Heaven: A Clear and Present Danger

1939, THE WIZARD OF OZ

Religion’s endgame is perfection:  bliss, rapture, Heaven, life everlasting, enlightenment, Nirvana, mystical union. Perfection is your reward — in this life and the one to come — for practicing what your religion preaches.

The Age of Enlightenment is also after perfection:  Utopia, the march of civilization, the triumph of human progress, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It puts its faith in reason, science, technology, humanism.

Historically, religion and the Enlightenment have been sometimes friends or at least respectful adversaries, but nowadays they are — like everything else — polarized, wary, distrustful, disrespectful, and often vicious adversaries. But their shared endgame makes them barely distinguishable in their attitudes and agendas says Chris Hedges in his book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, which he wrote after debating Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens — two of the “four horsemen” of the “new atheism.”[1]

The book’s title might be too clever for its own good — a later version adds the subtitle “The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist.”  Hedges doesn’t have anything against atheists in general, but he has a lot against the new atheists, likening them to religious fundamentalists:

“The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving toward collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment.

“We prefer to think we are the culmination of a process, the result of centuries of human advancement, rather than creatures unable to escape from the irrevocable follies and blunders of human nature. The idea of inevitable progress allows us to place ourselves at the center of creation, to exalt ourselves. It translates our narrow self-interest into a universal good. But it is irresponsible. It permits us to avert our eyes from reality and trust in an absurdist faith.

“These atheists and Christian radicals have built squalid little belief systems that are in the service of themselves and their own power. They urge us forward into a non-reality-based world,  one where force and violence, self-exaltation and blind nationalism are unquestioned goods. They seek to make us afraid of what we do not know or understand. They use this fear to justify cruelty and war. They ask us to kneel before little idols that look and act like them, telling us that one day, if we trust enough in God or reason, we will have everything we desire.

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others. It is used to justify imperial hubris, war, intolerance and repression as a regrettable necessity in the march of human progress. The fundamentalist murders, plunders and subjugates in the name of humankind’s most exalted ideals. Those who oppose the fundamentalists are dismissed as savages, condemned as lesser breeds of human beings, miscreants led astray by Satan or on the wrong side of Western civilization. The nation is endowed with power and military prowess, fundamentalists argue, because God or our higher form of civilization makes us superior. It is our right to dominate and rule. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical.”

And that’s just a taste. The whole book is like that. It’s like reading the Prophet Amos — it thunders.

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19     as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:  18-24 NRSV

I Don’t Believe in Atheists has the most wildly polarized reviews I’ve ever seen. People love it or hate it, and the ones who hate it, hate it savagely — beginning with the book’s title, which apparently commits the unpardonable sin of not making it instantly clear whose side it’s on. Hedges, for his part, believes that the fatal flaw of both religious and secular fundamentalism is that neither actually believes in sin.

There’s a lot to talk about here. More coming up.

[1] For more on the new atheists, you might investigate the Closer to Truth video series “Is Atheism a New Faith?”.

Why Faith Endures

Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back
is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9: 62 NIV

I once told a leader of our campus Christian fellowship about doubts prompted by my religion major classes. “Get your Bible and read Luke 9: 62,” he said. I did, and can still see the hardness on his face when I looked up. Religions venerate those who long endure, honoring their moral steadfastness. My character and commitment were suspect. I declared a new major the following quarter.

Scarlet letterReligions punish doubt and dissidence through peer pressure, public censure, witch hunts, inquisitions, executions, jihads, war, genocide…. The year before, the dining halls had flown into an uproar the day the college newspaper reported that the fellowship had expelled a member for sleeping with her boyfriend.

