A neuroscientist explains why Tucker Carlson could become a bigger threat than Donald Trump

To the bewilderment of many conservatives, Fox News fired Tucker Carlson from the network last month without any warning, despite hosting its most successful show.

Some have speculated that he was canned for racism and misogyny, but let’s be real — those are the kinds of things that you get promotions for at Fox News. It certainly provides a great excuse for Fox, though. While no one will likely ever know the true reason for the decision — though here are some possible explanations — the big question now is: what is next for Tucker Carlson?

Only time will tell, but more than a few outlets and experts are speculating that Carlson could run for president next year, meaning he would be challenging Donald Trump for the Republican nomination. Among the major media outlets that published articles on this possibility are The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Politico, The Hill and Insider, just to name a few.

Following the news of Carlson parting ways with Fox, ex-Republican strategist Rick Wilson said that Carlson would be a bigger threat to Trump compared to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is still the most popular, if flagging, Trump alternative. His tweet read:

"What if he runs? He's rich enough. He'd instantly have an online fundraising juggernaut second only to Trump, and perhaps surpassing him. He's polarizing, terrible, and utterly amoral…in short, better than Ron DeSantis for the base.”

Speaking to Newsweek, another Republican strategist and columnist for The Hill, John Feehery, made the same claim, arguing that: "If Tucker decided to run for president, he would be an immediate threat to Trump and to the rest of the field."

Carlson’s own words may offer the deepest insight into his willingness to seize opportunity and challenge Trump.

“I hate him passionately,” Carlson reportedly texted about Trump after the 2020 election.

A billboard put up by progressive activist group MoveOn that read “I Hate [Trump] Passionately - Tucker Carlson” is seen along I-95 on April 3, 2023 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Once he’s out, he becomes incalculably less powerful, even in the minds of his supporters,” Carlson similarly texted his producer after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Some might say Carlson-for-president speculation is premature. But if we do not take this possibility seriously, we might regret it later. I say this from experience: For a whole year prior to Trump winning the presidency in 2016, I was writing articles that explained why he was a genuine threat, though at the time most “experts” believed that it was infinitely unlikely that the businessman and reality show star could win the Republican nomination, much less beat Hillary Clinton.

In January 2016, I wrote an essay titled “Donald Trump has a mental disorder that makes him a dangerous world leader” that warned about the dangers of his narcissistic personality. Then in July 2016, I published another article titled “A neuroscientist explains why Trump is winning,” yet the media remained certain that there was no chance in hell he’d win the general election. Had CNN and MSNBC realized that Trump was a real threat earlier on, they might not have broadcast footage of him around the clock for an entire year — which likely helped him far more than it hurt him. I believe Trump could’ve been stopped if his opponents were more prepared.

We can’t make that mistake again.

Trump came from entertainment, and that was his secret weapon. He didn’t know how to speak like a politician, so he instead relied on his showmanship and knack for knowing what people want to hear, which he learned from his experience in television. Carlson knows how to entertain, boost ratings and leverage the digital world far better than Trump did when he started his political career, and for that reason, he has the ability to ascend in the political world just as quickly, particularly given our tribalistic presidential primary system that often platforms provocative candidates.

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Carlson is also extremely popular — far more popular among Americans on the right than Trump was when he first entered the race. A recent poll found that 16 percent of Americans would be “significantly likely” to watch any new show that Carlson hosts online or on independent media, with another 20 percent saying they’d “likely” watch it. In the week after he left Fox News, the network’s ratings fell by more than 50 percent during his old timeslot, and the general viewership fell by almost that much overall.

If we were to find ourselves in a Carlson presidency, we'd be faced with some serious media manipulation. As a seasoned TV personality for the network that has mastered fear-mongering, Carlson knows precisely how to get the right outraged and afraid. With those skills, he could stoke a new level of xenophobic, racist, bigoted sentiment in America. This would lead to increasing division in a country that is already broken due to polarization.

But crippling division and a new nationalist surge isn’t all we’d have to worry about if Carlson was a prominent political leader — his misinformation and expert ability to spin the truth to support his ideological agenda could be equally dangerous for the nation. Being critical of the government’s response to COVID-19 is one thing — there’s no denying that some massive mistakes were made not just by Trump but by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies and government officials. But Carlson went far beyond this and routinely featured guests who claimed that vaccines present a general danger to people and that they’d be better off without them. If a new virus emerged under a Carlson presidency, the results could be disastrous

Speaking of misinformation, our nation’s taste for conspiracy theories would also be amplified to new levels if Carlson acquires a more powerful and influential position, as he has a proven track record of intentionally misleading the public.

The recent Dominion voting lawsuit, which cost Fox News almost $800 million, was over the network’s insistence that the 2020 election was rigged and that large-scale voter fraud occurred — a stance that Carlson supported and advocated for over and over to millions of views (even though behind the scenes he admitted the claim was bogus).

Whether it’s denying climate change, the existence of white supremacy or the election results, it is clear that Carlson will lie to the nation without hesitation to advance his ideological agenda. If he were to acquire a position of great power, the facts-be-damned, post-truth society that America almost became under Trump could again become a reality.

If that weren’t scary enough, it seems Carlson has the support of Russia, and we know what lengths Russia and Putin will go to in order to help their political and media allies. Following Carlson's departure from Fox News, Russian TV host and Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov encouraged Carlson to run for president, telling him “You are welcome in Russia and Moscow.” Carlson’s anti-Ukraine and pro-Russian rhetoric has undoubtedly gained him support with a fascist regime that knows how to use digital warfare and disinformation campaigns to achieve political goals.

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While it is uncertain what Tucker Carlson will decide to do next, we can bet that he will seek a position of greater influence and power. We should take seriously the possibility he’ll run for office because — should he decide to throw his hat in the ring — we as an electorate must be ready for a more intelligent, articulate and media-savvy version of Donald Trump.

Another possibility is that Carlson doesn’t run for president, but Trump asks him to be his vice presidential running mate. Even though text leaks indicated Carlson’s disdain for Trump, Carlson was quick to walk that back and say that he “loves Trump,” and conversely, Trump was quick to say nice things about Carlson after he was fired by Fox.

A Trump/Carlson ticket may be even more likely than Carlson challenging Trump. In fact, the British betting firm Betfair is offering 6/1 odds that Trump chooses Carlson as his vice president, which is far better than the odds they give Carlson for winning the presidential election (80/1).

I can’t think of many things that are more terrifying than a Trump/Carlson presidency. Hopefully, Carlson will disappear into the obscure world of independent right-wing media — Newsmax has effectively invited Carlson to run its operations and One America News Network has made similar come-ons — or change professions completely. Better yet, Carlson could have some kind of spiritual awakening that alters his toxic ideology, but unless someone slips LSD in his coffee, we shouldn’t hold our breath.

But all of those things are less statistically likely than him finding a position of greater influence and power. After all, he was the most popular host at the most popular news network. If there is even a small chance of a complete disaster happening, the best strategy is to be vigilant and prepared. That means thinking about the possibility that Carlson follows a path similar to Trump, and what to do about it. Doing so earlier rather than later could be what prevents it.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of the new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. He is also a blogger for Psychology Today and the creator of the Substack Road to Omega. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @BobbyAzarian.

A neuroscientist explains why Donald Trump’s narcissism is now a major threat

On March 18, former president Donald Trump said he believes that he will likely be arrested on charges relating to hush money paid to a porn star.

He is already calling on his supporters to protest his arrest, and while that is not exactly surprising, it is something we should be deeply concerned about. Trump embodies the qualities of a textbook narcissist, and when narcissists feel threatened, they frequently experience what is called narcissistic rage, and become aggressive and obsessed with revenge. Given the January 6th riot at the U.S. Capitol, which Trump helped incite, we should be vigilant to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

It is no secret that Trump has a narcissistic personality. I doubt the man himself would deny his narcissism — if he were speaking honestly and in private.

In a Vanity Fair article published before Trump became president, developmental psychologist Howard Gardner of Harvard University called Trump “remarkably narcissistic,” and clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis called Trump a classic case of “textbook narcissistic personality disorder.” The article cites more than a few mental health professionals who believe Trump fits all the criteria for having pathological narcissism, and over the years many similar articles would follow, such as this 2016 article in The Atlantic by Northwestern psychology professor Dan McAdams, and this New York Times article by Jennifer Senior, titled “We Are All at the Mercy of the Narcissist-in-Chief.”

Even some Republicans have come out and attested to Trump’s narcissism. For example, this CNN article claims that “Paul Ryan was convinced Donald Trump has narcissistic personality disorder,” and Ty Cobb, a lawyer who was a member of the Trump administration legal team, described the ex-president as a “deeply wounded narcissist.”

We are all familiar with narcissism — a term derived from Greek mythological figure Narcissus, who fell in love with himself after he saw his own image as reflected in a pool of water. Most of us have known a narcissist at some point in our lives. But what characteristics does a narcissist have exactly? Dan McAdams writes:

“People with strong narcissistic needs want to love themselves, and they desperately want others to love them too — or at least admire them, see them as brilliant and powerful and beautiful, even just see them, period. The fundamental life goal is to promote the greatness of the self, for all to see.”

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When Trump was president, his narcissism was constantly on display for the whole world to see. He bragged about his crowd sizes. He called himself a genius. He’s since embraced the idea that he’s second only to Jesus Christ.

It should, however, be emphasized that Trump is likely a special kind of narcissist, one psychologists call a “vulnerable narcissist” — a person who tells himself he is superior but, deep down, is extremely insecure. These narcissists have low self-esteem and crave affirmation.

While this insight explains a lot about Trump’s character and previous behavior, it is relevant to the present moment because narcissists who experience a “fall from grace” experience narcissistic injury, which can lead to them lashing out and trying to inflict damage on those they feel did them wrong.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines narcissistic injury as “vulnerability in self-esteem which makes narcissistic people very sensitive to injury from criticism or defeat.” The manual goes on to say, “Although they may not show it outwardly, criticism may haunt these individuals and may leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow, and empty.”

Narcissistic injury can prompt narcissistic rage, which manifests as intense anger, outbursts and extreme aggressiveness. If Trump is arrested, it will almost surely send him into an episode of narcissistic rage. We should be concerned about this possibility, because the last time there was an event that could’ve triggered narcissistic rage — when he lost the presidency to Joe Biden — he refused to concede the 2020 election, fought to retain power and directed his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, to march to the Capitol building, which they later attacked. Many politicians’ lives were put in jeopardy, including his own vice president, Mike Pence. We all are familiar with all the destruction caused on that day, but the damage could conceivably be a lot worse if Trump loyalists with a proclivity toward violence believe their political messiah is facing incarceration.

But that’s not all we have to worry about. Trump is running for president again and is actively campaigning for the Republican nomination in 2024. So far, his only semi-serious GOP challenger is Nikki Haley, his former ambassador to the United Nations. As wild as it sounds, Trump is still about as popular as ever with the American right.

Trump getting elected a second time is a terrifying thought, but if he loses, the result could be just as dangerous. A second loss would almost certainly end his presidential ambitions. The demise of Trump’s political career, with little hope for reclamation, could prompt the world’s most notable narcissist to become further unhinged. Jan. 6, 2021, could be superseded in history booked by another, even darker date. Home-grown terrorism isn’t implausible.

We must remember that just a couple of years ago, the notion of Americans storming the Capitol building, injuring scores of police officers and attempting to hunt down members of Congress and the vice president would have sounded absolutely bonkers. Hardly anyone would’ve taken it seriously — except, perhaps, for those who were familiar with Trump’s narcissistic personality and his vulnerability to be sent into a fit of narcissistic rage.

As a neuroscientist and psychology researcher, I saw the potential for such a thing long before Trump got elected into office. In January 2016, I wrote an article for Raw Story titled “Trump has a mental disorder that makes him a dangerous world leader,” which was explicitly about the dangers of his narcissism.

Then, in 2018, I wrote another opinion piece called “Trump’s destruction: A Neuroscientist explains what happens when a narcissist begins to lose power,” focusing on the potential for him to exhibit narcissistic rage. My prediction wouldn’t come true until about two years later.

Based on Trump’s patterns of behavior and the events that are likely to transpire in the near future, I believe it is likely that history will repeat itself, but this is one time I don’t want to be right.

We must be vigilant so that another violent and destructive event, or series of events, does not happen. At the moment, it is unclear exactly how to prevent such a thing, but by cultivating an awareness of the potential disaster, we can begin to plan for it. If we do not, we can expect to be victims of Murphy’s Law, which says “What can go wrong, will go wrong.”

Let’s do what we can to make sure America gets it right this time.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of the new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. He is also a blogger for Psychology Today and the creator of the Substack Road to Omega. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.

A neuroscientist explains the problem of ignorance and how we can fight it

The great paradox of modern times is that we have access to more information than ever, but ignorance seems to be growing.

People in the United States and around the world believe more bogus theories now than they did 10 years ago. Comment sections on social media reveal that most people are just as gullible as ever, and in some ways, even more likely to believe outlandish things. This ignorance has consequences of global importance, because an increase in ignorance will lead to ignorant people getting elected to positions of power. I don’t think I need to give an example here because you’re probably already thinking it.

Ignorance spreads like a virus if we don’t actively combat it. But we can’t attack the problem if we don’t fully understand it. Therefore, let’s learn about what ignorance is from a scientific and philosophical perspective, then plot a course for inoculating against it.

First, we should understand that we’re all ignorant — to some degree. You could say that ignorance is a fact of life. To understand why, we have to understand the nature of life. For an organism to exist in the world, it has to accomplish certain survival goals. For example, it must be able to find food and avoid threats in a chaotic and often unpredictable world. These tasks require that the organism have a map or model of its environment.

Because humans live in a complex physical and social world, we have very sophisticated mental models of the world. But as incredible as those maps of the world are, they are still abstract, simplified representations of a much more complicated reality. And they really have to be — a map that is as complicated as the thing it is mapping wouldn’t be very useful because it would contain more information than we could process. Scientists and artificial intelligence researchers are very aware of this point. They often remark that “the map is not the territory,” and there is a common saying that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

This idea has been summarized as the “Principle of Incomplete Knowledge,” and it says that because our mental model of the world always contains some uncertainty or error, we all have a certain amount of ignorance.

