Of Mice and Men and Empathy

I have a pet mouse. It’s not exactly a pet because it doesn’t live in a cage, but it lives in my office and uses my internet cable as a ladder to the air vents in the wall to enter and leave the house. It does this every evening, so I often see it scurry behind my desk, up the cable and out through the air bricks. Sometimes, my pet mouse stops at just about eye level and turns around briefly to check me out, but if I so much as blink, it races off. I don’t blame it.

As I sit at my desk working or web surfing, I often think about my mouse and what it thinks about when it looks at me. I’m pretty certain it is not burdened with language centres like I am, but is it conscious or is it, as so many learned scientists like to believe, just an unconscious or dimly conscious creature incapable of thought, reflection or random acts of kindness?

Rats in loveOne of our greatest human conceits amongst countless others is the contention that “only humans are capable of feeling empathy or compassion.” Anybody who has a pet dog knows that is nonsense, but now even science is coming to the party. Recent studies have proven pretty decisively that mice may be better “Christians” than we are. In one study, an uncaged rat went out of its way to free a caged rat and had to spend a considerable amount of time and effort to figure out a way to open its cage. Not only that, but it chose to engage in this act of compassion despite the enticement of freely available chocolate, which apparently rats love. To make matters even more interesting, it released its captive before it ate the chocolate and freely shared it with the other rat after releasing it. (Sources: Psychology Today and Science Daily)

Or how about this one, also from Psychology Today, Wild Justice and Emotional Intelligence in Animals:

CeAnn Lambert, director of the Indiana Coyote Rescue Center, saw that two baby mice had become trapped in the sink and were unable to scramble up the slick sides. They were exhausted and frightened. CeAnn filled a small lid with water and placed it in the sink. One of the mice hopped over and drank, but the other was too exhausted to move and remained crouched in the same spot. The stronger mouse found a piece of food and picked it up and carried it to the other. As the weaker mouse tried to nibble on the food, the stronger mouse moved the morsel closer and closer to the water until the weaker mouse could drink. CeAnn created a ramp with a piece of wood and the revived mice were soon able to scramble out of the sink.

On the other side of the equation, just the other night I saw a story on TV about a group of people on a beach in California who stood by and watched a man drown. Even though he was not in deep water and they had the means to save him, not one of them went to help him because they were afraid of the legal consequences if they did. In another segment on the same program, which was exploring just how selfish and brutal we have become (actually it was about America in particular), firefighters came to a burning house but refused to put out the fire because the owners hadn’t paid a $75 fee that entitled them to the firefighters’ services.

battery hensSome animals kill other animals, just like we do, but they don’t tend to torture them or slaughter them unnecessarily. They’re hungry, they kill and they eat. Foxes didn’t invent bizarre torture chambers like these cages for battery hens, for instance. Humans came up with that idea.

Now that I’ve removed us humans from the pinnacle of goodness, let’s take a quick look at evil, because this is where we reign supreme. Those of us who like the triune brain/frontal lobes theory like to believe the frontal lobes are the most evolved parts of the brain and are responsible for our feelings of empathy. There might be some truth to that, but, as I mentioned in an earlier blog and others have written about more eruditely elsewhere, the frontal lobes are now thought to be the seat of the executive centre and only incidentally connected with empathy or compassion. I can’t think of a single “less evolved” animal that regularly and methodically plans and executes the kinds of evil deeds we do. The fact that we undertake them consciously and upon reflection justify and “improve” our torture and murder techniques  just makes it worse.

We frontal lobe lovers like to lay the blame for ego and evil on our reptilian brains, but that really doesn’t hold water, either. Crocodiles don’t torture their prey and they certainly don’t go to elaborate lengths to invent horrible ways of killing others just for the sake of gaining, say, some oil-rich land.They kill, they eat and then they sleep or make baby crocodiles. There’s nothing inherently evil in any of that, so calling the reptilian part of the brain “reptilian” and saying it’s the seat of evil is kind of an insult to crocodiles.  Besides, our “reptilian” brains work tirelessly to keep us breathing, so we should show them a little gratitude.

Okay, I know you can come up with stories about cannibalism and infanticide in the animal kingdom. I’m not saying they’re all ascended masters or saints – just that an objective look at the facts seems to indicate that we are very far down on the evolutionary ladder (if there is such a thing) when it comes to stuff that really matters, like love and empathy.

So if evil can’t be so easily explained away, where does it come from? Well, I’m way above my self-imposed 500 word per blog limit, so I’ll save that for another post. Or you tell me. Thanks for visiting.

My Opinion Debunked, a Political Rant and More!