Religions also have a curious way of tolerating their leaders’ nonconforming behavior — even as the leaders cry witch hunt.[1]

These things happen in all cultural institutions, not just religion. Neuroculture offers an explanation for all of them that emphasizes group dynamics over individual integrity. It goes like this:

  • When enough people believe something, a culture with a shared belief system emerges.
  • Individual doubt about the culture’s belief system introduces “cognitive dissonance” that makes individuals uneasy and threatens cultural cohesiveness.
  • Cohesiveness is essential to the group’s survival — doubt and nonconformity can’t be tolerated.
  • The culture therefore sanctifies belief and stifles doubt.
  • The culture sometimes bends its own rules to preserve its leadership power structure against larger threats.

This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017) illustrates this process:

“The theory of cognitive dissonance—the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict—was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In a famous study, Festinger and his colleagues embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet named Dorothy Martin and her cult of followers who believed that spacemen called the Guardians were coming to collect them in flying saucers, to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but Martin just kept revising her predictions. Sure, the spacemen didn’t show up today, but they were sure to come tomorrow, and so on. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong.

“‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,’ Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Failstheir 1957 book about this study. ‘Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.’

“This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors known in the psychology literature as ‘motivated reasoning.’ Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs.

“Though false beliefs are held by individuals, they are in many ways a social phenomenon. Dorothy Martin’s followers held onto their belief that the spacemen were coming … because those beliefs were tethered to a group they belonged to, a group that was deeply important to their lives and their sense of self.

“[A disciple who ignored mounting evidence of sexual abuse by his guru] describes the motivated reasoning that happens in these groups: ‘You’re in a position of defending your choices no matter what information is presented,’ he says, ‘because if you don’t, it means that you lose your membership in this group that’s become so important to you.’ Though cults are an intense example, … people act the same way with regard to their families or other groups that are important to them.”

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2017) explains why the process seems so perfectly reasonable:

“Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain.

“Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“‘Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,’ [the authors of an seminal study] write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”

What does it take for individual dissent or cultural change to prevail in the face of these powerful dynamics? We’ll look at that next time.

[1]  This “bigger bully” theory was remarkably evident when Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council, said evangelicals “kind of gave [Donald Trump] a mulligan” over Stormy Daniels, saying that evangelicals “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that’s willing to punch the bully.”

Religion on Demand

god helmet

“Given that the neurological roots of religious experiences can be traced so accurately with the help of the latest neuroscientific technologies, does this mean that we could — in principle — ‘create’ these experiences on demand?”[1]

It’s a good question. And so is the obvious follow up: if technology can create religious experience on demand, how does that affect religion’s claims to authenticity and its status as a cultural institution?

Dr. Michael Persinger[2] created the “”God Helmet” (shown in the photo above, taken from this article) for use in neuro-religious research.

This is a device that is able to simulate religious experiences by stimulating an individual’s tempoparietal lobes using magnetic fields. “If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the god definition might be challenged,” [says Dr. Persinger]. [3]

The experiences created are not doctrinally specific, but are of a kind widely shared among different religions — for example, sensing a numinous presence, a feeling of being filled with the spirit or overwhelmed or possessed, of being outside of self, out of body, or having died and come back to life, feelings of being one with all things or of peace, awe, fear and dread, etc. All of these states have been measured or induced in the laboratory[4]:

Some recent advances in neuroimaging techniques allow us to understand how our brains ‘create’ a spiritual or mystical experience. What causes the feeling that someone else is present in the room, or that we’ve stepped outside of our bodies and into another dimension?

“In the last few years,” says [Dr. Jeff Anderson of the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City], “brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia.”

Prof. James Giordano, from the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., [says that] “We are able to even understand when a person gets into ‘ecstasy mode’ … and to identify specific brain areas that participate in this process.”

“If ‘beings’ join the mystical experience,” Prof. Giordano goes on, “we can say that the activity of the left and right temporal lobe network (found at the bottom middle part of the cortex) has changed.”

 “When activity in the networks of the superior parietal cortex [which is a region in the upper part of the parietal lobe] or our prefrontal cortex increases or decreases, our bodily boundaries change,” Prof. Giordano explains in an interview for Medium. “These parts of the brain control our sense of self in relation to other objects in the world, as well as our bodily integrity; hence the ‘out of body’ and ‘extended self’ sensations and perceptions many people who have had mystical experiences confess to.”

