face of it the weirdness of quantum mechanics and biology would seem to have nothing to do with each other. Quantum mechanics deals with the subatomic world and biology with much larger things like cells. Any quantum effects in cells would be cancelled out by the multitude of noisy biological processes. But not so. Quantum biology refers to the many biological processes that involve the conversion of energy to usable chemical transformations and are quantum mechanical in nature.

Examples are photosynthesis, vision, magnetoreception in animals, DNA mutation, and the conversion of chemical energy into motion. Any process that involves the transfer of electrons and protons in chemical processes uses quantum mechanical effects. In photosynthesis it has been shown that the wave and particle conundrum occur simultaneously. The wave spreads uniformly to potential receptors, while the particle follows the path of least resistance through the field of potential created by the wave. This makes for a 95% efficiency in energy transfer.

Many important biological processes taking place in cells are driven and controlled by events that involve electronic degrees of freedom and, therefore, require a quantum mechanical description. An important example are enzymatically catalyzed, cellular biochemical reactions. Here, bond breaking and bond formation events are intimately tied to changes in the electronic degrees of freedom. For more quantum biology examples, click here.

Finally in neuroscience there is a debate as to whether the brain is a quantum computer -- that the microtubules within neurons have the capability to perform quantum computation . Stuart Hameroff  believes that the tubulin subunits which make up a microtubule are able to cooperatively interact in a quantum computational sense.

Smiley_Face

This is the last posting on the edX online course: The Science of Happiness. As well as providing video clips and written material about happiness, the course provided weekly 'happiness exercises' all based on research linking these practices to greater happiness. They are in keeping with the overall goals and philosophies of the Great Good Science Center: 

Here are the do-it-your-self practices or exercises that can help you on your way to greater happiness.

Happiness practice #1: Three good things
To be happier, spend 10 minutes every night remembering three good things that happened during the day. For each thing, write a title, details about the event (including how you felt then and now), and what caused it. This activity teaches us to seek out and savor positive things, and it’s been shown to increase happiness up to six months later.

Happiness Practice #2: Active listening
One practice that’s been shown to increase happiness is active listening. Take 15-30 minutes a week to have a conversation with someone you’re close to, and ask them to share what’s on their mind. As they’re talking, show attentive body language and don’t get distracted or interrupt them. Make sure you understand by paraphrasing what they’re saying and asking questions. Try to be empathetic and avoid pronouncing judgments. When they’ve finished talking, share something yourself.

Happiness practice #3: Random acts of kindness
Do five kind things – that you wouldn’t normally do – in a single day. To maximize the effects, make them all different and take time later to write down what you did and how you felt. The five kindnesses don’t have to be for the same person, and the person doesn’t even have to know about it (like feeding someone’s parking meter).

Happiness practice #4: Eight essentials when forgiving
Robert Enright detailed eight steps to forgiveness, beginning by making a list of people who hurt you who are worth forgiving. Then, you start with the least painful offense and take some time to think about how you suffered and how that makes you feel. When you’ve decided to forgive, you can start to think about the circumstances that led to the offense, including the offender’s childhood, past hurts, and other pressures they were under. Pay attention to whether you feel kinder toward the offender and consider giving them a small gift. In the end, you can reframe the experience and try to find meaning and purpose in what happened. Once you’re done, rinse and repeat for the more painful offenses on your list, working up to the most painful. This process has been shown to increase forgiveness and decrease anxiety and anger.

Happiness practice #5: Mindful breathing
Practice mindful breathing 15 minutes a day for a week or more. To do that, find a comfortable position and relax your body. Breathe naturally and start to notice where you feel your breath. Keep observing your breath; when your mind wanders, gently say to yourself “thinking” or “wandering” and bring your attention back to the breath. To come out of the exercise, notice your body again and feel grateful for the experience. This kind of mindful breathing helps us deal with stress and negative emotions and concentrate better. It’s been shown to elevate vagal tone and improve our ability to regulate our emotions, since it creates distance between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings.

Happiness practice #6: Body scan meditation
Three to six days a week for a month, spend 20-45 minutes doing the body scan meditation. In this exercise, focus on different parts of the body and notice any areas of tension or relaxation. Learn to be non-judgmental of our bodies, more accepting of any pain or discomfort rather than feeling bad about it. We may even learn to appreciate our bodies more and make healthier choices around them. The body scan incorporates observation and non-reaction, two aspects of mindfulness, and has been shown to improve psychological well-being.