In my second-last post, The Battle of the Brains, I wrote:

At the beginning of this post I promised you a possible way to end the battle of the (individual) brains. Well, here it is. I try to make it a point to insert “in my opinion” in all my, well, opinions, no matter how dear to my heart they are. For example, it hurts when I stub my toe and I form a firm opinion that the stone is a more solid object than my toe and is therefore able to hurt me. However, as Einstein pointed out, “Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.” On a molecular level, there isn’t much substance to either my toe or a stone.

Well, I think there’s a problem with that theory. Thanks to Rowdy Mason, I was led to explore Robert Anton Wilson and Eprime a little bit. In Toward Understanding Eprime, RAW writes: “A revision of language structure, in particular, can alter the brain as dramatically as a psychedelic.” I can attest to that, because when I started replacing “facts” (or ‘to be’ verbs’) with the more open-ended “in my opinion,” worlds of possibility opened up and “miracles” became more commonplace in my life (really!). However, I also started to become a little bit wishy-washy.

In the same post, I wrote: “For example, it hurts when I stub my toe and I form a firm opinion that the stone is a more solid object than my toe and is therefore able to hurt me. However, as Einstein pointed out, ‘Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.’ On a molecular level, there isn’t much substance to either my toe or a stone.” When I stub my toe, it hurts, no matter what my opinion about the ultimate reality of stones and toes may be. It would be foolhardy (notice ‘be’ word) of me to say to myself, “This seems to hurt” and kick it again, while holding the thought that “matter is (another ‘to be’ factoid) an illusion” firmly in mind in hopes that my toe would pass harmlessly through the stone. With enough re-programming, I believe that is a possibility, but after a lifetime of stubbed toes, starting from the time I learned to walk, I apparently have become too firmly convinced that matter is solid.

In order to function, we make some fundamental assumptions and behave as if they were “facts.” Prior to 9/11, I operated on the assumption that the United States, while deeply flawed, was fundamentally a society based on humane values. Since then, I’ve increasingly formed the opinion that it is an “Evil Empire” hell-bent on achieving world dominance and dominance by the few at the expense of the many. In the past year, I’ve formed the opinion that if there is a chance at all for America to redeem itself, that chance is Ron Paul. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever backed a Presidential candidate and I’ve never voted. While I’ve kept my opinion open-ended enough to allow for debate, no one yet has convinced me to change that point of view.

I’m sure Ron Paul is as flawed a human being as any, but he represents positive change almost as profoundly as Gandhi or Martin Luther King did. As Paul Craig Roberts recently wrote in America’s Last Chance, “he is the only candidate who is not owned lock, stock, and barrel by the military-security complex, Wall Street, and the Israel Lobby.” He goes on to say that even in the unlikely event that he was elected, he would be prevented from implementing any of his policies, but that he should be backed and, if possible, elected anyway. This is why:

The reason we should vote for Ron Paul is to signal to the powers that be that we understand what they are doing to us. If Paul were to receive a large vote, it could have two good effects. One could be to introduce some caution into the establishment that would slow the march into more war and tyranny. The other is it would signal to Washington’s European and Japanese puppets that not all Americans are stupid sheep. Such an indication could make Washington’s puppet states more cautious and less cooperative with Washington’s drive for world hegemony.

So, while I still believe that all our opinions should be taken with a grain of salt, there are times when firmly standing behind our opinions becomes vitally important. I welcome voices of dissent, but if you’re an American living in America, I’d like you to look beyond domestic issues to the bigger picture and realise that the President you elect has an effect on all of us. If we all had a vote, I am almost certain that Ron Paul would win by a landslide because he is the only candidate telling America to stop messing with the rest of the world. Also, please read America’s Last Chance before commenting. Thanks.

 An alien in ancient Egypt?

Who is this guy?

Okay, I’ve stated my opinion. Now I can go back to being a cosmic schmuck for a little while. By the way, there’s no reason why the pyramids couldn’t have been built by master craftsmen who spotted a few curious aliens while they were working. That would be one explanation for this very alien looking creature.



Were the Pyramids Built by Aliens?

I don’t know, but I proved my point.

I’m really pleased with myself this morning. In my last post, my primary point was to suggest that, in so many words, if we put our heads together cooperatively, we could come up with solutions to problems. I used a couple of examples to illustrate my primary point, which was that in nature we see examples of brilliant engineering and cooperation towards reaching a desired goal without having to sit down and work it out on paper, whereas, it seems to me, we humans have become a fractured species.