In this context, ignorance is the difference between our model of reality and how reality really is. To live in an optimal way — that is, to make the best decisions and increase your chances of success — we should always be trying to reduce the error in our model of the world. We do this by “updating our model” when evidence tells us that reality is different than we thought it was. According to an influential new neuroscience theory called “the Bayesian Brain Hypothesis,” our ability to update the model and reduce our ignorance is central to intelligence.

Your model of the world consists of all your beliefs about reality. Minimizing your model’s ignorance means changing your beliefs when evidence and logic suggests they are inaccurate.

Let’s consider an idealized example. Imagine someone who believes the Earth is flat blasts off into space in a rocket. The person will see with their own eyes that the Earth is round. If they come back down to Earth, continuing to believe that it is flat, they have not updated their model in light of new evidence. This is an extreme example, but most if not all of us hold some beliefs that are similarly, if less dramatically, inaccurate. In some cases, we still hold these beliefs even when they are contradicted by the evidence.

It is far from easy to determine which of your beliefs are in line with the evidence offered by reality. If you believe in something, it is usually because you’ve found something about that argument to be convincing (though that is not always the case, because we may also believe in unconvincing things that we find comforting).

This is why it is important that we test our beliefs. For example, let’s say you’re into New Age medicine. You’ve been told that a certain crystal has healing powers. Now, there is no good scientific reason to believe that this is true. But because even our best scientific theories will contain some amount of error, the best way to determine if there’s any validity to a belief is to test it. One could use the crystals only half of the time when they get sick, and they can keep a record of the recovery time (while trying to keep other variables, such as the kind of illness itself, constant). To increase the sample size of the study, that person could give the crystals to their friends and family who would also like to try the experiment. If 10 people try the healing method for one year and there’s no clear indication that there’s any difference between healing times associated with the crystal versus without, then one can suspect that the crystal is ineffective and won’t cure illness.

Society would almost certainly improve if everyone questioned and tested their own beliefs. In practice, this is not so easy. In the above example, there is the problem of the famous placebo effect, so the crystal might actually be effective in healing not because of any intrinsic property, but because of the user’s positive thoughts. For this reason, the best strategy for people defending against ignorance is becoming scientifically literate. Consult the peer-reviewed literature that exists on a given topic when something is in question, because empirical studies test theories in a properly controlled way and with a sufficient sample size (ideally). However, I should repeat that this does not mean we shouldn’t be skeptical of our current scientific theories and existing empirical evidence. Scientific theories, by design, aren’t immutable. They are pathways to knowledge, not final destinations. Our theories are always getting updates because they contain some degree of error, and it is important to be aware of that. But we should have the appropriate amount of skepticism, given all the evidence we have so far.

There’s a practical approach to reducing our ignorance and optimizing our world model’s accuracy. That takes us back to Bayesian reasoning, named for the 18th century statistician and philosopher Thomas Bayes. Bayesian reasoning is a procedure for updating your theory, model, or belief-system in the face of new evidence. In scientific practice, it involves a relatively complex mathematical formula. But you don’t need to know any math to use informal Bayesian reasoning in everyday life — as philosopher Julia Galef explains in this short and accessible video.

Here’s what you do:

1.) Consider all possible explanations for something, rather than relying purely on “gut instinct.”

2.) Rank and rate each theory according to how likely it is to be true based on all the known facts.

3.) Test each theory by using it to make future predictions.

4,) Update how you ranked and rated the likelihood of each being true to reflect what you learned from the testing phase.

Some of our most respected scientists, including cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker and theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, have identified Bayesian reasoning as a powerful tool in the war against irrationality. In particular, it can combat the kind of misinformation and bogus conspiracy theories that so frequently permeate our politics. At the same time, Bayesian reasoning can reveal real conspiracies, should they exist, by demonstrating that a particular theory about a conspiracy explains the facts better than the alternatives. What Bayesian reasoning provides is a universal approach to determining truth. Beliefs should not be believed blindly; they should be tested continually.

If we can make some simplified form of Bayesian reasoning common practice for everyone, it would reduce the collective ignorance of society practically overnight. People who believe irrational things would begin to shed their beliefs that are contradicted by reality and testing. Scientists and medical professionals would likewise not overstate their certainty, which they tend to do (studies show that physicians fail to use Bayesian reasoning as much as average people do).

So, the question is, if this form of logic is our weapon against irrationality and ignorance, how do we make it go mainstream? For one, logical reasoning and evidence-based thinking should be a part of standard education curriculums. New methods of education, such as gaming and virtual reality, could also provide ways to make Bayesian reasoning stick.

Being ignorant about a particular topic isn’t shameful. None of us know everything — that’s an impossible task. Ignorance does not come from a lack of education, but an unwillingness to seek education. Ignorance is a consequence of refusing to change your beliefs when reality is constantly contradicting them. If we want to increase our chances of success in life, and minimize our ignorance, then we must be willing to challenge our own viewpoints and update our models of reality in light of new evidence.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of the new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. He is also a blogger for Psychology Today and the creator of the Substack Road to Omega. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.

A neuroscientist explains why stupidity is an existential threat to America

It may sound like an insensitive statement, but the cold hard truth is that there are a lot of stupid people in the world, and their stupidity presents a constant danger to others. Some of these people are in positions of power, and some of them have been elected to run our country. A far greater number of them do not have positions of power, but they still have the power to vote, and the power to spread their ideas. We may have heard of “collective intelligence,” but there is also “collective stupidity,” and it is a force with equal influence on the world. It would not be a stretch to say that at this point in time, stupidity presents an existential threat to America because, in some circles, it is being celebrated.

Although the term "stupidity" may seem derogatory or insulting, it is actually a scientific concept that refers to a specific type of cognitive failure. It is important to realize that stupidity is not simply a lack of intelligence or knowledge, but rather a failure to use one's cognitive abilities effectively. This means that you can be “smart” while having a low IQ, or no expertise in anything. It is often said that “you can’t fix stupid,” but that is not exactly true. By becoming aware of the limitations of our natural intelligence or our ignorance, we can adjust our reasoning, behavior, and decision-making to account for our intellectual shortcomings.

To demonstrate that stupidity does not mean having a low IQ, consider the case of Richard Branson, the billionaire CEO of Virgin Airlines, who is one of the world’s most successful businessmen. Branson has said that he was seen as the dumbest person in school, and has admitted to having dyslexia, a learning disability that affects one’s ability to read and correctly interpret written language. But it wasn’t just reading comprehension that was the problem — “Math just didn’t make sense to me,” Branson has said. “I would certainly have failed an IQ test.”

So, what is responsible for his enormous success, both financially and in terms of being a prolific innovator? Branson attributes his success to surrounding himself with highly knowledgeable and extremely competent people. Branson’s smarts come from his ability to recognize his own limitations, and to know when to defer to others on topics or tasks where he lacks sufficient knowledge or skill.

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This means you don’t have to be traditionally intelligent or particularly knowledgeable to be successful in life, make good decisions, have good judgment, and be a positive influence on the world. Stupidity is a consequence of a failure to be aware of one’s own limitations, and this type of cognitive failure has a scientific name: the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a well-known psychological phenomenon that describes the tendency for individuals to overestimate their level of intelligence, knowledge, or competence in a particular area. They may also simultaneously misjudge the intelligence, expertise, or competence of others. In other words, they are ignorant of their own ignorance. The effect has been widely written about, and investigated empirically, with hundreds of studies published in peer-reviewed journals confirming and analyzing the phenomenon, particularly in relation to the dangers it poses in certain contexts.

It is easy to think of examples in which failing to recognize one’s own ignorance can become dangerous. Take for example when people with no medical training try to provide medical advice. It doesn’t take much Internet searching to find some nutritionist from the “alternative medicine” world who is claiming that some herbal ingredient has the power to cure cancer. Some of these people are scam artists, but many of them truly believe that they have a superior understanding of health and physiology. There are many people who trust these self-proclaimed experts, and there is no doubt that some have paid their lives for it.

What’s particularly disturbing about the Dunning-Kruger effect is that people are attracted to confident leaders, so politicians are incentivized to be overconfident in their beliefs and opinions, and to overstate their expertise. For example, Donald Trump — despite not having any real understanding of what causes cancer — suggested that the noise from wind turbines is causing cancer (a claim that is not supported by any empirical studies). It is well documented that on topics ranging from pandemics to climate change, Trump routinely dismissed the opinions of the professionals who have dedicated their lives to understanding those phenomena, because he thought that he knew better. It’s bad enough that politicians like Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene don’t recognize their own ignorance and fail to exercise the appropriate amount of caution when making claims that can affect public health and safety — but what is really disturbing is that they are being celebrated for their over-confidence (i.e., stupidity).

It is less surprising that politicians who regularly exhibit the Dunning-Kruger effect are being elected to office when one realizes that they are being voted in by people who also display the Dunning-Kruger effect. A 2008 study by the political scientist Ian Anson surveyed over 2000 Americans in an attempt to see whether or not the effect was playing a role in one’s ability to overestimate their political knowledge. The results clearly showed that the people who scored lowest on political knowledge were the very same people who were the most likely to overestimate their performance. While this is shocking, it also makes perfect sense: the less we know about something, the less of an ability we have to assess how much we don’t know. It is only when we try to become an expert on some complex topic that we truly realize how complicated it is, and how much more there is to learn about it.

This new theory of stupidity I have proposed here — that stupidity is not a lack of intelligence or knowledge, but a lack of awareness of the limits of one’s intelligence or knowledge — is more important right now than ever before, and I’ll tell you why. The same study by Anson mentioned above showed that when cues were given to make the participants “engage in partisan thought,” the Dunning-Kruger effect became more pronounced. In other words, if someone is reminded of the Republican-Democrat divide, they become even more overconfident in their uninformed positions. This finding suggests that in today’s unprecedently divided political climate, we are all more likely to have an inflated sense of confidence in our unsupported beliefs. What’s more, those who actually have the greatest ignorance will assume they have the least!

What we are dealing with here is an epidemic of stupidity that will only get worse as divisions continue to increase. This should motivate all of us to do what we can to ease the political division. When we can clearly see the social factors that are causing people to become increasingly stupid, our anger and hatred toward them should dissipate. We do not have much control over our level of intelligence or ignorance, or our ignorance of our ignorance.

But this does not mean that we should accept stupidity as the result of deterministic forces that are beyond our control. After gaining a deeper awareness of our own cognitive limitations and limited knowledge base, we should do what we can to instill this higher awareness in others. We must not just educate the public and our youth; we must teach them to become aware of their own ignorance, and give them the skills they need to search for more knowledge, and to detect when they or others are overestimating their knowledge or competency.

We have good reason to be optimistic that this is possible. A 2009 study showed that incompetent students increased their ability to estimate their class rank after being tutored in the skills they lacked. This suggests that we can learn a type of “meta-awareness” that gives us the power to more accurately assess ourselves and our own limitations. Once we can do that, then we can know when we need to do more research on a given topic, or to defer to experts. We can also get better at distinguishing between true experts and those who only claim to be experts (but are really just demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger effect).

We are all victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect to some degree. An inability to accurately assess our own competency and wisdom is something we see in both liberals and conservatives. While being more educated typically decreases our Dunning-Kruger tendencies, it does not eliminate them entirely. That takes constant cognitive effort in the form of self-awareness, continual curiosity, and a healthy amount of skepticism. By cultivating this type of awareness in ourselves, and making an effort to spread it to others, we can fight back against the stupidity crisis that threatens our nation.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of the new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. He is also a blogger for Psychology Today and the creator of the Substack Road to Omega. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.

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Here's what happens to your body when you give up caffeine

When I was in college, caffeine was my best friend. Actually, the relationship was more intimate than that — you could say that caffeine was my lover. Just the smell of a strong pot of coffee would get me excited and stimulated. And it was there to help get me through tough times, like all-nighters I pulled cramming for exams.

But ultimately, I learned that I was in a relationship with an abusive partner. The more I indulged, the less I got out of it, and the extreme ups were followed by equally extreme downs. I soon found myself trapped in a relationship that was physically and mentally unhealthy.

Unfortunately, breaking up with the drug seemed harder than staying in an abusive relationship, all because of what happens to the brain when you suddenly stop consuming it.

Despite the difficult break-up that any caffeine addict will inevitably face, as a neuroscientist I’m here to tell you that in the long run it is absolutely worth it. The purpose of this article is to explain how caffeine works, why it’s so addictive, and what to expect when you come off it.

First, we need to understand how caffeine works. The truth is that it’s a stimulant, plain and simple, not unlike cocaine or speed. Of course, it’s not quite as bad as an amphetamine but, if you drink enough of it, you will be as strung out as a crackhead, and when you crash you could experience a headache comparable to a “cocaine migraine.” Anyone who has made the mistake of pounding a pot of coffee or chugging a few Red Bulls for temporary superhuman stamina knows this.

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Caffeine stimulates the brain and body by blocking the action of a neurotransmitter called adenosine, which accumulates throughout the day and is responsible for making us eventually feel tired. When this chemical is blocked, we no longer feel fatigued when we should. It’s not that our body is getting more energy — it is simply being deceived about the fact that it needs rest and replenishing.

You can already start to see how this could be a very bad thing if caffeine is used regularly. But the blocking of adenosine is just the beginning of the story.

When your cup of coffee or energy drink blocks adenosine, it increases the levels of other neurotransmitters, like dopamine and norepinephrine, which are associated with cognitive processes like attention, alertness, and memory. This is why caffeine can make us feel like we have mental and physical superpowers. It can boost our focus and make us think we can take on the world. For tasks that require sustained attention for really long periods of time — like term papers, exams, and operating machines for hours on end — caffeine can seem like a gift from God.

But this is precisely what makes it so addictive. Because it makes you feel so good mentally and physically, and so momentarily productive, focused and creative, your brain quickly decides that caffeine is a good thing. It starts to expect caffeine, and at that point caffeine is now required for optimal human functioning.

