Inky is my hero

NY Times science writer Carl Zimmer has an interesting article about the high intelligence of octopi, which is now fully recognized but not clearly understood.  Good stuff:  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/30/science/animal-intelligence-octopus-cephalopods.html.  Back in the day (early 80s) when I was thinking about returned to grad school for my PhD, I took a course in biological psychology.  One of our assignments was to do a paper on a researcher who studied other species, and I was assigned someone (can’t remember his name) who studied octopi.  He was a pretty strict behaviorist (and even then I said, “Ugh,”) who tried to condition an octopus to go from one side of the aquarium to the other with very little success.  His conclusion was, of course, that they were not very intelligent since they did not learn from his experimental setup.  Nowadays we understand that the scientist wws not very intelligent because their experimental setup was ignorant of the species being studied.  Remember Frans de Waal’s book Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Other Animals Are?

More rigorous studies are now ecologically based, so that we know that octopi use shells to create shelter, squirt ink to confound predators who hunt visually and flee from those who hunt using olfaction, can open jars to obtain food, and so much more.  Zimmer reports that scientists are not sure how their intelligence evolved because they are barely sociable, have a more decentralized nervous system (much of their ‘brain’ is distributed in their 8 legs, and they are relatively short lived; all 3 traits are correlated with higher intelligence.  They do have a well-developed visual system and the ability to almost instantaneously change the coloration of their skin to camouflage with their surroundings.

Zimmer reminded me about Inky (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/14/world/asia/inky-octopus-new-zealand-aquarium.html) and then I followed links to two other examples.  Inky was a reluctant resident of a New Zealand aquarium who disappeared from his tank. The keepers figured out that he (?) slipped out of his tank through an overflow pipe, traversed the floor to a drain, and squeezed (he was the size of a soccer ball but they are flexible and soft animals) down to escape into the bay below.  Ah, the intelligent wanderlust of the eight-legged creature is an inspiration to us all.  Another story comes from a London aquarium where an octopus repeatedly at night (they are nocturnal by nature) left his tank, went over to a fish tank to dine, and then returned to its home tank.  Fine dining, no reservations needed.

The third example comes with an ethical question.  Octopi are rarely sociable except when they mate; they are otherwise solitary. They share some neurotransmitters with mammals, however, and some researchers gave one a low dose of MDMA (ecstasy on the street) to stimulate the warm sensual feelings humans feel under its influence.  This seemed to work as expected—the octopus became more social and interested in other octopi for awhile.  Now I am trying to remember a movie about a mentally challenged man being given a drug which made him smarter for a brief period but then he returned to his former state with some consequent feelings about the whole affair.  I assume that an animal rights’ committee approved this octopus research based in part upon the assumption that the octopus’s cognitive, mnemonic and emotional abilities were insufficient to suffer harm, but we don’t know that, do we?  I read so much research where someone assumes that an animal does not feel or understand something when in fact we know that they do, just in their own way.

So did this experimental subject, i.e., the octopus, remember the drug induced episode with positive feelings, e.g., it was a good ‘trip’, guilt, e.g., can’t believe I hugged that other octopus for no good reason, or regret, e.g., how do I get those warm feelings back.  I know this is putting an anthropomorphic frame on the experience but in actuality we have little way of knowing what the mental consequences were of drugging an animal whose intelligence we are only now beginning to understand.  I am not sure that I would not have approved the experiment if I been on the committee.  I am pretty sure the researchers had a rationale justifying this experiment in terms of helping humans but that is not reported in the news, nor are any ethical questions about research with other species.  Some scientists are acting unethically with our own species—consider the quack in China who created GMO human twins.  It’s a brave new world we have here and caution is advised.  That is why one of my heroes is Inky, who found a way to escape to the wild and freedom (from us).  Travel, really travel, on.

Revisionist History? Of course.

Here’s story from our family Thanksgiving.  I was discussing travel and tourism with a cousin when the topic turned to the renewed interest in some episodes of history. One was the incredible increase in tourism for Scotland associated with the Outlander books and TV series. People go see sites associated with Outlander and also many other historical sites.  The park at Culloden Battlefield has seen a big increase in visitors, for example.

My cousin brought up the increased interest in Alexander Hamilton engendered by the Broadway play, such as the site in New Jersey where Hamilton and Burr had their famous and tragic duel.  Then I asked him if he had seen the play and what he thought of it.  Here is where it gets interesting.

He had seen the play and generally liked it.  He did not like its portrayal of Thomas Jefferson because he (the cousin) did not like revisionist history.  Oh my!  Here we go again.  As I have said before virtually all history is revisionist, the exceptions being eye-witness accounts of events, people, etc.  I asked him what he meant by ‘revisionist’ and he said that the play portrayed Jefferson as a hypocrite, writing about freedom and having slaves, including children with his slave, Sally Hemings.  Given that this information is historically accurate, I wondered what had been ‘revised’?  His complaint generally centered around criticizing someone for actions that were normal and acceptable in his time, i.e., judging them with modern day standards.  Well, I thought, here we go again.

