Posts Tagged ‘fear’

SERMON: “Denying Evolution” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

It seems that the number of people denying the reality of evolution is growing, and for a hundred reasons that may all be expression of the most basic one: we don’t want to be alone.

So I’ll trot out the evidence that is so obvious we can easily miss it: the particular breed of dog or cat you have in your house (or pet rat for that matter); the banana you had with your breakfast cereal; the wheat that was ground to make your cereal; the breeds of cows from which your hamburger came; the tomato slices on top of that burger; and the ear of corn you had on the side.

Every single one of these items are the products of selective breeding, which is the intelligently determined action of humans (and, as we now know, other animals as well) upon living things with the aim of producing a desired change in the inherited traits of those living things.  This is different from natural selection in that there is an actual person fiddling (either directly or indirectly) with the genes of the plant or animal in question.  But it was the (rather dramatic) results of our meddling in nature that provided the first great clues that something was up with nature that didn’t fit with the idea of God having created each species as it was and as it always would be (immutable).

But corn was a small seed product of a grass like wheat is now, and wheat was a much smaller seed pod before it was altered by human intervention.  Dogs have been bred for particular traits, cats for color, cows for meat and milk production and tomatoes for color, size and thick skins to withstand mechanical harvesting.

All of these changes to naturally-evolved plants and animals can only happen because human farmers and breeders have been able to take advantage of the way that genetics works.  There is something in living organisms that is subject to change over time, and this turns out to be the natural reproductive process that involves the replication and recombination of genes.  Unnatural selection only hastens the natural process (and directs it in a specific direction it might not naturally take) but make no mistake: the exact same process is “directed” by purely natural forces at all times and in all places that life exists, and it always has, from the time that life began.

Although some creationists argue that what we see in such cases is not a fundamental enough change to warrant a belief in the evolution of one species into another (that the modern banana is still, essentially, a banana and not an apple, for instance), the fact of the matter is that a basic and underlying process for mutation and adaptation over time is revealed in these human-driven experiments in unnatural selection: the most basic doctrine of the immutability of creation does not hold up.

And that, my friends, is why evolution is so blatantly “true”.  What the pigeon breeder could accomplish over a handful of years, the evidence shows natural selection and the pressures of environment and competition have produced over several millions of years, turning not only a wolf into an Irish Setter but a fish into a human.  The processes at work are exactly the same, except that one is directed by another mind, the other by natural forces.  The only other differences are the timescales and the intelligence of the forces at work.

So when that idiot Ray Comfort holds up a modern banana as proof of evolution (because it was “designed” to “fit” the human hand), he is holding up a smoking gun aimed at his own fundamentalist face.  He is holding a product of 8,000 years of selective human breeding that turned a hard and nearly inedible fruit into the tasty yellow one that he is holding.  (I suppose he could argue that ancient, tiny bananas fit perfectly into our ancient monkey fists, but, well, that would be problematic for him as well now wouldn’t it?).

When people talk about “Intelligent design”, they are essentially imagining that a being (conscious in the same way that we are) intervened in nature the way that plant and animal breeders intervene in their domains.  There is a certain reasonableness to this idea, insofar as we humans behold the “end result” of eons of natural selection that can give all life the appearances of “design”.  (In truth, we could easily refer to the evolved eye of the eagle or the fang of the snake as “designed by nature” but for the implication of consciousness such a term brings with it).

We can now reasonably infer that the collection of forces and conditions that we call “nature” does it’s “work” without the need for any consciousness at all.  There is absolutely nothing about nature that requires the addition of an intelligent, thinking force to make it make sense.  So why do we try so hard to imagine nature a being like us?

Well, for the same reason that we have to have a god so much like us.

The hardest cognitive transition for us humans to make, it seems, is the shift in perspective that allows us to see ourselves as the creators of our ideas about the universe, and not the other way around: to see ourselves as the source of the intelligence we project onto the mindless canvas of nature.  Even science (based as it is in testable, verifiable evidence) has to rely on mutually-agreed upon terms that have no meaning outside of that which we assign them.  A gorilla is not really a gorilla, and a gene was not called a gene before we called it that, but we all go along with the nomenclature because we have an overriding desire to be understood when we describe something.