The problem is, the drug simply can’t produce optimal performance forever, and the negative effects of caffeine dependency on mental health can be brutal.

When you get addicted to a substance, the brain adapts to its presence and becomes increasingly desensitized to its action. This means you will need to consume more and more of the drug to get the same effects. With caffeine addiction, the brain’s adenosine receptors become less sensitive to its effects, so now instead of a cup of coffee in the morning you add on a couple shots of espresso. Heavy use over the long term will inevitably disrupt your natural physiological and neurochemical balance. When this happens, it can have effects on cognition and mood that are the opposite of what the drug was doing before. Over time, the neurochemical imbalance can lead to disorders like insomnia and attention deficits.

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Since the aforementioned neurotransmitters all play a role in maintaining the function of the brain’s arousal system, a caffeine addict will begin to experience things like trouble sleeping due to a disturbed sleep-wake cycle. For example, you might have trouble getting to sleep, or you may not be able to stay asleep for as long as you normally would (or both, in most cases).

In addition to sleep trouble, the caffeine addict will eventually experience difficulty paying attention and staying focused — the thing that most use caffeine for in the first place. As the substance is abused, the feelings of jitteriness increase to the point that it becomes hard to sit still. At this point, even a massive amount of caffeine will no longer do the trick, and the more one consumes, the more jittery and unfocused they feel. This will lead some people to seek out stronger stimulants in hope of finding a cure for wandering attention, like Adderall, which is an amphetamine. While these stronger drugs may work for a certain amount of time, they inexorably lead to all the same cognitive problems that caffeine addiction ultimately causes, except in much more dramatic form. That’s why stimulant addiction is a slippery slope that’s best avoided altogether.

Caffeine dependency can also impair decision making. While its stimulating effect can increase the speed at which one makes decisions, this can come at the cost of the accuracy or quality of those choices. Studies have shown that caffeine increases the number of errors one makes when performing a decision task. Over time, caffeine addicts become more impulsive because they begin to act without thinking, and fail to engage the rational mind in the decision-making process. Impulsivity behavior can lead to inappropriate social behavior, aggression, and an inability to regulate one’s emotions.

If all that dysfunction weren’t bad enough, long-term caffeine abuse can lead to mental disorders, or exacerbate them. Since caffeine increases the production of dopamine, which is associated with the pleasure and reward system — known as the limbic system — addiction can cause changes in mood and personality. Heightened irritability and frequent mood swings can be expected, and getting along with others can become a real challenge. If that weren’t bad enough, it can also give you anxiety and depression, which for some people can increase the chances of mental breakdown or suicide. While the negative effects of caffeine aren’t as bad as heavy drugs, they can be enough to push someone who is already feeling unstable over the edge.

There’s no doubt that the negative effects of caffeine addiction are serious and scary, but most people who depend on the drug will argue that moderate consumption is the answer. Just about anything in excess can become dangerous — that is certainly true. The problem, as already mentioned, is that there is no way to stop the brain from becoming desensitized to the drug over time, requiring more of it to get the same result as before. You still experience the jittery stimulant effects, but the cognitive benefits begin to disappear. You start to feel like you’re stepping on the gas pedal in a car that’s running low on oil. It’s still getting you from A to B, but it’s doing damage to the machine in the process.

If you are experiencing any of the problems mentioned above, it may be time to break up with caffeine. Like all break-ups, things can be messy, but ultimately, it’s better to get out of an unhealthy relationship. Though I have to admit this is easier said than done. Why? Because the withdrawal symptoms you experience when you suddenly stop caffeine can be just as bad as, if not worse than, the negative effects that you felt from caffeine addiction. This is the “caffeine trap.” The trap is that once you start caffeine, it can be hard to quit for the following reasons.

READ: Forget coffee -- you may be drinking chicken feet and bones tomorrow morning

When we go cold turkey, the brain’s arousal system goes through some changes. The adenosine receptors that were previously being blocked by the caffeine are now free to do their job, which means you will feel tired, as if the day were over, but when it is just beginning. Dopamine and norepinephrine levels will decrease, leading to an inability to focus or stay alert. Feelings of anxiety and depression will set in, along with irritability and mood instability. Withdrawal could also lead to terrible headaches, muscle aches or spasms, and a general reduction in one’s sense of well-being. If that weren’t bad enough, a decrease in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) can cause forgetfulness and learning issues.

This is why most of us never give up. When we start to experience the withdrawal symptoms, we convince ourselves that we must have caffeine to function in life. But that’s the addiction talking. To actually be able to kick the caffeine habit, we have to build up a moment-to-moment awareness of how the drug is subconsciously convincing us that it is a good thing, and we have to also be constantly cognizant of the fact that the effects of withdrawal are temporary.

After the brain’s love affair with caffeine, it will need time to adjust and adapt to an existence without it. While the symptoms of quitting can last a few weeks or even a few months, it’s a small price to pay compared to a lifetime of dependency and imbalance. Once it is completely out of your system and your physiology has a chance to start restoring its normal balance, you will start noticing positive changes.

Assuming you are taking no other stimulants, your sleep will likely improve. You will notice that it is deeper and more restful than you remembered it could be. Your mood will improve and you will feel less on edge, because you aren’t constantly experiencing the extreme ups followed by the extreme downs. Life is much easier to manage when things are steady and stable. You will also likely notice across-the-board improvements in cognition, such as enhancements in attention, memory and mental stamina. In a nutshell, life will be better.

Breaking up with caffeine is hard to do because of the caffeine trap, but you will thank yourself for doing it in the long run. And for those who enjoy the taste and aroma of coffee, there’s always decaf.

A neuroscientist suggests Elon Musk needs LSD therapy

As a scientist, and simply as someone who would like to see society improve, I spend a lot of time thinking about what Elon Musk is doing to the world, and what he could be doing for the world.

Why? Because as the wealthiest human alive, he has more power to do good than anyone. Causal power is a term that scientists and philosophers use to describe the ability of an agent to have an impact on the world around them. If you have causal power, it means that you cause things to happen; that is, you generate effects. The chain of effects that follows a particular cause is known as a causal chain, and it is a concept that urges us to think about the unseen influence of our behavior on others, and on nature.

A rock doesn’t have causal power because it doesn’t do anything on its own. The average person has some causal power, but the magnitude of the impact of their ideas and behavior is often limited to their social network. A billionaire with a million social media followers, on the other hand, routinely creates causal chains that produce ripple waves across society. A popular tweet from Musk can generate 100,000 shares, produce hundreds of articles, and inspire countless conversations and actions in the real world. It’s hard to calculate the sum total of Elon’s influence on the nation, but there’s no doubt that he could sway the outcome of a close presidential election, if he made that his goal.

What does this mean for Musk? Well, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. The Elon I used to know and root for is not the man I see today. I see a person who is out for revenge. I also see someone who is behaving in a way that is increasing division and political polarization. For example, in a tweet obviously designed to antagonize the Left, Musk wrote, “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci.” It is not the criticism of Fauci’s professional performance that bothers me — it is the vindictive nature of the method of delivery on a platform that is notorious for inspiring stalking and violence. This tweet is just one of many that indicate a pattern of behavior that reveals an intention to stoke division rather than unify the nation at a time when it desperately needs it. And that’s a shame, because Musk is undoubtedly a brilliant and unrelenting innovator, with the potential to do more good for humanity than any single individual in history.

That being said, the aim of this article is to cause a shift in how Elon sees the world, such that he is inspired to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. If a new perspective on life and the universe can convince him that the human progress he wants to achieve requires unification, it could motivate him to use his causal power to help bring us together under a common goal and a shared worldview — one that aligns our interests.

While this article is focused on shifting the Twitter CEO’s worldview, the hope is that it has the same effect on the reader, because right now all of us must also make a conscious decision to reverse the division that fear and anger has sowed. The old saying, “United we stand, divided we fall,” tells us that doing so is not a choice, but a matter of survival. Overcoming our shared existential threats will ultimately require the full causal power of the collective human network.

But for Elon to have the sort of awakening that motivates someone to adopt a radical new perspective and approach to doing things, he must be open to undergoing such a transformation. Science has shown that psychedelics — like LSD, DMT, and psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in “magic mushrooms”) — have the power to prime a person’s mind for exactly this type of transformation.

How Psychedelics Can Alter One’s Worldview

Empirical studies have shown that psychedelics “relax beliefs,” meaning they make you question your assumptions about reality and open you up to new ways of seeing the world. They exert these effects on us by dissolving our ego and our ideological framework. Most of us have rigid ideologies, regardless of whether that ideology is a religion, a political affiliation, or a national identity. These worldviews can give us a sense of purpose and direction, but they can also create blind spots that prevent us from seeing truth. Additionally, they divide us into tribes, and create tribal tendencies within us. By relaxing our belief structures, psychedelics temporarily open us up to a new way of perceiving reality, and create an opportunity for us to transcend our tribalism.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs that surveyed over 600 people found that psychedelic experiences shifted people’s political and moral beliefs toward ones that could be described as more compassionate, and more opposed to authoritarianism. This happens because these experiences tend to reveal the interconnected, interdependent nature of the biosphere, which includes the biological network we call human civilization. This feeling of universal harmony can infuse life with meaning and purpose, and motivate the individual to live in a way that creates a positive influence on the world. We may call this perspective “the Cosmic Perspective,” and we will see that this way of looking at reality actually has a scientific basis that is quite compelling, and in some ways shocking.

If the goal is to influence Musk’s beliefs with a new psychedelic philosophy, it would help to know a little about his current worldview. According to a recent New York Times article, “it’s complicated.” Just a few years ago, most people probably would have considered him to be a liberal or progressive. He claims to have only supported Democrats until recently, including voting for President Biden in the last election. His major life goals are to put humans in space (SpaceX) and to bring environmentally-friendly cars to the world (Tesla), which certainly seem like left-wing ambitions.

But just before this year’s midterms, he encouraged people to vote Republican, claiming that it would be the way to bring about a healthy balance of political power. In a tweet that received 280,000 likes and 43,000 retweets, he wrote: “To independent-minded voters: Shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties, therefore I recommend voting for a Republican Congress, given that the Presidency is Democratic.” But it seems that the plea to voters was just as much about revenge as it was about trying to evenly distribute power. In a follow-up tweet, he admitted that “I’ve been under unfair & misleading attack for some time by leading Democrats.”

From the available evidence, it is impossible to get a clear understanding of Musk’s political philosophy or belief system, but it is obvious that he’s not advocating for anything radically new, like a worldview that could unify the nation — and that seems like a big missed opportunity. Psychedelic therapy could be helpful in opening Musk’s eyes to a philosophy that transcends political affiliation, but is radically “progressive” in the sense that its purpose is to promote human progress — social, moral, and technological. This solution may sound far out to some, but Musk is already a believer in the benefits of psychedelics, so now he just needs to understand how to extract their full power.

The power of the experience comes from the truths being revealed about nature, not the actual chemical compound. Therefore, reaping the full benefits of psychedelics means exploring the deeper story of nature the experience is pointing us toward. Musk has already shown he’s willing to entertain radical new ideas about the nature of reality, like the Simulation Hypothesis, which argues that we are living in something like a computer simulation generated by a highly advanced technological civilization. Whether or not you find this theory to be plausible is irrelevant — the point is that it proves that Musk is open to big new ideas. So, what is the big idea that psychedelics are trying to show us?

The Cosmic Perspective: A Unifying Worldview for the Spiritual and the Secular

The interconnectedness we grasp while tripping is not a hallucination or an illusion. It is a perceptual state that reflects an intuitive understanding of the causal dependency in nature. In other words, we are all connected through our interactions, because the actions of one agent will produce an effect in another, and that effect may propagate throughout the social network. The sense of oneness we often feel indicates that the whole of human civilization is something like an organism, which is constantly developing, adapting, and learning. Zooming out, and looking ahead to the future Musk envisions, we see a story of life spreading outward from its planet of origin, exerting an ever-increasing causal influence on the universe at large.

Taking the Cosmic Perspective should immediately make one wonder whether biological evolution and the spread of intelligence are part of the cosmic evolution process. We can see that the world has grown more complex over time, but we do not usually speculate about whether we are an essential part of that process. That is, until we eat a magic mushroom.

But some of the greatest scientific minds of our time have come to that conclusion without any pharmacological assistance (presumably). The list includes the prolific inventor Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, the theoretical physicist David Deutsch, the father of the quantum computer, and the neuroscientist Christof Koch, who is responsible for making consciousness research part of mainstream science. All three of these men are considered to be leaders in their field, and they all believe that the universe is growing increasingly complex, through a process of cosmic evolution that inevitably gives rise to life, consciousness, and culture.

According to this scientific paradigm, the universe is not just this big random machine evolving arbitrarily; it is a self-organizing system that is assembling itself through a hierarchical or multi-level process. As the evolutionary process proceeds, nature’s fundamental “parts” come together to form greater “wholes,” which then become the building blocks for the next level of complexity. This might sound complicated on the surface, but the story is relatively simple. Subatomic particles came together to form atoms, which came together to form molecules, which formed cells, which formed complex organisms, which formed societies, and human civilization now seems to be forming what has been described as a “global brain” that spans the planet, thanks to the internet. Humans are analogous to neurons in the global brain, because we are exchanging information through our digital and real-life interactions in much the same way that neurons exchange information in the brain. Under this view, we are not accidents of nature; we are the primary drivers of complexity growth at this stage of cosmic evolution.

What is perhaps most astonishing about this process is that it appears to be just getting started. If Koch, Kurzweil, and Deutsch are right, then we are at just the beginning of a process of open-ended evolution and complexity growth, where life emerges and then proceeds to transform the inanimate world around it into a fabric that can feel. Just as the planet Earth was composed of entirely inanimate matter 4 billion years ago, but is now completely covered with life, the same could be true for much of the cosmos 4 billion years from now.

In his 2012 book, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, Christof Koch writes:

The rise of sentient life within time’s wide circuit was inevitable…islands within the universe—if not the whole cosmos—are evolving toward ever-greater complexity and self-knowledge…the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness. The universe is a work in progress…. the evidence from cosmology, biology, and history is compelling.”