Though it seemed to make little difference in our discussion, I asserted that many people back then were against slavery, not least the slaves themselves but also many people around the world in the US, England and elsewhere.   I cited examples from a marvelous book, The Half Has Never Been Told,including the perspective that Santa Ana marched into Texas to throw out the American usurpers not just because they were taking land and forming their own government but also because Sam Houston and company wanted to establish a slave economy to grow more cotton.  As it turns out, Mexico had abolished slavery some 20 years earlier.  Oops!

Yes, this was another historical revision, but it comes about by adding critical details that the Alamo story ‘conveniently’ leaves out.  Is revisionism wrong when it corrects misinformation or adds a fuller context that enables us to understand the events better? Alas, my cousin retreated, saying he had never heard that (wonder why?) and that in the play Hamilton Jefferson had been treated poorly.  Oh, well, I went on to ask about the portrayal in the context of the overall dramatic structure, and yada yada yada.

Back home I picked up my nightly reading, which happened to be These Truths by Jill Lepore, a new history of these United States (oh boy, more revision). What did I read about?  Men in the early 1700s who criticized slavery as immoral and destructive.  George Mason wrote a letter to George Washington in 1765 warning that slavery had destroyed the Roman republic and would destroy the British Empire as well (they may have saved themselves when they abolished slavery in 1833.  Much previously though, Lepore writes that English courts refused to recognize slave ownership when Americans brought slaves with them who then escaped).

Lepore tells the wonderful story of Benjamin Lay who vehemently denounced slavery, the people who practiced enslavement of others as well as those who accepted that, writing in 1732 “What a parcel of hypocrites and deceivers we are”. In 1733, frustrated by even many Quakers’ acceptance of slavery, Lay went to a prayer meeting and told the parishioners that they would meet justice from the Almighty, who respects all “colours of men with equal regard.”  He then pulled out a Bible, which he had hollowed out and stuffed with a pig’s bladder filled with crimson pokeberry juice and stabbed it with a sword, splattering all with the staining red juice, shouting “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures”.  Wicked cool, huh?  He wrote a book condemning slave keepers as great sinners, which Benjamin Franklin printed and sold.  Lay gave out copies for free and then retreated to a cave he had dug and became a hermit there with a 200 book library and refusing to eat or use anything produced by slavery.  I have to say I am very glad to have learned about Benjamin Lay who opposed slavery early on in our history and invented (perhaps?) performance art/guerilla theater as a political/moral action.  Can’t wait to tell my cousin about this revision.

Now I follow an ethic of knowledge, so my goal is to see the object whole.  As a clinical psychologist I thought it very important to work with my patients through understanding them as best and completely as I could.  I use the analogy of a gem with many facets.  I can only view some of the facets and only some of these at any one time, but due diligence requires me to see the gem whole, not just this facet or that. I apply this to knowing anything. Deep understanding depends upon gathering all available information from diverse perspectives.  This includes, by the way, the context of such information, which I find all too many neglect.  Does this require revisionism?  Why, yes, it damn well does.  Does this mean rejecting versions edited to support fanciful images some have of the past?  Yes, indeed it does.  When you hear someone criticize some idea as revisionism, look closely and I bet you see that they are attempting to hold on to a fantasy.  That’s okay for fiction but not for history.  Travel on.

P.S.  As it happened very late last night, up with some chamomile tea, I watched some of Gone with the Wind, a great movie and novel shining some light on various fantasies.  Then I read this morning that as a young girl Margaret Mitchell listened to stories told by Confederate veterans at her family gatherings.  She reportedly was very surprised to learn at age 10 that the Union had won the war; evidently her family members had neglected to include that detail.  Ms. Mitchell reports that initially she had difficulty accepting this revision, though she certainly got over that little problem (unlike some white folk today).

Male privilege is an ugly cultural trope

So I am talking with a friend, whom I know to be intelligent and fair-minded about Mr. Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford, and I am caught by surprise.  He says first that Dr. Ford has been too inconsistent in her testimony about who was in the room when she was assaulted (she hasn’t), so that he cannot believe her. Then he says the incident is not big deal because he as a teenager tried to “cop a feel” many times, thereby equating perhaps overly aggressive making out with forceful isolation and capture while trying to strip the lady (I heard this too many times when I worked with sexually aggressive youth).  Finally he says the #Metoo movement has gone too far because simply accusing a man ruins his reputation.  Geesh!  If he had ever expressed concern over the centuries old culture of men abusing women with impunity I could give him a break on this one, but he has not. We talked a good deal about his views mostly to no purpose and I have since wondered about the lacuna in his moral outlook and how it is that what we call ‘male privilege’ is inculcated mentally and then so strongly affects perception, action, and judgment and the male seems unaware of the effects.