Now it’s easy for folks to trip up on this, and turn such a notion around to make an argument that since scientists coin new terms for their discoveries, that this is somehow the same as having made up the discoveries their terms describe.  This is clearly a defense against the troubling truths that science reveals to us.  But the problem with this sort of reasoning is that it ignores the reality that whether we named them or not, gorillas and genes would still exist (did the animals in the Garden of Eden not exist because Adam pulled their names out of his butt?).  Words are a tool we use to categorize the world in a way so that we can communicate facts and ideas and feelings to each other.  If we all decided to call gorillas “Judys” tomorrow, they would still be the same animal they have always been (only called by another name).

So much about irrational belief (be it religious or other) seems to be an effort to wiggle out of an awareness of just how precarious and passing our presence is.  Even though it will be a couple more billion years before our life-sustaining sun collapses into a white dwarf (obliterating the earth in the process) the very idea of a thing so huge and essential to our lives  (and seemingly unchanging) blasting itself into nothingness is rather troubling.

And so it’s easier to believe that all of this was created just for us than to ponder the fact that untold numbers of “suns” in other galaxies have already lived out the entire life cycle (that ours is still burning its way through).  (It is deeply troubling to contemplate that there could have been other “earths” where life also evolved and thrived, perhaps even leading to intelligent, conscious beings not unlike ourselves, who have had all of their history erased, and returned their elements to the cosmos, as we will do one day.  Despite the likelihood that none of us will live to actually see the earth meet that fate, we understand, on some level, that some living thing that follows us may be there when it does).

I admire humans.  But I admire them in the way that I admire all of life.  We are driven to live by impulses ancient and mindless, as if we, too, must expand like the universe until we can expand no further.  As humans we have the unique opportunity to observe, understand and comment on our own experience of this conscious existence.  And this is both a wonderful and troubling burden to carry.  No wonder we wish to see ourselves as fundamentally different than the ants who rush to rebuild the anthill we stepped on so casually.  But are we, really?  Is there enough difference between us and them to justify the belief in an intervention of divine forces in our creation?

I don’t think so.  Not when you look at things with a clear eye — cleared of the wishes and fears that make so many deny the facts of evolution.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Brain: A User’s Guide — Abridged” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

WHAT OUR BRAINS ARE GOOD AT:

Keeping us from stepping on a rattlesnake.

Getting us to throw up when we see someone else do it.

Thinking about sex.

These are survival responses: fight or flight; mirror neurons that pay detailed attention to what those close to us are feeling, experiencing, or seeing, and; reproducing to ensure the continuation of the species.

What our brains are not good at:

Critically examining things we hear from others.

Perceiving reality without a thick filter of magical belief.

Not being fearful.

Our brains are physical machines that have evolved with us over millions of years.  They exist because they are good at keeping us alive and fruitful.  We exist because they work as well as they do.

When we started using tools to aid our survival (around 6 million years ago), we were on our way toward becoming the dominant life form on the planet that we are today.  Our advancement, however, was slow.  But over time our cleverness led us to things like fire and cooked food (which fed our growing brains while reducing the need for our huge ape-like chewing muscles, which then allowed our brain cases to expand to the limits finally imposed on them by natural selection — namely the width of the human female’s pelvis).

We are the tool-making ape, and because of the protections we have built for ourselves from the forces of nature (extreme heat, cold and disease), and our ability to alter the environments we live in (as well as the plants and animals we live with), we have spread out and flourished.  In just the last 15,000 years we went from a small bunch migrating out of Africa to the global population of modern humans we are now.

This is no small success.  But we are mistaken to lean as much as we do on the idea that our brains are more than our most advanced sensory organ — that our minds are something that transcends the physical world.  They don’t.

As I sat on a park bench today, watching a pair of grackles chase a squirrel from the lawn beneath “their” tree, and then return to their mix of mating and feeding behavior, I was reminded that, if you get right down to it, the “purpose” of life is to continue to live.  Life, by any definition, is a complex process that exists only by dint of its ability to feed itself and reproduce.  Even the most mindless of life is propelled by this innate impulse.  And we humans are no different.

