Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Which comes first? The Belief or the Behavior?

I found this article recently as I searched for info about any interaction between Sam Harris and Patricia Churchland.

Author Scott Atran writes: “[C]ore religious beliefs do not have fixed propositional content,” and “People make religious belief – whether Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and so forth – compatible with violence or non-violence according to how they interpret their religious beliefs,” and “That there is a cruel and repugnantly violent contemporary current in Islam, there is no doubt. Factions of the Christian identity movement, the Tamil Tiger interpretation of Hinduism as necessitating suicide attacks against Buddhist enemies, Imperial Japan’s interpretation of Zen Buddhism as a call to a war of extermination against the Chinese, all have produced cruel and barbarous behavior that has adversely affected millions of people. But Harris’s take on such matters is so scientifically uninformed and mendacious as to be a menace to those who seek a practical and reasoned way out of the morass of obscurantism.”

All of this got me thinking…

What if Atran is right, and at some level, people really don’t believe what they say they believe, but they will use passages from various religious texts to simply justify, to themselves and others, actions that they really want to take anyway, for who knows how many other reasons?

This falls in line more with Jonathan Haidt’s ideas about the rational mind being the “rider/press secretary” for the “elephant” that represents the rest of the mind and emotion-driven limbic brain, etc. (Something I forgot to mention in my previous post.) In this example, the press secretary quotes religious texts to make its elephant look good, but the elephant is going to do, or head in the direction of doing, whatever it really wants to do, and the rider/press-secretary just looks for ways to justify the elephant’s behavior after the fact, or after the direction has already been determined. In addition, as I have concluded for a long time now, people tend to believe what they want to believe, even about the fact of their believing in the first place, i.e. "I want to believe that my believing 'x' is good, and that I am good, and even better than others for believing 'x'."

In the case of Islam, it’s unfortunate that the Qur’an and Hadith contain the violence justifying and encouraging passages that they do, because it allows some Muslims with extreme, violent personalities, to justify their own behavior more easily than if they lived in a culture whose religious texts contained fewer if any such easily adoptable passages!

In other words, these are "beliefs of convenience" (my term) - they just happen to support certain already ingrained mindsets and behaviors of the people who claim them.

And sure, there's a cultural feedback loop at work here. If you're raised in a violent culture, you are more likely to become violent yourself. If you are raised with physical abuse as a form of "discipline", you are more likely to be violent as an adult. Doesn't matter if you're Christian or Muslim in this case, except maybe by degree. Most Christians are less violent than many Muslims in part because they do not have as many religious texts that encourage violence that they can use to justify violent behaviors.

So, probably what is more important to recognize and understand apart from belief is what leads people, i.e. their "elephants" to develop violent personalities and inclinations towards violent behavior in the first place.

In addition to Jonathan Haidt, Marshall Rosenberg's work on Non-violent Communication and Compassionate Parenting has a lot to offer to such a discussion, as does Lloyd deMause and his work on  The Origins of War in Child Abuse.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Towards a Better Understanding of Moral Foundations and the Need for Peace Literacy

So here we are, several months into the Trump Presidency. Oh, and in case you didn't realize it, my last post was about him! That's right, I've been aware of emotional/psychological "arrested development" in adults for almost 25 years now! Most of it is caused by childhood trauma; i.e. bad parenting...but then, that has a multiplying effect generation after generation, so it is no wonder so many people are struggling with ordinary "adult" life, even in this highly technologically advanced society. As Paul K. Chappell points out in his forthcoming book, Soldiers of Peace: How to Wield the Weapon of Nonviolence with Maximum Force -  in spite of all of our advancements in technology, we are "preliterate in peace". In other words we aren't all that good at simply knowing how to get along with one another!

I recently encountered someone with whom I shared a great deal in common...except for "beliefs about God (and Jesus)." I walked away from that encounter convinced that he was more interested in how I believed than how I loved, just as I was more interested in how he loved than how he believed. In spite of everything else that we could have shared, mismatching on this point caused him to decide to end the relationship before it really even got started. It saddened me and left me feeling a bit "mad", as in "crazed" by this crazy maddening world that left us unable to relate with one another more functionally. He said he believed that "everything happens for a reason". If he had met me 15 years ago, I would have agreed with him. Now, I think things happen, and we try to glean some greater meaning from those experiences, especially when they are particularly "Dynamic" or traumatic. This encounter was both for me, and I'm trying now to channel my response into more productive writing, as I will admit, I've gotten a bit complacent living here in the heart of the "Heartland" in Campbellsville, KY!

Nevertheless, I have continued to "study" and one of my recent "text books" was Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics. Wow! What a tour de force in presenting his research on "moral foundations" in a clear and concise way! I appreciated the content as well as the structure of its presentation. Definitely one of my new favorite books!

As summarized here, Haidt describes five "moral foundations" for which there is strong evidence: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation; and one for which the evidence is not quite as strong, but still important to consider, Liberty/Oppression. The moral foundations are things most people can grasp intuitively, or at a "gut" level, what he refers to as "intuitive ethics". However, through culture we learn to give more emphasis to some of the foundations rather than others, or to express them through specific, sometimes very elaborate behaviors and rituals. That's where things start to get messy and conflicts arise: not from conflict over the foundations themselves, but through conflict over their interpretation and behavioral expressions that vary considerably across nations, cultures, religions, and political parties. What Haidt seems to call for in his writing is a deeper recognition of our moral foundations, what we actually share in common, and less emphasis or distraction by all of the different ways humans can embody and express those foundations.

