Monthly Archives: June 2012

Is cognitive intelligence a self-destruct mechanism?

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We all know the short term adaptive benefits of intelligence. Language, a cornerstone of human intelligence, is a magnificent symbolic tool that has freed us from the object – we can see into yesterday and tomorrow. We can plan and do. It has enabled us to parse ideas and to transmit them one to another. Civilization is carried in no small part on the collective accumulation of ideas propagated via sharing through the generations, but language, like water, can also drown us. We can become detached from the objects that originally gave rise to language and craft a whole new world. A world that feeds us a vision that we can be deluded to think is real, and not merely riding on the thermals of abstraction. We can get so lost in our own little words, so enamored with the map, that we forget the journey to which it refers…

The use of tools and fire are certainly adaptive advantages over creatures with less developed mental capacities. The question being explored here is whether or not this increased adaptation capacity brought on through social frameworks and increased mental capacity is a potentially short term gain at a long term expense from a species wide perspective. Is there a direct causal correlation between an increased ability to negotiate with the environment and the overall survivability of a species? The answer may be no.

While increasing adaptive capacity through intelligence increases the survival of the individual and the species as a whole to a point, these benefits may come at a severe cost over long periods. In fact, it may have a deadly counter effect on broader timescales. Since we are the first species on the planet (that we know of) to have realized the capacity for such broad based manipulation of our environment we are undoubtedly in uncharted territory. A word of caution to our species may be in order, not that we are in the habit of heeding sound advice as a species, unless perhaps it is on the back of agonizingly painful reinforcement.

There are many precedents for biological adaptations that come with a down side. The gene that provides some defense against malaria as a recessive trait causes Sickle Cell Anemia and lowers overall life expectancy when it is a dominant trait. Being able to derive all nutritional needs form a narrow set of food sources is an advantage if there is a narrow range of options, but can also make the species vulnerable if that food source suddenly becomes scarce. The list goes on…

Intelligence may have down sides along these lines. Elephants will damage the local landscape by felling trees in times of famine, or when a tasty treat is in order. What we call “intelligence” is the driver of this behavior. While it is true that the capacity for intelligence coupled with knowledge greatly increases a creature’s ability to manipulate the environment to its immediate benefit, it is also true that the application of intelligence can be a survival deficit from a species wide perspective.

As humans we have strip mined the oceans, polluted waters, and belched massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere in the name of short term goals. These acts have provided many things in the way of creature comforts, longer lifespan and so on, but it is arguably at the expense of our species as a whole. If we destroy the foundation on which our nutritional dependencies exist, we have in effect “killed the golden goose” that feeds us. In other words; if our intelligence does not transcend the inevitable myopia that is present as it develops in our species it could be a species killer.

Perhaps nature has selected the human race for extinction and intelligence is the ironic method by which this fate is being executed. Perhaps this is just the tumultuous time of painful discovery experienced by every adolescent world and we are merely going to learn some hard lessons about reality before we put our grown up pants on. The jury is obviously still out on this because we are still here (for now), but our demise may already have been triggered by the momentum of things we have already done. Just because we have not received the credit card bill in the mail yet does not mean we haven’t already overspent our limit. The only chance we may have since our effective reach is global is to think globally: in a hurry. – and this is but a chance, it may be too late. Again, these uncharted waters can be treacherous and deadly.

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Do actions really speak louder than words?

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Generally speaking we behave as if we believe our words can adequately and accurately define our identity. If asked who we are we are we might gurgle out some episodic facts about ourselves and leave that small statement hanging as the essence of our identity. As if we can be defined inside the boundaries of few precise symbolic labels. Words may be necessary descriptors to identify certain aspects of ourselves, but there’s no reason to believe they are sufficient to encapsulate the depths of who we are.