But, of course, we are very different when it comes to cognition. All animals have brains, some small, some large.  And some of those animals are eerily similar to us in having a social sense and an emotional interior life.  Some even make simple tools.  But none have the self-awareness that we humans do, and I think that gives us a very singular set of existential problems to deal with.

We humans have huge brains. Okay, maybe not quite THIS huge!

In particular is the question of “why us?”  Our attempts to answer that existential question have created thousands of gods, thousands of religions to go with those gods, and creation myths aplenty — all of them stories with us at the center, revealing some satisfying aspect of our “true” purpose here on Earth.

Of course one of the problems with that approach is that we are not divine in origin (at least as far as we can tell), nor are we “intelligently designed”.  What we are is  “naturally selected” (a process that can bring about results that easily mimic what we might consider “design”).  And what we generally end up with, then, is a lofty narrative of our special creation draped over the pulsing drive of the survival-insuring primitive animal brain.  This is a recipe for conflict and cognitive dissonance on a fairly grand scale!

The fact that we are living in an age of technology and science lends support to our already-elevated view of our brain’s “designed” perfection.  Therefore we consistently overestimate the power of the human brain — to the point that many believe that with the right amount of practice, we can project ourselves across the universe, read other minds or predict the future.  At the same time we under-estimate some of the real powers of the brain: such as our natural animal wariness that can create debilitating fears, irrational thoughts and faulty perception.  Both are problematic.

The predicament that we are in is this: we are alive, we are conscious, and the only organ we have for navigating that rather stunning state of existence is a multi-layered, quirky sensory organ that retains its most primitive life-preserving functions even as it serves as the source of our most lofty, artistic and humane expressions.  Darwin wasn’t just whistling “Dixie” when he said that “…man with all his noble qualities …still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. ”  We do.  Oh, indeed, we do.

The truth is that we humans can seem to be rational only as a sort of last resort.  As I observe the battle lines of ideological debate in our current Presidential campaign, I am mostly struck by how many people are willing to take, at face value, almost any falsehood as long as it promises to support their belief-dependent view of reality.  If I could put one idea into the brains of all of my fellow citizens, it would be to embrace the true challenge that ownership of an evolved conscious mind entails, and learn to use our brains as effectively as possible (which has to include an awareness of the many quirks, biases and sensory mistakes that it is subject to).

It is a paradoxical challenge, this: using one part of our brain to figure out where the other parts of that same brain might be leading us astray.  But this is our reality: everything about our consciousness is playing out within the confines of our physical bodies.  (Though little wonder — since it can feel at times like there’s more than one person inside our head — so many of us are willing to imagine the different parts of our own consciousness as external beings, be they demons, spirits or angels).

Our brains may not be perfect, but they are certainly remarkable.  We just have to remember that they can rule us (fear) as much as we rule them (reason).  The best we can do is come to an understanding — an alliance, if you will — with the several aspects of our brain, and recognize the reality of what is happening inside our skulls.

t.n.s.r. bob

[CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION: My statement “In just the last 15,000 years we went from a small bunch migrating out of Africa to the global population of modern humans we are now.” is incorrect in that modern humans had already occupied regions of the Middle East and Central Europe before this time, but our global expansion has occurred within the last 15,000 years.  — t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Injured Animal” by the not-so-reverend bob

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

There are times when I catch myself moving in a way that makes me think I’m very close to a clumsy stumble.  I most often take my bipedalism for granted, but there are times that I wonder at the magic of it — how we manage all of the intricate, spit-second inputs and muscular motions that keeps us moving, standing, dancing, jumping or running.  I’m most certainly made aware of it when my toe catches something and I do one of those embarrassing trip-stumble-recover things (and then attempt to adopt a demeanor somewhat akin to a cat that has just fallen awkwardly from some perch: “What, I didn’t do that!”).  It’s at times like this that I appreciate just how fine we cut things (the truth is that my foot is probably skimming about an eighth of an inch above the ground most of the time).

