Forgiveness and the RTPJ Region of the Brain

If someone causes harm, but it was an accident, how much blame should be placed on the person?If a person swerves to avoid a cat and accidentally runs over a pedestrian? Is the person to blame?

What if a person puts poison into someone’s coffee thinking that it was sugar, is the person guilty? And how much blame should be placed on the person.

That last one was the question posed in the experiment by Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In order to answer this moral question, a person needs to be able to ascertain intention and attribute “false belief” (the ability to recognize that others can have beliefs about the world that are wrong or different from one’s own).

This area of study is known as the “Theory of Mind“.

Neuro-scientist, Rebecca Saxes, talks about this experiment in a TED talk video. The experiment is also written up in the paper titled “Innocent intentions: A correlation between forgiveness for accidental harm and neural activity“.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher speaks with National Public Radio about this experiment (read and hear story here). This study is also published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Disruption of the right temporoparietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgments.

The experiment revolves around a hypothetical story of Grace and her friend on tour in a chemical factory. There was a pot of coffee with some white power next to it. Grace’s friend wanted some sugar with her coffee. So Grace put some of the white power into the coffee. While Grace thought the power was sugar, the power actually was poison and caused Grace’s friend to become sick. The exerimental subjects was asked how much blame should Grace get for causing harm to her friend (even though it was unintentional)? Functional MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) was also used to observe the subjects during the moral judgement. It was found that an area of the brain above the right ear known as the “right temporo-parietal junction” (RTPJ) lit up during the activity. The higher the activity in the RTJP, the less blame the subjects placed on Grace. In other words, the greater the activity in the RTJP, the more the person takes into account the fact that the act was an accident.

Next, the experiment used transcranial magnetic simulation (TMS) to send an electromagnetic pulse to the subject’s brain in order to temporarily disrupt the functioning of this brain region and now they found that people were less able to forgive Grace. So the ability to forgive accidental harm is dependent on the proper functioning of this RTPJ region of the brain.

Right Temporoparietal Junction Involved in Making Moral Judgement

There is another scenario. Let’s say that the white power is labeled poison, but it was really sugar. Grace gives the white power labeled poison to her friend. Even though nothing happened to her friend in this case, how much blame should Grace get? The typical response is that Grace should receive a lot of blame of giving something labeled poison to her friend. This is because Grace had the “intent to do harm” and that is morally unacceptable.  She got more blame than in the accidental case. This shows that intent plays a bigger role in moral judgment than the actual outcome.

However, when transcranial magnetic simulation was again used to disrupt the functioning of the RTPJ region of the brain. Now people placed less blame on Grace. As expected, the disruption of the RTPJ made people less able to take intent into account.

In order make proper morality judgments, the right temporoparietal junction of the brain needs to function properly.

Childhood Development and the false belief task

Given the importance of certain brain regions involved in moral judgment, it is not surprising that young children are not able to make moral judgment as well as adults because their brains are not fully developed.

When young children were asked which boy is more naughty: (a) the boy who accidentally broke 5 teacups, or (b) the boy who intentionally broke one teacup, they often will say that the one who broke 5 teacups is more naughty (even though it was unintentional).

We are not born with this ability to read other people’s mind and to take intention into account. It is slowly developed during childhood.

Somewhere between age 3 and 5 is when a child has develops the ability of recognize that other people can have different and/or wrong beliefs from their own. This is demonstrated in the “false belief task”.

A child is told this story. Ivan the pirate places his cheese sandwich on a treasure chest. Ivan goes away for a while and during that time, the wind blew the sandwich onto the grass. Another pirate named Joshua comes along and places his own cheese sandwich on the chest and then goes away. Now when Ivan comes back, which sandwich will he take? His actual sandwich that is on the grass, or Joshua’s sandwich that is on the chest.

A child of three will say Ivan will take the sandwich on the grass (because that is actually Ivan’s sandwich). A child of five will realize that Ivan did not know that his sandwich fell onto the grass and will say correctly that Ivan will take the sandwich that is on the chest.

