Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Righteous Mind (Part 1?) Lemonade, Blackbirds, and mental programming

I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs. -Joseph Addison, essayist and poet (1672-1719) 

I am in love with this book:  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. Pantheon Books, 2012.

[For once I wish I hadn't got it on the Kindle, because I am marking it up like crazy (and it would be nice to be able to vary the desecration with highlighters, double underlining, etc -- options that aren't possible with an e-book). Besides, the pictures aren't that great on a reading device, and sometimes I have kinesthetic longings to see and touch the bigger structure of the book than can be displayed an e-page at a time. This book is essential equipoise reading and has changed my perspective on humanity, life, and all that stuff. And, my Kindle tells me, I'm only 35% of the way through it. That's why I've hinted that this may just be the first of several blog entries on this book.] [Late addition: It's not just my imagination -- there IS something about a physical book that makes its content sink in better than reading something on a reading device or a computer screen, science is now finding!]

Haidt (rhymes with 'Light' not 'Late') begins with the idea that our minds, fundamentally, are propelled not by logic or reason, but by emotions, intuitions, and the instinctive judgments we make many milliseconds before our rational brains have even started their deliberations. The research that undergirds this is fascinating, ingenious, and its description worked magically to make me trust Haidt  at a gut level, many pages before my rational brain was on-side.

One of Haidt's ways of making the arguments memorable is a poet's trick: He gives us a strong image  personifying the abstract concept. The first of these images, capturing this idea of the dominant emotional/intuitive brain, is an elephant with a human rider. In this model, our gut reactions are like the 10-ton beast being "driven" by a puny 10-stone person. The "control" exerted by the elephant-driver is laughable. Basically, the rider is going to go where the elephant chooses. Our logical brains, Haidt says, are also like "inner lawyers," or "inner public relations departments," finding good justifications for the snap decisions we have already made.

Haidt is a professor of social psychology. His interests in the book range into philosophy, anthropology, and, as the subtitle suggests, religion and politics. But the book's concepts could equally well be aimed at many other questions and aspects of life -- a rich source of Ph.D. theses for decades to come: "The Moral Psychology of characters in the poetry of Robert Frost." "The Moral Psychology of the Women's Movement." "Evolutionary foundations for the interplay of sexual attraction and moral disgust." "Poetry as a Confounder of Moral Psychology." But I'm also hoping to see (later in the book? In subsequent treatises?) the relationship of Haidt's ideas to older brands of psychology and newer frontiers of neuroscience. How do the elephant and rider relate to Freud's ego and id, or the right-brain left-brain dichotomy, for example?

For people like scientists and lawyers, who pride themselves on being guided by reason, evidence, and logic, the prospect that--like everyone else--we're just following our instincts (then dressing them up in the posh clothes of logic) could be rather depressing. But I'm hoping some hope will emerge later in the book. For example, perhaps the rider can work very hard to train the elephant to be responsive to commands, rather than its own will. Or perhaps the rider can learn tricks to assure the elephant will just naturally follow a desired course.

Afterall, in experiments that show the power of the subconscious mind to overwhelm reason, scientists can trick people into making a non-rational judgments by flashing an emotion-laden word or image extremely briefly before the judgment. The subconscious brain takes in this prompting, propelling the emotional brain in one direction without the slow-reacting senses even knowing what's gone down. Just then the experimenters ask for a judgement. The response is very likely to be dictated by the subconscious emotional propulsion.

Except when it isn't. And clearly some people in the experiments ARE able to hit the mental "PAUSE" button -- able to recognize or induce an equipoise moment -- the equipause??? -- and ask themselves what's going on? I feel this, I know that; let's go with what we know and want to believe rather than what we're feeling at the moment...

Haidt says in his book that one way to achieve truly rational decision-making is via genuinely honest, and open exchange of ideas with non-like-minded people. This is what Haidt mentioned in an infuriatingly short interview one morning on BBC Radio-4's Morning Show last month. Sadly, discussions of politics and religion are so polemic these days, that environments for such discussions between non-like minded people may not exist any more.

Could this ever be a do-it-yourself proposition? How would an "equipause" be intentionally invoked by a strong-minded elephant-driver? Isn't that actually one goal of positive psychology -- to help us use our logical brains to program against negative emotionally-driven decisions in favor of positive emotionally-driven decisions? And would it be possible for people to use the experimenters' tool of subliminal programming or other devices to redirect our emotions?