In evolutionary terms, this makes sense: why waste energy lifting the foot any higher than it needs to?  As I recently heard pointed out, natural selection favors the gazelle that can just barely outrun the cheetah, not the one that leaves it miles behind.  That’s why I can look down and realize that the big bump that generally trips me up is actually a small crack in the pavement, lifted up only a fraction of an inch.  Most of the time, we judge correctly, and those times when we don’t, we’re still pretty close, and can recover our balance.  Once in a while, though, we’re going down.

When I stepped off the concrete pad down to the mostly-dirt lawn beyond (carrying my standard extra load of briefcase and gym bag) I somehow landed on the edge of my foot and kept going in a way that created a singular sharp sound of tearing that shot right into my brain.  I didn’t fall, but I stumbled, and knew I’d done something wrong.  I also knew I had only to wait a few minutes for the confirming pain from swelling in the tight compartment of flesh, bone and muscle that is the foot.

I stumbled into my studio and set down my bags, still not in severe pain, still trying to act as if what had just happened hadn’t just happened.  This was the moment when I was surprised by an urge to pray to God for deliverance, or healing, or whatever.  What I wanted most desperately to do was to roll back time to the moment before I failed to take my mode of forward locomotion seriously enough to avoid seriously injuring my foot.  I wanted to deny reality.  And in response to that desire, my brain offered me God.  Interesting.  But even in that desperate moment, my reasoning brain had to say “Thanks, but, no thanks”.

As I continued into my studio my mind raced as it double-checked all of the sensory inputs: did I really hear a distinctive tearing sound?  Maybe not.  Maybe it’s just a muscle injury (since the sound was neither a “snap” nor a “pop”).  A muscle tear might mean swelling and some damage, but I can live with that.  At least it won’t mean the expense and recovery time of surgery.  But how could a tearing muscle make a sound that would carry through skin and sock and leather boot?  Surely it’s not a tendon, I thought.  Wishful thinking, clearly, as my thoughts were mostly efforts to undo the undeniable reality of what I had just done.

But the queasy feeling in my abdomen gave confirmation that I had been deeply injured in some way, and I was suddenly like any other wounded animal.  My mind began racing ahead through my afternoon and the days ahead, working out the ramifications of my potential inability to move, work or care for myself.

But unlike an injured animal on the plain, I could go to a hospital.  Despite the pain, I was wrapped in a kind of euphoria as my body pumped adrenaline and endorphins into my veins.  It wasn’t until I was in the emergency room, talking to the nurse, that I felt my animal wariness drop: sensing safety and the care of others, my animal brain allowed the reality of my situation to sink in.  I could have cried.

I've dubbed it "The Velcro Booty of Shame".

An x-ray would later confirm the the broken foot, and a skilled human would advise me on how best to accommodate the healing of sundered bone (that was the sound I heard).  Pills were prescribed  and I was issued an isolating boot and crutches.

But even with all of the modern helps, I am still an animal used to walking, walking, walking.  Now every change of location requires a re-thinking.  Now the mind is looking ahead for where the challenges will be: what plans must be changed, what activities will have to be managed with new methods, or with help from others.

Being a social human, I have help available.  I have friends and family, and I am not an elk with a broken leg who is in danger of being singled out by a fanged predator.  I know from experience that it will take a while to get used to my injury (to feel out the boundaries of it by trial and error).  And, of course, it will most likely gradually improve.  We have all been sick or injured and we know the drill, even if we don’t yet know an unfamiliar injury.

As I write, my brain is trying to work around my broken foot, adjusting to the reality of it.  I still don’t want to believe I can’t just get up and walk.  When I sit for a while, and the foot doesn’t hurt, it’s easy to forget it’s a problem at all.  But then I stand up, or bump it against something, and realize with uncertain clarity that even if I had to, I couldn’t run from anything right now.  That is disturbing to the animal in me, for deep inside my animal brain persists.  (We have left little of it behind us in our evolution: we have only layered a more modern brain on top of it).