Now when asked should Ivan be blamed for taking Josuha’s sandwich that was on the chest. A child of five would say yes. But a child of seven will say no because Ivan did not intent to take Joshua’s sandwich. Ivan thought it was his own sandwich that he is taking.

Free Videos of Feynman Physics Lectures at Cornell

Over twenty years ago while on vacation, Bill Gates (yes, the same Bill Gates that founded Microsoft) stumbled upon some videos of Richard Feynman presenting physics lectures at Cornell University. Bill Gates who loves science and this kind of stuff, found it “so engaging” that he watched it through a couple of times and thought that everyone should be given an opportunity to see this because these videos “makes science interesting, explains what physics is about, how physicists think”.1

In 2009 after he finally purchased all the rights to the video, Gates idea became a reality and the videos are now out there “for any young kid to click on and benefit from.”

Click Here to Watch the Feynmann Physics Lectures on Microsoft’s Project Tuva site.

About the Videos

The lectures was video taped 1964.  So is was way before the time of hand-held camcorders and YouTube.   That is why it they are in black and white and still have the circular movie count-down numbers prior to starting.  In fact, the video originally was on film contained in circular tin cans and you had to thread them onto a projector to watch2. Bill Gates later got them onto VHS video tapes and now into digital form for the web.

However, the audio can be heard well and the camera work of the original camera-person recording the lecture were excellent.  You can see the camera following Feynman across the stage and zoom in as he writes on the board and or presents slides.

In the style of Feynmann lectures, there is always a bit of humor.  So you will hear the audience (Cornell students) laughing.  The camera panes onto the students and it is interesting to see what it is like to be a student at the prestigious Ivy League Cornell University back then.

Richard Feynman popularized science

Not only are these lectures at Cornell, they are presented by the well-known Dr. Richard Feynman, an American physicists who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work in quantum electrodynamics.3 Feynman also had a knack for making physics interesting and graspable. As Bill Gates puts it: “Feynman love people to learn science.”2

Bill Gates says, “I think someone who can make science interesting is magical. The person that did that better than anybody was Richard Feynman. He took the mystery of science, the importance of science, the strangeness of science, and made it fun and interesting and approachable. These Messenger lecture series that he gives are the best science lectures I have ever seen.”1

Feynman popularized science by writing books for the general public such as …

The first two listed are somewhat auto-biographical. Was he really a “curious character” as implied in the subtitle? Being that Feynman liked to play the bongo drums, pick locks, and crack safes, he was a bit different from your average physicists.

Okay, so he may be a bit of an eccentric and a free-spirit (unusual for physicists). But is he also genius? Wikipedia mentions that his IQ was measured at 125 in high school with 100 being normal intelligence. Perhaps that is why author James Gleick wrote a book about Feynman titled Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.

In the 1960’s, Feynman also gave some celebrated lectures at Caltech (California Institute of Technology) which later became the books The Feynman Lectures on Physics which had been used as textbook in many universities. Six of the more approachable chapters have been extracted out into the book Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher and six more difficult ones into the book Six Not So Easy Pieces: Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry and Space-Time.

Feynman’s Career

Feynman mastered calculus at age 15, got his bachelor’s degree from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in 1939 and his PhD from Princeton University in 1942.

Besides being a brilliant teacher at Cornell and Caltech, Feynman was involved in the Manhattan Project of buiding the atomic bomb, the investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, and developing the Feynman diagrams.

You can hear more about Feynman in the first lecture in the videos where a speaker gives an humorous introduction of Feynman and his career.

The Technology

The videos are hosted at the Microsoft Research website under Project Tuva. The site is built on Microsoft’s Silverlight technology which provides feature rich video and interactivity to a web page — equivalent to Adobe’s Flash technology. Therefore, when you watch these videos on Project Tuva, there are extra materials that you can click on for more information, you can make notes on the page as you watch, there are sub-titles for you to read along, and you can make the video full-screen.

Income Gap in the United States

There is a growing divide between the rich and the poor in the United States.

Timothy Noah wrote a ten-part series on titled The United States of Inequality.

NPR radio’s Talk of the Nation had a show titled Climbing the Economic Ladder Getting Harder where Timothy Noah was one of the guest talking about income inequality.