The parietal lobes are also the areas that [Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, a pioneer of neurotheology, has] found to have lower brain activity during prayer.

And much more. In addition, research has also helped to explain such things as why people with chronic neurodegenerative diseases often lose their religion:

“We discovered a subgroup who were quite religious but, as the disease progressed, lost some aspects of their religiosity,” [says Patrick McNamara, professor of neurology at Boston University and author of The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (2009)]. Sufferers’ brains lack the neurotransmitter dopamine, making McNamara suspect that religiosity is linked to dopamine activity in the prefrontal lobes. “These areas of the brain handle complexity best, so it may be that people with Parkinson’s find it harder to access complex religious experiences.”

Does this research signal the end of religion any time soon? Probably not, says Dr. Newberg:

Until we gain such answers, however, religion is unlikely to go anywhere. The architecture of our brains won’t allow it, says Dr. Newberg, and religion fulfills needs that our brains are designed to have.[5]

Tim Crane, author of The Meaning of Belief: Religion From An Atheist’s Point Of View (2017), agrees:  religion, he says, is simply “too ingrained as a human instinct.” See also this article[6]’s analysis of the current state of the science vs. religion contention, which concludes that the scale seems to be tipping more to the latter:

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy.

There are plenty of contrary opinions, of course, and all the technology and research in the world is unlikely to change anybody’s mind. pro or con. We’ll look at why not next time.

[1] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,” Medical News Today (July 20, 2018).

[2] Dr. Persinger was director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada prior to his death in 2018.

[3] “What God Does To Your Brain:  The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?” The Telegraph (June 20, 2014).

[4] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,” Medical News Today (July 20, 2018).

[5] Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, Vince Rause (2001).

[6] “Why Religion Is Not Going Away And Science Will Not Destroy It,” Aeon Magazine (Sept. 7, 2017).

Why Belief Works

Our experience of the “real world” will conform to what we believe. It has to, because our brains insist upon it.

They do that in part through neuro-cultural conditioning — the process by which the neurological wiring of a culture’s individual members is patterned after the culture’s belief system, and vice versa. This is the case with any kind of cultural institution, whether national, religious, scientific, economic, corporate, professional, team, tribal, or otherwise.[1] This post looks at religion as an example.[2]

Tim Crane is a professor of philosophy at the Central European University in Budapest. “I work in the philosophy of mind,” his online CV says, “I have attempted to address questions about the most general nature, or essence, of the human mind, and about the place of the mind in the rest of nature.” In his book The Meaning of Belief: Religion From An Atheist’s Point Of View (2017), he cites William James’ 1902 classic The Varieties of Religious Experience for a definition of what he calls “the religious impulse”:

“Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms, one might say that it consists in the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”

Christian Smith is a sociology professor and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Here’s his definition of religion:

“Religion is a complex of culturally prescribed practices, based on promises about the existence and nature of supernatural powers, whether personal or impersonal, which seek to help practitioners gain access to and communicate or align themselves with these powers, in hopes of realizing human goods and avoiding things bad.”

Religion: What It Is, How It Works, And Why It Matters (Princeton University Press, 2017)

Both authors stress that religious principles and practices need to match in order for religion to be effective. In other words:

“Faith without works is dead.”
The Epistle of James 2: 17

As it turns out, “faith without works is dead” is not just scripture, but accurate neuroscience as well. When we practice what we preach, we set up a self-sustaining loop in which belief drives thoughts and behavior, which in turn reinforce belief. In that way, religion develops the brain while the brain develops religion:

“Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, says that neurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined.’”

The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

The more widespread and enduring the religious practice, the more the religion develops scriptures, rituals, icons, and institutions to sustain itself. Therefore a Bible passage such as this…

“I was young and now I am old,
yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken
 or their children begging bread.”
Psalm 37: 25 NIV

… becomes both community truth and the “testimony” of individual adherents. But what happens when belief and experience don’t align — e.g., when a member of the congregation and her children in fact go begging?