I’m still fascinated (and not a little bothered) by the part of my brain that — in the midst of madly scanning for ways out of my injury — pulled out the idea of God.  In a way, it confirms what I’ve come to understand about my human brain: it is, indeed, a believing brain (as Michael Schermer calls it in his book, reviewed this blog).  But it’s worth noting the conditions under which this nonbeliever was given that idea to consider.  We know that our brain files information and experience in a contextual way (see “Kluge” — reviewed this blog) and I’ve noticed that when something happens that demands a response, the brain simply pulls every file that it recognizes as having anything at all to do with the subject at hand.  This doesn’t mean that the brain will always (or even often) pull the “right” file off the shelf of memory.  It just grabs everything it can and throws it at the conscious mind like a badger throwing dirt as it digs after prey.  So, because I have past experience as a believer in God, that file was still on my shelf (and always will be, along with every other experience I’ve ever had).

But there was still an emotional component to the idea.  Though my rational mind dismissed it right away, my emotional brain really really wanted to use it.  Why?  Because I was afraid and desperately trying to construct a bulwark against the reality I was trying very hard to deny.

My mother called family members to pray for me.  And I was deeply relieved when the doctor told me my fracture would heal on it’s own, without surgery.  Were I a believer, I would have stood up in church (on my nevertheless broken foot) and called that a “miracle”, or an “answer to prayer”. (neither of which would have been true, but I would nevertheless have found a tide of intellectual support for the notion).

The reality is that I will always have a “believing brain”, and I will always have those past experiences of belief.  Never mind that there was no actual God to call upon in my moment of animal fear — at least no intelligence with the cosmic power to turn back time and undo the physical damage I had done to my own body.  I know enough now about neuroscience and the human mind to understand what’s going on in my brain during a crisis like this.  But that moment of rapid-fire thinking reminded me of the emotional pull of belief, a pull that so many humans give in to for comfort and hope.  I get it.  But, then, I think I always have.

I’m a physical animal in a physical world, and I took a bad step that overstressed the collection of bones and tendons in my foot, leading the weakest part of that assembly to give way first.  In pain and fear I wanted desperately to alter reality.  But I could not.  Thanks to helpful humans, I am helped in my recovery, which comes down to giving that foot as much rest as I can so that the physical process of healing can proceed all on its own.  We move, we trip, we are injured, we are helped and we heal and move on.

One of the most remarkable finds in ancient human bones (including the Neanderthals) has been the number of serious injuries that healed.  These are the kinds of injuries that would have disabled individuals for a time, a time during which they could only have survived with the help of their fellows.  For all the animals that are out there, it makes me feel very lucky, indeed, to be a human.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “My Three Brains” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

How can something that is not “real” have “real” consequences?

The brain takes in perceptual data and works like the dickens to make sense of it.  As Gary Marcus points out (in Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind — reviewed this blog) the brain works in a contextual framework — meaning that it pulls from past experience any potentially applicable memory to match up with new stimuli.  The results can be amazing, tragic, generally helpful or humorous.  That this “system” works as well as it does may be more a testament to its sheer computing power than its perfection: our brains most assuredly are not perfect, but they are big.  And they are fast!  (How fast?  Read “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell, reviewed this blog).

So what about the times when the brain gets it wrong?  By the time our firing synapses return a faulty “mental Google” search from the dusty shelves of memory, our brain has already initiated the creation of a chemical response to the situation it thinks we are in (again — see “Blink”).  For those of us with “anxious” brains, this usually means a sudden fear response: a chemical climate for fight or flight.  So although the mental perception is false, the physical response is none-the-less real.  With the result that we can easily perceive a non-threatening situation as threatening (or fill in your favorite response here) aided by the evidence of our body chemistry, which is pretty damn hard to ignore.  (As Joni Mitchell sings: “It’s hard to tell, when you’re in the spell, if it’s wrong or if it’s real.”)  This, in short, is how we make ourselves crazy: this is where we get the idea that we create our own reality.

Yes, we humans have huge brains!

This is what we deal with by having the brains we have.  We are completely capable of reacting — or more to the point, over-reacting — on a regular basis.  We now know why this happens:  We are still animals at our core, with a more recent, rational mind layered on top.