Similarly, in his 2005 book The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil writes:

“Intelligence is, in fact, a powerful force and we can see that its power is going to grow not linearly but exponentially, and will ultimately be powerful enough to change the destiny of the universe…Human intelligence will trump the dumb forces of cosmology.”

Although this paradigm is completely naturalistic, many will find its philosophical implications to have a spiritual quality because they suggest that life has cosmic significance. By “cosmic significance,” I mean that life is a mechanism for the growth of complexity in nature that is poised to shape the evolutionary trajectory of the universe and determine its large-scale development. If this is true, and biologically-based intelligence is the primary driver of cosmic evolution, then life has a grand and mysterious purpose that transcends the individual. In his mind-bending 1997 book The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch writes:

“Narrowly conceived evolutionary theory considers us mere ‘vehicles’ for the replication of our genes or memes; and it refuses to address the question of why evolution has tended to create ever greater adaptive complexity, or the role that such complexity plays in the wider scheme of things.”

Deutsch expands on this “role” of ours in his following book, The Beginning of Infinity (2011):

“Like an explosive awaiting a spark, unimaginably numerous environments in the universe are waiting out there, for aeons on end, doing nothing at all...Almost any of them would, if the right knowledge ever reached it, instantly and irrevocably burst into a radically different type of physical activity: intense knowledge-creation, displaying all the various kinds of complexity, universality and reach that are inherent in the laws of nature, and transforming that environment from what is typical today into what could become typical in the future. If we want to, we could be that spark.”

The cosmic perspective gives human civilization a collective goal and a purpose: to see that life, consciousness, and creativity continues into the future. For that to happen, our civilization must progress into a more complex, resilient, integrated, and intelligent state of existence. In particular, we must acquire the ability to get off of the planet before the sun dies and takes all conscious life with it (preferably much sooner, as an insurance plan against a catastrophic asteroid impact).

Without the life-spreading technology currently being developed by SpaceX, intelligence and consciousness cannot expand beyond its planet of origin. So, Elon’s ambition to put life on other planets is of cosmic significance. By initiating a causal chain that extends life’s effects on the universe at large, he is acting as an agent of cosmic evolution. But if he fails to see the worldview that provides a justification and larger context for his ambitions, he will not understand why a more unified world is essential for his vision of continual human progress.

The cosmic perspective is potentially unifying because it suggests that our shared existential challenges will require the full computational power of the interconnected global brain. That means we must cooperate and collaborate. Nuclear war, weaponized A.I, the spread of authoritarianism, income inequality, pandemics, and climate change — these are things that threaten the entire human race. Since our civilization is an interdependent system, if one crucial part goes down, the whole global network suffers. We saw how a local problem can quickly wreak global havoc with the 2008 financial collapse, and again with the 2020 pandemic. It is worth reiterating: coming together despite our ideological differences is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Under the Cosmic Perspective, there is no “us versus them,” there’s only “we.” Rather than seeing the world as a disconnected and random collection of events, we can view it as an interconnected and purposeful whole, with each part contributing to the overall evolution and development of cosmic complexity. It is the story of nature that psychedelic experiences have been hinting at. If Elon Musk adopts the Cosmic Perspective, it would align his behavior and politics with the scientific and spiritual philosophy that is consistent with his ambitions for humanity. From the look of this tweet, it is the philosophy he's been searching for.

Elon Musk_philosophy tweet.png

We’ve only scratched the surface of the science underlying the Cosmic Perspective, but for those who are curious, it is described in mechanistic detail at my Substack, Road to Omega, and in my new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. So far, it has resonated with influential left-wing voices, like David Pakman and Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, but also people like podcast host Joe Rogan, who like Musk has been criticized by liberals for leaning Right on some issues. If we want a truly progressive ideology to go mainstream — one focused on restructuring our social, political, and economic systems according to principles that will most effectively bring about human progress — then we must be willing to reach out to the people on the fence. Making Musk out to be an irredeemable villain will only push one of the world’s most powerful people further toward the Right. Those who desire progress must not let that happen, especially with Donald Trump planning to run for president again in 2024.

The great cosmologist and educator Carl Sagan once said, “A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later such a religion will emerge.”

Religion is a loaded term, but a spiritual ideology that is guided by science and aided by technology, that gives us a shared existential goal, will be the worldview of the future. It has to be if we want our civilization to survive.

Bobby Azarian is an author, a cognitive neuroscientist, and a blogger for Psychology Today. He has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, BBC Future, and Scientific American. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.

A new breakthrough in nuclear fusion technology could allow humans to spread throughout the universe

Is intelligent life a temporary phenomenon that is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, or might it play a role in shaping the large-scale evolution of the universe?

While it has often been assumed that humans will have no real impact on the cosmos at large, some of the greatest physicists of modern times have challenged that idea. Almost a half-century ago, Freeman Dyson — one of the most influential theoretical physicists of the 20th century — wrote: “It is impossible to calculate in detail the long-range future of the universe without including the effects of life and intelligence.” The father of the field of quantum computing, David Deutsch, has also argued that life may determine the large-scale development of the cosmos. Some other big names in physics and cosmology who have seriously entertained the idea are Paul Davies, Seth Lloyd, and Lee Smolin, just to name a few.

However, our potential to spread through space, by colonizing distant planets and building space stations, is limited by the amount of energy we can harness to power such efforts. But all that might be about to change due to a breakthrough in our ability to create a potentially unlimited source of clean energy through a process known as nuclear fusion. This breakthrough, which was officially announced today by the U.S. secretary of energy Jennifer Granholm, was achieved by scientists working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Nuclear fusion combines atomic nuclei to release massive amounts of energy, and it is the process that naturally occurs inside stars. It is essentially the opposite of nuclear fission, the process used in most nuclear power plants today, which splits atomic nuclei to produce energy. The major difference is that fusion does not produce harmful radioactive waste and is virtually unlimited in supply. Scientists and engineers have been working on harnessing this process for many decades but with little success, so this new advancement is a big deal, to put it lightly.

Arthur Turrell, a plasma physicist at Imperial College London, told the Financial Times, “If this is confirmed, we are witnessing a moment of history. Scientists have struggled to show that fusion can release more energy than is put in since the 1950s, and the researchers at Lawrence Livermore seem to have finally and absolutely smashed this decades-old goal.”

One of the biggest challenges in space exploration is the amount of energy required to power long-term missions and establish human settlements on other planets. Solar panels, the most common method of generating electricity in space, are limited in their efficiency and depend on consistent sunlight. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, could provide a constant and reliable source of energy for deep space missions and off-planet colonies.

One of the key benefits of fusion is its ability to produce energy without emitting greenhouse gases or other pollutants. This would make it an ideal source of power for human settlements on other planets, where the environment is fragile and cannot support traditional forms of energy production. In addition, the abundance of hydrogen in the universe makes it a readily available fuel for fusion reactions, ensuring that settlements could rely on this energy source for the long term.

Another advantage of fusion is its potential for propelling spacecraft. The high temperatures and energetic particles produced by fusion reactions could be used to generate thrust, allowing for faster and more efficient travel through space. This could potentially revolutionize space travel, enabling humans to explore and settle further into the depths of the galaxy.

Of course, realizing the full potential of fusion technology will require significant research and development. In the short term, this will likely involve the creation of small-scale fusion reactors that can be tested and refined. In the long term, it may involve the construction of larger reactors that can provide the energy needs of entire space settlements.

Despite the challenges, the potential rewards of harnessing fusion for space exploration are enormous. Not only could it provide a nearly limitless source of clean energy, but it could also enable humans to venture further into the universe and establish sustainable colonies on other planets. As research and development continue, the possibilities for fusion in space exploration will only continue to grow.

What would be the ultimate outcome of intelligent life spreading through space? Well, the answer to that gets pretty trippy, because the realm of science fiction starts to become a real possibility. Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering who holds 21 honorary doctorates and honors from three U.S. presidents, believes that our descendants will eventually spread throughout the universe and create an interconnected network of intelligent beings. This grand network, which would itself be something like an intelligent system, will continue to expand until it encompasses the entire cosmos, at which point the universe itself will "wake up" and become conscious. According to Kurzweil, this process will be driven by the exponential growth of technology, which will enable intelligent beings to continually improve themselves and spread outward. As a result, there will be a fundamental change in the nature of reality itself. Below is a depiction of this cosmic process taken from Kurzweil’s best-selling book The Singularity is Near.

I describe this potential future in detail in my new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. If you find the idea that life has cosmic significance intriguing and inspiring, subscribe to the Road to Omega Substack blog and newsletter, which explores the philosophical and practical implications of this big idea.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist, a science journalist, and an author. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian.

A neuroscientist warns: The war with Trump has just begun — and it’s deeply psychological

Most of us are sick and tired of hearing about Donald Trump. We want him to go away, forever. But the unfortunate truth is that just isn’t happening—not any time soon, at least. Trump’s influence over the Republican party is as great as ever, and if we ignore that, it is like ignoring an infection. It will fester and spread and eat away at the flesh of America unless it is dealt with. But what is the antibiotic that stops the cultural disease that is Donald Trump?

First, we must realize that we are engaged in something like a game of chess. To defeat our opponent, we must be thinking many steps ahead, and we must try to anticipate what they are going to do. We must rely on our rational mind and our reactions must be mindful and strategic, rather than reflexive and impulsive. That may sound like obvious advice, but so far, the Left has been responding predictably, without foresight or strategy, and playing right into Trump’s hand as a result. The more CNN and MSNBC attack Trump and say he is the anti-Christ, the more he is loved by the Right. They think, “If he’s pissed them off that much, he must be doing something right!”

It’s time to acknowledge a failed strategy and try something new. If we don’t, nothing will change, and Trump will keep his influence over almost half the country. He may even get re-elected, as absurd as that sounds in light of the events that transpired on January 6th of last year. But if he does not—whether it’s because he loses or is not allowed to run—there will still be half of the nation following Trump and that influence will be felt in Congress and on the streets. So how can we start playing the game differently?

The intention of this warning is not to prepare us for war, but to avoid it. To prevent the outbreak of a physical war, we may have to engage in a psychological war. It’s the kind of war where no one dies, and our weapon is simply convincing content. But before we entertain some potential solutions and strategies, we should have a sense of how Trump is going to play the game, based on what we know about his psychology. In theory, if we can predict him, we can disarm him.

There’s Nothing More Dangerous Than a Man with Nothing to Lose

My first article about Donald Trump, published in January of 2016, described his narcissistic personality disorder and why it made him a dangerous world leader. According to Raw Story, it was their most popular article ever, receiving an estimated 30 million views over the years. I was not alone in this assessment—more than a few clinical psychologists have identified Trump as a “textbook narcissist.” Two years into his presidency, I wrote a similar piece that explored how Trump might respond to “narcissistic injury,” which occurs when a narcissist loses power and gets disgraced.

Video exposes Trump as a ‘cross between a mob boss and cult leader’: analysis

When Trump lost the presidency to Joe Biden, he became filled with rage and obsessed with revenge. The first thing he tried to do was overturn the election using an angry mob. Ever since his “fall from grace” (though technically there was no ‘grace’ to begin with), he has nothing to lose, and this makes him more dangerous than ever. His narcissistic injury has created narcissistic rage, and this rage means he will try to destroy all those he has a vendetta against. To achieve his goal, he will play dirty, gaslight, and intimidate at a level that would seem extreme even for him. Right now, he is doing everything in his power to systematically fill the Republican party with loyalists and sycophants who will do his bidding with no regard for laws or fairness. The question is, is there anything that can be done about it?

As long as Trump is the most popular figure with right-wing America, Republican politicians will be forced to fall in line. It would seem that what must be done is changing how Trump is perceived by his followers. To do that, we must understand the worldview of his supporters, and why they see Trump as their savior. If we can socially engineer a “fall from grace” with the majority of his supporters, then Republican politicians and Fox News pundits will all begin jumping ship. It briefly looked like that was going to happen when the Capitol Building was being stormed, but Trump cleverly strong-armed them all back into submission.

We are in a War of Worldviews

As a cognitive neuroscientist who has been analyzing Donald Trump and his supporters over the last six years—in dozens of articles for websites like Raw Story, The Daily Beast, and Psychology Today, and in interviews with progressive voices like The Young Turks and David Pakman—I have come to realize that the war with Trump is a war of worldviews. But it is not as simple as the Right versus the Left, and if we make the mistake of thinking it is, then we are missing a massive factor in his continued popularity and will remain clueless about how to combat it.

Yes, it’s true that Trump has become the messiah for conservative America, and that Christian fundamentalists make up a big chunk of his support. These people feel like the conservative worldview is dying and that their Christian values and customs will fade into oblivion if something drastic isn’t done to reverse the trend towards secularism. Fox News fuels these fears daily, and Trump saw an opportunity to exploit the existential terror. But make no mistake—Trump is not a religious man and at his core he is no conservative. It is commonly known but ignored that he used to be a Democrat and a good buddy of both Bill and Hillary Clinton, not to mention Jeffrey Epstein, whose sleazy values were anything but conservative.

Steve Bannon’s social engineering helped Trump win over conservative America, and similar information warfare could reverse that. A deep and thorough character study of Donald’s anti-conservative past, that forces his followers to see him as an opportunist and not one of them, could go a long way if it were presented by a source that the Right perceives to be a neutral party. His followers will not watch CNN or MSNBC, so the challenge would be to figure out how to deliver the story to them from a source they trust, or at least don’t despise. Truth be told, not all his conservative supporters are racist or bad people. Many just believe everything that Right-wing media feeds them and are convinced that the Left is the real danger to America. If these conservatives can be persuaded that the reality show star is not a true tribe member, it could hurt Trump’s dominance over the Republican party, and reveal to everyone that he’s not invincible. We should not expect this content to make them switch political sides, but if it can weaken Trump’s grip on America, the effort could be worth it.