Some religious thinkers, like the writer of this Huffington Post article, reckon with the contradiction by distinguishing belief from faith. Beliefs are products of the mind, she says, and deal with what can be known, while faith is a product of the spirit, which traffics in what cannot be known. Since knowledge is always shifting, belief can and probably will let us down, while faith in what can’t be known remains inscrutable. Faith therefore invites belief to step aside in favor of “trusting beyond all reason and evidence.”

That outlook captures the essential center of the definitions of religion we saw above:  that there is a “divine order” populated with “supernatural powers” that exists alongside but separate from ours. (Of which we have only limited understanding, the belief/faith outlook would add.)  Whether this satisfies the brain’s need to align internal patterning with external experience is the kind of issue being taken up by the new discipline of neurotheology which looks at where religion happens in the brain.

Neurotheology’s inquiries have far-reaching implications for many of our common assumptions about how reality is structured. For example, if faith can be explained in neurological terms, then it could be located — in whole or in part — along with belief on this side of the theoretical divide between human and supernatural existence.  This shift would likely have a ripple effect on similar dichotomies, such as known vs. unknown, real vs. imaginary, objective vs. subjective, observed vs. inscrutable, temporal vs. transcendence, etc.

More on neurotheology coming up.

[1] For more on cultural patterning, see the other posts in this blog’s category The Basics of Belief. Culture, and Reality.

[2] I talk about Christianity because it is the only religion I have personal experience with. And I am aware, by the way, that I write this post under the influence of my own neuroscientific cultural bias.

Moral Compass:  How We Know Right From Wrong

compass

Our brains are amoral. They need cultural context to give them a moral compass.

Real and Imaginary

It’s a staple of self-help advice and sports and performance psychology that our brains don’t know the difference between real and imagined, therefore we can trick them into getting us what we want. There’s good science to back this up, although recent research suggests that the brain actually does know the difference — that it has specific neurons for that purpose. Science Daily. Plus, although both real and imaginary run over the same neural pathway, they move in opposite directions:  input from the outside world runs bottom up — from lower level sensory to higher level cognitive processing — while imagined input runs top down. Psychology Today, Knowledge Nuts.

Getting Into Our Bodies

Not that Harold Hill’s “think system” is enough — we still need to practice and rehearse effectively. We need to get our bodies involved. We’re out there in the “real world” taking in sensory input, interacting with people, things, and experiences, meanwhile we’re imagining things, throwing in doses of speculation and making things up. Our brains and bodies need to work together to ground this swirl of information. This article[1] explains how they do that:

“When considering the senses, we tend to think of sight and sound, taste, touch and smell. However, these are classified as exteroceptive senses, that is, they tell us something about the outside world. In contrast, interoception is a sense that informs us about our internal bodily sensations, such as the pounding of our heart, the flutter of butterflies in our stomach or feelings of hunger.

“The brain represents, integrates and prioritises interoceptive information from the internal body. These are communicated through a set of distinct neural and humoural (i.e., blood-borne) pathways. This sensing of internal states of the body is part of the interplay between body and brain: it maintains homeostasis, the physiological stability necessary for survival; it provides key motivational drivers such as hunger and thirst; it explicitly represents bodily sensations, such as bladder distension. But that is not all, and herein lies the beauty of interoception, as our feelings, thoughts and perceptions are also influenced by the dynamic interaction between body and brain.”

University of Sussex cognitive neuroscientist Anil Seth lays all this out in his TED2017 talk “Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality.”

TED Hallucinating reality

“When we agree about our hallucinations,” he says, “we call that reality.” Those agreements blend external (outside world) and internal (imagined) input into shared belief about what the real world is, and how it works. They also add another key cultural component:  a sense of right and wrong.

