Question of the Day: Do you follow the news?

At different times in my life, I’ve taken a sabbatical from the news.  I don’t listen to NPR; I don’t watch any news shows, including the “comedy” ones like the Daily Show; I’ve even been known to take lengthy breaks from facebook.  As someone vulnerable to depression, there are times I honestly can’t take it – I feel too vulnerable to the bad news bombarding us, and I feel too helpless to do anything that will make a difference, and I feel as a person of faith I should care, but I just don’t have it in me.  But then comes the pressure of obligation, especially as a pastor:  Shouldn’t I know what’s going on in the world?  Even if most of it is bad?  But then, didn’t Jesus just deal with what was right in front of him?

I heard this podcast from Freakonomics:

And I realized it’s a really good question:  Why do we follow the news?

Here are my questions:

  1. Do you follow the news?
  2. If you don’t, why don’t you?  Did you make a conscious decision not to, or does it not interest you?
  3. How do you feel about NOT following the news, if you don’t?
  4. If you do follow the news, have you wondered why?
  5. What would you say you get out of the news?
  6. What do you do with the news you hear?

I’m very curious about what you will say!

Next post:  What Margaret Heffernan, author of “Willful Blindness: Why we ignore the obvious at our peril,” has to say about our limited brains, and how that might affect our interactions with the news.

Dipping my toe back in: Neuroscience and Free WIll, or Does science prove Calvin was right?

Why did you decide what to eat – or not eat – for breakfast this morning?  Or, to make the stakes a wee bit higher, why does someone decide to kill another person?

Yes, it’s been a year since I’ve written or posted on fb.  That’s for another day.  Can we just say, “My brain made me do it?”

Because that’s the answer, and a very hot topic these days:  How culpable are we for our deeds and misdeeds, if our brains made us do it?  Implying that our brains are somehow separate from our selves, but in control of our selves.  Are we are just puppets, because our unconscious brain is in charge?  How accountable do we hold someone accused of a crime, if neglect and abuse shaped the earliest years of their brain?

If we’re born with a genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism, and we grew up in a home with alcoholic parents – Is it fair?  No.  Is it right?  No.  Does it explain how hard it is to resist certain patterns of thought and behavior?  Yes.  Does it then excuse our own addictive behavior and let us off the hook?  No. The brains of every one of us arrived pre-wired, then grew, with certain tendencies and characteristics.  There are folk whose brains don’t function well enough to hold them accountable.  But if you can read this, that isn’t you.

From one perspective it seems brain science proves Calvin right:  All is pre-determined.  But science also supports free will.  With your prefrontal cortex, how will you live with the brain you’ve got?  The self, the soul, the heart of who we are can rise above the influence of our reptilian impulses.  We have self-agency, and a responsibility to care for our brain just like we’re to care for our body, our children, our world.  No excuses for neglecting your center of compassion.

But what do you think?  How much of who you are and how you live is determined by your brain’s unconscious patterns and drives, and how much can you be held responsible?  I’m curious how you answer the question …


Making Sense of John’s Brain, Take 43

When we accepted the fact that Cousin John was indeed guilty of killing his father (pushing him off a trail at Mt. Rainier) and his mother (gunshots), I tried to make sense of it.  Apparently there is a word for this:  Parricide.  To kill both parents.

I went to the research:  To the library, to Amazon, to the scholarly research articles on Pubmed and Psychinfo.  I came across few scholarly articles that address this, but some statistics were strangely helpful.  Like how much Cousin John fit the profile:  White, single, male, middle to upper middle class, in his early 30’s.  But as much as we tried to wrack our brains, we couldn’t make our memories fit the “traditional,” (if there is such a thing,) profile of two of the three “types.” who kill their parents.  

One: You’ve got your severely mentally ill, but no one had seen any signs of severe mental illness – No schizophrenia, no hearing voices.  Okay, a touch of OCD, but that hardly seems enough to trigger such violence.

Two: Then you’ve got your severely abused, but again, no one had seen any signs, although I do know just how well these things can be hidden from view.  But that didn’t fit other criteria – Usually the circumstances involve an adolescent who sees no other escape from the trauma, and can be trying to protect siblings.

Which just leaves #3:  The third reason, the one we were left with: People kill their parents for money.  But curiously, Dr. Kathleen Heide, who’s written the most on this subject, hardly explores that sub-type.  I guess it’s so obvious, it doesn’t require more in-depth analysis?  

And yet, how does a brain decide this is a logical course of action?  That killing your parents for money makes sense, and is not only worth contemplating, but worth planning and executing?

This is where Daniel Eagleman’s book “Incognito” helps me out:  “Criminal activity itself should be taken as evidence of a brain’s abnormality.”  (p177)  Yes.  While I don’t know, and never will know, what was going on inside John’s brain, suffice to say that something wasn’t right up there in his head.  Even if it weren’t to meet any DSM 5 criteria for mental illness doesn’t mean that all was well.  Eagleman also says, “The bottom line is this:  Criminals should always be treated as incapable of having acted otherwise.”  (p177)  Yikes.  Doesn’t that just undermine our whole ethical, moral, criminal, judicial, theological, free will, order.  