But conservatives are not the only demographic that has drank the Trump kool-aid. Many of his supporters are not religious fundamentalists but anti-establishment types who are not necessarily socially conservative. His business background and promise to “drain the swamp” created hope that as an outsider he was going to cleanse politics of the corruption and inefficiency that people on both sides can agree is real. Of course, he did nothing of the sort, and instead populated the swamp with some of the most corrupt clowns Washington has ever seen. In addition to these frauds and shysters, like Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, Trump gave positions of power to people who were utterly incompetent—like former education secretary Betsy DeVos—because they were big GOP campaign funders.

Everything Trump said about being against the political establishment and status quo was a lie, but because the Left-wing establishment in Washington hates him so much, his followers continue to perceive him to be the anti-establishment candidate. It’s a “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” type of deal. Another deep character study, one revealing Trump’s service to “the swamp,” could be powerful if it were delivered by a non-establishment-friendly news source in a way that his anti-establishment supporters could not ignore.

‘This theory is nuts’: Schwarzenegger fights GOP election scheme at the Supreme Court

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about what is happening in America is that people want change. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were the most popular presidential candidates because they were the ones promising to take on corruption in Washington and money in politics—even if one of them wanted to do none of those things in reality. People are angry at an economic situation that has led to the highest level of income inequality the nation’s ever seen. Billionaires and corporations on both sides have control over the stories media outlets run and influence the laws to work in their favor. What if we can offer something new to the rational people on the Left and the Right who want systemic change? What if it could be radically progressive—in the sense that the ideas are profoundly different—but in ways that appeal to people across the political spectrum? Is that even possible?

A New Political Party is the Way Forward

Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang and former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman have founded a new party known as the Forward Party, and it has already announced candidates who will be running for office in the midterm elections.

The party is focused on depolarizing America and healing the division, but without proposing policies that are directly in the center, since they also do not move America “forward.” Because it is open to candidates who lean right and left, it is bipartisan, but it also the definition of progressive, because its platform consists of many radical new ideas—like Yang’s plan for universal basic income (UBI). It may sound like an oxymoron, but the Forward Party might just be America’s first “bipartisan progressive party.”

Could a third party be the thing that unites all rational Americans in a war against corruption, political extremism, and Trumpism? It is hard to say, since neither side seems to be too interested in compromise, and divisive issues like abortion and gun control make any kind of reconciliation difficult to imagine. And what new big ideas is the Forward Party offering that make it something radically different from the Democratic party?

I, for one, believe it is a step in the right direction, though I understand if some think the Forward Party is too young to stand a real chance in the next presidential election. However, if there was ever a time that a third party actually stood a chance, it is right now. If the Forward Party’s presidential candidate seems like the best choice for America, a reasonable strategy would be to support that candidate right up until the moment it seems like defeating Trump is no longer possible. At that point, the Forward Party candidate would urge their supporters to vote for the candidate who can ensure Trump never gets back into the oval office. But if the Forward Party’s pick is polling well and has a chance to win, then it would seem like the perfect opportunity to break America’s infamous two-party system. According to the Washington Post, a growing number of experts believe that the way to fix democracy is to move beyond the two-party system.

As a scientist, I believe that a scientific approach to improving society is what America needs. To be clear, that doesn’t mean looking to existing science for answers—most of our problems will not have obvious answers that can be found in any text book. I simply mean that we should always be experimenting with new ways of doing things and collecting data to see what is or is not working. That way we can collectively adapt and evolve and become an optimally-functional system. Evolutionary theory has shown us that organisms that can’t adapt to a changing world die out. Complex systems science says that social systems are similar to organisms in terms of their dynamics and structure. That means societies must also be able to adapt to a changing world. In other words, they have to be self-correcting. In his best-selling book The Beginning of Infinity, the theoretical physicist David Deutsch—father of quantum computing—explained how societies can be structured to be optimally self-correcting. This requires implementing mechanisms for error detection and correction. If the Forward Party wants to truly be forward-thinking, it must look at the strategies for optimizing systems discovered by nature and cataloged by science. This approach is known as “systems thinking,” and it is transforming how both scientists and citizens solve complex problems of all kinds.

In recent years, a growing number of scientists have recognized the societal significance of a statistical reasoning method known as Bayesian reasoning, which is a procedure for updating your theory, model, or belief-system in the face of new evidence. It involves a relatively complex mathematical formula but you don’t need to know any math to use informal Bayesian reasoning in everyday life—as philosopher Julia Galef explains in this short and accessible video. All you have to do is 1) consider all possible explanations for something, rather than relying purely on “gut instinct,” 2) rank and rate each theory according to how likely it is to be true based on all the known facts, 3) test each theory by using it to make future predictions, and 4) update how you ranked and rated the likelihood of each being true to reflect what you learned from the testing phase. Some of our most respected scientists, like cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker and theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, have identified Bayesian reasoning as a powerful tool in the war against irrationality, as it can combat misinformation and bogus conspiracy theories. At the same time, it can reveal real conspiracies should they exist, by demonstrating that a particular theory about a conspiracy explains the facts better than the alternatives, such as the mainstream narrative. What Bayesian reasoning provides in a nutshell is a universal approach to determining truth. Beliefs should not be believed blindly; they should be tested continually. This is another method for self-correction.

With these principles in mind, I created the Road to Omega Substack to sketch out how the sciences of complexity—like systems science, evolutionary theory, and statistical science—can reveal new ways to design optimally functional and resilient social, political, and economic systems. Not only that, collectively these sciences illuminate what could be called a “new cosmic narrative”—a picture of the universe as a creative system that inevitably generates complexity in the form of life, consciousness, and civilization. That means that we are not accidents of nature, we are actually the primary drivers of this complexity growth process. An awareness of this fact can instill within us a purpose, that purpose being to see that our civilization progresses into a more complex, integrated, and intelligent state of existence; one that acquires the ability to get off of the planet before our sun dies and takes all sentient life with it. I have described this new scientific paradigm, which creates a foundation for a unifying worldview, in my new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity.

If a progressive ideology is one that aims to bring about human progress, then it must view society as a whole as an adaptive system, and it must look to the new sciences of complexity to understand the evolutionary mechanisms that drive organisms toward higher organization and computational capacity. The Forward Party is a chance to build a political party that is self-correcting and constantly evolving, rather than dogmatic and rigid. It is young and therefore can be shaped and sculpted into a truly progressive party, one that is not under the influence of billionaires and corporations that don’t have the best interests of the people in mind. It is also a chance to weaken the grip that Donald Trump has on the nation, by offering a new political option that is uncorrupted by money and untainted by extremist elements. The country desperately needs radical change, but change that is rooted in logic and rationality. Those are the requirements for change that moves us forward and not backward; that is, for change to be progress.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist, an author, and a Psychology Today blogger. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @BobbyAzarian.


A neuroscientist explains why intelligent aliens are almost certainly out there

We are living it totally crazy times, and if you don’t think so, you haven’t been paying attention. For the first time in modern history, it is no longer fringe to believe in UFOs. Unidentified Flying Objects that move in ways that seem to be leagues beyond today’s technology have been captured on video by military agencies and released by the U.S. government. Whether these UFOs are spacecraft manned with extraterrestrials or just shockingly advanced military technology is an open question. There’s also the possibility that the videos are not what they appear—that they are capturing something in some sort of way that creates a visual illusion. Whatever explanation you favor, it is safe to say that you are in no position to claim any certainty in the matter. And if you are betting on aliens, you are not a fool. The physics displayed by the supposed craft in the videos released by the U.S. government defy explanation.

In this article, I don’t intend to convince anyone that the videos show aliens. I’m going to make an argument that I can back up with well-established science, which suggests that intelligent life is not all that rare in the universe, and from that fact, let the reader make up their mind about whether or not they think ETs are among us. Whatever you decide, you will come away with a new understanding of the universe and our place in it. The saga of cosmic evolution is a story of intelligent beings inevitably becoming gods, or at least sentient agents with god-like powers. This evolutionary trajectory has nothing to do with anything supernatural—it is a product of natural processes that create a tendency toward higher complexity.

Richard Dawkins, a god among evolutionary theorists, atheists, and skeptics—most famous for his 1976 classic The Selfish Gene, which revolutionized evolutionary biology—was recently asked “Do you think there’s intelligent life out there in the universe?” by MIT podcast host Lex Friedman. His answer might surprise you.

“Well, if we accept that there’s intelligent life here, and we accept that the number of planets in the universe is gigantic—10^22 stars have been estimated—it seems to me highly likely that there is not only life in the universe elsewhere, but also intelligent life. If you deny that then you’re committed to the view that the things that happened on this planet are staggeringly improbable; I mean ludicrously, off the charts, improbable. And I don’t think it’s that improbable.”

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In other words, there are about 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and about 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe, by today’s rough estimates. Either we are not alone, or we are unfathomably lucky to be here. But what if life were not a happy accident, and instead a regularity of nature that inevitably follows from the laws of physics on all those planets with the right chemical ingredients? Not an anomaly, but a natural manifestation of a universe that organizes itself to create complexity and consciousness?

Let’s get back to Richard Dawkins’ argument that intelligent life is almost certainly out there:

“…there are really two steps: the origin of life, which is probably fairly improbable, and then the subsequent evolution to intelligent life, which is also probably fairly improbable. So the juxtaposition of those two, you could say is pretty improbable, but not 10^22-improbable.”

According to Dawkins, there are so many planets out there that the improbable becomes probable. But in this article we are going to explain why life’s emergence and subsequent evolution toward intelligence was inevitable rather than improbable, not just here on Earth, but on all planets with the right planetary conditions. Basically, if the planet is sufficiently Earth-like it will produce complex adaptive systems (i.e., organisms), which will form a biosphere that produces increasingly complex and intelligent agents. Why?

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Because once you have a reproducing system that can evolve through Darwinian evolution, it’s just a matter of time before the biosphere generates an intelligent species with a collective intelligence capable of producing science and technology. In response to Lex Friedman’s question, “Do you think evolution would also be a force on the alien planet as well?” Dawkins remarked:

“I’ve stuck my neck out and said that ever if we ever do discover life elsewhere, it will be Darwinian life, in the sense that it will work by some kind of natural selection; the non-random survival of randomly-generated codes.”

In an article titled Darwin’s Aliens, published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, the authors argue that extraterrestrials would likely evolve through natural selection to be highly complex and intelligent, as Dawkins suggests. Now we are going to learn why new theoretical work is providing support for that idea.

To explain why life and intelligence emerge inevitably given Earth-like conditions, we must understand the role that energy flows play in organizing non-living matter into organic computing machinery with sentience. In other words, evolution toward conscious creatures of increasing intelligence was destined to emerge in a universe that is always increasing in complexity.

Inevitable Life

Until recently, most scientists believed that the origin of life was such an unlikely event, requiring the “chance assembly” of so many molecules, that it would be unlikely to have occurred anywhere else in the universe. The Nobel Prize-winning French biologist Jacques Monod poetically summed up this view in his influential book Chance and Necessity, published in 1970, when he said, “The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty.” It was his passionate and uncompromising belief that “The universe was not pregnant with life.”

However, another 20th century Nobel Laureate, the biologist Christian de Duve, challenged this view, arguing that the universe was indeed pregnant with life, going as far as to say that biology seems to have been “written into the fabric of the universe.”

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De Duve was in good company. Carl Sagan, the most famous astronomer of the 20th century, also thought that life was a probable phenomenon in those places where conditions are ripe for life, writing:

“The origin of life must be a highly probably affair. As soon as conditions permit, up it pops!”

Indeed, the planet Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and life is now estimated to be about 4 billion years old. It arose only 100 million years or so after the Earth’s surface cooled enough to support life. That’s a blink of an eye in cosmic time.

So what does it mean exactly to say that life was inevitable rather than improbable? It means that when you have the right thermodynamic conditions—thermodynamics is the science of energy flow—energy moving through a system will organize inanimate matter with the ingredients for organic chemistry into animate matter, or biology.

“The energy that flows through a system acts to organize that system,” is the memorable line that Harold Morowitz, founding editor of the journal Complexity, wrote in 1968 in his prescient book Energy Flow in Biology. Decades later he would team up with physicist Eric Smith at the Santa Fe Institute, and the collaboration would ultimately produce the book The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth, which would lay out a new theory of abiogenesis—in other words, the emergence of life from non-life.

According to Smith and Morowitz, life emerged because the Earth’s geochemistry created an excess of chemical energy that built up near underwater volcanoes called hydrothermal vents. The heat flow coming out of these vents organized carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms into biomolecular machinery through a metabolic reaction pathway called the reverse citric acid cycle, and life was born.

How exactly does energy flowing through molecules organize those atoms into a complex adaptive system that can reproduce itself? Whenever there is a process that turns a simple system into something complex, we can suspect that some form of Darwinian evolution is at play. Dissipative adaptation is the newly-discovered process by which molecules assemble themselves when they are driven to interact by a flow of energy. Although this mechanism was described conceptually by Harold Morowitz many decades earlier, Jeremy England of MIT gave it a mathematical description and devised simulation studies that would serve as a proof of concept. To put it another way, the molecules of organic chemistry self-organize when sufficient energy is flowing through the system. Given enough time, a self-maintaining chemical system emerges that can copy itself. While there are many details that remain a mystery, the basic mechanisms underlying the origin of life have been illuminated by origin-of-life researchers.

According to the theories of England, Morowitz, and Smith, the emergence of life in the energetic conditions of the early Earth should be about as surprising as water flowing downhill. If you have the right ingredients, life emerging is not improbable but inevitable. So, when we ask how common is basic life in the universe, we must ask how many Earth-like planets are out there. Depending on what exact factors are critical—such as size, distance from a star, and molecular makeup—there are billions to trillions of them.

So alien life is almost certainly out there, and while it is obviously not present on the majority of planets—at least not anywhere near us—it is presumably not rare either. While it may be too far for us to see with current technology, the cosmos could be teeming with life. Given its inevitability, you could say we live in a “pro-life universe.”

“If life in its abundance were bound to arise, not as an incalculably improbable accident, but as an expected fulfillment of the natural order,” writes origins-of-life pioneer Stuart Kauffman of the Santa Fe Institute, “then we truly are at home in the universe.”

While this changes how we think about life—it is not accidental but a natural manifestation of the “cosmic code”—it would be quite disappointing if only single-celled life were out there. Bacteria are not going to produce anything interesting, like culture and technology. So the real question of interest is whether intelligent life is out there.

