"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Category: Psycho-Excursions (Page 1 of 4)

Old Age—The Numbers Don’t Add Up

Mathematics of Aging

In my younger years, I loved mathematics. Problems have solutions! Complex problems require more complex mathematics, but the result is the same: clarity. Rational, organized, systematic thought yields answers. What a narcotic! The world, with effort, can be ordered and understood. I spent many years being pulled deeper into the mathematical rabbit hole in a quest for clarity in this disordered world.

As I aged, however, I learned that the clarity brought by mathematics only applies to a very narrow set of problems. Indeed, many of the problems in this disordered world not only resist rational, organized, systematic thought they ofttimes are exacerbated by it.

Or so I thought. I never could have imagined that I would revisit my early mathematical knowledge (most of which I had forgotten) to make sense of my journey through old age. Every day I find myself making calculations, observing patterns, reacting to situations that draw on my prior mathematical training. I have discovered that unlike standard mathematics, in “geriatric numerology” the numbers don’t add up. Standard mathematical definitions take on new meanings in the mathematics of old age. I offer this “dictionary of redefinitions” as a guide for navigating this new math.

Statistical Concepts

Mean (Standard Math): The mathematical average of a given set of numbers.
Mean (Geriatric Numerology): How often I am able to coherently express what I mean.

Median (SM): The mid-value in a given set of numbers (i.e., 50% are higher and 50% are lower).
Median (GN): What I try not to drive on.

Mode (SM): The most frequent number occurring in a given set of numbers.
Mode (GN): The settings for my hearing aids.

Probability Distribution (SM): The likelihood of an event occurring across a range of possible outcomes.
Probability Distribution (GN): The likelihood that I will find my lost phone across a range of possible places in my house.

Symmetrical Distribution (SM): A regular, bell-shaped curve. A normal distribution.
Symmetrical Distribution (GN): When rotated 90 degrees clockwise, the shape of my belly. A normal distribution among people of a certain age.

Positively Skewed Distribution (SM): A bulge in a distribution curve positioned to the left of center. Not normally distributed.
Positively Skewed Distribution (GN): When rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise, the shape my backside. A common distribution among people of a certain age. But not a positive distribution.

Random Number Generator (SM): A device that generates a sequence of numbers with no predictable pattern.
Random Number Generator (GN): My brain that generates a sequence of thoughts with no predictable pattern.

Risk Assessment (SM): Calculation of the relative potential for harm and damage from a course of action.
Risk Assessment (GN): Risks accompany me when I take my regular walks in our quiet, little trafficked neighborhood: Should I walk in the street, which is smooth but where I might be hit by a car—a low probability event that would likely incur substantial harm? OR walk on the sidewalk, with its uneven surface and higher likelihood of tripping and falling, but a lower probability of very serious harm? Factors that enter into the calculation: Day or night? Rush hour? Gated street? Weather? Very complicated.

Number Theory

Prime Number (SM): A number that can only be divided by 1 and itself without a remainder.
Prime Number (GN): The number of prime things I can do in a day. The number is 1. There are many “prime things”, including MD appointments, dentist visits, physical therapy, chiropractor visits, medical tests, pharmacy visits, medical insurance disputes, dental insurance disputes, Medicare disputes, orthotic fittings, reading glasses adjustments, reading glasses replacements, CPAP equipment repair and replacements, hearing aid adjustments, legal advice for wills and medical directives, advance funeral arrangements, etc., etc.

Real Numbers (SM): All the numbers on the number line, including rational and irrational numbers.
Real Number (GN): My age.

Irrational Number (SM): A number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers.
Irrational Number (GN): The age I would like to be.

Imaginary Number (SM): A number without a definite numeral value. An unreal number (i.e., √-2).
Imaginary Number (GN): The age I think I am. An unreal number (i.e., “I still feel like I am 35.”).

Negative Number (SM): A number whose value is less than zero.
Negative Number (GN): My age. “Holy shit, am I’m really this old?!”

Positive Number (SM): A number whose value is greater than zero.
Positive Number (GN): My age. “Holy shit, I’m this old and still alive!!!”

Arithmetic

Addition (SM): The process of summation of two or more numbers.
Addition (GN): The process of accumulating medical conditions, diagnoses, aches, pains, medications, age spots, wrinkles, weight, bunions. Also, increase in humor, patience, gratitude, generosity, perspective.  

Subtraction (SM): The taking away the amount of one or more numbers from another.
Subtraction (GN): The taking away of my brain cells, hair, sensory acuity, muscle mass, dexterity, strength, energy, teeth, friends, family, loved ones. Also, less ego injuries, impatience, self-importance, pop culture awareness, emotional drama, fashion sense, fashion concern.

Multiplication (SM): A mathematical operation indicating how many times a number is added to itself.
Multiplication (GN): A process no longer likely to happen to me—thankfully!

The Number Zero

Zero (SM): It is nothing that creates everything. It is neither a positive nor negative number but defines the boundary between them. It is not a rational, irrational or imaginary number. It adds nothing, subtracts nothing, leaves nothing when multiplied, and destroys everything when divided by. It is a place holder: 10, 100, 1000, etc., but it holds nothing.

The concept of zero made the modern number system possible. It was developed in India and corresponds to Hindu and Buddhist understanding of “being empty.” Being is a “presence” and empty is a condition of being. Nothing is something; a pregnant void that gives rise to everything.

Zero (GN): I emerge from nothing with nothing. Except with my life, my being. And at the end of my life, I return to nothing with nothing. Zero. I am of nothing, return to nothing, and this gives rise to everything.1

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Wild Scribblings

impassioned I awake
wildly scribbling
yesterday into tomorrow

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winged phantom
underwater
turtle

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male hubris
love’s
deaf-mute

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your absence
a presence
love’s wound

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sleepwalking
daily parade of worries
clock ticks

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its too damned hot
sweetheart warbles
in the kitchen1

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daylight numbs
nightfall quickens
heartbeat

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quietly sitting
alone
the world spins

You Believe That?! Are You Crazy?!

Do you believe that:

1. A current race of evil, dominant people is the product of genetic experiments performed over 6,000 years ago. A spaceship, directed by a superhuman entity, has been hovering over the United States for several decades and contains bombs that will someday be dropped and kill all of these immoral people.

                                      Or,

2. If you live by rules set down by a being from outer space and, if you are male, after death you will one day dwell on your own planet where you will be able to have sex with various spirit wives. You will then become the father of many spirit children that will someday be born on earth or another planet.

                                      Or,

3. You have been defiled at birth, your thoughts and behaviors are being monitored and judged by a supernatural being who demands obedience to his commands, and you will be condemned to an eternity of unspeakable suffering should you fail to comply. If obedient, you can participate in a ceremony of eating the flesh of a deceased holy man, which allows you to gain a spiritual union and receive grace from this supernatural being.   

Do you think people who passionately hold these beliefs are crazy? This is a question Shawn O’Connor and I sought to answer (he was the lead investigator on this study).1 The answer may surprise.

The Sky and Cannibalism

But first some background. 