One analogy here is our accent when speaking. We learn early on to speak with a regional and familial accent; we can recognize speakers from Boston, the Midwest, and different parts of the South.  Our accents can change incidentally when we move to a new region or on purpose as when some train their voices for media work.  Further, we make judgments about people based on their accent.  I lived all over the USA and graduated high school in Japan.  My accent was a conglomerate of family and different regions. Some years after high school and having lived in North Carolina for 12 years, I ran into an old girlfriend.  We had been talking for a while when she said that she knew I was smart but that I sounded so dumb with my southern accent. Who knew?  And after long holidays in Ireland and Scotland I find, and friends remark on it, that my accent has picked up a little of their lovely lilt.

Accents different from our own can be hard to understand and put people off. My mother grew up in south central Virginia.  She left there in the mid-1940s with my father who joined the Air Force.  In 1960 we moved to North Dakota.  In those days you went through an operator to make a long distance call.  When my mother tried to call home, i.e., Petersburg VA, the operator could not understand her and she could not understand the operator, who spoke and listened with the Norwegian rooted accent native to that area.  My sister stepped in to translate.  When we visited family the next summer, her sisters said my mother sounded strange to them and talked like a ‘Yankee’.  Oh, my.

I use this analogy only to highlight the incidental, mostly unconscious learning of specific cultural facets.  A deeper and broader facet would be sex/gender roles, e.g., boys don’t cry, girls do and that’s ok except that it indicates their lack of rationality. “Boys will be boys” and so much misbehavior, some of it quite serious in its violation of another person, is excused, and aren’t all men really boys at heart so give all of them a break, please. I have posted several times before about gender bias and sexual harassment/assault.  As a clinical psychologist I worked with many young males who had been sexually aggressive.  They wondered what the problem was or thought their actions were completely ok and justified.  The complexity of full consent was unknown to them as it is to many males in many cultures. Why?  Because full consent, in the view of many males, does not apply to them—this is the rotten core at the heart of male privilege.

We go from being young children with instincts for empathy, intimacy, fair play, helping others, & revulsion at seeing others hurt to (especially men now) feeling entitled to catcall and comment on a woman’s appearance, privileged to touch her without either explicit permission or, more commonly, mutually established trust and intimacy, and holding opinions that women do not want powerful and responsible positions because they are too fragile or just prefer someone else to do the heavy lifting.  And opining that the questions raised about a man’s behavior when a women alleges that he has been inappropriate are being handled unfairly, while showing little concern about the incredible numbers of women who endure sexualized mistreatment silently because they are only too aware that speaking out will compound their mistreatment by those who loudly carry forward male privilege.

When we consider how our brains are acculturated in this way, how we inculcate assumptions in our habitus about the rules of social behavior, and how our Empathy Central or EC (that’s ToM or Theory of Mind to most of you) operates with the moral lacunae of male privilege, when we consider such phenomena, our lack of knowledge about this neuropsychology is plainly seen.  But we do know some things; go back a couple of posts and read about Decety’s model of empathy (see post 9/9/18) and Iacoboni’s ideas about existential neuroscience (see post 9/16/18). The latter discusses the centrality of mirroring and mentalizing about others in social behaviors.  Male privilege can be seen as both a defective mirror that distorts the resonance with another (females are so different from us, huh, guys?) and inaccurate algorithms that provide errant empathetic suppositions about the other (she can’t rationally object to what I the man think).  Decety’s model includes the failure to mirror and resonate accurately and fully and he also adds 3 other systemic difficulties [from that post]:

  • Confusion as to the agent of thoughts and feelings. They think their own thoughts and feelings are also the other’s and they may fail to process accurately social feedback when the other tries to disagree or otherwise present their own perspective (familiar, ladies?).
  • This leads to problems with perspective taking. They may assume that their perspective is shared by everyone [males assume females share theirs]
  • Poorly developed emotional regulation presents difficulties for staying on mental task and intent as well as for responding with empathic concern for the other—instead they act upon their own egoistic anxiety and fail to engage socially in an adequate manner

Male privilege is a cultural trope that has maintained its bias through many iterations for a long, long time.  Such bias is inculcated while young in various ways with different forms according to one’s sex/gender, family traditions, social class, and educational level.  Like a linguistic accent, our social behaviors and attitudes have a ‘privileged’ accent.  Many operate with this accent, i.e., bias, without any cognizance that something is different, indeed that something is wrong.  Some do learn to operate socially and morally with a different accent, i.e., they reflect consciously on their attitudes, evaluating their accuracy and fairness, and change the bias acquired earlier in life.

As I posted in January about Oprah’s wonderful speech at the Golden Globes: “Oprah’s promising vision of a world where girls and women meet respect and justice is one beautiful flower of this moment in time and cultural egress leaving a stultified domain of male privilege and entering one refreshed by the inclusion of females in a new and refreshing view of their humanity, the acknowledgment of their personhood and the refusal by everyone to abide by any violation of this inalienable right.” The change needed to fulfill this vision is, given the long history of cultural biases, enormous.  Indeed, it is in a way utopian, but it is also already evident in the cultural path of our civilization.  We are not alone in refusing to go forward with male privilege. That’s a good thing because the heavy lifting necessary for progress has gotten a bit heavier this past week or so. Travel on.

