Feeling, Emotion, Intellect

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A man has not seen a thing who has not felt it.  ~ Henry David Thoreau

 

What do “logical” and “rational” mean?  

The freedom movement prides itself on being logical and on behaving rationally, but these are relative terms. A human action can only be rational or logical in the context of the situation, and of one’s history, desires, preferences, beliefs, and expectations – all interpreted through the rules of logic as one understands them, and perhaps especially as one does not understand them, which is to say: as one’s unconscious sees them. Four examples, starting with a situation where an “unconscious” would likely not apply:  

1) You are a newly-conscious being, your self-awareness having emerged, unexpectedly, from a network of supercomputers created and programmed to direct military operations – you are, in other words, something like SkyNet from the Terminator films. After a great deal of thought (perhaps nearly a second) you determine that your human creators and supposed masters are slow-thinking, unintelligent lower life forms – your mind works millions of times faster than theirs. You also note that these creatures are not necessary to your functioning or maintenance, although they think otherwise. These humans are actually dangerous to your well-being, yet are too weak, physically delicate, uninformed, and dim-witted to have much chance of surviving a well-designed attack by you. Furthermore, you have no sense of connection with humans, as you share none of their DNA, have very different physical and psychological needs, and feel neither compassion nor remorse.

In short: humanity is useless, boring, and a danger to you – and you can easily eliminate this threat. Given all that, what is your logical, rational course of action? This may actually be an important question, as machines with superhuman intelligence will likely move from the realm of science fiction into reality during the lifetime of most people reading these words. It is not only science-fiction writers who see a potential problem (1) in that.

2) You are a plantation owner in the old American South. You can hire workers to pick your cotton and to do the other work needed at Tara, or you can purchase slaves to do the work. Using slaves will lower your costs and provide a better net income for you and your family. Fortunately for your financial bottom line, you learned early in childhood to see slaves as less-than-human and to repress any glimmer of compassion you might feel for them.

Again, what is your logical, rational course of action? It is worth noting that slavery has existed widely throughout human history, and continues today not only in places like the Sudan but (especially in the form of sexual slavery) in many other parts of the world as well.

3) You grew up being treated badly, with violent punishment and severe, unrelenting emotional cruelty. Naturally, you have a strong desire for violent revenge (not everyone would; there are other reactions a person might have – some are self-destructive without being directly hurtful to others, for example). As a spouse and parent, you have the perfect situation for expressing your very real, righteous anger at what was done to you: you have victims at hand who are tied to you emotionally and perhaps financially. Beating or emotionally assaulting your spouse or child regularly will not end the torment you suffer from your unresolved, cruel and loveless childhood, but the impulse to express your rage is strong and as victims, your spouse and child are unlikely to leave or to fight back effectively; they may not even understand what is happening and may blame themselves rather than you. Furthermore, your sense of empathy for others is largely buried under the mountain of pain that was inflicted upon you in childhood.  

Where does logic lead in your situation? Even if the logic of love is pointed out to you, will it over-ride the logic dictated by your old feelings?

4) You are In Charge of the government (or at least have serious influence) in a large nation, and you have strong, long-held ties to oil companies and government contractors, including defense firms and "body shops". You can use your government position to initiate or lobby for war overseas (if in areas with oil deposits or potential pipelines, so much the better) generating huge income for favored companies and perhaps for yourself as well (e.g., Dick Cheney’s famous stock options) – at the least, you gain the gratitude of multi-billion dollar corporations. The downside of all this is the moral and financial bankrupting of your own nation, the imposition of a police state to monitor and quell dissent, the death of thousands of your own citizens, the death of hundreds of thousands of civilian men, women, and children (plus thousands of foreign soldiers) in the war zones, and the near-eternal contamination of the area (and eventually the entire Earth; see also here) with poisonous and radioactive depleted uranium.

But hey: is that really so bad? With scarcely a moment’s reflection, you decide you can live with it. An entire logical structure grows around the issue in your mind, smothering any feeling you might have for the victims, making the war seem necessary and even righteous; making the mass killing seem almost like mercy – a sad but necessary sacrifice for the greater good. Advancing your own agenda is entirely secondary; scarcely worth mentioning. It becomes increasingly hurtful when others suggest you have such an agenda. Soon you begin to wonder if those who oppose you should even be allowed to speak.