The sky, the cosmos, forms our primal experience of life; gives us life, sustains us, haunts us, overwhelms us. The blinding, life-giving sun that lights our days, the enigmatic illuminations appearing in the night sky, the storms that thunder and rain down upon us, the seasons that give life and take it away, have been sources of wonder, awe, fear, and trepidation for as long as humans have walked this planet. Heavenly powers hold dominion over earthly matters, and we are obviously denizens of something much greater than ourselves. Uncountable numbers of religions, spiritual practices, and sacred beliefs have arisen to fathom our place in the cosmos. The first two beliefs above are attempts to do so.

Although popular opinion holds that cannibalism is rare, it is quite pervasive and dates back into the depths of human prehistory. Many motives lead to cannibalism, starvation being a one. But there are others, including ritualistic cannibalism that is part of religious rites and sacred practices. It is often believed that by ingesting the body of the dead, the powers and wisdom of the deceased are conferred to the individual. The third belief above resides in this family of convictions.

What is Crazy?

The three beliefs and practices sure seem crazy. But what do we mean by crazy? Crazy is not an official diagnosis in the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of mental disorders. The above beliefs, however, could be labeled delusions, which the DSM defines as “fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence. . . Delusions are deemed bizarre if they are clearly implausible and not understandable to same-culture peers and do not derive from ordinary life experiences.” 

Religious beliefs inhabit an indeterminate region in the DSM formulation: “Some religious and supernatural beliefs (e.g., evil eye, causing illness through curses, influence of spirits) may be viewed as bizarre and possibly delusional in some cultural contexts but be generally accepted in others. However, elevated religiosity can be a feature of many presentations of psychosis.”

Several issues to note. Delusions are not considered delusions if understandable to same-culture peers. So, what might seem very bizarre and delusional may simply be the result of ignorance about cultural beliefs that are not held by same-culture peers. Are we more likely to assess pathology when we are ignorant of the religion? And what are we to make of “elevated religiosity?” When does fervent religious belief become psychotic?

The three beliefs highlighted above are integral to 3 major religions practiced in the United States: Nation of Islam, Mormonism, and Catholicism. The beliefs are stated without including identifying information that would reveal that they are part of an established religion. Shawn and I wanted to know if simply adding identifying information (i.e., for the third belief, that the individual is Catholic who believed in transubstantiation) without changing the core beliefs would alter the assessment of psychopathology by trained mental health workers. 

When the religious beliefs were not identified, the Mormon and Catholic based beliefs were rated significantly more pathological than when they were identified. Nation of Islam was rated highly pathological in both identified and not identified conditions.2 Quite bizarre and unsettling beliefs are thus transformed from delusions to acceptable convictions simply because they are revealed to be part of religious traditions that we, as same-culture peers, understand.

Who Is Crazy?

How, then, are we to consider religious beliefs held by unfamiliar cultures we do not understand? Consider the following, which are currently being practiced somewhere in the world:3

  • Your baby is born under abhorrent planetary influences and fated to kill their spouse when they marry. To divest themselves of this curse, they are married to an animal, usually a dog or a goat, or even a tree. 
  • To celebrate the destruction of a demon army by the son of god, you must fast for 48 days, followed by piercing your body with lances and hooks, which are then used to pull heavy objects that are attached to the hooks. 
  • All conventional categories and opposites are illusionary manifestations an underlying unity. Violating social taboos is an spiritual act of asserting this unity. This includes retrieving floating bodies found in a holy river and eating them. 
  • To thank the gods for being blessed with a baby, when your baby is 3 months old, you immerse them in boiling water. 
  • If you are male, your penis is surgically mutilated to cement your contract with god.
  • You toss your baby from a 50-foot tower into a sheet to make them stronger and healthier.
  • To cure your child of a disability, on a day of a solar eclipse you bury them in sand up to their necks for up to 6 hours.
  • You anoint your baby with holy water. Failure to do so might result in the baby being consigned to eternal suffering.
  • To celebrate your faith and devotion to a god who walked through red-hot coals unscathed, you do the same, following a holy man who begins the fire walking procession with pot on his head filled with holy water. 
  • Spiritual advancement is achieved by fasting on a sacred day. The following day you paint and decorate cows and bulls, garland yourself, lie on the ground, and let the animals trample you. This ensures that your desires will be fulfilled and brings prosperity to your community. 

This is only a minuscule sample of all the beliefs and rituals that have been practiced throughout human existence. Each tribe thinks theirs are reasonable. Simply sharing common meanings, beliefs, and practices with others makes us sane; rescues us from going crazy. We seek footholds on the ineffable, desperately clutching our own ceremonies of certainty to assuage our existential angst and panic. This is our human plight.

You believe that? I do, which you might think is crazy.

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We are All Drag Queens

I look at pictures of me as a baby; as a 7 year old; my high school photo; at my wedding; at my high school 30th reunion. Now, at 75, I look in the mirror and ask, “Who are those people?” How can they be me? They are alien beings and there is no reason to suppose that they can all be “me”. This is the fascination of looking at old pictures of ourselves—“really, that was me?!”

The only thread that gives continuity and unity to these images is my memory; oft times not even my memory of myself but of what I have been told: “That’s you,” said my mother of the photo of the toddling, smiling cherub. Memory is the thread that that stitches these images into a coherent, stable unity; into “me”. The memory-stitching that confers stability and coherence to long past images does the same for my experience of what happened to me 5 minutes ago. This is how we creatures of time acquire a sense of permanence, a sense of self.1

The enduring entity I experience as my self is conferred by the gossamer thread of memory. And what a tentative thread it is. Our memory is continually being reconstructed, subjected to alteration without our knowing it, influenced by changing circumstances, moods, personal experiences, and reflections of others. One of the disconcerting experiences of aging is witnessing the loosening of our filaments of memory. As memory erodes, so do “I”. The spectra of dementia that looms over the aged sparks dread that we will lose ourselves; that the delicate stitching of memory will unravel. Dementia exposes as it destroys. What is exposed is our moment-to-moment awareness. What is shattered is the illusion of a permanent self that allows us to adaptively manage in the world; a phantom that keeps us sane.

Identity is a deeply felt feature of our selves. Our race. Gender. Sexual orientation. Ethnicity. Cultural heritage. Language. Occupation. Etc. These so primally experienced aspects of ourselves are not indelibly inscribed in us. They are, rather, attire of the self. We are born into a cultural matrix of ready-made identities that signify meaningful distinctions between people. Each culture possesses its own identity “wardrobes”. Race, for example. Being Black in contemporary America does not have the same meaning as in precolonial equatorial Africa, where it may not have had any meaning at all. Another example: Homosexuality is a term of Anglo-European origin coined in 19th century. It is a term that confers an identity to a person based on same-sex behaviors. By contrast, in Greece and Rome, same sex behaviors between men was common and approved.2 What mattered was not the act, but who was the initiator of the act; accepted when upper class men were the initiators, vilified when the reverse. Status, not the specific sex act, signified cultural identity. Identity anchors us, defines us, viscerally binds us to a stable set of culturally established meanings. They are part of the fabric we stitch together to clothe our phantom selves. 