Also, as I have seen for myself, almost every one of our "intractable" social issues arises from an unresolved conflict between moral foundations. For instance, the abortion issue pits "care" for the unborn against the "liberty" of a women to have control over her own body. State sponsored "welfare" is about "care" for those in need, but again, it is in conflict with the "liberty" of taxpayers to control their own resources, or to freely choose to support other charitable organizations rather than have their money taken from them and used through the government bureaucracy. (Keep in mind, this applies to those who are against "corporate welfare" and "bailouts" as well!) There seems to be a general pattern of thinking that goes: "I want my individual liberty (to do whatever I want), and if I make poor choices, I (also) want the government to be there to take care of me (even if I have no respect for the government and its authority)."

The above statement reflects what I have referred to here as an "Individual Biological Moral Code". Haidt also points out that the U.S. represents more of an "individualistic" society, where it is believed that "society is there to serve the individual", while at the other end of the spectrum, China adheres to a more "collectivist" view where the "individual is there to serve society".  As I recently discussed with Paul K. Chappell, I wonder if either of these cultures would be able to continue as they are if it were not for their interactions with one another? Our individualism is great for generating new ideas, new technologies, etc., but not all that great for finding people willing to do the rather monotonous work of reproducing them. The Chinese are not known for innovation, but they do just fine reproducing products designed in the U.S, something I can speak to very directly given my many years experience working in the production-line sewing industry!

Finally, Haidt suggests that we are "90% chimp and 10% bee". In many, many regards our behavior is similar to that of lower primates. We form bonds with certain members of our society and not with others. We form hierarchies. We will care for our own infants as well as infants belonging to other members of our family group (as necessary), but may even kill the infants of non-related members or of rival groups. We can be faithful or unfaithful to our sexual partners.

In addition, however, we also have an enormous capacity to cooperate with a much larger group of otherwise total strangers in order to share a common experience (like a rock concert) or achieve a common goal (like winning an election). That's the "10% bee" part. Furthermore, as Yuval Noah Harari explains in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, it seems one of our greatest talents as humans is to tell stories (like those expressed by all religions concerning the nature of "God" and/or the Universe) as a framework for moral behavior, which can be applied to a much, much, larger group of otherwise unrelated individuals.

Which brings me to one of the points of Haidt's book that really stuck with me: Moral development, learning how to function well and peacefully in a society with other human beings, depends on one's association with a smaller group or "moral community" in which one can be held accountable for one's actions. There has to be some kind of feedback system that allows for "course correction". If you do not grow up in such a community, if you do not feel at least some concern for the good opinion of others, or at least, feel some sense of dependency on others for your overall survival and well-being, then you can behave however you want, without any real moral development taking place, even throughout the course of your entire lifetime!

Furthermore, if you are inclined to think highly of yourself for being one member of the "global community of humankind" without any real connection to a smaller community, one to which you feel more directly accountable, then, again, you can actually live your life as an otherwise immoral person, with no one to stop you, unless your immorality leads you to break laws for which you can be removed from the larger society through incarceration.

This brings me to one final, more recent observation: There are many minority groups in our society whose individual members take great pride in being part of those groups based on their race or gender preference. What is more obvious with race, but maybe less so for some with respect to gender preference, is that both of these characteristics are an expression of a person's biology, over which they have little or no control.  No one consciously chooses to be "Black" or "White," "Asian" or "Hispanic," etc. I have yet to meet a homosexual who claims they are choosing to be homosexual any more than someone else chooses to be heterosexual. And even with religion, at least until fairly recently, a person would be hard-pressed to find others who did not agree with or follow the religion of their birth. Granted, there are opportunities to "choose" to "believe in Christ and accept Him as your Lord and Savior" within various Christian communities, for instance, but if you don't, you may also face shunning or excommunication. At the very least, as long as you continue to be a part of that community, you will also continue to feel the pressure to choose as those in your family/religious community have chosen before you.

So, to a great degree, with regards to race, religion, gender preference, physical disability, etc., no one is actively choosing these identifiable characteristics. However, if there is anything truly unique in the animal kingdom with respect to human beings, it is our capacity for choice with regards to how we behave in our relationships with other human beings, in our relationships with non-humans, and in our relationship with this planet we live on. In his book, Peaceful Revolution: How We Can Create the Future Needed for Humanity's Survival, Paul K. Chappell describes several "muscles" that all human beings can learn to strengthen including the "muscles" of hope, empathy, appreciation, conscience, reason, discipline, and curiosity. These are aspects of our shared humanity that (apart from some forms of mental handicap) we can choose to exercise, no matter what the superficial dictates of our biological, religious, or cultural heritage.

Therefore, rather than focusing so much on the things we can't control, like what race or culture we were born into, or how our brains were wired during development to affect our gender preference/identification, or how intelligent we are, it seems we would be far better off focusing on those human qualities or capacities that we can control, and measuring ourselves, and holding each other accountable, according to how we exercise or demonstrate those capacities. In addition, rather than merely identifying as another member of "the whole of humanity", or even some other broadly recognized majority, minority, secular, religious, or political group, we need to come to embrace and appreciate the importance and power of smaller groups and communities to shape individual and collective moral behavior, to allow ourselves to be held accountable, ideally, for our capacity to exercise our truly human "muscles" of hope, empathy, appreciation, conscience, reason, discipline, and curiosity!

Finally, to begin to bridge the seeming gaps between secular and religious beliefs as well as political ideologies, we need to give more direct consideration to the underlying moral foundations of Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression rather than seeing only the surface expressions that vary so widely from culture to culture, religion to religion, and between political parties. 

