Posts Tagged ‘irrationality’

SERMON: “When Bob Gets the Blues” by the not so reverend bob.

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

This week I was trying to remember just what chemical process in the brain can block the uptake of the pleasurable impulses that are the fuel of a happy life (I’d read about this in a book a few weeks ago).  Even though I couldn’t recall all the proper names and details, I knew there was a materialistic explanation for my slightly depressed mood this week.  I also knew it was bloody unlikely I would ever really discover what it was.

We now know that we humans are chemical, electrical, walking, talking biological systems that are affected by organisms we can’t see (with our unaided eyes), our genes, the foods we eat and the daily social occurrences of our lives.  In short, we’re complicated critters: complex life forms, bubbling cauldrons of genes, bacteria, cells, fluids and electrical signals.

All of this we’ve learned, of course, from science.  There are those, I know, who argue that science, for all of it’s knowledge, cannot fill the role of religion (or even philosophy, for that matter).  (The role they speak of in this context tends to be one of consolation — an assurance of meaning).

The further I evolve in my own thinking (and scientific knowledge), the less sense that very idea makes to me.  I mean, is that sort of comfort or consolation really something we require?  Or is it more a sort of neurotic need of our evolved human (primate/mammalian) brain?

Of course I think that question answers itself in the way I’ve proposed it.

An Oklahoma school kid left this note at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, clearly not taking too kindly to the challenge that science can present to religious belief.

Belief is a “need” of our human brain.  Or, at least, our capacity for belief is most definitely wired into our circuitry.  As NYU Psychology Professor Gary Marcus describes it in “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” (reviewed on this blog), the human mind has evolved to process information in a certain “believe first, ask questions later” way that makes us gullible creatures that must work at being otherwise.  So when it comes to our much-vaunted capacity for reason, Marcus says: “Rationality, pretty much by definition, demands a thorough and judicious balancing of evidence, but the circuitry of mammalian memory simply isn’t attuned to that purpose.”

Rationalist that I am, then, I am not immune to the limitations of my own mammalian mind.

So as I found myself this week showing some telltale signs of mild depression, my mind immediately starting going through a list of possible “reasons”: Post-holiday malaise, something I ate (or some other natural cause I may not be able to ascertain with the resources at hand), etc.  But then (tagging along like scruffy cheats trying to sneak into the show without paying for a ticket) came the old chestnuts of irrational belief: that it was a moment of personal growth, that I was somehow on a wrong path in my life, or that I was being “taught a lesson” etc, etc.

Damn, those little guys are persistent!

Fortunately such thoughts have grown noticeably weaker (and thereby more comical) of late, but the fact that I still had such “leftover” thoughts at all serves as a corollary (cognitive) example to the leftover marks of our physical evolution, and therefore tells the tale of my intellectual evolution over the years.  But as to their “meaning”, well, it means only this: that I have a brain that stores memory in a contextual framework such that when the context of feeling “blue” was called up, the little be-speckled electrochemical librarians in my brain started sending up any idea, fact or experience that was ever connected to similar past experiences of feeling “down”.

Now the reason I was calling upon this faculty in my brain was simple: I wanted to repair it (and also keep it from becoming worse), and feel better.

The reality is that it is probably a transitory state (it did, in fact, begin to lift as I was writing this sermon), and that I would most likely never know its actual “cause”.  (If I were in a futuristic science fiction film, a simple scan would show what chemicals were off and I’d get the right shot/pill/therapeutic treatment).  So while there is most assuredly a cause, there is no “reason” (in the sense of it having a larger “meaning”), It simply “is”, due to whatever biochemical processes ginned it up.  There is no other “meaning” to it.

For purposes of clarity, I should insert here that to me “cause” equals “reason”, and adds up to the totality of “meaning” or “purpose”.  I find it a bit maddening when believers continue to insist that there is more in the equation to be filled in beyond that formulation.  (I can’t help but think of that stage of childhood development that makes every kid follow every answer with “why?”).  So someone might ask me: “Okay, we evolved, but why?”.  In answer to which I describe the process as it is currently understood (which to me satisfies the “cause/reason/meaning” equation by providing all of the information that there is to be known at this stage), which is then answered with “Okay, but why?”  As if there just has to be a higher purpose behind things (a view whose absurdity is attenuated only by the ubiquity of its adherents).

But back to the “blues”.  Because I have a lot of life experience with depression that came mostly during the years when I believed in God (or later in my “therapy”  and then “psychic” years), it makes sense that the mix of diagnosis and treatments on offer from my stored memory would be similarly medieval and primitive.  The mind is like an old attic, where the past crowds the present.

These days I’ve gotten good at doing quick personal inventories, checking my other systems for proper functioning: Diet: good.  Exercise: good.  Physical symptoms: none.  Creativity: functioning perfectly.  Sleep: Normal.  Relationships: Good.   For whatever reason, the part of my brain that works my pleasure system is running a bit behind.  Not badly behind, but worth noting.

In a way it’s like when seasonal allergies hit: at first I feel tired, maybe like a cold is coming on.  I might take a nap, take it easy for a day.  But once I realize it’s just the damn allergies, and that I’m going to feel a bit sluggish for a few weeks whether I take a nap or not, I just have to take a deep breath, and work around it. (And though a check of an allergy website or the newspaper can confirm that the local pollen count is high, I still won’t know exactly what’s making me sniffle).

I take it as kind of a exploratory adventure to step forward into life without the usual comforts of belief and meaning (or belief in meaning).  There are times it is uncomfortable, perhaps in no small measure because there is little in the way of example out there for how a human should live a life sans irrational beliefs (and also because I’m working against certain inherited limitations of my monkey brain).

As I move forward on this path, I find myself increasingly sympathetic (and therefore less judgmental) of those that choose a level of belief from the menu offered by our natural irrationality, even as I grow more comfortable and confident in my own choices.  It doesn’t mean that my path is the most enjoyable (in fact, I’ve begun to think it a much harder sell to the general public than I once did), but it does carry with it a certain satisfaction.

And though I’ve said this before, probably the most remarkable thing about leaving belief behind is just how little it changes about life.  For stripping away one’s illusions about something is a subtractive process that subtracts only the things we imagined to be there, but leaves unchanged (and unfiltered) the thing about which we created the illusions in the first place.  (So I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised that abandoning belief had so little effect on, say, the motions of the sun and moon.)

So much of the sales pitch for irrational belief is that it makes life better, easier, more meaningful.  But of course it does no such thing, really.  What it gives us (in the more extreme case) is the opportunity to attempt to limit our awareness to a small bubble of illusion which is, frankly, difficult to do (it’s pretty much impossible to keep our naturally wide-ranging curious-monkey brains confined to such small ideological spaces — though many bravely try!).

Animals get depressed sometimes.  And if I — a man who has figured out how to be happy the other 50 weeks of the year — am a little less so for some unknown (but perfectly “natural”) reason the other two, I can live with that…even without knowing “why”.

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