Happiness practice #7: Self-compassionate letter
Write a letter to yourself about something you’re ashamed or insecure about. Describe how it makes you feel, and express compassion and understanding. If that’s difficult, try to imagine you’re writing to a loved one. Remember that everyone has flaws, and think about how life circumstances may have contributed to you developing this quality. Think about how you could improve or cope with it, and read the letter later when you’re feeling down. This practice has been shown to reduce shame and self-criticism while increasing motivation for self-improvement. Repeated over time, it can quiet our critical inner voice and cultivate a kind one.

Happiness practice #8: Best possible self
Take 15 minutes to write about a future life where everything is going as well as possible, from family and personal life to career and health. Be creative and specific, and focus on your potential rather than any past shortcomings. Doing this daily for two weeks has been shown to increase positive emotion, possibly because it helps us identify goals, feel more in control of our lives, and maybe even decide to change things.

Happiness practice #9: Gratitude journal
One to three times a week, spend 15 minutes writing about five things you’re grateful for (doing it daily doesn’t have the same effect for most people). It helps if you get into the habit of doing it at a certain time. To get the most out of it, focus on being specific and detailed instead of coming up with more things. If you need inspiration, think of the people you’re grateful for, any negative things you don’t have to deal with, and surprises in your life. Try to cultivate the attitude that good things in life are gifts. If you repeatedly list someone or something, focus on a different aspect of it. This practice works because it helps shift our focus from the obstacles and negatives of life to the positives. And actually writing things down gives them more emotional impact.

Happiness practice #10: Gratitude letter
Think of someone whom you haven’t properly thanked and spend 15 minutes writing them a 300-word letter. Explain how they helped you, what impact it had on your life, and why you’re grateful. Also mention what you’re doing now and how you remember what they did for you. The gratitude letter is most effective if you read it to them in person, but you can also do it over the phone or online. Set up a meeting but don’t tell them the exact reason for it. When the time comes, ask them to listen to the whole thing and then respond. As you read, observe their reactions and your own. Be open to having a conversation about it afterward, and give them the letter. The gratitude letter’s happiness boost lasts over a month but less than six months, so some researchers recommend you do it every six weeks. It’s so effective because it reminds you that people in the world are looking out for you and strengthens your bond with one of them.

Happiness practice #11: Writing about awe
Take 15 minutes to write in detail about an experience of awe. You might write about an encounter with nature, challenging ideas, art, an impressive speech or performance, or religion. This will boost your happiness because it helps put everyday troubles in perspective, gives you a sense of purpose and connectedness, and shakes up your routine ways of thinking.

Activity: Expressive writing
Spend 20 minutes, four days in a row, writing about your strong feelings, about a struggle in your life. Try to write without stopping, exploring how you’ve been affected and how it relates to important events and people in your life. Optionally, after four days, you can try writing about the struggle from the perspective of someone else involved. This exercise has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression; strengthen the immune system and reduce doctor visits; improve work and school performance; and increase happiness up to months later. The idea is that we regain control of the difficulties in our lives when we write and give structure to them, rather than being plagued by rumination.

Summary
Each individual will have their preferences as to which exercises best suit them, but the suggestion is to try some that may not initially appeal in order to discover the possibilities. For a quick fix: Active listening and Random acts of kindness are good places to start.

For more click here.

Following on with the edX online course, the topic that took predominance  was mindfulness. According to pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is deliberately paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way. He is well known for the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) technique developed in 1979 at the Massachusetts Medical School. The eight-week program translates Eastern traditions of mindfulness into a secular and mainstream context.

For more Kabat-Zinn, click here

Beyond affecting the mind, mindfulness is claimed to have helped people reduce chronic pain, clear up skin psoriasis, increase the immune response, reduce stress and boosted telomerase activity, the hallmark of a longer life expectancy. With these kind of claims, mindfulness has spawned a plethora of self-help multimillion-dollar industries — “a Buddha pill without religious beliefs or unforeseen side effects”.

There is a heavy bias in media reporting where moderate positive effects are highly inflated whereas non-significant and negative findings go unreported. As pointed out in a recent NewScientist report there are some cautionary tales.

 The purpose of meditation was to challenge and rupture the idea of who you are, shaking one’s sense of self to the core so you realise there is ‘nothing there’ (Buddhism) or no real differentiation between you and the rest of the universe (Hinduism).

Such meditation for 20 minutes a day is likely to provoke mild changes in self-perception. While practising this, you usually feel more aware of your breathing, body and thoughts. Now imagine going on a meditation retreat and extending your focus on the flow of awareness for six hours or more each day.