In the program, the guest talked about the United States’ social mobility. It is true that anyone can become whatever they want if they work hard. But this is rarer than one might expect. There are actually other countries in Europe and Canada that has greater social mobility than the United States.

Here is another view from YouTube…

Wealth a Zero-Sum Game

Economist Robert Reich talked with Fresh Air radio in September 2010. The title of the program explains it all: “Reich Blames Economy’s Woes On Income Disparity” (which you can listen to in the link provided.) He compares this recession with the Great Depression and says that just prior to both there was a great concentration of income in the hands of the very rich.

Robert Reich is professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley and wrote a book called Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future about all this. In his book, he says “By 2007, the richest 1 percent took in 23.5 percent of total national income.”

Some people believe that wealth of a nation is a “zero sum game” (see link here for example). That just means that there is a fixed amount of wealth to go around. So if one person increases his or her wealth, another person’s wealth decreases by the same amount. Think of it as apple pie, where everyone can have a share of it. If one person takes more, the rest have to take less.

in this case, the 1% of the people took more than 1/5 of the pie.

Reich says that this income inequality is why recovery is so anemic. When the rich is taking in a lot of the income, the middle class no longer had enough money to keep the economy going. The middle-class can not longer work longer hours. Their work hours per week had already increased a lot in the past three decades and women has fully moved into the workplace in the past three decades. The middle class is working more than ever before. So there is not more mechanisms left for the middle class to make more money. And in fact, in order to maintain their standards of living, some are going into debt. This is why he calls the debt bubble of the middle class. Now with the rich taking in so much money. They probably have more money than what they know to do with. So they start speculating and using their excess money on speculative investments. So now you have the combination of the bursting of both the debt bubble of the middle class with the speculative bubble of the rich.

Book: “Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed”

Economist Jared Bernstein video “Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed” on also talks about the wealth imbalances. The video was dated April 2008 (just when the global recession just took hold). He tells us why he thinks the economy is broken. He has a book of the same name.

Income Gap is Increasing

This picture shows the US incomes between the rich and the poor over the period from 1947 to 2007 (taking into account inflation and normalizing the dollar values to 2007 dollars).

From WikiMedia Commons


The top blue line is the rich. And the bottom red line is the poor. See how the graph of the rich increases steeper than the graph of the poor. See how the gap between the two lines is relatively modest in 1947. See how the gap between the two lines is relatively large in year 2007. That is the reason why back in 1947, the average family can live on a single income. But as of 2011, the average family typically needs two income in order to live.

Articles on Income Inequality in the United States

Others are saying similarly.

Early in 2010, the article says ..

“The U.S. already had the highest inequality of wealth in the industrialized world prior to the financial crisis — and it’s gotten even worse.”

And in summer 2010, article on Center of Budget and Policy Priority says …

“The gaps in after-tax income between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the middle and poorest fifths of the country more than tripled between 1979 and 2007”

The article has a couple of illustrative charts that highlights this growing divergence between the rich and the middle class.

Back in 2009, HuffingtonPost said “Income Inequality Is at An All-Time High”[ref]

Even back in 2006, University of California Santa Cruz website has article saying “the richest 1% of people in the world receives as much as the bottom 57%”[ref]

Income Inequality Mentioned in Books

Page 108 of the book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalismsays that the United States has one of the most unequal distribution of income among the wealthy countries:

“Given that the US has by far the most unequal distribution of income among the rich countries, we can safely guess that the US per capita income overstates the actual living standards of more of its citizens than in other countries.”

And on page 257:

“executive pay in the US has gone into the strotosphere in the last few decades. US managers have increased their relative pay by at least ten times bewteen the 1950s and today (an average CEO used to get paid thirty-five times an average worker’s salary then, while today he is paid 300-400 times that) … Even excluding stock options, US managers are paid two and a half times what their Dutch counterparts are or four time what their Japanese counterparts are, despite no apparent superiority in their productivity.”