Well, extraterrestrial enthusiasts are in luck, because there are good reasons to believe that with biospheres like the one we inhabit, the eventual emergence of general intelligence may be just as inevitable as basic biology.

Inevitable Intelligence

If intelligence is not an unlikely phenomenon, but a natural manifestation of a universal tendency for complexity to arise and grow without bound where conditions permit, then we can expect intelligence elsewhere in the cosmos.

Those who have taken an evolution course in high school or college know that all species are not evolving toward higher complexity or intelligence. Sharks and crocodiles are well-known examples of species that haven’t changed in any significant way over many millions of years of evolution by natural selection. In fact, fish that have migrated to caves have been known to lose their eyes over evolutionary time, becoming simpler. This fact clearly illustrates that not all organisms, or even the majority, are growing more complex through evolution. If a genetic mutation simplifies the design of a creature, and that simplified design increases their ability to survive—their ‘fitness’—then that simpler form will be ‘selected’ by nature. In other words, they will get to live on and reproduce.

It would appear that evolution does not make species increasingly complex or intelligent per se, but simply well-adapted to whatever environment they habit. Some ecological ‘niches’ present a great variety of challenges that must be adapted to, while others present hardly any. As a result, some organisms become more complex while some barely evolve at all.

Some scientists, like the famous 20th century evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, have interpreted this to mean that evolution does not create any inherent drive toward higher complexity and intelligence, but this is a mistake. While evolution certainly does not drive every species to become increasingly complex, it does continually create new species, and over evolutionary time, will produce increasingly complex species.As the great sociobiologist E.O. Wilson explained in his 1992 book The Diversity of Life, there is a self-reinforcing tendency for ecosystems to create new niches and new species.

Not only that, the need to adapt to an increasingly complex environment will systematically increase the complexity of the most complex species through what is known as an “evolutionary arms race,” which is a name for a competitive struggle that ratchets up intelligence. For example, humans in complex urban societies, like the tech hub in Silicon Valley, are competing with each other for jobs that require high intelligence and flexible or adaptive thinking. This selection pressure has been around to some degree since homo sapiens emerged, and when civilization emerged, the need for complex problem-solvers exploded.

A similar idea is the “Red Queen Hypothesis,” which says that for the most intelligent species in a biosphere, simply persisting requires a continual increase in intelligence. Members of such a species must constantly adapt, evolve, and reproduce just to maintain their existence, due to a competitive, ever-evolving environment. The name, proposed by the evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen in 1973, comes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. After Alice complains of running for a very long time and going nowhere, the Queen responds, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.” In other words, some species must evolve to become increasingly complex just to stay in the game of existence. With evolutionary arms races happening constantly, it should not be surprising that increasingly intelligent species emerge over time as a result of blind and mechanical evolutionary processes.

Inevitable Expansion

The other major mechanism of complexity and intelligence increase is known as an “evolutionary transition,” which has also been called a “metasystem transition.” These terms typically refer to events where organisms come together, through cooperative evolution, to form a larger organism—a superorganism that has a collective intelligence that is greater than the intelligence of any of its members.

One such transition occurred when single-celled organisms formed a multicellular organism. Another occurred when multicellular organisms came together to form societies. Ant colonies are a popular example, but human civilization is another, although we don’t typically think of the global population of humans as forming a superorganism. But what we are collectively is a global brain, in which humans and their devices and AIs form something like a neural network that spans the planet. The body of the superorganism that supports the global brain is the entire biosphere, and the processes of life make up its physiology.

What’s the next stage in the evolution of the global superorganism? Well, depending on how far the organism metaphor applies, the biosphere’s next step would be self-replication. What would this look like at the level of a biosphere? If we colonize Mars, that would be the biosphere reproducing! When intelligent life terraforms a new planet, it will create a copy of its biosphere, and because the new planet will have different properties than the planet of origin, there will be replication with variation. These planets may compete economically and for new territory in space, or they may cooperate to form a new superorganism—perhaps one of galactic proportions, given enough time.

“I do believe that the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness,” says one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, Christof Koch, who was trained as a physicist.

“The rise of sentient life within time’s wide circuit was inevitable. Teilhard de Chardin is correct in his view that islands within the universe—if not the whole cosmos—are evolving toward ever-greater complexity and self-knowledge.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit priest and paleontologist who wrote a truly prophetic book about the progressive nature of biological and technological evolution called The Phenomenon of Man, published after his death in 1955 because the Catholic Church considered it heresy. This book, written two decades earlier, predicted the emergence of what Teilhard de Chardin called a “noosphere”—a word he used to describe a state in which humans form a global mind as a result of communication technology (“noos” is Greek for mind). Due to the predictive power of his theory of progressive evolution, called the Omega Point theory, Teilhard was able to foresee the creation of the Internet even before the digital computer was invented. An omega point is a state of optimal complexity that an evolving biosphere tends to move in the direction of, due to what physicists call an “attractor.”

The great inventor Nikola Tesla also predicted strangely specific details about the future based on his idea that humans on Earth are forming a global brain:

“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is…. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”

Despite the appearance of having some kind of psychic ability to see into the future, these men simply understood the continual and accelerating increase in complexity and intelligence that results from continual biological, culture, and technological evolution.

While the success of our specific civilization is in no way guaranteed, it appears that there’s a natural tendency for biospheres being pushed by flows of solar energy toward greater organization to grow increasingly complex and intelligent. Adaptive complexity—which is what life really is—doesn’t just grow more computationally powerfully over time, it also becomes harder to kill or restrain. This is the magic of a self-correcting biosphere—by learning from its mistakes, a complex adaptive system actually becomes more powerful from everything that doesn’t eliminate it completely. So, the inevitable growth of complexity and the spread of life in the cosmos is not driven by some supernatural or conscious cosmic force; it is a learning process that creates knowledge which allows sentient systems to resist the natural tendency toward decay or disorder described by the second law of thermodynamics.

David Deutsch, father of the field of quantum computing and the leading advocate for the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, is very clear about the open-ended nature of evolution: “This process need never come to an end. There are no inherent limits to the growth of knowledge and progress.”

As long as there is usable energy to extract somewhere out there in the universe, intelligence can continue to spread through the cosmos, converting the inanimate matter of the universe into the living network. Through the process of complexity increase, the inanimate universe begins to wake up and experience the fruits of its own creation. Carl Sagan famously said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” and that poetic statement now rests on a firm scientific foundation.

Coming back to our original question: what have we learned about the likelihood of aliens in the universe? They almost certainly exist, and some of these aliens are almost certainly intelligent. Of course, the Fermi paradox remains: if intelligent life is out there, why haven’t we seen any traces of it. Well, space is a big place, and it may take a long time to get here. Our tools for detecting them may also be too primitive. So, we may just be early to the game—ETs may be on their way here right now, coming at us from a distant galaxy at near the speed of life. Of course, that is, if they aren’t already among us, keeping themselves undetected as they study our weird and seemingly self-destructive society in an attempt to better understand the nature of life.

The topic of this article is discussed in more detail in my forthcoming book, The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity, which you can pre-order here. For a short summary of the book, check out the below video, “ A brief introduction to a Darwinian theory of reality.”

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and a science journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.

A Brief Introduction to a Darwinian Theory of Reality with Infinity Maps www.youtube.com

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The neuroscience behind Will Smith's attack on Chris Rock

In case you missed it, last night at the Oscars, actor Will Smith slapped the bejesus out of comedian Chris Rock, who was one of the award show’s presenters.

If you’ve ever watched the Oscars, you know that comedians are expected to make the atmosphere a little less stuffy by roasting the audience. And remember, the audience is full of insanely rich and beautiful celebrities, so an aim of the roasting is to bring these pop culture gods back down to Earth. You can think of celebrity roasting as a sort of civic duty for comedians.

That being said, Chris Rock arguably went over the line when he made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s short haircut, which apparently is to hide her alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that makes you lose your hair. Rock said he was looking forward to seeing Pinkett in “G.I. Jane 2,” a reference to a 1997 movie that famously starred a bald Demi Moore, who played a female soldier in the film. I am not sure whether Rock knew that Jada had a condition or if he thought she was just sporting short hair—which she has done in the past with stunning beauty—but if he did not then Will Smith owes him an apology.

However, it is quite possible that Rock did in fact know and chose to go there anyway. After all, another duty of the comedian is to push the limits of what society can tolerate. But when you decide to take up that duty, there’s a certain amount of risk that comes along with it.

Will Smith may have not been justified in doing what he did, but all of us who have lost our tempers at some point in our life can sympathize with the man. That being said, I do not condone Smith’s response, but as a neuroscientist, I know why it happened, and it is called “amygdala hijack.”

To truly understand why Will Smith snapped, we have to understand the role and interplay of two brain areas—the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

The amygdala is a region of the brain that is activated when we perceive something to be threatening. For example, if someone is shown a video of an attacker coming at them, functional brain imaging would show that the amygdala “lights up,” thus it is associated with the “flight or fight” response. If this neural structure is activated by some stimulus—such as a perceived attack, physical or emotional—then the individual may experience a strong urge to attack in response. This is called amygdala hijack, and that is basically a technical term for “losing your sh*t.” Think of it as the fear center controlling your behavior.

The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is the brain region responsible for suppressing the reflexive behavioral response that is triggered by amygdala activation. A function of the prefrontal cortex is to regulate our emotions and control our urges. When the fear response kicks in, the front of the brain assesses the situation and modulates our actions accordingly. Amygdala hijack may induce a violent response, but if the prefrontal cortex does its job, the individual should be able to self-correct before the behavior is executed.

So, when Will Smith perceived Chris Rock’s joke as a threat to his wife’s emotional well-being, it is not a surprise that he did what he did. His amygdala temporarily hijacked his cognitive system, and for whatever reason, his prefrontal cortex was not able to override his automatic behavioral response in time. And if he had been drinking that night, then his prefrontal cortex might have been inhibited to some degree.

Interestingly, the video reveals that at first Smith was laughing at Rock’s joke, so it is likely that Smith’s amygdala was triggered later, when he saw his wife’s sad and upset expression. Who knows how she has been dealing with the emotional toll that alopecia takes on a person, and more so a female actor who is constantly being judged by her appearance. This likely activated his mirror neuron system, which in turn produces feelings of empathy.

Now that we have an understanding of the neuroscience and psychology at play in last night’s altercation, we can ask whether Will Smith was right or wrong in his actions, and whether he should be forgiven and allowed to attend future Oscar ceremonies.

To answer that, we must understand that sympathizing or empathizing does not mean justifying or condoning. I personally do not believe Smith was justified in physically attacking Chris Rock for doing what comedians are pretty much expected to do, even if the joke was cruel. As mentioned, without knowing if Rock knew about Pinkett’s alopecia, it is hard to judge whether Rock deserved what he got; but even if he did know, I still do not think a violent response is acceptable. Part of being a civilized human being is reining in our emotions, and inhibiting our violent instincts.

At the same time, I can understand why Smith did what he did, and can see myself responding similarly under similar conditions, and regretting my actions similarly. This was not the first time that the Smiths have been a target of Rock’s Oscar roasting. In 2016, he compared Jada Pinkett’s decision to boycott the Oscars due to a lack of diversity to Rock’s boycotting of Rihanna’s panties: “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited!”

In addition to amygdala hijack, the Smith’s might have been anticipating an attack from Rock at some unconscious level, so in a sense Will might have been primed for such an event. Priming refers to when “exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intent.” Similarly, Rock’s cool-headed response may also be a sign that at some level he was anticipating the possibility of some explosive reaction from one of the two Smiths.

What’s the lesson to be learned here? We can sympathize without justifying. Losing your cool means being human. Surely Will Smith’s good acts outweigh this one disappointing event. For that reason, I believe society and the Oscar committee should forgive Smith for his inappropriate actions. At the same time, Rock should also be forgiven, and invited back to the Oscars to continue his celebrity roasting. We do not want future presenters to be fearful when making fun of celebrities. Thick skin should come with the territory.

We can all learn from this unfortunate event. The next time something “triggers” you, be mindful of your response, and allow your prefrontal cortex to subdue that pesky amygdala. In doing so, you will stop yourself from doing something you’ll regret later.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of the forthcoming book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity, which is available for preorder from Amazon. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter

The neuroscience behind Will Smith's attack on Chris Rock www.youtube.com


A neuroscientist explains how religious fundamentalism hijacks the brain

In moderation, religious and spiritual practices can be great for a person's life and mental well-being. But religious fundamentalism—which refers to the belief in the absolute authority of a religious text or leaders—is almost never good for an individual. This is primarily because fundamentalism discourages any logical reasoning or scientific evidence that challenges its scripture, making it inherently maladaptive.

It is not accurate to call religious fundamentalism a disease, because that term refers to a pathology that physically attacks the biology of a system. But fundamentalist ideologies can be thought of as mental parasites. A parasite does not usually kill the host it inhabits, as it is critically dependent on it for survival. Instead, it feeds off it and changes its behavior in ways that benefit its own existence. By understanding how fundamentalist ideologies function and are represented in the brain using this analogy, we can begin to understand how to inoculate against them, and potentially, how to rehabilitate someone who has undergone ideological brainwashing—in other words, a reduction in one's ability to think critically or independently.

How Religious Ideologies Spread

Similar to how organisms and their genes compete for survival in the environment and gene pool, ideas compete for survival inside brains, and in the pool of ideas that inhabit them. The famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has used this insightful analogy to explain how ideas spread and evolve over time. In his influential 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he refers to ideas as "memes" (the mental analog of a gene), which he has defined as self-replicating units that spread throughout culture. We are all familiar with many types of memes, including the various customs, myths, and trends that have become part of human society.

As Dawkins explains, ideas spread through the behavior that they produce in their hosts, which is what enables them to be transmitted from one brain to another. For example, an ideology—such as a religion—that causes its inhabitants to practice its rituals and communicate its beliefs will be transmitted to others. Successful ideas are those that are best able to spread themselves, while those that fail to self-replicate go extinct. In this way, some religious ideologies persist while others fade into oblivion.