I also wrote about the building of the pyramids. I knew that by putting forward the aliens argument I was heading for trouble and wrote:

When you read that I found it more plausible that aliens helped make the pyramids above, did you heartily agree with me, laugh and cancel your subscription to my newsletter or something in between? Had it been something in between, we could have started a dialogue.

Well, my two comments illustrate what I was getting at perfectly. In the first one, Neil Slade took the time to rationally explain another, even more rational solution to the aliens-in-charge theory. In the second one, a reader just whipped out a couple of insulting sentences, calling me a “cosmic schmuck.”

One thing I did leave out of my argument was an interesting tidbit about the building of the pyramids that I read someplace and that was that graffiti has been found etched in some of the stones. The graffiti strongly suggests that the builders of the pyramids were not slaves, but willing and enthusiastic workers working together towards a common goal.

As for the comment about the “great Anton Wilson”: yes, he’s a really interesting guy, but I’m not sure that putting him on a pedestal and suggesting that he would have sent me a searing rebuttal is the best way to go about making your point. The “great” Alfred Korzybski, who came up with the system that’s come to be known as general semantics, suggested something very similar to what I suggest about “in my opinion.” This is how they put it in the Wikipedia entry about him:

His system included modifying the way we consider the world, e.g., with an attitude of “I don’t know; let’s see,” to better discover or reflect its realities as revealed by modern science. One of these techniques involved becoming inwardly and outwardly quiet, an experience that he termed, “silence on the objective levels”.

Anyway, in my opinion, Neil Slade gets an A+ for his comment while Rowdy Mason gets a D-.

The Battle of the Brains

16 December: Please read the follow-up post, Were the Pyramids Built by Aliens, after you read this post. You may be surprised by the answer!

I received a much appreciated article length reply to a recent post from Neil Slade, so drop everything, go to A Fresh Look at the Split Brain and the Frontal Lobes, scroll down to the comments and read what he has to say.This post is only randomly connected to his comment, so don’t consider it a summary or a critique – just vaguely connected thoughts.

He starts off with a title, RIGHT BRAIN versus LEFT BRAIN, hence the title of today’s post. However, the battle I’m referring to is the battle that goes on between separate brains – yours and mine – and how to perhaps end it. Neil writes:

As humans figured out how to make better spears, armor, and other technology that allowed small numbers of people to control vastly larger numbers of people and creatures, suddenly, the advantages of left brain mechanics looked mighty tempting.

What I can’t understand and what nobody has adequately explained to me is what motivated people to invent weapons of mass destruction in the first place. What instigated this disastrous shift from right brain to left brain thinking and how did we function before we became so entrenched in our left brains?

In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes speculates fairly convincingly that until about 3000 years ago, individual consciousness in humans didn’t exist. Until then, our right brains ruled and we did things unconsciously. Just as our hearts beat and our blood circulates without our conscious intervention, we ate, slept, built stuff and even created elaborate myths and legends without even thinking about it. He cites early versions of texts like the Iliad that are written very differently than more recent versions or more recent additions to prove his point.

There are holes in his theory and it remains a controversial one, but that may have something to do with his definition of consciousness and perhaps a lack of recognition of a transition period or the possibility that just as a few people today have “paranormal” abilities, a handful of people back then may have been as freakishly self-centred as we are today. At any rate, my cursory reading of Jaynes’ opened up worlds of possibility to me.

Let’s take the pyramids, for example. The rational explanations for how they were designed and built are pathetic at best, especially when you consider the weight of the stones and the consistent geometrical patterns that occur in pyramids throughout the world. It is more rational to believe that they were built under the supervision of aliens than it is to believe that some big honchos got their engineers to design them and then forced tens of thousands of slaves to build them. Think about it. Wouldn’t ten thousand slaves require a hundred thousand soldiers to keep them in line?

aliens in egypt?

Aliens in Egypt?

It’s also more rational to believe that left brain (or left brain style) reptilians who had already messed up their own planet came here and messed with our DNA either just for fun, as an experiment, or because they wanted to dominate us and use us for their own nefarious purposes than it is to believe that the right brain – left brain switch just happened all by itself.

If I remember correctly, Julian Jaynes speculated that a cataclysmic event forced the switch, but I don’t buy that. The right brain is far more equipped to deal with the unexpected than the left brain, which can only operate from one known to the other.

Spider webDoes it sound implausible that the pyramids could have been built without extensive planning and design work or that an epic poem or song could arise spontaneously? All you have to do is watch a spider build a web or listen to a bird sing a song and you’ll see that it’s entirely possible. Is it possible for a bunch of people to work together in harmony without rules and regulations imposed from above? Think about the incredible achievements of an colony of ants or bees and you’ll see they are far more efficient workers than we are. Speaking of bees, did you know that they are suffering from “bee colony collapse disorder” thanks to our wonderful pesticides and other chemical goodies? That’s the most plausible theory, anyway.