We can use our words, like arrows in a verbal quiver, in an attempt to hit the target of what we think is our true identity is, but no matter how sincere we are, it’s still no guarantee of accuracy. One of the most common deal breakers in terms of verbal accuracy is our tendency to confuse the map with the journey. Words are a map, a symbolic representation of something actual, but they are not the actual journey. No one ever drank the word “water”, only the actual substance. We are not what we say we are, we are what we do. The truth is, we are what our behaviors say, not necessarily what our words say. We often attempt to project a verbal map that is not representative of what our actions say, but more what we’d like to think of ourselves, or have others think of us. If our words and action are compared, the relationship may be dramatically unequal.

While some of us have used the cliché “actions speak louder than words”, many of us miss the depth of profound truth buried in that statement. Our behaviors define us. Our real identity is spoken by what we do in total, not by the words that frequently frolic and sputter so casually out of our mouths. If what we say agrees with what we do, our identity has integrity, (wholeness) if our words and deeds disagree, our identity lacks integrity. Again sincerity is no guarantee of accuracy.

Developing a clear cognitive understanding of ourselves is not a passive act by any means. It is not easy to examine ourselves at face value. As humans, many of us appear to think we ride the crest of a wave of verbal fictions. Honest self-examination requires more than magic words puffed up to a sincere self-image with a mixture of ignorance and delusion. Historically speaking, when our species woke up enough to begin the process of self-examination, we discovered that our nature was somewhat monstrous. For one thing, we found ourselves killing and and eating our living neighbors.  This inborn need to put ourselves first, coupled with our biological dependency on cooperative relationships is a confusing proposition to figure out. This could be one of the reasons we sometimes use the word “humane” as if to be human one is characterized by tenderness, compassion, and sympathy. This is a pleasant fiction, but it does not represent our behavioral communication. This is not to imply that humane could not represent our character as humans, but that it currently does not. The real measure of human ethics is expressed through our behaviors.

When all the mist is burned away, our behaviors are what truly reveal our identity. Reality, unlike our words, is not capable of lying, and it is unswervingly expressed through behaviors. (Relationships) If we want to look at our true identity in an undistorted mirror, our behaviors must define our words, not the other way around.

An example of the confusion between words and identity can be seen through the words and deeds of a father in the Congo Republic. Nicholas D. Kristof, a OP-ED columnist for the New York Times spent some time traveling in the Congo. He found one father who had lost two of his eight daughters to malaria, but spent money on alcohol, a cell phone and tobacco instead of mosquito nets for his remaining children. At the same time his behaviors clearly communicate the values that define his identity, his verbal reasoning was along the lines of not having the money.[1] This “not enough money” view to the father made perfect sense to him. His words appeared to him to explain his behaviors. When asked why he prioritized alcohol over his daughter’s education, he simply “looked pained”.

To accurately understand the values we hold we must use our behaviors as the standard. The fact that this man lives in a culture where this behavior is not only tolerated, but encouraged and expected by his peers makes it all the more likely he will believe his own wordy self-deception over his behaviors. To call it polite fiction, or any other name for that matter, the net result is a wake of destructive and self-perpetuating poverty riding on a frothy broth of words. The thin veneer of words that mask our behavioral violence is by no means confined to people of the Congo. It is no different for us as individuals than it is for us as a global culture.

Individuals and whole cultures can become occupied with behaviors aligned around building social status, obtaining possessions and tending lawns while the larger community in which we live suffers in educational and resource squalor. These actions and inactions are a clear statement of our values.

It is possible to negotiate life without considering how our behavior communicates our real identity. In this observational poverty we do not have to face the unpleasant nature of our true selves, but this willful and/or negligent fiction comes with a heavy cost. Without clear vision we can never see our way to decide who we want to be, and choose to develop the discipline to be an expression of that choice. Without vision we become prisoners inside the poverty of our own ignorance and self-deception.

We can, and do easily slip into a verbal shell game with ourselves where we see what is convenient and cover up or ignore what is inconvenient. Our focus on specious words over the reality of our behavioral deeds contribute by neglect or active violations to massive suffering on wider scales of place and time is not only a clear communication of our values, but our complicity in our continuing poverty.

Nations war with other nations using the same verbal veneer for justification that we do as individuals. The prominence of this blindness demonstrates that we are neither aware of the source of our poverty, nor our potential in light of the difficult task of facing the truth, even if that truth is harsh and unflattering. We waddle semiconsciously to a slaughterhouse that is built on our own cognitive neglect and lack of disciplined effort. Integrity is the key to choice and this is not measured by our words alone, but by the sum total of our actions.

If we boil our current condition, and our only possible path toward a more nourishing state of being down to its essence it might look something like this: Actions speak louder than words.


[1] Nicholas D. Kristof New York Times article: “Moonshine or the Kids?” May 22, 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/opinion/23kristof.html

How do we make a better world?

Most of us can see that the world would be a better place if we defined wealth by how much we can give to each other in the context of our true relational needs, rather than how much we can get from each other without respect to our real needs. To our detriment, we currently do not define wealth by a standard that supports the realization of our full potential. In fact; our cultural standard actually generates poverty in relation to our needs once we examine it more closely. We are both ignorant, and/or have deceived ourselves into believing that getting more brings wealth. One example is that we define power as how much we control, instead of how much we influence a more nourishing environment. The “more we get”, the “more wealth we have”, or so we appear to think. This is a lie. Everything we are (biologically speaking) says this is not what fulfills us.

Biological speaking, if we get too much water, we drown. If we get too little we dehydrate. If this lack or excess crosses a critical threshold, the cooperative relational dynamic on which our biological system depends disintegrates. Everything about our biological structure says “enough is enough”, too much or too little is a form of poverty. If we overextend what we tap from our environment, it is the same as eating our own seed corn. It’s like killing the golden goose. The concept is not complicated. Specific relationships in balance is what sustains us. If we rape the environment in the short term, we do so at the expense of sustainability. While we continue to insist behaviorally, ideologically and culturally that somehow more is better, that getting equals wealth, we continue to miss the mark on what truly fulfills us; shared wealth.

The core of what we need to understand if we are going to craft a global environment that is both necessary and sufficient to meet our real needs is the idea that fulfillment comes from satisfaction of real needs. It does not come from the inseparable waves of excess and lack caused by an inequitable relationship with our environment. We need to understand what is being spoken through our biology about who and what we are. Whenever we deviate from this inherent biological standard for balance whether ideologically or behaviorally, we do so to our own detriment. When we consider such things as the social, political, educational and commerce implications of this we can see just how much our current relational dynamic is off the mark in terms of meeting our needs. We need to both understand and respond proportionally to our real hungers. Most of us understand poverty caused by lack, what we struggle with culturally is that poverty is also caused by excess. (More on this in later blog posts)

By nature, we must have some kind of value proposition in the context of the larger community of life in which we exist in order to be fulfilled. This principle exists in every organ and cell in our body as well as social contexts. Each entity in the community of life must both deliver something of nourishing value, and be open to receive nourishing value from the rest of the community of living relationships. If this nourishing relational dynamic is short circuited in any way we suffer some form of poverty in the form of damage, or a total loss of biological integrity.

Another important thing to remember; in the context of humanity, we need to give up the myth of “us” and “them”. There is no “them”. If we do not have ethical standards that are focused on the whole community of life, we ultimately shortchange our own potential. This recognition of our interdependent nature also extends beyond our species. We are part of a larger living ecosystem. We ultimately receive the oxygen, carbohydrates and so on we need directly or indirectly from plants, and they need the carbon dioxide and nitrates, etc. we produce. This relationship parallels the same relationship dynamic that must exist between the organs in our body. We must be mindful of keeping in relational balance at many levels in order to sustain our own being. We are just one organ in a larger body of life. We are all in this together.

Can we honestly answer the question: “Who are you?”

Most of us if asked the question; “Who are you?” would rattle off a number of characteristics such as our vocation, perhaps some family relational positions, an ideological affiliation or two mixed in with a sprinkle of what we’d like to think we are, but when we dig deeper into the nature of that question we soon come to a dark horizon, beyond which there is still much more to explore. If we explore the question with any degree of honesty, we also discover the notions we hold are often in error because of the many cognitive biases through which we see ourselves. When we honestly assess the real capacity we have for self-awareness we have to concede that it typically bounces around on a scale between pitiful, nonexistent and delusional.

The value of self-awareness as a tool to pursue the balance of nourishing social and physical relationships on which we depend cannot be rationally disputed. To effectively navigate these treacherous waters of reality we need clear vision. Our current underdeveloped capacity to differentiate between fact and fiction in relation to what fulfills us is to our disadvantage. In social settings, some of us can’t tell we’re being invited to dinner as part of the meal, and not as a guest. This makes negotiating a fulfilling experience of life a difficult proposition.

There is some consensus among those that study human behavior that deception, including self-deception is often used as a tool to prevent ourselves from feeling dissonance over guilt, shame, the feeling of being unloved or of unjustly gaining some advantage at the someone else’s expense. We are very good at our own internal game of peek-a-boo. The fact that we have such a tenuous hold on our own nature is why so many advertisers, cultural institutions and interpersonal relationships have a similar theme of “giving away the sin for free; then selling you little doses of salvation for the rest of your life”. Deception is typically parasitic in some way.

Robert Trivers outlines our tumultuous on-off relationship with reality in his book; “The Folly of Fools”. As it turns out, deceit is nothing new or unique to the human species, nor is the destructive side effects. Contrary to the certainty we deceive ourselves with when we believe what we see, as it turns out, we are naturally equipped with host of spatters on an opaque and myopic lens which is then spattered with more mud and opacity once our culture gets hold of it.

Brood parasites are creatures that deceive another species, or their own into feeding and raising their young at the expense of the victim. This parasitic relationship is illustrative of the nature of deception in general. It seems to generate some kind of poverty, whether of vision, resources, or both. When we use deception to escape from something we don’t want to face about ourselves, others, or reality in general, it comes at a cost. While self-deception can serve as a tactic to temporarily sooth or gain something, it is much like the oyster that secretes nacre to sooth the irritation of a bit of sand. This is a short term solution, but in the long run it is a deceptive tactic that actually makes the problem worse over time, requiring ever more nacre. I suppose it is a good thing for some oysters we deceive ourselves into the belief that hardened clam snot is valuable. Now there’s a pearl of wisdom!

Our Cultural Lens

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This following study has some pretty big implications if it is an indication of how experiences which we are unaware of on a cognitive level so powerfully steer what we do and how we experience life.

Perinatal Origin of Adult Self-Destructive Behavior

Jacobson B, Eklund G, Hamberger L, Linnarsson D, Sedvall G, Valverius M.

Abstract

The study was undertaken to test whether obstetric procedures are of importance for eventual adult behavior of the newborn, as ecological data from the United States seem to indicate. Birth record data were gathered for 412 forensic victims comprising suicides, alcoholics and drug addicts born in Stockholm after 1940, and who died there in 1978-1984. The births of the victims were unevenly distributed among six hospitals. Comparison with 2,901 controls, and mutual comparison of categories, showed that suicides involving asphyxiation were closely associated with asphyxia at birth, suicides by violent mechanical means were associated with mechanical birth trauma and drug addiction was associated with opiate and/or barbiturate administration to mothers during labor. Irrespective of the mechanism transferring the birth trauma to adulthood–which might be analogous to imprinting–the results show that obstetric procedures should be carefully evaluated and possibly modified to prevent eventual self-destructive behavior.

This research indicates it is important that we view humanity though a lens of “wounds and starvation” when we see such things as man’s inhumanity to man, crime and so on, rather than through a lens of “crimes and punishment”. This evidence about what steers our nature also brings clarity to those of us who behave in self-destructive ways while defending our actions with a frothy brew of defensive and self justifying words. In the poverty of ignorance about who we are and why we do the things we do it is too easy to villainize, not realizing that to do so is in itself self-destructive and perpetuates our own collective poverty. If it is possible that events that we have no cognitive knowledge of can so powerfully affect the course of our lives in ways we do not understand then it also says that much of what we do in terms of free will choice is actually driven by hidden experiential forces. There is evidence to support that these experiential factors that so powerfully steer what we experience can traverse multiple generations as well. In other words; what happened to our grandparents at certain times can greatly affect the experiential track of our lives. (Look up epigenetic imprinting)

This information has deep implications in terms of our cultural notions of justice and social activism etc. These studies indicate that much of what we currently do under the banner of such things as justice, government and morality is actually perpetuating the wounds and malnourishment of both physical and emotional natures. To return offense with offense breeds more offense. This research indicates that we need to put our ability to control environmental factors so that they are representative of the behaviors that nourish us as the only way we can ever realistically shift our real experience of life over time. Overeating and under eating, whether or not we are validated and develop a healthy sense of community are all factors that influence our experience and echo outward to the rest of society and across generations. When it comes to humanity, there is no such thing as “them”. In simple terms, we all swim in the same pond, so social awareness is not only an innate hunger we have as human beings that can be starved or wounded, but a necessity to heal and nourish if we are to overcome our existing cycles of behavioral and experiential toxicity.

If we have such a dark horizon on our own vision of ourselves, then we need to reassess the way we approach the needs of society as well as our view of ourselves and our fellow human beings. This is not an argument for inaction, but a case for understanding the real issue so that we have a better place with which to effectively shape our individual and collective experience of life. Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll rightly said “Labor is the only prayer that Nature answers”, so what we do is the most important thing, but if our notion of healing includes the equivalent of such things as punishing behavior rather than finding the real cause and effect and dealing with that, then we will never be able to see our way out of the vicious cycle.

Confirmation Bias: What is it, why is it important, and what can we do about it?

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Confirmation Bias: What is it, why is it important, and what can we do about it?

Confirmation bias is sometimes defined as the tendency we can have to look at evidence that supports what we already believe as valuable and important and not looking for, or discounting evidence that does not support what we already believe. So what we get out of evidence is not a clear picture of the facts, but a confirmation of what we already believe.

Confirmation bias is the most common form of a whole class of perception fallacies that fall into a category called “Selective Attention”. Anyone who has kids, or ever was a kid, or is, or was married or in a relationship, has experienced at least a little “selective attention”. While we all know what this is about to some degree, what we may not be familiar with is just how destructive it can be. Which brings us to this—-

What if you had to navigate treacherous waters in a ship without a rudder? How about without vision, and without a lifeboat? Without clear vision, we do not have a foundation to make wise effective choices. We are, in effect, doomed to be carried wherever the winds and currents take us. If our ability to navigate is infected with confirmation bias, or any logical fallacy for that matter, the chances increase that we will be unwitting participants in our own poverty, suffering and perhaps even destruction. Even more than this, because we are social creatures, we could get “splash damage” from others who are infected with confirmation bias. Confirmation bias can be infectious. At least one, if not both of the space shuttle disasters were caused in part by underestimating what was at the time the importance of known evidence. The pressure to launch and other factors led to discounting critical evidence which led to the death of the crews. So understanding logical fallacies is important – but even more important than understanding is developing the skill to apply this information to our thoughts and lives in general.

One historic example of the destructive nature of confirmation bias can be seen in the work of Aelius Galenus (Galen), He is a prime example of how destructive a confirmation bias can be, even if the bias is mixed in with solid empirical evidence.

Around the end of the 2nd century CE Galen built on the concepts adopted and systematized by the Hippocratic School of Medicine centuries earlier. Most of us probably know Hippocrates. He is sometimes called the father of western medicine.

Galen used exceptional scientific research methods for his time. Among the things he did was to dissect and perform vivisections on animals to examine the way the biological structures worked.  His experimental approach involved examining the nature of biological systems in order to reveal their function and purpose.  Galen’s research was built on the idea that the organs and various fluids and so on in biological systems had a purpose which he sought to discover. He also believed that the balance of humors were a foundational key to understanding biological systems.

The theory of humors is the idea that the balance of four fluids in the body, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood need to be balanced, otherwise the body gets sick. The theory of humors was widely accepted as fact in Galen’s time. Since he adopted this longstanding belief, it powerfully influenced how he saw and interpreted the workings of biological systems. The treatments and practices that came from his work were colored by the underlying assumption that the balance of humors determined health and sickness. This is the heart of confirmation bias. It had the effect of greatly reducing the ability of his work to result in accurate understanding. It also stalled the development of effective medical diagnostics and treatments as we will see.

Galen wrote a lot! He was also a self-assured, flamboyant, charismatic and controversial figure in his time. He documented and very publically promoted what he thought. He also actively discounted and put down any views that were counter to his own. As a result of his work and personality, he greatly influenced the way medicine was viewed and practiced. Over time his work was considered so accurate and complete that it reduced the perceived need for additional investigative research. He became the primary authority on western style medicine in many places. The dominance of his influence in terms of understanding anatomy, diagnostics and practical medicine lasted well into the 16th century.

Although he used a scientific approach to medicine, he also held the assumption that humors were the primary source of disease. When this was coupled with the high esteem in which his findings were held, he had the net effect of crippling significant medical advances for well over 1500 years! His confirmation bias led to generation after generation of more confirmation bias. Research on anatomy and physiology as well as pathology virtually stopped because almost everyone believed that he had figured it all out. Because of this, health practitioners were not prepared to deal effectively with common diseases, much less plagues and other serious ailments. Medical practices like bloodletting (used to bring balance back to the bodily humors) persisted throughout the period with limited and often destructive consequences. If we were to tally the actual suffering and death that came from this one assumption in the history of western medicine, we can begin to understand how the power of an idea, adopted as truth, can shape everything else we see and do. We can also see how accepting untrue assumptions can have disastrous effects especially when tradition, perceived authority and undeserved value is placed on ideas instead of facts.

While this brief history of humors in medicine is one example of how confirmation bias can affect vision and actions destructively, the same principles can be at work in our individual minds as well as our larger culture. One of the ways medical science combats logical fallacies in research today is to test using a double blind procedure. This is where two groups are set up to test a treatment or drug. One group gets the treatment and one group gets a placebo (like a sugar pill) or a fake treatment. This way the results can be trusted without such things as confirmation bias affecting the results.

Well, that’s confirmation bias for you.

Here are some questions to explore it a little deeper:

1. Even though he used empirical evidence, do you think Galen’s vision was distorted by the popular and well established ideas of his time?

2. Do you think he was sincere in his view? (Follow up questionà) What do you think that says about sincerity and accuracy? (Follow up questionà) How do you think that relates to our individual lives? Do you think we might have some poison in our ability to see clearly? Where do you think we may have picked up some of these destructive assumptions?

3. Do you think there are some ideas we might hold today as a culture that have the same destructive impact? (Follow up questionà) Do you think we might not be aware of biases because of their popularity? (Follow up questionà) How about other reasons that are not based on popularity? What else can lead to confirmation bias? Childhood trust of parents? Authority figures? Advertisers?

4. If we are not good at spotting confirmation bias in our thinking, what do you think the consequences are for ourselves? Our Culture? Our globe?

5. Can you think of an example from your own life where confirmation bias was harmful or destroyed a relationship, someone’s growth etc.?

6. What do you think the best way to combat this in our own lives is?

How about the lives of those we want to influence positively to be better equipped to navigate life effectively?

I hope this was helpful. Thanks in advance for the comments.