It is easy to see why religion quickly spread through culture once it emerged. When humans gained the cognitive capacity to reason and plan for the future, they became aware of their own mortality. The realization that oneself and all one's loved ones will someday die is naturally terrifying, and this existential fear perfectly set the stage for anxiety-reducing ideas, like ones that offer a never-ending afterlife. But religions are complex ideas, and the psychological effects they have on minds go beyond just relieving anxiety.

Essentially, the brain is a biological computer, and an ideology is a set of coded instructions, or "cultural software," that is running on the brain's hardware. Esteemed philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett insightfully described how ideas can control minds when he said, "The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes." In this regard, it is often not the brain that controls the mind, but the memes that compose the mind that control the brain. This is especially the case when the meme is a religion.

Religions Mutate

Like genes and gene complexes, when an ideology is replicated—or passed from one person or group to another—it undergoes mutations. As a consequence, different versions of that belief system are produced, which generate different types of behavior. As such, there are often good and bad variants of any given religion. For instance, there are moderate versions of Christianity and Islam, that promote qualities like a sense of community and a moral code that fosters ethical behavior. These ideas can be beneficial to the host organism, i.e., the religious-practicing individual. At the same time, there are harmful variants of Islam and Christianity—specifically the rigid fundamentalist versions— that cause the host mind to process information in a biased way, think irrationally, and become delusional.

Ideological Viruses and Mental Parasites

There are various types of viruses and parasites, and viruses are themselves parasites. While biological viruses are infectious agents that self-replicate inside living cells, computer viruses are destructive pieces of code that insert themselves into existing programs and change the actions of those programs. One particularly nasty type of computer virus that relies on humans for replication, known as a "Trojan horse," disguises itself as something useful or interesting in order to persuade individuals to download and spread it. Similarly, a harmful ideology disguises itself as something beneficial in order to insert itself into the brain of an individual, so that it can instruct them to behave in ways that transmit the mental virus to others. The ability for parasites to modify the behavior of hosts in ways that increase their own "fitness" (i.e., their ability to survive and reproduce) while hurting the fitness of the host, is known as "parasitic manipulation."

One particularly intriguing example of parasitic manipulation occurs when a hairworm infects a grasshopper and seizes its brain in order to survive and self-replicate. This parasite influences its behavior by inserting specific proteins into its brain. Essentially, infected grasshoppers become slaves for parasitic, self-copying machinery.

In much the same way, Christian fundamentalism is a parasitic ideology that inserts itself into brains, commanding individuals to act and think in a certain way—a rigid way that is intolerant to competing ideas. We know that religious fundamentalism is strongly correlated with what psychologists and neuroscientists call "magical thinking," which refers to making connections between actions and events when no such connections exist in reality. Without magical thinking, the religion can't survive, nor can it replicate itself. Another cognitive impairment we see in those with extreme religious views is a greater reliance on intuitive rather than reflective or analytic thought, which frequently leads to incorrect assumptions since intuition is often deceiving or overly simplistic.

We also know that in the United States, Christian fundamentalism is linked to science denial. Since science is nothing more than a method of determining truth using empirical measurement and hypothesis testing, denial of science equates to the denial of objective truth and tangible evidence. In other words, the denial of reality. Not only does fundamentalism promote delusional thinking, it also discourages followers from exposing themselves to any different ideas, which acts to protect the delusions that are essential to the ideology.

If we want to inoculate society against the harms of fundamentalist ideologies, we must start thinking differently about how they function in the brain. An ideology with a tendency to harm its host in an effort to self-replicate gives it all the properties of a parasitic virus, and defending against such a belief system requires understanding it as one. When a fundamentalist ideology inhabits a host brain, the organism's mind is no longer fully in control. The ideology is controlling its behavior and reasoning processes to propagate itself and sustain its survival. This analogy should inform how we approach efforts that attempt to reverse brainwashing and restore cognitive function in areas like analytic reasoning and problem-solving.

Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.

A neuroscientist explains how Trump’s most fanatical followers could lead America to societal collapse

Do not be alarmed, but consider this article a prediction and a warning. Actually, it's okay to be a little alarmed, because recent events—like the storming of the Capitol—are certainly cause for concern. Let's call it what it is; Donald Trump has created a cult and radicalized its members. QAnon also shares a large part of the responsibility, whoever they are. We may not be able to see it because Trump has been banned from Twitter and Q conversation cleaned from social media, but behind the scenes, this cult is being transformed into an army of soldiers.

How do we know that it is as serious as I say; that this is not just more fear mongering? Well, for one, people have died. Heather Heyer, a counterprotester protesting the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, was run over by a white supremacist, and 19 others were injured. Last year a man drew a hunting bow on protestors in Salt Lake City before being taken out by the crowd, a chilling moment that was captured on video. On the day of the Capitol riot, a pipe bomb was found a few blocks from the Capitol building. In addition to these troubling events, many others who will go unnamed have been the victims of hate crimes that can be traced to the alt-Right, pro-Trump movement.

But the causalities have not only been on one side. Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt was fatally wounded by a cop as the mob tried to breach a door, another frightening moment caught on video. The point I'm making has nothing to do with whether or not the shooting was justified—though saying that level of force was necessary strikes me as uncomfortably close to Right-wing apologists who defend cops that shoot unarmed black men. The point is that the violence is escalating, and there's every reason to believe that escalation will continue. To use Newton's third law as a metaphor—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, what does this mean for the future of America?

Since aggression provokes fear, and fear promotes aggression, a dangerous feedback loop has been established, dividing the nation to such a degree that something like civil war seems imminent. It may be a "cold civil war," but there will still be violence, destruction, and death. There will also be more gridlock in Washington, which makes any kind of progress impossible. It is hard to calculate the suffering that could have been avoided with a functional Congress, but we can be sure it is substantial. And if the division gets too severe, which is where we are headed, there will be a point of no return. Social chaos and economic collapse will follow, the United States will lose its status as a superpower, and life as we know it, will cease. If the pandemic showed us anything, it is that despite how advanced we are technologically, we are not protected from disaster, and our way of life can change overnight.

The good news is that this gloomy future is only inevitable should we choose not to intervene. But we do have to make a conscious effort to avoid catastrophe if we want any chance of being successful. I'm not talking about compromising, or forgiving, or forgetting—because we should do none of those things. I'm proposing something altogether new, something radical to stop Right-wing radicalism. But to understand the solution, and why it is necessary, we first have to get a clearer understanding of the problem, and of the predictive power of science.

The Predictive Power of Terror Management Theory

To those skeptics who consider a civil war of sorts an unlikely scenario, just ask yourself how likely any of the events mentioned above would have seemed in the pre-Trump era. Imagine taking a time machine back to 2014, and telling people that the reality show star Donald Trump would be our next president. That alone would sound ridiculous. Now imagine telling people that thousands of his supporters would storm the Capitol—many armed—in hopes of overturning the 2020 election. It would sound like some zany plot for an over-the-top comedy. Now imagine that after such event, and after trying to get his vice president killed, Trump would still own the Republican party and all of conservative media. On the surface, this outcome seems so improbable that it makes one doubt our ability to predict the future at all.

Despite how unlikely this general scenario might have seemed, I'm going to argue that it was in fact predictable with a high degree of statistical certainty, if one had the proper theoretical framework through which to understand those events as they were unfolding. That framework is called Terror Management Theory(TMT), and this paradigm from social psychology will be our sense-making lens in a time where nothing seems to make much sense.

Armed with the logic of Terror Management Theory, and an understanding of the relevant neuroscience, I was able to predict the rise of Trump, the white Nationalist movement that put him in office, the Q problem that led to the Capitol attack, and the refusal to accept the results of the election by Trump and his supporters—many months in advance. These predictions will be explained later in the article. No, I am not a psychic, but I did have a crystal ball called "science."

Karl Popper, the father of the philosophy of science, said the riskier the prediction made by a scientific theory, the more convincing it is when that prediction comes true. And you can be sure that when I was making such predictions, in articles for websites like Raw Story, Daily Beast, and Psychology Today, they seemed to describe highly unlikely outcomes. That is, if one were getting their analyses from mainstream news media and professional statisticians unfamiliar with the effects of "mortality salience"—in other words, making people think about death, or making them feel that there is a looming existential threat. I bring up these predictions not to say "I told you so" or for bragging rights; rather, it is a plea for the reader to take the predictions of the theory seriously.

To understand how Terror Management Theory can be used to predict the collective behavior of a society when existential threat looms—whether that threat is ISIS, Right-wing terror, or the pandemic—a brief introduction is in order. If you are already familiar with the theory and its relevance to Trump supporter psychology from past articles published at Raw Story, know that this piece presents new insights and ties up many seemingly unrelated features of cognition in a way that illuminates precisely why everything happened the way it did. The Trump loyalist is a mystery we are about to unravel, and in doing so, we come to see that the average MAGA maniac had little choice over their behavior.

Cultural Worldviews are Death-Anxiety Buffers

Terror Management Theory, which was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book from the 1970s called The Denial of Death, has been supported by hundreds of psychology and neuroscience studies. According to the theory, most of human behavior is driven by our subconscious fear of death. Unlike most if not all other animals, we have an awareness that one day we will inevitably die, for reasons that are beyond our control. This realization leads to an existential fear that is always bubbling beneath the surface. Without any way to cope with that cold hard fact of life—or fact of death, I should say—it can be difficult to get up in the morning, and to go on living, knowing it is all in futility.

How do we deal with our fear of death and unrelenting existential angst? Through cultural worldviews.

According to TMT, as a way of dealing with persistent death anxiety, humans created cultural worldviews—like religions, national identities, and political ideologies—to ease our fears and distract us from the fact that we will soon be gone, and probably forgotten. These worldviews make us feel safe and permanent by providing paths to immortality.

Through the concept of an afterlife, religions make literal immortality possible, while political ideologies and national identities give us symbolic immortality. In other words, they make us feel like we're part of a group and a movement that will outlive the individual. Worldviews also give life a meaning and a purpose. Whether we identify as Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, Democrat or Republican or Libertarian, we all belong to a tribe. Some tribes are just more ideologically extreme than others, and less accepting of outsiders. This applies even to atheists and anarchists, who are often just as ideological as the ideologies they are trying to escape.

So, worldviews are a double-edged sword: on one hand they give us direction and comfort, on the other they divide us into in-groups and out-groups, turning fellow humans into spiritual or political enemies. The unfortunate result is tribalism. Racism can be thought of as a specific type of tribalism, as tribalism proper would include other types of prejudice, like bias against people of other nationalities, religions, and political parties.

Tribalism, or loyalty to one's social group and aggression toward outsiders, is bad enough when times are good, but when there is an atmosphere of existential fear lingering over society for whatever reason—terror attacks, political incompetence, or a pandemic—tribal behavior gets turned up to eleven. In response to mortality salience, we double-down on our beliefs and try to force them on dissimilar others, and if they resist, we try to punish them. Whether the purpose of this punishment is to enforce fairness or to get revenge is largely in the eye of the beholder.

Understanding racism as emergent from tribalism can make sense of many confusing things. For example, during the Capitol riot, footage from Fox News showed more than a few black protestors in the audience. CNN cameras showed practically none, and we will probably never know whether Fox was selectively focusing on the minorities in the crowd, or if CNN was selecting them out of shot, though we can reasonably assume the truth is probably somewhere in between. While the minorities appeared to be safe in the crowd of QAnons and Trump soldiers, Nancy Pelosi would have undoubtedly gotten mauled by the mob. This of course does not mean that many of the Alt-Right rioters were not racist—it simply means they interpreted the minorities in the crowd to be tribe defectors, and as long as they show allegiance to the Nationalist movement or conspiracy theory mindset that signals they belong to the right tribe, the white tribe, they are accepted.

While the Alt-Right is mostly composed of Christians and Republicans, their Christian-American worldview has evolved into the more-extreme philosophical framework outlined by the tribe leaders—Donald Trump, Q, and conservative talk show hosts looking to boost ratings. At the same time, these influencers are monitoring social media and gauging sentiment on the ground, so the views of the tribe members and leaders evolve together, and this coevolution is guided largely by the atmosphere of existential fear, which is enhanced by the fear mongering coming from the top. And then, Trump's reassuring words, and Q's perceived righteousness, provide scared and confused human beings with a philosophy that gives them comfort and purpose. It is difficult if not impossible to reach these people with reason alone, as reason is not going to make them feel safe or comforted or inspired. And if the reasoning is perceived as being based on principles from an opposing tribe's worldview, they will flat out reject that logic on principle alone. That is not to say these people are completely unreachable—it's just going to take a lot more than reasoning with them.

Predictions Come True

What were the sources of existential threat that created the conditions that would put an opportunist like Trump in the most powerful position in the world? In 2016, I wrote an article for the website Aeon titled How the Fear of Death Makes People More Right-Wing, which argued that the Brexit and Trump movements were catalyzed by existential fear created by the string of ISIS attacks that had recently rocked the world. Prior to that essay, in January—almost a year before the election—I wrote an article for Raw Story called Donald Trump Has a Mental Disorder That Makes Him a Dangerous World Leader, which over the course of his presidency would receive upwards of 30 million views, making it the website's most popular article ever published. In July of 2016, when all the pundits and statisticians were predicting a blowout by Hillary Clinton, I published another article titled A Neuroscientist Explains Why Trump is Winning, and one month later another piece titled The More People Think About Death, the More They Think About Voting for Trump, which directly linked Terror Management Theory to Trump's rabid support. A 2016 Daily Beast article along the same lines, called Why Do Some People Respond to Trump? It's Biology 101, issued a warning for voters in its concluding paragraph:

"The rise of Trump has defied almost all logic. But he isn't appealing to logic. He is appealing to our most basic survival instincts. Those include fear and the natural tendency to thrive and conquer. This presidential election will be an important test for our nation. We will see if we are evolved enough for our logic to overcome our instincts."