Thus we come to lemons and cherries. Consider the adage: if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Or the quote I start with--older but in a similar vein.  Perhaps in Haidt's moral psychology-speak, the lemons and cherries mindset is akin to our inner lawyers telling us that we really did want lemonade and blackbird singing rather than cherries -- redefining what might be an unfortunate direction on the elephant ride of life to enjoy the experience. There's some joy and cheering sense of control in that.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

I wanted to start with love

The place I wanted to start was with love.

Finding a working definition of love, a bit less than 20 years ago, maybe, was the start of my growing up (yes, at age 45 or so). It hit like a lightning bolt, so maybe it was more like bringing Frankenstein to life.... And I think love is where it all begins and ends...

But the place I find myself at the moment is not back at that beginning, which I fully intend to loop back to in this blog, but rather thinking about how to make people's lives better.

Having been trained as a scientist, and living in a foreign country, and having heard so many stories of people hurt by or fed up with the church, I put this out shyly, tentatively, humbly. I ask that people who think the church is pointless bear with me, just for a moment. I ask that people for whom the church is everything also to bear with me. I'm thinking out loud here.

Is it possible that we could rethink "church" (and/or perhaps rename it, or "reboot" it?) and declare it to be nothing but a group of people who strive to live within a common set of principles, namely working to minimize the view of oneself as the center of the universe, and loving neighbor as yourself? How would we go about it? Is organized effort necessary? Is that where we would begin? And who is the "we" that would accomplish this rebooting?

The reason I ask is because this week, Holy Week 2012, has been packed with high-vis shucking of the traditional church. The latest is from the Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, in his blog, which then was quoted in the Guardian:
"The Church of the future may be less a civil service or conventional business, and more a movement like Alcoholics Anonymous, the ultimate locally delivered life-changing non profit. The job of the hierarchy will be to enable this, not to represent it or control it."
Hmmm. a movement, locally delivered, functioning as a life-changing non-profit. Then there was the coverstory from Newsweek magazine: "Forget the church and Follow Jesus." The author, Andrew Sullivan, says increasingly people are doing as Thomas Jefferson did and literally or figuratively cutting out of their Bibles (or their faith) all the parts that don't have to do with what Jesus said and did getting back to the purist form of his doctrines:
 What were those doctrines? Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations. Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made. Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them."
It's possible that in 2012 too many people have too many issues with the church for that to be a starting place for any sort of significant change to begin bubbling up. Maybe the 1% movement, the encampments on Wall Street and elsewhere around the world... but again, too many people with too many issues. The young vs the old; employed vs unemployed; haves vs have-nots; the return of Robin Hood to take from the rich and give to the poor. No, that's not it, either.

"IT" has to do with improving human existence in 2012, embracing all we now know -- much of it new knowledge from psychology, anthropology, game theory -- about how human beings behave and why;  how they are motivated; what broad common features make life worth living and what forces have the opposite effect. In spite of its being "new knowledge," I see it simultaneously as "old knowledge" -- a new scientific understanding and explanation -- biological grounding-- of things that great minds -- including Jesus, Buddha, and other mystics and moral leaders -- have told us were true all along.

"IT" has to do with embracing grace and nature simultaneously -- for example by recognizing that the way to maximize your own selfish personal happiness might very well be by choosing to abandon greed, materialism, and self-advancement in favor of loving and serving others;  intensely tuning in to the here and now; getting passionately caught up in your work and play.

That brings me back to the place I meant to begin, with love: Loving others by listening, really listening to them; and loving life (or God, if you are a believer) by being completely present to the world around you.

Monday, April 2, 2012

My hopes for Equipoise

All well and good, but what's this blog really about?

What I think a lot about, and intend to expound upon, is the opposites I try to embrace: science and faith; poetry and the hard realities of aging; the quest to continue to grow into better versions of ourselves amidst the sad truth of our human imperfections; being serious and "grown-up" without pomposity or losing a sense of humor.

The film The Tree of Life has this quote:
"...there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.
... Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.
... Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things."
Is it possible to believe passionately in BOTH the way of nature AND the way of grace? To believe in Darwin, genetics, and selection; but also to be transfixed by the incredible beauty and holiness of individuals who transcend our animal origins? To hold the way of grace and the way of nature in equipoise? Can a bounding right brain and an exacting left brain ever be perfectly yoked?

I guess that doesn't really answer what the blog's about, just the seeds of hope from whence it may spring. You'll just have to see for yourself.