At the beginning of this post I promised you a possible way to end the battle of the (individual) brains. Well, here it is. I try to make it a point to insert “in my opinion” in all my, well, opinions, no matter how dear to my heart they are. For example, it hurts when I stub my toe and I form a firm opinion that the stone is a more solid object than my toe and is therefore able to hurt me. However, as Einstein pointed out, “Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.” On a molecular level, there isn’t much substance to either my toe or a stone.

A big termite mound

A BIG termite mound

When you read that I found it more plausible that aliens helped make the pyramids above, did you heartily agree with me, laugh and cancel your subscription to my newsletter or something in between? Had it been something in between, we could have started a dialogue. It wouldn’t be as good a solution as simply knowing, like mound building termites know exactly what to do even when they’re not within shouting distance of each other, but it would be a start in the right direction.

When we realise that our opinions and those of others are just opinions and nothing more, we become humble and open minded. This automatically puts us in a cooperative frame of mind and perhaps, if we practice it enough, we can shift back into having a symbiotic relationship with one another instead of fighting all the time.

Beyond the Split Brain

I received some very interesting correspondence from Neil Slade after last week’s post. For one thing, he reminded me about the Curious Case of Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who had the “great good fortune” of being able to observe her own stroke in progress. I’ve tacked on her TED talk about it below, noticing that over one million seven hundred thousand people have viewed it. Obviously, the split brain is a subject of interest and her story is so extraordinary, it’s worth saving and listening to from time to time. In a nutshell, her stroke virtually destroyed her entire left brain and she came to the realisation that:

I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, all we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect. We are whole. And we are beautiful.

This wasn’t my first introduction to Jill Bolte Taylor and I mentioned her in my Sea of Joy chapter, The Split Brain, which, thanks to Iain McGilchrist, now needs further revision. One thing JBT taught me was that my attempts to get a nice balanced view of the brain were doomed to failure. Worse, as McGilchrist points out, the brain is not symmetrical. I love symmetry, so that is an unsettling revelation.

Anyway, as I wrote in The Split Brain:

The contradictory characteristics of brain behaviour have been a source of great embarrassment to some researchers, who have clung tenaciously to the idea that the brain is a compartmentalised construction and nothing more.

My concluding words were, “It is here that we have to leave the lump of grey matter behind and start surfing the Holographic Brain“. If a holographic brain sounds like a bizarre concept to you, please read the entry, because you’ll need to be able to accept it as a possibility before you move on to Thomas Campbell and his Big TOE. Campbell’s TOE (Theory of Everything) is that we live in a digital world or rather, all our perceived realities are digital realities. The more I listen to him, the more compelling his arguments become. For an introduction to Tom Campbell and his Big TOE, read my blog entry, Thomas Campbell,  William Blake and John Lennon: A Strange Symbiosis and watch the video attached to it.

And that brings me to the point of this entry. Note how I wrote “the more  compelling his arguments become” above. To “argue” is a distinctly left brain activity because it’s verbal in nature. There’s a huge problem with any verbal “argument” (whether benign or hostile): arguments are not grounded in reality or, as Iaian McGilchrist pointed out about the left brain, yield “a world that is ultimately lifeless.” Campbell presents his arguments in order to help us begin the process of disentangling ourselves from the narrow scope of our left brain, intellectual thinking processes and imagine alternate realities. That process of imagination is a right brain activity and hence is more holistic, balanced and ultimately realistic.

Personally, I think amygdala tickling and other visualisation techniques work simply because they are imaginative techniques. Whether or not the science is precisely correct is beside the point. The science helps, because we are so trapped in our illusory Newtonian, mechanistic world, we need an escape route and a compelling argument provides that route. Jill Taylor Bolte was lucky because she was a true believer in the world of matter and her stroke was a “stroke of insight” into the infinitely larger world of the “right brain” (in quotes because that is an illusory concept itself).  Most of the rest of us have to take a slower route, since our “left brain” is like a magnet pulling us back to earth.

Tom Campbell is interesting because he has explored many worlds, but doesn’t view any of them as particularly important. What he stresses again and again is the importance of LOVE as the ultimate reality that animates all temporary realities. As Walt Whitman wrote and is echoed by both Campbell and in JTB’s words quoted above:

And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love

(more than) Enough said. Enjoy the video: