Sunday, June 22, 2014


The Tao by Jennifer Baird
Let’s look at it this way:

The Tao or Way is specific to an ecology and is a person’s strategy for survival -- maybe more than that, like happiness and security.

If the survival is meant to be that of the group and if it is organized by and for the group, which has it’s own internal ecology, then it’s an institution.

If the survival is meant to be the individual, then it’s spirituality. ("Nones.")

Theology is rational, like math.  Formulas and therefores.  Spirituality is a feeling, but that doesn’t mean it’s not-real or other-worldly.  It is a totally involved feeling, when meaning is deeply subconscious as well as conscious.  It is bodily, as are all feelings.

A system or even a Way that works in one ecology might not work in a different one, not least because the material culture will not provide the right metaphors.  (Ex:  Inuit have no lambs, no trees for crosses, no bread, no wine.)

Because personal spirituality is ungoverned and probably ungovernable (though possibly evokable), it can oppose institutional religion and vice versa.  The institution will try to define and control “religion” as a form of governance.  Now consider this study below, which I’m editing for brevity.

Neurobiological Correlates of Social Conformity and Independence During Mental Rotation by Gregory S. Berns, Jonathan Chappelow, Caroline F. Zink, Giuseppe Pagnoni, Megan E. Martin-Skurski, Jim Richards.

“When individual judgment conflicts with a group, the individual will often conform his judgment to the group. Conformity may arise at an executive level of decision making, or it may arise because the social setting alters the individual’s perception of the world.

 Method: We used functional magnetic resonance imaging and a task of mental rotation in the context of peer pressure to investigate the neural basis of individualistic and conforming behavior in the face of wrong information.

Results: Conformity was associated with functional changes in an occipital – parietal network, especially when the wrong information originated from other people.  [They also tried the experiment with computers disagreeing.] Independence was associated with increased amygdalar and caudate activity, findings consistent with the assumptions of social norm theory about the behavioral saliency of
standing alone. 

Conclusions: These findings provide the first biological evidence for the involvement of perceptual and emotional processes during social conformity.. . . a group of individuals is statistically more likely to make a better decision than any one person alone (Arrow 1963; Grofman and Feld 1988). But the superiority of the group disappears when individuals influence each other (Ladha 1992). Moreover, individuals may capitulate to a group, not as part of the social contract, but because the unpleasantness of standing alone makes the majority opinion more appealing than one’s own beliefs (Cialdini and Goldstein 2004). . .
An individual’s judgment has been assumed to reflect what that individual perceives (Coren and Enss 1993), but other factors can influence perception, such as categorization (Goldstone 1995) and social class (Stapel and Koomen 1997), indicating that perception is not simply a passive process.  . . . We hypothesized that if social conformity resulted from conscious decision- making this would be associated with functional changes in prefrontal cortex, whereas if social conformity was more perceptually based, then activity changes would be seen in occipital and parietal regions. . . . To induce conformity while performing the mental rotation task, participants were presented with the responses of four peers, who, unknown to the participant, were actors giving wrong answers half of the time.

[Detailed information about which areas of the brain did what when the subject bowed to the outside opinions was redacted here.]
Of course, this does not rule out an executive decision-making process. . . . The vast majority of participants indicated that, at least on some trials, they went along with the external information because they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer. . .One possibility is that the external information created confusion in the participants’ minds where none existed before.

The Pain of Independence
Compared to behavioral research of conformity, comparatively little is known about the mechanisms of non-conformity, or independence. In one psychological framework, the group provides a normative influence on the individual. Depending on the particular situation, the group’s influence may be purely informational – providing information to an individual who is unsure of what to do. More interesting is the case in which the individual has definite opinions of what to do but conforms due to a normative influence of the group due to social reasons. In this model, normative influences are presumed to act through the aversiveness of being in a minority position (Hornsey et al 2003).

The amygdala activation in our experiment was perhaps the clearest marker of the emotional load associated with standing up for one’s belief. Another key component of social norm theory is that the information provided by the group must be salient to the individual. Besides the amygdala, the only other brain structure differentially activated by social independence was the right caudate nucleus . . . It is therefore not surprising that the caudate should be most active when the participant behaved independently of the group, for this is the condition of most salience: conflicting information and social isolation. . . .

To our knowledge, this is the first study of brain activity associated with social conformity and independence. Here, we present brain imaging findings that provide key biological evidence for the major psychological theory of conformity . . . The two main questions surrounding this inconsistency are whether conformity is culturally determined and whether conformity has changed over time as socio-political forces have shaped the relative acceptance of individualism or collectivism. . . The flip-side of conformity, independence, was found to be associated with subcortical activity changes indicative of emotional salience, a finding that lends support to social norm theory (Cialdini and Goldstein 2004).

Some people will be delighted to find that there is an actual physiological reason for what they have felt strongly, that is, the need to think and judge for oneself.  Others will be angry and offended that their identity, their “near mystical” self, is anything but a kind of soul that cannot be located in this reality and therefore empowers and authorizes them to over-rule everything else, even intimate others.  A strong feeling of this kind is a potent force in the face of persecution and even martyrdom.  Ask Louis Riel.  It is a kind of opposition to group forces that does not lend itself to compromise or even negotiation.  I suspect it is a conviction that is an advantage in harsh circumstances such as a challenging ecology like high prairie or seafaring.

As the power and number of the larger group increases, and particularly when that group is unified by “religious” convictions of what reality and necessity demand, then the culture becomes less and less tolerant of independence, redefined as deviance.  Now the adaptive style and brain operation is “go along to get along.”  Those who can manage that will do better.

Until the larger conditions become so difficult -- maybe because of war or famine or simply an economy that makes the lives of many into misery -- that the “religious” rules are questioned.  Then there will be either reform movements (return to the roots) or a Kuhnian reaching for a better system.  I interpret present times as responding to the multiple pressures of overpopulation, partly reinforced by crowding into mega-cities.

Back in the days of rat psych, someone rented a barn and built inside it an inescapable but observable “rat farm.”  Then they let overpopulation run rampant.  The result was very much like today’s cities and Middle East.  Another man, researching the inheritable temperament of dogs, put four different breeds into four enclosures and let the same inevitable process happen, breed by breed.  The terriers attacked each other, the cocker spaniels went nuts, and so on.  That is, brain differences came out.  The rats had just reacted like rats.

I’m suggesting that when the world is crowded, the tension between spiritual (individual) and religious (institutional) is so intensified that it’s hard not to be a rat.  Or a martyr.  The images become powerful.  Attractive suffering.  It can even be sexy.

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