Monday, October 27, 2014


At present I am reading, rereading, underlining, high-lighting, dog-earing and cross-referencing two books about the implications of the new neuro-research.  

“The Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience” by Mark Solms and Oliver Turnbull (2002)  Intro by Oliver Sacks.

The Emotional Brain: the Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life” by Joseph LeDoux (1996)

This is so absorbing for a number of reasons, as follows:

My understanding of religion has come to be that it is survival-based in the sense of Ray Rappaport’s basic understanding of survival being between two “shores” of dynamic behavior. “Religion” is a thermostat-like category of guiding beliefs recommending the main channel of culture and warning against the dangers of the edges.  It is also a way of reconciling the contradictions between the survival of the individual and the survival of the cultural group.  (It also carries and conserves cultural evolution.)

How nonconformist can a person be without the culture legitimately destroying that individual?   Conversely a recent Pico Iyer essay (link above) asks just how unconventional, anti-social, iconoclastic, or offensive can a writer be in the interest of enlightenment?

This vid is not on that subject but is a good intro to his thought.  It points to the death of nations as a sort of religious patriotism.

On the other hand, how can a cultural group demand the death or criminalization of an individual who doesn’t really endanger the group or whose “crime” is simply a convenient opinion of the group.  (“Islam is bad.”)  When is it legitimate for one group to try to destroy another group, killing many individuals in a genocide?  How is it that small terrorist groups think they can persuade the global culture to change by killing individuals?


Quite apart from religious institutions interwoven with national cultures, I am interested in the “spiritual” which I approach through Victor Turner’s idea of “liminality” and Eliade’s definition of hierophany, the felt sacred.  What is it that happens in the brain?  Can it be caused at will?  How does this relate to formal religious institutions, which can be interpreted as a form of theatre.  I’m composing a “handbook” of ideas.

On a personal level, family matters have involved brain trauma that affected behavior I’d like to understand.  As well, I sometimes find my own dynamics surprising to myself (!) and I’m beginning to watch for signs of aging that might mean changing strategies.

U of Chicago Div School population

On a social level several groups hold my interest.  One is the loose community of Blackfeet and other residents of the rez.  (53 years duration) Another is the small and rather arrogant denomination of Unitarian Universalists who ordained me (39 years).  To what insights and obligations should I respond?  This last keys into the U of Chicago Div School, which addresses cultural religious methods and universals.  The Div School, so far as I know, has not addressed neurotheory.  A subset is the rising concern about who should BE a minister.  (Should I have been ordained?)  

The most recent compelling demographic is discarded and abused boys (7 years duration).  This is also the most urgent group since so many are being damaged and killed.

As a thinking strategy, I am opposed to dichotomies, unless by interacting they create a range of results.  Thesis-antithesis= a panorama of possibilities.  I didn’t know until this morning that Kinsey posited SIX possible positions between exclusive heterosexuality and exclusive homosexuality.  (I was reading a discussion of Charles Blow’s bold and provocative new book, “Fire Shut Up in my Bones.”)  Only six?  I would suggest hundreds when one considers a range of situations, a range of personalities, a range of genital and genetic possibilities.  

Neuro-research, whether it is studying brain lesions or behavior algorithms, at least interacts with everything because it is our instrument.  In fact, Solms says explicitly that the brain is the organ that evolved to manage the interface between the insides of creatures and the outside environment, what I call “in-skin” v. “out-skin.”  That’s its job and whatever in the brain helps that constant reconciliation and readjustment is going to keep the creature surviving between the banks of flowing life.  The instrument must grow as it works, and -- in fact -- that’s what it does, with the larger result being the growth and survival of the culture.  The planet moves -- it is a dance.

What’s particularly interesting about neuro-research, apart from the excitement of always finding new little brain bits with special processing abilities, is that it is demonstrable on a computer screen.  One ends up with a map instead of philosophical categories based on introspection.  Sometimes behavior that has seemed learned or automatic reflex turns out to be quite different in the way it works in the brain.

Like the shift from thinking of species in terms of the way they look and act to focusing on the internal codes of their DNA and how they unfold from previous species, this new way of looking at human thought and action demands new definitions for old words, as  well as entirely new words.  Emotions that are not what we thought they were or that are lumped together, turn out to need a whole new reframing.

For instance, to tie this post together, one of my nuclear family's problems was unpredictable violent behavior after trauma to the pre-frontal cortex.  Brain research lays out the terrain this way:  there are different KINDS of aggression that go through quite different pathways.  Solms describes the RAGE (including anger) SYSTEM.  (There is no “rage button” but rather a sequence of interactions.)

This form of arousal is usually frustration-based when goal-directed actions are thwarted.”  . . . “The RAGE system is associated with only one of them: so-called “hot” aggression.  The “cold” type of aggression, associated mainly with predatory behavior, has little to do with feelings of anger or rage: rather, [rage or hot aggression] has to do with appetitive seeking and is therefore driven by the dopaminergic system described above.”   (Underlining substitutes for Solms’ italics in the original.) This was my father, my brother, and my husband: hot-heads who expected much of themselves -- more than they could deliver -- in part because the family expected (sometimes demanded) a lot from them.  After their brain damage they were always a bit disabled in their ability to think and perform.  They couldn’t understand why. They became frustrated and the energy exploded.  (My father stopped when we kids became too old to spank.  My husband stopped as a result of his second divorce.  But then the same forces turned in on them with bad results: depression, high blood pressure.)  

Solms says, anger/rage “has to do with appetitive seeking and is therefore driven by the dopaminergic system.”  That is, this ancient kind of rage comes from desire for basic survival -- like seeking for food or defending territory or belonging to family.  For instance, those wild demonstrations of emotion that chimpanzees can make by whooping and slashing the air with branches.  A subset is “irritability” that arises with constant small frustrations (road rage) but rarely the major challenges that the system evolved to meet.

On trial for cold-blooded murder

Then comes Solms’ really chilling message.  “There is a third variety of aggression associated with male dominance behavior.  Wiki defines it this way:  Dominance in the context of biology and anthropology is the state of having high social status relative to one or more other individuals, who react submissively to dominant individuals.”  Frustration has nothing to do with it -- they are successful in reaching their goals simply by menacing, being Alpha.  

Solms goes on:  “Neurobiologists classify this type of aggression with the ‘social emotions,’ . . .The fact that aggression has at least two different neural substrates must have some important implications for psychopathology (for forensic psychology and psychiatry).”  I will be searching for more research about this.  I see it as the basis for abuse of children and women by high-ranking men (including Euro-big shots); as torture-based terrorism by men focused on “respect”; as stud-behavior in herds; and as the felt entitlement of killers of all sorts.  It fascinates us, not just because of the danger, but also because dominant persons are magnetic, in the way that lions attract satellite carrion-eaters.  

Michael Douglas portraying Gordon Gecko

But a true dominant has to really BE recognizably dominant, not just controlling or demanding or even violent.  It has nothing to do with species except that among humans it can be complex.  There are not many true dominants.  Sometimes they are described as “cold” and “amoral,” but I’ve met a few animals that were wired that way as individuals -- not as a species.  Testosterone may have something to do with it, but it’s not just sexual.  Think Gordon Gecko.  Think God and Lucifer.

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