Old posts ride again about the biological roots of inhumanity as enacted by fascists, racists, gangsters, thugs and other fanatics including ‘true believers’.
Back on 5/11/14 and 5/14/14, I posted about our human capacity for self-righteous indignation and sustained hatred based upon the neuroscience of how emotions affect our thinking and vice versa. The basic point is that we humans with our symbolic capability can construct a mental image that self-stimulates and continues to echo, even reverberate with amplification, some perceived cause and justification for anger, and that maintaining the reverb of a self-made emotion can become an addiction. This is not adaptive both because it prolongs an emotional stance and emotions function best when passing with experience and because such a reverberating loop interferes with reality oriented cognition. I wrote about this in response to violence instigated by Mexican gangs against citizens dedicated to peace and justice (and poetry) and to a deranged man in Kansas City who killed 3 people outside a synagogue in his anger against Jewish people (and none of the 3 were Jewish).
Recent events have again brought these same issues to importance, i.e., the rise into the public forum of groups dedicated to hate, their words and actions against people of color and Jewish beliefs (and all non-Christian beliefs for that matter. That they have not condemned the Dalai Lama I am sure is an oversight on their part), and their murder of a young lady in Charlottesville, VA. With this introduction, then, I will copy from those earlier posts some relevant passages; they will not necessarily flow in a coherent narrative but you can still get the picture given this background. (The original full posts are also interesting to read including about co-opting images to justify violence).
From 4/11/14: [The newspaper story covers] the history of the man accused of shooting 3 people outside a Jewish center in Kansas City. Wow, talk about a life of hate. Do we think his blood sugar was low? At times, sure, but his history illustrates how hate can be sustained over years if the person works at it hard enough. Emotions such as anger are appropriately fleeting responses to experiences. The feeling rises and falls and the person moves on to the next experience. Humans with our symbolic capacity have another option–we can construct mental situations, remembered or imagined, that then generate particular emotions. I think it is actually more complicated than that. We have our personal proclivities for certain emotions and at times our mind constructs situations corresponding to the right frame for that emotion to be expressed and then felt.
Sentient animals, like especially mammals, must be reality oriented in order to adapt and survive. We humans ignore this basic premise at our, and others’, peril. The Kansas City shooter reportedly self-identified with Nazis and worked at constructing and maintaining a reality commensurate with sustaining that particular brand of hate. Simon Baron-Cohen gives a detailed picture of what we know biologically about this phenomena in his book, The Science of Evil. Hate is maladaptive in two very basic ways. As already implied, it is a feeling without end and that cannot be reality oriented. Further, such disregard for reality leads to stupidity and failure. The shooter killed people who were not the objects chosen for his hatred. The problem with stereotypical, prejudicial thinking is that it is wrong way more frequently than it is right. Not reality based. The second maladaptation is that hate overrides the basic function of empathy (a deeply biological instinct) which should lead us to understand the other person fully, to see the object whole as it were, and then on to compassion.
Baron-Cohen talks about a science of ignorant, even malicious non-empathic, non-realistic functioning not to negate criminal culpability but to encourage further understanding of how such phenomena come about and then to work to mitigate it. We have more than 150 years since Darwin and Wallace helped us find this path to understanding our biological selves. In the first decades of the twentieth century James Papez proposed the Circuit of Papez as the neurological substrate for emotions.
He focused on the hippocampus and the associated structures we now know as the limbic system. We now know that this circuit has more to do with memory and novelty than emotion but it was a natural mistake for Dr. Papez to make, given the research technology of his time, because the structure central to emotional valence, the amygdala, is next to the hippocampus.
And the amygdala is closely tied to the neuroendocrine system for stress response, including fight/flight, and this is certainly sensitive to blood sugar. Adaptive, well functioning animals have brains that are stable in energy, reality oriented, and empathic towards the other. Dr. Papez’s misconception helped us (well, Paul MacLean’s correction really) find a better understanding; that is how science operates. Unlike hatred, which runs itself and its animal into the dust. Our capacity to construct a different reality is a two edged sword, one edge which cuts destructively and rather indiscriminately and one which self corrects and follows into the future to find understanding.
From 4/14/14: Now a side trip to the neuroscience of addiction. In the mid 1950s James Milner and Peter Olds found that rats would press a lever almost interminably even to the point of death to gain electrical stimulation in the lateral hypothalamus and septum.
This area has subsequently been found to be part of a circuit involved in addictive behaviors. The original idea for many years, still maybe to some, is that these areas are pleasure centers, i.e., that the stimulation was so pleasurable that the animal would keep pressing the lever (or taking the drug) to gain satisfaction. Jaak Panksepp in his wonderful book Affective Neuroscience (to which I have often referred) cites further experimental work and another interpretation. Briefly, animals (rats mostly) that engage in pressing the lever for self-stimulation do not show the usual signs of pleasure following gratification such as grooming and other post consummatory behaviors. Instead these animals continue in appetitive or seeking behaviors, so that rather than seeing this circuit as one of pleasure, it is more one of seeking pleasure. Thus addiction is always seeking reward but never really gaining it. Seeking behavior is a remarkable and ubiquitous presence in our mentality and more could be said here.
Now on to righteous indignation. I have long noticed in my personal life and my old profession as a psychologist that when people experience righteous indignation, they often sustain their anger through imagined moral outrage and use this to justify a range of poor and mostly destructive behaviors. This is different from the moral outrage, say, of the civil rights movement that is different in many ways as it avoids the irrational and unmodulated anger, the focus on retribution and revenge on individuals, and actions more destructive than remedial.
Self-righteous indignation is more of a closed loop reverberating with a singular emotion, self-sustaining through stereotyped cognitive inputs, and can lead to actions that are ineffective, destructive, and lack the human touch of empathy, forethought, and perspective. We can simplistically look at the limbic system as that closed loop, operating off of one cognitive, mnemonic set shut off from inputs that would help gain perspective, a rather ugly feedback loop like when the microphone is too close to the speaker and that awful wail ensues until either the mic or the speaker is turned off. So political demagogues and gangsters run amuck in similar gutters.
Back to 2017: Demagogues, racists and fascists look to sustain their fantasies of power and purity despite our long human history now of inclusive justice and morality extending to all. Their fantasies will never verify just like an addict’s cravings will never relent. That is why government policy is so important to curb the legal theft of our labors by oligarchic capitalists and the espousal of hate by fascists and racists, because they will keep on pushing that lever for more until they die.
Finally, Thank you, Heather Heyer, for your spirit that carries on, and to her mother, who is a wonderfully grounded, moral, and delightfully articulate in a plain spoken way lady. Namaste.
Now we travel on together.