Why We Need a Moral Compass, and Where We Get It

Humans need community to survive. Community, in turn, needs a shared behavioral code. Our brains are flexible and amoral on issues of right and wrong — they take their cues from cultural context. Cultural moral coding is therefore evolutionary — motivated by the survival instinct.[2] All of that goes a long way toward explaining why activities honored by one group are despicable to another, and why, when confronted with those differences, each group’s first instinct is to point fingers.

This article reviews three prominent books[3] supporting culturally based morality, and concludes as follows:

“…one must come to the conclusion that inside human beings, as Gazzaniga says, ‘there is a moral compass.’ But ‘we have to be smart enough to figure out how it works.’ Across the realm of human experience—personal, collective, historical, and now neuroscientific—it is abundantly clear that we have the capacity to consciously consider consequences and choose our actions… The mind is a physio-spiritual mechanism built for choice, but it must be given direction. We may be endowed with a moral compass, but it does not arrive with prewired direction. Moral calibration is required.”

The article’s source is “the Church of God, an international community,” which according to its website is a “a nondenominational organization based in Pasadena, California [which] traces its antecedents to Sabbatarian communities in 17th-century Europe, and before that to the first-century apostolic Church at Jerusalem.” Its tool of choice for the brain’s “moral calibration” is the Bible:

“The Bible, too, is unequivocal in the need for [moral calibration] (see, for example, Proverbs 3:31 and Job 34:2–4), adding that there is a spiritual factor responsible for imparting this ability to the human mind (Job 32:8–9)… The Bible serves as the lodestone that sets our compass’s orientation and helps us establish our moral bearings.”

But of course the Church of God didn’t write the article — an individual or collaboration of individuals wrote it, in furtherance of the Church’s culture and institutional belief system. It’s not surprising that the Bible was its cultural choice for moral calibration. Another culture might have chosen a different tool — Mein Kampf, for instance, or the ISIS Manifesto.

The article closes with reservations about the three authors’ neuro-cultural approach to morality:

“As secularists, of course, these authors cannot be expected to pursue [the Bible] in their search for the source of moral standards, especially when, as Gazzaniga notes, so much of what constitutes religious faith is founded on superstition rather than on truth. And so, as researchers improve drug cocktails to ultimately manipulate and control the brain (as Tancredi believes they will), and as society haltingly accepts science as arbiter of good and evil (as Gazzaniga believes it must), it is not too farfetched to imagine that the moral grammar Hauser describes can be refashioned as well. In fact, if history provides any clue, it seems a done deal. The only question that remains is whether our ongoing recalibrations will be for the better or for the worse.”

Yes — whether “for the better or for the worse” remains to be seen…. But according to whose cultural point of view?

[1]How The Body And Mind Talk To One Another To Understand The World,” Aeon Magazine (Feb. 15, 2019).

[2] Here’s a nice primer on this concept. And here’s another, maybe more grownup version.

[3] Hardwired Behavior:  What Neuroscience Reveals About Morality, by Laurence Tancredi, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, a psychiatrist in private practice, and a lawyer who consults on criminal cases involving psychiatric issues. The Ethical Brain:  The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas, by Michael S. Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology and Director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Moral Minds:  How Nature Designed Our Moral Minds, by Marc D. Hauser, Professor of Psychology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, where he is director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory and co-director of the Mind, Brain and Behavior Program.

Fake Truth

shakespeare

When my love swears that she is made of truth, 
I do believe her, though I know she lies.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 138

My sister was in second grade — two years older and far wiser than me. We were watching the clouds scuttling past the chimney when she announced,  “Look! You can see the Earth move.” We argued for awhile — she learned that in school, but what can you expect from a brother in kindergarten? No way the earth moves — if it did, I would know it.

As a matter of fact:

  • Earth spins on its axis at 1,000 miles per hour (1,600 km/hr) .
  • It orbits the sun at 67,000 mph (107,000 km/hr).
  • Our Solar System rotates around the center of the Milky Way at 514,000 mph (828,000 km/hr).
  • The Milky Way zips through space at 1.3 million mph (2.1 million km/hr).
  • And the Universe? Well, that’s more complicated:

“The expansion rate of the universe is called the Hubble parameter. Because the fabric of the universe is being stretched out as it expands, galaxies farther away from us appear to be moving away faster. This is why the Hubble parameter is measured in units of kilometers per second per megaparsec (km/s/Mpc).