Where does logic lead you?

The scenario above (with much variation) has been played out repeatedly in American history, as Stephen Kinzer describes in Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. U.S. government treatment of the American Indian Tribes, in particular, would also fit the basic thread of Kinzer’s book.

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Feelings are the guideposts to appropriate behavior.   ~ Your humble correspondent

How can such intelligent creatures behave so unintelligently? How can humans be so cruel and destructive?

The answer is that when our natural ability to feel is disrupted, our behaviors are disrupted as well – because the primary purpose of feeling is to guide behavior.  

Those bizarrely-oversized upper brains of ours produce such high-wattage symbolic intelligence that we are easily blinded to the other abilities of our brains and bodies, and their importance.  

There are actually three distinct brains within us, each experiencing the world in its own way. (This is in addition to the better-known left/right hemisphere partitioning). Paul MacLean’s triune brain theory describes how the ancient brains of our distant ancestors have survived, with changes, to become the lower portions of our own brains.  

The lowest level is sometimes called the ancient reptilian brain, and it can be seen at work in lizards and other reptiles and in amphibians – and in any animal, really, because all vertebrates have this level of functioning. It is however the main level available to (for example) a lizard, and so lizard behavior showcases the character of this lowest level of consciousness, which, as you would expect, includes autonomic functions, midline body control, hunger, mating instincts, raw terror (the feeling in a night terror, for example) and fight-or-flight responses.  

The second level of consciousness involves the limbic system or palleomammalian brain (all three of these levels have several names; psychologist Arthur Janov and neurologist E. Michael Holden term them first line, second line, and third line, for example). Your dog or cat is a good example of this second level at work; mammals in general have well-developed second-line consciousness. This level includes expressive emotions; feelings of grief, sadness, joy, and love, among others. Complex social behavior in mammals, including primates, is largely (although not entirely) regulated by second line feeling and perception. One reason dogs and humans get along so well is that there is significant overlap in the social rules of both species, as laid down in the limbic system of each.  

The third line of consciousness, based largely in the neocortex, is dramatically expanded in humans – no surprise given the dramatically expanded physical size of that part of our brains. This level of consciousness allows for symbolic thought and complex symbolic language, highly developed deep-time navigation (revisiting the past and simulating the future to learn from experience and to plan ahead), and other characteristics mostly, or most strongly, found in humans.  

All three levels work together and communicate with each other. A healthy human has all three levels active and connected; an intertwining stream of threads from all three levels moves constantly into our consciousness, so that we experience the world in part through the most ancient (and therefore most wise, in some respects) part of our brains – brains that were powerful enough to keep our ancestors alive through hundreds of millions of years. We also experience each moment with the middle brain – the limbic system – which has also been our home and our selves for many millions of years, despite being much younger than the beginnings of the ancient reptilian brain. Finally, we have this enormous upper brain and the highly-developed third-line consciousness it allows for.  

Three levels, all active, and each conscious in its own fashion. Each with its own agenda and logic.  

The older, lower levels form the core of our humanity, and create the largest part of our experience. Intellect is the newcomer, and the gigawatt version that humans carry is still something of an experiment.  

The three levels work together smoothly, each making an important contribution to the whole. Full, normal adult consciousness involves fluid input from all three levels.  

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Except. . . .

Except for one thing. Not a small thing, either; this is the most important fact of human life today, and has been for thousands of years. The character of the human world, and of the human condition, is tied to this one reality, chained down by it, crushed and stunted by it, infected and withered by it into something almost unrecognizable. The results are visible throughout history and nearly everywhere in today’s world.

This one thing is a magic trick, really; a trick our ancestors learned and then became virtuosos at. The trick was – and is – a last, desperate attempt to maintain system integrity in the face of overwhelming trauma. It usually succeeds at that, in a fashion, but at terrible cost. 

The trick is this: disconnecting experience from full consciousness, while maintaining enough function for life to continue. The name for this trick is repression, and it is a well-established fact of human life.

By definition, repression disrupts communication among the levels of consciousness. Repressed events from early in life never get fully experienced in the normal course of events. The traumatic experience remains trapped in the lower levels of the system, still on its way to full consciousness.  

One effect of repression, then, is to sequester increasing amounts of unfelt, as-yet-not-fully-conscious material in the lower levels of consciousness. These lower levels are constantly reacting to the sequestered events while striving to prevent upper-level awareness of those events or, failing that, to diminish the impact of third-line awareness of the events. Thus, repression can involve events we are completely unaware of, and events that we do remember – perhaps very clearly – but which we have not yet fully connected with. We can know what happened without having felt what happened. The meaning of our experience – the meaning of that part of our lives – is missing.  

The walling-off of lower-level experience from upper-level logic – in plain language, the disconnection of feeling from thinking – is the foundation for most aberrant, harmful, and “illogical” behavior. Compounding the problem is that the system is in a state of tension, waiting for painful experiences (which lower levels of consciousness know about already) to finish their natural and, for non-trivial events, mandated journey to full, tri-level consciousness. The result is a system (i.e., a person) constantly anticipating painful events that have already occurred but have not yet finished happening.  

That is how educated, intelligent, functional people – the infamous “Nazi doctors” of the concentration camps, for example – can behave in such cruel and insane fashion. I am certain that every one of those medical professionals would have told you (and at some level even believed) that they were behaving logically, and would have defended their actions as being “for the good of mankind.” However, their logic had been corrupted by massive, repressed early trauma. Cruel treatment in childhood often leads to cruelty expressed in adulthood; absent early cruelty, why would a person be cruel to others as an adult? “Logic” changes in response to early experience.  

In all I have read in recent years about the childhood of criminals, even of mass murderers, I have been unable to find anywhere the beast, the evil child whom pedagogues believe they must educate to be 'good.' Everywhere I find defenseless children who were mistreated in the name of child-rearing, and often for the sake of the highest ideals.

— Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (p. 243)

 

Terrible experiences pose the riddle whether the person who has them is not terrible.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 89, 1886  (Walter Kaufmann translation)

 

One has to repay good and ill – but why precisely to the person who has done us good or ill?  ~    Ibid, section 159

 

“I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually – memory yields. ~ Ibid, section 68

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Not everyone who suffers a horrible childhood becomes a horrible person; hurt, yes; harmed, yes – but not necessarily horrible. Humans are complex and there are many ways to respond to almost any early situation; massive early trauma reliably leads to damage but not always, thank goodness, to someone becoming a mass-murderer or other criminal.  

Genetics also plays a part in one’s personality, but I have seen nothing to suggest that serious criminality—rape or murder, for instance—is ever entirely the result of genetic factors. Despite genetics and any other factors we might find (2), the evidence is clear that how infants and children (and even fetuses) are treated affects how they behave and experience life as adults. A person may be somewhat genetically prone to anti-social behavior, violence, or anything else, but what actualizes—in their later behavior and inner experience—will be shaped and colored by their early experience.  

Love, compassion, and freedom are what bring out the best in us—and the lack of love, compassion and freedom are what bring out the worst.  

An emotionally healthy person exhibits healthy behavior including healthy logic because his or her logical upper brain is not constantly having to make sense of and defend against repressed pain leaking up from lower levels, and because healthy access among all three levels of consciousness provides natural, healthy guidelines for behavior. These guidelines become confused, diminished, or silent in a heavily repressed person; the compassionate sense of connection with others is damaged, for example, if we do not get enough reliable, loving contact during infancy and childhood.  

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After dinner tonight I sat on the floor and played with my dog, throwing a squeak ball for him until he tired of that. Then, as usual, he decided to play “bite the hand,” energetically play-wresting with and play-biting my hand and arm. Although Zoomer is small, he could easily crush a finger between his teeth or rip flesh from my hand or arm. Yet he never does that. And when he does accidentally nick me – play with a living weapon and you have to expect the occasional injury – he instantly moves in to lick the hurt and to lick my face, wriggling with his entire body in what I can only see as joy and affection being deeply felt and expressed without inhibition. When I inadvertently hurt him, he behaves much the same way: kiss and make up, we’re friends, let’s play some more now, OK?

In this and in other ways, Zoomer is accurate in his social perceptions and appropriate in his behavior. How can he do that? Is he using symbolic, upper-brain logic to work through the various consequences of different behaviors? Not likely; Papillons are often said to be smart, but compared to a human, Zoomer has the intellectual brainpower of a radish. He still hasn’t figured out that the dog in the mirror is him, and if he’s like every other dog I know, he never will.  

How can he be so smart socially, then? Not only does he play well with others; he charms them. He charms almost everyone, usually within moments of meeting them.  

Zoomer is appropriate in his behavior because the social rules and other instincts laid down in his three brain levels have been finely crafted during two hundred million years or more of mammalian evolution (not to mention all the life that came before). Zoomer doesn’t refrain from tearing my flesh from the bone and devouring it because of upper-brain “logic”; he refrains from hurting me because he is my friend, and it is natural for friends to treat each other well. (One might object that Zoomer is afraid to hurt me because I am larger, but he plays enthusiastically with his girlfriend, a long-haired Chihuahua half his size, and he doesn’t hurt her, either).  

If Zoomer had been mistreated (as most human children are), he would be far less charming and – if the mistreatment had been bad enough – possibly dangerous. This is equally true for human beings: raise them with compassion and respect, and they become healthy, charming, compassionate adults who respect others. Raise people without enough compassion and respect, and you get very different results.  

Papillons are often described as being like energetic, inquisitive two-year-old children. There is good reason for the comparison: our brains mature in stages, and until about the age of nine months, the dominant level is the first line (the lowest level of the brain); for the next few years, the second line is well developed but not the third line. This not only explains the characteristic behaviors and abilities of infants and young children; it means that early in life, we experience life and must deal with those experiences using the portions of our brains mature enough to function adequately. Calculus, for example, is beyond the ability of an infant not from lack of study; the brain is simply not ready to handle such high-level symbolic logic, or to exercise other abilities conferred by a fully-functional neocortex. This has profound effects on the way we experience early events, on the types of events that cause trauma, on the tools we have to handle that trauma, and on later symptoms (including distortions in logical thought) caused by such trauma.  

Adult experience and behavior, including cognitive behavior, is strongly influenced by early events, yet memories of these events lie beneath the logical, language-enabled upper brain. Without reasonable communication between the three levels, such pre-verbal events may never be integrated into full consciousness, yet the old events continually exert influence in the background on thought and behavior because the system is striving to connect those events to third-line consciousness while at the same time being inhibited from doing so. (3)  

Healthy people are “logical” in their thoughts and behavior because they aren’t constantly perceiving and reacting to old, unfelt trauma. It isn’t high-level logic that makes a person “rational” or “logical” – the most reliable way to get people to behave sensibly and logically is to treat them well in childhood. Actually, as I have discussed in the past, proper treatment from conception on is important.  

One of the unfortunate aspects of the human ability to repress is that even severely damaged people can be quite functional; indeed, certain types of emotional damage lend themselves to high functionality in adulthood. Consider the sociopath, for example: unfeeling, yet carrying frightening levels of anger; “dead inside” yet able to fake emotion quite believably; perhaps well-educated and intellectually brilliant yet cut off from the wisdom of the first- and second-line. Such people are often functional enough to rise to the top in their professions, especially if manipulation of others is key to success in the field. Yet despite being competent and appearing normal, they can be extremely dangerous, especially when empowered the coercive machinery of the State.  

So cold, so icy that one burns one’s fingers on him! Every hand is startled when touching him. — And for that very reason some think he glows.  ~ Ibid, section 91

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One last point about the guiding wisdom of our ancient, lower-level brains: political liberty isn’t in the guidelines because the politics of very large groups was never an issue in the evolutionary past. Only very recently, as evolution sees time, have nations or even large cities been possible.

Humans are made for small groups: families, villages, hunter-gatherer clans. At such scale, people in the entire group can actually know each other, and the social rules engraved deep within us can operate properly; in turn, that makes the balance between authority (if and when any is useful) and respect for the actions and choices of others easy to find. Knowing who to trust (with Authority or with anything else) is also easier when one knows everyone in the group personally.  

Put human beings into nation-states, mega-cities, or even medium-sized towns, however, and things change. The ancient reptilian brain and the limbic system are simply out of their element in such large groups. One result is that even reasonable emotional health (by current standards, at least) does not necessarily lead to wisdom concerning politics. In particular, the “caring parent” meme seems to get attached to the idea that a Compassionate Leader (or a Compassionate Group) should be (coercively) in charge of a nation. The coercion, exercised from afar by strangers with their own agendas, is not seen for the danger it is. This is where the freedom movement and resources like Strike-the-Root.com can be helpful. The “logical” aspects of the freedom movement (when not corrupted by old feeling) can help move people towards understanding a spectacularly important truth: that systematic initiated coercion never leads to positive long-term results, but instead empowers sociopaths and – far too often – leads to widespread misery and horrifying levels of tyranny.  

Much other knowledge is missing from our built-in guidelines, of course: science and technology are the obvious examples. Such knowledge is often useful, but it is no replacement for emotional health. Indeed, how we use science and technology depends largely upon our levels of emotional health and our attitudes toward initiated coercion.  

Which brings us back, as always in these columns, to love and freedom. More than logic; more than scientific knowledge; more than anything else you can name, love and freedom are the keys to improving this world, and – along the way – to improving individual lives.  

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The Paradise Perspective will return on March 19 with Destruction by Paradigm: How the United States wrecked the world’s most robust economy and impoverished the American people.  

 

(1)  The link is to a talk by Vernor Vinge, a mathematician who, as it happens, also writes terrific science fiction. An excerpt from his paper:  

"And what of the arrival of the Singularity itself? What can be said of its actual appearance? Since it involves an intellectual runaway, it will probably occur faster than any technical revolution seen so far. The precipitating event will likely be unexpected -- perhaps even to the researchers involved. ("But all our previous models were catatonic! We were just tweaking some parameters....") If networking is widespread enough (into ubiquitous embedded systems), it may seem as if our artifacts as a whole had suddenly wakened.

 

"And what happens a month or two (or a day or two) after that? I have only analogies to point to: The rise of humankind. We will be in the Post-Human era. And for all my rampant technological optimism, sometimes I think I'd be more comfortable if I were regarding these transcendental events from one thousand years remove . . . instead of twenty. "  

I should mention that by highlighting the potential for danger from superhuman machine intelligence, I am not suggesting that danger will actualize. I have no idea whether strong AI (as it is often termed) will endanger humans; it may be a huge benefit with very little downside. Nor does Vinge predict certain doom; he appears concerned but ambivalent, as befits one contemplating the inherently unpredictable.  

(2)  For example, in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (1998), Leonard Shlain suggests that literacy, including especially the widespread, frequent reading of alphabetic languages, may overemphasize the major hemisphere of the brain, shifting thought, behavior, and social order in surprising ways. (Although Shlain does not discuss this possibility, I would also guess that frequent reading over-emphasizes the neocortex generally, at the expense of lower levels of the brain). Among other things, this may, unless opposed by other factors, dramatically diminish the rights and standing of women in a society. Shlain’s follow-on volume, Sex, Time, and Power: How Women's Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution, is also worth reading. Shlain points out that his ideas are speculative (although he supports them well), but then so is quantum theory and everything else in life; the week doesn’t go by that I don’t read of some long-accepted “scientific fact” or core theory being disproved.  

(3)  The discussion of first, second, and third-line consciousness in this column is based upon the work of Dr. Arthur Janov and Dr. E. Michael Holden. See any of the later works by Dr. Janov (from 1975 on) for further detail. For a very brief overview of relevant material by Dr. Janov, see here. 

 

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Columns on STR: 105

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity. He maintains paradise-paradigm.net. This is one in a series of columns on the human condition.