We must realize we all hold individual responsibility to be Moral Actors and to mature as Moral Actors through the course of our lives and to be held accountable by the smaller communities we either grow-up in or consciously choose. No matter how technologically advanced we become, our long-term success as a species and our individual and collective well-being in the here and now depend on our learning to live together more peacefully.

In Soldiers of Peace..., Paul K. Chappell explains that the majority of human beings were once illiterate with respect to reading and writing. At a certain point in human society we realized that learning to read and write was critical for our survival. Now we have reached another critical point in human society where we are mostly "illiterate in peace", and our survival depends on our becoming "peace literate". I look forward to continuing to take part in and contribute to that ongoing education effort!

Sincerely and Respectfully Yours, In Peace...


Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Four Year Old

This reference goes way, way, back in my personal history. For various reasons, which should become obvious fairly quickly, I have decided to present it here. And I quote:


“If at times he seems somewhat voluble, dogmatic, boastful and bossy, it is because he is a blithe amateur swinging into fresh fields of self-expression. For a while he scarcely can be too concerned about the feelings of others. He is not quite as sensitive to praise [from others as when he was younger]. Instead he praises himself through bragging. Besides he is much less experienced than his brave verbal assertiveness might suggest. He has meager appreciation of disappointment and the personal emotions of others. He is inquisitively interested in death, but has scant comprehension of its meaning. He is plausible because his words often outrun his knowledge.

“[He] is a great talker. He is his own self-appointed commentator and often his own audience. He likes to use words, to try them out, to play with them. He likes new, different words…. [B]right, articulate [he] tends to run his topics to the ground, exhausting every verbal possibility…

“The key to [his] psychology is his high drive combined with a fluid mental organization. His imagery is almost mercurial. It moves from one form to another with careless ease….This same fluidity makes him a  fabricator and a fertile producer of alibis. It also makes it possible for him to dramatize any experience which comes within his ken.

“Social patterns are offset and in part defined by anti-social conduct….His boastfulness reaches towering ego-centric heights. But all this bravado is not as drastic as appears on the surface. [He] is feeling his powers and trying them out…

“Basically, [he] is more interested in socialization than in resistance. He shows this in his great fondness for dressing up and acting like grown-ups…He does not only don an adult hat; but he indulges in long telephone conversations, which echo the exact inflections of the adult voice….He also likes to make faces. This is still another method of identification with adults and perfecting his skill in reading their facial expressions. He is reading into, talking into and acting into the complexities of his culture.”


From: Infant and Child in the Culture of Today, Arnold Gesell and Frances L. Ilg, (1943). Pp.225-228, describing “The Four Year Old”.

If only I had the video footage and the expertise to edit it! Alas, I can only imagine it in my mind's eye... Maybe someone else can make it a reality!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

On Parenting and Leadership

         I recently finished reading this book:


It really got me thinking about a lot of things. For instance, how might Life be seen as a "Battlefield", and what exactly is it we are all fighting over? How might the world be different, if parents saw themselves as Leaders of their children, and oriented their family life around a clear Mission Statement? The book contends that "There are no bad teams, only bad leaders." If this is true, could it also be true that "There are no bad kids, only bad parents"?

As a consequence of these considerations and more, I have embarked on a journey to incorporate the principles discussed in Extreme Ownership... into a book that is specifically oriented towards parenting. This may mean the actual parenting of children, or, if someone doesn't have children of their own, it may be a kind of refresher for parenting or re-parenting themselves. I hope to include information from two other Udemy courses I've taken, with instructor Gregory Caremans, "Neuroscience for Parents: How to Raise Amazing Kids", and "The Science of Leadership". Both of these courses draw on the application of the Neurocognitive Behavioral Approach or NBA, originally established in France as l'approache Neurocognitive et Comportementale by Dr. Jacques Fradin. You can get a very brief summary of NBA principles from the free course "Meet Your Brain: A Short Introduction to Neuroscience".

Now people who already know me may be wondering: "Lori...You don't have children of your own. What makes you think you can write a book about parenting?"

Truth is...I've been thinking the same thing for many, many years now. But something in Extreme Ownership... changed my perspective on all of that, in part because the authors discuss that very feature of being a good leader; i.e. having a broader perspective. They write:
 As a leader, if you are down in the weeds planning the details with your guys, you will have the same perspective as them, which adds little value. But if you let them plan the details, it allows them to own their piece of the plan. And it allows you to stand back and see everything with a different perspective, which adds tremendous value. You can see the plan from a greater distance, a higher altitude, and you will see more. As a result, you will catch mistakes and discover aspects of the plan that need to be tightened up, which enables you to look like a tactical genius, just because you have a broader view. (Page 214)
I've always sensed that I had the life experience, the education, and the capacity for this "broader view" even without having had children of my own.  Furthermore, I am very cognizant of what I experienced as a child growing up with my mother, father, and siblings, and how those experiences shaped my life for better and worse. I know the challenges I have had to face that were made that much more difficult by not having had more functional and effective parenting. Honestly, I feel I've been playing "catch-up" all of my life because the first 20+ years did not really count for much, especially with respect to training and disciplining my pre-frontal brain during that critical period from infancy to 24 years of age.

And that last part is why parenting is So Critical in every person's life. It is difficult if not impossible to reach our full potential as human beings, with a capacity for emotional self-regulation, perspective taking (empathy), creative problem solving, etc., all results of mature pre-frontal brain functioning, without the adults around us guiding our pre-frontal brains through the developmental process. It Will Not Get There On Its Own!

While I've been more on my own, other people have been "in the trenches," struggling to raise their children. I suspect many of them have never read a book on parenting or childhood development because they just didn't have time to while working and raising their kids, and dealing with all of the other distractions that are part of modern life. I suspect few have had or thought to take the time to step back and try to get a broader perspective.

In contrast, my whole life I've felt more like I was on the outside looking in. I did not get married early and have children. As a consequence, I've had more time to read, to go to college, to continue reading, and taking on-line courses, etc., much of which has been focused on childhood development, leadership, and neuroscience. And now I see where all of that can be focused to help "the troops" by providing a broader perspective that might help motivate and guide them to carry out their "mission" as parents more responsibly and effectively.

Now all I have to do to "lead" that effort is to put together a "plan," rally my "teammates" and take what discipline I have managed to acquire post 24 years of age, and follow-through. It's exciting and daunting at the same time, but I feel better now about my "resource base" than I have in a long, long time.

So now, in the words of Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, I simply have to "Get After It!"

* * * * *

Update: July 2017 - Stayed motivated for a while on this subject and then redirected. Got off on a bit of a tangent considering "God" as a leader, trying to get some feedback from religious leaders I know on "Commander's Intent" and no one got back to me on that with any kind of real answers! (Which is something to think about in and of itself!) Anyway, still an option for future writing. Will add, however, Jocko Willink has a new book out now The Way of the Warrior Kid: From Wimpy to Warrior the Navy SEAL Way which I have read and thoroughly enjoyed. I wish that I had had an "Uncle Jake" in my life when I was growing up. I might have more discipline around my writing now if I had! Will just have to continue to "muddle through" as best I can! Either way, in effect, it is a kind of "parenting" book, and I hope more adults read it, especially if they still need to do a little better parenting of their "inner child"...as well as their own children.

Monday, March 7, 2016

"Married at First Sight" on A&E - Observations and Insights

Basic Format of the Show: Married at First Sight on A&E

Four professional therapists/relationship counsellors thoroughly interview hopeful participants and match three couples for each series based on multiple areas of presumed compatibility. Each man and woman meet for the very first time on their wedding day, being introduced by the presiding official as the bride reaches the alter where her husband-to-be is waiting for her. Although they may be able to hesitate for a moment or two, being surrounded by family and friends, not to mention a documentary film crew, and having signed a contract with the producers in good faith, the couples proceed to commit themselves to this "social experiment" and to a legally binding union; i.e. they say their "I do's" and get Married at First Sight! Following that they go on a honeymoon for one week and live together for five more weeks. At the end of this period, they have an opportunity to decide if they will stay married or get a divorce.

Needless to say, it makes for good drama! Besides initial interview snippets, we also get to follow the men and women for about a week or so as they prepare for their wedding days. We watch as they discuss their decisions with family and friends, addressing their questions and concerns. When the big day comes, it's not uncommon to see A Lot of anxiety, second guessing, and questions of "What am I getting myself into?"

Nevertheless, motivated by the promise of a loving marriage, putting their faith in the vetting process they've endured with the therapists, (and who knows what other "carrots" and/or "sticks" the producers might have in the contracts), we watch as the men stand patiently at the front of the room, and their bride walks through the door, looking about as beautiful as any woman could given the special care of their hair, make-up, and, of course, the always stunning wedding gown! Where "first impressions" are concerned, and especially for the women, it's definitely one of the advantages of getting "Married at First Sight"!

The men are dressed in their best as well, however, that doesn't always help them as much as they might hope. Maybe "Women Go Crazy for a Sharp Dressed Man," especially when it's a man they're already attracted to? I don't know. All I do know, from the shows I've seen so far, is that it seems the men are inclined to be less selective, or particular about how their bride looks, but not being immediately attracted to their husband is a big stumbling block for the women.

Following the wedding, the couples take a week-long honeymoon and that is their first opportunity to start getting to know each other. As it tends to be for the remainder of the program, the big question is: Will they consummate their marriage? Will there be instant "chemistry", or will it take a little while, or will there never be any "chemistry" at all?

After the honeymoon, the couples are expected to live together for another five weeks.  Maybe one moves into the other's living space, but the usual preference is to find a totally new house or apartment to share. They have to take many practical issues into consideration, like managing their respective work schedules and commutes, sharing and caring for pets, etc. In this regard, it really is not that different from ordinary dating couples who choose to move-in together. The only real difference is the time frame: These couples have to deal with more of the realities of married life, in all of its mundane details, within a mere week of meeting one another!

And to help them with this fast and furious head-on collision with "real life" as husband and wife, the therapists offer their various forms of counseling: emotional, sexual, practical, and spiritual. So although it's a particularly intense process, and includes the persistent "voyeurism" of the cameras and eventually the viewing audience, these couples have resources in the therapists that few other couples ever have or think to take advantage of, certainly not from the very beginning of their relationships.

After the six weeks are up, it's time for the couples to decide if they will stay together or get a divorce. They may have looked like a "perfect match" in the eyes of the therapists, or "on paper," but six weeks of "real life" interaction may have revealed many things the therapists could never have foreseen. And even with the best matches, six weeks is still a fairly short time to build a foundation of trust with another human being. Consequently, old anxieties, feelings of mistrust and self-doubt often come bubbling back to the surface, making that final decision a difficult one. 

Nevertheless, once the decision is made, it will be six more months before we'll see the couples again in the follow-up episode. In the interim, I'm assuming they can continue to receive counseling support as necessary from the therapists. In addition, they will have had the opportunity to watch the program themselves and interact with audience members via social media.