This might feel blissful for some as everyday concerns dissipate, but for others the outcome will be emotional distress, hallucinations or perhaps even ending up in a psychiatric ward.

“Meditating can produce powerful effects, but not all of these are beneficial”. Meditation and detached killing became the norm in Japan during the second world war.

Returning to the edX course and the training of the mind for happiness. Here is a list of some toxic thought patterns to avoid:

 * Perfectionism, where we strive for perfection and almost always find ourselves lacking. Being praised in childhood for intrinsic traits (like intelligence) rather than changeable traits (like effort) can promote perfectionism.

* Social comparison. Comparing ourself to those who are better off than us leads to lower self-perception, while comparing ourself to those who are worse off than us makes us look down on them.

* Materialism. In fact, research has shown that buying experiences gives us much more of a happiness boost than buying things.

* “Maximising” rather than “satisficing.” Maximisers try to make the optimal choice (a form of perfectionism), while satisficers pick the first available choice that fits their criteria. Maximisers tend to feel more regret over decisions, and be less optimistic, more depressed, and less satisfied with life and with any success they do achieve.

The phrase 'The Science of Happiness' seems something of an oxymoron since science is objective and happiness is subjective. However following on with the edX online course Dacher Kellner, one of the instructors, took a brief tour of how some of the great thinkers grappled with the fundamental question: what is happiness? --- from Confucius, Lao Tzu, Buddhism, the Greek philosophers, hedonism to the 19th century utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill (the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people).

And now we have the scientific view (not entirely formed yet) which uses functional MRI (fMRI) and measurements of neurotransmitters and hormones like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, etc. It seems that the brain sits in a chemical bath of these substances which modulate its synaptic activity.

In one real but satirical fMRI study, a dead salmon was shown pictures of humans in different emotional states. The authors provided evidence, according to two different commonly-used statistical tests, of areas in the salmon's brain suggesting meaningful activity!!

 

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While recovering from a recent knee replacement (arthroplasty) I completed the online edX course ’Science of Happiness’ from the Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley. I had to suppress my inclinations that this would be one of those pollyanna self-improvement courses from the West Coast USA. It did contain several ‘happiness’ exercises and an emphasis on ‘mindfulness’ and social connections but it did also deal with recent laboratory studies on brain function and emotional states. I managed to complete the course by ’speed’ reading and crashing thru the videos to receive a grade of 83%. Below are some excerpts from the introductory comments.

What is happiness? - Philosophical and spiritual views on happiness

Confucius advocated a kind of dignity or reverence (jen/ren) as happiness, where you focus on enhancing the welfare of others. Aristotle believed that happiness is about living a life of virtue, and it can only be judged when looking at your life as a whole. During the Enlightenment, utilitarianism advocated actions that bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. As a Buddhist, the Dalai Lama preaches equanimity, compassion, kindness, and detachment to alleviate suffering. In general, the happiness of Western traditions tends to be more individualistic and high-spirited, while that of the Eastern traditions is more communal and calm.

Why does happiness matter? — the benefits of happiness

Happy people make more money; cope better; are better leaders and negotiators; are more likely to get married, have fulfilling marriages, and have more social support; and are more creative, productive, philanthropic, other-centered, resilient, and healthier.

Happiness is associated with greater longevity, better health —- from decreased chronic pain, to increased immune activity, and better cardiovascular health to a decreased likelihood of diabetes, stroke, cancer mortality, and fatal accidents. Happy people have better social relationships: they have more friends, are judged more warm and intelligent and less selfish, and are more likely to get assistance and trust. Happy people who get married are less likely to get divorced and feel more love and fulfilment. Finally, happiness can boost creativity and innovation.

In addition to the above, happy people are more sociable and energetic, and more charitable and cooperative. They think more flexibly and with more ingenuity.

What determines happiness?

According to research, about 50% of our happiness is accounted for by genetics, 10% by life circumstances, and 40% by intentional activity. The 40% is what we should focused.

How scientists define and measure happiness

Being “happy” could refer to many things: a sense that our life is going well, a momentary emotion, a trait we have, or even a sensation. Many scientists focus on the first two aspects: life satisfaction and positive affect, which combine to form something called “subjective well-being.” To study happiness, researchers can observe our behavioural indicators like facial expressions or beep us throughout the day and ask how happy we are (experience sampling). Happiness studies might be cross-sectional – looking at a group of people across a slice of time – or longitudinal – looking at the same people over time.

The emphasis of the course was on social connectedness and mindfulness — more to follow—>