We are like a mental three-layered cake, and when our finely-tuned senses make that snap decision that the chips are, indeed, down, the animal takes over and the rational brain is bound, gagged, blindfolded and taken along for the ride.  Only in the safety and calming that follows can we analyze what just happened and figure out whether we were right to run.

The survival implications for the persistence of such an extreme fear reaction are obvious: the ones who run with a few false positives survive — the more thoughtful who linger just once too often, don’t.

But the implications for our modern life are enormous:  in short, we are not well adapted to the safe, comfortable lives we actually lead.  We are anxious and ready to defend ourselves in a world where that magnitude of response is rarely truly called for (unless you have a pride of saber tooth cats living in your garden).

Road rage, domestic violence, mental anguish, panic attacks.  If we added up all of these emotional/psychological events and measured the proportionality of the response to the actual (physical) threat to our life that each triggering event represented, do you think we would see anything resembling an equal scale of input to response?  Of course not.  We all know this.  We understand it.  But we are nevertheless subject to the continued discomfort of what we’ve now labelled as stress, anxiety and a portion of our mental disorders.

It’s a challenge — one of the many of living with the quirky brains we actually have (as opposed to the perfect brains we’d like to think we have).  I heard Garrision Keillor once quip that “There’s no “off” switch for genius”.  True, that.  But there is also no “off” switch for our brains: even while asleep, they are churning away.

So there are reasons that our neurosis are so damn tenacious.  But external reality is not always one of them.  It is more often our perception of the world, and recognizing that we are animals bred for wariness can’t help but give us that much more leverage when it comes to calming ourselves enough to enjoy these rather remarkable lives of relative luxury and ease that we now live.

Civilization has been the means of our move away from individual violence (which, contrary to popular perception, is historically much lower than it was in our past).  As we have domesticated ourselves, we have learned to extend trust to strangers, and that trust has allowed us to create the wealth, safety and ease we now experience.

But our brains have millions of years of experience being wary.  It turns out to be our natural state (in fact, the chemicals of love and bonding work by suppressing our natural wariness of strangers).  Perhaps it is the counter-force to our propensity for belief in the irrational (which is likely merely an by-product of our social natures that make us want to believe anything a trusted person tells us).

So even though you and I live mostly free of the threat of real violence, we have television, the internet and popular entertainment that trade in murder and mayhem as if it were the air we breathe.  It may turn out to be that — in some fundamental way — we don’t really ever want to let our guard down, no matter how cozy our living room, plush our recliner, or seemingly content our pet cat.

Maybe our ice-age brains are still not quite convinced that the world has changed.  You and I may be modern people living in a globalized world, but the deeper parts of our brains have seen the ice sheets come, or the crops fail, or a war overtake the land.  And that ice-age human brain lives alongside the modern and the ancient lizard in our crowded skulls.

All three of our brains working together, trying to figure out what’s really going on.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “OUR INNER LIZARD” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

When I wake up each morning, I’m in the habit of quietly thinking about the day ahead of me.  I flip through the catalog of projects I have in the works, and note any resonance in me for making any progress on one or two (or three) of them.  In this I imagine that I’m a bit like a farmer rising in the morning and looking at the sky, then the ground, and deciding which necessary tasks the weather and soil conditions favor.  Often the dry, critical voice in my mind will demand that I work on this or that, but I instead defer to my gut — the “wet”, fertile part of my consciousness — and to what it feels like doing.  For I’ve learned through experience that I’m a) more productive, and b) a hell of a lot happier when I “go with the flow” and channel what energy I have into the projects that are most ripe for the picking.  It’s an interesting dance between mind, intention and circumstance which has taken me many, many years to develop.  What is surprising is the apparent effect this approach seems to have on the reality of my work day, for it actually appears to make a difference that my intentions are clear and lined up with what my consciousness somehow can ascertain about external opportunities and conditions that would seem beyond my immediate sensory knowledge.  Some days I can get no clear sense of what I’m going to work toward, and I take those as “surprise” days, meaning something’s gonna come up that is going to require my attention, so it’s best not to get started on a project that will only be interrupted later.  It’s not a perfect system, to be sure, but it often seems to work to a level of precision and ease that can, frankly, amaze me.