My Observations of "Typical" Relationships vs. the "Arranged" Marriages of "Married at First Sight"

First of all, I give the producers, therapists, and couples credit for daring to conduct this "social experiment" at all. I think there is much for the individuals and couples to learn from the process, and the viewing audience as well. Though it is seen as rather archaic in a modern, western society, "matchmaking" used to be considered a valuable and sought after skill. With the advance of services like "e-Harmony" as well as "Reality TV", I guess it was just a matter of time for a program like "Married at First Sight" to emerge.

So what's the biggest difference between meeting a potentially compatible partner at the alter and meeting one at work, or a bar, or some other social function? I'll answer that in one word: "Chemistry". And I'll emphasize this by writing it again without the quotes: Chemistry.

What I mean is that the body chemistry of the people Marrying at First Sight is going to be very different from people who, say, "fall in love at first sight" (and, yes, there are the quotes again). In fact, it seems this lack of immediately felt "chemistry" ends up being a big sticking point for many of the couples. Furthermore, from what I've observed, it is usually the women who struggle with that the most, at least at first.

Let's be honest. For most modern couples, "chemistry" is what draws them together in the first place. I'm using quotes again because this kind of "chemistry" is not easy to define, or succumbs to definition only on an individual basis. We might also use words like "fascination," or "sexual magnetism" and they'd all mean about the same thing. (I'd even throw in the concept of "Dynamic Quality", but that's for another discussion.)

What I will offer is this: From my current point of view, all of that kind of "chemistry" - is the limbic brain signaling "Optimal GENETIC Compatibility" - And Not Much Else! When it comes to reproducing the species, the limbic brain doesn't really care how much money he or she makes, whether they're Christian or Muslim or Atheist, Republican or Democrat, Big House or Tiny House, cat or dog lover. Without much consciousness on your part, the limbic brain recognizes a lot about Genetic Compatibility from things like a person's facial features and pheremones. The signalling can be instantaneous and powerful, and if reproducing the species is All you Consciously care about, then you'll be fine following the limbic brain's lead. However, if you actually want to share a Mutually Satisfying Life with your partner - you might just want to take a few of those other things (and a lot more) into consideration.

And that is where the therapists of "Married at First Sight" come into the picture. From my point of view, they use their interview and analysis tools to effectively bypass or short-circuit the species-reproduction-only focus of the limbic brain. They provide each individual the opportunity to interact with the other as a Complex Whole Person - with weaknesses and strengths, values and preferences, long-term hopes and dreams, which may include, but also go beyond mere biological urges to reproduce. So rather than the dramatic rush of the "falling in love" neurotransmitters - dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin, our couples have to develop a flow of the more steady state bonding and trust-based neurotransmitters - oxytocin and vasopressin.

Although I cannot offer research to back up my theory, I have begun to suspect that the additional "rush" and/or intensity of the "falling in love at first sight" experience comes from the presence of adrenaline - a stress related neurotransmitter, in addition to dopamine, which is most often associated with pleasure and/or the anticipation of pleasure.

Think about it, on the one hand your limbic brain is signaling genetic compatibility, but it happens to be drawing you towards someone who is otherwise a total stranger, and as a stranger, potentially dangerous. Mixed with the dopamine of anticipated pleasure, you get adrenaline preparing you to respond to a threat. Who's to say which of these neurotransmitters will win out in the end, or in any particular case. However, it makes sense that, in order for the species to survive as a whole, the biological drive to reproduce, and the pleasure of sex would have to be stronger than a fear of being harmed. I suspect some of you who are reading this can recall a time when you chose to pursue sexual pleasure with a relative stranger, in spite of your fears and maybe lived to regret it later. In that case, you can chalk it up as a "win" for dopamine and your limbic brain!

This is all going to be very different for couples in an arranged marriage, in part because they simply are not entering into their association with the other person based merely on "genetic compatibility 
signaling" from the limbic brain. No dopamine. No obvious and/or immediate anticipation of pleasure, means it's actually going to be harder for them stay motivated to work through the challenges they will inevitably face. Nevertheless, the program has within it some other motivators, both contractural and social, and, so far anyway, those have at least helped to keep the couples on course for the initial six weeks.

Maybe the therapists should do some form of genetic compatibility testing? (Or are they already? I have no idea). I don't know if the science is advanced enough at this time to make a selection on that basis, that would be any more accurate or "healthier" than what the limbic brain comes up with on its own. But, again, should genetic compatibility be the Most important factor to consider when choosing a Life Partner? I would say, "No." There are many, many other factors to consider more seriously if having a Life Partner is your goal, and in that case, a good "matchmaker," or a select group of psychotherapists might come in handy!

Who's Responsible for Your Chosing to Love or to Be Vulnerable, Trusting, or Happy?

One of the recurring themes in participant commentaries is the following: "I want to find the right person who will make me want to let down my walls, someone with whom I will feel comfortable letting go, someone who I can trust," etc., etc.

Many, many years ago, when I was in the Navy, interacting with men who were often younger than me by 10 or 15 years (I entered the Navy at 34), I found myself counseling them as follows: "If a woman does not already know How to Be Happy (on her own), then there is nothing you will ever be able to do to Make Her Happy." I would say the same would be true for trust, vulnerability, and love.

All too often I hear participants Relinquishing their Locus of Control. Rather than doing what I would call their "home work", the work they do on themselves, on their own, to become more self-aware, loving, vulnerable, happy, caring, emotionally communicative, etc., they are stuck waiting - waiting for that "other" person to come along who is somehow, magically going to inspire or provoke all of that in them.

I have found this to be a very dysfunctional path to follow, and over and over again, it seems to be a huge contributing factor to the marriages that fail on "Married at First Sight."