Walking after eating helps with blood sugar spike writes …

“Researchers studying older adults with pre-diabetes found that 15 minutes of easy-to-moderate exercise after every meal curbed risky blood sugar spikes all day” has article writes …

“a short walk after dinner was much more effective at lowering blood sugar levels than a longer one earlier in the day”


This is good news for those trying to control their diabetes or blood sugar.

For those who are testing their blood sugar can perform some measurement to see the difference in blood sugar spike with and without walking after similar meals at same time of day.


Healthy “Forever Cookies”

Linked here is the recipe for the “Forever Cookies” by Vani Hari (also known as Food Babe).  She calls these Forever cookies because she says they are so good that you can eat them forever.   Plus they are healthy too if you look at the ingredient list.

Most of the ingredients you can find as gluten free.  Make sure you get gluten-free oats and gluten-free baking powder, which not all brands are gluten-free.  See which brands of baking powder is gluten free here. Or make your own.  Also make sure the baking powder is aluminum free.

For those with food sensitivity, there might be corn and potato starches in the baking powder.  The ingredients are vegan, so there are no eggs or dairy.

Jerry Seinfeld Documentary “Comedian”

Jerry Seinfeld’s documentary “Comedian” is a documentary. So it is not meant to be an non-stop laugh-a-minute comedy. If you want that, you can see reruns of his TV show or his comedy archives on his site

This documentary gives us some insights into what it is like to be a stand-up comic as we watch Jerry go back to doing stand-up after his TV show. We also follow Orny Adams, a young comedian trying to make it in this business.

We get to see the anxiety of the comedians before their set, as well as their self-judging and analysis of their own performance after the set. After watching this movie we can understand that being a stand-up comic is not easy and requires a lot of work. We see Jerry rehearses the sequence of jokes and review his notes before the act.

In the movie, there are short dialogs where Jerry talks to Ray Ramona, Jay Leno, Orny Adams, Bill Cosby, and others. In the special features section of the DVD, you see the whole of Jerry’s and Orny’s acts on the “Tonight Show with David Letterman”. Both acts are very funny. In Jerry’s act, he starts answering the question of what he is doing after his TV show. And he turns it into a very funny joke. But he does give the real answer that he has a baby. And in fact, we do see brief moments of him and his wife and their baby in the movie.

Facts you may not know about your gut

The gut is one of the most important organs in the body.  Not only does it process your food, but it is the seat of the immune system.  When thing goes wrong with the gut, things eventually go wrong with the body.

The gut is how our body absorb vital nutrients. It is a rain-forest of bacteria — 3 pounds of them with over 500 different species of bacteria. Without them, we can not live.  Our bodies have more bacterial DNA than our own DNA.  There are 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells in our body.[reference]  So you can say we are more bacteria than human.  There are 100 trillion bacteria (that’s 100,000,000,000,000), weighing in at about 3 pounds (about the weight of your brain).  60% of your stool by weight is bacteria.

Some are good bacteria and some are bad bacteria. The good bacteria helps us digest food, make vitamins, detox poisons, produce energy, balance pH, and other tasks. The bad bacteria produce toxins, ferment starches, causes bloating, and wreak havoc on your gut which can cause all sorts of symptoms in your body including affecting your brain.

If the surface of our gut is laid out, it would cover a tennis court — that’s about 100 times the surface area of your skin. But this surface is not very thick (only one cell layer). Damage to this layer is called “leaky gut” or intestinal permeability. When partially digested food “leaks” through, then it triggers your immune system to respond with inflammation.

Quoting from the book Digestive Wellness

“You have somewhere between 500 and 1000 types of bacteria in your digestive system, each type having hundreds of different strains. … They weigh several pounds and have the same metabolic capacity as your liver.”

You have good bacteria and bad bacteria. This balance of bacteria and the interaction of our genes has a profound effect on our metabolism and immune system.

If the bad bacteria overpowers the good bacteria, it can result in health issues. Bacteria have a technique known as “quorum sensing” where they activate when they sense that they have sufficient numbers.

From the book, Digestive Health with Real Food, it says there are 800 species and 7000 strains of bacteria.  95% of the neurotransmitter serotonin is found in the gut (not the brain).