So what is really going on?  Do I really — like the Norse god Odin — have twin ravens at my shoulder that fly out every morning to search the countryside and bring me back news?  I like to imagine that I do.  Of course this is just a colorful image (or narrative) to lay upon a natural phenomenon of my multileveled human consciousness.  For many of us the default response to descriptions of such phenomenon may be to either dismiss them as imagination or delusion or (more commonly) to attribute them to the presence of God or helpful spiritual forces.  The truth is, the phenomenon requires neither of those explanations.

When I woke up yesterday, I thought I might get some time in later in the morning on a commissioned pencil portrait.  I’ve been getting over a upper respiratory virus and coming down with a cold, and figured that would be some quiet work I could do in my studio.  I had a lunch scheduled with a psychologist friend to pick his brain about the levels of human consciousness and how we externalize parts of ourselves and view them as “God”, and there was a chance of a later coffee with another friend (who is an anthropologist).  But after I hit the gym and settled in at my usual morning coffee shop, I ended up having a long instant messaging chat with a friend (a former realtor/journalist who is now homesteading in Sierra County, raising chickens, pigs, goats, onions and garlic).  Our conversation was intense and invigorating (as always) as she was musing about the lessons that animals teach her about life.  I had no sooner left that conversation when Dave (a statistics professor friend) sat down and we got to talking about poor education and the irrational (if heartfelt) sentiments of the T.E.A. Party movement.  Shortly after he left, my retired Canadian airline pilot friend (and current engineering professor) stopped by, and we talked about reason and the challenges and labor-intensity of setting up solid scientific experimentation.  By then it was time for lunch with the psychologist.

It became clear this wasn’t going to be a “drawing” day, so I made the decision to give myself to whatever the day would bring me.  The only concern I had was that my mind would experience some sort of overload from so many energizing and engaging conversations on subjects that excited me!  I quickly spoke some conversation-inspired thoughts into my little digital recorder, and headed to lunch.

The theme of lunch was the current research into the many levels of our human consciousness (there are much more than the two levels I had imagined!).  The basic fact is that our consciousness has several layers of function, each of them likely adapted to specific uses that have proved helpful in our evolution and survival.  I was after a scientific explanation of how the common phenomenon of us humans talking to ourselves (and getting answers back) is externalized to a point where we believe we are talking with God, and that God in turn is talking to us.  Turns out the explanations are there.  I was excited to hear that.  What surprised me was the insight my psychologist friend gave me that we humans are so deeply driven by our fear response.

In terms of survival as animals, it makes complete sense that our fear response would have the capacity to dominate all the rest of our conscious functions: get to safety first, think about it later.  Those of our kind who tried it the other were likely eaten more often than not.  And so the psychologist spends a great deal of his or her time working with patients to moderate the overheated application of this primal flight response (in the absence of the true carnivorous attackers of our primitive past).

As I heard this, I reflected on a big chunk of my own life in which I was tyrannized by fear and anxiety.  I could instantly recall the many times where panic would grip me, and I would find myself completely cut off from my feelings and the input of my physical senses.  Beginning in my late twenties (what I call my “therapy” years), I began the long process of engaging with my emotional, sensual self as I gradually developed tools and techniques to manage the primal lizard in my brain stem.  It took me a long, long time.

Along the way I learned two important things: 1) Panic is irrational, and immune to reason and logic (once the adrenal glands have taken over, well, you’re taken over), and 2) We have control over this powerful response in many situations.

I remember the night I was having dinner at Golden Corral (back when I could still stand their food), and my mind drifted to an idea or situation that suddenly triggered my panic response.  In less than a heartbeat I went from content to blanked by fear.  But there was a critical difference: this time I caught just a glimpse of the chain reaction that led to the panic.  Months before I’d been crying to my therapist in the midst of deep anguish about my life and she made a comment that stopped me in my tracks.  “You mean, I’m creating all of this anguish myself?” I asked.  “Yes”, she replied.  Until then my panic attacks had been mysterious and overwhelming — forces of nature against which I had no hope.  But I decided to allow that my therapist might be right, and began to watch myself more closely.  And so, on that night at the Corral I noticed, for the first time, that there was just the smallest gap — or delay — between the triggering thought that popped into my mind and the global panic response that arose.  I sensed that in that gap lay my salvation.

Over time, as I paid attention, the gap became clearer to me until there came the time when I stepped into that gap and said “no”.  To my utter amazement, it worked.  The heretofore unstoppable panic was stopped.  It turned out that I had the power to select the focus of my consciousness — I did not have to remain a victim to my own mind.  My therapist was right.  Over time, I got better at it as I also got better at feeling my emotions, my body and building a way of living that was responsive to my true desires and interests.  In popular terms, I learned to “live in the moment” where, it turns out, all of my evolved primate senses are attuned and most effective.

It is common knowledge that we humans have an amazing level of influence over our own consciousness.  That’s why meditation works for some, therapy for others.  It’s a pretty amazing thing to contemplate (and even better to act on for the increased enjoyment of living that it offers).  But you may notice that nothing about this process invokes the idea of forces external to us — namely no “God”.  The wonder of our multi-layered consciousness is not, frankly, enhanced by attributing any of its attributes to God or the Devil.  In fact, I would argue that such attributions diminish the wonder.  And why wouldn’t they?  For by using such explanations we are taking a vastly (and exponentially) expanding modern knowledge and trying to squeeze it back into a bronze-age superstition.

Back to my very-satisfying “Tuesday of Conversations”: As I wrapped up coffee with my anthropologist friend that evening, I felt very fortunate indeed to have both the interesting and thoughtful friends that I have and that I had developed enough as a person to fully engage and enjoy all that they had to teach me.  The next morning (as I reflected on my many and varied conversations) my mind came to rest on one theme of the day, which seemed to be a discussion of the irrationality exhibited by many of our fellow humans.  The T.E.A. Party folks seem to react from a deep yet unfocused nostalgia for a mythical past epoch in America, voicing a distrust of big government even as they enjoy the benefits of living in a moderately-well governed society; Islamic terrorists are often upper middle class and college educated, and yet hold screamingly irrational views of God and culture; and all of us humans live with this deeply irrational fear response that can — at any time — take over our entire mind and body for petty reasons that do not truly represent threats to our physical survival.  My “chicken-farmer” friend admires the lack of “sentimentality” among her chickens, and the lack of pretense or artifice in the animals in her care, noting that much of what constitutes our human social life is “made up”.

And so I wonder where to focus my efforts to encourage the rational side of our natures, the parts of our consciousness that are kind, thoughtful and humane.  Should we focus on education?  Critical thinking skills?  Eliminating poverty or debunking religion?  Yes, yes, yes and yes.  But I don’t know the best answer.  To me the gravest problem we humans face is our capacity for irrationality, for acting out of the lizard part of our brain that just doesn’t give a shit what the evidence says.  This is the power of the angry mob or the political (or religious or — god forbid — both) ideologue that can ignore the scientist and the expert because, well “I know what I know!”.  How do we combat this?

I once wrote a song about a rattlesnake on a hot highway, and my imagined interaction with him as I tried to shoo him off the road before he was squashed flat by a passing semi.  How would I communicate to that snake (already hot and mad) that I was only trying to help?  That’s how I feel about many of my fellow humans — they’re already hot and mad and unlikely to understand my entreaties and venomously bite me for my efforts.  Still, I try.

That’s what this blog is about, really.  It’s about hope for us humans — of the real transformations we can experience and the satisfying lives we can lead based on the evidence and reality of our evolved selves.  There is, frankly, no greater wonder available to us than the wonder of nature.  There is no greater complexity, no greater mystery and certainly no story more interesting to us as our own as we continue to live on this planet.  The question remains, however: how do we bring as many of our fellow Homo sapiens as possible along with us?

t.n.s.r. bob