Garment Matters

Why the outrage against men who dress as women, or women who dress like bikers? Why can the mere clothes we wear and our body adornments provoke harassment, government legislation, even murder?! Because garments and adornments carry potent cultural meanings. How we fashion ourselves can vary greatly: Executive or tradesperson, business man or woman, trucker, biker, military officer, “person of the cloth,” police officer, sports team supporter, cool dude, ersatz cowboy, etc., etc., etc. Clothes communicate. We never simply “get dressed.” We choose to display cultural meanings that are encoded in the clothes we wear, how we wear them, and the way we craft our body. We may not even be aware of the codes we signal, think they are natural, or that we simply wear comfortable clothes. What makes us comfortable varies from person to person, and comfort can include the color of the clothes, the style, the cut, the nature of the fit, etc. All these are selected from the rack of  garments made available in the culture.

We wear some clothes out of obligation; attending funerals, our places of work and worship, graduations. Many of these we happily shed when we can. Other garments are more closely tied to our identity, freighted with meanings that resonate with our sense of self. Gender is one such identity that is encoded in our garments that cannot be so easily shed, even if we want to. Before a baby is out of the womb, a pivotal choice is “pink or blue?” What clothes and adornments? How should I announce my baby to the world? Even if we want to assert gender neutrality by avoiding the conventional markers of gender, this is, itself, a choice defined within the ubiquitous dimension of gender. Gender is a presumed natural, God-given feature of our selves; it identifies us, defines us.  

Cross dressing violates the natural order, undermines the pillars of identity that buttress our sense of self. We can do this by merely wearing pink instead the expected blue! Oh, by what a meagre thread does our identity hang! Violence is an effort to enforce the natural order, to forcefully obliterate the realization that simply donning the “wrong” outfits we can overturn our tidy universe. Everything we wear, however, is but a disguise that tricks us into believing in the fixity of the phantom self. Whatever our attire, we are all drag queens.

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Hypnosis, Placebo, TikTok Tics: “Its All in Your Mind!”

Hypnosis

Consider hypnosis. We engage in a relatively brief exchange with a stranger who possesses some measure of authority. As a result, we become capable of feats that are usually considered impossible: parts of our body are “anesthetized,” and surgery can be performed without pain; untreatable warts and congenital skin disorders disappear; wounds heal faster; surgical blood loss is greatly reduced. We undergo auditory, visual, and proprioceptive disorientation, experience visions that are perceived as real and lose our sense of volition. Suggestions can be made under hypnosis that we subsequently enact, post-hypnosis, but attribute the impetus for the actions to ourselves, with no memory of it having been suggested.

Almost everything we hold sacred and inviolate about ourselves is upended in hypnosis. The sinews that hold us together are all severed: our sense of continuity in time (i.e., memory), our grounding in the material world (i.e., perception), our compelling sense of personal agency (i.e., volition), and the boundaries of our physical capacities (i.e., pain tolerance, wound healing, curing skin disorders). What is the cause? An interpersonal exchange. That’s it. The lack of a physical cause that can be objectively measured is why hypnosis has been rejected by the biomedical profession for 250 years—hypnosis is not considered a “real” phenomenon. Rather, it is all shamming, trickery, hocus-pocus, all in your mind, etc. Name calling for 250 years that avoids the fundamental challenge posed by hypnosis to our basic understanding of ourselves: our assumptions about the relationships among body, psyche, I, we, mind, and “reality”.1

Hypnosis and Placebo

The hocus-pocus, all-in-your-mind conclusion about hypnosis was, ironically, given support in 1784 by the first scientific placebo-control study. Mesmer (from whose name the word mesmerize is derived) asserted that he could channel an invisible physical fluid, which he called animal magnetism, to cure multiple ailments, produce remarkable effects on mind and body, and anesthetize patients to perform surgery. Mesmer posed a grave challenge to the medical profession and to the social order in France, so the King of France commissioned a group of eminent scientists, led by Benjamin Franklin, to discredit Mesmer.

The Commission examined the claims of Mesmer using two groups: an experimental group that received Mesmeric treatment, and a second that received, unknowingly, a sham treatment. The sham treatment proved to be as effective as the Mesmeric. The Commission concluded that animal magnetism is not real; that the effects resulted from imagination and imitation and, therefore, should be dismissed. Mesmer was discredited, left Paris in disgrace, and the Royal Society of Medicine issued a decree obligating all physicians to sign an official statement rejecting the practice of animal magnetism. Failure to do so would result in dismissal from the ranks of physicians. 

Note that the effects of the Mesmeric treatment were not disputed. Only the presumed cause. This did not stop practitioners, often outside the medical community, and people suffering from various ailments from using Mesmeric procedures. Animal magnetism later came to be called hypnosis, which continues to experience a similar fate—rejected or viewed with deep suspicion because of a lack of objective physical cause and, perhaps, a professional threat for offering cures that lie outside the biomedical corridors of power and financial remuneration.

It is revealing that this methodology, first used in 1784 to discredit hypnosis, was not used to test the efficacy of standard medical practices, including purgatives, evacuants, humectants, vesicatories, and spoliative bleedings. This would be a pattern for the next century and a half: Blind and double-blind placebo control experiments, as they were later to be called, were only used to investigate threats to traditional medical practices.

Placebo

Randomized Clinical Trials (RCT), which include placebo control groups, only began to be systematically used in medical research in the 1950’s and is now the standard experimental methodology for demonstrating that a physical treatment has an effect that is not the result of placebo. Although this is a step forward, the conclusion that a placebo effect is a measure of failure of a physical effect, not a documentation of the remarkable power of a placebo, continues this long history whereby objective, physically caused effects are real, while psychosocial causes are just “in-your-mind.” Let’s flip that script and briefly review several recent findings about the placebo as documentation its startling effects.

Placebo pills afford the same measure of pain relief as 75% of pain medications submitted for FDA approval that must undergo clinical trials. Most of these do provide measurable pain relief, but not significantly more than a placebo, so they are not approved. But the pain relief is real, for both the placebo and chemically active medications. Furthermore, the rate of FDA rejection of pain medications undergoing clinical trials has recently risen to over 90%—but only in the US, not in Europe. Why? Cultural differences of some kind are likely at play.2

The way a treatment is administered also makes a difference. Trust, honesty, kindness, and the appearance of competence increase the effects of a placebo. Bedside manners matter. Indeed, what gives a sugar pill, or any faux treatment, its power is the sociocultural context in which it is enacted. The rituals and contexts associated with treating illnesses—the scripted  drama of healing—can prompt the body to respond in a healing manner, and the scripts vary from culture to culture.

Placebo treatments can be effective even if the patient is informed that it is a placebo. The color of the pill also matters—blue, not red pills are more effective for pain relief. Placebo pills clearly labeled and (cleverly) marketed are for sale online. You can purchase 45 “Pure, Honest, Placebo Pills ” with “inert ingredients” “trusted by consumers, clinicians, researchers since 2014” for $25 (4.2 stars on Amazon). The scripted drama of healing at work.

Only recently have there been efforts to identify neurobiological mechanisms that might account for the power of the placebo. The quest is motivated by trying to prove that the placebo effect is, in fact, “real”; that there is a objective biological basis, and therefore it is a legitimate object for scientific scrutiny. This reasoning is baffling. First, the effects ARE REAL! The lack of objective physical cause does not render the obvious and profound effects of placebo “not real.” Second, the fact that the remarkable effects of placebo are evoked by social interactions exposes our faulty assumptions about what constitutes “real.” Third, of course there are biological factors of some kind that make this possible.

Our experience, including social exchange, does not float, untethered, from our biology. However, whatever the biological factors are, and research has recently begun to address this question, they enable the psychosocial influence. They do not cause it to occur. The cause resides in the interaction of biology with psychological expectancies, situational influences, cultural rituals, personal relationships, and prior conditioning that come into play in a sociocultural context of healing.3

Not Panaceas

Placebo and hypnosis are not panaceas. Hypnosis can alter our perceptions and subjective experiences, have an impact on some bodily functions, and remediate the effects of chemotherapy. Placebos can treat the nausea and pain associated with cancer treatment, heart disease, and ameliorate subjective experiences associated with illnesses. But hypnosis and placebos cannot cure cancer, Parkinson disease, and most other serious illnesses and diseases. These limitations, however, do not diminish what they can do, or the challenge they poses to our conventional understanding of ourselves.

Other “Family Members”

Hypnosis and placebo are the two most prominent members of a family of anomalies that defy traditional medical explanation. Others include: TikTok tics, a world-wide outbreak of tics induced by a TikTok posting that went “viral” (this is an appropriate name for it, as there are many instances of social contagions of a similar nature spreading like a viral contagion)4; conversion disorders, where individuals experience paralysis, blindness, deafness, and seizures but have no neurobiological impairments; and Dissociative Identity Disorder, often referred to as multiple personalities, where completely different personas inhabit the same individual, each without awareness of the others.

It’s All in Your Mind

Hypnosis, placebo, TikTok tics, and their “family members” startle and disturb because they undermine our conventional understanding about the relationships among body, psyche, I, we, culture, mind, and “real.” The assumption that girds this understanding is that there is a disjuncture between the body, which is a physical, biological entity, and therefore “real”, and psyche, social exchange, culture, and mind, which are viewed as incorporeal phantoms, and therefore not “real.” An accompanying assumption is that the body can influence these incorporeal phantoms, but they, however, can have no effect on the body.5

Are these anomalies simply curiosities that will eventually be explained with more research? I think not. Their peculiarity arises from the conceptual straitjacket we use to try to capture them. An alternative explanation can be summed up in a word—any word. A word, spoken (or written) is a nonsense sound (or marking) given signification by a communal, cultural agreement that confers its meaning.6 We are born into a cultural web of meanings, and propelled by our biological heritage to acquire words—any and all words, in any and all languages!!–from the earliest, first years of life. Words stretch from the biological to the interpersonal to the cultural, all seamlessly united in the act of communication.7 These “incorporeal phantoms” can evoke strong bodily reactions, from erotic to heart stopping, from gut retching to uncontrolled weeping.

Hypnosis, placebo, and TikTok tics are merely noteworthy examples of the primal power of human communication in its many forms. Mind is the looping networks of meanings that encompasses body, psyche, I and we.8 It is all in your mind! And it is, indeed, real!9

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A Strange Loop

Captive and Captor

We are all hostages. We are restrained, imprisoned, bound, under surveillance, and subject to the will and whim of our captor; judged, criticized, rewarded, praised, tempted, punished, cajoled, encouraged, assured, castigated, condemned. Our captor’s voice is our own inner voice, sometimes a cacophonous chorus of discordant voices, that arise, unbidden, from the depths of our being. We are hostage to ourselves.

The one constant companion in our life’s journey is ourselves. This is the most powerful, intimate, passionate, and important relationship that accompanies us till our last breath. We cannot escape it, except temporally though sleep, drugs, passionate endeavors, or other mind-bending practices.

We each have our own unique set of reoccurring themes and rhythms in this chorus of voices derived from temperament, early life experiences, cultural and historical contexts, intimate relationships, that which is shouted and whispered to us at various points throughout our lives by various notable personages, traumas and travails, and who knows what else. Our lives are shaped by this chorus. While we are captors, we are also are aware that we are hostages. Hostage and captor—we are both, and our awareness of this also makes us hostage negotiator. We are a strange loop; not a single I, not a unitary self, but a hierarchical looping of self-referring dynamic I’s—a tangle of voices, voices about voices. . . about voices.1 Here is an example of the complexity of this relationship: “I” write about “my” experience of noting common themes that arise from the darkness of “my” being that imprison “me” and “I” find this quite amusing, baffling, and remarkable. Just who am “I”? And who is asking?? What a confusing “I” are we!2

Psychotherapy Loops

Psychotherapy, in its various forms, offers navigational guides for understanding ourselves and gaining some leverage to change strands of our strange loop. Psychotherapy provides a framework that names and maps the working of our inner self, paying particular attention to the voices of the “captor” who has imprisoned “us” and offering strategies to the “negotiator”.3

So, for example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) tells us that the “captor” voices carry irrational and self-destructive statements that must be identified, challenged, and replaced with more rational, adaptive ones (by the “negotiator”). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) instructs that these voices are simply a stream of ideas that have power only if we (the “captive”) attend to and act on them; instead, we should simply accept, note, and let them pass without being “hooked” by them. Psychoanalysis identifies these voices as the eruption of id impulses that must be rooted out, their symbolic meaning divined and transmuted to adaptive responses by our ego. Other therapies follow a similar pattern using different models—identifying features of the captor (e.g. irrational statements; idea stream; id impulses), and offering strategies for the negotiator to free the captive. Each model configures a unique “reality” of our interiority, which can be confusing, especially as arguments abound among proponents of the models, thus revealing the provisional nature of our understanding of ourselves.

This strange loop exemplifies the modern idea of the self; a self-contained interiority where all the voices are within us. The forces in the external world are subject to their own laws and principles and do not intrude or influence the inner sanctity of the self. We perceive the external world from the portals of the citadel of our solitary self. This idea of a self is of recent origins, historically, arising hand-in-glove with the rise of modern secular culture in the West.4 It is a manifestation of a culture whose governing principals, political structures, economic policies, communal practices, and basis for truth presume independent individuals, each possessing inalienable rights, making rational decisions based on self-interest, and guided by the methods, reasoning, and findings of science.

Inspirited Cosmos

Most cultures and religions throughout most of human history, in contrast, have presumed we dwell in a world infused with magical and supernatural powers, populated by hosts of strange, dangerous, threatening, helpful, and inexplicable spirits. In this inspirited world, no clear boundaries divide our phenomenological experience and these forces let loose upon the earth. Thoughts can be experienced as the voice of gods, goblins, ghouls, genies, demons, angels, saints, sirens, fairies, ancestors, ghosts, witches, wizards, or spirits. Furthermore, omens, amulets, holy water, and sacred relics radiate influence that, unbeknownst to us, can overtake us, seize our wishes and will, compel us to act.

The shear range and number of presumed voices and supernatural powers that have been believed by various religions and cultures is staggering. Are we experiencing the voice of God? Satan? Ghosts? Ancestors? Hallucinations? Naming and understanding our experience encompasses an entire cosmology, a communal history of sanctioned practices and foundational beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world.5

Each of us is inseparably bound to our communal “we.” It is through “we” that we tether our body and being to a larger system of meanings, and also how, individually, we unite to form a community that embodies its meanings.6 “I” and “we” form two sides of the same coin. This is also so for the citadel of the modern self, which is constituted from modern secular culture. This looping influence between “I” and “we” is another strand in the strange loop that is us.7

These looping paradoxes are the curse and the gift of a self-reflective species that dwells within a symbolically created universe that has great power and scope of apprehension, but also engenders paradox, contradiction, confusion, and disagreement. It is thus that we bewildered primates gain some measure of order and stability.8

Adrift

Much is at stake for the individual and for the community in how our phenomenological experience is understood. Experiences that defy communal beliefs, violate taboos, or threaten the social order can have dire consequences. While each communal cosmology may offer a reassuring sense of order and stability, the aggregate and bizarre differences among them, sometimes resulting in armed conflict and mass deaths(!), highlights our profound lack of understanding of ourselves and the provisional nature of our endeavors to do so.

The mortal importance we give them is, perhaps, precisely because alternatives are possible. We are adrift in a sea of uncertainty—we are a strange loop in a strange and uncanny cosmos.

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Psychological Toll of The Climate Crisis

It’s easy enough to see the damaging physical effects of climate change on communities and ecosystems directly impacted by fires, floods, droughts, and super storms. Less visible is the psychological toll of experiencing a slow-motion train wreck—a toll especially felt by young people, who are aware their futures are at stake. What is the toll? How might we understand it? And what can we do about it? I offer some tentative answers.1

Our understanding is in an embryonic stage. Considerable attention has been devoted to the topic recently, with articles appearing in various outlets of the popular press, in discussions and suggestions within professional mental health organizations, and insights and advice offered by therapists and others who have some experience with the issue in various ways. The psychological toll also cuts across many mental health issues making it difficult to encapsulate.

Demographics of the Climate Crisis

Young people. A remarkable survey of over 10,000 young people between the ages of 16 to 25, from 10 countries, across 6 continents, documents the anxiety, distress, and anguish felt across the entire globe: 75% feel the future is frightening; 56% believe humanity is doomed; that their government is failing young people (65%); lies to them about the impact of what they are doing (64%); and is betraying them and future generations (58%). These reactions are more intense in developing countries, where the Climate Crisis is more acutely experienced. Needless to say, young people are angry about their lack of power and disillusioned with authority.

Childbearing age. Those with children or contemplating having children must face a climate-impacted future, which even in the best of estimates looks harrowing, and decide if they want to bring a child into the world that awaits them. Among those who already have children, 1/3 report that the climate crisis is the reason for choosing to have fewer children. Birthstrike and #NoFutureChildren are two social media movements by those who do not have children, and pledging not to—with considerable anger, sorrow, sadness and despair.

Parents and grandparents. The research is sparse for these cohorts, but informal conversations and reports indicate that when the Climate Crisis is appreciated, the consequences for their children and grandchildren are a source of deep concern. Of course, the caveat that “the crisis need be appreciated” is the critical fact determining whether anyone has any concern at all. Survey results over the past 6 years suggest that a significant and growing number of Americans are aware and concerned about the Climate Crisis.

Factors Influencing Mental Health

Several factors influence the mental health impact of the Climate Crisis:

  • Whether the climate events are acute (e.g., flooding, fires, and super storms) or chronic (e.g., drought, rising sea levels, and significant changes in normal climate patterns).
  • If exposure is direct (e.g., loss of food water, shelter, loved ones), indirect (e.g., displacement, disruption of food, electric, and water systems, loss of employment), or vicarious (e.g., observing others, media reports).
  • Vulnerability risk factors including previous trauma and mental health issues, socioeconomic inequities, age (older adults and young children are more vulnerable), and gender (girls and women are more at risk).

Much more research exists for acute events with both direct and indirect exposure. As you might imagine, the impact is profound. Basic survival needs demand immediate attention: food, water, shelter, health care, safety. The mental health consequences span the entire range of human misery and suffering—trauma, grief, depression, impulsive and self-destructive behavior, suicide, substance abuse, etc., etc.—and are often long-lasting.

Evidence for chronic climate events with direct and indirect exposure also suggests a similarly wide range of mental health reverberations, but the incidence may likely be considerably less than acute events. Less systematic research exists for vicariously experienced climate events, but a considerable and growing number of clinical reports, observations, and discussions point to similar mental health outcomes.

What’s in a Name?

What we call something, the name we use, allows us to grasp and understand it, and potentiates possible responses. Is something dirt? Or soil? Is something garbage? Or compost? The first term in each pair suggests filth; something revolting demanding disposal. The second term signifies regeneration; something to be prized and used. Important climate consequences result from which of the pair we choose to use. Same, too, for how we choose to talk about climate-crisis mental health outcomes.

Eco-anxiety and climate anxiety are oft used names, especially within American Psychiatric and American Psychological Associations. Anxiety is the key word as it positions the experience within the possible domain of anxiety disorders. Indeed, there are some who suggest that it might, at some point, be considered for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association; the Manual that defines what is to be considered a legitimate mental disorder.

The paradigm of disorders inadequately addresses the mental health consequences of the Climate Crisis because the problem is of a different kind, requiring a new framework for understanding and responding. The disorders approach presumes the difficulties reside within the individual, that a disorder is an abnormality or pathology likely of biological origin, and that treatment involves eliminating the pathology within the individual, often though medication. In addition, its use sometimes implies that eco-anxiety encompasses the entire psychological toll of the Climate Crisis.

The Climate Crisis is a global, communal experience caused by very real biosphere realities that pose a mortal danger to human life as well as many of our fellow terrestrial mates. Distress is an understandable response to this global existential threat. Resiliency, not cure, is required in the face of existing realities. The psychological toll also encompasses much more than anxiety. Finally, the pathogenetic model misleads about how we are to understand and respond to this toll: “What we are witnessing isn’t a tsunami of mental illness but a long overdue outbreak of  sanity”.2

Existential Threats, Debilitating Responses

The Climate Crisis poses existential challenges that haunt us:  
-“The Climate Crisis is so huge, and scope of individual responses so infinitesimally small, what can I possibly do that will make a difference”?  
“What if…??” “The future is so uncertain, so foreboding, I can’t plan, dream, hope.”

These challenges evoke a range of intense reactions: despair, depression, grief, anxiety, panic, suicide and so much more. A host of names have been coined to capture the many emotional responses provoked by the Climate Crisis, including terrafurie, eco-depression, climate trauma, environmental melancholia, solastalgia (nostalgia + desolation + longing for solace), and climate stress. Eco-anxiety also can be properly placed in this family of names that situate the causal locus outside the individual, in the Climate Crisis.

Some psychological difficulties, when they become debilitating, require comprehensive evaluation for proper care. The Climate Crisis may be one thread in a weave of factors that give rise to impairment, which also might include prior mental health issues, trauma history, interpersonal conflict, social injustices, medications, physical illness, etc. Professional help is required in these cases, but it is also important that the evaluation include assessment of the role the Climate Crisis might play in the difficulties.

Resiliency

Resiliency is the ability to adapt to challenging life circumstances—and even grow from them. The Climate Crisis threat is ongoing, requiring us to develop and maintain habits of mind, body, and behavior that foster wellbeing in the face of adversity.

The biggest obstacle to addressing the Climate Crisis is individual and collective denial. The sources of denial are many and the motivation for it is high. Some of the more common and alluring forms of denial include: reality is too disturbing and disruptive (oh boy, is this true!); minimizing the problem and misattributing the magnitude of our response (e.g., “I recycle, that should be enough”); resisting significant changes in values and behavior; prioritizing immediate over long term concerns; dismissing the problem because there is no direct experience of the consequences; ignoring data because it is too abstract and sources are questionable; and social norming (“My friends do/say this, so it must be true”).

“Action is the Antidote to Despair”3

Activism includes both external activism and internal activism for fostering resiliency. External activism is important because it empowers; we are making concrete contribution to addressing the Crisis, and it connects our actions with core values. However, if we become too obsessively focused on our goals, without attending to our internal needs and self-care, this can lead to depletion of our energies and burnout.

Internal Activism

Internal activism involves attention to our mind, body, and behavior. What follows are ways to foster resiliency. Each looks simple, but they are hard, often demanding new habits and routines of mind, body, and behavior. I have provided a Resiliency Resource Outline with further explanation, discussion, references and resources for the suggestions that that you can explore in more depth in this footnote.4 5

For the Mind
Validate experience. There is not something wrong with us; we are not impaired, not stupid. Acknowledge that the problem is a global one that everyone must face.
Identify what we can control and what we cannot. Focus on what we can control.
Attend to and counter negative “mind habits”.
Accept change.
Mindfulness. Shift from the mundane ways we engage the world to becoming aware of being alive, experiencing the presence of the world. Gratitude for this moment.
For the Body
Physical wellness. Eat healthy, sleep, exercise.
For Behavior
Connecting with others. The Climate Crisis is a communal, societal, and global experience, so it is important that we connect with social networks for support, understanding, validation, solidarity, inspiration. This can take many forms, from a small group of friends who share concerns, to online climate support cafes, to social involvement with community and environmental groups that foster personal connections and friendships.
Online resources can be very helpful.
Limit social media, with its sometimes negative influences on our state of mind.
Connect with nature, as a source of solace and rejuvenation.
Live in accordance with our values. Find ways to live meaningfully with full appreciation of the threat.
Individual Differences
Individuals differ in response to crisis and what may be most helpful. Self-awareness is important for effective internal activism. Developing habits, routines, and deliberate attention to mind, body, and behavior is HARD. It is an ongoing challenge, a marathon, not a single trial. We will fail. And fail again. Practice. Practice. Practice. This requires as much effort, diligence, and is as important as external action. Imperfectly, together, we unite, we change.

Hope

“Hope is a moral commitment.”6

Hope is essential for resiliency. We must have hope to carry on. Not the kind of hope prompted by a Pollyannaish belief that everything turns out for the best, which is a passive renunciation of reality and our role in influencing the future.

Hope, realistic hope, is forged in the face of adversity and challenges, sometimes in the face of overwhelming odds, to envision a better future; a future not brought about by ease and accident, but by sweat, toil, hardship, and sometimes blood, to “make it so” in the face of daunting obstacles. We must ask ourselves: “What gives us hope?” Sometimes it comes from others who inspire us. Martin Luther King offered hope, inspiration, and a motivating dream. The history of slavery, racial murder, violence, persecution, and soul-crushing humiliation can easily overwhelm and make such pronouncements of a dream seem misguided naïve shouts into the darkness. It is precisely why hope is a moral commitment. It is precisely what we need for The Climate Crisis.

What we are experiencing is a source of hope: “Climate anxiety may be the crucible through which humanity must pass to harness the energy and commitment that are needed for the lifesaving changes now required.” 7

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Homo Economicus

We are no longer Homo sapiens—wise humans, which is what sapiens means. We have evolved into Homo economicus. These creatures are motivated by rational self-interest who seek to maximize their wealth and the “utility,” or satisfaction, derived from consumption of purchased goods. Homo economicus arose in the 17th-18th centuries in response to a dramatically altered environment where capital replaced land as the basis for wealth, and large scale production of goods in an industrialized landscape changed the living conditions of Homo sapiens.

The Wealth of Nations, published by Adam Smith in 1776 when market economies were emerging, is considered by many to be the progenitor of Homo economicus. This revolutionary work, offered at a tumultuous time when capital markets and democratic uprisings where transforming human life, offered a radically new way to understand wealth and government. Although he did not use the term, Homo economicus, Smith’s analysis hinges on the revolutionary assumptions that characterize Homo economicus: individuals, motivated by rational self-interest, seek to maximize their profit.1 

The Wealth of Nations has become a sacred text, often quoted chapter and verse by contemporary economists whose dizzyingly complex mathematically based analyses typically begin with the assumptions of Homo economicus. The reach of these assumptions is not confined to economic concerns, but are presumed to motivate all human actions, behaviors, and habits. Here is what Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker has to say: “All human behavior can be regarded as participants who maximize their utility from a stable set of preferences and accumulate an optimal amount of information and other inputs in a variety of markets.”

Becker articulates, in the jargon of his profession, what is often presumed by many Homo economicus supporters, and these assumptions have guided analysis of almost all areas of human life, from the most intimate matters of love and family to government policies and practices. His analysis of the family, for example, addresses “marital-specific capital” (i.e., children) and argues that child services are “the commodity that provides the utility a couple receives” from this “marital-specific capital”. And here is an example of an analysis at the institutional level: A World Health Organization initiative to end river blindness in Africa prevented hundreds of thousands of people from going blind. The World Bank’s cost analysis of the program, however, concluded that these benefits were not measurable; the benefits were conferred to people so poor that there was no measurable profit from the treatment.2

“Marital-Specific Capital”

These analytic, quantitative appraisals and balance-sheet conclusions of human endeavors clearly and unambiguously state the value, or profit, to be derived from them. Debate, then, centers on whether the profit justifies the cost. But is this a success, or a reason for concern? When children become “marital-specific capital,” and a wildly successful intervention that prevent blindness in hundreds of thousands of people is questioned because the recipients are poor, then maybe this is evidence that something is amiss. Perhaps Homo economicus is a mutation that needs to be modified or eliminated.

The central value of Homo economicus is profit. The balance-sheet determines worth. But why, for example, was a major initiative, at considerable cost, undertaken to prevent river blindness in impoverished areas of Africa? Certainty not to gain a profit on investments. And children are more than capital goods for most parents. Other values are at play.

Adam Smith would certainly agree. He considered himself a moral philosopher, and in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he argues that we are inherently social and moral beings. We care about others and this social-moral sense is essential if we are to live together without destroying each other. Adam Smith’s self-interest is not greed. It is in everyone’s self-interest to conduct commerce and exchange within a moral framework of trust and honesty, which are essential for a successful society. Theory of Moral Sentiments, established the foundation for The Wealth of Nations; wealth is built within a social-moral framework.3

Economic, social, and moral values differ starkly in the kind of exchanges and relationships presumed, and the expected benefits.4 Economic values are individual and impersonal, and economic analysis treats families, communities, and societies as a collection of individuals. Exchange is contractual and who the other person is in the transaction does not matter. Economic values are instrumental; you expect to get something of equal or greater value in return. If it has no profit, it has no value.

Social values are personal and depend on the relationships involved. Our relationship with our children, spouse, or friends may be the most important thing in our life. They have no economic value, as we cannot buy, sell, or trade it. And social relationships are reciprocal, not instrumental. Each participant gains from it, but there is nothing definite about what we will gain, when we will gain it, or even if we will get anything tangible from it.

Moral values are altruistic; things are done for their intrinsic worth with no expectation of getting anything in return. They are neither individual or relational. They are universal. We do things for others because it is morally the right thing to do. These values are not proved or supported by evidence or analysis—they are axiomatic.

The lack of proof or evidential support for moral values does not diminish their importance. Quite the contrary. Their universality can give them the animating power of ideals. People commit their lives to fulfilling these values; care for others at great personal cost, risk their safety and well-being, even give their lives for a just cause and, too, commit unspeakable atrocities in the name of the good.

The Declaration of Independence embodies foundational moral values upon which our nation stands. Axioms:
1. “All (men) people are created equal.”
2. “They are endowed with unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”5
No justifications or proofs are provided, as “these truths are self-evident.” Moral and social values provide the grounding assumptions for how we govern ourselves; they embody our values of who we are, who we want to be, and how we define our relationships with each other. Commerce, economic transactions, and trade are conducted within the framework provided by the moral and social values that are the basis of our governance.

It is an inherently destructive act to treat all human life as some sort of financial transaction. Preventing river blindness is a moral and social value, not an economic one. Children, family, and friends are not commodities of exchange. Economic analysis should be used in the service of our social and moral values, not the determiner of them. Homo economicus hollows us out. If we do not harken the call of our foundational social and moral values, if we allow Homo economicus to become who are, we surrender our wisdom. And our humanity.

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Free Will?

Do we have free will? This question has bedeviled Western thought for millennia, spanning the centuries from Aristotle and the Greeks, to Thomas Aquinas and medieval Christian theology, to Einstein and modern science. The power of the question derives from a primal concern about the source of our sense of agency and responsibility for our decisions and actions.

The question has practical implications that reach well beyond a debate among philosophers and scholars. So, for example, should those who are severely mentally ill or cognitively impaired be held responsible for their criminal actions? What about children? Or someone who is drugged? Or forced at gunpoint to comply with a command?

No surprise—I do not have the answer. But I offer thoughts that help me to make sense of this question and enable me to reach an understanding that has some practical value. I will confine my comments to the psychological domain (although I think they can be applied to the physical sciences as well).

Psychological Science

Provocative findings from two areas of contemporary psychological research challenge the belief in free will. One research thread suggests that automatic cognitive processes occurring out of awareness control our actions. Our sense of agency occurs after our choices have been made; choice is an illusion. The second thread offers evidence that the neural impetus to act is already under way before the conscious intention to act occurs. Again, choice is an illusion. These data and conclusions, not surprisingly, have generated pointed challenges and heated disputes among scientists.

This debate is not new to psychology, as behaviorist researchers of previous generations also argued against free will. The most notable was B. F. Skinner, who in his book, “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” argued that we are the product of our reinforcement history and, consequently, freedom, dignity, as well as all other terms describing human traits and ideals are empty fictions. Needless to say, a great uproar ensued.

I would like to focus on four conceptual issues that are often overlooked in these disputes about the methods and meaning of these research findings: science and truth; the nature of will; yin-yang; and the pragmatics of “I can”.

Science and Truth

M. C. Escher: Drawing Hand

Scientist are independent thinkers who consider a question, pose a hypothesis to answer the question, devise experiments to test the hypothesis, and use the evidence derived from the experiments to determine if the hypothesis is true. If the evidence supports the hypothesis, the scientists have empirical justification for drawing valid, if provisional, conclusions about the question.

Now, if we accept the scientific evidence from the recent psychological research suggesting we lack free will, surely this conclusion applies to the scientists as well; that their hypotheses, decisions, tests, and conclusions are all determined.1 Validity and truth are, thus, comforting fictions, and the entire scientific enterprise of discovering an objective truth untainted by our personal opinions, subjective biases, and blinkered perspectives is a pointless exercise. What legitimate claim can scientists make that their findings should receive any more credibility than, say, astrology, reading palms, or divining from bird entrails? Paradoxically, if we accept the validity of the findings we must conclude that the findings cannot be objectively true. Furthermore, if we accept the soundness of this paradoxical conclusion, we also must, then, accept that this conclusion is not really the result of our judiciously considering the logic and meaning of the argument. Rather, it is just another round of self-delusion. And round and round it goes. Hmm…

What is Will?

Heave of Effort

It is typically assumed, both in common understanding and in the methods and interpretation of the research, that will is a single, conscious, heave of effort that leads to action. An alternative, more comprehensive understanding is that will is a “mental agency that transforms awareness into action, it is the bridge between desire and action.”2

Consider St. Paul’s definition of sin: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”3 I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. This is a situation that we all understand and often is a major focus of psychotherapy. A simple exhortation to engage will, to “get up off your butt and do it,” in these circumstances often fails. A conscious heave of effort fails because we harbor contradictory intentions and desires, some of which may be out of awareness. Will, the bridge between desire and action, is conflicted.

Psychotherapy is often focused on bringing hidden desires and conflicts into awareness, thus disencumbering will, enabling deeper conscious understanding of the conflicts, allowing deliberative consideration of the choices, and embracing responsibility for action. Cognitive science provides evidence for the power of unconscious factors, and neuroscience documents the neurological run-up to a conscious “heave of effort.” Will includes both these and much more.

Either-Or or Yin-Yang?

An assumption often made is that the question of free will is a dichotomous choice: Yes or no. It might be more fruitful to assume it to be a yin-yang relationship; freedom and determinism are interdependent, two sides of the same coin. So, for example, a piano has 88 keys. It is a deterministic structure that limits the possible notes that can be played. This relatively small set of keys, however, allows for the composition of an infinite number of songs. The 88 keys constrain or determine the possibilities, but within these constraints resides freedom.

Now consider the psychological and neuropsychological evidence of unconscious influences and neurological readiness potential that precedes conscious intention. We are a biological piano. We are able to make music, but are constrained in many, multiple ways by our anatomy. We do not have complete freedom and much happens out of awareness (and be thankful that it does, for we would be overcome to the point of paralysis by the Niagara of sensations, perceptions, ideas, and choices flooding our every waking moment). We are bound by the constraints of our being, which provide us with the means to create our music, sing our (December) songs.

I Can

One of the most important steps in psychotherapy is believing “I can.” It is understandable why many who are in dire straits, who have endured harrowing trauma, personal loss and anguish, or whose lives have been blighted by misfortune, feel doomed, condemned, and believe “I can’t”. The often difficult first step of seeking therapy carries the tentative hope that, “Maybe I can”. It is the beginning of the journey from “I can,” to “I will,” to “I did.”

William James, who is (in my view) the greatest American psychologist and philosopher, experienced a bout of severe depression, unable to rise from his bed, convinced that he had no free will to alter his situation. He overcame his depression by deciding that regardless of the evidence and compelling arguments for determinism, he would act as if he had free will; believe “I can.” His “will to believe”4 created the reality of free will.

James was a leader of the philosophical school called Pragmatism and he coined the term “Cash Value” to describe criteria to assess the merit and truth of an assertion or belief. Cash Value is used metaphorically, meaning “does the assertion have practical utility; does it have real-world consequences or is it merely empty words”. Cash Value can be applied to the question of free will.

Therapy is an act of courage, requiring effort, commitment, humility, resiliency, and honesty. All of these attributes, along with truth, justice, guilt, responsibility, dignity, etc., etc., etc., are self-delusional fictions if we seriously believe we are puppets of deterministic forces. The question of free will is a captivating puzzle and an impetus to interesting research and lively dispute. But, ultimately, only a conclusion of free will has any cash value. “I can” gives us our world. The choice between “I can” or “I can’t” is a hard-fought, life or death decision for many in anguish and distress, and scientific evidence and philosophical arguments are irrelevant. I take a stand for free will. I have no choice. . .5

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What is Intelligence?

What is intelligence?

This has been among the most longstanding, fiercely debated questions across a wide range of disciplines, from philosophy and psychology, to sociology and education, to anthropology and comparative biology. The practical consequences of this debate touch every one of us. Intelligence tests mark us, route us, and shape the expectations of our teachers, parents, peers and ourselves, which have a profound effect on who we are, who we think we are, and who we become. IQ score: A single figure, so much power.

Intelligence Tests

The choice of how we measure intelligence reveals what we think intelligence is, and the history of this testing exposes assumptions that underlie the testing. Knowing these assumptions allows us to critically examine what is typically understood to be intelligence.

The first tests of mental abilities were initiated at the end of the 19th century in the newly established scientific field of psychology. Unlike the philosophical speculation about the nature of mind that dominated Western thought for millennia, scientific psychology is rooted in laboratory experimentation. Psychophysics, the measurement of the physical properties of mental activity, was the predominant approach to the measurement of mind, which assessed reaction time, memory, and various measures of sensory acuity and discrimination (e.g. visual, auditory, touch).

A revolutionary study by Wissler in 1901 overturned this entire approach to measuring intelligence. He used the newly developed statistical measure, the correlation coefficient, to demonstrate that these tests were not correlated with school performance. This is very telling. The skills necessary for success in school are presumed to be essential to intelligence. This seems so transparently obvious that we fail to see the far reaching implications.

This is understandable, as success in school is critically important in today’s modern world. Intelligence tests arose hand-in-glove with the emergence of industrialization, which required mandatory schooling to provide workers with the skills necessary for this new form of society.

The first practical intelligence test, the Binet-Simon, was first published in 1905 and became the standard for assessing school children, and a revised form is still used today. Binet’s aim was to help teachers identify children who struggled in traditional school settings and could profit from alternative settings. Binet thought that intelligence is flexible, influenced by motivational issues and personal circumstances, and that the test failed to assess other important traits, such as creativity and emotional intelligence. The measurement of intelligence quickly became swept into the eugenics movement and engulfed in raging controversies about nature-nurture, race, cultural fairness, treatment of those who score low, and a host of other emotionally charged issues; contentious issues that remain with us.

Environmental Fit

We think that we are measuring and debating a universal capacity measured by these tests, but it is an intelligence that “fits” today’s techno-industrial world. Ours is a human-made environment; a very narrow, artificial environmental niche. Humans have adapted to the most diverse environments on the planet: deserts, jungles, Arctic regions, mountain tops, tropical islands, caves, savannas. Almost everywhere. Homo sapiens evolved approximately 300,000 years ago. Written language emerged about 5000 years ago and the first educational system was created about 4000 years ago. Schools have been absent for 99% of humans’ time on the planet.1

If we think of intelligence as the ability of a species to adapt to its environment, and failure on this test has mortal consequences, then there must be much more to intelligence that school-related abilities. Consider, for example, the skills required for early Pacific Islanders who, in small canoes, navigated the vast Pacific using stars, sun, moon, wind, clouds, ocean currents, fish, birds, waves, etc., etc., to reach a destination thousands of miles away (e.g., Hawaii). What kind of “intelligence test” would they develop?2 Certainly nothing like ours. And what would Eskimo, or Pigmy “intelligence tests” consist of? Very different again.

Much speculation has been given to the abilities that underly human capacity to survive across these varied environments, and include bipedalism, opposing thumbs, a complex brain, language, tool-use, genetic changes (e.g., genetic protection against malaria; capacity to digest a variety of foods) which take generations, and non-genetic capacities to flexibly adjust to environmental changes (e.g., culture practices, individual learning, transmission of skills across individuals). None of these require literacy or schooling.

Species’ Intelligence

Human intelligence has long been considered the pinnacle of a hierarchy of intelligence among species. More than a century of research has sought to examine the comparative intelligence of other species using, of course, human abilities as the yardstick. These abilities include tool use, language skills (those species able to learn analogues to human communication ranked as the smartest) and self-reflective consciousness, which encompasses the ability to consider the mental state of others and evidenced in deception, empathy, grief, envy and cooperative action with others.

The species that we have long considered to occupy the next rung below human intelligence are primates; species that look like us. More recently, this has changed, as many other species have been identified that possess these capacities, including dolphins, whales, elephants, birds and dogs. What has also changed, dramatically, is that species’ intelligence is no longer considered a totem pole but a bush. Each species possesses an intelligence, an ensemble of capacities that enable it to adapt and survive, often involving capacities humans do not possess, such as flight, echolocation, and the ability to perceive sensations invisible to humans (e.g., infra-red light; high and low sound frequencies, etc., etc.). If a fly were to construct an intelligence test, how well do you think we would do?

Our Species Intelligence Test

Ironically, the type of intelligence that “fits” our human-made techno-industrial niche supersizes our ability to survive and thrive almost anywhere on the planet. And also, to dramatically alter the entire biosphere—so much so that it threatens our very existence.3 Is this a measure of our superior intelligence or proof that it is very limited? Have we out-smarted ourselves?

The scope of the climate catastrophe will require more that individual intelligence. Our techno-industrial world is the product of a collective, collaborative intelligence that can solve problems beyond what individuals could not even dream possible on their own. We each may be very smart, but alone we are incapable of providing the many essentials required for living in the modern world, from producing a simple screw that holds things together, to electricity that makes everything run. We are part of a “Hive Mind”.4

The products of this Mind are the source of our imperiled biosphere, as well as the wellspring of the cornucopia of riches enjoyed in our modern society. And, perhaps, it may be our salvation. Each of us is but a single “neuron” in this vast Mind. But we are in networks with other “neurons”, and by influencing them, and they in turn influencing their connections, which then influence other networks, a cascade of changes can result that alters the workings of the Mind. Individually, we can recognize threats to our species survival and adaptively respond, but our actions must be a part of a larger systemic response of the Mind if we are to survive.

How intelligent are we? Individually? Collectively? We will soon find out. We cannot afford to fail this intelligence test.

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