“We don’t know the rate exactly, but in the last 50 years, we’ve narrowed it down to either 67 or 73 km/s/Mpc. That’s not to say we believe the true expansion rate lies between those two values, but rather we think it’s reasonably close to either one or the other. So a galaxy 1 Mpc away — 3.26 million light-years — is moving away from us at 73 km/s (or 67 km/s, depending on which scientists you’re talking to). A galaxy 10 Mpc away would be moving at 730 (or 670) km/s.”[1]

That’s an incomprehensible number of incomprehensibly big things moving at incomprehensible speeds across incomprehensible distances. And somewhere in the midst of them, there’s the Earth — moving, big time. But thanks to gravity, proprioception[2] (awareness of where we are in space), and peripersonal neural networks[3] (awareness of what’s around us), we’re firmly rooted right here, unaware of it all, keeping our bearings by things that don’t move.

Or so we think. As a matter of fact:

Jerry Lee Lewis

“In Homer’s time, that star, which today we call Polaris, stood a dozen degrees from the North Pole; in Columbus’s time, it stood three and a half degrees away; in Sputnik’s time, it stood right near the pole. But about AD 15,000, as Earth keeps wobbling like a top, Polaris will sit forty-five degrees away.”[4]

In other words:

True North is not always True, and not always North.

true-north

Things we think are fixed and stable, often aren’t. Our perceptions go unchallenged because for purposes of managing our experience, good enough is good enough. My five-year-old self didn’t need to know about all that spinning, orbiting, expanding, and wobbling in order to run out and play. The same is true for my current self. sitting here typing this sentence:  I may be deceived in my present conviction that the Earth under this building is not moving, but I can still sit here and type no matter what the truth is.

In fact, self-deception is sometimes useful for life and death issues:

“Evidence suggests that specific instances of self-deception can enhance wellbeing and even prolong life. For example, multiple studies have found that optimistic individuals have better survival rates when diagnosed with cancer and other chronic illnesses, whereas ‘realistic acceptance’ of one’s prognosis has been linked to decreased life expectancy.”[5]

On the other hand, there are times when we’d like to not be deceived — like the one Shakespeare wrote about.

More to come re: self-deception and why belief doesn’t have to be true in order to work.

[1] “How fast is the universe expanding? How do astronomers calculate the expansion rate?” Astronomy Magazine (July 26, 2018).  (After several tries, I couldn’t get a link to the article to work, but if you copy and past it into a Google search, the article will come up.)

[2] “Proprioception is the medical term that describes the ability to sense the orientation of your body in your environment. It allows you to move quickly and freely without having to consciously think about where you are in space or in your environment. Proprioception is a constant feedback loop within your nervous system, telling your brain what position you are in and what forces are acting upon your body at any given point in time.” Very Well Health.

[3]Peripersonal neurons are cells in the brain that monitor the space around the body. Their activity rises like a Geiger counter to indicate the location of objects entering a margin of safety. The neurons can detect an intruding object through vision, hearing, touch, and even by the memory of where objects are positioned in the dark.” The Spaces Between Us:  A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature. by Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor Michael S. A. Graziano.

[4] Accessory to War:  The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

[5]Buddhism And Self-Deception,” Aeon Magazine (Jan. 24, 2019).

It’s An Inside Job

In Brain and Culture:  Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, Yale Medical School professor of psychiatry Bruce E. Wexler declared that “concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.” “Concordance” is peace of mind, which we all know is an inside job.

peace of mind

But the concordance Wexler is talking about is not the kind reserved for the enlightened few, it’s the kind that’s a brain health necessity. Our brains work unceasingly to maintain harmony between us and our surroundings, including our cultural setting. When internal and external are out of sync, the result is cognitive dissonance which, when left unresolved, leads to physical, mental, and social disease, distress and disorder. Neurological concordance is therefore a surviving and thriving skill, and can be traced to the corresponding part of the brain:

“Thanks to advances in imaging methods, especially functional MRI, researchers have recently identified key brain regions linked to cognitive dissonance. The area implicated most consistently is the posterior part of the medial frontal cortex (pMFC), known to play an important role in avoiding aversive outcomes, a powerful built-in survival instinct. In fMRI studies, when subjects lie to a peer despite knowing that lying is wrong—a task that puts their actions and beliefs in conflict—the pMFC lights up.”[1]

cognitive dissonance

The straightest  path to concordance is conformity. Nonconformity, on the other hand, generates both intracultural and intercultural neurological conflict. [2] This potential for conflict was the context for Wexler’s peace of mind declaration — let’s hear it again, the full quote this time:

“This book argues that differences in belief systems can themselves occasion intercultural violence, since concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.” (Emphasis added.)

Peace of mind therefore requires the alignment of inner and outer belief systems. This article[3] defines the term:

“Belief systems are the stories we tell ourselves to define our personal sense of Reality. Every human being has a belief system that they utilize, and it is through this mechanism that we individually ‘make sense’ of the world around us.

 “The species Homo sapiens developed so-called belief systems. These are sets of beliefs reinforced by culture, theology, and experience and training as to how the world works cultural values, stereotypes, political viewpoints, etc.”

In order for personal (internal) and shared (external) belief systems to align, the culture’s members must share comparable neural pathways, consciousness, perceptions, sensory tastes, physiology, and the like.[4] When they do, the culture becomes recognizable in its members. Think of the Olympics’ opening ceremony parade of athletes:  the Yanks are obviously the Yanks — nobody else has quite their swashbuckling sense of derring-do. Or think of professional cultures — lawyers, accountants, engineers, physicians — meet one, and you can just tell. Or remember what it’s like to visit a foreign culture — it’s not just the signage but it’s… well, everything —  how people look, sound, act, their customs and values….

All of that is the result of biological, chemical, environmental, and other influences, all stored in individual brains and bodies. But how is cultural patterning transmitted from one individual to another? John R. Searle, Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, wanted to know, and finding out led to his seminal book The Construction of Social Reality:

“This book is about a problem that has puzzled me for a long time:  there are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking about things like money, property, governments, and marriage.

“If everybody thinks that this sort of thing is money, and they use it as money and treat it as money, then it is money. If nobody ever thinks this sort of thing is money, then it is not money. And what goes for money goes for elections, private property, wars, voting, promises, marriages, buying and selling, political offices, and so on.”

“How can there be an objective world of money, property, marriage, governments, elections, football games, cocktail parties and law courts in a world that consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force, and in which some of these particles are organized into systems that are conscious biological beasts, such as ourselves?”

This article[5] provides this summary answer to Searle’s questions:

“Because mental states cannot be transferred physically, they must be transferred by being re-created in the mind of the receiving individual.

“[W]hat is transmitted is some state of mind that produces behavior.

“[The transmitted state of mind includes] a myriad of… beliefs, values, desires, definitions, attitudes, and emotional states such as fear, regret, or pride.”

Vastly simplified, the process of enculturation looks like this:

  • New members enter via an entry point such as birth, naturalization, initiation, etc.
  • They observe the culture’s members thinking and behaving in the culture’s characteristic ways.
  • Through observation and imitation, they take on the culture’s mindset and become habituated into its belief and behavioral norms.
  • In time, they become recognizable as members of the culture along with its other members.
  • Then, an organizing principle called “emergence” asserts itself, so that the whole culture takes on a life of its own that is bigger than the sum of its individual members.

We’ll talk about emergence next time.

[1] “What Happens to the Brain During Cognitive Dissonance?” Scientific American Mind (Nov. 2015).