Ah, the darker side extends its shadow

I have been inundated the last few days with news of our inhumanity, specifically of our proclivity for sexualized violence and how we really do not only blame the victim, but also castigate the victim with virulent hostility.  Such stories bring to mind Oprah’s great speech accepting the DeMille award at this year’s Golden Globes that I discussed in a post on 1/9/18.  Remember Oprah talked about the promise of a world where women and girls were not sexual victims and where if they were, it was not accepted by anyone.  A world where sexual behavior by mostly males is not used to violate the social mores of intimacy in order to instrumentally boost the perpetrators’ sense of their own power to the detriment of the female’s and society’s. And I made the point in that post “that male usurpation of female personhood is long standing and that, I imagine, a case can be made for its entrenched place in our human [culture] based upon the biologically driven male aggression.”

But I also doubted then if today’s male usurpation of female personhood actually stems from a sociobiological concern about paternity, which means that what we are seeing today is an inhumane development of our culture, i.e., without any good rationale and created/enforced by a certain class of males to defend their own power and privilege.  Even if some men are lower down in the pecking order, at least they have the power and privilege to abuse women.  (Sounds all too similar to racist attitudes, doesn’t it?)   Whether there exists a biological root for such assaultive behaviors deemed permissible by our culture matters little—we must assert the higher principle and deeper root of democratic equality.  As I wrote on 1/9/18, we must cherish “Oprah’s promising vision of a world where girls and women meet respect and justice [as] one beautiful flower of this moment in time and cultural egress, leaving a stultified domain of male privilege and entering one refreshed by the inclusion of females in a new and [just] view of their humanity, the acknowledgment of their personhood and the refusal by everyone to abide by any violation of this inalienable right.”

BUT THEN I READ THE NEWS TODAY, oh no!  A brief report from India where a young girl around 6 or 7 years old was raped by a gang of males with a broomstick.  (And putting a condom on that stick does not count as progress.) This story is one of many incidents in the world where girls are punished for being girls, where they are expendable property, where their bodies can be mutilated to enforce male dominance, where their education is denied by acid in the face, and the list goes on.

Then I read an astounding and brave article by Elizabeth Bruenig in the Washington Post about a teenage girl in Texas who was raped (do I have to say “allegedly”?) by two athletes at a party.  She was a good student and a cheerleader, but it seems she was not of the upper crust and she was after all, just a girl.  She did the right thing and got help and reported it to the police, who investigated and found physical evidence like her clothing abandoned at the scene, a medical exam that documented severe trauma to her genitals and anal area, and DNA evidence linked to one of the athletes.  And then some ugly aspect of cultural inhumanity rose up and the athletes were not prosecuted and were even defended as she was ostracized at school and in town in ways that are nauseating to read about, unimaginable to experience.  This is a difficult article to read as the intrepid reporter documents that denigrating the victims of sexual assault is a cultural institution, even to the point where some district attorneys in the region refused to prosecute rapists, even in one instance when the rapist was identified through DNA evidence, took pictures of his actions and sent them to the victim.  No, not even then.  As one official told the reporter, he tells victims not to look for closure and healing through the justice system, a damning understatement if ever there was one. And on a side note:  while I read stories about athletes assaulting females with impunity (don’t forget Baylor football and its president, Ken Starr), where are the similar stories about kids in the debate or science club, or heaven forbid, the latin club?  That absence says something else quite loudly about our culture and where our inhumanity finds sustenance.

And this brings me up to Dr. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh, and how many senators follow this tradition of cultural inhumanity with fervent, self-righteous enthusiasm.  Even with the documentation of the earlier lynching of Anita Hill and the profound insurgence of the  #Metoo movement, these moral cretins continue to protect the power and property granted them by male privilege and their political class.  I thank Dr. Ford for opening the door so that a little fresh air might clear away some of their sordid smoke and I want everyone to protect her and all the other victims who courageously endure the holy hell visited on them because they dared speak out.

I generally write about the beauty of what grows from our biological roots of empathy and symbolization because I think our evolution and history speak to ongoing progress.  But sometimes I have to wonder how something so ugly grows from these roots, even resurgently in spite of the power of Oprah’s and our dream of a better world.  The material power of inhumanity concedes nothing without a fight.  Travel on and keep your powder dry, as our ancestors counseled us when fighting the oppressive shadow.

PS  I hear the cynical statement echoing in my mind, “Every nation gets the government it deserves,” and I suppose there is some truth to that.  There is also some truth in saying we get the government the rich and powerful want us to have.  And then there is the truth that we can use the power of democracy to move towards justice, if only we VOTE for moral candidates.

Whose brain could we study?

