Saturday, January 31, 2015


Rev. Alan Deale in the Curtis Room at Meadville after receiving his honorary doctorate, 
and myself -- disorganizer of the reception.

The Curtis Room -- I wonder what they'll call it now.

“Elderberries” is the newsletter of the retired Unitarian Universalist ministers.  I just got the latest issue.  These are the people who came into the movement right after WWII when the world was rebuilding with optimism, determination, and a certain amount of triumphalism after winning an impossible and unquestionably Evil war.  The newsletter honors partners as well as the ordained, knowing that the minister’s wife was in those days a full partner in the parish job, not separately employed.  The newsletter includes same-sex partners, some of whom have been quietly backing each other up for fifty years.

The “news” is always upbeat, though everyone is aging and some are ailing.  They were not socialized to be complainers.  A few have been a little iffy in the sexual context, meaning mostly changing partners in midstream.  Some of my favorite ministers have married four and five times. I know of few who were criminal -- some pot smokers among the younger ones but they’re not quite retired yet.  Only one pedophile that I know of and he was quickly pitched out.  

Delacroix:  "La Morte de Sardanapale"
(from the website of Neubauer Collegium)

The UU ministry has one dedicated critic who calls himself the “Emerson Avenger” and is intent on attacking sexual sins, though his real outrage is over a scornful minister who refused to accept the Avenger’s account of a mystical experience.  I just read an interesting excerpt from  “The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War”  by James Bradley.  Bradley says that “Boston's John Murray Forbes's opium profits financed the career of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.”   I wonder what the Avenger thinks of that.  It was a copper baron who mostly paid for the Helena, MT, Unitarian church.  This intertwining of wicked profit with purported good happens all the time.

Though Elderberries has no category for the defrocked, I myself am a little iffy since I left the ministry after only a decade, but I was “honorably discharged.”  Anyway, I didn’t really matter that much.  The high prairie is mystical and scientific at once.  The Avenger would feel more at home here than back East, but maybe Emerson would not.  The secret truth is that I wanted the education offered by the U of Chicago Div School and I could only be admitted and pay the tuition through the UU door.  I felt that my circuit-riding exploit plus a few other years evened me up with the scholarship awarders.

In 1988 I walked off from the Saskatoon congregation.  Leaving was one of the best things I ever did for that congregation.  In fact, it seemed to be the only thing that really registered with them in spite of all the workshops, conferences, committees of advice to the minister, and so on.  At the time someone said to me (honestly), “Well, you’ve finally united us.  We’re ALL mad at you!”  They’ve done pretty well since then.  Newer and nicer ministers and same for the buildings.  I put in a reparative year in Browning as a Methodist, which is a switch on the joke about Unitarianism being a doorway between Methodism and the golf course.

East Glacier, Montana, golf course, built in 1927.

I like golf courses so long as there’s no need for a ball and a club.  I used to walk the course in East Glacier daily in the off-season, until a moose decided it was HER place to walk.  Never argue with a moose -- they are avengers.

The Elderberries, though undoubtedly sometimes wanting to make a run for it, never turned sour or embittered.  They’re quite middle-class, traveling around the country, boasting about the grandbabies, guarding their health.  One of the problems of being a retired minister is that most of them must move to another community in order to give the new minister a chance to occupy the pulpit without people sneaking around behind to contact the old minister they already know.  Parishioners can never properly sort out the lines between friends and ministers.  Nor is it easy for the minister to distinguish between what is personal and what is professional.  It’s human.

Also arriving today via email is a little publicity pitch about a beginning seminary student at Starr King, all stars and butterflies aside from being movie-star pretty.  She does not know about Mother Theresa’s Pit of Despond nor does she know that the jobs for UU ministers are shrinking and the ones that pay a living wage will go to charismatic men with families, just like always.  She doesn’t seem to know about the pitched battle at SK that’s not quite ended: a committee determined to be racially inclusive smashed headlong into individuals equally determined to have their choice anointed.  It was actually conflict between a socially admired marker of religion (racial inclusion) and the act of a social rebel convinced of righteousness as an individual.  Such irresolvable conflict doesn’t prompt people to write checks.  It creates avengers.
The main staircase at Meadville

“My” seminary, Meadville/Lombard sold out.  I mean literally sold the building and moved out.  Maybe it was a necessary transformation and maybe not, but it surely revealed to me that my attachment was not to the institution but to the building, which luckily was acquired by my “other” larger and more prestigious co-seminary, the U of Chicago Div School, which doesn’t have to be explained.  One could argue that my most real institutional attachment was to Seminary Co-op Bookstore.  In some ways, all this has made me very cross, but at least it was possible to take books with me and even order them by mail.  I did NOT like living in Chicago, not even Hyde Park, which they tell me is transformed beyond recognition now anyway.

It was in a basement among the pipes when I joined.

Growling to myself, I finally googled and found this good news:  “The future home of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society will be in the historic building at 57th Street and Woodlawn Avenue near the Regenstein Library and the Quadrangles. Completed in 1933, the approximately 16,000-square-foot, Gothic-style building was purchased by the University of Chicago in 2011. The 5701 South Woodlawn building will undergo renovations to accommodate the Collegium’s collaborative research activities and visiting fellows.”

Here’s the philosophical study I like the sound of best so far.  I like tropes.

Cato -- I guess this is he.
(From the Neubauer Collegium website)

“Self-sacrifice, suicide, conversion, the exile, the founder, the internal enemy – these tropes and their ilk structure the social and political imaginary across the tradition. They change over time, but come back in surprisingly resilient forms. One of the great challenges in scholarship and pedagogy alike is to negotiate strategies for linking thought at the minute level of philology with the maximalist level of thinking about politics, culture, and the social bond across the history of ideas.” 