[2] There’s been a lot of research on conformity and nonconformity in the past ten years. If you’re interested in digging deeper, searching “neuroscience of conformity” and “neuroscience of nonconformity” will turn up several scholarly studies.

[3] “What Are Belief Systems?” Usó-Doménech and J. Nescolarde-Selva, Department of Applied Mathematics. University of Alicante. Alicante. Spain.

[4] See the prior post, Microbes of Meaning.

[5]Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture”, Philip G. Chase, former Senior Research Scientist and Consulting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania,

“Be the Change You Want to See” — Why Change MUST Always Begin With Us

the-beginning-e1503252471356

In the beginning, somebody…

Told a story. Made something. Made something that made things. Drew a picture. Used their voice melodiously. Moved a certain way and did it again. Took something apart, put it back together, and built another thing like it. Watched how weather and sky and flora and fauna responded to the passage of time. Sprinkled dry leaves on meat and ate it. Drew a line in the sand and beat someone who crossed it. Traded this for that. Resolved a dispute. Helped a sick person feel better. Took something shiny from the earth or sea and wore it. Had an uncanny experience and explained it.

And then somebody else did, too — and then somebody else after that, and more somebodies after that, until the human race had organized itself into families, clans, tribes, city-states, and nations, each with its own take on life in this world. Millennia later a worldwide civilization had emerged, organized around trans-cultural institutions of law, economics, science, religion, industry, commerce, education, medicine, arts and entertainment….

And then you and I were born as new members of a highly-evolved human culture of innumerable, impossibly complex, interwoven layers.

From our first breaths we were integrated into site-specific cultural institutions that informed our beliefs about how the world works and our place in it. Those institutions weren’t external to us, they were embodied in us — microbes of meaning lodged in our neural pathways and physical biome. Our brains formed around the beliefs of our culture — our neurons drank them in, and our neural networks were wired up with the necessary assumptions, logic, and leaps of faith.

These cellular structure informed what it meant for us to be alive on the Earth, individually and in community. They shaped our observations and awareness, experiences and interpretations, tastes and sensibilities. They defined what is real and imaginary, set limits around what is true and false, acceptable and taboo. And then they reinforced the rightness of it all with feelings of place and belonging, usefulness and meaning. When that was done, our brains and bodies were overlaid with a foundation for status quo — the way things are, and are supposed to be.

All that happened in an astonishing surge of childhood development. Then came puberty, when our brain and body hormones blasted into overdrive, dredging up our genetic and environmental beginnings and parading them out for reexamination. We kept this and discarded that, activated these genes instead of those. (The process by which we do that is called epigenetics, and it explains why your kids aren’t like you.) We also tried on countercultural beliefs. welcoming some and rejecting others. From there, we entered adult life freshly realigned with a differentiated sense of self, us, and them.

From there, adult life mostly reinforces our cultural beginnings, although the nuisances and opportunities of change periodically require us to make and reaffirm shared agreements in our communities, professions, workplaces, teams, and other groups, each time reaffirming and refining our shared cultural foundations. In doing so, we sometimes flow with the changing times, and sometimes retrench with nostalgic fervor.

Where does all this biological, cognitive, and social development and maintenance happen? In the only place it possibly could:  in the hot wet darkness inside the human body’s largest organ —   our skin. Yes, there is a “real world” out there that we engage with, but the processing and storing of experience happen inside — encoded in our brains and bodies.

be the changeWhich is why individual and cultural change must always begin with us — literally inside of us, in our physical makeup — because that’s where our world and our experience of it are registered and maintained. Gandhi’s famous words are more than a catchy meme, they describe basic human reality:  if we want things to change, then we must be transformed. Think about it:  we have no belief, perception, experience, or concept of status quo that is not somehow registered in our brains and bodies, so where else could change happen? (Unless there’s something like a humanCloud where it can be uploaded and downloaded — but that’s another issue for another time.)

The implications of locating human experience in our physical selves are far-reaching and fascinating. We’ll be exploring them.

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