I am going out on a lark here.  I just read an excellent review of research along with a proposed model of how our brains do empathy:  “A social cognitive neuroscience model of human empathy” by Jean Decety in another great collection of papers, Social Neuroscience: integrating Biological and Psychological Explanations of Social Behavior.  We are going to go into some complexities here but in truth, the reality is even more mind-boggling.  So Dr. Decety postulates 4 components to empathy:

  • ‘Shared neural representations’ which I understand to be the mirrored actions, especially emotional expressions, by which we resonate with one another.  (See posts 9/27/15, 7/29/15 & 7/31/15).
  • ‘Self-awareness’ which I take to be essential in knowing which resonant activity originated within us and which within the other.
  • ‘mental flexibiity’ by which Decety means the ability to set mentally one’s own perspective in the background and so enable the taking of another’s perspective.
  • ‘Emotional regulation’ which I understand to be quite basic to developing empathy and also higher intellectual skills. The development of emotional regulation is critical to our maintaining focus on our current mental set, intention, and task as well as to setting our personal feelings aside to address the concerns of others.

As Decety explains these 4 components, he reviews the neuroscience, including clinical findings, relevant to each.  For example, autistic people can generally engage in mimicry, i.e., mirroring, intentionally, but do not do so incidentally and this latter is necessary for mentalizing about another’s state of mind. It is one reason researchers like Ramachandran and Baron-Cohen (see my post 7/29/18 ) think autists suffer from a mirroring deficit.

The neuroanatomy supporting empathy is also profoundly complex.  Generally there are centers in the posterior brain, especially in the right hemisphere, that receive and integrate social information, and centers in the front of the brain that provide executive functions and guided responses to that information, again especially on the right side.  The front and back areas communicate with each other directly in some cases through long fasciculi, i.e., nerve fibers traversing the cortex, and also through their interconnections with lower centers like the hippocampus for memory and limbic system for emotional processing.

Lobes_of_the_brain

Exterior view of left hemisphere. Lobes are same on the right. Some structures are deeper within the larger folds.

Decety does an admirable job sorting through various findings to present relevant hypotheses about neural functioning.  For example,

  • The frontal polar cortex facilitates inhibiting our own perspective, which is the default one that we usually follow in our considerations, in order to take on another’s perspective. This area also helps evaluate our own responses and behaviors for their contextual fitness, i.e., do they fulfill the intent? Was the intent properly developed from a coherent adequately formulated context?
  • The prefrontal cortex interacting with the inferior parietal lobe (in the back and integrating information from many perceptual sources) and the insula (old cortex deep with the brain kind of in the middle) on the right side helps to differentiate actions from one’s own self from those of another.
  • The paracingulate sulcus (again old cortical structures deep in the brain) in the medial prefrontal cortex helps process social feedback, i.e., how do others view our actions?

And so forth.  I always find it amazing to consider that while these areas are performing these particular functions, they are also contributing to many others, e.g., attention and focus, memory input and output, etc.

Two ideas here struck me as particularly interesting.  First, damage from say a stroke to the right frontal lobe so important to emotional expression and social responding sometimes shows up in personal confabulation, i.e., the patient makes up stories about themselves seemingly unaware that he is doing so.  The second is that when faced with the personal distress of others, say due to their own circumstances or even to their assessment feedback of the original actor’s actions in some matter, our brains can respond either with empathic concern given their perspective (an optimal response) or with egoistic anxiety (retreating to one’s own narcissistic concerns).

Well, we have covered a good deal of ground here.  In my past life as a clinical psychologist I worked with many youth, including some with attachment and sexual aggression problems, who had deficits in some of these empathy ‘components’.  Each person’s deficits were unique in form and history and most retained some islands of empathic functioning.   Let me list some major areas:

  • Failure to resonate with another. The person may only resonate when the other mirrors them, but they seem unable to mirror or resonate with the other’s feelings.
  • Confusion as to the agent of thoughts and feelings. They think their own thoughts and feelings are also the other’s and they may fail to process accurately social feedback when the other tries to disagree or otherwise present their own perspective.
  • This leads to problems with perspective taking. They may assume that their perspective is shared by everyone.
  • Poorly developed emotional regulation presents difficulties for staying on mental task and intent as well as for responding with empathic concern for the other—instead they act upon their own egoistic anxiety and fail to engage socially in an adequate manner.

As I read and thought about these ideas I kept thinking of someone who seems to experience all of these deficits despite what otherwise may be intact intellectual capacity.  And I wondered if scientists could study that person’s neurological structure and functioning to learn from what seems to be an unusual case, someone whose empathy deficits appear global but without a history of neurological disease or injury or of developmental trauma.  I can think of only one person like this at the moment and that is why I want to ask our President, Mr. Trump, to donate his brain to science upon his death.  I know more could be discovered if he were to undergo evaluation while alive through experimental protocols, e.g., using fMRI, but I also know he is much too busy being president and running his businesses to do such a thing.  I am not talking about a simple post mortem autopsy such as the one that found a tumor impacting the amygdala of Charles Whitman, the Texas tower shooter (see my posts 9/3/15 & 12/26/17), but a detailed scientific examination of his brain structure, sort of like we wish would have happened with Einstein’s brain, which unfortunately was not done very rigorously.  I believe a knowledgeable neuroanatomist could assess the integrity of most of the relevant areas and some of their interconnections.