It happens with both the men and the women. Sometimes they alternate, becoming more or less vulnerable in this weird reciprocal dance. For example, as I suggested above, it is usually the women who are not that attracted to the men at first. So, they protect themselves with more of a masculine or Tom-boyish, Devil-May-Care, attitude, even to the point of rudeness, and/or emasculation of their partners. Somehow, their partners persevere through all of this, maybe repressing their hurt feelings. Then there comes a turning point for the women, where they open up, start to have "warm, fuzzy" vulnerable feelings around and about their partners, only to have their partners then erect walls, and pull away, or worse, ignore or be oblivious to those changes in their partners and the emotional implications of those changes. This response from the men only proves to the women that they were right not to be vulnerable in the first place, and they then close back up, and we're all back to where we started.

I won't deny it. Vulnerability is tough. Developing a Rational Basis of Trust in a relationship with another human being is far more difficult, and involves far more energy investment than most people are willing to make. It's much easier to simply swing back and forth on a pendulum - being totally trusting or totally mistrusting, without any real, consciously observed, rational basis for either.

However, there are some wonderful, and fairly recently available resources to help navigate this major challenge of relationships, for instance, the work of BrenĂ© Brown. This includes her TED talks on Vulnerability and Shame, books like Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection, and Rising Strong. She also has seminar style educational programs such as "The Power of Vulnerability" offered through Udemy.com. Personally, I think every person who is a participant on "Married at First Sight" should have to take "The Power of Vulnerability" course in one form or another. Not only does she address the "middle ground" of being vulnerable, while still having boundaries with the people who cannot respect, appreciate, and honor your vulnerability; she also addresses the importance of building trust not as a "grand gesture," but as an ever-growing "marble collection."

Finally, either each of us, as individuals, makes a deliberate choice, a Commitment to Love, or we don't. It's not about making a commitment to another person, to love them, or waiting for them to make or prove such a commitment to us before we, in turn, choose to love them. It's about making a commitment to Being a Loving Person in ALL of our relationships, period. And, for me, that means, making a commitment to learning what makes the other person Feel Loved and doing whatever those things are. I've dedicated a whole blog to this topic here.

Once again, from my point of view, this is one of the key stumbling blocks in the thinking of many of the participants in this program; i.e. that it is going to be The Other Person - Mr. or Ms. Right - who is going to somehow "magically" provoke them or motivate them to become a more trusting, vulnerable, loving, and/or happy person. I will offer that the key to a truly successful relationship is the capacity that each person brings to the table to already be vulnerable, to already be capable of trust, to already be capable of loving, to already be happy, because they have already done their homework, they've already "graduated" from that "course" in their life as individuals and they're ready for the new "course work" of bringing all of these capacities to bear in a long-term, intimate relationship with another person.

That's all I have to say about that for now. The final "follow-up" episode for the current season will air tomorrow night, March 8th at 9:00 pm on A&E. I plan to be watching, although I won't be able to follow chatter on Twitter for lack of Internet access at home.

There are at least three other related topics I would like to cover in one or more future posts: 1) Better understanding the importance of masculine and feminine "polarity" in relationships (with references to the work of David Deida and possibly Louann Brizendine), 2) Understanding the special relationship challenges for introverts in an extrovert-centric world (with references to the work of Laurie Helgoe and the exploration of masculine and feminine archetypes by Tad and Noreen Guzie), and 3) Understanding the mechanism of the "Drawing of the Bow" as it relates to our feelings of withdrawal and/or depression when we are facing major life decisions. 

I can't say for sure when I'll be able to get on-line to follow up with these posts, but I will certainly follow-up as soon as I possibly can. Feel free to contact or follow me via Twitter @llbell100 (LLBELL One Hundred) or by leaving a comment on this blog.  I welcome your feedback.
#MarriedatFirstSight, #MAFS

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Battle of the Brains

As far as "good" and "evil" are concerned, I think the Grand Play of Life Itself involves both constructive and destructive forces, which individuals may take more or less personally. I feel there is "inertia" built into the system to keep things from changing too quickly in any direction, and although it may be frustrating for people who are trying to bring about positive change, the inertia is there for a reason: too much change, too quickly, can bring chaos and a destruction of structures that may seem restrictive in some ways but are actually supportive in others.

As Robert Pirsig describes in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals - there is this ongoing play between "static" and "Dynamic" quality - and they each seem to be the "enemy" of the other, but it is their ongoing interrelationship that is the underlying mechanism of evolution, both individual-biological and social-cultural.

I would offer that within our own brains there are components that reflect the path of our evolution - reptile (fight, flight, freeze response), paleo-limbic (herd/social brain/group positioning/dominance vs. submissiveness and trust vs. mistrust), neo-limbic, (individual identity/motivation), and pre-frontal (rational, creative, empathic), with the pre-frontal brain being the most recently and I will offer most "highly" evolved in terms of its capabilities for Dynamic interaction with the environment. The other brain structures tend to be much more "static" or "programmed"; i.e. the reptile brain develops automatically, the paleo-limbic brain is more-or-less "set" in its perception of "group positioning" fairly early in life, and the neo-limbic brain locks into its individual "identity" and emotional patterning fairly early in life as well (although it and the paleo-limbic brain do come under the influence of environment more so than the reptile brain).

However, it is the pre-frontal brain which is most influenced by and depends on the environment to develop its full potential - its potential for regulating the more (reactive) patterned responses of the reptile, paleo-limbic, and neo-limbic brains; to think rationally and logically; to solve problems creatively; and to be effective at empathy via perspective taking.