It strikes me that the projects at Neurbauer are a lot more interesting and relevant than the seminary curriculum was, and some of them are more appropriate for ministry, esp if you’re out of the mainstream, which I usually am.  The website was so reassuring that I sent an email to Jonathan Lear, the director, who answered within hours -- on a Friday night, mind you! -- and it turns out that he knows the Crow rez very well.  His book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation,” is about the Crow.  (Adrian Jawort had better read this book!)  Sometimes the world curls around and meets you.  I ordered the book.

Jonathan Lear
Roman Family Director of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society

Friday, January 30, 2015


Harry Barnes

Harry Barnes, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Chairman, is a good storyteller.  In his January 28 message to the People he tells two pretty good ones.  The first one jokes that there must be some pretty good sales genes in the Blackfeet, since it seems that over the years just about every leader has sold the tribal water rights -- at least according to the rumors.  In truth selling water is a long and complex process and is only final when everyone in the tribe has made an individual vote.  Not yet.  Not yet.

But as with many sales, timing is important.  Sell too soon and profit is not maximized.  Sell too late and they’ll just take it.  Read your history.  BIA bats last.

His other tale was even funnier.  He claims to have had a brainstorm after seeing the calendars featuring hunky guys with their shirts off -- a calendar featuring the tribal council.  (I assume female members will be strategically holding great big bouquets of flowers.)  He even claims he had 100,000 calendars printed up but has only sold one -- to himself.  His wife made him hang it in the barn.  Maybe the cows refuse to look at it.

Joe McKay’s message is not funny at all, except in the sense of “funny business”.  This is where his law school education pays off, but the reader almost needs a degree of his own in order to read this complexity.  There are two categories of complex matters, overlapping:  one is the paperwork that corporations have long learned how to write so as to embroider loopholes and obscure facts, reducing contracts to little more than empty paper bags -- and you know who is intended to end up holding it.  Nothing inside but a bill, a few beans, and a lot of debris on the landscape.

What oil producers want is complex time-staged percentages of profit shares depending on the yield of the well.  This comes down to sleight-of-hand so that profits simply disappear into bookkeeping.  In the meantime, the value of oil and gas are sinking rapidly.  The day of high profit from oil may be gone, while the value of water goes up daily.

The other special knowledge is about the practice of drilling for oil, including the controversial fracking, which shatters deep rock, injects it with a great deal of contaminated water, and spills out the excess onto the land.  A minimum of 600,000 water is needed.  480,000 gallons stays in the ground -- possibly in the well aquifers for drinking water -- and 120,000 just goes out on the dirt.  It cannot be made safe for people, animals or even plants (saline) so the idea is to put it in lagoons to evaporate into powder as our native alkali does.  Things move around: the wind, seepage, and now we hear more and more evidence about earthquakes triggered by fracking.  Maybe you’re old enough to remember what improvements to the snowshed along the railroad did to the ranch well just over the hill.

Andrew Nikiforuk

It looks like the sweet spot created by fracking is turning sour.  This is a quote from an article by Andrew Nikiforuk, a writer in Alberta:  “Hydraulic fracturing, a technology used to crack open difficult oil and gas formations, appears to have set off a swarm of earthquakes near Fox Creek, Alberta, including a record-breaking tremor with a felt magnitude of 4.4 last week.  That would likely make it the largest felt earthquake ever caused by fracking, a development that experts swore couldn't happen a few years ago.”   Below is a link the article in case you want to read more.  The geology of Alberta is similar to that in northern Montana.  In fact, “Fox Creek” is probably at the northern limit of the old Blackfeet range.

On the first August night I stepped off the Great Northern and was driven down to Browning by Jimmy Fisher, engineer for School District #9, the first thing he did in my teeny apartment was to run a bathtub of water while he carried in my trunk and whisky boxes of books.  This was because a new waterline to Browning had just been installed and it had a tendency to airlock, because instead of running in an engineer-measured slant from up by Parsons, the crew found it easier to just dig the ditch for the pipe five feet deep, uphill and down dale.  We’ve come a long way since then.  

Browning, MT

We’ve come somewhat farther than the Army officer who picked out the location of Browning, styling Government Square after a cavalry parade ground.  He was impressed by the beautiful flowers blooming everywhere the first time he visited.  (Must’ve been June.)  Ironically, the town is on a swale which is currently drained through a web of underground pipes.  When they are overwhelmed or blocked, basements and even streets fill up with water.  Yet, ironically, there is less potable water in the Willow Creek drainage than almost any other stream drainage on the rez.

In the Sixties, a time when most people were afraid to even mention the Baker Massacre 1869 (not everyone calls it that), or the Starvation Winter 1883, or the Dawes Act 1887, the national political scene was finally demanding to bring truth to light.  It was a Centennial year for very bad things almost every year, with the 1964 flood as a real-time centerpiece.  Now we’ve passed even the fifty year anniversary of that Flood.  In 1864 Montana became a territory.  In 1889 it became a state.  The first governor fell overboard from a ship in Fort Benton and disappeared.  Things have been a little rocky ever since.

Talbot Jennings, screenwriter

In the Territorial Centennial year 1964 there was supposed to be a pageant in Depot Coulee, written by Talbot and Betsy Jennings, East Glacier screenwriters with Hollywood credits.  There was supposed to be a dance in costume on the parking lot at Teeples, which was then the only Teeples (It's a chain now.) and a major advance from the smaller version a few blocks away.  All that was cancelled.  North American Indian Days was almost cancelled, but it was decided that coming together was the way to heal.

1885, the year of the formal establishment of the reservation, was also the year the Winters law setting Indian water rights took effect.  There was no Centennial celebration in 1985 and consciousness about the existence of the law was nil.  It was vague, saying that Blackfeet were entitled to all the water they needed to maintain their lives.  Of course, no one thought that meant more than watering horses and trapping beaver.  The 19th century assumption was that Indians were defined by their culture but that cultures did not evolve.  They thought being born Indian meant being born craving buffalo meat.  They had no mental picture of wheeled irrigation machinery watering acres of alfalfa.

Major Steele, Indian Agent

At least not until the Conrad brothers, working through Major Steele and everyone’s favorite Napi-figure, Joe Kipp, figured out how to build Swift Dam on Major Steele’s wife’s allotment.  Then it was just a matter of collaborating with the Catholic church to bring in a village of Belgian farmers en masse.  History is not all massacres, at least not the bloody kind.  Some revolutions are quiet.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


If it is possible to see into another person and know how they feel -- a phenomenon we called “empathy” -- how is it possible to have empathy with someone who doesn’t exist?  Whose eyes do you look into?  The brain catscradle connectome -- the mirror neurons and right supramarginal gyrus don’t have anything to work with.  Anyway, the research I’m looking at confuses all sorts of things: ability to “see into” others, ability to give a damn about anyone else, simple compassion even for a weed struggling to grow, and so on.  This is not so much a surprise when one remembers that a person’s identity is a dynamic composite of shifting abilities, some coming online as others are suppressed.

Co-consciousness seemed to me a better word for empathy than the literary sympathy/
empathy idea derived from literature studies, but “co-consciousness” is used by psych people to denote split personalities, persons who have two or more “identities” shifting in and out of their minds, maybe in a creative and helpful way.  Maybe not.  

Trying to see what he sees.

This is what writers and actors do all the time.  In fact, when one counts the technical matters of things like grammar and onstage presentation, there have got to be three identities present:  the character portrayed, the technical monitor, and the actual person.  This is why it is so important to have the techniques internalized enough to be nearly unconscious.

The actor is using his or her ability to empathize in order to understand and “identify with” a character created by someone else.  There’s no face-to-face contact, though actors learn about that by practicing “transference,” in actor’s terms an exercise in moving someone else from their pre-existing emotional state to the actor’s by interacting, like maybe getting a gloomy person to smile.  (In psychotherapy what is called transference arises spontaneously -- an emergence -- from inside the client. The client’s emotional relationship with someone in the past is slipped over onto the therapist, which is very useful in terms of material to work with, but awkward when it is acted upon as though real -- especially when unrecognized.)

James Franco has a lot of empathy with James Franco.

If the acting is skillful and the play is well-made, then the production has much felt meaning for the audience, which is a second kind of empathy -- to watch people on a stage or screen create scenes and feel what they mean and that the meaning is significant.  Another complication arises here: empathy is often emotional.  Can something rational, even schematic, be an empathic transference of understanding offered by the writer and accepted by the reader or watcher?  Is an emotional chess player better than a cool one?  Presumably the strategy of a game is a function of the prefrontal cortex and strong emotion (except for the drive to win) is seen as interfering, even blinding, that dwells in the “limbic” parts of the unconscious brain so must be suppressed.  How does one suppress the unconscious if the consciousness by definition has no access to it?  

Writers are engaged in the opposite process, bringing felt meaning out of the unconscious and making them into a pattern that can be acted out or analyzed on a page.  They must be using the same brain machinery that sees into the identity of other people, but making it operate oppositely to assemble an identity out of their own experience. Since the memory operates by “filing” moments according to their sensory content and perhaps a cellular time indicator, these become vitally accessible and plentiful.

Empathy with a whatzit.

Actors must first “feel” the character by relating sensory indicators in a secondary use of the writer’s material.  Then they must demonstrate through behavioral clues -- which will come naturally out of their own memories -- what this fictional character is like, following the felt meanings of the script as it progresses to climax and resolution.  If their stage technique supports the story, the audience will then respond empathically, summoning their own memory and felt meanings.  This is the “method” that Stanislavski famously developed by “feeling” the results of experimenting with each of these stages of theatrical development.  He recognized what worked by feeling it.

One of the reasons these matters are so hard to discuss in any clear way is that there isn’t enough vocabulary that isn’t confused between disciplines, let alone practices.  The other problem is that, as William Wegner says, this work is internal, mysterious, more Zen than rule.  All we really know is that -- once felt -- one doesn’t forget and seeks that experience again.  

Bunrako puppets: ignore the men in black--
they're only the puppeteers.

Particularly neglected is any application of these principles to “religious” matters.  We tend to taboo inquiry into religion because the institutions protect their turf.  Maybe that’s not surprising since much “religious” performance is prefrontal cortex stuff: rules, ethics, schematics called “theology,” the dominance of “prescribed” words over felt meaning, particularly in the Abrahamic traditions “we” know best.  Power.  Control.  

Let me try to make a comparison in terms of Blackfeet practices.  In the old days, pre-horse, everything had to be transported as the People went through the nomadic hunting/gathering cycles.  The People walked with their dogs, experiencing everything at ground level, esp. the signs of food: animals, plants, climate shift, geological traces.  Interacting with these things meant survival, and so their “Bundles” acted like hymnals.  Every animal -- carefully skinned, cured and wrapped with tobacco preservative -- had a song and dance, largely imitative of the living animal.  In the ceremony of the Bundle they were empathically regarding the animal: not playfully imitating them, but calling their felt meanings to consciousness as allies in the struggle of staying alive.

A personal Bundle.

Today there are still Bundle-keepers, but they don’t walk the land anymore.  Some of the species are extinct now.  As they drive their pickups along the two-tracks that web the land, they never put their feet on the grass or they would notice overgrazing.  They see rocker pumps pulling up oil, pale Charolais and black Angus cattle, irrigation ditches with day-glo red plastic tarp dams, and only now and then the splintered gray remains of old homesteads.  Any chirping of iniskum would be drowned out by the radio songs.  So today’s Bundle-keepers, earnest as they may be, have no associations in their sense-memories of sitting on a hillside watching a coyote watch a badger dig out a ground squirrel, in case one of the rodents should escape in his direction.  They might take a shot at the coyote -- or the badger.  They behave like institutions guarding their ownership as though it were magic.

One foot in the past, one foot in the future

Theatrical and spiritual are woven together by felt meanings through sense memory.  But institutional religion such as Christianity today has a devil’s choice: use the sense memories of the testaments (herding lambs, salty lake fishing, eroded badlands where shadowy people intrude) or move to the modern equivalents which have more to do with sitting in pews and maybe sipping grape juice for fear of alcoholism -- though the wine of Jesus’ time was nothing like what we drink today.

Felt meaning coming from the “limbic” brain is often classified as “lesser” in comparison to science.  Maybe dangerous.  Unmanaged, unrecognized, emotional images and memories can seem realer than they are.  In fact, there is a little brain organ or nexus that’s in charge of separating the actual world and identity from the one that is constructed in one’s mind -- though the latter can be shared empathetically.  That little knot of neurons is late developing.  Small kids sometimes lose the line between what everyone can sense and what only they are sensing.  

Even as adults we lose the line when watching or reading intense drama.  We WANT to lose the line.  We hunger for the felt meanings of our dreams and the emotions they trigger.  This is our human gift, which is so often a Pandora’s box.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


"I would never kill myself"-- but he did.

It’s remarkable how much of our media is based on empathy for pain caused to the brave and innocent -- and then violence on their behalf in retribution.  When I began thinking about this post I was just pondering how much we love catastrophe and suffering, so long it’s second hand.  Then I watched two films and the whole idea of empathy began to shatter.  No longer was it the English teacher’s simple distinction between sympathy, feeling bad for someone, and empathy, feeling what they are feeling.

“Bridgend” is a documentary about a “suicide cluster” of teenagers in a shrinking Welsh town.  An inquiring camera interviews the grieving family and friends, by accident registering a vital, handsome, much-admired young man who declares he would NEVER commit suicide because it would hurt his mum too much.  But then he does it.  Did the pressure of being filmed, of thinking what it would be like to commit suicide, of realizing how much the world was interested in young people who kill themselves, of hearing the expressions of love and yearning for the dead person, actually push him over the edge?  Was it death by media-supported empathy?

There were rational puzzles: the adolescent kids knew each other, more or less.  They were hanged by rolling up their own clothing, not with rope.  They were found hanged kneeling from trees and playground equipment.  The police would say nothing about the cases at all -- total wall.  Sex was never mentioned: not who was sexually active nor the possibility of sexual abuse as little children.  When I looked into the story behind the film, Alex Shoumatoff’s  2009 article was rational and research based.  It looked at the nature of sucide clusters around the world.   

But the film mostly showed weeping people and a walk through the landscape.  John Michael Williams, the director, is revealed at the end, a handsome singer who specializes in sad songs about loneliness and being a misfit.  This is the original puzzle about empathy -- why we are so attracted to tragedy and why for some it kindles sexual interest that's never really acknowledged.

Wu Dunn and Nicholas Kristof

“A Path Appears” is a Nick Kristoff documentary about human trafficking, mostly of American women, and though there are the obligatory emotional testimonies, mostly the approach is rational -- sympathetic, focused on what can be done.   The Chicago police provide an example:  arresting the johns but offering help to the prostitutes.  A group home, that runs a business, explains how the women got their feet under them and take us on a tour of the streets, where both pimps and drug-hooked prostitutes declare they want to stay where they are.  There’s a demonstration for a mom to show her how easy it is to find her trafficked daughter on the Internet and get her back.  (The girl curls up like a puppy against her mom.)  All constantly worry about violent retribution from traffickers and pimps, but it never happens. 

Kristof, composed and cool, makes notes and often refers to his wife, Wu Dunn.  Nevertheless, the tweets that appear after the movie (It's streaming on PBS right now.) talk about love, being totally open, wanting to help.  Kristof uses beautiful young female movie stars as partners, some -- like Ashley Judd -- who are abuse survivors.  The comment responders seem to empathize with the movie stars or WANT to.  They are mostly female.  They want to be “Pretty Woman” and jump over the patterns presented so clearly.  They have no grasp of the economic trafficking of movie stars.  Nor can they see the damage inside the elegant facade.

But then I ran across an even darker aspect of empathy.  I began to see it less as the straightforward “co-consciousness”* in the word of one of my acting resources, and a much deeper mammalian response, not the rat in the tube but the papa prairie vole in the grass who loves his wife and children.

“A paper just published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides evidence that feelings of empathy toward a distressed person can inspire aggressive behavior. For some people, at least, feeling another’s pain is insufficient: they also experience the urge to harm the person they are in conflict or competition with.  This linkage was particularly strong for participants with a particular gene variant linked to the neurohormone vasopressin, which has previously been associated with aggressive behavior to defend one’s child or mate.  This is the prairie vole male reaction to threat.”  You can see it on Saturday night in most small town bars.

The experiment in this case was performed on humans using hot sauce as the source of revenge pay-back pain instead of “Fight Church” extreme fighting.  But it is still "unjust" pain triggering such a need to punish that it becomes a new source of pain -- in the process arousing a strong “taste” for violence, mixed with sexual passion.  No one asked about the impact on the belligerent’s love life that night.  

Years ago I heard about a local sports coach who tuned up his high school players by telling them to imagine that the opponent team members had raped their mother and killed their little brother.  They were a winning team, called a “red meat” team because of injuries to themselves and opponents.  This was not empathy.  It was endo-drugs, causing the imagination to release effective drugs within the athlete’s system.  It was teaching them to do that at home as well as on the field.  

Sansa of Game of Thrones is an abuse magnet.

Watching “Game of Thrones” can do the same thing without even moving off the sofa.  We’re so easily hooked.  In real life people might well reject an effort to empathize with them, even if their state is not suffering or anger.  Even if they have nothing to hide from the law or their family.  We’ve all questioned people about why they did something and gotten the frustrating answer,  “I don’t know.”  Which makes us want to know even more.  

Empathy can make a person vulnerable because then others will know what will hurt, what will stir up old emotions, what will release vasopressin.  But dark empathy is a great money-raiser, a path to admiration.  An author, among others, can get trapped between the desire to be rich and famous by revealing sensational subjects -- how we love misery porn!  But on the other hand writing that stuff might mean being attacked by those who have that gene mutation the male prairie voles have.

Queen Elizabeth II has a look at the Throne of Swords.
Does she empathize with the Starks or the Lannisters?

Journalists, esp. the television version, shove the microphone into the faces of those subjected to catastrophe, loss, and trauma, demanding to know “How do you feel?  How do you feel?”  Some families go indoors and refuse to talk.  Others stand and deliver.  Do the journalists go home and weep or do they become callous because it is their job and their bosses will fire them if they don’t do the expected thing.

Even doing this research and thinking has shown a searchlight on my own past.  Suddenly I realize what was going on sometimes under the surface of other people’s lives and that not-knowing meant that I didn’t have to do anything about it.  Didn’t know I COULD do anything about it.  I did act sometimes -- lost jobs because of it.  Didn’t trust the law even when I was working as an officer.  Didn't trust my denominational leaders when I was a minister.

Clearly “empathy” or “co-consciousness”* is an evolved and climax sort of capacity, but the social understanding of how to manage it -- both for individuals and between large categories of people -- has not caught up.  We can't do mind-melds yet.

*  It turns out that "co-consciousness" is a psych technical term referring to split personality.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Hey, buddy!  Want out?

Scientists spend a lot of time figuring out how to test things that are impalpable, like the deep patterns in the limbic brain.  Some might be physical, dependent on some small cell or curl of flesh.  Others might simply be assumptions about the nature of the world that one learned in infancy.  So the psych folks, not all of them shrinks, run people through the fMRI, ask them questions, use various smoke and mirror techniques.  But sometimes nothing will do but to test a rat.  How do you question a rat?  With behavior.

Peggy Mason, a highly qualified professor of neurobiology at the U of Chicago who offers an open online course “Understanding the Brain: the Neurobiology of Everyday Life” through coursera (  Her blog is at

Peggy Mason and hooded rat friend

In the attempt to understand “empathy” -- understanding what another creature is feeling and addressing that helpfully -- Mason and her co-conspirators put a rat in a rat-sized tube of plexiglas that it couldn’t open from inside and then put another rat in the same larger space.  The tube was in the middle, which meant that the outside rat already had to violate its protocol, since rats like to stay on the boundaries.  In fact, if you have rat traffic in a building, a “black light” will reveal their trails by making their pee florescent --  always along the walls. 

So the rat in the tube wants out, the second rat sees that, and being a good-hearted rodent goes over to see how to get him out.  And does.  Then they run off together.  Not necessarily a hetero pair and not for sex.  Here’s the kicker: the rat will only release a rat that looks like rats he was raised with.  An albino rat won’t release a hooded rat unless he was raised with them.  But if he grew up with only hooded rats, he won’t release albino rats.

Social cohesion holds groups together by getting their emotional states in sync.  The eventual impact of this on the others outside the group is not considered here.  The study is about the emotional sharing called empathy, one-on-one.  Without empathy the result might be a shrug or targeted cruelty.  Think homeless on the streets. 

Prob'ly just spend it on booze.

The interaction between an emotional state and its expression in muscles and the functions of the autonomic nervous system is two-way.  Put on a happy face and one’s mood may lift.  Surprised or embarrassed and your face, if it is pale enough, is likely to change color.  I once had a black counselor who would remark with laughter at how much my face blanched or blushed.  These are the kinds of clues we pick up on as empathic observers.

What prevents people from experiencing empathy or acting to help a person in distress?   Being upset and in trouble oneself.  But helping the other who is in distress, one’s own feelings improve.  Sadly, not everyone realizes this.  “Emotional contagion” is not a universal response.  It appears that it is learned in childhood through interaction with family, whether or not the family is genetically related.

Family secrets

Another experiment is designed for both chimps and children.  An experimenter puts an object in the reach of the subject but out of his own reach.  He or she shows desire for the object trying to get it and failing.  Chimps handed over the object about 40% of the time.  Human infants (infants!) handed over the object 60% of the time.  It’s pretty difficult to discover whether this is because of the brain structures for empathy are missing or whether they were simply never developed by group identification that would lead to practice of helping others.  (“Please pass the butter.”)  Some of the specific brain parts and paths are known because of fMRI studies.

There is a phenomenon called “down-regulation” which is when the helper has learned to block empathy for the distress of others.  This is helpful to people vulnerable to excessive social distress and anxiety, leading them to withdraw to their own safe group and place.  But it also is a response of professionals who must cause distress, for instance, medical people who give shots and so on.  

Think of this in terms of cops or soldiers, who trouble us so much when their “down-regulation” is so thorough that they only have empathy for “their own kind” or -- as they put it -- “the man on my left and the man on my right.”  It will take work for them to bond with female soldiers if they have down-regulated in gender terms.  Cops who have down-regulated too far will use force even on children.  It isn’t righteous or rational -- just a survival mechanism in a group that must expose themselves to danger.

The whole point of empathy is to cause groups to form, because they protect the individual and make shared projects possible.  But it is probably a biological accident that this means like-bonding-to-like, whether all Irish sticking together or criminals having each other’s backs or HIV sufferers forming a political block -- though that’s a bit more problematic because it’s hard to tell who belongs by looking, which is why they need that red ribbon loop.  Maybe the success of zebras is due to their strong ability to recognize each other.

Group identification has been experimentally formed by giving people such small clues as eye color or wrist bands.  When nice college kids are divided into mock “guards” and “prisoners,” the experiment can cause the more powerful group to “down-regulate” to the point that the experiment has to be stopped.

The Lucifer Effect

But it is possible for the prefrontal cortex functions of justice, protection, and higher goals, to curb personal distress enough to manage behavior.  A comrade who is plainly distressed by over-reactive behavior due to down-regulated empathy may cause enough competing empathy for the more empathic comrade to become aware of what he or she is doing enough to become rational, realizing that an action is not really wanted.  Once, in a classroom situation, I became so angry at a defiant student that I was on the verge of striking him.  Another student cried out, “Stop, Mrs. Scriver!” and it worked.  I was literally stopped, frozen, my brain slowly coming back online.  In fact, the whole class realized that they weren’t powerless and their social anxiety diminished.  The girl who cried out was a teacher’s daughter, less anxious about challenging a category she didn’t consider quite so threatening.

Most of the time we see each other “through a glass darkly,” esp. if "they" look different, but sometimes it seems as though someone distant or submerged approaches us until we can read their faces.  Media stories sympathetic to the "other" help.  But survival anxiety -- constant fear of losing one’s home or having enough food, being able to cope with diseases or pressure at work -- can set up “fear contagion” and “down-regulation” that makes us willing to accept behavior that erodes our solidarity until we find ourselves at war.

Anonymity drives group callousness.

This way of thinking makes it easier to understand those among us who have no empathy -- maybe their limbic system lacks that ability, maybe there is no rational control in the prefrontal cortex, maybe their bonded group is too small, maybe they are just too anxious to be conscious.  We need their “black boxes” for more study.  Clearly they are trapped in there.  We might not be willing to release them, but empathy would let us enter their world if we can keep our own distress under control.

"Black Box" was a tv series.
The neuroscientist is on the right.

Monday, January 26, 2015


What lurks in us?

The crown of evolution turns out not to be rational thought, but rather empathy: the ability to see what others are feeling in their own heads and to respond to it.  Of course, those who don’t believe in evolution don’t believe in doing that.  But then, they don’t believe in rationality either.

Rationality is one of the excellent reasons for empathy-driven social progress, when the evolution of memes is prompted by understanding how other people feel and using that understanding to benefit us all.  It is rational to make social progress -- meaning developing a world in which everyone has a place and all of the individual worlds are woven together into a planet where survival at every level is possible.  It is irrational to let huge populations of any life form be eliminated out of failure to understand or deliberate destruction that DOES understand but only wants benefit for our selves.  Some of us still think that survival is a matter of taking everything for ourselves.

I’m talking about all the life forms, all the territory, and the air -- the basic fabric of life for creatures.  Survival of the fittest doesn’t mean the biggest, strongest, most potent -- it means what can survive the circumstances.  The planetary circumstances become more and more subtly hostile to humans, in spite of their evolved empathy which has helped them work together to create circumstances that diminish disease and send research vehicles to the moon.  We aren’t saving the frogs, the bees, the coral reefs, the acid/alkalai balance of the ocean.  This is irrational.

My sort-of denomination has been trying to attract new members and improve their reputation for do-goodery based on 19th century reforms, marching at Selma, and developing principles.  They are doing this the high school way: t-shirts and slogans.  At least the t-shirts aren't pink, but the slogan is “standing on the side of love.”  Every teen can get with that -- there must be a song.

Compassion: does she know how he sees the world?

But it makes me think of a meeting in the eighties at the former Beacon Street headquarters.  In attendance were newbies like me, but also some of the most revered and dignified of our leaders -- all white males over sixty at that point.  We were in a conference room with ground-level windows that opened behind a lot of shrubbery.  Suddenly we were distracted by a shabby whiskery young man who was inadvertently mooning us because he was doing his business in the shrubs, not realizing he was presenting his nethers to a mixed group.  One of the most intellectual and brilliant of the leaders opened a window and berated the man with profane and damning shouts.  The man, unimpressed, took his time rearranging his jeans and leaving.  I forget what his t-shirt said.  Given the times, it probably said "peace."

25 Beacon Street

Why do people want to be do-gooders and why doesn’t it translate into rational provisions for the needs of others?  If a minister can't understand the urgent need to move bowels, what CAN he understand?  Do we ignore such matters because we think angels don't shit?  Politics is one reason.  But it’s not enough to have the American flag flying over the front door and be located by the State House with its gold dome, if there is no support downstairs for rest rooms the public can use.  Oh, well.  The new building has no shrubbery.

Love is an emotion so Hollywoodized and splintered into sex, dependence, and commodified into Valentine candy and diamond rings that it’s pretty much empty now.  The internet is jammed with pastel glittery butterflies and clever infantalized ponies and rainbows, all declaring love.

Compassion is often the watch word.  It’s taken me a while to realize that compassion is not about the receiver but about the provider.  This is why Christopher Hitchens got so upset by Mother Theresa -- it was all about how “compassionate” she was in the many images of her in her plain cotton sari, embracing babies and dying adults.  Our own empathy went out to her as we “became” her, and felt the aching desire to help those suffering.  We didn’t even look at the faces and bodies of the emaciated people on racks of beds -- who would want to empathically share what they were feeling?  Questions about providing meds or preventing starvation didn’t come up until late in her career.  And then we found out that our ability to empathize accurately was faulty.  Her journal describes a terrible darkness, depression that holding infants did not help.  Nor did her fat bank accounts get used rationally to improve conditions.
Can you empathize with this man?
Without scolding him for smoking?

Rational response to suffering is addressed by our nation and our various religious affiliations who send subsidies, food, used clothing, various chemicals produced by our industries.  It’s true, as Rev. Bill Holway used to say, that it feels good to give, but that’s about us, isn’t it?  It’s sometimes a good chance to get rid of stuff we don’t want: the two worst (but funniest) examples I remember are crates of high-heeled strappy shoes sent to Saharan tribes -- evidently because they were labeled “sandals”-- and tons of canned tuna fish but no can openers, also sent to the desert where no one even knew what a fish was.

Such nonsense is good for the survival of politicians who want to please those who provide generous election donations by disposing of excess production of food or by providing living experiments for pharma corporations.  Opportunities for international extortion and blackmail abound when large segments of a nation are dying from malaria or HIV.  Empathy never arrives, but the sudden realization that ebola travels by airliner can speed up our meme evolution to at least protect us -- which can only truly be achieved by protecting those interfacing with the diminishing jungle.  

Not Mother Theresa

Justice is a more stern and durable source of rational intervention for the common good.  M├ędecins sans Frontieres provides a valiant and life-threatening counterforce to ebola.  For once there is focus on the victims -- the engulfing spacesuits prevent us from even distinguishing the doctors from the local practical nurses, their billowing tyvex other-worldly against the black and bloody bodies of the dying, every figure in front of those ubiquitous turquoise walls. 

Still, less noble and professional institutions are careless enough to let pirates and profiteers skim off profit for their own survival.  What would empathy with the bad guys tell us?  Crippled brains, irrationality, desperation, dead hearts.  But they DO survive.  Up to a point.

Empathy-based compassion is not pretty stuff, often painful, but it offers the real stuff of survival: if not truth, than reality or as close as we can get to it.  When Jack Nicholson sneers, “you can’t handle the truth,” he’s really saying we can’t handle empathy, the knowledge -- no, the FEELING -- of what the others are experiencing.  Of course, that was a movie character he was playing when he said that.  In real life he had no insight into the people who loved him.  He didn’t allow empathy to penetrate his personal life even though the work of an actor is exactly that: empathy.

The model of compassion is often mothers, who undeniably must empathically understand what their infants need and who mostly will privilege the child’s survival over their own.  But this pattern can become controlling, a capture.  A father who is constantly “mothered” instead of partnered, can be crippled.  “Love” can be used as ownership, entitlement, justification for imposing goals “for your own good.”  Then empathy thins and disappears.  The Lover becomes the Joker.  And Batman?  We hope for justice at least.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"FIGHT CHURCH": Comments on a movie

You want church porn?  I’ll give you church porn.  And it won’t be naked ladies pretending to be angels, either.  Carnal?  Oh, yeah.  Knowledge -- well, they say so but it’s only of a certain kind.  It works within a particular circle of people.  I suppose I can’t get off the hook -- I like rodeo.  I’d be interested to know how rodeo and cage-fighting compare in attendance in Great Falls -- both of them much promoted and popular.  The cowboys and football players are also claiming Jesus, mixing competition with Christianity.  It’s pervasive.  God, the coach.

Here’s the link for the movie:  “Fight Church.”  Not Brad Pitt stuff.  Documentary.

They have a little legal prob with the NY state legislature -- which was refusing to legalize MMA, the fight organization.  Therefore this problem is about Sin, not Evil.  Sociologically, they are NOT on the same wavelength as a bunch of legislators, who are likely to be lawyers.  Check out the fans.  I don’t think that anyone on the scene is really aware that the phenomenon of empathy means that when the combatants go after each other, a faint reproduction of the fight is happening in the nerves and muscles of every person there.  Watch them flinch and weave in their seats.  It’s more powerful than playing computer combat games.

Like boxing, MMA devolves into black against blonde.  
Racism IS Evil.

One pastor says,  “This gives a level of excitement beyond any other sport.”  Soon he’s wondering whether kicking someone in the face is, um, “spiritual.”  Isn’t it more like the Roman gladiators?  But we love the emotion of it -- Russell Crowe surviving tigers.  In fact, we love emotion in a pornographic way, feeling it secondhand. How is all this fighting different from jihad?  Consider just about the most addictive drug there is: adrenaline.  Nero knew.

I’m not out of touch with reality enough to think that boys don’t “grapple.”  But then these guys move on to big guns.  Do you really want a five-year-old, a twelve-year-old, trying to control an assault weapon?  Do you want him to think that if he can’t, he’s an (ick) girl, a coward?  A warrior ethic is taught by a huge dad who smacks a little kid for not being tough?  Brass casings from a gun pelting the kid in the face because his protective goggles are up?  What about his eyes?  Where’s dad?  If the kid goes blind, will he just throw the weeping boy out on the street?  Probably.  The kid believes that.

An accident.

What about the dynamics between a kid who’s traumatized and crying and the father who MUST have a winning kid?  What about small towns where local high school athletes are pushed to extreme fighting in back alleys so adult men can bet on the outcome?  And maybe a few drunks and certainly a lot of alcohol will be involved.  What they THINK they are doing is not at all what these “fighting pastors” are doing, though I don’t know what that really is either.  Esp. when it’s girls getting bloodied by girls -- domestic violence anyone? 

How does it go?  Let the little children suffer?

These guys are really into the porn of the Demon -- the Gates of Hell.  Here’s where the Devil comes "into" his own:  bedtime wrestling, tickling, controlling.  You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it.  It turns sexual so gradually that no one can quite believe that it has slid into rape.  That’s not love.  

Trash talk is trash talk, even if you mention Jesus.   “We don’t use trash talk,” says the fighting pastor wearing a windbreaker with an acronym on it:  “P.I.M.P.”  Using Peter as a justification for a sword completely ignores Peter as the guy who blunders, who can’t walk on water, who DENIES Jesus because he’s afraid.  These fight guys hop all around, picking up phrases.  They are ORAL thinkers, not print folks.  In fact, they are physical strategists, a useful skill but not for theology.

So then the movie turns to a conflict -- “disrespect,” “insulting my wife,” so one of these fighting pastors goes on crusade.  The difference from a street fight is that “I have trained responses.”  Privilege, status, “I’m better than you.”  It was the wife-insulter who won the fight.  Hmmmmm.

Both guys got kicked in the testicles in spite of wearing cups.
What about "go forth and multiply?"

Nice to see these families bring their little kids to see Daddy get beat up.  If the worst happens and Dad drops dead, at least they were there.  Oh, yeah, the kids will like the flashy near-naked ladies, too.  And seeing Daddy almost kill his opponent.  So the next day, the pastor says,  “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  Right.

They’re doing it for the institution: the church, their pastorate.  It’s show-biz, a power base.  And an income.  And in the case of some of these guys, an inherited pass-along, Game of Thrones style.  (Hey, I’m the one who complains about denominations turning “pink,” not Commie pinko but mommie pink, girly pink.  Soft.)  Increasingly this is mocked in the larger culture, drowned in the constant stream of suffering so vivid on the media.

Jesus wept.

But hard can be mocked as well.  (Game of Thrones again.)  Sooner or later someone brings a knife to the fistfight, a gun to the knife fight, a dragon to the gunfight and the A-Bomb nukes the dragon.  And anyway, we’re all discovering that a tiny smoked bat on a stick can kill more efficiently and cost more than any guerrilla king in the jungle, all the while mixing sex with violence.  The blood oozes out your eyes without even a wound.

The people gathered into “fight churches” do not belong to mainstream denominations.  They’re rather pentecostal in the generic sense, a little like snake-handlers, hooked on adrenaline.  There are vulnerabilities built into every religious system and in Christianity many of them have to do with the old patriarchal impulse re-surfacing, displacing Jesus’  compassion, consolation, and healing.  They are “Old Testament” Christians.  What holds them together is the fact of family: the basic attached mom-and-dad pair plus child.  With this as its core, “Christianity” can travel anywhere there are traditional families.  Systems based on a landscape or a specific ecology can’t do that.

Pastor Paul is accused of sexual misbehavior.
That's a family buster.

No wonder they are so terrified of any departure from that Trinity of mom/dad/child: same sex marriage, childless marriage, single parent marriage, daughters instead of sons, people who never marry.  In a poverty-limited place the mother -- who is assigned the role of the family “Jesus” in terms of compassion and forgiveness -- may be a drunk or just gets into the car and drives off.  (Mama Absconditus.)  Or maybe it is the father who can’t earn money, beats his kids instead of using his strength to make things, and destroys even the saintly mother.  

I read something the other day that suggested in a world without fathers, it’s easy to imagine God is dead.  But then what do you do with the Mother, since she’s supposed to be the Mother of God.  Must she simply grieve forever?  There are places where that’s exactly what the mothers are doing -- grieving for the men and boys.  Are there Christian congregations for them?  Ask Pope Francis, who constantly confronts the women of South America who hold up photographs of their disappeared loved ones.

Plaza de Mayo

Congregations are open to the culture and draw like-to-like.  These tattooed, Mohawked, bleached, and belligerent men with guns tucked into the back of their belts were there already.  To draw them into a group that uses Christian metaphors for the Great Mystery is to at least give them a handhold in a whirling world.  But advocating rage and violence, even caged, is a deadend.  They are neither fish nor fowl.  Neither swim nor fly.

The larger culture will tolerate them until they begin to look like a threat, or the women among them say, “No more.”  Then they will either have to give up the Christianity or the combat because it threatens the family, which is Evil because it threatens the survival of the species.  Threatening one part of society or even threatening one religious system is merely sinful, maybe illegal.  But they did finally legalize MMA in New York.