Now I have no way really of getting my message to our President and I am not on Twitter nor knowledgeable about it, but I wonder if some tweeting aficionados sent out some messages using #SaveTrump’sbrainforscience (if I understand the format correctly), what might transpire.  Travel on.

Let’s go beyond stale and dismal science vs religion juxtaposition

I have been feeling a wee bit cranky recently.  It probably has something to do with changing weather patterns that make this old man work extra hard to manage the farm and with the ongoing realization that the intelligence of the American people either has always been low and the mask has recently slipped off (again, I hear H. L. Mencken say) or it has devolved down to a level hitherto unseen in human history (probably with the aid of electronic media and machine intelligence). I listened to our president and his advisers a few days ago and I said to my wife, “I have heard farts that sounded more intelligent, though few have stunk like that”.  I try to avoid any visit to the Land of Stupid; now I see all too many go there as tourists, some on extended vacations.  Our leadership looks to have emigrated and taken up residence there full-time.

Anyway I had recently been feeling better.  The weather improved and I turned off the TV, and then I read a NYT Stone (their philosophical forum) article (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/03/opinion/why-we-need-religion.html.) about religion and feelings, and boom, back came my crankiness when I read this:  “My claim is that religion can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not.”  My primal scream at that point was that we do not access emotions, we feel them and that science and religion are so different in their inception, in the consequent institutions, and in their management of knowledge, ignorance, and consensual activities that comparing them for their ‘management’ of emotions is a false comparison (see posts 4/4/17,9/28/17).

After a bit I realized that my crankiness had led me to perhaps overreact negatively to this essay, so I read it again more carefully.  I still do not like it because I am quite tired of reading variants of the science-religion topic when so few of them seem to lead anywhere new.  Mr. Asma uses some of the same old tropes to make the case that religion helps us manage our emotions while science does not (of course he does not mention anti-depressants, etc.).  He presents an anecdote showing how a woman’s religion helped her cope with the despair she felt from the brutal murder of a son. He argues in short that religion is primarily therapeutic and the most powerful cultural analgesic we have for the painful vicissitudes of life, and that the atheists who “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee” fall short of the mark.  More on that in a moment.

Mr. Asma shows great command of the obvious in some generalizations that are so muddled that they have left any truth behind.  One is that emotions are from the old “operating system” (regular readers know I find such hard wire metaphors cringe worthy) in the limbic system while rationality (I guess he means science in this regard—he does not seem to differentiate here) comes from the “more recently evolved neocortex.” Going further he says that, “Religion irritates the rational brain because it trades in magical thinking and no proof, but it nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty”.  Now here is one of my major criticisms.  It should not be a news flash that religion being a cultural and symbolic activity is also associated with neocortical functioning. Religion can facilitate emotional balance; indeed most cultural activities contribute to balance in one way or another, as does walking your dog, listening to music, grooming a fellow chimp, stretching, sleeping, watching a sunset, good food, sex, friends, etc.  (Mr. Asma does have the grace to admit that religion can disrupt emotional and cognitive processes.  Reverting to my initial outrage at his idea of religion accessing emotions, my first image was of an ISIS recruit ‘accessing’ his murderous rage through religious belief).  This means that religion is as much a part of the rational brain as is science.

Science and rationality are not synonymous; science is a method for ensuring our rationally conceived ideas match reality as best we can at this time (See my posts on 1/7/17).  Rationality is the humdrum everyday thinking that we carry on and it is notoriously unreliable, ergo the need for empirical validation.  We have known for a long time that our rational processes are unreliable, at least since Freud showed the influence of unconscious processes and more recently with the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (see Micheal Lewis’s The Undoing Projector Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow) showing how our brains, even highly educated brains, use heuristics that are quite fallible.  And I would think Mr. Asma might be interested in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind that demonstrates how we rationalize and justify our political and religious beliefs after we intuitively decide what to believe.  I do not want to go further now into how cortical and subcortical systems interact to contribute to emotional processes and intellectual ferment, but they do, and Mr. Asma’s reification of their differences is, at this time in our scientific understanding, deplorable.

My other major complaint is his characterization of atheists and their (or anyone’s for that matter) rejection of religion.  To repeat from above, Mr. Asma says atheists “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee”. I have read Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, and my favorite, Christopher Hitchens, and I cannot recall them talking about the moral weakness of  devotees.  Hypocrites, certainly.  Superstitious, yes.  Taking false comfort, ok.  Chris Hitchens in his book, God is Not Great, assesses that the destruction waged in the name of god exceeds the good religion does.  Further, religious people do not behave better despite their claim to moral authority.  I find particularly onerous religious attempts to obfuscate science, e.g., design and anti-vaccination biases, and to impose their morality on others, e.g., women as second class citizens or worse, as male property, or condemning those of racial or gender differences.