My theory is that the internal battles that people often fight with themselves in their own heads (as well as projecting those battles into the outer world), stem from the "inertia" of the lower brains that do not want to allow "the new kid on the block," i.e. the pre-frontal brain, to be in charge of behavior. Since the pre-frontal brain is not of much help until it has a chance to develop (between infancy and 24 years of age), the other brains actually do "run the show" early on, and it kind of makes sense that they would not want to release control to the pre-frontal brain without some resistance.

Nevertheless, it is the pre-frontal brain that has evolved to help us live more effectively in social groups, even very large social groups, via its capacity for empathy/perspective taking (allowing for compassion), rational thought (to more accurately understand cause and effect relationships among other things), emotional self-regulation (i.e. regulation of the patterned responses of the neo-limbic, paleo-limbic, and reptile brains), and creative problem solving.

From my current point of view, the limbic and reptile brains express more of our "egoic" or "self-centered" personalities, concerned much more with individual "self"-survival than with survival of the larger community, while the pre-frontal brain is our "higher power," because it has the capacity to "see the big picture/society as a whole", to understand and integrate multiple points of view, and to respond creatively to novel situations. However, again, it will not develop these capacities to their full extent unless it is trained to do so via the environment - parental, educational, cultural, etc. (And, as mentioned above, there is a limited window for this development to take place; i.e. between infancy and about 24 years of age.) Furthermore, the pre-frontal brain will always be at least a little at odds with the other brains; there will always be some "ego" to deal with, some tendencies towards selfishness, tendencies towards fear, etc. You can't ever really transcend the "ego", because you can't "get rid of" the lower parts of the brain.

All of those parts of the brain are what helped to get human beings to where they are now, along with the higher functions of the pre-frontal brain. It may be difficult sometimes to live with them, but we also can't live without them.

Consequently, if people feel threatened, the fear response is coming from the reptile and limbic brains. Actively "transcending" that fear is the work of the pre-frontal brain. Looking rationally at cause and effect relationships is the work of the pre-frontal brain. Being able to empathize with another's point of view, even an "enemy's" point of view, is the work of the pre-frontal brain. Being able to stay calm in the midst of external stressors, is the work of the pre-frontal brain.

However, one of the things you don't necessarily get from the pre-frontal brain is "high"; i.e. feelings of ecstasy. Instead, you get kind of mellow, peaceful, content emotions. In that sense, it may seem rather dull, compared to what the limbic brain can generate when it is inclined to do so - especially in circumstances of "romantic love" - which has more to do with an unconscious response to subliminal signaling of genetic compatibility than it does with just about anything else! (Which is unfortunate, because genetic compatibility can only go so far when it comes to people being compatible with one another in all the other areas of human life we now engage as members of this increasingly complex social system.) But that's a whole different matter...!

To summarize, from my current point of view, the lower limbic and reptile brains are a source of "inertia" for human beings; i.e. they develop very patterned/programmed ways of responding to the world fairly early in human development. The pre-frontal brain is actually capable of "transcending" all of that With Practice - whether the discipline is religious or secular, practices that focus on emotional self-regulation develop the pre-frontal brain's capacity to do just that; i.e. self-regulate. Practices that focus on empathy (perspective taking) and compassion, also engage the pre-frontal brain. Just "getting high" on "romantic love" or "spiritual ecstasy" (through whatever mechanism, including the drug-induced kind) - is not a product of the pre-frontal brain. Instead, that's only produced by and reinforcing of the rather self-serving nature of the lower limbic brain(s).

Our world is in all too many ways a projection of these ongoing battles within our own heads. The conflicts, the battles we see "out there", reflect something of the same conflicts and struggles human beings experience within there own minds (brains) and bodies. Many people will seek "spiritual bliss," thinking it is "the highest expression of their nature," when actually, being calm, cool, collected, rational, and (truly, consciously, intentionally) empathetic and compassionate towards others is the "highest" expression of our human nature.

If someone speaks of "raising their consciousness to a 'higher vibration'" I might substitute, "in their higher (pre-frontal) brain", where, absolutely, they could look at the negatives in the world and come up with creative solutions for "healing" them. They could empathize more deeply and see more clearly from multiple perspectives in order to resolve conflicts more effectively. Nevertheless, all of that would definitely not be about being "blissed out" all of the time, and thinking that is somehow "magically" going to "Change the World." There's a lot more Work involved than that, and that is what the pre-frontal brain is good for!

(For more information on the reptile, paleo-limbic, neo-limbic, and pre-frontal brains check out the Udemy course: Master Your Brain: Neuroscience for Personal Development.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What's In Your Back-pack?

Once upon a time a little girl was born. On that day her mother gave her an invisible back-pack very similar to the one her mother was carrying. The mother reached into her own back-pack and pulled out two large invisible stones, one was named "My Self-worth" and the other was named "My Life Purpose". She put these two stones in the little baby girl's back-pack.

Now the little girl may have struggled at first to carry those stones for her mother, but since they had been there from the day she was born she really never knew what life would have been like without them. It was almost like a test: once her mother realized she could carry those stones, she continued to add more as the years went by. Some of those stones were given to her mother by other people and society, like "Do Well In School", and "Be a Good Christian", but then there were some unusual ones that were fairly unique, like a Really Big Stone called "Be a Prophet (with me) and Help 'Save the World'"!

Eventually her mother's stones included, "My Fear that the Mafia and Your Dad are Out to Kill Us (and stop us from carrying out our 'Mission from God')", and "My Need to 'Protect' You by Not Letting You Have any Kind of Close Interpersonal Relationships with Anyone But Me", and later "My Physical Health and Well-Being", "My Happiness", and "Food, Clothing, and Shelter Needs for My Life (as well as your own)". It's really amazing that the little girl did not crumble under the weight of all of those stones!