I can’t quite wrap my mind around THAT right now.  But it makes sense to me that Cousin John’s brain wasn’t working in a way we recognize as “right,” or “healthy,” or “functional.”  What exactly was going on will remain a mystery.  One I’ll keep chewing on, even as I watch my own brain chew away at it.  Maybe my own brain will give up its own mysterious workings.



Good? or bad………

Quick, without thinking, off the top of your head:

Are people born generally good?

Or bad?

Chances are you find yourself on one side of that question or the other.  It’s one I ponder often.

In support of the “Good:”

Anne Frank says, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”  Do you agree?  Genesis says that we are created in the image of God.  What do you think?

Or, supporting the “Bad”

You’ve got good ol’ John Calvin, of Total Depravity theology:  “For our nature is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be inactive.”   Or Martin Luther:  “But what, then, is original sin? … it is his inclination to all that is evil……”

And a “prophet” of our own time, Stephen King:  “The true nature of man left to himself without restraint is not nobility but savagery.”

But here’s a related, and important, question:

Do you think you can tell the difference?  Can you tell a “good” person from a “bad” person?  (Please excuse the over-simplification here.  I don’t think we can throw away the key on anyone, no matter what, and even the very best person has dark sides. But…..)

I used to think I had pretty good instincts, pretty decent radar for such things, having had, in my life, several lengthy run-ins with folk who were, to oversimplify, “morally bad.”  Not to be too blunt, but do you think you could recognize a psychopath?

On one hand, I think most of us think we could.  I was listening to Ira Glass’ podcast of “This American Life.”  Here’s a link to the introduction, where Ira talks with “Cheryl” about her young son’s violent and anti-social behaviors (He’s tried to kill his siblings.  He’s 8.)

It will leave you chilled.  Once again, what I want to believe about people – and kids – is challenged.  We know so much about brain function and anatomy, and that we all differ in our empathic abilities, and that kids “on the spectrum” (of autism and aspergers’) have fewer connections from the region of the brain that detects, interprets, responds empathically to another’s emotional state.  But we also know about the brain’s plasticity, the ability to learn, to make and forge new connections, with the right environment.  On the other hand, obviously there are limitations to that as well.  Someone tested with a 70 IQ is not going to cure cancer, no matter how enriching and stimulating their childhood world.  But our brains tell us “Of course, we can tell the difference between someone who is “bad” – that is, evil, immoral, with psychopathic tendencies!”

But what about James Fallon, author of “The Psychopath Inside: A neuroscientist’s personal journey into the dark side of the brain.”  He says that if you have any indication that someone is a psychopath, don’t engage them, don’t try to love them, don’t try to change them.  GET AWAY FROM THEM as fast as possible.  And he considers himself one. 

Okaaaaaaaaaay.  But, a psychopath WOULD say that, wouldn’t they?  But rats:  Are people basically good?  Or basically bad, and have to be taught how to be good?  And do we just run from people who give us the willies?  But the literature says true psychopaths don’t GIVE us the willies.

I don’t have any answers, other than I’ve learned to be humble about my brain – and my gut – reaction.  After all, I had a psychopath to Thanksgiving Dinner, and no one knew it until it was definitively proven to us.  Did we miss the signs?  Or were there no signs to miss?  All I know is that once again, I have personal evidence that our brains let us down all the time.  It’s good to remember.

Lunch vs Logic

Once again, I heard the call from my office.  “Lunch time everyone!” yelled my supervisor.  Every single day, in my new job.  The same thing.  


We were a small office, and when the boss was hungry, it was lunchtime.  For everyone.  Whether or not we were hungry, we were expected to drop everything, grab our lunch, and sit in the meeting room all together, where we would try our very best to make small talk.  And act like we liked being there.  I hated it.

I hated it so much, I started coming up with excuses, no matter how lame:  “I’m not hungry.”  “I already ate.”  “I’m too busy – I’ll just eat at my desk.”  “I’m going to head out soon and I’ll grab something then.”  

No – No eating disorder.  Yes – Maybe just a smidgen of authority issues.  Mostly, though, I was and continue to be an introvert.  Please, just leave me alone to eat my lunch in peace, with my nose in a book.  

So, just tell your boss that at  lunch, you need some down time, some alone time, that you prefer to eat by yourself.  What’s so hard about  that?

Would you believe that this very issue came up in therapy for weeks, months.  I had no words for why I absolutely could not even imagine saying anything of the sort out loud to my supervisor.  Ever.   I could not even trying it once to see what would happen.  Even now as I remember this time in my life, my heart is beating a tiny bit faster.  

Now I better understand that those neural connections were jammed – They just were not going to go there.  And why not?  O, all these years later, I suspect my miserable reticence was just ordinary garden variety fear.  Fear made more powerful because I could not name it.   And I was very young.  And scared of my supervisor. But what fascinates me to this day is why such a simple thing seemed absolutely unthinkable at the time. (I never did say anything.)

What is going on in our brains at times like this?  Why do our neurons and synapses jam sometimes, and what can we do to coax them along?  In the grand scheme, this is such a harmless example – this forced lunchtime togetherness.  But in our lives, what keeps us blind to what is right there?  What keeps us mute?  What stops our thinking?  

“No, I can’t say THAT!”  or “I could NEVER do THAT!” or “You just don’t understand, it’s out of MY control.”  But when pushed, we can’t really articulate what is going on inside us.  We just know we CAN’T.  And it can be dangerous – If we are blind to the signs of autism in our toddler, to the signs our elderly parent shouldn’t be driving, to the signs our children are using drugs, to the signs we are heading to addiction.

Denial.  The deeply seated invisible denial.  If you say you are in denial, you are admitting there is something there to deny.  I’m not talking about that level of denial – That’s denial lite.  I’m talking about when we aren’t even aware of what is going on.  

What’s going on here?  One, our brains are geared to the imminent threat, not the long term consequences of avoiding the conflict, and addressing the issue feels like imminent threat.   And two, fear – especially the unnameable, unspeakable fear – holds us – our ability to think clearly – hostage.  It jams the thinking process, unless we can name it.

I keep digging to understand what is going on in our brains at times like that, and what we can do to help ourselves and each other coax those neurons along.  Those neurons, those synapses, they can be like skittish squirrels reluctant to take a tiny step closer, and we have to keep practicing, keep meditating, keep encouraging the truth to rise to the surface.  Sometimes, those neurons don’t connect themselves.  They need our mind’s help.  What has helped you let truth in?

Are you deluded about your self?

ImageMy daughter took this picture of me and my husband with her i-phone 4, which she will tell you does not have a great camera, but look at what it captured:  This stream of light between us. Now, we do not have one of those “lovey-dovey” cloud nine relationships – Just ask my friend Kelly, who gets an earful of the day to day complaints that can be a part of marriage.  Okay, maybe just my marriage.  But this isn’t a picture of marriage.  It’s a picture of what Dan Siegel calls our “Interpersonal Neurobiology.”  Which just means there is no such thing as a “self.”  In fact, Daniel Siegel Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, goes so far to say that the idea we have a “self” is a delusion – Like, in the mental illness sense of “delusion.”  And it is this delusion that accounts for most – if not all – the world’s problems, including climate change, hunger, poverty, and war.

Our brains, which means really, we, exist as they do only because of our connections with others.  It is those connections that shaped our brains as we grew up, and shape our brains each day of our lives.  From the very first breath we take, our brains are specifically wired to pay attention to, then mimic, then respond to the eyes, faces, and facial expressions of those around us.  Very quickly, infants learn they can get others to interact with them as they make eye contact and change their facial expressions.  Who hasn’t smiled at a baby in Target, and been thrilled to see them smile back?

Twenty-five years ago I left the PhD Clinical Psychology path for a call to ministry, because I was told there was no way to study what I knew deep in my being was real, but at that time, invisible and unmeasurable (and therefore, not real) according to the scientific field of psychology. Now, neuroscientific research is catching up to what we who are committed to a religious, or spiritual life, already know:  We are all one.  We can’t understand an individual neuron.  We can’t understand what’s going on with an individual cell.  We can’t understand our “selves” because they do not exist apart from our connections with others.  This is how our brains were and are wired:  To respond to one another.

So, that smile you give the person in the check-out line?  Even though you are tired and crabby yourself?  Not only does it change your brain chemicals to make you feel better, it literally lights up their brain, and makes them feel better too.  You are reshaping their brain, and yours, and in the process, reshaping reality.  Think all those small acts of kindness don’t make a difference?  Think again. Each time we remember and practice we are all one, we wake up from the delusion of individuality that threatens our survival.

The science proves it.  And all major world religions teach it.

A quote from world religions:  “We are interdependent. Each of us depends on the well-being of the whole, and so we have respect for the community of living beings.”  –from Towards a Global Ethic – An Initial Declaration, signed by 300 representatives of the world’s religions at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago

A quote from Naturalist, John Muir, 1911: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

A quote from Louis Cozolino:  “Our brains rely on other brains to remain healthy, especially under stress.”

For an easy read on the science, check out the book “Born for Love: Why empathy is essential and endangered, by Perry & Szalavitz:—Endangered/dp/0061656798/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1384355149&sr=8-1&keywords=born+for+love

For more in-depth study, try “The Neuroscience of Human Relationships,”  by Cozolino:

For a life-time of study, the Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, edited by Dan Siegel, will keep you busy.