I live on a farm in the country.  Religion is strong here mostly, I think, because the dispersed population needs a sense of community as they depend upon each other.  And yes, religion does help people cope.  I found it laughable, though, when Mr. Asma says that Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson dropping by to discuss the physiology of suffering would not be helpful in consoling victims, thereby presupposing that true consolation rests solely with the religious.  I am sure Mr. Nye or Mr. Tyson would be a good friend to help someone get through hard times.  They are good, sensitive and intelligent humans.  And science?  Understanding Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grieving has helped many people cope with terminal illness and loss.

Probably the thing that upset me about this essay even more than Mr. Asma’s trivialities, distortions, and misappropriations, was that he adds nothing to this rather stale and dismal juxtaposition between science and religion (see post 2/4/14).  My context is this:  Religion, or rather spiritual beliefs, has contributed to human culture (see post 7/8/17: a positivist genesis myth) for at least 100,000 years if you go by archeological evidence of burial practices.  Spiritual beliefs have evolved over the eons since then and religious institutions have proliferated with a fecundity of gods.  Humans have always had a reality orientation and some leaning towards empirical studies.  Ancient astronomers were quite knowledgeable, as were farmers and metal workers. Science as a rigorous system of knowledge was born in magical alchemy and grew into a mature epistemology with the Enlightenment and now with even more rigor with the development of positivism and modern mathematics, e.g., Boolean logic, statistics.

Here is my point:  Religion is a part of our cultural evolution; if it disappears that will be a result of further cultural evolution.  If it stays, same thing.  In either case it will not be because of our willful intellectual manipulation of ourselves nor of our society.   Our task, as I see it, is to further our cultural development through the fermentation and distillation (wonder why I used that metaphor?) of our understanding. Atheists, too often defined by a negative, are at their best when they proffer something positive and religion is at its best when it offers a meaningful way forward through the knowledge of our time.  I hear some ask who does this?  The current Dalai Lama is a wonderful example of this.  As I have written about before (and will do so again next post), Jacques Monod carried this forward (see post 3/25/17).  In his own way because of the integrity of his intellect I think Chris Hitchens did as well (see post on natural noumenal 4/13/17).  I am talking here about the dialectic between mysticism and positivism, neither complete in and of itself, the dialectic providing the means to move forward (see posts 2/4/16 & 11/15/15).

To recapitulate:  I have been in a sour mood.  When I read an essay purporting to provide balance in the debate between science and religion, I reacted quite negatively.  Recovering my own emotional balance I considered the essay in more detail and found that while my mood contributed to the intensity of my initial appraisal, my reaction was authentic, reasonable and accurate.  And I felt my feelings and thought my thoughts with my whole brain, cortical and subcortical, without needing religion to ‘access’ them.  Travel on.

Autism, religion and the frame of discourse

In his book Neurotribes Steve Silberman details the divergent views of the two pioneers who early on recognized autism as a syndrome.  Briefly, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger saw autism as an outlier on the spectrum of normalcy and believed that some of its traits/talents, e.g., focus on patterns, mental obsessiveness, contribute to many achievements in art and science.  American Leo Kanner saw autism as strictly pathological that resulted from deficient parenting by a cold mother.  I have posted before about my disdain for Kanner’s approach (see review of Neurotribes9/13/15).

I bring this up to emphasize that how we frame a topic determines to some large extent how we go on to think about it, e.g., normal or pathological, multi-factorial genesis or blame the mother.  I go back to Bourdieu’s conceptualization of the doxa, i.e., the entire realm of discourse, its accepted partition into an orthodox domain, and the rest is heterodox.  Historically religious authorities have treated heterodox thinkers harshly. Science is better but even scientific orthodoxy can limit what heterodoxical views and work can be admitted into the realm of discourse.  Remember Naomi Oreskes‘ work showing how American geologists regarded European Alfred Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics as crackpot (he was not a trained geologist, oh, the horror) only to be proved wrong and Wegener prescient. Also remember that behaviorism in its heyday greatly constrained research into mental phenomena, you know like thoughts and feelings.  Thankfully great scientists like Karl Pribram, A.R. Luria, L.S. Vygotsky, J. Piaget and Noam Chomsky evicted behavioral theory from the house of orthodoxy.

Now I read a curious chapter in The Encultured Brainon autism and religion that asks a heterodoxical (to me at least) question about how people with autism view god and religion.  I had never considered (surprisingly in retrospect) that autists may think of god differently because they think of the world and people differently, but it makes sense, sort of.  How to frame this investigation?  Rachel Brezis studied this question through a neuroanthropological approach.  Evidently J. Bering had proposed earlier “that our ability to infer others’ thoughts and intentions (theory of mind) served as the evolutionary basis for our automatic search for meaning and agency behind events in the world (existential theory of mind).”  Further, given that autists have different/diluted theory of mind, they would have trouble forming a personal and lively relationship with god and discerning the deity’s presence in the world.