However, after the little girl had grown into a young woman and started going to college, still looking after but not actually living with her mother anymore, she came in contact with a "mentor" instructor who took the time to really listen to her, and (at least indirectly) notice that she was carrying this really heavy back-pack full of her mother's stones. This person suggested that she see a school counselor as he would help her take a closer look at all that she was carrying and decide what really belonged to her and what did not.

Eventually, under the counselor's direction, this young woman confronted her mother and showed her the stones and said, "These belong to you, not me, or any of the other people you've blamed for the problems in your life." A few weeks later, the mother had a "break-down", and was found by the police wandering around outside her house. Since the mother had spoken about trying to kill herself, and had at least managed to bruise the back of her neck really badly, the police and other "authorities" were able to commit her to a mental hospital shortly thereafter.

However, it was that long-night in the emergency room with her mother when this young woman was finally able to empty out many of the stones from her back-pack, especially "Be a Good Christian", "Be a Prophet and Save the World", and "My Fear that the Mafia and Your Dad are Out to Kill Us". She also set aside the ones named "My Self-Worth", "My Happiness", and "My Life Purpose" that had all come from her mother.

Nevertheless, she kept the one for "Food, Clothing, and Shelter (for herself)" as well as "Do Well in School" and "Keep Up with Your Minimum Credit Card Payments". She had also added another since being on her own in college called, "Be Attractive and Sexually Available to Men in Order to Get them to Like you and Care About You." And finally, she inadvertently replaced the "Be a Prophet and Save the World" stone with another very large stone called: "With Little to No Understanding or Support from Anyone Else, Especially Your Other Family Members, Continue to BE STRONG and Just Learn to GET OVER all of the Emotional Trauma and Lack of Functional Parenting of Your Childhood, ON YOUR OWN, Even If It Takes You the Rest of Your Life, and Maybe Somewhere Down the Road You can Write a Book about It".

Now, needless to say, that was still a Really Heavy Load for this young woman to carry, and interestingly enough, her back frequently hurt from it - for real! And she stumbled around a lot, and when she did try to connect with potential friends or partners, this huge load on her back always got in the way (especially when it bumped into the heavy loads those people were often carrying as well).

The problem for everyone was that these back-packs and their heavy stones were INVISIBLE! And how can you really deal with all these things when they're INVISIBLE!?

* * * *

Many, many years later, as this now much more mature woman was continuing to try to "GET OVER" the emotional and practical challenges of her early life; after she had piled-on and then dropped other various expectations that she had for herself, her relationships, and her life purpose; after she had stumbled around and ALMOST fallen, over and over again; after she had learned unconsciously that one of the few ways to not Fall Down was just too KEEP MOVING - she had a Break Through!! ... While continuing her education studying neuroscience, her instructor offered up an image and a concept that she had never considered before: Demands and Expectations vs. Means and Resources...!

The instructor explained that when "Demands and Expectations" far outweigh "Means and Resources" (for meeting those "Demands and Expectations") this can cause a great deal of psychological stress. (Duh!) Furthermore, although it is possible to build a larger "resource base" to support meeting "Demands and Expectations", it is actually a lot easier just to reduce expectations first! The instructor illustrated these ideas with two pyramid-like structures that looked something like this:


Upon seeing these images, it was as if a bright light were turned on in her head. This now much more mature woman finally realized that when "Means and Resources" do not match or exceed "Demands and Expectations" instability is inevitable! And it was in this simple illustration that she was finally able to SEE the biggest problem of her own life (and possibly that of many, many others as well)! Her "invisible back-pack" was Way Too Full of "Demands and Expectations" compared with the "Means and Resources" she had ever had available to her or managed to gather together for herself to help her "carry the load". (In fact, she had never even really thought practically about "Means and Resources", maybe in part because she had had so few of them most of her life.) And furthermore, she realized she was now the single person Most Responsible for keeping that back-pack overfilled with Her Own Expectations of Herself and, therefore, distancing the very people who could help her because they would feel threatened by her self-created instability!

Being a fairly intelligent woman, she knew what she had to do, and so she went right to work Emptying That "Back-pack"!! She also took some time to "inventory" her "resource base". As a consequence, she made much more conscious decisions about what stones she could keep - what expectations she actually could fulfill for herself, and her present life circumstances, and with the people she cared about.

(Now here's the cool thing: Since this woman had been struggling to carry that Really Heavy Load all of her life, her legs and back were actually still pretty strong. And when she shouldered the now Much Lighter Back-pack it was really no great surprise that it was Much Easier for her to carry!)

Furthermore, she learned how to see and talk to her friends better about the loads that they were carrying, and to help them do an inventory of their own "resource base" for carrying those loads. And finally, she started focusing more and more on building up her own resources so that, when the time is right, she can get back to those Really Great Things that she wants to accomplish with her life.

With renewed gratitude for all of the help and support she did actually receive through the course of her life, and especially for the instructor who created the neuroscience course she was taking that allowed her to make this critical discovery, and with the increased understanding of how it was Her responsibility not to overburden herself in the future, this woman now lives her life more happily, freely, stably, and productively, than she ever has before!

* * * *

There's a credit card company out there that asks in its commercials: "What's in Your wallet?" Maybe, where your overall well-being and "life balance" is concerned, the far more important question to ask is, "What's in Your Back-Pack?" And "Can you really afford to be carrying all of Your 'stones'?"