Apparently we were not. Over the next few years, I would write more than a dozen articles on Trump-related psychology for Raw Story and Psychology Today that would receive millions of views, and land me offers of representation by fancy literary agencies, and media requests for appearances on popular web shows like the Young Turks' Damage Report and the David Pakman Show. In these interviews I described how Trump would respond as he began to lose power, based on insights from Terror Management Theory and the neuroscience of narcissism. Again, I deserve no special credit for these predictions; had I not been introduced to Terror Management Theory by a colleague, I would have been just as clueless as the pundits and statisticians. However, Ernest Becker, the cultural anthropologist who wrote The Denial of Death, and Sheldon Solomon, the psychologist who turned Becker's idea into an actual testable theory, are prophets in my book. Prophets of death, I guess you'd call them.

A more recent article, posted in September of 2020 at Psychology Today, titled How Trump and Media Allies Target the Mentally Vulnerable, had another clear warning. The teaser text read, "We can expect that conspiracy theories will be weaponized this election (again)." In it I explain how Trump and Q targeted people with schizophrenia and related disorders, by exploiting their heightened sensitivity to patterns (which are often not actually there). In another article published around the same time, I warned that the division was getting so bad that we could expect the election results to be rejected by half of the country. Despite these dire predictions being widely broadcast, the future that the science was foreshadowing seemed to be unavoidable. Why? Because unless we can learn to mentally override our fears and biases, they will completely control us, and they will make us tribal. But we are not totally hopeless—if we understand the neuroscience underlying these phenomena, we can fight back.

The Prefrontal Cortex is the Source of "Free Will"

The kind of person who is likely to be a Trump extremist is also likely to have impaired or suboptimal brain function in an important region known as the prefrontal cortex. A healthily-functioning prefrontal cortex is what allows one to override their primitive instincts, to think rationally, and to respond to stressful events in a controlled manner, rather than being controlled by fear and reflexive behavior. It does this by arming the conscious agent with a higher form of self-regulation and control, known as cognitive control, executive control, or effortful control.

To be clear, impaired cognitive control is not just a problem we see with Right-wing radicals. It is connected to ideological extremism more generally, so poor prefrontal activation is a concern for Left and Right-wingers alike. In fact, this cognitive profile is also associated with stimulant and alcohol addiction, as well as mental illness, like schizophrenia. And in super stressful times, like during a pandemic, we all become mentally ill in some way (anxiety, depression, etc.), and therefore less in control of our biases and behavior, which limits our ability to act freely. Why? Because the cognitive mechanisms that normally allow us to do so dissolve, leaving us with only preprogrammed behavior.

While some people will claim that they have no racial biases, or any biases for that matter, a famous experiment called the implicit bias task reveals that almost all of us do, and there's plenty of data to prove it. This bias affects how we process information and perceive the social world around us. However, this bias is subconscious and not easily detected with the naked eye. This has the unfortunate result of making it easy to ignore. Whether or not our implicit racial bias leads to overtly racist attitudes and behavior depends on an interplay between different brain areas—specifically the amygdala, which lights up when we experience something we perceive to be threatening, and the prefrontal cortex, whose job it is to regulate and suppress that fear response and the associated behavior. But if the prefrontal cortex isn't working right, it can't do its job.

Brain imaging studies have shown that people who display a stronger implicit bias have a stronger electrical response to black or other-race faces in the amygdala. An exaggerated amygdala response is part of what creates the sudden sensation of feeling scared. In people with healthy functioning brains, the fast amygdala response activates the prefrontal cortex, which is slower and plays a regulatory role. When the fear system is triggered, prefrontral areas work to assess the situation rationally, calming the mind and curbing fear-evoked behavior. Thanks to specific neural regions like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain exercises cognitive control, suppressing the tendency toward tribalism.

The problem is, not everyone has a properly functioning prefrontal cortex, and these people are the ones whose biases control them. They cannot reason those fearful surges away because they lack the mechanisms that make that kind of high-level reasoning possible. Since alcohol and amphetamine addiction can exacerbate this problem, Fox News viewers with such vices will be more vulnerable to the effects of fear mongering, and if they are given a "call to action" by a tribe leader like Trump or Q, more likely to act aggressively in an effort to push their worldview on others. Most supporters will stay home, but with many millions of followers tuned in, it is not surprising that a few thousand showed up to storm the Capitol.

So now that we understand the root cause of it all, perhaps we should view Trump and Q followers differently. They are not normal supporters, but more akin to cult members who have been radicalized by fear, their fates determined due to a lack of free will—which refers to our ability to override our primitive programming and tribal instincts. They are, in a sense, victims. They have been duped and brainwashed by rigid ideologies almost from the time of birth, and those ideologies have been weaponized by divisive politicians like Donald Trump. Does it make more sense to want to punish or fight these people, or to recognize them as agents who've lost their autonomy and ability to reason effectively?

The enemies are the influencers intentionally deceiving these vulnerable people, stoking their fears and fueling their biases. You may say some were racist, crazy, or ignorant before Trump, but we now see how that got that way. Politicians create fear and hatred for votes, Alex Jones does it for clicks, Fox does it for ratings, and QAnon does it for…chaos, I suppose. These are the people we must not let win. The actual followers are pawns in their game.

So, what can we do to release these people from the grips of their psychological captors?

The Path to Deradicalization

The solution is multi-faceted, and change won't happen overnight. One major goal would be to alter the worldview and belief structure of the extremist, and another would be to strengthen their prefrontal cortex, so that the agent is in control, rather than being controlled by the primitive brain.

Fortunately, one fascinating feature of the brain is its plasticity—or ability to rewire itself in response to new information and experience throughout life. Through exposure to new stimuli, new synaptic connections can be formed, creating neural pathways that can promote a restructuring of old and rigid belief systems. To facilitate cognitive restructuring, meditation and attentional exercises can train the prefrontal cortex to attenuate a hyperactive amygdala and control those bad instincts. A campaign to make these kinds of practices commonplace should be a goal of scientists and educators. It is not easy, but it is certainly possible to reverse biased and even racist tendencies through cognitive interventions. Counterbias training has proven effective in making police officers more aware of their implicit biases, though enhanced awareness does not always immediately translate into changes in behavior.

That could require more extreme therapeutic measures, such as pharmacological treatments to reset the brain. Psilocybin, the ingredient in magic mushrooms, or LSD, supplemented with talk therapy could be an effective way to alter rigid worldviews and dissolve biases. In a 2016 article, I suggested LSD therapy for Donald Trump, and although the title may make one chuckle, I seriously believe it would be the most effective way to get Trump to understand the effects of the division he's sowed. Psychedelics work by relaxing belief structures, so that the agent can "achieve a healthy revision of pathological beliefs," to quote psychedelics researcher Robin Carhart-Harris. Unfortunately, this remedy would require that the extremist be open-minded enough to give such an experimental treatment a try. Given that the average Q follower is all about "waking up" and seeing reality as it is, it is not unreasonable to think that a psychedelics campaign could catch on in those communities. Studies have shown that the use of psychedelics is associated with a decrease in authoritarian political views and an increase in views associated with liberalism, like open-mindedness and empathy (though one could argue some "liberals" today have neither of these). These drugs work by dissolving the ego, making one feel more connected to nature and to others.

But the real problem is that our most popular worldviews—the major religions, political ideologies, and national identities—divide us into tribes, and emphasize our differences rather than our similarities and shared human interests. If Terror Management Theory is correct, then the obvious solution is a new cultural and political worldview that unites us all under a common existential goal: the continued survival, progress, and eventually, the outward expansion of humanity. This worldview is called the Cosmic Perspective, and I have outlined it in a Psychology Today blog post titled, Could a 'Cosmic Religion' Unite a Divided Nation? You can learn about how the Cosmic Perspective naturally emerges from Terror Management Theory in this YouTube video on my channel (Road to Omega), Trump Divided America—Here's How We Heal.

Part of being liberal means being compassionate, but this is just as much about practicality as it is empathy. There's really no other choice than trying to make things better. I'll be playing my part by creating more content aimed at coming together—call it propaganda for a psychedelic revolution. Coming together does not mean meeting in the middle—as extreme centrism can be just as counterproductive as any other kind of extremism. We need radical solutions that push us forward, and we cannot go forward if we're at war.

If you'd like to be part of the solution, subscribe to my Substack newsletter, Road to Omega, which is a project aimed at fighting misinformation, healing division, and redistributing wealth and power in America. The project will be tokenized with NFTs (non-fungible tokens), and token holders will benefit from the project's success, so there is value in participating.

Simply stated, Road to Omega is an effort to save the world with science and epistemology. The plan entails:

If you'd like to read more about Road to Omega before subscribing, check out the first Substack newsletter—a plan to save the world with science and epistemology—here. This post lays out the plan in detail and tells you how you can get involved. Alternatively, you can read the much shorter About page.Aside from the newsletter, I will be continuing to publish articles at Raw Story along the same lines, so stay tuned!

Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian.

Donald Trump: We warned you of the dangers of his presidency 5 years ago -- how do we stop it from happening again?

In two days, the 45th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, will leave the White House. As specially-trained experts remove his staff's COVID cooties from the building, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take their oaths of office, ending what many experts believe is the worst presidency in our country's history. But America will never be the same.

Nearly 5 years ago to the day, we issued the following warning from neuroscientist Bobby Azarian, who made the case that Trump "has a mental disorder that makes him a dangerous world leader." By our estimates, more than 30 million people have read this story -- and it remains far and away the most popular story we've ever published. --Roxanne Cooper

According to a number of top U.S. psychologists, like Harvard professor and researcher Howard Gardner, Donald Trump is a "textbook" narcissist. In fact, he fits the profile so well that clinical psychologist George Simon told Vanity Fair, "He's so classic that I'm archiving video clips of him to use in workshops." This puts Trump in the same category as a number of infamous dictators like Muammar Gaddafi, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Saddam Hussein. And although there are narcissists out there who entertain us, innovate, or create great art, when a narcissist is given immense power over people's lives, they can behave much differently. As the 2016 presidential election grows nearer we must ask ourselves, if elected president would Donald Trump act on the behalf of the will of the people, or would he behave more like a dictator—silencing any dissenting voices, perpetually refusing to compromise, and being oppressive to certain groups? To answer that, we should ask a little bit more about what makes a narcissist tick, and how they tend to behave when given free rein.

What is it exactly that makes someone a certifiable narcissist and not simply a person who has a healthy amount of confidence and a burning desire to achieve great goals? According to the Mayo Clinic, narcissistic personality disorder is "a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others."

Trump's shortage of empathy can be seen clearly by his stances on topics like immigration. Instead of recognizing that the data shows that most Mexican immigrants are not violent, but instead people simply looking for a place where actual opportunity exists, with a broad brush he claims that they are "criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc." In a similar vein, Trump has vowed to ban all Muslims from entering the country should he be elected. It appears that his lack of empathy has distorted his mind's ability to grasp the fact that the refugees he speaks of are actually seeking safety from the same murderous maniacs that he wants to keep out. Perhaps if Trump had relatives in countries like Syria and Iraq, he might understand the constant fear that most live under, and in turn become more willing to welcome them with open arms rather than leaving them to be slaughtered.

But a lack of empathy is just one part of narcissistic personality disorder. Just beneath the surface layer of overwhelming arrogance lies a delicate self-esteem that is easily injured by any form of criticism. We have all seen Trump unjustifiably lash out at a number of people with harsh and often extremely odd personal attacks. When he thought he had been treated unfairly by Fox News host and Republican debate moderator Megyn Kelly, he responded by calling her a "bimbo" and later saying that she had "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever." In response to the strange, misogynistic comments Kelly said that she "may have overestimated his anger management skills." If the news host would have pegged him as a bona fide narcissist from the beginning she might have expected such shamelessly flagrant behavior.

To be fair, it is certainly true that not all narcissists are terrible people. Some of our most beloved celebrities and musicians have been suspected narcissists, including Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, Kanye West, and even Alec Baldwin. Not only are these decent people, some have also done a lot of good through philanthropic work. Surely Donald Trump has more in common with these individuals than he does with a psychopath like Saddam Hussein.

There is no doubt that this has been true of the past, yet there is one critical difference between those people and Trump or Saddam. Only the latter two were in or are pursuing positions as heads of state—a role that grants enormous power over world affairs and people's lives. While a narcissistic personality might be one of the traits that allowed Trump to be such a successful businessman and reality TV star, it is also the trait that makes him potentially dangerous as a political leader.

What happens when another world leader who is a loose cannon doesn't give Trump the admiration that he feels he deserves? We can be sure that notoriously anti-American dictators like Kim Jong-un of North Korea or Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei aren't going to give him any respect, let alone praise. How would a President Trump react when he feels he is being put down or undermined? Will we see the start of World War III because the leader of the most important nation in the world doesn't feel that others are kissing his ass as much as they should be? Narcissistic personality disorder is known to have strong negative effects on relationships, and when it comes to being an effective and responsible world leader, diplomacy is everything.

If it is not clear how the promise of great power can change an essentially harmless narcissist into someone oppressive, let's see how Donald Trump's political views have changed thus far. Prior to this presidential race, most of us knew Donald Trump as a charismatic, cheeky, highly entertaining figure that seemed like anything but a bigot. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York told CNN that the Trump he knew, and the Trump New York knew, was nothing like the intolerant xenophobe he appears to be today. It is a well-known fact that in the past Trump was a registered democrat who was in favor of liberal causes like abortion rights and pals with the Clintons. But since the promise of power has consumed him, he has become the poster boy for ultra-right wing intolerance. This change in personality and core values perfectly illustrates how the promise of power can transform narcissists. And as the race for the Republican nominee progresses, it has become increasingly obvious that Trump's yearning to rule greatly exceeds his desire to "Make America Great Again," as his slogan says.

The position of President of the United States is one that requires great empathy, a certain amount of humility, the ability to preserve relationships, and a willingness to establish new ones. These are all qualities that the narcissist lacks, and with their absence comes danger. Do we really want to put all Americans, and even the entire world, at great risk by giving a narcissist the nuclear code? Donald Trump is very much like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and the presidency is his "one ring to rule them all." In this case we do not have the option of destroying the ring. The best we can strive for is keeping it out of the possession of those who cannot resist abusing its power.

Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian.

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