Long story short, Brezis research casts doubt on that presupposition.  Studied more systematically autists showed quite robust religious beliefs similar to non-autists.  She thought that maybe the deficit lay in autists’ self knowledge, not knowledge of others.  The frame here is important.  I have not read the background material, e.g., Bering’s hypothesis that our theory of mind, i.e., what I call EC or Empathy Central, influences our relationship with a god that controls the universe, but from Brezis’ summary, this effort seems based upon a Christian, even an evangelical, frame.  Ask a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Taoist or even Spinoza about their personal relationship with a deity and most likely they will stare at you as they wonder just how answer such a primitive question. Brezis did part of her research with Jewish youth who certainly showed that they had inculcated their tradition in forming their beliefs but in my admittedly few conversations with Jewish people, I cannot remember any of them espousing a personal relationship with Yahweh; they are fully engaged with their tradition but this relates more to the Torah, ritual and community than the Baptist tradition I was raised in where personal acceptance of Jesus, etc., was a requirement for membership.

Empathy Central involves social understanding and social skills through empathic feelings and kinesic communication.  How this develops in each of us greatly influences our personality and interpersonal functioning.  This stems from a deep and old biological root and I find our notions of god(s) rather historically irrelevant to this.  Remember the Atargatis (see a post on 11/10/14).  This was a goddess of fertility in the Middle East also around the time of Jesus that even had a coin minted in her name.  To become a priest, the novitiates (all males) worked themselves into a frenzied state of mind, ran through the streets naked with a knife, cutting themselves to be bloody, and at the right moment, castrate themselves. They then chose a house to throw their genitals in the door and that family was required to give the newly minted priest female clothes.  (I have always assumed they chose families whose ladies were fashionable dressers). Now I am not sure what kind of relationship they had with Atargatis but I myself would not call it a ‘personal’ one despite the intimate sacrificial gift.

Our modern notion of god, especially in cultures where scientific and technological advancements have been incorporated, must be quite different from the pagan and animistic religions of the past, including those later polytheistic ones and I have to wonder about the early days of any monotheistic beliefs, not to mention the Buddhist and Hindu beliefs of 2500 years ago.  My point is that “a personal relationship with god” based upon a person’s functioning Empathy Central is not really an adequate frame for discussion.  Humans have evolved a powerful EC; our capacity for empathy and intimacy is in the rarefied zone but it is still closely tied to our mammalian heritage and operates with kinesic information focused on the present, specious as it is, and its higher level integrations are about our real relationships.  What this frame of EC lacks is the understanding that spiritual beliefs and religious institutions are evolutionarily more recent and are based primarily upon our symbolic capabilities and their transformation of our intellectual abilities much more than our EC.

Spiritual beliefs, from which religious institutions emerged with all the features of any other human institution, derive, I think, from a deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind and this aesthetic in a spiritual domain operates on a symbolic level.  It is an aesthetic that enables us to find patterns, to complete incomplete patterns, to imagine patterns that are nowhere apparent, and to apprehend somehow where a pattern should be but isn’t.  This last one is key because it presages our sense of the mystic beyond and the universe, large and small, beyond our phenomenal apprehension or science’s ken.  Further, the deep aesthetic includes our sensitivity to the fitness of a pattern internally and in context and, here is the crux of the matter, to the energy or beauty or luminosity of that pattern. (Remember the 3 aspects of an aesthetic: integrity of parts fitting together, unity of the whole, and luminosity of the form as composed by the artist and then beheld by the audience).

This is quite a different frame from seeing spiritual beliefs as reflecting our ‘personal relationship’ to a god.  High functioning autists of the sort assayed in this study are generally keenly sensitive to patterns in all their aesthetic grandeur, even though they may not rhapsodize on their beauty as some of us (like me) might, and even as their engagement in the empathic side of relationships is a little thin.

Let me end by suggesting another frame. Jacques Monod attributed humans’ proclivity to religion and spiritual beliefs to 1) our discomfort in apprehending our solitude in the grand scheme of the universe and within our own subjective isolated domain, and 2) our insatiable appetite for final certainty. People of all sorts vary in their anxiety about being alone and in their need to know for certain (even when it is wrong, like conspiracy theories).  Maybe someone could study these psychological variables and their relationship to religiosity.  If I were younger, I would consider it, but I am not, so I take my approach from Monod’s colleague, Albert Camus, and say, “Yes, we are alone, so what?  That just makes it all the more important to abide by the golden rule, to treasure your loved ones, listen to the music, and cherish our lovely Gaia carrying us around in space.  And yes, there is no certainty, get over it and get along with what you have to do to mitigate exigencies and exploit chance.”  This, I think, follows from Monod’s postulate of an ethic of knowledge and its corollary that we grow with a knowledge of ethics.

I will reiterate that that The Encultured Brainis a positively provocative book and add that at least in some respects it carries a fault common to many recent books and intellectual traditions in its failure to recognize the importance of symbolization as a basic concept.  Up until the 1980s or so, we had a strong tradition of considering symbols as basic to our mind’s functioning, from C. S. Pierce through Ernst Cassirer to Susanne Langer, and then for some reason associated, I think, with the developing power of machine intelligence and the incredible understanding brought about by genomic science including molecular biology, we forgot in our rush to advance.  Travel on, I hope, to a place where symbols and their remarkable functional complexity are remembered.  No need to hurry.